adoption, family

Death and Changes

Nothing reminds us of the sanctity of life as much as the finality of death. Luke and I went to a memorial service today. I didn’t actually know the woman who died. We might have met a total of two times.

Her husband is the one we are friends with. He volunteers with Luke as an EMT here in our little town. He’s a captain named K. Our relationship with K began before Luke ever volunteered at EMS.

My husband didn’t have time for any of that in the summer of 2014. We had just brought home 3 (4 when Marcus visited) foster children with plans to adopt them. That summer was filled with a series of crisis. Mary was having out-of-control violent episodes on a daily basis. They’d last for hours and leave a swath of broken furniture, broken walls, and a bruised up mother in their wake. Sometimes there was blood.

When it got too dangerous for us to manage we’d have to call for backup. The mobile crisis team would send out a therapist. Often Mary was much too violent for them to manage. The police and ambulance would soon follow.

Every time we had to bring Mary in for a psychiatric hospital stay I felt like such a failure. Why wasn’t she getting any better? Was our love breaking her in some way? Why couldn’t our family be enough to help Mary stabilize?

Here is where K came in. After the third or fourth hospitalization he began to show up first on scene after a 9-1-1 call. Luke was at work and I was on my own. K never judged me. He never judged Mary. K had a similar experience with a family member suffering from a mental illness.

Mary was terrified to be alone with men back then. She wouldn’t let anyone touch her. The only way to get her to the ER was if I rode in the back of the ambulance with her. When Luke was working I couldn’t ride with her. I’d end up without a way home from the ER. I couldn’t leave the other kids with neighbors overnight again and again as I stayed at the hospital.

On one of the worst days, K was there. Mary was heading back for an inpatient stay. Her violence was escalating. Marcus had called their oldest biological sister and their biological mother in a fit of rage. I don’t even recall why he was mad that day. My cell phone started blowing up with calls, threats, and comments about the terrible things we were doing to Mary who really just “needed her mother.”

At my wits end, I looked at K in despair. He gently asked me where my car keys were. That night he drove my car behind the ambulance to the hospital. I was able to go with Mary and still have a way to get home. I dare anyone to find an EMT that amazing.

Over the next few years Mary stabilized. We would see K around town and she’d run to hug him. Luke began volunteering at EMS as family life settled down. They became fast friends and K was always there for us.

At the service I brought him a brightly colored pink and purple bracelet made by Mary. I told him, “This may not be your style but you know who wanted you to have this.”

He put on his sparkly bracelet and wore it the rest of the service. When I glanced down at Luke’s hand I realized both of us were still decked out in our Mary-made jewelry, too. Luke never takes his off.

Sometimes things change. K’s wife died after a hard-fought battle with cancer. Mary went to a residential school after two years of relative stability here at home.

Some things never change. I know this each time I glance down at our wrists.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.**

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family

Killing the Pineapple

YLAX

All of the Trauma Mamas out there hold a single truth in common: we set the achievement bar for our children squarely at the “progress” mark. Our kids are healing and dealing and coping with trauma. Any progress that they make is worth celebration. Maybe your child hasn’t hit anyone in a whole day. Congratulations! Perhaps your child maintained eye contact for a full 5 seconds. Hurray! Maybe you have turned that amazing corner where you no longer have to hover around your child watchfully lest they explode into an epic tantrum. From the bottom of my heart I commend you.

Other parents just seem to have different achievement standards. Maybe this is true or maybe it’s just an illusion I see created by Facebook and Instagram. I see pictures of kids who made the honor roll, or student of the month, or performed in a recital. Their parents beam with pride in these photos as if to say, “See? My parenting skills paid off!”

Last week I was at a cookout with my children. There was another couple there with their 10-year-old son. They seemed like nice, engaging people. They spoke a lot about their son and how their schedules revolved around his sporting events. His father was a football coach for his son’s team. They had recently turned down a wedding invitation for the wife’s sister. They weren’t going to attend because their son hadn’t been invited and there wouldn’t be any children at the wedding. It sounded like heaven to me, but they seemed highly offended.

Luke and I had actually just attended an “adults only” wedding the previous week. My parents took the littles overnight.  Luke and I got a hotel room and some invaluable alone time. I am not one to pass up grown-up time with my husband but hey, different strokes for different folks. If this couple wouldn’t go to events without their son, that’s fine. Good for them. Who am I to judge?

As we were talking the children were having a water balloon fight on the lawn. I was relishing the fact that I could sit with the grown ups and enjoy a glass of wine. I wasn’t worried that our kids would unexpectedly tantrum or hurt someone. They are doing so well and they have improved so much! I am triumphant in my repose. Victory is mine.

Mary approaches the little patio table between us. She sets down a “mama” and a “daddy” water balloon on a small towel. A few minutes later she comes back with tiny water balloons that the big balloons have adopted. She solemnly tells us all of their names and asks us to “keep them safe” while she goes back to the “war” area to save more balloons. I nod and play along, creating a makeshift towel shelter for the refugees. Next comes the “grandma” balloon that is “also a grandpa.” She tells us, “This balloon is both and grandma and a grandpa.” The transgender balloon also adopts a small balloon which is now the sister to the mom balloon and an aunt to the original adopted balloons. So far I am still following the family tree of refugee water balloons. How creative!

That’s when I glance up at the other couple. They have gone very quiet. They have a rather puzzled look on their faces about all of the balloon genealogy. “So…there’s a transgender balloon??? And what about all of these adoptions???? Huh.” I am laughing and having a good time. I love my daughter’s imagination.Their son is filling up water balloons and throwing them in the traditional way at other children. My daughter is saving them and constructing a family. I think both kids’ choices are fun and harmless.

That’s when things take a turn. Mary abruptly grabs the “parent” water balloons and smashes them on the driveway. She looks up from her water balloon carnage and mater-of-factly states, “It was nice knowing you, but you had to die.” Then she reaches over and plops one of the adopted balloon-young into her mouth and begins chewing. I calmly yet firmly make her spit out the “baby” balloon. At the same time that the other mom shouts, “Oh no! Don’t put that in your mouth!”

The other couple looks at each other in horror as my daughter gleefully kills off the family she has made. I’m not shocked by this at all. Mary vacillates between cooing softly and tucking in the balloons, and smashing them. My father has recently died and Mary is trying to make sense of death in her own way. This is very different than the time she was having homicidal ideations about killing us. During that time she was also having more than a few delusions and PTSD panic attacks. It was years ago. Now she is happily playing while I talk to grown ups. I feel proud.

I decide to tell them the story of Burton the pineapple to sort of ease their minds. “Our daughter is rather eccentric,” I tell them. “She once had a pineapple as a pet.”It’s true. She loves pineapples. Mary has pineapple shirts, pineapple dresses, a pineapple headband and a pineapple nightgown. We are still searching for the elusive pineapple flip-flops. Mary is pineapple obsessed.

One day, my husband made the mistake of buying her a pineapple at the grocery store. She instantly pulled it into the cradle of her arms and named it “Burton.” She snuggled Burton. She slept with Burton. She talked to Burton. Now, if you are going to cuddle a fruit, I would recommend something soft like, say, a kiwi. Pineapples are prickly and sharp. They are not an easy fruit to cuddle. But Mary is tenacious and she doesn’t give up. Her pineapple wears dresses and sits at the dinner table. Once it was next to me on my pillow when I woke up in the morning.

All pineapples must come to an end. Luke and I gently explain to Mary that we will soon have to eat her new pet. We show her the Dole tag that came with Burton. It shows how to twist off his “crown” and slice him open to get the fruit inside. She seems shocked at first. I imagine us battling over rotting fruit that she refuses to quit sleeping with.

“Pineapples are meant for cuddling!” she tells us with conviction.

Then it happens. I get home from work on a random day and Mary and Carl are sitting at the kitchen table eating pineapple chunks. My husband is looking smug. He did it!

Carl sympathetically comments, “I’m sorry we had to eat your friend. Burton does taste really good.”

Mary replies in a low and ominous voice, “DON’T say his name!” Then she promptly bites another chunk. Some of the juice is running down her chin and her eyes are closed in the sheer enjoyment of flavor. She is still enjoying Burton.

So here I am, relaying the story of Burton to the dismayed couple. I think it’s a quirky story that showcases the awesome strangeness of our family. The couple I’m speaking to look at me as though my child is deranged and quite possibly contagious. “Oh…weird…” is all they have to say. Now and again I catch them glancing at her nervously.

In the end, I’m sure they thought all kinds of things about my kid. The one obsessed with adoption, transgender water balloons, pineapples, and death. That’s OK. I’m not really sure I understand everything about their family either. I’m the mom with the kid who talks incessantly about death. I’m the mom who tucked my child into bed with a pineapple. I’m the mom who jumps at the chance to have a night alone with her husband, no kids. I’m the mom who is proud of this family.

I can’t say that I spoke to the other couple much that day. Later on my son and some of the other children complained to me about their son. He got mad during the water balloon fight and threw a lacrosse stick at some of the other children. Honestly, my kids have done worse. It’s normal for children to act like this from time to time. Secretly, I was bizarrely happy about this. A small part of me, an evil and vengeful part of me, delighted in the fact that it wasn’t my “weird” kids causing the mayhem this time.

Who knows? Maybe they never judged my child. Maybe I was the one passing judgement. It still felt good. I smugly rounded up my well-behaved children into the car to go home. We waved goodbye as their son was yelling at them. I had a calm sense of accomplishment warming me from the inside.

My self-satisfaction lasted all the way to the highway. Once we hit the on ramp, Carl started melting down about the unfairness of bedtimes. How can moms and dads get to stay up later?! He whined and yelled and cried and kind of lost it. But that’s a story for another day.

boots

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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adoption, family

Down the Rabbit Hole: In Search of My Emotions

My grief has taken some strange twists and turns this past week. I feel like Alice chasing the white rabbit down a winding and elusive hole. It feels like I am falling and I have no idea where I will land.

My father’s death has brought up some strange reactions in me.  We weren’t exactly estranged. Our relationship was more like a distant veneer than the messy truth of human connections. When I remember simpler times from my childhood, I miss him. Many times, though, I forget about his death. It simply becomes lost in all the minutiae of the day. I’ll be fixing lunches, brushing my daughter’s hair, or matching socks from the laundry when I suddenly remember. Who forgets a parent’s death in a week? What kind of a person does this make me?

Other times I am bombarded with confusing and seemingly unrelated feelings. At my son’s football practice last night I got caught up watching the older team of kids. Adolescent boys (and one girl) grumbled and groaned and generally proclaimed their angst to their coach. They were made to run extra laps because of their argumentative nature. Two of them commiserated together in a sweaty huddle after the practice. As I watched these teenagers doing what teens do best, I felt an almost palpable kick to the stomach.

In that moment my longing for my teenage boys sucked the breath right out of my lungs. I missed them with a startling ferocity that unnerved me. All of the sudden I was reminded of washing sweaty practice clothes for Marcus. I could almost hear Sean whining and complaining about wanting chinese food for dinner. I was thinking of my foster sons. The foster sons I had hoped to adopt. One of the boys on the field started teasing his mother with that cracking adolescent voice so common for boys in the throes of puberty. That sound can be like nails on a chalkboard. It’s awful. And I missed it so badly!

With utter astonishment I realized that I had begun to cry behind my oversized sunglasses. I was staring at this mother-son interaction and crying for the boys I had lost. What was wrong with me? They moved out a year ago. They were long gone. It’s a loss I thought I had come to terms with months ago.

And the loss of my father? It is somehow eclipsed by this improbable longing for boys that gleefully tortured me and trampled my heart. Boys who itched to shed the uncomfortable skin of “family,” and try things on their own. Boys I thought I’d long since let go of.

Where is my traditional grief? Where are the tears for the parent I’ve lost? I’ve shed some, of course. But shouldn’t there be more? Where are the feelings I just cannot access? Am I so cold-hearted that they don’t exist? Are my emotions so confused that I am grieving the wrong person? Are my true feelings so far down the rabbit hole that they are lost in Wonderland?

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family

The Call

Our oldest, Marcus, once told me he was certain that his biological mom had overdosed. After he had moved out of our home, and in with his girlfriend, he reached out to her. He tried again and again through several channels to try and get in touch. He was convinced that she had died this time and that he had simply missed it. All of his panic turned out to be unfounded. She was still alive in Puerto Rico but was keeping her contact information relatively secret. She didn’t want to hear from or be reminded about her children after losing parental rights. Marcus was mad, but I remember so clearly his panic. He was worried she was dead. He was worried he had missed it.

I got the call while driving back from vacation. Luke and I and the kids were driving home from Virginia. I had just reconnected with my brother after 15 years. Luke and I were about halfway home to Connecticut when I got the call that my father was drastically ill and in Intensive Care at the hospital. This was an urgent situation. I needed to go to him right away before it was too late.

I got what information I could from his girlfriend and her children. At 90-years-old he had sepsis, gall stones, problems regulating sugar, bed sores that wouldn’t heal, and possibly dementia. Up until about a week ago he had been staying in a rehab facility for a broken leg. He had been functioning fairly well. I didn’t realize he had quit eating weeks ago. I thought he was healing his leg and getting ready to leave the rehabilitation facility. Then one of his girlfriend’s daughter’s sent me a picture. I gasped to see my once strong, tall, and commanding father. He was now a frail 85 pounds, no longer 6 feet tall. He lay limp in a hospital bed.

How ironic is it that I just had this conversation with my brother, Ed? Now Dad was in crisis and I had to act. Only this time, I was not alone. Luke and I scrambled to try and make plans to get me out to California. We weren’t even back in Connecticut yet. Should he drop me off at JFK so that I could get a standby flight to CA? Would I make it in time?

As we were frantically trying to find flights, hotels, and get information from the hospital, Ed came through. He bought me a round trip ticket for the next day from CT to CA. That was half the battle. Booking.com took care of my hotel, and my mom made plans to come. Luke had work but managed to figure out childcare while I was gone between my step-dad and some friends. I was going to make it to see my Dad. I worried that I wouldn’t make it in time but I knew that I was going.

I remembered Marcus. I could feel the same panic in myself, only I was able to take steps to see my dad. I was able to get information. I wasn’t shut out. What would happen with Mary and Carl someday? Would they know when their biological mom was close to the end? Would they be able to be there? Would they want to?

All I can say is that there is comfort in family. In times of crisis it is comforting not to be alone. My brother came through on our recent conversation. He bought me the ticket. My mom didn’t hesitate to go with me even though she had been divorced from my father for over 30 years. Will I do the same for my kids? Will I want to? I hope so.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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family

Goodbye

When I was small, my dad would take me for ice cream. He always got peppermint stick. I usually got chocolate chip. We would eat ice cream and chat. My Dad always said that these were father-daughter dates. This was the normal parent-child relationship that I enjoyed.

My father also took me to workshops about drawing my own aura. He let me sit in when he performed psychic readings on friends. I learned about tarot cards and palm reading from his girlfriends. He traveled everywhere performing “rescues” for earthbound souls trapped in our reality. He placed purple amethysts in the four corners of my room to chase the bad dreams away. This was the paranormal parent-child relationship I enjoyed as a child.

My parents were divorced so when I was with my dad it was just the two of us. He would always cook steak and potatoes for dinner. He drank red wine every night of my life. Sometimes he had one glass, sometimes four or more. He played traditional Irish music in the car as he drove me back to my mother’s house. I leaned the lyrics to songs about war, dismemberment and whiskey. We would sing along but it always meant that I was going home without him.

He was married three times, and engaged on at least ten occasions. He was in love with falling in love. He went dancing every weekend. He didn’t work consistently so he rarely had money. After his third divorce, moved from state to state living with various girlfriends.

My dad believed that before I was born, I chose to be born to him and my mom. He says that I watched over him in World War II and kept him safe as his guardian spirit. He says he knew me well in spirit form. According to my dad I decided to be born as his child in order to experience human life and to help him on his journey. Unfortunately for my dad, I held the belief that I was born in order to live my own life and form my own destiny.

As I grew up I continued to disappoint him. He had a grand idea to build a psychic healing center. He thought I would come and work with him and run this center. He wanted to pass this legacy to me. The only problem? I’m not psychic. I don’t want to work running a center. He would always say, “Yes you do. You told me before you were born. You forget I knew you before this incarnation!” And who could argue with that?

I’m a teacher. I’m an Episcopalian. I married an amazing man. A Hispanic man with two children from a previous marriage. We grew our family trough adoption. Dad was bewildered at best. “Why would you want to raise someone else’s children?!” He said that with a disdain that would have been more appropriate if I had said I was going to start wearing other people’s dirty clothes.

As the years went by he moved farther and farther away. For the last 6 years he has been living in California and working on his healing center. We spoke on the phone every week on Sunday. He never remembered the names of my kids, or how many I have. He really wanted me to learn more about the big project he was working on and how I would play a pivotal role in it. I gave up trying to convince him that I had my own life or that it was something to be proud of.

I was always glad that I talked to him, though. I knew I was making an effort in our relationship even though we were miles apart. No matter what he thought about my life choices, he always called me “his angel,” to anyone who would listen.

My father died on Saturday, at 90 years old. When he became seriously ill, I flew out to California in order to be there at the end. I spent the week massaging his feet, holding his hand, and reading out loud to him. I shared stories about the fun things we used to do together. I showed him pictures that family members sent, and played him songs that they requested. As the days wore on he regained consciousness less and less often. I spoke to him anyway so that he would know he was not alone.

As the time grew near for my return flight to Connecticut I became anguished over leaving him. I didn’t want my father to be alone at the end. His girlfriend and her family visited but I was there all day brushing his hair and using a small sponge to keep his mouth from drying out. Didn’t he need me there? The hospice doctor explained that he could survive for days or even weeks. I made arrangements for his remains. I contacted family members about a memorial service. And then I waited. And waited. I didn’t want him to be alone when he took his last breath. Like many things in life, he had other plans.

Finally the time came for me to go back to Connecticut. I simply couldn’t afford to stay any longer and I needed to get back to my children. On our last day together I played him that Irish music he had played for me so many times. The last song I played was “Irish Rover.” I dipped my sponge into some red wine and dabbed the drink on his tongue. I said my goodbyes and I kissed my dad for the last time.

He died exactly when I got to the airport. I think he was waiting until I was through security and couldn’t come back. They say he took his last breathe in his sleep. I think he waited until I was gone and then he let go. His approval really didn’t matter anymore. I think he knew that what I really needed, in my grief, was my family.

Back in Connecticut I melted into Luke’s embrace. Even though it was 2 AM, I snuck into each child’s room.  I hugged my children close. My daughter woke up and exclaimed, “Mommy! You came BACK!” My son rolled over and mumbled, “I love you, mom. I’m sorry about your dad.” I realized that as different as we were, I passed some of my father’s traditions onto my family. Both children have a purple amethyst in a corner of their rooms. And that was all I really needed. My family.

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