Posts Tagged ‘family’

Formative Days

It’s been more than three years since my divorce, but I still find comfort in some traditions that my fabulous ex-wife introduced to me. In this case, I mean the Jewish tradition of the memorial candle, or yahrzeit candle, lit on the day of a loved one’s death to celebrate their life. I am also deeply appreciative of the idea of lighting the way for them to a happy afterlife.

October is a challenging month. Starting with the memorial for my favorite aunt, my Aunt Connie, at the beginning of the month, then moving on to the memorial for my sister-in-law, landing here on the memorial of the father’s death, and ending with the memorial of the death of the brother with whom I grew up at the start of November. It is, as I have observed in a prior post, one long yahrzeit candle burning.

Formative days stay with us long into adulthood in unusual bits and pieces, as we have heard recently from trauma specialists. This experience bears out for me less in the realm of significant hurts, because so many of the bruises (though not all) fade into the blur of days as recurring events, but more in the realm of significant losses. Formative losses endure for a lifetime.

Today is the day of a formative loss and, as is my practice, a yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen. I hesitated to write this post, then wondered why, because I’ve already written it in much detail in Urban Tidepool. And what the hell…I’ve written several humorous posts over the summer. A serious one will provide some balance.

Share a walk with me through a formative day, just shortly past my 17th birthday. I’ll appreciate the company.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool:

October 1982

I called him in sick that morning. It’s usually the other way around, the parent calling the kid in sick, but that would be really unlike us at this point. The call itself was uneventful.

“Pennsylvania Refrigeration, may I help you?”

“I’m calling Charlie Mullen in sick.”

That was that. He really wasn’t feeling well; no lie today. I knew that. He had mentioned not feeling well the night before. The fact he wasn’t doing shit to take care of himself wasn’t lost on me. A small “I told you so” floated on the edge of my awareness. Try giving up smoking like the doctor told you, I thought. Try not eating the stuff they told you not to eat. Maybe you’d feel better.

As I returned the handset to the cradle, the phone rang. I grabbed it again. My friend Kathy asked if I had been given the message that she had her parents’ car this morning and she was driving us to school. Could I be ready in ten minutes?

Of course I hadn’t gotten the message. I’d been off making a 10 p.m. dog food run. I ran from dining room to basement, searching the dryer for a pair of my uniform socks, and then back upstairs to the bathroom. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to pause at his bedroom door, though, and ask, “Did Kathy leave me a message that she was picking me up for school?”

He grunted, half awake. “Oh, yeah. Last night.”

“Awww…Dad, you are such an asshole!”

He didn’t answer.

I showered, spooned out some of the dog food rallied on the emergency Alpo run, kissed the dog and met Kathy on the front steps. We lived in a neighborhood of one-car families. It was a big deal to get the family car for school, avoiding the hassle of a Septa bus, or—God forbid—the Grays Ferry school bus. I was not going to miss this. We were seniors! With a car! As I picked up my work clothes, I contemplated calling out a good bye. He was probably asleep again. Besides, Michael might wake up and bitch about being disturbed—or slap the shit out of me. I didn’t need that. Never mind. I locked the door behind me.

Kathy greeted me with her usual morning announcement. “School blows.”

I could only agree. Six weeks into senior year, we were already counting days mostly unremarkable in their sameness; same uniform, same nuns, same resented expectation that we not think for ourselves. The good part of the day started when my work shift at McDonald’s did.

October 18th was a beautiful day in South Philadelphia, still warm, with shortened sunshine slanting earlier, heralding fall. By October we had golden sun, not the white sun of midsummer that made the asphalt melt and heat shimmer up off the pavement, playing tricks with your eyes. The walk from the bus stop to McDonald’s was pleasant, even enjoyable, and my leftover irritation with the father softened. I hadn’t missed my ride, hadn’t been late to school, all was well.

I changed into my uniform and clocked in without a minute to spare. I loved closing shift. I especially loved coming in directly from school, skipping that whole going home part. This was my second year at this job, my part-time, as-close-to-forty-hours-a-week-as-I-could-manage job. I had been promoted to manager last spring. Maybe it was being able to exchange the nasty polyester crew uniform for the cotton button-downs that the managers wore. Maybe it was not having to wear the crew hat that never looked right no matter where I put it on my skull, earning me the nickname “Helmet Head” from the regional manager. Maybe it was just that the regional manager had a nickname for me. Whatever it was, this was my favorite place.

A few minutes before 8 p.m., the phone by the manager’s desk rang and one of the guys on grill called me to pick it up. I expected the father and was surprised to hear Marie’s voice.

“Have you talked to your father today?”

“No, I came right into work from school. Why?”

“I’ve been calling the house and it rings and rings but nobody answers.”

“Okay. Let me call and see if he answers. I’ll call you back.”

The phone in our house rang endlessly, surely long enough that even with his hearing loss, he would have heard it. He would have rolled over or coughed or something, and the ringing two rooms away would have pulled him the rest of the way into consciousness.  My stomach tightened.

Turning to the other manager on duty, I said, “I gotta go. Something’s up.”

A friend from my neighborhood had just clocked out at the end of her shift, and she offered me a ride. We didn’t think to turn off the radio as we drove. As it had been for weeks, the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman played.

My house was dark. Not a single light shone, despite it being full dark outside now. The front door was locked. Chills ran down my back and arms. Above me, the dog jumped down to come greet me. From the direction of the thud, she was in the father’s room. I relaxed a little. Navigating a few steps around the couch arm, I flicked on a lamp and went up to see how he was feeling. The door was closed halfway. I pushed gently, reaching for the wall light switch.

“Dad?” I stepped into the room. “Dad?” I stopped beside the bed, put one hand on his shoulder and shook once. “Dad?”

The information flooded in all at one time.

Sight.

Sound.

Touch.

Overload.

He lay on his back, with his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded together on his stomach. His fingers were waxy white. Bloodless. I was the only one breathing in the room. His shoulder under my hand was cold. When I shook him, his head rocked slightly to one side but the muscle did not recoil. I looked down into his face: the slack jaw, the pallor, and a detail that I didn’t speak about until more than fifteen years later. Oh God. His tongue was black.

I backed away, shut the light off, closed the door. I learned later that one of the neighbors heard me scream, although I was never aware that I did. This was it. I had known for months it would happen exactly this way. Years ago last night, I went on a dog food run so I’d have something to feed her this morning. Upon arriving home I sat in the car, idling at the curb, staring at our front windows and thinking, It won’t be much longer. He’s so sick. I knew. I always knew it would be me that found him. And years ago last night, I did the familiar, unwanted practice run in my head that I had been doing for months. Now it kicked in automatically.

I dialed 911. “I need an ambulance.”

“What is your emergency?”

“My father has had a heart attack.”

A few more questions followed that blurred together. I didn’t feel any emotion, only hands shaking so badly it was hard to dial the phone. I called my brother, The Major, and my sister-in-law answered. I called my sister’s house, where my brother-in-law answered. Both siblings were out. I left the same message. Send them—I think our father is dead. Still disconnected, I called the father’s girlfriend. Jesus, had it only been half an hour ago I’d spoken to her? How could that be possible?

“The paramedics are on their way, but I think he’s dead.”

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.” She was crying. Why wasn’t I? “We’ll come. I’ll find a ride.”

Marie was half an hour away, even if she had a ride and walked out the door right now, but I agreed she should come. I wanted her here. After seven years of dating the father, she was a part of this. I refused to call my brother Michael. Him, I didn’t want here.

“Okay. Come.”

Hanging up, I knew I couldn’t stay there alone. As I had practiced in my imagination, I made one more call to my aunt’s house. “My father has had a heart attack. I think he’s dead. Can someone come and stay with me while I wait for the paramedics?”

I don’t remember who answered the phone, but the first person in the door was my cousin Doreen. She was eight months pregnant. Oh God. She’s gonna have that baby right here!

The paramedics arrived next, and I took them up to the father’s room. I hovered in the doorway to see what they would do, but they asked me to wait downstairs. My Uncle Dick, definitely no fan of the father, and Joe, my cousin Maureen’s husband, came in on their heels and Uncle Dick went upstairs with the paramedics. Why him but not me? They announced they would take him to the hospital.

“He’s not dead?”

“You should get ready to go to the hospital.”

My cousin David came in, out of breath. He took one of my arms and Doreen took the other. David said softly, “Let’s walk up the block to Maureen’s house.” We needed to figure out how I was getting to the hospital, who would be taking me and staying there, since The Major and my sister were both at least an hour away.

A few houses away, Mr. Forsythe, summoned to his front porch by the flashing ambulance lights called to us, “Are you okay, Nance?”

David answered. “She’ll be okay. We have to go to the hospital with Uncle Charlie.”

My cousin Maureen greeted me with a hug and stood with me as I splashed cold water on my face. I didn’t know where she and her husband Joe had been when my call came in, but she obviously already knew what was happening down the street. “Here, take this. You need a’ be calm if you’re goin’ to the hospital.” She pressed a glass of water into my other hand and prodded me to sit down at the kitchen table.

I was just placing the water glass on the table when the phone rang. It was Joe. Maureen relayed his words. “He’s been pronounced dead. The paramedics had to wait for the doctor. No one’s going to the hospital.”

David, sitting on one side of me, held my right hand. Doreen gripped my left. I didn’t hear anything beyond that. No no no no no no no no. I couldn’t tell if I was saying it out loud. I wasn’t making any sense. Someone said they were sorry. No no no no no no no. David and Doreen held my hands, squeezing them, kissing them. Maureen stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders and the back of my head. No no no no no no no no.

Of course he was dead. He was cold. I had known. They hadn’t wanted his child there when they took his body away. His fingers were bloodless. How could he not be dead? I had known. But he had looked asleep. He had looked peaceful in his boxers and his strappy t-shirt with his hands folded on his belly and his feet crossed, and it didn’t matter what I had known because I wanted to believe we were going to the hospital. It should hurt, shouldn’t it? Dying should hurt. He looked asleep. His fingers… bloodless. I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could, but I could still see them. I had known. No no no no no no. They were never going to take him to the hospital. It’s possible I howled. Don’t all wounded animals?

It was close to 10 p.m. when my sister arrived. I sat with a comforter wrapped around me and a cup of hot tea in front of me, so cold my whole body shook. Just two hours ago, I had been comfortable wearing a hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, with the sleeves pushed up. This was cold like the middle of February, and the comforter and tea kept my shivers at bay with only marginal success.

I tuned into some of the back and forth about where I might sleep that night. Did I really want to go sleep in the same house where my father had just died? Would I be okay? I didn’t belong at Maureen and Joe’s. I needed to go home.

Pat walked with me, retracing the steps that Doreen, David and I had taken just a short time ago, hoping I was wrong, knowing I was right. I thought I was ready. I hadn’t anticipated the surreal feeling, walking into the living room, seeing the father’s shirt draped over the back of a chair and his shoes on the steps where he had left them.

Overload.

Disconnect.

The room spun. I staggered two steps and Pat caught me. The lump in my throat exploded and an animal-like sound swelled out. Pat sat down on the couch, pulling me with her. My head rested against her shoulder, the father’s shirt in my line of vision. The noise kept going, that animal sound. It took several moments to become aware that I was making it. No doubt about it this time. I was howling.

I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep, but the next disconnect came and I welcomed it. I prayed for it. Please take this away. Please make this stop. Several times during the night, I started to surface toward consciousness. Each time I became aware of an overpowering pain in my chest, quickly followed by no no no no no no no, words I saw in neon print on the back of my eyelids. My vocabulary was gutted. It was the only word I could manage.

*********

Formative days, like today, bring back floods of memories and sometimes the tiny candle flame struggles against the weight of darkness that lacks words.  In four years, I will be as old as he was on the night of his death. He has been gone now more than twice as long as I knew him.  On formative days, I remember that before I referred to him as “the father”, I called him Chuckleberry and when I was very young, he would clap his hands together backwards and bark like a seal to make me laugh. As a single dad after the mother crossed over, he taught me it was okay to eat cold Spaghettios from the can to avoid making extra dishes. He wore brown shirts with black pants and when I’d comment on him being no slave to fashion, he gave me an answer straight out of the Shit My Father Says manual:  “What?! It’s clean!”

Sometimes formative days have gifts. It’s just a little extra work to find them.

dad2

dad1

dad3 

A chapter from Urban Tidepool

2008

I wasn’t looking for a new site to set up another drop-in center. I already had enough to do without adding one more program. But when I was asked to apply for a foundation grant that would allow us to do just that and hire a program manager, I couldn’t get the paperwork submitted fast enough.

It was when the new Geneva site opened that we all met Michael Fairbanks, a sophomore from St. Charles. One meeting with Michael was all it took to know that he would advance through our youth leadership program without breaking a sweat. Already involved with his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, active in community theater and taking a list of AP classes, he shared his plan to go to law school to become a corporate lawyer to work on inclusion policies for Fortune 500 companies. Michael invited all of his friends to attend the new Geneva drop-in center, bringing new kids with him almost every week. The energy he put into the drop-in center reminded me of working with Blake a few years earlier. He would make this place his own, as Blake had done.

“Michael, there’s a house party that some of our donors are holding for us, and I’d like you to join me to talk about the drop-in center and what’s going on at your school. Interested?”

He nodded. “Can I tell them about the anti-bullying training I’ve been working on and the panel presentation?”

“That’s perfect. Plan on it.”

When Michael took the floor at the party, the lights glinting off his glasses, and started to describe being bullied in his locker room, silence descended on the group. It is so striking that so many adults who grew up being bullied think that our kids are not experiencing similar situations, as if being bullied somehow stopped after the Stonewall movement. Then they hear stories like Michael’s and realize the world hasn’t changed all that much.

“I had to go to my principal and he took me out of gym,” Michael explained. “It wasn’t safe for me to be there. Because of that, we started planning some training with the faculty at their meetings. I did a presentation on gay students’ right to have a safe environment. No one is talking to the teachers about this.”

 

2009

Michael kicked off his junior year with a bang. He served as president of his GSA and president of his French club, balancing his commitments against his youth leadership role with Youth Outlook. We honored Michael at the October gala, presenting him with the first youth leadership award. As an agency, we decided to begin offering that award based on our experience since last year and Michael’s performance as a youth leader. At one end of the room stood several pieces of artwork he submitted for the silent auction. At the other end of the room, a PowerPoint presentation ran, highlighting Michael’s contributions to the agency and noting his semi-finalist’s award for the national GLSEN award for student advocacy on behalf of LGBT high school students.

 

2010

“I wrote a letter to Oprah!” Michael announced.

I looked up, startled. “What for?” I asked.

“For Youth Outlook!” he said proudly. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his backpack and handed it to me.

I thought he might be joking until I opened it and it started, “Dear Oprah Winfrey.” I scanned the letter. It explained what Youth Outlook was, who Michael was, and why he thought it was important for Oprah to be supportive of Youth Outlook. It was polite, it was genuine, and it brought tears to my eyes. “Did you send this to her?”

“I sent it to the newspaper. It’s an open letter.”

“An open letter!”

Basically, he dared one of the most revered celebrities in the history of television to get to know us. I looked at the letter again. His reasoning was solid. He pointed out that while things were changing, things were still difficult and dangerous and places like Youth Outlook were saving the lives of gay teenagers. He was right. It seemed like something she would talk about on her show.

Michael grinned. “I thought she’d pay attention more.”

 

09 June 2010

Oprah Winfrey

Harpo Studios, Inc.
1058 West Washington Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60607

Dear Ms.Winfrey;

My name is Michael Fairbanks. I am 16 years old and I will be a junior at St. Charles East High School in the Fall of 2010; in St. Charles, Illinois. I am the President of my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and French club; I am the Executive Director of the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles, IL; I am a member of the French National Honors Society, and I am involved in my school’s music department. I am in the Chorale, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber orchestra; the most advanced choirs and orchestra in my school. I am an openly gay young man, and as you may know, anything pertaining to GLBTIQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer/Questioning) issues does not go over well in today’s society.

Ever since I have been in middle school, I have always been bullied and harassed due to my sexual orientation. Up until this current school year, the harassment was over the roof; mainly taking place during my physical education class. I have been called a “faggot,” “fag,” “homo,” the “gay boy,” “queer,” and many more. Not only have I been called these very mean and offensive names, but I have also received threats, just because I am gay. This was causing me a lot of stress. It would cause me so much stress that at points I didn’t even want to go to school. Over the summer of 2009, my mother and I met with my school’s administration to talk about making my school a safer place for myself, and students alike. We decided that the best and most safe way for me to get away from the bullying and harassment would to get a doctors note, and have a medical excuse. Currently, I continue making my school a safer place for all students regardless of one’s sexual orientation, or gender identity/expression. I worked with my school’s administration to edit our districts policy on bullying and harassment, by adding “sexual orientation, and gender.” Those terms will be added to the handbook for the 2010-2011 school year. I have also been working on a sign that I have created called the “St. Charles East GLBTIQ Safe Zone,” and I have already spoken at a lead teachers meeting discussing how important it is that teachers are always showing support for the students, and that the students know they can trust their teachers to have a safe classroom and someone to talk to. At the Lead teachers meeting I also talked about dealing with diversity, specifically towards the GLBTIQ community. In the fall, I plan to speak to the entire administration to address the importance of the sign. I am also on the Suicide Prevention/Awareness panel that was presented March 25. I spoke about the risk factors of the GLBTIQ community and how they are four times more likely to attempt/commit suicide than the straight community. The panel was presented in front of a live audience and was also broadcasted through every TV in the school. On July 9, 2010, the Gay-Straight Alliance of St. Charles will be hosting a GLBTIQ”Unity Day,” a day that I created for the community to celebrate diversity in the GLBTIQ community.

Outside of School, I am a youth leader, and the president of the youth advisory board for the non-profit organization, Youth Outlook. Youth Outlook is the reason I am writing you this letter. Youth Outlook is committed to providing a safe, supportive, and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or queer/questioning (GLBTIQ). It is also the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, and DeKalb counties of Illinois dedicated to solely serving GLBTIQ youth. All drop-in centers are open between 6:30-9:00 p.m.. There is group on Monday (DeKalb), Tuesday (Naperville), and Thursday (Geneva and Aurora) of every week. The DeKalb and Geneva groups serve youth who are 14 through 18 years old, or until they graduate high school. The Naperville and Aurora groups serve young adults ages 16 through 20. Youth Outlook provides leadership development, a social space, and wellness education on a variety of different subjects. Some of the subjects include, but not limited to; GLBTIQ issues (Harassment/Assault, Bisexualty/Biphobia, Coming out, Homophobia/Heterosexism, GLBTIQ Culture and History, and Transgender Issues), Health (Anxiety or depression, Drugs/Alcohol, STI Prevention/Treatment, sexual assault, self-esteem, and sex and sexuality), Relationships (Abusive relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, dating issues, family issues, and negotiation skills), and other miscellaneous social activities. Youth Outlook is what I look forward to every week. When I go to the drop-in centers, the volunteers and staff members are always fun to be around, and I always know I can trust them. I have attended all the drop-in centers (Geneva, DeKalb, Naperville, and Aurora) and I enjoy them all! Recently, in the end of January 2010, Youth Outlook had to let go of their program manager, who was very loved by all the youth and myself, because Youth Outlook lost the funding for his position. Youth Outlook is facing many financial problems right now, and we really need your help. All the money donated goes to the organization, which goes to the youth. Without any money Youth Outlook would not be able to afford certain programs and activities, and Youth Outlook, if it doesn’t have enough money, might not be able to run anymore. I don’t know what I would be able to do without my weekly Youth Outlook. And that is why we need your help. Any amount of donation would be great, and any check should be made out to “Youth Outlook.” Youth Outlook is Youth Transforming the Future.

Thank you for your time, and if you have any questions and/or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Michael D. Fairbanks

 

2013

I booted up my computer and sat back to wait. The dinosaur would take at least twenty minutes before it was ready to work. I opened my calendar and punched the message button on my desk phone to retrieve the waiting messages, scribbling phone numbers down to return calls.

“Hi, Nancy, this is Ashley Rhodebeck from the Kane County Chronicle. I’m calling to get your input on a story I’m doing on the death of Michael Fairbanks.”

What?

 I snapped upright, hands flat on the desktop. Michael? No, that couldn’t be right. Michael?! No! I reached for the phone, then dropped it. As soon as my computer cooperated, I logged on and immediately did a search for Michael’s name. Nothing.

I opened a new tab and launched Facebook. I’d been Facebook friends with Michael’s mother since 2009, when we’d honored him at Dare to Dream. On her page, I read the chilling words that confirmed the reporter’s statement. Michael had died the night before.

My cell phone rang. I snatched it up with shaking hands, thinking I needed to call the Youth Leadership Coordinator before she heard this news in the heartless way I had. I didn’t even say hello.

“Tony, I just got some awful news—can I call you back in a few minutes?”

Tony’s voice cracked. “About Michael.”

I stilled. “You know?”

“One of the kids that used to come to group with him all the time sent me a message.”

He wouldn’t kill himself…He wouldn’t. Not Michael.

 

He didn’t. Michael’s death was accidental.

When I think about what we, as a staff, as an agency, as a community, have lost, I don’t know if it helps at all that it was an accident. It didn’t stop my tears when one of his friends approached his casket and sang “Amazing Grace” to him a capella at his funeral service. He gave everyone around him permission to be exactly who they are, and he wanted nothing more than to be loved for exactly who he was. Michael changed lives, and we are all cheated by this loss. In my heart, Michael will always be sixteen, challenging his school administrators to keep LGBT kids safe and writing to Oprah to ask her to help, this superhero boy whose talents we will never fully know.

I wish Oprah had responded. I think she would have loved Michael.

Michael, Nando, Denise

 

 

 

 

There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.

manger

 

 

 

 

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.   ~ Kahlil Gibran

Last fall, I took a plunge and brought a third dog into my house. I wasn’t puppy shopping at the time. I was really nervous about adding another set of paws to the 12 already living in my small home. The circumstances seemed right, though. Her family loved her and hated to let her go but they wanted a stable place for her. Her “mom” (my friend Lorrie) had died about 6 months prior and her “dad” (my friend John) needed to be able to travel for his job and wasn’t able to care for her.

We decided after numerous conversations that Kiara would become part of the herd here and with the friendship that had formed between her family and me, she could still see her people regularly. It was a great arrangement. She got to be in one place and her dad didn’t have to worry about kenneling her or finding her a dog sitter when he was out of town for work.

I can’t say it wasn’t a difficult start. During the first week that Ki moved in, her dad came over to see how she was adjusting. He had a glass of wine with me and she sat by his feet in this new, strange environment with its extra critters. The next day, every time I walked through the living room, I found her sitting beside the recliner where her dad had sat, with her chin on the armrest. It was so sweet and so loyal, it brought tears to my eyes.

Kiara spent the winter bonding with Chip and chasing the cat around the first floor, poking at him with one pointy paw when he’d let her get close. Mylo was a bit more reserved about having a newcomer and on the night of her arrival, took one look and promptly nipped her on the snout to let her know who was alpha. Kiara got the message. It was Mylo’s house. I don’t think Ki really cared all that much.

I’ve known before now that dogs have a sense of humor but I saw it surface in ways I hadn’t seen with other critters. Kiara played tricks on Chip. She would wait until all dog bowls had hit the floor filled with kibble with the little tablespoon of wet food on top to make it interesting. She’d wait just a bit longer until Chip was engrossed in his breakfast, then she’d run across the room at him, barking at the top of her canine lungs. Chip, rocket scientist that he is (how do I keep ending up with these super sweet, not too bright male dogs?), would fall over himself down the stairs toward the back door, bellowing his warning bark, then standing guard there against absolutely nothing, puffed up to about four times his normal size. He clearly didn’t know WHAT was happening, but SOMETHING was happening and he was going to stop it, by golly!  Kiara would casually swipe the wet dog food off the top of his bowl and go trotting back to her place in the dining room as if nothing had happened. Laughing. I KNEW she was laughing.

The best part of it for her –and maybe the funniest part—was that Chip fell for it not just once or twice. She pulled the Chip-alarm every day for weeks. I finally had to intervene and put a gate up so the poor guy could eat his kibble in peace, without being blown up into the unfortunate dog in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons. I could almost hear her saying to Seamus, “Hey, Cat, watch THIS!”

Kiara was the early riser in the family. She could be tempted to hit the snooze button once in a while if I loudly told her, “No bark!” but her response to that was to climb onto the end of the bed with her pointy legs, sigh, and fidget, while kicking me, until I got up. She had strong opinions about these things.

I think it is safe to say that this was one of the best decisions I ever made. She got it all. She got a house and a yard to romp in, and two new buddies to play with, and her dad could do his job and not have to worry about her and she got to see her other people frequently, which always brought happy sounds and a certain dance with those long, skinny legs. Last week, I needed someone to watch her for a few days so she went for the whole week with one of her people who loves her most in the world.

Kiara came home from her trip last Sunday, ready to romp with the other dogs and resume telling me what time to get up each morning. On Wednesday, we started our day as all days start—with a romp in the yard before kibble, then a walk to sniff around the street and see who’s doing what. We’d gotten only two houses away. She lagged behind to sniff the fire hydrant and the tree and I called her to step up the pace.

We didn’t get any further. Ki collapsed on the driveway, maybe 60 feet from our house. I heard it before I saw it. Bony dog elbows thumping concrete is unmistakable. It was quick. I don’t think she suffered. The vet said it was a sudden onset cardiac issue. There’s no warning, no sign of a problem, so the first time it makes itself known, it’s typically fatal.

My biggest regret is that when she collapsed, I was unable to lift her, to hold her, as she died. She’d gone to visit her person the week before because I had surgery on my shoulder and one week post-surgery, picking her up from a flat-out position on concrete was not a possibility.

I yelled for my neighbor to come help and he rushed outside to see what was wrong. His voice broke as he scooped her up and held her gently, telling her that she would be okay, to just hold on, that we were going to get her help. He talked to her the entire time we were driving to the vet office. “Hold on, baby. We’re almost there.”

She was gone before we arrived at the clinic. I’m not even sure that she was still with us when we got into the car. If she was, she died on his lap in my car. My neighbor, Scott, stood on the sidewalk of the vet hospital with me as we cried on each other’s shoulders and the techs carried her inside.

It is not lost on me that my friend Kiara got to spend a whole week with her person before she left us. Nor is it lost on me that her last morning consisted of a romp with Chip and Mylo, and kibble with her favorite wet food on top, and a walk with a fire hydrant and a tree to sniff. When time stopped for her, she was not alone. She was held and loved—some even by a man who didn’t know her well, but who treated her with the utmost kindness in her last moments.

It is difficult to lose a furry family member. But the focus of these last couple of days has been far more about what she gave us during her months with us and what her family and I were able to do for her to make her last year wonderful.

It is also not lost on me that in a scalding second of I NEED SOMETHING RIGHT NOW, my neighbor Scott appeared by my side and helped me escort that sweet pup across the Rainbow Bridge. I don’t know what he was in the middle of doing when I yelled for him. He dropped whatever it was, and he was right there for me, and for her, through the end.

No regrets otherwise. This is what I offered to do when I agreed to bring her home. In return, I got a year with a very cool, smart, funny dog. I shared her with a very cool, smart, funny family and we got to do something really special for her.

In her last moments, I got to see the absolute best of a person who opened his arms and his heart to help me do one final thing for her. There are times when kindness cannot be repaid. It can only be paid forward. I think this may be one of those times.

Happy trails, Kiara. The gate is open, sweet girl. Run as fast as you want!

Scott, I will never be able to thank you enough.

Kiara beds

 

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

Today is day 21 of an online meditation practice I signed up for, led by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. I haven’t had much success with meditation when I’ve attempted it in the past, but this spoke to me and I decided to give it another try. Today’s meditation was on creating peace. Sarvesham Shantir Bhavatu. I desire peace for all beings.

On Friday, I presented at a workshop on LGBT youth issues. I had the 8 to 9 am spot and not being a morning person, it was a minor miracle that I got up on time, got there and didn’t even have my shirt on inside-out or backwards, which has been known to happen on occasion. (This explains my preference for shirts with buttons when I’m doing public speaking. Buttoning them if they’re on backwards is just hell!)

I digress. I had an hour to do what is normally at least a 90-minute presentation. I talked in fast forward. Developmental theory, models of coming out, now superimpose the stages of coming out over typical adolescent development thus creating the common challenges that face LGBT youth. I got them all in and successfully yielded the floor to the next speaker without tripping, spilling water down my right-side out and frontwards-facing shirt or otherwise making a spectacle of myself.

Post-workshop, I stationed myself by the door to collect evaluation forms from the exiting attendees. Two gentlemen approached. They’d been there all day, early attendees who’d been around during the 8 to 9 am slot. The first gentleman came to a full stop in front of me, not the pause-and-push-a-paper at me that most other folks had done as they breezed by, and he held out his hand for me to shake. I put my palm against his and he gripped tightly—admirably!—and said, “You won’t remember me.”

Curious, I perked up. Should I remember him? Had we met previously?

“I attended a training you did many years ago…” His voice trailed off and he started to chuckle. “Back when both of our hair was much darker.”

I chuckled with him, uncertain about where this was going and now a little distracted by the thought of my greying spikes. He still held my hand and his grip firmed up a bit more.

“I wanted to say thank you.”

My head tipped. “Thank you for what?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and his dark eyes crinkled in the corners. “I sat through your training as a young professional. In corrections. And I thought, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

He did say this was a thank you, right?

“So what did I do that was helpful?” I asked.

“A couple of years ago, my kid came out and everything you said would happen, happened. You helped my family so much…and you didn’t even know.”

I tightened my own grip on his hand and I felt the bridge spanning the space between our hearts click into place. “I know now.”

I was barely tuned in to the next few folks who handed me their evaluation forms as I watched him go and his words sank in. The bridge stretched and I knew I’d feel that for days to come. How many years ago would that training have been when he sat there thinking yeah, yeah, yeah? Eight? Ten? How old was his kid when that training happened? And how old when the kid came out to him? He didn’t have to say anything to me. I was touched that he made it a point to make the connection, touched that he’d stopped and taken my hand. He made it personal. For him, I was sure it had been personal for a long time.

Sometimes what I get to do for a living is humdrum. I push a lot of paperwork and answer a lot of emails on a lot of days. Then there are days like Friday, when I go out to do a presentation and learn that something I said in a training however many years ago made a difference to someone…maybe eased some pain they were experiencing.

I desire peace for all beings.

My Catholic school roots stir. Maybe St. Francis was onto something, praying for something that would echo through my career before people could even spell LGBT. Make me an instrument of peace. That St. Francis must have been one smart dude.

peace

I spent a few days on the Outer Banks last week, a gift from a friend who owns a vacation property in Nags Head. Beyond being just a fun place where you can show up pretty much anywhere as you are, the area holds a lot of sentimental value for me. It is the last place I spent a block of time with my brother –the Major, as I call him–before he was admitted to the transplant unit to wait for his new heart. It’s where we planned to return for our first fishing expedition when he got said new heart— one of those all day charters where we could catch fish as big as ourselves and spend hours wrestling it into the boat. I stood on the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Thursday, feeling at once a curious combination of having come home to the candy-cane striped landmark and longing to go home to a place that ceased to exist when the Major didn’t survive long enough to receive his new heart.

That lighthouse survived. In fact, that lighthouse was relocated, in its entirety, so that it could.

Think about it. That whole structure was MOVED. All 208 feet of it.

In the summer of 1999, after about a decade of planning, engineers removed the front steps from the structure, ran tracks across the grounds, jacked up the lighthouse, and started the move along those tracks. Well, I’m sure it was more complicated than that, but not being an engineer, I’ll give you the tourist’s take on the move! It took 23 days to move the entire lighthouse 2900 feet in 5 foot increments, the tallest brick structure ever moved in history.

We all have them, you know. Lighthouses, I mean. Those structures in our lives that warn us of danger, warn of us of the Diamond Shoals just beyond the shoreline.  Don’t go beyond this point—this is not safe. Observing that rule keeps us safe…until just like in Cape Hatteras, the sand begins to erode, threatening to topple the structure and destroy what we’ve built our lives around. And then, just like in Cape Hatteras, ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

My lighthouse was and is the writing of Urban Tidepool. When I started writing, in the summer of 2011, I told no one. Only my spouse knew I was putting some of my history into writing.  As I wrote, I was convinced that if I ever managed to get published, that I should never do that under my real name. I had a pen name all picked out. Fear drove the decision. My history could never be allowed to associate with the person I’ve become. Too much risk to my job…too much risk to my life.

Except for one thing. That’s my story. That IS what happened. Those things ARE what I saw and what I lived with.  They’re mine. If I take away any of those stories, would I be the same “me” that I am now? Those were not great experiences. Some of them were awful experiences.  But all of those combine to make me the “me” that I am, and most days, I like this me.

I went back to the drawing board on the pen name. Maybe I didn’t need one.

As I wrote, I often felt like I was slogging through emotional wet cement.  I wrote the chapters not in chronological order as I supposed most books were written. I wrote as memories came and pulled other memories up. I’d sit with my laptop, the scene running in my head, trying to capture the events and the words of what played out on those days so many years ago, and I’d be IN that scene. I’d be there.  I was sitting on the couch or the dining room table of my home, sobbing, and completely unaware that I was sobbing as I wrote what I remembered.  I dredged up things I hadn’t thought about in 40 years.

The engineers removed the stairs from the front of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

My usual routine was to write a chapter, tear it open, get it down, then read it to my spouse before I sent it out to my reading team. I’d read with a foot in both worlds, being here on my couch and there in 1979 or 1982, repeating the words that were said to me, or that I had said, reliving humiliation and injury and loss.

The engineers ran tracks across the ground.

When I began to tell a few more people that I was writing a memoir, a great number of them observed to me, “Oh, that must be so cathartic!”

Not exactly.

I’d walked around for more than twenty years believing that my career was merely a house of cards and as soon as people really knew who I was, really KNEW where I had come from, (really knew I hit that nun that one day), that my career would collapse. People would not wish to associate with someone who’d done such things.

The engineers jacked up the lighthouse.

It tore everything open, this writing. I came nose to nose with stories I’ve wanted not to think about since I was eight years old—not that I really WANTED to think about them back then. I came nose to nose with the things I could see now as an adult…pick up in my hands and turn all around and see…and think, “Wow, that was really f*cked up.” And I was going to put that out there for people to know about. Not because I think I have tons of answers for how we can all move forward through such circumstances (because I don’t) but to raise questions about how we can do better what we do for kids in our careers. My lighthouse was standing at the edge of the beach. Could telling my story offer anything to improve what social workers and teachers are trained to do? Could it generate conversation among other folks who are not social workers and teachers, but maybe do something else…like coach soccer on Saturday morning or tutor kids who need a little extra help in one area of their schooling?  I thought maybe it could. I kept writing.

Mother’s death. Family violence. Addiction. Animal torture. Father’s death. Homelessness. High risk behavior. Terror. Rage. Devastation. Friends. Connection. Hope.  Breaking open. Survival.

The engineers started to move an entire lighthouse along steel mats, 126 feet per day, in 5 foot increments.

I finished the first full draft in January 2013. In February 2014, more than a full year later, I met a friend for a Coke on a Saturday afternoon and, looking over the edge of the glass at her, I said, “I think I’m having a meltdown.”

She nodded and replied gently, “I’m not surprised that you’re having a meltdown after writing that. I’m only surprised it took you this long.”

I knew in the process of writing that my healing from what happened when I was a kid was still underway. I had put those stories away for a long time, believed in the lighthouse and never went past that point, and finally the shoreline was starting to erode.  I didn’t know that there would be a healing process then from writing about it or how it would affect the people around me as they navigate this process with me.  Sometimes ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

It took 23 days and the engineers set the lighthouse down in its new location fully intact, safely away from the eroding shoreline.

It’s taking longer than 23 days to move my lighthouse. The engineers working with me are an admirable group of people with seemingly endless patience, just as deserving of an award as the engineers who moved the Cape Hatteras structure. Allowing my lighthouse to stand on an eroding beach wasn’t the best choice I could have made. Sometimes the only way to change that is to be jacked up, nudged to a new location and set down on a new foundation.

Lighthouses. We all have ‘em.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse_edited-1