In Our Dreams

Today should have been my first day of teaching in 2015.  My kids should have been returning to their elementary classrooms with tales of holiday gatherings and showing off their wearable holiday gifts.  Instead, we were 3000 miles from home saying goodbye to my grandfather who passed away the week before Christmas.

The death wasn’t a surprise.  I wrote about his failing health last November.  And the last two weeks have really been a combined family reunion-vacation-funeral trip.  The majority of my very large family is in California, and we get out her so seldom that even when we’re here for a difficult event like this, there are many new memories to be made at the same time.  And of course my children are just six and seven years old; two weeks of grieving just isn’t in the cards given their youth.

Last weekend, my dad and his wife hosted a small gathering of friends, including some of my high school friends.  They’ll typically do this during our visits so we can see a bunch of friends and family at once.  During the festivities while I was catching up with friends, one of my dad’s neighbors leaned over to me and said, “Does anyone even miss your grandfather?”  I was a little taken aback by the comment, and after a deep breath, I assured him that my grandfather was missed deeply.  The neighbor just shrugged his shoulders and gestured to the room, as if to suggest that he certainly couldn’t tell given the context.

Today, a few dozen family and friends gathered at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery for veterans where my grandfather’s ashes are being interred.  As my immediate family of four headed toward the outdoor pavilion where the military send off would take place, I fought back the tears and held my son tightly to my shoulders.  My daughter was walking with my husband, and after looking at me, she said to my husband, “Poppy, why aren’t you sad?”

“I am sad,” he told her.

“You don’t look sad,” she replied.

“People show sadness in different ways.  You can’t always tell how people feel based on the way they look,” he explained.

And this was definitely a sad occasion.  My grandfather as a great and amazing man, and I’m so proud to have been a part of his family and a benefactor of his parenting–both directly and through his son, my dad.  Prior to the ceremony, my kids were fighting like normal, which means just shy of bodily harm.  I counted to ten and dropped down to their level.

“This is a really hard day for Daddy, and I really need you and Poppy here with me.  If you can’t behave, Poppy will have to take you out, and I can’t do this by myself.  I’m really sad and having the three of you near me helps me feel better.  Do you understand?”  They nodded silently, and a few minutes later in the car, my daughter was complaining that her brother was looking at her funny.  I wasn’t sure they’d make it, and I worried I wouldn’t be ready to forgive them for being so young any time soon.

Then during the ceremony, my daughter clung to me while the volley shots were fired, and she brought my hand to her face lovingly while “Taps” was played.  When we were seated for the few short words shared about my grandfather’s life, my son climbed into my lap and hugged me as tightly as he ever has.  The entire thing was overwhelming for me–saying goodbye to my grandfather, hearing some of the wonderful memories about him, the majesty of a military funeral, and feeling the loving pressure of my family so close to me.  When it was over, I turned to my son with tears in my eyes and saw my emotional state mirrored in his own.  Through his own tears, he said, “I’m just so sad Daddy.”  We held each other and just cried for a bit before he shared some of his tiny hugs with his great-grandmother and my dad.

My aunt had printed up my grandfather’s obituary with a few color photos on it.  My daughter noticed something she thought might cheer up her brother: “That’s you in the picture!”  We looked, and sure enough, the photo of my grandad had been cropped from a photo with my son.  We could just make out the corner of my son’s short afro in the bottom of the frame.  He smiled, proud to feel so permanently connected his great-grandfather.

In the car, we all talked a bit about our feelings.  My son told us, “I’m just so sad because I used to dream about my great-grandfather all the time, and now I can’t do that any more.”

“Of course you can buddy.  That’s where he’ll live forever.  When you miss him and you want to see him, you can do it in your dreams.”  This apparently made an impression on him, because during the reception he mustered the strength to get up in front of the crowd and say so into the microphone.

I can count the number of times my son met my grandfather on one hand, yet he feels connected to him in this totally tangible way.  I’m sure it’s got something to do with his status as an adoptee, like he’s subconsciously clinging to the things that validate his permanence in this family.  And that’s something that my grandfather did for him.  The two of them are separated by 82 years in age, but it’s comforting to see the impact his presence had on the next generation of this family.

It’s something I’m sure I’ll talk over with my grandpa in my dreams tonight.

Why Blog?

After sleeping for barely four hours last night on the Red Eye home, I’m not sure I have the stamina for a full post tonight, but I’m determined to continue with day 11 of NaBloPoMo.  Instead, I’ll follow up yesterday’s post on my childhood home with a journal entry that I wrote the last day I was in that house:

Mom died six days ago.  This has easily been the most difficult week of my life.  Yes it’s cliche, but I still can’t believe she’s gone.  There is this terrible mixture of pain and anger and grief and relief that is just so hard to cope with.  I’m sitting at her dining room table as I write this.  Her house has been mostly emptied by the family.  The realtor will do the rest.  I fly back to Boston tomorrow and I so totally fear my return to “normal life.”  For the past week my time has been filled with making arrangements for the services and the estate that I’ve only had time for minor breakdowns here and there.  But at home it’s going to be a different story.  I fear that the grief will wash over me and take up permanent residence.  Deep down I know that permanency is not really a reality, but I do know it’s going to be very difficult.

I bought this journal this morning because over the past two days while going through my mom’s house with the family we found three of her own journals.  As difficult as it was to read through them, it gave me tremendous insight into who she was and how her mind operated.  The biggest thing was how she reacted to issues in her relationships with my dad.  I see so much of her in me, and that was an aspect of her life I really wasn’t privy to as it was happening.  Anyhow, I do want there to be similar records of me and my thoughts for my family, so I’m going to try to journal a lot more.  My goal is ten minutes a day, but we’ll see how that goes when I’m home and there are papers to grade and the baby is crying!  I used to journal a lot when I was a kid, but this somehow will be different.  I just hope it helps sort out my thoughts most of all.

Okay, first off all, I need to get over the fact that I sound like a maudlin teenager; all that’s missing is the “Dear Diary” opening.  (I was 30 when I wrote this.)  Still, I wasn’t writing with the idea that anyone would ever read it, so I’ll cut myself some slack.

I remember sitting at that table writing that entry and thinking it would be the last time I’d ever be in that house again, and I thought I had written more about that feeling.  Instead when I look back now, I see that the loss was still so raw and the pain too fresh; I worried about life without her in it, especially since I had spent the past few years so hyper-focused on her disease.  Now, years later, I still feel her loss as strongly as ever, but the distance allows me a bit more clarity to think shift the focus a bit, which I think results in posts like yesterday.  What I do like about looking back at this journal entry is the idea I had of committing these happenings in my life to some sort of written record.  And I’m positive that goes beyond mere ego.  Personally, I want my kids to have the same feeling of understanding I had in reading my mom’s journals; when they’re older, these posts will give them an authentic accounting of the experiences that influenced our parenting choices.  Publicly, these posts share aspects of my life and my family’s lives with the people in our social circles who I think should know all of this, the stuff that for whatever reason I’ve never had an opportunity to detail to those people.  Then beyond those people who actually know us in real life, detailing our experiences helps some people know they’re not alone.  And perhaps this will elicit some empathy in us all, particularly the understanding that, as the amazing Elaine Stritch often said, “We all have our bag of rocks.”

If you don’t know who she is, you aren’t living.

My Childhood Home

I drove by my childhood home today.  I only get back to California every few years or so these days, and in the years since my mother’s death and the sale of that house, part of my pilgrimage to the Golden State typically involves a drive by check in on the old house.  It’s not a remarkable house by any means, but it was the house I grew up in so it maintains a special place in the nostalgia of my past.

My parents split up when I was in my mid-20s as a result of my mother’s drinking.  My dad found Al-Anon, and my mother found that rock bottom wasn’t actually rock bottom.  My mom was supposed to be sobering up, so when she seemed to be subconsciously flaunting her cup full of vodka, my dad moved out, leaving her alone in the house.  After that, things quickly deteriorated.  Although they both tried half-heartedly for a reconciliation, my mom’s disease made it very clear that there was no way the marriage would survive.  My dad bought a new house, took half the furniture, and moved on with his life.  And my mom withered away in the house that once helped raise a family.

During that year after the break up and prior to the official divorce, my mom spent Christmas in rehab.  I had gone out there for Thanksgiving, and my parents came together for a pseudo-family holiday, but when I spent the following day shopping with my dad, I came home to a mother who could barely stand up.  She was so drunk that she could barely speak, and when I finally called her on it, she broke into hysterics, crying, “Please move back home!”  The next day, she agreed to go to rehab.  I got her checked in before I went back to Massachusetts, and I was there waiting for her when she got out.  We went out for a special dinner that night, and she ordered the steak with a wine reduction sauce.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Oh please, all the alcohol cooks out.”

I ignored the obvious signs and left a few days later.  We talked on the phone regularly, and she did a great job hiding from me that she was still drinking.  My uncle found her one day a few weeks later passed out in her bedroom.  He walked out, vowing never to find her like that again.  Part of my mom’s exit strategy from rehab was that she enter a halfway house if she fell off the wagon, something the social worker wanted her to do anyway when leaving and something my mother was vehemently opposed to.  She simply wanted to go home.  The three of us signed a totally-not-legal contract agreeing that we would try it my mom’s way, and if she failed, she’d try it the social worker’s way.

After the incident with my uncle, I worked as hard as I could from 3000 miles away to get my mom into the halfway house she promised she’d go to.  She wasn’t ready to stop drinking though, and rather than admit that, she convinced me that she was attending an out patient rehab program at the local hospital.  For the next several months, she lied to me about the days she hadn’t actually spent at the hospital, making up stories about working with counselors and other addicts to kick her disease.  At the time, gay marriage had just become the law of the land in Massachusetts, and I was admittedly too preoccupied planning my wedding that summer to question the validity of her story.

When the truth did finally come out, it was only a few weeks before the wedding.  I didn’t know if I could stand to have my mother at what was supposed to be the happiest day of my life after she had been lying to me so blatantly for months.  “Well, I’m coming to Boston even if you don’t let me in,” she said.  “I have my airline tickets, and I’ll just sit on the curb outside while you two get married.”  In the end, I yielded, and I made sure she knew that I had informed the staff at the wedding venue to escort her out if she was seen drinking.  Thankfully she made it through the day totally sober, and because of that, it really was the happiest day of my life.

Then she went home and things got worse.  She got into more than one car accident, and spent a few weekends in jail to serve time on a DUI.  For our next trip to California, I chose to stay with my dad.  We visited my mom, and the house was in shambles.  She’d accumulated several pets over the previous year, including a big Maine Coon cat, two Golden Retrievers, and a canary.  All of the animals were getting fat, and the smell of pet urine hung in the air.  My mom had never replaced the furniture my dad took with him, and the house was starting to look like a drug flop house.  It literally brought me to tears.  I vowed to my husband that I wouldn’t set foot in that house again while my mom was sick.

During the next few trips, the standard protocol became meeting my mom at a restaurant for lunch.  She usually took a cab, and had the driver keep the meter running while we ate.  The year before she died, we took a trip to California with our new baby daughter.  I wanted my mother to meet her new granddaughter so badly, but I couldn’t bring our baby into that house.

When my mom stepped out of the cab at the agreed upon restaurant, I was shocked by how frail she looked.  She couldn’t walk on her own and took steps so gingerly that it was clear she could barely stand up straight.  She wasn’t drunk, but she wasn’t herself.  Her hair was thin and sickly, and her hands shook uncontrollably.  She was 57.

A few months later, I couldn’t get a hold of her on the phone and sent local police to check on her.  They found her barely responsive and called an ambulance.  She spent a few hallucinogenic weeks in the hospital while they weaned her off the alcohol, and then we transferred her to a skilled nursing facility where she would hopefully regain her strength.  I was flying back and forth from Massachusetts to California to make these arrangements, including going to court to become my mother’s conservator, and I spent hours on the phone each day when I was home on the East Coast.  Some neighbors had agreed to take the animals, and I finally prepped myself to re-enter the house.

It wasn’t pretty.  It was clear that my mom had been living in some pretty awful conditions.  It wasn’t the type of squalor you see on an episode of Hoarders, but the evidence of the animals run amok was still there and I could tell that my mom spent just about every hour of the day plopped on the sofa in front of the television.  I cleaned up a little bit, finding strength in the reality that my mom would likely never return to this house.  The plan at that time was that if my mom got better, we’d move her to Massachusetts.  It was still very difficult being in that house, but it seemed like we’d hit rock bottom finally, and maybe the house would finally return to the happy childhood home it once was for me.

Then a few weeks later, she was gone.  She had a medical emergency that sent her to the hospital, and she faded incredibly quickly after that.  Thankfully, when I got the call in Massachusetts that things were falling apart and that I needed to get on a plane, her brothers came to her side so she wouldn’t be alone.  I bought a plane ticket and headed to Logan Airport.  I was in the parking lot when my uncle called me to tell my mother was dead.

My husband, my aunt, and my dad helped me go through the house.  We packed up what little there was and divided things into piles: one for shipping to our house in Massachusetts and the other, far larger pile, for donation.  I spent the next week or so planning and executing the funeral and tying up loose ends.  I found a realtor who would take on cleaning the house up and getting it ready for sale, and I prepared for my return trip to my new home where my husband and daughter were waiting.

The day I was scheduled to fly home–to my new home on the East Coast–I sat in the house where I grew up, the house where my parents’ marriage fell apart, the house where my mother slowly drank herself to death.  I couldn’t believe I would never again set foot in this house without being invited in by a stranger, and I savored the moment in tears.

It’s been nearly seven years since that day, and I still feel a pull towards that house whenever I’m in town.  I need to see it, and when I drive by, I secretly hope to see some happy family playing in the front yard so that I can know that someone’s new story is being written there.  I’ve never seen anyone there, but the house looks great, well manicured yard, great paint job.  Some day, I plan on knocking on the door with my own kids so that I can politely ask the new owners if I can show my children my old bedroom.  Maybe that’s creepy, or maybe it’s just what people who come from broken homes do to show their kids where they come from.

Family Steps

My sense of family was skewed at a very early age.  My parents split up when I was barely out of diapers, and my biological dad was never a part of my life thereafter.  My mom remarried a few years later, bringing a stepfather into my life that would become the man I call my dad today.  With their marriage, I inherited not only a new father, but a whole new step-family.

This family never made me feel like a step-anything.  My dad is the oldest in a line of five white children, raised Catholic (my dad now refers to himself as a “recovering Catholic”), but even five kids and church doctrine couldn’t keep my new grandparents together.  When I came into the picture, they had already been long divorced, and since my own biological family was far from nuclear, it all seemed perfectly normal to me.

The patriarch of this new-to-me family, my dad’s father, has always been incredibly generous and kind to me.  My parents must have been newlyweds the first time my new grandfather took me on a skiing trip, just the two of us.  I remember dedicating a story to him in third grade about our adventures on the slopes; I still have it in the attic somewhere, and when I come upon it from time to time, I can’t help but sit down and read it from cover to cover, my eight-year-old prose detailing accompanied by rudimentary sketches in magic marker.

When my grandpa remarried, his new wife quickly became part of my happier childhood memories.  The ceremony took place during some high stakes football game, and I can hear my father complaining about the timing.  He smuggled a handheld Sony “watchman” into the reception so he could support their union while also rooting for his favorite team.  For me though, it was one of the first times I got to share in the joy that is a BIG family wedding.  My new step-step-grandma brought her own slew of kids to the now incredibly extended family.  Perhaps it’s a hefty bout of nostalgia that makes me reminisce about that day in particular, but I look back at photos and feel so completely included in this new family.

When I decided to run away to the East Coast for college, my grandpa booked a flight to Boston to tour my new school during my senior year.  In the winter.  It was cold.  Very cold.  We walked the Freedom Trail.  All three miles of it.  In the snow.  In March.  He was a headstrong warrior, and a kind one that wanted me to know all that my new home could offer.

Years later, when I was fully out of the closet, he and his wife extended their sense of family to the man who is now my husband.  They included him on lists of family birthdays long before we were officially married, and they treated him with the kindness that I remember so quickly tied me to this new extended family so long ago.

When we welcomed our daughter home from the hospital, they rejoiced with us, and when our son became a part of our family, they urged us to stop having kids.  With nearly a dozen children between them and their previous marriages, they knew a thing or two about large families.  “Remember, you can always get a table for four at a restaurant; anything more and you’ll be waiting for an hour,” my grandpa sagely advised.

They always send the kids a gift for Christmas and each of their birthdays even though they only get to physically see them once every few years.  My kids’ pictures have always been included on a collage of great-grandchildren’s photos that has adorned the wall of their home, and the last time I was there, I was struck by the generosity of this act.  The black and brown faces of the two children who have become my entire world sit next to the white faces of their distant cousins in that framed set of photos, and the sense of equality is profound for me as a father of two children of color, but also as a gay man of color myself, a man who entered this family only as an extension of my mother and who could have easily been relegated to secondary status in comparison to the other grandkids.  It fills my heart with tremendous joy to think about the ways that my family has been included in this truly modern structure.

And now my grandfather is very sick.  And he’s 3000 miles away.  We’ve made plans for the entire family to visit at Christmas, but that may be too late.  My own kids are probably too young to really understand the imminent loss, but I’m already mourning the future where my kids will have one less person who loves them in this world.  One less person that ties them to a foundation of family that everything in their world will tell them isn’t as strong as the ties of biology.  To counterbalance that approaching sense of grief, I want to celebrate his life, and cataloging these feelings and memories here helps a bit.  I know it will also help me find some answers when my kids ask me to tell them about my family–both sooner and later with different levels of maturity and understanding.  When that happens, I will continue to speak honestly and openly, as I do now, about the people in our lives who understand that our family’s diversity should be a source of inclusion and equity, and my grandpa will always be an example of how that principle can be put into practice.

The Loss of a Fantasy

It’s been a few months since I’ve updated my blog.  The summer was a whirlwind of excitement for our family, and the transition into the new school year is always frenetic.  My list of potential blog topics is a mile long: watching old movie musicals with the kids this summer and discussing the demeaning characterization of people of color; confronting the local Boy Scouts organization about their patronage of the incredibly homophobic national organization; internalizing the continued insanity that is our country’s legalized murder of unarmed black men in Missouri this summer…the list goes on and on and I’m sure I’ll get to each of them in due time.  Tonight however, we were dealt a new blow and I’m wondering how we’ll work this one out.

Last May, our daughter made a Mother’s Day gift for her birthmom in school.  I wrote a little something about her experiences here.  We didn’t get around to mailing it until the end of August though.  Our daughter has a pretty limited interaction with her birthmom.  We have a PO Box in another town where her mom can send cards and the occasional gift, and we sadly typically only hear from her when she’s incarcerated, which is far more often than anyone would like.  The birthmom’s mother has always been a bit more consistent with her cards and letters, sending items a few times a year and always sending Christmas and birthday gifts.  It’s through this maternal grandmother that we typically reach out to our daughter’s mom, sending letters and photos a few times a year, and last month, we took our daughter to the post office so she could mail her Mother’s Day gift to her mom care of her grandmother.

We only check the PO Box a half dozen times a year, and tonight my husband picked up the mail.  The package we mailed in August had been returned, marked “deceased.”  A quick Google search showed that our daughter’s grandma had in fact passed away in mid-August.

Now we have to find a way to explain this to a little girl, nearly eight years old, who finds tremendous joys in receiving letters from her grandma.  She actually talks about her mom and grandma often, saying how much she loves them and how she wishes we could all be together.  We’ve always held out the hope that someday a meeting might be possible, and I myself am pretty devastated that it won’t ever happen.

Our daughter is typically a pretty happy person, but she’s moved to tremendous tears when confronted with the type of things that make most adults swoon.  When we broke the news that a dear friend’s dog has passed away, a dog she only saw a few times a year but that she loved to play with during our visits, she cried for nearly half an hour.  I know she’s going to take the news of her grandmother’s dead particularly hard, and as she grows and matures she will grapple with the realization that this death represents a pretty significant loss–the loss of a loved one, the loss of a genetic connection, the loss of an opportunity.

We’ll try to reach out to our daughter’s birthmom; perhaps the funeral home where the services were held will have a current address, but I worry that she hasn’t reached out to us for quite some time now, even though her correspondence while she was in prison was always fairly positive and promising.  In the mean time, my husband and I will find a day soon when we can break this news to our daughter and help her work through some incredibly complicated feelings that would be difficult for someone three times her age to endure.  Through my web search, I found the site of grandma’s burial.  I imagine we’ll tell her what little we know, and offer to drive her to the grave site where she can say goodbye, both to the woman and the dream.  Maybe this can become one of our new family traditions, placing flowers on a headstone for a woman who we never had the chance to truly know but who each of loves in a very unique way.  Until we can do this though, we’ll have to maintain the status quo, feigning the ignorance that was our reality until today.

That’s So Drunk

A few years ago in my school, I was part of a group of openly gay teachers who organized “A Day without ‘That’s So Gay,'” in which we brought awareness to students about the ubiquitous term.  At the time, students were saying it a lot.

My mom told me I couldn’t go to the party this weekend.

That’s so gay.

You’re homework is to read chapter six tonight.

That’s so gay.

I got the lead in the musical!

That’s so gay. (Okay, maybe this is an appropriate use.)

When I heard it, I usually called students on it.  I remember at my previous school, the building was literally falling apart.  A ceiling tile fell out during one of my classes, and this girl screamed, started laughing, and said, “That’s so gay.”  I asked her in front of the entire class, “So what exactly was either homosexual or extremely happy about that ceiling tile falling down?”  Everyone laughed, and I left it at that.  I’m sure it didn’t change any habits that day, but that’s all I was ready to do at that moment in my career.

So a few years ago, a colleague of mine spearheaded this “Day Without ‘That’s So Gay'”; we held a homeroom session where teachers read a blurb about the reason the phrase might be offensive, equating the word “gay” with “stupid” or “dumb” or “annoying.”  We supplied some talking points in response to the typical response: “Well we don’t mean it like that.”  We talked about the history around other colloquial expressions, like when “Jew” has been used as a verb or when I was growing up how we said everything was “retarded,” and the ways in which the normalization of those terms can hurt people who are already marginalized.  I know in my homeroom class, we had a great conversation about intent versus impact.  While the intention of saying “That’s so gay” might not be to offend someone or to equate being homosexual with being stupid or annoying, the impact on people who are gay or who love someone who might be pretty awful.  I opened up to my homeroom, telling them that every time I heard it, it hurt me.  I told them that the big difference between being gay and most other minority groups is that you usually can’t tell who is a part of that group by simply looking at them, and therefore, you typically can’t tell who you might be offending.  “I know you don’t mean it to offend, but now that you know it does, what does it say about you if you keep on saying it?”  My little group of ten or so students seemed to be coming around, and while I’m not aware of how the other discussions went in other homerooms, I know that today I really don’t hear it very often in the halls of my school.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday when I heard someone make a similar comment on a subject about which they are clearly ignorant.  I was spending the day with other teachers at a delightful professional development workshop focusing on dystopian literature.  During our discussion of the commentary that authors who write in the genre are making about our current society, we of course brought the conversation around to power in society: the haves and the have nots.  The former constantly fearful of becoming the latter; the latter often pushed down by the former.  And that’s when Little Miss Contrary decided to pipe up.  She is a high school English teacher who had spent the two days of our workshop saying how much she hated dystopian literature, contradicting our interpretations of the novels, and refusing to answer questions about what kind of books she does like.  When talking about the power in society, she brought the conversation around to economics, and went on and on about her sad little son’s inability to find a job:

Don’t blame him for your lazy son.

“He just graduated from college, and he’s been trying to so hard to find a job, but this economy is just awful.  And then I see people like this Philip Seymour whatever who has all the money in the world and he just pumps himself full of drugs with it.”

I did a double take.  Was she really linking her son’s job search to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death the day before, the death of a wonderfully talented actor who had succumbed to an addition he had been battling for more than two decades?  How did one have anything to do with the other.

I immediately piped up, “Well, I’m not sure that the economy has anything to do with Hoffman’s drug and alcohol addiction.”

“Well, I mean, he just spent all that money on drugs.  He has no idea what other people are going through.”

Another teacher joined my crusade, “How about Justin Bieber?  That might be a much better example of what you’re talking about.”

Little Miss Contrary simply huffed and rolled her eyes.  A few minutes later during a break, she turned to the woman sitting next to her and said, “You know, I really don’t blame that Justin Bieber.  He’s too young to know better.”

This seemingly idiotic conversation hurt me far more than it should have.  Just like “That’s so gay,” when I hear people talk with such contempt for people struggling with addiction, I am reminded of the years and years of struggle my own mother endured at the hands of her alcohol addiction, a disease that eventually claimed her life six years ago.  And it hurts.  It hurts that people would think of my mother’s death with a huff and an eye roll like this woman did of Philip Seymour Hoffman, like she surely did a few years ago when Amy Winehouse died, or any of the other high profile addiction-related deaths in recent years.

What probably stings the most is that I went through a period of ignorance myself about my mother’s sickness.  I remember yelling at her once, “Why don’t you just stop?  I don’t understand why you don’t just stop drinking!”  I was in my twenties and my mother’s functional alcoholism that she’d lived with for most of my life had just turned gone over the precipice; she was often belligerently inebriated, had a few drunken car accidents under her belt, and had recently endured the demise of her 20+ year marriage.  She had been to rehab and back, and nothing seemed to be taking.  Like Little Miss Contrary, I didn’t understand why this woman who had enough money to live comfortably, who had friends and family who loved her, who once had a vibrant and exciting life filled with joy and happiness was now consistently choosing to drink her life away.

Even when she died after laying in a hospital bed for nearly two months, fading in and out of reality as her liver slowly stopped functioning, I didn’t understand.  At that point, I’d done all the reading, gone to counseling, attended Al-Anon, and logically I understood that my mother simply couldn’t stop.  She had a disease and the only real treatment that is available to addicts–counseling from professional and support from other addicts–didn’t work for her.  As a person myself who is able to say, “I’m only have one glass of wine tonight” and actually only have one glass of wine tonight, it didn’t make sense to me that someone could say that and then be unable to stop drinking four, five, six glasses of wine tonight.  It’s taken me several years beyond my mother’s death to come to terms with the fact that I really can be no more angry with her for dying from alcoholism than I could be if she had died from cancer.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this week reminded me of all of this.  A good friend who has struggled with these issues herself immediately wrote to me with the news.  We had worked with him in New York briefly about fifteen years ago when he was doing some theater productions, so we felt a bit more connected to his departure than some of the other recent celebrity deaths.  Little Miss Contrary’s sentiments about his choice to inject himself with drugs shows the limitations of her understanding, limitations that are certainly the majority in our world.  To people like her, Hoffman’s overdose is another indication of the self-destructive decadence of the uber-wealthy, and while his tax bracket may have made the instruments of his death more readily available than others, this is a disease that doesn’t check salaries before attacking its victims.  Hoffman left behind three kids, and even not knowing really knowing him, I’m positive he wasn’t sitting in that apartment thinking, “What am I going to do with all of this money?”

A good read.

Loving someone with an addiction is probably one of the only things that will help perpetuate a better understanding of the disease, and in my personal experience, sometimes it’s moving beyond that love when the addict leaves our lives that really brings that understanding.  Sharon Rush suggests in her book Loving Across the Color Lines that being a white woman who loves her black adopted daughter taught her to see the realities of the racial divide in this country, and I think this is true of the significant strides in gay rights over the past two decades as well.  When a loved one comes out to us and we do not allow the knowledge to affect that love, we begin to understand the implications of subtle heterosexism that exists in our society, and we maybe speak up when we hear a kid say “That’s so gay.”

Likewise, when we love an addict, and particularly when we lose that person, we come to accept the realities of this disease.  It’s not knowledge that is easily come by, and it’s not a lesson I want anyone in my life to really endure.  At the same time, a shared collective understanding might provide a safer place for us all, one filled with empathy, especially for the victims that succumb to addiction and the ones that are left behind.

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

Today on what would have been your 64th birthday I want to tell you some things.  I don’t want to focus on the addiction that took you away from me, that kept you from ever knowing your grandson and only having the briefest glimpse of your granddaughter.  I don’t want to dwell on the lies and pain that plagued our relationship during the last few years of your troubled life.  I don’t want to enumerate for you the ways in which the dysfunction of my childhood has caused me to struggle through my adulthood.  We spent far too much time rehashing each of those items in minute detail while you were still alive, and now I realize much of that to be time squandered before I realized how little there was left.  Today I’d like to tell you about some of the wonderful things you taught me, lessons that are only now being revealed to me as a father and a husband.

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 4.51.49 PMFirst, I find strength in laughing with my children.  Your sense of humor, your ability to laugh at yourself, the way we laughed so hard at the silliest things that we couldn’t breathe, these are all joys that I try to bring to my children.  My daughter has a laugh that can fill the room, and my son’s impish grin helps us forget all the familial strife that a five-year-old boy can cause.  When the normal pushing and pulling of parenting bring me to the edge, I try to let my kids’ smiles return me to normalcy because in light of all our troubles in the final years of your life, I still remember most vividly the times you and I would laugh together.  And the last time I saw you, just a few weeks before you died, when you could barely hold your head upright and your failing liver caused you to fade in and out of reality, your smile at the sight of our then one-year-old daughter is the last image of you that I will always keep in my mind.  I remember trying to talk with you about the gravity of your prognosis, and you smiled and told me, “Just slow down.”  I think you knew that your time was limited; you were done dwelling on the darkness, and your smile let in some of the light.

You also taught me to be honest about my unabashed love and passion for my children.  You wrestled your emotional demons for all of your 58 years I know, but you never let your struggles keep you from conveying to your only son in some way how much you loved him.  Though it seemed time and again that you so often chose the bottle over me, I understand now that your disease and your love for me were two mutually exclusive aspects of your identity, although the former sometimes cast a long shadow over the latter.  Now, when in the throes of some operatic struggle with my kids, I always take the time to calm myself down and explain my feelings.  Even at their young ages, they seem to understand that when Daddy sometimes yells or slams a cupboard or asks them to leave him alone, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love them, especially because when the storms have subsided inside me I sit down with them, hold them close, and talk through how I dealt with my feelings, and how I should have dealt with them.  I remember one of the only times I screamed, “I hate you!”  I was an early adolescent and it erupted forth during some stupid argument; once I had calmed down, I wanted to act like nothing had happened, but you sat me down to explain how hurt you were.  A lesser parent might have been hesitant to reveal to a child just how much pain can be caused with such a simple word, but your honesty and tears that day have helped me understand the importance of being true and open with my feelings for my kids, both the good and the bad.

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 4.54.11 PMAnd one of the strangest gifts you provided me was an opportunity to connect with these two amazing adopted children in a way that is simultaneously wonderful and awful.  Because each of them had parents that grappled with the very disease that took your life, I can empathize and identify with them in a way that has already given us the foundation for some honest, difficult, and healthy conversations.  Even though they are young, they know what took you away from us, and they know their own mothers suffered from similar sicknesses.  As they grow, the conversations will be more difficult as my husband and I fill in the gaps for them and they begin to see the vast differences in the choices each of our mothers made, but for now we have a similar vocabulary around the language of loss.  I’d give anything to have you here and healthy and to take away all those years of drunken victimization, but since this is the way things ended I’m glad that some good can come from that loss as I help my children navigate their budding awareness of their own identities and background.

I still struggle with you being gone Mom.  The constant ache isn’t ever present like it was in the beginning, but when I stop to think about you on days like today, the pain feels as raw as it did when you first left me.  As I grow older and I see my children change and mature before me, seemingly instantaneously at times, I come to know more and more of the sacrifices you made and the ways in which you made me the man I am now.  Today I celebrate all the good that came from your life, which includes the two grandchildren that you are helping shape even in your absence.  I’ll admit that I still fight my own inner-battles as a result of our pained relationship, but today I’m not going to focus on that.  Today is a day to remember your lovely smile, your unbridled emotions, and your tremendous strength in spite of your fate.