Darkness Is a Cannibal

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died.

I remember most of it like snapshots, the way you remember things that happened when you were a very small child.

I remember the police walking up to our door, and why? Could it have been just because my daughter Abbie was at my house and her dad, Robert, was angry about that? It seems unreasonable, but then everything was unreasonable.

I remember opening the door to them, the way they stood back, one on each side of the door, hands hovering over their holstered guns. One officer asked, “Do you have any weapons?” and I answered, “We’re Mennonite,” a ridiculous answer for what felt like a ridiculous question.

I remember my stepson taking his little brother into his room, trying to protect him from seeing police in the house, and is that a memory, or is it a hope? The police said we may not close any doors, and that may be invention, too. I was underwater, breath held, heart paused, and one officer asked Abbie, “Are you OK to be here? Are you safe here?” and she glared (did she?) over his shoulder and said yes, yes, she was safe, she was fine, and they asked to see papers. They wanted to look at papers with signatures and official seals: is she mine? Is this girl flesh of my flesh? Is she my heart, my soul, my waking and dreaming life and all the hopes and heartaches I have lived? Did a judge, a lawyer, some official person declare her to be so?

Many days or weeks before, but maybe after, I called my son Jacob. It was December, his 18th birthday. “I never have to see you again, Mom. I’m never going to talk to you again. I don’t have to anymore and you can’t make me,” and the world was flat and I was flat and you were flat, too, and the phone burned to dust and someone was there, but who? Who was there? Someone held the parts together because the parts stay together and life goes and we are not flat, except we are. We are flat and so very, very sad.

Later, but not much later because I was leaning against the window in my bedroom and the window was very cold, and I rested my forehead against it and felt the coldness and the coldness kept me tethered to the flat, flat world, and Jacob was on the phone, in my ear, and his voice came out to me but it was carrying his father’s words. I don’t know most of the words anymore. I heard them 1,000, or 10,000, or maybe 1,000,000 times, if you count how often I heard them while I slept and when I made dinner and while I drove, but I don’t remember all of them. I heard them on a little silver flip-phone, and over a Palm Centro, and on a Droid X, and on a Samsung Note and occasionally even face to face. I heard them and they stabbed me all over, each one a tiny piercing needle and I cried until I was a husk of corn, stripped, withered, ugly. Wasted. Useless.

I remember walking up the stairs to Robert’s apartment, determined to end the hateful stalemate that was immoveable, static, a mountain or a moon, and I walked up the stairs trembling and I would end it. I would end it if I died. I would end it if he killed me. I hoped he would kill me. I hoped he would kill me 9 times and burn me down, flat me on the flat earth in the emptiness of life without them. I would die, I would hurt and I would die and it would be so right, so holy, a most perfect thing. I would not live without them anymore. I would not look outside to see some official person with a weapon or a clipboard come to decide about me. I would not watch for the cars with the official seals on them because he hoped I would lose not just the two children we shared, but my other children as well. I would not cry myself to sleep Jacob Abbie I want you I miss you life is empty everything hurts come home come home come home to me I love you so much and I’m flat and everything is burning and still I go to the grocery and pay the gas bill and watch cartoons with your brothers and where is the ground? Why does it buck and curl under my feet this way? I can’t love you this way. I can’t. I can’t. I’m flat. We’re all so flat; there’s nothing but the hate he cultivated and the hate has made us all flat.

I remember hearing my husband murmur to our youngest son, “Stay here with me. Mommy has to cry for awhile, but she’ll be OK,” and our little boy’s voice, angry, asking, “Why are they so mean? Why don’t they come back? Don’t they love us?” and I covered my head with pillows.

I remember walking up those apartment stairs the most. Crumbling concrete stairs, itchy gray wool socks on my feet, and a mild Albuquerque winter day, and I knocked on the door. Robert came to the door and I was ready. I would push my way in, force an end, stop the stalemate and surely one of us would die or sleep that night in a jail cell, but I would end it. I would breech this unbreechable thing with a broken jaw or a pair of handcuffs. Finally, I would see it through to the end.

All those times when he sent official people to my door: nod, nod, no sir, no weapons, yes ma’am, we have food in the kitchen, see? No sir, we don’t spank, yes ma’am we have a pediatrician. We are good, do you have that in your official papers? I am their mother, do you see here where the judge signed? Do you see where some official person with an important title said that these are people I have permission to love? Do you see this seal? This date stamp? This envelope, this name, this signature? I have no weapons, nothing useful except this phone, this hateful phone and these ears to hear and these eyes to see and my regret to keep me awake at night.

But the memories. I remember opening the door, so many times. I remember answering the phone. I remember mistakes, recriminations, allegations, and the cold, cold window against my forehead, and the world dark on the other side, and darkness is a cannibal and hate is a ravenous monster and they ate connection, cohesion, coherence, and left me with these snapshots. I moved the mountain. I breeched the unbreechable, and when I celebrate, I also cry, and I am more whole and more broken, both. I read and sleep and walk and wish that Robert could hurt, and pray to forgive. Forgive him, forgive them, forgive the nameless others, forgive me.

Because I always opened the door.

The Cosmic Measuring Stick of Love

Since I appeared on The Ricki Lake Show: Inside Childhood Mental Illness last Wednesday I have heard from dozens of parents. Most say some variation of “Thank you for sharing your story. It makes me feel less alone.” Some are pleas for help finding appropriate services (How painful, not to have an answer, but I am just a mom with a blog, not an agency.), and quite a few say something like, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but……” followed by an outpouring of fear, anger, rage, hate, despondency, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and regret.

I have tried to answer every one, but I got a little lost somewhere among Facebook, Twitter, blog comments, and email, not to mention the comments on the show’s website, FB page, and Twitter feeds, but I’m answering all the people who write, think, and say, “I shouldn’t feel this way!” with the following commandment:

Give yourself a break.

There is no way that any of us should or should not feel. We get enough judgmental crap from family, friends, and that guy in line at the post office. We don’t need to do it to ourselves. Let’s start with some truth: having a child with a serious illness sucks. It sucks giant, hairy, unwashed monkey ass. Yes, there are blessings. Yes, some of the consequences are lovely.

Whatever.

We will see the blessings and the loveliness when we are good and ready and not one instant sooner. Do you know to whom we owe a sunshiny, rosy view of things?

Not one person, anywhere, ever.

Here’s the thing: the first step to learning to live with all those painful feelings is to stop condemning ourselves for having them.

Feelings are not like actions. Our actions are up for debate. If I punch someone in the nose, or drop my drawers in the middle of a restaurant, or drive my car too fast, or starve my kids, people (perhaps represented by law enforcement) have every right to say hey, cut it out! That’s not OK. We don’t accept your behavior.

Feelings, though, belong to the feeler, and they are never good or bad, right or wrong. Some of them are wonderful to experience and some of them are like being ground to bits, but they are morally neutral.

When Carter was a baby, I was consumed with guilt over the fact that I had enjoyed my other babies so much more. I believed that I loved my other children more than I loved Carter. Dozens of people have written to me in the past few days expressing similar anguish over loving other children more than their ill children, or not loving their ill children as much as they believe they should. We wring our hands and ask over and over, “Do I love him/her enough? How can I love one more than the other? Am I not supposed to love my child unconditionally? I must love this one as much/enough/more! I must! I am a failure as a parent and a human!”

Could someone please show me the cosmic measuring stick of love?

There is no love measurement. Remember where we started: having a child with a serious illness sucks. Here’s another truth: having a child with a serious illness that causes that child to act mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive, or prevents us from taking care of our own basic needs (sleep, cleanliness, food, exercise, socialization) sucks ultra-triple-super-extreme.

Another truth: when someone is being mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive to one or more of our children, we will have a protective reaction, even if the person being mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive is another of our own children. That makes those feelings of love and kindness really difficult, if not temporarily impossible.

When we are restraining children who hiss and spit and bite like angry cats, and our hearts are thundering like trains and we ball up our fists and press them tight so we do not punch and we clench our teeth so that we do not bite, that is love. It doesn’t feel like love. It feels like raging helplessness. Nevertheless, that’s love (with teeth), and it’s the same love we feel when we enjoy ice cream sundaes with smiling children who tell adorably bad jokes.

Love is only sometimes about warm, happy feelings. Every parent learns this lesson eventually (by puberty at the latest), but we must learn it earlier, faster, deeper, and more violently.

Another truth: humans have emotional limits. If you’ve ever watched someone near the end of a long race hit the wall, you know the human body can come to the end of its endurance. What most people don’t know is that we can hit an emotional wall, too. None of us has a bottomless well of compassion, empathy, and kindness to share. Not even parents. Not even the mothers of special needs children, who, in spite of popular myths about saintliness, great strength, and an abundance of patience, are utterly ordinary.

It is a misery to have conflicted feelings about our own children, to be plagued with regret for birthing or adopting them, guilt for our shortcomings in parenting them, and fear for the ways they will continue to change our and our other children’s lives.

Self-flagellation is not the cure for that misery. I promise you, with all the confidence of 19+ years of parenting and more practice in brutal remorse than anyone I know, that there is no problem so great that self-flagellation cannot make it worse.

The outrageous and surprising irony is that, once I gave up on trying to see the bright side and looking for the silver lining and other assorted nonsense and admitted to myself that having a kid with serious mental illness sucks, and I hate it, and I would trade it in red-hot instant? That’s when I started to come to some kind of tentative peace with the whole mess.

And it’s a mess. Oh, yes, no mistake, we are not on some alternate-but-just-as-lovely-in-its-own-way life path over here.

Do you know who needs me to see Carter’s illness and the fallout it has created in our lives as an alternate-but-just-as-lovely-in-its-own-way life path? A whole lot of people who don’t matter; people who don’t get it; but the fact is, I can love Carter wholly and completely and also feel bitterly angry at what his illness has brought into my life and my family.

The more fully I accept that anger, the more often I feel the love.

What happened to Carter is flat lousy. I don’t help myself or anyone else when I pretend otherwise. I say again:

Give yourself a break.

What you feel is what you feel. It’s all OK.

All that said, sometimes our feelings get the best of us and we do things that are destructive and hurt us, our children, or others. If you need help or support, please ask. (All these resources are in the US.)

If you have hurt or are afraid you may hurt your children, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD.

If you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s alcohol or drug use, call the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence at 800-622-2255.

If you are suicidal or feel like you might hurt yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

If you feel that your health and safety, or that of your child (or anyone else), is in danger, or that you or your child (or anyone else) may hurt someone, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

If you want to talk to other parents who are raising children who have special needs and you’re on Facebook, send a join request here.

Happy In the Meantime

Real happiness is nothing like what we see on TV. That happiness comes from big houses and children who go to Ivy League colleges and beautiful dresses that drape gracefully over slender hips. For me, it is some mysterious combination of praying, serving, loving people, and creativity.

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when I was 18, and even at that early age the diagnosis had been a long time coming. Near as I can remember (and depression + many years have done their work on my memory), I had my first serious episode of depression when I was 8 or 9 and by the time I started middle school I was dysthymic (mildly depressed) most of the time with 2-3 episodes of major depression every year.

After I was diagnosed I saw a psychiatrist, Dr A, for about a year. This was back in the olden days when psychiatrists did therapy, so in addition to handing me a monthly slip of paper that I exchanged at the pharmacy for a tiny bottle of green and white pills (Prozac was the only SSRI on the market at that time), Dr A and I therapized together.

Most of our therapy hours were a total wash because Dr A was a big fan of sports metaphors and I am allergic to games played in groups. He constantly exhorted me to “do an end run around” whatever problem I was experiencing, the meaning of which was a mystery to me until the invention of Google many years later.

Our time together was not entirely neutral, though. Once, when I wailed about my desire to just be happy, Dr A informed me that no one is really happy, and the best most people can hope for is occasional contentment. True happiness, he said, is mostly a myth, except for special occasions like one’s wedding day or winning a game, which left me out of the running for happiness entirely since I had no boyfriend and played no games.

Dr A wasn’t a bad guy, but he definitely missed his calling. I’m sure he would have been an excellent orthopedist or podiatrist, but as a person whose job was to help people find a way to be their best selves, he pretty much sucked.

Well, except for those green and white pills. They kept me hobbling along in a state something short of suicidal until Zoloft (which worked much better for me and which I took for over 15 years) came onto the market, so for that, I am grateful.

What Dr A didn’t know was that, while I suffered from many wrong-headed thoughts and ideas, over-high expectations were not among them. In fact, the most destructive belief I have been carrying around during my time here on planet earth is the one that says I’m no good, not worthy, incapable (yes, that’s all one idea, but there’s no word that grabs it all at once). My parents both came to parenthood with the belief that self-confidence was ugly and to believe oneself to be special was a sin (ideas they learned from their own parents), so instead of appropriate humility (I am special, and you are special, and each of us has something extraordinary to offer and receive from the other.), I learned to hide. I learned to hate myself, and I learned to believe that I deserved no better than whatever came my way by chance or accident.

Dr A didn’t do a thing to disabuse me of those beliefs, which seems to me now a tragic lost opportunity, but shit happens, and Dr A was just a guy who went to medical school and then did his residency in psychiatry. He didn’t know that when I said “happy,” I didn’t mean I wanted a life of nonstop orgasms. I just wanted to feel like I belonged in my own life. I wanted to feel needed and wanted by the people I loved. Most of all, I wanted the inside of my head to be a less dangerous place.

I haven’t seen Dr A in something like 23 years now, but if I remembered his name I would write him a letter and tell him he was wrong, and I hope he has discovered the truth: happiness is a real thing, and ordinary people can experience it.

Which, can I just tell you? This is not something I ever expected to say. Ever. To be clear: major depressive episodes aside, I have not generally been a miserable person, and I have heard the tempting call of bitterness and resisted. I’ve been content for decent stretches of time. What I haven’t been until this past year (and definitely not the whole year; it seems to me that this is something that actually takes practice) is happy.

I meet none of the qualifications that I would expect a happy person to meet. I’m not rich (in fact, paying the bills is often a challenge) nor do I have a successful career. I’m not thin, my house is a mess, my sister and I don’t speak, and one of the dogs chewed a hole in the couch. Life isn’t easy. Carter is stable but he remains (will always remain) seriously ill. My trichotillomania hasn’t improved, I continue to grieve for the years I lost with my two eldest children, and I still miss Jacob with a breathtaking intensity that leads me to drag his baby blanket out of the cupboard in the middle of the night and hold it under my chin while I cry.

And yet, in the midst of it all, this happiness. When I started to feel happy a year ago, I was sure it was nothing but a product of Abbie’s return and that it would dissipate like thunderclouds when the excitement of her return passed, but no. It has remained.

How cliché, to say that when I wake in the morning I am eager for the day, but it’s true. All of it, everything, is more vivid. The books I read are better, time with Brian is more joyful, hours at a table with friends absorb me completely. The music and the sky and the feel of a freshly made bed are all much muchier. They have regained their muchness. At church, in groups, and during meetings, I am more present. When people I care about suffer, I experience their pain with them (which is apparently a part of happiness; who knew?) and feel deep sympathy. The love I feel for my kids is more open. The concerns I have for them cripple me a little less and when I pray for them I open my hands both figuratively and literally. God is God of all, my kids included.

What I know now is this: happiness is not an accident, but neither is it a goal toward which I may work because I am so confused about what will make me happy. It is nothing like the happiness we see on TV that comes from big houses and children who go to Ivy League colleges and beautiful dresses that drape gracefully over slender hips. For me, it is some mysterious combination of praying, serving, loving people, and creativity. Oh, and the right drugs; don’t forget about those, though don’t overestimate them, either. It’s a rearranging of priorities and the release of some expectations that prevented me from laughing as long and as often as I need to. Happiness is somewhere inside the act of showing up and to hell with doing it with style or finesse (no points for those, anyhow).

It is not, as I had long expected, the product of ignoring injustice in the world, or becoming immune to it. Happiness does not preclude advocacy. It doesn’t come from being very, very good (clean! on time! frugal! organized! efficient!), or from external success or approval. I think maybe happiness has a great deal to do with letting my freak flag fly. God made me this person, the girl I was and the woman I am. If God wanted me to be some other person, God would have made me another person. So simple, and so very difficult. 

There is so much more, a thousand more fears to surrender, relationships to heal, and anger to repent. There is a mountain of shame to…what? I have no idea yet what one does with that toxic stuff, though I am sometimes able to see it for what it is, rather than simply accepting its definition of me.

But now I know this: I get to be happy in the meantime. I don’t have to wait for all the anger, shame, fear, and heartache to go away to be happy because I can be happy today. Not nonstop-orgasm happy, not nothing-ever-hurts happy, not everything-is-perfect-forever happy, but I-belong-in-my-life happy.

I’ll take it.

Hey, did you hear? I’m going to be on The Ricki Lake Show. For real! The Ricki Lake Show: Inside Childhood Mental Illness (if you click on that link, you can watch the promo) will air on Wednesday, February 6, 2013. Check your local listings or use the “where to watch” link at The Ricki Lake Show page to find out what time and channel it’s on in your area.

Truncated Motherhood

The setting of a great hope is like the setting of the sun.
The brightness of our life is gone.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I had a therapist about a year and a half ago who gave me a hard time for maintaining Jacob and Abbie’s bedrooms when they had been gone so long. “It’s not healthy,” said the therapist. “You have to accept that this is what has happened in your life. Your kids are gone.”

I knew the instant she said it that she was wrong. In the darkest months and years of our alienation, when those kids and I could barely speak words to each other, those beds were the only invitation I could extend to them. The space I reserved for them in my home was proxy for the love they could not hear me speak. When Abbie came home, after the angst and anger were finished, she told me that she always knew she could come back, knew her bed was there for her, and even when she hated me, knew she was welcome in my family.

Jacob will be 19 in just a few weeks. He hasn’t lived in my house for nearly 5 years (and it may be nearly 6 years but the math is far beyond me now), and tonight, for the first time in 19 years minus 52 days, there is no bed for him here. I boxed up his few things and put them in a closet, took his bed to the donation center, and had his dad come get his drumset. With Abbie, I have experienced a miracle, but if there is a miracle with Jacob, it will be of a different sort.

This truncated motherhood is unnatural. Wrong. Jacob was the brightest part of my life, and in five long, excruciating years, I still have not learned to be content with his absence. I don’t know exactly what kind of pain I would be feeling if Jacob was still my son in all the ways, instead of just in the biological ones, as he moved into his adult life, but I know it would be different. He is mostly a stranger to me now. He is the person who made me a mother, a boy-man I find endlessly and intensely fascinating, but he is not really my family anymore. I won’t give up. I could never give up on knowing my magical, enchanting son, and to other parents suffering the horrors of alienation I always say, as long as our children are alive, there is hope. But what hope I had for a relationship beyond a perfunctory one is very small now.

He hasn’t lived with me in a long time, but tonight, for the first time, he really doesn’t live here anymore. There’s nothing for it except to breathe into the pain and pray that some day, we will all be healed; that eventually, I will lay down my grief and walk away from it, even for a little while.

But for tonight I am on my knees, screaming I love him I love him I love him and begging the universe for just one more chance.

Please.

The Success of Love

Parental Alienation Syndrome creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice.

The success of love is in the loving. —Mother Teresa

A few days ago I read the first post I ever wrote about my two eldest children, Jacob and Abbie, and how they came to live full-time with their dad. I sat at my computer, eyes goggling half-out of my head, unable to believe I had accomplished the mental-gymnastics necessary to believe what I wrote.

Better?

Better?!?

Like hell it was better, but I definitely believed it at the time, at least at the top of my consciousness. I was mostly (sort of? who knows) convinced that Jacob and Abbie’s dad was a better parent than I; that I was, if not abusive, at least profoundly deficient.

Truth? Yes, I’ll tell the truth: in some ways, in the very beginning, it was a relief to have them gone. I missed them terribly, but at the same time, Carter was so sick that I was living far beyond the limits of my emotional and physical resources and I was stretched much too thin.

More truth? In spite of all that I believe now, and all that I am about to say, I was at my low point as a parent when Jacob and Abbie left. The things other people did and said can’t absolve me of my responsibility, and I am responsible. I did the best I could under terrible circumstances, but that isn’t the same as being innocent.

When they moved out, I never imagined for one minute that they would go away and stay away. I assumed that, given the freedom to choose, they would spend most nights at their dad’s house and just one or two (as opposed to four, as it had always been)  per week at mine. I thought they would come around a few days a week after school, or hang out with us sometimes on Saturdays.

When I didn’t see them for a few weeks, I thought they needed some breathing room, a chance to decompress from the difficulties of life at chez Jones, and so I gave it to them. This was not a decision I made lightly. I prayed and pondered and agonized, staying up late at night writing and crying. Ultimately, though, I decided to live by the credo, “This is a family. We take volunteers, not hostages.”

So while I continued to invite my kids to dinner and other family events, and kept calling them several times a week, and texted them every night to say goodnight and tell them I loved them, I didn’t push or force. I stepped back, focused my energy on Carter and helping him get stable, and I waited.

As carefully as I made that decision, it was absolutely the wrong one. What I didn’t see, the giant piece of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I was missing, was this: my kids’ dad and other members of my family were actively working to keep my kids away from me. That, combined with their anger at my genuine shortcomings, stewed in a broth of early-adolescence, created a case of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that I didn’t recognize until it was two years entrenched.

The kids’ resentments against me grew and deepened both because adults they love and care about encouraged (in overt and covert ways) those resentments, and because they saw me so rarely (we didn’t see each other for months at a stretch sometimes), I didn’t have enough time to show them that I wasn’t the person they had created in their minds.

Starting in the summer of 2011, when I began to push hard in any way I could to have more time with my kids, I watched it happen: when they were with me more, they started to soften. Their defenses began to relax as they let the reality-mom impact idea-mom. Then, something would happen (something always happened), I would see the kids less, and the fierce, hateful, horrible words would come from the kids’ mouths to my heart again. The same words that their dad and other people spoke to them about me.

Never, ever, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

My family’s experience of parental alienation syndrome is unusual in that the alienation began long after the divorce itself. In fact, Robert and I co-parented fairly peacefully for quite a few years. Or so I believed; I know now that he wanted our kids all to himself long before he got them, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. If my kids’ PAS had been more typical (that is, happening during the immediate post-divorce months or years), someone probably would have identified it sooner. As it was, I flew blind for a long, long time before I knew what was happening.

My 18-year-old son and I remain fairly alienated (though I see signs of progress), but my daughter has been home with me now for several months and, while PAS will always be one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’m healing.

Having my beautiful, brilliant daughter, with her heart wide open and her mind searching for her truth, doesn’t hurt one tiny bit.

For other alienated parents, this is what I know:

When you doubt yourself, breathe deep and remember that you don’t deserve this; what they say isn’t true. Oh, I know. I know that you weren’t perfect; that you made mistakes; that you were weak and broken and you failed in ways large and small. Still, you don’t deserve this.

Don’t give up.

Don’t let them (your kids, their other parent, and any other people involved in your children’s alienation) define you. You define you. There is no solution to PAS, no sure way to save our kids or our relationships with them, but I know that living our own lives with integrity is the start.

Never live down to their expectations. Live up to your own.

You are living in the vast darkness and hope is a tiny, flickering flame, almost invisible. Oh, I know, and my heart is broken because you are in the darkness and I remember the darkness and it is so large. So endless. So damn heavy. My grief was like being chained to a line of cinderblocks that I dragged behind me.

Find love. Find as much love as you can, because you deserve love. You deserve people and kindness and togetherness and a whole, fulfilling life, in spite of the terrible hole that won’t be filled by anyone but your children. Still, surround yourself with people who care about you and who see you as you are—gifts, flaws, and all. Those people who assume that only a terrible parent could ever be alienated from his or her children should be tossed overboard immediately.

Don’t give up.

Nourish your spirit, whatever that means for you. Read good books (or trashy ones), go to church, spend time with friends, write a blog, write a journal, pray, go dancing, learn to knit, grow a garden, or take up painting, but find something that feeds your soul.

PAS creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice; we need nurturing and support and a strong spirit to survive.

Your kids do need you. No matter how loudly they say they don’t, they do. No matter what they say you did, they need you. They may not hear your words of love (though you should never stop speaking them) but they see you. That bedroom you dust and vacuum every week for your son is not wasted space; it’s an invitation. That bicycle in the garage, with its oiled chain and inflated tires, is a love note that your daughter notices every time she sees it. The phone calls they ignore, the texts they don’t answer, the gifts they return, all speak their own language.

As long as our children are alive, there is hope.

The Adobe Flash Player is required for video playback.
Get the latest Flash Player or Watch this video on YouTube.

Don’t give up.

One Final Roadtrip

In the end, after almost everything was finished and her life was coming to a close, my grandma found joy.

Margery Mae Harrold, my grandma, was born on July 23, 1922.

She was Freda and Roy Harrold’s first child.

 

 

Freda and Roy had two more children in the early years of their marriage: Norma Lee and Leeland. Much later, when Margery was 16, Freda and Roy had their youngest child, Donald.

Born in the heart of the Dust Bowl just a decade before it began, she had a traumatic childhood, but she was fiercely devoted to her family, and especially her mother. Freda and Roy knew their daughter was intelligent and they tried several times to send her to live with other family members so that she could get a better education. Every time, she ran back home.

She met my grandpa, Howard George Jones, during WWII. Born and raised in South Dakota, he was in the Navy and was stationed in Kansas where he worked as a mechanic. They married after a scandalously brief courtship.

The young couple moved around a bit—first to South Dakota, then to Nebraska, and finally, they settled in Denver, Colorado where Howard worked for the fledgling company Frontier Airlines.

There, they had their two children, Wendell (my dad) and Nadine.

Margery was the quintessential 1950s American housewife, but she wasn’t happy. A traumatic childhood leaves its marks. Her husband was a hard man to live with and to love. Most of all, her life left her intelligence unfulfilled.

During the 1960s, when Wendell was in high school and Nadine was in junior high, Howard took a job with the FAA and the family moved to Seattle.

When she was an adolescent, Nadine began to have serious emotional problems and Margery, who was always devoted to her children and extremely close to her daughter, became increasingly absorbed in Nadine’s mood storms.

Wendell went to college, married, and moved to Albuquerque. Nadine, too, moved into a life of her own, though markedly less successfully.

In 1971 and 1973, my sister and I were born, Howard and Margery’s only grandchildren.

To say Margery was fond of her granddaughters would be the understatement of the century.

And then, in 1979, the unthinkable: Nadine took her own life.

After the immediate grief—the literal wailing and gnashing of teeth, the horrifying, noisy, sloppy business of surviving one of the worst imaginable traumas a human could experience—Margery stopped.

Stopped living, stopped feeling, stopped hoping.

She stopped.

She heard the call of bitterness and she followed it down and down and down. She swallowed it in big, long gulps with bourbon and coffee in the morning, beer at lunch, gin and tonics in the afternoons, wine with dinner, and valium before bed.

She went through the motions of her life, but she was not in it.

After Howard retired, the couple bought an RV and a membership to a resort and campground. They spent time travelling around the US, Howard tinkering endlessly with their giant rolling home, Margery happy that he had a project to occupy him so she could get some peace.

They travelled to Europe and Asia, trips that Margery mostly hated. She like to have her things around her, to have control of her environment, and international travel made her uncomfortable.

In 1998, Howard died and something startling happened: Margery woke up. She joined a grief support group and a church. She did volunteer work and spent time with her friends. She bought a car she liked for once in her life. She bloomed.

We watched, amazed and giddy at this new woman who had sprung up before us. She was herself, but lighter.

In 2006, she broke her leg, right below her hip, and everything changed. Her independent life was over.

In the fall of 2011, my sister Erin (who had been our grandma’s primary caregiver for several years) informed our parents and me that the time had come for hospice care. My grandma, who had been dying a long, lingering death for several years by then, finally seemed to be serious about going home.

In the last few years of her life she said to at least three family members, “I know my Father has many mansions and I wish they would finish mine because I want to go home!” She was angry about being here on earth. Three years in a row, as I seated her for Christmas dinner, she thumped the table with her fists and said, “This better be my last one!”

We hobbled along for several years, my parents, my sister, and I trying to make her life as comfortable as we could, but as her confusion grew, so did her anxiety and frustration. She would get irrationally angry and there was little we could do but let her ride it out. She kicked me out of her room one night after accusing me of stealing her independence and her money. She became near-obsessed with “the baby” (whose baby we never could determine) and my sister and I eventually gave up convincing her that there are no babies in our family and instead reassured her that “the baby” was fine.

And still, she was always my grandma. I would put her on the phone with my dad or one of her brothers and her misery would pour out, but with me, whenever she was able, she was my grandma. She apologized when she snapped at me, refused the medicine or water I offered as gently as possible, and called me honey or sweetie in even her most agonized moments.

When she saw me walk into the room, or when she opened her eyes and I was there, her face lit like it had my whole life. She saw me, and she knew me, and she loved me.

As the end got closer, our parents still in Maryland, my sister and I struggled to keep her comfortable. Erin had some long and terrible hours with our grandma, her pain intense. The anguish and helplessness in my sister’s face when I arrived at 6:00 one morning was horrible. We don’t know what ultimately killed our grandma, but the pain was in her abdomen and for several days, we didn’t have everything we needed to get it under control.

Our mom came, and soon after, a hospice nurse arrived. With the right drugs to control her pain, we settled in for the final wait. I called my dad and told him to come, then told my grandma that Wendell was on his way. She wasn’t talking anymore by then but she responded to her son’s name.

My dad arrived the next morning and we spent the day quietly in her room—my parents, my sister, and I tending to my grandma, talking, and being with.

My mom changed my grandma’s sheets and when I leaned over my grandma’s recliner to carry her back to her bed, she opened her eyes and saw me, and oh, that smile. She gave me that smile of recognition and pure, devoted love that she has given me since she first met me.

That night, I didn’t want to go home, but I knew that my grandma wouldn’t be able to die if I was there. She was my grandma and she would protect me to her very last moment. For her, I was never quite an adult. She trusted me as much as she trusted anyone, but she tried to take care of me, even when I was taking care of her.

After Erin and I had gone home, my parents lay down on the fold-out couch, turned off the lights, and listened. My grandma breathed slowly, then more slowly, and finally, she was finished. She went home.

We decided to take her to Kansas to bury her next to her husband and her daughter on Mother’s Day. For weeks before we all piled into my dad’s Toyota and drove from Albuquerque to Newton, family members reminded me: Don’t forget grandma!

I didn’t forget Grandma.

We wore pink because she loved it, and we did the digging ourselves (Thanks again, David!) because in my family, we take do-it-yourself very seriously.

She was ready to go long before she did, but finally, my grandma rests.

In the end, after almost everything was finished and her life was coming to a close, she found joy.

She found her way back, from bitterness to hope.

I am blessed to have witnessed it all.

I am blessed to have been loved by this fierce, flawed, and wonderful woman. She made me special.

I love you, Grandma. When I see you again, we’ll be having coffee in your beautiful pink room that your Father prepared for you, full of birds and flowers, and I will see that smile again.

Until then.