Grief That is Coming of Age

SONY DSCI found a new diary app call Day One that makes it simple and fun to record moments on my phone and attach a photo. It’s a wonderful, quick way to capture images and events that otherwise get recorded in my many random notebooks. The images get buried in my 30,000+ photo library and the words and pictures seldom come together again in the same way I felt them at the time. All the entries can be downloaded en masse as a PDF on my computer if I ever want to do anything more with it. It’s brilliant.

This morning I was waiting for a child to awaken and took a moment to look at the pouring rain and remember this, the anniversary of our Dad’s death, 21 years ago today. I opened the Day One app and I wrote this:

It set off a chain of events that have influenced every moment since.

It was as though the words typed themselves, without my knowledge or permission. It is absolutely true, though, and even though it may seem like a surprise to me now, I knew even then that something fundamental had changed with Dad’s passing. I felt it on the train home that day, knowing as I stepped off that when I left Cambridge he was alive, and when I arrived in Concord, he was not. When I got to the house I called my brother and told him Dad was gone.

“How could you possibly know?” he asked.

“I just do.”

My brother was in New Jersey, I was in Massachusetts, Dad was in Saint Louis. It didn’t matter. A long chapter in my life, in all of our lives, had closed and we were free to look back and forward in ways that were not possible before that moment. It’s when memories and myths and mysteries all start to form and weave together ways that are different for every person; truth matters for a while but then becomes so complicated and elusive that you give up, only to go looking for it again later.

It happens this way for plenty of people, I’m sure, when they lose someone so influential to them. The absence of the reflected love, hate, or diffidence changes the image in the mirror and adjustments must be made. In my case it marked the start of the transition from being a child to being a parent, and the quick realization that even that traditional and expected path was not as straight or simple as I thought.

Libraries and hard drives the world over are full of the stories behind this revelation – that life seldom is what we expect it might be and what happens to us brings us unheralded joy, pain and wisdom. It just so happens that on this day back in 1992, my life took a turn in a new direction – if it were a movie there would be a map with a prop plane and a dotted line moving across continents with great zigs and zags, still going forward but making its way around the globe again and again, flying repeatedly over that point where the journey began.

Putting Autism in its Place

There's more than one way to get lit
There’s more than one way to get lit

Autism Acceptance Month includes Light it Up Blue day, and people find themselves reminded, pummeled and delighted by blue lights everywhere. It’s hard to know how to feel about the hoopla when we try so hard not to let autism dominate our lives. That’s why I moved my autism posts to their own blog. To be honest, though, those were the posts that got the most hits when I began writing Lettershead back in 2009. Much as it would lovely to be vastly popular and widely read, Lettershead is about trying to keep some perspective and focus on ideas that are not directly informed by autism.

Autism casts a long, blue shadow, however. Sometimes it feels like I spent my early years escaping the shadow of alcoholism only to turn and face autism. It was good preparation, as it turns out. An anxious person by nature, living with an alcoholic taught me to be flexible and to live with a specific kind of uncertainty about what each day would bring. In recent years I discovered that if I replace the word “alcoholic” with “autistic” in the Al-Anon daily meditation book, it works beautifully, if not in exactly the same way.

The most dangerous thing I allow myself to do is look back and see the years in my between alcoholism and autism and idealize them. I think everyone indulges in this during a standard-issue mid-life re-evaluation. We see high school, college, single life, some point in our youth as something that slipped away accidentally rather than as part of a progression to a fuller life. George Bernard Shaw had it right: youth is wasted on the young. What I’ve come to appreciate by looking back is the value of the cumulativeness of my experiences. For all the randomness of my choices, they all seem to have prepared me for the life I have now, unexpected and unpredictable as it is.

Laurie Anderson said in a great interview with the New York Times that she has “zero time for nostalgia,” and that is a phrase I keep in my head because the world is changing so rapidly that I want our kids to know what the world used to be like without getting myself stuck there. In the process of talking about the past it also occurs to me that for all the good experiences we try to create for other people, we have no control over how they see or will remember it. I have no idea what my parents were thinking half of the time they were raising us, but it’s clear to me now that regardless of their intended blueprint, my own memories were built by me and there isn’t a lot they can do about it now. The reality of a large family is that there are as many versions of the truth as there are people. Our children haven’t even left home yet and they are already constructing versions of their childhood that bear little resemblance to the one I thought we gave them.

And autism? It is a changeable, petulant child all on its own. The disorder I learned about in 1998 is unrecognizable to me. I was not a refrigerator mother, my child’s brain is not empty, limited eye contact does not mean a lack of engagement, and we enjoy a level of love and empathy we were told was impossible. It morphs and changes along with the boy, advancing and receding on a schedule known to no one. It’s a cat, a bowl of Jell-O, a dish of mercury, a block of granite. I will follow it, chill it, contain it, haul it around, chip away at it – whatever it takes to deny it center stage. That’s the job, that’s my job, and every day it will change and still be the same. It’s not something I planned for, but I know it’s what I was meant to do.

Ten Signs I Have Clearly Arrived at Middle Age

I always wanted to do what my older brothers and sisters were doing; I couldn’t wait to reach the next milestone. Not any more. Here are just 10 of the  many facets of my rude awakening:

Does she or doesn't she? She doesn't.
Does she or doesn’t she? I don’t.
  • My mid-life crisis began at the same time as the financial crisis in 2008, but only one of them has ended.
  • I’m no longer prematurely gray. It’s just gray. All of it.
  • I used to explain pop culture references to my kids; now they explain them to me.
  • I have two kinds of contact lenses – one bifocal, one regular – but I usually just wear my glasses and squint a lot.
  • I use scissors to open everything. Everything.
  • I now like grapefruit juice and black coffee.
  • At the school play many people assume that I am there as a grandparent.
  • I would rather watch Downton Abbey than Breaking Bad.
  • I fall asleep during the first musical guest on SNL, regardless of who the host is.
  • The sweaters I brought home as keepsakes from my 80-year-old mother in 2003 are starting to look good on me.
Mom and me, 1972
Mom and me, 1972

Oh, yes,  there are wonderful things: children old enough to help out and talk about everything with, decades-old friends and memories, a whole lot of perspective about what matters, not getting carded. While I can’t say the same about myself, I think my mother was at her most beautiful when she was the age I am now. Her life was completely crazy then, I know now, but all I remember from that period was her confidence and style though my nine-year old eyes. And as the years went on she never shrank back, never gave up, always stayed current and engaged with the world.

If she were here today she would be glued to the TV, doing her own analysis and pontificating on the Papal conclave. One of my last memories of her, ten years ago, is of her watching the unfolding scandals in the Church and declaring that a new reformation was afoot – even in hospice she was doing color commentary. She wasn’t always right about everything, of course, but she was always interesting. In practically the same breath as she spoke of the Catholic crisis, she confessed to having a crush on Donald Rumsfeld. I hope I’m saying things like that when I’m eighty.

Facebook, circa 1977

Many years ago this is where I spent an embarrassing amount of time, talking to my friends on the phone. I pulled the mod white trimline phone out of my sister’s room just out of sight on the right and sat on these stairs my back to the wall and my foot on the door trim at the left – that door led to our third floor where there were more bedrooms and the eaves where we hid and concocted secret clubs with arcane rules that lasted a week, if that. Through that door and up the stairs I was a little girl, and in 1974 I moved downstairs and around the corner from this spot and became first a teeny bopper and then a teenager, talking on that phone pretty much the entire time.  I talked to the same three or four people over and over – to my best friend who lived a block away, my first boyfriend who lived three blocks down the street, or a few friends across town. I’d be hard pressed to recount anything we talked about, but I remember laughing until I cried, learning to interpret or impose stony silence, and what it meant to hang up on someone. I remember willing that phone to ring, its cord stretched out into the hall, and the receiver cord so distended it hardly curled anymore. They boy friendishness consisted of one kiss, maybe two, but then hours and hours of time on that phone long after we broke up. He remains one of the best friends who is a boy I have ever had; he set a standard for good and witty conversation by which all who followed have been measured. So none of those moments are captured on the web like the hilarious banter I see between my kids and their friends on Facebook; I am glad they allow me to eavesdrop on their exchanges and see them delight in their own cleverness. Since I don’t have a history archived on the web, this photo will just have to do.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: