Fatherless

Rose window example, San Antonio

“Can you tell me anything about your father’s medical history?”

“No. I don’t know him.” He shrugged as if it was no big deal but his voice said otherwise. 

Next patient…. 

“What about your father’s medical history?”

She scrunched up her face. “I think he’s still alive? I don’t know for sure. I never knew him.”

Next patient…

“So your mother is alive and has diabetes. Do you know anything about your father?”

“I’m not in contact with him.” The disdain came across loud and clear in her voice. “I hope he’s dead.”

If fathers ever think they don’t matter, they should sit in my seat and listen to the pain they can generate even when they are not there.

The Scales

Communicating effectively with others is the key to success. I want my son to get comfortable speaking in front of others so this year I encouraged him to enter a speech competition through his school. 

He worked hard on it.

As parents we all suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding our clearly exceptional progeny but between the two of us, I had no expectations that he was going to win. I just wanted him to participate. I was fully prepared to just celebrate the achievement of his participation.

But then? He was given a red ribbon with “Excellent” emblazoned across it in gold letters. 

At first I was overjoyed. In my day, a red ribbon meant that you placed second. Excellent meant that you did pretty damn good.

Did he really do so well? 

During our practice he struggled with speaking too fast and was not making good eye contact. Was it possible that he listened to me? That he took my advice to heart? To be honest, that would have meant more to me than the ribbon itself.

Eventually I was given his judging forms. There were three judges. Apparently in this private school league they only score as Good, Excellent, or Superior and the kids are not ranked into places at all. Color of the ribbon? Yeah. Meaningless.

WTF?

Two out of the three judges gave my son a Good. Only one gave him an Excellent. From the judges’ notes, he fidgeted, stumbled, had to be prompted, and did not make eye contact. They gave him an Excellent ribbon for that. We worked on all of those things but it was his first competition and he is a first grader so I am not surprised or embarrassed or upset with his performance. I am so very proud that he was brave enough to get up there in front of strangers.

But how can I reinforce to my son that hard work pays off when mediocrity gets him an Excellent rating and a red ribbon? How can I make the point that he should listen to his mama’s advice about eye contact? How can I help him work through rejection and loosing and the unfairness of life while in the safety of childhood before he becomes a fragile adult who is devastated by the realization that the world does not in fact hand out participation trophies? And what about how this demoralizes and minimizes the kids who really did perform exceptionally well? They deserve to feel the full glory of their achievements, don’t they?

I just don’t understand. 

Hovering

Blimp in the sky
My childhood was tightly controlled. Every aspect of my life was minutely scrutinized and managed. 

I was not allowed to ever spend the night at a friend’s house. I went to a friend’s house once in grade school. Only once. My first sanctioned date was to a church to deliver fruit to shut-ins on Halloween night when I was almost 17. The guy who had asked me out was required to participate in a 30 minute interview process prior to being allowed to drive me less than five miles to the church. That interview ran the gamut from current grades, college plans, statement of faith, general health, etc. Physical contact with members of the opposite sex was strictly forbidden, going so far as not allowing me to give a male friend a platonic hug at his graduation. He hugged first. I guess I was supposed to run away screaming. My punishment for that hug back was to write 1,500 times, “I will obey my mother.” I was a junior in high school. My library books were prescreened before I could check them out until I was 18. I was not allowed to learn to drive until I graduated from high school. Dancing, ear piercing, and make-up were against the rules and the Smurfs were not allowed (Gargamel used magic doncha know). 

So when my kids started playing with the neighbor kids, I found myself hovering. It was suddenly necessary to inspect the yard for mushrooms. Rake leaves. Hunt for pecans. Maybe I’ll just wander around looking disinterested while spying on their conversations. 

What am I afraid of?

I’m afraid that my kids will do something offensive, something that will get them labeled as weird or bullied or worse. I am afraid that someone will hurt them, physically or emotionally or sexually.

But I am also afraid that my kids will be judged unfairly because they are *my* kids. That they will be used as pawns in an attempt to get to me. The whole doctor thing. I have been burned before.

Because of the control I experienced as a kid, it is exceedingly difficult to let go of control of my own kids. It is all I know. BUT as I commented to someone yesterday, I am not raising pets. I am trying to grow a couple of independent human beings. 

My kids make jokes about butts and farts and you find that offensive? Maybe it’s your fault for letting your kids play with mine. Your kids are going to pick on my kiddos? My son and daughter are very, very good at karate. You want our kids to make friends so you can say you hang with the doctor? Well fine. I cannot assume everyone has ulterior motives, can I? I will cut you off if necessary. 

So this weekend when they all started playing together again I forced myself to let it go. I went inside and busied myself making homemade marshmallows. I even closed the back door. 

And you know what? They did just fine without me. 

Frolicking

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I gave my daughter the Lime Chiffon doll that I played with as a kid. Lime Chiffon was friends with Strawberry Shortcake, and the only doll out of that collection I ever received. Remarkably, it still has its pink shoes and green and white striped stockings still intact. My daughter carries it around with her everywhere. To the mall, to church, to the opera….

A doll that is about 35 years old.

You know what is depressing about that? A mere toy, a plastic doll for crying out loud, has held up better than I have. Just when I think I am at peace with the whole aging thing, a toy reminds me just how old I am and that I am not going to get any younger.

Would you judge me harshly for wanting to scream, “You bitch!” at the doll?

Yes?

Well, I didn’t do it. But I sure did want to.

I have some consolation, however: The doll is not likely to survive the love of this new little girl. Not for long anyway. 

Mwahahhaha!

(Death to the plastic toy!!!!! I will have my revenge…)

Now, back to the opera. Did you roll your eyes when I threw that into the opening paragraph? Did you think I was trying to be snooty? Let me say a few words about that…

I love the opera. It is a fantastic place for people watching. Generally an opera is good for a couple of entertaining scenes. The rest of the time it would be boring as hell except that the people in attendance are so much fun. I love the people who attend operas!

My kids know that mommy attends the opera from time to time and that she really dresses up for it so it holds some mystique for them. There happens to be a series of operas put on for kids so I took mine for the first time this weekend. I wasn’t sure what they would think but it thrills me to no end that I can give my kids cool experiences like that. What kind of person would I have grown up to be had I been able to go to the opera as a kid?

Um, don’t answer that…

Fortunately, this opera was only 30 minutes long. These people are not fools. They know you cannot hold a kid’s attention on opera for much longer. Bless them for that.

What did my kids think? 

They said they loved it. But turns out, it wasn’t the opera itself that they loved. Oh, no. It was the chandelier going up into the ceiling before the performance that was so frickin’ awesome. That, and the fact that we spent the entire morning of singing everything in “opera”.

Life. Life is a perpetual lesson in humility. Once you have learned that lesson, you die.

Happy Monday. 

Say Wat?*

Cambodia 041

So, something that I have noticed is this:

Adopted people seem to often carry around a lot of baggage. 

Sometimes it’s obvious from childhood. There are times, though, they don’t even know it is there until they are all grown up.

I have seen this clinically and personally and throughout the blogging world. Even under the best of circumstances, with the best adoptive parents, there is a profound amount of baggage that accompanies adoption.

Who am I, really?

Where did I come from?

Why did she give me away? Didn’t she love me?

Now, let’s say it is an adoption situation where the child was adopted as a baby but the birth mother died and the father was never known. What would be the best approach? When do you tell the kiddo, who has only known you as a parent, about the death? 

It is easier in some ways to simply avoid the topic altogether, isn’t it? There is that temptation to not say a word about adoption and death, let that child go through life thinking they are 100% yours. Decades ago that might have been possible, but in the advent of DNA testing, these secrets never stay buried. I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations with devastated patients about the seemingly innocuous DNA test done for fun that uncovered a few half siblings or even different parents. 

I have been thinking about this for some time. Maybe the point is not that there is a “right” way or a “right” time to have that discussion. There is no point in time that would make it all OK and would prevent subsequent life turmoil, so much as simply understanding that life sucks… sometimes it really sucks… and when you cannot make it better you just do your best to support them as they work through it all. Working through the grief and anger and abdandoment issues can be a lifelong process and that is OK.

What are your thoughts?

*This is a wat in Cambodia. A wat is a Buddist temple or monastery.

Passing Away

  

“This time of year, my mother’s birthday, I am always so sad.” She choked up and dabbed at the tears again. “My momma died ten years ago but I still just can’t get over it. We were so close.”

I handed her another box of tissues as she continued crying.

It was a strange mixture of emotions I felt sitting there watching her sob away. I hurt for her and yet at the same time I felt an odd guilt and jealousy that stuck in my throat and filled my mouth with bitterness.

How do people do that, get close to their parents? What would that feel like?

It has been six months since I have last seen her, my mother, despite the fact that we live less than 50 miles away. She hates to talk on the phone so I don’t ever call her. We play Words With Friends every day so there’s that, but I am not even following her on Facebook since I am not on Facebook in the first place.

I wonder how I will feel after she dies?

My mother and I are such different people. It strikes me that I can get along with a wide variety of individuals, mainly because I can give them the benefit of the doubt, open my heart, allow forgiveness. I can do that for a stranger, for someone I have never even met, but I cannot do that for my own mother.

Why?

Why do we judge our family, the people we love, so much more harshly than we judge the rest of the world? 

At this point, I don’t hate my mother. I don’t even dislike her. I simply don’t understand her. Allowing myself to try to understand her hurts too much. I have to take what I have believed about my own childhood and accept that maybe there is another side to things. Understanding her side may invalidate what I have come to believe about myself and about her and that prospect frightens me, as if it would be taking away part of who I am. 

Which then begs the question, who am I anyway and why does any of it matter to me in the first place?

Sometimes it feels even now as if I am a toddler on the verge of throwing tantrum, clinging to their crumbling binkie-blankie because they don’t want to let go of their childhood. 

It is all I know.

I want to ask her why she married my father. I want to ask her why she stayed with him even through his terrible emotional abuse. Did she love him? Does she love him now? Is she proud of me? But I am afraid of the answers. 

Maybe it is none of my business? 

Maybe I just want it to be none of my business? 

So I don’t ask….

Nightmares

dinosaur skeleton outside the Field Museum in Chicago

“Get your jammies on, please. Bedtime!”

“But mommy, I want to wear this!!!!” 

She was standing in the doorway to her bedroom, hand on her hip, wearing hot pink leggings and a long sleeve Hello Kitty T-shirt.

“Why can’t I sleep in this?”

A thousand retorts flew through my mind, none of them really any good, but at that moment it struck me that this was about control. For both of us.

I want to control you.

The reality is not that pajamas help you sleep better. AND, I had to concede that pajamas would not be not more comfortable than what she was wearing. In truth, I suspect pajamas are actually a plot by the clothing industry to force us to spend more money. Like “girl” toothpaste and “boy” toothpaste…

“Please, mommy?” she pleaded.

So who gets to have control in this situation? Me, because I am the “authority”? Should I enforce the rules because if I let the little things slip, it would pave the way for letting the big things slip? Why IS it a rule, anyway? Should I let it go, choose to pick my battles waiting for something bigger? Is it a better lesson to show we can change stupid rules? 

If I don’t have her change, I can get her down for bed all that much faster…

Bedtime.

Screw all of the philosophical mumbo-jumbo. I choose getting to bed. Quickly. Painlessly. 

That is my control.

Maybe I can convince her to wear leggings and Tshirts every day….

Just So

black amd white gerber daisy
We were discussing her sudden weight loss. Fourty pounds since her last visit just five months before. Very few patients lose significant amounts of weight like that without something else almost catastrophic going on in the background. 

A death. A divorce. An affair. Zombie apocalypse. Or chemotherapy.

For her, I knew it wasn’t chemotherapy. I was pretty sure no zombies were involved, either.

In her case, she told me, it had been her husband. He had died four months before from a massive heart attack, collapsed at the dinner table over a plate of her roast beef.

“I loved him. He could make me so angry. He made me terribly happy. He made me feel things. My first husband never did that. We never fought. Ever. We were good friends who enjoyed hanging out but we were never lovers in the full sense of the word.”

That comment struck me and I have been mulling it over ever since.

Is it possible that we as humans do not crave peace so much as we desire to feel alive?

To feel things.

Relationship dynamics fascinate me.

I have had occasion to consider that more this past week. 

Growing up I witnessed the bull in the china shop kind of rage in my house. My father, mad at the slide projector, would lob it across the room to shatter on the floor. He broke a coffee table once right down the center. I see that in myself only I don’t throw things. I throw words. Words are my violence. I can use them to hurt you more than my fists ever could. You hurt me or someone I care about, I will lash out until the fire burns down and I can finally stamp it out. 

The thing about anger and fighting is that when it is someone whom you care about, their opinion matters on a level so much higher than anyone else’s.

A patient can tell me my breath stinks and duck their head and I can laugh it off and move on after a breath mint. If my lover were to say the same thing in the same way, perhaps in the context of explaining why he did not want to kiss me right then, it might dig itself into my heart and lodge there like broken piece of glass. It would mean so much more coming from him.

There is so much power there. Power to tear down and hurt and destroy. How can you contain that? How do you have enough conflict to feel alive without burning down the house while you are at it?

I watch my daughter’s rages and see myself mirrored there as she is flailing about, kicking, hitting, and scratching anything that gets too close to her.

Oh, baby girl. 

I am afraid she is going to hurt herself if I cannot teach her how to control her emotions. I pray every day that she finds someone who loves her enough to have the strength to stand up to her onslaught.

Meanwhile, I continue to work to recognize my own shortcomings….

ProlongedĀ 

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I looked around the room of somber faces. They were looking to me to intervene, to work some miracle because so far no one else had.

“She had a bad stroke one night. She was sent to rehab but didn’t progress so they sent her to a nursing home to do physical therapy. But she didn’t do well with that, either. So now she has been there at the facility for six months with a tracheostomy and a feeding tube.”

We had had this talk every year for five years:

If your heart stops and you stop breathing what do you want your doctors to do?

Every year she told me very firmly that she just wanted to be allowed to die. She did not want her life prolonged, especially if it was going to be like this… not able to communicate or do anything on her own.

Doc, I know I should get that paperwork done, but I just have not gotten around to it. I will soon, though, I promise.

But she never did.

My family understands. They’ll make the right choice even if the paperwork isn’t completed.

Her daughter, standing here, believed fervently that her 92 year old mother was going to make a full recovery. She cried when I told her what her mother had told me.

“No! She wouldn’t want that. She wouldn’t ever want to give up…”

I would rather die.

Death comes for us all. Sooner. Or sometimes later.

A Cry in the Night

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My daughter screamed bloody murder from the day she was born. 

What was I doing wrong?

At first I thought it was because my milk supply had not come in but then that was no longer a factor and still she did not stop.

She was well fed. I changed her diapers. I dressed her in adorable clothes. I cuddled her. I played with her. There was nothing wrong medically. 

What was I missing?

I went through everything I knew how to do everything they teach you in medical school and residency, all of the advice I always gave parents struggling with this. I scoured the internet like other desperate mothers. All worthless. Once she started screaming, I could not make her stop.

I was a failure but not just as a mom. I was a failure as a physician.

When I look at pictures of her early infancy now, I am ashamed. I missed out on so much of the joy and love I should have felt then. Instead, I used to wear earplugs just so I could be around her. 

What kind of mother DOES that?

The only thing that would calm her down was bouncing on an exercise ball. I bounced for hours. When it was her fussy time, God forbid I ever stopped bouncing…

Wails and wails and wails.

Which is worse? Sore thighs and butt from an exercise that never seemed to make them smaller or the painful high pitched unrelenting screech of an angry infant? In time I felt imprisoned by her. Trapped. I didn’t want to keep bouncing on that goddamn ball, I didn’t want to listen to her scream, either. Bouncing with anyone else was not cool by her.

I desperately wanted to send her back.

Eventually, after a few months, it did stop. Colic always does if you can just endure, and while the scars have dissipated to some degree now years later, they still remain. I never appreciated how disruptive it is, how much it wounds your heart, until I lived it. Colic robbed me of being the mother that I thought I was, the one that I wanted to be… doting on my beautiful baby girl.

So much for fairytales.

We survived. I love her. She loves me. She screams but not for hours and hours and when she does, I can now put her into time out until she cools off. Interestingly, I still find her to be terribly temperamental and prone to tantrums. But is that really the case? Or do I just judge more harshly because of our past? 

My heart still hurts when I remember and even today I don’t like to talk about it, but the advice I give to parents is much different now that I have lived it myself.