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On Becoming Invisible

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sometime in 2013…

When I realized what was happening to me, I wanted to use elegant-sounding adjectives such as diaphanous or gossamer to describe the process or the outcome. Becoming diaphanous sounds so much more lovely than the reality of feeling myself disappear in dribs and drabs until I look like a moth-eaten cheesecloth or the elbow of my favorite sweater. I might even come to resemble the seat of my daughter’s Speedo after too many seasons of sun and chlorine.

This process had been stealthily underway for a few years before I stood up and took notice. Here, I am primarily referring to the fading and thinning, which is gradual and not, therefore, immediately noticeable. This gentle decline is unlikely to induce trauma.

I don’t care so much about the loss of color—skin lightening, lips fading from pink to beige, hair showing tendrils of white—or the miracle migration of hair from scalp to chin. The loss of skin tone is manageable. And so much for the loss of childbearing potential. I have three wonderful, healthy daughters, and I feel complete.

The loss of muscle has been a little harder to manage. I have always thought of myself as an athlete, a vigorous person, despite the fact that my exercise routine now generally consists of early-morning strolls through suburbia. This is par for the course, I tell myself, as is my diminished visual acuity and what may be the start of hearing loss. Oh, and who cares about that half inch of height? My daughters are thrilled to be taller than I am. They absolutely gloat. So let me be happy for them! It is well and good that they should wax as I wane.

No, I had expected all these developments. It was the disappearance of some of my actual substance that stopped me in my tracks. I went to look in the mirror, and whole chunks were not reflected back.

You know by now that my relationship to Germany, CityX, in particular, holds all kinds of powerful meanings for me. The years I spent there were critical in shaping my identity and my way of viewing life. Present during my formation and beyond, through the constant of our friendship, was Hanna.

As I aged and became further and further removed from those early days, Hanna validated that I had, in fact, existed in that time and place and had lead the life I recalled. The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.

Into my 40’s, this humor kept me firm and supple. I have experienced this phenomenon with other friends as well. My friend Anne, for example, knows my whole life starting with the first day of ninth grade. While our talks always contain new thoughts and happenings, part of what makes the friendship life giving is our holding of each other’s memories. The holding of each other’s substance, I’d say. For only certain people can recall whole swaths of us in this sacred way, keeping us alive and real as the pressure of time bears harshly down upon us.

My oldest friend, Hanna, routinely held up the mirror to me and told me the story of myself. I did the same for her. “Look in the mirror, Jane, look! There you are!”

“Look, Jane!” Yes, young Jane, you are still in this world. Even now, you exist. You are walking to school in your blue Kickers and wearing your green windbreaker. I see your pigtails swinging as you lope into the schoolyard with your red leather Schulranzen (bookbag) on your back. You are planning to collect horse chestnuts on your way home. Oh, there you are, kicking Peter Bachmann in the shin (again!). And remember how happy you always feel in the botanical garden? You are forever wandering the pea-gravel paths and rowing in the lake….

It went on and on, often wordlessly. I saw my story recited in her eyes.

I was unprepared for the blow which severed our friendship. It came in the form of a letter and carried with it the agony of death. The bitterness of Hanna’s denunciation left no room for reconciliation. It was as though she had died at her own hand and left a note saying, “I just want you to know you did this to me.” Terrible, unbearable, waves of shock, grief, self doubt, anger. It is hard to put into words, and trying to do so can still overwhelm me.

In the aftermath of her rejection, I began to notice the deflation. Parts of me began to sag and hurt. More gray in the hair, more hair in the brush. Hanna had withdrawn her holding power and denied a part of my fabric. I am smaller now, diminished. The fading has accelerated, and whole pieces are missing when I look into the mirror.

To a point, the thinning and shrinking is an unavoidable part of growing older. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t easier when friends die naturally or when they gradually move out of one’s life. I imagine the parts of us they hold drift off gently with the ebbing of their presence. I wonder—is this less painful than when they reject us and yank out great clumps of us on their way out the door? When there is grabbing, there is a sort of violence from which one must work hard to recover. At least this is true for me.

The good I have believed about myself and the authenticity of my experience has been ejected from the mirror and thrown down to crack into sharp pieces. My assumptions about myself must be reevaluated, and this will be difficult. A distorted version of events has been cut with a quick jerk of the jigsaw and bolted to the mirror–to the very spot where my eye has always sought perspective. Where do I look for answers now?

I have a lot of work to determine what is true here. I search and try myself.

Oh, I am understanding the aging process better as a result. I understand why I must diminish and become smaller and paler. Fewer and fewer people will know who I was and even who I have become; and key parts of my being will slowly disappear from consciousness altogether. I expect that in time people might stop noticing me in stores, restaurants, professional circles. Perhaps I will become just one more little old lady. Unremarkable. Unremarked. Hardly worth the effort of conversation. Someone whose presence is allowed but not welcomed. Seeing this potential clearly, I know that fear and vulnerability could cause me to shrink myself down further still, until I have withdrawn into a living death.

While I do not intend to lift, tuck, dye, buff, paint or plump myself back into a spectre of youth, I don’t begrudge those who would. It is simply not my style. Rather than deny the truth of my decline, I believe I will choose to welcome it. Yes, I am deciding right this very moment. I can cry over my losses or rejoice at my divestment.

It becomes my choice, then, to send Hanna off with a gift. No one can rip from me what I would freely give. To my children, I give my once-firm breasts and belly. To Henry, I present the lips which seek his and the hands which have issued countless caresses. To Christopher and Jack, my coaches, I offer the legs and feet of my youth. It was worth the bunions and fractures to know you, to run so fast. Hanna, I give you those parts which you have attempted to snatch. I nullify your theft by my consent. I bless you, dear friend….

Please don’t interpret my words as passive or depressive.

Make no mistake, I do not intend to go softly.

I will stubbornly affix myself to these pages so that I can look back and find myself when I feel unsure. And I’ll keep writing myself into new memories and new meanings. Just you wait and see. I ache at the loss of my past. I am unwilling to lose my future.

So I’m killing off the cheesecloth metaphor and sparing myself. I am made for better. That which remains of me after each act of giving will fold upon itself, concentrating my indivisible essence into an ever purer form.

I’m going to become my finest and truest self, a single filament as sinuous as silk and as strong as steel. And when I have divested myself so fully and stretched so thinly as to disappear altogether, I’ll just keep on going.

I am thankful for an eternal perspective.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior segment, please click here. For the next segment, please click here.

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A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

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