bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

three things: 12/27/16

1) Headaches, of which I am the chief taxonomist, the God of Knowing, the Linneaus, the Webster. My dad was a headache-haver, I am the inheritor of that misery, and my daughter Katie carries it on another generation. I have a headache nearly every single day, and know the specifics and instigator of so many. There’s the one that exists in the top of my left eyeball (and the very different one that dominates my right eyeball). The one that sits on the top center of my head. The one that presses on my right temple. The one that wraps like a belt. The one that comes from a low pressure system. The one that arises from smells in the environment. The one that comes from specific bad sleep. The different one that comes from insufficient sleep. The one that comes from perfume or cologne worn by others. The one that I get when it’s too cold. Etc. Etc. Etc. The one that’s treated with hot, wet cloths. The one that’s treated with Sumatriptan. The one that’s helped by beer and a Sudafed (only if both at once). The one that’s helped by massage. The one that’s helped by sleep. The one that is helped by nothing. And all combinations of all.

People want to help, and I inevitably hear that I should go to a doctor. But the issue is that I am a headache-haver, and that isn’t treatable. I know how to identify and treat the different ones, so what would a doctor say? You have sinus headaches, tension headaches, sleep-related headaches, you’re sensitive to volatile organic compounds, all of which I already know. It’s a terrible thing, being a headache-haver, because my day can be derailed so easily and often there is nothing to do but wait for the next day in the hope that it’ll be better. This part of the post brought to you by today’s low-heavy-shaggy-gray-sky-headache. I was in my mid-20s when I learned that not everyone has a headache every single day, and it blew me away. Lucky you, if you don’t!

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 6 of those are from the past 13 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

2) My son is breaking my heart anew. I got a message from his ex-boyfriend about a box of Will’s stuff — did I want it, or should he throw it away? It’s filled with pictures from Will’s childhood, mementos, gifts I gave him, an album his sister assembled with pictures and letters from us all when she was trying to lead him back to our family, all just abandoned by him. I’m honestly not sure I can bear to collect them, but I know I can’t bear for them just to be tossed in the dump on Staten Island and so I will collect them. They will smell like Will. He told me that Will lost his job in the spring and he doesn’t know if/where he’s working, and that he doesn’t have the same phone number. He knows he is (at the moment) staying with a friend in Sunnyside, Queens, but nothing more specific than that. The thread is getting so weak that allows me to tug him, frayed down to a single twist. Will knows he is hurting me, and that doesn’t make my pain any less, it doesn’t allow me to just reside in anger at him. I still fill the weight of him in my arms, smell the smell of his baby head, smell the smell of his teenage years, hear the sound of his boy voice and his deep man voice. I still remember his humor, his pleasure in beating me at Scrabble, the way he called me Ma just to crack me up. The way he said I’d be Granma Pete instead of just Pete, to make me laugh. It’s holding the full complexity of it all that breaks my heart. If I could simply be furious with him, or let him go, or just feel all the love, it would be so much easier.

3) I’ve been trying to sit very still and quiet with this terrible feeling in order to understand it. I set aside the headache as its own thing, and focus instead on the heartache. Why is it so painful? What, exactly, is the feeling of it? I realized that I feel chaotic and not whole, that this feeling is one of fragmentation, and an inability to cohere. It might cohere if I had a simple story I could tell, if I had more answers (whatever they might be) than questions, if I had a simple set of feelings. Just grief, for example. My mind feels like threads exploded outwards, my body doesn’t feel whole and comfortable, and my feelings are all over the place, changing with my breath. I’m doing my best just to let this all be, to be present with it and not try to force it into one category, one thing, and to notice that I can do that. Super hard, y’all. Super, super, super hard. I keep suddenly standing up and preparing to walk somewhere, but I just take a few steps, turn around, hold my head, and sit down again. This is just part of life, it’s just part of my life, it just is, and it will not always be like this.

apathy is privilege

It’s like a death has happened. Enough people in our country voted in just the right places (note: not the majority of us, though) to elect a demagogue. So the majority of us are grieving, and mourning, and aching, and lost, at the moment. We’ll get ourselves together, we’ll rally, we’ll organize, we’ll work to protect the vulnerable among us . . . unlike the stated plan of the Republicans had they lost, which was to call the election rigged, to fail to concede, to imprison the opponent, to bring out guns and violence. No, instead we will organize and work, once we get through the pain.

But you know, none of whatever Trump does will affect me personally and immediately. I’m white, not a person of color. I was born in this country, and my family has been here for generations. I’m straight. I’m not in the stage of my life where reproduction is a concern. I have a bit of work. I don’t have any family in the military, serving in dangerous places. I’m not disabled. I will be nowhere near our new president so I guess my pussy is safe from him, at least. I don’t have a pre-existing condition that will disallow me from getting health insurance. Of course he will affect me quite personally, down the road, when he ignores climate change, and when he and his Republican Congress gut Social Security, which I’ve been paying into my entire working life and have depended on as a substantial part of my retirement because I am so far from wealthy it’s not funny.

But the part that has me grieving the most is the threat he poses to others, people who just barely have the same rights I have already, and whose rights will probably be snatched away. Marriage equality, for instance. Reproduction rights, already unavailable to most poor women in my own [current] home state of Texas even though they are currently granted by a Supreme Court decision — which I expect they will try to overturn. Gun reform? Forget it, now. Ending Citizens United? No way. And so all the dark money, all the Koch Brothers etc machinations to make the rich even richer and screw everyone else, that will continue on. Giving refuge to immigrants, that ain’t gonna be happening, no way. Climate change? Oh, didn’t you hear that it’s just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and so no worries, man. Fair treatment for women? Tossed back a decade or two, if not more, because you can bet they’ll post Supreme Court Justices, even though they failed to do their job when Obama was obligated to replace Scalia. The sheer irony I choke on is that everything the far right complains about most, corruption and money in politics that keeps the little guy down, they just voted to ensure.

But you know, I don’t have any money anyway, so whatever. I pay 100% more taxes than our president-elect has paid, and there’s not one thing I can do about it. Not one.

Can I, though, sit in my privilege and just shrug, since I won’t be personally and immediately affected? Because my daily life won’t be impacted. I don’t have to worry that a knock will come on my door, or when I’m moving around in the world. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be brutalized on the street because I’m gay, or brown, or of another religion. I don’t have to worry that some ignorant white thug with a trucker’s cap and an assault rifle, newly emboldened by his president-elect who has championed that violence, will kill me. I don’t have to worry that during a routine traffic stop a cop will kill me and get away with it.

Instead, I have to get up. I have to fight. I have to pick which fights I can engage in, because although I want to engage in all of them, I don’t have the available time that would require, and I’m not in any one place long enough to have a sustained commitment to a local group, in a meaningful way. But I have to fight, however I can. I have to be prepared for trouble, because I also have to speak out when I see something terrible happening, whether it’s a cop harassing a black person, a thug harassing a gay person or couple, or a Muslim, or anyone harassing another woman. I have to be honed and ready, and not be caught off guard. It’s go-time, y’all. It’s get off the Facebook meme and go time. It’s speak-up time. It’s speak-out time. It’s self-defense time. Here is a list of outlets you can study to find when and where you can fight back, if you’re interested.

My friends helped me through the worst of the immediate aftermath, and now I’ve found the little crack where the light is getting in. Let’s hold hands and do this. Let’s remember

John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work. I admire her for this more than I can ever say.
Martin Luther King, who said "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Martin Luther King, who said “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Still waiting.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.

These people will be my touchstones, my sources of energy and persistence when mine flags, because mine flags too quickly. Help me, let’s help each other, because I meant it when I said with her that we’re stronger together. Let’s make her rallying cry reality — for her, for ourselves, and for everyone else. I’m still with her.

what you let go

doesn't seem so hard when you put it like that...
doesn’t seem so hard when you put it like that…

The other night I was taking a yin yoga class with Felicia Tomasko over at YogaGlo. I love so many things about her classes, and I especially love her yin classes. This one in particular was focused on detox, so lots of twists and long, long holds (languid, as she likes to describe them).

During one twist she said, “What you let go of is as important as what you take in.” She was specifically talking about breath, about exhaling, but it struck me as being very important in a much bigger way, and a way that is certainly relevant for me. You too, maybe.

As a person who has historically had an impossible time with conflict, especially with saying no, I don’t want that, I have found myself with an accumulation of relationships over the years — like we all do. During my childhood, when we moved every few weeks, I remember explicitly thinking that it didn’t matter about that person because we’d just be moving soon. And so I both learned that as a strategy, and simultaneously never had to learn how to stick with people and work things out. No need! Moving on, moving on, moving on.

Since the beginning of 2013, I’ve ended two friendships, the only two times in my life I’ve done that. Both relationships were toxic and quite bad for me, and in both cases I ended them completely, without equivocating. The two women involved made it very easy for me, and I’m grateful for that. I’ve never been able to end any relationship directly and so it was good that the need and reason were both so loud and clear.

And now, in the wake of the wide-ranging changes that have been happening with me over the past year, I find that I am listening to what people say in a different way. I am hearing them, hearing their actual words. I even kind of hear them in real-time, instead of a split second later which is how I used to hear them if I heard them at all. With a time lag, I’d realize what had just been said and my moment felt lost, the moment to say What? What did you just say to me?!

It’s not like this change is an easy one, necessarily, because it means I’m more likely to face a moment when I need to challenge what someone says, in that moment, and I’m not very skilled at that. (Plus, it’s scary. With only one very recent exception, most people lash out if you say something they don’t want to hear, turn the tables and blame the other. I need to remember my recent exception to this and let it hold weight.) And if I listen carefully to what people say to me, and there are enough instances of a certain kind, it may be that I need to let relationships go. There is only one current relationship I have that feels wobbly in this specific way, and I’m certainly not itching to throw gas on anything, or make a problem where none really exists, but I am hearing what she says.

It’s worth thinking about. What you let go of is just as important as what you take in. I don’t have trouble letting go of stuff; my life taught me all about that. I let go of place pretty easily, for better and for worse equally. The events of my life have taught me pretty loudly that nothing lasts forever, that it’s all, every last bit, going to change, transform, perhaps disappear in the way I have it. I haven’t yet faced a loss within myself that is grievous—all my limbs work painlessly, my senses all work, the most important organs are just pumping along without a problem, my mind works well enough—so dealing with the ordinary losses of aging have been easy to accept. Looking ahead to the losses I’m likely to face as a consequence of aging is a waste of now, and luckily now has become my favorite place to be.

Felicia’s comment about the importance of what you let go is surely about the things we choose to let go, like relationships that aren’t good, work that is crushing, habits that hurt. Since life feeds up a banquet of letting go of things we don’t want to let go of, perhaps the critical corollary is How you let of things is just as important as everything else.

You grieve. You acknowledge. You honor. Perhaps you find some kind of ritual. You understand the place of the loss in the scheme of things, yourself, your life, the world. You cherish and then you open your hands. You discover who you are without it, you discover who you are now, and you allow time for that to settle. In the perfect world, the one I hear about and only make the tiniest visits to, that’s how you let go of things. But it’s always worth the effort, I do believe, and the effort may take a very long time, a number of passes, some forwarding-and-backwarding. You understand that maybe it’s a process, not a one-time-only deal, a one-stop-shop.

Another lesson learned on the mat. xoxo

habits

water + time = changed rock
water + time = changed rock

When water runs in a rivulet over rock for a very long time, it erodes grooves into the hard stone. Dripping water can eventually produce a bowl-shaped hollow in a stone. I think about that when I encounter a very long and old habit, one that started decades ago.

When my parents divorced in 1970, I was 11. It was a bitter and nasty divorce, and my mother really wanted us to hate my father so she said horrible things about him non-stop, she kept us away from him, and she lashed at us if we ever expressed anything positive for him, to be sure we’d keep those thoughts to ourselves, if we had them. And then, of course, we started moving every couple of months and so it was easier to keep us away from him. He saw the three of us kids only once after the divorce.

But I was “his” and so my longing for him was very deep. Once Mother intercepted and opened a letter I had written him, and because I’d told him I loved him, she put me out on the curb, called him to come get me, and I sat on the hot curb for the six hours it took him to get there. That was a very short-lived period I spent with him, just a couple of months when I was 13, because he was in such terrible shape and I couldn’t stay there safely.

Since he was a shimmering-with-rage drunk with a fondness for guns, we also had to keep our eyes peeled for him because a couple of times he put us in danger. So I got in the habit of watching for him, partly out of my longing and partly out of real fear. I looked at the driver of every oncoming car. I looked at the face of every man on the sidewalk, in the mall, at the grocery store. Even after he killed himself, I kept looking. It had just become such a habit — that water had dripped on the rock for so very many years — I couldn’t stop. I still do it, actually, but in a pale version. I’m not leaning forward when I look, my heart doesn’t pound, it’s just what my eyes do. They constantly look for him.

And then my son Will disappeared into NYC when he was 18. I didn’t know where he was and I frantically looked at every single young man who might be him, for years. When I’d stand on the subway platform I scanned all the faces on my side and on the other side. I looked at the people in the subway cars as they passed. Every person sitting in restaurants, coffee shops. Every person passing on the sidewalk, looking looking looking. Is that him? Is that him over there? Wait…is that him? Is that my son? It felt so familiar to be doing that, although the feeling was now a shattered heart.

here's a picture of my son that someone tagged on Facebook a year ago. The ache I feel from his absence can be gutting.

We had a brief reunion when Will came back into our family for a year or so after Katie tracked him down and forced him to talk to her. He talked to us all and I got to see him on a semi-regular basis in NY.  [That’s Will there, in the photo to the right. He’s standing next to his partner Jim. Someone tagged him on Facebook a year ago, and I haven’t seen a picture of him since.]

Once, in that brief window of getting to see and speak to him, I was walking to the subway station on the corner and was looking for him, just because it had become my habit to look for him. My eyes passed right over him, standing in the doorway of a burger shop as I passed! He called out, “Hey Ma,” and I was so shocked.

I’d gotten into the habit of looking for him, but never in the habit of finding him.

There was always the fear that he’d disappear again, which he did two years ago in August. My daughters haven’t seen him since Gracie’s funeral. I saw him a couple of times after that and then that was all, he disappeared from our family again. And so he’s gone again, two years now, and he shut down his Facebook account so I don’t even have a hope of a random and rare photograph of him coming through my feed, tagged by someone unknown to me. I look for him everywhere, even in Austin where he hasn’t lived since 2003. I look for him incessantly when I’m in New York, and I suppose I will look for him the rest of my life.

Water can eventually destroy a rock, make it disappear, microscopic specks at a time. Years and years of running, neverending wearing against the rock affect the shape and even existence of it. I too am an eroded stone, worn down by my lifetime of looking for these two men. When I legally changed my name to Stone fifteen years ago (long before Will left), one reason I picked the name was that it was solid, anchored, unmoving. Elemental, strong. I had always wanted to be those things.

And so I stand, unmoving. I wait for him. I am worn down by looking for him and never finding him, and the habit is so deeply embedded in my cells now that I don’t think I could stop, even if I wanted to. It’s been a very hard couple of weeks since he shut down his Facebook account and closed off the last (and extremely trivial) access we had to him. I’m crying a lot, and even when I’m just sitting still there will be tears sliding out of the corners of my eyes without my recognizing that they’re coming.

Time Does Not Bring Relief (Edna St Vincent Millay)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

tenderness

heartYesterday afternoon I drifted into one of my favorite emotional places. I think it’s been building for a while, and then my miserable experience with the writers’ conference walked me the rest of the way there. I feel tender toward the world, cracked open, wistful. (Wistful is my favorite feeling, wrote about it here.) Yesterday was actually less about wistful and more about tender, but those live in the same neighborhood.

Right now, as I move around the world unencumbered in my own little life, I know a number of people who are dealing with the imminent death of a close loved one, or are dealing with a frightening health crisis of a dear loved one, or are grieving a loss. I gather this will happen with greater frequency, the older I get, as loss happens more regularly. And of course our own hearts, in my family, are still crisscrossed with fresh scars from losing Gracie; the scars are now strong enough to resist tugging, but tugging hurts a lot. For me, big happiness and this kind of tender feeling are wrapped up together so inextricably I’ll always find one when the other is present.

On the first day of the conference, Peggy and I were in the car on the way to New Haven and she asked casually if I liked The Wailing Jennys, because they were on her iPod and we could listen as we drove. I love The Wailing Jennys! The mention of them opened my heart because Dixie introduced them to me by surprise-sending me their “Bright Morning Stars” CD. Beautiful three-part harmonies, gorgeous melodies, wistful songs. One song on that CD in particular carries a huge weight in my heart, the song called Away But Never Gone. I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I told Peggy that I especially loved one song, I’d know it when I heard it.

She started the music and tears filled my eyes — that beautiful music was imprinted with the moment, the happy happy moment of being with Peggy, on our way to the writers’ conference, that moment of such importance to me. All the elements were right there: Peggy, the gorgeous day, being in that moment, everything. I knew that forever more, when I heard anything from that CD I could be swept right back to the moment with Peggy, and Dixie would be there with me too.

Several songs into the playlist, the song I loved came on and I said, “That’s it! That’s the song I love so much.” It’s a very wistful song, as you can imagine from the title (Away But Never Gone, lyrics here). For me, it carries the heaviness of that period when I told Marc we should let each other go, because he was so incredibly lonely. I sent him that song and told him that it’s how I felt, that he would never be gone from my heart. I can’t listen without feeling that moment and thick, fat tears fill my eyes.

But Peggy has her own exquisite moment with the song too, her story not mine to share, but she shared it with me as we drove and the morning sun was like a kaleidoscope through our tears. I’ll remember that shared moment with her always.

One of my friends is nearing the end of a difficult treatment. One of my friends is not doing very well and life is feeling small and limited, and possibly changed in a long-term way. I think about those two people, I close my eyes and see the lives they’ve been living, lives spent with loved ones, lives spent helping others, doing things they love, ordinary lives, really, of the happy variety. Like mine. And I feel so tender toward the whole thing, toward what it is to live a life, to sweep up the happiness into our arms, to have our hands forced open as we lose things, hopes, experiences, plans, people. There is something so poignant to me about being here in a human life. We help each other live, we help each other die. We help each other with tiny loads and big ones. We help each other with joy, because it’s so much better shared, and we help each other with disappointment — also better shared, than managing all alone. My heart is full of fear and loss and anxiety and excitement and the future and the unknown and this beautiful moment.

loss and suffering

heartTalking about a mother’s heart is a schizophrenic experience for me. There I’ll be, talking about how full mine is, or how broken – because I am a mother to these people – and then I’ll remember so pointedly that it’s not true “because” I am a mother, because my own mother and plenty like her do not have these feelings.

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.
I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 3 of those are from the past 9 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

My son is estranged from our family. He disappeared from us entirely in 2005, into New York City. I was living there too, and not knowing where or how we was doing made me feel, every single day, like I would die from it. From the fear, from the heartache, from the worry. I emailed him every single day, without fail, never knowing if he got them. For a brief period I discovered where he worked and would stand on the opposite corner, where he wouldn’t see me, and just watch. “Ah, he looks OK. Today he looks OK.” He held all the cards and all the power, and my fear was that if he saw me he would quit that job and then I wouldn’t even know that much about him. And so I’d watch from a distance because knowing that he was alive mattered more than the rest.

Thanks to my oldest daughter’s efforts, he rejoined our family, tentatively, for about a year, and we said some of the things to each other that we needed and wanted to say, and then he disappeared again and simply will not respond to any of us. The last time I saw him was August of last year (he lives a few blocks from me in NYC) and he doesn’t answer our calls, never responds to our texts or emails, he just stays away. When will I see him again? Will I? Will I hear from him ever again?

It’s a very hard thing to talk about for so many reasons. Too many parents respond with judgment and cold assumptions, they make thoughtless remarks. I do not need anyone to remind me—ever—that I have made mistakes in every avenue of my life, including parenting. I imagine some parents respond in judgment because it lets them feel safe: she must have done something so bad to deserve this and I know I haven’t, so it won’t happen to me. I hope it doesn’t, it’s excruciating. But I don’t and never will regret the thing I did that precipitated his leaving nine years ago, even if I never see him again. I felt that way then and I feel that way now. He was in a bad place and I tried to save his life, knowing very well that he might never forgive me. But he would be alive in the world and I decided I would live with that.

What is wrong with me – all the other mothers talk about their kids, complain about this little thing or that little thing, oh those kids – and I have this one who chooses to be gone. My heart is broken every single day, missing a chamber, dead in spots from lack of blood there. I feel shame and sorrow and impossible loss, and exquisite pain that every single day he makes the decision not to be in our family. I have a friend who understands personally what this feels like, and just having that little spot of true understanding has been such an experience of grace. And I got a note from one of my daughters with an expression of compassion that was so profound I’m bleaching out the pixels in her email from reading it over and over and over. There is such a balm from compassion and empathy from your adult children, I’m telling you. You wait a long, long time, hoping that someday they understand things, and sometimes they do.

Once in a blue moon I remember that my own mother and I have no connection – I haven’t seen or spoken to her since spring of 1987, and I won’t see or speak to her ever, for any reason. I won’t go to her funeral, if I even get the news that she dies. Is my son’s absence about the universe coming around to smack me down? How can my estrangement from my mother and my son’s estrangement from me have anything at all to do with each other, the situations could not be more different, and yet I am the common point to both. Pain ripples out a very long time from old boulders thrown into deep lakes, and maybe Will’s estrangement is a long slow ripple.

I have absolutely no idea what the pain of a child’s death is like. I watched my grandmother deal with my father’s death, and I watched my daughter deal with her daughter’s death. That’s a place I hope I never learn personally, I cannot even imagine. I’ve heard widowed and divorced women talk about which is worse – “At least yours died and didn’t leave you!” “At least yours could always come back!” – and there’s just more than enough sad truth in both losses. I am so glad my son is alive, and there is a cutting horrible pain in his choosing this.

Life is a mess and so are we as we try to live it. We fuck up out of ignorance, out of shortsightedness, out of our own brokenness, out of being human, and things are not always neat — maybe they never are neat. I try to extend that same understanding to my son, that he is perhaps fucking up out of his ignorance, his shortsightedness, his own brokenness, his humanity, and his life is not neat. Unlike my mother with me, my love for my son endures and will be echoing inside me to my last breath, whatever happens with him in the interim. And I am every day filled to the brim with love and appreciation for my beautiful daughters, I cannot neglect to say that.