Spring Awakening

March 2011, breakfast -- one of the last times I saw him, though not THE last. He won't take a straight picture, he always pulls a face at the last minute.
March 2011, breakfast — one of the last times I saw him, though not THE last, which was Aug ’12. He won’t take a straight picture, he always pulls a face at the last minute.

I miss my son Will. No news there. I don’t talk about it very much, less than before, but I think about him all the time — and in a variety of ways, of course. Sometimes it’s with hurt, sometimes with anger, or sorrow, or loneliness, or betrayal, or bewilderment, or loss. Sometimes I realize it’s been a while since I thought of him. He has no idea that Ilan is now part of our family. He’s never seen or acknowledged Oliver either, for that matter. Our family is going forward without him, as it can only do, and because it’s our only option.

During my too-brief moment in Austin last week, I had another one of those jolting epiphany-type experiences. I was taking a shower and listening to music, and a song from the Broadway play Spring Awakening came up on my playlist. [From Wikipedia: Set in late-19th-century Germany, the musical tells the story of teenagers discovering the inner and outer tumult of teenage sexuality. In the musical, alternative rock is employed as part of the folk-infused rock score.] Will loved that play and saw it on Broadway. He told me about it with great excitement, played me some of the songs, said how much he loved it and that it felt like it was personal for him. I saw it shortly after he recommended it, and wow. Just, wow.

Will probably also had a little crush on one of these guys.
Will probably also had a little crush on one of these actors in the production. I did!

In the play, all aspects of teenage sexuality are present — from incest, to exploration by straight kids, to exploration or longing by gay kids — along with a variety of consequences of the exploration. Some of the songs are explosive and high energy, and some are dark and so filled with sadness I almost cannot bear it, like “Whispering” (“See the father bent in grief / The mother dressed in mourning / Sister crumbles, and the neighbors grumble / The preacher issues warnings // History / Little miss didn’t do right / Went and ruined all the true plans / Such a shame. Such a sin”). This link provides the list of songs and each title is linked to its lyrics and a Youtube video of the song.

One song is “Momma Who Bore Me,” and my suspect memory whispers that Will especially loved it. [knife in my heart, with this opening lyric:

Mama who bore me
Mama who gave me
No way to handle things
Who made me so sad

So for all the years since he first told me about his love for this play, I have taken very personally the weight of it, as if his love for it was just about me in a bad way — oh how great and perfectly it articulated his bad experience. And this is so me, to do this. So whenever I heard any of the music, I felt it like lashes on my naked skin, bad, bad, bad me, I’m the reason he won’t be part of our family. Lash, lash, lash, LASH.

But when I was in the shower, listening to the song “Bitch of Living,” I realized: it’s not about me! Will’s love of that music is not [just, if at all] about me, by any means. Will is gay, and this aspect of his life has brought a whole bunch of struggle and difficulty and rejection by his father and that pain, and figuring-out. Exploring. My own young sexual life was excruciating and as horrible as it could be, and I forget that it’s not that for everyone; it’s otherwise a complicated time, a confusing time, a thrilling time, a new time, a wondering time, and that’s what the music is about, that’s what the story is about. I’m sure the Momma song had some resonance for him, but that’s not why he loved the play. He loved it because it got at a huge thing, at the complexity and thrill and struggle of that time of life, a time that was intimately about him. Not about me. It’s not about me.

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That’s the fabulous song “Bitch of Living,” just to
give you a taste of the musical.

Anyway. I know I frequently mention AA sayings — my husband knows a bunch of them and so they’re part of my lingo if they’re especially good — but there’s a saying in the Al-Anon world for parents who have kids who are addicts: You are not your kid’s higher power.

You are not your kid’s higher power. I am not my kids’ higher power.

I've always loved this shot of him taken when he was a young or mid-teenager.
I’ve always loved this shot of him taken when he was a young or mid-teenager.

It’s so easy to forget that they have a huge interior life that you have no idea about. That they have secrets, and thoughts, and that where you are in their various constellations is very different than where they are in yours, and probably different from where you think you are. I thought about the fact that Will is a ‘character’ in my life — more than that, since he’s my son and I gave birth to him and loved him intensely from that moment on — and that I am a ‘character’ in his. I’m not the sun, I’m a comet.

Even in my daughters’ lives, in the context of our loving relationships and easy and regular participation in each others’ lives, I’m not the sun. I used to be, when they were tiny little girls, but as they grew I moved away from that central location, as I should.

This is an insight I keep having, in different forms, about Will. It’s always a comforting insight, a kind that makes his agonizing choice less about me which relieves me of one kind of pain, anyway. Knowing me I’ll never let myself entirely off the hook, but hanging myself on a fish hook instead of a meat hook is a huge relief. Perhaps I belong on a fish hook, though I’m not even certain about that. I think I need to save this to my ‘Lessons Learned’ tab so I can refresh myself without having to wait to relearn it.


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.