My Former Vs. My Current Life

So…this is where I always thought the blog would end.  “My Former Life”…well the last entry was about an event that occurred 11 months ago, my 40th birthday.  An event that was the whole idea behind this blog, hoping to find some peace and closure over the event of my impending 40th birthday.  And honestly, the party was representative of all that this journey through time via blog was about:  how an insecure girl with a dysfunctional family background took a journey down a path she never could have imagined for herself.  All of the stories that people who know me now, in My Current Life, either don’t know or hear bits and pieces about over glasses of wine, when my tongue is looser and I forget to keep up the facade of being Just Like Everyone Else.

Because that’s kind of the whole point.  I spent my whole life feeling outside, different, more challenged, less secure than the rest of the world.  No one I knew had a father who went onto have a relationship with a man after divorcing their mom.  No one I knew had a brother who was so violent they had to sleep with their bedroom door locked.  No one I knew had a kid when I had my firstborn at age 19.  No one in my life lost their parent or knew anything about cancer in their early 20s like me.  And after all of those tumultuous events, I kept the list going by having an affair with a married man (not that uncommon, though I added the lovely twist of having it be a former teacher), working for a rock star (not that this was a bad thing…mostly), and then having a special needs child.  Everything about my life has seemed so out of the norm that I have always felt like an outsider looking in.

But in the last ten years, despite all of that, my life has stabilized and taken on a very “typical” veneer.  I am married, we own our own home, have a few cars, and the freelance work I do allows me to stay at home with the kids.  I volunteer at their schools and at church.  I like my in laws and they like me, my dad and I have carved out a lovely relationship now that I am an adult, and while my relationship with my siblings isn’t perfect, it’s not devastating either.  I have girlfriends.  Good ones who are thoughtful and kind, helpful and generous.  I’ve always been lucky enough to have great friends who have helped me through my trials, but now the relationships are far more two way and equal.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life looking backwards with regret.  But this blog, writing out so much of what has made me, me, has helped me to realize that every experience has brought me to this place.  I’ve always said everything happens for a reason, even though there have been a great many times that I haven’t been always able to sleuth out the rationale.  I still don’t know why Zach’s father left me and has never figured out a way to have a relationship with him (updates on that to come in future entries); I still don’t know why my mother was taken from me so soon (well I know why:  she smoked too much.  But if everything happens for a reason, what was the reason for that?).  But at least now I have been able to really savor and celebrate all that has brought me to this place.

As for the blog?  It’ll continue, though likely not at the same pace.  While it has been a labor of love to write over 470 entries about my life, I doubt there is a daily dose of interesting or dramatic going on these days in my world to fill out an entry every day, but I still have a lot to say.  There’s still a lot going on that I’d like to examine and work through in this space.

For those of you who have shared this journey with me, have written or commented to tell me that you’re out there with me, thank you.  I nearly gave up on this project a year ago, before I’d ever really gotten into the meat of my story.  I am so grateful to those who prodded me along; my life is changed because of it.

Happy Birthday

I sat in the front seat, blindfolded, a gaggle of giggles surrounding me in the SUV.

“Where are you guys taking me?” I laughed, trying to go along with the good natured fun my three girlfriends clearly had meticulously planned.

It was my 40th birthday.  I had wondered how the evening would play out, with R slyly mentioning something about us not needing a babysitter that evening.  I’d pouted and sulked, thinking that he hadn’t done anything special to mark the occasion.  Some of my girlfriends had been given diamonds or trips to the Bahamas for their 40th.  Normally a nice dinner at home would be fine with me, but tonight it just felt like I wanted a little more effort.

Instead, my girlfriends had shown up on the doorstep, with matching shirts emblazoned with “Birthday Bitches” on the fronts, handed me one of my own, and whisked me away.  We were currently on the “journey through my life”, which I found funny since none of them knew that I was secretly writing the story of my life, on this blog, and had been all year. I laughed when they took me to a playground and handed me a Happy Meal, all to symbolize my childhood.

If they only knew.  If they only knew that when I envisioned my childhood, I didn’t think of swingsets and laughter and girlfriends.  Or of Ronald McDonald and cheeseburgers and collectible Muppet glasses.  None of them had divorced parents, my sweet girlfriends, so they couldn’t possibly know that the symbols of my own past were much different; yelling, screaming matches; visits to my brother in the mental hospital; padlocks and harsh words.  I blocked out all of these voices in my head and smiled at my sweet friends, none of whom could imagine the pictures floating through my head at that moment, and smiled dutifully on the swing as they snapped my photo.

The next stop through our tiny town was meant to represent my early twenties; I donned the pink feather boa and tiara I was presented with and entered the liquor store.  Didn’t every girl in her early twenties binge on the Boone’s Farm sweet wine and wine coolers?  Again, I chuckled at my naive friends.  Of course they all knew that I’d had my son at age 19 and lived at home; my early twenties were marked first by diapers and later by caring for my mother as she withered from cancer.  But yes, there had been enough of the fun, booze filled nights with my girlfriends in between it all that I was able to muster the proper amount of excitement as we plucked bottles off of the shelves and went onto our next destination.

We all laughed as they’d posed me in front of our town hall with totally inappropriate signs to mark my 30s.  It was true that I’d found my activist voice in my 30s, and this one was right on the mark.  I’d gotten involved in politics and even though I’d lost the election, I’d learned a ton about how our tiny town worked.  I’d certainly met a lot of wonderful people, these three girls amongst them, and I posed outside of our town hall for their photos wondering what would come next.

Before long, I removed my blindfold to find myself in front of my girlfriend’s house, with twenty women on the porch waiting for me.  It was a surprise birthday party, and all of my friends were here to help me celebrate it.

“I’ve never had a surprise birthday party before,” I laughed, looking up at the expectant faces.  In fact, I hadn’t had a birthday party of any signficance, really ever.  I’d been allowed to have a few friends over in 5th grade, as I recalled, and I’d invited two friends over for one in high school.  But no sweet sixteen, no graduation parties, nothing other than my own wedding to really celebrate anything to do with me and my life.

It was an overwhelming moment.  To think of how far I’d come, how many places I’d been to lead me to this moment, this place, with all of these amazing people gathered together…for me.  I looked around, and realized:  I am no longer who I was.  I am no longer tied by the harsh, negative experiences of my past.  I’ve taken all of them, all of those things, and used them to make a stronger, wiser, happier person.  A person who had friends who wanted to throw her a big, beautiful party to move her into the second part of her life.

And for one shining moment, I was at peace.

My Father’s Birthday

We were sitting in the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn with my father.

It was Labor Day weekend, and this year, my father’s 70th birthday fell on the Saturday of that weekend. Two years ago, R’s mother had thrown a splashy, expensive party for his father when he’d turned 70.  We didn’t have enough people to pull together anything like that in any location other than Florida, and I knew my siblings could never afford to travel there anyway.

With Z in college in Pittsburgh, and him performing at ever home football game in their marching band, it put another layer of difficulty in scheduling such an event.  Until finally one day, looking at the football schedule, it dawned on me:  we could do it in Pittsburgh.  My father had made a habit the last two years of attending at least one of Zach’s football peformances each season; I could just ask him to attend this one.  The gift could be the surprise of having my sister and brother and their families there; they had never really shown an interest in coming to any of Zach’s performances in the two years he’d already been in college here, so it would be an easy surprise. I had tried to think back to the last time we would have all seen my father together, with all of our children; it would have been six years prior when I’d had everyone to my home in Ohio for Thanksgiving.

I looked down at my phone on the table while my father and daughter went up to the buffet for more scrambled eggs and hash browns.  It was my sister’s text buzzing on the screen; the plan was that she and my brother would come down while we were eating breakfast, casual as anything, and my father would just look up and see them all there.  Unfortunately my father was an early riser and a fast eater, and we were nearly done with breakfast.  My brother, as usual, was taking too long to get himself out of bed and presentable enough to appear in public.  I furiously texted her that if they wanted to perfect moment of surprise that they had about five minutes left.

“Who are you texting so early in the morning?” my father asked as he returned with a second plate full of food.

“Oh, it’s Zach,” I lied smoothly.  “He just sent a good morning message and wished you a happy birthday, and that he’ll see you after the game.” On early game days, when the game started at noon, Z had to report to the stadium at 7 am.  There was no time for a leisurely breakfast for him.

My phone buzzed again.  I grabbed it before the words flashing on the small text window could be seen.  “Wow, Mommy, you never text Zach.  That’s weird.”  I flashed her a “shhh help me with the surprise” glare before reading the words “on the way” on the screen.

I sat back and watched my father and my daughter together quietly, allowing myself a moment of reflection.  We sure hadn’t had an easy road, my father and I.  My parents’ messy divorce had left our family in pieces, and when the puzzle started to take shape again, I’d firmly been placed on my mother’s side.  There were months that would go by without my father and I speaking in high school; I’d spent my teenage years fantasizing about the kind of father I wished I had.  My teenage crush on my English teacher, my fascination with 80s formulaic family comedy TV, even my obsession with a rock star could probably all be traced to the fragile relationship with the man sitting across from me.

He hadn’t been perfect.  When my brother’s anger issues swallowed me up in their path, my father had been slow to react, and I’d blamed him for it. When my father moved in with his partner, I grew resentful that they spent more of their money on themselves than sharing their good fortune with us kids.  And certainly, my father’s move out of state for a promotion just six months after my mother’s death had been a hard pill to swallow.

But he never stopped trying.  He had wanted to be a good father because his own had been a horrible one.  He just didn’t know how.  Looking at him talking with my daughter now, I marveled at how far we’d come.  I knew now that I could count on Christmas in Florida with my dad.  I knew that he’d always come to a football game for Zach while he was in college.  He came to Melinda’s first communion earlier this year, Zach’s graduation several years ago, the birth of all of my children. Somehow, for better or for worse, he’d figured it out.  He was there when it counted.

“Hey Pops,” I heard sheepishly from behind me.  It was my brother, standing there with his own son.  My sister, her children and husband brought up the rear behind him.

“Happy Birthday Dad,” my sister said, standing alongside him and leaning down to give him a kiss on his now bald head.

I watched as my father’s face went from recognition, to astonishment, to full on emotion.  His face grew red and the tears that I hardly ever saw him shed, slid slowly down his face.  He smiled, and stood, and the hugs began.

We’d come a long way, all of us.

Last Times Are Hard

February 8, 1993

Monday morning.   I liked getting up nice and early these days so that I knew no matter what happened while I was trying to get out of the house in the morning, I was going to be able to absorb the bumps.

It didn’t really matter that I’d been sleeping on the loveseat opposite my mother on the sofa in the living room.  I was up every few hours anyway listening carefully to make sure my mother was OK.  I’d started this practice a few days ago when I’d woken up to hear my mother in the middle of a huge coughing fit downstairs.  I raced downstairs to find her gasping for breath, her eyes wild from not getting enough oxygen.

“Why didn’t you call out for me?” I’d asked.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” she panted between coughs.  After that, it was time for me to sleep on the loveseat.  This night hadn’t been bad.  She’d woken a few times to cough, once to use the bathroom, and then settled down quickly to sleep.  At first she hadn’t been able to rest propped up by pillows to a 45 degree angle.  But the body adjusts to nearly anything, and soon enough, she was sleeping sitting up.

I showered, and got Z ready for day care.  I fed him, packed his lunch, and left mother half asleep on the sofa . She sounded good; no rattling, the oxygen line was clear. I packed a few snack items in a cooler and left them at her feet, so she would have a few things to eat before someone got there by ten a.m.

Once I dropped Zachary at daycare, I felt a palpable relief.  Not that he was difficult to care for; he was an amazingly agreeable toddler who took everything in stride.  But I knew that once he was in someone else’s care, my day was going to start to be about me and not about those that I was caring for.  No one at work knew yet how sick my mom was.  I wasn’t about to get all blubbery about how I knew all about oxygen saturation and tumors and such. I knew I probably looked tired, but I let everyone figure that maybe I was up late going to bars like everyone else my age.

Today was a cooking day in the Life Skills class I was teaching.  I had brought all of the groceries from home for the students to cook chili.  It took three trips from the car to get everything into the fridges in my classroom, but it also meant the students would be self directed today, making for a mentally easy day for me.  I watched them happily put the ingredients together to create something from nothing, and watched the magic ensue.  A good day.  I had almost forgotten, for a moment, what day it was.

It was my mother’s birthday.

I’d already bought my mother’s present last week; two comfy sweatshirts that would pull easily over her head.  My mother was insisting every day on being dressed and presentable in case guests stopped by, as they often did.  She told me privately that weekend, as I helped her with her sponge bath, that it was the one thing that still made her feel normal.  Sick people stayed in their pajamas all day.  But she didn’t want to be that sick person.  So she insisted on getting dressed every day, even though it was becoming increasingly more difficult for her.   Like not getting in a hospital bed, it was her own personal mental gauge that things just Weren’t That Bad yet.

I still needed a card, though.  As soon as school was over, I hurried to the Hallmark store.  I ran in, straight for the birthday section and started scoping out the mother cards.  There were so many, how was I going to choose?  I didn’t have time for a huge decision here, I wanted to get home and check on my mother and start the birthday dinner I’d planned.

But as I stood there, trying to pick a card out of the dizzying dozens staring back at me, something just snapped.  I started thinking of how I’d had to sponge bathe my mother this weekend, how I was now sleeping on the loveseat next to her, how she wasn’t eating as much as she used to, how she was able to do less and less without losing her breath these days.  And that’s when it hit me like a mack truck: this would be the last time I ever did this.

Suddenly, everything sharpened.  How could I decide?  How do you pick out the last birthday card?  An impossible task.   Do you go mushy or maudlin?  Funny or foolish?  My breath caught and the sobs came, unbidden.  Hard, silent, wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop.  “This is my mother’s last birthday,” I whispered to myself.  “How can this be happening?”

I forced myself to swallow my sobs.  If I was going to break down, it certainly wasn’t going to be in the middle of the Hallmark store.

Amethysts

February 8, 1992.

It was my mother’s 52nd birthday.  I had the idea that now that we all were living in the same area again, with things going well seemingly for all of us, that we give our mother a fancy birthday gift and dinner to celebrate.

My brother had come home from the Navy a few months prior.  He had been discharged early from his duty for some “not dishonorable but not honorable” reason.  Our parents were suspicious but no one asked a lot of questions.  He was hoping his training would come in handy in landing a decent job; he had been trained in repairing and maintaining submarine engines.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of submarines in the Detroit suburbs, so he had to settle for working at a gas station garage, driving their tow truck.  It wasn’t a great job, but it was steady and earned him enough to live in an apartment with some friends, without help from my parents.  He seemed grateful for the job, the second chance back at home outside of the military, and interested in sometimes being a part of our family again.  There weren’t exactly apologies for some of the awfulness of the past, but there was a mutual agreement amongst all of us that some things were simply Probably Better Left Unsaid.  And so we did.

My sister was at home with her baby, and her husband was doing very well repairing cars and working at his family’s business.  So much so that they’d just finished their basement with the earnings from his work, and had installed central air conditioning in their house.  My mother thought my sister should consider going back to school, because she worried always about a woman not having the ability to get a job that you could support yourself and your children on, because (as was my mother’s experience), you just never know what could happen.

Me, I was doing my student teaching and graduation was the light at the end of the three year tunnel I’d been in of being a single parent and going to college.  It was going very, very well and I was building my confidence daily.

My mother had a boyfriend these days and a new sense of what was really important.  Her cancer scare last November had shaken her up enough to really prioritize quitting smoking.  It wasn’t easy.  She discovered that the habit was so ingrained, she had to find new things to do with her hands.   Plus, the smoking was as much situational and social as it was truly a need for nicotine; she found her urges the most strong when she went out for drinks with her girlfriends.  Fortunately, her girlfriends were so supportive that they all started sucking lollipops with their wine spritzers instead of smoking around her.  And these few months later, she was feeling confident that this time, her addiction was in her control.   She had never gone this long in her life without smoking since she’d started.

I wanted to give my mother a gift that she would always look back on and remember this night.  The happiness of all of her children around her, all of her grandchildren, the positive feeling of us all doing well.  I wanted it to be special.  My mother loved jewelry; she had about eighty pairs of earrings, varying from cheap costume jewelry to more expensive, semi precious stones.   We agreed to buy my mother amethyst earrings, all of us together.  We didn’t have a lot of money, but between the three of us, we found a pair we could afford.

When we presented the tiny box after a rich meal at the local steakhouse that night, she started to cry.  My mother, who had been through much in her life, hardly ever cried.  It just wasn’t her style; she was a master at the Public Mask and Keeping It All In.  But that night, her emotions were on her sleeve.  I told her that the gift was from all of us, and we wanted it to always remind her how grateful we were to her for always being there for us, for being our champions, and for never giving up on any of us, no matter how dire the circumstances looked.

“Thank you,” she said simply.  “Thank you.  I will never forget this night.”

Mission accomplished.

First Birthday

The summer of 1990 passed quickly after that.  I spent my summer days going to classes at the university, fulfilling a full time schedule during those warm months that would enable me to start my first stint of student teaching in the winter term.  Wayne State asked its students to fulfill three semesters of student teaching experiences; one urban, one suburban (both half time) and then one full time teaching experience at a district of the student’s choosing.

On my off nights and weekends I would take Zachary to the park or swimming. I spent hours with my sister helping her choose maternity clothes for her first pregnancy.  She likely balked at relying on her six years younger sister for help, but it was something we could share together, and so we did.  She wasn’t working anymore, so she had lots of free time when I was available.  Sometimes I could go over a girlfriend’s house after Zachary was in bed and my mother was home from work.  It was a busy, but quiet time. I tried to accept that this was now reality, that my current situation was of my choosing and not going to change, and to make the best of it.

Zachary for his part, had grown into a wonderfully easy baby who would go out to dinner with us for hours (as long as we supplied him with saltine crackers), smile when read “The Very Hungry Catepillar”, laugh at the constant tickles we supplied him with, and amuse himself when I needed to study.  As much as I could be, I was content as we approached the end of his first year.

We had two parties for Zachary that year; the first was at our tiny townhouse, and consisted of just close family, on the actual day of Zach’s birthday.  I laughed to myself that I must be the only single mother anywhere that had so many people wanting to help celebrate her kid’s birthday that she had to hold two parties.

We held the second at Major Magic’s Pizza Palace, one of those awful Chuck E. Cheese style pizza places where kids played games with tokens and germs multiply like salmonella in the summer heat.  My father made a birthday cake with a huge “1” on it.  My brother was home from the Navy.  My sister’s friends with babies brought their kids.  Dawn came with an eight month belly under a maternity top.  My mother smiled as much as I’d ever seen her.  We were all very celebratory; this may not have been the path we’d all thought I would be on two years ago, but everything was going as well as it could be, considering.

Zach reached out to his piece of cake that day, tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I had to put a small bit of it on his hand to assure him that it was OK to reach in and make a mess.  Once he understood what was available to him, though, he dove right in and gleefully smiled at me.

Yes, little one.  New things are scary sometimes, and it’s good to be careful.  But after you’ve tested the waters and found them appealing, there’s nothing wrong with riding the waves without any hesitation.

Visiting Hours

He looks like him.

That was the first thing I thought of when I looked at my son.  He had Joe’s coloring, his hair color.  His eyes were dark, dark blue, which everyone told me meant his eyes would turn brown within the first year of life.  Everything about him, including his sex, was more Joe than me.  The only thing I felt I could definitively say was that he had my nose.  Joe’s nose was a long, pointed, ski slope of a nose; even before we’d broken up I’d joked with him that I hoped the baby got my nose.  The tiny, rounded snub on my son’s face was the only thing that I found of my own DNA in him.

One by one, all of my friends came to visit us in the hospital.  My friend Karen, who’d been there with me since the beginning.  My college dorm roommate Lori came.  Dean, who’d helped organize the baby shower for my friends, came.  My sister’s friend B, pregnant with a baby of her own and married now, came.  Ana, another of my sister’s friends, also married, came.  Randy, another of Joe’s good friends and part of our group in high school, came.  Mike, another friend of Joe’s who lived near me in our townhome development, came.  My friends Dawn and Lauri couldn’t make it; Dawn was away at school at Michigan State, and Lauri was in the Air Force in basic training.  My mother, my father, my sister, they all came and snapped photos.  My mother’s friend Marilyn, who we always spent holidays with, came.  My room was a constant hub of activity during visiting hours.

Everyone came, but one.

Joe never came.  I asked his friends if he knew that Zachary was here, that the birth had happened.  They told me that they’d told him, but that he wasn’t coming.  I thought, well, maybe it would be intimidating to be around all of my family and friends, most of whom were taking a very dark view of the fact that Joe hadn’t come around during the rest of my pregnancy. Maybe he’d call, I thought, and made sure all of Joe’s friends had the number to my hospital room.

But it didn’t matter.  He didn’t come, and he didn’t call. After all this time, all of how I thought it would go, all of the dreams I’d had where all of the anger, and fear, and cross words and stupid decisions would just melt away once the news of the baby came.  That after everything, our love would rise up in his head and remind him who we both really were, and what we’d meant to each other, and that the proof of that was right here, right now, in the perfectly healthy, robust baby boy that everyone oohed and ahhed over.

I held my baby boy close.  “We’re a team, you and I,” I told him.  “We’ll get through this, together.”

He nuzzled softly into my chest and breathed in and out.  If I said it, I’d believe it.

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