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Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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Infidelity III

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Sept. 30, 2012

This is how I broke the rules.*

Until Hanna and Niko announced their intention to come for an extended visit last summer, I didn’t realize how much peace the distance between us had accorded me. Though I missed them both, Hanna terribly, we had done well with snail mail, Skype, and email.

My knee-jerk reaction was one of dread. It was quickly followed by guilt. BIG, FAT, UGLY GUILT.

I appalled myself. My superego roiled. I had to ask myself what was really going on here. In my typically obsessive fashion, I drilled myself.

It went something like this–on and on and on:

  • Was I insincere when I called Hanna my best friend? No.
  • Was I insincere when I professed to love them both? No.
  • Was I insincere when I said I missed them? No.
  • Was I insincere when I stated that I had enjoyed their last visit? No.
  • Was I insincere when I assured Niko that we did not harbor resentment against him for his psychotic break during their last visit? No. It was not his fault he had become ill, and he need not feel shame nor fear our censure. I assured him that no lasting harm had been done.

So why was I having trouble sleeping?

I was just coming into conscious—and reluctant—contact with the reality that my giddy naiveté had been stripped away. My husband Henry had been living in reality all along, and it appeared that our children had bounced back nicely from the last visit. In fact, the kids were all for a repeat performance. They couldn’t wait to see their fun-loving Aunt and Uncle!

The real change had taken place within me. Now I KNEW what could go wrong. I KNEW what a repeat of 2006 might cost my family, my friends, the friendship itself. The feeling I had was similar to the feeling I had after my first cross country race as a high school sophomore. I hadn’t known what I was getting myself into when the gun went off. I ran like a demon and finished much faster than expected. Wobbly and green, I nearly puked my guts out. Having only begun to run two weeks prior, I limped away with a roaring case of tendonitis which made it difficult for me to train–let alone walk–for weeks. Stepping onto the starting line was much harder after that. I knew what lay ahead.

Henry and I talked. It was clear now that successfully orchestrating a lengthy visit involving a person with special needs would require more than, “Y’all come!” We weren’t sure we had the resources.

On the other hand, we loved Hanna and Niko; and we missed them. We knew what this vacation would mean to them and how they had scrimped and saved to make it possible. They continued to try to keep Niko’s illness under wraps but had not been able to avoid negative reactions. Though they lived in the heart of a city, they led isolated lives. They had often told us how loved they felt in our home, and by the time 2011 rolled around, they had named us as their only real friends. We appreciated what we understood as a sacred trust.

Saying yes was impossible. Saying no was impossible.

So, we said yes.

Unlike 2006, Henry and I worked together. We shared our concerns with one another and discussed what we believed would have to be put into place in order for the visit to be enjoyable and “safe” for everyone involved.

Working things out with Henry in this way was an important step in my consciously choosing the welfare of my family over my intimacy with Hanna. I believed this to be a healthy step. I had learned in the intervening years that it is possible to have rewarding intimate friendships without crawling directly into another person’s skin. Reducing my enmeshment with Hanna would undoubtedly result in healthier relationships all the way around. Right? Unfortunately my private discussions and teamwork with Henry were later viewed as the cornerstone of my betrayal.

Henry and I attempted to come up with some boundaries which we hoped would serve us all, and I discussed them with our friends via Skype.

Our invitation:

  1. You are welcome to come visit!
  2. You are welcome to use one of our cars whenever we are not using it.
  3. You are welcome eat all your meals with us.

Our requests:

  1. Limit your visit with us to 4 weeks duration. Spend half of those nights away on outside travel. You can use our house as home base. I’ll take any week off work to hang out with you. Just tell me which week.

This request was huge and very, very difficult for me to voice. I felt tremendous loss at limiting our contact. And I was extremely worried that I would hurt Hanna’s feelings. Still, I firmly believed this request would serve us all.

This request was made to protect Hanna and Niko. Though we had set up a reasonably private apartment (sans running water) in our walk-out basement, he had become overwhelmed by the noise and non-stop activity in our home during their last visit, and it had contributed to his crisis. Hanna, who works an hourly-wage job, is their sole breadwinner and Niko’s sole caregiver.

It was made to protect Henry and his fragile employment status as we prepared to send two children off to college the following year. The economy was still rough, and Henry was still recovering from workplace trauma he had experienced at his previous job. He had just taken a new sales job which required him to work from home. We were concerned that the noise and disruption might prove problematic while Henry was mending and trying to make a professional transition requiring his complete focus. (Henry’s office was in the basement next to the apartment our friends would be using. We knew our success in limiting our daughters’ urge to thunder up and down the stairs for visits would go only so far. Plus, the visit would take place during summer vacation, and it didn’t seem fair to require monastic silence.)

It was made to protect me. I was both stay-at-home Mom and part-time counselor now. Due to my availability and German skill, I would be the go-to person for parenting, household duties, and hospitality until about 6 or 7 each night. I had been a homemaker for many years, and I wanted to adjust our friends’ expectations to make sure I would get to enjoy this visit without becoming overwhelmed and exhausted. I wasn’t too worried on this account, as our daughters would help if asked; and Hanna had always pitched in without waiting to be asked.

It was made to protect our daughters. I was determined to give our children sufficient attention, something I had failed to do during the last visit.

  1. Obtain travel health insurance. It just seemed like a good idea given Niko’s history.
  1. Purchase tickets with a flexible return date in case Niko shows signs of distress OR Henry’s work situation proves too stressful for us to continue to host you.

We believed these were fair and straightforward requests. That didn’t make them any easier to speak. Any limit, any “no” was new to me when it came to Hanna, and I was very, very anxious. I was relieved when Hanna and Niko received our words in the spirit in which they were intended. Spending some time out of the house would be in line with their plans, they said, since they had wanted to do some sight seeing anyway. They agreed that if Niko showed signs of instability, it would be best to return home immediately; and they asked us to let them know if we needed them to leave the house. They indicated their willingness on all accounts and said they were planning to rent a car so as not to inconvenience us!

I felt relieved and reassured.

We were going to have a great visit!

This post is the ninth part of The Story of Hanna. Infidelity, Infidelity II and other installments of the story can be found under the Hanna tab.

*I broke this Family Rule! You can find other family rules and some family-related essays under the Family Rules tab.

The Big Red Robe

The Big Red Robe

My big red bathrobe is 100% cotton and should smell like a clean towel. Yet for some reason, it has always been a little stinky. Laundering doesn’t help. But according to one daughter, the robe smells like love. Kids are funny that way. And scents are evocative. So I guess I’ll go with that compliment and try not to invalidate it by recalling that another daughter once publicly declared that my armpits smell like heaven.

My Dad died in Feb. of 1990, over a year and a half before our first child arrived. The Christmas before his death from cancer, he and my mother went on a grand shopping spree. I believe he sensed he would not recover.

One of his gifts to me was this red robe. I appreciated the robe but I never liked it. It was so thick, so heavy, so ENORMOUS that wearing it made me clumsy and sweaty. The sleeves were so long I could never roll them up far enough to do dishes without getting them soaked. Mostly, the robe hung in my closet and awaited its true calling.

As our children came into the world, the robe started to come in handy. I wore it as I nursed them. I rocked them in it when ear infections kept them up at night. It was big enough to wrap us both cozily within its folds. When the girls were a little older, we’d sit together inside the robe, each of us taking one sleeve and closing the robe around us. Claire wore it at breakfast so she could smell the love. Wearing it when they were sick helped the girls feel better.

I will never be able to get rid of that smelly robe now. And I no longer want to.

Thank you, Dad.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post, click here.

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