Sometimes Safety is a Golden Retriever

(I really, really debated whether or not to post this. Then I realized, I’m probably the only one who cares, so why not? I’m going to preface this by saying my father apologized to me. A few years ago, of his own volition, he apologized to me for the way he behaved when I was a child.)

I tried EMDR for the first time the other day. The therapist had me think about a situation that makes me anxious in my life now, that makes me want to run away. And then she asked me to think of another situation when I felt the same way.

So many moments come to mind when she asks me to think of a time I wanted to escape. All of them, all of them, with my parents. The one I settle on, which is no surprise to me, as I’ve settled on it before in my writing, is a fight between my parents. My father is yelling at my mother, I don’t know why. She’s crying and then yelling back, her voice desperate and raw. I’m hiding on the stairway, out of sight near the top. I can’t really see them, just the tops of their heads, an overhead view nearly.

At that moment, the therapist asks “What do you feel?”

“My hands feel small,” I tell her. My hands and arms feel small to me, like the hands and arms of a five year old. It’s the strangest thing.

“What are you thinking?” she asks.

I half laugh, disparagingly, at myself. “I keep repeating the dog’s name in my head, over and over and over.”

“What was the dog’s name?”

“Bryce.” And suddenly I’m crying. I had no idea her name would do that to me. But I feel this rush of grief, tying into a knot at the base of my throat.

“Where is Bryce?”

“Next to me, on the stairs. I have my arm around her.” I pause. “She died when I was five. She was my best friend. She made me feel safe.”

“So she was your best friend, the only one who made you feel safe, the only stable thing in your life…”


“And then she died.”

And suddenly, I understand. When Bryce died, there was no more safety for me. There was no safe place I could go, no one who would always protect me. The one reliable thing in my life was gone. All I had left was the turbulence between my parents. No Bryce to hide with me at the top of the stairs while my parents fought. No Bryce to hold on to.

That was the first time my parents sent me to therapy. When I was five. I was depressed. No, Depressed, with a big D. Because Bryce died and I was alone.

A Sketch of Bryce

A Story: My Parents, Meeting

They actually had a meet cute. My mom was a freshman, come from a strict Catholic Italian Massachusetts neighborhood to the lax hippydom of Reed College in the 60s. My father was a senior, and a dorm advisor, and a theatre major about to embark on his senior thesis: directing a play.

As a dorm advisor, my dad got a lookbook with pictures of all the incoming freshmen and, of course, he noticed my mom. Picture the scene: Tall slender senior, cute and wearing glasses (which tells you he’s intellectual – and, actually, in this case tells you half of where my bad eyesight came from). Any rate. Back to the scene:

He’s in his dorm room –  door open so that any of his incoming frosh can get his attention – flipping through the look book. He stops at the photo of a dark haired Italian girl, dark hair completely covering one side of her face. Very Veronica Lake.

A friend & fellow dorm advisor stops by, “Hey, Larry. Get a move on. We’ve got a meeting with the Dean of Students in 10 minutes.” Friend looks over his shoulder to see the picture he’s staring at. “Cute. You going to look her up?”

My dad: “What? No. She’s a freshman. Too young. Besides, it’s not like I have any time.”

Fateful words, those. In the film world, that seals his fate right there. And, indeed, skip forward a bit and…

We’re watching my 18 year old mother and some girlfriends walking together. They stop at a bulletin board in their dorm. On it there’s a notice for auditions for a play.

“You going to try out?” one asks.

“Of course!” answers another. “We should all go to the audition together! It will be fun.”

My shy mother, half intrigued, half embarassed, laughs. “I don’t know…”

“Oh, come on, Elaine!”

My mother laughs and gives in, “Oh, all right. But I’ll never get picked.”

Equally fateful words. Because of course she gets picked. Neither of her friends make it into the play, but she lands the role of the ingenue. The love interest for the main character. And why not? After all, when my father looks at her there’s something about her that just feels right for the part.

You Can Never Go Home…

I’ll be visiting my parents this weekend for the first time since April.Except it truly doesn’t seem that long ago to me. It feels like I was just down there.

My mom really wants me to visit more often. She keeps saying how nice it was when I was visiting every other month last year. But I can’t do that. I did it, last year, because of her cancer. Because I wanted to be with her and help her. And because I was terrified and just wanted to cling to her…

All my life, my parents have been my focus. Their story, their narrative has been the one that defined my world. And I’m coming to understand how much of that narrative is fictional. Also, that I really need to be living my own life. Creating my own narrative. Really, you ought to be the main character in your life. Not just a spear carrier.


Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

 – Gerard Manley Hopkins

It’s been a hard year. A hard few years. Mom’s cancer, Jay’s cancer, Donna Marie dying… And now one of Jason’s closest friends dying of adrenal cancer at 34. It’s not fair, but fair hardly matters outside of kindergarten and the constitution.


Aftermath: Dealing With Mom’s Cancer

Mom and me, Spring 2011

I wanted to write an entry all about our family’s experience with my mom’s breast cancer. I wanted to write something positive and hopeful. And I find that it’s just too painful to dive into right now. Nothing bad has happened – no need to worry – I’m just not ready to deal with it.

I don’t think that’s ever happened before. That I wasn’t willing to dive into an emotional place and figure things out. I guess that’s the difference between grief and fear. I’ve dealt with grief before, but there… the worst has happened. There’s no anticipation or uncertainty. With fear… it’s all in front of you. It hasn’t happened yet. It may not happen. But you don’t know.

When I was a kid I had this nightmare of being at my mom’s funeral. I woke up crying, and my mom was there and holding me and I was still terrified. I don’t know if I ever told her what the dream was.

Dad once told her that, in a disaster, if he had to choose between saving the kids and saving her, he knew he would have to save us and not her, even though he’d want to save her. Because she would never forgive him if he didn’t protect us.

She’s the heart of his life. The heart of our family. And in some ways she is so very fragile. She’s had a hell of a life, and I wish I could protect her. Actually, I wish I could go back in time to when she was a kid and protect her. I’ve always wished that, so I guess I always knew, on some level, that she’d been badly hurt when she was a child.

I remember when I was a kid her being sick, at home, on an IV and throwing up every 20 minutes. Rocking back and forth in bed and crying. And I would pet her hair and pretend I was her mother and try to make her feel better. And wish I could time travel.

My mom is the heart of my life. And I realize she probably shouldn’t be. It’s like that line from Cordelia in King Lear, about how it’s inappropriate to love your parent all, more than anything else in the world.

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

I told Jason, when we got back from LA after finding out she had cancer, that my mother was the person I loved most in the world. It’s true. And it’s terrifying. Because I know some day I will lose her. And I’m pretty sure Jason didn’t like hearing all of that, either.