“Alan, come zip my dress, please!” I holler to my husband from our first-floor bedroom. The room is spotless, just like the rest of the house, for the party later.
“And see if you can find my phone! I’ve got to call Rosa to confirm her being here to meet the caterers.” I am talking too fast and too loud. I am panicking.
“Heath? Gwyneth? Are you ready to go?” I have not seen my kids yet, as they were upstairs in their rooms presumably getting ready to go to the ceremony. I want to make sure they are dressed appropriately, so I am a bit worried.
“I want to get a decent parking space so I don’t have to walk for miles in these shoes. Alan, are you sure you want to wear that plaid shirt? It’s kind of boring. C’mon guys, this is important to me.”
I know I am nagging, but I can’t help it.
“God Almighty this is gonna be a clusterfuck”, I whine.
I am in full panic mode, but in a mostly good way, if that makes sense. My oldest daughter, Alana, is graduating high school this evening, June 14, 2014. After the ceremony at the large coliseum, which I’m dreading because of the chaos, we’re all coming back to my house for a graduation party. And that will be the potentially awkward and uncomfortable part of the evening’s events. Among the guests there will be eight people—all of the parents and stepparents I’ve had in my life—who are all going to be in the same room together for the first time, and there is a distinct possibility that the whole night might go straight to hell.
“Is everyone ready to go?” I said.
“Alana, did you give all the grandparents their tickets or are we supposed to find them? Do we have a meeting place? Alana? Hello?” I said, panic continuing to rise in my voice by the moment.
“Alana has already gone ahead honey”, Alan said. “Don’t you remember she had to be there early? Just try to relax, it’s all going to be fine. Everyone will find the meeting place and they all have their tickets. I know you’re stressed but it’s all going to be okay.”
Once we are all downstairs ready to go, I examine my family. They are dressed relatively appropriately. Heath, aged 16, his six foot tall frame, dark hair recently trimmed appropriately for the occasion, including his emerging mustache and beard (of which he was most proud), in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, Gwyneth, aged 13, her 5’4” stature, in her standard “I hate dressing up so I’m wearing the only dress I own” which is drab and frankly, unflattering. Sad, too, because she is stunningly beautiful with long blonde hair, beautiful eyes and plump lips. Her curvy figure is just starting to take shape and she is gorgeous. Alan, who is 6’3”, with a full head of black hair, just barely graying at the temples, is also in his standard fare of khaki slacks and an okay-ish plaid button down shirt, no tie. He, too, is extremely handsome and cleans up well. We are rather an odd looking family, with Gwyneth and myself both short and blonde, and Alana, also blonde and beautiful, and Heath, are both very tall and thin. I wear a lovely floral dress with high heels and I feel very attractive this evening. I am 52 years old and still feel pretty good about my looks.
“Oh hell and damn it all then. Let’s just go and get this over with” I concede.
The four of us pile into our blue Honda Pilot SUV and head down our long gravel driveway to the road that we live on, Clapp Farms Road, named after Alan’s extended family. It is a two mile stretch of farms and dotted with about twenty dwellings, from a few very nice houses, to a number of ranch-style homes to the ever attractive mobile homes. Also included is the migrant farm workers temporary housing. Alan’s dad and brother own one of the farms and other forks of the family tree owns the additional farms. Alan does not farm; he is a soil scientist for the Orange County, NC Health Department and I work part time from home as an accounting paraprofessional. Our house, a two-story brick house, looks lovely on our 3 acres of land, set about 300 feet back from the road with several trees, a long winding gravel driveway and a forest of trees on each side. You cannot see the house from the road so it’s a nice private place. It is considered to be the 3rd nicest house on our road.
We head towards Interstate 40W/85S which is just a few turns from our house and we merge into the traffic which is pretty heavy as everyone seems to be driving to the godforsaken Greensboro Coliseum Complex where the graduation is being held. Traffic on this stretch of highway between Greensboro and Burlington is always bad but it is certainly worse due to the comings and goings of all the graduation traffic.
I dial Rosa’s cell phone, “Rosa, we’ve just left the house. Are you all set to meet the caterers at 7:00? And then if you would, please set up everything buffet style in the kitchen like we planned and if you have time before anybody arrives do a final sweeping of the downstairs where the party is going to be.”
“Jes, I be there with everyting ready,” she said in her broken English.
”I set everyting up and I sweep floors.”
Rosa, a sweet 42 year old Hispanic woman who was all of 5’ tall, if even, and shaped like a beach ball, is my closest friend who also cleans and manages my house every week. I know she has everything under control. Of course she does! When has she not?
“If any of our guests arrive early could you please let them in and offer them a drink? It’s possible that Alan’s aunt Lib and uncle Eddie will be there as well as Andy and Lisa, Alan’s brother and sister in law, and a few other friends that we’ve invited to the party that are not coming to the graduation. I’ve told them to arrive around 8 o’clock so that should be plenty of time for us to get back from the graduation ceremony.” I replied.
“Jes, I have everyting ready and will let people in,” she confirmed.
I thank her profusely as I always do and we end the call. I am still a ball of nervous energy, trying to think of anything I might have forgotten to do or ask Rosa to do. Following the graduation ceremony, we are having a party at our house. We are expecting about 25 people total, including some other friends, three of my four siblings, Alan’s aunt, uncle, brother and sister-in-law and of course my dear Rosa, and her son, Edgar, who grew up with Heath. We are serving a taco bar, catered by Moe’s, wine, beer, soft drinks, and a graduation cake specially made for Alana. The decorations are done: We have the requisite CONGRATULATIONS banner, streamers, and lovely flowers on the table. My final decorative touch was taking every 8×10 school picture of Alana throughout her life, including a few baby pictures, and taping them to the kitchen cabinets in our U-shaped kitchen in age order, except for the picture of her graduation from preschool in which they dressed them in cap and gowns; this one I hung above her current graduation cap and gown picture. It is a fun idea and I think it will go over well.
It took us about 20 minutes to drive to the venue and upon arrival we could see that the parking situation was dire and I was not happy because I knew that I would be walking a long way in my heels. There are traffic police directing us where to park and we disembark from our car and start our trek towards the entrance to the Coliseum. Alan is holding my hand both for moral support and so I won’t fall right off my high heels.
The Greensboro Coliseum Complex is its own special nightmare with its multiple venues for different sized events, no decent signage or directions on where to go and of all things, a long uphill ramp to navigate. Every year, there are 26 high schools in Guilford County, NC, graduating back to back over a period of three days, all at this monolithic Coliseum. We finally make it up the ramp and walk towards the entrance where I see that the previous graduation ceremony is just letting out and they are all taking pictures in a sea of red and white caps and gowns along with hundreds of attendees dressed up, dressed down, and some just dressed downright inappropriately.
Meanwhile we push through the crowd of the previous graduates and their families and we make our way to the place we had agreed to meet our family members, the grandparents. This was near the ticket booth at the entrance. I could see from afar that all eight of them are there including my mother, my father, my biological father, and my ex-stepmother, and their respective spouses, my current stepparents. That’s right, four sets of maternal grandparents. This whole time I’m thinking to myself that I’m excited about the novelty of it all and I’m proud to show off my beautiful graduate and my two other children, but I’m also nervous and ambivalent. I feel like I’m a teenager again, trying to impress these various parental figures, hoping they’ll be proud of me, presenting them with all this perfection I’m trying to create. Maybe they’ll accept me finally; maybe they’ll see that I’m not so awful after all, considering they all abandoned and neglected me at some point in my youth. Basically, I’m a nervous wreck over the whole thing. Still, the novelty is the highlight: my Mom, Rima, and her third husband Bill, my adopted Dad, Gary (Mom’s second husband) and his third wife Sandy, my biological Father, Bill, who left my Mom when I was six months old (and who was also pregnant with my brother when he walked out on her), and his fourth wife Nancy, who is just nine years my senior, and finally, my ex-stepmother, Debbie, eight years my senior, formerly married to my adopted Dad, Gary, and currently married to her second husband, Dennis. All eight of these adults claim grandparent status with my kids, even though they all relinquished me to an ever circling cycle of parental units from the age of six months until age 15, when I was sent packing for the final time from Columbus, Ohio to Chapel Hill, NC, to live with my maternal grandmother, now deceased. Clusterfuck indeed. Each of these individuals represented 19 marriages, albeit some to each other, but 19 separate marriage ceremonies, (four of which I attended), among the eight people. Fucking ridiculous. I was most nervous about my Dad, Gary, and my ex-stepmother, Debbie, seeing each other as they’d had an ugly and contentious divorce in 1990 after 15 years of marriage.
As we approach them we all say our hellos and commence with the proper hugging and greeting. My mom just generally annoys me, with her narcissistic all-about-her attitude, my adopted dad is stoic and proper but I recognize underneath that demeanor that he can snap in a second into meanness as he has in the past. My birth father is ever cheerful and feeling festive, and my ex-stepmother seems a bit trepidatious at being in my adopted dad’s company. This meet and greet seems to go on forever and I am overwhelmed inside my head upon seeing them all, given our sad history, but outwardly, I am quite upbeat and cheerful. I, ever in full hostess mode, make sure that our eight guests all knew and/or remembered each other from previous events that they have attended. Having them all together, however, is really intense. I wonder how they felt?
Even though this is my first child graduating, I’ve attended other high school graduations, and it’s a nightmare of pomp and circumstance with all the yelling parents, whooping students, picture taking, no one following directions…… I am already hating every minute of it. The crowd is getting larger as the previous graduates are still milling about and the family and friends of the next graduates are arriving.
Meanwhile, we’d gotten 12 tickets, the maximum allowed, which were to be doled out as follows: Alan, Heath, Gwyneth, myself, and then the ridiculous array of four sets of grandparents, this merry set of misfits.
Tickets in hands, we snake our way through the crowd and head towards the main area where we are to be seated in bleachers. The graduates themselves will be seated on the main floor. We walk in and try to find a row of bleachers where we could all sit together which ends up being close to the very top of the bleacher section. I lead our group up the rickety, metal bleachers. The uneven steps are difficult to traverse in our dress clothes and shoes. Once again, thank God for Alan guiding me all the way up lest I tumble, which I am lately wont to do more often than usual. I can see that my days of wearing high heels are numbered.
Once we are all seated I lean over to Alan and whisper, “Alan, look at this!” I exclaimed.
“Can you believe that all these people are here together in one place? It’s all so weird. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, I have to be honest. I’m trying to be festive on what should be all about Alana’s day, but my thoughts are racing with all of them here and bringing forward painful memories that I don’t want to deal with”.
I look at each of them all sitting together in our aisle: All of them highly educated with college degrees, some had master’s degrees, one, a law degree, and three ordained ministers. All very smart people intellectually but pretty much not a clue as to how to raise their collective nine children.
Mom, who is a short, plump, dark-haired woman, to whom I resemble not at all, her current husband Bill C., an average looking guy, bearded and dressed straight out of the 1970’s; Bill W., my biological father whom I didn’t meet until I was 16 years old, a tall balding grayish-blonde man who is professional and dapper and the parent I look most like, and his wife Nancy, a young tiny spirited gal with short red cropped hair, dressed in her flowy Chico’s style that she always seems to favor; my adopted Dad, Gary, hair completely gray now, which is in stark contrast to his formerly black hair back in the day, is of average height and struggles with his weight and a few medical issues, his wife Sandy, who is difficult to describe because she is quiet as a mouse, but is very smart and completely devoted to Dad; and finally Debbie, a short woman, with short blonde hair, proportionately plump and dressed very nicely, along with her husband, the always smiling, good natured and good looking Dennis. It is such an aberration, seeing all these couples now comfortably settled into their presumably final marriages, and I couldn’t help comparing their current spouses to the ones they were previously married to, and all with whom I lived with at one point in my childhood. Essentially, prior to moving in with my grandmother, I’d lived among four different family units in my youth, one of which I had no biological relationship to.
“Honey, just try not to think about the past right now; think about the fact that they all wanted to be here and celebrate our Alana,” Alan replied.
“But I’m struggling with the idea of ‘how dare they think they can swoop in and claim grandparent status’ after each and every one of them abandoned and neglected me from the age of six months. I still have complicated relationships with each of them and it’s exhausting for me to make nice and share pleasantries with all of them and their current spouses, most of with whom I barely have any investment in, at the same time when I can barely tolerate any of them in just the smallest of doses” I said.
“Honey, let’s just see how it goes, okay? I will be with you the whole time and I promise you nothing bad is going to happen. It’s Alana’s day and that’s why we’re all here,” Alan said, always the voice of positivity and reason.
That helps a little but the night is still young and the variety of combustive personalities, my own included, has the potential makings of plenty of drama. Having suffered from clinical depression my whole life, although not officially diagnosed and properly medicated until age 28, I am really feeling out of sorts and experiencing a great deal of anxiety.
The graduation ceremony itself is predictably tedious with all the introductions of school board members, special guests, and then the boring speeches, followed by over 200 graduates called up by name in alphabetical order to cross the stage and receive their diplomas. As mind numbing as it is, I must admit that it was thrilling to watch the graduates file in to their seats with the traditional pomp and circumstance music, and then to hear Alana Clapp’s name and watch her glide across that stage like the statuesque model she is meant to be. This is the biggest day in her young life so far and she is walking on air. I scramble down the bleachers, surprisingly without falling, and take a couple of good, close up pictures of her as she descends the stage. It really is exhilarating. Interestingly, I never experienced my own graduation ceremony as I was able to graduate early due to my excellent academics and the different requirements from Ohio to NC, so there had been no fanfare for me. I suspect there wouldn’t have been regardless, as by that time, at age 16, I was estranged from most of my family and was working full time, couch surfing, until I slunk away and moved to another town, virtually unnoticed as soon as I turned 17 in July of 1979.
Once the ceremony is over, the graduates are dismissed and then the friends and family are instructed to leave. This is the final graduation of the day, so the crowd isn’t too bad, and we are able to spot Alana fairly quickly.
I grab her and hug her tall frame tightly. “Honey, I’m so proud of you! You look stunning and full of joy! I can’t believe my baby has graduated from high school. This is wonderful!” I said.
“Thanks Mom. This is all so crazy isn’t it?” she replied.
“Yes, sweetie, it is. So have you seen all the grandparents yet?” I ask.
“Yes, they’re all over there waiting to take pictures,” she pointed.
We all gather together to take pictures and it is chaos on steroids. I am ready to go home and get this strangely bizarre party started. I attempt to speed things up, promising plenty of picture opportunities at the party. Alana needs extra time to take pictures with her friends so the 12 of us left to head back to the house.
The drive home seems quicker and I am getting excited, yet still flustered and nervous. So far, so good, but the night is young. Anything could happen. When we arrive home, I see a couple of cars parked in the grassy area next to the driveway so I knew that some guests had arrived. Of course Rosa has everything done up beautifully and she is acting as hostess as well. God Bless that woman.
Once the festivities begin in our home, the crowd of 25 or so is mainly hanging out in the kitchen getting food and drinks. The buffet includes Mexican fare of chicken, beef, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and soft taco shells. We also serve Mexican rice and black beans, and for beverages I have a big copper bin filled with ice, soft drinks, beer and wine. The caterers provided all the paper products so we were in business and ready to start eating and drinking. Everyone is looking and marveling at the pictures I’d hung on the cabinet doors in the kitchen as they move through the buffet line and then one by one begin slowly moving into the living room, sunroom and parlor, all on the first floor of our house, to visit, commiserate and take pictures. Alana arrived not long after we did, as did the remainder of invited guests. I am feeling much more relaxed by this time. Things seem to be going smoothly and everyone is civilized, festive and on their best behavior. There is the inevitable awkwardness of introducing all these grandparents to the other party guests, especially those from Alan’s family, because how do I explain that this or that couple got married, got divorced, remarried this person and that one is my biological father whom I call by his given name, Bill, while this one is my adopted father whom I call Dad, and this one is the ex-stepmother, etc. and here’s how I’m related to them, and oh, by the way, I lived with all of them at one point in my life, but was ultimately invited to move on to the next family unit in fairly short order.
“Mom? Can you and Bill take a picture with me?” I ask. “I’d like to have one with just the three of us since we’ve never had an opportunity to do that.”
“Yes, of course,” they both replied, seeming somewhat distracted by this interruption.
I rush around trying to find someone to take this epic snapshot that I could never have imagined would exist. I feel very childlike in my excitement of having this particular photo captured. Maybe this photograph will give me some validation. Each of my biological parents had abandoned me in my childhood, but are now here willing to be photographed with me. It sounds rather pathetic and I guess it really is. Of all the novelty that this graduation party brings, it is so important to me to have my picture taken with my biological parents-just the three of us. Only one such photograph exists and it was taken in 1962 shortly after my birth. Many people are lucky enough to take such a thing for granted, but there were periods in my childhood when I lived with no blood relative, and for some reason, having this picture taken is profoundly important to me.
I stand between my biological parents with our arms around each other and it is surreal. After the photo is taken, I feel a rush of emotion about it, but at the same time, I wasn’t surprised when Mom and Bill seemed very nonchalant, like it was no big deal. They move along back into the crowd, and it made me feel like it meant nothing to them.
The party itself was a grand success, lasting a couple of hours, and I feel success as a welcoming hostess. I am grateful there is no drama except what I am feeling internally. Despite my internal struggles, I manage. Alana is, of course, the center of attention and Alan and I are so proud of her. She leaves towards the end of the party to visit her house bound grandfather, Alan’s dad, and then she is taking off for the beach with her crew of best friends for a post graduation celebration. I am so happy for her and extremely proud.
Once my parents and their spouses depart, I felt a sense of relief but also a sad sense of disappointment. These people hurt me; they abandoned me, they neglected me. I desperately wanted to feel better about my lingering childhood pain but it stays with me, this childhood trauma. Whatever expectations I had for any validation or penance (not that this was the time or place for it), were dashed and frankly I was just glad it was over. I have so many feelings right now: relief, exhaustion, sadness, curiosity, heartache……I’d once thought that time would heal, but I feel now for the first time that it may never happen. I will forever seek acceptance, love, validation, even as I know that no matter what I’m told, I’ll never really believe anything different than how I lived my entire childhood and young adult years—neglected, abandoned, ignored, cast aside. I’ve never known any different, but I broke that vicious cycle with Alan and my children, and I am ever grateful for that.
In anticipation of writing my upcoming memoir (working title: “Show My Ugly”) I decided that I needed to read my old teenaged diaries which I kept from age 12 to 17, and included 7th through 12th grade. I’ve written two pieces of poetry about the torture of this endeavor, (See “The Diaries” and “The Diaries-Part Deux”, previously published) and, full disclosure, I have not yet finished this most unsettling project but I am going to – I must pace myself, honestly; it’s that awful. I’m doing this because I need the context of people and timing, and most of all I need the proof of my memoir title, “Show My Ugly”. When writing a memoir, one must be reminded that although they are the hero of their own story, one must also be brutally honest and own up to one’s part in the misery of it all. I’m sure not everyone has torturous childhoods recorded in diaries; some have written about lovely childhoods, but who wants to read about that? The bottom line is, when you wait forty-plus years to read them, they are at the very least cringe worthy and at the most, will spiral you into a never ending PTSD episode. Mine was definitely on the latter end of the scale, thus the reading breaks I’ve had to take, and reading in very small doses. I have 26 volumes and as of this writing I am only on volume 12 at the age of 14.
Even in that seemingly short amount of time (ages 12-14, seventh through ninth grade) I must share my most constant thought throughout this reading and that is, Adolescence Should Be Outlawed. I mean c’mon, let’s face it: there are absolutely no redeeming qualities to living through something like that – not for the adolescent OR for their long-suffering parents.
I knew that I had a tumultuous childhood with more than a few sprinkles of true trauma thrown in, and living through it again has been very painful, if I’m being honest. There isn’t much that I’ve forgotten, but reliving it through my own adolescent eyes has brought some necessary clarity to what I remember, and more importantly, why these things happened. There was definitely some questionable parenting going on, but I now know that they were just people with their own problems saddled with a posse of unruly kids. That doesn’t alleviate the trauma by any means, because let’s face it, they were the parents and we really were just kids. I have an ongoing reflection in my head that I just can’t shake, and as a parent myself, really don’t want to. This mantra is, “As a parent, you have one job: to keep your children safe. One job”.
That wasn’t the childhood that I lived. There was a lot of ugly going on back then and while I recognize my part in it, I need to stop carrying the entire weight of it on my own shoulders. I was just a kid. I needed taken care of. I needed boundaries. I needed stability. I needed my siblings. I needed to be heard. I needed to hear that I was loved, (and not, “I love you, but I don’t like you at all”). Sure, I was fed and clothed, but there was so much more that I needed. Childhood trauma can be defined in a number of ways, from basic neglect to overt physical, mental or sexual abuse. I fell somewhere in the middle of that, but my adult emotional needs are greater than most, and I frankly resent it. I resent that I live in fear of rejection, that I’m so intense that some people just can’t cope with me. (They are uncoping, my new favorite, personally coined word, which really should be in the dictionary, which it is not). I’m sad that my own children have had to see and experience the negative affects of what I’ve been through. My own husband had a self-described idyllic childhood, and he lovingly aches for me because sometimes he just doesn’t understand me and I can’t blame him. Thank God for him because our children are well past their way of coping rather than uncoping with that horrific time of adolescence. They seem to have made it through relatively unscathed. I hope.
Meanwhile, I remain tormented on many levels due to the circumstances of my adolescence. It was a horrific period in my life and if I were forced to come up with one single good outcome from it, it is that I am very independent and self-sufficient. Shit gets done, because who else is going to do it, right? But I have suffered immensely, which some of you many have already inferred from many of my previous essays and poetry. My best writing comes from my pain, and I am in a hell of a lot of pain. It’s definitely the rule, not the exception.
You may wonder why I’m tasking myself with writing a memoir and I can honestly tell you that I need to get this flotsam and detritus out of my brain and onto paper because I’m running out of space in my brain for happy thoughts. I’ve simply got to try and heal myself since my attempts at hiring professionals (25 years of talk therapy – I’m so sick of myself!), taking medication for the depression, anxiety and PTSD that I continue to suffer from, haven’t seemed to reveal any permanent healing, only temporary bandaids.
As I have been reading these tomes of torment, I have a few other observations: life is full of missed opportunities, some good, some bad. I’ve always relied on my own personal belief that I only regret the things I don’t do, but I’ve now realized that very often I wasn’t given a choice. I wasn’t given a voice. I feel a lot of sadness in what could have been had different choices been made for me, or if I hadn’t been afraid to speak up for myself, and I think the saddest thing of all is realizing that I never knew any different. See, that’s one of the fatal flaws of childhood versus maturity into adulthood: as a child, everything you learn you inherently know to be true. You trust the adults in your life because it’s all you know. It isn’t until much later that you can look back and say, “Oh, hell no! That ain’t right!”. And generally, by the time you reach that realization, it’s likely too late and you’ve suffered the consequences on a long term, macro scale. This is how I would define myself at this point. Fortunately for me, I was able to make some good choices in picking my spouse and parenting my children (though one never knows for sure, does one?), but I live with a great deal of anguish which is clearly hindering my success at the goal of acceptance and happiness, and for that I do remain resentful and even unforgiving, which I happen to know intellectually, is just self-torment.
I stand by my earlier statement: Adolescence Should Be Outlawed. It was the worst of times and the worst of times for me. I’m not yet convinced that I will ever get over it. But I’m trying, I’m doing the best I can with the very few tools I was given along the way. In that regard, my parents failed me. They did not keep me safe and I am paying the price. Nobody wins, and that’s probably the saddest denouement of all.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having to attend three funerals in the last week and a half. While none of them were unexpected, it’s always sad for the grieving families. But in an odd juxtaposition, I can’t help but think about how to grieve for the living, the Ghosts.
I’ve suffered many losses. Not by death, but by abandonment, also sometimes known as Ghosting in today’s vernacular. I feel like I’ve spent my entire life grieving on some level. It began with my biological father, who left when I was six months old, followed by my mother, who abandoned me when I was 11 years old, and then my adoptive father, who abandoned me when I was 15 years old. So even though those people are still living, I’ve had to grieve for those losses. At this juncture, they’ve come back into my life, somewhat hovering around as if they don’t quite know what to do with me, given the actions of their pasts. I know that I can say, on some level, I never got over those losses. And I certainly didn’t have the tools to properly grieve for them, then or now.
Meanwhile, due to so many upheavals during my past, I’ve lost many friends. And that has been the most difficult of all in my grieving process. I missed out on long term friendships because I was always moving away. In seventh grade, twice in eighth grade, and again in 10th grade. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager, especially between the ages of 11 to 15, can appreciate how painful it must be to say goodbye forever to your closest friends, your allies, your first loves, your lifelines.
As an adult, I have suffered additional losses by those I call the living ghosts. Those who have decided to leave me and not let me know why. And while I suspect I know what their reasons are, and feel I have no choice but to respect them, I just feel tremendous grief and loss, all the time.
As I reflect on these funerals that I’ve attended recently, I observed that the survivors are understood and nurtured in their grief. While painful for them, it is a finality of sorts which usually allows them to begin the process of learning to live without their loved one for the rest of their lives. However, when dealing with abandonment and ghosting, I am not afforded the same comfort. The person lives on, sometimes in my midst, and I am left wondering what could have been. I will always wonder what could have been done differently or what I could have done differently to avoid the pain of so much loss. It is simply a variant, unvalidated form of grieving that never seems to abate or heal. I can’t help but wonder how I’ll feel when the loss is final, once they’ve reached the end of their lives. Will I then finally be able to grieve and accept the loss and heal?
November 5, 1995. The day my first child was born. August 16, 2019. The day my youngest child left for college. 8,686 days; 1,240 weeks, 6 days; 285 months, 12 days; 23 years, 9 months, 12 days…… you get the picture.
My three charges, of whom I am no longer in charge. Now young adults, living too far away, but exactly where they are meant to be.
From the day they were born, it was my job to kick them out. To prepare them to leave. To teach them how to live without me. I taught them how to walk, how to talk, how to eat, how to dress, when to sleep. I taught them to ask for what they need (if you don’t ask, the answer’s always no); I taught them not how to think, but how to think for themselves. I taught them how to learn, how to listen, how to feel compassion, how to love. I taught not how to see, but what to look for. Every single day, I taught them how to leave. And leave they did.
So here I am. All this time I’ve been teaching, guiding, leading. And I’m tired. I’m resting now. I’m reflecting. I’m wandering. I’m wondering. How did I do it? How did I do? I can check off a few boxes: they all graduated high school; they all went to college; they are all healthy; they are all safe; they are all loved. So I suppose I did fairly well.
I want to say a few more things to my kids though. I wasn’t quite finished when they left. I have a bit more to share with them. Give me a few more moments, won’t you? Here’s what I want to say. In case you didn’t know this yet.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming into my life. Thank you for giving me a family. This has been the hardest job I will ever have. Every single minute (12,507,840 minutes), has been a challenge. I learned so much more than I taught. I learned that my life as I knew it before you would never be the same. I learned that each of you was born with a unique personality and that I had to get to know you individually. I learned to understand that there is no template for parenting.
I learned the deeper, truest meaning of words like joy; love; sorrow; happiness; fear; laughter; trust; excitement; kindness; hurt; loss; honesty; betrayal; exhaustion; thrilled; proud; glee; partnership; heartache; perception; reality; time.
Time. That which we cannot control. No pause, no rewind, no fast-forward, no stopping. So here we are, all this time gone by. But I have my memories. And you have yours. I wonder: are our collective memories somewhat parallel? Or do they diverge wildly?
I remember the moment that each of you became known to me. One of you took several months. One of you had two misfires before you finally took. And one of you came as a pleasantly quick addition.
I remember the moment each of you emerged and separated from my womb. Moments full of drama, joy, tears, awe.
And I remember the moment each of you walked out the door, to begin the independent life I so carefully prepared you for. The heartache of saying goodbye was more painful than the physical pain of giving birth, but I’m managing.
You were sent to me with a message: Becoming a Mom brings joy and heartache, great memories and memory loss, patience and always hurrying, teaching and learning, knowing and not wanting to know, gales of laughter and oceans of tears, and most of all, the truest form of giving and receiving unconditional love.
Someone once told me that my children aren’t perfect because nobody’s perfect, right? I, however, know perfection when I see it. And I see it every single day in all of you. Thank you Alana, Heath & Gwyneth, for defining perfection for me.
I opened my eyes very slowly, carefully. I was extremely groggy and confused. And I looked at the end of my bed, and Darlene was there, my beloved Darlene.
“Darlene, is that really you, or are you an angel? Am I really awake or am I dreaming?”
“No, Sweetie,” she said. “It’s really me, I’m really here. It’s really me. You’re not dreaming.”
Looking around, I realized that I was in a hospital room. I was hooked up to IV’s and dressed in a hospital gown. I saw that I was in a hospital bed. There was a whiteboard on the wall with my name, and date of admittance. My attending doctors and nurses were listed as well.I also observed a stranger, a woman who was not dressed in hospital garb, sitting in the corner of my room. And I was needing to be convinced that I wasn’t still hallucinating. Gradually I slowly began remembering what I’d done. I’d taken an overdose of pills. I’d tried to kill myself. And apparently, I’d failed.
The previous Friday was March 7, 2014. Greensboro, NC, was smacked with a terrible ice storm. Everyone knows that if you live in North Carolina, any thought of even a single snowflake falling from the heavens is cause for widespread panic and a run to the grocery store to buy out all the bread and milk. A three-loaf alert, it’s often called. And an impending ice storm is the worst case scenario, because it is sure to knock out electrical power across the region. We in NC are simply not prepared for this. And when we lose power out where we live, in the country, we lose water as well because we have an electric well pump
When the ice storm hit, we lost power on that Friday, March 7. We found the last available hotel room in Greensboro at a 5-star hotel, paying $400 a night.
The five of us, Alan, my husband, our oldest daughter, Alana, 18 years old, our son Heath, age 16, our youngest daughter, Gwyneth, age 12, and myself, all stayed in one room together. Saturday morning, we checked out of the hotel to go home, hoping that the power would be back on. When we got home, the power was indeed on, but the heat was not working. So it was freezing cold inside our house. I was just losing my shit, minute by minute because I hate living out in the country; it’s not my thing but it’s what I signed up for when I married Alan in 1994. I absolutely hate it when the power goes out, I hate living without water; it’s simply barbaric. I was just hating everything.
“This is such bullshit!” I said. “I hate living out here with no electricity or water anytime the power goes out. I’m so sick of having to deal with this every single time. And now, it’s freezing because we have no goddamn heat! This is ridiculous and I hate it here!
“I’m going to Alamance Crossing with Sarah and Caroline,” Alana announced. Alamance Crossing was a shopping center about 15 miles away.
“No, you’re not.” I said. “There’s no way I’m going to let you drive in this ice.” I looked to Alan for support.
He shrugged. Alan was noncommittal. He knew that he was in a no-win situation and he avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when it comes to Alana’s and my disagreements. His passive non-involvement was typical because he didn’t want to side with either one of us. She and I are both so strong-willed and when an argument breaks out between us, Alan generally walks away. In reality, I suspect he didn’t really think it was that big of a deal for Alana to go with her friends because we’d just driven home from the hotel so he knew what the conditions were, but he could see my dismay and didn’t want to break ranks.
So she and I got into a huge fight over her rights as an adult at 18 years old, (even though she was still in high school and living under our care.) We escalated into a screaming match that included her yelling from her room upstairs.
I hate you!” she hollered. “YouI never let me do anything! This house is so boring being stuck here with you!” she screamed. “All my friends have so many more privileges!”
I yelled from the bottom of the steps in return, “ Alana, you’re exaggerating and you know it! We give you plenty of privileges and independence but we are still in charge as long as you are living here and my answer is NO!”
She demanded, “Why? Why can’t I go? Just tell me why?”
Still yelling upstairs to her, I said, “I am not comfortable with you driving in the melting ice given your inexperience with these conditions. I don’t think it’s safe.”
“The roads are fine!” she continued. “All my friends are allowed to go,” she repeated.
“You’re not allowed to go!,” I yelled back to her. “Just stop asking me. The answer is no!”
I was increasingly frustrated because everything I said was met with a comeback, mostly just Alana saying Why, why why, and repeating how much she hates me and can’t wait to leave for college in the fall. This went on and on and I was not handling the situation well because I was angry that she was disobeying me. I was also hurt by her words of hatred towards me and her life in general while living under our roof. I was devolving towards an ugly breaking point; I could feel myself losing my patience and control and becoming angrier and her and also angry with Alan for not stepping in to support me. Eventually she just insisted that she was going to go, whether I said she could or not. And that was not the norm in our household.
Alan’s and my parenting rules are that whatever we say goes. That being said, we’re very flexible, we allow our kids a tremendous amount of independence, and we rarely came across a situation like this where one of our children was being completely, blatantly, disobedient. I just was taken aback. I was losing my cool and losing my temper as we were hurling these fighting words at each other. And finally I just snapped. I said,”Well just go then! Just go down and live with with your damn Aunt Lisa and Uncle Andy! Just fucking go, since your life is so awful here!”
She said, “Okay I will!” This caused me to lose my shit altogether and then I screamed at her, “Oh no, you won’t,”
She screamed back at me, “I’m going!”
I said, “If you go down to their house, then you’re dead to me!” And I stomped off.
I was immediately horrified that I’d said those words. I’d never said those words. I’ve never thought those words about my children and I was just completely out of control.
But sure enough, she left.
By this time it was Saturday afternoon. I just slammed the door to my bedroom and locked it, and just ugly-cried and remained unreasonable, unapproachable and unavailable for the remainder of the day and night.
I was furious with Alan, because he let her go. Not that he would physically stop her. But, I just was losing control. When I get this way, I get in an ugly rage, and I get into a despairing mood, and I can’t cope. I can’t cope at all. I feel like I spent my whole childhood having no power, no control, and my mental illness was rearing its ugly head. I couldn’t figure out how to properly handle situations like this because I’d had no role-modeling or experience of my own. Even though I’d spent years in therapy, and some of that included family therapy with Alan and the kids, I just hadn’t reached that healthy space that I intellectually knew I should be in.
So, Saturday night, she didn’t come home at all because she was going to stay with Lisa and Andy. I don’t know if she went driving to the shopping center or not, but it was confirmed by Alan that she was safe and going to stay with them that night.
I was still in full-on despair on Sunday morning when I woke up. I was still in the foulest of moods, unreasonable, and completely hateful to everyone. I wanted Alana to come home and work with me to do whatever we could to resolve this situation, especially by my apologizing for my awful words I spoke to her regarding her being dead to me.
I called Lisa and I screamed at her to send my daughter home, and she was just a total nasty bitch like she always is. She and I have never seen eye to eye and I consider her a spoiled, ignorant, closed-minded brat. She’s eight years my junior, had lived in this area all her life and she lorded around like the fucking Queen of all things. We had nothing in common from day one of my marriage, and even though we’d made somewhat of an effort to get along in the earlier years, we’d both finally conceded that we were never going to be friends. This happened years earlier, when our mother-in-law died, and we knew we no longer had to operate under any pretense that we were a close family. Alan had never been close to his brother, Andy, who was four years younger than Alan. We lived totally different lifestyles and though they were always civil to one another, they were never friends. Once again I demanded that Alan go down there and get her, get my daughter and bring her home.
I was just absolutely out of my mind with the thought that she was staying with Andy and Lisa. Possibly permanently. The two people that I loathe the most out here in this godforsaken redneck place that we live. I had no power. I had no power.
And I felt like I felt when I was a kid. When I was just abandoned. I felt like Alana was abandoning me, she was leaving me, another person was excising me from their life. I grew up being left, abandoned, kicked out. I grew up being schlepped from parent to parent to grandparent to potentially foster care, one after another. And I just couldn’t bear it.
Lisa wouldn’t send her home; of course she wouldn’t. I was a crazy person and her niece was better off with her. Alana wouldn’t take my calls at all. I called Andy, Lisa’s husband, (Alan’s brother), and he just railed me, calling me every name in the book from psycho, to the fact that I belonged in the loony bin, to I don’t know what the hell is going on with you. “You’re crazy,” he said. “And we’re not sending her back to you. She doesn’t want to live with you.”
The situation had deteriorated exponentially and I was just absolutely out of my mind with grief. This went on all day Sunday. Not a word from Alana. Alan went down there again to bring her home and came back without her.
And I just screamed at him, “What the hell? Bring her home! She is our daughter and this is where she belongs!”
He said, “You told her to leave, Amy, you told her to leave.”
And he couldn’t reason with me, I was completely unreasonable. There was no reasoning. So, it just devolved into a big clusterfuck of a mess.
Eventually, I went back into my room, shut and locked the door and told Alan, “You go sleep upstairs with Heath. Just don’t come near me. Don’t come near me until you bring me my daughter. Bring me my daughter. Bring me my daughter!”
Some hours later, in the dark and loneliness of night, when I realized that she wasn’t coming home for the second night, I was just not coping at all. I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that she may stay away for good. I wasn’t thinking straight and I was overwhelmed. It was late, and I was alone and I was awake.
And so I just decided, I can’t do this. I can’t live, I can’t live without her. I cannot live without my daughter. I cannot, I cannot go through this, I cannot go through this abandonment. This loss, this grief. I cannot deal with this, and I was just not of any kind of sound mind at all. It had just escalated, completely out of control. And it was all on me, and poor Alan, there was nothing he could do to appease me or appease Alana and convince her to come home. There was no dealing with Andy and Lisa. It was just a nightmare, so I just impulsively swallowed as many pills as I could find. I had antidepressants and anti anxiety medications to treat my mental illness, and Alan had some Tramadol from a hip replacement surgery he’d had.
I just put every pill I could find in my mouth, I didn’t even think about Alan, I didn’t think about Heath and Gwyneth. I just knew that I didn’t want to live for one more second if Alana wasn’t coming home. So I went to bed, ready to die. I felt dead already. I felt I’d lost everything.
I woke up around 4am Monday morning. And I realized that I wasn’t dead, and I was pissed. And I was sick. Very sick. So I called Heath on his cell phone upstairs and told him to tell Daddy to come downstairs and Alan came down, and I was really, really sick and really, really out of it and I told him what I had done and he called 911, right away.
I was very sick. I was in the cardiac unit at the hospital, because I was having heart problems. And I remember hallucinating. And if you’ve never hallucinated, if you’ve ever wondered if you’re hallucinating, then you’re not, because if you are, you know it. I had so many hallucinogenic experiences during these two days or three days that I was hospitalized. I guess I woke up Wednesday. And when I woke up there was the Angel. Darlene. This angel, my angel. Darlene was my little sister from Big Brothers Big Sisters, and we’ve been together for 20 plus years. She was somewhat like my very first child in a way. There she was, and no one except family was even allowed in the room but somehow she just pushed her way in and came and sat there until I woke up. Meanwhile, Alan was visiting every day, but was essentially home taking care of the kids. Alana apparently came back home on Monday, after school.
While I was in the hospital, I had to have a babysitter in my room because I was on suicide watch. In the cardiac unit. And so along with the nurses, doctors, CNA’s, there was a sitter, literally called a Sitter, who was in there with me 24/7. Once I regained consciousness I was just in complete and total despair over what I had done, and what Alana’s status was. I asked Alan, “Did you tell the kids what I did?”
He replied, “Well, Heath and Gwyneth knew because they were there when the ambulance came and I went to the hospital with you so Heath had to stay home alone with Gwyneth. And, you know, he didn’t know whether you were alive or dead until I called and told him. And so he was scared and confused. He didn’t go to school Monday morning and the whole thing was just so horrific and terrifying for the kids.”
I asked him about Alana, “Did you tell her?”
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “And she was shocked. She was shocked that you had done that. And I explained to her that it was nobody’s fault. That Mom is sick. Mom has mental illness. We all know that. And she just went over the edge, and it was not her fault.”
I don’t think I’ll ever know if she accepted that. I suspect not.
It was my fault, but Alan didn’t blame me. It just happened. It’s a picture of what mental illness can do.
Once I was discharged from the main hospital, I was mandated to go to a psychiatric hospital which I tried to refuse but apparently the law said I had to go. In other words, according to the laws in my state, “If someone else has decided that you need to be in the hospital, these are the steps that must be followed:
An affidavit must be filed with the Clerk of Superior Court or Magistrate of District Court. The Clerk or Magistrate may issue an order to a law enforcement officer to take you into custody for examination by a qualified professional. If the qualified professional finds that you are mentally ill and dangerous to yourself or others, you will be taken to the psychiatric hospital.”
I was literally driven in a paddy wagon to Winston Salem, because Greensboro had no beds available. Straight to the loony bin, just as Andy said I should. I stayed there, probably three to four days of which 72 hours is the standard for an involuntary commitment; we don’t have any long term in-patient facilities in our area, only short term. Alan came every day.
I asked him if Alana would come. He said he would ask her.
Alan said to Alana, “Mom really wants you to come to see her at the psychiatric hospital.” His perception of her reaction was that she was quiet, humbled.
He went on reassuredly, “Mom is going to be okay,” and, “We feel like the reason that you should to come is to see that for yourself. Mom and I don’t blame you for what happened at all, and she really is going to be alright.” She agreed to come without any comment,
I remember that when Alan brought Alana to the psychiatric hospital, Heath was at baseball practice and could not stay home with Gwyneth, so Alan had to bring Gwyneth with him, but she was too young to come back into the hospital so she had to wait in the lobby area of the hospital all alone. At 12 years old. I felt absolutely awful and extremely guilty for what I’d put my family through.
Once they arrived, Alana was allowed to come back to see me. Alan had warned her about all the security measures and that they would need to search her and she couldn’t bring her phone or any other gadgets or potentially dangerous items with her. She came back alone and I was very upbeat, very happy to see her, and the only reference I made to what had happened was that I was very glad to see her and I appreciated that she agreed to come. She shrugged, noncommittally, not sure what to say. It was uncomfortable for her. I didn’t know if she harbored any hurt feelings of me having almost abandoning her by trying to kill myself, or if she felt any feelings of guilt that I felt like she was abandoning me by leaving.
My experience at the hospital was very, very good. I’d had previous experiences at the hospital in Greensboro, under voluntary admittance, that were not good, and that’s why I refused to go, but this particular hospital was very good. And I learned for the first time in my life that everyone has a story. Everyone, from the doctor’s wife, to the drug guy on the street, and everyone in between, has a story. We all have a story. And I thought about it and I thought, “Well you know, Alan, my husband, he doesn’t really have a story. He had a self-professed idyllic childhood and he is a happily married man with three great kids. And then I realized that I was his story. I am his story.”
Note: This is a chapter from my upcoming memoir, “Show My Ugly”. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.
In my own journey with crippling depression, I have taken umbrage with that rather pithy expression, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem “. I’ve been personally subjected to these ill-perceived words of wisdom on more than one occasion, and adding to that narrative vein, another unhelpful expression, “Suicide is the coward’s way out”, has also been tossed in my direction at the precisely inopportune time.
I only recently have come to what, for me, is the simple and obvious and frankly, quite rational counter response, which is this: when one’s body, one’s person, sustains an injury or endures a pain of some sort, isn’t it the natural reflex, the very human nature ingrained among us, to find and execute the quickest and easiest remedy to that pain? If we cut ourselves, do we not apply a bandage? If we have a headache, do we not take a pain reliever? If we sprain an ankle or strain a muscle, do we not use a hot or cold compress and/or apply a wrap to stabilize the affected area? If we break a leg or an arm, do we not have the bone reset and get a cast?
All relatively permanent solutions to temporary problems, no? All the quickest, easiest (cowardly?) way to address the pain, no? So as with the very real emotional and even physical pain of depression, why wouldn’t we afford ourselves the same avenue of relief? When did the desire to ease the pain as quickly and efficiently as possible become “the permanent solution to a temporary problem”, and “the coward’s way out”? Who decided that masochism is the first and foremostappropriate reaction to pain like this?
Such is the ongoing stigma of mental illness. We’re making progress but we still have a long way to go. I would submit to anyone that managing to continue to live my life every single day is the bravest thing I’ve done so far.