The oldest is afraid of spiders and has an ear for languages and the self-discipline to take math classes that would have me racing to the registrar to drop after the first five minutes. The day she was born, she didn't cry at first. I started to panic as the seconds ticked by before she let loose a wail putting me and everyone else in the room on notice that here was a force to be reckoned with. She is funny and fierce and has great taste in music and jewelry. I figured out early on that the best way to be her mother is to back her up when she wants to spread her wings and otherwise stay out of her way.
The boy shares my brown eyes and fear of heights, loves basketball and high jump, and drinks way more soda than is good for him. He doesn't like reading much, but he's a magician with Legos and a pretty good dancer. He's sentimental about things like Boston Bear, the teddy bear I bought him from the Gap at Faneuil Hall when he was two, and he is a loyal, devoted friend. I have learned we do better when I let him show me what he needs instead of assuming I know. Every once in awhile a little maternal strong-arming comes into play (he never would have figured out he loved basketball if I hadn't made him try it!), but I make a good faith effort to follow his lead. He plays DJ in the car in the morning and skips over songs that create awkward situations (either by content or language), and sometimes I ask him to add things to my playlists. He sends me a text every afternoon when he gets home from school that simply says "Food." I reply "Pantry," or "Refrigerator."
The youngest is sweet as sweet can be most of the time, but watch out for the storms that gather on her forehead and the scowl that twists her mouth if you cross her. She is a writer of letters and a leaver of surprises and a playful little imp who scatters kisses and "I love you!"s like confetti as she goes through her day. This Sunday at church she leaned over as the sermon started and confessed that she'd written her name in pen on the leather seat in the car. She is warm and funny and likes to wear party dresses with sparkly shoes. She has a weakness for temporary tattoos (see photo above) and those weird paper spa face masks, and I dread the day she doesn't want to hold my hand anymore. Mothering her means remembering to do stuff like leave the mail in the mailbox when I run home at lunch so that she can bring it in that evening.
No decision I've ever made has been wrong as long as I made it with them in mind. Since the first time I saw a plus sign on a pregnancy test when I was 22, the hard, healthy choices of motherhood have been essential to becoming the best version of myself. It's true I fall woefully short sometimes; when that happens we dust ourselves off and try again, and things usually turn out better the next time. Raising these three human beings is my most hopeful offering to the world.
With them, for them, through thick and thin: it is never easy, but my God, it is worth it.
I had two nicknames in junior high. One was "Goofy Grace," which was pretty accurate, particularly if you've ever watched me try to play basketball, which I did in seventh and eighth grades for reasons that had to do with peer pressure and fear of missing out. The other was "Apolo," a reference to the fact that I was always apologizing. For everything. All the time. Practically every other sentence out of my mouth was, "I'm sorry."
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll know I have used it as a place to work through a lot of different things. Divorce. Being a single parent. Struggles to get my footing in my professional life. Personal and family history. For everything I write here, there are at least three things I leave out. And while I've tried to show that I'm making progress, to document the ways I'm healing and growing, I think there's an undercurrent of apology to a lot of what I've posted here, too.
I want that to change.
The truth is I have spent a lot of my life feeling like damaged goods. Hell, I am damaged goods. There's no use pretending otherwise. The critical shift lately has been how much less I feel like I need to apologize for it. No doubt I have therapy to thank. And faith, and friendship, and the simple passing of time.
We're all damaged goods in one way or another. It isn't my job to apologize to you for my scuffed and ripped places, nor is it to extract an apology from you for the cracks and worn spots in your heart. My job, as best I can tell, is to sit beside you and say, "Hey--look at us! We made it this far! Now, I wonder where we can go from here..."
Stop apologizing, and just keep living. Sounds all right to me.
If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors. --Bertolt Brecht
In a quiet cemetery on the outskirts of the town where I grew up, there's a cluster of headstones in a section near some trees. I think it's called the "Sundial Section," and I remember my grandmother talking about the plots with some pride--evidently they are prime real estate. I have visited those stones more times than I can count over the past four decades, but I can only find them after wandering around thinking I might be lost for a little while first. I feel like I should know where they are, and my impatience with myself rises until one or another landmark eventually catches my eye and gives me my bearings. Then I pick my way over other people's loved ones until I come to the dry patch of West Texas ground that holds so many pieces of my heart.
The oldest stone--which isn't old at all, really--belongs to my Uncle Ramsey. It's a standard-issue military headstone earned through his service in the Army in Vietnam. He didn't die in Vietnam, though, and the bullet that killed him wasn't fired in that kind of combat. He died by suicide in Dallas in 1981.
He left behind a broken widow, devastated parents, a distraught younger sister (my mother) and brother, and a bewildered little four-year-old niece. I'm sure my father was a wreck as well. My baby brother, Jonathan, was 13 months old and oblivious. My family had barely recovered from the chaos of Jonathan's premature birth the year before when Ramsey's premature death knocked the world off its axis again.
Ramsey lived with us for awhile when I was a baby. My mom said he was enthralled by me and treated me with wonder from the first time he held me. He was my godfather--he made the first exodus from the Baptist to the Episcopal Church, and my mother followed his lead--and we had one big party to celebrate my baptism and his engagement. I still have a white paper napkin with my name embossed on one side, Ramsey and his fiancé's name on the other.
One of my earliest memories is of his hands giving me pieces of bread to feed ducks at a pond near our house; I remember the green grass and murky water, his long fingers placing the white bread into my open palms like communion, and the sound of the quacking as the ducks' anticipation rose. I told my mom about the memory, and she said the three of us would feed the ducks and then walk to a Mexican restaurant for a slow, lingering lunch (or was it happy hour? she couldn't really remember) before rushing back in time to clean up the house before my dad came home from work.
Most of what I know about him I have patched together from scraps of memories and other people's stories. Ramsey had excellent taste and a knack for giving thoughtful gifts. He went to college at UT for some period of time, but he never got a degree. I have no idea what he studied. He floundered around after coming home from Vietnam, spent time in San Francisco, and came home to West Texas for my mother's wedding looking like the hippie he'd become. My grandmother told a story of begging him to cut his hair for the photos, and I think he did cut it some but not really enough for her taste. Somehow a fringed flannel vest that had belonged to him made its way into my closet when I was a teenager. I always said it would be perfect for a '70s costume, but I never wore it as one. I just wanted to have something that was his. He was the first person I loved and lost.
Ramsey was a photographer for the Army in Vietnam, and I can feel in my bones how horrible that would be, the lasting impact it would have. Certain images get seared into your brain and come back unbidden; if those happen to involve body bags that look an awful lot like the black plastic garbage bags people leave out on their curbs, well . . . it can be hard to walk down the street on trash day. I think of him trying to focus his lens and compose a shot of a scene from a living nightmare, and I can't help but shudder. He used drugs to cope, and of course, that turned into a living nightmare of its own. I don't know how he and my grandfather--who was an incredibly courageous (and lucky) veteran of World War II--related to each other's radically different wartime experiences.
Ramsey didn't kill himself on his first attempt, or the second one, either. I don't know how many times he tried before he succeeded. I know my grandparents paid a small fortune to get him help. I know he knew he was loved. But I also know that mental illness doesn't make sense to people who aren't in its grasp. Maybe it was depression or PTSD or addiction or a combination of factors; we will never get definitive answers or explanations for why he decided to end his life. So we try to make peace with it in whatever way we can. My grandmother had a dream that he landed a helicopter on her front lawn and told her not to worry, he was in heaven and would be waiting for her. My mom was in the bathtub crying after Ramsey died, and I came in and said, "Don't cry, Mommy. Remember the good times."
For much of my childhood, I worried anytime anyone I loved got really sad or went through a hard time that they might kill themselves, too. When my parents divorced, if my father was two minutes late for our Wednesday night phone calls, I would start pacing and praying and be on the verge of tears by the time the phone finally rang. To this day, my children and anyone close to me know better than to ever use the phrases "I wanted to kill myself" or "I'm going to shoot myself" like some people say when they're bored or frustrated with a situation. If they forget and say it where I can hear them, I visibly wince and start shaking my head. "No. No, you can't ever say that around me."
Ramsey's suicide gave everything an edge and intensity a young child couldn't possibly process, and combined with the memory of the touch-and-go days after Jonathan's birth, I got the message that if you love someone, tell them NOW. If you want to go somewhere, go NOW. For years life felt immediate and urgent and leaving anything for later seemed like taking a huge risk. When I watched Dead Poet's Society as a teenager, the sentiment behind "carpe diem" didn't come as a revelation to me the way it did to some; it was more a confirmation of what I already believed to be true (especially since the plot uses a suicide to underscore the point). Every minute on this earth is precious, and nothing we do or own can guarantee us a single moment with the people we love.
I think some of the most difficult work I've had to do--difficult because it's addressing such an early, foundational wound--is learning to relax and back away from that edge and intensity. Not to lose it entirely, mind you: it helps cut through all the junk the world tries to get me to care about on any given day. I will never make someone wait to hear "I love you," or "I was wrong; I'm sorry." If I died tomorrow, I believe I would leave this earth content that I did most of what I set out to do.
But there's part of my heart that is still broken, and my God, I wish I could go back and hold out my hands for bread to feed the ducks again. I wish I had known Ramsey as an adult; I wish he had known me as one. I wish we could sneak off to a Mexican restaurant for lunch and then hurry home in time to pick up the kids. I wish, I wish, I wish . . . .
Ramsey's funeral was in Dallas with the burial in Abilene, which meant traveling west on I-20 for several hours between the two cities. No one is sure how it happened exactly, but the motorcade must have broken up at some point and the hearse carrying the casket fell behind everyone else. Maybe they had to stop for gas, who knows? But for whatever reason, the hearse went blazing past the family car as we climbed Ranger Hill toward Abilene. Mom said everyone in the car fell silent and just watched it roar by, leaving us in the dust.
My grandmother told that story many times, usually with something like a sense of humor, presenting it as a "Did that really just happen?!" moment, trying to inject some light into one of the darkest days of her life. I don't know if it helped.
For the ones who are left behind, I don't know what would.
Click here for more information about Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
Human beings have three primary responses to perceived threats. Most of us recognize the first two: fight or flight. But when my therapist described the third--freeze--my stomach flipped and I instinctively started nodding my head. Freeze, yes. I'm very familiar with that one.
To freeze in the face of a threat means to make no discernible movements, no sounds, avoid eye contact. It means holding your breath, hoping not to attract any attention, and praying as hard as you can for the threat to go away. It means to be outwardly still while you're inwardly churning. To be the proverbial duck, cool and calm on the surface but paddling like hell underneath. It means keeping quiet, keeping your head down, keeping your cool while the Titanic sinks or Rome burns around you.
Fighting makes me squeamish, so in the last years of my marriage, I froze. Rather than jump into the fray, my strategy for getting through the worst moments was to keep things from escalating and wait it out. I spent more and more time in that frozen place, until I started to sense that it was a real possibility I would stay there--numb, cold, and disconnected from reality and people I cared about.
I didn't want that life. And freezing wasn't helping anyway. Things escalated no matter how I contained my reactions. Conflict lasted longer or burned more intensely than I could withstand.
So I shifted into flight mode.
The momentum of flight swept me into an avalanche of next steps and to-do lists. Get divorced; find a new job; sell the house; move across the country; enroll the kids in new schools; start the work of making new friends, finding new favorite places, figuring out how to be a family in this new landscape. Find new coping strategies, new answers to the old questions about purpose and values, what we are worth and where we look to find out.
When things went sideways--new job(s) presented challenging people and situations, kids floundered and took awhile to find their footing--I just kept running. I tried to muscle through confusion and on to the next step, to check the next box on the to-do list, convinced if I stopped moving I would sink beneath the weight of our anxiety and grief and all the changes. I ran as fast and as far as I could until I felt myself starting to veer off the rails. I couldn't keep going like that. I was headed for an even harder fall if I tried.
So I decided to pivot.
It was the hardest and best thing I've ever done for myself.
It took a lot longer than just the months I was between jobs, but not one second was wasted.
It meant poring over my life and choices and taking ownership of things I'd been trying to put off on someone else. It meant taking apart unstable structures I had thrown together out of expediency and replacing them with a foundation that can lead to wholeness. It meant asking hard questions and making difficult changes when I didn't like the answers.
All of it was important. None of it was easy. I'm still working on it.
Most of all, it meant learning to stop running. It meant learning to stop freezing. It meant unlearning old patterns and adopting new ones. It meant learning to see that not everything uncomfortable or uncertain is a threat. It meant learning to tease out the real threats and address those in healthy, productive ways.
It meant learning what it is to stay.
To stay in healthy relationships when they bend and stretch you and refuse to follow a script. To practice forgiveness, acceptance, and patience. To love a little better every day. To put down roots that will produce growth for the person you are now, not the person you were before or the person you thought you had to become.
To stand on your own two feet, in a place you choose, warm and present instead of frozen or looking for the closest exit. To make improvements where you are instead of constantly searching for somewhere else.
To stay, to remain, to abide. It feels like a whole new world.
My Southern Baptist grandmother (not to be confused with my Methodist grandmother) knew the Bible inside and out, backwards and forwards. She could pull scriptures out of the deep well of her memory, something appropriate to whatever you might be going through, and quote chapter and verse without missing a word. She wove the Bible into conversation with reverence and conviction and genuine love; for her it was the beginning and end of any question.
She took the obligation to teach God's word to the next generations quite seriously, and as her first grandchild, I was the primary focus of her energy in this area for several years. She started with the Lord's Prayer, and that went well enough. Legend has it (and I have a vague memory to go with the legend) she sent me out on stage at an Evie concert at age three to recite the Lord's Prayer for the audience, and according to her I nailed it--didn't stumble over a single word. After that she decided I was ready to learn the Ten Commandments.
I think if she had stuck to pure memorization it might have turned out differently for both of us, but at some point in our lessons, she thought it would be a good idea to connect the words with real life experience. One day I was disobedient and misbehaved in some fashion, as three- and four-year-old children are wont to do, and I earned myself a spanking with the fearsome "pancake turner" that was always close at hand on the kitchen counter and left welts in lacy patterns on the backs of my thighs. She would always hold me in her lap in her big rocking chair after a spanking, and on this particular occasion, she tried to reinforce the discipline by saying, "Now, Emily, remember: the Bible says 'Honor thy father and thy mother.' If it's in the Bible, we have to do it."
The way she told the story, I waited for her to finish speaking, looked up at her with eyes full of rebellion and sass, and said, "Oh, yeah? Well, I tore that page out of my Bible."
And that was the moment she decided perhaps my mother was right to raise me as an Episcopalian after all.
She and I went head to head about theology and worship and faith throughout my childhood, having heated arguments so numerous and varied I would never be able to remember all of them. We argued about grape juice and spontaneous, unscripted prayer versus the structured liturgy and wine. We locked horns over stained glass versus clear windows; infants baptized with polite amounts of holy water poured over their heads versus adults fully immersed in swimming pools; organs and hymns and vestments and acolytes and whether drums and guitars were ever acceptable in church. She thought ten minute sermons demonstrated flimsy knowledge of the Bible and a lack of conviction in proclaiming the gospel, and I thought altar calls were sentimentalized and driven by peer pressure. We argued about sin and grace, mercy and forgiveness. Neither of us ever hesitated to speak our minds and rarely minced words, and I feel pretty sure we spent more time coming up with our next zinger than really listening to each other.
It was awful. And it was wonderful.
Don't get me wrong: her critique of traditions I loved hurt me deeply, and I'm sure I hurt her, too. It stung when she didn't come to my children's baptisms. She came to the baptisms for my brothers and me--the picture above is her holding me at mine--because my grandfather's desire to participate trumped her fervor for her own tradition. But my grandfather died a few weeks before we baptized my oldest daughter, and that was the end of my grandmother's ecumenicalism. I don't remember being very gracious about it.
But as far as what she was able to teach me about faith? The woman was brilliant.
She taught me to think--hard--about what I believed and why. She called out easy rationalizations and comfortable interpretations and made me examine my own beliefs and preferences. She taught me that thinking deeply about faith is worth the effort, that discipline and wisdom are the fruits of offering the best of yourself to God, day after day, in a relentless search for the Truth. She taught me to wrestle with the things of God, and that the blessing to be gained by wrestling usually comes with a limp.
Unfortunately, back when I was a know-it-all kid, the stiffness of her limp was all I could see. I didn't know it came from years of honest struggle, that it was a badge of honor and blessing, something to be respected rather than ridiculed. I didn't know that her being out of step with most of the people around her was a sincere act of bravery rather than something embarrassing or uncool. The limp seemed so exaggerated in areas where our beliefs conflicted or diverged; I didn't know I would continue to wrestle in those areas for much of my adult life, nor that the example she set for how to do so with integrity would be instructive and helpful. I now see the limp for what it was: a sign that she had encountered God and came away changed.
Something else that was no small thing: she and I wrestled alongside each other as equals. She dismissed a lot of what I had to say because she didn't believe it, but not because I was a child when I said it. Even if she was sitting there trying to come up with her next zinger and not really listening, she still stood her ground and gave me space to stand mine instead of shrugging me off or telling me to go play. She made me feel like my opinion mattered, enough to argue about it anyway, and I absorbed that as a vote of confidence. She took me seriously and that strengthened my soul.
I think of her every morning as I wake up early and reach for my Bible. I can't quote chapter and verse, and I'll never have the encyclopedic knowledge she had. But my faith doesn't have to be hers; my limp as I go through my life has its own rhythm from my own struggles, my own wrestling, my own way of reaching for the Truth. I think we would still fight tooth and nail about a lot of things, but I know we had a lot more in common than we wanted to admit.
Other people have been more supportive and encouraging as my faith has grown, and I need their gentle grace. But my grandmother took me by the hand and led me to the part of faith that feels like fire, the part that brings heat and light and passion into the world. Sometimes we burn each other with that flame as we humans mishandle it, but we can also make it blaze for God's glory.
She showed me the fire that still keeps me warm. For that, I will always be thankful.
I went to therapy after work this afternoon. I'm seeing a new therapist, and while our first session was a fairly brutal recap of my life up to this point, today was more focused on present-day challenges. Specifically, this morning's mad dash to get to the kids to school on time and the absolute beating I gave myself over it.
I've written before about what our mornings are like. It isn't a single mom thing; it isn't a working mom thing, either. I once posted on Facebook that my walk of shame as a stay-at-home mom was having to get out of the car wearing pajama pants and slippers to escort a tardy child up the sidewalk and into the school office to sign in. We are a hot mess in the mornings more often than not. We just are.
I gave my therapist the general overview of this morning and told her about the anxiety and stress that lingered after the door slammed behind my son at drop off, cutting off my sincere-but-harried, "I love you, buddy!" He wasn't actually late--neither was his sister--but the mounting panic as the minutes ticked by had my heart racing. As I turned onto the street that would take me to my office, I said out loud in the now-silent car, "You are SO irresponsible!"
And with that, the floodgates opened. Everything I have ever procrastinated, every speck of dust and stray dog hair that needs to be wiped or swept from my house, every unpacked box and clean-but-not-yet-folded load of laundry, every unsent thank you note and unfinished errand and forgotten task and dinner that consisted of a bowl of cereal or frozen pizza--all the damning evidence that I am SO irresponsible!--rose up into an angry mob of accusation right there in the car with me and buckled themselves in as my passengers all the way to work. The photo at the top of this post probably looks like my youngest playing soccer to you; when I look at it, I remember that we showed up at soccer practice without her ball and had to borrow the green one from the coach. The look of reproach on her face when we realized she didn't have her ball was pretty much the same look I gave myself in the mirror when I checked my lipstick before getting out of the car in the office parking garage. I tried to shake it off and hit the restart button as I walked to my desk, but at 5:15pm as I sat in the chair across from my therapist and told her about it, all the condemnation and shame showed up again with a vengeance.
As I talked, I told her the worst part is that I know better. I realize it's a herculean task to raise young human beings and somehow keep all of us fed, clothed, housed, mostly healthy, and maybe even a little bit happy. And I know I sometimes manage to summon a measure of grace: in the middle of the whirlwind this morning, I looked back at my daughter in her carseat, which she will no longer need after this year, and told her how much I appreciated her cooperative, pleasant attitude in spite of the rush. The other day when my son was taking for-effing-ever to get his baseball gear together (which I asked him to do the night before), instead of yelling at him for making us late, I swallowed all my frustration and asked gently, "How can I help you?" He asked me to put his helmet in the bag and zip it up, and we were in the car 30 seconds later. I know I am doing the best that I can at any given moment, and I know life is like this sometimes.
My therapist let me get to the part where I acknowledged the inner critic that sounds so much like a few people I know who don't like me very much, people who once took sick pleasure in pointing out every flaw and mistake I made. I worked hard to get out from under their microscope, and I swore I would never give them any power over my life again, yet every time I come up against some real or imagined imperfection, they come out from wherever they lurk in my psyche to gloat. I know that is a problem and an obstacle to continued healing and progress. I told her that's part of why I'm back in therapy. She nodded yes and told me to go on.
She let me tell her what I knew about self compassion and about speaking to myself in the same gentle way I spoke to my son when he needed help, or offering myself praise for the things I do well like I gave my daughter for being cooperative and pleasant. She asked me to imagine my best friends riding in the car with me to work instead of the ghosts of all my failures and made me actually say out loud the things I thought they might say to me in those moments.
She asked me what I liked about myself, what I know I do well, and made me come up with something to counter the charge that I'm irresponsible and whatever else the inner critic decides to throw at me. "I'm doing the best I can" didn't pass muster; she said she wanted me to remind myself of something I AM, not something I do, since the things I do can change. So we made a list, and I left feeling a little bit lighter in that way that comes from dealing with hard things head on.
I am loving.
I am faithful.
I am hopeful.
I am creative.
I am growing.
(I'm also setting my alarm for ten minutes earlier and putting a timer on my son's shower in the morning. We'll get there.)
There's a great scene in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes where Ruth has just given birth to her baby, and Idgie is spreading the news:
Idgie: It's a boy!
Reverend Scroggins: I think a little prayer of thanksgiving would be in order.
Idgie (jubilant): God dammit to hell, son of a bitch, she did it! Here's to Ruth!
Swap "It's the first day of school!" for the first line and put my name in for Ruth at the end, and you have some idea of my mood after dropping off my children at their respective schools on Monday morning.
I will always refer to May-September 2017 as the summer of pestilence and plague. It started in May with a ride in an ambulance which set the wheels in motion for not one but two cardiac procedures in June and July; we moved (different house, same neighborhood); one family member who shall remain nameless had not one but two separate infestations of lice over the course of eight weeks; two out of three children had impetigo in July; and there was an eclipse and an epic hurricane in August. It truly felt biblical at times.
I had a whole blog post written about my heart condition, but then Hurricane Harvey sat on top of us for four days (or however long it was; I lost count), and it all just felt like too many words. I can sum it up with the following, which kind of applies to the hurricane experience, too:
Our city and region will be reeling from the effects of the hurricane for a long time. On a more personal level, the lessons from the summer of pestilence and plague will continue to sink in as we get some distance and perspective.
For today it's enough to know we are on the other side, and life rolls on. Thanks be to God.
And also: God dammit to hell, son of a bitch, we did it! Here's to us!
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.