This Mother’s Journey

Kamogawa at dusk

I was 28 and living in Kyoto, Japan when the letter arrived. An ex-boyfriend wanted to let me know he had tested positive for HIV. The year was 1988 – early days of the disease when a positive diagnosis was still thought to be a death sentence. For a week I waited for results of my test and stared my mortality in the eye. Up until then, my life in Japan felt almost ideal – I could spend only a few days teaching English with plenty of free time to sculpt and paint and explore one of the most fascinating, inspiring cities in the world. I loved my life there, living primarily as an artist in a remarkable community.

That letter changed everything. I did not mourn I might never visit Morocco or make some piece of art. During that week of waiting, I walked up into the mountains  around Kyoto, biked along the river and felt lonely in that beautiful place. I discovered what I’d regret: the chance to be a mother. For the first time in my life, I not only thought about but wanted a baby.

When my test came back negative, I decided to return to the States. I’d had a Japanese boyfriend and imagined how beautiful a child would be – but I worried that for me, the differences between a man and woman were hurdle enough without adding cultural and language challenges to the mix. I returned to the USA with my new dream and hopes of finding my mate.

My years in NYC, working at the United Nations were punctuated by a few adventures but no man who was right. In 1992 I joined a UN Peacekeeping mission to the Former Yugoslavia – still determined to find a way to start a family even as I went off to a war zone. (I know, I know!) There I met Neil – the charismatic, handsome, funny and loving – but troubled Englishman I would marry. He too was keen to have a baby and we got right on it.

Premie Molly with proud parents at the beach in Ostuni, Italy.

At 36, I gave birth to Molly in Italy. (Another adventure I wrote about here.) I was right about the man-part of creating a family being a challenge – it turned out to be even more impossible than I imagined. Neil’s demons got the better of him and he ended his life a month before Molly turned 9. Being a single mom was never part of my dream and I know both of us have had flashes of feeling sorry for ourselves. Certainly there has always been the financial stress, but I have also worried about being the only one to cheer her on in life.

Except – I haven’t been and I am not. Together we learned to find love and support beyond the boundaries of home. This neighborhood has become family for us, pitching in to lend a hand on the turn of a dime, showing up — well, you can see in the photo below taken just before her high school graduation. Living in this community helped me to be a better mother. And my girl has learned what it means to create a ‘family’ of support and love.

A week ago, Molly picked up tickets for her college graduation. She was allowed 10 but needed only 1 ticket – for me. She felt embarrassed to just ask for a single ticket so took 3. As always, I fretted about how she’d feel when all her friends would have a cheering section for this momentous event.  And she would have ME. In fact, two of  her adorable friends joined me – cheering and tearing up beside me.

Over the years, there has always been noise for my girl when she has taken a bow or crossed the stage for an award. I clap until my hands sting, and hoot and whistle. But beyond my racket, there is always more of a roar from a circle that knows and loves her – though they may not share her blood. Molly has created friendships that run as deep as family. And like her two friends that sat beside me (and there was another row besides!) they show up and they make lots of noise so she will have no doubt that she is loved.

We did it!

We are a devoted duo – proud of each other. “We did it!” she captioned her graduation Facebook picture of the two of us. And it’s true. We did do it. She has graduated with pretty minimal debt and that, these days, feels big. For the last 20 plus years my primary, heartfelt focus and drive has been to nurture and launch my daughter in every way. And it is the best thing I ever did.

That glimpse of mortality delivered to a Japanese mailbox in 1988 clarified my dream and it came true. I write this on Mother’s Day – a holiday I mostly dismiss as a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ – but for the record on this day and everyday – I am indeed a happy mother!

PS  – While the HIV positive ex and I do not stay in contact, I know that thanks to remarkable advances in medicine, he is still alive and well.

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Most of all the Light

The light of Spring thrills me as does the scent of hyacinth, the jolly daffodils and softening fractals of  tree branches in bud. But this morning, propped up against my pillows not yet ready to get out of bed, I basked in the abundance of morning sun and decided that most of all – it’s the light I love. The sky is clear of clouds so my bedroom will be bright all day right up until 12 hours from now when it will shift to the other windows in golden angles before slipping into night.

My garden is slowly waking up. From beneath the brown of leaves and winter detritus are leeks I planted last year – through the winter they stood skinny green spears enveloped by snow- now thickening enough that I might get a soup or two out of them. There are two perfect, bright little bouquets of parsley. Grape hyacinth area scattered across the lawn. My peach trees are positively pregnant with buds and for the first time in years it looks like I’ll have an abundance of lilacs – judging from what look like teeny bunches of grapes at the tips of the branches.

Spring brings such possibility, doesn’t it? I’ll plant a garden again this year – although last year I barely harvested a tomato, the chard never appeared, nor sunflowers. But I’ll still try again because I like that there’s a chance. With nature, there’s always a chance. She is my guide and comfort. Hang in there through darkness and we’ll get to the light.  Enjoy the warmth.

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Around the Corner

I’m sitting in front of my glowing wood stove grateful for this gloomy, rainy day. Sunny would have been fine too but on days like this, I feel license to do inside things. If it were more beautiful outside I’d berate myself for not going for a walk or at least pretend to clean my messy garden. But there’s a chill and keeping an eye on the log situation becomes an important task. Not that it’s really very cold – but there’s my excuse for sitting here on a Saturday afternoon.

Ruminating is valuable and lately I feel pressed to do more of it and to pay closer attention to what’s going on both in and around me. Besides, tomorrow’s my birthday and certainly a significant reason for reflection, as if I need one. Mind you, I don’t bemoan any additional years on my downward, post-50 slope. As far as I know, it’s better than the alternative. I love life and am very curious about what the future might hold – even as I reflect on the past.

This year is full of personal landmarks. Twenty years in the same job, twenty years since I bought my house, and twenty years since my mother died (when she was only 6 years older than I am now). And this May, Molly graduates from college. All of this feels momentous, rich and significant. For these twenty years I’ve maintained this sometimes challenging balancing act of stability through some significant insanity. And here we are, pretty rock-steady, my kiddo and me, both wondering about what the future holds.

As I listen to Molly ponder her next steps, I wonder the same. Sometimes I’ve felt paralyzed by the challenge but lately, I’m inspired and feel almost giddy with a sense of possibility. All I need to do is just carry on to the next corner to see what’s there, right?

And plan the party.

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Searching for Memories

Bosnia 1992

I watch a lot of English television shows – mostly the mysteries on PBS. In general, they have finer scripts and better acting than American network television, don’t you think? And there’s another reason. Sometimes, with some slang or turn of phrase, I’ll hear my late husband.

Neil would have liked the kind-but-tough main character from the series George Gently with his tortured, wise guy sidekick. The smoky scenes would have reminded him of his childhood in the 1960s. Watching it, I hear Neil’s voice in my head telling me how he once had a car like that, or exclaiming how he’d love a chip butty from a caff, an onion bajhi or some other peculiar delicacy he misses from home.

Venice 1993

The other day was his birthday – the 12th one he didn’t get to celebrate. Sharon, a friend who knew and misses him too, joined me in raising a glass to him. We reminisced with laughter. I miss the adventurous, charming, funny and generous man I loved and thought I’d grow old with. Instead I search the televised streets of England for memories of him.

PS – I am witness to the fact that addiction treatment is not always effective for every patient – but nor is cancer treatment — and THIS, this is criminal! Please speak up.

“GOP health-care bill would drop addiction treatment mandate covering 1.3 million Americans”

PPS – My shared memory inspired Neil’s ICRC mate and our friend Bojan to fill in some backstory on the top photo. And he’s letting me share it here…

“Speaking about memories, that tape on the window of Land Rover is ICRC tape…it was there to hold bulletproof glass together. We (Neil and myself) were driving to the airport. Heavy beast (land rover) slid off the road, nose down to the ditch. That happened on actual front line (Sierra 3, you might remember). We go out and radioed French to bring a crane and pull us out. In the meantime Serb soldiers came and tried to steal the car. They shot several times from their AK 47 at windows trying to break in. 
This happened in early January 1993. Check point was set smack in the centre of front line on the road going from UN HQ (aka PTT building) to the airport. That Landrover was fully bulletproof. Weight of that car was 4 tonnes (almost 10,000 pounds) which made it impossible to control on the snow (well, to everyone but me….hehehe). We got stuck (crashed), Serbs showed up shortly and then took off. We hitched a ride to the airport in Ukraninan APC. By the time we got French to take us back there in their mobile crane, Serbs were all over the car trying to steal it. Guns were drawn (French) reinforcement called and for some reasons, Serbs decided to leave it alone and finally left.
I looked at Neil and said: “what just happened”? He replied with simple…. fuuuuck. We did not talk about that much afterwards, do not know why.”
Type a message…
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Days at the Beach

Although the calendar reads February the weather has been mild and when I leave work, the sky is still bright. Aching to move and fill my lungs with fresh air, I have been walking at the beach. Following the sidewalk along the sand on these winter days that feel like Spring, I thrill at the chorus of languages from the chatting couples and families I pass. Spanish, Greek, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese. These are my neighbors and a reason why 20 years ago, my husband and I, fresh from our life overseas, fell in love with this city on the Connecticut coast.

And this beach. Today I walked by the playground and for a moment, I remember myself spending hours on that bench watching little Molly slide down the fireman pole, climb up ladders, slip down slides. And my heart aches with the memory and I wish I could go back in time and be who I am now, watching my beautiful girl at play, completely attuned to joy, absolutely at peace. Instead, all those years ago, for too many seasons, I was lost in a cloud of worry, anger, hurt and terror.

My husband would be home sleeping – no matter the hour. Instead of sitting beside me watching our daughter, catching up on the week, planning our next meal – even just quarreling about things I imagine normal families do, he would still be sprawled across our bed in a drug induced sleep. Often, he would not wake until dinner, ignoring my tears, my pleas and harassment, stuck in the web of addiction that would eventually kill him. On those days at the beach, ever hopeful for the miracle that never came, I watched the cars enter the beach, hoping with some kind of magical thinking, that I might conjure him driving in next. There he would be – the man I’d married, waving and calling out the window, so happy to join us. Instead, Molly and I eventually returned home, the pit in my stomach deeper than ever and Molly not bothering to ask where Daddy was as he still slept upstairs.

Enough time has passed that I mostly remember the things I loved about Neil, a remarkable, beautiful, tortured man. But sometimes dark memories are ignited – like today on a beautiful day as I pass a bench in front of the playground.

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More on Burning Wood

This winter, I’ve been heating my house primarily by my new wood stove. My oil furnace is so ancient, it was a finalist (alas – not the winner!) in an ‘oldest furnace’ contest run by a local oil company. First prize was free installation of a new furnace. Mine is as old as I am but still was beat out by an even more impressive monster in someone’s basement.

While inefficient, my oil furnace is reliable and a new one would cost more than I want to go into debt for. Instead I spent half as much on a wood stove and feel good relying a little less on the fuel-oil roller coaster.

I have a friend who lets me have wood for free so every few weeks, I load up my Subaru. I like the exercise of carrying and stacking. Nights, I savor the gulp of frigid air when stepping out onto the porch to retrieve another log then back into the warmth to stoke the flames. The gentle lapping sounds and flickering glow make for sweet company. The rising warmth slowly sweeps upstairs so even my bedroom is toasty by time I climb between the sheets to sleep. The sheets I dry on my clothesline also featured in the photo above. Just call me pioneer woman.

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Building a Fire

I start with newspaper – usually the sports section although these days I can hardly bear to read any of it. Twisting the pages tight so they don’t spring apart, I line them up on yesterday’s ash. On top of this newsprint bed, I place a piece of beautiful fat-wood. At the start of the season a box of it mysteriously appeared at my door with no note and for days I quizzed people who might have sent it before finally tracking down the giver as my thoughtful, generous friend Laura. Right now I have cedar shingles as a bonus from the friend who has been giving me wood this season. They make for easy kindling, nice and dry and cracking easily into smaller pieces under my heel. Next I’ll teepee a few of the smaller logs from my woodpile. Making sure the damper is pushed all they way in, I strike a wooden match and set it to the paper. Leaving the door slightly ajar I wait, squatting in front of it to watch (and hope) it catches. Sometimes it’s slow going and doesn’t and I have to scrunch up more newspaper, shove another shingle bit in. I’ve figured out that it’s mostly about air, isn’t it? You have to have just enough to tease out the flames but not so much it blows the sparks out. Like life, isn’t it?

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Showing Up

How to explain my silence? I’d lost my voice. My excuses were: the election dismayed me, retail work during the crazy holiday season exhausted me. The longer I went without writing, the more I lost that muscle.

Since my dear dog died almost a year ago it has definitely been harder for me to find the quiet place from where my writing emerges. Our required walks together provided me with precious time for contemplation, observing nature, just being. I miss that and have yet to figure out another daily rhythm to regularly find that time and space.

But maybe in this interesting time of transitions in my life I’ve been looking in the wrong place for inspiration. Perhaps, rather than trying to replicate what worked before it’s time to find a new way…

Yesterday millions of people took to the streets. While 100% of me was willing to be there in spirit, I dragged my feet about going myself. When the friend I was going with decided to go to the NYC march instead of the one 15 minutes away I thought – I’m off the hook! No one will know and I can stay home and cheer my sisters (and so many brothers!) on from home! I know, I know – shame on me. But I’m not a fan of crowds, blah, blah, blah. Really, I had no good reason not to go. I went.

Surrounded by thousands of other peaceful protestors, I realized that of the things that have saved my life: friendships, writing, yoga, AlAnon – just showing up is the most important thing you can do.

Here I am.

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Caution – Danger Ahead

kiseljak

This is an excerpt from my memoir The Things We Cannot Change:

From my window, rooftops are visible against a ribbon of the almost-green trees muting the incessant drone of the highway. Everything appears serene and lovely this early spring morning but I cannot help and wonder what goes on inside these houses. What hatred, prejudice, violence might simmer under those roofs? Could this community in Connecticut combust? Might neighbors turn on each other in violence? Of course not – that seems impossible. We are sure we are different. That is not who we are. Yet I have seen what darkness can reside in homes with roofs just like ours and know such horrors are possible anywhere.

***

My apartment sat on the main road of this tiny predominantly Croat town in Bosnia. I heard everything. Nights, I hid under a ridiculous number of blankets for warmth and to try and drown out the drunken shouting and yelling of local soldiers in the street. The next day at work, I knew I’d be reading UN military reports of Moslem families being bullied from their homes, men taken away in the night. It could not just be me listening but doing nothing about the evil soundtrack of those sleepless hours? What about my neighbors? Under the veil of darkness, families were forced from homes they’d lived in for generations. The Croats were ‘ethnically cleansing’ the town of Moslems – right on the UN’s doorstep.

Man’s inhumanity to man being played out so close around me, overwhelms what should be memories of my excitement of new love. Instead, an icy fear and anger clutched at my throat and tightened with every night.

Years later, I remain haunted by that Bosnian-Croat town – the dark secrets and nights of violence spilling into daylight.

destroyed-village

Each chapter of my memoir begins with an italicized section of reflection in the present before launching into my past story. This chapter selection is from my time there when Central Bosnian villages were being ‘cleaned’ out. During the day, from the safety of the UN armored car, what from a distance looked sweet bucolic cottages, up close became surreal scenes of horror. Windows smashed – ruffled curtains flapping like surrender flags flown too late. Some houses burned. Doors left open – chickens wandering the yard, a dead dog. No human in sight. Eerie. The village had clearly just recently been ransacked – the people fled, taken prisoner, killed? Any of those was possible — all of it happened. We sped on to our meeting.

kids-in-sarajevo

The beauty of the places I lived and visited in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia during my four years there is unforgettable. But the hatred between those cousins wore my soul out. In 1996, I was ready to come home and glad to settle in the diverse, welcoming community I now love and call my own. While racism and prejudice has always existed in the United States, in my experience, it was rare to encounter it as shameless. There was at least a sense of being wrong and certainly some modicum of legal protection against hate crimes, discrimination. That’s what I thought in 1996 as I packed my bags to move back to create a life with my new family in my home country.

I’ve gotten a glimpse of what can happen when government leaders and their propaganda machines fan the flame of fear and hatred. I’ve seen what happens when citizens feel free – even encouraged – to harass (and worse) their neighbors with impunity. It’s more terrible than you can imagine. Let’s not go there.

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Dark Season

Just a week ago we set the clocks back an hour. I’m not crazy about this time switching. Sometimes I pass  all my hours in a windowless office with barely a glimpse of nature’s light. Those are sad days. The beat of my heart is connected to the sight of clouds, birds, the changing light. I need to see the sun, to feel even the wannest of warmth from winter rays on my face. I don’t do well in the dark.

But I will learn to function in the new reality of this season, to embrace this chance to shift inward, to reflect. I’ll make it work. When necessary, I will rage against the night, plan for the future. Spring will come. I will gather what I need to enrich the soil in my garden. I’ll gather friends and fill my house with laughter, ply them with good food and drink to sustain us through these dark days and take comfort and strength in our solidarity. And tonight – there’s a promise of an extraordinary moon to light the way through the dark. I’ll take that as an offering of hope.

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