Complicated Mourning

This summer I will see my mother for the first time in 22 years.  She will meet her grandchildren and they her.  There is, obviously, a lot to this story.  It is an important one in our family’s lives, one that I hope teaches future generations valuable lessons about courage, strength, dignity, fortitude, forgiveness and compassion.  May our mistakes be their guides and may our reconciliation fuel their relationships.

I wrote this first essay the week that my father died, almost two years ago.  It is an introduction to our history.

Complicated Mourning

My brother, I am told, sent a card that suggested peace, grace, and love. I chose a blank one with a linen-like finish and later stamped a black butterfly onto the front. I keep meaning to shade the wings, which are patterned with hints of a Munk mosaic, though less urban, more tribal. Each time I try and write a message on the inside, never getting further than “Dear Mom”, I burst into tears. This inevitably summons my kids into the room by virtue of some congenital radar that compels children to show up at the worst possible moment. It’s the same system that sends my 5 year old scurrying down the hall in fits of tears and snot just as my rear end descends onto the toilet seat. It’s uncanny.

I don’t know how to explain my tears to my children anymore than I understand them myself. They know my father has just died, though to them I have always referred to him as my “step-father”, automatically demoting him on the hierarchy of mourning. Besides being a thoughtless and offensive reference that disregards loving step-fathers everywhere, this is an entirely unusual choice on my part. Technically, the fact that he adopted my siblings and myself when I was around five years old makes him my father. Because I myself have two children who joined our family through adoption, I of all people should make no distinction between this man who adopted me after marrying my mother and the man whose sperm created me. But I do. He doesn’t get to be my father the way my husband gets to be my children’s father. Many years have passed since I last offered him the honor of said title sans prefix or my own addition of a hyphen. If I really examine this choice, it is much like choosing to refer to one of my children as a “step-child” because she tantrums too much. The truth is that I don’t think of this man as my father because of his behavior, pure and simple, all legality aside.

My nine year old daughter looks at me with horror in her eyes. She does not like to see me vulnerable. It weakens her. The line between the end of her and the beginning of me has yet to blur. My tears are a signal to her that she herself could crumble at any minute. I look at her and smile, convince her that I am just feeling sad for the loss my mother and sisters are feeling (I couldn’t guess what my brothers might be feeling; they wander in and out of the picture).

That is true. I am feeling sad for them, though I have not seen them in twenty years, though the first time I’d heard my mother’s voice in all that time, it was clear that she had aged two decades without my knowledge. I cannot even say exactly how that sadness looks. It is not at all reminiscent of the heartbreak that accompanies the death of someone who was surely beloved and cherished. I have done that version of mourning. I have wept for loved ones, wept for the years of loving devotion that are now memories scattered in the soul. This was not that.

The last time I saw my step-father, he’d gotten violently angry at me and my brother because we were joking with one another. There is not more to that motive. He was angry because we were enjoying each other’s company. This was no anomaly for a man who threatened to disowned me once when someone else in the family got in a car accident, again when I chose to attend a university and pay for it myself, and again when I assimilated into a spiritual community. Our sins were never quite clear with the step-father. The typical crimes of teenage rebellion often went unnoticed, while a good grade, yes — a GOOD grade — in a subject he deemed ridiculous could cause a week-long tirade. Two of my brothers grew pot in the backyard, but it was my inability to remember our new phone number after area codes were changed that sent him reeling into my room hell bent on breaking everything I owned. There was no rhyme or reason.

On the evening that I last saw or spoke with him, he was so angered that my brother and I were chummy that he tried to pick up the couch and throw it at me. Luckily, vodka had robbed him of his superhuman strength and he ended up leaving in a huff. So did I. I called a college friend and packed my bags to return to campus early. While waiting on the curb for my friend to arrive, my mother sat down next to me and said, “Someday he will die and then I can live my life.”

Perhaps it is from there that those tears emerged. Surely my mother could not have known that this death, the one that would free her to emerge from her own cocoon of repression, would take twenty years?  Maybe her comment was one of those desperate ones parents say to assuage a child when they simply cannot explain something so complicated as relationships?  Or maybe, it occurs to me later, maybe she was still holding out for the man she knew in glimpses, early on in their relationship, the one who had rescued her and the five children she carried with her everywhere.  Perhaps she could see in him the potential for what he could become again.

My 5 year old eyes me with a hint of mundane recognition. “Well,” she says through ringlets in her eyes and sunburned cheeks, “If my husband hit me, I would be glad when he died.”

I’d had to explain it to them. They wondered about these grandparents out in the world that they’d never met. The older two, accustomed to the idea of not knowing one’s mother and father once the proper papers had been signed, the appropriate celebrations executed, thought little of it. I’d been able to appease their fragments of curiosity with simple, less than provocative responses. “Just as some parents make the very difficult choice to ask other parents to be their child’s new family when they cannot take care of a child, children, when they become adults, sometimes choose to create a special extended family of people to love.”

In retrospect, it’s entirely possible that the efficacy of this scripted reply is directly proportionate to the amount of English my eldest two children knew at the time. They were three years and 21 months old when we brought them home from Haiti. It took a while for their English to develop. Sometimes, I confess, I used that to my advantage. This, of course, renders the answer I once considered so self-actualized a complete and total cop-out. It’s somewhat akin to the code my husband and I used when the kids first came home, lest we’d underestimated their grasp of their newly adopted language. Instead of kids, we’d say petite homo sapiens. Bath was hygienic rinse. “Would you mind giving the petite homo sapiens their hygienic rinse tonight?” This prevented the inevitable screaming fits that typically ensued when we mentioned the word bath within twenty-four hours of the actual event. We had a million little code words like that.  Code made the impending doom seem bearable.

Code never worked with my youngest. She’s a “wordie”, like a foodie, but with words. The first time I used my cop-out about the missing grandparents on her, she countered incredulously, “What does that even mean? Why do you need a special extended family? What even is a special extended family?” The words that had so eluded my first two rolled off my then three year old’s tongue like candy. I could tell she was savoring this new phrase, practicing it the way she had always practiced new words: Listen; say it out loud; repeat.

“Well,” I said to three sets of perked-up ears, “Some people never learn how to love other people in a kind way because no one ever loved them in a kind way.” I was pleased with this answer. It laid blame on no one. It housed the complexities of my step-father’s difficult childhood while still honoring my own struggles growing up with an abusive alcoholic. Two sets of ears settled back and resumed watching the scenery go by (because don’t all intense parent-child conversations happen in the car?), but the punk in the middle car-seat was not satisfied. She wanted a more practical answer than the one I had given.

“Why? Why didn’t he learn to love people in a kind way? What happens when someone loves you in an unkind way?” Shit.

I explained. Between the little wordie’s insistence upon clarity and my eldest’s newfound concern that I, and by extension — she, was okay, we covered alcoholism, child abuse, abandonment, irrational parenting, co-dependency, estrangement, and loss.

My middle child, my sweet boy, spent these conversations, and there were many after the baby broke the initial dam, searching for black and white, right and wrong. In the end, he concluded, I was always right and the step-father was always wrong, though I had tried to convey how relationships are never that simple.

Today, as he stands before me while I slobber over a black and white butterfly, he reacts with the same silky compassion he has always mobilized in response to suffering: he whole-heartedly believes he can stop up the wound with a soft blankie or a cuddly stuffed dog. Shortly after he and his sister had first come home, I sat in a pregnant, bloated lump on the sofa, choking back morning sickness and fighting to keep my eyes open. Though his 12 by 18 inch rectangle of satin-backed soft, buttery fleece had been a permanent fixture against his cheek since we’d handed it to him his first day home, he walked straight over to me and held his prized possession out, an offering of comfort and hope. He couldn’t have known that I would break into a bout of hormonal wailing at this remarkable gesture or that his father would also be weeping in the kitchen at his new son’s kindness. He did, however, recognize the power of his gift and has judiciously offered some version of it to anyone in need since.

“Mamma,” he says upon examining the card, “Do you want me to help you color the butterfly?”

Colors. Of course. How could I have missed the colors? Yellow is hopeful. Blue seems so peaceful. Green evokes sympathy and purple proclaims forgiveness. Red expresses the pain my mother must surely feel. Though not the life she once thought she would lead, it had been the only life she’d known for 37 years. As heinously flawed as I might see it, it was her comfort zone. It was not a world I wanted for myself, my children, or even my mother, but losing the certainty of it must sting. I had thought the same thing of my kids when they came home and people commented that they were so lucky to be with us instead of in an orphanage in Haiti. It was nearly impossible to explain that a Haitian orphanage was everything they knew. The transition had actually been quite difficult for all of us. The only world they were comfortable navigating had been pulled out from under them in a single fell swoop not of their choosing. Though their new home was arguably safer, it was nonetheless unfamiliar and completely frightening. It broke all our hearts, this separation from comfort.

I quickly pack the family into the car, silently begging the kids to acquiesce to my sudden neurotic need for colored pencils. At the art store, my husband suggests I go in alone while they all wait in the car. He is a dream, this hazel-eyed nerd I married. He is the father I wish I’d had. Sometimes I pat myself on the back for having chosen him to father my own children. Sometimes, I forget the fathers I had and all the other sorts of fathers out in the world and I snap at him for leaving a dirty washcloth on the floor.

In the art store, I grab a cart and casually stroll by the cashiers, trying not to look too desperate, like someone seeking the components of a homemade bomb or preparing to create a pornographic comic strip. I find the pencils and am immediately overwhelmed by the variety. The pastels are too gritty, the wood ones too intense. I opt for the watercolor pencils, the ones that blur into each other when dusted lightly with a wet paintbrush.

Once home, I settle the kids into an Elmo video that is clearly too young for them and get to work. As I color in the mosaics of the butterfly with its blunt lines and distinct shapes, I shudder at my own losses: the step-father who was never mine; the mother who had wanted to be more, but couldn’t, my brothers and sisters, torn apart by the tempest of our childhood. It is in applying the dewy paintbrush that words of comfort drown out the background voice of Elmo, who is apparently also calling his Mommy. The water softens the colors, symbiotically merging a hurricane of emotions. Red-hot anger gives way to subtle pink understanding. From an acrid orange emerges the yellow of a sunset, day fading into night, pain preceding healing. The dark blue of isolation blends effortlessly with a silvery openness to new possibilities, deepened relationships. From the butterfly come the words I had been straining to conceive, words like grief, forgiveness, and someday.

My son beams when he sees the finished product. He considers me an accomplished artist. A visual person, this pretty picture is a triumphant expression that his comfort has been received and fully utilized. My youngest asks me to teach her how to color her own butterfly. She is practical like that. The completed card offers a tidy portrayal of events: sadness arrived, sadness was processed, sadness has left the building. When she is older, I will fill in some of the more byzantine details of familial relationships. For now, she has heard enough. My eldest daughter looks over at me with relief painted on her face, it’s lines also blurred from the earlier fear that her mother might crack. Smiling, she does a random cartwheel in the living room while I seal the linen-like envelope and meticulously write out my mother’s address.

This post was first published May 2011. The stamp used in the art is by Michael Strong Rubber Stamps.