Ides of March – My Mother’s Birthday

March 15, 2012

Happy Birthday to my mother, Florence Conlon. Had she lived past 2001, she would have been 96 today. It was really in everyone’s best interest that she didn’t stick around for the occasion.

I had a very low esteem day today, and I would imagine that on some level, it was related to this ghostly event. I work hard on forgiveness nearly every day. I really do think about it deeply on some days. But then, on a day like today I can hear my mother saying, “Ann, I deee-spise you, I absolutely deee-spise you” and my heart crumbles to bits. Forgiveness then flies out the window of pain. Although I have no visible tattoos for the world to see or to proclaim my coolness, I do have that one emblazoned on my heart. It is right next to the one that says, “Ann the worst day in the history of the world, was the day you were born.” Yep, that’s my loving, borderline personality mama…. These are some of the pearls she left me with.

My sister texted and reminded me that today was my mother’s birthday. I knew I felt odd all morning and could not figure out why. I was in the middle of a meeting at Panera in Durham, with a table full of very successful lactation consultants. I already felt quite inferior, quite under-educated as it was. It is typical for me to feel “less-than.” And then, when I realized the date, I felt worse.

I tried retail therapy after that. Stopped into Nordstroms Rack and browsed. Wandering around retail like that usually helps. I even bought a pair of out-of- character green heels. None of it helped.

As I often do, I make bad, get worse. So, from Durham, I hit the interstate and went to Hillsborough, NC to the assisted living where my friend, Jen has ended up following a stroke. Jen was one cool woman. I have always been intrigued by her. She was one of those church friends who really helped me out when I my twins were born 13 years ago. We laughed for years because Jen could never get over the fact that I had no cribs for the twins. We co-slept, so I saw no need for two cribs and Jen was just shocked by this. Whenever she would see me at church, she would hug me and say, “Oh Ann, how are those cute twins of yours? I still cannot believe you don’t have cribs!” Jen is about 20 years my senior and we would often talk about how much she disliked old people and preferred to be around young people. She got great haircuts, wore natty clothing from Belks and great leather shoes and bags. I think she loved when I commented on her fashion sense and great hair.

I always had intentions of having a cup of tea with Jen, but somehow, as life goes along, it never happened. We had this mutual appreciation for each other that felt good and kind, and full of admiration. We laughed a lot too when we met at church on Sundays. I knew she had a daughter who struggled with depression and another daughter and a son. None of her children seemed overly close to her or she with them. It was rare to see them with her and I wondered why. The thought crossed my mind more than once that they did not appreciate her. One must be careful with that train of thought, because I often imagined that many people thought that about me and about my relationship with my mother.

Unbeknownst to me, Jen had a stroke in her home a couple of months ago and lay there for who knows how long, until someone found her. Isn’t this all of our worst dread? Following a hospital stay and a stint in rehab which she disliked, she ended up in the Carrollan Assisted Living facility in Hillsborough, NC. I made the long trek there and came in hoping, as I always do, that I would come upon a hip and humane senior residence. Instead, I met with the usual nightmares of the propped up, nearly dead, wheelchair bound vacant humans, being spoken to in loud, condescending voices of staff members. “DO YOU WANT A SNACK NOW? LET’S GO. WE ARE GOING TO BLOW BUBBLES NOW.” Blow bubbles??!! One lady tried to rise up from her chair (if you don’t need to, why WOULD you want to sit all the time?) and an alarm went off from the chair which met with the admonishment, “Nadine, you will fall if you get up! Sit back down, right now.” Got to prevent that potential lawsuit at all times, even at the expense of human beings. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Why does it always have to be like this? Is there a cool facility in say, Berkley, California? In Austrailia? In Iceland? There must be some one place, somewhere that they do not think that blowing bubbles or eating screaming green cake with colored flecks in it to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day is the thing to do with old folks. It was dismal. Jen was thin and frail and barely a shell of herself, propped in a wheelchair with wide eyes glazed over with glaucoma. She was happy to see me and held my hand throughout our visit. We talked about folks we knew from church. She randomly used the wrong words in sentences but used the cover up technique I have often seen memory loss victims employ. It’s a smoke screen and easy to see though, but there’s an “A” for effort. She thought my home was beautiful and said twice, “What a nice place you have here, Ann.” I would respond with, “No, Jen, I don’t live here, you do.” “Oh no, she said, I live in the park.”

I cannot exude fake joy at a situation like this. I say things like, “It must be confusing for you being here” or “I bet you miss driving.” I want the same treatment for me someday, which seems to be coming sooner and sooner. Don’t hand me platitudes or false cheerleading. Be real and be honest. My own delirium will protect me as needed.

My eyes filled with tears more than once while I visited. When the aide came and said that it was “time for Jen to have a whirlpool bath”” and Jen said, “I don’t like taking baths. I have never been a bath person” the aide responded with, “You don’t have to do anything, just let the water do it for you.” I spoke up and said, “Miss Winslow does not want to take a bath right now so we will continue visiting instead, thank you.” We hugged and kissed and I left, but of course, I cried all the way to my car and most of the drive home. This is how it happens. One day you are shopping in Belks, driving yourself home, having lunch with friends and attending an evening Lenten series at church. The next day you are laying on the floor drooling and barely functioning faculties. The following day you are in a facility, in a wheelchair, watching someone blow bubbles while eating screaming green cake. Like I said, “Shit.”

So, things weren’t bad enough and then I came home, to my chronically ill son, who no longer lives with us, but was visiting. He had spent the day in agony and misery, feeling a level of hopelessness that scares me to death. I stared at him with this fleeting vision of him in his black cashmere coat, having graduated from Harvard, home from his work at the NFL and owning the world, feeling on top of it. My Golden Boy who I always felt everything came to with ease. Did I jinx him? Did my bragging about him go over the top resulting in a crash to hell? Can I blame myself for this or simply the randomness of the universe that had a bug, this damned tick, the size of a poppy seed, bite him and change history? I ache for my boy, believing in the day of redemption and recovery still coming, but wondering how much longer the wait will be. His eyes are also blank and hazy and hopeless. Please God, restore his hope. At the very least, restore some hope….. keep him going…..

So, Happy Birthday Flo May. It has been a stellar day of reflection and feeling deeply sad. Tomorrow, we begin anew. I will work with five newborns and five newly created mothers. I will do my best to bring them to their bliss, so that I can renew my own hope in a more rewarding and encouraging day and in my own vague self worth.

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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.