My husband did everything he could within the confines and nerves of new fatherhood. What was he supposed to do as he watched his wife genuinely smile and coo and competently take care of our baby, then an hour later, turn around and sob and crumble into wishing “I’d just fall into a black hole of feeling nothing. Dead but not really dead.”
How do you respond to your wife’s sort of death wish?
My husband was a hands-on dad from the start. There for me in every way. But with my exhaustion and hormone-imbalanced brain, nothing helped my depression except getting back on hormone replacement therapy (I have a pituitary disorder that requires HRT), more sleep, and sheer time to get used to the demands of being a new mother.
I was a stay-at-home mother by grateful choice (and self-imposed guilt), but as the months went on sometimes I felt mind-numbingly bored. Flattened and anxious by the drudgery and repetition. Despite the numerous Mommy and Me playgroups I joined. Despite friends telling me “this too shall pass and they’re only young once.” Despite date nights with my husband and girls’ nights.
Without fail I followed the formula prescribed to make the transition to being at home easier. In fact I did more than most of my stay-at-home mom friends who weren’t yet comfortable leaving their little ones.
But it wasn’t enough.
Not until my daughter started Kindergarten and I had more time to myself and to write. First I wrote cathartic stream-of-consciousness ramblings to self-soothe, then gradually I wrote as a part-time profession.
Motherhood tore open beautiful facets of myself and my relationships. Richer in emotion, new layers of appreciation emerged as I watched my child giggle at dandelion fluff, blow a ladybug off her finger, run from the waves chasing her little ankles.
But motherhood also threw me into a full-on identity crisis.
I’d been an ambitious marketing professional for 20 years and then suddenly I wasn’t. A shift so abrupt as to almost reorganize my DNA overnight.
My daughter was of course front and center, her well-being always top of mind. But becoming a parent didn’t suddenly wipe clean my ambition or my need to spend time alone or with my husband and friends.
And yet I was told that it would, promised that “once I saw that little baby nothing else would matter in the world.” But other things did still matter, even while I fell in love with this perfect creature I wanted more than anything.
Emotions in contradiction. Or were they?
Mothers are all different as humans are all different…
Being at home full-time is just easier for some mothers. I don’t mean the work is easier.
It’s universally hard to be chronically sleep-deprived and change 800 diapers. To be hypervigilant that your child doesn’t choke, suffocate in her sleep, stick her fingers in sockets or the dog’s mouth, run in the street, smear her poop, sling-shot off the slide or bite her toddler friend – again.
It’s exhausting to worry about Texas-shaped rashes, fevers, teething, vaccine reactions, solid food introductions, weird cries, to nurse, rock, soothe, stroll, shop, play Candyland incessantly and watch The Wiggles for the 90th time.
But some women adapt better to this new normal. They don’t have a full-on identity crisis as I did.
It goes without saying that watching your child grow and thrive is spectacular. What’s not spectacular is the exhaustion and the ambivalent feelings we grapple with alongside judgment from other parents.
The “I love my child, but I hate……”
I dropped out of the workforce when my daughter was 9 months old (I’d returned part-time after maternity leave). Once the honeymoon of being home ended and the silence of no adult company crept in, once my daughter’s two-hour screaming fests shattered my nerves — the stress, repetition and boredom drove me mad.
So to process my feelings, when I had time I wrote.
I also read stacks of books about real motherhood. Gritty, raw stories (My favorite, Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood). These books unpacked and validated the anger, resentment and anxiety mixed with gratitude, awe and love.
To be human is to feel a spectrum of good and “bad” emotion….
The spectrum of emotions I have since become obsessed to accept rather than vilify.
From that space came a compulsion to write what I learned, loved and loathed about the experience of being human, about grappling with ambivalence.
It starts with the truth. Unpolished. Uncomfortable at first.
It starts with being radically honest with ourselves (and with people we trust).
Honesty takes a risk. Honesty is terrifying.
But gradually the chokehold of trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not comes off.
Freedom comes from (trying) not to judge yourself for feeling different from your friends, mother, sister, cousin, and neighbors.
When I enrolled my daughter in two pre-schools at the same time (half days Mon-Tues for one, Wed-Thu another), you can imagine the comments.
“That’s interesting, I’d never heard of anyone doing that before,” said one friend. “Well at least you’re not doing it just to get your nails done,” said another. “You’re doing it to have time to write.”
“Actually I’m doing it to have time for errands, writing and nails.”
One of my daughter’s pre-school teachers asked me, “Doesn’t your daughter get confused?”
“Not it all. She’s doing really well. Does she seem confused to you?”
“Well, no, actually.”
As humans we share traits born of the instinct to survive and to thrive.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food, shelter, safety, a need for love, validation and belonging.
But we’re also individuals, spectacular in our breadth and depth of interests, challenges and pathways to finding peace, joy, balance and God knows, less angst.
In the end, your authentic self is who should show up every day. Because the ones who love you will love you despite — or probably because of who you are. The others, well, they never mattered much anyway.
I just listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where he interviewed Nicole Byer (both are comedians, actors, podcasters). Marc asked Nicole when her parents passed away. Both were in their mid-50’s. Like anyone who loses parents too young, Nicole had a hard time.
And like most well-intended people who console the bereaved, the condolences came pouring in. Death is uncomfortable. What to say, what not say.
I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll miss her so much. I’m here for you. What can I do? Let me bring you dinner, help with arrangements, whatever you need.
These words are kind, comforting and thoughtful. A salve to ease the unimaginable.
But there are a few words that harm, “At least she’s in a better place.”
Nicole said she heard it a lot.
I know. I really believe they think they’re offering Christian comfort.
But to the survivors, even after long intense suffering, losing their loved one feels like hell on earth. Even if their loved one passing is a relief.
“Better place” translates to, “I know you’re hurting but maybe feel a tiny bit of comfort because where they are is better than where they were.”
Still, it’s a crushing platitude for what the survivor feels.
Profound breathless gut-punched loss, aching grief and suffocating loneliness. How to move through the next moment, the next hour, the next breakfast and bedtime’s oppressive emptiness.
The smell of his shirts, a stray sock near the bed, his favorite mug or leftovers. The photos, travels, shared spaces in every inch of the house. His children’s faces and tears. Thousands of lingering floating reminders that stab over and over and over.
Marc laughed when Nicole mentioned “in a better place.”
“Yeah what the hell is that,” he said. “Better place? No it’s not better. Better is here, with me. That’s better.”
That’s how I feel. Better is here.
This is probably why I never sense my father’s presence like lots of people do with deceased loved ones. I envy their connection. Their surprise ethereal embrace. Some people sense a spirit, or meaningful personal objects fall down for no reason, supernatural events that tell them their loved one is close. I’m here. I’m okay. You’ll be okay.
I loved my father with every cell. I told a friend years before he died in 2006 that when he went, I’d crumble and never recover. I felt it years before I lost him which is why I think I did recover. That and relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore.
My deceased father has never been a spiritual presence. He’s gone. Finite. Only pictures, videos and memories that I choose to look at bring him back. Perhaps I never sense him because spirit energy isn’t enough for me so I don’t even try. Also, the supernatural freaks me out a little. I believe but don’t want to experience.
I want all of my father or none of him. Not his essence. Not his energy. Energy can’t congratulate my daughter on graduating from high school, college and getting her first career job.
At least I had years to say goodbye even as his Lewy Body dementia and Parkinson’s advanced. I got a lot of my dad even as his mind changed. Even when he was confused about things, like constantly falling because he forgot he shouldn’t shuffle to the kitchen to clean out his teacup. He’d forget his body didn’t behave the way his mind wanted. But he never forgot people. Not one. He’d forget time frames, like that I’d recently visited.
Marc Maron’s longtime girlfriend Lynn died fast and unexpectedly two years ago. He didn’t get to say goodbye in the hospital after paramedics picked her up in his apartment. It was during COVID. Death was quarantined. It’s one of the saddest things I heard during the pandemic. Barred from holding a loved one’s hand.
I understand when someone is suffering with no chance of recovery that dying is the better place. Whether it’s heaven or the relief of nothingness. The pain stops. That’s better.
My stepmother has this expression she often says about end of life. “There’s worst things than death.” No one said “better place” when Dad died. They understood my father would shoot them a dirty look from the universe.
My father’s illnesses stole the brilliant, witty, loving person I knew all my life. For the most part he lived and communicated marginally well thanks to a litany of meds and my amazing stepmother.
Until the last year or so when he was wheelchair-bound he got around with a cane and walker. He ate okay. He continued to read voraciously. The day he died on Halloween, his mother’s birthday, two weeks before we’d gone to a famous Tampa steak house for my birthday. We pushed his wheelchair into the elegant table. Dad barely touched his spectacular food. His face rigid the way Parkinson’s involuntarily freezes expressions into faux angry.
That’s the night my father’s quality of life shrank to nothing.
One of his last passions, good food and wine gone. No taste. No appetite. All his pleasures now diseased.
Two days before he died my stepmother asked me to try get him to take a bite of ice cream. Sweet is apparently the final taste to go. My father reluctantly slurped a small spoonful of vanilla just to make me happy. His last bite was for me. His last words, “Thank you, but that’s all honey.”
So yes death is a better place than that.
My father, a gentle quiet agnostic who never mocked my beliefs or cared what others followed, would say that the better place is here on earth and healthy. That death is a black void with sad survivors in the wake.
The better place lives longer than 74. The better place is with his wife, girls and grandkids, sipping a beautiful Burgundy, seasoning his all-day spaghetti sauce, reading the New York Times, ribbing everyone with his perfect Boris Karloff and endless British accents, at peace with past mistakes, watching the sunset over Indian Rocks Beach every summer, screaming at his NY Giants.
Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable.
The last couple years I’ve been part
of a spiritual book club at my Unitarian Universalist church. Now with COVID we
meet through Zoom.
Our readings run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading Donna Cameron’s “A Year of Living Kindly.”
To sum up the latter:
Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is hard, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.
Perhaps you invite the cranky neighbor or incessant complainer friend to lunch because you know that deep down they’re lonely, sad, angry or scared. You put yourself in their shoes. You suck it up and do the right thing.
You call your bigoted friend with a big heart who you repeatedly have to correct when she offhandedly refers to “those Jews.” You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes how you stack the boxes or sweep the floor.
No matter how excruciating, you listen to incessant complaining about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.
The point is — kindness takes time, energy, courage and infinite patience.
I take great pains to avoid spending too much time with extremely difficult people: the racist relative, the self-centered high maintenance friend, the relentless complainer or critic, the snobs, blowhards and narcissists, all people you might like well enough in small doses, but who are generally a pain in the ass.
During book club we often find ourselves grappling with what we’re each willing to put up with around people we love but who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.
Like everyone in my book club I believe that “to love” is better than “to hate,” and that to forgive is better than to resent someone forever. But unlike many in my group, I find myself exploring these topics less from a spiritual point of view, and more from a psychological one.
During college I majored in psychology mostly as a reflex to growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family (to no one person’s fault I might add, and I was loved immensely). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I became obsessed with why I was the way I was (anxious, insecure, the quintessential people pleaser) and — with why humans sometimes treat each other in the most despicable ways.
My father and his first wife Peggy adopted me when I was a few months old. At some point when I was in Kindergarten Peggy met and fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while on a bird-watching cruise to the Seychelles.
From her brief affair, my mother immediately left my father and five kids and never came back. She forged an exotic life away from elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper-middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping across the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.
I’m told for a short time after Peggy left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for five minutes isn’t something I’m known (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).
My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved all his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was often too harsh with my out-of-control brothers. A single working dad commuting an hour into New York City every day, raising a brood of five bereft children, despite family therapy and a grandmotherly nanny, is in the end, up against too much not to lose it from time to time.
Two years after Peggy left my father remarried. His second wife Pat was a remarkable and resilient woman who brought with her, two wonderful boys from her first marriage. But by the time Pat came to the rescue there wasn’t much she could do to repair what Peggy destroyed.
I for instance, was a nervous little thing, briefly mute, refusing Pat once told me, to hug back, my arms peeled to my side, in unconscious defiance, I guess, of ever getting close to another mother. My oldest brother Mark, I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). At least once he called Pat a c….t which isn’t exactly the foundation for the Brady Bunch.
My middle brother John, a sweet anxious smart introvert, battled a stutter, and my youngest brother Chris was picked up by police for selling drugs near a sub shop and hiring a prostitute. Of all the kids my sister appeared the most unscathed although I realized later in life, that wasn’t the case.
I have vague memories of the boys (probably not John) rolling dog food cans at our kitten down our kitchen aisle, their version of delightful cat bowling. This was likely one step past “boys will be boys,” like when Chris lit firecrackers inside sunfish from our pond while my parent’s party guests looked on – and behavior that teetered on sociopath. Seven years after my father and Pat married, they got divorced, a marriage for many reasons, was destined to fail from the start.
As such, over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with high drama or difficult people is remarkably low. Not that sort of age-predicted “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low.
I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable. Sensing the faintest whiff of high maintenance (e.g. people often in fights, narcissists, drama queens, those constantly incensed or in need of inexhaustible attention) I will ever so politely back away until our interaction is seamlessly next to nothing.
My brilliant, funny, addict brother
My brother Mark’s opioid addiction got worse when he hurt his back after a fall while he worked on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. Even in the midst of peddling his worst addict lies, I laughed at his jokes and knew without question, that he loved his family. He once sent a letter to Pat, the same woman he battled and called the c-word, to thank her for taking care of me and my sister after Peggy left.
For years Mark worked as a public defender and later in private practice with a partner, who I can’t fathom how he managed to keep his practice afloat while dealing with Mark’s obvious addiction. Still, his partner kept him on until it got so bad that despite repeated warnings, he had no choice but to turn Mark into the Bar, who after a review, revoked Mark’s law license.
One afternoon in January 2012 my father’s third wife Mary, who I’d grown close from the moment we met, called and told me “You won’t believe this, but Mark’s dead.” An autopsy revealed that my brother died from opioids and advanced arteriosclerosis.
Shocked and gut-punched, I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in nine years. I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, I just grew numb to his lies and without consciously realizing it, numb to Mark.
At one point my brother was so far gone that during a flight home from Orlando after visiting (when during lunch with my toddler by my side and Mark’s client across from me in a booth, Mark slurred the whole time) the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Houston. Apparently Mark’s seatmate tried to wake him so he could navigate around his body to go to the bathroom but Mark was unconscious.
“Your son’s a big guy,” the ER doctor told my father and Mary, “anyone else with this level of alcohol and opioids in his system would be dead.”
Mark eventually landed in prison after three DUI’s (a felony in Arizona). Incarceration kept him alive for a while and when he got out he was sober. In time he started using drugs again, then entered multiple re-habs paid for by my father and Mary. Ultimately Mark settled into using opioids at a level just low enough to fake being sober.
A few years before prison, during one Christmas visit to my house, after a few beers and whatever drugs he took that day, as usual Mark’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, the whites flashed across the room, and his inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he cranked up his brash humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?”
Despite my horror when Mark reached that level of intoxication, I still managed to laugh at his blunt comments. Because humor was stable, humor was who Mark was. Sober or otherwise.
But as the night went on he’d stir the pot. He’d lean back with his beer, smirk, then casually bring up issues between family members long forgotten or resolved. “So Laura you still pissed after that beach trip you guys had with Mary last year?” Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off the fact that he was drowning in his addiction.
One night during a Christmas visit while everyone ran around cooking dinner in our crowded kitchen, setting tables, TV blaring, music on, without asking Mark took my toddler daughter for a night walk on the golf course behind our house. It was only five minutes, but neither my husband nor I knew he took her, or that perhaps in the flurry of dinnertime activity, distracted, someone told him he could take her.
I ran to the backyard, intercepted Mark and asked where the hell he’d been. When he walked inside he announced that he’d “hoisted Taylor on his shoulders to take a walk and with all that bouncing that she probably had her first orgasm.” Then he roared laughing, oblivious to how disgusted I was at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain my brother actually thought a pedophile joke was funny. I wanted to kill him.
I never sensed any inappropriate looks or behaviors towards our daughter, but from that moment my husband and I never allowed Mark alone in the room with her. When I told my father what Mark said that night he gently asked if I was sure “I heard right.” What else can a father say as he’s trying to process the most reprehensible comment imaginable made by his son, about his grandchild, as told by his daughter?
These were the years when Mark mysteriously needed to “get on my computer” to “check his emails” and then ask me to drive him to the nearest drugstore. A well-practiced cover-up by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico, courtesy of a rotation of more-than-willing doctors who back then, handed out pain killers like aspirin.
A small part of me felt sorry for Mark. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships he destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.
Once I became a mother, Mark-the-addict felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I no longer trusted. His filters were anesthetized, his sense of decency blurred by brain-thrashing opioids. I was vehemently protective of exposing my daughter to her uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.
After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using drugs although I often heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in December 2011 he called to ask if he could visit in January. “You sound like you’re on something,” I told him right away. “I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself into the hospital for exhaustion last week,” he claimed.
I told Mark that he could come but that he better not be on drugs because I’d know. Nor could he stay with me or create drama with our stepmom Mary who’d he’d recently been fighting.
Mark agreed and said he’d email me his flight information. A few weeks later he was found dead on the community pool deck at his condo after a night hike in the hills, a new habit I once told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).
Clearly my brother was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict, menacing and toxic. I had to set clear unwavering boundaries or cut him off.
Difficult people on the other hand, are merely a thorn in our side. An inconvenience, annoying, insulting or exhausting. To extend acts of kindness to difficult people rather than to simply be nice is a feat. It’s noble.
And yet we all come to this moment with a different history of emotional pain and family chaos. As a result our threshold for dealing with drama and difficult personalities, our boundaries, are wildly different.
For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. A challenge of character. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will become less difficult.
But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening to our peace of mind.
I recall a woman who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more to recount tales of her downtrodden life. Nothing good, nothing positive despite clear evidence to the contrary, only the world stomping on her at every turn, big or small, real or perceived, past or present — every tale of woe.
And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely and struggling, as well as a nice person, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time. All her stories were stuck in victimhood, and any advice I gently suggested she politely but repeatedly dismissed. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off she went to find a new sympathetic ear.
If we ran into each other when I walked my dog, I’d smile, say a brief hello then keep moving down the sidewalk like I was in a rush, enthusiastically waving goodbye as I said “Have a great day!” She wanted to talk, I wanted to escape.
Boundaries, I’ve come to realize, can be explicit or implicit. “If you do drugs when you come to my house, you’re out” is explicit. Inching down the sidewalk while you smile and wave goodbye to a chronic complainer is implicit. It says, hey I want to be polite, but I’m not investing too much of myself into you.
Boundaries are how we teach people to treat us, and how we decide to treat ourselves.
I know people willing to spend far more time with extremely difficult people than I am. I admire that. These people are saints. They reach into the lives of the most challenging over and over and over. They bear the pain of the snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries, like for instance, reminding The Difficult Person that cursing out the cashier or saying the n-word isn’t okay.
Personally I’ve forgiven myself for why, even if I extend a small kindness to a difficult person, a visit, a meal, that I need to bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for the long haul. And frankly, maybe she’s bored with me anyway. Likely I won’t expand our 15 or 20 minute conversation into making any future plans. I’ll be polite, brief and vague.
Because what sounds like selfishness on my part, is protecting myself from excess exposure to certain kinds of people. So I extend one foot in the door, while I gently pull the other foot out. It’s the best I can do. Correction, it’s the best I choose to do.
I have no doubt I helped destroy my daughter’s faith in God, although I myself, still believe in God, god, in some form or another.
As Tina grew up, my higher power shifted from a His Will Be Done Christian to a genderless “divine force in the universe” with good intentions and a wry sense of humor. It’s pretty hard for kids to grab on to God when God is radiant healing energy crossed with Mother Theresa and George Carlin.
Tina insists losing religion isn’t my fault, that she started questioning back in middle school. She tells me not to worry, that she finds hope and comfort knowing she can “question everything in the universe” and then sit back and “consider the infinite possibilities.”
Wonder is her worship now, and I’m thrilled she has the same unquenchable awe I had at her age. But when Tina told me she didn’t believe in God anymore I was heartbroken. I felt like I’d stolen something from her, like I gradually chipped away at her faith until she had nothing left but skepticism…
I’m delighted I found Grown & Flown, a website and blog about parenting older kids (ages 15 to 25).
Grown & Flown recently published my essay “Why I Stopped Worrying If My College Daughter Was Lonely”
Tina is a thousand times more self-loving and grounded than I was at her age. This is probably why I keep asking if she’s lonely; I’m projecting my 18-year-old unsettled feelings on to her. At 18 I was still emotionally damaged from childhood, anxious and terrified of every new situation. I didn’t enter college as my own best friend and I was always trying to fit into some group or some version of myself.
If you’re interested, you can find the full essay here.
We’re all guilty of this. We slip out a horrible or ignorant comment, cringe, then wish we could take our words back.
Before I was became a mom I once asked a very pregnant friend who mentioned she was going to the beach, “Do pregnant women go to the beach?” “I mean I know they can but do they want to? What kind of bathing suit do they wear?”
“The kind made for pregnant women. Maternity,” then she shot me exactly the you dumb ass look I deserved.
But for the most part unless you’re a horrible person, these verbal gaffs are just innocent ignoramus blunders. Foot in mouth. Hopefully we apologize, eat crow and move on.
But what about senior citizens who regularly say outrageous stuff simply because they think they can.
They do it because we think “they’re too old to change.”
I once had a beloved relative who I loved dearly for her warmth, charm, sense of humor, elegance and full on unapologetic moxie.
I remember the day she screamed “Asshead!” across a golf fairway to former Bears coach Mike Ditka because he accidentally hit his golf ball too close to her putt. I’m sure he didn’t hear but the fact that she waved her golf club in his direction surely got her point across. (Coach Ditka hobbled over on his painful hips and apologized). I had to keep myself from laughing in case my amusement pissed her off even more.
“Asshead” was also this relative’s favorite expletive when people cut her off on the road.
But as full of charming moxie as this wonderful lady was, there was a line she crossed for me. Not often, rarely in fact. But once was too often.
She casually referred to black people as “coloreds.”
One time as “that darkie.” She never said it to black people but about black people. She also collectively and with ever so slight disdain, sometimes referred to “those Jews.”
Again this was rare, but it only takes once to shudder.
Out of respect for her age and our relationship, when she said “that darkie” I politely interrupted and asked how she managed to raise six kids who weren’t racist.
“Oh I’m not racist,” she said calmly. “I know plenty of black people I like.”
That she thought “darkie,” a word abandoned by even the overt modern day racists, was okay because if you “like plenty of them,” you like enough, is a level of convenient ignorance I can’t ignore.
This relative was a warm sophisticated smart lady. She lived among well-aware class suburbanites. She read books and newspapers. She religiously watched the nightly news. She and her husband, (equally privately racist) visited historical monuments near and far, sites stained with our nation’s enslavement.
Of course she knew “colored” and “darkie” were racial slurs.
But to keep the peace, most of us (myself included) usually shrug off senior citizen’s racist words because we’ve given up.”That’s the way some of the older generation is. They’re too old to change.”
No one is too old to change. Old dogs can learn new tricks.
Listen, I get as we age we want to put less energy into filtering our words. At 80, 90+ years old we’ve earned the right to not give a crap what people think.
Not exactly. The free-to-finally-be-yourself movement, you know, the “When I’m Old I’ll Where Purple”movement, isn’t about letting down your racist hair.
It’s about the freedom to be who you want to be in your mind, body, spirit and flashy gold lame shoes. It’s about dancing like no one is looking, but they are looking.
What seniors rightfully earn is respect for their impressive years, fortitude, and their contribution to our nation, families and collective wisdom. Every generation should bow to their elders for what they endured and sacrificed.
Seniors have earned a level of mild crankiness, should they feel cranky with pain. We’ve earned our eccentricity for oddly matched clothes we believe expresses seasoned or tired confidence. We shorthand politeness in favor of blunt talk to get to the point. Maybe we’re a beloved pain the ass.
But basic decency doesn’t have an expiration date. None.
I don’t think seniors should be allowed to pull the “Well I’m old so I’ll damn well say what I want. Not in front of you or God forbid in public. No, “colored, nigger, darky, “faggot, A-rabs, Kikes, Spics or Orientals or hey you girlie”
I don’t care if grandma or grandpa are pushing 107. If they’re of sound mind, they need to join us in this century. If they can’t change their views (too old to change, frankly, that’s a load of crap). Then they need to keep their mouths shut.
People are fighting their asses off for civil rights and unfortunately more often these days, for their literal lives.
The Sort of Sad
I’ve been seriously depressed. Very sad people generally just hole up quietly and don’t bother anyone because they don’t have the energy.
But low simmering sad people who aren’t clinically depressed but who hate their life and really hate that you love yours regularly get a pity card (“Oh that’s just Fran. Ignore her comment about how you always look tired. She’s always miserable. I feel bad for her”).
Sure, if someone lost her job or has a child hooked on drugs or was just diagnosed or is in chronic pain or God forbid lost a loved one, clearly the right thing to do is to let her spout off for a while.
But I told my stepmom years back, even a paralyzed guy in a wheelchair is an asshole if he always acts like one.
“But maybe that’s why he’s an asshole,” she said, “because he’s in a wheelchair.”
But there has to be a statute of limitations on using sad to say whatever we want because at some point sad is no longer an excuse, it’s just a bad personality.
So here’s the thing, being politically correct can be filled with land mines. Not giving a crap is less work.
So sometimes I think we let the non-pc mouthy types off the hook because maybe like us, they’re nervous about what’s okay to say.
Transgender. Gender non-identifying. Bi-curious. Able-bodied. People of Color. African American. Native American.
It’s hard to keep up.
Let me suggest if you can’t keep up ask someone or Google. And if you make a mistake because someone defines herself in a way you didn’t know, it’s okay.
No one has this all figured out. Political correctness is a moving target.
But basic thought for what is clearly or likely offensive only takes a tiny bit of common sense and decency.
After my city’s tragedy, the world’s tragedy, I didn’t cry.
Oh my eyes welled up a little, but I was too shocked, too devastated, too in despair to fully release my horror.
I could not cry because perhaps if I did, I might not stop.
For years and reasons that no longer matter, I’ve learned to place layers of protective emotional covering over my heart. And so throughout my city’s beautiful candlelit vigils, throughout the crowds of sobbing, the overwhelming grief, the tearful hugs, the piles of flowers and the carved crosses lined with victims’ names, I did not cry.
I do not want to sob.
Still, we must honor our fallen and our hurting, even, especially, if the tragedy is close to home
But how I do this, or you do this or they do this, really doesn’t matter. How we sit inside each stage of grief is for the individual to decide.
I watch briefly, the stark gruesome news. I painfully swallow the Pulse reality in measured small doses. I cannot imagine the overwhelming sorrow the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers, daughters and sons bear now and forever.
There’s no formula for how each of us heal. When I feel drowned in the details of that night, the night that happened 30 minutes from my home, I turn off the TV and radio.
A mother of 11 protected her son. She died. He did not.
A daughter, only 18 and the youngest victim in the shooting, escaped safely out of the nightclub until she ran back in to save her friend. In moments of gunfire she texted her parents and begged for help. As she huddled in a bathroom stall the gunman came in and she was shot in the arm. She might have lived, were she not hit in that artery and waited and…
My daughter is 18.
I listen to the stories, to the surreal hell the survivors endured while their friends and others died in pools of blood inches away. Brain matter, one said, on her clothes.
I shudder and then I move away from the words, from the horror of that night. If I don’t I feel helpless and paralyzed.
And so I grieve by activating, by renewing hope through action. I give. I relentlessly support gun control, again and again and again.
I look for signs of recovery. I look for billowing strength.
And those signs are everywhere in Orlando.
You can’t step away from the wallpapering of sad reminders when it’s your town, and yet you don’t want to step away from the showering support from all over the world. The world is blanketing our community in love.