Tag Archives: loss

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

Circling

I always seem to miss the important days. It’s something in me, in my mind, that blocks the connection. All this month I thought of her, thought of the day she died, remembered our last conversation, remembered the crow that represents her. I remembered that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her, and that I miss her, and that she and my mother hit it off immediately when they met, first in Ireland 17 years ago and later when she and I hired a mini van and drove to the airport to pick up Mum and Dad the day they arrived in this country with two dogs and all their possessions.

I remember the books we shared, the walks, the cups of tea and coffee, the ice cream and whipped cream and hot chocolate. I remember that our dogs tried to kill each other, and then became best friends. I remember the day I called her to ask her a breast feeding question a few days after Zeke was born, and found out she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. She hadn’t told me because she didn’t want to ruin my joy in Zeke’s birth.

Five years later, she was added to the “survivor” list. If you survive breast cancer for five years, you’re considered a survivor, a statistic that represents life and overcoming. Less than two months later, she was dead. She’d spent five years fighting the disease. She made it past the five year mark, and then she died. I wasn’t with her at the time, but I’d spent days with her, hours holding her hand and rubbing moisturizer into her skin and giving her ice chips and trying to feed her what she could eat. When I hear the theme song from the Titanic, I cry, remembering her daughter (my goddaughter), an accomplished pianist, playing the grand piano in the next room. I remember that her daughter and I went shopping for clothes for her mother’s funeral a few days before my best friend died, because we knew it was coming, and because A wanted it.

Ten years ago on the 21st, Trish passed away from breast cancer at the age of 42. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t. I watched the daffodils nod on my drive to work — they are her emblem, the brightest thing blooming in the days leading up to her death — and I thought about earth day, a perfect tribute to her love of nature and animals. And I couldn’t write about her.

The next day Loren wrote about loving crows, and I remembered after my mother and I were diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves just a year later, how I went walking in a park right by my mother’s house. I walked the five-mile walk around the park, and a crow followed me, hopping from tree to tree, swooping and diving overhead, and never letting me out of its sight. I heard Trish in its laugh. I saw Trish in its bright, curious head tilt. I took my shoes off and ran on the bare dirt, with the crow flying overhead, and I heard Trish scolding me.

There used to be a whole colony of crows in the birch tree by my condo. They’ve gone. Now and again I hear one or two, scolding me for getting too close, but mostly they’re just gone. I wonder if they’ve been taken by West Nile Virus, if the crow that fell from the tree onto my lawn and died there a couple of years ago was a victim of the disease. A woman from the CDC took it away for testing after I called, but I never heard what the cause was.

Regardless, my mind circles and circles, and for three days I couldn’t stop thinking of her, and I couldn’t bear to write of her. I have a dark shadow in my life, my loss of her, my loss of A, which I must explain in the context of the loss of my mother.

I wish I could say I hear a crow outside. But I must wake my daughter for school, and head for work, and remind myself that Trish and my mother simply ARE.

Diversion: Houses and herons

My grandfather, who has been dead almost 60 years, lives on in the house he had built, a historic building that carries his name. And he lives on in Google, in the many archived electronic versions of his writings on neurosurgery. Leah told me she’d Googled him a couple of years ago, and a few entries had popped up under his name. When I Googled him a couple of days ago, I intended to see if I could find any internet images of his house. While there were no images available there was information about the house, and there were also pages and pages of his work, archived electronically, as well as writings about him. A paperback called In Memoriam: [his name], [his birth and death dates], caught my attention. It was from Amazon.uk.com, and it could be had for the princely sum of almost $50 (with the appalling exchange rate for the euro), and on an impulse, I bought it.

After I paid, it occurred to me that despite the moniker “paperback,” it’s probably his obituary, out of the newspaper, and if so, I already have a copy, folded neatly into the Bible I inherited when my mother died. Coincidently there were four Bibles, and I knew which one I wanted, the one that had belonged to my great-grandmother, with her name neatly inscribed on the front, and the date, 1887. I was afraid my sisters would want that one too, and I have never been one to argue over material things. However it was the oldest, the most worn, with yellowed pages and a ragged cover, and so I got my wish. I inherited, too, a silver dragon bowl from China (there is a fine story behind that bowl and the book my great-great aunt wrote about my great-great grandmother’s missionary trip to China, which has had a surprising resurrection, and is available still in multiple copies through Amazon.com — not reprints, I suppose, just version still extant, still circulating some 80 years later.)

But back to my grandfather and the Google search: As I scrolled through the list of entries under his name, I found a geneology of my mother’s father’s side of the family going back centuries, and made by my cousin (the son of my grandfather’s brother). I think the most common girl’s name in the family is Elizabeth, and that’s interesting because my daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth (but named after my great-aunt on my mother’s mother’s side of the family).

And there, in that family tree, was my mother, her date of birth, and her date of death, and a live link that led me to the last letter she wrote before she died, which I typed for her because she was paralyzed. And there was her voice again, so bright and filled with life, apologizing for writing a “Dear everyone” letter, relating her life since the last communication as though her journey through the cancer were just one wild and never-ending adventure, joyful, with a certain happy ending.

Beneath her letter was Dad’s notice that she “has been asleep for a week now,” written a day or two before her death, and the words, “Her passing will leave an unfillable void in my life, she had such enthusiam and interest in all things and people.” It was followed by his brief and factual notice of her death, sent the morning she died. Beneath that was a notice from the Inflammatory Breast Cancer listserv, noting her passing.

I read it, and then I took Zeke to school, and on the way back from dropping her off, as I drove the exit ramp to the road that would take me to work, I looked left, and saw a heron on the winterbrown grass, so close I wouldn’t need a zoom to get a decent picture if I had had my camera — which I didn’t. I thought of Loren’s heron pictures, how clear and precisely they capture the details of the great blue heron, the curve of the neck, the long decorative feathers that sweep down from the back of the head, the cool yellow eyes. I could see all those details as the heron turned his head and watched me drive on to work, and then the details blurred as I felt strange tears of surprise and grief and joy, all at once, fill me and overflow.

Retrospective 3: 1965 — Reconciliation

We are four, sitting on the grass, in bright sunshine. She wears a pink cotton dress, and her honey-lit hair falls sleek down her back. She turns to him, and he holds me on his shoulders, his hands dark against the pale cream of my baby legs. I smile, toothless still, wispy blond hair catching light. My grandmother, her mother, watches us all, wrapped in a lace and orange dress that is like a sari, that hangs loose over her body, which has been ravaged by cancer. She is breastless but bloated, large. Her dark hair is wrapped in a smooth bun on top of her head, and she carries herself imperiously. She must have one of those deep, commanding smoker’s voices. She looks happy, in the pictures where she holds me, but also distant. There is a time when those who are dying begin to let go, to drift away. She is right there, teetering, fighting for life, and yet somehow, irresistibly, beginning to leave.

My mother looks at my father, smiling, happy. She knows, already, his proclivities. These pictures must have been taken at the time of reconciliation, after she left him to come home to Nashville, and after he followed her, begging for another chance. And she loved him, hard and deep and without boundaries. Oh he drove too fast, so that she clung to me in the car and prayed to the God in whom she no longer believed. Oh he left her alone in her little house on the beach, sometimes for days, and then came blowing in with stories of danger, and lust and loss in Mexico, carrying flowers, or a handful of earth, or a stone from some far-off beach. “I thought of you. This stone is the color of your eyes.”

Carrying a leaf.

In the end, though, his rage, his fits, his acid-dropping hallucinatory nights, the way he drove as though he desired to push the car through into another dimension — to bring all of us with him to that place he longed to find, me crying or quiet, I don’t remember — these things were enough, and she fled.

In the pictures, taken after he followed her to Nashville, there is no hint of the darkness. I reach for him and he laughs. He looks as though he loves me. Everything is green and pink and white and orange and rich and filled with something lovely. But my grandmother is letting go, the cancer spreading through her. My mother is reaching for him, and he is looking elsewhere. And I? I am laughing, laughing, petulant in one of the pictures, spoilt, loved, oblivious.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.

No.

Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

Shout it out

I keep thinking about my daughter’s friend, Dee. She’s funky, dyed red hair and piercings and crazy mismatched clothes: short plaid skirt over black fishnet stockings, tight tweed jacket on top and lace-up boots below. Always odd combinations, purple and red and orange together, brown and yellow, a splash of black. When she shows up in an Abercrombie sweatshirt one day, my daughter, who likes her brand names, is disappointed. “Don’t go preppy on us, Dee,” she says. “I love your outfits.”

We picked Dee up for a VM sleepover on Friday. When we arrived she had finished making dinner for her mother, her stepfather and her baby brother, and had just started in on the dishes. “Come in,” she said. “Want some stir fry?” She served it in plastic bowls, and we sat at the table while Zeke played airplane with the two-year-old’s food and Dee washed the dishes.

“Open up,” Zeke purred. “Down the hatch.” She made airplane noises and waved the spoon around extravagantly in front of the boy’s nose, and he giggled and squealed.

Dee’s mother sat at the computer, her back to us. She didn’t look up when we walked in. When I passed her to go to the bathroom, she looked sideways at me, not meeting my eye. On the way out from the bathroom, I introduced myself.

“Oh yeah,” Dee said. “Zeke’s mom, this is my mom. Mom, this is Zeke’s mom. Isn’t my mom amazing,” she added brightly. Her mother shook my hand when I held offered it, a limp, damp shake. She was a big round woman who balanced on two tiny feet, her legs short and surprisingly thin. I found out later she was pregnant.

We played with the boy some more while Dee finished up. The house was filled with Christmas ornaments on shelves and in various hutches. Oversized photographs of Dee as a child and the little boy hung on the walls.

When we left, I said goodbye to Dee’s mom. She didn’t respond. Her finger clicked on the mouse button, and the computer screen flashed.

Usually Dee can’t hang out much. She spends too much time watching the little boy. He adores her, and she him. When we left he wailed after her, and his mother ignored him.

Dee, Zeke says, sleeps around. She smokes pot and cigarettes. She speaks of herself in the third person, in a high voice. “Dee loves this,” she says, pointing at a Sobee tea when we go grocery shopping. I put it in the cart. “Oh,” she says.”Dee thanks you.”

At home, she practices her part for the Monologues. “Shout it out,” I say. “Sound mad. Sound sorry when the words get softer. Imagine you’re her.”

She doesn’t take much coaching.

Playing chess with my mother

My mother called me last night. I was preparing to visit a friend, and had chosen to wear a dress she’d given me, a silky flowing dress, very elegant, something she had worn often. It was a coffee brown, a perfect match to a coat I wear for work that she gave me before she died. It took me years to wear the coat, because it was too expensive, too consciously classic, for me to feel comfortable in it. And it was brown, my least favorite color, the color of my school uniform from the old days in Ireland. When I finally put it on, a few months ago, I was surprised at how good it felt, the expensive material soft and almost suede-like, though it was not made from any form of animal product. It was warm, and it fit me perfectly. So there I was, dressed in a coffee-brown, silk dress and my elegant coat, planning to visit a friend, and as I was trying to pass through the door, my phone rang. I fumbled to reach it, pockets, purse, backback. But I couldn’t find it, and it went to voicemail, and then I heard my mother’s voice. She was narrating a chess game. “Pawn to b3” she said. “Knight takes d7.” I threw my purse down, tore off my coat, ripped open my backback, desperate to find the phone. But every time I thought I’d found it it was something else, a book, a stapler, a turtle paperweight, my dog’s leash. And my mother’s voice droned on, part Tennessee accent, “nahn,” she said, “fahv.” Part Irish. “Tomahto,” she said. Not tomaydo.

And then the phone clicked off, and she was gone.

The chess game was good, though. I could see all the pieces, see the skewers and pins and forks. Color-coded lines mapped out the game, the best moves, the potential mates three or four moves down the line. It reminded me of a chess computer game my friend and I have been playing. I always liked chess, though for years I knew nothing more than the basic moves and how to castle, but my friend has taught a fair few people how to play, and last week he bought a chess set for the work release program where he works so the inmates can play. He’ll teach them, patient and thorough as he always is, and maybe some of them will learn something beyond the basic moves, will be caught up in the intricacy and challenge of it and pledge to work to become better.

My friend taught his nephew, who became state champion in high school and is now a more consistent and thoughtful player than he is. It’s a race these days, to see if my friend can improve his game enough to beat his nephew regularly, and as he’s learned so have I.

But why my mother? I’m unsettled today, thinking of how clear her voice was as she spoke those words that would have meant nothing to her. I was so desperate to talk to her, and then she disappeared, and I woke into a world dominated by chess sets. Then they floated away, and only the gray morning light remained, my sleeping dogs pinning me to the bed, and my hand reaching for a phone that doesn’t exist.

Disloyal

I feel disloyal, writing about Mum. Don’t speak ill of the dead, right? And anyway, what I say could be misconstrued. I don’t mean anything to be a judgment on her. She was wonderful in multiple ways. When she died, people who barely knew her, who had met her only once or twice, stopped me to say how she had touched them. She lived lightly, easily, after the struggles of her difficult past. Horrendously difficult, really, if I add up all she suffered. She overcame.

Was it the “Right Speech” facet of Buddhism that taught her not to speak ill of my biological father, though there was much she could have said about him? I didn’t know Dad wasn’t my father till I was 12. My last name was changed by court order to my Dad’s last name, as was Rachel’s, so that we wouldn’t be recognized as illegitimate in a country that forbade divorce till 1997. When I found out Dad wasn’t my dad it was a relief for various reasons, but my mother said little about my biological dad. She could have said plenty: Drug dealer, alcoholic, abuser. Her reticence made a difference. Right speech. Am I not speaking right now in recalling my biological father? I am talking facts about him, but there are other facts too. His mother loves him. Perhaps he is kind to her. I cannot take it further; I have not talked to him since 1988.

I  wrote more about Switzerland yesterday, about my mother after her mother died, but I can’t hit “publish.” She loved all of us in the best way she knew how. It was a complicated love, shaped by her ambiguous relationship to her parents. What surprises me is how parallel our lives have been, in a way — though mine was far easier than hers as a child. But later, her diagnosis, then mine five weeks later. Treatment at the same time; her mastectomy the day before mine. The hope that came afterwards, when 2000 rang in. We were living the fantasy that both she and I would be in remission for the rest of our lives. I got lucky. She didn’t. Maybe if it wasn’t for her dying I wouldn’t be here now, but there’s no point speculating. When her mother died when she was 24, when mine died when I was 38, we both went crazy in our own ways. Dad waited for Mum to find her way. Greg didn’t. That’s the difference. In fact, Greg was finding his own way long before I met Nada, before we knew that Mum’s cancer had metasticized.

What I saw when my father spoke, before I knew about Greg’s lover, was that my father and Greg had their parallels, ways of being in the world that Dad pointed out to me. What I see now is that my life and my mother’s also had parallels. Our lives ran down the same road for a while, but they have diverged. Both my mother and I went crazy at the deaths of our mothers. But Dad waited. Greg didn’t. Dad loved Mum till the day she died, and loves her memory still. Greg was carrying on a secret correspondence with a former student long before I met Nada. He filed for divorce and three weeks after I signed he told me he was getting married to his secret love.  It’s the way things go.

I don’t even want to publish this. I don’t know where it’s going. Stella wrote about repetition some days ago, and what am I doing now but repeating parts of what I knew before, but only dimly. Finding my way through to a new place, recognizing on the way the signposts. This I knew. That… oh that is new. That tree. That moment of connection.

To be continued… maybe.