Bend over and look- My Mother
Buckle my shoe;
Knock at the door;
Pick up sticks;
Lay them straight:
A big fat hen;
Dig and delve; Thirteen, fourteen, draw the curtain,
Fifteen sixteen, the maid’s in the kitchen,
Seventeen, eighteen, she’s in waiting,
Nineteen, twenty, my stomach’s empty -Mother Goose
There’s a woman in Tallahassee starving herself to death. She’s not alone but likely feels it as her insurance company is telling her they won’t pay for the “luxury” of in-patient treatment. She doesn’t come from money. Her hungry heart and head can’t fathom the idea of picking up a fork and restoring weight one terrifying bite at a time; this is the irrational madness of pain and addiction. We don’t want to die but somewhere along the way fail to grasp the one, two, three of be-ing and believe that someone else has the special, secret knowledge they could or even should impart to us that would solve everything. Having seen documentaries of recovery centers I honestly feel I was better off having to re-feed myself at home. Like this woman, my organs started failing and a fancy hospital wasn’t an option. There was no one hovering over my plate each meal, shaming me into eating an unwanted dessert. There was no one disempowering my ability to be accountable for myself with infantilizing rules and interventions; nurses searching rooms for hidden cups of purged Ensure or only getting to speak when you’re holding the beaded tree branch. Each day I was confronted with the terrified faces of people I loved who my illness was inadvertently hurting. No hiding away on a paid vacation to play the better get better game. Finger wag, wag, wag. Yes, my inner child is crying out for love but maybe don’t treat me like a baby? Instead I stewed raisins alongside cooking pots filled with foods that comprised a normal meal, measured and timed dosed ounces of Pedialyte, bought Gerber in bulk, counted out twelve peanuts twice a day and wrote down everything that went into and came out of my body. I still needed the medical guidance of a registered dietitian, which I willingly shared the cost of, but the responsibility of following through belonged to no one else but me. It was exhausting and merciless but I think that’s how everyone does things in New England. Anyway, I lived and while I wouldn’t say I’ve fully recovered yet, the experience revealed strengths I didn’t know were in me. If someone had spared me the terror of being solely responsible for the beating of my own heart how would I have ever learned to care for it? From what I can tell, people who get special treatment don’t fare well in the long run. Fix my kid, my clients would say. Just tell me what to do. Just tell my family, partner, boss to stop doing this and start doing that so I can feel better. Fifteen years in human service and nearly every treatment plan starts with this conversation. No one likes hearing the truth initially. With kids it’s harder for both of us to bare because they have to either find tolerable ways of waiting for their autonomy or endure circumstances tied to those in power who find themselves incapable or unwilling to change; which is why so many of us choose to stay hungry, overfed, sick, tired, drunk, high, angry or helpless. In short, the essence of capitalism. The thought of healing while injustice rages on seems crazier than our vices, at first. Where do we find the peace and endurance to pick up and move on?
When my father was first attempting sobriety his social worker suggested the rest of us go to Al-Anon. He said there was one for kids too called Alateen. Bill was a tall, smiley guy who always wore a button down shirt, jeans and tie. Alateen is a cool place to hang out with other kids, just like you; kids who have a mom or dad that drinks too much. Superdeedoo! No Bill. It doesn’t sound neato. My response was cursing f$%& that under my breath. You broke it, why should I have to fix? I’m not the one with the problem. That was the battle cry of my downfall. Instead of embracing reality I repeatedly begged my mother to get a divorce believing a change of scenery would solve all the problems and leave us to pursue functioning as a normal family. This was unrealistic for several reasons but I was 12 and learned to compartmentalize young. Twenty years later while divorcing the addict I’d coincidentally married I found myself praising God for the 12 steps of codependent recovery. Hey wow, you’re kinda like my dad who hurt me in ways I avoided dealing with right up until I met you. I think I love you. What can I say? I’m stubborn. The work itself started off as a nightmare. I met my sponsor in a moderated online divorce support group, which are great because there aren’t enough therapists in mountain towns. I did try to find a therapist first, saving $60 cash for the initial visit then borrowing a co-workers car to drive over the frozen pass to meet a burnt out clinician in a dark, cluttered and dusty room. She feel asleep on me twice and farted. As I drove back to the hotel where I’d been living I felt my stomach fall through my feet. Some social media is a lifesaver. Each night when my mind refused to shut down I’d take to my borrowed frankenputer and under a fake name, pound out the painful chapters of what it’d been like living in the shadow of someone else’s secrets. Post after post revealed how tirelessly tending to his shadow served as the all consuming work of avoiding my own dark places. I wasn’t writing to complain or seek pity but to find the opportunity for clarity offered to me years prior. The steps act as a guide when we have no clue where to begin; a kind of map for sorting and folding a lifetime of laundry. Each Monday we took a step, which over time began to feel and sound like voluntary disembowelment. You get to practice feeling everything you avoided while simultaneously realizing why it felt easier to live life as a human crutch, propping up other people’s handicaps, than to attempt to stand on broken legs. Somewhere between 4, 5 and 6 I realized that no one else had hurt, abused or abandoned me as recklessly as I had myself. Wait, whoa, no! What about… I know and agree many things are heinous, unthinkable crimes against our bodies, minds and spirits but the ways in which we respond to acts which were never our fault can sometimes serve to sear us deeper. Thankfully between steps 7 and 12 we’re given the tools to heal and prevent those hurts from happening again.
Life, Death, Rebirth
Edward read me nursey rhymes on the good Sundays when we serendipitously ended up in the care of Cumberland instead of Woonsocket. Two very different chairs and two very different men. A fun game of relative roulette. Maybe it felt serendipitous because I was little and dissociating at least half the time. Their house was a hundred year old, two story apartment building on top of a green hill. The siding had once been black and grey gritty boards with lime trim but was eventually upgraded to white vinyl. The basement is still dirt (its cold, packed and dark with shimmery bits) and smells like a century of harvested root vegetables. If this earth could be bottled it would count as aromatherapy. The chimney runs from the basement to the attic which is haunted by a captain, says any child who dared venture up there to play. Opening the attic door required finding or stealing a skeleton key from the hutch, a dresser or another door. When the horsehair plaster was being replaced with sheet-rock in the master bedroom, a viola, spectacles and a set of letters referencing passage along the Underground Railroad were found and donated to the Valley Falls museum. Impossible magic just 20 minutes down 495 took us far away from the burning street. These weekend reprieves are largely responsible for giving me that thing experts call resilience. I think I was lucky and realized it. Everyone gets a different x-factor, that thing which makes anything possible. Where’s mine? Bend over and look, my mother says.
In his chair he’d read me five, six, pick up sticks from the black and white checkered book with the baby-stealing, pilgrim lady flying a goose on the cover. Then, while Mabel whipped vinegar and mayonnaise into chopped cabbage, we’d walk down the hill and put the words to action; five, six. I’d gather twigs from the under the maple tree, singing the song and carry them to the wood pile next to the clothesline. They were examples of an undisturbed path to the simplicity of living; my great grandparents, one of the perks of being the accidental first child to a young mom. If something bad happened in the world Mabel would say It’s just one of them things and get back to kneading the dough. When the leaves turned and fell, Edward raked them. Having survived the Depression they wasted and wanted nothing other than clothes, food and a roof over our heads. The most dramatic thing I recall ever happening at their house was the installation of dining room carpeting. It was a deep, plush burgundy. The palette of the apartment was ivory, brown and powdery blues leaving the new rug to stand out as an out of place, Hollywood guest. I’m told my great grandparents fought when they were younger but the years I knew them were filled with easy laughter, humble generosity and a reliable routine. The house woke up at 5 with breakfast at 6, chores from 8 to 11, lunch at noon, baking, errands, tea and a nap between 1 and 4 and dinner at 5. After the dinner dishes were washed, dried and put back in the cupboards there might be a walk up and down the street, or a sit on the patio to pick and eat honeysuckle. The day ended with a nice show, fig newtons, a glass of port and that scary prayer Now I lay me down to sleep... if I should die before I wake. I never liked saying it unless I was sleeping at their house. The thought of dying outside the comfort of walls baked with the permanent scent of apple pie felt too hopeless. Falling asleep after a day of being one with the steady and familiar heartbeat of a living household sounded fine and fair to me. At the same time, how I would hope to wake to fresh light, percolating coffee, butter and the sound of Cornflakes filling Corelle ware bowls.
Life is conflict, cornflakes and personal convictions. A dishwasher helps.
ps: I know this isn’t finished but is it ever? Look how cute Mabel was. I had her sit for a portrait when she was 96. She loved having her picture taken. ‘This is the quite the thing’.