Starting Over

I have resurrected this blog after three years of inactivity.  I started writing in 2012, as I awaited the birth of my third daughter and worked through my complicated feelings towards my father, who was still alive.  I called the blog “Dear Dead Mother” for a couple of reasons: first, because I insisted to myself that my father was not the intended audience – what I wrote would be between my mom and me; second, because I thought the title was a little provocative – would it attract a few curious readers?

As I begin writing again, my father is dead too.  Should the blog’s title change?   He is definitely among those for whom I write now.

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[Dad, early 1970s]

Three years ago, on the night before Thanksgiving in 2012, my dad called me on the phone.  We hadn’t spoken in over a year.  He told me that he hoped that we could start over again.  I told him I was willing to, and I sent him a link to a video of my 6-week-old baby staring into the camera lens and cooing beautifully.  He watched the video the next day with family at Thanksgiving dinner in New Orleans, and I heard that he cried when he saw it.

Before that night, one of the last times he’d called me on the phone was from a bus stop in Chinatown, where he waited to board a bus to Atlanta a year earlier.  He had successfully completed five weeks of detox and rehab in NYC, but within days of checking himself out, he started drinking again.  Waiting at the bus stop, he called my apartment and breathed heavily into the phone.  Though he said nothing, I knew it was him.  I said, “Hello!  Hello?”  After the fifth call, I pounced on him, “I know it’s you, Dad.  What’s the problem?  What’s going on?”  His heavy breathing stopped, and after two seconds of silence, he said, “You fucked me.  You fucked me.”  He was seething, and he scared me.  I hung up the phone, ripped the cord out of the wall, and ran to my room.  My two daughters played quietly in the room next to me, and I laid in the fetal position on my bed, hugging my body pillow.  Wasn’t my dad supposed to protect me?

Though Thanksgiving 2012 promised a new beginning for my father and me, our starting over again never really got started.  Despite months of sobriety that he had achieved through participation in a residential rehab program in New Orleans, which he had sought on his own, he slipped back into drinking in early 2013.  In June of that year, he died alone.

This Thanksgiving I am grateful for many things, including my renewed commitment to telling my story, my dad’s story, our story.  I was angry at my father for awhile, but sitting where I am now – surrounded by my children and this year’s silver Christmas tree, nurturing the memory of standing on stage last week and talking out loud about our very different journeys – I am hopeful that our starting over again will actually start now.

 

Against Grieving in Silence [TEDxCUNY talk]

There’s a black-and-white picture of my mother at the age of 16 hanging on my living room wall. She’s resting her chin on her hand, and she’s actually wearing a blue star sapphire that my father gave her. My three daughters see that picture every day. My 3-year-old has begun pointing to it and saying, “That’s not my mommy. That’s my grandma.” “Yes, that’s mommy’s mommy,” we all say. Months ago my 7-year-old sat next to me and said, a little out of nowhere, “Your mom and dad are dead. You have no parents.” “That’s true,” I responded. I looked at her green-grey eyes, her lashes, her eyebrows, and she looked right back at me. Then she laid her head on my chest, and I rested my chin on the top of her head.

Mom

[Mom, early 1970s]

I savor these moments, when my daughters talk out loud about my mom and my dad and wrestle a little bit with their absence. They have to work things out in their heads about what my parents may have been to them and what we can do as a family to weave them into our lives and how to navigate death’s disruptiveness. This is really important stuff. I know some people think it’s too much for kids – too heavy, too dark, too complicated. But I adamantly disagree. My own experience has taught me that grief needs to be heard and that this kind of openness can be life-saving.

March 1, 1981. I’d turned 5 years old just 4 days before. I was sleeping in my grandmother’s bed like I sometimes did on the weekends. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a thin line of light at the base of the bathroom door; I looked over and my grandmother was not in bed. Seconds later, she emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed. She knelt next to the bed, got really close to my face, and said to me, “I have to go; your mommy’s sick.” I didn’t sleep the rest of the night – my great aunt read me my favorite books. The Pokey Little Puppy is the one that I remember the most. For minutes at a time during that night, I imagined my mom, shivering in a sick bed, covered in a thick blanket, a thermometer hanging off her lips like a cigarette.

Early the next morning, the front door of my grandmother’s apartment opened, and the white light of the sun burst through it; the dark silhouettes of my father and my grandmother floated through the door like apparitions. My mom wasn’t with them. My dad sat on the sofa in front of me, my grandmother, his mother, seated next to him, and he said, “Your mommy’s in heaven now. She’s with the angels.” In that moment, I immediately realized the permanence of what I’d just heard. Even at the age of 5, when some children are still too young to understand the finality of death, I knew, at my core, in my center, that I would never, ever see my mother again. My research on grief – and I’ve done a lot of research on grief since 1981 – has taught me that children manifest grief very physically. They literally embody their feelings. I walked in circles in the center of my grandmother’s living room over and over and over, stomping my feet.

Raising her hand and reaching out to me, my grandmother offered, “You can call me mommy now.” In a split second, I shot back, “No, you’re not my mommy.” My dad sat quietly with his eyes turned down. This was a remarkable moment, when I think about it, and it marks the point in time when my family and I took two different paths. I was barely five. I’d just learned that my mom was dead. Struggling with their own shock and disorientation, my family tried to fill up the void that had just been created by giving me someone else to call mommy, by restoring a mother in name to our family unit. And I said no: my mother had existed; she could not vanish one night and be replaced the next morning. I knew what I needed in the immediate wake of my mother’s death. I made a choice to acknowledge my profound loss.

Soon I moved in with my grandmother. Pictures of my mother disappeared. My dad went back to work, moved into his own apartment, and eventually started dating again. Years later, on a random weekday afternoon, it was my 13-year-old cousin who told me that my mom had actually been killed in a car accident. She hadn’t died in the sick bed I’d imagined, a thermometer hanging off her lips like a cigarette. That night, as I rode in the backseat of my grandmother’s car on our way home, I glared at the reflection of my grandmother’s brown eyes in the rearview mirror. Why had this been a secret from me? What else didn’t I know about?

Grief literature acknowledges the importance of telling the truth when someone dies, especially to children. Approximately 4% of children between the ages of 5 and 16 have experienced the death of a parent or sibling – that raw number of children in the United States alone is in the millions. Starting on the morning after my mom’s death and for years after, I was denied the opportunity to confront the real reason she was gone. When I finally learned what had happened, I was confused and angry about the barriers that had been imposed around me. And just like before I said no to them.

Time and time again when I was a teenager and young adult, I made public declarations about my lon ging for connection around my mom’s death. I was on a stage as a 16-year-old playing a character named Claire whose parents had died in a car accident, singing a solo called “What is it like to be dead?.” I wrote a 25-page paper in college called “My Silence Aching” and presented it to my father and grandmother. I was out there with my story – I wanted my classmates, family, friends, and teachers to bear witness to my grief. I was compelled – and clearly still am! – to speak out loud about what happened and how I felt. My dad, in his silence, was on the opposite end of the spectrum: he left before my curtain call when I was 16 and didn’t talk to me about anything I wrote in my paper. He was alone. In his head. Retreating from me.

Grief is complicated, and I know it looks different for different people. But bereavement experts say that individuals who mourn in silence sometimes isolate themselves; deny that anything is wrong; and, in some cases, quietly suffer from feelings of shame and guilt. My father mourned in silence, and I witnessed what repressed grief did to him. He became an alcoholic. Always nursing a beer when I was with him, he fit into the New Orleans scene where alcohol really is a part of daily life for a lot of people. He functioned for years in that place, numbing himself a little every day. Eventually he started taking pills. Grief takes up a lot of space in our bodies and minds, and for those who don’t come to terms with grief, loss is intolerable rather than simply painful, and this often leads to self-destructive behavior.

Over the years my dad descended into more serious substance abuse, standing in methadone lines with a friend who actually overdosed and died after one of their trips to the clinic; drinking orange juice and vodka every morning just to take on his day. He eventually lost his job and exhausted his 401K in order to pay his mortgage and lived briefly in his home with no electricity and a foreclosure notice plastered on his front door. In 2011, he came to my city, New York City, for rehab but within five weeks had checked himself out and started drinking again. I bought him a ticket for a Chinatown bus headed south after we fought one night. I said, “You can’t stay in my house and lie to me.” He said, “Please just let me live my life!”

Only once did I really push my dad about his silence. In a difficult email I wrote to him, I alluded to the 30+ years of silence between us and my failed efforts to get him to talk to me. He responded, “I was in the car and held your mother when she died…..why don’t you get it? This has been with me every day since……..I can’t ever forget it. I can’t keep re living it over and over, sweetheart, it’s too painful. Imagine me pulling her thru the window and watching her die…….”

A number of years ago, before my third daughter was even born, I sat with my girls at the dinner table on a summer night. Our kitchen window was opened, letting in the thick humid air that always reminds me of New Orleans. I was asking my girls about their fun-filled day with my devoted sister-in-law. They had gone to a trampoline park and eaten Italian food at a restaurant and customized candy bags at Dylan’s Candy Shop. They giggled as they talked about their day, and we all smiled widely. As my second daughter, only 4-years-old at the time, slow-chewed her chicken feeling perfect exhaustion and contemplated the adventures that awaited her with her aunt the next day, she threw her head back and sighed, “I wish Lii-Lii was our mommy.” I froze. My wide smile went away. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do or say, but as I felt the lump in my throat get bigger and bigger I got up from the table, left my children alone in the kitchen, walked down the hallway, and locked myself in the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet and the tears exploded from my eyes. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous – she didn’t mean it.” But I kept crying really hard. Within a minute or so, I heard footsteps coming down the hallway, and I opened the bathroom door a crack. My oldest daughter stood there a few feet away, and she motioned her sister, a few steps behind her, to follow her. “I’m sorry,” I cried. “But you know that my mom died when I was a kid. My worst fear in life is that I’m going to die prematurely and that I’m replaceable.” My sobs kept coming. “I don’t want anyone to take my place.” I couldn’t say any more. My two girls walked up to me, they put their arms around me while I sat on the toilet, and my oldest daughter, who was just 7, said, “Mommy, no one can replace you.”

Within a few minutes, we had moved to the living room sofa, where we talked for a long time about my mother’s death. I told them how much I longed for my mom my whole life, and how I wished my dad and I could talk about her. I wanted them to understand why such an innocent comment could trigger such intense emotion, and I wanted them to know that it’s okay to be in pain. That night I thought a lot about the moment my grandmother had said, “You can call me mommy now.” My mother was not replaceable; she would never disappear from my life. With my girls in my arms, I knew that my mother was a part of my daughters’ lives too, and that I was not replaceable either.

In June 2013, my dad’s neighbors called the police because something didn’t smell right. The hazmat team had to enter my dad’s apartment and clean up after his body was removed. The medical examiner asked me for pictures of my father. His tattoos enabled her to definitively identify him. I found out about my father’s death at work, and when I finally walked through the door at home that night, my girls ran up to me. They climbed on my body and wrapped their arms around my neck. I said, “Your Paw-Paw died.” “What happened?” they asked. I said, “He drank too much alcohol. His body became really sick and stopped working.”

I once read that “the great healer of our grief is validation, not time. All grief needs to be…heard.” My grief was never heard, in the way it needed to be, by my father, and his was not heard by me. Weeks after my father’s memorial, I received an email from Allen Champagne, an old friend of my dad’s with whom I had connected at the service. The subject of the email was “details.” Allen wrote:

“I remember looking out my window toward my right and I saw a car ahead on a side road approaching a stop sign. As I was watching the car, I assume Margie was too because all of sudden the car did not stop for the stop sign but accelerated onto the highway. Just as I saw it, Steve saw it and Margie yelled “watch out”. The next thing was our car started to roll over side to side from the impact – at least 2 times. Then we landed, right side up, in a swampy area, well off of the highway.”

“And then I heard Steve yell Margie. Margie was partially ejected from the car – her waist was on the door sill with her upper body out of the car and the rest inside the car. Steve pulled her into the car and held her tight, calling her name over and over.”

“Her face was un-damaged – she was still beautiful. I told Steve we had to get him and her out of the car. He would not listen to me, he just kept calling out to Margie.”

“Why don’t you get it?” my dad had written to me in 2011, two years before he died, two years before I received this email from Allen Champagne. When I read Allen’s email, I was sitting in my apartment in New York City, with dinner simmering on the stovetop, my daughters nearby, a collage I had created with pictures of my father, mother, and me, before everything changed in 1981, propped up on a coffee table in the living room. With Allen’s help, I got it. I got my dad’s suffering like I never had before because Allen enabled me to bear witness to his story. And I got that my dad’s silent, repressed grief was as punishing as it was probably because he thought he deserved punishment. I wonder, if he and I had been able to talk to each other, if we had shared our grief, would he have survived? My dad’s life ended too soon, but mine will go on because of my choice to confront my grief and tell the truth to myself, my family, and everyone who will listen.

September 27, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

Your third granddaughter was born twelve days ago.  I am home with her now, absorbed by her scent and her softness.  Maternity leaves aren’t easy for me.  I crave structure and the feeling of being ‘productive.’  Yet I realize how productive these hours are: this baby is eating and sleeping and growing faster than she ever will, and I am starting to teach her all of the things she can depend upon.

The baby’s birth was something.  My water broke at 7:30 pm on a Saturday night (the evening of her oldest sister’s 8th birthday, in fact).  By the time we got to the hospital, contractions had started for real.  I lay in bed while my husband moved in and out completing paperwork and making phone calls and the nurses buzzed in and out setting up monitoring machines.  No one examined me (we had just arrived, after all).  The contractions got stronger and closer together.  I stared at the ceiling and my purple toenails (the girls and I had just gotten pedicures the day before) and breathed, breathed, breathed.  My hands were in fists and at my sides, digging into the hospital mattress.

Suddenly during a contraction my belly buckled and I started to bear down.  “You have to tell them I want to push,” I said meekly to my husband, who happened to be in the room with me at that moment.  I closed my eyes: “Help me.”  Within minutes, two nurses and a doctor came into the room.  The doctor examined me and said, “Yep, she’s ready.”  I hadn’t yet received the epidural, which I expected to receive, but it was time.  “Do I start pushing?” I said, hardly believing that our baby was about to be born so soon after labor had begun.  “Yes, start pushing!” said the doctor.  Four or five pushes later (it took me a couple of tries to transition from the pushes that were in my throat and made noise to the pushes that were low and silent), the baby was on my stomach, spitting out amniotic fluid, coated in thick white wax, wriggling her fingers and toes, rocking my world.  I had felt pain, but I’d also felt the baby’s body slide through my own and into the world in a way I hadn’t ever before.

hospital

[September 2012]

I heard from my great aunt that my father is upset that I didn’t tell him about the baby’s birth.  He cried when she told him and said, “I know that she’s upset with me but she could have picked up the phone to tell me.  We are family.  Family is all we can count on.”

Rachel

May 23, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

My father — your husband — is an addict.  Many people’s stories could start that way.  He is addicted to alcohol and dark places, feeling sorry for himself and conspiracy theories, aliens and the mythology he’s constructed around Egyptian pyramids, free energy, and shadow governments.  At night, he used to go to the levee on the river in New Orleans to film unidentified flying objects, which he called ‘strangeness in the skies’ on his Youtube videos.  A few years ago, he was addicted to opiates too.  He stood in line at methadone clinics in New Orleans with a friend who eventually died of an overdose.

My father hasn’t worked since 2009.  He believes that the world will come to an end (or, in a slightly more encouraging scenario, that humans will achieve transcendental enlightenment) on December 21, 2012.  He depleted his 401K in 2011, at which point he started pawning power tools to pay his bills.  He lost his home in early 2012.

The times when I entered my father’s home, my eyes immediately gravitated towards a few things: a yellow bulb in a modest shade hanging over his circular dining room table; the candle burning in the corner; the fish tank filled with bright blue rocks, illuminated by a florescent light even during the day, and its eel-like king fish slithering around the water (tiny goldfish swam with it, though their days were numbered); the oversized empty clay pots which used to grow gigantic orchids.

I never felt especially comfortable in this house.  It was dark.  I tried to open the blinds to let in the sun once, but he closed them behind me.

My father and I have never been close, but he was in New York City for two months last fall, sleeping on my living room couch for part of the time.  He was flown here after declaring that he needed ‘rehab’.  His aunt and uncle bought his plane ticket – he had no job, no money, and was living in their basement apartment in Georgia after being rescued from New Orleans because he had stopped paying his bills months before.  It was in Georgia that all of us realized how bad things were.  He arrived there, shaking because he was in withdrawal.  Within a couple of weeks, he was lying to everyone and hiding his screwdrivers under the table when his aunt would come to check on him in the morning.  He called me a few times, sobbing because the walls were closing in on him.  His aunt’s heavy footsteps were like a hammer on his brain; the dolls stared.  He had to get away.

My husband and I welcomed him.  I knew that my dad had been a functional alcoholic for decades.  Whenever I saw him, from the time I was a child, he had a drink in his hand.  I was in the backseat when he was stopped on the Causeway as we drove back to New Orleans from a Christmas party in Mandeville.  At the time I was in high school.  Years later, he drove me around New Orleans when I was seven months pregnant with my first child while he was high on methadone.  He kept nodding off during my baby shower that afternoon.  The day before, at his dining room table, I said, “What’s the story, Dad?  Are you on heroin or something?  You keep falling asleep.”  “Naw,” he responded.  “I’m having allergies.  Something’s in my eyes.”

I’ve never felt much of an obligation to my dad.  He had never felt much of an obligation to me.  But when he asked for help I decided to give it to him.  His aunt and uncle were not equipped to deal with him.  He was unstable in their basement apartment.  I was his daughter.  I should fly him to my home and give him the chance he said he wanted.

Rachel

May 22, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

Sometimes I wonder what you and my father found in each other.  Based on what I know about you — your seriousness, in particular (I’ve heard that you often sat in the top bunk of your bed with a book) — I can’t quite see it.  He was a teenager with long hair and reckless habits and indifference towards his mother and father and the rules.  You were a young woman with longer hair and expectations for yourself and obligations to your family, including your alcoholic mother.  Maybe his recklessness appealed to your desire to escape.

I think that must be it: the fast rides on his motorcycle; the taste of cold beers on the steps of the Lakefront in New Orleans, where the butts of reefers and cigarettes danced in the shallow brown water; the long, late nights.  You wrote him a poem once.  You must have been seventeen.

Life is living

Day by day

Hour by hour

And looking into the future

Since you

Life is more, much more

When you have someone to live for.

When I read the poem you had written to my father for the very first time, I was a teenager myself and it was a Sunday afternoon.  My father’s mother, who raised me after your death, presented it to me quite dramatically, telling me that it had just mysteriously appeared on the floor of the garage.  Now I think that she must have heard me the night before, raising my voice at a black-and-white picture of you on my wall: “Where are you?” I had said over and over.  “Where are you?  Where are you, MOM?”  Perhaps she had found the poem years before, and it had been tucked away in her jewelry box until the moment when she decided that I needed you to speak to me.

I’m cynical about the whole scene now — my grandmother’s dramatic presentation, the poem’s mysterious ‘reveal,’ the reason you wrote the poem in 1974.  My father and I are in a bad place.  You should know that.  I confess to my cynicism.  I own it, and I’m owed it after many years of flirting with my resentments but choosing to do the right thing and give him the break that everyone else has.  I’m done with that for now.

Rachel

May 20, 2012

Dear Dead Mother,

I really want to talk to you.

You are intimately close to me yet so far away.  You are both real and imaginary.  I’m convinced that I know you in the deepest, most secret ways yet I don’t know you at all.  I once read that the way a mother shows her own children affection is directly linked to the experience she had as a child.  What she felt as an infant in her mother’s arms, what rocking, all-consuming cuddles she knew to expect (or not) in the nighttime when she cried out, she gives her own.

I have two daughters.  You have two granddaughters.  Oh how I think of you when I rock them in my arms and wrap them with everything in me.  Sometimes I get angry because you are not here to love them.  For so many years — thirty-one, to be exact — you have not been here to love me either.  I hear stories of your sisters going on vacations with their grown children.  What would we do on vacation together?  What would I do if you sat across from me in my own home and said something to me about who I am, who I aim to be, what I have done, and what I haven’t?  Would we think many of the same things, or would we have trouble understanding each other?  Would you accept my decision to distance myself from my father?

If the theory about a mother’s affection is right, I have all the evidence I need of the realness of the love you once had for me.  It was a physical love.  When my oldest daughter, who is almost eight-years-old, was a newborn and I sat with her alone, I discovered what it must have felt like to be held by you.  She and her sister — in our most intimate moments together — have helped me to find/shape/create (who knows?) a memory of being a daughter, one who was taken care of, caressed, and gazed upon.

momandme

[Mom and me, circa 1977]

I am here now and you are not.  Your third granddaughter will be born in a few months.  I really want to talk to you.

Rachel