Yahrzeit Letter

My father was a disturbed man. It is not his death I mourn when his yahrzeit comes every year; it’s something else. This is a complicated grief. Today his yahrzeit brings up less terror and more sadness as I trust his absence more.

This year I was surprised to receive my yahrzeit notice from my former synagogue, although we haven’t been members since we moved away before my father died. I recall these yahrzeit notices for my parents as both helpful and annoying. Helpful because the Hebrew dates change each year on the secular calendar and it’s hard to keep track of when to say Kaddish. Annoying because of what I’ve perceived as the lie in the assumption that I’d want to honor my father’s life. What do they know about it? I’d think, conflicted.

This is a thorny, complex grief.

I read this year’s letter carefully, with new eyes, and I see that it’s offering me comfort and peace. I need this. I need comforting.

It’s been eight years since my father’s death, fourteen since my mother’s. More than that, in fifty years of adulthood I have never said how much I need to be comforted. Not even to myself.

My former synagogue remembered to say this to me in their yahrzeit letter, remembered that I lost something this day, and asked me to remember this is also a time I can feel embraced and comforted.

“Why would they send you that letter, all of a sudden, out of the blue?” my friend asks. “Maybe it’s your father, offering comfort.”

“Wouldn’t that just take the cake!” I say, but I consider his outlandish words.

The world is far more baffling and convoluted than I can conjure. Such a thought challenges everything—even forgiveness would be obsolete. My friend must be toying with me. He’s becoming woo-woo, or at the very least, spiritual.

And I do it, I imagine a world larger than terror and lacerating pain and meanness and helplessness.

What if the letter was my father, offering comfort?

Of course it wasn’t. But what if?

This expanded view is mind-altering, greater than self.

Oddly, it comforts me.

 

No Crying Allowed

We all stand and sit in varying postures of disquiet, some on high stools around tables, others on low cushioned chairs, some up at the bar overlooking the country club greens, and one or two even order drinks.

Am I the only broken person who has come to Jerry’s memorial? No. I look around. We must be many frazzled people, mostly related, to have traveled to this remote place to stand here and express so little loss. We are upbeat. We laugh at the jokes and funny stories that Jerry requested. This is what he wanted, what he told Annie.

Dan used to talk about how no one cried when his little sister Vicky died of a mild case of measles back before we had vaccinations. Vicky was eight. Dan was a teenager and he was scolded for crying at Vicky’s funeral where virtually the whole town turned out for this beloved little girl—neighbors and friends and teachers and aunts and uncles and cousins, and strangers even, all heartbroken and stoic—and not one tear for their great loss, except Dan’s.

Above all, don’t disrespect Annie, I say to myself Saturday, holding back my feelings, following her plan. I’m sincere, but I don’t tell a joke, I haven’t the heart for it. Sorry, Jerry. I hug Annie. I attempt peace with some sibs, coming from my disheveled place, feeling raw, not exactly sorting reality from unreality and wondering if they can.

Dan had told me: “All those Germans in my family stood around dry eyed and strong jawed and told me to pull myself together, to stop being a sissy. I knew they loved Vicky, they delighted in her! But showing feelings was verboten, and I was not like them.”

It turns out Jerry fought in Korea.

“No! You were a baby!” I tell Jerry when I learn he was in Korea. “Dan had to lie about his age to get the army to let him go to Korea.”

“So did I,” says Jerry.

Sort the bodies, no crying allowed.

I feel an escalating anger as the weekend progresses. Jerry was here and now he is gone…They are all gone. Jerry. Vicky. Her parents: Emma and Skip. Dan.

It flashes through my awareness: the teenage boy sobbing at the loss of his little sister; the eleven year-old boy crying disconsolately for Dan after the twenty-one-gun salute, after the flag is folded and presented to me, when his body is lowered into the ground at Golden Gate Cemetery.

Thank you, Mark.

One day long ago

“One day a long time ago,” I tell my granddaughter, “when my father was only two years old, he wandered away from his house and yard, he went right down the sidewalk and he walked for a long while until he was lost and he didn’t know how to get home, so he began to cry. A policeman saw him and said, ‘I’m a policeman and I can help you,’ and he took my dad to the police station. He was only two, and he didn’t know any English, only Swedish, so he didn’t know what the policemen were saying to him and they didn’t understand him either. But it was a very small town where everyone knew everybody else, so they figured it out and called my dad’s father. And it was his two-year-old son that he thought was safely at home. When he got to the police station, guess where my father was—he was sitting on the very high counter in the front and eating an ice-cream! And that’s how the police helped my dad when he was two years old and he was lost.”

This is the first time I’ve told my four-year-old granddaughter this story, or any story, about my dad. “Did this really happen?” she asks.

“Yes, it’s a true story and it happened almost one hundred years ago.”

I have no explanation for the tears that fill my eyes. They baffle me.

Flight

The little blackbird catches my eye, hurtling purposefully toward the slender tip of a spiky desert agave to my left. He’s going to smash into the side of the building, I think, but he snags the top of the succulent—an arrow landing squarely on target—and swings around to perch on his fragile peak. Youth.

My grinding joints have slowed my walk enough to notice this bird’s acrobatics. I imagine flight, how it feels to ride the updrafts from the ocean, across the wildlife sanctuary, to where our high-rise condos make an aerial playground for winged creatures. I sit with the soaring sensation for a while.

I recall split-second agility with a whiff of nostalgia. Crouching, lifting, skipping, running, taking the stairs two at a time, not stopping to catch my breath, loaded with bags and books and babies.

Sadness. No more skidding to perch atop highest branches. Burdened by stairways, tethered to constant mental reminders. Turn off the stove. The keys are in my hand. Stay present. Feed the cat. I remind myself to clearly know what I feel. And I wonder, as I slow down to let my husband catch up, what it means to accommodate another person’s decline. To walk in their shoes? What does it mean to be self-aware? Sadness.

It comes to me that I didn’t really want to know my father. I was too frightened, even as I searched for his humanity, when I tried to draw him out in his last days. I wanted him to see me, to see the actual me, not the child he manipulated. I couldn’t see him through my terror.

No wonder flight has been second nature until now, smashing into the side of the building.

Forty-four Years

Forty-four years of marriage has its own rhythm.

It’s seeing your husband and thinking, I know you.

It’s finding value—lots of it—in difference.

It’s laughing the easiest and the longest together.

It’s knowing the ways that marriage is both less and more than you thought it was:

less score-keeping, less candlelight, less drama;

more small acts of kindness, more true.

It’s looking at your husband with the same kind of how lucky am I awe.

It’s holding hands, quick apologies, and forgotten compromises.

It’s more listening and less talking.

It’s feeling secure and sated in your marriage.

You realize there are more years behind you than there are ahead.

You accept certain vices—talking to yourself, that chocolate addiction, your stubborn

streak—as intractable.

You face the frailty of family and friends and come to terms with the truism that every

day on earth is a gift.

Forty-four years of marriage is:

well-worn routines,

remembering when,

balancing comfort with skating on the edge,

having no more parents,

going to more funerals than weddings,

confidence in the Way You Do Things

yet aware how much is uncertain;

content with uncertainties,

comfortable letting it all hang out,

and forty-four years of marriage is a long pour of red wine after sundown.

It’s waking at four a.m. to the contemplative quiet of early morning, before anyone.

It’s imagining one more grandbaby, one more warm, soft baby against your slackening

skin—and it’s knowing that most things aren’t about you.

Forty-four years of marriage is its own ephemeral incandescence, achingly bittersweet,

and vanishingly transient.

It is something to celebrate.

~~~~~~~

Note—A “found” poem: inspired by, and with thanks to Galit Breen’s This Is 39, Lindsey Mead’s This is 38, and Dina L. Relles’ This is 35.

Commonalities

In her book about living with schizophrenia, The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn R. Saks speaks of how her psychosis served to protect her from painful thoughts and feelings, how the unconscious mind served as a defender of the conscious mind even in psychosis, and the truth of that reverberated as I recalled how my alters protected me in my dissociative disorder.

Many points in her story struck home for me, as may be true for anyone living with any mental illness, as well as for anyone who is different. Hers is not just a story for schizophrenics, although it is certainly that. Most mental illnesses have areas of overlap, just as Elyn Saks says. For me, my denial of dissociative disorder was a prolonged, steady denial, even when I’d befriended my alters and no longer feared them—I still denied my experience. I hid it from everyone and assumed, as Elyn Saks did with schizophrenia, that others were simply more skillful at managing all that “normal” phenomena.

PTSD was comorbid with my dissociative disorder. My PTSD flashbacks are massively disorganizing. I feel that I am shattering and being destroyed when I’m in a flashback: I feel like I’m breaking apart. The important part of this understanding is how my alters have tried to protect me. In the past, one highly protective alter slit my wrist and said she would keep slashing to stop me from slipping further into the disintegration of my flashback. It may seem counterintuitive to others, but she was organizing me, protecting me.

Another commonality with Elyn Saks’ story, along with denial and unconscious protection, has been my repeated rejection of medication, my need to be my “authentic” self, un-medicated. The one prescription I have allowed is an off-label anti-seizure medication that helps subdue and stop flashbacks of PTSD. I periodically and predictably attempt to wean off of this with varying degrees of success, always finding I need to resume it. I tell myself I should be integrated enough to stop taking it, yet integration isn’t the issue with residual PTSD. Every night when I take those pills, I feel a sense of defeat, as well as the nagging question of whether my dissociative disorder could relapse if I had another overwhelming trauma, even though it’s been three years since the last traumatic break-through of alters.

It was enlightening to learn of the efficacy of psychoanalysis in schizophrenia. Having read a few other personal accounts of schizophrenia, I had not learned this before, yet it was clearly of vital importance for Elyn Saks. I haven’t read many personal “success stories” of dissociative disorder, either. I’ve read of misdiagnosed and wrongly medicated DID patients, which complicated care. I’ve read second and third person accounts, but very few first person accounts, except my own. Other personal accounts contribute to the confusion, except from the ISSTD, the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Their work confirms what I know, (what Elyn Saks also seems to know): the only thing that truly works therapeutically is the relationship between the client and the therapist.

I had over a decade of consistent talk therapy with a therapist who understood me and treated me with respect. Just as Elyn Saks recounts, my therapist did not recoil from me, he stood his ground when I was at my most frightening. He knew better than anyone how I repeatedly abandoned and isolated myself when I was terrorized. He promised to protect me, to never leave. His steady, calm presence held me together.

Isolation is another commonality in our stories, along with the protective nature of our disorders, our denial, our resistance to medication, and the healing properties of long term talk therapy. Sometimes I think my self-isolation is just the nature of dissociative conditions, all the habits of a lifetime. Other times I’m think I isolate myself because I’m so different from everyone else. The truth is that when I feel threatened I have no memory of anyone else around me, they no longer exist—I know I’m alone.

When I attend a NAMI family-to-family group, I do so as a family member, not as the identified mental patient. But I identify from every perspective; I understand terror, I understand the need for autonomy, I understand the family’s helplessness. I understand.

It all silences me, a danger signal sometimes. If I speak up, will someone try to hurt me?

 

Part of This Tree

“Is it in the Valley of Remembrance?” I asked.

“No, it’s more east, to the right of the Valley,” Steve said.

“Toward the Matriarchs?”

“Yes, I think it’s toward the Court of the Matriarchs,” he answered, “in Sunland Gardens.”

When we arrived at the cemetery, it was Sunland Gardens Annex that felt most familiar and we strode confidently toward the olive tree, looking for our pre-purchased double plot. The Annex used to be called Babyland, the old burial ground for children under the age of twelve. Some time in its history—in the Seventies, maybe, judging from the tombstone dates—when it was half filled with its junior sized tombstones, it was renamed and the rest of the section was opened to adult burials.

Standing next to the tree, I looked down at my feet in the grass of what would one day be a hole to receive my body and that of Steve. I wanted to take off my shoes, stretch my toes in that grass. I will one day be part of this tree. A glint of brass around the side of the tree caught my eye and I stooped down to see what it was. A small grave, its tombstone the size of a legal envelope was wedged into the ground where the olive tree roots grew into and around it. The 1969 birth and death date of the buried infant sank in—a baby was in the tree, also a part of its life.

My body knew something I could barely wrap words around—how poetic and wonderful it was that my tissue and bones would deconstruct, decay and share the earth in a field of children and babies. It is divine, actually.

The harsher consideration is the possibility, fifty-fifty, that I won’t go first, and my mind skirts away from that prospect. I want more benign times at our gravesite while Steve and I are both living, to offset that devastation.

There’s a bench behind our tree; it is now our tree.

I am sitting when the grounds-man approaches to ask if he can help us locate a grave. Before long Jorge and Steve are friends, and when Giovanni drives up on his John Deere mower with their lunch coolers, I wonder if we have taken their picnic spot as the three men bond, and I take it in, all of us gathered around our olive tree.

Benign times.

Passover 5775

We have escaped from Mitzrayim.  For all the right reasons—the insights, and values, and choices we’ve made have allowed us to leave.

I knew what I was doing when I left my cousins and brothers and sisters behind in the old country. I was prepared for their loss. I was prepared for their lack of understanding, their arguments against my experience. I had to walk my own path.

History happened. Things became exaggerated, and who could have known where our separate paths would lead? Here’s what I know: I face my sisters and brothers and cousins across a new space of enmity that I wasn’t prepared for. My sister is not my enemy.

We can close the space. There must be—there is—room for her story alongside mine.

     BLESSING:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam,

I lift up my hands on my behalf,

and that of my sisters and brothers,

and all our children.

May we close the spaces that separate us

as willingly as we embrace our beloveds.

Going to shul

It’s not that everyone is someone important at IKAR, my synagogue; it’s that everyone is someone.

At the end of February, I showed up for Shabbat services, mostly because honoring our friends’ fiftieth anniversary was important to me, even though I’d stayed away from shul since my complicated knee injury around yom kippur. It seemed strange, because we’re hardly ever there, when Melissa asked us to take the fifth aliyah. I’m nobody, I said to myself. I also had visions of my knee buckling at the bimah, of falling down in front of everyone. I said, “Maybe just Steve. I don’t know if I can stand that long,” and Melissa looked disappointed, but she nodded.

After Steve’s aliyah, when the rabbi made some comments before the sixth, she spoke only of me. She craned her neck around to see where I was sitting and she spoke of Refuah Shlema for me, of complete healing. That was what the aliyah was for. For me, before the congregational Misheberach: for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength in body and spirit.

I can still barely sit with this realization. But I’m not anyone, I thought, and that just isn’t true at IKAR. Anyone who knows me also knows how hard I worked in that moment to stay present, to stay mentally and emotionally with myself in that room full of people pointedly wishing me Refuah Shlema by name. I was stunned. The urge to crawl into the earth, to hide, was strong. It is hard to tolerate being seen. I was being seen and offered love. I don’t know how to accept love, I thought. I recognized a distant urge to self-harm, a primitive way to down-regulate strong emotions. But this is not threatening, I can stay here. So I stayed present. I allowed what couldn’t possibly be mine, with a little disbelief and with deep gratitude.

Exceptions

The first group I belonged to, my family, taught me how unsafe they were and I’ve performed poorly in groups ever since, unless I’m leading them. Even then, I stifle so much fear. This has been true my whole life. As long ago as grade school, I preferred independent study and the value of group work entirely escaped me. I couldn’t sidestep the feeling that I was outside the group, different in ways no one would understand, and I isolated myself, sure that others would do that if I didn’t do it first. This sort of thing can be self-fulfilling, obviously, even if it’s true that one is different in some indefensible way.

When I think about groups, I think about book groups, study groups, committees at work—work itself has and is its’ own group. Churches and schools—classes—all those places where people gather and you find yourself with the same congregation of people time after time. I’ve watched other people make connections in all those situations. People choose friends, go out for drinks, meet for lunch, get together and socialize outside the group—and that’s what I look at and notice and don’t do. I think I don’t know how, that I’ve never known how, that it’s somehow too risky.

I ask myself, has there ever been an exception?

When I participated in group therapy for one year five years ago, I learned that many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse dissociate, that many even have alternate identities and they never speak of it in group. My mindfulness was challenged when my younger alters leaped into my heart space to greet the child-Parts of another woman when she breezed through the entrance on my very first day there. Nothing like that had ever happened, that my Parts would dance for joy to find another person’s Parts in the room: my un-integrated Parts jumped out to befriend the Parts of another woman in the group. My Parts went ahead and made friends without me and I just tagged along. To me that was more confirmation of how different I was from others at that time, that I couldn’t reach out and connect on my own.

I still pondered this and I wondered was I always alone before? when my granddaughter brought me a stack of books from one of the children’s shelves in my study last week. I noticed The Little Prince, probably too old for a three-year-old, but I opened it anyway and found a long handwritten inscription inside.

It was dated August, 1966, addressed “To my very own Catherine,” and signed, “Love, Bon”. My friend Bonnie wrote of the “millions” of enlightening, revealing, hilarious, long talks we shared and how much she gained from our friendship. She promised, as my baby son Adam’s godparent, that she’d be honored to help him grow up to be the kind of person he’d be proud to be if, God forbid, something should happen to me; and as I read her nearly fifty-year-old words written in the front of The Little Prince, it began to come back to me, all that I’d forgotten, and how close Bonnie and I were during the year I lived in Salt Lake City. Her note is raw and honest and beautiful.

Bonnie and I worked together. We were two ingénues, greenhorns selling books door-to-door in Utah to housewives in the sixties. We went out for drinks after work. We played and did family things with baby Adam on weekends. Mostly, I remember so much drinking at the age of nineteen and twenty—I’m sure I abandoned all inhibitions when Bonnie and I talked and philosophized and shared all our secrets.

My child Parts can obviously make friends, and how interesting is it that Bonnie gifted me The Little Prince? Because those child aspects of me are perfectly tuned in to essential matters of friendship, like “What is her smile like” and “What games does she love” and “Does she collect butterflies,” to borrow from Antoine de St. Exupery. And my child Parts have always regarded the fox with equal measures of fear and fearlessness, for “one runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets oneself be tamed…” to quote the Little Prince. I am left to wonder how many Parts came out without my knowledge and told Bonnie our story, what secrets I actually shared with her. Our drinking times were very playful, just as my Parts were when they chose to make friends without me.

I consider the wall of inhibitions I live behind, and that alcohol and dissociative disorder have breached it, but I have not. Not yet. What would happen if I allowed my self out a little at a time in a group I belong to? Would it be as humiliating as I fear? Or would there be other exceptions?

After finding her long-ago note in The Little Prince, I looked up Bonnie online and I found her obituary, that she had died suddenly at home in 2007. In the time after our friendship she had married, had two sons, divorced and then lost her ex-husband again when he died, and gone back to school for advanced degrees. She became a social worker, an instructor at the University of Utah, director of a battered women’s shelter and a hospice worker, among other healing professional work.

The Little Prince said, you will be content that you have known me.

She named one of her sons Adam.