Category Archives: absent fathers

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  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs.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?

It’s a Boy!

This is the fifth post in a series which starts here

I was 20 years old and eight months pregnant with my second child, which I planned to place for adoption.  This plan included avoiding my family and friends so that it could be kept a secret.

But in early April I ran into my aunt and cousin Mary, who was 14, at the grocery.  My aunt chatted about the weather, not dropping her gaze below my neck.  Mary gawped at my belly but didn’t ask any questions.

The pains came early in the morning.  I woke up and tears came, silently, so as not to wake Vince.  I had been able to freeze my emotions for six months but now, on the precipice of saying good-bye, they came.

I flung myself out of bed and called my mother, who dropped my sister off to stay with Vince and drove me to the hospital.  The pains continued, fast and strong.  As I laid writhing on a gurney a doctor I’d never seen loomed over me and said, “Good morning, I’m doctor G___, and I’ll be with you during your labor and delivery.”

The labor went fast.  My mother sat by the bed while I panted.  They wheeled me into the delivery room and Dr. G appeared again.  “You don’t mind if a couple of residents observe, do you?” she asked—more of a statement than a question.  I consented with a grunt, not really caring or understanding.

A line of residents in gowns and masks filed into the room and stood against the wall—there must have been eight or 10 of them.  “Do you want a girl or a boy?” asked Dr. G, obviously trying to show off her people skills to the residents.  “I don’t care!” I groaned, “I’m giving it up for adoption!”  She recoiled.  A nurse leaned in and whispered something to her, maybe my instructions that I didn’t want the baby handed to me.  I couldn’t hold it or I might change my mind.

“It’s a boy!” Dr. G exclaimed, holding him up for the residents to see.  She stepped forward and held him up to show me.  I saw that he had all his fingers and toes and was plump and healthy.  She handed him to the nurse, who took him out of the room.

I'm a Boy

They wheeled me down to the geriatric ward.  It was for my own good, the orderly said.  This way I wouldn’t be surrounded by happy mothers and fathers with their babies, or tempted to go find him in the nursery.

My roommate was an old woman who was moaning in agony.  “The pain!” she kept shouting.

It couldn’t have been more than an hour after the birth that Judy, the Catholic Charities social worker, showed up.  Had they called her?  She didn’t ask how I felt or if I had any second thoughts, but thrust a clipboard toward me and started flipping forms and pointing to where I should sign.

Just then my sister walked in, carrying the baby.  “He’s so beautiful!” she said.  “Just hold him once!”

Judy looked horrified.

“Take him away,” I pleaded.  She moved forward an inch, hesitated, then turned and walked out of the room.

Judy laughed when she saw the name I had put on the form.  “Isaac?”

I tried to explain that, in the bible, Isaac was sacrificed, and that was how I saw what I was doing.  I thought it was odd I had to explain this to someone from Catholic Charities.

“I should have told you not to give him a name.  His parents will change it.  You have to admit that Isaac is kind of a weird name”

I said I’d be happy to write and explain why I’d chosen the name, how meaningful it was.

“That wouldn’t be a good idea.  They want to know as little about you as possible.  A clean start, you know.  It’s for the best.”

I signed the forms.  I watched my hand moving across the paper like a mannequin hand.

After Judy left I got dressed, walked out, and caught the bus home.

Muggers

This is the fourth post in a series which starts here.

In March I was mugged.

My teenage sister babysat Vince while I went to get groceries. She adored Vince and couldn’t be kept away, so she was in on the Big Secret but we never discussed it.

It was the first of the month; everyone had cashed their AFDC checks and was flush. I was walking home, a bag in each arm, when a guy asked me the time. I said I didn’t have a watch. Seconds later he tackled me from behind. I did a belly flop onto the sidewalk. The groceries flew. I saw the eggs popping open. The milk bounced but didn’t break, then spun around on the ice and harpooned a snowbank 20 feet away. The guy ran off with my purse.

It all seemed to happen in slow motion. My wrists and palms and one cheek were bleeding. I scrambled onto my hands and knees and looked behind me. He was running down the hill, laughing. The joke was on him, since I had just spent all my money.

I leaped to my feet and screamed impotently, “Fucker!”

I gathered up what was salvageable of my groceries. Then it hit me that I hadn’t given a thought to the baby and how hitting the sidewalk might have hurt it; I had thought only of the groceries. I reasoned that any shock would have been cushioned by amniotic fluid, but I felt no connection to this baby like I had with Vince.

Could the baby feel the lack of love? Would it cause him to neglect his own children, or be an alcoholic, or become criminally insane? I jerked my mind away from these thoughts and any rising doubts or feelings that welled up.

Feeling wouldn’t be a good idea. It might make me change my mind. This was like a prison sentence, I thought. I have to wait out my term, separated from my friends and family. Once I was released, I would keep it a secret from everyone, forever, including Vince. That was the point. That was to avoid the shame.

My grandmother had dropped in on me on New Year’s Day. My mother had told her I was missing from the family Christmas gathering because I had taken it into my head to start my own family traditions.

I was five and a half months pregnant and wearing a baggy sweatshirt. I wanted to fling myself on her, tell her the truth, beg her forgiveness, and tell her it was all going to be fine after April. But instead I acted cold. I could tell she was bewildered and hurt but she didn’t ask any questions and she didn’t stay long.

Time flew. I was like a serious machine whose job it was to keep moving, always moving. Read papers, churn out papers. Interact with fellow students as if I was one of them. Transport Vince from home to daycare to home again. Feed him, clothe him, clean him. Clean the apartment so everything looked normal.

I was on a fiscal austerity plan, thanks to Ronald Reagan. I now washed all my laundry by hand in the bathtub, including the cloth diapers, and hung everything around the apartment to dry.

I had received a $2,500 tuition bill.

“Don’t you watch the news?” the financial aid lady asked. “About the big welfare reforms? Your programs got axed.”

One of the programs in question was social security survivor benefits for widows and orphans. Since my dad had died when I was eight, I received a few hundred dollars a month. This was supposed to last until I was 22. I broke the no-contact rule and called my brother, who was also in college. “Yeah, that bastard Reagan pushed a reform package through Congress that lowered the maximum age to 20. I’ll get cut off next year.”

“That fucker,” was all I could say.

The job training benefit that was covering my tuition had also been cut. I was forced to take out a student loan to pay my tuition, another reason I had to graduate and get a job—so I could make the loan payments.