Finding My Place in My Family: Part III

Read Part I, Part II

Yes, there was a shadow between us, between my husband and me.  It separated us for many years. It was not a shadow that could be lain down upon or even reached for, although we did try. The shadow was that of a baby, our baby. The baby I was forced to give up for adoption before we were married. Her birth date is engraved in my gold and emerald wedding ring. An emerald, they say, is divine. It is thought to possess phenomenal powers of healing, luck and love. I’d named her Aimee. I only saw her once. She was perfect in every way, ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. She looked at me from five feet away when I told her I loved her and wished her a good life. When I turned and left, there was a tear in my heart that I knew would never mend. 

Julie, Frank, and the emerald ring.
Julie, Frank, and the emerald ring.

It’s said that it is not until a mother actually gives up her child for adoption that she experiences the five stages of grief. According to Wikipedia:

Denial: The overwhelming nature of the mother’s emotions allow her to feel numb to the situation. Essentially, reality has not set in.

Anger: This emotion is a manifestation of reality, the understanding of how devastating an impact the mother’s decision has made on her and her understandable vulnerability. This may cause the mother to lash out to those closest to her or on herself.

Bargaining: The mother begins to rethink the decision she has made. She feels the need to regain control of her emotional state by attempting to bargain with a religious or psychological figure to rid her of her sense of guilt.

Depression: This is a more secretive emotional state, where the mother feels alone. She feels that she is the only one who knows what she is going through, and feels it is best to vent and reflect by herself.

Acceptance: There is no real timetable as to when or if a mother will ever be able to accept her decision, but at this stage she begins to feel at peace with her decision…The eventual acceptance of the loss of her child does not mean that a birth mother has forgotten the child, but instead means that she has integrated the loss into her life.

Although I did eventually begin to integrate the loss of my little Aimee into my life, I did struggle with great depression and guilt. Eventually I went to a therapist with whom I shared my extreme melancholy. But because my growing-up years had been so complicated and unstable, I came to think that my depression and despair were a result of the instability, and not about giving up Aimee. I had, I thought, dealt with her loss in my life.

For many years I was very, very happy and very, very sad. When I rose each morning, I never knew which I would be. I was IMG_8244afraid to open my eyes when the sun came up. Under the covers of my bed, my eyes still closed, I would listen to the sounds around me. The stirring of my husband as he got up and went to shower and shave; the movements of my two other children, a daughter and a son, whom I had given birth to after Aimee, and who gave me such joy. “Dear God,” I would pray, “let this day be free of despair so I can be a good wife and mother. Let me be a part of the light in their life.” But the decision of how I would be when I opened my eyes never seemed to be mine. It never appeared to be a choice I was able to make, no matter how hard I tried. It felt that the verdict of how I would feel that day was solely a throw of the dice. It was never anything I had control over.

I could sense immediately, if the day would be up or down for me, the second my feet hit the floor. Sometimes there would be a surge of such bliss that I would have to hold onto the bed to keep steady. My body would, it felt, take on a radiance and glow. My brain would whiz with delight and my heart would overflow with passion and the desire to be the best I could be that day. Other times though, I would rise with a gush of agony pouring through me that was so sharp and intense that I would have to catch my breath hard and hold it for as long as I could. I dreaded these days. I was so afraid of these days that some nights I didn’t sleep. I was so fearful of these days that I prayed sometimes never to wake up at all. When those days came, the first thing I would do was to step into the shower my husband had vacated, let the ice-cold water run over me until the pain was anesthetized out of me, and, for a while, was hidden.

No one knew. If you asked my husband, my children now, today, to look back at those days, far, far ago, they would most probably—at least I hope that they would— say that they never really knew. They had lives that they were living and I got so skilled at hiding my ecstasies, my suffering, that sometimes even I didn’t recognize them after a while. 

As years passed and life went on, I learned to wrap myself in a protective shadow, but I always turned my face to the sun. I knew someday—maybe it was a fantasy, maybe an instinct, I don’t know— that a time would come, when the daughter that I had been forced to give up, would somehow be mine to see again. I never gave up hope. I always knew.

IMG_8243
Kathy, who was once Aimee.

And I was right.

-Julie

Oliver Sacks and the Art of Healing

In the middle of writing an entirely different guest post at Julie and Kathy’s request, I received news that Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. For those unfamiliar with his work, he is a neurologist and writer, famous for books that contain incredibly interesting case studies of some of his patients. The 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, called Awakenings, was based on his book of the same name. It recounted his efforts to help patients suffering from a debilitating disease called encephalitis lethargica, which rendered them effectively comatose, to regain neurological function. Sacks dedicated the book to W.H. Auden, and included these lines from Auden’s poem, The Art of Healing: 

Healing,
Papa would tell me,
is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.

I know, through his books, (most notably, Hallucinations The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia) that Oliver Sacks mastered “the intuitive art of wooing Nature.” I know this intuitively. While his realm of study and practice is neurology, and the kind of healing Kathy, Julie, and all those with similar stories, must engage in has more to do with OSackspsychology, his insights are no less relevant. He is an incredibly intelligent, accomplished scientist and clinical professor. His appeal as an author is an uncanny ability to explain complex neurological concepts and conditions in a way that is interesting and accessible to the layperson. He is able to demystify sanity and insanity both, and plunge into depths of the mind in a way that reminds one of a mountain climber scaling a steep cliff. But what has always struck me more profoundly than all of that, are his relationships with people.

In his NYTimes essay, “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer”, he writes,  “…I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” This is what I love most about him. I suppose it’s what I love most in all humans. Their humanity– unmasked, untamed, untethered. I love that Oliver Sacks is a man of Science without a white coat. I appreciate his ability to listen in a way that makes you feel what you have to say is all that matters in the world. I appreciate that his understanding of the workings of the mind serves his humanity, and not the other way around.

He writes:

I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight. This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

The Padded Cell

In 1963, when I was nineteen and a Philadelphia Main Line debutante on her way to becoming an actress, I became pregnant. The father of my baby was an extremely handsome Jewish kid from the Bronx, already an established actor. But my parents were horrified at the union and decided that I needed to be institutionalized in a state hospital for people ranging from the mentally challenged to the criminally insane. They wanted to keep us apart no matter what and you could get away with things like that way back then.

It was a difficult time for me, being locked up in a mental hospital with a bunch of crazy people and being with child. No, I have that wrong–it wasn’t difficult at all, it was much worse than difficult. It was horrendous. It was an absolutely atrocious time in my life and I was fearful for my child and myself, the entire time I was there. Most of the patients I was with were totally out of their minds, some stripping naked and running down the halls calling out blasphemies, others beating their heads against the wall, bloodying themselves something awful, until a nurse would come along and take them away to the padded cells. PaddedCell1

And that’s really what I am thinking back on today as I sit at my desk with my cup of coffee, still in my nightgown. I am thinking back on those padded cells of many years ago. The gray of them, kind of like gym-mat gray, the smoothness of them, the thickness of them, kind of like three gym-mats put together, and the soft acceptance of them when one throws one’s tormented body against them, again and again and again. Imagine a room the size of a very small Starbucks or a very large closet, or even a handicapped bathroom at an airport. Of course, the door to the padded cell must have a window in it, up towards the top, so the nurses or doctors can look in. In our hall of padded cells some of the slippery patients would come back and make faces through the window at the person locked inside, giving them the finger or putting their salaciously red tongues flat against the glass and licking at it excitedly until they were caught and dragged away, groaning at the top of their lungs.

I mostly always write in the morning and usually in my nightgown. I rise, shine, go downstairs and let the dogs out, fix their breakfast (I mixed in some chopped-up fresh green beans today for the first time), feed them and then stand outside in the back garden with them, my bare feet dancing in the dewy grass, as I guard that Hudson doesn’t finish first and rush to Grace’s bowl and push her aside. After that, I leave them to race around outside and go back into the kitchen. It’s then that I push the button on my very fancy Italian coffee machine that not only makes good coffee but great foam. When it’s ready, I pour it into my beautiful white, extra-large ‘J’ mug, given to me by Irene, one of the granddaughters I got to watch grow up, and head back upstairs to my office.

My office is kind of like a cell, as it is small in size. But it does not have a door with a window in it. There are windows in my office, however; two of them, and they look out at trees and the sky and the sunrise. If my office did have a window in the door, my extremely handsome husband, the Jewish Kid from the Bronx, who is now a producer of movies for television, would insist I hang a curtain on it, maybe something made from an interesting fabric hit upon on one of our journeys together–he films all over the world. The un-padded walls in my office are covered with treasured photographs and books from my past and present. I have a lot of past behind me. My present is full, too. We’ll see where the future takes me. I am very aware that it could include anything.

Maybe I will grow amazingly wealthy with an idea I have been harboring in the back of my mind for a few years now. It is something that I mentioned briefly in Secret Storms. Maybe I should go on the TV show, Shark Tank. Or maybe you might want to invest. Anyway, the idea is: ‘Padded cells for rent by the hour!’

PaddedCell2

“I’m feeling a little off-kilter today,” you or anyone might consider when waking up one morning and getting out of the wrong side of the bed. As the day goes on the simple off-kilter could turn to something more observable. “This traffic is making me nuts. I feel like slamming into that car in front of me.” Then it could go even further. “If my husband (wife, child, mother, father, friend, store keeper) puts me down one more time I’m just going to kill him.” That’s when a padded cell every few blocks could come in handy. In-and-out-in-an-hour. I would set them up in storefront buildings. Like nail salons, cupcake shops, sun tanning places. You, or anyone, could just walk up to the counter of this storefront place, pay your money and be given a gown, running suit or something suitable for the task ahead. Then you would be let into a small safe room covered in thick pads. Just think, for a full hour and not too much money you could scream and yell and holler to your heart’s content without alarming or intimidating anyone. You could throw your tormented body against those pads, again and again and again. After an hour, someone would open the door, you would step out, take a shower, get dressed and simply walk away a changed person, free of anxiety. Imagine the reduced prison populations! And you don’t have to become a member as with a gym. You can use the padded cell once or as many times as you need to. And you always know it’s there for you when you need it. Just realizing that could be a huge preventative.

“Shall I have my nails done, get a quick tan, buy a coffee and a cupcake, or should I go to the pads today?”

I’m still in my nightgown. It’s past noon. Maybe I’ll dress and take the dogs out for a walk. One of my granddaughters, Martha, is leaving in five days to spend part of her junior college semester in Europe. Maybe I can rope her into going out for a while this afternoon for a movie or a mani-pedi or just a good old talk over coffee. I’m gonna miss her a lot.

-Julie