Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Time I Wrote a "Hero" Essay About My Mother

When I was in third or fourth grade, we had an assignment to write essays about our heroes.  We each had to write three short essays, so I needed to come up with multiple heroes.  The people I admired and wanted to emulate back then were mostly actresses and pop stars, and I knew adults tended to frown on such shallow choices, so I immediately chose my dad as my first hero.  Since winning the "Reflections" contest a year or two earlier with my sob story, I felt I knew how the game was played and that it would get me a good grade.  When I came home from school and told my mother about the assignment, she was outraged that I would write about my dad.  I guess she didn't remember the "Reflections" contest or how she had told me tearjerkers win awards and that I should always write about my dad when given the opportunity.  This time, she told me the person I SHOULD be writing about was MY MOTHER.  I said okay. 

The thing about writing about my dad is that it's easy.  He's a war veteran, he's paralyzed from the chest down, and it's easy to come up with a lot of filler fantasy about what we could be doing as a family if he weren't in a wheelchair.  My "Reflections" essay had even gone off onto a weird tangent about how, if Dad could walk, we could all go to Disney World together as a family (I could NOT stop writing about Disney World -- it was all I dreamed about) and how he could carry me if I got tired.  My secret Disney wish was not-so-subtly embedded in the ending (as well as my secret wish to have someone carry me around) and it STILL WON. 

Writing about my mother was harder.  She didn't have a paying career I could cite as the source of my admiration, but I also couldn't very well talk about all the home cooked meals she made or how well she took care of the house and family.  She was a hoarder who spent most of the day in a muumuu, lying on the couch and watching TV or napping.  That's not to say I didn't love spending time with her.  I just didn't think, "We watch a lot of television together," was a strong basis for a hero essay.  And I certainly didn't want to be like her.

To be fair, my mother volunteered a lot too, both with PTA and with a local clinic that offered free vaccinations to babies, but I knew very little about what she did (to this day I have no idea what she did at that clinic), so "she volunteers" only took up so much space in my essay.  As an adult, I think I'd be able to do something with her volunteer work and how much time she spent with her parents on an almost daily basis (it was like she never grew up, but I could spin it like she was helping out), and I'd lie and say she was integral to my dad's ability to live independently.  Back then though, I was afraid of lying, and I only knew how to write effectively (manipulatively?) about my dad because my mother had told me how.  She wouldn't tell me what to write about her.  She said I should KNOW.

My mother had a tendency to go on martyr rants about all the things she did for us for which we were ungrateful.  These rants happened pretty regularly.  I figured the things in her rants must be tasks for which I should consider her a hero -- why else would she talk about them so much?  Surely I couldn't say the wrong thing if I only said things she herself had said first, so I started writing. 

I don't remember everything I wrote in my essay.  I know I meant it to be sincere and loving, and I intended for it to make her pleased with me.  The only thing I remember from it was, "She stays up until 2am sorting Campbell's soup labels."  This line was from the excerpt of her rant about all the things she does that are school-related, and my school collected Campbell's soup labels to redeem for funding or computers or something.  She would bring home garbage bags full of soup labels from school, empty them onto the living room floor, and sort them until the wee hours of the morning.  "I was up until 2am sorting Campbell's soup labels," was often verbatim what she snapped at me while I got ready for school in the morning.  Anyway, the essay had multiple sentences like that, varied as little as possible from her own exact words.  I knew it wouldn't win any awards, but I didn't know how to make my mother into an award-winning hero.  I figured at least it was done. 

My essay about my dad, on the other hand, was largely borrowed from my award-winning "Reflections" essay.  My teacher asked me to read it aloud at a special program that my parents were invited to attend.  Some other kids read their essays too.  Afterwards, my mother was upset and asked why I hadn't read the essay about her.  I told her they didn't ask me to read it, just the one about Dad.  She wanted to see the essay about her, so I showed it to her.  "You made me sound like a crazy person!" she hissed.  Neither of us caught the irony back then.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Time I Told My Mother the Truth About Everything

This is an excerpt from an email I sent my best friend on the day I told my mother "The Truth As I See It."  It happened a couple years before my wedding, on the day my mother received divorce papers from my dad.  I count that phone call as one of the most important conversations of my life and one of the few times I was honest with my mother about her behavior and refused to back down when challenged.  I believe this conversation was at least part of the reason my mother has reached out to me to reconnect but has never once asked me why I stopped talking to her.  I said what she needed to know (if she heard it).

I mention unofficially diagnosing my mother as bipolar in this email, which in hindsight I kind of wish I hadn't done, though I thoroughly believed it to be true and that proper treatment -- especially a prescription mood stabilizer, which was one of the few things she didn't already seem to be taking -- could make her better.  She did receive a formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder a couple years after this phone call took place, but I no longer believe it to be accurate.  More on all that another time.

Dear Jerry,

My mom was served the divorce papers today.  She called me sobbing and, when I answered, said, "I just called to say I love you."  I acted sympathetic and didn't say much until she started in on my dad, at which point the invisible string that my voice had been hung up on just broke and I announced loudly, "You sold ALL OF HIS STUFF," and basically told her the truth on just about everything.  I didn't yell, but when saying things I'd wanted to tell her for a long time, I announced them loudly like an orator.  I was still gentle through a lot of it though, particularly when talking about mental illness, and she was the only one who cried.  I told her she is bi-polar.  I told her she should be on meds for it and not on meds for EVERYTHING else.  I told her she appears to have Munchausen's syndrome and her car wrecks seem to be on purpose ("You think I rolled the car ON PURPOSE?!"  "Yes.").  I told her maxing out someone else's credit card is NOT OKAY, regardless of her defense that it was "only $500."  When she complained that no one speaks to her, I told her it's because she acts crazy now.  When she asked why I didn't call her at Christmas, I told her I didn't want to get yelled at.  When she acted shocked and asked, "What?" I repeated myself, only more loudly and enunciating better.  I did this every time she acted shocked at something I said.  I asked her if she didn't remember yelling at me and leaving voice mails in which she called me a selfish little bitch, or if she really believed it didn't hurt me.  She said she only remembered calling me that when I didn't send cards to my grandmothers.  I don't really remember how she said it, but it came out that she thinks I am bad for that, and I can't really remember that part through the haze of anger... 

When she said my father took the money away from her and that she would have to live without lights and heat, I explained that, if the bank account is empty, it's because she empties it every month.  Several thousand dollars every month.  I explained that I am handling their money now.  I explained that it comes to me so that I can pay the house payments that she would not.  I explained I had been instructed to put the rest back into their joint account each month, leaving my dad with nothing, so that the automatic withdrawal bills could be paid and she could blow through the rest the way she always does ("Blow through?"  "Yes."  "You think I BLOW THROUGH money?!"  "Yes.").  She said she spends money but (or because?  I can't remember) she has no other vices.  She said she doesn't own furs or diamonds; she pays bills and sometimes buys things for other people.  She said that nothing will make people happy.  We weren't happy when she was spending no money, lying on the couch all day refusing to move, eat, or bathe, and that we aren't happy now that she is out spending money.  What do we want from her?  I said, "We want you to act like a normal human being." 

She cried a lot.  She said we used to be best friends.  I told her she used to be the center of my world.  I told her she used to be my entire support system and that she dropped me in college, or in high school really, and I was forced to get over it.  She claimed it was the menopause.  I told her she should have admitted to it then rather than just yelling at me and accusing me of changing.  I told her she is bi-polar.  Again.  She said she might as well take all of the pills she has and end it all.  I confessed that I had thought about suicide in the last few months too, and then she cut me off to tell me about her problems some more.  Honestly, it's what I expected to happen.  It was more of a test than a confession.  But a normal person would have at least acknowledged the fact that the other person had spoken.  I realize it's hypocritical, but I hated her for not caring even a little bit.  I told her that, kill her or not, most pills don't just put you to sleep, they make you sick and kill you painfully (it's true -- I've read it in books).  I told her to think that over before making any rash decisions.  

She told me what a good mother she was, and how she made me independent.  I'm VERY independent, I told her.  Still, I confessed things I maybe shouldn't have told her, like how much it matters to me what she says to me and the fact that she doesn't seem to care about me.  I told her how fucked up it makes me when she calls and yells at me.  I told her that being told I'm a bad person doesn't make me a better one.  And I announced over her complaints, perhaps a little callously, that I know that's all I'm good for -- being her punching bag and something to bitch at -- to which she replied "no" and then returned to bemoaning her own sufferings, interspersed with bitching about how I don't send people greeting cards.

I guess that's why it doesn't matter how much I told her.  She doesn't care enough to hear it.  Ever.  I know it was a bad day.  I know it only makes sense that she would be upset about being sued for divorce and be focused on her own pain.  I know today might not have been the best day, after years of mostly silence, to announce The Truth As I See It.  And when she wasn't criticizing me or saying horrible things about my dad, and I had a chance to relate to her, I felt bad for her.  But she couldn't leave it alone for long, and I couldn't feel bad WITH her, because it wasn't just today.  It's her.  This will sound ridiculous, but I can't think of a better way to say it:  there is a quote that Christmas isn't a day but a state of mind.  So is the worst day of your life.  And she keeps that day alive in her heart all year round, and it makes sense to be focused on your own misfortunes on the worst day of your life, so maybe it makes sense to her to act this way.  Or maybe I'm trying to make it make sense to me and I'm giving her too much credit.  It's been a long time since she showed an interest in another human being, so it's hard to tell.

I don't envy her situation, but I don't pity her either.  She makes her own choices.  Her life hasn't been happy, but it has been in her control.   If you are unhappy, you have to decide whether or not to do something about it.  Doing nothing is still your choice.  It's just a stupid one.  I asked her to do something about it.  I asked her to see a different psychiatrist and be evaluated for bi-polar disorder so that she can get better.  She asked why she should bother.  I told her, because it isn't all about her, and if she cares about her mother as much as she claims to, she will do it to make her happy.  We'll see.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Essay Contest

When I was in second grade, I won first place for writing in my school's "Reflections" contest.  The theme that year was "I Have a Dream" or something similar.  To be honest, I can't remember a single year the theme wasn't some variation on "my greatest wish."

The topic of my original essay was an imagined vacation to Walt Disney World, which was at that time my greatest wish.  I had never been on a trip before, and I was obsessed with the idea.  My mother told me it would never win.  She said I should write that my dream was for my wheelchair-bound dad to be able to walk again.  Tearjerkers win, she told me.  I was skeptical.  I thought it sounded boring and untrue, but she made me a deal:  either I would win first place, or she would give me $20.  I accepted her challenge.  I ended up winning.

My essay went on to compete in the statewide competition, and I came in second.  The boy who won first place had a dead father, and his tearjerking dream was to build a telephone to heaven.  (Why aim so low, Kevin?  Don't you love your dad enough for imagined necromancy?)  This was my first experience with winning awards out of pity, but I began to understand the system pretty quickly.

I was invited to Cleveland to read my essay aloud and accept a small trophy at the awards ceremony along with the other winners from across the state.  My school's PTA president and vice president wanted to attend as well, each of whom had a child in my class who also wanted to come.  We piled into the PTA president's minivan and trekked across the state as a group. 

I read my essay and accepted my trophy.  Everyone congratulated me and told me I had done a good job, which was pretty much what I lived for.  We went back to the hotel to change into casual clothes before finishing off the day with some sightseeing.  I had packed what I felt was my most fashionable outfit:  an oversized t-shirt with butterflies on it and white capri pants.  It was something Stacey from The Babysitter's Club would wear, I'd thought in a satisfied way as I'd packed it.  It was too cold for capri pants though, so I wasn't sure what to do.  I came out to the main room of the suite where my mother and my friends and their mothers were sitting.  When my mother saw my outfit, she got angry.  "Is that seriously what you packed?!  Did it not occur to you some of us might want to leave the hotel room?!" she yelled.  I looked over at my friend Gretchen, dressed sensibly in a new-looking, well-fitting, warm-looking outfit.  It was much nicer than my casual wear.  I didn't own a thing like it.  Why didn't I own a thing like it?  Why hadn't I known it would be too cold for capri pants?  Gretchen averted her eyes from mine while her mother did her hair and my mother shamed me.  I didn't blame her.   It was awkward for all of us.

After rifling through my bag and deeming everything I had packed useless and unwearable, my mother instructed me to change back into the clothes I'd worn on the drive across the state the day prior.  "This will have to do," she sighed at the well-worn t-shirt my brother had brought me back from a trip to New Mexico and the multicolored paisley parachute pants my mother had bought me because they looked like her own.  She went through a phase for a couple years where she wore exclusively wildly colored, patterned rayon pants and bought the same for me. 

In hindsight, I think it's impressive I had as many friends as I did, considering how I looked and dressed.  My personality must have been sparkling.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Wedding Planning

I got engaged in my mid-twenties.  Michael* and I had known each other for five years, dated for four, and lived together for two.  I didn't know how to tell my parents we were getting married.  I was nervous about their reactions.  Michael called his parents excitedly to tell them the news.

A few days or possibly weeks after our engagement, I told my mother over the phone.  "I didn't realize you were serious about him," she said.  She told me I was too young to get married.  

Wedding planning was stressful and awful in many ways.  What I wanted, what my mother wanted, and what Michael's mother insisted upon were very different things (Michael didn't particularly care what we did).  I had been saving up for my wedding since my first job out of college.  I knew if I left it until I was engaged I wouldn't have enough time to save up enough money to fund it myself.  I figured since my parents wouldn't put up anything and my fiance's parents might go by the "bride's family pays" rule, I should plan to bankroll it myself.  Michael and I ended up funding it together, but he was delighted by my forethought.  Michael's parents ended up funding something too, but that was because they wanted to hold their own separate wedding for us over which they'd have complete control, and we told them we didn't care as long as they paid for it themselves.  (They're actually lovely people.  We get along really well.  But if you give them an ounce of power... I didn't know the ramifications back then.  It was a dark time.)

I could remember my mother badmouthing other people's weddings since I was a child.  She seemed affronted whenever people served full meals at their wedding receptions.  Our family weddings were usually ten minutes long and featured cake and punch at the end.  No meal, no dancing, no alcohol of any kind.  Just vows, cake, and go home.  More than that and she accused people of being "frou-frou" and putting on airs.  Michael's family considered wedding planning a competitive sport and a chance to show up other family members, as I later learned.  "Ooooh, real champagne.  This wedding is so much nicer than Amy's was.  Isn't it?"  

My ideal wedding would have been elegant and featured cocktails and rich food and dancing.  There would be lots of flowers, and it would be held in the evening and go until after dark, unlike the afternoon weddings in my family.  We didn't know where to start though.  Michael and I lived a thousand miles away from our parents, who lived hundreds of miles away from each other.  We looked at some locations near our home in New York City.  They were very expensive, but they would allow me to be involved in the planning without taking undue amounts of time off from work.  My mother wanted me to hold the wedding in my hometown so all the family could attend.  None of my family would be willing to travel except maybe my mother.  I mentioned looking at local wedding venues to my dad, and he told me he didn't care where we held the wedding, that while he couldn't travel for the wedding, he didn't have any particular desire to attend anyway.  I learned later that this was a lie.  He was very upset at the insinuation that I might have my wedding near my town instead of his.  He had apparently wanted me to feel very strongly that I must hold the wedding close to him because his attendance was important.  But he wanted me to feel more strongly about him being there than he did, and I simply did not.  To be honest, I didn't want either of my parents there.  I'd never tell them that though.

I knew my ideal wedding wouldn't work with my actual family.  I wouldn't be comfortable getting married in front of my parents, or Michael's, for that matter.  It just felt weird.  Short of recasting my family, my secondary wedding of choice would have been what I called a "Kids Only" wedding.  Michael's and my friends and his family members who are our contemporaries would be the only invitees.  No one would judge us or say I looked fat.  No one would yell at us.  I wouldn't have to worry that my virgin mother would want to talk to me about the impending wedding night.  It would be like eloping except with friends present.  But I knew the "Kids Only" wedding wouldn't work either because our parents would be so angry at being excluded that we'd effectively trade in a few months of grief for many years of shamings.

I gave up.  I told my parents we'd hold the wedding in their town.  Michael's family was willing to travel.  I made the mistake of telling my mother that I knew it was the only way Dad could attend, and she told me that was a terrible reason to hold the wedding there.  I should have been having my wedding in their town so that my maternal grandparents could attend.  Sure it's the same town and convenient to all of them, but clearly I don't love my grandparents and she was going to tell them so! She would tell them the truth about me!  So that happened.

I knew my wedding was going to be a bad experience, so I decided I should at least keep it inexpensive.  My mother used to complain that, when she got engaged to my dad, her father had told her, "Here's $100.  Go have a wedding."  They had been poor, and I guess my mother hadn't saved up anything toward her wedding in the years she'd been working, so she had had a cheap wedding.  Ceremony in the church where we both grew up, cake in the church basement afterwards.  I told my mother she could plan my wedding.  It would be in our hometown, and I would pay for it.  She had a budget of $5000 to work with.  I thought this would make her happy.  It was a truly terrible move on my part.

I knew $5k wasn't much for planning a wedding anymore, so I told my mother I wanted a ceremony in the church where we'd both grown up and a reception in the church basement, just like she'd had.  She'd need to pick out a cake and flowers, which seemed simple enough.  She'd always scorned "fancy" desserts, so I felt sure she would choose a basic cake flavor like vanilla or chocolate that wouldn't offend anyone.  I didn't really care how any of it turned out.  I knew I had to tell her it was great no matter what.  That was how she raised me.  I just didn't want anyone to yell at me anymore.

In hindsight, it seems weird that I turned the reins of wedding planning over to my mother AFTER she told me she was going to poison my grandparents against me.  But then again, maybe it's not so weird.  I would have done pretty much anything to avoid "getting in trouble."  It didn't matter that I was a financially independent adult living a thousand miles away from my parents.  I just wanted my mother to be happy and love me and not yell at me anymore.

My mother seemed excited to plan the wedding she'd never had.  She immediately started looking for new venues.  She found an outdoor location on a major highway in our town.  I didn't want an outdoor wedding, and based on what I knew of that highway, I could only envision the local Hooters surrounded by loud traffic.  I didn't want her to find a new venue.  I knew every venue I'd explored cost exponentially more than the church.  She said she loved the place though and wanted to fax me pictures.  I asked her to send me prices.  She said it didn't matter and she would pay for everything with the money she was getting from refinancing the mortgage on the house (as referenced in A List of Mom's Antics). 

She demanded I fly home so I could taste cakes.  I told her I trusted her to pick something.  If she liked it, I'd like it.  Something basic like vanilla or chocolate would be good.  She said no, they have so many flavors and fruit fillings, I needed to taste them all.  During this time, my mother would call me at odd hours in a variety of moods.  Once she called me around 6am because she wanted to know how to fax me information about wedding venues.  She said she had lost my phone number, she seemed upset at me for that, and she said she had spent the last hour calling people, waking them up, and asking if they knew how to reach me.  She isn't an early riser, and I am confident she hadn't been to bed yet.  Other times I would come home from work to a happy morning voicemail chattering away about wedding cakes and an afternoon voicemail calling me a ungrateful little bitch who she "didn't raise this way."  I never knew what to expect.  This was around the time I started drinking.  It helped me stop shaking, which I had started to do every time the phone rang.

My high school friend Allie, who had declared herself maid of honor and who I was too afraid of to tell no, asked if she could help with the wedding planning.  I said okay.  I would divide up the planning between her and my mother, who seemed overwhelmed and increasingly mentally scattered anyway.  My mother, however, was outraged at the suggestion that I might take away any of her responsibilities.  She said Allie could plan the whole wedding for all she cared.  She was done being treated this way.  The wedding was off.  She didn't raise me to be this ungrateful.  Allie took over attempts at planning for a little while, but it didn't get any easier.  I couldn't handle it anymore.  I was afraid of both women, and I just wanted it all to be over.  I put the entire wedding on hold for almost a year.  When I felt ready to approach it again, I looked up wedding planners online and called one whose gallery of wedding photos looked nice.  It was one of the best decisions of my life. 

Wedding planning changed dramatically as soon as I talked to my wedding planner, Lisa.  She was polite, easy going, and knew how to plan an event.  Her taste was similar to mine, as evidenced by the photos on her website, so I basically just gave her some pictures and ideas of things I liked and she showed me what she thought we should do.  I usually agreed.  Easy.  Fun.  All the leg work was hers, and she didn't yell at me once.  "Are you really this easy?" she would ask when I agreed with her choices or trusted her professional judgment on something.  "This is unreal."  Lisa was a godsend.  She even helped me with my parents.

The wedding ended up being much more expensive and much more elegant than what I'd previously planned, but we had enough saved up.  It was more like my "ideal wedding" scenario except with my family present.  There was an open bar, dinner, an elaborate tiered cake, dancing, and even chair covers, which inexplicably cost $800 to rent for the night but really brought the rooms together.  Allie was a musician and remained in charge of the ceremony music, which was coincidentally the biggest source of stress for me in all the wedding planning.

I knew I had no control over my mother's behavior -- or anyone's but my own -- so I set myself two manageable goals for the wedding day:

  1. I would be a happy, gracious bride.  I didn't have to actually enjoy the day or "be fully present" or anything tricky like that.  I just didn't want to give anyone cause to say I was "being a bridezilla" or to talk smack about me.  If someone talked smack about me, I wanted their listeners to be able to look over at me, see me smiling and happy and thanking everyone for coming, and think that the other person was unnecessarily being an asshole; and
  2. Be legally married by the end of it.

My husband and I made a few contingency plans in case my mother tried something at the wedding.  In addition to the wedding planner, who would keep my newly divorced parents away from each other, I enlisted two close friends and bridesmaids to act as a buffer between my mother and me.  If my mother tried to engage me in a lengthy conversation, scream at me, cry at me, or do anything that might be hard for me to cope with at my own wedding, they would step in.  They would engage her in conversation, invent a reason I was needed elsewhere, and allow me to extricate myself gracefully. 

We also needed a contingency plan in case my mother faked a heart attack.  I've posted here before about my mother faking a heart attack while I was home on break from college and on the phone with my boyfriend (now husband).  Because I think there is a decent chance she faked that heart attack because I was paying attention to my boyfriend instead of her, I was very concerned she might fake another one at our wedding.  What then?  We'd be out thousands of dollars and still unmarried at the end of the day.  Being married was one of my two goals for the entire day.  If I ignored her or said, "It's okay, everyone, she's just faking!" I'd look completely heartless, regardless of if I was right.  Looking like a happy, gracious bride was my only other goal for the day, so I couldn't very well act like a harpy.  "Canceled wedding" and "heartless daughter" both sounded like outcomes my mother would potentially consider a win, so we enlisted more help.  Fortunately, quite a few of my husband's and my friends from college are doctors.  Two different doctors volunteered to leap to my mother's aid in the event of a fake heart attack or other unforeseen ailment, give her a quick once over, call out to the room, "It's okay, everyone!  Carry on with the wedding!  She's in good hands!" and remove her from the premises for further care.  Should anyone present insist on halting the wedding for her, the doctors would insist that we carry on, so we would.  Doctors' orders.

My mother called me to RSVP for the wedding.  I hadn't heard from her in awhile.  She sounded good.  Feeble, but not angry.  I think she'd been depressed.  I think that was usually what prompted her to stop calling me for weeks at a time.  We had a pleasant exchange.  There was lightness in her voice, like she was trying for me, almost like I wasn't her offspring at all.  She warned me she wouldn't look good at the wedding.  "You always look good to me, Mommy," I said, which made my skin crawl, but I felt it was expected of me.  She told me about all the gifts she'd bought me to take on my honeymoon.  She said she had packed an oversized suitcase full of bathrobes and slippers and massage oils and heart-shaped things she had found in the Target dollar aisle.

She said her parents wouldn't be attending my wedding.  My grandfather hadn't attended a wedding in decades, and she said my grandma didn't want to embarrass me with how poorly she gets around.  I insisted she wouldn't -- embarrassing me with someone else's poor mobility is not a thing that has ever existed -- but I'm sure my insistence was moot.  I don't know why my grandmother wouldn't attend -- maybe my mother had successfully turned her against me, or she was self-conscious, or there weren't enough able-bodied people to accompany both her and my mother to the wedding, or Grandpa didn't let her out of the house anymore, or she didn't want to be out in public with my mother -- but I'm confident any reason my mother gave me would be one she'd contrived herself for her own purposes.  Historically, her purposes tended to be guilt or alienation.

Michael and I flew to my hometown a few days before the wedding.  They have a waiting period for marriage licenses there, so we put the extra days to good use and spent our time swimming at the hotel pool and relaxing.  The stress still managed to run me down, and I fell physically ill like I had for my high school graduation.  My dad was delivered from the hospital across the state two days before my wedding.  I spent the day with him, taking him out to lunch and to pick up his tux and rented shoes for the wedding.  It was a difficult day, but I don't remember how much was from being with him and how much was from being sick and exhausted and wishing I could be asleep.  I remember him mostly being nice, but it was still unexpectedly hard spending the day with him in person.  He knew I was sick, but he wanted me to accompany him to his haircut too.  I didn't say no.  I was afraid I'd make him mad at me.  This seems to have been a major theme throughout my life up to that point.

I was taken aback when I saw my mother at the wedding.  One of her younger brothers had brought her and was pushing her in a wheelchair.  She had lost about 80 lbs from starving herself and sleeping all day in the months leading up to and surrounding her divorce, and she said she had trouble walking (as detailed in More Motherly Antics).  What the doctors called muscle atrophy from her months of staying in bed -- cured with some regular exercise over time, they assured her -- she insisted was an undiagnosed degenerative disease that would soon leave her bedbound like my dad.  Hence the wheelchair.  She wore an old knit pair of pants and top that she used to wear to the laundromat when I was younger.  Her hair was greasy, not just at the roots but all the way through, as though she hadn't washed it in weeks.  She wore no shoes.  She looked twenty years older than the last time I'd seen her, she was wild-eyed, and I also had a sort of visceral fear reaction to her at that point from the years of random screaming phone calls and voice mails.   

I shut away all my thoughts and put on my happy mask.  My in-laws were there in their evening finery, along with the wedding party and almost everyone else.  I knew my mother stood out.  I knew my in-laws, who had never met her before, would ask Michael what was wrong with her.  If anyone had asked me, I would have smiled sadly and said in a quiet, rueful voice, "She's severely mentally ill.  She refuses any kind of treatment.  It's really good to see her though," and silently dared anyone to judge me.  I was the gracious, happy bride, dammit.  No one asked though.  I think they could tell.

I hugged my mother and thanked her for coming.  I treated her the way a happy, gracious bride would treat her loving mother.  It was a part in a play.  She smiled and told me I looked beautiful.  If there was more to the exchange than that, I don't remember it.  My uncle wheeled her away while I greeted other guests.  I don't know what my uncle thought of that day.  I remember he wore jeans as he always had and he didn't smile, not even in the photos.  He was never an overly cheerful guy, but he used to smile and laugh with family.  I don't know if my mother had poisoned him against me as she had promised to do with her parents or if he just didn't want to be there.  I also know now that he had a cocaine problem, in addition to his diagnosed mental illness.  He died the next year of a heart attack.  He was barely fifty.

My dad got lost on the way to the wedding.  The ceremony and reception were held in our hometown, but I hadn't lived there since I was a teenager, so I didn't know driving directions particularly well.  My dad had lived there almost his entire life, but he got lost, so he called me from his van, screaming to give him directions from his current, unknown location.  I remember standing in the parking lot in my wedding gown and veil, fighting back tears, trying to orient myself in such a way that I could somehow help him and make him stop yelling at me.  I thrust my phone at the wedding planner and begged her to help.  Wedding planners are amazing.  I assume she was able to give my dad directions or at least talk him through his period of lostness (our town isn't that big, he would have found the venue eventually), but the most important thing she did was deflect the screaming from me while I composed myself. 

Most of my extended family members didn't attend, even tables full of cousins and their children who had RSVPed "yes."  I don't know why.  Maybe they do that with all weddings.  A few of my favorite cousins came though -- Uncle Charles's children -- even one who had to travel to be there.  They even gave us wedding gifts.  I was very touched and happy to see them.

None of the contingency plans surrounding my mother ended up being necessary.  She behaved perfectly.  No fake heart attacks, no loud pronouncements of who would be a more appropriate match for her daughter, as she had made at my college graduation.  As my husband and I stood outside the reception hall waiting for the wedding planner to cue us for our grand entrance as a married couple, my mother and her brother were leaving.  She has a long history of leaving events early, but not usually quite that early.  She took me aside and said something nice.  I don't remember what it was.  "Beautiful ceremony," maybe.  She was crying, and I'm not sure why.  That's the part I remember.  Maybe they were happy tears, but she was never the type for those, and it seemed she was crying hard.  My thought at the time was that she was upset I'd foiled her attempt to make me look like a terrible daughter who didn't take enough care of her mother to ensure she was bathed and properly dressed.  Maybe I don't give her enough credit.  Or maybe she was too high to be that self-aware.  She did appear to be high.  I said something nice back, and then they left.  I never spoke to either of them again.

The reception was beautiful.  I accomplished my two goals for the day, and I even had a good time dancing and talking with my friends and family.  I also have photographic evidence of the last time I saw my mother.  No one can convince me she wasn't wild-eyed or that I'm remembering it all wrong.  I have the pictures to prove it, and my closest friends were witnesses.  No more gaslighting me that she is really okay or that the real problems are all my own.  For all these reasons, I consider my wedding a win.

*Not his real name.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Time I Invited My Dad to Come Live With Me

When I was in my early twenties, my dad suffered a wound that got infected.  As a paraplegic man, he pulled himself from bed to his wheelchair and back again every day using just his upper body strength and a triangle-shaped "monkey bar" hanging over his bed.  He'd been doing this everyday for thirty years, but at some point, something must've caught on his skin below where he had feeling, and a wound formed.  It got so severely infected that he had to be hospitalized.  He needed intravenous antibiotics and multiple surgeries to repair what had become a gaping wound on his rear end.  Because of the location of the wound and the fact that he normally sits in a wheelchair all day, my dad was hospitalized and bedbound.  For years. 

It was during that time that my mother went further off the deep end than ever before and I helped my dad to divorce her from his hospital bed.  That was when I helped save their house from foreclosure too, though the money was all his.  He was living in a VA hospital across the state from his home because that was where the closest Spinal Cord Injury unit was located, and he needed their specialized care.  He got a weekend pass from the hospital to attend my wedding shortly after his own divorce, but it was hard to achieve.  He said they had been threatening him that, if he left for my wedding, he couldn't come back. 

A few months after I got married, my dad received a diagnosis that the wound was not improving and no further surgeries would help.  He had had problems with wounds for decades, and his more recent type 2 diabetes seemed to worsen his healing abilities.  He had been discharged from the hospital a couples times over the years post-surgery and rehabilitation, only to have the wound break down and get infected again, usually within a couple of months.  The doctors were at a loss for what else to try and told him that he should just stay in bed for the rest of his life.  He was in his fifties at the time.

I talked to my dad on the phone a lot back then.  He had internet access, but I was the one who managed things remotely.  I hired his divorce attorney, I managed his finances, I talked to his debt collectors, and I looked into options for living bedbound the rest of his life.  Because of his disabled veteran status, he could continue living in the nursing home where the hospital had sent him for the price of a pay cut from his monthly disability payments.  He could also choose to move back home, a nurse would visit him for wound care daily on the VA's dime, and he could hire an aide to cook him meals and whatnot.  This second option was well within his financial capabilities too.  I investigated options for living somewhere that was less like a nursing home while still being able to provide him with full-time care.  No such places seem to exist.

Ultimately my dad told me he would move back home, do nothing, and let himself die of the ensuing infection.  I begged him to give me time to buy a house so he could live with me.  I was living in a small apartment with my new husband halfway across the country and working full-time, but I begged him to wait, to stay in the nursing home and hang on for 18 months until I could make arrangements.  He agreed.

In the next nine months, my husband and I moved halfway across the country to an area where my husband and I could both potentially find work in our respective industries, an area with one of the best VA hospitals in the country as well as a Spinal Cord Injury unit.  It was also an area where we could afford an appropriate house, unlike where we'd been living when we got married.  We started telecommuting to our jobs full-time and bought a nice house with a ground floor bedroom and bathroom for my dad, a garage large enough for our car as well as my dad's van, and lots of sunlight.  I told my dad the house was ready.  He could go to his medical appointments and, if he needed another surgery, he could do it all from here.  Then when he checked out, he could convalesce at home with us instead of in a nursing home.  I could make him good food like I make for myself so he wouldn't have to deal with the nursing home food he always complained about or his constant battle with them to give him decent diabetes-appropriate meals.  He could even have his satellite TV if he wanted to pay for that himself (we only had cable).   

He decided he didn't want to move in with me.  He said he wanted to try another surgery so he could move back home and live alone again.  He didn't want to stay with me while he did those things and move back home later.  He didn't want to change things.  I realize in retrospect that he was probably never going to move in with me.  I grew up hearing idle suicide threats, though not usually from him, and I had spent the last few years hearing my dad talk about how afraid he was of dying (he has a slow-progressing cancer in addition to the wound), in spite of how much he'd always complained about being alive.  I had wanted to do whatever I possibly could to make his life livable. 

I envisioned a beautiful life for us in my sunny house with lots of windows.  It was so unlike the house where I grew up, which was dark and dank and moldy, where my dad complained about the lack of sunlight or fresh air or ceiling fans.  My new house had all those things my childhood home lacked, and I had dreamed up all the ways to make a bedbound life nicer, like giving him a Wii (which was new at the time) so he could play games and sports from bed if he wanted.  If he recovered enough from being bedbound, he could easily access the kitchen and living room and large deck from his wheelchair.  Our neighborhood also had a wheelchair-accessible gym since he'd discovered in a previous round of physical therapy that he rather liked getting exercise.  I knew it wouldn't be fun to live from a bed, or even from a wheelchair, but I thought it would be nicer in my house than in a nursing home.  We could even celebrate holidays together, which we hadn't done in years except when he'd had surgeries scheduled around the same time and I'd traveled to be with him for both.

I can think of a few reasons my dad might not want to live with me.  First, I know he liked living alone, and he hadn't gotten to do it for very long.  I wasn't competing with living alone though; I was competing with the nursing home.  Second, he might think I'd be like my mother.  He barely knows me anyway.  Third, it might be easier to continue doing what he hates and complaining about it to me than taking the chance on making a change.  If he moved in with me and hated it, he'd have to move again.  He hadn't moved in thirty years.  And in retrospect, I realize he probably would have hated it.  I've never seen him not hate his life except for a few days here and there when he was living at home alone. 

In hindsight, I'm relieved he didn't move in with me.  I was clinging to the possibility of having a functional parent in my life.  My mother had threatened suicide so many times that I couldn't bear the thought of my dad effectively doing the same thing by letting himself die of infection, but I could see him doing it.  It was the kind of thing he might do, dying by inaction.  I thought I could help, the way I used to think I could help my mother.

When my dad first went into the hospital, he'd started behaving like a different, more optimistic person than the dad I'd known all my life.  He laughed more, and he made plans.  Being free of my mother was such a good influence on him, much like my moving out had seemed to lift a grey veil from over my face.  I thought my mother had been the source of all his anger and unhappiness.  Now I know they had both made each others' lives worse, but the longer he was away from her, the more he went back to being the dad I'd always known.  I don't think he was physically violent anymore, which made him less scary, but he still lacked empathy.  He was still a pessimist and a chronic complainer.  He was still someone with whom I wouldn't want to live.

If he were to change his mind and ask to live with me now, I would say no.  I can't imagine that question would come up though, under any circumstances.  Last I heard, he was living at home with Dante and Dante's ex-girlfriend's son, he seemed relatively happy, and I hope he never has to live in the hospital again.  As it stands, he has been out of the hospital for months now, longer now than at any other time in the last decade.  Fingers crossed.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

5 Reasons I Contacted My Sperm Donor Father That Have Nothing to Do with Money

I read this article today, an interview with a former anonymous sperm donor who is incensed by the idea that his offspring might find out his name and contact him.  He is a doctor who has "made a few bob along the way" and says he is concerned his offspring will try to lay claim to it.  Or that they'll ask him for money and he'll feel uncomfortable saying no...?  I'm not sure what his specific concern is.  He also mentions that he has adult children from his marriage and has not told them about their secret half-siblings, of whom there are at least twenty.  That secret coming to light seems to me to be a more probable dilemma.

This sperm donor reminds me of an extended family member (and doctor) who sent out a mass email to everyone in the family who supports socialized healthcare, attesting that they just want to take her hard earned money for themselves.  No one on that recipient list had ever asked her for anything, and none were hard up by any stretch, but it was -- in my mind -- her way of saying, "I have more money than you and therefore anything you do that I don't like is because you are poor and jealous and greedy."  It wasn't really about money, at least not about hers vs. theirs.  But it was a decent attempt to make family feel bad for supporting something they believed in that she didn't like.  This reminds me of that.

This sperm donor also says he fears for his physical safety because his offspring could come to his home and assault him.  He says he and his wife are thinking of moving to... throw off how long it would take for people to look up his new address online?  I don't know what he would hope to achieve by moving.  Would he stop working too?  Would he keep moving forever?  I think waiting to see if there is a credible threat and then filing a restraining order if necessary would be more effective than living life "on the lam," but I'm unacquainted with the laws in Australia.  Also, my solution would do nothing to evade offspring who reach out in a normal, benign manner.

As I see it, refusing contact with offspring through a sperm bank is like being on the Do-Not-Call list for telemarketers.  You've made your desire for no contact known, but there's still a chance you might get an unwanted call someday.  No one can shield you from all unpleasant encounters and possibly having to say "no" yourself at some point.  But you probably won't have to do more than that. 

"When you think about it, anyone who contacts you is going to have a problem.... If I have that many kids, what is the chance of having one who is disabled?" he ponders.  I don't quite know what to make of the argument that anyone who contacts him is "going to have a problem."  Does he mean only people with issues, such as disabilities or the aforementioned poverty and anger, will reach out to him?  I can see why he might believe that, I suppose, but as someone on the other end, I don't think it's accurate.  I wouldn't try to argue that I have no problems, but I certainly wouldn't share them with my biological father.  Nor with the parents who raised me, for that matter.  I might have problems, but I'm not unhinged.  For context, here is why I contacted my biological father, none of which had to do with money:

5 Reasons I Contacted My Sperm Donor Father

1. I wanted to know what he's like.  I had questions, like does he have any hobbies or interests in common with me.  I'm so different from the people who raised me.  Is it because I'm like him?  (Answer: at least in part, yes)

2. I wanted to meet him someday if he was open to that.  I wanted to hear his voice and see his mannerisms.  I wanted to see the resemblance from online photos amplified.  It's a surreal experience seeing myself mirrored back in someone else.  I couldn't see it until I saw old photos of him. 

3. He has adult children who I wanted to talk to if they were willing, and I thought they'd be more open to the news of a secret half-sister if they heard it from someone they knew.  (Answer: They were open to it, and I think hearing the news from their father helped immensely.)

4. I wanted him to know I exist.  I wanted him to waste a few of his brain cells thinking about me, looking me up online, wondering about me, the way I wondered about him. 

5. I was the closest DNA match to a close relative on a DNA database.  I wanted to give my biological father a chance to disseminate information as he saw fit before the news came out by other means.

You know what I did when he wrote me a letter saying never to contact him again?  Nothing.  Not a damn thing.  When I sent him a letter introducing myself, I cost him as much as anyone else who has ever sent him an ad or another piece of unwanted mail.  And if I had contacted him a second time, harassing him or demanding money, or tried to assault him at his home as the doctor in this article fears, he would have been justified in sending me a cease and desist letter and/or filing a restraining order. 

What he really needed to be concerned about was his secret getting out.  He had to decide who to tell and who he might reasonably be able to keep hiding the secret from.  That should be -- and if we're being honest, probably is -- the primary concern of any anonymous sperm donor:  keeping the secret.  Even if a sperm bank doesn't give your name to your offspring, a DNA test might uncover it, as mine did.  I walk around everyday with 50% of his DNA coursing through my veins and pretty much every part of my body.  And DNA is highly traceable. 

I know it's hard to accept that the anonymity you were once promised is dead, but this is the new reality.  You can continue to focus on imagined crises like "what if they want my money" or you can face the issues that are inevitable.  If you donated sperm, tell your wife and children.  There is a very high probability that this news will come out, probably in your lifetime, and everyone will handle it better if you're the one to tell them.