It is an all-too-common temptation and practice to remanufacture our personal history. Some will add clay to their history to make it more challenging or more diverse than it actually was so that they can feel justified to speak with authority on topics of race and diversity and hardship. Vanilla Ice felt he needed to twist the history of his youth in order to legitimize being a rapper. In his mind, a white guy from a Caucasian-typical or even privileged background couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a rapper in the late-80’s, early 90’s. The truth of that perception is irrelevant; it’s how he chose to respond to that perception that eventually defined his career and – some would say – sunk it. It didn’t help that he blatantly stole a hook-bass-line from Queen’s/Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and lied about it repeatedly on national TV.
Then, even more common is the practice of editing our history; removing clay, hiding pages, editing video from the home-movie of our life.
In my youth, my mother was my hero. Without the presence of a father in my life (he was constantly on the road, sleeping, or otherwise ‘absent’ as he did the then-typical “Father Thing” of earning a living to feed and clothe his 9 kids. Different story), I regularly turned to my mother for guidance on how to act, on the meaning of integrity and stalwartness, and how to handle the ever-changing challenges and pressures of my life. During those formative years, my mother could do no wrong. Everything she said was gospel, and every rule she set was golden.
But over the decades since, I’ve learned to view those years as they truly were, for her – and for me.
My mother was truly, in most meanings of the phrase, a single-mother. Every single day for many years, she was left alone to deal with 9 constantly changing human-beings who regularly tested her, challenged her, demanded from her, shunned her, held her, competed for her, and – I’m certain – repeatedly overwhelmed her. At that time, the only chink in my mother’s armor was her (perceived) periodic health issues. Every now and then, she’d send one of us running to the local store – about 6 blocks away – to get her a candy bar because, she said, her sugar was a “…little low”. We had no reason to doubt her. She never looked sick or tired or without her ever-present energy. She was “Mom”. She said she needed a candy bar, we sprinted the one-mile round trip to get it for her, and then we went back to our normal selfish lives.
But as time passed, my memory of those times slowly began to fill-in with more details.
There was a cupboard that we kids rarely, if ever, opened. It was just to the right of the stove. When open, it contained kitchen odds-and-ends that we never needed or searched for. There were no cups or bowls in that cupboard. When it was open, there were no shiny or curious things there that would draw the attention or curiosity of a child. And, in hindsight, I’m sure that this was exactly as my mother intended.
But eventually, I began to remember – to see in my mind very clearly – the top shelf of that cupboard. There were two things on that top shelf that I’m surprised I never remembered before, or asked about when I was young. Perhaps because they were forbidden things; things that kids don’t use, so kids don’t inquire about.
There were several bottles of liquor, and a large number of medicine bottles of varying width and height. Remembering back, I now clearly recall that the bottles were sometimes full, but often were not; that the color of the bottles and the design of the labels on these bottles would often change. In my child’s mind, this made no sense. But to my adult-self, this clearly told me that these bottles were being regularly consumed and replaced.
I have no memory of watching my mother take any pills, not even an aspirin, but those pill bottles – perhaps 15 or 20 of them at any given time – were in constant motion. Always changing places like chess pieces, always emptying and filling, regularly being replaced or joined by other pill bottles.
In her late-40s, my mother’s health problems became more known to me, and more serious. The short version is: She had a quack doctor who regularly over-prescribed her with conflicting medicines. These medicines were for stress and pain and to sleep and to wake-up and for symptoms caused by other medicines. Over the course of about 15 years, my mother incrementally had pieces of her removed because of the damage caused by the alcohol and medicines. During a visit home (from my military base and separate life), I was dumbstruck when my mom jokingly showed me how she could press a finger into her stomach and literally touch her spine because there was nothing in-between to stop it. She made me poke her tummy to prove it.
The last 8-10 years of her life, she simply existed in a haze, never quite the mom of my youth ever again. She still lived with her alcohol and medicines, but now, there were no kids around to hide the activity from. Her once extremely sharp mind and wit were progressively dulled and numbed, with only occasional flashes of the mom I used to know. I’d get periodic phone calls from her, angry, resentful, scared, paranoid, incoherent, sad, and crying. I never knew what to say or do during those phone calls, and they nearly always concluded by her hanging up unexpectedly; sometimes in mid-sentence/rant.
At the end of her life – at 58 – she was simply a shell. She was never a tall woman, proudly “Five-foot-minus” she used to say, but she had always been firm and strong. Never fat, but never skinny. But laying motionless on her couch when I last saw her, my baby sister told me she weighed only 74 lbs. She didn’t die during that last visit; I got a call early in the morning about 2 months later.
Again, in my youth, my mother was my hero. She was the oracle of all truth and the center of my world. But when I got that early morning phone call in early December, I was 36 – and didn’t know how to react. I shed no tears. I felt no pain. I told my wife exactly what I had been told, and then I calmly rolled over and went back to sleep.
It was almost 10 years later when her death finally hit me. Or, more accurately, crashed over me like a tsunami.
In June of 2006, I was on my lunch-break at work. It was (and is) my normal practice to drive my car to a spacious parking lot, open the windows (during non-Winter months), and read a book during lunch. While reading, my phone rang. When I looked down to see who was calling, quite suddenly… I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a thousand pounds were pressing directly onto my chest, keeping me from taking-in air. Panic overtook me – the fear that I might suffocate because I couldn’t breathe-in. After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to finally gulp in air… and so I greedily took long, deep breathes for fear that the weight might return any moment. After uncounted minutes, I eventually began consciously slowing my breathing down, but the fear of The Weight was still strongly present. What if it came back? Would I die? Should I go to the Emergency Room? What if it came back while I was driving? The pulse in my neck and wrists were easily felt, and the whooshing sound of my blood was loud in my ears. I would later recognize this as a panic attack, but since I’d never felt this before, it frightened me to my core. Then, just as I felt I was getting control of my breathing, a wave of sadness washed over me that was so intense, so unexpected, that it scared me even more than not being able to breathe. I started to cry. Not a simple or whimpering cry. No. I started to ball: Mouth open, sobbing loudly, snotty-nosed, rivers flowing from my eyes, drooling, occasional hiccupping, and moans of pain escaping between breathes. This felt like a Weight too, but of a different type. It was as if I was releasing something that had been bottled-up in me forever and it had finally decided to erupt out of me all at the same time. I possessed no strength or wisdom or means to make it stop. I had to let it all flow out until it was done on its own, and that didn’t happen for nearly an hour.
There were other people in that parking lot with their books or their music or their neck pillows, sitting in that lot for the exact same reason I had originally come there for. Part of me thought I should feel shame or embarrassment at my childish outpour – but I didn’t. I came back to work extremely late, eyes swollen, face flushed, nose and throat raw. Perhaps I should have felt the need to manufacture some sort of reason or lie for my tardiness, but I didn’t. My boss saw me come in late and something in my look seemed to almost scare her. She didn’t ask for an explanation, and I felt no need to offer one.
It wasn’t until later that night, wide awake in my bed, that I finally realized the trigger for my – episode. It gradually became obvious that when I had looked down at my phone to check the in-coming caller’s identity, part of me had noticed the date stamped at the top of the phone’s caller ID screen. It had said “June 5th” – my mother’s birthday – and ‘something’ in me had finally decided that it was time for me to mourn. And I did — all at once.
I guess you could have categorized that ‘episode’ as a Panic Attack. Technically, it would fit. But I think it was more than that.
After that day, I began to Remember. My memories of my youth became less and less rose-colored, especially the memories involving my mother. I remembered the cupboard with the bottles of alcohol and pills. I remembered the many times of hearing sobbing coming from behind my mother’s bedroom door. I remembered a conversation my mother had with me after my father left home for good. I knew he was leaving because she had told him to go, but she had later taken me aside to offer a different narrative, blaming my father. She asked me if I hated her. Of course, I had told her, “No”. I remembered several instances of coming home from school to find her slouched in my father’s chair, ‘sleeping’, but actually unconscious. Waking groggily when nudged, her moving quickly to her bedroom – and then later coming out as if nothing had happened and fixing dinner.
From that incident in 2006, going forward, I learned what a very common thing it is for people to remanufacture their history, whether intentionally or instinctively, as a means of survival or mental preservation. But every day we live with that false history, a brick is added to the Weight on our chests. And, over time, that Weight will grow until it is unbearable. Then – either sooner or later – it will either crush us completely, or it will roll off suddenly, causing the substantial Weight of truth to come flooding back in to fill the void.
I’ve seen my mother and several of my siblings deal with emotional challenges. Their lives were filled with panic attacks, medicinal numbing, and periods of their lives overwhelmed by fear and mired in motionless existence. This ‘condition’ killed my mother far too soon. It also regularly whispered into one of my sister’s ears, constantly prodding her to try to kill herself until, in 2012, she was finally successful.
I am told that it is genetic, and yes – I have heard the echoes of it occasionally in my own life. To deny it now would be to give it more power, and I refuse to do that. Alcohol and food and self-inflicted pain were my reaction. One day, I will write about those echoes.
I married a woman who has experienced a lifetime of her own echoes, felt her own individual Weight, and over the years, she has told me stories of her family members who have done the same.
Are our families unique? Or do all families have a seed – some seeds – of the same tree? Do these seeds automatically clone themselves onto our children? And their children? And…so on?
I’m fast approaching 60 and only now do I begin to feel a semblance of control over my own internal Self. At my age, there are very few things that bother me or frustrate me because I’ve learned to recognize that very few things are truly within my control and that sincere recognition makes it much easier to forego ownership of the 98% of life that is outside of my control. However, there is still one single thing that unfailingly causes me concern and anxiety and frustration, and that is the welfare and well-being of those I love: quite notably, my children. My son and daughter are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT beings to me on this planet, and when they hurt, I hurt. Distance between us does nothing to lessen that hurt.
I constantly feel the Weight of self-expectation to know how to help them when they hurt… that something in my history or my experience should produce a magic answer. Of course, this is not true, but I’m sure every loving parent feels the same Weight of responsibility. He is my son – She is my daughter. They always will be. I am their parent. I always will be. And the knowledge that I have nothing to offer but love and time and the ability to listen and empathize is, in many ways, the worst Weight of all.
But, unlike the other Weights I have carried in my lifetime, that is one Weight I bear willingly – and eternally.