Category Archives: absent fathers

Broken, now Free

I thought it might be difficult to not write. After nearly 600 posts since September 2014—and many streaks of every-other-day posts, I pledged to (mostly) take the summer off from writing.

And it’s been great.  I have no problem sleeping in instead of leaping out of bed at 5:30am to knock out 700 words.

But yesterday was a big milestone, something worth writing about.  The reason I ever started this blog in the first place—my son going to prison—is gone.  Yesterday, after spending half his time in prison and half on supervised release, my son’s sentence is over. Over!  He wrote a post about it on his own blog, if you’d like to read it.  I liked this line:

“I am free to roam about the country or world as I please. I am free to register to vote, and I will. I am free to drink alcohol, and I won’t. I am still not allowed to own a gun, and I don’t care.”

For me, the low point was the day I was ejected from Moose Lake prison without seeing Vince because I was wearing a “low-cut shirt.”  Then I went off to the Middle East for work, where I got to hear stories of people being tortured in prison.  When I came home, there was a letter waiting for me, informing me I was banned from stepping foot on any correctional facility property in Minnesota for six months.

Corrections employees have nearly complete discretion, and impunity, to do whatever they want.  And so they do whatever they want.

I feel like I am walking out into the sunlight after several years under a cloud. I transitioned the blog to writing mostly about travel a while back, but I’ll still write about prison once in a while because … there are still 10s of thousands of people in prisons. I don’t just care about my son; I care about my whole community, my state, my country.

Sigh, my poor country.  What a mess we are.  It’s like a nightmare where we are all living on the Jerry Springer Show.

I had never given a thought to prison, prisoners, or people whose loved ones are in prison.  Why would I?  Prisons are far away.  You can’t go inside them without permission. Only bad people are in them, so why would you want to go inside, anyway?  And if a single mom is on her own because her man is in prison, then she and her kids are probably better off, right?

Boy, has it been an eye opener. There are some bad people in prison, for sure.  But mostly they’re regular people who messed up.  Have you ever messed up?  Of course you have.  You just didn’t do something illegal, or you didn’t get caught.

I am grateful to my son for doing the hard work it took to change his life. He had been under arrest before.  He had been homeless.  I suspected he would die early due to liver failure or a car accident or a drug deal gone wrong.

Ironically, it was prison that set him free.  He always says he needed to go to prison. So for all my idealistic fellow campaigners on prison reform, keep that in mind when you propose repurposing prisons into artists’ retreats or organic garden centers.

I have made little progress planning for Australia, except to decide that I will limit myself to Australia and not attempt to also visit New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, or Papua New Guinea.

Heidi and I spoke for over an hour yesterday on What’s App, and we agreed it’s crunch time.  Time to figure out how we’ll get from Sydney to Melbourne, time to book flights to Tasmania and maybe a train ride to Alice Springs.  Time to book accommodations in the Red Centre.   The pressure is on.

And yet it is summer, and it’s Sunday.  I think I’ll go sit in the garden and read the paper.

A Great Life and a Rainy Ghost

It was my turn to go into London and spend the day with Heidi.  I wanted to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which are an underground complex near Parliament that are operated by the Imperial War Museum.  Heidi had already been there, or wasn’t interested, I can’t remember—so we planned to meet at the Houses of Parliament for a tour at 2pm.

I bought tickets online for both places which enabled me to breeze past the block-long line of suckers hoping to get in to the Churchill rooms.  There’s a reason they control the number of people who enter.  These were the underground bunkers where Churchill and his team lead the war effort, and so they are dark and cramped.  I was only inside for a couple hours and I felt claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine spending days and nights down there—breathing in thick cigar smoke and hearing bombs falling overhead.

Winston Churchill was complicated.  He was born into wealth—at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, where I had enjoyed many long walks on the pleasure grounds.  He joined the army, was captured in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and made a movie-script-like escape.  He was elected Prime Minister and indisputably led the nation through World War II with world-famous speeches with lines like:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”

World War II—and the US making England repay every penny we contributed to support them during the war—and lots of other factors, broke the Empire. The official end wouldn’t be until 1997, when they turned Hong Kong over to China, but many would argue that it really ended with decolonization/independence of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Jordan/Israel/Palestine, and many, many others after the war and into the 60s.

Churchill opposed Indian independence on paternalistic grounds—the Indians needed the British to get them organized.  If Ghandi went on another hunger strike, he said, they should let him die.  When Churchill was elected PM a second time, he had a front-row seat for the Empire’s dismantling. He lived to be 90 despite being—famously—a chain cigar smoker and heavy drinker.

I feel so inadequate when I write these posts about which hundreds of books have been written and dozens of movies and TV shows made … go see the film that’s just out now, called Churchill.  All I can do is repeat my caveat that I am not a history professor, although sadly I think I could play one on TV.  I am just a curious person traveling around, learning a bit here and there, and forgetting most of it by dinner time.

One thing I can say with certainty: the War Rooms have a really good cafeteria and gift shop.  After spending time and money in both I emerged into the rainy street.

I had hours to kill before meeting Heidi.  I opened my souvenir Wimbledon umbrella and fought my way through the crowds to the Houses of Parliament bookstore, where I bought more stuff which forced me to carry more bags.

I made my way to Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet park on the west side of Parliament, and gazed out over the Thames through the rain.

Suddenly I felt something like an electric zing.  I have few photos of my father.  Being here triggered a memory of a black and white photo of him standing in this exact place with his umbrella open, 50 years ago.

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.

Me, Mom

Before I continue to the exciting conclusion of the road trip, I am sharing this post from Vince’s blog he wrote for Mother’s Day.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. Over, and over again I’ve made a mess of my life and brought both of us shame.  There were years where you were unable to explain my whereabouts to family and friends, and times where you yourself didn’t know where I was. I’ve put you through more pain and distress than I care to recall.  I’ve not been a son to you for many years, and I have lost your trust far too many times.

But for some reason, you still love me. It’s an unconditional love that I’ve felt nowhere else. Even recently when we didn’t see eye to eye when we lived together, there was never any doubt that you loved me.  I wish I could promise that I will never be lead astray again by the temptation and allure of alcohol and the world of drugs, but I cannot because it’s the nature of the disease that I am always at risk of going back. Tomorrow, when we go out on our secret trip to an unknown location for Mother’s Day lunch, I will be repairing some of the damage I have caused. I will be repairing the bond that had been broken for so long as a result of my actions. I have nobody to blame but myself, which leaves only me to clean up the mess. And so far, I think it’s working.

It’s hard work, searching inside myself to figure out what’s been broken for so long. But through writing this blog, attending A.A., and working with a sponsor, I’m starting to change my life. I no longer do these things to avoid going back to prison, I do them because I want to be out here living life and being with my family as much as I can.

Although you had help from some family members raising me for a small portion of my childhood, I know that you were solely responsible for bringing me up and I know that you not only did the best you could without a father present, you truly were an amazing Mother, I just didn’t see it until later in life.

You imparted upon me how to be a good, loving person, and it took me about 20 years longer than it should have to recognize that. The things you showed me are the things I strive to emulate now because I know that they are righteous, moral, and honorable.

It doesn’t get any more honest than that. You were instrumental in keeping me sane throughout my prison term. You wrote to me, sent me money, and answered my calls. Not everybody is as lucky, or has a person that loves them no matter what. You moved just to accommodate me living with you when I got out, and I am so grateful for that. I may not have acted like it when I lived there, but that was because I was ashamed of myself, and I shut myself in my room, and my own little world where I felt comfortable. I’m breaking out of that shell slowly, and I won’t forget that it’s because of you that I’m even out here in the first place and had a warm safe place to sleep. Sometimes it takes a while to realize what I have to be grateful for, but eventually it comes.

Tomorrow is your day, and I’m excited that I have the ability to take you out for the day, and the means to make it happen. I think this will be the best Mother’s Day we’ve ever spent together, and I look forward to many more.

Mom, I know I’ve let you down. But I’m going to make it up by becoming a good son, and making up for all the hurt I’ve caused. I love you, Mom.

I told Vince, over the sushi feast he had planned, that I appreciated the post. I also told him that by changing his life, he is making amends to me and he never has to apologize for his past actions again.

Sushi n MeSushi n V

From AA to LA

This is the eighth and final post in a series that begins here.

Vince went to live with my mother, and I attended outpatient chemical dependency treatment.  If you are in the “helping professions”—social work, psychotherapy—or if you even just have common sense and empathy, you won’t be surprised to learn that I wasn’t an alcoholic.

The expectation had been that I would go through pregnancy, birth, and adoption without any support, then go on as though nothing had happened.  People seemed surprised that I was sad and angry.  They were uncomfortable when I talked about it.

“You signed the papers; it’s over—why keep bringing it up?  Just don’t think about it.”

Alcohol is a time-honored stress reliever in such dissonant situations.

Sobriety—and a break from being a full-time mother and student—helped clear my head and face my emotions.  I spent the month working the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and reading piles of self help books, and doing all the other things people do to get back on track.

After a month Vince came home.  What–you were expecting some big drama?  Sorry.  In Minnesota we don’t like drama.  In fact we are all about avoidance of discomfort, or as I call it, “reality.”

I didn’t drink for a couple years.  I went to AA, where the members often listened to my story skeptically and said, “I don’t think you’re an alcoholic.”  I should have been referred to Alanon, which is for family members and friends of alcoholics.  People impacted by alcoholic behavior act just as crazy as their alcoholics, but there’s no rehab for them.  In fact I can recall my mother complaining that my dad got to go to “that country club”—Hazelden, a rehab center nestled on a lake with a pool, wooded walking trails, and tennis courts—while she stayed home with the four kids, the house, and the bills.

I got a job, moved out of the hi-rise, and started paying back my student loans.  Vince began school and, while his grades were never great, he was popular with teachers and students.   I made sure he brushed his teeth and washed behind his ears.  I took him to baseball practice, religious school, and family functions.  We watched Dr. Who together and went on little road trips to Lake Superior to hunt agates.  You know, normal life.

Every spring I would find myself feeling blue and wonder what was wrong with me.  Then it would hit me: Ah ha!  Isaac’s birthday is coming up.  On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, I would tear up when they read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  Every couple of years I would send a letter to be placed in his file, knowing it would probably never be read.  When my mother talked about how many grandchildren she had, didn’t count Isaac.  Intellectually, I knew this was the whole point—that it remain forever a secret—but to me he was always out there, somewhere.

When Vince was 10, I got entangled with an abusive guy and we ended up losing our home.  Three times in one year, we had to move and Vince had to change schools.  I chose this time to tell him about Isaac.  I thought it comfort him to know he had a brother out there somewhere, assuming he was alive.  Clearly I am not a psychotherapist, or I would have known this would backfire.  Vince was devastated—it was a loss on top of losses.

He met his brother, eventually, and some day one or both of us will write about that.

Did these events have a permanent effect on Vince?  They deeply affected me, so why not him, since he was so much younger?  If they did affect him, it’s his job now to delve into them and resolve whatever leftover effects may be holding him back, which is what he seems to be doing in AA.

Thanks for reading this series.  Several people have commented offline that it’s been emotional to read.  I’m ready for a happier subject for the next post: my plans for a road trip to New Orleans!

Labeled

This is the seventh in a series of posts that starts here.

If you have read all these posts, thank you. They’ve been hard to write but at the same time it’s liberating to tell the story that’s mostly been kept secret for decades.

What I have described in this series of posts is a closed adoption. Once parental rights are terminated, the birth parent has no rights, period. Ironically, there was a massive change in adoption laws a year or two after Isaac was born which made open adoption the norm. This is where the birth mother can choose to maintain some level of contact with the child—everything from photos once a year to monthly visits—worked out in cooperation with the adoptive parents. But that didn’t help me, since my case was closed just before the laws changed.

As my emotions thawed after terminating my parental rights, my predominant feeling was rage. True, no one had forced me to place Isaac for adoption, but I hadn’t felt I had any other option. All the forces of society had been arrayed against me keeping him.

I thought about Charlie Brown, the doctor who had offered to find me a baby buyer; about Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker who had made light of my concerns; the perverts who had hit on me—a pregnant girl at the bus stop with a baby in a stroller; the mugger who assaulted me; Ronald Reagan, who ensured I would start my career with student loan debt; Dr. G., who invited a dozen strangers to observe me go through one of the most excruciating moments of my life; and the judge, who had asked me pityingly if I understood what I was doing.

I wasn’t angry with The Creep; he would soon go on to father three more children. Vince and I have joked that they could form their own support group, “Adult Children of The Creep.” The guy had dug himself into such a deep hole that I figured the rest of his life would be his punishment.

A few weeks after I signed the final papers, it occurred to me that I should have a photo of Isaac. I told myself this was for Vince—when I told him some day. I called Judy and there was a long pause after I said my name, as though she had already forgotten who I was.

“Why didn’t you ask for a photo before the papers were signed?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I stammered, feeling stupid and ashamed. I hated her but I knew I was at her mercy. “I would really, really appreciate it if you would ask the parents.”

She told me I would have to put my request in writing, which I did. Six weeks later she called to say that the parents had denied my request.

“Since you didn’t request a photo before you signed the papers, they’re under no legal obligation to give you one now. They’re concerned you might see the baby in a shopping mall or something … they wouldn’t want any scenes. It’s for the best.

“They want you to know that they love him very much and they gave him a beautiful name. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is.”

Wow, she was really enjoying herself. I added Isaac’s adoptive parents to my hate list.

I had lost control with Vince, screamed at him, and shoved him to the floor. I called the county and asked to speak with a child protection worker. She asked a bunch of questions then pronounced, “Based on your family history and your recent drinking behavior, I think it’s clear that you’re an alcoholic.”  She recommended I place Vince in foster care so I could go to rehab.  “You can say no, but there may be repercussions,” she said ominously.

I didn’t think I was an alcoholic but I placed Vince in foster care and got ready to go to treatment.  The next day my mother demanded that I sign Vince over to her, so I did. This time it was only temporary, right?

Unfrozen

This post is the sixth in a series that starts here.

It was 1980, I was 20 years old and had just given birth to my second son, who was in foster care until his adoption was finalized.  I had kept the pregnancy and birth Top Secret except from my mother and sister.

Now I moved forward with my life as if nothing had ever happened, and I never gave it a second thought.

Haha!  Just kidding!  That was never going to happen.

Six weeks had to pass before the adoption would be finalized.  I suppose that was to ensure I wouldn’t change my mind.  I didn’t.  I gave birth on a Sunday and walked out of the hospital that afternoon.  Finals started the following week, so I was back in school studying for and taking exams the next day.

Once I finished exams I had to study for the big test that would make me a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant.  There were lots of other distractions to keep me busy and keep my mind off of Isaac.  I would think of him as “Isaac” for the next 20 years.

I got the highest scores in my class, so I won an all-expenses paid trip to the National Occupational Therapy convention in San Antonio, Texas.  This was a big deal for someone who lived in public housing, took the bus everywhere, and washed laundry by hand in the bathtub.

Six weeks passed.  I went to the courthouse.  In the courtroom it was just me, The Creep, the judge, and about 50 strangers who were there for other cases.  The Creep and I didn’t speak.  This would be the last time we would ever see each other.  He was pleased, I was sure, that he’d be off the hook for child support—not that he paid any for Vince.

There’s a psychological phenomenon called dissociation in which you seem to separate from your own body because you are under so much stress.  This must be what happened to me, because it was like I was a spectator to myself.  It was like I was sitting in the jury box, watching the judge lean forward and ask, “Do you know what you’re doing, miss?”

“Yes,” I replied.

Again, like when I signed the papers in the hospital, it was as if I was watching a mannequin hand sign my name at the bottom of the forms.

It was over in 10 minutes.  I stumbled, dazed, out of the courtroom with the official-looking order that said Termination of Parental Rights at the top and my signature at the bottom.

I went to San Antonio, which was my introduction to the concept of “open bars” at conventions.  Free drinks!  I drank all night, then slept by the pool all day until the bar opened again.  What a great professional opportunity!

I came home and kept drinking.  School was over so I had all the time in the world to spend with Vince.  Except that my relationship with him had changed.  I had gone from doting, passionately-engaged mother to detached, emotionally-absent caretaker.  I escaped by cleaning the bathroom, applying for jobs, reading thick novels, scouring the kitchen sink, making lists of things, and drinking.

I kept busy, in part, to blot out the fact that I kept hearing the sounds and smelling the smells of a hospital delivery room.  I knew from psych classes that sometimes the mind reacted like this under severe stress—I wasn’t psychotic—but it worried me.  What next—would Dr. G and her residents show up in my bedside?

Vince had never been needy before but now he started whining and hanging on me and it really got on my nerves.  He was 18 months old; was this some kind of annoying phase?  I tried to gently put him off but that only seemed to make him want more attention.  Finally, I lost it.  I shoved him and yelled, “Get away from me!”  He tumbled to the floor, whimpering.

I was horrified and rushed to comfort him, pulled him onto my lap and rocking him.  Was this the future we had to look forward to?