Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two Years Later

"Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward." Soren Kierkegaard

I made a commitment to myself and my brother in the early morning hours after his death. I promised him and I promised myself I would not let him be forgotten. I was panicked by the very idea that there would be a day, even a moment that my brother and who he was would be forgotten. He had no wife. He had no children. Ralph's legacy was fully in my family's hands. And, if you haven't noticed, I take that very seriously.

On what would have been my brother's 52nd birthday, we marked the 3 month anniversary of my mother's death. And in that moment, I realized that the imminent grief I was experiencing needed to be separated from the loss of my brother if I was going to keep my promise. Now, this doesn't mean that I have to parcel out my grief in small packages but the confounding effects of the last few years have left me not knowing which way is up most of the time.

I still grieve my loss of my brother. Every day. This may make some people uncomfortable but I speak the truth regardless of other's comfort. Mostly, because this is one way I can honor my brother. And also, because its my blog and I can say what I want, when I want to. So there......

Dare I say, the loss of Ralph has had a profound effect on the direction of my life in a way that losing my mother can not or will not. We all expect to lose our mother; as incredibly painful as that may be. And it's been painful. But the loss of a sibling, while expected, unearths deep feelings of pain, sadness and heartache about a person who has stood by your side as you've built your life story. From the very beginning of time, for at least one of you. Ralph was 12 years older than me; but I hadn't ever lived a single day when he wasn't my big brother until the night I got that phone call. That experience of loss changes a person on a fundamental level in a way that you cannot explain, unless you have experienced it.

A few months after my brother died, I wandered into a library desperately looking for a book that would give a voice to these deep feelings of loss I was experiencing. And I was shocked to find them. In a book called  The Empty Room: Understanding Sibling Loss, the sister of the infamous "Boy in the Bubble" (yes - he was an actual person) complied interviews of individuals from every stage of life who had lost a sibling. As I read the book I found a single sentence that has been burned into my memory everytime I think of a way that I can possibly explain what it feels like to lose your sibling. "What he was saying was, how do you describe the way someone fit into your life, if they have always been a part of it?"

In many ways, that sentence has both haunted and sustained me over the past 2 years. In the beginning, I was so desperate to figure out how to define and clarify the deep impact the life and death of my brother had on my life. But it felt like nothing I said was good enough, clear enough or deep enough to give what he meant to me justice. I felt like I was forever failing his legacy. But I'm stubborn so I kept trying. I kept writing. I kept talking. I kept laughing. I kept crying. I just tried to keep him. And it helped.

Last year, as the first anniversary of Ralph's passing approached, I wanted to take that opportunity to write about what I had learned about myself and those around me as I had gone through that difficult journey. And I learned so much. I came out on the other side of 365 days a stronger, deeper, more determined person. Not perfect. But happier in many ways, which sounds bizarre in itself. I had learned to embrace all of those less than perfect things in myself in a way that would have made my brother beam. I have said before, if I knew nothing else about Ralph, I knew this one thing; he believed in me in a way that no single other human being ever had in my life. I have no idea why. I remember knowing this from a pretty young. age. And I paid him no mind. I gave it little thought. But there I was, on the other side of a single year, without that undying support holding me up. And I was still standing. And that propelled me in many ways. I would have never run a 5K after 12 days of training without knowing that my brother assumed I could do it. I would have never taught a college class without knowing that he just assumed that I would someday do it. I would have never pissed endless people off by saying exactly what I thought without knowing that living in my own truth was my brother's expectation. I would have never started this blog.

And then my mother got sick. And then my mother died. And the winds were completely knocked out of my sails. I was devastated and vulnerable. And for a little while I forgot who I was grieving. I mean, of course, I was (and continue to) mourn my mother. Everyday, I think "I'll call Mom." followed by a sinking, empty feeling. But 3 months later, I am standing on the brink of another 365 days since I lost my brother. And I'm left thinking, what have I learned? And, how can I keep his legacy alive?

So most of the day today, I thought about a man who taught me about music, loyalty, truth and family. It was suggested that I spend his birthday, which was Sunday, doing something he loved and the only thing I could come up with was having a few drinks, singing Beatles songs and quoting lines like "Book 'em Dano." I'll admit, I did none of those things but that's what he would have done. And then he'd have spent the next day with us (my sisters, the kids and my mother) eating spaghetti and eating birthday cake. We had this thing we did every year. Every birthday, we would call each other just to say happy birthday. And then we would always have cake at my mom's. Not every one of us 6 kids did this but Ralph and I did, along with a few others. It felt very juvenile in some ways but it was a tradition. And it hurts to know that we can't do this again. And that I can't call him on the phone number that it is still saved in my phone 2 years later.

But this is what I can do....I can continue to talk about my brother. I can continue to write about my brother. I can continue to learn from a life, while short, lived full. I can continue to let him lift me up in the way only he knew how.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Social Commentary on Corporal Punishment

I want to preface this with "I do not beat my child." I have swatted Max on the butt maybe once or twice in his life for a life endangering action such as trying to run in traffic. As a behavioral health professional, I do not endorse the use of corporal punishment. It simply does not work in a positive behavioral support plan. You cannot teach a child with an intellectual or developmental disability, or a child with a mental health diagnosis (which includes things like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Disruptive Behavior Disorder, etc.) to behave by taking a hand, a belt or a broom to them. It is a waste of time. I can pretty much guarantee that. And what I am about to comment on is not "beating your child".  Child abuse is a real thing. There are life long consequences for those children who were hit on a regular basis; children who were used as their parents battering bags. Those parents should be shot. No child deserves that.

But there was a time and a place in our history when corporal punishment (aka spanking) was a culturally acceptable form of child rearing. Millions of children were on the receiving end of a belt or a open palm to the butt. And the large, large majority of those children look back and laugh when they tell the story of their parent chasing them through the house with a broom. These are not people who were damaged. These are not people who have grown up to be abusers.

I am 99.9% sure my mother never laid a hand on me. I have a very vague memory of my dad swatting me as I walked up the walkway of my house when I was about 4. I do have memories of my father being physical with my older siblings, especially the boys and quite honestly it did effect them. Intent and perception are intertwined in an undeniable way. I am not pretending to tell my siblings story.

My mother on the other hand, loving as she was, would every once in a while lose her mind. Let's face it, a mother of 6 can only take so much. We pushed her beyond her limits over and over and quite honestly, I can't believe she didn't beat the crap out of one of us on a weekly basis.

I have one very distinct memory of my mother losing her mind. It was a late morning one summer when my sister Crissy was a teenager. While I'm happy to say she has matured, at the time Crissy was a total, spoiled brat. She was arrogant and entitled. And she decided to push my mother's button on this particular day. I don't remember what she said but the visual plays out like a slow motion replay at a sporting event. Crissy was sitting in an armchair with her leg swung across the arm of the chair and for some reason I feel like she was eating a soft pretzel (she ate alot of soft pretzels). After she said what ever it was to cause my mother to snap, I watched my mother lunge forward off of the sofa like she was being catapulted by some medieval contraption. She took hold of my sister's neck and actually lifted her off the ground. The chair she was sitting in flew backwards. And my sister just stood there, in my mother's grip, in disbelief. I stood there in disbelief. My mother yelled and screamed like a lunatic and then let her go. It was awesome.

I say it was awesome for the following reason (which gets to my whole "social commentary" thing): My mother loved her children more than anything. But she was not going to tolerate our shit. Especially when our shit involved disrespect. It just didn't fly. And my mother was real. She lived in the real world and reacted in real ways.

When I was teaching Developmental Psychology, the whole idea of corporal punishment came up as an area of discussion. Remember, I was teaching 18-22 year olds who were raised by baby boomers. Baby boomers as a generation do not believe in corporal punishment. I have my own theory on that (augmented by some actual research). Baby boomers were born to what Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation". These were the WWI and II era adults; the no bullshit, pull yourself up by the boot straps generation. The Greatest Generation worked their asses off so that their children would have a good life and be afforded opportunities more easily than it was afforded them. And they had a crap load of kids (hence the boom....). The boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. The top end of the boom came of age as Vietnam was threatening to take our young men to war in a far off land. These kids were accessing higher education more readily than previous generations and the social climate was one that was counter to the one their parents had grown up in. It was all about individualism, choice, peace, love and equality. All of these things had a collateral effect on parenting.

Baby boomers believed children should be nurtured in a manner often in deep contrast to the way they were raised. The family became more of a democracy where everyone got a vote. Self esteem wasn't earned through hard work and personal achievement. It was a birthright. The baby boomers are the ones who came up with the brilliant idea that every kid should get a trophy. For everything they ever did. For breathing.

The interesting thing is that it was during this "de-corporal punishing" of America that the family unit fell apart. As kids self report of self esteem increased, their actual personal achievement decreased. A sense of entitlement has permeated an entire generation. If a parent grabs their child by the arm, the child can threaten or even on many occasions, speed dial 911 to report abuse. And parents believe that their kids have them by the balls. Cuz they kinda do.

So when I explained to my class of Gen-whateverers that I grew up in a world that didn't perceive corporal punishment as abuse, therefore in many ways (except for when it was), it was not abuse, they were dumbfounded. How could it ever be ok for a parent to touch a child? Then I told them about contemporary cultural differences in corporal punishment. Current research shows that African Americans as a cultural group largely embrace the concept of corporal punishment and believe they are delivering it as part of a loving and caring responsibility to the child. For example, if an African American child disobeys their parent, the parent believes spanking is a way of saying "I love you enough to push you in the right direction literally." And the research also supports that because the cultural context in which African Americans deliver corporal punishment is a loving one, those children have better outcomes than Caucasian American children who's parents spank them. Because culturally, White American parents tend to use corporal punishment in a "I'm going to punish you" manner. These are 2 distinctly different messages. So the research shows that white kids who have experienced corporal punishment are more likely to be aggressive, get involved in drugs, break the law, etc. than their black counterparts.

Back when my mother would on occasion, lose her mind, and grab my sister by the neck (really that only happened once), it was couched in an environment of love, acceptance and understanding. But my mother was my mother. Not my friend. Not my equal. She was my compass. She guided me on a path towards adulthood; towards parenthood. And I never once questioned her love. Even when she threatened to beat me upside the head.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What I Gave My Mother

I am doing some grief work. Proactively planning for this journey in a way I wasn't afforded after my brother's death. This is a different grief but when coupled with the loss of my brother less than 2 years ago, its all intertwined and difficult to handle some days.

So anyway - this time around, I have a little bit of an understanding of the stages and what I need to do to take care of myself. I find ways to laugh more than I did in the early days after my brother's death, when any moment of joy felt like a betrayal. I am trying to let go of some of the useless pain that will get me nowhere. That's a hard one for me. I have a tendency to hold it in until I explode which ultimately leaves casualties in my wake.

But the one I struggle with the most is the guilt. This one sent me over the edge with my brother. And it wasn't just guilt about our dynamic, it was a pervasive sadness because I believed that if he had only done it "my way", he would have had a better life, more joy, etc. "My way" conversations often led to big blowups and accusations. And Ralph never did it "my way". He did it "his way" and I had to learn to live with and honor that. And that was hard. The only thing that made it any easier was a powerful belief that my brother lived his life on his own terms. And he was okay with that. So I had to learn to be okay with that too.

So here I am, realizing I'm sitting with some guilt about my mom. Which I've come to learn is normal and expected. Unless you are the one experiencing it. Then it feels heart wrenching and all consuming. My mother and I had many "my way" conversations; far more than I ever dared to have with Ralph (partially because he often stuck the proverbial "talk to the hand" in my face). From a very young age I felt a responsibility for my mother's happiness. She never put this on me; I owned this one completely for many, many years. I knew exactly what it was that my mother needed to do to be happy. And she never did a single damn thing I told her to do. That is until the last weeks of her life (but we'll get there later). I often felt torn between my complicated family life and a strong desire to walk away and start new. Find my own happiness in a place that wasn't tainted by so much pain and loss. But I wanted to bring my mother with me, out of all the heartache and the drama. But my mother wasn't going anywhere.

I wanted her to sell the house. I wanted her to quit her job. I wanted her to say no to my siblings. I wanted her to plan for her future. I wanted her to want to make things easier on all of us by taking care of all of the details she refused to take care of. I resented her for that. And then she got sick. And I wanted her to fight. And I wanted her to try. And I wanted her to get out of bed. And I wanted her to want to live.And this is where it gets tricky....because I started to not know what is was she wouldn't do vs. what it was she couldn't do.

The "my way" conversations took on a new meaning after my mother's diagnosis. Because they were tempered in an enormous amount of guilt for all of the previous ones that ultimately didn't matter. And that's when she started to try. I begged her to get on antidepressants to no avail for the first 6 weeks but it wasn't until she told me she was afraid she would die of a heart attack before the cancer ever got her that I was able to say to her "Mom, I walk around ready to explode in fear every minute. You aren't having a heart attack. You are having an anxiety attack." She called the doctor for the antidepressants the next day. Closer to the final days, after weeks of begging my mother to get out of bed and walk around so she didn't get any weaker, she called me and said "I'm doing what you said. I keep telling myself, Carol says I need to get up and move around." At this point, she could barely walk more than 15 feet. She was dying and I thought she need to get some exercise.

Seven days before my mother died, she fell and laid alone for over an hour before anyone found her. She became delirious. Her liver was failing. And I said to my sister that day "If I knew this was the end, I could handle this. But I can't tell. I can't tell if she is just giving up or if she is dying." I found out later she was dying. I had to do alot of forgiving of myself in those seven days.

I was lucky enough to have a few hours alone with my mother 3 days before she died. She had been told she would be going home on hospice the next day. She was more calm, serene and coherent than I had seen her in months. In fact, she was so coherent, my sister did not believe me when I told her about the conversation we had that night. My mother told me she didn't feel like she was going to die. She told me she wanted to get her hair done over the weekend. We talked and laughed and for one last time, I had my mother back. And she had me back. This is where I truly believe that people who are going to die (whether they know it or not) have some unconscious understanding of what will come to be. Several people, including me, had similar conversations with my brother in the weeks before he died.

So the purpose of this blog was to figure out what I gave my mother, which is difficult in the midst of all of the things she has given me over the years. But I think that I learned that I gave my mother a looking glass into possibility; even if it was never meant to be her possibility. Like my brother, she was perfectly okay with her life. It was me who wanted more for both of them. I told my mother one night close to the end "I just always wanted more for you. I wanted you to be happy." And her response to me was "I had everything I ever wanted. I was happy." How do you argue with that?