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.

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.

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.

Back on the Bike

my-bike

I bought these sweet wheels at a tag sale for $50 (with a basket!) in early summer and $30 for a very unflattering helmet.

I wish I could tell you that I regularly made the 5 mile roundtrip to the beach. I did not. It was so hot this summer! And to get to the bike-lane route I have to go up a hill. Such poor excuses. The fact is, I’m inclined to be a slug – what can I say? But the other day the light and temperature were perfect so I took a spin to the beach. Speeding down-hill the wind whistled in my ears and my heart lifted with a forgotten joy. On the way back, I push-push-pushed until breathless, I leapt off to walk.

dragonfly-on-bike
A hitch-hiker I picked up in Kyoto.

Biking gives me a sense of being a participant – not just moving through in the bubble of my car. My body reacts to terrain, blood pumping, breath quickening. I easily stop to watch a bird, follow a slant of light, inhale the scent of a boxwood hedge, the musk of low tide, a gyro joint. I have a sit-upright, tootling-around kind of bike – not a speed-racer that requires dressing up like a lycra-bumble-bee to ride. My bike inspires cruising. I love spinning down a hill but speed doesn’t interest me much. I’m definitely a tootler.

I used to be more of a functional biker – it was how I got places. I didn’t own a car until I was in my late 30s.

My Cincinnati studio with bike.
My Cincinnati studio with bike.

When I graduated from college and became a banquet waitress at a hotel (Yay art degree!) I lived in a dicey part of Cincinnati and rode my bike to work at all hours. Leaving at 4:30 AM for a breakfast shift, I’d speed down the middle of the empty street – a little frightened by the shadows of the odd hour.

From a bridge over the Kamogawa - Kyoto.
From a bridge over the Kamogawa – Kyoto.

When I lived in Japan I rode everywhere. I pedaled to English teaching jobs, to shop for groceries, meet up with friends. More often than I should admit, I made my way home on wobbly-wheels in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone rides bikes – multiple babies will be tucked into attached seats and the very, very old will easily balance the day’s groceries in baskets. It’s a biker’s heaven. One of the things I miss most about Japan is exploring narrow streets, popping into Temples for moments of peace, making my way home along the river running north to south through the city. I can conjure the crunch of gravel beside the Kamo river – perhaps one of my all-time favorite stretches anywhere in the world.

For a time I also had a bike in Zagreb, Croatia. I zipped through the city streets on my mountain bike, hoping the tires were fat enough they would not catch in the treacherous tram tracks. For fun I pedaled through a nearby park, riding along dirt trails and bouncing over rocks. I became pregnant with Molly there and sold my bike.

Being a mother made me into a chicken. From the moment my daughter was a whisper within me, a new sense of vulnerability took over. Navigating through the world became a little more frightening when life became no longer just about me.

In Zagreb, the only helmet I owned was UN issued kevlar for when I traveled to active war zones. I did not wear this biking. Nor did I wear – or ever see one in Kyoto. Do cyclists wear helmets there now? Now, although it hurts my vanity, I wear my dorky helmet. While the city I live in is making an effort to be more bike-friendly, too many people stare at their phones while driving. I choose not to chance my mortality to look a tad cooler.

Maybe it’s because my daughter is 21 and capable and launching off on her own adventures, I’m getting my courage back. I’m ready to risk getting toppled for the pleasure of the wind whistling in my ears. And I need the exercise.

This House, This Home

 

tree top

Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

Relief in Recognition – War

People who have lived through war are often reluctant to talk about their experiences – it’s like you are speaking another language – one that most people don’t understand nor care to learn. So when someone shares even a smidgeon of common experience or gives you a speck of recognition, the feeling is relief. We don’t really want to be alone.

About a year ago after an event at the store, I heard a young woman behind me say she was from Croatia. I turned and asked, from where exactly? She responded, you probably don’t know the place: Knin. I said, I do – I lived there. Knin is often described as dreary, sitting over the last rocky mountain range before reaching the stunning Dalmatian coast. In 1991, the Krajina Serbs declared it the capital of their self-proclaimed country. From June until December 1992 I was based there with the UN Peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia – UNPROFOR.

knin rail river and empty roads

I didn’t always feel comfortable on those dusty streets – strangely dark with soldiers looking out from the shadows of the perpetually open bars. But gradually, I made friends – mostly with women. Relationships were usually limited, because of language barriers, to smiles and shared Turkish coffee cooked over propane or wood stoves because more often than not, there was no gas nor electricity.

A few months older than Molly, the girl in the bookstore had been an infant when the shit hit the fan. I left Croatia around the time she was born, on my own maternity leave – earlier than expected because the slow simmering conflict of four years, was escalating. Shells were being lobbed between the two sides. The Croatians were done waiting and were taking back control of what had been UN ‘protected’ but Serb controlled areas. In August, I was across the Adriatic in Italy with Molly in my arms as I watched the news – the roads out of Krajina to Serbia packed with cars and horse drawn carts for carrying hay loaded with suitcases, refrigerators, whatever they could carry. I searched the faces for my former landlord, my neighbors and local colleagues.

view from Knin window

The girl told me her mother would know about that time and worked nearby at a hair salon not more than a mile from here.

It took me a year, but last week I called the salon and asked for an appointment with the woman from Croatia. An attractive, fashionably dressed woman greeted me with a warm hug. She said, “It’s been awhile! How have you been?” I told her we had never met. “But you look so familiar. I know your face.” Well, I said, that’s interesting… and then I told her how I knew her tiny, troubled town twenty years ago. Her eyes filled and so did mine. She grabbed me and insisted on introducing me to her colleagues, “Look! She lived in my town!” They smiled politely. “Come, I have to tell my boss.” A short man sat going over a paper with another stylist – he looked up as she said, “You have to meet this lady! She lived in Knin!” “Was there water and electricity?” he asked, thinking he was making a joke. “Only sometimes,” I answered. He went back to his work.

Sitting in front of a mirror for the next 40 minutes as she combed and snipped, we disappeared into another time and place. I wanted to hear her story and I knew what questions to ask. I know something of the roads she traveled.

window view

She told me they were a ‘mixed’ family meaning she was Catholic (Croatian) and her husband, Orthodox (Serb). She remained in Knin with her husband and the Serbs instead of leaving for the beautiful Croatian town on the coast where she was from. She didn’t mention this as being unusual but I know, it was. The family fled Krajina that August with only some clothes packed beside their babies in a Yugo. They crawled along on the road full of refugees, driving to Serbia. She’d had a good gig cutting the hair of UN soldiers from Kenya and the UN police from all over the world, and saved her money – enabling them to rent a little house in Serbia rather than be put in refugee hotels. Her husband was called up by the army and he said, “To fight for what? I’ve already lost everything.” So they threw him in detention. After a few years, they made it to the States as refugees and landed in a large, very depressed city in Connecticut. From there, they rebuilt their lives.

She nursed her baby during the 10 hour trek out of Krajina or she said, her daughter might not have survived since there was nothing else. Across the Adriatic in Italy, I nursed my girl and watched the news.

“You don’t seem bitter or angry. How is that?” I asked.  She shrugged and said, “I was young. If this happened now, I’d have a heart attack.” But I think it’s more than youth this ability she and others have to not be swallowed by sorrow. Of course, she knows she is luckier than too many from those years – her family alive and well – her beautiful daughters all thriving. But it’s more than that – this woman of warmth, life and humor seems determined to always choose love. And she also has a skill. While we were talking she’d stop and say, “You should put some color in you hair!”

We were both moved – and perhaps me more than her. She told me she Skypes regularly with her family there and couldn’t wait to tell them about me. And of course she is with her husband – they made that long journey together. But I have no one to speak with about this time – it’s too complicated to explain and frankly, no one is really interested. I was glad to remember and share this stretch of history with this vibrant woman. The stuff of our lives, the joys, the sadness — we long to have it recognized by someone else, don’t you think?

Like any war, there were many villains and so much evil there. But there were also families, nursing mothers and little children wanting nothing more than to live there lives.

I am glad to have connected with this kin spirit of shared roads, a mother who moved beyond her loss and obstacles to live a life of joy.

Early Mothering Skills and How I Learned Them: Praise for Italian Nurses

In the corner of the store, an obviously distraught mother sat with her wailing newborn yelling into a phone and awkwardly cradling her screaming baby. She might have been easy to dismiss as a crazy person – unless you were ever a new mother. Then, you’ll recognize those challenging early days.

Premie

Molly was born 7 weeks early so we were not even in the right country – except, in my opinion, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about Italy. Especially when it comes to babies. Even a scary looking thug is a natural baby expert and likely to coo over yours. The nurses at the hospital sang to our children and encouraged us moms to stay, kiss and cuddle our babies and – to nurse.  I’d just been working with UNICEF in Croatia and knew the importance of mother’s milk and the Italian nurses at Brindisi hospital never suggested any other option to me. They adjusted our babies and breasts as we attempted to nurse. While still in the hospital, we were mostly unsuccessful, our premies unable to adequately suck enough milk from our breasts. Eventually, bottles of our breast milk were brought out and feeling slightly defeated, we bottle-fed. Then we’d return to the hot and steamy mother’s room to pump away, filling bottles for the next session. Fresh mozzarella and pasta dished into big bowls from an enormous pot, sustained us. Not one baby formula sign anywhere. With this support, Molly was an only-breastfed baby.

Giving birth almost 2 months early and ending up in a Neonatology ward in Southern Italy felt an ordeal, but in retrospect I recognize those 3 weeks provided me with skills I needed to take care of my baby. I learned to hold the little mite, how to read her signals and most of all, how to trust myself. With no family or friends and not speaking the language, I relied on my instinct, books and what the Italian nurses taught me during those unexpected weeks in the hospital. I credit them with saving me from becoming a screaming mother in public places like this poor woman in the bookstore.

I approached the new mom and asked if I could help. She told me she couldn’t drive while the baby was crying and the problem was (she thought), the baby’s nose was stuffed. She swabbed at the tiny nostrils and the little thing screamed louder. The mom then reached for a half-full bottle and told me she was also concerned that the baby had not finished it. Even 2 decades later, my mother-muscle-memory kicked into gear. Channeling the loving Italian nurses, I suggested she not worry about trying to force milk down the baby – her infant knows what she needs – besides, the kid was clearly exhausted. I remembered the nurses shifting Molly in my arms so gravity could do the job when she had a stuffed nose. I suggested she hold her 5 week old daughter upright on her shoulder so her head was not tilting backward. She did and the baby quieted, collapsing in sleep.

The Doctors who saved Molly's life.
The Doctors who saved Molly’s life.

I walked away thinking — who is around to help this obviously struggling mom? Doulas, a great support for new mothers, standard in England and many other countries, are expensive here and not a service routinely provided as it should be. Mother and baby are ushered out of the hospital within only a day or so of giving birth. What if there is no supportive family waiting for you? Without the doctors and nurses of Brindisi hospital, I would have been up shit’s creek — obviously how this woman felt. My Italian stinks and the nurses spoke no English, but I recall no language barrier. Their love transcended all and of that, they had plenty. Oh, by the way, our hospital bill for 3 weeks of intensive, loving care? Niente. That’s right, Italy’s healthcare system is socialized and I was charged nothing.

If Only…

The beach was almost deserted on this spectacular Saturday morning. The tide more out than in – no lapping waves. Only an occasional gull broke the quiet. I joined a yoga class on the sand, stretching, inhaling the beauty of the spot, savoring the gentle breezes, the coolness of the morning air, the sun’s warmth – life. Focused on breathing, the poses, then resting on my back, sand running through my fingers, I relaxed into a dreamy joy.  And then, I remembered AW’s death. She will never feel a beach breeze again. Every moment since hearing this news on Monday, there’s been a hovering dark cloud on the sunniest of days.

But she was not my daughter.  For me, the pain will ease, the sad fog will lift within weeks, becoming a terrible memory. Not so for her family. How long will it take for them to feel any kind of sustained joy again? My heart breaks for them.

Protecting our children is any healthy parent’s strongest impulse, in some ways, our very reason for being. The cliches: ‘we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child’, ‘they cut, we bleed’ — are all true. The thought of losing a child a worst nightmare. I am afraid to even imagine the pain.

A blogger who writes movingly about depression (here) noted about Robin Williams, “He died at the age of 63 after a lifetime of depression… his age was testament to his tenacity.” This beautiful line comforted me the other day, even 10 years later, thinking my husband made it to 48 with all his anguish – that was something. And, it guts me to think of AW only 25 years for her.

We no longer can be delighted by her goofy, infectious laugh.  Did she not know how we loved her and basked in the warmth of her kindness, her disarmingly clear and beautiful gaze? When we worked together, my impulse was to protect her. Sometimes I found myself warding off the men who might mistake her universal kindness as interest. She seemed so vulnerable.

Suicide strikes a chord for any of us who have experienced loss in this terrible way – like a gong – triggering memories, feelings. But the reverberating toll of this has cut me close, this sweet girl’s death. We were not much more than work friends — but of course all of us felt more so because AW did not do superficial. Even knowing better, I engaged in magical thinking — that I might have been able to do something. If only. Just the week before, I’d almost sent her a text – wanting to introduce her to my friend’s daughter — going so far as pulling up our last texts from more than a year ago – to continue a conversation, make contact again. And then, did not. In my mind she was well settled into a life she’d worked so hard to create for herself. Succeeding. I didn’t know.

Robin William’s death, like other beloved celebrities before him, brings suicide out of the shadows, if only for awhile, and this spotlight is welcome. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention runs walks around the country – Out of the Darkness Walks where the community can come together to comfort each other and raise money for the cause. While we will never end suicide but we must try to save lives – even one. How I wish that it could have been AW’s.

night waves

 

 

Forgiving Flaws on Mother’s Day

2012-05-09 03.34.47

Mother’s Day. I’m not a fan of these Hallmark Holidays. (well, I admit to liking Valentine’s Day.) I agree with  this piece by Annie Lamott. Becoming a mother was the best thing I ever did – but as Annie says, it’s not for everyone and not everyone is good at it. And those of us with either dead mothers or fraught relationships must grapple with our grief and complex emotions amidst this jolly day of bon-bons and brunches.

The distance I felt with my mother was made more comfortable by actual distance – so for much of my adult life I lived either across or out of the country – far from her. It was only after I moved back to the United States with my 1 year old daughter that I felt a shift, the possibility for real connection. A year later, she died.

I believe my mother did the best she could.  She once told a friend that were she do do it all over again she would not have had kids. For a time, I thought that a terrible thing to say but I realize now this was not because she didn’t love her kids.  Rather, she thought she would have preferred pursuing other things that, having 4 children with barely a year between them and teaching high school, precluded. She was smart as a whip and passionate about social injustice and would have been a great lefty- lawyer or maybe a politician. Who knows. She was launched almost obliviously into motherhood the way many Irish Catholic women in the fifties were.  It was all she could do to keep herself and the rest of us afloat. So we floated.

Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu have written a book about Forgiveness and are promoting it with a lovely online, month long “Forgiveness Challenge”. I signed up because I love Bishop Tutu and because I want to stay forgiveness-fit. I believe and history has shown us, that this is the only way to thrive after injury. Each day there are short readings, sometimes with a video or audio, a poem or interviews on forgiveness. One of the first forgiveness-excercises in the Challenge is to decided who you want to forgive.  My mother is on my list just as I suspect I would be on my daughter’s. We are not perfect, us mothers.

Today, I forgive my mother for never telling me how incredible being a mother can be. Did she not think so? For me, every stage of nurturing and loving my kid through life has been precious. From the moment I saw my daughter, then held her, I was a goner.  I’d been in love before, but nothing compared to the space this infant created in my heart.

Home from the Hospital  Six Weeks Later - July 1995

I watch my daughter as she ventures into adulthood and remember my own first steps – really more of a leap to claim (save?) my life. My daughter is now concocting dreams, considering the possibilities for her future. I remember myself in my 20s as completely narcissistic, thinking only about what I wanted to do next, what would bring me satisfaction, or better, joy. What a luxury! My mother was too busy juggling diapers and bottles. On the other hand, as I neared 30, I started to get a little sick of myself – this perpetual focus on my needs, my desires. I began to get an inkling of the appeal of being needed. A brush with mortality clinched my determination to be a mother and to this day, I consider it a revelation. It is where I found joy.

My mother did not come to motherhood out of longing as I did. I think even becoming a grandmother surprised her. But I bet she would have been good at it – and had we the chance, we would have shared our joy and perhaps, discovered each other.

The Light of Venus on a February Dawn

There is a bright glow in the dawn sky on this cold morning. At first I think it is the light of a plane passing and I imagine the sleeping passengers heading home to loved ones or departing on adventures. I watch, waiting for the plane’s glow to disappear across the sky but instead the light remains, slowly rising away from the horizon as the earth turns towards the sun and fading only as the morning light moves in. Venus.

venusglobe

The planet Venus, named for the goddess of love, after the Sun and the Moon, is the brightest planet in the sky. Only slightly smaller than Earth, and with densities and chemical compositions similar to ours, Venus’ surface is so windy and hot, speculation is that any water once there, all boiled away. Venus is sometimes called the morning star. That’s what I thought, this early morning when I realized I wasn’t looking at a plane. Maybe it’s a Nova – one of those stars that burn so hot they explode. Like people sometimes do.

It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s kids I can’t stop thinking about. The older two are about the same age Molly was when her father died. A tough memory from that nightmare blur of a morning, when I told her that her father, who she’d been watching a movie with before she fell asleep, was dead. How? She wanted to know. Rather than tell her that he’d put a noose around his neck, I said: drugs. She knew about his drug problem – we’d been living with that struggle for years and she’d known for at least this last one. Tough stuff for an 8 year old. That morning it seemed liked ‘drugs’ inferred an element of accident rather than stating the truth of his intention to die.

Besides, I wasn’t lying. His addiction did destroy him. It took me years to finally step away, to stop trying to find a way to fix him. Eventually, to even let go of hope. That was the hardest. I rode that roller coaster of hope and disappointment until it was one too many times. Yet even in deciding to finish the marriage, I harbored a touch of magical thinking that in doing so, I was giving him the ‘bottom’ – the wake up call he needed to finally get clean. I still deluded myself I might possess that kind of power. I still hoped.

So I look at those kids and I think of mine. And, I think of their mother, his partner, and remember myself. I remember the dark months, weeks and days leading up to my husband’s end. I lived for so many years with lies, sometimes even knowing I was making a choice to believe them, as if that might make them true. Did she do that? What ultimatums did she give him? Did she feel relieved when he moved out of their home, feeling that bitter relief of not having the risk of drugs in the house, of being better able to protect their children from being with him when he was high?  Of, while heartbroken, relieved not to have to wonder why he wasn’t coming to bed yet? Or worry why he was still in the bathroom? The not-knowing. Ever.

After all, if this can happen after 23 years of sobriety. Once there, even if for a glimpse, how can we ever trust our addict is clean? Our addict. We all have at least one addict that is ‘ours’ because we love them. They can never really be ours.

And we wonder why? Why our love, why the love of our children provides no cure? As much as I learn about addiction and accept that it’s a disease, there will always be that tormenting truth that nothing I ever did was enough. So yes, as the death of yet another celebrity throws a spotlight on addiction, I welcome the attention being paid to this complicated issue, although there are no answers here, we have to keep asking the questions. The heartbreak continues, with only a terrible comfort in the knowledge we are not alone. The loss of this great actor and good man saddens me too, but it’s those kids and their mother that I think of as I watch the morning star of love fade away at the break of another day.