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Family and the Art of Imperfection

Family

My father died 16 years ago today.  In one way, his death seems like it just happened yesterday, but in another way, it seems like at least a century ago; I am left with a hazy, vague impression of events that might as well have been from a movie I saw long ago.

I guess time blurs the edges of pain. Maybe time blurs everything.

Between the anniversary of my father’s death today and Mother’s Day yesterday, I have been thinking a lot about family.  I was an only child, so I am the only one left to remember.

My relationship with my father was always good. Straightforward, solid, steady. Predictable. Consistent. I knew he loved me, although we didn’t say it; no, we were both much to stoic for that kind of mushy nonsense. Instead of words, it was his actions showed love. He took care of me whenever my mother was too busy, too self-absorbed, or simply too forgetful to do so. It was my father I could always depend on: for unexpected pop quizzes on random topics; for a cheese sandwich on gooey white bread with extra mayo and a teacup of whole milk anytime I was hungry; for endless rides to and from school; for help whenever my car(s) broke down; for listening to my ramblings about life on long walks from the time I was old enough to walk all the way up until he got too sick to walk anymore.

My relationship with my mother was much more complicated. My mother herself was much more complicated. My mother was fierce, difficult, egocentric, demanding, and stubborn. She was also funny, smart, strong, über-organized, and quite independent. I once took this quiz, “Do You Have A Narcissistic Mother?”, and let’s just say the score was significant. Very significant.

From the time I was born until the time she died, my relationship with my mother was a challenge. I would often feel exhausted in her presence, sometimes falling into what I called a “coma nap” when I visited with her, which felt like being dragged under into a deep, deep sleep by a force more powerful than myself.  Mom was shockingly self-absorbed, rarely showing any interest in me or anything I did or anything I was interested in; for instance, she never even asked what subject I got a Ph.D. in, nor did she ever show any interest whatsoever in my studies. As another example, I once traveled all over Europe for a summer, and upon my return, she did not ask my anything about the trip. At all. Not one thing.

That is certainly not to say that Mom and I didn’t have many good times, because we did. I can remember staying up late with my mother and watching Benny Hill, laughing until we cried. I remember her selling her high school ring to buy my high school ring. I remember her rescuing me from a wannabe molester like a superhero. I remember how I escaped the “coming out” horrors that many Lesbians endure, and I believe that this was likely, at least in part, because my mother decreed publicly that it was fine with her, and everyone was always too afraid to go up against my mother. I fondly remember playing cards with Mom, her friend, and my ex every Thursday night for several years after Dad died. I remember Mom coming immediately, without questioning, driving over 4 hours, to help me move out of my apartment when I was young and had just discovered my first girlfriend cheating on me…although I also distinctly remember her saying “I told you so”.

When I first wrote about my mother, I wrote: “Love her or hate her (and I still vacillate between the two, even after her death)….

Doing a Mother’s Day collage yesterday, I realized that it is time to amend that statement, because I no longer feel hate when I think of my mother. Now, I just feel love…it’s a complicated, difficult love, but it’s clearly love nonetheless.

In doing my Mother’s Day collage yesterday, I suddenly felt a kind of burden being lifted from me; one I wasn’t even fully consciously aware of carrying. The cloak of hurt, anger, anxiety, perfectionism, and angst that has been wrapped around my shoulders/neck ever since before I can remember was lovingly unraveled and discarded. I feel that I can finally breathe freely now.

It turns out that the answer was stunningly simple and had been available all along: My mother wasn’t perfect. Nor am I, nor are you, nor is any other human ever born.

I have come to believe over the years that most people are doing the best we can with the resources we have at the time. Sometimes it’s good enough, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. Sometimes we succeed admirably, sometimes we fail miserably. Sometimes we hurt others, sometimes we get hurt.

I realized while doing the collage yesterday that I needed to forgive others, starting with my mother; to forgive myself; to accept that life is not perfect, others are not perfect, and neither am I.

Of course, I know that this isn’t earth-shaking, ground-breaking insight. Countless others have figured this long out before I did; in fact, the Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi has been teaching this lesson for centuries. I’d read about wabi-sabi years ago and truly didn’t understand how anyone could accept, much less embrace, imperfection.

Now I finally get it…better late than never, right?

STRAIGHTBIANS in “Lesbian” Films

Warning: If you are a lesbian, you may need to remove your eyeballs and scrub them with soap after seeing some of these pics.

The dirt from dirt

This short list of STRAIGHTBIANS in purported Lesbian films is a brief example of how STRAIGHTBIANS use/abuse and damage Lesbians, in film and in life. It is NOWHERE near the LONG list of STRAIGHTBIANS in film which date back to the beginning of film making.

In no particular order:

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Dirt and Mrs Dirt

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The Road to Hell

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Image: #PicsArt #FreeToEdit

Homophobia and hatred killed dozens of our gay/lesbian family this weekend in a horrific, incomprehensible massacre in an Orlando nightclub.

Many (straight) people on social media and around water coolers in offices everywhere have been pondering whether it is possible that homophobia is still alive and well in 2016.  After all, don’t gays/lesbians have the right to marry now? Don’t we even have our own parades, our own special Pride week? Haven’t we come a long way, baby?

And, yes, we have indeed made progress since the days when cops raided gay/lesbian bars and rounded us up and carted us off to jail, beating us badly along the way.  We have, for instance, gained the legal right to marry in the United States, a feat that seemed impossible when I first came out at age 17.

But the thing that straight people don’t realize is that to be a lesbian is to live in a parallel universe alongside heterosexuals, but separated by a thin one-way veil.

We can see them, but they never truly see us.

Homophobia, bias, straight privilege, and discrimination don’t usually show up with an AR-15 assault rifle, thank goodness.

But they show up in thousands of other subtle and not-so-subtle ways, often from a smiling friend/coworker or a much-loved relative, and always with the same message: You are a second-class citizen.

I honestly believe that most (normal, intelligent, reasonable) straight people truly do not intend to be offensive, and, from my experience, they actually are quite surprised, unaware, and contrite when their homophobia is pointed out.

Here are just a few examples of comments/actions that I have personally experienced from well-meaning, straight (so-called) allies/friends:

  • “I just don’t see why gay people need to call it marriage.  Why not just call it something else, like civil union?”
  • “My boyfriend and I have been together 20 years and we’ve never gotten married, so I don’t know why the gay marriage issue is so important.”
  • “It’s fine if you’re a lesbian, and we can still be friends, but I just can’t support gay marriage.”
  • “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”
  • “It’s God’s place to judge, not mine.”
  • “I wouldn’t want my children to see 2 women kissing on TV.”
  • “But you could get a man…”
  • “The Ellen show was good until she came out, but then it was all about being gay and not interesting anymore so I stopped watching it.”
  • When traveling with straight women friends with my ex, our straight female friends would often come jump in bed with us, never once treating us as a couple, even though they knew we were.  (A comparable situation in reverse would be if I simply walked into a bedroom of a straight female friend and her husband, wearing a skimpy nightgown, and crawled into bed between them).
  • Straight female friends hold hands in public with their male partners, without having to worry about potential violence because of it, not understanding that lesbians constantly have to scan the environment and analyze every situation for possible danger. When this fact was pointed out later, during a discussion, one friend flippantly said, “Oh, if I were a lesbian, I’d just do anything I wanted.”
  • A former coworker, a straight married woman, asked me to lunch, and at lunch, tells me she would like to have sex with me “to see what it’s like”.  I pointed out that she had met my (now ex) lesbian partner many times, and reminded her that I was in a long-term monogamous relationship.  The straight coworker actually looked surprised and said she didn’t know that it counted as cheating for 2 women to have sex.
  • “It’s fine if people are gay/lesbian, I just don’t know why you need to talk about it.”
  • “I wish I were a lesbian. Life would be so much easier.”
  • Any woman can choose to be a lesbian.  I might just start playing for the other team one day.”
  • The hospital scheduler called to schedule my mammogram a couple of weeks ago. She asked me if I am married, and I replied “yes”.  She then asked what my husband’s name is, despite the fact that it’s been legal for lesbians to marry for almost a year now.

I will assume that my readers can easily see the problems with these examples, so I will not write a dissertation to describe the multiple ways in which these instances are offensive.  (If there are any questions as to why any of these examples are inherently problematic, just let me know and I will be happy to explain further).

Straight people typically don’t realize how they are personally contributing to gay/lesbian invisibility and homophobia every time they do not stop to question their heterocentric assumptions.

Many are even hesitant to call the Orlando massacre what it was: both an act of terror and an act of homophobia.

This was not a random attack; a gay bar was specifically targeted and gays/lesbians were massacred on purpose. (Although it appears at this time that the attack was primarily targeted at gay men, obviously, lesbians were murdered as well).

And it doesn’t matter whether the murderer himself was a homosexual filled with self-hate, as is currently being speculated, or whether he was simply a homophobic, hate-filled bigot for other reasons. We may never know the full truth, but, regardless of the answer, this massacre illustrated homophobia at it’s most extreme, whether that homophobia is internalized and/or externalized.

To gloss over the obvious fact that this mass murder was a crime of hate against gays and lesbians, to say it is a crime against all of humanity or to simply call it a random act of terror, is yet another way of saying to gays and lesbians that we are invisible and that our lives don’t matter.

To deny how deeply this hurts gays and lesbians as a community is yet another slap in the face, albeit one that well-intentioned straight people most likely don’t realize they are committing.

As the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

May 15, 2001

DadandMe

The doctors have said there’s nothing else they can do, that it’s just a matter of time. My father is now in a semi-coma, silent and still for 3 days now. We anxiously hover and wait, unsure of how long it will be, unsure of what we should be doing.

It’s difficult to imagine the gray, motionless man in the bed is my handsome, larger-than-life, athletic Dad; the man who once played college basketball and proudly served in the Navy during World War II;  the man who once carried me on his shoulders constantly; the man who taught me to shoot a rifle at tin cans on a log and to throw a mean right hook.

I try to block all my emotions out and instead focus on taking care of my mother, making sure she eats and propping pillows behind her, so she is more comfortable in the hard hospital chair. I can’t make this problem go away, but I can at least make myself useful.

I pace the halls periodically to burn off nervous energy and I eat way too many Snickers bars from the hospital vending machine.  I can’t even remember when I last had a leisurely shower or meal. Dad has been sick for many months now; and our lives have been an ongoing parade of doctors’ appointments, surgeries,and medical tests, interspersed with me trying desperately to keep up with my demanding job. It’s been a roller coaster of ups and downs, our hopes raised, then dashed, then raised again, only to be dashed this final time.

But part of me still hopes for a last-minute, Hail-Mary miracle.

I wash my face in the sickeningly-green-tiled hospital restroom, and dry it with a rough paper towel.  I barely recognize myself in the mirror, the dark circles around my eyes purple enough to make me look like I was on the losing end of a street fight.

I return to the hospital room.  It is mostly dark, but my eyes gradually adjust to see my mother and my former partner sitting on either side of Dad’s bed, each holding one of his large hands. I blink back tears and swallow hard as I pull up a chair.

We remain that way for a while. I have no idea how much time passes. The only noises are my Dad’s labored breathing and the ever-present hospital sounds: constant beeping, doctors being paged, phones ringing, nurses’ voices. I fitfully doze for a while, and startle awake with a cramp in my neck.

My former partner takes my mother back to our house to rest at some point, and I am left alone in the room with my Dad.

Suddenly, I hear what I didn’t think I would ever hear again: my Dad’s voice.  “Do you see them?”, he says, his voice gruff and hoarse from disuse, but surprisingly strong.

I quickly stand up and lean over to be nearer to him.  “What, Dad? What do you see?”

He raises a shaky hand and points directly at the upper left corner of the darkened room.  I squint, but see nothing, so I repeat, “What do you see, Dad?”

“The angels”, he says, then goes back to sleep so quickly it is like he’s being dragged under.

The hairs on my arms are standing straight up. I sit down shakily, certain now that there won’t be a last-minute, Hail-Mary miracle to save my Dad’s life.

But I am starting to wonder if maybe there is another kind of miracle going on here after all…even though it’s one that only he can see.

Debra

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Photo ©Robsonphoto (Used under license from Shutterstock.com)

Debra was my best friend, and the best friend I can imagine anyone ever having.

I first met her in my 20’s when my office had hired her as a temporary psychologist to help us with the overwhelming number of clients who had been referred.

When I first saw her walking down the long corridor that led to the psychologists’ tiny offices in the back of the building, I felt an immediate surge of recognition, so much so that I wracked my brain for weeks later, trying to figure out where I had met her before. She said she felt the same way.

We never did figure it out; despite being in the same profession and having overlapping social circles, we were sure that our paths had never crossed until that point (at least, I suppose, in this lifetime).

(Spoiler Alert: Since I don’t like to be blindsided by bad news myself, in case you haven’t already noticed, I am referring to Debra in the past tense. Her story in this lifetime ended when we were only 32, but she is still just as real to me as the day she died).

I could say about 1000 hokey, sentimental things about Debra, like she was beautiful and strong and brave and brilliant (and they would all be true), but I am not a Hallmark card and her story deserves better than those sappy cliches typically spoken of the dead.

So here is my attempt to describe someone who defies description and who lit up every room she ever walked into:

Debra was hilarious.  She could make even an simple outing to shop for lipstick into an episode from “I Love Lucy”.  Normally shy, quiet, and reticent, I found myself being braver with her, unafraid of looks of disapproval at our boisterousness.

Debra was straight, but completely accepting and supportive of me as a lesbian. Unlike some other straight friends I have, she didn’t have much patience with men’s nonsense and she was not flattered by their attention.

I have been accustomed to having to turn down men’s constant advances since I was a very young teenager, but when I was out with her, Debra always took care of it before I could even open my mouth.

Whenever men would approach us (which, tediously, typically occurred multiple times each and every time we went out together) Debra would shoot them down before they even got the first come-on line out of their mouths.

She would say something like “Sorry to interrupt, but we aren’t interested. We are in the middle of a conversation, and we would like to finish it uninterrupted. Thanks for understanding.”

Men would typically be startled by this directness; and seemingly very baffled that we did not wish to be graced by their presence.  Most men took it relatively well, although a few got angry (“What’s wrong with you?  You must be lesbians!”), to which we would simply nod, smile, shrug, and go back to talking.

We got together as often as possible, given our hectic schedules. Even when we couldn’t get together in person, we talked on the phone, usually giggling like school girls.

But we didn’t just have fun and laugh; we talked deeply about all the things that matter too. Life, death, love, work, happiness, dreams, theories, the universe.

Debra taught me to be kinder than necessary. There was another psychologist who worked with us who was, to put it mildly, quite difficult to work with.  “Jane” (not her real name) was controlling, passive-aggressive, snarky, critical, and downright mean. She looked like she had been sucking on a million lemons; her mouth was in a perpetual moue of distaste. I reacted to her by avoiding her whenever possible, and defending myself aggressively when it was not possible to avoid her.

Debra suggested that we try reacting to “Jane” as if nothing was wrong, as if she were a perfectly  nice, easy person to work with. So I started saying “Good morning!” to “Jane” as if she were anyone else, and asking her if she wanted a coffee since I was on my way to the break room, as I would do with anyone else.

After initially looking startled like a deer caught in the headlights, “Jane” gradually began being less aggressive and eventually became basically okay to work with.  She was never my favorite coworker (or even in the top 50) but I stopped seeing her as a monster and more like the overworked, underappreciated person that she was.

Debra made the world a little better place each day she was in it, by bringing that sort of attitude into any situation she was in.  Being around her always felt like the first day in Spring when the air is crisp and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and anything seems possible.

When Debra started coughing relentlessly (without a cold/flu or any other sort of obvious innocuous reason) for weeks and weeks, she finally went to her doctor, who offered her a prescription for anti-depressants.  Yes, you read that right. Anti-depressants! For coughing (?!?!). The doctor also asked her about the state of her marriage.  Because, apparently, the doctor must have thought that marital issues would lead to…coughing?

(Important note to all women: If any doctor simply dismisses your health concerns as psychological, immediately go to another doctor. Please.).

By the time she went to another doctor (she had postponed it because she was in the middle of exams), the problem had grown.  I will spare you the details of the next 2 years because her story is not simply about her illness and she would have absolutely hated to be treated like an “inspirational story of the week“.  (She would have rolled her eyes and made horrid gagging noises). Suffice it to say she and her wonderful team of doctors did everything they could to save/prolong her life.

Debra faced her illness, extensive treatments, and eventual death, with the same direct intensity that she approached everything: head-on.  When she lost her beautiful long blonde hair, she grieved it, then began wearing  ball-caps; her favorite one had the words “No Fear” blazoned across it.

I stayed with her (whenever she wanted me to) when she was in the hospital getting treatments (her family lived several states away and her husband had hit the road because he said he couldn’t “handle it”).

We would make the best of it, given the circumstances, pretending it was a sleep-over; both of us wearing goofy pajamas the whole time (even during the daytime) and watching movies until the wee hours.

Well-meaning people would visit in the hospital and offer platitudes such as “When God closes a window, he opens a door” or “God never gives you more than you can handle”, and our eyes would almost bug out of our heads until the person eventually left, when we would bitch and laugh at the ridiculousness of such nonsense.

Debra chose to not get angry when such things happened, because she knew that those people meant well, but it was quite vexing for both of us because of the sheer inanity and unhelpfulness of such statements.

I gave her an amber worry-stone, and she carried it everywhere with her, even to Duke University hospital to try a last-ditch-effort bone marrow transplant.  It didn’t work for her.

I wasn’t there when she died.  She had started pulling away about 2 weeks before she died, something I was hurt and puzzled about at the time, but have since learned that it is a normal part of the nearing-death process.

I later learned she died at sunset, after having made peace with her ex-husband earlier that afternoon.  It was so like her to die as she lived, always seeing the best in people and willing to forgive.

The amber stone was in her hand at her memorial service and it was later cremated with her. Her step-mother told me she had died with it in her hand, so they decided to leave it with her.

Life went on, as it inevitably does even when it seems too painful to go on, and I soldiered on, my world a duller place without Debra in it.

I would say this was the end of the story…but it’s not.

Over 10 years later, I had traveled to Sweden to visit a friend, Helene, and one night, her friend, Ulrika, a purported psychic medium, came over for dinner.

Halfway through dinner, I noticed that Ulrika was looking at me strangely.  I asked her why she was looking at me like that, and she said that a “beautiful woman with long blonde hair and an amber stone in her hand” was standing beside me and that the woman wanted me to know that she was still there.

(Note: I had never told my friend, or her friend, anything whatsoever about Debra; not even that I’d had a friend who had died way too young to ever worry about things like Botox. Life is depressing enough, and anyway, I still wasn’t ready to talk about it over a decade later).

The skeptic in me is suspicious.  Did the medium somehow find out from another source? I don’t know. But I still cannot think of how she would have; I am just now learning to open up and talk about my life, so my previous state of being guarded and quiet was still very much in force at that time.

Whatever the case, I like the thought.  Whether or not Debra still accompanies me literally (like the medium said) is a mystery, but I am positive that she does still accompany me, at least figuratively, every day as I continue to negotiate this difficult world, trying to always remember to be a little kinder than is necessary.

My Mother, The Marine

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My mother was a lot of things: funny, smart, fiercely independent, assertive, outspoken, infuriating, domineering, tough as nails, and stubborn as Hell. In fact, she was so tough that I am still mildly surprised, over a year later, when I realize she is dead; because if anybody could have cheated death, it undoubtedly would have been my mother. After all, she had survived several other cancers (breast, uterine, bladder & skin) before leukemia finally took her out after a prolonged battle.

I was her only child, born when she was 40.  Ours was never an easy relationship.  I was her polar opposite in every way imaginable, so much so that I spent my childhood convinced there must have been some bizarre mix-up at the hospital where I was born.

She was extremely extroverted, charming everyone in her wake, while I am extraordinarily introverted, preferring books to parties.  She loved a good fight and would charge into any battle like Xena on steroids at the drop of a hat;  while I am calm, quiet, and peace-loving. She was a no-nonsense Marine intent on order and control; while I am a four-leaf-clover-picking, art-making, animal-loving daydreamer.

She was not a natural-born nurturer, typically telling me to “toughen up” rather than kissing my boo-boos. She ran a tight ship, and my father and I knew who was boss. I still view her, even in death, with an odd mixture of fear and admiration.

Even though she often avoided the traditional trappings of motherhood, she had a very strong protective instinct.  Once, when I was 3, we were in a small country store and I was standing alone while my mother chatted with a woman she knew, a man offered me some candy (yikes!) and asked if I would like to see a new litter of puppies out back. Being shy, wary, and naturally reserved, I did not answer, not knowing what to do, and seeing my hesitation and taking advantage of it, he scooped me up quickly and started carrying me toward the door.  I managed to squeak out “Mom!” as he carried me, and she moved so quickly that he never even had a chance to mount a defense.  She grabbed me out of his arms, dropped me to the ground beside her, then punched him so hard right in the face that he flew backwards into the candy rack, landing unceremoniously amidst the very candy he had tried to lure me with.

Love her or hate her (and I still vacillate between the two, even after her death), there is no denying that Mom was someone to be reckoned with.

I love stories of strong women, and often spend hours scouring the internet for examples to post on Twitter, and while I was doing that this morning, it occurred to me that I already knew one; I just needed to write it down.  So this post is dedicated to my mother.

Wherever she is now, I am sure she is running the place.