Category Archives: family

AT THE SAME TIME

The last time I was here, we learned that you had cancer… We heard the doctor tell us how sorry she was. We understood that disease was running through you. The last time I was here, I held Marisol on my lap, just one year old. You were happy that she was here to lighten the mood, and to remind us of the good that was still there. You were grateful that I was here to hold mom’s hand, to help brace her for the news that would change our lives, and eventually take yours.

It’s three years ago that I sat in this same waiting room, and eight months since you had to go. I miss you dad, more than I ever knew I could. Filled with so much pain and love, at the same time. Makes me think of that conversation we had in palliative care, about a week before you passed away. A beautiful moment shared together just you and I. “I am both the happiest, and saddest I’ve ever been, at the same time” you said. You knew time was running out. The look we exchanged as your words floated there, lingering longer than words normally do; a look of complete understanding. A perfect connection between two hearts. Moments like that engraved in my heart. We were both so vulnerable, and so purely open to the gut-wrenching exchange we had in that moment. You’d been praying each night for just one more day. One more day, to make one more memory, and have one more conversation like the one we were having.

I am so thankful to have had almost two and a half years from your diagnosis. I am so thankful for our month in palliative care. I am so thankful for the opportunity to share every unspoken truth I ever wanted to share with you. What a gift. I miss you dad. More than I thought possible, and more than I let others see most of the time.

Today I’m here with mom. She’s ok dad. But you know that already. I know you are here with her. I know you are with me too. Despite this deep knowing, and how close you still feel, you also feel so far away. Your diagnosis, disease and departure transformed me, as hard things do. More than anything, I now fully understand how one can be happy and sad simultaneously. I’m leaning into that dad. I recognize the light within the darkness. It’s there, it’s always there. I’m making space for the joy that lives alongside the grief. I am learning to treat my sadness with the same respect; to welcome it in the same way, because I will always choose remembering you, and missing you over letting these vivid memories go. So I will make room for the pain, and the happiness that live together within me. I understand completely that when I resist the hard parts, and gulp down that lump in my throat, that I make it harder than it needs to be.

The last time I was here I put on a brave face. I stood by you, and fought back tears. Today I let them flow. They are tears of gratitude, for the news mom heard today is good. It too has the power to transform me, as good things also do. I am breathing into the lump in my throat. I am making room for the joy and the sadness at the same time. At the same time…

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Filed under connection, family, grief, happiness, life lessons, Uncategorized, Vulnerability

All of Us

I used to love rummaging through my mother’s picture drawer. I’d ask her to tell me about the people in the photographs, and when they were taken. There were black and whites, pictures of relatives I’d never met, as well as ones I loved dearly, mixed with photographs of my brothers and I at different ages. As I grew up, I’d notice family portraits lining the walls of other people’s homes, different sized picture albums on bookshelves, and framed memories on mantles. I wondered why my mother had hers hidden in a drawer, and why there was not a single family photo of all of us adorning our walls?

I grew up one of three children, or so I thought until an impromptu conversation that changed everything… Just 14 at the time, my mother and I were sitting in my room, talking about life, and love and tough choices. A girl at school had become pregnant. I said that she must be terrified, and feel so alone… We talked about the decision she now faced of what to do about a pregnancy, and a baby she was not ready for. As I spoke, my mother began to cry, as though a damn had broken, she could not compose herself. I pushed, and prodded as to what I had said to upset her? But before she could answer, I could see the truth in her eyes. She tearfully revealed a nearly 30 year-old secret, shared only with a handful of people. Pregnant at 16, she’d given birth to a baby girl, my sister, who she’d given up for adoption early into her little life. Her story cloaked in shame, the details spilled out between sobs. She went on to tell me that she’d become pregnant again at 19, with another daughter, and that she too, had been given up… Too much to process, I sat there, shell-shocked, weepy, and trying to console this broken lump of a person sitting across from me on my bed. I cannot remember how I felt in that moment. I was too preoccupied with my mother, who had gone to pieces before my eyes. In a flash, her grief infected me, no room for my pain, as the questions flooded in like the waves of a tsunami. How could I reconcile this new information with my then, current reality? How could this woman, my mother, who I knew and loved, be the same person, as that girl, who made those decisions? It wasn’t that I was judging her, or that this revelation made me love her any less. It was just that she’d been abruptly knocked off the pedestal she’d sat on my whole life.

Eerily, my mother’s unplanned disclosure was not unique. In a drunken confession, her own “mummy”, Mrs. Cook, revealed that she was not her mother, but rather her grandmother, and that the woman she’d thought was her sister, was actually her birth mother. My grandmother, Mary, had been forced to give up my mother after giving birth to her at age 16. Mrs. Cook had insisted she’d raise my mother as her own. A lie Mrs. Cook stuck to until my mother was just 9 years old. And so my mother knew firsthand the impact of accidentally saddling someone with the truth. A burden she’s regretted passing on to me since that fateful day in my room.

After my eldest sister was born, my mother and baby returned to Mary’s apartment, where she’d hidden out when she could no longer conceal her pregnancy. Soon the reality of having no means, and no plan set in. My father, in and out of trouble, and dealing with his own crises at home, offered no reassurance that they could make things work. He did not want his parents’ life: One of eight, poor, living with an alcoholic, and abusive father. And so, a decision was made, though, according to my mother, it never really felt like one. A little over a week after bringing home her first-born, a social worker came, and took her baby girl away. As my mother tells this story, even now, she’d insist that she has no regrets, and that she hadn’t spent every day after that feeling depressed and broken. I couldn’t believe her. I didn’t want to. There’d been some kind of compartmentalizing of events, a splitting off enabling her to move on. How else could I make sense of what I now knew? How do you let go of your children? How do you move on? These questions burned a hole in my chest when I held my own babies for the first time…

When my mother became pregnant again at 19, she would not bring the baby home, or have my father meet his daughter. She’d say, that somehow, she didn’t feel she deserved to keep her, nor would it be fair to her first-born because of the decision she’d since made. All of this, sat tucked away on the highest shelf in my mother’s mind until that day in my room when it all came crashing down.

Just two years after my second sister was born, my parents found out they were expecting for a third time. Now 21 and 23 years old, they decided they would marry. They rarely ever talked about what had happened. They kept their secret, moving ahead, as though somehow re-writing history. P.J became first-born, Tim middle-child, and I, the baby of the family, their only daughter.

It has taken me years to understand where my mother ends, and I begin. The longing she’d fought hard to disown, and sadness she’d buried deep, bled into me. I needed to disentangle myself from decisions made long before I was born. All of this had left me insecure about the one attachment I’d never questioned. After all, it could have been me she’d let go… After keeping the secret for over two decades, at 37, I went to my mother and resigned, relinquishing my secret-keeping position. Worn and bruised from the isolation, and weight of concealing a secret of this magnitude, I’d had enough. I’d never asked for this burden, instead it had been accidentally gifted to me. Time finally, to give it back to its original owners.

Shortly after that conversation, my parents told my brothers the truth… It was not easy. Both Tim and P.J reacted emotionally to the news, and to the fact that I had known for so long. Why me? Why had they not been trusted? They too were flooded with questions, and had to consolidate this new information with everything they’d known to be true before.

Then followed another brave step- to look for my sisters. First we found Linda, first-born, living just a short drive away, and looking so much like my mother. She embraced us right from the start. A fact that baffled us. I can remember how nervous I was to meet her, and how incredibly surreal it felt to experience such familiarity with a complete stranger. Looking into her eyes, I was looking into the eyes of my mother. The way she talked and moved, and even how her hand felt in mine… We cried, and laughed, and talked about things so tender and heart wrenching. My parents sat in their truth, and owned their story for the first time. But there was still a missing face in our family album…

Kathryn, second born, had not registered to be found, and so we were told it could take years to reconnect with her. My father’s colon cancer diagnosis two years ago, shortly after finding Linda, changed all of this. Within a month, they’d located Kathryn, living in B.C. She planned a trip to Montreal, just weeks after speaking to my parents by phone for the first time. Meeting her was equally surreal. She reminded me immediately of my father’s mother, and of my godmother, my dad’s youngest sister. She has my father’s eyes, and so much of my mother’s heart. Finally it was as though a piece of me had been restored. The circle, left open for nearly 50 years, now closed.

My parents believed that the truth would undo them; that they would be judged, even left, unworthy of the love they’d known under false pretenses. They never anticipated that this love could deepen, and expand as the weight of the secret lifted, or the repair that would come with reunion. For me, the secret, and keeping it, drove a quest for truth and connection that has shaped every aspect of my life. I am thankful to have had the courage to inspire my parents to face their truth, and break the cycle of secrecy. Ours is a story of love, and forgiveness, penned in gratitude for all that it has taught me. I cannot recall a single family photo in my mother’s picture drawer… This one, of all of us, hangs in a proper frame on the wall.

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*My father read this piece before he passed away.  He knew I would one day share it.  He was so grateful to have found his girls, and to have been surrounded by all of us in the last weeks of his life.

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Dear Dad

I have thought about writing this for some time now, but the timing just wasn’t right. There is so much in my heart that I want to share, and that I want you to know. I am so glad you are my dad.  You are everything that I needed you to be.  You are the first man I ever loved, and the first man who ever loved me back. While our relationship was not always perfect, I never doubted the two most important things: That you loved me, and that you were proud of me.  We’d lost each other for a while there, in my adolescence and early adulthood. We’d become strangers. I felt you knew very little about me, and my life. I knew very little about you, and your inner world, or what went through your head. We’d spend years exchanging only a few words each day, and reserving our I love yous for birthdays and special occasions. I’d always felt that somehow you were like a little boy that never quite knew the right thing to say or do when it came to us kids. You seemed uncomfortable with my emotionality, and the sensitive, and temperamental teenage girl I grew to be. I resented the distance between us. I resented how unhappy you seemed. I wondered if it was my fault. I didn’t know how to access you. I didn’t know how to connect.  These growing pains, were not without gifts.  Ultimately the longing we both felt for connection helped forge the strong tie we are now blessed to share. Slowly, things began to change… We talked a bit more; we paid closer attention to each other, and what was going on in our respective lives. I imagine you’d always been there paying attention to what was going on with me, and that perhaps my close relationship with mom clouded your presence. I think, with time, mom saw that she needed to make more room for you. To step back a little, so that you could take your rightful place. The turning point for me was the conversation we had that day in the kitchen. You know the one… It was just you and I.  I stood before you broken.  I’d experienced my first real heartache. I looked up at you, like a little girl, eyes wet with tears. You asked me how I was, and when I tried to answer, but just couldn’t get the words out, you did something I’d only ever seen you do when your mother passed away. You began to cry… You held me, and cried with me.  That moment, in all its grief, is one of my most cherished memories.  I felt so completely loved, and so completely understood by you. Something I’d craved for so long. I wonder now if you have any idea what that meant to me, or if you can appreciate the impact it had on shaping the woman I’d become?  You see dad, because of you, I realized then and there, that no matter what happened to me in my life, that I’d be ok.  A lesson earned through hardship that shifted something deep within me.  Since then there have been many more moments, and I love yous.  Many more memories etched in my heart. You’ve done so much for me.  Little things, and big things, I have only to look around my home to be reminded of the dozens and dozens of projects you’ve had a hand in. You became our go-to guy. Every time I look at the crib that held my two baby girls I think about how you put it together, and took it apart, and put it together again.  Each memory attached to so much feeling.  The first time, it was the anticipation of setting up the crib for the little baby who was still happily living in my belly, knowing that I’d soon become a mom.  When we finally did move Maya out of her crib, and you came over to take the bed apart, I remember the warmth and compassion you showed when I couldn’t fight the tears as the reality set in that my baby girl was growing up. Perhaps this moment sweetened for you, as you watched yours do the same. When you put it back together four years later, as we awaited Marisol’s arrival, you were there again tolling away. We’d prayed so hard for her.  It was as though, after so much longing, she was not only sent to us, but also to you. Two kindred spirits, witnessing your special bond has mended every hurt I ever felt as a result of our period of disconnection in my teen years. You are a part of her. Watching you love my daughters is like watching firsthand how you loved me as a little girl.  Unfortunately when it came time to take the crib apart again just a few months ago, as Marisol moved into her big girl bed, you were not able to help as you had before. It made me sad to do it alone; that the cancer had robbed you of one of your greatest pleasures- helping your kids with stuff they needed done. I know you embraced this role, wearing it like a badge of honor. I am so grateful that you’ve seen Maya and Marisol grow, and me too, into a mother and a woman.  While you may not be able to put together cribs anymore, you can still make new memories with your grand-babies. Every visit with them, another precious page in our story. Keep fighting the good fight dad. May I be blessed to inherit even an ounce of your fortitude. Know that I am forever in your corner, as you have been in mine.  I pray that more good days lay ahead, so that you might sit happily in all the love you have helped foster. Thank you for being everything that I needed you to be… Your little girl, Shannon.

 

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