Tag Archives: childhood

Integration, Part III

1t5a10051Photo by Andrija Bloom

 

Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school.

We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, bone marrow tests, cafeteria menus, diet soft drinks, jealous siblings, and the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, while mine grew curly and unkempt. We discussed what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.

People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shade open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspicuously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school.

We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later. I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitively, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.

Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.

photo

I remember her blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?

I spent so long repressing anger. 

When it comes to hospitals, I have no idea what is normal. But I know what is true.

I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.

We didn’t kiss, but the first boy who held my hand did so in Children’s Hospital when I was 16. Since the veins in my inner wrists and the inner creases of my elbows were blown out, he curled his fingers around the needle taped onto the back of my boney hand. I let him, because he was the only one there.

In the hospital, we were a number. Our wristbands dictated what could and couldn’t be done to us. Gayle and I had no agency, no ability to rebel. We weren’t integrated into a school or class or pop culture. We thrived on imagination and hypothesis. Gayle talked of love and I told her we would have it. We wanted out of those lonely twin beds. We wanted someone to love us enough to invite us into their world, to be introduced to their friends and family. We wanted to know we were real.

I am still fighting to be real.

During my first year of college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Some children from those months in those wards were now HIV positive. The letter informed me about testing options and recommended I seek appropriate counseling.

This didn’t frighten me in the least. As a virgin, I felt no stigma. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it out of the hospital, into college, and I trusted in all my youthful naivete that I had already lived a bigger life than Gayle.

Now I know how finite life is. Now I know there are things I haven’t done, things I hope to experience before its my time to leave this earth. There are things Gayle and I talked about that I still haven’t done. There are ways I still want to grow.

As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had barely begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents.

I have four adult children older than I was when I got the call to get tested.

I answer a new call, now. And no matter what the outcome, I know my death would do more harm to them than it would to me. There are milestones in their future that would be tragic without the presence of the woman who bore and raised them. I may be easily and immediately replaceable as a lover and life partner, but I am not replaceable to them.

Gayle has no children. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father and her mother, for whom she will always be a child, their beautiful and innocent teenager, stuck in a dated hairstyle, without even the luxury of hair?

I don’t know what my next hospital stay will include, or whether I will ever have the integrated life she and I dreamed of. But I know the memory of Gayle will be with me, and I know if she were in the room, she would hold my hand until the very end, and she would say, with her sweet demonic smile, “at least you got to kiss a boy.”

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Manipura

 

 

“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”  

Sometimes the chakras are referred to as the wheels of life, even though we usually think of them as a vertical line, a hierarchy that goes straight up the spine.

These days, I’m more interested in horizontal thinking than vertical thinking. Sometimes a lateral move is the best move we can make.

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

The purpose of the third chakra, Manipura, is transformation. A friend recently asked me to explain the relationship between the second and the third chakras. I tried to describe how when we activate the point of matter (chakra 1) with the line of movement (chakra 2), we generate energy. It’s like rubbing two sticks together to ignite fire. It is the fire of our will that propels us away from fixed patterns, away from the path of least resistance, and steers us past the expectations of others into a realm of integrity within the self.

He asked me how I maintain the discipline to keep moving. I said for me, moving is survival.

The Field was my home. It was the only home I had. The Field was my family, my fortress, my ballast, my only love.

Be brave enough to break your own heart.

When I was 13, I had been in and out of Children’s Hospital for over 3 years. I had felt weak and helpless and alone, separated from the Field since I was 10 years old. The operation I was offered was a risk. The doctors said it could go either way. My mother told me I should stay back, but she wouldn’t stop me from moving up. She told the Leaders at the Field where we come from that if they didn’t let me move up, I might die on the operating table.

Where I come from, this is the language we used.

Nothing could force me to stay one moment longer than I had to.

I moved forward.

My friend asked me how I learned to take care of myself at such a young age, how I could trust my choices. If I didn’t take care of myself, no one else would, I said. He pressed me further, “But why didn’t you just look for someone else to take care of you?”

Do not look for healing at the feet of those who broke you.

Where would I have looked? Need is inversely proportional to power, and my needs were too great for anyone to fill. I couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t afford to give up my power.

If you’re not enough for yourself, you’ll never be enough for someone else.

I left the Field at 17 because I had to. It was the only way I could grow.

 

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Sally

Sally, my only full sister, and I don’t have a lot in common. We both share fairly intense blue eyes, but otherwise we barely look related. She’s fair-skinned, blonde, and short. She looks just like our mother, Kathy. I’m darker, olive-skinned and brunette. I look Sicilian, just like my father. I’ve always been a little bit of a brute, big and aggressive. Sally and I have spent a lot of time together. For our whole childhood, we shared a room and sometimes a bed—and, for a short time when we didn’t have a bed, just space on the floor under a single pink blanket. Despite all of this time together, and despite the fact that I’m only a year and a half older than her, our relationship has always been strained. She’s more sensitive, analytical, and optimistic. I’m more quick to anger, more reactionary. She’s prone to posting inspirational quote memes on Facebook and I’m prone to rolling my eyes. Once, when we were teenagers, she made me angry and I shoved her hard, sending her flying into our closet. She was nothing in my hands. Seconds later, I felt horrible. I had wanted to hurt her, badly, and it had been so easy.

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becoming a young man

The same year Ben found out about Santa not being real was the same year he found out that his parents would be separating. It will be one of those years of his life, I imagine, that he will run through the sieve of therapists and romantic partners and his own mind again and again to see what kind of insight catches. I was 10 when my mom died. It’s a year I return to often. A month after Benjamin turned 10, our divorce was finalized.

Ben did not take the Santa thing well. Here was a boy who did not believe in God but clung fiercely to all things magical, like Muppets and the Easter Bunny. I promised myself when he asked me if Santa was real, I would tell him the truth. One night, he asked. “Do you want the truth?” I responded. Yes, he told me. He looked sure. I looked straight into those sweet blue eyes and told him. And he shot betrayal back at me, howled from somewhere deep inside, ran down the hall and into his room, and slammed the door shut. He cried in ugly heaves, his face smeared with tears and snot, and Ryan and I sat next to him and tried to calm him. He reminded us about this dream he had in which Santa broke into his room and “rifled” (he said rifled) through his things and determined that he was good. In his dream, he had seen Santa’s boots at the end of his bed and looked up to see Santa staring down at him. This sounded pretty terrifying to me, but he was certain it was real and good. We had to assure him it had all been just a dream. We petted his hair and gently scratched his back and gave him all of the best lines about Christmas being in your heart etc. etc. but nothing made it better. The magic was gone. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny fell in quick succession. He gradually came to accept it, but I felt horrible for lying to him in the first place.

Then, later that year, we had to sit Ben down and tell him we were separating. It went much the same way. He made a terrible noise from somewhere deep within. It cracked my heart. He ran away from us and slammed his bedroom door again, but this time he locked it against us. You promised me, he said. You promised. He was right. I had promised. Years before, he had asked my why my dad and stepmom lived in separate houses, and I told him about divorce. I told him not to worry because it would never happen to us. I believed that then. That was back during the time when I believed that I could simply bend everything to my will and make it the way I wanted it, that I could give the kids a childhood completely free of some of the struggles I faced as a kid. But we were not doing well, and hadn’t been doing well for a long time. We sat together, all three of us on the bed, and Ryan and I petted and tried to soothe him again. We listened to all of his worries. We told him we would always be friends, would always love each other, just in a different way, and, most importantly, would always love him and his brother. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much of it Ben believed. I can’t blame him.

Ben is growing up. In the past few months, he started asking about puberty. So I got out my trusty It’s Perfectly NormalHe knows all about male and female bodies, sex, the changes he will go through. Given his age, he still seems to see sex as primarily a way to make babies. He’s into science. That aspect isn’t yet upsetting. But the body thing, he isn’t happy about. He does not want acne and sweat or hair sprouting out everywhere. He told me he is going to make an invention to stop all of it. I try to make it sillier. I make up a song about puberty. I ask him to imagine what his dad would sound like with a young boy’s voice. He laughs and then his little forehead wrinkles again with worry. He thinks so much, all of the time, in all directions. I’m sure he tells me just a fraction of it. He does not want to grow up.

I remember when I was a little older than Ben, and I looked around, and everything seemed less magical. I had seen divorce and my mother had died and my family was weird and I didn’t have any friends at school. I went to Disneyland for a school field trip and found myself calculating ride line times and performing price comparisons with increased efficiency and reduced joy. I could see, plainly, how crowded and expensive it was. It seemed small and hot and not worth it. I didn’t enjoy it again until I got to take my own children there and see it again through them.

Ben is growing up and seeing that life can be difficult. Magical things are tarnished, or gone altogether. I hope he will forgive me for my role in helping him to realize that. I want to smooth everything in his life that is rough, but I can’t. I am just trying to love him through it, even the wounds that I inflict. I want him to avoid growing as cynical as I can be, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I, too, have grown up and seen that life can be difficult. I had a bunch of illusions about myself that have just imploded. But it’s not necessarily bad. Being more uncertain has opened me up, too. There is so much to still learn about and see in a new way. There are so many small things to marvel at, like that spot of moonlight I notice on the floor of my bedroom at 3 a.m. when I am awake, worrying.

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my mother’s kitchen

2009_06_15-FlourOnce, I walked in on my mother and my stepfather, sleeping in the early morning hours, naked. I don’t remember why I was there. Their bed was a mattress on the floor. My stepfather’s flabby white ass glared back at me, peeking above the blanket. That blanket had some sort of animal on it–an eagle, a bear, a wolf howling at the moon, something like that. He was the sort of man who would own a blanket like that. He had a large, bushy mustache. He owned a yellow Datsun. He collected beer bottles and knives. He was also the sort of man who instructed me each night to lie on my stomach so he could tell me a story. He would gently pull my pajama bottoms and underwear down, and lightly trace his fingers over my own bare ass before bed. I remember the heat and alarm that flushed through me, but I didn’t know what to say or do, so I said and did nothing.

I was maybe 7 or 8 years old when I walked in on he and my mother, and I recoiled at his surprising nakedness, and quickly and quietly shut the door. I felt like I had made some grave violation, that they would find out and punish me. But they simply slept on, and I went back to my bed and fell asleep. When I woke, I found them in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, like always. The smoke hung around their heads and mixed with the morning light.

In that kitchen, my mother taught me how to mix equal parts cinnamon into sugar, to spread butter onto warm toast, and pour the mixture over it. We shook the excess onto the plate, and dipped our fingers into the sweet brown powder and licked them. I could eat six slices of cinnamon bread at a time. I could eat a loaf. I was a heavy child, a voracious eater, and I always wanted more.

We did dishes together in that kitchen, filled water balloons for fights. My sister and brother and I spent hours building Play-doh and Lego creations at the big, round table. There’s something incongruous about the fact that my mother was a drug dealer whose life was unraveling, but that her kitchen counter featured matching ceramic canisters marked “Flour,” “White Sugar,” “Brown Sugar.” This was a novelty to me. She owned a spice rack, and she used her spice rack. Also a novelty.

The house the kitchen occupied was a shabby rental at the end of a dirt road in the hills above Lake Elsinore. The house was infested with carpenter ants and tarantulas. The tire swing in the back yard swung directly over a cliff. The kitchen, though, was clean, organized, inviting, safe. I only went to my mother’s house for sporadic weekend visits, and, once, a whole summer, over the course of three years. It was a temporary place to her, but it was the only place in which I ever remember her living. I have a lot of terrible memories of her, of that house, but none of them took place in the kitchen.

Photo credit: http://www.thekitchn.com/good-question-54-87349

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david

David and I slide down the steepest side of a dirt and gravel hill. Our bodies rattle, plumes of dust rocket from our sneakers, we scream out in terror and joy. There is dust in our teeth, dust in our lungs. We have scraped our legs. Everything is blue sky and orange groves. Our stucco tract home is no more than a couple of miles away, but it might as well be gone. Our sister Sally is still there, neatly tucked into the sofa, reading, or playing Solitaire. She prefers to stay inside.

*

David tells me he sees visions of our dead mother all of the time. God inserts these images into his brain. God talks to him, too. He tells him to stop listening to Supergrass and Radiohead. I ask David, “If God told you to injure yourself, would you?” He hesitates before he says he doesn’t know. David was too young when she died. He doesn’t remember her.

*

David asks me if I have thought about my long distance phone service provider. I have not. He wears dark, shiny shirts now. Ties. Slacks. There is gel in his hair. He says “sweet” all of the time, like punctuation. He is a member of a pyramid scheme that has been banned in several states. I tell him I am not interested. I use very few words. I know I am hurting him.

*

David brings a Franciscan monk with him to Thanksgiving. The monk is a stereotype. He looks like Friar Tuck from that 1970s Robinhood cartoon. He wears a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. He is cheerful and round. He eats two slices of pie. I want to make fun of him, to shout to everyone, “There’s a monk at our table!” But he is kind and we take a photo together. I rest my arm on his shoulder and smile.

*

My friend Betony posts an Instagram of her brother on Facebook. His hair is brown, wind-whipped and frozen in place, and he wears a button-up denim shirt. He’s smiling. He looks like Betony, especially around the eyes. His fingers are curled around a tiny plastic figure. The caption says, “Love means making your brother pose with a Twilight doll.” I laugh when I realize her brother looks exactly like the miniature Robert Pattinson. They are wearing the same clothes. The hair, the complexion, it is all the same. Then, suddenly, I feel like crying.

*

David will propose to a girl this year. There will be a ceremony at the Catholic church where she lives and teaches. I am not invited. The news I receive about David never comes from David. I heard she has an extraordinary amount of siblings. 16? 17? Aren’t they all girls? That can’t be true. David holds signs outside of abortion clinics. He tells me he is praying for my children. David believes I should stay at home, but I can’t stay there. I can’t believe in God. We seldom speak, there’s too much to avoid. David will marry this girl and move back east, and there is nothing left to recover.

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