Tag Archives: family

Bounce Back

I’ve been trying for months to spit out some words. I have started and then failed to complete any number of thoughts in a way that would be, best case scenario, marginally intelligible to readers. I had more or less given up on the idea of creating useful or insightful content, primarily because every concept I entertained eventually slipped through my sieve-like mind. The mental fog has been so great, I haven’t been able to string words together, let alone thoughts.

There were times when the desperation felt so great, I didn’t want to write at all. I crawled over each task on my belly and every word I attempted to write felt like mountain in a long, desolate range than stretched as far as I could see in either direction. Naively, I believed I was just tired, overwhelmed with work and the stress of raising a toddler. I didn’t see how my mental health was spiraling out of my control until I was on the precipice of a crisis.

The signs of a major depression are known to me and have been for a long time, but I still managed to take the sadness, the intolerance, the anger and loss of interest for granted. Recently, when my behavior escalated into full-blown mania, I couldn’t pretend that I was getting by anymore. Hard to feel healthy and grounded when your mind is propelling you straight into the sun.

I’ve been telling myself to that I need to bounce back. Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on. Just get up off of the floor. Stop doing this — get. up.

Every day I am trying very hard to be here.

I recognize that there will always be times that life leaves you in places of despair. This time, in attempts to insulate from those places and those people,  I chose to withdraw back into myself, knowing it was a risk. But I have tried to withdraw in the direction of the Right Things: my husband, my child, my work, my tribe. I have been trying to care for myself the way a mother would, because I know that I need caring for.

“You have to find a mother inside of yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still need to find this part of ourselves inside.”
– Sue Monk Kidd, from The Secret Life of Bees

I am searching for that part of me inside that is going to push me to bounce back in the way that I must. The woman who will nurture me and encourage me to try something new. To turn away from relationships and loves that no longer feed my soul. I am trying to identify that voice inside that says, “Get up. Breathe. You can do this. Don’t sell yourself short. Just breathe. Breathe, and go eat a good meal, and wash your hair, and then get in bed early. Get up in the morning at a reasonable time. Go to work. Do your best like you always do. Work, and work on you. And work on those things that are important to you. Brush yourself and the naysayers right off. Trust that you are a good mother. Trust that you know what you’re doing is right, because you know what’s right for you. Leave fair-weather friends behind, and then forgive them. And then forgive yourself, because you are worthy of being loved just as you are, which is just as I made you. Circle back in on yourself when you need to, but grow. And live. And love. And at the end of every day, let your final take-away be this: My darling girl, look how far you have come.

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Crisis

Crisis. An interesting word when you hear it or speak it over and over again to yourself in a short period of time, am I in crisis? I am in a crisis. A mental health crisis, meaning, a moment in time where I am a potential danger to myself, if not others. A moment in which my ability to make sound decisions has come into question. A crisis of consciousness — as in I have TOO MUCH OF IT on account of the fact that I very much want to not exist anymore, not now, not in this moment. I don’t want to be here anymore.

The first year after we lost my stepfather, I would wake up in the apartment that I shared with my mom, his wife, where we lived together still surrounded by his things and when she was in crisis I would sit with her until it passed. In the year after her death, I would be in significant moments of crisis as my boyfriend slumbered peacefully in the bed beside me as I sunk to floor in the cold moonlight and desperately tried to make peace with the sudden terrible desire to die, hating him a little bit for being oblivious to the tempest raging in the room beside him. And now I am here: hours post-triggering event, still slowly circling the drain of my consciousness just waiting to fall off the edge into what? I don’t know. It never occurred to me to care aside from my literary sensibilities warning me away from the phrase “into oblivion” — if you must be crazy, try not be be crazy and also a cliche. Make no mistake, though, that is what I want: nothingness. Perhaps not forever, but just until the storm, this “crisis” passes.

Even if the crisis never passes because it is ME I am the critical component here and the harbinger of my own descent into madness. I am the failure. I am the reason for my own sadness.

I just want to hurt in a way that I can see and touch. A pain that I can feel on the inside and the outside. I want to grasp something tangible and say THIS. This hurts, it is injured and it gives me pain and because I can touch it with my hands not only am I positive that it is real and that it is there, but I am also confident that it will heal someday. It’s a strange sort of drive that makes a person want to harm themselves — mostly, I think, it is the innate desire to have one’s insides match their outsides.

In the middle of the storm, I recorded a few of my racing thoughts. The state of crisis lasted for a few days, which felt bizarre at the time. I think that I have often considered a “crisis” to be a singular moment of tragedy, a precipitating event for a Before and an After. However, after this crisis was triggered, I saw that it bloomed into a complete mental and physical state that took several days to subside. Days during which I didn’t know exactly where I was, except for the few brief moments of clarity and presentness that punctuated the dark.

I caused myself physical harm in that time. Self-harm has been a constant blip on my radar for years, but it’s been manageable. During my crisis, the desire to self-harm bowled me over, seducing me with promises of equilibrium. Where I once felt that I was spinning out of control, my focus narrowed and concentrated on a single point in time, a singular feeling of physical pain that obliterates all other sensation from my mind. In that moment, it was a welcome reprieve, but in the bright light of day I was disappointed and ashamed of myself — not only because I had resorted to self-harm, but because I had allowed myself to be triggered and suffer a crisis at all.

I like to envision myself as fairly invincible. I frequently imagine myself in horrible situations and think myself through the step-by-step reactions I would deploy to control and ultimately survive the situation. In my own mind, I am capable of withstanding absolutely anything. In life, however, I find myself wanting. It becomes clear to me that I am not, in fact, invincible.. I am actually vulnerable and weak, and in many ways, defunct.

I can’t get pregnant. My body seems to have forgotten how to make itself a host for a new life. Despite trying for over a year, we’ve come no closer to growing our family, and I know that it’s my fault. I can’t get pregnant and my heart is broken. This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I think back to all those times as a teenager, my girlfriends and I taking turns with the awful possibility that we had gotten in trouble. Too young to be mothers, so we prayed and prayed please God don’t let me be pregnant. Now all the manic energy that went into counting the days until we bled has been translated into a deep emotional clenching trying to hold it in and support a life that we are desperate to give birth to. There was a genetic legacy that I was rather depending on, that I have since been discouraged from cashing in. None of the women in my family have been infertile; at least, not that I’m aware of. One of the last things my mother ever told me what was a good mother I would be someday, speculating how easy for me it would be to get pregnant once I was ready, and I believed her, of course, because mother knows best.

So now a new crisis: a crisis of faith. Ever the believer, ever the hopeless optimistic, I’ve not yet given up the dream. But it has cost me no small measure of peace to hold on with such determination, as if I could, by sheer force of will, make myself conceive. It’s ridiculous. I am no Mary and there is no reason to expect Divine Intervention. After all, it’s not exactly uncommon. Secondary infertility, the inability to become pregnant despite previous successes, happens to a fair share of women. Though if I’m honest with my myself, the birth of our daughter nearly three years ago is truly nothing short of a miracle. We struggled to get pregnant, and I struggled to carry her past those first tremulous weeks where it seemed all too likely that she would just slip away, out of my body and out of existence. It would appear that Moira, fated to be born, was the exception, and that my wasted body, this useless mass of flesh, has no miracles left to give.

Every wretched cramp that twists my insides, every drop of wasted blood, every excited announcement of another woman’s fecundity is a thorn in my side. Salt in the wound. I am so angry, I want to scream at someone. I want to make another person feel as hurt, as dispossessed as I feel. I want to give this grief a name and a purpose and to make this pain wearable, apparent. I want everyone to know I’m a fucking open wound, just walking around, waiting to hurt.

And then, the guilt. As I’m reeling through these feelings of loss and failure, a part of me comes to attention to remind me, with cruel alacrity, that I am not, in fact, as disenfranchised as I may feel. I have a beautiful daughter. I have a wonderful career that I love, and a family that loves me, and there are starving people in China, for crissakes, so what’s your fucking problem? You are not a victim. I am not a victim of anything or anyone except myself. I ought to be focusing in on the good things in my life with humility and gratitude. After all, there are scores of women out there, some of whom are close friends, who have been unable to conceive at all. At least I have one child. One perfect, lovely, intelligent, beautiful child. I shouldn’t be so selfish, so greedy, as to wish for more.

But it just isn’t fair. Perhaps it’s the Libra in me, this constant preoccupation with fairness that so brutally trips me up when life becomes chaotic and unreasonable, as it is wont to do. Life isn’t fair, of course, and I know that. But I’m stubbornly resistant to the notion, unwilling to capitulate to fate. I reckon that if I do everything right — if I eat right, I exercise, I keep healthy, I take my vitamins; whatever — if I do all the right things, then I ought to get the outcome that I want. That’s how we’re often taught to look at problems, excepting for those insurmountable challenges that are so far out of our hands that we are instead told that it’s God, or the Universe, or Fate, that will decide. Just be patient. Relax. Whatever is meant to be will be.

What rubbish.

I am, or at least, I have considered myself to be, a spiritual person, but instances like this test my faith. It incenses me to hear that “God has a plan” or “You never know what the Universe has in store for you.” Bullshit. I have plans. My plans aren’t good enough for God? The Universe is withholding my happiness from me because It knows better? Ridiculous!

These are the uncharitable, heathenous thoughts that intrude upon me every waking moment. I am painfully aware of how unreasonable my sadness and frustration have made me. As this writing has proven, I vacillate between petulance and shame frequently. I am struggling to float, let alone rise above the tide. Yes, I ought to deploy some focused gratitude, and center myself around what is really important. Yes, I am at the mercy of my biochemistry in some respects, but I am responsible for how I respond to the changes in the tide. I am aware of these truths and more, but the sadness and disappointment are indefatigable and merciless. I am as trapped within my spotty mind as I am within my troubled body. What is broken cannot always be mended.

 

Yuletide Blues

Christmas-time is a difficult time of year for everyone, it seems. All of the togetherness, peace, and good-will toward men comes with a grand helping of isolation, sadness, and guilt. Without meaning to, the holiday season does its damnedest to remind us all of what we’ve lost.

Christmas was a big deal to me when I was growing up. My mom was positively possessed of the holiday spirit. Every inch of our five-bedroom house was decorated; the banisters festooned with garlands, mechanical singing-and-dancing merry-go-rounds on the landing, and an eight-foot-tall tree front and center in the living room. Our hand-made stockings were hung with care o’er the fireplace with limited-edition stocking holders care of the Disney Store. Special towels and holiday-scented soaps were strategically placed in the bathrooms. Stuffed polar bears, reindeer, and Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat were my once-a-year friends. These artifacts became integral to my experience of the holiday season. Without them, the holiday felt pale, lackluster, deficient.

The year I turned eleven was the last of the great Christmases of my childhood. You just can’t stuff a two bedroom apartment with yuletide glee the same way as a two-story home. Being a child of divorce made it happen that Christmas time was more “hum-bug” than “ho-ho-ho”. As I grew, I came to realize that this meant there was no home-base to return to. No childhood bedroom filled to the rafters with relics of my past. No safe-haven to return to after a bad break-up or a fight with the roommate. There was no longer a place to safely store the artifacts my my childhood until such a time came for me to pass those things on to children of my own.

Things disappeared gradually, so much so that I didn’t realize they were missing until it was too late. I assumed the ubiquitous storage units my parents each rented when they moved separately into sad-divorcee apartment blocks would be kept in perpetuity. I assumed that both my mother and father knew, instinctively, that I was counting on keeping my great-grandmother’s china, our family albums, and other assorted pieces from around our home. I assumed that my mother’s horde of Christmas decorations was just as sacred to the adults around me as it was to me personally. In retrospect, perhaps it was all wishful thinking: I wanted these things to be true.

Things were jettisoned over time, in part out of necessity. When my mother and stepfather moved from California to Hawaii in 2003, they could only afford to ship so many things with them, and my grandmother only had room in her garage for so much. Again, I assumed that the things that were being saved and stored were the things that mattered so much to me. In the end, I won’t ever know for sure if that was true.

I came to live with Mom and Al in November of 2004. By Spring of 2008, they were both gone, consumed by separate but voracious illnesses. When Al went, we kept everything. A closet full of aloha shirts, a silver menorah, and a baby grand piano neither of us could play. When Mom got sick two years later, the decision was made that she would move back to the Mainland for treatment and stay with her mother. The piano went with her, but a great deal of Al’s other belongings were passed on to his daughters or donated. We boxed up our whole apartment, including most of my journals, photo albums, and knick-knacks — I was going to live in a much smaller place with a roommate and I wouldn’t have space for it all. I assumed (what was that thing your mother always said about assuming…) that everything would be stored at Grandma’s house, next to great-grandma’s china and Mom’s Christmas Horde. After Mom was gone, it gave me comfort to know that once I was a real grown-up, I could go retrieve those vestiges of our shared past.

We lost a great many things in that fire that consumed my mother’s life. She was more than just the person that gave birth to us. She was our home and the lynch-pin that held our family together. Our greatest cheer-leader and supreme boo-boo kisser. When she went, I lost my friend. My siblings and I, we lost our memory-keeper. And in the intervening years between losing my mother and having a family of my own, I lost my history.

It’s all gone, you see. Every journal I kept from age 13 until 20. Every note and token of love from my first love, which I saved in a (literal) heart-shaped box. Crappy candids of my friends and me in school. Baby-blankets and a sweater knit for me by my Grandy. All of the tangible pieces of the first twenty years of my life. Great-grandma’s china. And all of my mother’s holiday collection.

I frequently force myself to remember that these are just things. Things are not love and they can’t replace the people that you’ve lost. I try to remind myself that I don’t need to cling to these fragments of my past or of my family, because I’m making a new family and building new memories. But it’s hard. It’s hard to decorate a Christmas tree with my daughter and think of a legacy of joy that I won’t be able to pass on to her. It hurts to sit around a table of my in-laws and listen to them tell stories about my husband as he was growing up, knowing that I can’t reciprocate by sitting him down with my mother and having her relive my history for him. It’s sad that so much of what we all seem to take for granted as being permanent and unchangeable, is in fact completely fragile.

I have had to let go of a great deal, but I carry on with traditions and hold my new family close. I’m M’s mommy now. I’m her history-keeper, and I take this appointment seriously. Her stories are written down in baby books and documented in photos. We are building a life and a foundation for her to jump off from and I will make sure that it persists in case she ever wishes to return. Every year, we buy a new ornament and add to our Christmas collection, rich with fondness for what we have and bittersweet joy for what we lost.

image
Wrong. All we can do is learn to float.

 

Don’t Call My Baby Fat

Look, I get it, all right? I have cute aggression, too. I can’t resist those chubby thighs, those chunky cheeks, the little Michelin tire rolls ‘round ankles, bellies, and wrists.  I mean, let’s just face it: skinny babies just aren’t as cute as the rollie-pollie kind.

GAAAAHHHH!
GAAAAHHHH!

But so help me God, if one more person calls my baby a “chunky monkey”, or squeals with joy  while pinching her delicious little rolls between their forefinger and thumb, I’m going to lose it. God bless my girl friend who heard this from me recently after telling me she, “loved Moira’s chunk.” “Don’t call her that!” I said, a little snappily. My girl friend was chagrined, but listened kindly as I tried to dismantle my aversion and explain my reaction. Yes, Moira is chubby. She is rounded in all of the delightful ways a healthy young child should be. And unfortunately, I am a product of a society that equates “chubby” with “fat” and tells us that fat is just about the worst thing a person can be, so I’m a little sensitive to comments about my child’s looks. Until “fat” ceases to be synonymous with “lazy”, “unhealthy”, and “frumpy”; until “fat” is no longer antonymic with words like “beautiful”, “healthy”, and “attractive” — don’t call my baby fat. In fact, why not praise her for all other salient reasons for which she ought to be praised, rather than her looks? Her intelligence, her kindness, her joyfullness, her curiosity? Praise her being, not her body! But, that’s another blog post.


Before Moira was born, I made a pact with myself that she was going to grow up different than I did. That promise entailed a great many things, but chief among them were the lessons I learned about food, body image, and self-esteem. After I learned I was having a girl, I began to anticipate what an immense responsibility I would have in addition to being this child’s mother — I was going to be responsible for stewarding this perfect little girl through a world that would gladly strip her down to flesh and bones, both metaphorically and in body, to meet their idealized and unrealistic standards. I was going to have to fight for her right to be and do everything that made her heart feel right, damned what the world thought, because who is going to teach a girl how to be a healthy, happy woman, except her mother? Since she was born over 18 months ago, I’ve been increasingly defensive about my daughter’s body. It began with the acknowledgment of my own insecurities and a solemn promise to never share them with Moira. I can directly trace my own insecurities back to observations of my own mother, who would constantly poke, prod, and abuse herself for her plump physique. I recognize that if I don’t learn to put a cork in it (or, better, actually start loving myself), I’ll be hurting my daughter. As far back as I can remember, I was concerned about body image.  I distinctly recall being no more than seven years old (SEVEN!) and sucking my tummy in as I walked past boys in the supermarket because I wanted to seem appealing to them. But why? Where did I learn that behavior, those values? Yes, I was rounder, less lithe, than the other girls in my grade school, but I definitely wasn’t obese by any stretch of the imagination. So tell me how my self-image became so tarnished? My mother, I think, failed to realize how her example would affect me. Every time she talked down to herself, admired another woman’s thin athletic build while simultaneously degrading her own, I listened and incorporated her perspectives into my own world view. Every time she went on a crash diet, eschewing meals for “milkshakes” and killing herself on a Stairmaster for hours into the evening, I watched and I learned. When she would criticize herself in photos and compare her thighs to my grandmother’s while sighing mournfully, every time she took me with her to shop for clothes and berated herself in the dressing room, I logged it away for later use against myself.

Mothers, you are your daughter’s first mirror. She will look at you and see herself. If you tell her that what she sees in that mirror is ugly, no amount of praise or compliments will prevent her from tearing herself down.
Mothers, you are your daughter’s first mirror. She will look at you and see herself. If you tell her that what she sees in that mirror is ugly, no amount of praise will reestablish her ability to love herself.

There are probably many more reasons for my low self-esteem and my lifetime struggles with weight. I wasn’t raised to be a healthy eater. I wasn’t raised to be especially active. I had a negative self-image from very early on, but as I got a little older and started to fill out in ways that weren’t considered healthy, I was subjected to a lot of criticism, both at home and at school. I don’t recall my pediatrician ever commenting that I was overweight, but I remember my parents scolding me for what I ate, and when, and how much. Our home was emotionally fraught and sometimes violent, and I began eating as a way to self-soothe. I would binge eat and hide it from my parents, and they would become effusively angry when they busted me (Tip: if your child is an emotional-eater, there are way better ways to confront that issue than shaming them about it. See “opposite of intended effect”.) Somehow, it never occurred to them to change their own habits in order to set an example for me to follow.  People aren’t born thinking that being fat is a bad thing — we have to be taught to hate ourselves or each other, and I definitely was. I was taught by two adults who didn’t much care for their own bodies how to hate my own. I don’t think they ever considered how their well-intentioned criticism, or their own self-hatred, would influence me. I’m a parent now, and I keep my mother and father’s example close to my heart. Not because I want to follow it, but because I want to avoid it. All of the wrong decisions my parents made, and all of the wrong decisions I later made for myself, I’m using those lessons to concentrate on making the right choices for M. Still, people allow their distorted perceptions of beauty and health standards color their view of our family and even our parenting choices. Yeah, I’m fat — does that mean that my daughter will be, too? No, of course not. I suspect that many people look at me and assume that a.) I’m unhealthy, lazy, irresponsible, etc., and b.) assume that I will graft my flaws on to my daughter. However, nothing could be farther from the truth: my husband and I make very careful, conscientious decisions regarding food and activity choices in order to set her up for life-long health. Note: health, not thinness, because we’ve got our priorities straight. Does she still eat pizza? Sometimes. (“My monkey, my circus”, remember?) You see, I don’t want to take all that I’ve learned about being healthy and run to the other end of the spectrum, counting calories and obsessing over what goes into our bodies. In the end, that attitude would defeat the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve: raising a healthy, intelligent girl who is able to appreciate all things are best in moderation. Regardless of the size of her dress or the number on the scale, she will know that she is beautiful, valuable, and important, even if she does keep her chunky-monkey rolls all the way into adulthood. Eff your beauty standards — those thunder thighs are a family legacy. And we are gorgeous.

Black Sheep

A wise person whom I very much respect once said that writers should write what scares us. Right now, I’m terrified. Because I have never in my life done what I’m about to do.

Oh Lord, here we go...
Oh Lord, here we go…

Being the black sheep of the family, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Many people feel as if they have fallen far from the proverbial tree, but still feel loved and appreciated (even accepted) for their differences. Unless, of course, they are summarily and shamefully cast out.

Some, myself included, are deemed too subversive to be allowed a pass. In certain circles, there are some who are simply too different to escape scrutiny. They are so egregiously in conflict with their kin’s time honored traditions and values, that they are simply removed from the picture. Sometimes the cataclysm comes with a whisper rather than a roar. One day, you look around and realize that your roots have pruned themselves back and disappeared. Some are flung out more dramatically, of course.

The fear of abandonment robbed me of the courage to speak the truth about my family and how in efforts to appease them, I have capitulated time and time again to their tacit demands for obeisance and silence.

No more.

To be fair, they started it:

Seriously, look at this chucklefuck.
Seriously, look at this chucklefuck.

Okay, so let me give you a little background. I posted a link to this article on my Facebook page, and added a comment that I know women who have experienced this kind of treatment. In response, some member of my family — I will tell you only that he is male — felt it was his personal responsibility (nay, his duty!) to come around and knock me down a peg.

How far? How many pegs do I need to be knocked down before I am worthy of my family’s love and acceptance?

This time, I have opted to get good and mad, and thus I have been driven to a point of hatred and malice previously unknown to me.

First of all, me “stop it”? YOU STOP IT. Who the hell do you think you are to try and put me in my place? I don’t need to shrink and make myself smaller so you will feel bigger around me. I don’t need to compromise my ideals, my morals, just on the off chance that you might find my words offensive. And I do not have to dumb myself down, be less articulate, or think less just so I can fit in with this “family”.

Why put me down? Why seek with every word to belittle me? Why does making me feel small fulfill you? Yes, ours is a family that likes to fuck with each other. And fuck each other over. And fuck each other up. Ours is a legacy of hurt.

I reject the notion that to be intelligent, articulate, and well-educated is a sin. I refuse to align myself with your white-trash morality. Intelligent, free-thinking, even feminist are not swear words, except among simple-minded, misogynistic sheeple.

Baaaaaaa.
Baaaaaaa.

My soul is not for sale, and I’ve compromised for too long, allowing my affection and loyalty to be bought and sold like a commodity. In the interest of maintaining ties with individuals who will only love me on certain conditions, I’ve offered up everything. But still, I have lost.

I’m done.


I am no longer a disaffected youth, though I remain a product of my upbringing. As a result, I am chronically maladjusted.

I always knew that I didn’t fit in. I was never thin and athletic – I was bookish and articulate. And I was always tapped into something greater than myself, something that the people around me had no concept of. I have been perpetually aware of my separateness.

I don’t mean to be divisive: I love my family, but I’m not like them. I’m not sorry about that, though I used to be. I used to feel sad that I couldn’t be the same. I made choices that were engineered to try and make me blend, each with disastrous consequences.

Because when your cool, older cousin asks you to do drugs with him, ya do it. Duh.
Because when your cool, older cousin asks you to do drugs with him, ya do it. Duh.

I feel as if I have never been congratulated without being simultaneously mocked for having achieved anything in the first place. When I was a latch-key teenager out drinking, having sex, and stirring up mayhem, the family shrugged and wrote me off. One such matriarch attended my high school graduation after having offered the following sentiment on the occasion: “What’s the point? She’s just going to move in with that boyfriend of hers and get knocked up.”

I can't exactly accuse my family of having high expectations for me.
I can’t exactly accuse my family of having unrealistically high expectations for me.

But when I started to alter my course, rather than inspiring pride, each action I took seemed to cause anger and paranoia. I left California and moved to Hawaii to go to college — no, I “abandoned by family and moved to paradise.” Never mind the hardship that I faced once I was here. Never mind how hard I worked to succeed despite my circumstances. Never mind that I did everything “right”: went to college, met a nice man, got married, started a career, bought a house, had a baby, and all in that order. When it was all said and done, the sum of my achievements is tantamount to looking down my nose at anyone who didn’t achieve in the same way that I did. I’m the only person I know with such critically low self-esteem to have been so regularly accused of being arrogant, even narcissistic.

I think the primary motivation behind those accusations is the fear of my potential. The fear that, once I realized that I was better than the muck that I came from, I actually would condescend to them. That I would disappear and never come back.

This isn’t to say that my family didn’t celebrate my successes alongside of me. Simply that their inferiority complex dictated that in order to be proud of me, they must also remind me to be small: Don’t you forget where you came from! To which I respond: How could I? How could I forget when the legacy of this booze-soaked, drug-addled, emotionally retarded family hangs around my neck like an anchor? My achievements become cannon fodder and I a laughing stock, when I have done nothing — nothing — but try and mold myself into the kind of person that would be worthy of love and respect.

It has become resoundingly clear that I will never get to that point. And what I stand to gain from giving up the fight is so much greater than what I will lose from letting go.

I just want the freedom to be and to live the way that I see fit, without judgment or scorn. I’m exhausted by the accusations of arrogance and selfishness. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else based on my smarts or my success. But I will say this: I have more compassion, more love, and more understanding than was ever granted to me by that family, and for that reason alone, yes, I am better. Better than my origins, better than my history, and I am not ashamed to admit it.

I’m not sorry that I’m smart. That I maintain informed opinions. I’m not sorry that I kicked up the courage to dream up a different kind of life. That I went to school and toiled for six years to get three degrees. I’m not sorry that this cost me relationships with people who are supposed to love me unconditionally, but instead focus all of that energy on the fear of their own inferiority. If I must be excommunicated from the family for defying these values, I will accept my fate. I own everything that has ever happened to me, and if someone feels incriminated by my story-telling, they should have behaved better in the first place. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s your values that are corrupt. Not me.

So yeah, I’ll be the Black Sheep. I’ll wrap myself up in this thick, black wool. It’s so cozy and warm, I can hardly feel the cold shoulder you’ve been giving me.

But I'll be damned if I don't make this look good.
But I’ll be damned if I don’t make this look good.

Some days

One year, my brother sent our mom a birthday card that really made her smile. It wasn’t one of those Hallmark deals with corny poetry and glitter — it was just a cheap little card. It had a photo on the front of a little boy sitting on the steps outside of his school, with his lunchbox beside him and his head on his lap, as if he were crying. Inside the card it said: “Some days, I still just want my mommy.” I think she loved it because she loved feeling wanted.

I think about that card a lot, particularly the sentiment printed inside: I just want my mommy. That thought wandered into my head the other night, as it often does, when I suddenly realized the date. March 8th. March 8th, the absolute worst day that ever was, ever.

In the seven years that have passed since she died, I have never gotten into the habit of honoring the anniversary of her death. March 8th is not the day I choose to remember her. It isn’t the same as those birthdays, Mother’s Day, or Christmas. Or any of the other happy occasions that bring her to mind and make me wish she were with us. The anniversary of her passing is a black mark, a day that got knocked off the calendar in sheer repulsion. A day too sad to commit to memory.

A pattern has emerged in the last few years. The anniversary goes by without my paying any mind — no more than usual, that is, because I think of her every day — but I don’t think about holding her hand in the hospital bed, listening through the night as she struggled for breath and the morphine slowly stole her life away. I elect to avoid that place whenever possible. It is as if I am walking down memory lane, the branches pulled aside to clear the path ahead. The coast is clear and then smack! One of the thin, springy branches snaps back and whips me in the face. I often feel guilty for having forgotten: I mean, here I am years later, still locked in a prison of grief. Should I not have kept count of all the awful days that have gone by and how many times I have needed her? I am forever affected by her death, but somehow, I sometimes forget that she died.

When the realization hits me, I count on my fingers — how long has it been? Seven years? Seven. Years. How it that possible? How I am still walking around with this hole in my gut, like the umbilicus that once tied me to her never healed? But then, maybe it didn’t. What is the shelf life of a mother-daughter relationship after the mother is dead and gone? At what point do I cease to be hers?

When shall I no longer wish to curl up beside her warm, soft body, my head in lap as she strokes my hair? When does a child no longer want or need their mother? I can’t fathom it, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to let go, because she was mine and I was hers and whatever wrong she did — and there were wrongs — and whatever I took for granted — and I did so, regretfully — she is mine. And I am hers: a mournful child crying on the front stoop, waiting for my mommy to pick me up and make me feel good again.

On the homefront

The concept of “home”, to me, is about family. And “family”, as far as I’m concerned, is about so much more than who your relatives are. Blood is not the only thing that makes a family. Marriages are direct evidence of this principle: even if you don’t intend to merge your genetic material to create offspring, when you get married, you form a new family. But even without government documents to bind us, families can be created in so many ways.

In our ever-expanding world, people very rarely continue to live within the same ten-mile radius that they were born into, often times moving thousands of miles away from where they were born and where their nuclear family unit resides. What then? We create our own homes, we find a new tribe, and we integrate into a new community. We set about adding branches to our family tree.

The people who surround us, care for us, and support us become our family through ties created of love. I’m very comfortable with the idea of an “extended” family. When I was growing up, it didn’t occur to me that my Auntie Rose and Auntie Nettie weren’t my mom’s real sisters — she loved them, so I did. They are part of my family. End of discussion. As a teenager, I began to wage my own life-long bonds of friendship and sisterhood. It was the first time I recall feeling bonded through shared experience: we are the same age, we come from similar dysfunctional backgrounds, we have similar interests. That was the foundation of our friendship. Then, just like Mary-Louise Parker’s character says in the movie “Boys on the Side”: there is something special that goes on between women. Through time and the magic of sisterhood, we became more than mere friends. We were sisters. Now they are my family. They are my blood. Period. End of discussion.

When I was 20, my mother died after slightly less than a year of fighting multiple myeloma. Just a year and a half earlier, we had lost my stepdad to lung cancer. I had moved from California, where both my relatives and my tribe did reside, to an itty bitty island in the middle of the Pacific in order to live with my mom and dad. And then they died. And I was alone in a way that one person should ever be. I had a roof over my head, but no home.

It took some time, but I crawled out of the crater left by that gargantuan life event. I finished college. I got married. I figured out who my real friends were and who would be members of my new tribe. I still felt like an orphan, but I managed to connect with a number of compassionate women who loved me like a daughter. I started to mend.

The thing about love, though, is that not all love is created equally. Don’t get me wrong: all love is good. But when you lose the love of a mother, no amount of love from friends or siblings or fathers is going to completely fill that empty cup. I felt, deep down to the very bottom of my soul, like a motherless wastrel in desperate need of some mothering. Every day that passed I felt more and more like an orphan, and all I wanted was my mommy.

I got my wish, after a time. In spades, you might say. And this is where I think Fate played her hand: if I hadn’t come to Hawaii, I wouldn’t have learned about Hanai family, and I would never have found mine. In Hawaiian, hanai means to adopt, to be close to, to nourish, to sustain. It was not an uncommon practice among Hawaiians newlyweds to practice the hanai custom by bestowing upon their parents their first born child to be raised by them. Children whose parents were unable to care for them were also given hanai parents, perhaps outside of their blood relations. It was seen as a blessing to the hanai parents, to be given the opportunity to care for and love a child that did not come from their union. The concept of family, or ohana, extended to all members of the society: we are all in this together, we who are bonded by blood or by love, it makes no difference. My hanai mom (really, I have more than one), like my sisters, has no qualms about our relationship. We’re family, with all the rights, privileges,  and responsibilities therein. Period, end of discussion.

It’s funny to think: I had to wind up a million miles from home, in a place I never anticipated I would go, surrounded by people I didn’t even know ten years ago, in order to find my family. My home.