Day 218 “Rule Your Life”

My five-year-old feet twisted and slipped in the dusty soil of the farmer’s plowed field, making my journey a challenge. Normally, I would take the long way, through the neighbourhood backyards, but today the hazy humidity was too thick for even the slightest breeze, and the sun beat down relentlessly, a I just wanted to get home. Inside it would be cool, and I could play with my toys. My hair clung to my head, a tangle of sweat and dirt from the morning’s adventure. Reaching the back gate, I jiggled the catch impatiently, my tummy grumbling with hunger and an urgent need to relieve myself. With one last burst of energy, I sprinted across the silent yard and stumbled into the back door.

Our back door was actually two doors: the first a screen door with a stubborn latch that you had to hit to open. For me, this meant balancing precariously on the top step while reaching up and slamming my palm against it, all the while hoping I wouldn’t lose my balance and fall off. This feat accomplished, I reached for the knob of the inner wooden door. It was locked. Again.

I pounded my little fist against the door, yelling for someone to come quickly. It was my sister Lorraine who answered the door.

“Shush!” she said, blocking my way.

“Move out of the way! I have to go pee!”

“She can’t come in here!” I caught sight of my oldest sister, Lily, in the kitchen feeding the baby. “Keep her out.”

“She has to use the toilet.” Lorraine was soft-hearted. I was sure she would give in.

“Alright. But make it quick! And not a sound, you mind!”

Lorraine held the door for me and ushered me into the small two piece bathroom just inside.

“I’m hungry too!” I told her. “I want to come inside.”

“Take these and get out!” Lily shoved a sleeve of crackers at me.

“But it’s hot outside, I need to cool off!”

“Look,” she said, leaning over so her face was right in mine. “Mom is suicidal, and the last thing she needs is you around!”

“What? Then I should go to her.” I tried to push past, but Lily was too strong.

“You want her to kill herself? Then you better get out now!”

Lily pushed me out the door and I heard the lock slide into place. Slumping onto the back step, I stuffed two crackers in my mouth and gobbled them hungrily, not worrying about the crumbs; then realizing that this was all I had to eat, I started to nibble them slowly, sucking each morsel until it slowly turned to mush in my mouth.

I thought about what my sisters had said. Would my Mom really kill herself? And would I be to blame? It must be true, I thought, because I was the only locked out of the house.

I didn’t want my Mommy to die, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Tears and snot mingled with my soda crackers, but I didn’t brush them away. A new understanding was dawning and it made me feel deeply saddened, afraid, and alone. I had the power to make my mother take her own life.

My mother didn’t take her life that day, but as I grew older, the lesson I’d learned was reiterated and reiterated.

“Don’t make your father mad!”

“We must be nice to your sister, or her heart will get worse.”

“Don’t upset the baby!”

“Don’t tell your mother, it will only disappoint her.”

And on and on.

The burden of keeping my family happy became an impossible task that I somehow took on as my own. Of course, I was a failure.
But I kept trying.

I didn’t question the fallacy of this belief until I became a mother myself. As a parent, always trying to please children is a no-win situation. My role, I knew, was to make the tough calls, and say no even when my child would rage or cry. It hurt me to have always be the “bad” guy.

But it wasn’t until my fourtieth birthday that I really understood how wrong I had been all those years. As she had every year, my mother tried to downplay the importance of celebrating my day of birth.

“I don’t imagine you need anything,” she told me days before. “You’ve got more than you want, but I suppose you’ll be expecting something from me.” It was the same thing I heard every year. Weeks before each of my siblings birthdays she would begin planning, calling me up to make sure I didn’t forget. But she’d forgotten mine on more than one occasion, always excusing it by saying my needs weren’t as great as my siblings.

Something in me snapped that day. Something in me decided that I had feelings too, and I was going to express them.

“Mom,” I said. “If you don’t want to celebrate my birthday, then don’t, but don’t taunt me about it. I have feelings too, you know.”

“I’m just saying, you live a very good life, Beth. What could I possibly give you that you don’t already have.”

“A card, Mom. A token of acknowledgement. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”

“You don’t have get like that about it.” My mother didn’t speak to me for a week.

I told my therapist that I was a bad daughter; that I had hurt my mother.

“Aren’t you all powerful!” he declared.

I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Try as I might, I’ve never been able to make anyone feel anything. How someone feels is a personal, emotional response. Pretty sure you can’t choose that response for them.”

The truth of what he said hit me like an arrow shattering all those years of defeatist delusion. “Of course, I can’t. You mean my mother feeling hurt is her own choice.”

“She can choose to be hurt, angry, self-righteous, belligerent, whatever. You can do nothing about that. You don’t have that kind of power.” He let that sink in. “The only power you have is choosing your own response in any situation. What is important here is that you validated yourself by expressing something important to you. How she received it is out of your control.”

And all these years I thought that it was me keeping her alive.

“Rule your own life,” he added. “It’s so much easier than trying to rule everyone else’s.”


Day 206 “Heavenly Music”

Suddenly, with great clarity, I realized that this was the end. I was about to die.

Summer holidays, when I was a kid, always started with swimming lessons. Looking back I must have been a sight on those early mornings, trudging up the hill to the public pool in my swim suit, my long unwieldy curls half tucked under a bathing cap, my towel dragging behind me, and I skipping or chasing a stone, oblivious to the world around me. We had a pool in our backyard, so our mother insisted that we be trained in technique and safety.

As far as I can remember, those lessons involved a lot of time shivering outside the pool awaiting my turn to demonstrate a particular stroke or technique. The instructors were young, and often not very patient, especially as some of my peers protested at each step. What I do recall was watching the more experienced swimmers in the diving well next door. I was fascinated by their lack of fear as they twisted and flipped their way into the deep water below. Even after the lesson was over, I would stop and watch through the chain link fence enclosure, studying each move so that I could go home and practice.

At nine-years of age, I was a fish. Diving into the cool, refreshing water cleared my head and made me feel fully alive. I imagined myself as a dolphin, or seal, and was forever challenging myself to break new records: how long I could hold my breath under water, how many somersaults I could do, and so on. Sundays, when my father was home, he would goad us into racing him, which he always won, making me even more determined to improve. My younger sister and I had tea parties on the bottom of the pool and practiced talking to one another, emerging with great gulps of laughter.

Summer was my favourite time of the year, and water my element. It was only fitting that I should die here.

I didn’t have many friends in the neighbourhood, as the school I attended was on the other side of town, but occasionally a girl from across the road would accept my invitation to come for a swim. I only asked her when no one else was around, because my mother wouldn’t let us swim alone. One particularly hot summer day, I called her over. She obliged happlily.

Full of myself, and my newly practiced diving tricks, I decided to show off.

“Let’s dive!” I suggested, knowing full well I was breaking family rules. No diving without an adult present!

“I don’t know how.” Her mother had not forced her to take swimming lessons, it was obvious.

“I’ll show you!”

I demonstrated a simple stance and thrust into the dive, assuring her it was easy. She tried but didn’t tuck in enough and landed on her belly. Near tears, she stated that she wanted to go home.

“Just one more dive!” I insisted. “Watch this one!”

I turned my back to the pool and eased myself backwards, toes perched on the edge, then bending my knees slightly, I launched myself, but in that last second something went wrong and I didn’t have time to pull out of the plunge before hitting my head on the bottom of the pool and feeling my neck snap back.

The paralysis was instant and my body sunk, lifeless, and there I was lying on the bottom of the pool looking up towards and the surface and realizing that I wasn’t going to make it. This was it.

And, yet, I felt no panic. Instead, my eyes were drawn to a blinding white light that shone on me from above. Wow the sun looks really cool from here! my nine-year-old mind thought, and at the same instant I realized that this was not the sun, and a profound sense of peace filled me. I was not alone. In the stillness of the moment, I was surrounded by the most angelic music and the sudden awareness of voices that spoke as one: a heavenly chorus.

“You can stay or you can go” was the invitation offered, “but know that if you stay, you will have to be strong; it will not be easy.”

I am strong, I thought. I can do this.

“Remember that you are never alone,” was the parting message, and then the next thing I knew I was on the ladder, dragging myself out of the pool, with no one in sight. My “friend” had bolted when she thought I was dead.

Dripping wet, and smarting from the aftershock, I traipsed through the house to my parents’ bedroom where my mother had been bedridden for months.

“I need to go to the hospital,” I told her. “I think I just broke my neck.”

I couldn’t see my mother’s response, because she had the curtains drawn as usual, but she did fumble for the light and tell me to get dressed, and we did go to emergency and I had x-rays, and then she sent me with my older sister to the movies to get my mind off of it, and when I got home she was all in a panic because the doctor had called with the results, and I was not to be moving around, and it was a miracle I hadn’t drowned.

I just smiled calmly and said, “It’s okay, Mom. Today wasn’t my day to die, the angels told me so.”

Tragedy Visits

Something’s happened to Billy!

I shot bolt upright in bed.  He had just been here.  I saw him standing at the end of my bed, but that was not possible:  Billy lived miles away in the country and it was the dead of winter.  How could he have gotten here?

I lay back down on my bed trying to piece together what had just happened.  Billy had been there, long enough to wake me from a deep sleep.

I’ve come to say good-bye, I remember him saying.  Tell everyone we’re okay.  That’s right, he wasn’t alone.  His little brother and sisters were with him.  All of them fading back into the darkness.

I couldn’t shake the vision.  Only ten years old, this wasn’t my first night visit, but I never quite knew what to do with them.  I dragged myself out from under the comfort of my warm bed, and shivered down the hallway to my parents’ room.  The first rays of a new day were starting to break the darkness.  The phone rang.

Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed when I entered, listening intently as Dad spoke into the phone.  She gestured for me to be quiet.

“Carl and Maureen?  Are they alright?”  My father spoke with deep concern.  I knew it was tragic.  “No, no.  Oh my God.”  He listened, shaking his head and tutting.  “Oh my God.  Well, thank you for calling, and please,  keep us posted.”

“They’re both alive, but they’ve had quite the ordeal,” my father said to my mother as he hung up the phone, then turning to me, he pulled me closer, sitting on the edge of the bed beside my mother so that we were all at eye level.

“There has been a fire,”  he started,  “at your cousin’s house.  I’m afraid it’s quite tragic.”

“I know, Dad,”  I reassured him.  “Billy came to see me.  Just now.  He said they’re okay.”

My parents exchanged that look; the one they always did when they didn’t know how to take me.

“Well, your cousin didn’t make it out of the fire.  None of the kids did.  All four……gone.”

The news that night showed the pictures.  The house had been reduced to a rubble of ashes, and from those ashes men were carrying away four small stretchers bearing the remains.  The remains of my cousins.  I had never been this close to tragedy, and I really didn’t know what to do.  That afternoon, in school, I’d broken down crying when the story we were reading talked about a fire.  All I could picture was Billy and the little ones being burnt alive.  The teacher had called my mother to come and get me.

“Come away from the TV,”  my father commanded.  “Damn them for showing those pictures! Can’t a family have privacy?!”

We turned off the set, but the images remained etched in my mind.

Billy’s parents weren’t at the funeral; they were still in the hospital recovering.  It was just as well, I thought, this was one sad place.  A single coffin sat at the front of the church, bearing the bodies of all four children who ranged in ages from two to ten.  Billy had been the oldest, just two weeks younger than me.  A line of sobbing people extended from the coffin and out into the cold February day.

I had no right to be there, so I shrunk back from the crowd, hoping no one would notice me.  We always fought, Billy and I.  He was full of mischief, with deep brown eyes that twinkled with trouble.  He just had to look at me to fill me with rage.  It was only two Sundays ago when we’d had our last fight.  I wish you were dead!  I’d told him.  And now he was.  I hadn’t said it quietly, either.  I’d yelled it in front of all my other cousins and my aunts and uncles.  I was sure they all knew it was my fault.

After the funeral and burial, we all gathered at another aunt’s house.  While the adults drank tea and coffee and ate tiny sandwiches with no crusts, the cousins removed themselves to an upstairs bedroom.

“It’s just awful,”  my cousin Kate exclaimed.  “Can you believe it happened?”

“He’s okay,”  I blurted.  “I saw him, and he said he’s okay.”   I explained my nocturnal visit.

“Why would he come to you and not to me?”  Kate and Billy were closer, and actually got along.
“I loved him.  You didn’t.”

“I loved him, too,”  I protested, “It’s just that he made me so mad.”

We all fell silent.  They knew what I meant.  Billy was a tease, and could be a total pain.

I didn’t really want him dead, I thought.  I just wanted him to stop pestering me. 

The horror of our loss hung in the room between us, as cold as the icicles visible through the frosted pane.

“I wish I’d seen him,” Kate said quietly.  “Then I’d be able to believe he’s okay.”

I had seen him, but I wasn’t sure that made it any better.  The sorrow was still pretty raw.  He was still gone from our lives, and every time we got together, his absence would be a huge black hole.  Billy, who’d been so full of life, so wild, and energetic, was now dead.  It just didn’t seem possible.

It was the winter of ’69 that I first learned that even though life exists beyond death, it doesn’t minimize the depth of sorrow felt at the loss of a loved one.

Nature’s Voice

The tiny crayfish slowly made its way over the rocky water bed, climbing in and out of crevices, antennae constantly moving.  Perched on my haunches, trying valiantly not to move and startle the small creature, I watched in fascination.  His translucent body moved with such tenacity over what must surely be a challenging terrain for him.  The wind shifted, creating ripples in the water, and he was gone from my sight.

I lifted my head to listen.  There it was again:  a sudden, slight shift in the wind.  Mother Nature was gently tugging me from my reverie and beckoning me homeward.  I stood and shook the kinks out of my muscles, heeding her kind warning.  Time to go home.

As I made my way through the tangle of trees, stepping over fallen branches, and being wary off uneven ground, I noticed the wind shift again.  Her voice was more urgent now, a warning.  I decided to stay off the beaten path, and stick to the cover of the trees.  Noises ahead told me people were coming.  Boys!  As they approached, I noticed there were four or five of them, carrying something like sticks.  No, not sticks, they were carrying snakes.  And they were looking for someone.  Me!

I ducked behind a bush and held my breath.  Elbowing each other with bravado, the boys failed to see me crouched nearby.  Birds and wildlife scurried out of their path, sensing as I did that they meant only harm.  “She’s got to be here somewhere!” I heard one shout.  “Probably by the creek.”

They stepped into the woods, and not trusting my luck, I made a dash for home.

“There she goes!”

I fled along the path, until I saw the opening to the farmer’s field that bordered my backyard.  Breaking out of the woods, I caught sight of my best friend, Scott.  He knew as soon as he spotted me that I was in trouble.  Hailing his brothers, they met me just as my pursuers were catching up.

“You have a problem here?”  Scott’s oldest brother stood, towering over the tallest of the boys.

“Uh no.”  The boys turned on their heels and disappeared back into the woods.

“What were you doing in there all by yourself, young lady?” the older brother demanded to know.

I shrugged.  How could I tell him I was never alone when Mother Nature was looking after me.  I opened the gate and stepped back into the safety of my own backyard.

“Thank you for the warning,”  I said to the Wind.  The trees before me bowed gracefully at her command, and I knew my gratitude had been acknowledged.

At five years of age, it was easy to trust that life was guided by a loving presence, and I lived my life accordingly.

At fifty, I only wish I had such innocence to guide me once again.


Laughter: Mother’s Medicine

“I’m so mad!”  My nine-year-old self slammed the front door and stomped down the hallway to the kitchen, where my mother was constantly positioned.  My little sister sat at the table, her legs swinging contentedly as she finished off a fresh baked cookie and glass of milk.

“Well, hello!” my mother responded.  “Not a good day?”

“That Chet Tesney makes me so mad, I want to kill him.”

Mom looked me up and down.  “Looks like you already did.”

“Not today.  I got in a scuffle with some kids at the bus stop.”

My mother sighed.  “There are cookies or muffins, but you are not to touch the pie until after dinner.  I’d wash up first if I were you.”

Catching myself in the mirror, I saw that I was a real sight.  I pulled a twig and a piece of leaf out of my matted hair, and washed the muddy scrape on my cheek.  Both hands, caked brown, were red beneath.  Looking down, I saw the stockings I had put on this morning now had a big hole in one knee, and mud was caking on more than one place on my clothes.  Stripping off the dirty clothes, I ran upstairs to change.

“How was school today?” My mother asked cheerfully as I helped myself to a warm cookie and pulled up a chair.  My sister had wandered off.

“Okay, I guess.  We were picking parts for the class play and that Lesley Mann got the main role again.  I hate her, it’s not fair!  Mom!  Jane has my favourite Barbie!  Put that down you little brat!”

“Girls!  Play nice.”  Mom seldom skipped a beat from her dinner prep.  She wouldn’t intervene.  I sighed.

“School is so unfair!  Miss P. said we’d be able to pick our topics for the history project, but Michael and David picked the same as me, so now I have to choose something else.  I hate school!  Now, she has my Barbie car, too!  Moooommm!  She’s going to break it!”

“Shreeeeeeaaaakkkkk! my sister screamed as I tried to retrieve my treasures.

“She won’t hurt it.  Let her play.  Why don’t you play with her?”

“It’s not fair!  You always take her side.  Why don’t you support me for once?!”  I could feel the rage inside me boiling over.  I wanted to hit someone and fast.

“Tee hee.  Ha ha.  Ho ho.”

“Don’t you start, Mother!”

“Ha ha, ho ho, he he, ha ha ha.”

“Mom, I mean it!”

“Ho, ho, ho, ho, ha ha ha ha ha ha, he he he he he he, ho, ho.”

Giggle.  “Mom, don’t make me!  He, he.”

“Heeee, heeee, hoooo, hoooo”  The laughter was so contagious I couldn’t help but join in.  Soon we were laughing so hard we could hardly catch our breath.

“What’s so sunny?” my four-year-old sister couldn’t say her ‘f’s, sending us into another howl, until the tears rolled down our cheeks.

“It’s not sunny!”  But it was!

“Oh, I’m going to pee my pants!”  Doubled over, my mother ran for the bathroom.

We laughed some more.  By the time the laughter subsided, I couldn’t remember what I had been angry about.

This is the gift of my mother.


Mickey Mouse Meets Gestalt

Looking out from under the big white wooden chair, I can see Mickey Mouse approaching with a kettle of boiling water.  He’s going to pour the water on me, and even though my family are all around, and I am screaming, no one notices. 

“I had this dream repeatedly as a child, from about the age of five.”

“What is the significance of the white chair?”

“My father used that chair to teach us how to skate.  We had to push it around the rink until we learned to stay up on our own.  I remember being very frightened, because my father wasn’t a patient man and I didn’t want to upset him.”

“What would happen if you upset him?”

“He would yell, call us names, tell us how stupid and incompetent we were.”

“Why Mickey Mouse?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve often wondered about that.  Mickey Mouse would have been the prominent cartoon character back then, and I loved watching the Mickey Mouse Club on TV.  I really wanted to be a Mouseketeer.”

“In Gestalt therapy, the belief is that each aspect of the dream represents a part of you.  Would you be willing to try something with me?”

I nod.

“I want you to put yourself back in the dream and let me guide you.  Imagine you are five years old again, and let me know when you can picture the scene.”

I close my eyes and remember.  “Okay.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Frightened, very frightened.”

“Tell me what’s happening. Talk it out.”

“Mickey Mouse has a kettle of boiling water and he’s going to pour it on me.  I scream, but no one is paying attention.  I can see my Dad and my sister Joanne, but they are not looking my way.”

“What do you want to say to them?”

“Help me!  Help me!  Can’t you see I’m in trouble?  Somebody stop this from happening!”

“Tell them what’s happening.”

“He’s going to hurt me.  That man is going to hurt me.  Please, somebody stop it!  Listen to me!”

“Tell them what you need.”

“I need you to hear me.  I need you to see what’s happening. I need you to see me.  Nobody sees me….”  I break off crying.

“Tell me why you are crying.”

“My childhood home was very chaotic.  There was always lots of fighting going on, and although I don’t remember much of the early years, my mother says I was always tossed over the fence to the neighbour’s house, so they could look after me. ”

“Why do you think this dream has stayed with you?”

“I never felt like I mattered in my family growing up.  There was so much going on that I felt insignificant.”

“In every family there is a rivalry for attention.  How did that play out for you?”

“Well my oldest sister was always sick, so she got most of the attention, and my next sister withdrew into herself, and later we found out she was schizophrenic.  My youngest sister was a handful, throwing tantrums and being difficult to get along with.  I tried to stay out of the way, and not cause any more trouble.”

“So what did you try to do to get noticed?”

“Achieve.  I tried to be the smartest and the most successful?”

“How did that work for you?”

“It didn’t.  I never felt like I could be good enough, and when I did do something worthwhile I got shot down for bragging about it.”

“Do you still feel that way?”

“Not so much.  I’ve struggled with not feeling good enough, but I don’t need the glory anymore.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Maturity.  Life experience.  When I first learned how to do Therapeutic Touch I did a lot of volunteer work, and I soon realized that there were many people whose lives were worse off than mine, and that by giving a little bit of my time, I could make a difference.  It felt so amazingly rewarding to help another, that I realized how unimportant everything else was.”

“So what would you tell that little girl today?”

“Well, first of all, I’d reach in under that chair and offer her my hand; then I’d pull her to me and give her a great big hug and tell her that I love her.”

“Tell her as if she is here.”

Come on, Sweetheart, lets walk away from all this commotion.  You are okay now.  I am here, and I can see you, and I’m not going to let that man hurt you. 

Why doesn’t anyone see me?

Because they can’t right now, Honey.  They can only see their own pain, but that doesn’t mean you’re not important.  You matter very much. 

Are things going to get better?

Eventually, but not for a long time.  But I want you know that you will be okay.  You will be better than okay. 

Why are you here?

Because I think it’s important that you know you are perfect just the way you are. 

“Do you feel better?”

“I feel like I have had a breakthrough.”

“How so?”

“I understand now that the little girl in me sought attention for a long, long time, and I don’t need to do that anymore.  It feels lighter.  Achievement is good in and of itself.  The need for glory only taints it.”

“And Mickey Mouse?”

“Well that’s just what we become when we seek out fame and fortune, I guess.  Burned.”