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Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

Rule #13: Dig It In & Pile It On

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

Photo courtesy of Roger Smith

One of my daughters and I coined a term for a family rule which I learned from my father and attempted to pass down to my progeny. In recent years, transmission of this rule has been slowed and nearly halted, with the unfortunate consequence that I have been unable to properly imbue my daughters with a deep-seated belief in their own defectiveness.

You win some, you lose some.

The rule we now refer to as Dig It In dictated that if someone had made an error or in some way fallen short, you were obligated to inform her of this failure. With Olympic strength and endurance. The offender needed to fully comprehend 1. the inconvenience, 2. the irreparable damage (or at minimum, the potential for irreparable damage), 3. the mortification, 4. the danger, 5. the hurt, 6. the disappointment, and 7. the loss of face caused through her action or inaction.

Am I forgetting anything?

As you might guess, Dig It In led to a few sub rules, such as Not Me and Pile It On.

Think of Not Me as a game of dodge ball. See, my family did know how to have fun! “Who broke the lamp?!” “Not me!” Get the idea?

Once the perp had been fingered, it was time for Pile It On, which takes its name from football, another super fun game. While the accuser dug it in, any innocent bystanders, relieved to have been spared and wanting to make sure the tide didn’t suddenly turn against them, made sure the person who had been taken down stayed down.

If the person who had made the mistake came away thinking it was possible to be sorry enough–or ever fully remediate the error–the rule had obviously not been properly executed. A proper digging-in infuses the recipient with the knowledge that her very person is shameful.

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

Photo credit here

Rule # 9: I Know You Better Than You Know Yourself

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

Photo courtesy of TMAB2003

I think I was my father’s little boy.

I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.

Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.

The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.

I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.

Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.

Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…

…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.

I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.

Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.

Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.

Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.

I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.

I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.

In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.

As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.

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


Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons

My dad wasted a fortune trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I started with lessons at 5 or 6 and quit when I was around 17. I have little to show for them.

It wasn’t a total bust though. I got to spend an hour a week with Mrs. Park.

Oh, how I loved her.

Joo Eun “June” Park was a goddess. The daughter of a successful father and the wife of a successful businessman, she lived in a spacious contemporary home with an open design, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furnishings. I had never before experienced a cool leather sectional or a plush white carpet. I had never been in a house anything like this. Her studio was off the kitchen. We slid open the glass door and entered a world of delicious aromas.

Mrs. Park herself was the picture of mod glamour—even when she was dressed for housework. You just knew she was meant to be a jet setter. Sometimes we arrived right after she had returned from the tennis court, and she sported a tiny tennis dress with gigantic sunglasses. She was quite the athlete, swimming countless laps for fitness.

She had a beautiful moon face, perfect skin, and lovely tapering fingers. I loved her clean-smelling kimchi breath, and her musical, girlish laugh. I loved the way she punctuated her speech and gestures with a deep “unh” which I could understand without knowing how.

I loved being loved by Mrs. Park.

Mirrored in Mrs. Park’s eyes, my sister Gwen and I felt special and adorable. Those sunny eyes showed affection, and it was clear that we were more than just a paycheck.

Mrs. Park was no pushover. She could be irritable. My lower lip trembled when she rapped my knuckles with her pencil: “Position! Position!” And the way she corrected her sons hinted at steel and impatience. But when we had the sniffles, Mrs. Park brought us into the kitchen and gave us chewable Vitamin C tablets. If they were gone, she opened the freezer, plunged a big spoon into a frozen cylinder of orange juice, pulled out a glob, and fed it to us like a popsicle. She taught us about kimbap and shared her fascinating food with us.

We had to give her up for 4 years when we went to Germany. We ended up with Frau Ristevski, God help her. Gwen and I were rotten. I mean rotten. She didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Mrs. Park.

Mrs. Ristevski lived in a teensy apartment under the roof of a tall Altbau (a surviving pre-WW II house, which had been divided into apartments) with her husband and son.

Gwen and I dreaded our lessons
Gwen and I were responsible for getting ourselves to our lessons
Our parents did little to monitor our progress beyond writing a monthly check
Nothing good

We would hop on our bikes at 4:55 for the 25 minute bike race across the city for our 5:00 lesson; arrive sweaty, breathless, and unprepared; and piss her the hell off. Every week.

You would think I’d have had the sense to rebel and just quit piano lessons upon our return to the U.S.  You would think. But Mrs. Park had seen something in me which was good and promising, and it was hard to resist the lure.

Once we returned, I stuck with piano even when I fell so in love with running and my team that the only way I could continue lessons was to run several miles to her house on one of my long-distance days.

Mrs. Park was a good sport. She protected her piano bench with a thick towel to sop up my sweat and stink without ever telling me off. I am sad and ashamed when I think of how long we continued this painful farce—me still hoping to please her by living up to my early potential and both of us knowing it was never going to happen.

My last recital was the last straw. I had not prepared and I was unable to remember the piece despite many (many!) sloppy stops and starts. I quietly got up from the bench, returned to my seat, and called it a day. I refused to meet any eyes, I and left to walk home the second the last player finished. Not long after that, Mrs. Park moved to Korea, and I lost track of her.

My friendship with Mrs. Park was briefly rekindled many years later when my daughters were small. My sister had chanced to run into her. It turned out Mrs. Park had moved back to the area and was very excited to find us. She quickly made plans to get together with us, and we did meet a few times. Sadly, the reunion didn’t stick.

Mrs. Park’s sons were grown and out of the house. She was lonely and looking for a daughter. I felt both her hunger and the weight of her expectations, and I knew I couldn’t be the person she sought. I was unable to reciprocate her lavish gestures financially or emotionally, and I became uncomfortable. We lost touch.

Both of my counseling offices are near Korean markets, and I go often to touch, smell, and buy ingredients for my next culinary adventure. Once, as I scrutinized a bag of Korean pancake mix with a furrowed brow, trying to recall what was in Mrs. Park’s pancakes, a white-haired granny no taller than my shoulder grabbed me and dragged me through the store. Using gestures alone, she explained how to make the pancakes. I still follow her orders: Pancake mix, green onions, long hot peppers, Korean squash, chives, kimchi. Meat or seafood, optional.

I ran into Mrs. Park in the market a few months ago. I was torn. I wanted to run and hug her. I wanted to hide. In the end, I crept around the store behind her, beaming love at her back, terrified she would turn around.

Thinking about her is giving me a stomach ache. I want to cry.

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

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