Making This One Better
The alarm goes off at 6:30 AM for the first time in ten days. My eyes fall open to a cool, cruel, and relentlessly dark early January morning in Massachusetts.
I felt raw and cloudy-headed but slipped out of bed with fair ease and clambered into the living room. I had to return to work today following the holidays, but first, I had to give my New Year’s Resolution the benefit of a solid try. I climbed aboard the stationary bike. I queued up a continuous hour-long mix of Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac’s favorite dance mixes of 2016, pushed on the pedals and pressed play.
Like most radio shows, Annie Mac’s always begins with this absurdly epic-sounding intro tag that sounds something like several metric tons of machinery whirring to life, stirring all dystopia’s robot farm animals to sound in alarm, before some steampunk-clad half-cyborg hypeman shouts, stretching out each lurid syllable like a rubber band, “it’s DEEEEEEJAAAAAAAYYYYYYEEE AANNNIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE MAC!!!!” He lets the elastic go on her last name, and it snaps back at the machine, cracking it wide open and triggering an H-bomb detonation, and the explosion tears through your head and every single piece of shrapnel smacks you right upside your face.
Silence. The dust settles.
“RAVING IS A STATE OF MIND,” she declares triumphantly.
An air-raid siren klaxon sounds, and the first song of her set begins to play, usually ushered in by sledgehammering banger beats.
I pedaled in place half-asleep to 140 blistering beats per minute. My head and my hair and my spirit all shuffled from side to side over my middling pedaling. I rolled my head around my neck in an attempt relieve the tension from my fitful night’s sleep prior. My bedhead hair, too long after going months without a trim, fell any which way it pleased and felt as if bobbing in opposition to all else my body did. I begin to reckon with myself over the start of the new year.
I recall the day prior, our dear friend Julie asked me and Brian what we were most looking forward to about 2017. I didn’t really know how to answer; I couldn’t think of any concrete and established happenings on the calendar about which I was jazzed. Instead, I answered by pluckily and resolutely rattling off all that which I (theorized I) would accomplish.
“Gonna finish my solo show! Gonna lose some weight and get fit!! Gonna go on some kind of wonderful vacation somewhere, right!??? London? Paris!!?? Maybe Tokyo??!!! Gonna attend some weddings, because people are getting married this year!!! Yeah they are!! HAPPINESS THRIVES! Gonna resist dumpster Trump!! #StillWithHer!!! You know me! The Future is Female!! Yeah!!!! Gonna protest, gonna call my reps, gonna win a governorship in a red state!! Game, set, match, America! Ciszewski ’17!! #Gayvenor17!! How’s that? Cute, right? Going for Kawaii here!!! The Kawaii Kid. No??! Whatever, I’ll have my interns come up with something while I’m working on stump speeches and putting the finishing touches on that aforementioned solo show. Gonna be a big year! Leggo, ’17!!!!!!”
SMASH CUT to me a mere fifteen hours later, a light sweat on my brow as I sluggishly pedal the stationary bike towards all the brilliant successes promised in the year that sprawls ahead before me. The only thing is I’m not moving. This is easily explained; I am on a stationary bike. Of course I am not literally going anywhere. (Haven’t you seen Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” video? It’s pretty much just like that.) However, furthermore, and in the abstract, I am not sure I am ready, or prepared, or even strong enough for what lies ahead.
The year prior did not quite turn out as expected; for all its highs, 2016’s lows scraped and clawed around assorted ever-bottomless pits more painfully than I could sense as it happened.
In April, my grandmother passed away at the age of eighty following a battle with heart disease, organ failure, and diabetes.
I grew up with my grandmother. When I was a boy, and my mother had to work into the evenings, I would stay with my Yiayia. We would fight over jurisdiction of the remote control — she wanted to watch CNN, I wanted Nickelodeon. More often than not, she won, and we watched together, her sitting in the recliner underneath the second-floor fire escape window that looked out to the raucous, brownstone-trimmed Jersey City, NJ streets below, and me, laying in youth’s languid repose, on the daybed beside her. She cooked for me — “giant bean soup,” my name for her signature garbanzo bean soup — and disciplined me sternly when I acted out, as is my wont. She once called me a “bully fat,” for in Greek, her mother tongue, adjectives follow the noun they qualify, and I was being an unrelenting little shit smart-ass about something stupid.
She was incredibly tough and very bright. She survived the triple occupation of Greece by the Axis powers in World War II, emigrated to the United States with my grandfather John, and built a sprawling American life. They worked menial jobs through their early years and saved every penny until they could afford something their own. They purchased real estate in Downtown Jersey City and built a little empire in the form of a popular pizzeria/deli they operated on the corner of 8th Street and Coles, adjacent to a public park and a high school. A grand matriarch of our family, she mothered eight children, helped raise several grandchildren, and was a source of unconditional love to her great-grandchildren.
What a life.
My family and I had expected her passing to be around the corner for something like ten years now, but she was so resilient it had become a sort of inside recurring joke for my family that she was continually standing up the Grimme Reaper at every date they made. In that way, we downsized death, normalized its nightmarishness and terminal opacity, and made it something manageable for us: a cosmic banana peel of sorts — Yiayia might slip and fall on it, but it would never break her back. And so when she slipped into declining health before the holidays and through early winter, we felt concern, of course, but looked to history and her habit of bouncing back rather than attempting to clearly see death approach in all its dark indiscernibility.
Time passed, as it does. Our lives moved forward. One early Spring morning, Yiayia found relief in finally attending her long-deferred date with death and faced her mortality. We were shocked from our augmented normalcy, but even then, the loss was not immediately felt. I don’t think we began to understand what my grandmother’s passing meant until our realities, our normal day-to-day goings-on, fully resumed and we were made to feel what life was without her around.
In October, I lost my father to a sudden heart attack.
We had been estranged twelve years, and decided I needed space from him to feel safe and to grow. Twelve years is a long, long time, especially for a young person and especially for a paternal relationship, but it was during that time that I came of age and constituted an adult identity and life — inasmuch embracing and understanding of his absence as I could muster. Three years ago, I reached out to my dad in hopes of reuniting him with his proud, accomplished adult son. We exchanged greetings and attempted plans on a few occasions, but they always slipped through the cracks of our estrangement before they could come to fruition. I had planned on a life I would get to share with my father. I looked forward to the table-turning, the perspective-sharing, the coming-to-terms and meeting-of-minds. I was certain happily ever after lay ahead.
I suppose it is on this kind of inevitable goodness I have built myself a wide-eyed, optimistic romantic.
Time passed, as it does. My life moved forward. One warm Wednesday night this past October, I went to see Sia in concert with my partner Brian and my best friend Maya, and had an effervescent evening. Afterwards, while sharing post-show drinks and snacks, I noticed my phone showed notifications of several missed calls and messages, all from sources unknown to me. I thought little of it until my mother messaged to let me know she had gotten the same and was wary of them. I went home and went to sleep, still a bit sweaty from living the concert’s sheer joyousness.
The next morning, I went to work. My mind lingered on the strange missed dispatches from the night prior. Only an hour into my day, my mother got in touch to let me know she needed to speak to me. My heart sank.
I think our instincts for the worst are as finely tuned as any we humans have — like those for survival, but heightened and tuned into our absurd and technicolor meanderings around our lives. They also happen to be, however, the hardest to listen to.
“Mike, I have bad news. Your dad passed away.”
And so I knew he had. My father was en route to Mexico City on a routine business trip when he suffered something like a heart attack mid-flight. Paramedics on the ground were unable to revive him. Word traveled back to his office in South Jersey before eventually making its way to my mother; the missed calls and messages from the night before were, in fact, my father’s Mexican colleagues attempting to reach the next of kin who bears his name.
I thanked my mother for letting me know and told her I needed to go back to my office to let my supervisors know and figure out what would come next for me.
A sort-of professional muscle memory carried me through dazed pleasantries with co-workers as I made my way to my boss’ office. I sat and told her “I just found out my dad passed away.” Speaking it myself was the first moment it felt real, the first moment it hurt, and thusly, the first moment I cried. My boss hugged me and told me to do whatever I needed to do.
I went for a walk by the Boston Harbor and listened to “Joanne” by Lady Gaga. I was hot and overwhelmed, my head foggy. I called Brian. I sent errant texts to people I thought might be around the rest of that day. I didn’t tell them anything, because I could not yet sense my own etiquette about this kind of thing. I just checked in with them to see when they might be around and that was all.
I was sweaty and hungry. I had skipped breakfast that morning. I returned to my office and collected myself; it was easier to don an environmentally appropriate mask than I expected. My co-worker Brittany gave me a sleeve of Lorna Doodles to eat. I sat at my desk and devoured them one-by-one while calmly setting an out-of-office and wrapping up a few tasks.
I left my office quietly. I had planned to meet Brian for lunch in an hour, but first, I ran to the Primark across the street and compulsively bought an entirely new outfit. I left the store in it and walked towards lunch.
We sat outside. I ordered two martinis and a hummus platter and a burger, and I inhaled every molecule.
I took an Uber home to rest, my phone buzzing with conciliatory texts from family as I sped along the riverside Storrow Drive. I responded hastily, warmly, and wholeheartedly, trying to make the support as tangible to me in that moment as I could.
Full of food but hollow in spirit, I napped through the rest of the day upon my return home.
That night, I had rehearsal. The next day, I went grocery shopping.
The following day, I found out I had legal responsibility as my father’s only adult child and had to scramble to print, read, understand, sign, notarize, and fax assorted arrangements for him to be returned north and be cremated.
That night, I drank and I cried. My heart was, and still is, broken.
The following Monday, I returned to work.
I still do not think I fully know what it means to me to have lost my father, the man whose name and genes, humor and stubbornness with which I walk through the world.
On November 8, I woke up buzzing. I put on my running gear and beamed watching footage of Lady Gaga, dressed in Michael Jackson’s 1990 White House visit outfit, shouting at the top of her lungs, “HILLARY CLINTON IS MADE OF STEEL!!!!!” to the mass assembled at the final North Carolina rally of Hillary’s campaign.
I flew down the stairs and out the front door. I ran the sunlit streets of East Somerville to Assembly Row, alongside Orange Line trains rattling along their age-old tracks, and along the sparkling Mystic River. I felt super-powered, and everything in the world unfolding fast as I glided through it glittered with early November chill. I returned, dressed myself, and affixed my large Hillary logo button to my sweater. Brian and I embarked on our regular walk to work through the squares of Camberville. I bounced along the way beside my partner, smiling at strangers, overflowing with energy that flared out from me in exuberant outbursts of historic fun facts about our President-elect to-be.
“She will be the first President from New York!”
“This will be the first time a Democrat has won off the back of a two-term Democratic presidency since 1945!!”
“HILLARY CLINTON IS MADE OF STEEL!!!”
I sent a selfie with my HRC pin to Maya, who attended Clinton’s alma mater Wellesley College. She shot back a photo of her wearing her “The Future is Female” shirt to work. That night, Maya would attend the Election Night celebration at Wellesley; how I itched to join her.
I was fleet-footed around my office that day, feeling light, ascendant towards historic triumph. I could not wait to watch the returns and hear Clinton speak late in the night. I reminisced on Barack Obama’s two election wins and the sensation of paradigm-shifting I felt experiencing history made.
I spoke with my therapist that day about how an election is an opportunity for the dawn of a new era — political and personal. I embraced the tenor of the day I was feeling and sensed I was on the cusp of changes in my life that would lift me out of the dull doldrums of grief I had felt since my dad passed.
That night, as we were watching election coverage, we ordered Mexican food for dinner in silly, slight, delicious protest of the Republican candidate’s absurd campaign obscenities.
We huddled on the couch in front of CNN’s coverage and watched. The passing of time felt excruciatingly slow. Each hour, the sensation grew slower and heavier.
The night took an unbelievable turn and we lost the election. We cried in the morning. We cried watching the concession speech. We cried sharing messages of “I love you,” and “I will protect you,” with friends.
The shock and trauma stretched from late that night through the weeks that followed.
Time passed, as it does. Our lives moved inexorably forward. I still feel as though two timelines grew so close they intersected on the night of November 8, and somehow we got stuck on the wrong one. There is an alternate reality I dream of where progress is happening and the news makes some modicum of sense. Every day, our wrong timeline seems further and further away from that. We cannot yet know what the incoming presidency will ultimately mean for or do to us. We fear, we plan, we work to keep going.
By no means could I wholly equate the loss of an election to the losses of my father and grandmother, but the three events shared an overwhelming and defeating sense of loss of hope for me.
Time will pass, as it does, and grief and mourning will stretch on alongside me as I await the inevitable goodness on which I have built myself a wide-eyed, optimistic romantic.
Early this December, in the midst of a panic attack exacerbated by the hereditary hypochondria I inherited from my R.N. mother, I dramatically confessed to Brian, “after the passings of my grandmother and my father, I feel haunted by the spectre of death.”
(I don’t just write this way; I talk it in my most raw moments, too.)
Like Election Day, the beginning of a new year is an opportunity for the dawn of a new era, and this year I had no choice but to seize it.
Through the early winter, I spent weeks wracked with an anxiety that was the cumulative sum of all the year’s stresses and losses and defeats. I needed to make this one better through work and perseverance and actualization. My resolutions feel less like whims or fancies and more like vital course-corrections. I have to act to make the inevitable goodness of my wild and willfully untamed optimism bias my reality.
Perhaps I cannot say, “I’m most looking forward to (INSERT SPECIFIC AND ANTICIPATED LARGE LIFE EVENT HERE” that I know is coming in (MONTH) 2017,” but I can say I’m most looking forward to living in consistent and proactive actualization.
Enshrouded in early morning dusk, I pedal in place in the corner of the living room. I make an effort. My heart rate increases and plateaus. My shoulders eventually loosen. I relax into the gentle, consistent repetition of the exercise, of the movement, and of the music. My consciousness dances itself free of the last loose threads of last night’s sleep, and I think about what is to come for me and my human machine.
“RAVING IS A STATE OF MIND,” Annie reminds me.
I am not a cynic. It is. I listen. I meditate. I rave. I pedal. (Therefore, I am!!!!!)
My heart beats in sync with the four on the floor house music. The bike is stationary and I may not yet be moving, but the sun is coming up outside and I am waking up. I am in motion. I may not yet know if I am ready to move, but soon I must. And I will.
And I do.