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(Personal) Ashes In The Mouth

Myth 150We all know how difficult family can be. Our siblings know all of the buttons that will drive us insane, no matter how carefully we try to cover them up. There’s something about a comment from our mom and dad — even though they might swear it’s innocuous — that feels like a judgement passed on every decision we’ve made in our lives. Even in the best of times dealing with our folks can take a lot out of us. They know us intimately in ways most others don’t, but at the same time there are all these parts of ourselves we’ve learned to hide from them.

My mother and I have a relationship that’s more complicated than most, I would imagine. I left home for good a few weeks before I turned 19 and I’ve only seen my mom again earlier this year, for my sister’s funeral. While I can’t say we’ve grown closer over the experience, it has re-established the difficult bond we have with each other. She’s now 83 years old and under a host of medical conditions; she can’t walk without falling, she can’t see so well, and there’s a lot about modern life that confuses her. After the death of her only biological child last year and the recent sudden loss of my sister, I’m the only child she has left. If I don’t take care of her, who will?

It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. Mom has always been a difficult woman to deal with, and that hasn’t changed with age. She’s very particular about everything, even the amount of time it takes to get what she wants. It’s hard to negotiate with her because she’ll forget things that she doesn’t want but agrees to do and never lets go of the things she does — no matter how impossible they might be. Whether or not this is on purpose, we’ll never know.

The past two weeks have been especially trying. Mom is currently sitting in an inpatient rehab facility to hopefully regain mobility. Advanced arthritis and multiple falls have made a constant pain in her hip so bad it hurts her to move; she has been on pretty heavy-duty painkillers for it who knows how long. Now, they’re trying to ween her off the habit-forming stuff, giving her medication that doesn’t work as well, and putting her through pretty intense, painful physical therapy as much as they can. Mom doesn’t want any of this. She wants to be back in her own home, or at least in her own hospital, and she blames the caretaker that’s stepped in to handle her and me that this isn’t happening.

Phone calls to Baltimore are being made every day. Since Mom can’t do it, I’m in charge of trying to settle a mountain of debt on a fixed Social Security income (which has been reduced for reasons I can’t figure out). Utilities must be returned to good standing, property taxes must be handled, medical bills have to be settled; then we can turn our attention to seeing if the house is something that can be saved or if it’s something that can only be condemned. Since Mom has made the decision she can’t make things work with the caretaker, all of this has to be done quickly.

That, in a nutshell, is why I went dark last week and why I’ve made next to no progress on my word count and fundraising for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. For the past couple of weeks, life has been work, Mom, helping a friend with his cat and whatever small bits of rest I can manage in between. I can’t say I’ve been dealing with it all that well. I’ve gotten grumpier, quiet, and resentful.

One thing in particular continues to rattle me: a big argument I had with my mother last weekend. Fed up with the constant calls and texts from people passing along messages that Mom was unhappy, or that she was savaging the reputation of the caretaker who had taken her in, I spent an hour on the phone just letting her have it. If it was just about the way she had treated someone who tried to do a good turn and is getting punished for it, that would be one thing — but it wasn’t. I yelled at her about the thing she said to me when I came out to her, as well as the fact that she’s still denied it all these years later; I yelled at her about the money and time I’ve sunken into the family this year, and how I had to give up a semester of school and a summer session to handle things; I yelled at her about how whatever I do is not good enough for her, how I’m never appreciated for trying to do the right thing.

Of course all of this has been within me for a long time, and I accept that. What’s harder to accept is that these thoughts and emotions weren’t uncovered and dealt with in my own manner; it erupted over a phone call to an old woman in intense pain, who is very lonely, who has lost almost everyone close to her. My mother was not very good at raising me, and she did a lot of damage, but knowing what her life was like, where she came from, and who she had to rely on, I really do think she did the best she could.

There are a number of things that I won’t be able to forgive her for, and I accept that as well. But it’s clear that I have to do something with these difficult emotions — name them, explore them, accept them. Otherwise they’ll continue to curdle inside me, poisoning me in ways that I won’t be able to name or recognize until I’m screaming at an old woman on the phone all over again.

The work continues. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do with the Write-A-Thon at this point, but I’ll keep trying to write as much as possible. In the meantime, I’ll have to pull back a bit to tend to my emotional landscape.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) The Best Thing About Tragedy

Myth 150Pixar’s Inside Out is an amazing film, and I’ll get into exactly what I think about it later. But for now I want to talk about one perfect moment of many in the movie because I keep thinking about it recently. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry — I won’t spoil too much about the plot or anything. It’s a small thing, but like the best emotional beats it opens directly to the heart of things when you look into it.

The premise is that the emotions we all experience — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust — are people whose job it is to make sure our emotions influence us to take action when necessary. Each emotion has a situation it’s designed for, and Joy (our main character) is really dedicated to making sure her person has the happiest life. This, of course, puts her in direct conflict with Sadness.

A character that Joy and Sadness meet while traveling suffers a loss that affects him deeply, and Joy can’t seem to snap him out of the funk he’s in. Exasperated, she steps away; Sadness sits next to him and encourages him to talk about what’s upsetting him, getting him to move through his pain instead of avoiding it. Once he’s had a good cry, he stands up and announces he’s ready to move on. After that, Joy realizes Sadness’ purpose — the pain we experience allows us to have empathy for others, to help them move through pain that can feel unbearable at times.

This first week of May was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. My sister was the one person who would have gotten me to go back to my hometown of Baltimore, and her sudden hospitalization found me on a plane there without hesitation. I got the call on Friday morning, arrived early Saturday, and saw my mother for the first time in 19 years that day. The next day, I met the father of Teneka’s children and my two oldest nephews for the first time.

That was the day we were gathered in a conference room with a small team of doctors and social workers and told that my sister was brain dead. My heart broke, not just for my loss, but for the loss of my nephews’ mother, my mother’s daughter, my brother’s partner in life. Our grief in that room connected us, as painful as it was; I can’t speak for anyone else, but being comforted and being able to comfort my family made me feel just a tiny bit better.

The following week was a struggle to absorb the twin tragedies of my sister’s passing and the cold realization of how much my mother’s health had deteriorated over time. She was a small but ice-hard woman, and she kept a clean home. Walking into the house I grew up and being hit by the smell and sight of what it had become is a shock I won’t forget. As soon as I saw her, lying in her bed, I knew that I would do anything to get her out of there and into a better situation.

My husband paused, allowed himself to recover, then immediately went to work helping her. His aunt did the same when she drove with me to help prepare for my sister’s memorial service. I hadn’t seen my mother since the day she told me not to come back all those years ago. Ryan only knew of her through the stories I told him about my upbringing. His aunt had never met her — she was a country girl from Arkansas stepping in to an inner-city home for the first time.

None of that mattered. Time and again, I found myself helped through this terrible time by friends and family stepping up to share my grief and take on a burden that wasn’t theirs. When someone else needed my help, I stepped in without hesitation. Knowing that there were so many others who would do — who had done — the same for me made it easy.

Over the week I was in Baltimore, I was able to heal the rift with my mother — who loved my husband, by the way. I was able to meet my nephews for the first time, and get close to someone who loved Teneka as much as I did. Our family came together in a way they hadn’t in quite some time, and I forged a bond with friends and neighbors that allowed me to reclaim my past. Most importantly, the beautiful, graceful connections that we formed helped ensure that my grief for my sister was tempered with an appreciation for her life and all of the people she had touched.

Our ability to feel pain is also our ability to feel empathy. We can know what it’s like to lose someone and reach out in ways that can genuinely help ease their suffering. As hard as it was to deal with everything back in my hometown, I keep going back to the people I bonded with, the deep and lasting connections we formed, all of those times where love filled the room and allowed us to be open and honest and kind. I feel sad, and I will for a long time. But I also feel incredibly fortunate to have the friends and family I do, the support that carried me through all of this, the ability to witness the best in people.

Even in heavy grief, my heart feels lifted by gratitude. I don’t know that I can express how much I appreciate the kind words and deeds of everyone who reached out over the past few weeks. Thank you all, for everything you’ve done.

 

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(Personal) Eulogy For My Sister

Myth 150When I was younger, I used to make plans with my sister to run away from home all the time. We always thought that the way our mother treated us was grossly unfair, and after a particularly hard day we would pack up a few days’ worth of clothes, make a couple of sandwiches, and sit beneath the porch of our childhood home to plan our escape. Of course we never went through with it; when the time came to pull the trigger, we always found a reason that the timing wasn’t right or why tomorrow would be better.

Only, as time went on and we grew up, we both did run away in our own sense. I fell into a ton of extracurricular activities in high school and when I graduated, I worked two jobs and spent the rest of my day at the library until it closed just so I wouldn’t have to go back home. After that, I tried really hard to be an active Jehovah’s Witness. When that didn’t work, I fled to college in southern Maryland.

My sister literally ran away without me when I was 13 or 14 years old. Suddenly, she was gone for months and neither my mother or I had any idea where she was. I was so stunned that I couldn’t think of anything to do except sit and stare at the wall for hours after school. It was safer for me than feeling whatever it was I felt. I knew the emotion was too intense for me, and that I would end up doing something to purge myself of it that would not be good.

I didn’t realize that was grief until just a few years ago, and since then I considered myself lucky that it had been the closest I’d come to the pain of losing someone so close to me. I can’t think of myself as that fortunate any more.

My sister died on April 30th, 2017. She had been found unconscious and unresponsive in her apartment a few days before, and when the paramedics arrived it took over twenty minutes to get back a pulse. She was on a respirator for days while the family gathered and doctors performed a few tests. By the end of that weekend, it was clear that her brain had died even though her heart was still beating. We heard the news as a family — my mother was there with me, and so was the father of her two oldest children. It shattered us; each of us had a complicated relationship with my sister that took us further away from her, then closer, over time. I’m not sure any of us understood how much she meant to us until we were told that we would never get to speak to her again.

In a lot of ways, I felt like I had already mourned my sister the first time she ran away. She came back and ran away a few more times before I left home for good, and that pattern would be repeated over the years in several fights with my mother. The last time I spoke to her, she had come back from going “off the grid” again for a few days, ready to work with Mom to get the house in order, take care of her children, and start the long hard road towards being a mother, daughter, caretaker and everything else folks wanted her to be. I didn’t think it would last, but I never could be sure because I didn’t know my sister — not really. The sister I knew had “died” the first time she disappeared without a trace, and all these years later I was still feeling my way around this changeling that had taken her place.

But of course that’s not the reality of the situation. Of course my sister was the same girl who plotted escaping home with her quiet, nerdy brother — just with more experience, an adult’s understanding of the childhood pain she carried with her for her entire life. When I think about what my sister went through in her too-brief life, I’m stunned by her strength and the realization of how much she loved people, how much she sought love and acceptance. And it breaks my heart that I realized that only now, when it’s too late to do anything with that knowledge.

Like all of us, my sister had mental health issues that had been inherited by our biological mother. Unlike me, though, she still lived in the heart of Baltimore City where these issues are largely unrecognized and go untreated. When she tried to talk to her friends about them, they would tell her that she was “making things up” or that she just had to think about her problems the right way to see how ridiculous an idea it was to have “anxiety disorder”. Over time, my sister learned to nurse her issues silently and even when asked she would be reluctant to talk about it. She had to bear the burden of her own faulty brain while stepping up to be strong for everyone around her. She worked so hard to clean and care for my mother, who only gave her scorn in response; she tried hard to provide a good life for her oldest son, even though his mental health issues will make it extremely challenging; she had to fight an uncaring bureaucracy for any help she could get, even though she had been punished for having such a hard time by losing her two youngest children to foster care.

Thinking about what my sister had to go through, it’s no wonder that she turned to drugs when she did — and that it was so hard to kick the habit whenever she tried. The comforting oblivion of being too intoxicated to think or feel is an extremely tempting one, especially when just piecing together a life for yourself is so hard and thankless. Still, she knew that she needed to stop for the sake of her children. The fact that she ultimately failed is a tragedy, but it is not one of personal deficiency. She needed a support network that believed in her and worked to validate her experience, one that would give her hope that she could still live a happy life. In the depths of depression surrounded by the craziness of the inner city, something like that can feel as impossible as flying to Mars.

Still, she stayed. She stayed because she was the only one who could care for my mother, an exceedingly difficult woman who pushes away anyone who gets close enough to help her. She stayed because her children needed her, and she tried to get clean for them. She fought and fought and fought until she couldn’t any more; but she never gave up. She gave her family everything she had and then some; she hid how much it hurt when she was told again and again that it wasn’t enough.

At last, her pain is over. Her struggle has ended. I wish this wasn’t the way it happened, and I’ll regret not doing more to do right by her for the rest of my life. The only way I can prove how sorry I am is by being as strong as she was, as giving and hopeful and tenacious. She eventually fell to her demons, but she never stopped fighting them. I can’t either.

Because of my sister, I will run away from my fights much less often. Standing my ground and fighting my battles is the legacy she left with me with. For that, I sincerely thank her.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2017 in mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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