Eye contact

The parents never knew. To them, their children were kind. Sure, they were quiet around strangers, but that was to be expected, even desired. It kept them safe to be wary. They were sure their children were polite to any and all. Little did they know that their children’s eyes lit up only for them. Otherwise they were as cold as the grave, as dangerous as ice on a March pond.
It was easy for Jenny’s mother Stephanie to brush off concerns from her Mother’s-day-out program. They told her how little Jenny was hostile to the workers, that the other children stayed away from her. They were scared of her. Her eyes bored through, searching for hidden darkness. The children had never seen anything like this before. The adults had, those with sons who come back from the Army, scarred in body and soul. They made it back in body only. A part of them was still out there, searching for the enemy, always alert for danger. Some went one way, and jumped at every car backfire or firecracker blast. Some went the other – went dark. Kill or be killed. Do unto others before they do unto you.
Jenny’s eyes were like those folks, but she was only five. She had no reason to look that way. Both of her parents were loving and kind. There was no abuse of any sort. She was well provided for, wanted for nothing. Maybe if she’d had a sibling they would have noticed, the signs would have been heeded. Probably not, though. Siblings are always suspect. The petty rivalries and squabbles that naturally ensue guarantee that unfavorable reports were always seasoned with a handful of salt.
The boy named Arnold was the same. He first spoke on his fifth birthday, his eyes still dead. He was intelligible only to his grandmother, who translated his muttered birthday lunch plans as “a visit to McDonald’s” and not to “Aunt Dee” as he’d said. Even she didn’t understand why he said this, because the clerk’s name was Judy at the restaurant they frequented.
The problem was that he wasn’t here in this place. Neither child was. In bodies in this dimension, but otherwise elsewhere. Or else-when. Perhaps they weren’t defective, but inadvertent time travelers, unaware of their failure to truly be in one place at a time. How would their caregivers notice, after all, what with their own distractions? Perhaps these children were the newest iteration, designed by natural selection to never be truly anywhere. It was a good psychic defense against the insensitivity that was now endemic.

Begin again

When we are raised with abusive or neglectful parents, we learn maladaptive coping mechanisms. When we grow up, we often unconsciously continue those habits, reflexively acting, mindlessly being. With the new life that is offered to us through Jesus, we can begin again, with a new Parent in God, who loves us unconditionally and without measure. We can learn how to act in new healthy ways, rather than being stuck in our old mindless habits. Jesus calls us to a new life of being awake and fully alive and present in every moment. This is the promise of new life in Jesus – a slate wiped clean, a chance to start again. No longer are we slaves to our past. No longer are we consigned to repeat our actions, over and over, flinching from blows that no longer come.

Molly under cover

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The Eames children could not bear to be without their mother. Simply losing sight of her would set one, and then all of the children to wailing. Even after she returned to the room it took a good ten minutes to assuage them.
It was a worrisome thing. You’d expect it from babies. They are so helpless. Their every need has to be taken care of by an adult, and often that was their mother. It stood to reason they’d think she was God. Plenty of adults acted the same way, come to think of it. When everything started to go sideways they forgot themselves and made it worse with all their worrying.
Perhaps it was because the children were so close in age that it kept happening, the self-reinforcing feedback loop. The boys were only a year apart. For Molly Eames it felt like she was pregnant two years running. She had no intention to make it three so she simply told Mr. Eames that there would be no sex for year (at least) until she felt like going through that ordeal again.
She’d not expected marriage to be like this. Her mother, either out of modesty or meanness, never told her where babies came from, or more accurately how they got there in the first place. She was horrified to learn the secret and was incredulous at first. How was that even possible? Much of her life was a mystery to her. Her parents were conservative on many fronts and had homeschooled her to keep her from being “infected by the disease of the world” as they so often informed her. It was for her own good, they said. It was like she was a time capsule, a frozen moment in a fictional time when everything was safe. Their greatest hope was that she’d be a beacon of light in the dark times they knew were soon to come.
Her lack of education chafed at her once she realized it. If she could get pregnant from contact with a part of her husband’s body, then what else could happen? What else had been hidden from her? After her first check up at the obstetrician she went straight to the library and got every book they had on biology. Three weeks later she returned them all and decided to start at the beginning of the nonfiction section and work her way through the entire collection.
She told no one in her family what she was doing, least of whom her husband. She even made sure to confirm that her library record was private when she got her card. She figured if her family had hidden important knowledge from her then they must think she wasn’t worthy of it, or that it wasn’t worth their time to tell her. So she decided it wasn’t worth her time to tell them otherwise.
Molly Eames couldn’t hold off from sex indefinitely, however. Her husband was becoming insufferable, acting as if he was a prisoner of war in his own home. If he’d had to endure what she had – months of nausea, clothes not fitting, and even swelling in fingers and feet (not to mention the painful and embarrassing ordeal of actually giving birth) he might have thought differently about sex. Ten minutes of fun wasn’t worth nine months of feeling possessed by an alien being.
Giving birth was the most difficult thing Molly had ever been through. It wasn’t joyful at all. She simply didn’t understand the chittering from her neighbors and friends who gushed about how wonderful it all was. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they were insane. Maybe the whole experience had turned them permanently crazy with no hope of recovery. The worst part wasn’t even the pain, which was so bad it created a whole new category of suffering. It became her new ten on the pain chart, a place formerly occupied by having her arm set without anesthesia at 12 after she fell out of a tree.
She never climbed a tree again after that. Just like with sex, the risk wasn’t worth the fun. It’s not like her husband was any good at it anyway. He called it “making love”, never “having sex” but it wasn’t lovely at all. It was sweaty and awkward and strange. Perhaps other people were used to being naked in front of others, but Molly wasn’t. There was nothing exciting about it. She was always trying to cover up with the sheets. She wasn’t trying to hide how she looked so much as not be cold. Her husband wasn’t much to look at either, and he only took a bath once a week, and then only if she insisted.
The “being naked” part of being an adult was a great shock. Her parts most certainly weren’t private when she had to go for her checkups when she was pregnant but at least that was just the doctor who saw. When she gave birth, it seemed like the whole hospital was staring at her nether regions. She briefly considered selling tickets to offset the bill.
Even though her two children were very clingy, she had agreed to produce three when they had that discussion before marriage. It was important to work out such things. Children or not, standard of living expected, minimum expectations of signs of affection – all of these needed to be negotiated before you said “I do”. Too many folks didn’t see marriage as the legal contract that it was, hoping love would right all wrongs and mend all wounds. Without clear agreements it caused more trouble than it cured.
But she’d promised three, so three it must be. There was nothing to it except to do it, so she determined her most fertile time from some of the research she had done and had sex once more to provide her end of the contract. Better get it out of the way, like ripping a Band-Aid off. To prolong the suffering was pointless.
Walter Eames wanted a picture of the children, but not of his wife. He was sick of who she had become – no longer meek or mild. She seemed more confident, more aware. She certainly wasn’t the person he had married – someone he could push around all day long with nary a peep. Not like he thought he was pushy, no, never. Being assertive and decisive had gotten him to where he was at work, but it was getting him nowhere at home. Debate and compromise weren’t part of his repertoire.
But there was no way to photograph them without her. The moment she would walk away from them, they’d set up a wail worse than a tornado siren. It was ridiculous. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom without them pitching a fit. It was embarrassing to go out in public with his family, so he didn’t. Far from being a source of pride as he had expected before he got married, he now frequently left them at home and went out by himself. Even though he’d worked all day and she stayed home with the children (that one attempt at day care changed any plans they might have had of her working outside of the home), he was happy to spend even more time away. This was not turning out to be the life he’d planned as an adult.
So when it came time to get a portrait made, he had to get creative. His parents had asked to see the kids for years. He refused to make the six hour drive with her, and his parents were too frail to make the drive themselves. A portrait would have to do. He looked around the studio and his eyes landed on a backdrop. “That’ll do!” he exclaimed, and snatching it up, pushed his wife into the chair, dropped the fabric over her, arranged the kids around her, and ordered the photographer to snap away. Other than the sound of the shutter release, the room was silent. Nobody other than him could believe this was happening.

Dolly dearest

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After nearly 5 years, Sara’s dolly had started to talk. Sure, Sara talked to it, dressed it, gave it a name. She even pretended to feed it cookies and tea every Sunday afternoon. She’d even thought she’d heard it answer her before, but it was always in her head or her heart. It was never out loud.
The first time she heard it out loud she thought she was imagining it. The second time, just a moment later, she thought her older sister Janey was playing a trick on her, throwing her voice. It was just like her to torment her little sister in ways that she could easily deny later to their busy and no-nonsense parents. Sara had learned early on that if she brought up charges, there had better be proof or the punishment she expected Janey to get would fall on her. She’d also learned that it was best to settle matters herself right away.
Sara jumped up off the bed, scattering her coloring pages and crayons and scrambled to her bedroom door. She jerked back the door, expecting to see her sister’s back as she ran away. But nobody was there. The hall was empty – not even the sound of bare feet dashing away. Stunned, Sara went to find her sister. After a few minutes she found her outside on the hammock reading some book with dragons on the cover. There was no way Janey could have gotten there that fast. Sara slowly walked back to her room via the kitchen, helping herself to a piece of banana bread and a glass of lime Kool-Aid. She did all her best thinking when she had a snack.
As soon as she sat down on her bed, with her dolly nestled in her lap, she heard it speak again.
“Won’t you give me some of your snack?” The voice was so soft and so sad, so full of loss and longing. Sara held the doll out at arm’s length and stared at it, blinked her eyes. Then, with slow horror, she watched her doll blink her eyes too.
“You’re always pretending to feed me, but you never do. You’re such a tease. No wonder nobody plays with you.”
Sara was frozen with fear, yet managed to stammer out “How can you talk?”
Her dolly said “Silly! How do you think anybody learns how to talk? I listened. I listened to you blabbering on about how sad you are. I listened to your sister taunt you about being a scaredy-cat. I listened to your parents fight. I’ve listened to all of it. I’ve listened to the television announcers talk about pollution and war. I’ve heard the songs on the radio about getting even and how things were better back then. All I ever hear is sad sad sad, so that’s who I am. I’m everything you’ve ever cried about, because you’ve never shared your good days with me. My hair is matted from your tears. What did you expect? You made me this way.”
Sara threw her doll into the middle of the room and retreated to the furthest corner, curled up into a ball. It was nearly half an hour later before she realized her mistake – the doll was between her and the door. How could she escape? She put off the decision a little while longer, but soon she realized she had to pee and there was no ignoring that. It was either creep past that accursed doll or go here in the corner. Even though she was young, she knew that would be a bad idea. Even if her Mom didn’t find out soon and punish her for it, Sara would smell the sickly sweet smell of her dried urine whenever she was in her room. Going to sleep would be terrible. She had to risk it.
Keeping her eyes on the doll, she slowly got up so as not to startle it. As slow as a cat stalking a cricket, she moved around the edge of the room as far away from her former best friend and confidant as she could.
She had told it everything. All the things she couldn’t say out loud to her Mom, her sister, her friends, she told the doll. All her fears, all her failings. Every little sneaky thing she’d done to get back at her sister without her knowing. She’d poured all of her darkness into this doll, and none of her joy.
The slow realization of what this meant descended upon her like an evening fog, clouding her vision, narrowing it to a pinpoint. She knew with dreadful certainty what she had to do next. She must destroy the doll.
So far, there was no movement from the accursed thing, but she couldn’t be sure this would continue. She’d thought it would stay silent for all those years, but that had changed. What other horrible changes would happen? Just because it wasn’t moving now didn’t mean it wouldn’t start, and soon. She had to destroy it as quickly as possible before it ruined her life.
She closed the bedroom door behind her and dragged a chair from her sister’s room to jam up under the doorknob. That would buy her some time to think of her plan. She almost forgot her need to use the bathroom in her fright, but she took care of that now. While in the calm and quiet space of the hall bathroom, she considered her options.
Burial wasn’t good. Her Mama would get mad about the mess she’d make, and how could she be sure the doll would stay buried? It might dig itself out. Perhaps she should chop it up first. Then she realized if she did that she could put all the pieces in separate places around town. The head could go under the drainpipe of the neighbor’s house at the end of the block, an arm in the trashcan in her school’s bathroom. There’s no way it could reassemble itself then. But maybe the head could still talk, she realized with a cold shudder. She’d better bury it, at least, to be sure.
Burning it was right out. Her Mama would whip her if she caught her playing with matches again. She’d gotten in trouble for that when she was three, having set a flip-flop on fire, wanting to see how the rubber melted. It melted alright, and so did the carpet it was on, and the curtains, and the entire bedroom. The whole family had to stay in a motel room for nearly 4 months until the insurance company got the restoration work done. While it was an adventure for the girls, it was a headache for the parents, so they made sure that Sara understood they were not kidding about fire safety. Janey used it as yet another way to torment her little sister, who she never wanted in the first place. Anything she could do to get her to leave her alone, or even leave, was fair game.
This was proving to be the hardest thing Sara had had to contend with in all her tender years. Maybe she could preempt the doll and confess all her slights and sins to her mother before the doll did. Just thinking about that made her stomach go icy cold and wobbly. There were a lot of things to confess.
You or I would consider them trivial, but Sara, with her limited experience, thought them worthy of eternal damnation. The perspective that comes with time downgrades childhood sins to summer showers instead of the tornadoes that they seem to be at the time. She had plenty of time to learn what real sins were about, but as for now, she felt damned.
But she didn’t have plenty of time to figure out what to do about the doll. So she did what she was taught to do in Sunday school. Not like she did a lot, but she figured it couldn’t hurt to try.
“God?” She murmured, on her knees on the cold porcelain tile on the bathroom floor, “I could use some help right now, if you’re not too busy and all.”
Sara wasn’t sure she had a good connection, because she couldn’t hear God’s reply. Was praying like talking on the telephone? Sometimes when she was talking to her grandmother in Canada the connection wasn’t that good. Also, often Gram’s hearing wasn’t that good either. Her mother always told her to keep on talking anyway, that Gram could make it out. Maybe God was the same way? It was worth a try. It wasn’t like she had anybody else she could call. This was some big stuff. She needed to go straight to the top.
“God? I hope you can hear me because I sure need some help here.”
Sara heard a voice so quiet that she ignored it at first. It was centered in the middle of her chest, about heart high, and not in her ears. She didn’t hear it so much as feel it. The feeling-voice said to do nothing at all, to not destroy the doll, to not say anything at all to her parents about it. To act as if everything was normal. This seemed too easy, she thought, but precisely because it made no sense she decided it might actually be a message from God. She would never have come up with this on her own. And, if nothing else, it required almost no effort on her part. It was going to be difficult to pretend everything was fine when it most certainly wasn’t, but if God insisted, there must be a good reason. She decided to play along.
The doll said nothing the next day or the next one after that. It was nearly a full week later before it spoke again, and this time it was around Sara’s Mom. She was straightening up Sara’s room one morning and the doll suddenly started to talk, as clear as you please, staring straight at her. Sara’s Mom stopped making the bed and stood stock-still, refusing to turn and face the voice. It sounded just like her mother, who had been dead for 18 years, long before her children were born. In fact, she realized suddenly with a guilty shudder, the anniversary of her death had been two weeks ago and she had forgotten.
She usually remembered, usually dreaded that day. Her mother had been the model of motherhood in public – PTA chair, Girl Scout troop leader. She even had started her own nonprofit tutoring business to teach all the recent influx of immigrant children and their parents how to read and write in English. Three times in her life she had gotten the coveted “Citizen of Lewisburg” award given out at a huge gala once a year.
Only Laurie, Sarah’s mom, knew the truth. Only she knew the true evil that lay beneath the façade that everyone else saw. Only she knew how twisted and damaged her mother was, yet because everyone else saw her as a saint, nobody believed her when she asked for help. She tried to tell her teachers about the emotional and mental abuse she suffered from her but they never listened for long, thinking Laurie was making up a story. “You’re so creative!” they’d exclaim, and encourage her to write for the fiction column in the school newspaper. “But try to write something nicer next time, honey. Girls don’t write scary stories, do they?” they’d suggest.
After a while, Laurie chose to be silent about the abuse. Her mother was clever. It never was physical. There never were bruises or scrapes. Even if there had been nobody would have believed her anyway.
She didn’t dare look at the doll, but she didn’t dare turn her back to it either. It kept speaking, kept taunting her. It had chosen well. Nobody else was home. Nobody else could listen in. She could keep digging in, taking up where she left off 18 years ago. Laurie was deer in the headlights frozen, speechless. For the longest time the doll kept talking and Laurie listened, breathless, immobile. After an eternity, the shallow breaths she had been unconsciously taking caught up with her and she suddenly drew in a huge breath to make up. It was then that she recovered her power.
Without a word, she snatched up the doll by its arm from the corner chair it was in and carried it to the nearest trashcan. Without a word she swept up the handles of the brown plastic Kroger bag she used as a trashcan liner and tied them shut. Without a word she scooped up the rest of the trash in the house, put it all together in a huge black bag her husband kept for cleaning up after yardwork, snatched her car keys that were hanging from the hook by the front door and marched straight out to her car. Within 10 minutes she was at the city dump and the deed was done.
She was still shaking by the time she got back home. After a little internal debate, she decided to go for a quick walk around the neighborhood first and then have some linden tea. Yes. That order seemed best. Time to shake out some energy and then brush away the crumbs.
Sara got home from school and went straight to the kitchen for a snack. She took her gingersnaps and lemonade to the porch to enjoy. Normally she would go straight to her room to share it with her dolly, but after it had started to talk she had changed her ways. She spent as little time in her room as possible now. She couldn’t bear to think of it staring at her while she slept. She was sure her teddy bear and stuffed giraffe could protect her from it, but she didn’t want to risk them being harmed in the fight. Plus it wasn’t fair to ask a doll to fight against another doll. It was against their code, after all.
But then she soon remembered that she planned to color after school today, and her crayons were in her room. There was nothing for it except to do it, so she got up and went to her room. Waiting was only going to increase her dread and make it harder. Best to get it over with.
In the past week she had learned to not look in the corner chair where she had put her dolly after that terrible day. So she almost missed that it wasn’t there. A wave of terror like ice water poured over her when she noticed its absence. Where was it? Had it finally started to walk? Had it talked to her Mom and told her everything and she was now going to be interrogated?
Sara remembered the still small voice she’d heard when she prayed for guidance a week ago. Don’t worry about it, act like everything is fine, it said. So she pulled herself together and gathered up her crayons and coloring books and went back to the porch. By then her Mom was there sipping her tea. Their eyes met and both smiled awkward, guarded smiles. Something passed between them – a truce? An understanding? For the rest of their lives they never talked about the missing doll.

Adulthood – being independent versus being an “adult child”.

I saw a Facebook post recently that I really liked. It said “I think you should pay for your own mortgage, birth control, college loans, food, and cell phones. This isn’t because I’m a Conservative. It is because I’m an adult.”

If you have to have someone else pay for these things, whether it is your parents or the government, you aren’t an adult.

I’ve never identified as a Conservative, but I agree with this.

I feel that people need to take care of themselves, and the more that we do for them, the more we are harming them. The more we let people take care of us, the more we are stunting our own growth.

Remember the phrase “Age is just a number”? That is usually used to say that it is never too late to play. It goes along with “You are only as old as you feel”. These are meant to be inspiring. These are meant to encourage you to follow your dreams and to be yourself.

But they have another side to them. You can be 40, even 60, years old and still dependent. You can be technically an adult and still act like a child – expecting everybody else to take care of you and clean up after you. You can be an adult legally, but a child emotionally.

Now, is that your fault, or the fault of the people who rescue you? If nobody rescued you, you’d have to take care of yourself.

Some important words here –
Codependency.
Enabling.

I know too many “adult children” who use their parent’s library cards because they have run up the fines on their own. I know too many “adult children” who blame everybody else for their own problems. I know too many “adult children” who live at home with their parents.

I’ve met many “adult children” who still use their parent’s address as their legal address. They say “Well, your parents are always going to be there, right?”

No, they aren’t.

I’m starting to think that one of the best things my parents ever did for me was to die when I was 25. It made me grow up fast. It made me have to become independent. If things get hard, I can’t just move back in with my parents. I can’t just quit my job or get divorced when things get hard and retreat back to my old room. I can’t call them up and beg for money when there is an emergency.

I have to plan ahead and look out for myself. I had to become an adult.

And I expect everybody else to do the same.

Time travel dream

I had a dream that I travelled back in time to visit my Mom. We were together in the living room in our old house in Chattanooga. She was sitting on the couch by the windows, where later we would put the hospital bed. She died in the same place she had sat all those years.

When I traveled there in my dream, I told her that I was really 45, that essentially, I was possessing my own body. I asked her how old I was at the time, because everything always looked the same there. She told me that I was 12.

I told her that she died when I was young, but I didn’t tell her when. I told her how it affected me. I told her that she might want to stop smoking and start eating well.

We had a steady diet of junk when I was growing up – no fresh vegetables, a lot of fried food. If we ate vegetables at all they came out of a can or the freezer. A lot of food was brown. The walls of the house were stained yellow with all the tobacco smoke. It was a very unhealthy place to grow up. I had no control over my environment, and the people who should have looked out for me were killing me day by day.

For some reason I felt like I could warn her about the train wreck she was making of our lives by smoking and eating poorly. Her bad choices were my bad choices by default. I was her child and had no control over what I ate and the air I breathed when I was there. For some reason I thought I could change her ways by coming back as an adult to tell her what would happen if she didn’t change.

When I woke up, I pondered on that dream and I thought of this Bible passage. Jesus told this story about a rich man and a poor man. The Lazarus in this story isn’t the same one he raised from the dead – that was the brother of Martha and Mary.

Luke 16:19-31
19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz′arus, full of sores,21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz′arus in his bosom.24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Laz′arus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz′arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’” (RSV)

So I realized that it didn’t matter. Even if I had been able to go back to tell her to change her ways, it wouldn’t have done any good. She knew that smoking was bad for her but she still did it. She knew that she should eat better but she didn’t do it. She had made her choices and she stuck to them, regardless of the warning signs and the evidence.

How many people are like this? They’d rather stick with what they know to be bad rather than make the change to what they know to be good.

Change is hard. It takes a lot of energy to break free of a bad habit. But it is worth it. And the more you push towards being healthy, the more energy you have to make other changes.

Risk of drowning

My parents were constantly exposing me to risks. Really dangerous risks. Lethal risks. Many of them involved drowning.

They thought it was a good idea to take me to the site of a local K-mart that had gotten flooded. This was before the levees were put in place in Chattanooga, and the entire store and the parking lot was flooded. My mother held me in her arms and waded into the swirling waters. I was a toddler, maybe three. I can remember trying to claw my way out of her arms to get away from those turbulent waters, those unpredictable waters. I didn’t know where I thought I was going to go, but I knew I needed to get away.

They thought that it would be a good idea to tell six-year-old me that the train that we were going on in New York was going to go under a river. They somehow thought that was something I needed to know. I remember, almost forty years later now, being terrified of this idea. What if the walls broke? All that pressure of all that water. It would come in, on top of us, and kill us. We’d die slowly because we were in a subway train. But we would die, certainly. The water would seep in, if it didn’t crush us first. I can remember nothing more of this experience, because apparently the idea of it simply short circuited my brain and I went to sleep. I woke up at the end of the journey.

They thought it would be a good idea to tell me that the wall that I saw when we were in New Orleans meant that we were twelve feet below sea level. That wall was the only thing that was keeping the water from engulfing us. From engulfing me. That wall was all that stood between me and a watery death. That death would have been faster than in the train, but still terrifying. I was twelve, and not past the idea of irrational fears. The wall had held this long. Surely it would hold longer. Surely it wouldn’t cave in just at the moment I was there. Surely.

My parents kept exposing me to these risks, these dangers. They kept thinking that this was a fine way to parent. I thought that they were good parents, and in many ways they were. They tried their best. They did the best with what they had. They meant well. But they weren’t ideal. And the fear of water stuck with me for a long time.

I can remember one time when we were on one of our last family vacations. I was around six, and we were in Florida. I don’t know why we stopped going on vacation. There were twenty more years of sullenness and sulking that happened after that – and that was between them. I’d expect that from teenagers, but not from middle aged people. Perhaps we didn’t have enough money. Perhaps they didn’t like to spend that much time together anymore. Perhaps they were just going through the motions.

It doesn’t matter.

I remember going out into the sea and getting turned upside down. I remember the water was all around me. Perhaps a wave had engulfed me. Perhaps I’d wandered out too far and lost my footing. All I remember was that I was in the water and I didn’t know which way was up. Somehow I didn’t worry about it at the time. It seemed normal. The next thing I know, my Mom grabs me by my foot and pulls me out of the water.

They didn’t teach me how to stay safe in the water then. They didn’t teach me any survival skills in general. Perhaps they didn’t know them for themselves. Perhaps they didn’t think that was their responsibility.

I took swim classes later, when I was probably eight. We went to the Cumberland Y at the time. I faked learning how to swim. I didn’t know I was faking it. Turns out that I could move through the water, but I didn’t know how to breathe at the same time. I was really good at holding my breath.

My Mom had told me that as soon as I learned how to swim I could get my ears pierced. I swam one day, and she thought I was fine. I wasn’t. I was still in the shallow water, and I still was faking it. In that swimming test I was allowed to stop and touch my feet to the bottom of the pool twice. I did. I caught my breath and went on. My Mom was so proud of me, and I didn’t know why. I got my ears pierced that afternoon. I still didn’t know how to swim. Water still was winning that battle.

When I was offered the chance to take the deep water class I freaked out. I knew I couldn’t fake it there. I knew that there was no way I could make it. I knew that was a death sentence for sure. I said no to the class and never went back there. My Mom didn’t understand my terror, and didn’t question it.

Years later I took a swimming class when I went to my first college. That school had a policy that everybody had to know how to swim by the time they graduated. Some benefactor had a son who had graduated, but had died in a boating accident because he didn’t know how to swim. The benefactor was overwhelmed with grief that his son had graduated with honors but didn’t know this basic life skill. He donated a lot of money to the school with the stipulation that everybody had to know how to swim, at least in a basic way, by the time they graduated.

I took the class the first semester to get it over with. I took it, and I took basic swimming. I learned how to breathe. I learned how to turn myself over to rest. But most importantly I learned how to not freak out in the water. I didn’t learn this from my parents, and I’m sad. I’m sad for them that they taught me to fear water rather than to respect it. I’m sad for them that they never understood the damage they did to me.

I now take water aerobics for exercise, and I’m grateful for it. I actually do it in the deep end, with a flotation belt. I’m glad that I’ve gotten over my fear. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over wondering what other psychological damage my parents wrought.

Death guilt – on the relief you feel after a parent dies after a long illness.

There is a lot of guilt that comes when a loved one dies that we have taken care of. If you have been the primary caregiver, you are suddenly relieved of the majority of your duties. You duties don’t end totally – there is most likely an estate to settle – but they change. You aren’t “on duty” constantly.

There is part of where the guilt comes in. If your loved one has been sick a long time and you have been the main (or only) caregiver, you are worn out from that constant work. Sick people take a lot of attention. They are often sick at very inconvenient times. The middle of the night is a common time for things to go south. Everything is harder to deal with when you have just a little sleep. It is even harder to deal with when that has been going on for weeks. Or months. Or years.

Very few people talk about this, but there comes a time when you look forward to your loved one dying, because that means you are free to start living. It sounds cold to say this, so people will say that they want their loved one to “pass on” or “transition” so that they can be free of pain. They want that too, of course. Part of the pain of dealing with a very sick loved one is seeing them suffer and knowing there is little you can do for them other than bring them food and fluff their pillows. Death is a release and a blessing at times.

In reality, death is a release and a blessing for the patient as well as the caregiver. When the patient dies, the caregiver is now free to live. The caregiver no longer has to stay by the bedside of the sick person. She no longer has to sleep on the sofa, hurting her back. She no longer has to call in to work, using up personal leave or vacation time (if she has it). She no longer has to do double duty of taking care of her parent’s home and her own.

There is something to be said for having families live together. The more the nuclear family explodes into satellite units, the more problems are created when a member needs help. Also, why have three households who have to buy three sets of lawn equipment, when you can have one big one that shares? I wonder if this is part of the “commune” idea. Instead of having friends living communally, start at the source and have families live that way. But I digress.

Sometimes the reason children leave the household as soon as they can is because they don’t really like their parents. Just because someone is your parent doesn’t mean that he is a good person. Becoming a parent isn’t the same as being an adult or a mature person. Sometimes “parent” just means someone who has reproduced. The parent is little more than a maladapted child himself.

Our society doesn’t speak about this very much. We laud parents. We think that parents are all knowing and all powerful. They aren’t. Nothing magical happens when they have a child. They don’t suddenly stop being neurotic or needy. In some cases their problems just get deeper and darker. So when such a parent-person gets sick enough to need help, the child is conflicted. They are expected by society to help. They are expected to drop everything and take care of their sick or dying parent. The only problem is that the abuse that the child received is often never revealed. Sometimes even the child is not aware of how mistreated she was. She just knows deep in her gut that she doesn’t want to take on this task. It isn’t because she is selfish.

It is a double bind. The child was taught her whole life to serve the parent. She was taught that she deserved to be treated badly. She was taught that her own needs didn’t matter. So when the parent is terminally ill, the child is expected to drop everything to take care of him. Then she feels conflicted.

It is hard enough to take care of a really sick person. Nurses have training for this. The average person does not. You don’t just wake up with the know-how to be a competent caregiver. When that sick person is your parent it is extra hard. When that parent was abusive it is nearly impossible.

When your parent is very sick, you have to become the parent. You are in charge. There aren’t classes for this. We don’t talk about this in Western society. I’m not sure any society talks about this, but I know this one sure doesn’t. But Western society rarely talks about anything real anyway.

For years, the child is subservient. Even if the child has become an adult and has a family and household of his own, he is expected to defer to his parents. That role never stops unless he establishes boundaries. The only problem is that there isn’t training on this, and there isn’t a lot of social support for it. If his parents die before he has established these boundaries and stood his own ground, he has a lot of ground to make up.

Even if none of this is going on, even if the relationship is healthy and sound, there are conflicting feelings when the parent dies. One of those feelings is relief, but that feeling alone causes guilt. You aren’t supposed to feel relief when your parent dies. You are supposed to be sad. Often you are sad. Sometimes you are angry too, at them having left you. Sometimes you are frustrated about all the mess they left you to have to clean up. But sometimes it is relief, because it is a lot of hard work taking care of a sick parent. Sometimes it is relief because now for once you can live your life your way without being second guessed by your parent.

It is healthy to feel whatever you feel when your parent dies, regardless of what you feel. Your feelings are yours, and they are valuable. If they have died after a long illness where you were the caretaker, your feelings will be even more complex. Don’t ignore those feelings, and don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. They are natural. It is healthy to feel them and express them. You may not have heard other people talk about the relief they felt because they thought they shouldn’t talk about it – but it doesn’t mean you are alone. Sometimes just sharing this feeling with others who have been in a similar situation is very healing. This is why I’m sharing this with you.

Knitting, sewing, and the relay race of knowledge

My Mom tried to teach me how to knit. In a way, she did. She taught me how to knit insofar as she taught me how to move the needles so that I added to the piece.

But she only taught me the fun part of knitting. She didn’t teach me how to cast on (to get started) and she didn’t teach me how to fix the problem when I dropped a stitch or picked up another one. Most of the time I didn’t even know I had a problem. I certainly didn’t learn how to prevent it.

Part of being a good teacher is making sure your student can do everything on her own. If she still needs you around then she hasn’t really learned anything at all. The goal is independence.

I had the same problem with her and sewing. We had an old Singer sewing machine that was in a standalone cabinet. It was a huge piece of furniture. While it was cool how the machine folded up inside this thing that served as a sideboard when it wasn’t in use, it wasn’t cool how it worked as a sewing machine.

Of course, I didn’t know that the problems I was having were the machine’s fault and not mine. I thought that when it would jam up it was because I did something wrong, and not because it had a faulty design.

The problems were that my Mom didn’t tell me this, and that every time there was a problem she would fix it for me, rather than teaching me how to do it myself.

After she died, the sewing machine became my nemesis. A friend had taught me a little bit more about how to sew but I still was having a problem loading the bobbin or with having the top thread get stuck and jammed up with the bottom thread. It seemed like I spent more time fixing problems than sewing.

Somehow I came up with the idea of buying a used, portable sewing machine rather than getting that one fixed. It think it was cheaper to get a used one that works than fix the one I had. The new (-ish) one came with a manual. With pictures. I read it and understood how a sewing machine worked for a change. Somehow in time I learned that the Singer sewing machines were known for bobbin and thread problems. If you have bobbin and thread problems, you don’t really have a sewing machine.

I learned that my problems with that machine were not because of me. I learned how to work my new machine. I learned how to sew, for real.

To be a good teacher, you have to teach the good and the bad. You have to show the student the fun parts of the subject to get her interest, sure, but you also have to show her everything else. She has to be able to do it all on her own. Ideally, you’ll teach her everything you know, all your tricks and tips, all your hard earned knowledge, so that she will then be able to learn even more and pass that on.

It is the only form of immortality we have.

We can’t live forever. Our lives are far shorter than we realize. But our knowledge can last far beyond our bodies. If we pass it on well, then we have improved the lives of everyone who lives past us.

It is like a relay race. Every person does her best so that the next person can do her best. The team gets further along with each person who pushes herself. But if we are stingy with our knowledge or are just inept, we might as well not have been in the race at all.

Meltdown

All people want to be noticed and loved. All people want to have their needs met. This is especially true in children. They are helpless to help themselves in many situations. They have not been taught how to take care of themselves, so when they wear out they tend to lose that thin veneer of calm.

I was making a cart of books in the workroom the other day and I heard a loud wail. It sounded like some child was very upset. It kind of sounded like a child was being harmed in a permanent kind of way. I waited a little bit and wondered what was going on. Surely the parents would come soon. The voice sounded like it was coming from a small child – too small to be in the library by herself. The wail continued. There was no Doppler effect – the child was staying in one place. So she wasn’t running around trying to get either to or from parents. So she would be easy to locate. Why weren’t the parents doing anything? Why wasn’t a person-in-charge (the manager on duty) doing anything?

So I did something. I had no idea what was going on, but I had to do something. This child sounded like she was in killed by this point. I was pretty sure she wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Generally people don’t do such insane things in public spaces. If nothing else, she was definitely disturbing the other patrons. She was certainly disturbing me. So something had to be done – and since nobody in charge (parents or staff) was going, it was time for me to do it.

I went to the low wall that surrounds the children’s area. It is like a little fortress. I looked over and saw the child lying on her back, waving her feet and arms. The chair was upright – so she hadn’t fallen out of it and hit her head. I called out to her “What is wrong?” I said it in a sing-song voice. Sometimes that alone is enough to break the spell of the meltdown. I got nothing out of this. Then I looked nearby. What looked like her grandmother was sitting across from her, hands in her lap. She smiled at me, like this is normal, like she can’t do anything about it. I looked next to the grandmother and what looked like the child’s Mom was there. Same body language. They didn’t look like this was a total surprise. But they also didn’t seem to want to do anything about it.

Their child is their responsibility. Her well being is their job. If she is wailing like that, something is wrong. Their first concern should be to soothe her. The second concern should be the fact that she is being very loud and disturbing in a public place, and most especially a library. Being loud just isn’t what you do. If they fixed the first issue, the second issue would sort itself out. But they were doing nothing.

So I did. I went around the low wall and went up to her. I crouched down next to her and just started talking to her. She looked like she was about 2. I could tell from looking in her eyes she was very tired. It was around 4 that all of this was happening. I’m willing to bet these clueless guardians hadn’t thought to let her have a nap. Children can only handle so much. They aren’t short adults. They need more rest. They don’t know how to take care of themselves. That is why they have guardians – who are supposed to help them. These two were less than useless.

Even if you don’t know what is going on, at least pick your child up and hold her. Even if you don’t know what is going on, start with the basics. Give her some water or food (NOT sugar). Talk with her and ask her what is going on.

Sometimes children are so worn out that they can’t tell you what is wrong. They know something is, but they can’t figure it out. They are too young to know what the problem is. They just know they don’t feel well and the situation is getting worse. They yell and scream as a way to ask for help. In theory, the parent should be self-aware enough to prevent this from happening by ensuring the child has enough rest and exercise and water and healthy food.

A child who is “acting out” isn’t a bad child. It is a sign of a parent who doesn’t know how to take care of a child. Sometimes it is because that parent was in turn raised by bad parents. How can you learn how to take care of another person when you were raised by selfish people?

While I was talking to her, her mom and grandmother just stared. They didn’t intervene. I wear a name tag, but I’m not an expert. But something had to be done. I talked to this little girl. I suggested some things – “Are you tired?” “Are you thirsty?” “Are you hungry?” hoping that either she would respond to one of those or that it would wake the guardians up – maybe there was something really simple going on. Maybe they would listen to what I was suggesting and learn to ask the same questions in the future. From their lack of interest in the situation I think that this wasn’t a fluke situation. They didn’t seem surprised by her outburst. So, in a way, I was trying to help their daughter but also to teach them to help her in the future.

She calmed down, got up from the floor, and went to the bookshelf. She pulled out a random book and brought it to me. She wanted me to read it to her. I didn’t have the time for that – and she had two guardians there. I pointed to them. “Have your Mom read it to you” I said – and Mom smiled and waved the child to her.

She was quiet the rest of the time there, which was about an hour. She just wanted some attention. This isn’t being needy. This is being normal. I can’t tell you how often I see parents sitting in the same area with their children but they aren’t interacting with them. They care more about their cell phone than they care about their child.

They are there in body only. They expect the child to do all the work. The child cannot learn to read just by picking up a book.

Don’t have children if you aren’t ready to raise children. If you aren’t ready, then put them up for adoption. There are hundreds of people who want children and can’t have them. Or find a parenting class. There is no reason for a child to be emotionally abused because of the immaturity of the parents.

I’m not a parent but I have the basics figured out. Feed them. Give them water. Let them have a nap. Let them go run and play. Do this every day, several times a day. And spend time with them. They need love and attention. Children are just like plants. If you don’t nurture them, they grow up a little stunted and warped.