The Other Side of Midnight

Last Saturday, my colleague/friend and I drove to Charlotte, NC to attend a statewide La Leche League conference. I have officially been a LLL leader for over 22 years but have been inactive for the last five or so.

My initial experience with LLL was in San Antonio, Texas in 1980. I was pregnant with my first child and have no earthly idea why I was even remotely curious about breastfeeding. I had never seen anyone breastfeed and God knows my mother was completely horrified by any and all body parts, so this was not an idea mentioned in my growing up years. But, something brought me to that Couples meeting that night and I became more and more interested. When I gave birth to my first son in 1981, I began attending meetings and the rest became my history. Suffice to say, my connections to LLL changed my whole paradigm of thinking, taught me loving and tender child rearing along in a nurturing style. In the end, it became my career choice, as I have been a board certifield lactation consultant for the last 14 years. The women in the LLL groups I belonged to in New York and in North Carolina have also become my life long friends with an attachment, like no other.

So, when I got to this Charlotte conference — I had that familiar feeling of connection that I miss so desperately. Being a lactation consultant in private practice is a lonely field. These were my friends, my cohorts and many of these women had been to hell and back with me when my two year old son died tragically in 1995. It felt so good to be amongst these women. As well, there is a sense of “normal” at a LLL event. These are happy mothers and content babies, many of whom have made mothering a profession. They practice attachment parenting snuggling their babies in slings who were born in a most natural style, use alternative vaccination schedules, and they think before they accept most things handed down to them in the health field. It is a lovely arena.

On Saturday morning, I cheerfully attended my first session which was on increasing breast milk supply. This is a subject that has no end, as it has become the holy grail of breastfeeding. When the session was over, I came out only to be met by the horror stricken, tearful faces of two old time leaders who I have known for years. They grabbed me by the arm and said they needed to tell me something. My heart sank below my knees, I was terrified — was it my husband? one of my sons? Which one? What? What? Jan said, “Karen’s 21 year old son killed himself on Thursday. I just got word.” I was horror stricken in every possible way and began crying uncontrollably. That was it. I wanted only to go home and see my own sons to be sure they were okay. I wanted to hold Karen, an old time LLL leader and lactation consultant, and rock her, knowing that her life would never be the same. I wanted to lay in the streets and sob for the agony of losing a child and the inability to ever comprehend the ache. The compounded horror of suicide is I feel, the worst of the worst. He had a gun, we came to find out, all the more horrible, I suppose. I cried on and off all day long and finally got home late that night, kissing and hugging those who were home and burying myself under many covers.

The funeral was a Catholic mass on Tuesday. This is the thing for me. Many said they could not attend because it would be “too hard” or “too upsetting” or too something. I feel this way. I do not have that choice. I am a fellow human being, a fellow traveler, if you wish. I am your friend. You are descending into hell and I have the responsibility to show up and to bear witness. Isn’t that the VERY LEAST I can do? I must steel myself and wade through the fire and the grit, but I must be there. It is torture for me to go to that place in my heart that still has an eternal flame or torch. But, I go anyway.

The mass was nice, with touching music, moving eulogies by a brother and a friend. The brother said two eloquent things that I have thought of many times since. One was that he felt that Jesus had to go through hell and so had his brother Ted. The other really got me. Ted was bipolar and apparently, he suffered terribly, unresolved by medication and/or treatment. His brother said, “It was often very difficult to live with Ted. But, in fact, it was much more difficult to live AS Ted.” It is so telling, that when one shoots themselves with the purpose of ending it all, one almost always chooses to blow their brains out. The pain of life seems much greater than this painful, instant death, at that moment.

And then, the receiving line, where this poor derailed family, stands receiving hugs and “I’m so sorries” while they barely have the strength to breathe in and out. There simply are NO words. I bring water to the mother. I bring a chair. It doesn’t matter. The dad mentions that it will be odd not getting emails from his son. Oh honey, that will be the least! I hug the mother, my colleague, and she says, “Oh those babies. We love them so.” Yes, indeed. I think to myself that they have no idea how long and rocky the road ahead is. On the phone she said to me, “He’s with Jesus. He is fine. I have my faith.” Yes, but hey, Jesus’ heart broke over this tragedy as well. This will do your for awhile, but not for long. The gnawing will come at 3 am and no loving arms of Jesus will take away the agony of loss. The other side of midnight awaits all surving parents with hell on earth.

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Necco Wafers

Growing up in the projects in the East New York section of Brooklyn in the fifties and sixties, was a truly unique experience. I could go on and on about the socialist form of living that was really beneficial in so many ways. When you were assigned one of the three huge city projects to live in, placement was made according to your total family income level. Thus, you either lived in low, middle, or high income housing. My family of Irish and Hungarian descent, lived in Boulevard Houses because we were a middle income family. My Irish Catholic father was a parking meter collector at the time, working for the City of New York. My raving atheist Hungarian mother stayed at home and spent much time “on the bench” with the other moms. This was group therapy or at the very least a support group, long before those terms were the vernacular.

The families who lived in the projects and for that matter, most of East New York (ENY) were almost all Jewish. I was being raised Roman Catholic. I was in fact “the other.” When there was a Jewish holiday, I would often be the only student in my class to come to school and I would delight in helping my teacher clean out closets, rearrange classrooms, etc. Oddly, all the teachers were Jewish too, but did not get the privilege of a day off. I was the “shiksa girl” or “goyim” and several parents of my friends, did not encourage my presence around their children. I did not realize this at first, but as I became a more conscious age, I often had this feeling that I was “dirty.”

On Wednesdays at 2:00, I would leave school to head for St. Gabriel’s Church, well over a mile away for what was called either “Religious Instruction” or “Released Time.” Either way, I hated it and was embarrassed to leave. The walk was long and kind of scary and amongst the few other non-Jewish kids, I don’t remember any others walking along to St. Gabriel’s. I was alone. At the time, there was Hannah Shea, Patrick Manetta, Diane Grinage, Gino Dinolfo and a few others who were not Jewish, but they must have either been in another grade, or not been forced to attend this Wednesday ritual, so I never saw them.

I was always very intrigued and in awe of receiving communion. Part of me, was particularly confused because my Catholic dad never received along side of me as other families did. Years later I came to find out that this good, honest, faithful guy had a divorce in his past which rendered him excommunicated from such last suppers. I was angry about that for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, each week, I would go into that dark scary booth to confess my sins to the priest on Saturdays, say my penance, and receive communion on Sundays. Sister Martin Joseph (why the male names always?) said, “Never chew Jesus, let him melt in your mouth.” One of my biggest fears became the dread that perhaps Jesus would get stuck in my teeth or palate and I would be damned forever, as I suppose, would He!

Growing up in the projects meant that you always had lots of friend so play with. No matter what the day or season, there was someone around to dress Ginny dolls with, to go sledding with, to set up a neighborhood carnival with, or to ride bikes and roller skate with. Great fun. When it was too cold or rainy to play outside, we would either meet in the hallways of the building or visit each others apartments to play. So an assortment of friends like Nadine, Susan, Audrey, Paula, and others would come to play. They were all Jewish, of course. I would take them into my room and say, “Okay, I am the priest. Kneel down.” I have no idea why, but they would heed my commands. It is often like that with children — someone becomes the director and others follow suit. I was in fact, often labeled as “bossy.” Once they kneeled, I would have them fold their hands in prayer, and close their eyes. Then, I would carefully peel one Necco wafer out of my pack, demand that they stick out their tongues and place the wafer there. “DON”T CHEW!” I would command, “Let Jesus melt in your mouth. You cannot chew Jesus!”

Although they seemed obedient time and time again, when we played this game, it was in fact, upsetting enough to them, to cause them to report to their parents. Some of these parents were Holocaust survivors, but even those who were not, found this less than amusing. The parents would come banging on our apartment 4A door, report to my father what was happening and I would be told to stop at once. At the time, I couldn’t really understand why, but I sure do now.