Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Things I Would Say to My Parents

When I flipped my calendar over to March a couple of weeks back, it struck me with a little bit of a surprise that this March will usher in the third anniversary of my mom's death.  The same mother whose care was strenuous and stressful enough to cause me to create this blog.  She's gone, but the blog lives on.  Ironic (since I haven't used that word in at least a couple of hours - maybe a record for me).

But, the fact that I was so surprised that it had already been three years was what really struck me.  Because it seems like forever ago that Kelsey died - like I've been away from her for half a lifetime, even though there were really only a few months between the two events.  What I've decided about the difference in perception is that when my daughter died so did our lives for a time.  Time wore on, but had no joy, no meaning, no purpose.  It just existed - something to endure.  After Mom died, so much suddenly started happening so fast, with all of it ending up landing us all in Pittsburgh, that I feel at times like we were Dorothy being whisked away from Kansas and landing in Oz, only with a black and yellow brick road.

That's not to say that I didn't and don't mourn my mom, but I will confess to a release in a way - there's just no denying it - because there was suddenly no one who needed our immediate and intensive care taking.  And, the naked reality of it is that some of the reflecting a personality like mine would have done after burying a parent was lost in the hefty shadow of losing a daughter, coupled with the mad dash to shut down not only Mother's affairs, but mine as well and move clear across the country.  So, here I am, three years later, looking at a calendar, wondering where the time went.  I think Mother would be hurt - just honestly - that she didn't merit a higher degree of mourning.  I think she would mistake the flurry of action as a lack of sadness.  I would like her to know that's not the case at all, but it was a great coping mechanism, which led me to think that there are actually a lot of things I would say to both my parents if I had a chance, so why not take that opportunity now to say at least a few of them?  So, here goes...

To Dad:  I don't know if I said this ever to you, but if I did, I certainly didn't say it enough, but thank you so much for your service to the country.  I know it happened before I was even born, but you were part of a generation that fought and sacrificed to give my generation a good life.  And it was.  Maybe I whined a lot about the things I didn't have:  a phone in my room, a color TV in my room, a better stereo, but the reality is that you gave me everything I really needed and, truly, wanted.  And that was warmth, shelter, food and love - in your own way.  I know we puzzled one another very often.  I grew up in a far different time than you had and embodied the rebellion of my generation, and that, I think, was something you were not particularly prepared to deal with well, and I never took the time to understand that about you for my part.  My largest regret, as a matter of fact, is that I never truly understood the weight you carried with you everyday - the trauma the war left you with.  As a matter of fact, it would be years after you were gone before I think I got a handle on exactly how large of a factor  it was for you.  I wish so much I could have been more sensitive to that when you were alive.  I wish I could have helped you more.

I think the thing I most want you to know is that you are the largest single influence in my life.  That's both bad and good, I have to confess, but everything I am and do is a direct result of the values that you instilled in me:  work hard to support your family.  That was something above all you always did, no matter what else was going on in your own head - you made sure we did not want for things.  I appreciate that a lot - and I never told you that.

To Mom:  First, let me just say that I really wish I had let you make a wedding dress for me.  When the very perfect dress fell in my lap so to speak (vintage, velvet with a cathedral train and a sentimental meaning - Greg's mom's dress), I felt it was like a miracle, but I never stopped to think what it would mean to you, an accomplished seamstress, to make your only child her dress.  I was so young and dumb, there is actually a whole lot about our wedding I would do differently now, but that's the big thing.  I know that always upset you, and it bothers me that I was so insensitive about it.

In general, I kept a lot of secrets from you (not telling you I was pregnant until my second trimester for instance because I was scared if something happened it would be too traumatic), and I'm sorry about that.  I thought I had a noble purpose each and every time, but I never gave you a real chance to be a full part of my adult life as a result.  I think the exception to that was the first few years after Dad died.  We were close then, and I treasure that time.  I hope you do too.

The biggest thing to tell you is that having gotten to know your family a little and realizing what awesome people they all are, I know that you sacrificed a lot to live so far from them.  I suspect you did it in large part to keep the secret of my birth exactly that:  a secret.  You know by now that I am upset and sometimes angry about not knowing my true history, but what I realize is that you believed so strongly that it was something I should NOT be told that you held that secret tightly all your life and sacrificed a lot to keep it that way.  I know you did that out of real true love.

What I would say to both of them:  like many families, we had our ups and downs, but I know you loved me and did your very best for me.  I want to thank you for that.  I love you both - time does not change that.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Family Photo Project

"...Has a rat ever done anything to you to create this animosity you feel towards them?... Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that's some time ago. I propose to you, any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?...Yet I assume you don't share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?...But they're both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don't they?...Ha! However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here right now, as I'm talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?...I didn't think so. You don't like them. You don't really know why you don't like them; all you know is you find them repulsive."

-Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

It should have come to no surprise to me that my Dr. Doolittle routine would at some point usher in some unwelcome house guests, yet, as I watched from my dining room window as a family of rats happily crawled up and down a pole to access the bird feeder off my deck, I was genuinely surprised.  I think maybe I was more surprised that I live in a house with two cats and five - count 'em - five dogs, yet a family of four not particularly small rats felt so completely comfortable as to scamper around my back deck in broad daylight helping themselves to the food I set out for others (meaning squirrels and birds - it is like an Eat N'Park breakfast buffet for critters out there).  Of course, I actually know the answer to that: this is why the little rat family knows no fear --

Hard to chase varmints from the sofa.

And why do I feel like I need to feed the entire wild population of suburban Pittsburgh anyway?  Well, for the same reason I attracted a herd of some 30 deer that would actually respond by name back in Texas.   And for the same reason I've had up to eight dogs at a time.  And it's the same reason that I have put us through the ardor of raising an active puppy in a 1,308 sq. ft. house in the middle of winter at our age.  I'm the most transparent person on the face of the planet.  There are no secrets here:  I am trying to surround myself with a pseudo family.  And if you wonder why I still feel compelled to gather all these four legged bundles of fur around me - invited or not - even though I now live close to my mother's family, it's because it's pretty deeply ingrained in me at this point.  The dye is cast, but there is little doubt that my present is rooted in my past.

But, one thing I have to realize about my past that might never change now is that it stops with me.  Past my own childhood, my history - the connective tissue that binds me to a family and a legacy - is a locked book.  The pages are written, but I can't get into them to read it.  And that's frustrating on several levels.  About this time last year I shelled out a fairly hefty sum to an agency that specializes in locating adoptee's birth parents.  As I explained to the woman when I initially made the deal, I am not interested in meeting my birth parents even if they are still alive, but I want to know my true history.  I grew up believing one thing about myself, which then translated into what I believed about my children and turns out that is not true.  And that frustrates me on my best days and angers me on my worst.  I pulled the trigger therefore at the time to try and find out Marissa's true medical history.  She still deals with some of the physical after-effects of her own addiction and eating disorder issues, and someday in all likelihood she will be at a point where she wants to have a family.  I'm sure, given our experiences as a family, she'd like to know what kind of genetic bullet she is loading into the gun.  She has a right to know.

But, it's more than that.  One of the things we wrestle with as humans is the knowledge that life is fleeting and we cope with that in part by passing on pieces of ourselves and our past to the younger members of our families and knowing that we live on in some small way, just as we carried the torch for our ancestors before us.  I have a photo of my mother and all her siblings taken in the early 40's in my office.  They were so young, so vibrant, so beautiful.  Now only one of those six people in that photo is still alive.  Yet, each of them lives on in a way.  The legacy of who they were is remembered by their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and will be passed on in that way to future generations.  They therefore carry on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones, as well as in the  DNA strands that they pass along.  There is a comfort that is hard to put into words of knowing where you come from.  Even just the ability to be able to say, "I'm Irish" or "I'm German".  It's why, after generations of living here, we all still do say things like that.  You've all heard me label where I live as an "Irish-Catholic" neighborhood.  Yet, not one of the people who share my zip code were actually born in Ireland (that I know of anyway).  I guarantee you that will not stop a single one of us from celebrating St. Patrick's Day with great gusto.  We are connected to our past.  We like it that way because it makes us feel grounded and gives us an understanding about ourselves.

My mother, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was extremely proud of her heritage.  So I think she would understand what I'm trying to say here.  Therefore, on some days, I just cannot imagine why she kept me away from mine.  Please don't get me wrong - my parents gave me a good life.  They raised me without a hint ever that I was anything less than truly a member of their family.  Now granted, they were humans and therefore had some failings as parents...I could write volumes on that, trust me.  But, they were genuine in their love, I know that.  Yet, I do have lesser moments where I get really angry that Mother, at least when Kelsey started to get sick, never told me the truth.  She was a nurse after all.  Surely she knew I was repeating family histories that were completely erroneous.  Would it have made a difference?  I don't know.  But could it make a difference to Marissa now?  Possibly, and more than anything else that's why I can't let this go.

Why has all of this been stirred up, you wonder?  Well, I am undertaking a project to convert all of Greg's family slides to .jpeg files.  There are thousands of them.  Greg's father loved taking photos and, for a man with his own social anxiety issues, he had a real eye for human emotion.  There are some real gems.  I've had a lot of fun sharing them with his sister and his cousins.  When I'm done, I'll start in on my parent's slides.  But, I have been struck more than once how fortunate they are that they understand how they are truly connected to one another, and how blessed they are to have one another in their lives.  I hope they realize it, treasure it and don't take it for granted.

Of course, it stands to follow that I have also been struck more than once how I have none of that.  That sounds like self-pity and perhaps it is.  It is a mourning of a sort, that much I will definitely concede.  Yet, it is what is is for now.  So, until I can dig up the keys to unlock the pages to my own past, I'll continue in all likelihood to feed the squirrels and the birds and have way too many pets.  I had promised Greg I would stop putting food out back to try and force the rats to go elsewhere (since I was horrified at the idea of trying to poison or trap them), but I snuck some out there yesterday and was able to watch the most beautiful bird - I have no idea what it was - come visit the feeder.  So, what the heck, the little rat family is just trying to forge out a living after all, just like the rest of us.  I realize that it is a bit like life:  you take the ugly along with the occasional glimpse of real joy and beauty and accept that you can't truly have one without the other.