Lost

After my 30 year old son threw me out the day after Thanksgiving, I sat with the pain until after Christmas.  I thought the pain would fade, but it only intensified.  It was eating me up from the inside out.  I thought we had a good relationship, and then this.

So I wrote him a letter, asking what I had done to cause him to do this thing.

A couple of weeks went by.  He was kind enough to send me a note saying that he wanted to take time to sit down and write me a well-thought out letter.  I waited eagerly, hoping for a positive answer.

What I received tore my heart into even smaller shreds.

He detailed grudges that he held from childhood, that I thought had been addressed during the two years of intensive family therapy at the therapeutic boarding school I sent him to as an alternative to jail after he got arrested when he was 16.  I guess that wore off.

More grudges for things I had done unintentionally, that I did not know had bothered him, or even knew anything about.

Worst of all, he disapproves of my current lifestyle, my past lifestyle, and I got the impression (or maybe her wrote it) that he believes I am irresponsible, and worries that I will run out of money (possible, since I have given so much of it to him, in one way or another).

I waited another few weeks, went through the letter with my therapist, discussed the triggers…

Being thrown out by my own son would be bad enough.  For krissake, I wasn’t drunk or abusive or anything that would merit being shown the door.  But since my mother used to do that all the time when I came to visit her, hoping once again that I would find her transformed into the Mommy that I never had, the trigger was like a hammer brought down on my head.

And his letter, so full of judgement and criticism, triggered my childhood of constant criticism by both parents.  How can I relax if I never know whether what I’m doing will be accepted or considered wrong?  How can I trust him ever again, since he holds grudges even for things I didn’t know were wrong, in his eyes?

And who the hell does he think he is, to judge his mother?  I have never abused him: the opposite.  I have struggled ever since he was born to find ways of helping him to be happy.

As one of my first boyfriend’s Irish mother said to him when he criticized her, “Don’t you judge me!  I wiped your shitty ass!”

I wrote my son another letter, explaining that we are different people with different values, and just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re a bad person (you’d think someone would know this by the time they’re 30, but I guess not).

I also reiterated how much his behavior had hurt me, and how my current financial situation is largely due to the more than $200,000 that ate up my retirement fund, plus having to borrow another $75,000 from my parents, who amazingly mortgaged their paid-for home to save his life.  He has never thanked any of us, nor offered to pay us back even a fraction.  I have never mentioned the money thing to him before, not wanting to lay a guilt trip on him.  But since he brought it up, and since he is behaving like an entitled brat, I let him in on the secret.

I have not heard back from him yet, and I wonder how he will take these harsh realities.

I also told him something of my health issues, both physical and mental, and that since I have no one to care for me and I refuse to go into a nursing home, at some point this life will end, either naturally or, if the pain is too severe, by assistance.

I feel that I have lost him.  This too is triggering, as I had the same feeling when he was a lying, stealing, addicted teenager, running with others of the same ilk, in and out of every kind of rehab, even a stint of involuntary hospitalization that turned out to be a nightmare.

He managed to either fake his way through the programs or get himself thrown out by fighting or otherwise flagrantly breaking the rules. 

Finally his stepmother threw him out, and he ended up in a homeless shelter, where he broke the rules and I don’t remember what happened after that because I was having my own catatonic breakdown and two hospitalizations.

During those times I felt like I had lost my son, but he was still alive, which was worse than having lost him by death in some ways.

If he had died, at least I could have grieved him and kept the good memories.  But losing him alive was unremitting torture, as it is today.

Why, all of a sudden, have I become a villain?

I think I know.

Now that he’s become known in the scientific world, he’s emulating his famous scientist dad.  He’s dressing like his dad, even talking like him.

I’m sure people ask him what his mother does, and he doesn’t know what to say.

He’s not proud of me; in fact, he’s embarrassed, because I am disabled by mental illness, I don’t work, and I don’t even have a home.

He writes that he wants me to settle down and have a real bed for him to sleep in when he visits.

Funny about that: when I did have a real home with a real guest bed, he never visited.  Of course, my real home was in Israel, and although I offered to pay his fare countless times, he always had an excuse why he couldn’t come.  But he was happy to go to Hawaii with his dad.

I told my mother, who is not the greatest role model; nevertheless I told her, and she said, “Let him go.  He’s never been a part of our family anyway.” 

That hurt me even more, and made me wish I hadn’t said anything.

Thirty years ago today, I was great with this child.  I have a photo of myself in profile, naked and glistening with oil like a wrestler.  I am very short.  I looked like I had swallowed a giant watermelon.  I was so happy.

Now, I wonder whether having him was the right thing.  He has never been happy.  He screamed constantly for years.  He started seeing a child psychologist when he was three.  My ex-husband started sleeping with him when I started my internship, because otherwise he just screamed all night.  This child drove a wedge between my former husband and I.  I’ve observed, during my 20 years practicing pediatrics, that a sick child will either cement or destroy a marriage, depending on the health of that marriage to begin with.  I consider the child to be a symptom of family dysfunction.

Usually divorce will help the stricken child; in our case, that was not to be.

Anger, and more anger, has been this child’s life.  I thought he had developed coping skills and self awareness.  I was so proud.

Now I am lost in a sea of pain.

If I had known then what I know now, I believe I would not have conceived him.

The Carrot and the Stick

My life hangs by a frayed thread.

I am a donkey who lives by the carrot and the stick.

The carrot hangs in front of me, just out of reach.  This gives me a reason to keep reaching.  It is valuable, because it means that someone else’s life depends on mine.

I had two carrots; now I only have one.  That one is my dog, Atina.  She cannot live without me, for she is sick and depends on my care to stay alive.

Actually some other benefactor could care for her, but I love her, and she gives me the only joy I have now.  So she is my carrot.

Then there is the stick that follows me, threatening to whack me if I don’t keep trudging along under my load.

The stick is the fear that there might actually be an afterlife, reincarnation, some consequence for taking my death into my own hands.

My life has always hung by this thread, and I have clung to the thread as a mountain climber clings to the fixed ropes, the lifelines that prevent the fall into the unknown, or rather, the certainty of death.

Before the doctor rescued me by cutting me out of my mother’s hostile womb, my tiny organism was flooded by the amphetamines she took to keep from gaining weight while pregnant.

My organism did not tolerate her labor.  My heart began to fail from lack of oxygen.  No doubt my attachment to her womb, my lifeline, was marginal because of the drug that caused constriction of the blood vessels.

I was “small for dates,” four pounds, and struggling to breath, so they took me away and stuck me in an incubator with plenty of oxygen.

My lungs were bad, I suffered withdrawal from the amphetamines, I was unstable, and in those days no one was allowed to touch a fragile newborn except for feeding and changing, so I sucked my thumb and watched the white forms padding on silent feet through the dim space that surrounded my plastic bubble.  This I remember clearly.

Childhood was searing pain, alien to everything, clothes tearing at my skin, terror of my mother, clinging to my father who always had somewhere to go or something to do, only my animals for companionship and love.

Teenage hopelessness, violent rape, runaway, street life, rape, rape, rape, pregnancy, abortion, alone, alone, alone.

Finally mentors, self esteem, push push push degree degree degree, marriage, baby, fell off the balance beam, paralyzing depression, no support, head of my class, medical honor society, residency, depression, mania, no support, ruptured discs, surgery, body jacket, divorce.

Son’s father refused to see him “because it was too emotionally hard” on father.  Really?  Your son cries for you every night and day.  How can you sleep at night?  How can you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “My emotional pain is more important than my five year old son’s”?

We went on, my son and I.  Life was rough, life was rocky.  He was angry, I was numb, except for the pain always there.  Work, the drug.  Work hard, work long, work better.  A nanny in place of a father.  Angry boy, angry boy.  Can you blame him?

Angrier angrier angrier.  Treatment treatment treatment.  Drugs, legal and not.  Go and live with father finally, maybe that will help.  Bribe father to take the boy.  Father likes money, I have plenty.  Used to.

Disaster.  Thrown away, street life, homeless shelter.

Mother now disabled by mental illness, bankrupt.

Son needs help, NOW!

Therapeutic boarding school, but how to pay?  Father and his family refuse to help.  I borrow money from my parents.  They get it by mortgaging their home, to save their grandson.

I leave my career behind, to help my son, no turning back after too much time away.  I am disabled, that’s who I am, new identity.  But I helped my son to save himself, so that’s who I am now, what, a sacrifice?  No, just a disabled person.  It would have happened anyway, in my downward spiral.

Now he is a big shot, finishing his Ph.D., and his father and his father’s family have taken him back, so proud.

His first scientific paper published in the world’s premiere scientific journal.  I am so proud.

But.

We “do” Thanksgiving together, he and I, and every year has been a blast.

This year, something different.

He invites me to his apartment.  Just the two of us.  Why?

Don’t you want to invite some friends who don’t have somewhere to go?  You remember, when you were a kid, we always had students over who couldn’t go home, or were Chinese, or for some reason would be alone.

No, he said.  Everyone already has a place.

I wondered.

The night before Thanksgiving I was invited, with great pomp and circumstance, to go out with he and his friends to a bar.  I was thrilled to be included.

But when I arrived, a five hour drive from where I stay, I had a migraine and felt sick, and just wanted to smoke some flower and curl up in my van with Atina, my dog.  I would feel better tomorrow.

So I said, you guys go ahead, I’m going to sleep off this migraine.

OK, he says, eager and relieved.  And ran out the door.  I’ll leave it unlocked he says, in case you need anything.

Morning late, I feel better, he’s hung over.  Coffee, cartoons on the big screen, I’m content.  He starts cooking.  Always happy when he’s cooking!

Dinner: a roast duck, fried rice, greens, cranberry sauce.

Not much to say, and it’s getting weird.  I feel a void, ghosts at the table, who are they and why don’t they come out and play?

So the pipe goes back and forth, and he is drinking more beer and more beer.  I go to bed early, he goes out with friends.  I wonder ?

Friday morning, coffee, and I am served a spoonful of leftover rice.  He gives himself a plate, not a lot, but a plate. ?

He goes to lab to feed his cells, I shower and try to get this migraine to go away.  I’m hungry.  I take a bit more duck, rice, a bit of everything.  Thanksgiving leftovers are the best.  I wish son was here to share, but I’m hungry and my head is pounding, so I eat.

He returns from lab.  I tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t wait for him, I had to eat.  He looks angry.  I feel the old ominous storm clouds.  Why?

I guess I’d better go now.

But I feel like crap, I don’t want to drive.

He’s already holding the door open for me to go out.

Um, listen, I don’t feel so well, do you think I could hang out for a while longer?

Um, sorry Mom, I need my space, he says, with irony face.

Oh, OK, I understand.

Beggar at the door, no place for you here.

What did I do?  Did I eat too much?  Am I too burned out?

I’m not successful like his father, the famous scientist, or his father’s father, the famous whatever.

I’m just a mentally ill disabled person, a failure at life, an embarrassment.

I’m skinny, I look ill, my hair is grey and frizzy, my clothes hang loose, my dog is nervous…

Can I at least use your internet to find a place to camp?

Oh sure, Mom.  Come in.  But please leave Atina in the van.

I thought he liked dogs.  Maybe now that he’s got new clothes and new furniture, he’s afraid she will…

I find a place, guess this is it, he’s holding the door….

Love you, honey….

Love you too, Mom…mechanical doll voice.  Grim.

I drive off, numb.  Can’t feel yet, I have to get there, too much traffic.

Get there, hook up, walk dog, collapse, convulsed with grief.

There goes my carrot.

Now I know that my leaving won’t make much of a dent in his life.

I stay here for him, thinking my exit would destroy him, but not so.

He has his father now, and his father’s father, and he is their prestigious prodigal son.

In some way, relief, that cord is cut, that fixed line down.

The plan has been in place for some time, yet I have held my hand because of Carrot #1.  Now Carrot #1 has shown me the door, out of his life and into ?

Carrot #2 snuggles against me as I write.  Precious baby.  But she is sick.

She may last months, or a year or a few.

When she goes, I go too.

Will I be punished?  Will I have to come back and do it over till I get suffering “right”?  Or, to quote Lewis Carroll, do we just go “poof” like a candle, when we go?

Already I am losing the use of my body.  My shoulders are too full of arthritis to throw a ball.  My left hand no longer works well enough to play my music, which has carried me through so much suffering all my life.

Something has happened to my blood vessels.  They break and bleed under my skin so that I go around with blue lumps simply from the trauma of living.

My skin comes off in sheets if I brush up against anything harder than a pillow.  The wounds take months to heal and leave hideous scars.

The cancer that I had in the 90’s once again inhabits my innards.  I hope it grows faster this time.  No, I’m not going to treat it.  That would hasten my death, and I don’t want to leave my dog.

But some days I can’t move, my bloated belly pushes down like a rock.  Other days, not so bad.  Some days only liquids, others, soup and rice.

I had this one carrot that kept the juice of life running through my broken veins.  Now that carrot is gone, eaten up by some other entity, and the sick carrot and the stick remain.

The stick doesn’t frighten me.  I can’t do anything about the stick.

My sweet Atina will drag me along until her own candle gutters and goes out, and I will follow after, poof, and at least this life will be done with.

I can only hope that the cancer takes me before I have to take myself.

That way I don’t have to worry about the stick.

 

 

The Agony Of Pregnancy Loss

This is going to be another heavy hitter, Dear Readers.  Please consider whether this is good for you to read before proceeding.  It contains graphic descriptions of a miscarriage, surgery, and references to abortion.

I’ve given myself away, but then this is not fiction.

My medical school had an agreement with a VA (Veterans Administration) hospital, where third- and fourth-year medical students could rotate through and get some up-close-and-personal experience being on the front lines.  Rather than standing on a stool (if you were short like me) holding retractors in the operating room, we were taught to actually operate.

And in the medical wing, we learned by doing, and by working closely with the attending physician.  This was much better than standing at the back of a crowd of students, interns, and residents on ward rounds in the private hospital.

I had lots of harrowing adventures at the VA.  I loved it.  Everything was edgy and often dicey.  The patients were high morbidity.  The doctors were all foreign medical graduates, some of whom were the best docs I’ve ever worked with, and some of whom…well, I sure wouldn’t want them working on me.  You just never knew, from day to day, what you would end up in the middle of.

I loved surgery.  Part of that was Dr. Duy, a brilliant Vietnamese surgeon who taught me how to tie one-handed knots down in a hole (in those days, gall bladder surgery was done through an open incision, and you were literally working in a hole up to your wrist).  He taught me how to amputate a gangrenous leg–we had to do that a lot because of the diabetic veterans who were “drinking men” and didn’t take care of themselves.  (That was one of the intake questions:  “Are you a drinking man?”  It was crucial to know, because if he was, if deprived of his alcohol he might go into DT’s and die on us.  For “drinking men,” part of the admission orders were two beers or two shots of rye whiskey per day, more if indicated.)

I dreaded operating with Dr. Chung, a Korean doc who didn’t speak much English and was a clumsy brute compared to Dr. Duy. He did a lot of abdominal surgeries looking for metastatic cancer.  In those days the way you did that was by opening somebody up from top to bottom, and taking biopsies from all the major organs, to send to Pathology.  Then you would stand around in the freezing OR, hugging yourself and jumping up and down until the frozen section came back.  After that you either did or did not take out more stuff, and finally you closed the abdomen and took an x-ray to make sure you hadn’t left anything in there.

My job was to close the abdomen.  There weren’t surgical staples back then, or any of a million conveniences we have now–just a bunch of different sizes of suture material, either dissolving or non-dissolving.

Dr. Chung would walk away, stripping off his gloves, and I knew that I was going to close.  It was no easy task for a small person, especially if the patient was large, pulling the wound together and tying the knots, with nobody to put their finger on it to keep it from slipping.  Yes, it was that simple.

Dr. Chung used to tell me to hurry up and just to make sure I did, he would tell the anesthesiologist to wake the patient up while I was still working!

The reason I’ve gone into all this is: One day I walked into the operating suite and smelled the distinctive odor of halothane gas.  That is what we used in those days as the anesthetic.  I’m sure some or even most of you have smelled that smell.  There is nothing like it.  It triggers my PTSD just thinking about it.

I walked into the OR and asked the scrub nurse, who was scurrying around setting up for the next case, what the deal was with the gas.

“Oh, the anesthesia machine is leaking,” she said in mid-scurry.  “We have a requisition in.”

Uh-oh.  That meant it might get fixed today, or next week, or next month…

So we operated with the doors open.  I tell you, we were all half-anesthetized.  I hope those patients did all right, because I don’t remember a thing.  I spent two weeks half-gassed to death, and then my rotation ended and I could breathe again.

But not the baby I was carrying.  I was married, and this was my first planned pregnancy.  I was 16 weeks along, and I loved the little flutter in my tummy with all my heart.

Then one day, at the end of my surgery rotation, the fluttering stopped.  The bleeding began.

I called my OB doc.  He put me on strict bed rest.  I was torn between being panicked at the prospect of losing my baby, and being panicked because my own OB rotation was supposed to start in a few days.  But the bleeding got heavier, and finally waves of pain had me curled into the fetal position, panting.  Then something warm and wet came out in a gush of blood.

I sat up and looked.  It was a little alien, wrapped in its delicate capsule.  All of it was there.  I could see the tiny limbs, and the beginnings of a face….I wrapped it up in plastic wrap and took it to my OB.  I don’t know what they did with it.

I can’t begin to describe the grief.  I think losing this pregnancy unleashed all the grieving I hadn’t been able to do for the abortion I had suffered 13 years before.  I was overcome, and could do nothing but sob for two weeks.  Then I picked myself up, put on my whites and went to my OB-GYN rotation.

I knocked gingerly on the attending’s office door.  She was the daughter of an OB with whom I had done a rotation as a 3rd year student, and we mutually hated each other.  The daughter was worse than her father.

“Yes, come in,” she said to my knock.  I entered.  She did not offer me a chair.  In fact, she did not even look up from her charting.

“I heard what happened.  It won’t affect your grade,” was all she said.  Then, awkwardly waiting for some other utterance, I perceived that there wasn’t going to be any, so I left her office.

I was met by a nurse in scrubs, who said “Come with me.”  I followed her into a room where a woman was lying on a table, her feet up in stirrups, a stainless steel bucket on the floor between her legs, and what looked like a large suction hose…..

“Go ahead, sit down,” commanded a senior student.  “You’re going to do this one.”  I looked from the apparatus at the bottom of the table to the ashen face of the Hispanic woman at the top…

“Is this what I think it is?” I whispered.  The senior student nodded.  I threw up in the bucket and ran out.  I ran all the way home and collapsed on the bed, hysterical.  My husband came home and found me that way.  It was the only time I ever saw him in a fury.  I know that he went to the dean, because on another occasion when I was stuck holding retractors for the OB father and daughter combo (I had to repeat OB after that episode), they skewered me about my husband going to the dean.

All these years later, I just can’t, in my wildest nightmares, imagine expecting a woman who had just lost a wanted pregnancy, to go on abortion detail.  I know there are many things more cruel than that in this world, but for me, at that moment, I would rather have suffered a horrible death than to perform an abortion.

All the while I was thinking of that woman.  I found out her history, why she was there to get an abortion: she was a Mexican migrant worker, she already had six children, and her husband had threatened to punch her in the stomach if she didn’t abort, because six children was enough for him.  Birth control pills were beyond her reach financially, and her husband refused to use condoms.  So it was she who bore the consequences.

I firmly believe in a woman’s right to control over her own body.  If that includes abortion, who am I to judge?  When Rebecca, who was childless at the time, said “Give me children or I will die!”  Isaac replied, “Am I instead of G-d, that I can give life?  Go and pray!”  I too feel that way:  Am I instead of G-d, who gives life and brings death?  I am just a mortal human, trying to feel my way as best I can.

As it says in Ethics of the Fathers (a Jewish text), “Judge not, lest you also be judged.”