Tag Archives: parent-child relationships

Down South

Two days ago.  I loaded my car with boxes and was pulling out of the parking lot of my condo to take them to the new apartment, where I would sign the lease, get the keys, and start moving.  Again.  The third move in 2.5 years.  I was feeling pretty pissy and had a bad case of the What Ifs: What if I couldn’t get the Internet set up in my new place?  I had to give a presentation about my Ethiopia trip on Tuesday.  What if my dining room table wouldn’t fit through the front door?  What if my new landlord turned out to be crazy, like the one two landlords before her?  What if, what if, what if.

The PT I was seeing for my vertigo had suggested I start meditating because stress can make vertigo worse.  Ha!  Who has time for that?  Maybe I would try to get back to meditation after the move.  At least my Restless Legs was under control, after being put on yet another Parkinson’s drug.  Now if I could just figure out how to get back to sleep when I woke up at 4am … blah, blah, blah.  Why wouldn’t my mind ever Shut Up?

My phone rang and I steered and shifted with one hand while winding down a steep hill and answering it with the other.  “Hi Mom,” I said irritably.  The number had come up as “Nina,” our family nickname for her.   She had a gift for calling at the worst times.

But it was her husband, Jim, and he sounded dreadful.  “Your mother is having another one of her episodes,” he said.  “I called Tom to take us to the hospital.”  Tom is one of his sons.

“Jim!” I said in alarm, “You should call 911!  What if it’s a stroke?”

“But Tom is nearby so he’ll be here faster than an ambulance could.”

It was no use asking how he was so sure about that, or reminding him that paramedics are trained and equipped to deal with emergencies.  Tom is a nurse.  Bless him, he works in a hospice, but I don’t know that that’s the proper training to respond to emergencies.

My mother went to the ER three times last year due to stroke-like symptoms caused by low blood sodium.  But both of her parents died of strokes, she has high blood pressure, and she’s been under loads of stress lately because in two weeks they will move out of the house they’ve lived in for 30 years into senior housing.

“Give her a baby aspirin, just in case,” I urged Jim.  In the back of my mind I remembered something about aspirin and stroke.  I have now learned that, like most things, it’s more complicated.  Here’s an article from the National Institutes of Health that provides some guidance.  The baby aspirin probably didn’t harm my mom, but it probably didn’t do any good.

It was a stroke.  We waited almost 24 hours to find out for sure.  When the neurologist finally gave us the news it came as a blow.  I think we had convinced ourselves it was the other thing—the low sodium—and that if they just gave her an IV she would be back to normal in no time.

“She may or may not regain some functioning,” he said.  “I’m not trying to be harsh.  I am just telling you the facts.”

Did you know carrots grow on trees?

I hovered near the hospital room door while a speech therapist did an assessment.

Su-san?” she said slowly, “Do carrots grow on trees?”

“Yes,” replied my mother confidently.

Ohkay …” said the therapist.

Down south,” insisted my mom.  “They’re coming from down south and we need to meet them.”

None of us knew what this urgently repeated phrase “down south” was about.   She had said “Obama” repeatedly in the night.  When I joked, “We know you love Obama,” she snapped, “No I don’t!”  So she’s still a conservative.

Sorry if you thought “down south” referred to my lovely UK road trip.  Here’s my mom with my sister and I in front of the house in which we all grew up.

Despite

Life has been throwing a lot my way lately, or at least throwing a lot at people I love.  I debated whether to write about it, then remembered that the tagline of this blog is “Living well despite what life throws at you.”

It’s one thing to live large when everything is going well, it’s quite another to keep embracing life when things are not so great.

My life is fine, aside from the new upstairs neighbor, who I suspect of making wine late at night (stomp, stomp, stomp!). I have spoken to him and it is better, but I have to wear ear plugs a couple nights a week.  I worry that the people who are renting my condo while I’m in the UK/Europe/Ethiopia this summer will be bothered.

Work has been a pressure cooker; this week I submitted almost $5 million worth of funding applications for projects in Iraq and Ethiopia.  The teams were dispersed around the globe, from Kurdistan to The Gambia, which has only 14% Internet penetration. I do get a buzz out of pulling everything together to meet deadlines, and then I collapse in exhaustion.

On to the people I love: Vince broke up with his girlfriend, and for some reason it hit me hard.  I was so happy that Vince had, for a while, a fun relationship that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol.  But I realized my reaction was partly about me.  A few weeks after I turned 40, my serious boyfriend dumped me.  I wondered if that was it—I would never meet anyone again.  After all, I was 40!  Vince will be 39 this year.  I have no idea if he feels like it’s over—I hope not—but I did.

The thing that’s really thrown me is hearing from Son #2 after a four-year silence.

I wrote a series of seven posts about Vince’s brother, who I gave up for adoption. I’ve never written about how I found him after many attempts and despite Catholic Charities’ best efforts to thwart us both.

I hesitated to write about this, but then—catatonic on the couch after all my proposals were done—I caught an episode of Call the Midwife that had an adoption storyline and I was reminded that the silence and shame that surrounds adoption has got to be broken.

Vince and I met him once, over 15 years ago.  We met at a restaurant; I can’t remember exactly when or where because it was so surreal.

His name was the same as one of my brothers, but I will call him by the name I gave him, Isaac.  He looked a lot like Vince but with different coloring.  I asked if I could give him a hug and he said, “Of course!” and hugged me for a long time.  Several hours of talking passed like seconds.  We hugged goodbye and pledged to stay in touch.

It didn’t’ happen.  Isaac’s adoptive mother was opposed to him meeting me, and he was already going behind her back.  But he and Vince continued to meet up and developed a bond; Vince wrote about it here.  It wasn’t a happy ending, but there’s hope now that Vince is in recovery.

Isaac sent me an email out of the blue about five years ago, with photos of his wife and kids.  My grandchildren, who I’ve never met.  His wife has the same name as my mother.

He said he would like for me to meet them, but then he disappeared again.  I didn’t pursue it him because I didn’t want to be disappointed again.

Isaac wrote to me again last month.

His wife has Multiple Sclerosis.  Severe, aggressive MS that affects her vision, speech, and mobility. He and I have been writing for about a month now, and I am hopeful we can stay in touch this time, but it’s stirring up a lot of regret, resentment, love, and hope.

Villas and Curves and Curveballs

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

It was 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrived in Ravello, as the rain really started to come down.  I kept thinking of the cautions in the guidebooks to “be careful not to miss the last bus back to Sorrento.”  The driver said the last bus was at 7:00, but taking those coastal hair pin turns in the dark and rain and wind seemed like a bad idea so I aimed to leave at 4:30.  I know, I know.  Only two hours in Ravello!  But they were two wonderful hours.

This was one town where I did not get lost.  I hopped off the bus and right around the corner was my first destination, the Villa Rufalo.  I bought my 5€ ticket and started to wander.  In addition to being a “pleasure garden,” as the English would call it, the original home had been made into a hotel which was now apparently closed.  For the winter?  Forever?  All I knew was that I could ignore all the signs that said, “Hotel Guests Only.”

I walked with my umbrella in one hand and my phone in the other, trying to capture the rainy beauty of the place.

busts arm-waver

You could get an idea of how blue the sea would be on a sunny day from this overlook.

overlook

This is one of my favorite photos.

urn

I then followed the path to Villa Cimbrone.  It was well signed, but I had no idea how far it was.  I met this cat along the way.  Which would you choose—cat food or leftover pasta?

cat

It took me about half an hour to get there, and lo and behold Villa Cimbone (6€) was swarming with tourists.  I could make out Hebrew, Chinese, and maybe Russian or Portuguese.  Cimbrone was a more formal and extensive villa; I could easily have spent half a day there.  There were picnic grounds which would have been enjoyable, a bar that was closed.  Sigh.

formal-gardens twin-towers

Too quickly, I was back on the bus.  This is a photo I took at the Amalfi stop.

amalfi-at-night

The waves were high there, and groups of college kids were posing on the waterfront for selfies.  Man, were they going to be sorry, I thought, as I watched them get thoroughly drenched.

I got the front seat on the bus to Sorrento.  I could see the curves looming ahead in the dark, hear the driver cursing under his breath, and I watched him wipe his palms nervously on his trousers.  Signs said, “NO HORN BLOWING” at every curve.  The driver blew his horn at each one.

I thought about this day, this place.  Wouldn’t it be great to honeymoon here, especially in good weather?  I thought about my son, Vince.  How I wished he would meet a nice woman.  I had entered a drawing to win a Viking River Cruise a few weeks before.  I daydreamed about giving it to Vince and his wife as a wedding present if I won.

Back in Sorrento, there was still a crowd in front of the church, only now they were holding umbrellas so they were harder to get past.

As soon as I got to my hotel, my phone pinged with a Facebook message from a friend of the family, Jessica.  “I think I saw Vince on a date!”

“Who was on a date?” I asked, “You or him?”

“Both of us!”

Yikes, that was an interesting coincidence.  I don’t usually indulge in daydreams about my son getting married, and as far as I knew he hadn’t dated much since being released from prison, so both happening in one day was a bit odd.

I bounced back out into the street, thinking I would try again to find the Correale Museum, but I failed again.  Then I tried to find the “marina with wonderful seafood restaurants” and struck out.  I was walking reluctantly back toward the hotel, when I turned a corner and beheld what in my overactive imagination appeared to be a Fellini movie set.  This was going to be good, whatever “it” was.

As the Wheel Turns

Sunday was Father’s Day in the U.S.  Vince texted me at 8:00 am and asked if he could stop by.  He had already invited me for brunch, in recognition that I was/am both a mother and father to him.  But when he showed up he had a Roku stick for my T.V., and even better, he set it up for me!

And so I was able to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black on my T.V.  How ironic, that a year ago he was in prison, and now I am watching a show about prison thanks to him.  This coming weekend he will mark two years of sobriety with a barbecue.

So people can be redeemed and restored to sanity.  No situation is ever hopeless.  Never lose hope, even when it’s all you’ve got.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for a while.  I’ve been posting 700 words every other day since September 2014.  The first year, half of the posts were written by Vince, although I did spend a fair amount of time typing and actually posting them.

Now I devote every Saturday and Sunday morning to writing, and each post takes about an hour and a half from blank page to Pending Publication.

Writing, editing, finding photos, researching things like the State of Missouri’s motto—I get into the zone, aka, in the now, and that’s great.

But it’s summer!  I’d really like to sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, read the (real) newspaper, and listen to the birds.

And since I am terrible at just sitting and doing “nothing,” here’s my to-do list of projects I’ve got queued up.  I’d like to publish the first year of this blog—the posts focused on Vince’s and my prison experience—as an e-book.  That feels like it could be a contribution to reform of mass incarceration, or at least a good read.  That’ll take some time.  If anyone out there has any advice for me, I’m all ears.

Then, and this may sound grandiose, but I’d like to try my hand at writing a novel.  The big, sprawling, character-packed type like Dickens or Tolstoy.  Not that I’m comparing myself to them or would even expect to get published.  I don’t have a master’s in Creative Writing from Yale, I’ve never been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I don’t live on the east coast and I don’t have any connections in the publishing world.

But I think it would be fun.  About a year and a half ago, my uncle died.  He was a retired English professor and I carted home some bags of classic novels and have been ploughing through them.  They’re like crossword puzzles composed of intersecting people and events.  These are the old style books that people would collect and display proudly on their living room bookshelf.  They are “lavishly illustrated” and have beautiful leather bindings that are, sadly, disintegrating.

So I’ll just publish and e-book and write a novel this summer.  Ha ha!  Then there’s travel.  I’ve been stockpiling my paid time off, and I could take as much as five weeks off at the end of the year.  It also looks like I’ll be going to east Africa for work.  So where could I go from, say—Ethiopia?  India?  South Africa?  Japan, Myanmar, Australia…so many choices!  Trips take a lot of planning, so I need time for that too.

I don’t know how long my break from blogging will be, but the next post may be a report from afar.  Have a wonderful summer, or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

On Our Last Leg

This is the last post in a series of 32 posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Why are there so many anti-Abortion billboards in Minnesota?  I don’t know.  On this road trip we passed through nine states, including Minnesota.  Some states had a sprinkling of anti-abortion billboards, but mainly they had billboards for adult superstores.

adults Lions den truckers x

“Southern X Posure.”  Get it?  Do you get it?  I love the euphemism “Gentlemen’s Club.” Really, no actual gentleman would step foot in one, right?  But seeing these every couple of miles makes you wonder if there are any gentlemen left.

Why was it okay to advertise porn in Tennessee, one of the most conservative states, while in Minnesota—one of the most liberal states, we were bombarded with anti-abortion billboards?  Maybe the social conservatives who live here feel outnumbered, and therefore that they must fight harder than if they lived in Tennessee.

The route from Albert Lea, Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport wasn’t very interesting, just a straight shot up Interstate 35.  We passed more towns with old world names, like Geneva, Manchester, Kilkenny, and Dundas.  There was the sadly-named Hope, Minnesota.  Had the founders, in their denim overalls, chin beards, and gingham frocks, engaged in some magical thinking?  “If we name our settlement Hope, surely the Good Lord will cause us to flourish!”

Here is Hope’s claim to fame: “Hope had a depot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  A post office called Hope has been in operation since 1916.”  Hope is an unincorporated township, which means the U.S. Census doesn’t bother listing its population, so I can’t tell you whether it is tiny, miniscule, or sub-atomic.

We crossed the Minnesota River as we approached the airport. The Minnesota originates in Big Stone Lake, near the South Dakota border, and flows east until it merges into the Mississippi. I let Lynn believe we were crossing the Mississippi one more time—after gazing out over it in Memphis, New Orleans, and Hannibal.

In 11 days, we had driven 2,660 miles (4,280 kilometers).  If we had followed the Mississippi, we would have driven 4,640 miles because it meanders.  Some day I would like to take a meandering road trip.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot and had a great time.  We saw cranberry fields and went to a Native American pow wow in Wisconsin.  In Chicago, we saw the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and one of the iconic painting, American Gothic.  We were moved to tears in the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  We spent five days in New Orleans with friends, heard lots of music, and ate lots of Cajun and creole food.  Lynn and I spent six days in a Mini Cooper and were still speaking to each other.  We had the chance to try pickled pigs lips.  Instead, we ate at a Cracker Barrel.

We did go off piste a few times, but it would be great to take a road trip with no time limits.

Instead, I dropped Lynn off at the airport at 7:00pm to catch her 9:00pm flight, and drove home.

It was good to be home but it also felt weird.  I had bought this condo so my son would have a supportive place to live when he was released from prison.  I had told myself that I was buying a condo because it made financial sense, and maybe it did, but underlying the decision was my desire to give him a fighting chance of making it once he was released.  (My apartment landlord wouldn’t have allowed him to live with me.)

And Vince was making it.  He had a job, he was sober, and after seven months he had moved out to his own place—the day before Lynn arrived.  So now I stood in the doorway of the empty bedroom.  I felt a little sentimental, but I was mainly happy for Vince and for me that we both had our own space.

The next day I went back to work and got down to writing proposals to fund torture rehabilitation—and banking more paid time off for the next holiday.

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

Easter Interlude

I was Skyping with someone at work who is an attorney who documents torture and other human rights abuses perpetrated against Syrians.  I loved this quote she had on her Skype account:

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

It was said by E.B. White, who along with William Strunk wrote The Elements of Style, usually just referred to as “Strunk and White.”  It was first published in 1918 and is considered one of the most influential English language books.  It was like a Bible to me when I first began my career.  Basically, in a little over a hundred pages (1999 edition), they tell you everything you need to know about punctuation, grammar, composition and commonly misused phrases and words.

Here’s another quote from White: “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”  That’s a great affirmation from someone who basically inscribed the Ten Commandments of writing on paper.  As someone who often wonders, “Why am I writing this blog?” I appreciate this one.

And finally, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I hope I am both.

I’m going to share a couple posts from my son Vince in the next week or so. We started Breaking Free as a co-blog, to write about his experiences in prison and mine as a prison mom.  Is that a thing?  It is now.

Easter Interlude

The anxiety started a little over a week ago, when I found out how soon Easter actually was this year. I was finally going to jump over another big hurdle. I’ve been out of prison now for almost seven months and haven’t had the opportunity to attend a gathering with the extended family, and today was that day.

I don’t actually know what it was that I was afraid of. I guess it’s the fact that I haven’t seen them for a decade and I really don’t know that any of them have any idea where I’ve been. I visualize a hundred conversations all ending abruptly when they ask what I’ve been doing, or why they haven’t seen me in so long. And of course it’s not their fault that they’d be curious, we’re family. My grandparents are wonderful but as far as I know, they didn’t really spread the word about my trip to prison, or my years of alcoholism and drug addiction. And there’s the shame factor for me that I didn’t really want to go into any of that at Easter (or ever). I mean who wants to hear such a sad story on Jesus’ Birthday? Or whatever it is.

All the worry and apprehension was for naught. I was greeted with hugs, handshakes, and warmth. And truth be told, I felt some connection with a few of them that it turns out I really missed. And once again I was sitting at the table with my family, laughing, conversing, and feeling all the uneasiness dissipate. I didn’t recognize a few of them as they had all literally aged ten years and were just kids the last time I had seen them.

I think what I realized is that it doesn’t matter where I’ve been for so long, only that I am here now. Not just in this particular situation, but in everything. It took me a while to adapt to life outside the walls, but now that I have been away for a while, I think I can let that go. That time of my life is over, and even though I constantly need to be work on recovery, it’s not so much about not going back, but being able to move forward.

I just got home from the gathering and wanted to get those words down while the event was still fresh in my mind. I feel really good right now. As if a weight has been lifted off of me. But like many of these weights, it was put there by me.  I need to quit that. I’m a work in progress.