Posts Tagged ‘healing’

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

A yahrzeit candle burns in the kitchen and throughout the day, I’ve pondered the intimacy of sharing the experience of someone’s death. Intimacy seems an odd word and yet nothing more suitable comes to mind. This sharing shapes me. It might shape any of us, I think…the piercing loss that dulls over time to add layers to who we are as people, to become, hopefully, a reason to be grateful.

I had a brother once. For that, I am grateful. He took me fishing when I was a kid and he taught me how to bait hooks and tie leaders. For that, I am grateful. He told me one day that my parents would be very proud of me and that they would have loved me, no matter the whole gay thing.  For that, I am grateful. At the end of his life, he asked me to be part of making the decision to bring him to peace, one of the most difficult and the most beautiful things I’ve ever done. For that, I am grateful.

 

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool

 

March, 2002

 

I talked to Chick Monday afternoon of Easter week, right before I left my office for a meeting. We’d spoken more by phone in the last nine months, with him waiting on the transplant unit at Temple University Hospital for a new heart, than we had probably spoken my entire life.  If I still lived on the east coast, it would have been so much easier to spend time with him. The year after our brother Michael died, I had accepted an executive director position in a small agency working with gay youth in the Midwest. I was half a day away and left with phone calls and occasional emails as our primary means of communication.

“They’re still trying to figure out what this infection in my lung is,” he said.

“So what are they doing?” I asked, piling the forms I needed for the upcoming meeting on top of my day planner.

“They’re worried about doing a biopsy. With the one lung, that’s always a big risk. All the blood work is showing that it’s something but they don’t know what.”

He and my sister-in law,Jedda, had fought hard for this transplant option. Since he had lost his other lung, he was considered very high risk for the transplant. Other transplant programs had turned him down. Temple had been his last chance. He was so sick now, he had moved onto the “heart floor” because their home was far enough away that if anything happened with his heart, he would not survive the trip to the hospital. After Michael’s death, he had been repeatedly hospitalized and we had had some close calls, but they’d always managed to stabilize him and send him home again. The message, prior to coming to Temple, seemed to be that they were sending him home to wait it out and be kept comfortable but the message at Temple was that there was still hope of living for years post-surgery.

We had spent many evenings during this nine month stretch planning the fishing trip we would take when his surgery was complete. He wanted to charter a boat off the Carolina coast and I wanted to land something as big as myself that took all day to get inside the boat. He had explained the whole process to me: how many weeks he’d remain inpatient after the new heart was put in, how many weeks after being released from the hospital he had to remain within a certain geographic area to the hospital in case his body rejected the heart and he had to be med-evac’ed back, how long before he’d be cleared to go out on a fishing charter. I hoped that within six months to a year, he’d be cleared. The only wildcard was when he’d have the new heart put in. We were nine months into a wait that averaged three hundred sixty four days. The most fun part was teasing him about how those poor doctors were ever going to find a way to transplant something into him that he’d never had in the first place.

“I’ll find out more from the cardiologist tomorrow.”

I checked my time. I needed to leave for my meeting.  “I’m going to Syracuse tomorrow for a few days. I’ll call you tomorrow night when I get in to see what you found out.”

“Sounds good. Drive safe.”

“Yeah, I will. Love you.”

“Love you, too, babe.”

*****

 

I slept in a little the next morning and got started on my drive later than I really wanted. Zach occupied the back seat, asleep with his big head on his giant golden paws for most of the twelve hour trip. We were approaching the second anniversary of losing Beeb, whom I’d had for fifteen years. Zach was still beside himself without her and he went everywhere with me.  It was after ten when I arrived in the Syracuse area. It was too late to call Chick. The man needed his beauty sleep. I unloaded my car into the guest bedroom at my friends’ house and Zach and I went to bed.

The following morning, I called Chick’s hospital room for my update. My nephew “Ours” answered.

“You need to come now,” he said, his speech pressured.

I was suddenly wide awake. “What happened?”

“He crashed Monday night. They don’t know what’s wrong. They induced a coma and they’ve got him on a ventilator. It’s bad. If you’re coming, come now,” he repeated.

It was always bad. Last year, he’d had a reaction to one of his medications and had hiccups for nine days. If his blood thinner medication was the slightest bit out of whack, he got a nose bleed just sitting up in bed. He’d had two strokes since Michael died; we worried about every headache. Nothing was simple and it seemed some days that every function of his body was controlled by the medical field.

I was nodding against the phone as if Ours would be able to feel it and know I was agreeing. “Yes, I’ll come. I’ll be there this afternoon.”

When I hung up, the friends whose home I was visiting were both standing there, waiting expectantly. “I have to go. It’s bad and if I’m going, I have to go now.”

We’d done this before. This was the third time in the last two years that I’d gotten the “if you’re coming, come now” call. Each time, I dropped what I was doing and took off for Pennsylvania from wherever I was.  Each time rocked me. Each time, we had no idea if he would survive.

I gathered up my belongings, jamming everything back into my overnight bag. When I dragged it downstairs with Zach lumbering after me, my friends were in the living room, car keys in hand.

“We’ll drive you,” Ronnie said.

“You don’t need to do that-“

“You’re tired and you’re upset. You were on the road all day yesterday. We don’t want you on the road alone today. I called Ma and she’s coming to stay with Zach, so you can leave him here,” Holly informed me.

“No, I can’t ask-“

“You didn’t ask. Let’s go.”  Holly opened the door and gestured me out.

*****

                It was overcast most of the drive and raining lightly in a few places as we drove through the Poconos on the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania turnpike. For late March, this was fortunate. We could easily have been driving through a blizzard. The trees lining the roads were still bare, struggling to bring up their first spring buds. There wasn’t much to look at, so I slouched in the back of Ronnie’s car, with my head against the window, staring at the back of the driver’s seat.

A couple of hours into the five hour drive, I mumbled, “I don’t know where I’m staying when we get there.”

Holly turned. “Ronnie called her cousin just outside the city. We’re all going to stay there tonight.”

“Are you coming to the hospital with me?”

Ronnie responded this time. “Yeah. Why don’t we take you there and we’ll find something to do until you want to leave. Or until they throw you out. And then we can go to my cousin’s for the night. We’ll bring you back in the morning.”

I couldn’t think through the logistics. I hadn’t contacted my sister Pat to tell her I’d be in the area.  I was hesitant to assume it would be okay for me to crash there, let alone me with two strangers. Beyond that, I’d have to return to Syracuse some time later. My car was in Holly’s driveway and Zach was in her living room, probably asleep on the couch beside Holly’s mom at this very moment. I decided to go with Ronnie’s logic and perch with her at this alleged cousin’s house in the suburbs.

They dropped me at the hospital entrance. I walked in alone.  Approaching the information desk, I heard the echo of Ours’ words: “If you’re coming, come now.” Immediately behind them, bathed in hospital-scent disinfectant: “It’ll be okay. Just don’t cry.”

Over the rumble of both, I asked for Chick’s room.

“Only immediate family may visit.”

“I’m his sister.”

Jedda jumped to her feet when I walked in. She said nothing, but put her arms around me and rested her head on my shoulder. I hugged her tight. Her face was gaunt, her eyes red, the lids raw looking. I was sure she hadn’t slept. I took her hands and prodded her back to the chair where she’d been sitting.

“What have I missed?” I asked. I squeezed past her legs and along the side of the bed so I could get closer to Chick. I kissed him on the forehead.

(“How you doin’, Chuckles?”)

It sprang out of nowhere, with the image of the father in his dinner-napkin-nightgown and his pale grey skin, my sister just finishing his shave that Saturday morning when he’d had his first and second heart attacks.  Chick was that color now, that ghastly colorless color, under a stubble of beard. Our father had been exactly three months past his fifty seventh birthday when he died. Chick was just six weeks past his.

She cleared her throat.  “He crashed not long after he talked to you. He was having trouble breathing and then he stopped altogether. They keep him sedated so he doesn’t fight the vent tube.”

I eyed the white tube taped to his mouth and run down his throat. The machine across the bed breathed for him. The dialysis machine next to me filtered his blood. Everywhere I looked, machines beeped and pinged and measured and dispensed and maintained. Everywhere, except when I looked at Jedda, and I knew that science didn’t have a machine that could measure what was going on for her.

“He said they were still doing tests about the infection in his lung?” It came out as a question.

“We don’t have the results yet.”

“Have you spoken to the cardiologist?”

“Yes, and he’ll be back first thing in the morning.”

We sat silently after that, listening to the machines live for him. On a stretch break, I stepped out long enough to call my sister and gave her the same message Ours gave me. If you’re coming, come now.

“I’ll be there,” she promised.

Holly and Ronnie appeared from nowhere at the end of visiting hours. I had no idea where they’d been for the last few hours.

“Babe, where are you going to stay tonight?” Jedda asked. She didn’t need to worry about that; she had lived at the hospital with Chick for the last nine months, sleeping on a cot beside his bed or in the lone chair.

“With my friends. I’ll be back first thing in the morning, okay?”  I kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hand.

At Ronnie’s cousin’s house, we piled into the living room. I dozed twisted sideways in a chair and a half with an ottoman. My back ached. My neck ached. My soul ached. I didn’t want to do this again, this loss. I didn’t want my family to have to absorb it again. There wasn’t much of us left.

The unit director was on the floor when I arrived the next morning and she told us that for the next few days, until Chick’s test results returned, we had round the clock access to him. He would be moved to a different room so we didn’t disturb anyone and we could come and go as we needed to. That didn’t feel like a good sign.

Pat and I rotated with Jedda, two of us sitting bedside at a time, giving the third one a break to walk around, make a trip to the restroom, or go on a coffee run which was how all three of us remained coherent. I knew what we were doing, even if the doctors weren’t saying it. I knew death watch when I was sitting it.

We switched seats with Jedda so she could make some phone calls. Pat took her chair.

“Oh brother dear, the sisty-uglers are here to visit!” she called out, sing-song.

“The hospice nurses have told us when the guys staying in the group home are in comas, the last thing they lose is their hearing, so he can probably hear you,” I pointed out.

“Yeah? Good!” She started to sing Chickery Chick to him, a song from 1945 that she said the mother had sung to him when he was a little boy and where his nickname had originated.  I wondered what it was like to have a mom who sang to you. Before I could get too far into my contemplation, Pat stopped singing and began hunting through her bag for Kleenex. She couldn’t finish the song. I put a hand on her shoulder and she covered it with her own.

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, “about the time I called his hospital room and told him I knew how I wanted to die?” It seemed as good a time as any.

She shook her head, still dabbing at her eyes.

“I call him every few days to tell him some stupid joke just to make sure he laughs once in a while. So I called him this one day and said, ‘Hey, you know how everybody in our family dies early?’  And he said yes. And I said, ‘I’ve decided how I want to go!’ He said, ‘Whaddya mean? How the hell do you want to go?’ So I told him. ‘I want to die of a broken neck. With Tina Turner’s legs wrapped around my head.’”

Pat gasped. “You did NOT!”

“Oh yes I did!” I said. “Then I hung up on him. Jedda told me later he sat there with the phone in his hand for about eight seconds, and he just started to roar. She said he laughed until he cried. When I visited him the next time, every damn nurse on the floor greeted me with, ‘So yoooouuu’re Nancy!’”

Pat was dabbing at her eyes again but it wasn’t sadness this time. Two feet in front of us, Chickery Chick’s machines continued to live for him.

*****

 

I slipped out to use the restroom and when I returned to Chick’s room, Pat and Jedda were both gone. As I crossed the threshold, one of his machines started to beep loudly and the signal changed on the screen. Startled, I turned around to call for a nurse but before I could say anything, blue scrubs passed me and poked at the machine.

“Is he okay?” I asked, knowing it was a relative term.

“Everything’s fine,” he said. That was also relative. He angled around me and Chick and I were alone.

I pulled the chair closer to the bedside. “Did you hear all of that?” I asked. “It was like you were a game show contestant, all those machines beeping and pinging!  I’m almost certain you just won a goat on a razor scooter!”

I knew it was just a reflex, but his left eyebrow raised and then lowered. Did he know I was here? I sighed and scooted to the edge of the chair so I could reach his hand. I picked it up, limp and warm, and wrapped both of my own around it. For a moment, it was silent. Then remembering that he could probably hear me, I decided to talk to him.

“You’ve been doing this for a long time. I know you’re tired.” I rubbed his forearm. “If you’re staying because you’re worried about Jedda, I’ll be here for her. I won’t let anything happen to her. If you need to go so you can rest, you should go. I got it.”

I didn’t expect an answer. I pressed the back of his hand to my cheek, our hands palm to palm. My chest ached.  Did you know? … Did you know what happened in that house? Did Michael ever tell you the truth? Do you know I don’t want to lose you? My family is almost gone. I don’t want to do this with you too. But if you need to go, it’s okay and we’re okay and I got this.

When Pat returned a few minutes later, I gave her some time alone with him.

*****

I spent Thursday night at Pat’s house, borrowing Bob’s old room again as I had when I came back for Michael’s funeral.  We returned to the hospital Good Friday morning. Jedda was in a huddle with the cardiologist and a couple of other doctors including the unit director, when we approached.

“…and you said we would have access to my husband round the clock!”

“Yes, Mrs. Mullen. Those are the orders.”

“Well, I’m telling you, if I buzz to be let onto the floor one more time and get told to come back in ten or fifteen minutes, there’s going to be a problem!”

“Which nurse is telling you to wait? They’re all aware of the plan.”

“The Indian nurse. She has sent me away several times telling me they’re in the middle of something or now is not a good time—now is the ONLY time I have! If she tells me one more time to go away and come back, I’m going to slap that goddamned dot off her head!”

The director pivoted sharply a half turn away from us and cleared her throat. I realized immediately she was fighting not to laugh.  This would not be the time. I put my hand on Jedda’s arm.

Turning back with a straight face, the director said, “Mrs. Mullen, I will speak with the nurses and this will not be a problem again. I will be back to see you this afternoon to go over Major Mullen’s test results.”

Jedda looked at me, glancing between me and Pat, and burst out laughing. She sounded half-hysterical.  I stepped closer and put an arm around her.  “You okay? I think you got your point across!”

“I’m okay. They can’t keep sending me away!”

“No, I think you’ve made that really clear! Can I get you some coffee?”

She shook her head. “Maybe later.” She turned in the direction of Chick’s room and we started our new day of watch.

When the director returned, we gathered in one of the family lounges reserved for private conversations.

“Unfortunately, at this time, we are unable to identify the masses in the Major’s lung.”

“What does that mean?” Jedda asked. “It’s not cancer?”

“We cannot ascertain that it is cancer.”

A collective sigh sounded in the room.

“However, we are also unable to ascertain that it is not cancer, and that is just as troubling.”

“Then you think it could be?”

“We don’t know.”

Confused and restless rustling came next.

“What are our next steps?”  Jedda asked quietly.

The cardiologist glanced around: Jedda, Ours, Pat, me, back to Jedda. “With any kind of lung infection that we cannot identify, we cannot pursue the Major’s transplant.”  A pause.  “We have to remove the Major from the transplant list.”

In case any of us had not understood that.

Jedda flinched as if she’d been slapped.

“The Major did not wish to be kept alive by artificial means.”

“Oh, my baby,” Jedda moaned.

“It’s time for you to review the Major’s advance directives. You may want to think about calling the family together.”

No one spoke.

“I’ll make sure the chart is available to you. There’s no rush, Mrs. Mullen. We can do this anytime this weekend.”

“What will happen when we turn off those machines?”

“He may live a few hours. Or a few days. Or a few minutes.”

I swallowed hard against the coffee rising up my esophagus. Guess we’d find out if he was tired enough to stop fighting.

***

 

I was surprised when Jedda took my arm and walked me toward the nurse’s station. “There’s something you need to be aware of.”

The nurse handed us the binder open to Chick’s living will. Chick had designated Jedda the primary person to make his end of life decisions, with me listed as his secondary.  Me?! My heart sank through the floor.

“He knew you would do what he asked for,” she said.

I flipped through the pages. No artificial means of support. No heroic measures. Do not resuscitate. This was clear. If it came to being kept alive on life support machines, Chick wanted to die.

Chilled, I handed the chart back to Jedda.  “Who do you need to call? And how long will you give them?”

She gave them until Sunday.  On Saturday, I returned to Syracuse to get my own vehicle. On Sunday morning, Jedda called while I was having breakfast with Holly’s mother to thank her for caring for Zach.

“Everyone will be here by this afternoon. Do you think we should do this today?”

“Yes. If everyone’s had their chance to say good bye, we have to.”

After breakfast, I went back to the hospital, leaving Zach with Holly. Pat was already there. Michael’s wife, whom I hadn’t seen since his funeral, had come.  All three of Chick and Jedda’s kids, His, Hers and Ours, were there.

At a few minutes after eight pm, Jedda, His, Hers, and Ours, Pat, and I crowded into the tiny room. The doctor and nurse didn’t speak to us as they worked to disconnect all of the beeping and pinging machines that had given us extra days with Chickery Chick. They dimmed the lights on the way out and left us alone.

In the absolute silence that followed the last machine shutting down, Pat reached across the bed and we joined hands above Chick’s legs.

At the top of the bed, Jedda put her hand on Chick’s chest, rubbing gently, her nail beds bloody. “Breathe, baby. Please breathe.”

“Send him home with something he’s familiar with,” Pat whispered, squeezing my hand.  “Hail Mary…”

I put my free hand on his thigh and she put her other hand on his opposite thigh and I joined her in a prayer I hadn’t said in two decades to a god I no longer believed in.

What did you know?

Doesn’t matter. Go ahead. I got this.

And we sent Chickery Chick home.

######

It was around now, in 2002. I had a brother once. For that, I am and always will be grateful.

Chick

 

 

 

Conveniently Unconscious

Posted: November 10, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , ,

Less than a month ago, in the midst of planning for my agency’s gala, I reached out to a youth who had attended the previous year to see if she’d be able to join us again.

Less than a month ago, she responded that she and her mom would be thrilled to attend.

Three weeks ago, I was at the registration table on the night of the event when that youth and her mom appeared, ready to sign in to enjoy the evening. We spoke in the hallway, them grateful for the invitation, me grateful that they’d make the long trip from home through Friday traffic and construction to spend this evening with us.

Two weeks ago, the mom contacted me through Facebook, leaving me a wonderful thank you note about being there that night, expressing her desire to get more involved but explaining her time commitments. She went on to talk about the changes she was noticing at the school where she teaches and on the college campus in relation to LGBT issues, particularly around people’s growing comfort to be seen as who they really are.

Two weeks ago, I wrote back to her, first thanking her for her note and then talking about future possibilities for how our work, our mutual vision, might cross paths in the future, no matter if she was officially a part of Youth Outlook’s volunteer pool or not. It was a exchange of hope, of brightness, of plans, of a commitment to something about which we share a passion, for her child, and for LGBT kids in our community.

Yesterday, I received a note from a colleague who thought I might want to know.

Yesterday, the mom who sent such a beautiful, inspiring note died. 

Today, I sit with this information, contemplating such chaos and the loss of such a strong ally on her child’s life. I marvel at the timeframe of having spoken to her, a healthy, able-bodied person, just three weeks ago. I picture her child standing at a hospital bedside just across town and think about their opportunity to say goodbye. And I marvel at how we move through our days deliberately unconscious of the fact that this might be the last time we speak, or the last message we exchange with the people who mean so much to us.

Today, it’s glaring, this question. If we did know, how would we love?

Image

Over the last ten years, I have picked up a few traditions from my fabulous spouse and our kids, who happen to be Jewish. A couple of years ago, I was so proud of myself that I could remember the words for lighting the Hanukkah candles in Hebrew, which I do not speak, that it took a moment to realize that my fabulous spouse was laughing at me. I paused and asked (in English) what the problem was. She informed me that I had my Hebrew words mixed up and I had just blessed the wine…that we were not having. Twice. But it’s not all that bad. Some of these, I do get right.

One of my other favorite borrowed traditions is lighting a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of someone’s death as a way of celebrating their life and symbolizing lighting their way to peaceful afterlife. October often feels like one long yahrzeit candle lighting, the single flame flickering on the kitchen counter or the dining room table for those people I loved who are gone. Candle lighting to memorialize most of them has been easy, even a natural part of my grieving for them, but a few years ago, I added a new candle to this time of reflection—one that, as a child, I would never have imagined lighting. On Tuesday, I will light a memorial candle for the brother with whom I grew up.

Michael was dead for ten years before I touched a match to a memorial candle for him. I don’t know if anyone else in our family marks this day. If they do, no one has mentioned it. Grief can be a complicated thing, and it doesn’t always encompass what others might think. I don’t know that I can say honestly that I grieve Michael’s death. I am certain now, though, that I grieve what his life must have been, what I know his life was during the time when I knew him.

In writing Urban Tidepool, I try very hard not to try to tell anyone else’s story. The reader sees Michael (I hope) as I saw him when we were kids—4 years older, bigger, stronger, and progressively unstable. He was a tormented soul who seemed to enjoy hurting other people and hurting animals and on very special occasions, hurting animals in front of other people so he got a two-fer out of the situation. I couldn’t stop then to think about what drove him. All I knew to do then was to protect the dog, ice the bruises and hope that the patches didn’t show where my hair had been ripped out. The ability to see him as something other than that, as something more, as a spiritual being in need didn’t come until decades later, when Michael and Philadelphia were far behind me.

Every year, approaching this date, I have to wonder. Are we capable of grieving the loss of people who have hurt us deeply? What do I grieve? What can I grieve? The answers have been hard won so far. What drove him to do those things, to be those things, is exactly what needs to be grieved.

I’m not actively writing Urban Tidepool right now and I have come to understand what is probably just a fraction of his story. So on Tuesday, I will light a candle for an eleven year old boy whose mom just died; whose father’s best sober idea of nurturing a future man was to insist on resolute stoicism and best drunk idea on nurturing a future man was to beat him with bare-knuckled fists until blood appeared under the pretense of teaching him to defend himself; whose significant mental health needs went unacknowledged; whose probable learning disability was never diagnosed because we didn’t look for those things in Catholic schools in the 1970s; whose drug use was ignored until what went down his throat, up his nose and into his arm consumed his entire life and ultimately ended it.

My story aside, I can grieve for that little boy. For him, I will light a candle and hold out the thought for a peaceful afterlife.

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Remnants of Shamings Past

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Blog
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I drove around the block three times, each time getting a little more nervous. I wasn’t nervous that I’d be late. I was nervous that I was there at all. “Out of my element” didn’t begin to describe it. Put me in front of a couple hundred people for a presentation. That was more comfortable. I found a parking place about a block from my destination and sat in the car for a few extra minutes, breathing deep and wrestling with an urge just to put the car back in drive and get out of there. Before it was too late.

Too late for what?

Before I embarrassed myself. Before I was visible.

I locked the car and walked the block back toward the storefront, now on speaking terms with the butterflies in my stomach. They had big feet, those butterflies.

Not too late to turn around and get back in the car!

But it was. I had reached the store and someone else was meeting me here. I couldn’t leave now. She was probably parking her own car somewhere nearby and would expect to see me when she arrived. I opened the door and stepped inside, ears burning, eyes roving, waiting for the initial blow. Not sure how it would fall. The first employee who approached me smiled and asked if I needed any help.

“Uuuuuhhhh…no, thanks, not yet. Waiting for someone else.”

A few moments later, a second employee approached. This was going to be it. This guy was going to be the one who asked why I was here. I braced for the laugh. What I got was a friendly smile and a nod, accompanied by, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

I repeated that I was just waiting for a friend…a friend who belonged here. I was the invader. Maybe if I put it out there right away, I would just be forgiven for the invasion in the tone of the old commercial, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.” I pulled out my phone and texted her. I’m here. So far, so good. No one has asked yet why the fat boi is here.

I glanced around the store again, noting the thin, athletic people trying on their new running sneakers. A combination of culinary school and normal aging piled on top of my inherent lack of interest in most sports and I had never felt more out of place. What was I doing? I couldn’t pull this off!

Before I could decide to leave, the door opened and the friend I’d been waiting for—the one who loved running and belonged in this store–came in. I was instantly relieved to see M. and overwhelmed with that sense that I would be shortly be identified as a hopeless case.

(“You fat, stupid fuck!”)

And there it was, unbidden. And unforgettable. It cut to the core. I wanted to hide behind M. and I fought that off.

The young sales guy circled back around and smiled at me again. “Ready now? What can I help you with?”

When we got seated and he measured my feet, he asked what I was training for.

I was tempted to tell him, “For the roundest executive director in the world competition.”

M. offered, “She’s training for her first 5K.”

My head snapped around. “I am?”

She laughed. “You are.”

The sales guy grinned again. “You’re gonna love this.”

(“You dumb, useless fuck!”)

Really?

I sized him up again. He clearly was not making fun of me. There was no hint of judgment in his voice or his expression. On the contrary, he looked…what was that??? Enthusiasm?

(“You fat, stupid bitch!”)

I cringed and looked down at the new sneakers he had tied to my feet, getting up to walk around and test them out on his suggestion. When I paid for them, I made it a point to thank him for being so patient with me and told him I’d been a little nervous. I think he understood, even if he didn’t know why.

Those verbal attacks (and the physical assaults that accompanied them) are more than 30 years behind me. The source of them has been gone since 1997, dying, I was told, alone and probably terrified in puddle of his own blood.  And still those words touch my life, even today, in the oddest places and at the most unexpected times. Still, they interfere. I point out in Urban Tidepool in one dark scene where this same brother who did his level best to dismantle my sense of self turned his attention on our father that my athleticism was at best questionable. In my effort to help the father that day, I threw a small figurine at this brother—the first thing I could get my hand on. I was not the world’s most athletic child. I missed my target and then I grew up to be not the world’s most athletic adult.

My lack of athletic ability is less the issue here, though. I wasn’t nervous going into that running store because I’m not a jock. It took me a minute or so to place it, but I was nervous because, as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the words take a long time to heal.

For many years, I knew those things that were said to me were right. I knew I was the fattest, dumbest, and probably the ugliest person on the planet. We believe what our families tell us, and when they tell it to us over and over again, over the course of years, those words etch themselves into our view our own bodies. It’s kind of the opposite of the Harry Potter effect. (“It lives in your very skin, Harry….Love.”) How many times can you call a little kid a fat, stupid fuck before he or she begins to believe that he or she really just is a fat, stupid fuck? And when it’s over, when those words are done or that person is gone, how long does it take to reverse that impression and rub away those etched words from our view in the mirror?

Apparently now, 30 years after the last beating, after the last humiliating verbal attack, those words can reappear in a heartbeat and I wait for total strangers to join in, all while I am attempting to do something good for myself by starting to exercise more. Because we believe what our families tell us. And words take a long time to heal.

Thank you, M. I couldn’t have—I wouldn’t have—done it without you.

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Creating Community

Posted: September 11, 2013 in Blog
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The goal of my work at Youth Outlook is to create safe space for LGBT youth. Presently, we do that in a number of ways, primarily through running drop-in centers in various communities, and also through our community education and youth leadership development work. But in 2001, our community education and youth leadership were just getting started and our focus went into the drop-in centers. Our Tuesday night in Naperville has been our biggest and busiest group since 2000. Again for comparison, in 2001 Gay Straight Alliances were few and far between and the Naperville group provided a “home base” for the thirty-plus kids who came in every week, most seeking refuge from still-hostile high schools. Coming to group in our borrowed church space meant family. It meant comfort. It meant, for the first time for many of them, safety.

By the time the chilling silence filled the skies over my apartment just a stone’s throw from O’Hare airport—the second busiest airport in the country–the message came through. “We are doing a special service tonight at church. You can’t meet here.”

I understood completely. The church needed to be a church. But where was I going to find another space to meet with thirty-some kids? Or even twenty-some kids, if some were not permitted to attend? I came up empty. After a couple of hours of searching, I was still empty handed.  Filled with the dark sense that I was disappointing the kids, I notified the staff that we would have to cancel group. We had to cancel safe space on the most dangerous and emotionally stunning day any of us had ever lived through.

Not all of the kids got the message. Arriving at our usual location that evening and expecting to find us there, they found a note on the door that we had had to cancel and we’d be back next week. Alone in our individual homes and towns, the staff and I ducked our heads, overflowing regret that we’d let our kids down, and tried to shut out the repeated images of planes exploding against skyscrapers that kept looping on TV.

But you know…that’s the thing about finding community. Once you have it, you don’t want to let go. The kids who showed up for a drop-in center night only to find a sanctuary full of people they didn’t know walked a few blocks away and held their own impromptu group at a local coffee shop. This was their Tuesday night. This was their group time. This was the comfort they sought all week, and nothing—not even planes exploding against skyscrapers—was going to take this away from them.

Our agency is forged out of memories like this. Less than three years earlier, when we were only a few months old and the signature had not even been set to our 501 C 3 paperwork, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and hung on a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming, setting a tone for our commitment to safety and community that will never be undermined. The events of 9/11 highlighted for us the need for that safety and community was undeniable.

As we have continued to build upon those two factors as our foundation, we realized that our work has taken on a third aspect, paralleling the same path that our entire nation had to take following that horrific day. We cannot stagnate. We must heal. We must grow. Our kids find healing from the caustic words thrown at them in their homes, in their schools and in their neighborhoods. They must heal sometimes from the physical attacks to which they are subjected. Safety and community give them some of the tools they need to get started. My wish for the Urban Tidepool readers tonight as our country continues its steps in this monumental healing process– if you have endured loss, if you have had to witness or endure violence…Let this be YOUR Tuesday night. Let this be YOUR group time and may you, too, find the safety and community you need to speed your healing. 

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“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”

I’ve been pondering this since an interviewee said it to me last week. Yesterday I ran training for new volunteers and we spent a fair amount of time on current trends in working with LGBT youth, during which we focus on different factors that can combine to drive kids to desperation. We talk about a lack of family support, homelessness, unsupportive communities, unsafe schools, a political climate that allows for open attacks on LGBT people just as a matter of getting through a normal business day. We talk about the shoving, the tripping, the outright beatings that some LGBT kids endure.

Can we talk for a moment about the less dramatic incidents? The moments that, over time, add up to drain our kids’ spirits? That drain our spirits? Let’s talk microaggressions. I did a post on this on the Facebook page a couple of weeks ago and I noticed that only one person spoke out in response. I couldn’t tell if that was because people didn’t know what to say or people didn’t find the topic all that appealing.

That comment during the interview cut right to the chase. For our kids who have come out of unsafe schools or unsupportive and/or violent homes, the punches do stop when they no longer have to navigate that space. But it doesn’t end the endurance test, so to speak. The words, as the interviewee pointed out, may haunt us for weeks. Or months. Sometimes years.

Y’all know what I mean by microaggressions, right? Those little comments that wear on you, force you to explain or defend yourself, or leave you feeling insulted or as if you suddenly need to defend yourself. Sometimes they come from people we love and trust, sometimes from total strangers. They call out our differences in a way that makes it very clear that there is judgment attached to whatever we’ve done or said…or whatever we are…and it’s not pleasant or positive. It’s moments of tiny, demeaning jabs that can have a disastrous cumulative effect.

Not long ago, as I exited a local restaurant with my partner and two friends, we walked by a table where a man in (probably) his late 50s or early 60s sat with a woman, presumably his wife. I was far enough ahead that when he spoke, I didn’t hear him but the last of us in our queue did. As we walked by, this man looked up at us, then looked at his wife and said, “What? Are they fags?”

When the friends who heard him repeated this to me in the parking lot, my sarcastic streak kicked in. I wanted to return to the restaurant and explain to him that flocks of lesbians are generally not referred to with derogatory gay male terminology and that if he insisted on insulting us, he might want to consult Urban Dictionary for the correct vile names. I didn’t and his comment bothered me for days. Have we not evolved even enough that a group of middle aged women out for dinner cannot get through an evening without being forced to explain or justify or defend ourselves?

“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”

Admittedly, the man didn’t direct that comment AT us. He didn’t swear at us, shout at us or make us feel threatened. But we heard the judgment. We heard the contempt. And if we, in our 30s, 40s and 50s, came away from that experience feeling demeaned and dehumanized, I cannot help but wonder how kids in their teens (or even pre-teens) are dealing with these situations, and more importantly what the long term impact is going to be. I can go home with my partner after a nasty experience. We can proceed with our boring queer lives and rebuild our safe space, hug the dogs and feel connected. LGBT youth—kids growing up in volatile homes or more broadly, any youth who is being verbally harassed– often do not have that option. They must take those ongoing dehumanizing comments and try to make sense of them, try not to take them so personally, and try to go through the demands of adolescent development without those ninety or one hundred or one thousand comments they hear per day eroding the sense of adult identity that they are trying to forge. That they need to survive. That’s a Herculean task…attempting to grow into a healthy human while being systematically dehumanized on a daily basis.

In training the adults with whom the kids spend time and in offering education to parents this past year, this is emerging as one of the most important things we can do to care for those kids, when we’re looking for the reason for the depression or the anxiety or the desperation. Microaggressions accumulate—and apparently, even at 48, worlds past middle school and high school, one cannot consider oneself safe from hostility and judgment. Thankfully, I’m past the point of trying to forge my identity. But what of our kids who are not?

“The punches stop hurting. The words take longer to heal.”

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In grad school, I took a course on working with clients with substance abuse diagnoses and did some side research on the impact of the addiction on the family members. My dabbling led me eventually to what was considered THE handbook on ACOA issues, Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics. Intrigued, fascinated even, I went on to Robert Ackerman’s work, then Claudia Black’s, all the buzz names of the 80s and 90s for working with families dealing with addictions.

I feared for a short time, as is the nature of all MSW students, that I might end up the poster child for ACOAs but it didn’t take long to realize that I was breaking one of the cardinal traits in Woititz’s book:  characteristic number six, ACOAs take themselves very seriously. Ummmm, perhaps not.  If you’ve read any part of Urban Tidepool  or watch my Facebook posts you already know this is not a characteristic that I can be accused of with any sincerity.

It wasn’t conscious when I was a kid. It was just there. Now I look back and think, “Thankfully!”, although I’m not sure that my family members would be so grateful.  On the first night of my visit to my brother and sister-in-law’s house the summer I turned sixteen, he fell asleep in his chair, watching TV. It was June, in Florida. It was hot. The Major was wearing shorts and nothing on his feet. I took it as the perfect opportunity to create a little brother-sister bonding. I painted his toenails pink.I don’t think he felt particularly bonded and I guarantee you, “Thankfully!” was not the first thing he said when he woke up.

When I tell about failing a class in high school in Urban Tidepool, I observed: In the comment section, the teacher had indicated that I had been careless with my assignments.  Above that, a nun had commented that I handled her class, in which I had an A, with great care and responsibility. I almost laughed.  Well, I guess if you have to be careless and not do your assignments, the least you can do is to do it responsibly.  In fact, I had gone from an A to an F in that class. Can’t be more responsible at failing something than that!  I dropped like a responsible rock. I just couldn’t decide if I was carelessly responsible or responsibly careless.

But it’s hard to hang onto humor, no matter how strong the innate tendency, when a parent dies or a sibling grows increasingly violent. So to rediscover that streak of humor is a life altering moment, because it arrives with its ability to heal, to move you forward, to make space for forgiveness even if you aren’t totally aware of it at the time.

I remember the precise moment of the rediscovery. In Niagara Falls for the weekend with my college roommate and her family, I had to hike back to the car to retrieve something. To catch up to everyone, I took a short cut across the grass on an incline above the traffic circle. I slid on the wet grass and fell, with probably no less than twelve lanes of traffic circling just below me. I might have gotten angry. I might have been embarrassed. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is a split second realization that I was soaked to the skin, and that hundreds of cars were driving by just feet away, with passengers pointing at me and laughing. And I lay back in the wet grass and I started to laugh. The harder I laughed, the more the passengers in the cars below laughed, and the more they laughed at me, the harder I laughed, wearing wet pants and rolling around on some strange Canadian hillside.

It’s not that those people in the cars were suddenly my friends. But every one of them shared a moment with me that redefined who I was becoming, that gave me back something I lost. They have no idea. They all drove on their ways, had their holiday weekends, went back to their lives without ever realizing that they shared an intimate, healing moment with a scarred warrior who had never chosen to go into battle, but for whom battle had never been a choice.

Urban Tidepool has moments of very dark humor, and those of you aware of your own scars (whether around family addiction or another issue) might appreciate that. I suspect you’ll understand it. More than that, I hope you might find moments of cars winding around your own traffic circles as you’re trying very hard to take yourself seriously, and maybe you’ll get a glimpse of the passengers in them, sharing a profound moment with you without ever meaning to, and being a witness to that space being born out of humor where forgiveness comes to live.

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