Tuesday
Mar222016

Confronting the Deep Middle 

I was an unusually precocious young woman. This likely stemmed from a lack of any real parenting, but it also may have just been my make-up.  I was dating the varsity quarterback at fourteen. At fifteen I travelled to Europe for the summer by myself. I graduated from high school at sixteen, entered into a green card marriage at nineteen, and married my “real” first husband at twenty–three. I had four kids by the time I was thirty, and had voluntarily shuttered my second reasonably successful business by the time I was thirty-seven. I’m not boasting here, but rather trying to make a point: I was always someone who was mature before her time, who peaked early.

Until now. Now, for perhaps the first time in my life, I’m right on target developmentally. As I type, I’m wide awake at 4am, experiencing a combination of anxiety, insomnia, hot flashes, and night sweats that would put a Marine to shame.  As a commiserating friend recently texted: “this shit is not for sissies.” My body feels on high, tense alert, like a raw rod of slowly sagging flesh. I’m almost 47, this has been going on for months, and apparently it’s typical. Not that anyone warned me, or warned anyone I know. It seems like this is something learned primarily on the ground. 

The symptoms started subtly. Around forty-five I skipped a period or two. Then maybe three. But I felt fine, normal, and didn’t let it bother me too much. Then, just after my forty-sixth birthday last summer, I woke up one morning at 4am. Wide-awake. Not anxious, not depressed (that came later). Just awake. And lay there til around 6am, when I fell back into a fitful sleep for another couple of hours. I didn’t think much of it, until it happened the next night, and the night after that, and then became the New Normal. Because I had always been a champion sleeper -- sleep had always come easily, long, and hard, even when I was caring for infants -- this really threw me off. 

I went to Google, and after a few keystrokes discovered that sleeplessness, and particularly this specific routine of the 4-5am wake-up, is Perimenopause 101. Who knew? I thought to myself.  Why have none of my girlfriends, most of them in their fifties, ever mentioned this? Or had they? Had I just not been ready to hear it?

About two weeks later, out on a Friday night in a restaurant with my husband. I started to feel hot, then dizzy, then started sweating. I high-tailed it to the ladies room and wondered if I was having a heart attack. After about five minutes of applying wet towels to virtually my entire body, it started to pass, and after returning to the table and downing a whole basket of bread and a pitcher of water, I was restored to some sense of normalcy. That night, at the magic hour, I woke up slick with sweat on every inch of my body. So much sweat that I had to get out of bed and take a shower. Fun times. Was I ill? It actually took clueless me a few days to realize what was going on…The Change was truly headed my way! 

This was obviously not the first time I’d heard of menopause. I’d known about the Christine Northrup books. I realized I was going to stop bleeding one day for Christ’s sake, but what blew me away was the pretty universal silence on the topic among my well-educated, chatty, highly competent and open friends. We talk about everything: books, politics, penis size, relationship hurdles, eyelash extensions, the IRS, teenagers doing drugs, our deepest sadnesses and failures. Why were we not talking about the fact that our bodies, that women’s bodies, do some crazy shit at mid-life? It’s not just that needing reading glasses replaces needing tampons; for many women it’s a virtual tsunami of shift.

This took me back to the internet, where I found a really charming (not) list of thirty-four documented menopause symptoms. Thirty-four! There are the hard-core basics: night sweats, hot flashes, decreasing menstruation, lack of libido, and vaginal dryness. But then there are so many doozies: Burning tongue!  Sense of impending doom! Irritability, joint pain, gastro-intestinal distress, hair loss, breast pain, electric shock, irregular heartbeat, changes in odor, gum problems, memory lapses, dry skin, incontinence, brittle nails, painful intercourse, bloating, weight gain, headaches. The list goes on and on.

To make matters worse, I learned that this transitional state of fluctuating hormones can go on for years. My internist told me that I could still get my period for a decade. Or it could never come again. You don’t know. You’re officially deemed menopausal once you haven’t had a period for twelve straight months. And it can take a long time to get there. Just yesterday my husband said with confidence “But you can’t feel like this for ten years!” Oh, but yes, apparently I can!

Granted, most women do not have all of these symptoms and some blessed few never get any. But most have a decent chunk, and I know from my friends that some of it is downright scary. Seemingly overnight, my knee joints are creaky when I bend down and stand up again. Is that arthritis, or menopause? Was I always this moody? Will I ever sleep through the night again? Is the dip in hormones making my best friend forgetful, or does she have early-onset Alzheimers?

So the point is, this sucks. It’s physically mystifying, with new symptoms cropping up every week, each one prompting that “is this cancer or is this menopause?” question. Emotionally it’s not uncommon to feel like the two resting states are raging or weeping. Also, because it’s often gradual, and because it’s different for each woman, and most importantly because no one ever warns you, there’s a sort of a gas-lighting quality to the whole experience, at least until you get up the balls to start asking around. Women’s magazines have completely fallen down on the job on this front. No wonder More has finally closed. Who were they serving? Where are the articles that tell women over fifty that penetration might become so painful as to be nearly impossible? That daily coconut oil up the cooch is perhaps the best remedy? Who’s talking about what it really feels like to be sandwiched between demanding teens and demented parents and wondering whether to dye your pubic hair? Or just figuring out what to take! Once you start asking around, the whispered suggested list of supplements gets very long, very fast: Remifemin, Relizen, Passionflower Extract, Melatonin, Dong Quai, Black Cohash, Astaxanthin, Motherwort, Red Clover, Wild Yam, Valerian, Magnesium, Fish Oil, Vitex, etc. Another list that never ends, and enough to rip your hair out. 

As I navigate these rudimentary questions that I wish were more publically discussed (if we can talk about Viagra, we should be able to talk about coconut oil as the great salve for vaginal atrophy, don’t you think?), I also struggle with my own private, more existential path down this road.  Aside from the obvious “I’m aging,” there’s a subtler dimension that is coating me like a silky fog right now. What is it exactly?   

After years of being considerably ahead of the curve, I’m now unremarkably right here in the heart of middle-age, a place that feels to me a little like nowhere. What’s my purpose in this second half of life? It often feels to me like my days of ambition are firmly in the past. Starting to go gray, starting to sag, no longer ravenously hungry for anything but contentment. Is this something I should feel guilty about? Am I feeling ashamed of myself somehow? 

I think the answer is yes, a little.  As a culture, we skim over menopause as a subject because it’s simply not sexy. Men can still age with rugged grace and women are still condescended to as they go gray (note the brouhaha over Carrie Fisher vs Harrison Ford in the last Star Wars movie).  Many aging women are, on some (perhaps subconscious, perhaps unwilling to admit) level, embarrassed to not be young anymore.

Recently, I find myself acutely aware of women in their twenties and thirties everywhere I look.  At SoulCycle, on airplanes, in restaurants. I’m not so much jealous of them -- I least of all envy the insecurity of young women --  as I am vitally aware of them being on the other side of some sort of divide. Their bodies are firm, they probably have no appreciation for their periods, or their unfurrowed brows, or their lack of chin hair.  I’m sure many of them have known pain already, but they just don’t have time under their belts yet. Their perspective is beautifully different from mine.

These young women looking, and hungry, in a way that I’m not anymore.  It’s as though they’re living in another sphere, a place that I’ve left.  And I’m on this new planet where I have yet to find my value. I’m almost done parenting, my relevance to the culture is perhaps negligible. So what do I offer? And what do I want?

We need to have more real conversation without shame about this business of getting older. About what it feels like to be on the other side of youth. The practical aspects, the emotional aspects, the funny aspects. Because in talking about it, as in all things, we’ll do it better. Sharing breeds community, and community makes difficult things easier to bear.

 My precocious days are long gone, and I don’t want to be told to deny that fact, or to pretend it doesn’t come with some wistfulness. Or some dark humor.  And I want to help my girlfriends and be helped by them as we all navigate this next phase, honestly and with our faintly hairy chins held high. Hearing each other’s wisdom helps us all, and hey, if we don’t laugh. We’ll cry. 

Friday
Sep182015

The Age She Was When She Died

The Age She Was When She Died

In a few days I’ll turn forty-six, the age my mother was when she died of pre-menopausal breast cancer. I was nineteen; the eldest of her two children and her only daughter.

All these years I’ve lived without her, and the milestone moments have flown by: my wedding at 23, the births of my four children before I turned 30. I started businesses, created homes, got divorced. All of it without my mother to watch me, advise me, love me, or show me the way. And my father was pretty much gone from the start. Despite feeling the lack every day, I did nevertheless have a model in my head, a sort of North Star image of the woman I knew that guided me along. When she was alive, she was quite an extraordinary person: a filmmaker and writer; a bright, vivid personality; strong as hell. Black, intellectual, and sexy. A trailblazer in many ways. My mother taught me by example that I should never let fear get in my way (even though depression would sometimes fell her, as it does me); that I could do, and handle, pretty much anything, and do it with a real kind of screw-you, independent, often funny, bravado. It’s the only way I know, and I see so much of her in who I’ve become, as a mother and as a woman, for good and bad. Feeling like her has in many ways been a comfort that I’ve relied on. A paltry comfort perhaps, but nonetheless a warm mold that I’ve always been able to nestle into.

It’s an odd time in my life right now. I’m newly remarried after a divorce in my 30s. The many teenagers in our blended family are in various stages of growing up and leaving home. They need us, and they don’t; I’m here for money and emergencies and often unwelcome but (actually!) sound guidance.  It’s a phase in parenting that at times feels uniquely unrewarding. My menstrual cycle is no longer something I can set my watch by.  I’m euphoric when I get my period and feel a sexy bounce for a few days in its wake. I’m still pretty, but for how much longer? My new husband, a widower who himself was single for many years, is definitely not acclimated to his new life.  He consistently says “I” and “me” and “mine” when I wish he’d say “we” and “us” and “ours.” We fight about this. I adore him; feel deeply in love, and at the same time it’s unbelievably consuming to try and start, to create, a whole new life with someone when we both already have many whole lives behind us.

I feel lucky, and I feel exhausted. Deeply grateful for all that I have, and yet profoundly unmoored and not sure what to do next. Grounded by my responsibilities to the often mundane here and now (college applications, Costco, dinner dates with other couples), but a little lost in my head. I crave meditation, the simple beauty of nature, and bed. I stave off anxiety: Will all these children actually become adults with careers? Will this be the marriage I so hope for? Will I live long enough to enjoy grandchildren? Mostly, it’s an existential feeling around the enervating notion of time: how have we all gotten to this place?

Turning the age someone we loved was when they died: a clichéd moment that many of us can reflect on in one way or another. I read somewhere that in the case of a parent, it can be a startling revelation, a moment of immense freedom that washes over you. Somehow that strikes me as BS, like a greeting card concept; something that sounds good but is actually hollow. While I doubt I’ll feel a cathartic lighting-rod moment of release when my birthday comes, I have started wondering if my sense of being lost right now, of unease and uncertainty, has something to do with this fact: I don’t have any idea what things look like around this next corner. The model that I had – memories at least of my mother in her 30s and 40s – is no longer releavant. At 46, I’m on a path with no guide.  Until now, she was dead, but she was still ahead of me. Soon she’ll be dead and behind me. She taught me how to drive stick shift, curse like a sailor, hang curtains, clean wood floors, and light a mean fire. From her I learned everything I know about being a mother, running a household, living with mild depression, being glamorous. She taught me all that. But she can’t teach me about what’s next, because she never got there.

Just like me, my mother remarried at age forty-five. And then she died. How would that second marriage have worked out? Would it have remained the sparkling love affair it seemed at the time? I don’t know from her how to build this new chapter in my life. But in many ways, not having her as a model might be a good thing, if only I could truly internalize that notion. The sad truth is, that after she died, I think I needed so badly to identify with her that it probably crippled me. In my marriage to the father of my children, a part of me always knew that I’d get divorced, just like she did. There was always a voice in my head that said “she did it alone, and so will you.” Being like her was a way of not losing her.

I was nineteen when she died, and still in college, like my eldest daughter Violet is now. My rhythm with Violet is familiar; it’s not unlike the way my mother was with me. We’re close, and I take enormous joy in seeing her move toward adulthood, but there’s also a distance, a respect I feel, in knowing that we are separate and that she needs to fly on her own. I’m here to help, and to love. But I can’t for the life of me imagine what our relationship will look like when she’s twenty-five, or thirty, or thirty-five, and somehow not knowing feels paralyzing. Will she call me often? Will she come to me when she’s sad? How many times have I reached for the phone, all these years later, wishing that I could call my mother. All I’ve known is the void, the having to do it alone, so it’s difficult for me to imagine how this will go. Will I be there when Violet gets married? Will I hold her children? I never saw my mother go gray. Will I become a graceful old woman or an ugly one? I see here in my questions the way I’m still locked in, can’t quite find the freedom to just paint my own picture. But I’m looking…

I imagine to some readers my questions sound trite, but that may be easy to say if you have parental models yourself, people who allow you to feel safely in the middle still. You can look up, and you can look down. I look ahead, and it’s just me there.  Sure, I can do this all on my own. I’ve come this far, after all. But this moment does feel like another loss; that she has to stay frozen in this place that I am now leaving. That I have to go on again, without her.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jul312013

Vienna

 

She is with me.  I can feel my mother’s presence over my right shoulder as I count backward, going under for the first time in my life. I wake in a sea of hospital beds, starched white sheets and nurses dressed like nuns. When I’m ready to be released, Michael is by my side, and he takes my arm as we walk across a green lawn, the beginnings of spring poking up through the cool ground. We climb into an ordinary local taxi, which happens to be a cream colored Mercedes; just one of the everyday facts about Vienna that makes this place feel magical to my eighteen year old self.  Moments after we enter our apartment, the phone rings, and it’s her; six hours earlier in New York.  “My darling girl,” she says, “how do you feel?” The authority in her voice, that laser sharp focus my mother sometimes chooses to invoke, wraps me in a cloak of comfort, and I know in that moment that I’m going to be okay, that I can handle this.

It’s the winter of 1988. I’m taking a semester abroad and living with a boyfriend in Vienna, on Nussdorferstrasse in the ninth bezirk.  If New York is a grid, Vienna is a donut: the center of the hole is the first district, the city Zentrum, contained by the Ringstrasse, a grand circular boulevard. Districts two through nine are in the next layer, the cake of the donut, contained by the outer edge of the circle, known as the guertel, or belt, a far less stately circular road where one finds prostitutes, gas stations, tire shops, and the like. Beyond the guertel is the outer city, districts ten through twenty-three, some parts fancy, other modest, just like cities the world over.  The current president of Austria is Kurt Waldheim, a former intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and to the east all the countries are Communist.

It’s amazing to me that I’ve pulled this off: that I convinced Barnard to let me start my junior year abroad during the second term of my sophomore year, that Michael, the Viennese guy I met here while travelling around last summer, managed to find us an adorable apartment to sublet from a friend, that we’ve set up house in this adult, intimate way.  Our place is on the second floor of a typical old Viennese building. You enter off the street and climb a wide, limestone stairway, then use a medieval looking key to open the double doors, which are wood inlaid with tall panels of frosted glass. The apartment opens into a welcoming foyer – coat rack, umbrella stand, ornate mirror. To the right is a bathroom with a large tub, and the living room is straight ahead overlooking the street, one wall covered in books. The furniture, cheap but stylish, is rattan with white cushions. The bedroom, to the right of the living room, looks incongruously tropical because Michael and I put the mattress on the bare floor and decorated with two beach chairs and a few inflatable beach balls. On the other side of the apartment, left of the foyer, we have a kitchen, a small separate dining room, and a toilet room, here called the klo. That last room is always slightly cold and no matter how hard I clean it, there’s a persistent vaguely unpleasant odor. But the rest of the place is gorgeous -- blonde floors and high ceilings with elaborate moldings. The woman who owns it, a friend of Michael’s from high school, is an orphan – her whole family was killed in a car accident when she was a teenager, and she inherited this place from her grandmother. Now she’s trying to break into the film business in Los Angeles and we’re happily ensconced in her home, paying 2,000 schillings a month in rent.

Michael (pronounced the German way, Mik-ay-el) is twenty-four, a trained goldsmith and the son of a cobbler. He works for his friend Alexander, a rich kid from a family of successful merchants, and the two of them run a little jewelry shop together on a busy commercial street in the second. While he’s at work, I do some housekeeping. I vacuum, make the bed, clean the bathroom. I buy liverwurst, eggs, bread, and jam, the staples that we like to have at home; I love making small talk with the shopkeepers, using my most formal and polite German. They must wonder who I am, this light-brown skinned girl in a land of bundled up, stern, white people.

I never once come across anyone who looks remotely like me. The only black people I see, maybe one or two a month, are pitch black Africans, and they’re always serious looking young men, students at the university. There are pockets of Turks, and gypsies, and even though our skin may be the same shade, they’re much more exotic and look Eastern, in their layers of clothes, and ways of keeping to themselves. They’re referred to as Gastarbeiter, guest workers, and it feels like they are so low on the totem pole as to barely exist.  So having no one with whom to identify, I find myself an anomaly here, and I revel in the freedom of being a complete outsider.

All day long I eavesdrop on conversations; my German is good enough that I can make out some of what people are saying, but not everything by a long shot. The big difference is that I don’t understand the context –- cultural, sociological, historical -- the way I do back in New York, so it’s hard to feel judgmental, or judged. I’m just curious, soaking it all up, floating around this foreign world like an invisible observer. I can pick out the parts that I like, try to make connections if I want, but I don’t have a real role in this world, and that feels deliciously liberating.

I wander the city, spend an inordinate amount of time on the Strassenbahn, never paying my fare (it’s expensive, I’m broke, lots of people do it) and always hoping that today won’t be the day an inspector gets on board.  I ride it everywhere, go north to the outskirts of town where the Heuriger are, the old traditional wine bars, visit the ancient cemeteries and churches, ride around and around the Ringstrasses looking at the imposing imperial government building and museums. I wander the gardens at Rathaus, the City Hall, lay on the grass in Stadtpark. I traipse in and out of dozens of cafes each month, ordering café mélange and trying to read Die Zeit on a wooden stick. More often than not, I give up and move on to The International Herald Tribune, and take a stab at the crossword puzzle. I’ve become obsessed with Egon Schiele, and Klimt of course, and I buy postcards of their work and send them to my oldest friend Lalou, and my mother, on an almost daily basis.

I’m taking classes, one a week at the University, and another couple at the office of the Iowan University that sponsors my program. The American classes – German and Art History -- are way too easy, take almost no time, and the Viennese class, Psychology, is frankly impossible because I understand so little of the academic German. I go, and I do my best, but it all feels sort of unreal, like a dream, like any expectations of me can’t possibly be too serious here. I feel less like a student and more like an explorer. The classes aren’t what preoccupy me; it’s the life that I can’t get enough of.

I try to get jobs, because Mom can’t afford to send me much for my living expenses. She’s a writer and an independent filmmaker and money’s always been a struggle for us. The fact that I’m here at all is a testament to her ingenuity and the sense she embodies that all things are possible, but the reality is that we get by month to month.      

The American Embassy allows me to post a sign for babysitting work; I offer my housecleaning services to a guy from Mississippi who owns a local fitness club, and he hires me for a weekly clean of his apartment, but instead of paying me cash he decides to give me a free membership, which I hardly use. I prefer instead to visit the nineteenth century bathhouses around town, where I pay a low student rate and spend afternoons taking steam and eucalyptus baths with naked old ladies. Watching their loose, decrepit bodies fills me with a peculiar awe of lives fully lived, and I have to be careful not to stare too much. I admire the camaraderie and ritual of these women, the way they enjoy the cold plunge baths and scrub their skin with hard bristle brushes in the saunas.

Last night Michael and I were out at a bar/restaurant behind the Nordbahnhof with a bunch of his friends. Like we do most nights I drank viertels of red wine and ate schnitzel with katoffelsalat and gurkensalat, this amazing cucumber salad that I crave daily. The exchange rate is great for Americans right now, and for the equivalent of twenty dollars I eat a meal in a restaurant like an adult, every night. There were a few dogs in this particular place, sitting under tables by their owners’ feet, which is not uncommon, and everyone was smoking, including us. Back in New York I’m barely out of high school, but here I’m smoking Gitanes in a bar with people in their twenties and thirties, being nuzzled by my handsome guy.  Michael affects a James Dean kind of look, tight leather jacket over a crisp white shirt, jeans or slim khakis, always impeccable leather shoes handmade by his dad. His hair is dark and straight, combed back off his face, but slips down in his eyes at times. He has full, perfect kissing lips, and large dark eyes, brown and soulful; he speaks slowly to me in German, always teaching me the Viennese slang in every situation, and calling me libeling, or schatz. We got drunk last night, and when we left the bar we wound up making out against a wall in an alley behind the train station. It’s February, so it was freezing, but he pulled down my tights and we had sex right there, in the cobblestone street.

In March, my period is late, so I go to a local Apotheke and buy a test. Lo and behold, I’m pregnant. God damn disgusting diaphragm with all that goop. I feel foolish and embarrassed for messing up like this.  I know right away that I’ll have an abortion; there’s no question in my mind, or in Michael’s, that we’d consider having a baby at this point in our lives. But I’m upset; scared about the procedure, nervous about dealing with this in a foreign culture. I find a gynecologist in the phone book, an older male Frauenarzt, in a neighborhood I like, and I go there alone. The doctor performs a sonogram and curtly informs me that Austrian law requires one to wait until after the twelfth gestational week to terminate a pregnancy. All this: the sight of the baby, the sound of its rhythmic heartbeat, the mandated wait, seems a little cruel. I feel shaky and I barely make it out of his office without crying. I’m biting my lower lip as I pay, and hastily fold up the referral sheet his nurse gives me, to a clinic in the leafy outskirts of town.

I have to wait over a month to abort this baby, and it feels endless, walking around pregnant at age eighteen. I’m in touch with Mom through it all. When I first call her, she says "oh, Neen, I’m so sorry, but it’ll be ok." I tell her I want to come home and have the procedure done at Planned Parenthood in New York, but she says that that isn’t a good idea, that it’s too expensive to fly back, that I should stay in Vienna and deal with it here. I push, and she pushes back, not wavering for a moment. During one conversation when I start to cry, she says sharply, "Nina, you’ll deal with much harder stuff than this in your life. This you can get through, I promise." A few days later, a week before the scheduled procedure, I get a letter:

 

Sunday – after your call

Dear Michael and Nina,

I just wanted to reaffirm what I said on the phone: that this is an experience,  and like any experience it can either be slouched through unaware and unconsciously or lived to the fullest – acknowledging that this is a birth for which you are not yet prepared and therefore must return to the universe. Thank the universe for the existence of life and the sacredness of it and at the same time acknowledge your firm belief that as life continues eternally it is simply not a moral question but a question of embracing this present experience by choosing what is best for you, knowing that the flow of life goes on.

That is all I care about – that there is never any carelessness in one’s attentiveness to living and to what life brings. Know that I love you both, that I see both of you honoring each other and honoring whatever experience life presents to you as a couple, and that this awareness and respect are the true victories of living: to live in total awareness at every moment. This is all I hope for you both…

I will call around midnight our time on Tuesday – and will be with you just as if I were standing right beside you throughout the time…

Love, Mom


And she is with me. When I’m having the abortion, I can feel her by my side. 

 

The rest of my time in Vienna continues like before; I’m happy, clear. The steady stream of letters from Mom, at least one a week, often more, are breezy and full of gossip from Piermont, my hometown in Rockland County, about what my brother Emilio is up to, what she and Alfred, her new husband of six months are doing, stories of the neighbors and her work, what film projects she’s trying to get off the ground. She writes to me on blue airmail paper, the kind that is also its own envelope, which I love to carefully unfold, making sure not to tear into the text I so value. Her scrawl can be hard to decipher as she often seems to be writing on the go. One letter starts with her classic verve “I write this in the car as I wait for a speeding ticket to be administered.” My mother is more loving in these letters than I’ve ever experienced; she talks obliquely about her own emotional unfolding, an awareness that maybe she hasn’t always been available to us in ways she should have been, or would have liked to have been, when we were younger. I bask in it.

Michael gets four weeks vacation, and in August we decide to go to Portugal for the month. At the American bookstore in Vienna I find a dog-earred copy of Let’s Go: Portugal, the Harvard student franchise I love, and the book becomes our bible and guide, telling us what to do at every turn. We take trains across Europe to get there – eighteen hours to Paris, then south via San Sebastian, to Lisbon, and then an endlessly long bus ride to our ultimate destination, a beach town on the tip of the Algarve called Sagres.

We rent the front bedroom in an old lady’s tiny house, just walk right up and knock, and use hand gestures and cash to communicate that we’d like to stay a bit;  all in response to a sign in her window, which our book had told us to look for. The room has a pink cotton bedspread and just enough space for us to throw our things on the floor; we gingerly use the woman’s one bathroom, being careful about sand and noise. Our days are spent on the beach, playing Scrabble and reading books, me usually topless, and at night we go to one of the two bars in town and drink sangria and eat fish. It’s ferociously windy here, as we’re on a point, and the place is as undeveloped as I’ve ever experienced. The town is shaped like an isosceles triangle, with a few low-key business establishments on each long side, and a road traversing the point at the bottom. Inside the triangle is a green patch of grass, in the center of which stands a lone glass phone booth, the only one in town. Other than that, it’s beaches on either side, and inland, as one heads east, clusters of middle and lower class pastel-colored homes, with small bits of garden next to concrete driveways.

Tonight I’m calling home. We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks, and I’ve been out of touch the whole time; no letters or phone calls. The stars are brilliant here every night, but tonight it’s like they’re on steroids; constellations everywhere. Michael is nursing a beer in the outdoor bar across the street, listening to live music and waiting for me, while I stand inside that one phone booth, the beacon on the green. I’m tan, and my hair is crunchy from all the salt and sun, and I feel healthy and in love, phenomenally relaxed, like I own the world.  I get through to the international operator and ask to place a collect call. 

“Nina?” Mom says, “is that you? Oh thank God. How are you, my sweet?”  I gush for a few minutes about how incredible our trip is and how in love I am until she interrupts me and says, “Nina, honey, I need you to come home. The cancer I once had is back.  I’m fine, I’ll be completely fine," she says, "but I think you should come home and see your brother. He needs to see you.” I think to myself, what cancer, what the hell is she talking about? She has cancer? But instead I say, “how, when?” She tells me to take the train immediately to Geneva, where my godfather Bob Thompson, who works for the UN, will get me on a plane home. “Now?”  I ask densely.  “Yes,” she says, “immediately.” I don’t know why I don’t ask any more questions, I just don’t. Something in her voice tells me I can’t. I tell her I love her and I’ll be home soon and I hang up.

 

 

Friday
Oct122012

Graduations


In the Fall of 1986, as I was embarking on a new life as a college freshman at Barnard, my mother was dying of a metastasized breast cancer that was eating away at her spine. Only I didn’t know it, and none of her friends and family knew it, because she had chosen to keep it a secret. So when she hobbled, or sometimes used a cane, we believed what she told us, that she had pulled a muscle while exercising. She had always been thin, so the extra thinness went unremarked upon, at least by me, who was caught up in my own New Chapter excitement.

 

I remember standing on the line at Orientation, arms laden with forms and the dog-eared course catalog. My mother was by my side, patiently waiting so we could go to lunch together afterward at the uptown outpost of Sou-En, her favorite macrobiotic restaurant. She stood there as I did, nervous and excited, in a long skirt, t-shirt and sandals, shapeless embroidered hippie purse slung over one shoulder, her graying curly hair slightly messy. We met Marnie from Mill Valley, Victoria from Dallas, and Andrea from Brookline, beautiful, tall girls with shiny hair and nice clothes. They all seemed glamorous and exotic to me, a far cry from my high school classmates. My mother, herself kind of glamorous and exotic, but in a kooky distracted artist sort of way, chatted with the other parents, smiled her infectious grin, was charming and fragile. She wasn’t feeling physically strong, and the emotion of my impending departure was taking a toll too. For her it must have felt a bit like an ending, and for me, a beginning, although neither of us said as much.

 

She was ecstatic when I got into Barnard, early admission the fall of my junior year of high school. I was precocious, and I wanted out sooner than most. Mom and my high school guidance counselor agreed that if I got into a “good enough” school, I could go. She was a Skidmore graduate, one of the very first black ones, and the fact that I’d chosen another Seven Sisters school pleased her.

 

I could tell she was sad all that Fall, but she mostly kept it to herself. She would sometimes say she missed me, and because she lived only an hour away in Rockland County and worked in the city, I would see her at random times. One day that October she called from a payphone and told me to meet her on the corner in ten minutes. I was paying $200 a month to live off-campus in the closed-off dining room of a rambling, run-down, pre-war apartment on Riverside and 114th Street, rooming with four sweet boys from Columbia; boys who smoked pot, ate Chinese take-out, and watched David Letterman every single night of the school week. We had a Soloflex machine in our living room.  I ran downstairs, and just as I got to the curb she pulled up in her leased mauve Toyota Corolla, the car would that would be repossessed when she died a year later. She handed me two lemons and a package wrapped in white paper; it looked like a small submarine sandwich. “Broil this, with lemon. Eat some today and some tomorrow. You need the protein.” It was a pound of halibut. 

 

Sometimes I would call and complain about how much work I had, or tell funny stories about my waitressing job in the Jazz Room at The West End, and she would remind me not to walk carrying heavy book-bags. “It’s not good for you to carry too much weight on one side of your body, it’ll throw you off-balance.” she’d say.

 

That December, during Finals Week, my mother picked me up on Riverside and we drove over to Columbus Avenue in the 70s to shop for her wedding dress. After many years divorced, she had met and fallen in love with a man named Alfred the year before, and they had decided to get married at Christmas --  a small ceremony, family only, in our Nyack home. I remember the two of us in the store, sifting through long, brightly colored, close-fitting, silk dresses. I was resentful of the upcoming nuptials, unsure about this interloper in our home. Even if I was no longer there, I wanted my mother all to myself. From her side, I can see now, all these years later, that she was sick, and in love, and her kids were growing up, and she was trying to hold it all together as best she could. So it was an awkward, cold afternoon, full of love, and tension, and things unsaid. We chose a rose colored gown, with an open back and a sash in a deeper hue, and she wore it on Boxing Day when she got married. The dress hangs in my closet still.

 

This summer my own eldest daughter graduated from high school. I took her up to Boston in June for her college orientation, and felled by a cold, wound up spending most of the time alone in a hotel room, shedding a few more tears than I’d like to admit.  I’m incredibly proud, and mostly delighted, that my daughter’s become such a lovely and capable young woman and is headed out into the world. But in a brutal reminder of the way we carry our wounds and pass them on, there’s a part of me that has been flung back by this transition, to that place, twenty-five years ago, that place of enormous loss.

 

Nine months after my mother’s wedding, I was by her side at Sloan Kettering during her last few days, as the morphine drip relieved her pain and took her away from us. I had a little brother to finish raising, a step-father I didn’t trust, and a biological father who had not much to offer. It was a lonely time, a situation I wouldn’t wish on anyone. As I now watch my own children at that moment, this cusp of adulthood, I have to remind myself that I’m still here, that’s it’s all different for them, that they don’t have the same scars. They have different ones, for sure, but they don’t have mine.

 

 

Wednesday
Apr112012

An Unconventional Gap Year

 

Since September of this year, my daughter’s boyfriend has been living with us – or more precisely, with her, in her bedroom.  Violet’s eighteen (although she was seventeen when he moved in) and Nile recently turned nineteen, and while the situation has made sense to me from the start, it’s increasingly dawned on me that most people seem to think it’s insane. So I thought I’d try to explain my thinking – about teen sexuality, about shame, about respect and trust for one’s children and what they might or might not be ready to take on.

Violet and Nile started dating last year, when she was a junior and he was a senior. They’d been good friends for ages and gotten into some trouble together over the years. She’d actually been romantically involved with his best friend for awhile, so when I started hearing Nile’s name more often than usual,  I at first thought it was just another casual high school hook-up, a phase. But it persisted. Before long she would stay out late with him both weekend nights, and then he became a frequent guest at our dinner table. On school nights I found myself negotiating both what time he had to leave (9pm? 10pm? 11pm?) and how long they could stay in her room with the door closed. For Nile it was Senior Spring, but for Violet it was the crunch of junior year, and she had work to do.

Then summer came, and Nile’s graduation. His mom Deb and I feared heartbreak looming, and we watched with bated breath. He flew to Europe for a few weeks with his buddies and Violet called T-Mobile to arrange a $5 plan for calling Europe. I was thrilled when the bill came and impressed with her initiative. Then she took off to compete in a six week horse show in Manchester, VT. The long and the short of it is, they stayed together through the summer via texts and phone calls and visits, and then Nile joined us in August for a family vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, where I allowed them to share a room.

Around that time, Deb called me to report that Nile was thinking of deferring college for a year. It was clear to us both that this was probably a decision borne of a few factors. Anyone could see that Nile might benefit from a gap year to gain confidence and life experience -- a year to really think about what he might actually want out of college –- but it was also clear that their relationship was playing a role. My position at the time? I wasn’t thrilled, but what could I do? As a mother, albeit not his, I could see that a year off might be best for Nile. I also knew how happy the relationship was making Violet and didn’t have any concrete reason to object. Over the next few weeks as the decision was being finalized, Nile started sleeping at our house frequently, and I finally said to Violet “so, is the plan for Nile to take his gap year at our house?  She shyly nodded. “Yes, is that ok?”

I said that we could try it out, provisionally, but these were my rules: She had to get all her schoolwork done, as rigorously as ever, including the thirteen college applications she was planning. Nile had to take out the trash and walk our dog Muffin every day in exchange for room and board. He also had to get up every morning and look for work – no sleeping in on weekdays. And then I said, we’ll see how it goes…

I called my ex, ran it by him, and called Deborah and did the same.  My feeling was that I knew my daughter, and I knew that this was both what she wanted and that she could handle it. Not every kid could at that age, nor would they want it. But she did. And I didn’t relish the thought of them running around trying to find places to have sex, or craving sleeping in the same bed and not being allowed to.  Why shouldn’t their love and commitment be honored and encouraged?

When people hear that Nile lives with us, they often ask “Where are Nile’s parents?!” as if perhaps he’s been abandoned, or was raised by wolves. They live in Tribeca, just a few miles from us, and they are lovely. They adore their son and he them.

On the most obvious level, Nile’s nineteen. Isn’t that the time people are supposed to leave home? Ready to leave home? He drives his mom to Trader Joe’s once a week. He and Violet go to their apartment for visits and sleepovers sometimes, and Nile’s parents spent Thanksgiving with us at our place.

We’re a big family -- four kids and three dogs --  and Nile’s an only child in a family with a cat. So this adventure has probably served some longing in him to experience a bustling family life. And for all my kids, but particularly my only son, Nile has served their fantasy of having an older brother.

It’s always been clear to me that children gain an enormous amount by being exposed to other family units. Living in another culture, which is what each family is, is enlightening, challenging, scary, and often fun. It’s freedom without having to go too far from home. For Nile, having to navigate the craziness and odd customs of our particular family (the reliance on placemats, the cursing, the stink of hockey equipment, the twin thirteen year olds screaming over a sweater) has got to be a learning experience akin to any teen travel gap year abroad. Also eye-opening is the challenge of having to engage close-up and constantly with other adults in quasi-parental roles. I’ve seen, in the course of a year, the way Nile has opened up with me, they way he’s gotten comfortable with my sometimes un-orthodox ways, the way he trusts me. It’s a gift for any of us to form those sorts of connections, and I’d wager more so for a young adult just starting to learn how to navigate the world.

The whole situation has worked out better than any of us could have imagined. In the Fall I’d often come home in the late afternoon to find Violet on her bed studying Japanese flash cards or working on the Common App, with Nile next to her reading Tim O’Brien or Donna Tartt.

During Violet’s early high school years I endured many sleepless night and cell phone arguments waiting for her to come home, worried about where she was, what she was doing. This year I can count on one hand the number of times she and Nile have stayed out past 2am. The norm is that they’re in bed by midnight. The drinking and the pot-smoking of days past are just that, firmly in the past, and instead we have two happy young adults who are learning how to live and love together under my watchful eye.

As for Nile’s growth, I may feel almost as proud as Deb: He earned a certificate in bartending, worked four months as an assistant at a pre-school, two months for a contractor, helped me as a part time assistant when we moved homes, has been seeing a tutor to keep his academic skills sharp, and joined a gym and built up some huge muscles. He’s become a full member of our family – teases Violet’s younger siblings, cooks them dinner when needed, walks the dogs, takes it when I yell at him about his messy shelves, you name it.

Violet has been happier than I’ve ever seen her. She applied to all thirteen colleges  (got in to eight of them!) without blinking an eye, and more importantly without me ever having to nudge, or yell, or even proofread! Her cell phone alarm goes off once a day to remind her to take her birth control pills. They cook together, watch movies constantly, even go to the occasional museum. Sometimes she goes off for a sleepover at a girlfriend’s house and Nile may goes out with his guy friends when they are home from college, but most of then time they are just together, more together that I could ever imagine being with anyone, and they seem blissfully in sync.

And for my three other children, all young adolescents themselves, Violet and Nile, or Niolet as we sometimes call them (to their annoyance), have been an inspiration. In this culture of hook-ups and blow jobs as party favors, my younger kids have lived with an example of teenage love that beats most of what they’ve seen among adults, their own parents included. I hope they’ll be hard pressed to easily settle for anything less, now that they have seen what it possible.

Another graduation is approaching, this one Violet’s. She and Nile have wisely, with relatively little help from their parents, opted to go to separate colleges, although they’ll both be in New England. I’m worried that their separation will be hard, but I feel certain that it’s been worth it, that their memories of this year will be sweet and lasting.

 

Thursday
Dec222011

The Secret 

  [a final creative exercise for my Language of Pain class]         

  December, 1987.  First semester of my sophomore year of college was behind me and I was packing to leave the country. While travelling around Europe the previous summer, I’d met and fallen in love with an Austrian man, and now Barnard had granted me permission to study abroad for a year, so I was ready to go: a quick stint at a Goethe Institute in Munich to work on my German and then two gloriously anticipated semesters at The University of Vienna.

My mother, then forty-five, a writer, professor, and independent filmmaker, had been complaining of back pain and a pulled stomach muscle, so the Christmas we’d just spent at her house in the Hudson Valley was quiet, but it had included a wedding – her own, to the man she’d been dating since I was fifteen, a man named Alfred Prettyman. Distinguished, with a well-groomed beard and natty clothes, Alfred embodied years of romantic yearning finally come to fruition.

                 For the ceremony Mom wore a floor-length pink silk dress with a deeply scooped-out back, a dress we’d bought together on a cold, windy day in a Columbus Avenue shop a few weeks prior. She picked me up at school in her mauve Toyota Corolla -- I’d just finished taking a final exam -- and we combed the Upper West Side in search of the perfect dress. Mom had gotten very thin that fall, and was walking with a cane, but I was oblivious – caught up in my own self-absorbed excitement about the year ahead, resentful of her impending marriage to this interloper. We bough the dress and then added a darker pink sash, wrapped around and around her tiny waist, to pull it all together. She would get married barefoot, toes polished, in the living room of our house on Christmas Eve.

                 Everything went as planned, including my own December 28 departure on Lufthansa.

                 We were close. My mother raised my brother Emilio and I alone, and what we may have lost to her bouts of depression and rage, we gained in strength, passion and a straightforward kind of no-bullshit approach to life. Even though I had only gone twenty-five miles south of where she’d raised us, she had had a hard time with my departure for college the year before, so it was lovely for me when suddenly, with this plan for me to study in Europe, she rose to the occasion and started writing affectionate, energetic letters to me with abandon. I’d get two or three a week, written in her half-script/half-print scrawl on that wonderful crinkly blue airmail paper that probably no longer exists, letters full of local gossip, details of Emilio’s high school and wrestling activities, her progress with her work, her new married life, reflections on her love for us and places where she thought she’d failed us – in short, everything under the sun except for the fact that in January, just weeks after she put me on a plane, she started having chemotherapy.

                 Within a few days of landing in Europe I got a call from her telling me that she’d been hospitalized for her ongoing back problems. An excerpt from her letter to me of January 8:

                 Let me give you a serious catch-up or you will worry both too much and unnecessarily. My condition is serious, which is to say I have irritated the bones in my left hip, so that the socket is inflamed and there is even some inflammation in my lower spinal column. These are being treated with antibiotics to clear up the infection. They may have to put a pin-type brace in the left hip to re-normalize my walking on both legs and give the two vertebrae that have come out of alignment time to go back in. I am not in pain. I have gained six pounds. And I am delighted to lie here being utterly pampered! I needed it! To be free of all responsibility and allowed to vegetate and heal! So… you should be both smiling and at ease. Along with a hug and a smile at your mother benignly curled up in her hospital bed reading greedily one spicy, intelligent mystery novel after another…Love, Love MOM.

                 This story doesn’t end well. My mother died that year, a few weeks after my 19th birthday in August. And many years later, unearthed in my basement, I found journals she kept during the last two years of her life. I had already kept all the letters she wrote to me that year, nearly knew them by heart, but now I was able to look at them side by side with the journals, to compare what she was telling me with what she was telling herself during those final months. For example, I find this entry from her journal on January 4, the day she was admitted to the hospital:

                 January 4, 1988

                 What is cancer in my body?  They say it’s attacking the bones and spine. That it’s already eroded one vertebrae. But what’s the exact nature of the erosion – viral, lymphatic – in other words, how does it manifest itself? And is there a relationship between the fluid accumulating in the breasts presently and the degradation of the spine, then bones? How does the lymph system go away? Could it resemble cancer and yet not be cancer? The pattern of the erosion, or rather the nature and the pattern, should dictate the healing procedure. I must clearly be able to envision the pattern if I’m to envision the cure. Nothing is irreversible, but one must find the right trigger so that the system isn’t thrown into greater confusion. I must isolate the mechanism of destruction. Help me Higher Self!

                 So clearly, all fall, while I’d been planning to go away, while we’d been shopping for a wedding dress, while she’d been getting married, she must have known. She knew that whole time that she had cancer. Was she waiting for me to get on the plane?

                 She stayed in the hospital for three weeks and then all spring she wrote to me constantly, reported a swift recovery, was full of chatter and news and love, but her journal entries from the same period are dark; full of pain and fear as she struggled to make sense of what was happening to her body and tried to talk more with, and about, God, the angel Gabriel, even the Tarot.  She’d always been spiritual, but more New Age than religious (my 13th birthday present was an astrological reading; the smell of incense in the air, Mahalia Jackson on the stereo, a dreamcatcher by my bed –this was the set design of my childhood), so the turn to God in her journals came as a bit of a surprise, but I suppose that’s not uncommon when facing death, right?

                 February 5, 1988

                I am the supplicant, oh Divinity, reaching out for thy guidance through the dual energy of desire and knowledge that propels me. Silence my anxiety in order that I may hear thy voice and incline my heart toward thee, confident that in this quiet flow of silence and submission, all problems will be clarified, and a true and perfect solution charted both for my understanding and my victorious release.

                 How am I to understand the depth of this secret she kept? She was dying and she’d sent me away. Her eldest child, her only daughter. I was missing her, but living my life with all the muster and self-absorption of the child I still was. I remember whining during one phone call; I had asked her to send me clothes or extra money, or maybe I wanted unspecified treats. I felt like she was blowing me off, not taking care of me enough, and I called her on it.  Essentially, I was homesick and expecting my mother to send me care packages, as if I were a little kid at sleep-away camp, and I didn’t realize she was losing her hair and vomiting every day, fighting for her life.  We argued and then resolved it in writing, which was her way. 

February 9, 1988

                 Dear Nin,

                 That was a good phone call. The best. Always the best when we get to the TRUTH. It is changing of course. This Mother thing. And just as I, in my unreasonableness, wanted you home every weekend last year – around me – you cling, too, to some custodial definition of CARE-packaging mothering. It is the years, the habits, it is everything. It is refreshing to me to feel every now and then, toward you and Emilio, that the caretaking is finished, and I am free again! Hard to digest, I’m sure. But true. Every step away is both sad and liberating. For you. For me. We will change our relationship a million times as the years move on. And that is because we are committed to change and not to static energy. It is our way. Not many people want growth the way we do. Most people want to settle, find a place of comfort and cling to it. But in all our years of living that is not how we structured things. We lived together, yes, but it was always understood that as some new interest emerged, some new adventure presented itself, it was to be taken advantage of, and if it brought change in its wake, so be it. In that sense I have always loved you and Emilio’s separateness from me, always cherished that I was in fact simply your custodian, so to speak, for a period of time until you had your own wings. I still feel that way. That your flying through life on your own pleasure, your own wits, your own steam, is the true excitement, your true living. And my own flying an equally important thing. And that ultimately it is only delight in another that holds one, that is captivating, all else must be a respect for their freedom. Don’t worry though, as all requests are honored if possible. You only have to say when you need me, momentarily, to offer pure mothering. It is, after all, and after all these years, quite deeply ingrained in me and has given me such an intense pleasure.

Love on top of love, MOM

                  You can see the push and pull: the previous year when I’d started college, she was incredibly sad and I was going off into the world, jealous of her love with Alfred and not looking back. Now, there’s a reversal: I had gone farther afield, across the ocean, and as my childish clinginess emerged, it was her turn to stand firm, to remind me of the sadness but also the liberation of my growing up. I’m dumbfounded in this letter by the irony of her alluding to the truth (in capital letters, no less), when she was keeping from me the biggest secret imaginable, telling a lie far bigger than I could ever imagine. And all that talk about our separateness, our wings -- was that perhaps her subconscious way of preparing us both for her death? Or what if it wasn’t subconscious? One of the many questions I have is about her level of denial. Did she keep the secret partly because she didn’t believe she was dying? That she would just get better, that I didn’t need to be alarmed? Or what if she really knew she was dying and just thought this was the best way to handle it?  Is any one answer better than another?

                 In March of that year I discovered I was pregnant. An accident. Moments after taking the drug store test, I called home in tears. Afternoon in Vienna, the crack of dawn back in New York.

                 “Mom, I’m pregnant.”

                 “Oh damn.”

                 “I know, I fucked up, I didn’t use my diaphragm every time…I have to come home to get an abortion.  I need to see you.”

                 “No honey, you can take care of this in Vienna. I’ll send you money.”

                 “No, Mommy please…I want to come home, just for a couple of weeks?”

                 “We can’t afford the ticket right now. You can do this in Vienna. Michael will help you; we can talk on the phone. You have to stay there.”

                 And then this. As I sobbed, she added:

                 “Honey this is hard, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not. Life will deal you bigger challenges, and you can handle them.”

                 And I did. My boyfriend Michael found me a clinic in a leafy part of town, and there, under the care of starched nurses and full anesthesia, I had an abortion at ten weeks. I was woozy when we left the clinic, and we walked through a park and got a cab home, where Michael put me to bed and my Mom called. I was fine.

                 I suppose that if she had let me come home, the jig would have been up. I’d have seen she was wearing a wig the second I walked in the door, questioned the prescription bottles on her nightstand, noticed the rising stack of hospital and lab bills.  Whatever she had been able to conceal from my fourteen-year old brother, she wouldn’t have been able to hide from me. So she made me stay in Europe.

                 From her journal:

                July 20, 1988

                 Call: I say out loud, oh dear, there is still a lump under my armpit and swollen lymph nodes on my neck, oh dear, I’m going to die…I have pain on the right muscle in my stomach…oh dear, I’m going to die…oh dear, I’ve done wrong, I must be wrong that these are tumors in my body, which mean I’m going to die…somewhere there is something false in this whole chain of reasoning. Help me to see it, that I may find a way out of this dead end into which I sink?

                 Response: Your life, your link to life comes from loving. This is the bread that feeds you, is feeding you into wellness. The bread of loving – to be chewed slowly and absorbed into the body. Death as punishment is one of your false themes (and deductions)—death as punishment and release from the despair implicit in living. Live the despair – without hiding behind death as an escape. Live the despair and leave your body out of it. It is self-healing. It is not your enemy. The notion of punishment, of holding-in, these notions of yours are life-draining.

                 At this point there’s no question that she’s starting to face imminent death. Denial is no longer on the table, but a new theory emerges as she alludes to the idea of illness and death as a punishment. Did she keep her illness a secret because she was ashamed? Was she convinced that her own sadness had made her sick? She clearly believed, for a long time, that recovery was a matter of her mind, that a certain emotional cleansing would rid her body of the cancer.

                 The Healing, a one-act play she wrote in 1984, features a childless black woman named Ellen who seeks out the services of a healer called Joe, a younger white man. The entire play takes place during one healing session in a small office. When he touches her feet, Ellen gets upset and says

I don’t like this part, it smacks of Jesus washing some poor sinner’s feet.

                                                            JOE [laughing]

I have to make sure you’re grounded.

                                                            ELLEN
            Is that how you see me?…a sinner?

                                                            JOE [holding her feet]

            I’m a healer, that’s all, don’t read into it other things

ELLEN
But sin must be there somewhere, sins against the body that we call disease.

 

A few moments later Ellen says

It changes everything to be told you’re diseased…you know it’s your fault, somewhere inside you know it, that it’s a result of things.

                 And then, in a part that really kills me, which is echoed in her journal in many ways, comes this passage as the healing session starts to really get underway:

[She begins to make pulling motions at her body] These are pieces, a dark frame that hides and covers me. These are pieces…breast pieces…arm pieces…leg pieces…diseased…dark first…now dark and diseased…what chord do I pull to release me…[She pulls at herself violently, then stops as a sudden spasm overtakes her]…the place to be healed cries out and bleeds…I offer it my trembling…my shaking body…my tears…I offer it freedom from grief…when I have no idea what that means…           

                 The character Ellen is childless. Did that feel safer as a way to explore this woman full of self-hatred and blame? If a woman has no children to leave orphaned, is it easier to accept her as terminally ill?

I offer it freedom from grief…when I have no idea what that means. Perhaps Ellen didn’t, but her creator certainly did. My maternal grandmother died of pneumonia when my mother was an infant, and as Mom lay dying, me finally by her side, she said “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to be reunited with my mother.”  To offer freedom from grief had to have been one of the most glorious gifts she could imagine. That longing to feel freedom from grief is the weight that pulls at me constantly, the consistent thread of my adult life. She and I are one on that score.

                I have many theories, and they all hold some weight: she wanted to manage her diagnosis by herself because she didn’t want the burden of other people’s emotion around her illness; she thought that she could heal herself.  There’s the sociological perspective and the question of shame. This was the late 80s, when the disease was still a dread secret, endured in silence and euphemized in obituaries as a “long illness.” As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote “something about the conjecture of “breast,” signifying sexuality and nurturance, and that other word, suggesting the claws of a devouring crustacean, spooked almost everyone.”  True enough, breast cancer then was still a long way from the public, political issue it has become, with pink ribbons and marathons and an entire month devoted to its awareness.

                 Many theories but I don’t have her to ask, so I’ll never really know.

 

By August, there are signs of surrender in her journal:

                 August 7, 1988

                 The WILL OF HE WHO GUIDES ME is gentle. Feel the thunder of change not only as a brutal awakening but as a softer and softer cushioning. Only under the delusion of separation does life seem harsh and unrelenting. To turn inwards is to feel change as the soft cushion of timely action. I REJOICE IN MY PROBLEMS, FOR THEY STIMULATE MY CONSCIOUSNESS TO OVERCOME ERROR THAT I MAY SEE THE BEAUTY OF THE DIVINE PERFECTION.

 

On September 2, two weeks before her death, she summoned me home at last.

 

 

Thursday
Jul212011

Stepfamilies: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nina-collins/stepfamilies-the-good-the_b_905038.html

 When I got married, at twenty-three, I became a stepmother to a seven year old boy. I’d known Jonah since he was four, and his parents had divorced when he was still a baby, so he’d never really known what it was like to live together with his family under one roof. Which was the same experience I’d had – my own parents divorced when I was a baby and I grew up with a complicated web of step parents and step and half-siblings, all of whom I resented to varying degrees.

You’d think I would have felt sympathy for this little boy, a boy who got shuttled between Washington, DC and Manhattan every third weekend, whose Dad lived in another state. You’d think that I would know intimately his discomfort, and try to help him in whatever way I could.

At first, when I was twenty and just dating his Dad, I thought Jonah was cute. It was a novelty for me to be in a mom-role of any kind, and I’d had plenty of teenage babysitting experience, so how hard could this be? I read to him, tickled him, made him chicken nuggets, gave him baths.

And then, as Peter and I got more serious, and decided to get married, the relationship with Jonah got more complicated. I grew aware that my role would always be peripheral, that this kid had his own mother, and family customs, that had nothing to do with me. That I would never have any decision-making role, that I’d always be in the back seat.  I realized I would want children of my own one day soon, and then came the regret that I could never be Peter’s first experience of pregnancy, and labor, and delivery, that we could never share a completely beginner’s experience of parenthood. Of course we couldn’t, because Jonah had been there first.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon and we were both delighted, but it had that slight sting – how would Jonah feel? Would he resent the baby? Would it be hard for him? And then for me there was the always slightly nagging feeling of  “this is my first time at this and my husband’s done it all before.” Not the worst thing, but a tiny, disappointing pull. The tug of the young and naïve, selfish and childish.

As those early years of marriage wore on, the disparity between “our” family (me, Peter, and our new daughter) and “his” family (Peter, Jonah, the ex-wife) grew, however much of it was in my head. Because actually, the ex-wife was easy, as far as these things go, but she was still my precursor, and she had still established her own maternal culture, and I was still the second wife.  And the more it sunk in that Jonah came first in a way that I never would, the harder it became for me to deal with him. That he, this innocent child, had the unconditional love of his father, made me sometimes feel extraneous, out in the cold.

I was jealous on two fronts: the first, the more obvious, was that I wanted that unconditional devotion from my husband, and I quickly became aware that I could test that love, and that I could lose. Our fights were volatile, and Peter turned his back on me easily. There were no guarantees for me here. The second, even more primal jealousy, was that Jonah was getting the kind of unconditional fatherlove that I’d never gotten from my own father, and staring that loss in the face -- my own loss -- admitting that lack, was too painful for me. Much easier to look outside and resent the child.

So that’s what I did. It was never child abuse, but I was cold. I never loved Jonah, and we all felt it. Sometimes he made me really angry, like when he would come for visits and just hole up on the computer, sullen, unwilling or unable to empty the dishwasher, or change his sheets, or engage in a conversation. I didn’t think he was cute, or clever, or take pleasure in him in any way, the way we usually do with the children in our midst.

I look back on this piece of my history with mortification; without a doubt, my relationship with Jonah is the one in my life I most regret. To explain it, much less justify it, I can try to point to my youth, my inexperience, my unresolved childhood pain, my lack of sophistication, or I can just throw up my hands and say I’m a horrible person.

But it’s not quite that simple, not quite one thing or the other. For years my husband, now my ex, silently made me feel like I was Cruella de Ville, like my behavior was inexplicably unjust. But the truth is, we were both inept at handling the feelings  – we didn’t talk about it well, he always told me I didn’t need to have a relationship with his son, that that was just fine with him, when it clearly wasn’t.

Now, in my 40s and divorced, I have a serious boyfriend, Joe, and Joe has a teenage daughter, Emily. So I have to forge a relationship with Emily and Joe’s got to find his way with my now four children. Watching us all fumble along through this process, I realize how inherently fraught the step relationship is, how impossible it’s got to feel to almost everyone, even the most therapized among us.

Having made such a mess of it the first time around, I’m much more careful now. I try to see Emily as her own person and not react to her based on what she represents, or at least, if I do feel myself reacting to those old issues, I’m better at keeping it to myself. Being all together can be pleasant, and even fun at times, but I’m not sure it’ll ever feel totally natural. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye, I catch Emily looking at me like a deer in the headlights, as if I come from another planet, and I realize, that to her, I do!  She’s being raised differently from the way I raise my kids; with divergent rules and expectations, and when she’s at my house she’s in foreign domestic territory. We eat differently, we talk differently, we probably even smell different! Our mothers shape the way we see the world, and this, here in my domain, is not her mother’s culture. To be a kid plunged into another mother’s universe has got to make everything feel upside down.

One of my kids “hates” Joe right now, and it’s so obviously not about Joe, but about the divorce and jealousy over me, and about rage at things not being what they “should” be. But it’s hard on Joe, hard to be confronted by a hostile teen, day in and day out. It can be difficult to like that child, I’m sure. Joe and I have a relationship, and that relationship encompasses our previous marriages, our children, all the various homes we all live in, the past, the failures, the unknown future. It’s complicated.

Even Peter, who was so hurt by my indifference (at best) to his son, has now had his own experience of dating someone and not liking her kids. It happens to other people! You have no idea what a relief that was to me.

The truth is, that each and every family, no matter how short-lived, how dysfunctional, how splintered, has its own culture. A mother, a father, and their kids, they are a unit, connected by DNA and by a code of communication and rituals and understanding – by threads of something almost impossible to articulate – that no outsider can probably ever fully penetrate. By that logic, the blended family thing is  always, to some extent, going to be like wedging the wrong shapes into a puzzle.

I see this now when I sit down with my father for our annual lunch. We both live in New York City, but we’ve had a painful, difficult relationship my whole life, and since my mid-twenties I’ve really stepped away. We now talk on the phone a few times a year, and he calls me every summer and asks to take me out to lunch for my birthday. I go, and it always hurts a bit, because we’re not close, because I lost so much not having a father in my life. But what really kills me, every time, is that no matter how infrequently I see him, no matter how neglected I may feel, there is an undeniable understanding there, a deep recognition of each other. He’s my father. There’s a shorthand in the way I experience his voice and gestures and sense of humor, in the way he’s as familiar to me as my own body is. I could never in a million years have that sort of visceral connection with a stepfather or a stepchild, and that’s the crux of it.

 

Thursday
Jun232011

Some Thoughts on Jealousy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nina-collins/jealousy_b_880700.html

When women talk about the current romantic lives of their ex-husbands, it's common to hear refrains along the lines of "I couldn't care less who he's with. What a nightmare, she can have him, good riddance." And they usually add "As long as she's nice to my kids, that's all I care about."

Really? You don't care at all? No twinges of jealousy? You're not curious? What if she's prettier than you? Younger? Wildly successful? Or maybe she's just nicer, a more balanced person, a better fit, someone who can make him happy where you couldn't? None of this stings at all? I don't believe you.

I want my ex-husband to be happy, I do. He deserves to have a life, right? I have one, after all. It's better for the kids to see him settled and partnered than sitting home alone every night, like he did for ages. And we're very much through, over four years divorced at this point. But I can always tell when he's dating someone new with whom he might be serious, because he gets ever so slightly hostile to me for a brief period of time. Almost like an adolescent, it feels as though he needs to push me away in order to connect afresh.

So two or three months ago, I realized that there was a new woman on the scene, and now, for the time being at least, she seems to be a fixture. And she's about my age, pretty enough but not threateningly so, seems to be smart, has a couple of young kids. My children say she's totally nice, and when we scoped her out on Facebook, I was left with a perfectly likeable, if innocuous, impression. All good.

So why do I feel uncomfortable -- slightly bereft, like I've lost my footing -- when her name comes up? Why does my knowledge of her existence give me any pause whatsoever? Do I want Peter anymore? No, definitely not. Do I miss him sexually? No again, even though I liked him sexually. Do I suspect she's getting something I want? No, I know for sure, surer than I know anything, that he can't give me what I want.

Is it about my kids? Am I worried they'll like her more than they like me? No. I think that's a fear that you get over soon after you get divorced. Once you see a few boyfriends and girlfriends come and go on both sides, you realize pretty quickly that what matters to kids are their parents. Unless the new step-figure is a monster, which is obviously disastrous for everyone, these people are rarely going to become figures of monumental importance in your kids' life. Particularly once they are teenagers, which mine are.

But there is something about the kids, something about the idea of Peter and his girlfriend being with my children and hers, acting like a family, that can sting. The physical intimacy, that my kids might see this woman naked, or see her making out with their dad, that feels weird. In those moments I just have to pinch myself and remember what it's like when I'm with my boyfriend Joe's daughter, or my kids are with Joe. Is it threatening? Would anything about it be objectively unacceptable to Peter? No, not remotely. It's just life, everyone trying to fit slightly awkward puzzle pieces together. Never quite right, but not bad.

Another helpful mind-game is for me to visualize being in the shoes of the new girlfriend -- being there on that vacation, at that dinner table, by his side romantically wherever -- and it takes about three seconds of recalling what I know so well for me to think "whew, there but for the grace of God, go I."

Here's what it is, what the jealousy boils down to: this guy was my lover, my husband, my father figure (sorry, it's true), for sixteen years, the bulk of my adult life. Since we split up, he hasn't yet "replaced" me. He had one rebound relationship with a woman I couldn't stand, and then I think lots of adventures with women he'd never bring home to meet the kids. I've still been the only woman, aside from his mother, who really looms large in his life, for better or worse. And now that's changing. So it tugs at the wound. It makes me feel a little more alone; it's a reminder of the loss.

That's the crux of it: even though we've been separated for years, and we've both "moved on," the process of disentangling continues. My complicated feelings about a serious new girlfriend are about me being replaced (as opposed to no one filling that position), someone taking over the emotional slot I long held, about us all taking yet another step apart. It's not about her in particular; she could be anyone. It's about the sadness of divorce, of one family unit ending and morphing into something else.

Which is what it needs to do. This is inevitable, and healthy! And these twinges won't kill me, not by a long shot. But I do hope they go away soon. Hopefully I'll meet the new girlfriend before long. I imagine I'll like her well enough, and in the flesh we'll both realize how human (and thus flawed) we all are. And that will further break down any of the curiosity we both must have, and make it all that much easier to bear.

Wednesday
Jun222011

On Women, Shame, Secrecy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nina-collins/what-a-shame_b_876453.html

I love to post on Facebook, and my favorite all-time Status Update read "Nina Lorez Collins has a lot of things, but she has no shame." This was about three years ago, when I was just coming out of what was probably the darkest period of my life.

Since those difficult days, I've begun to write about my personal life for blogs and magazines. Recently, an essay I wrote on my ambivalence about remarriage after divorce got a lot of comments -- strangers calling me bitter, crazy, a man-hater, and so on. For the most part these criticisms rolled off my back, largely because so many others cheered me on, and that was thrilling. I even got asked out on a date!

But about a week later a slightly older woman I play tennis with, Sally, stopped me after our weekly clinic and said "how could you write such a thing? So personal? Isn't your boyfriend upset?" She explained that she was raised in another era, when "women would never do such a thing," and shared with me her mother's favorite maxim: "Fools' Names and Fools' Faces, Always Found in Public Places." Ouch. We were standing in the tony foyer of our local country club in Brooklyn Heights, and boy did I feel slammed. Was she calling me a fool? Carefully, because this is a woman I like, and I didn't want our future interactions to be strained, I told her that she'd offended me, and she rushed to apologize. "No, no," she said, "I would just be too embarrassed to share like that, way too shy. It's a generational thing."

Then an old friend from childhood, someone I haven't seen in almost twenty years, emailed me about a magazine piece I'd written and accused me of "airing my dirty laundry for $3 a word." She said she didn't associate with people who do such things. I'd actually only been paid $2 a word, and felt like I'd been called a prostitute for doing so. Another sting, another person telling me I should be ashamed of myself.

Last summer, when I finished a first draft of my memoir about my parents' lives and my own, I sent to the manuscript to a number of readers I admire for comments. One of them, Susanne, said right off the bat, that the first thing that struck her as a reader was that I had no shame, and therefore might be an unsympathetic narrator -- a no-no in the publishing industry. She said, "Shame is practically the guiding principle of my life. I feel shame every day. Secrets are a regular part of my life, so it confounds me that you are willing to be so candid about the dark parts."

This really got me thinking: why do we all carry around so much shame? And why are secrets so anathema to me? Why do I feel the need to shed light on all "the dark parts," to make public much that others might see as private? I'm surrounded by female friends with hidden mortifications, women ashamed about what they're going through. One overeats late at night, another has a suicidal teenager, a third serious money problems. A few who desperately want to leave their husband but are intensely afraid of what people will think. Another who just found out her boyfriend gave a guy (!) a hand job last weekend. These things are whispered about, confessions end with "don't you dare tell anyone, I'd die." As if a million women before us haven't overeaten, drunk too much, been cheated on, slapped their children, told a big lie, embezzled! I'm not saying these issues aren't worthy of discretion; they may be, and I believe in confidence when so instructed, but I also believe that shame is corrosive, that lives are wasted hiding what hurts.

People screw up every day, and people suffer; that's the human condition. Sharing our stories, being supportive, offering some ideas for a path out, that's what love and friendship and art are for. No?

Instead of "Fools Names and Fools Faces, Always Found in Public Places," I've raised my kids with the assurance that nothing they can say or do will shock me (ok, there have been a few exceptions already, I'll grant you that), that everything's been done before in one form or another, that life is about making mistakes and how we rebound from them. That the most important thing is to try and understand your actions, take responsibility for them, and move on. Be generous of heart and be honest, as much as you possibly can. That old quote, sometimes attributed to Plato "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" pretty much sums it up for me.

But where did it come from, this distrust I have for abashment, for anything coy?

It might be as simple as this: while I was growing up, from age 11 to 19, when she died, my mother, also a writer, and an outspoken fireball of a woman, had breast cancer. And she never told us. Not until two weeks before she passed away. And not just me and my brother; she kept her illness a secret from virtually everyone she knew -- he mother, her sister, her colleagues, my father (her ex), all her closest friends. I've spent may years trying to understand why she handled it the way she did, and I think there were a few reasons, but I suspect the main one was shame. And she was no shrinking violet, I can tell you that. But her journals from the time reflect a woman who suspected she'd somehow caused her own illness, and she seemed to really believe that if she got healthier psychologically she could cure her physical body. So sad that makes me. What a burden. How we could have all helped, and been together, if she had only been able to share, to let go of the shame.

Saturday
Jun182011

This NYT piece, "How Divorce Lost its Groove" (6/19/11) put me in a bad mood....

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/fashion/how-divorce-lost-its-cachet.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

There's a condescending and sort of fear-mongering quality to this article, and it's left me feeling cranky.

For starters, Paul's dishy notion that divorce ever had cachet. When? Maybe last year, for two seconds, when the Huffington Post launched their divorce page? What is she talking about?

Then, frankly, her assertion that divorce was "freedom" in the 1970s is a load of romanticized bullshit. Women got divorced then, as they do now, because they were miserable and in relationships that were killing them. If anything, it's much more freeing now, because women are more financially independent. Most divorced mothers I knew in the 1970s were plunged into poverty and they had their kids 24/7 with no help from anyone. A far cry from today's divorces, where Dad often takes the kids half the time. Also, we now have 40 years of feminism behind us, and while some may argue we haven't come all that far, we all know how to balance our checkbooks, get a job, go to graduate school. We feel comfortable going to cocktail parties alone. Hell, we post our dating profiles on the internet!

She quotes Stacy Morrison saying that people who get divorced these days feel like they have to apologize for it. I'm sorry Ms. Morrison feels that way, but I think anyone who feels like they have to justify or explain their divorce is deluding themselves about how other people live. Anyone who's honest about anything knows that relationships are hard and that sometimes they can be intolerable, brutal, impossible to sustain. You can't fully understand a relationship unless you're in it (and even then, maybe not until after the fact), so anyone who judges a divorce from the outside is a fool.

There's a smugness, and a naivete, an implication that smarter, richer people are divorcing with diminishing frequency because somehow they've just decided to work harder at it. The rest of us, who give up, are somehow less disciplined? Have less integrity? I bet the author has young children, and I bet most of her friends do too. And I guarantee she won't think that divorce is so uncommon ten years from now, whatever the statistics are.

Ultimately I found this article unhelpful and unsupportive to women at a time when they need it most. If I were reading this six years ago, when I was contemplating divorce, it would have made me feel ashamed and afraid and worse than I already did. It's hard for me to comprehend why another woman would want to put that out in the world. Even that last line, about "latchkey moms,"  how could that be construed as anything but snarky?