My parents’ marriage

Mom and Dad, laughing at Lake Arrowhead, circa 1956

My parents had a really happy marriage.  They met and fell in love in a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) high school in Los Angeles.   Basically good and good-looking, outdoorsy, kids, they rebelled against their church’s strict rules against drinking, smoking, and pre-marital sex.  Before they got hitched, at the frighteningly young ages of 21 and 22, they shared sleeping bags while camping out before the Rose Bowl Parade.  The early years of their marriage were hard.   My father was in medical school and worked 24 hours at a time in the hospital before going on to his part-time jobs at a gas station and a mortuary.  He didn’t have time to think, let alone feel.  My mother, though, grew lonely and depressed at her secretarial position and afterwards, trying to attend to four year-old me and my much cuter and quieter two year-old brother.  Just because we had been running around all day at our grandmother’s house playing with our uncles and cousins didn’t mean we were tired, or that dinner and the dirty house would take care of themselves.

Mom and Dad in matching Norwegian sweaters with my mother's brothers
Mom and Dad, before they got married, with my mother’s brothers and a snowy friend.
My beautiful picture

Mom and Dad, exploring gold mines and camping somewhere in California, circa 1957

The U.S. Army drafted my father right out of medical school and my parents opted to spend three years in Germany in lieu of two years in Texas.  Although it was difficult at first, especially since my father had to train for six months away from the family, the easier work schedule and social life that they found on the base gave my parents the opportunity to turn towards one another again.  Both of them enjoyed skiing and traveling and socializing with people from different cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. They explored Europe together, usually with my brother and me, but also alone or with friends.

My beautiful picture

Mom and Dad clowning around with their friends at a party on the base in Augsburg, Germany, circa 1966

I remember them laughing, but cannot think of a single time I saw them yelling or arguing at one another. Disagreements usually had to do with money—my father thought my mother spent too much on clothing for herself and the kids, while my mother complained that he spent too much on his sailboats.  He generally deferred to her in actually enjoyed spending money on her, because she was beautiful and elegant and looked great in diamonds.  She appreciated how hard he worked to pay for luxuries and went along with his enthusiasms, such as sailing, even though she never got as excited about it as he did.

My beautiful pictureShe enjoyed just being in his company, she said, even if he seemed to be ignoring her behind his computer monitor.  Both came from musical families that valued classical music.  My mother also liked popular songs but deferred to my father’s more intellectual interests in jazz and opera when they sat together in the evenings.  My father admired my mother’s taste in decorating, so if he decided what they did together, then my mother determined how the boat or the home they did it in would look and feel.  My father liked to jokes and my mother liked to laugh. She laughed at everyone’s jokes. Mum Dad & K

One of the most important lessons I learned from my mother is that one’s husband should be interesting.  “Your father never bores me,” she said.  He loved the way she rubbed his neck on long family car journeys.  While my mother probably dedicated more cognitive room to my father than he did to her, and was generally less able to discuss his feelings, she was emotionally intelligent enough not to read any irritation or frustration he expressed as an attack on her person.

Family Latta

Dad, Kari, Kimberly, Chris, and Mom, in front of our home, 1986

My father’s temperament was basically sweet, and both of my parents had strong, emotionally involved mothers, so it was easy  for him to accept her dominance in the household.  She respected his dominance in the business and financial spheres.  He wasn’t too keen on her wish for another child in her late thirties, but he went along with it because he loved her.   He also accepted very little responsibility for the nurturing of my sister.  “Joan, your child is crying,” I can remember him saying.

They accepted stereotypical gendered roles without buying into a philosophy of male dominance.  My father had some old-fashioned attitudes, but he respected intelligence and ability in women.  Both of them were strongly pro-choice.  They pursued different hobbies but generally practiced them together (Mom needle pointed or read while Dad puttered on the boat). Mom never did master the black runs and usually got cold long before Dad, but she was a good sport and headed out with him every day.

Mom and Dad on the slopes,  Sun Valley, circa 1979

Mom and Dad on the slopes, Sun Valley, circa 1979

Because my father’s job was so demanding, they had to learn how to entertain themselves separately, but they shared the same Southern Californian, SDA roots as well as the same dream of a healthy, happy, family in which parents and children spent a lot of time together outside having fun.  They planned a rich, relaxing, athletic retirement together, but that dream never came true.  My mother died of colon cancer after a short illness in 1990.  She was 54.  Dad remarried another woman from the same high school, but she was an altogether different sort of person and did not bring my father much joy.  Truly happy marriages are rare and precious.

Mom, as seen by Dad, on Freya, circa 1981

Mom, as seen by Dad, on Freya, circa 1981

My parents taught me a great deal about what a good relationship looks like.  Partners do well when they admire each other’s  interests and respect their different strengths.  I also think a man who bores a woman will soon lose her, no matter what else may offer, and that mutual admiration and toleration for one another is vital for long-term happiness.  My parents’ good marriage will always inform my interpretations of other relationships.  It will also help me, a committed feminist and apprentice psychotherapist, to see that even couples who adopt relatively rigid gender roles can share power equally and effectively.

Telling the Story of My Son

It is difficult to tell a story true or slant.  I have edited this post since I first composed it, because some of the things I wrote were hurtful and not precisely true.  I have a point of view, of course, and was in many cases interpreting or guessing at events that I did not witness.  It also does no good to open up old wounds or to speak about things that took place in the past.  It is not helpful to blame other people for things turning out differently than I hoped they would, and it is also not responsible.  

I will try to tell the story of my son, who is 22.  When he was very little, he had a difficult temperament. He was easily upset by loud noises, including the vacuüm cleaner, and often unable to soothe himself to sleep.  We tried to be good parents, but we were young and far from our families and we made many mistakes.

I suffer from depression and my illness got very bad when my mother died–just months before I gave birth. I cried a lot during my pregnancy and afterwards.   About two years after my mother died, my father married a woman who made everyone, including my father, miserable.

My depression got much worse, but, with the help of friends, medication, and a good therapist, to control it enough to finish my dissertation and find a job.  Unfortunately, I was not able to hold my marriage together.  I made many serious mistakes that I deeply regret.

At any rate, we separated when my son was 6–and I moved to a separate state to take the job I had found–tenure track English professor. Very hard to come by and I had worked hard to get it. The agreement we had, after much battling with lawyers, was 50/50 custody but our son would live with his dad for two years and then come to live with me.

I was able to work but got more and more depressed, being so far away from my son. Some days I would collapse on the kitchen floor and weep. Other days I would just lie down on in the room I had made up for him and cry myself to sleep.

Finally I got a jot a lot closer to my son, in Pittsburgh, and the drive was only 4 hours, so I could visit him more often.  He came to live with me later.

My son is an incredibly intelligent young man but  he has a hard time with maths. He was diagnosed with some learning disabilities, but I think his biggest problem was a lack of  patience and discipline. He never learned to keep track of his assignments or to complete them. I helped him with this as best I could while he was in Pittsburgh, but the schools were sooo terrible–I tried four—and my son was clearly so depressed going to them in Pittsburgh –that I ended up sending him back to his old school, where he had friends and a few teachers who understood him and could help him.

So, he lived with his father and his stepmother from age 6 to age 10, and from age 11 to 17, when he graduated from high school. After years of dismal grades he  applied himself during his senior year and got As and Bs.

When my son was about 12 his father and stepmother adopted a Chinese baby.  They all traveled to China to pick her up. My son liked the journey but for some mysterious reason never got very attached to his sister. His father and stepmother never asked him if he wanted a sister, or included him in the decision. I think he resented this. I don’t know for sure, but it could also be that he feared his father and stepmother loved this child more than they loved him.

He began to withdraw more and more.  He had never been like other children, but he had always had a good set of healthy and happy friends.  As he got older he spent more and more time alone.  He stayed up late playing computer games and was exhausted during the day.  He did not learn how to discipline himself to complete or to take pride in his schoolwork.

He started college in Washington State, but stayed only 6 months and failed all his classes. He got involved in a Strurm-und-Drang relationship a girl he had known in high school, and somehow persuaded the college she was attending to admit him.  After a year, the school suspended him for bad grades.  He was clearly not ready for college.

Then he came home to Pittsburgh, where the tormenting girl continued to torment him, and he to torment her. Finally that relationship fell apart and he began a new one with a girl from a very troubled home (he is drawn to people from troubled home).

For a while, she spent her time living with friends in a kind of flophouse, where everyone smokes cigarettes and watches tv most of the time. The house is filthy and he doesn’t like it but he is not able to leave her and they don’t have the money to live anywhere else.

She attends hair-dressing school on a GI scholarship that he gets through her father.She can only go to school part-time because she doesn’t have a driver’s license or car and relies on her roommate to take her to and from school. Also she will not or cannot get up before 11 o’clock in the morning.

My son also never got his license, even though I taught him to drive and have encouraged him many times to take the test and get it.   His father also helped him to get his learning permit.  I have even offered to give him a car—I have two–if only he got his license and a job to earn enough to pay for his own gas and insurance.

He claimed that he was too afraid of driving–and he really is very anxious about many things that other people are not anxious about. He has always been a fearful kid, because he could envision the negative impacts of things.  At the age when other little kids were flinging themselves down slides, he would climb up to the top, consider the prospect, and climb carefully back down.

But he will also admit that he doesn’t want the responsibility of driving.

I was thrilled when he moved in with me, because I had missed him for so many years during his life and finally had him under my own roof. Now, I thought, I can help him to live a better life! To be more disciplined, to have more faith in himself, to think more positively….

I had connections at the zoo and got him a job there. He had to be there at 7 am , and had been used to staying up all night with his girlfriend, who goes to bed around 3 o 4 in the morning. He used to be an early riser–for most of his life he was up at 5, until he got to school years and started to play video games all night.

So, he had very bad habits when he started the zoo job. I had to wake him up and drive him to work so that he wouldn’t be late. Then, after a few month, he quit the job without even telling the manager. He just decided he didn’t want to get up early any more. He was lonely and depressed and very down on himself.

He was sitting around my house, doing nothing, playing games, watching tv. Not helping with the chores, unless I asked him many times. Not interested in cooking with me, or hanging out with me at dinner. He was very reclusive, as he had been through high school. He was, he told me, very depressed and lonely.  I could not convince him to participate in family dinners or events.  Since he didn’t go out very much, he didn’t make many friends.

He said he was afraid to be around people, afraid of what they were thinking about him, afraid that he would lose his temper and get in trouble, or simply be miserable because people–all people–were mean, deceitful, shallow, stupid, and rude.

I was still so happy just to have him around and thought I’d go easy on him for a while to build up trust. He would occasionally show up to help with the dishes or to do something I’d asked him to do, but then he’d retreat into his room. He was not looking for jobs, he was not doing any art projects, he was not trying to go back to school.  I thought he would grow out of it.

I came to point in my life in which I needed to make a change–call it a mid-life crisis. I wanted to see the world and do some good in it, so I started looking into volunteer opportunities abroad. I thought that if he and I could do this together, we’d reconnect and he could discover the better side of himself. He wanted to go to Nepal, so that is where we went. He said he wanted to live with monks and teach them English. The program had this option, so we made the plans and headed to the airport.

He was 20 at this time. We had made one leg of the journey, to New York, and he had a real anxiety attack. He cried and pleaded and carried on, utterly panicked.  All of a sudden he didn’t want to go to Nepal . But I had already made the arrangements, someone else was living in my house, and he would have no where to go except to the very filthy house where his girlfriend lived. He had no choice, he had to go with me. We landed in Doha, Qatar, and stayed there for a day or so.  He was furious and frightened at the same time, and refused to go outdoors.  But I finally got him up in the evening and we walked around the Souq and he seemed to be having a good time.

Nepal was a shock for both of us (see one of my posts about that here) but he prevailed and was a good sport about it for a long time. we lived with a Nepali family who hosted about five other volunteers, all his age. He was jovial and extremely funny with them–they loved his sense of humor and had them in stitches with his jokes about Americans abroad–he is a wonderful storyteller with an advanced vocabulary and a good mind. But he went into withdrawal in Nepal, as well. He found someone who sold him a huge amount of very low-grade pot there (it grows everywhere, in every yard, along all the streets–it is a weed) and started smoking every night.

I don’t mind pot-smoking in moderation. It can be a good, beneficial drug, but I am against smoking it every day. And I told him that I thought it was bad for him to be smoking it so much. But he went ahead and did it anyway. The worst thing, however, was that he had his computer with him, and there was internet at the house where we stayed, so he spent hours and hours in his room (still quite messy), skypeing with this girlfriend, who is very sweet but not at all ambitious or educated.

He was depressed and inward in Nepal, as well. I had been given a job of helping to get five kids, ages 5 -10, ready for school in the morning. These children were the most delightful, loving, dear people I met in Nepal–and they were especially dear because they had recently been rescued from servitude in the country. Their parents had sold them. THey used to fall all over me in a tumble, kiss my hands, and hug me–they were so full of love and goodwill. My son never wanted to go near them…even though he could have…he said it made him sad to see them, and that he didn’t want to get attached, because it was too hard for him to say goodbye.

Brendan never worked with the monks, because, he said, he didn’t think he could be a teacher. He didn’t think he could teach anyone English.. I encouraged him to simply get in there and start talking to them, and to learn from them as they learned from him…but there was no talking him into it. I think he simply wasn’t ready for the culture shock that it would have involved–living in poverty, sleeping and eating very little, and spending most of his time with people who spoke a different language.

We came home after two months. Brendan really needed to come home. He was getting more and more depressed and withdrawn. I was afraid to have him alone in PIttsburgh, so I came home with him, even though I had planned to stay longer. He was glad I made the journey back with him.

He lived with me for a while, but I lost patience with him when he continued to spend his days watching tv or hanging out with his girlfriend. And yes, smoking a lot of pot, but not drinking or doing other drugs. I layed down the law and he got mad and moved to his girlfriend’s house.

He was mad, furious with me, because he had been seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed Klonapin to him and gave him a big bottle of the stuff. The next day he had it I found him passed out on the couch, the bottle clutched in his hand. I took it away and and said I would monitor his doses from now on. He was furious and accused me of treating him as a child. I also called the psychiatrist and told her that I he also smoked pot and that I was worried about her prescribing such an addictive drug to him. At their next session, she told him I had called her and accused her of selling it to his friends. I should have told him that I had spoken to her before this, and prepared him for the visit, but I didn’t. That was another mistake. He felt so betrayed by me and by her that he walked out and insisted he would never return.

At the time he believed that only Klonapin would help him with his anxiety attacks. Anxiety is also the reason he gives for not being able to look for a job. He stopped speaking to me for two or three weeks–living with his girflfriend all the while–but later apologized and said that he was glad I had taken the drug away, because he understood how addictive is is, and didn’t want to get addicted to anything.

He got a job doing data entry from 4 pm to midnight with his friend who is also his source for pot. The manager on the job as well as B’s friends smoked while they worked, and managed to do okay. B, however, was not able to focus well while high and lost the job. He was devastated, but I was glad because I ddn’t think this was a wholesome job environment and hoped he would finally, now, get a real job.

But he hasn’t. He looked around in the very economically depressed neighborhood where he lives with his girlfriend, and found nothing. THere are plenty of jobs in my neighborhood, I think–at Home Depot or the supermarket or the coffee shops–and I have said he can live with me as long as he is working. But he doesn’t want to live with me and obey my rules.

He recently became very desperate for money –his girlfriend has been supporting him, but her monthly scholarship check did not come this month and they are broke, without enough to eat (but they also budget very badly–when they have money they blow it all at Pizza Hut or KFC) , so I agreed to let him work at my house, scraping and painting my garage.

It took him a long time to come to my house—he has trouble finding rides–and when he got there he dilly-dallied and finally started the job at the end of the day. THen he had a breakdown–in which he was screaming, weeping, really truly falling apart. This is a very depressed, very emotionally volatile young man. He said he hates himself and wants to punish himself because he is worthless and deserves to be punished…and he also complains that I am trying to manipulate him into getting a job…and that I never listen to him, and don’t treat him like an adult…

Many internalized, negative messages that have accumulated over the years torment him.. Depressed people are the hardest to reason with, because they don’t see reason, or feel calm.

I am at a loss. I am not depressed now, because I get my exercise and take my meds and go to a shrink and meditate at lot.  But I feel a great deal of pain, sorrow, agony. It is so hard to watch him making so many bad choices. He has so much at his finger-tips, a parent who would help him if only he would do something for himself.

His father does not see the depression, which is so obvious to me. I see that my son needs medication and therapy, and get I can’t force him to get this help. I have offered, and sometimes he says he will call the therapist…..but then he doesn’t do it .

He seems determined to dwell in pain and darkness and actually seems to believe that he deserves to be there.   He needs help but I don’t know how to get it for him.  He needs to ask for help himself but doesn’t know how to do.

Returning Home From Nepal

August 5, 2011

Doha, Qatar

Brendan in the Doha Airport, Qatar

We’ve been up most of the night, since our flight departed at 11:30 pm and arrived four hours later in a different time zone.  We had to wait for another seven hours for the next flight.   It’s a nice airport, extremely clean.  We’ve gotten used to grime.  There are trash cans!  I don’t know why Nepal lacks trash cans, or dumpsters, or people who clean bathrooms.  Nice to have toilets you can sit on, t.p., and soap again, too.

What else is different.  People are diverse.  There are a lot more Africans, Europeans, Americans, Middle Easterners.  Lots of Arabs, but not as many as you’d expect.  Not too many women walking around in abayahs.   I’m wearing my favorite kurta suruwal, the one I had made to match the outfits I bought for the girls.  We only had one day together in our identical clothes.

Anura's mark on my palm

Anura painted a sun, surya, on my palm in henna.  It is my most precious ornament.  Like all things, it will not last.  It fades a bit more each time I wash my hands.  Who will make sure Anura washes her hands with soap now that I am gone?  No one comes to braid their hair before school, to sit with them during their breakfast.  A new volunteer will come, I am sure.  This does not console me.

Brendan is very happy to be going home, happy to have me with him in the airport.  He said that my being with him makes it 100 times easier for him.  He would have been fine without me, I think.  I have no way of knowing that.  No use pushing a child into a situation that they don’t feel ready to face.  You can’t build character through intentional suffering or indifferent neglect.

Same day, about 24 hours later:

New York, New York

Sitting in a well-lit Vino/Volo wine bar at JFK with Brendan.  When the waitress brought the salad I ordered, I had to stop myself from saying “thank you” in Nepali (danyabad).  Then, wonder of wonders, she brought salt and pepper, which never would have happened in Nepal.

I’m drinking pinot grigio, which is somewhat insane since I’m exhausted.  I got up yesterday morning at 5:30, Nepali time, and have had only short naps in the past 48 hours.   Brendan is dozing in the chair next to me.  He has been in a wonderful mood, thrilled to be able to get a milkshake that he could drink safely and very, very happy to be back in the States.

He just opened his eyes and laughed.  A woman has come onto the airport intercom twice now to cuss out another woman in standard Black American English.  I didn’t catch all her words, but did manage to hear “nigger, bitch, mother-fucking…”  Welcome to America!

I have spoken to Tim now twice.  I called him after we got through customs to announce our arrival.  We spoke for a few minutes in the usual friendly tones.  It was awkward. It has always been hard to talk to him on the phone, and this time the odd silences were no longer or more uncomfortable than usual.  Still, it felt strange.

He called again just now to say that he was going to the market for us, and to ask if we had any requests.  It’s nice of him to do this, and nice of him to pick us up from the airport, and nice of him to have gotten all his furniture out of the house in time for our arrival.  I asked him how he accomplished this.  He said that friends from his church gave him a hand, and that one of them had a 22 year-old son who was particularly helpful.  I wondered if this was the woman he’s interested in, but didn’t ask.

Tim has bought a house just steps away from mine but won’t close on it until the end of the month.  So he’ll go to his sister’s tonight.  This will probably be a strange move for him, since my house has been his house for so long now.  I’m worried that he house will feel very cold and empty without him there.

Brendan said, “Don’t worry!  Soon you’ll have me and Danielle and a Great Dane to keep you company.”

It is true.  With Baldr and Freya, there will be three dogs, two children, and one cat under the roof.  Plenty of company.   Thank goodness for Brendan.

I’m sure I can’t possibly assess to what degree or how I have changed in the past few months right now.  My brain is not working so well right now, and it’s too soon to say.  But it is certain that I have changed.  I’m neither devout nor dogmatic, but I’ve become much more seriously interested in Buddhism.

One of the strangest things about being here—in addition to the odd announcements from the airport loudspeaker—is getting used to the fact that from now on most of the people I’ll encounter will be Americans who speak only one language and who have never traveled anywhere outside the country.  Given the neighborhood I live in and the places I go, most of the people I see will be white.  Some of them will be black.  Very few of them will look like the brown faces I’ve come to know as ordinary. There will be no more diversity of Asian faces bearing witness to Indian, Mongolian, Tibetan, or Chinese ancestry!

I have been living at a Buddhist monastery for the past week, getting up to the sound of chanting monks.  I have gotten used to women in kurtas, dogs, cows, ducks and chickens in the street, to women swishing their beautiful Tibetan silk skirts and aprons, to men in Newari caps sitting for hours on storefront stoops, to gaudy saris and tikas and tinkling plastic bracelets, to attracting unwanted attention because I am white.

I love the slow pace of life in Nepal and love to gaze upon the stupa.

I miss Anura, Bipin, Gaurima, Krishala, and Nirmala.  It seems cruel and unfair that I won’t be able to see them every morning.  It is terrible to contemplate the thought of never seeing them again.

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43

Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.   A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as drinking, or smoking pot, or drawing, or reading, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and get beyond it.


With my son, Princeton, circa 1992

With my son in Princeton

My son, my only child, was born months after my mother succumbed, fighting, to colon cancer.  She was 55.  I was 30.  When the doctors diagnosed cancer, I immediately got pregnant.

I had spent a lot of my life up to that point doing everything I could not to become my mother.   I looked down on her “bourgeois” life-style as the tennis-playing, Saks-shopping wife of a successful surgeon.   She never finished college, because she took a job to pay for my father’s medical education.

With my mother

I finished college, spent two years studying in Germany, and then completed an M.A. in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.   I had married, yes, but was working as the press secretary for a liberal Congresswoman in Washington, D.C., while my husband finished his dissertation.   Later I took a high-paying job as the director of State Relations as NYU.

Suddenly she was dying and all I wanted to do was experience motherhood with her.  I wanted, needed to bond with her.  I wanted to learn everything she had to teach me.   Nothing mattered more to me.  She bugged the heck out of me but she was still my best friend.  She had cancer.  I set about getting pregnant with the same determination I had directed to getting work.

Shortly after I conceived, I found that she had only a few months left.  I quit my fancy job and moved home.  She lived long enough to see an ultrasound of my son while he was still in a frog-state, bouncing himself off the sides of my womb.  I remember the day.  We had gone from the gynecologist to the oncologist, and the news was good and bad.  Shortly after that, the doctor put her on oxygen.  She died on October 2, 1990.  My son was born May 3, 1991.

My Son in Santa Barbara, circa 1996

Six and a half years later, I left my marriage.   I managed to win joint custody of my son, but the only job I could get in my field was in a different state.   At the time, I never imagined that the separation would last so long.  Ten years.  I came to regret many decisions that seemed at the time to be best.  I made every choice with my son’s best interests in mind.  I didn’t think enough, in retrospect, about my own.  I didn’t realize how poorly I would endure the time I lost with him.

With my son in Pittsburgh

Long-distance mothering sucks.  It requires a huge amount of effort, patience, endurance, and love.  Love in the face of countless setbacks and awful, heart-breaking partings.  Love for another person makes it possible to turn the keys in the engine and drive on after you have just pulled over to the side of the road to weep and wail and rage.  Love bends you like the willow in the storm and keeps you alive for the long road ahead, when your children are older and still need you.  I, after all, still need my mother.

This year my son is living with me under my own roof, and the best part of my day comes at 6 am, when I rise to make breakfast and to pack a lunch for him.   Sometimes I also help him get to work, at 7 am, on time.   I cannot begin to describe how good this is for me, how my heart heals a little more with each sandwich I make.  Being able to be here for him is the best thing about life now.

Becoming a mother without your own mother to talk to is hard, because it isn’t until you have actually had your own children that the questions you need to ask occur to you.  You see your own children doing things that you think you might have done, or that may or may not be normal for someone in your family, and you want to know.  But mostly you simply want to share the experience of mothering with the woman who brought you into the world.

If I spent my young adult years running away from my sometimes suffocating mother, I spend my middle years yearning for her arms around me.

I was born blue.  The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and was choking me.  A metaphor for the future, perhaps.  Our mother was Norwegian, so she was powerful, domineering, and sometimes intrusive.  She was also outspoken and smart and capable and beautiful and funny.

Friends, my sister and mother in Santa Barbara

After she died, our family fell apart.  Dad self-destructed and completely neglected my sister.  I was, as I had always been, at least since she was six, far away, unable to help her.

It is a terrible thing to have a relationship with someone whom you love and want to help, someone who needs your help but who does not know how to ask you.  It is especially difficult when that person is still so young that she or he does not even realize what trouble she or he is in, and therefore does not perceive a need for help, and doesn’t ask.

So this is a strange posting for Mother’s Day.  The message I set out to convey was that this annoying holiday is for once a very happy day for me, and that is for all kinds of reasons.  The foremost reasons are my son and my sister and her twins.

I am also really tremendously grateful to my new friends, so many of whom are mothers of my age or so.  I am thinking of my partner’s sister, who has just lost both her parents, and of my sisters in AM, each of whom could tell a poignant story about loss and mothering, and of my dear friend in Poughkeepsie, who has also lost her mother.  Mothering is painful and rewarding, suffocating and renewing.  I’m lucky to have so many wonderful, vibrant mothers in my life.