December 22, 2015

Dear Dad

Today, at age 70, you face surgery to remove the cancer that threatens your life.  I wish I could be there.  Sitting by the phone feels kind of pathetic compared to the endless ways you have been there for me in my life.  Your wish that we not crowd around you hovering and fretting is understandable.  In my helplessness, I  reach for pen and paper.

I just got word from, John (your brother and guardian in this adventure) that they let you WALK to the OR.  No way did they let me do that when I was in your shoes just 18 months ago!   They had me on a gurney whipping down the hall before panic could set in.  Smart, because I probably would have bolted.  This is symbolic of your deep strength to face whatever confronts you in life.  Even the doctors sensed that you would not run away,  no matter what lay behind those doors.

I recently heard Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks discuss what the Torah has to say about surviving trauma.    When Sarah died, Abraham was 137 years old.  He had already survived one trauma, the binding of Isaac.  How does a father survive almost sacrificing his only child?  Now his life long partner has died.  Two traumas involving the people he loves the most.  How did he have the strength to survive them?

The Torah says that Abraham, “came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her”.  Then the very next line says, “and Abraham rose from his grief”.  Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that from that point forward Abraham “engaged in a flurry of activity with two aims in mind: first to buy a plot of land in which to bury Sarah, second to find a wife for his son. Note that these correspond precisely to the two Divine blessings: of land and descendants. Abraham did not wait for God to act. He understood one of the profoundest truths of Judaism: that God is waiting for us to act.”

You are like Abraham.  At a very young age you began to carry others.  As much as we love to hear your ‘poor stories’, they are not what a childhood should be.  Then your father died.  All 8 of your siblings would agree that you carried everyone through a horrible trauma.   You let go of your own 20 year old life, dropped out of college, moved home and simply carried them.   How you were able to stand tall and move forward under the weight of this burden, I can’t imagine.

Rabbi Sacks points to modern day mentors who overcame tragedy,.. Holocaust survivors.  Soldiers who liberated the concentration camps talked about how it changed them forever.  How then, did the people who actually survived them cope?  How did they move past such trauma?

Many of them refused to speak about the horrors.  Not to their marriage partners, or children.  Instead, they began to build a new life and a new land.   “They looked forward not back. First they built a future. Only then – sometimes forty or fifty years later – did they speak about the past. That was when they told their story, first to their families, then to the world. First you have to build a future. Only then can you mourn the past.”

I knew growing up, without ever being told, that your father’s death was a forbidden topic.  Suicide.  Even saying it now feels like breaking a code of silence.  You did not speak about it until I was grown.  Mom remembers when you received the call that summer.  You were standing at the table in your apartment where you were both working 2 jobs to get through another year of college.  She says you sat down and dropped your head into your hands.   Then, as soon as your head hit the table you stood  back up and moved on.  You began to take care of what needed to be done.  She never saw you cry.  Not until 20 years later.

I think there may be trauma so great, that to stop and mourn is a luxury you can not afford at that time.  You run the risk of getting stuck there.  “Lot’s wife, against the instruction of the angels, actually did look back as the cities of the plain disappeared under fire and brimstone and the anger of God. Immediately she was turned into a pillar of salt, the Torah’s graphic description of a woman so overwhelmed by shock and grief as to be unable to move on.”    Abraham “set the precedent: first build the future, and only then can you mourn the past. If you reverse the order, you will be held captive by the past. You will be unable to move on. You will become like Lot’s wife.”

I think all these years, I didn’t really understand.  I didn’t understand that you protected us all from the horror and trauma that you had to face.  You did not allow yourself to become lost in the past.  You refused to dwell there.  You went about building a future.  You had to do this in order to survive.  In your quiet way, you and mom got your college education.  You kept your mother and siblings from drowning and brought your own children into the world at the same time.  Even when I went through eye surgery as an infant and you were told I was blind, you did not falter.  You and mom worked and went to classes while never leaving me alone in the hospital for a single minute.  In a time that parents didn’t stay with their children in the hospital, you didn’t leave me alone.

Then, when we were almost grown.  When all involved could stand on their own two feet.   When holding your silence was going to wreck you and the future you had worked so hard to build.  Only then did you look back.  Only then did you mourn the past.  For the first time in my life, I saw you cry.  You did not cry from anger or bitterness, but with grief of a boy abandoned by his father.

Your sacrifice gave me a childhood.  One that was wholesome and carefree.  You made sure I had a strong and loving father to lean on even in my 40’s.  You built me a future.  Then you taught me how to survive.

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We went for a long walk just a few days ago, and you were already listening for a ‘future calling to you’.  Something left undone.  Something only you could fulfill.  Something meaningful to leave behind.  Something that would secure a future for both your land and your descendants.   Something that you had to beat this cancer so you could build.

Rabbi Sacks explains, “Abraham heard the future calling to him. Sarah had died. Isaac was unmarried. Abraham had neither land nor grandchildren. He did not cry out, in anger or anguish, to God. Instead, he heard the still, small voice saying: The next step depends on you. You must create a future that I will fill with My spirit. That is how Abraham survived the shock and grief. God forbid that we experience any of this, but if we do, this is how to survive.”

I spent my day writing this to you.  (There were a few interruptions and loud children running around)  I can’t say it was my finest parenting hour.  My body was here while my heart was hovering and fretting outside the OR.   You made it through surgery and are resting comfortably tonight.  I am so thankful.  I honestly would not have been surprised if they had reported you walked OUT of the OR after surgery.

Dad, you have faced both tragedy and miracle in your life.  You have faced each with grace and quiet strength.  You have the survivor instinct to get after building a future when faced with trauma.  You are like Abraham.   I will always carry with me an image of you WALKING to the OR today.   It sums up how you live your life.  Walking forward on your own two feet, with quiet dignity and courage to face whatever comes.

Your loving daughter and greatest admirer

Michaux

 

 

 

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the souls of my tribe

Cousins

When I was 17, I lived through a nuclear explosion.  My parents divorced.

Before that day I had lived my life full of family. Not just my sister and parents living our life in our little house together, but my enormous comforting cushion of 23 aunts and uncles, 27 cousins and 3 living grandparents.

Up until that day I spent many hours growing that connection, sharing experiences, creating memories with ‘my people’. People with whom I shared a genetic pool and a history.  My tribe. It wasn’t something I gave much thought.   I had the privilege of taking it all for granted.

After our nuclear family explosion, there was a black hole where that cushion of family had been.   It wasn’t really anyone’s fault.   Just the fall out of that type of war.  My uncle Andy was the only one close enough to walk with us through the rubble.

We left our home we grew up in and were taken to new homes.  We were handed a new family. Step family.  My sister and I tried to forge bonds there. We failed. Perhaps we were half hearted in our attempt. There was no shared genes or history there. There was instead, a shared wariness. A jealousy over the territory of our parents.

We decided to not need it. To not need family. To not need to be a part of our tribe. We had each other, it could be enough.  So my sister and I became an island. Shipwrecked and lonely. We didn’t admit this to any one but each other. It was our shameful little secret of isolation. Everybody else seemed to have that happy Thanksgiving  thing going on. That Rockefeller Christmas. It was just us. We were the tainted broken ones not good enough to be included any more.

Jelalluddin Rumi speaks of the Open Secret in his poems and commentaries written centuries ago.  This ‘secret’ that we ALL carry around in some form or another trying to hide from each other.  The one about how everyone else has it (life, family, etc) figured out except us.

I was amazed at the affection and longing my children seemed to be born with for their extended family.  Even very young they seemed to know that family was different from friends we had made along the way. This love seemed to be especially powerful towards their cousins. Watching this, I felt a stirring.

This deep love seemed to be there even when we lived far away and they saw each other rarely.  It caused me to reach out tentatively for my own, my people, my tribe. It had been so long. An email here and there. Finding and friending family bit by bit on Facebook. All from a distance.

Then there was an opening. A window. My cousin’s wedding.

I have not seen Patrick, Macon and Emily since they were very little.

That was a long time ago.

  Rumi writes that “When you do something from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”.

I had no idea how much I missed them. I had not paid attention to the Open Secret they had been carrying all these years.  Each in our own worlds thinking we were the only ones not invited to sit at the family table.  Their suffering so much greater than mine.

My soul woke up and whispered, ‘pay attention, these are your people. You have been away too long’.  I felt the river moving in me. It was joy.

I spent the evening soaking them in.  Trying to catch up on our stories. Crying at the beauty of them. Missing their father. Touching them to make sure they were real. Wanting to sit them down on my lap and pet them and hold them close. Instead trying to use my words to say ‘i am sorry for all the time I have lost. I want to come back home’. 

We don’t live in villages with our families much anymore. We are spread out across countries and even continents many times. Our lives are hectic and some days I can barely keep up with my own children much less my sister or parents. I am not doing a good job of keeping my children connected to their cousins, in spite of their longing.

But this weekend I felt an opening of my heart. So many things came into focus that I had pushed down below the surface of my soul.

I reconnected with ‘my tribe’… my cousins.   

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The gift of a

Frisbee Summer

My oldest son, Noah, is coming home in exactly 5 days, 1hour and 32 minutes.  Yes, I am counting it down.  I have not seen him since August 28, 2014.  To be a first timer at letting go of my first fledgling, I think this is pretty hard core.   I went from the comfort of having him sleep at night under my roof, safe and sound, to an occasional phone call from another time zone, halfway across the world.

Last June 2014, I was still reeling from a surprise cancer diagnosis and immediate major surgery as I stood (and mostly sat) at his graduation from high school.

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It hit me.  I had a summer.  I had one precious summer left in my house with all my children living under my roof before it changed forever.  Sure, we can always count on change, but for the last 18 years I had been a stay at home mother with at least one small child not even in school yet.  I never had to adjust to life as they leave my nest.  My life had been about adjusting around these children who were always around me!  Now, my child was leaving for another country and I was moving away from Chicago.

At first, I panicked.  I will confess that I don’t do panic very well.  It looked something like me pouncing on my 18 year old son at breakfast with a guilt trip about not spending enough time with me.  It went from there to an angry tirade about ‘aren’t we important to you? We are your FAMILY!’   If you had a video camera, you would have seen him looking at me wide eyed and nodding, mouth open.   He then backed out the door slowly, breakfast forgotten, until he cleared the door frame, at which time, he RAN to the car and drove off as fast as he knew he could get away with.  I cried.

I knew I could not prevent the inevitable.  This child was leaving home.  It was time.  It was exactly what I knew was a successful outcome.  A child confident and independent enough to go out into the world and figure out his path.  But damn it sucked.

When I related the conversation to Richard, he laughed.  Then he shared with me the secret sauce.  “Michaux, if you chase him, he will run away.  He is an 18 year old boy.  Just find something fun to do with him, then make the time to do it. That is all you have.”

I knew he was right.  (enjoy that statement Richard, it is rare)  At first, I did the standard mother things.  I spent money on him.  I took him out for lunch, or dinner.  I took him shopping.  We went to the movies.  But that will only take you so far.

Then one day the answer came.  Noah was sitting on the couch frustrated that a friend had ditched plans with him.  I was, of course, secretly jumping up and down, clapping my hands at an unexpected chance to have time with him.  I went through the list of things I could think of to do and he ‘poo pooed’ all of them.  He was really not happy about being dumped.  I finally said in frustration, “Noah I just want to hang out with you!”  He sat there for a minute, and then he looked at me and said, “You know all I really want to do is play frisbee.”  (NOW WE ARE TALKING!!)

OH YEAH!  Noah and I played some FRISBEE.  We played.  All summer.

Whenever we could sneak away from the other kids, (they would always take over the game) we would grab the frisbee and go to the big field at the park and play.  It was pure play.  Neither one of us willing to call the game.  It became a friendly competition to see if I (old, broken down) could outlast him (young, strong).

One particular day, I was in bed suffering and sick, and Noah came home with a new official frisbee.  He bounded like a puppy into the house and demanded that I get out of bed!  I couldn’t imagine how I was gonna get out of bed at that moment, and yet, I couldn’t imagine how I was NOT gonna get out of that bed.  So I got out! I played for an hour  before the other kids realized I was outside having fun without them.

When Noah did leave home and we did pack up our house and move across states, it was pretty traumatic.   I didn’t get to go visit him, or even talk to him much.  I don’t know what his room looked like.  He hasn’t seen our new home.  I didn’t get to meet his teachers or his new found friends.  I will admit to some tears about all this.  Yet, I had that frisbee summer tucked into my heart to hold onto.   It was a gift that sustained me.

Now I am getting the gift of another summer.  I will have all my children under my roof for a short time.  This time, in August I have to face sending  TWO of my four children off into the world.  My daughter, Micah, 14 is leaving home to attend school back in Chicago.

This decision was obviously not made over night.  It was a tough trial and year for her here in SC.  I watched her suffer and prayed for the answer.  I was bothered that her brother had a wonderful Jewish high school education and I could not give her the same.  So when she came to us and asked to go away to school, I knew I had to take her seriously.  I listened with a heavy heart.  I felt angry and cheated just thinking about being absent from her high school experience.  She is only 14!  How can I lose another one!  I was supposed to have four more years before I had to do that ‘letting go’ thing again.  It felt so unfair and yet I knew it was what she needed.

I made the phone call to the admissions counselor and was sick to my stomach the entire time.  I got off the phone and bawled.  I laid face down on the floor and shook.  I called G-d a few bad words.  I could not get up for awhile.

Then I stopped.  I remembered last year this same time.  I looked at all the reasons I did not want her to go and knew they were my selfish reasons not hers.  I realized I had to figure out MY path separate from my children.  Because, dammit they are gonna grow up and leave you.  And that is if it all goes WELL.  I knew if I did not figure out my purpose in this world I would not survive this child rearing.  My heart was breaking.

So I let it go.  I pulled out my frisbee summer from my heart space and let it soothe me.  I began to look forward to the fleeting gift ahead.  A summer.  This is what I have.  I must embrace it and use it to create new memories to tuck into my heart.  I must enjoy my children while I have them.  That is all we really have.

I can’t wait to play frisbee.  I look at the long golf hole number 3 out my back yard and see the game in my imagination.  I am excited to discover what else?  What gift will I get with Micah to sustain my heart this fall?   Maybe it will be the foraging for wild blackberries after dinner in the vacant lot nearby.

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Maybe it will be the kayaking down the Saluda River.  Maybe it will be the silly dancing in the kitchen while I cook.  Maybe it will be all of the above!  Maybe it will be something from G-d’s great imagination that I can’t fathom.

I am trying to figure out what else I am, but right now I am a mother.  A mother getting used to my children leaving home.  A mother learning how to let go but not despair.

A mother looking forward to another frisbee summer 🙂

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