Monday, March 26, 2012

Like Sinew Torn from Bone

11 You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. 12 You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit. Job 10:11-12 (NRSV)

The look I saw on his face brought forth an image of sinew being torn from bone. Yet the ripping I felt was my heart.

I am not yet fully healed. I wonder when I will be, for I can still see Stross’ face, and I am still wrestling with the emotion exposed in that moment.

And so, I write.

Mark’s and my conversation – if we pretend to call it that – flirted with fears for our future. Our sons didn’t want to hear what we were talking about, nor should they have had to. Unfortunately for Stross and Skye, their parents are poor at hiding feelings. Clarification: Their mother is poor at it; their father is often a victim of her circumstance.

All four of us were in the same room when I felt challenged, and when challenged, I attack: “Stop implying I am not happy and that this is about me. Stross and I have developed a pattern to our days. We are falling into a routine, and I am figuring it out. My job is to accommodate his needs right now. I get that. Stross and I are getting it done. It is what it is. Stross is happy. I am happy. So back off.”

My forceful assertion was met with equally decisive opposition. Simultaneously, Mark and Skye, who in that moment chose to go from a bystander to a participant in his parents’ conflict, snapped their heads my direction and said in near unison, “You’re not happy.”

Stunned, I looked at Stross; he looked at me. My maternal instinct screamed in silent horror. I could not protect him from what he had heard and might now believe. I read his mind through his eyes. He was torn. His idea of who his mother was had been knocked askew by the suggestion of an alternative reality: Mom wasn’t happy? Mom’s happiness depended on him?

Flesh of my flesh. Sinew torn from bone.

I have only witnessed the expression Stross had on his face one other time. Several years ago during a medical consultation, a doctor had carelessly begun using the “s-word” (surgery) without regard to Stross’ impressionable presence. We had not asked about a surgical solution to Stross’ medical condition, but the doctor had felt the need to offer one. Immediately after the word was uttered, Stross, the survivor of more than a dozen surgeries, looked directly at me: betrayal. Had we tricked him? Had we not told him what this appointment was really about?

That day I had offered him an immediate, decisive response. My reassurance had been swift, even scolding the doctor for having been so careless. I had been Stross’ protector and comforter. He had no doubt he was safe. He could trust me, his mother.

But now … could he trust me now? I wanted to offer him immediate reassurance, but I was still reeling from the accusation. My soul’s mate and my other son did not believe I was happy. I could not begin to sort through the implications of that charge.

So I simply looked back at Stross while he looked at me. What was my man-boy thinking? Intellectually, he can converse as an 11- or 12-year-old might, but his problem-solving abilities are forever locked at a 7-year-old’s level. What must he think about his mother and her happiness and how she spends her days aligned with his? What are the implications for him?

“You’re not happy.”

The words had been sharp, cutting. The separation of sinew and bone had been severe enough I could not even limp to Stross’ rescue. I held off tears while his head lowered and his eyes looked over the top of his glasses, darting around the room and assessing each of us. He sat alone, looking alone. His hands kept each other company in his lap with one set of fingers nervously picking at the other.

Mark and Skye seemed oblivious to his anxiety. I wanted to say something, but I could only shake my head in an attempt to shake off what had just happened. Finally, the urge to strike back returned.

“How dare you. How dare you make Stross think I am not happy spending time with him.”

Then the episode ended as family conflicts often do. Silence filled the room and I took my negative energy into another area of our home so I would stop hurting the people I love most in this world, and they could not hurt me anymore.

Mark and Skye had drawn my attention to a topic I wanted to avoid – a topic only I had the power to change, but first I needed to find my way back to Stross, a powerful life force who serves as a mirror for my soul.

Hours later as he lay in bed watching a video on his iPod before turning his lights off for the night, I positioned my body next to his and we hugged. I told him I loved him and that I liked spending time with him. We reminded each other of fun times we’d shared, and he included the story of when he came to the Iowa State Capitol with me to have lunch with the then Lt. Governor. He was 2-years-old at the time, so it is a story he knows more as family narrative than memory.

We had been a family in transition then, moving from Des Moines to the life we now live. Mark had been our family’s primary care provider up to that point. Then, for three weeks, I lived in one city while Mark began a life for us in another. That is when we swapped roles and I became our family’s primary care provider, a responsibility I carry to this day – technically. Stross, now 20, is quite able to take care of most of his special needs unassisted but, unfortunately, not all. Mark and I share responsibility for the rest, while I continue to be the one on-call. The classroom aid. The job coach. The life skills teacher. The mom.

The anniversary of Stross’ birth is approaching. This personal holy day is only five weeks away, and this year I have homework to do before it arrives. I must attempt to answer this question: Am I happy? If I can’t get that answered, I won’t be able to conduct my annual motherhood performance review in the manner Stross (or Mark and Skye) deserves.

Am I happy?

I can feel the healing beginning simply because I have allowed myself to ask the question. Only I have the answer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Story of Silence

I am intrigued by silence that sits in a room, tempting me to determine why it’s there.

I believe every silence holds a story. Some discover the plot by listening and observing, while I can’t resist the investigative approach. I want to prick the silence and see what oozes. Even in the most benign situation, the process can be healing or hurtful. I don’t believe there is an in-between.

In my family, silences are few. Growing up, when hot silence occurred, I wondered what topic had begun the argument that had fizzled my parents’ fumes. In the family for which I serve as the matriarch, I never wonder. The topics that push our marital hot buttons are mine to choose or to accept as a challenge.

Then there is cool silence – the kind that exists between strangers. My parents practiced a narrow definition for “stranger.” Dining in a restaurant, sitting in a waiting room, or walking through museums and state parks, I witnessed conversations go from who-are-you to we’ll-try-to-look-you-up-next-time-we-are-through in mere minutes. Equal parts horror and fascination motivated me to remind my parents – as often as I was able - that it wasn’t necessary to include family details in conversations with people we hardly knew.

Their powers of discernment must be strong, however, for I cannot think of a negative experience that resulted from their approach of sharing our lives with strangers. Yet.

My relationship with silence was shaped by my parents’ avoidance of it. Something was always being discussed in the home of my upbringing. If not, music was playing on our stereo. On paper grading days, my father would stack 1-2 inches of 45s or a half-inch of long-play albums to create a soundtrack for his morning or afternoon teaching task. His soundtrack then became mine as well.

My father is the reason I know all the words to Connie Francis’ “Where the Boys Are” and every lyric to every song on the “Jesus Christ Superstar” soundtrack. He is also why I can sing through Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” album. My father, who is charmingly tone deaf to notes above middle C, set my life to music long before I understood who I was. It may be part of why I am who I am.

Then there is this: My parents are both storytellers – independently of one another, but in their most stellar form, simultaneously. One will begin a story while the other fills in words, corrects facts, and then adds commentary or observation before, ultimately, sharing in the outcome of the story’s conclusion. With them, more is more. No detail is left behind.

I have witnessed few couples able to navigate to the level tale telling that my parents have achieved. I think of it as interruptus-augmentative. The fact they drive some listeners crazy is a given. Yet, even their most annoyed listeners agree their conversational art form is spectacular to behold – like a train wreck in slow motion or the laborious, intentional strokes of a classical artist.

I am aware that I practice a solo form of this method, interrupting myself to add details that have flicked into my stream-of-consciousness. Bits of memory arrive tardy but important. Could I leave them unsaid? Certainly. Yet am I compelled to embellish, for I am a product of my upbringing. I have learned that someone cares, someone wants to know it.

More is more. Remember. Until it is not.

My family is also the first to demand I get to my point. So sometimes I simply talk faster. If the desire is to be heard, succinctness isn’t a friend. Few words carefully chosen do nothing for listeners who – by demanding the point be gotten to –allow little time or credence for what is being shared. I learned to spew words out anyway. If someone isn’t really listening, why not at least get the words out?

For one critical reason: Listeners may be less likely to listen the next time.

But if that proves true, why seek an audience with them again?


Humans are relational. Words mixed with silence are how we communicate. Actions – or a lack of action in the silent spaces – speak as well. A smile with words, a simple a smile, or no smile at all. Sitting next to someone and choosing to greet one another or simply sitting. The choice itself communicates.

I want to be better at silence. I want to hear what it tells me about others, but mostly I want to hear what I am saying to myself in a language only I can hear. I want to hear a story that is mine to tell then determine the best way to share it. Right now I am sitting with the silence, but soon I will prick it and see what oozes. I will likely tell more details than most people would. I will also, mostly likely, hear the soundtrack of my life as I work.

“I know too much to go back and pretend. … Yes, I am wise, but it’s wisdom born of pain. Yes, I’ve paid the price. But look how much I’ve gained. If I have to, I can do anything at all. I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.”