Ogallala Afternoon

You might be wondering where, or what, Ogallala is. 

Ogallala is a smallish city in Nebraska, USA.  It’s named for the Ogallala band of Lakota (Sioux) Indians, who once roamed freely in the Plains, but like all Native Americans were rounded up and planted on reservations during the Westward expansion of white Americans.  Ogallala, Nebraska, is now a corn town.

I’ve been on the road or off the grid now for weeks.  Lots of thoughts, some jotted down, some evaporated, and some that maddeningly recirculate, playing themselves over and over until they are drowned out by the urge to drag my malfunctioning brain out of its bone box and fry it on the sizzling pavement of I-80.

In particular: the thoughts that forced me to bivouac early in bucolic Ogallala, as I was pelting down the blazing Interstate, trying to get to Michigan to meet a deadline.

I am haunted by the spectre of losing my son.  I believe I have lost him.  I believe I never had him.

This adult child of mine has never been happy with much, for long, particularly if it had anything to do with me.

He was miserable as a baby, except when eating or preparing food.  He learned to cook by watching over my shoulder from his vantage point in the backpack.  Since he screamed for whatever chunk of time he was put down, hours at a time, and I mean hours and hours, of necessity for my health and his life, I put him in the backpack and wore him.  If he screamed in the backpack, I put him to bed (clean, dry, and fed, of course) and turned on the vacuum cleaner and put in ear plugs and turned up the stereo and went outside and walked around in the yard and wished I still smoked, until his father came home. 

“Clap hands, clap hands
Till Daddy comes home
Daddy has money and Mommy has none…”

But his father objected to being handed a screaming baby even before he was properly through the door.  In retrospect I don’t blame him. 

As a pediatrician, having a “difficult child” proved helpful.  It increased my Compassion Quotient.

I’m sure you’ve heard of awful cases where someone shook the baby, or threw it, or did some other act of violence because the baby wouldn’t stop crying.  Most of us recoil in horror from these news items, and frequently judge the mother harshly.  How could she?  How could she?

Thankfully, I never did violence to my perpetually screaming baby.  I took him to the doctor every week, sometimes more.  My pediatrician patiently explained that he had “colic” (rubbish! colic is what they say when they don’t know why the baby cries) and that it would go away when he grew up (it hasn’t).

I remember even at the time, walking around the back yard in the middle of the night, thinking how grateful I was that I had the emotional resources not to simply throw him into somebody else’s trash bin.  Later on, when I turned into the Director of several Pediatric Emergency Departments, I would draw upon that experience when the babies of other, less resourceful parents came in with grievous injuries or worse.  As much as I hurt for those babies, I hurt for the parent who loved their child, yet in an instant of just-too-much-over-the-top screaming, snapped, and hurt their own flesh and blood.

Apart from myself, I think no one pities a parent who has hurt, or even killed, their child, in a moment of unpremeditated rage.  In fact, I don’t even think it’s rage.  I think it’s more simply end of the rope, no more self control, just shut up!  Type of thing.

Maybe they didn’t have a back yard, vacuum cleaner, stereo, teeth to grind, nerves of steel.  Maybe they didn’t have those resources.

I was grateful for mine.

Looking back, I’m also grateful that it wasn’t just me.  Who couldn’t pacify this child, I mean.  I feel vindicated.

When I went back to work and school after five months at home, I left the backpack with the babysitter, who muttered something about knowing how to take care of spoiled babies.

When I picked him up at the end of the day, she had that backpack on!  She muttered something about weaning him off it by the end of the week.

She wore it, and him, for about two more years.  Then we moved.

As far as I can tell, that’s when our troubles first began.

This person to whom I gave birth and did not kill, resents me with a passion.  I resent my own mother, for far different reasons, yet I have compassion for her because I am a hated mother.  I will not tell her I love her, because I don’t.  I don’t confide in her, because whatever I say can and will be used against me.

I have tried to be a good listener to my son.  I know I have been, because he has always come to me with his troubles, and I have felt a bit of guilty pleasure in listening: guilty for being pleased that he came to me in his time of trouble, wishing he didn’t have the troubles that brought him to me, yet pleased that he felt comfortable in coming to me for help.

I did my best to help him to become self-sufficient, since that, in my experience, is the best gift one can give a child, second only to unconditional love.

When he got into trouble, I let him flounder a good long while before I bailed him out.  And I didn’t just let him off the hook.  I got him out of mortal danger, and after that, he had a lot of meaningful work to do. 

I feel now as though I’m explaining, justifying, trying to talk myself into believing that I wasn’t a horrible harpy mother like mine was.  I’m picking through my brain, finding reasons to believe I did OK.

But more often, I’m picking through my brain, finding every little particle of doubt, possibility of abusive behavior, coldness, emotional distance, unavailability, what?

What happened?  Or, more probably, what didn’t happen?

Through the decade of his twenties, it seemed we got along fine.  Then came last Thanksgiving.  I got gobsmacked, blindsided. 

He invited me for dinner.  No one else, just me.  I thought that was strange, suggested we invite somebody else, or go to someone else’s dinner.  No, he didn’t want to.

And he didn’t want help cooking, because he gets impatient with someone else in the kitchen.  So I sat on the couch and smoked his weed. 

He presented the meal.  It looked lovely.  He asked me to take a picture of him with his beautiful dishes all arranged on the table.  I did.

After dinner I went out and slept in my camper in his parking lot.  The next morning I came in and showered while he went to work for a while.  When he returned, he made it clear he expected me to leave: immediately.

There was the old threatening feeling I knew so well, the feeling of dark clouds, anger, intimidation, that he had used to get his way as a young adolescent.  I hadn’t seen that in twenty years. 

I didn’t want to leave just then.  I was nursing a migraine, was exhausted from the many hour drive to his place, and I didn’t want to be bullied.  I wanted to curl up on the couch and drink coffee and smoke weed and watch cartoons in my pajamas.  But it was, after all, his place.  Not mine.

He showed me the door. 

“I really need my space back, Mom,” was how he put it, and opened the door for me, so I could go through it.

We’ve spoken four times since then.  They haven’t been pleasant times.  When I ask what happened, what changed, I get a tirade about how I dragged him around when he was a kid, how I wasn’t available emotionally or physically, and I apologize.  And he is angry, and doesn’t want to hear how I feel. 

And I get all confused.  Here is my son, angry at me.  I didn’t kill him when he was an angry, inconsolable baby.  Why isn’t he grateful?  Isn’t he happy that he’s now a successful adult, with a promising career, lots of nice friends, no lack of women friends, enough money for his needs?

My own mother used to tell me I was “shit,” burn me with match heads, just to see me cry.  Then she’d laugh and tell me I should grow a thicker skin.  And she wonders why I avoid her.

I tried my best to be another kind of mother, the mother I would have chosen if I could have had my choice.

I guess it doesn’t work that way.

Hello, Winter!

image

This is the view from inside my cozy camper.  It’s kind of like being in an igloo.  The layers of ice and snow help insulate and retain the heat inside, which is a good thing, because my propane tank only holds 8 gallons and it’s gotta last till next week, or till I can get out of here, whichever comes first.

Thankfully we still have electricity in the campground, which means I can run my electric heater and save the propane for when the ice takes the power out.  I’m pretty sure it’s going to be “when,” not “if.”  The governor of NC is pretty sure, too, because s/he (I don’t keep up on politics) has invited 500 Floridian power company workers to join ours.  I like that.  Hope Florida has enough left, because they had tornadoes again last night in the Panhandle.

Atina the awesome Malinois had a blast romping in the snow this morning.  Glad I got her out before it started sleeting.  I took a blast of sleet in the face (the only part of me that was exposed–mask, next time I emerge).  The Doggess stretched out and ran like a deer through the snow-blanketed field.

Now it’s howling and spitting icicles, to paraphrase Carl Sandburg.  Miss Dog is lying on my foot, sulking.  She wants to go out.

That won’t happen until it decides to snow again, or even give us a precipitation break.  Till then, we stay cozy and warm in our igloo.

I have a lot to do this afternoon.  I can’t decide whether to proceed with my project of going through everything and finding stuff I don’t need, in order to lighten my load a bit; or to start a new project making covers for all the windows and skylights out of Reflectix, a marvelous material resembling bubble wrap covered with Mylar.  It repels both heat and cold, so it’s good for both summer and winter climate control.

It’s clear that I need to start a new blog dedicated to my Roadtrek travels.  If the power stays on, I hope to embark upon that project this weekend.  Themes, themes, themes.  I need to find a really good photography theme, because I need to start seriously marketing my photos in order to finance my travels.  I haven’t even posted my “real” photography on this site, because I want to mostly stay on topic.  Anybody got good photog theme ideas?

Spoke with The Boy couple days ago.  Sheesh.  He is not at all sorry that he threw his mother out at Thanksgiving.  At least I got a better sense of where he’s at, and why he did it.

He’s angry that I am a nomad by nature, that I don’t have a house with a front porch with a swing and the aroma of baking chocolate chip cookies wafting on the air. 

He wants me to have a place where he can come and visit me, and have a cozy bed to sleep in, and not have to camp on a deck and pee over a cliff and crap in an incinerating toilet.

I reminded him that this was only the case because I returned to the States to take care of his grandfather, and was living in his Grandpa’s studio. 

And before that I lived in Jerusalem, in a three story house, had a full-time acupuncture practice, was a leader in my community…HAD a community, fer krissake. 

And despite many invitations and offers to pay tickets he wouldn’t visit me there.

“No, I WOULDN’T,” he said emphatically. 

I didn’t need to ask why not.

He didn’t approve of me doing such a radical thing, moving so far away (as if he visits me that often anyway), putting myself in danger…God in heaven, what did I do to merit having a child who has judged me and disapproved of my life choices since he was a baby, and expressed his displeasure by refusing to participate, refusing to enjoy the various adventures that could have been so much fun if only he had made the leap and decided to be a mentsch instead of a lead weight to drag around?

(A mentsch, for those who aren’t familiar, is Yiddish for “man,” literally, but in common usage means “a regular guy,” “a good person”.)

Hell’s bells, one time I schlepped (dragged) him out to Antelope Island, which sits in the middle of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, with his horse and my horse and the Corgi.

I unloaded the horses from the trailer.

“Saddle up,” I sang out happily.  I was looking forward to the four-hour ride on the island trail, where a herd of American Bison roam, as well as marmots, jackrabbits, coyotes, hawks, eagles, and many other interesting things.

He was about eleven, and much larger than me.  He crossed his arms and scowled.

“Saddle up,” I instructed.  No response.

So I saddled his mare for him.  Mine was already stamping impatiently, ready to hit the trail.

“Mount up,” I sang, ignoring the fact that I had saddled up for him.

No response.

“Well, I’m damned if I’m going to miss my ride just because you’ve stubbed up.  If you refuse to come, you can damn well spend four hours in the trailer with the dog.  And don’t you dare go near the lake!”

I unsaddled his mare, got the dog dish and water bottles out of the cab of the truck, tied his mare to the trailer, mounted up, and had a very pleasant four hour ride around the island.

When I got back to the truck he was sitting in the shade with the dog inside the trailer.   The mare was munching at her hay bag.  Without a word, he climbed up into the cab while I loaded the horses.  When we got home (to the real house) he took himself to his room and was not seen till dinner.

That’s been my life since he was a baby.  There have been times when I really wanted to give him away.

He got somewhat better after wilderness therapy and therapeutic boarding school.  In fact, I really thought the values he learned there had stuck, but I guess they’ve worn off.

Well, now that he’s 30, there’s nothing I can do but live my life on my own terms.  As they say in New England, “If he don’t like it, he can lump it.”

Breaking the Silence of Stigma: In Memory of Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn, Rohonda's daughter

In Memory of my daughter, Kaitlyn Nicole Elkin

On April 11, 2013, I got the most dreaded call that any parent could ever get, a call from the police in the town where my 23 year old daughter Kaitlyn was starting her 3rd year of medical school at Wake Forest School of Medicine.  He said he had to talk with me about my daughter and that I had to go there to be told what he had to say.  I begged this man to tell me then, as I would have a 3 and a half hour drive to Winston-Salem.   My initial split second thought was, “Kaitlyn is in trouble!  She’s never been in trouble in her life,” then my thoughts turned to other things and the blood left my body as he told me what happened. He said that she was deceased.  I envisioned her getting into an auto accident and when I asked him what had happened, he said that she had taken her own life.  My world and everything I’ve ever known came crashing to an end at that moment.

How could this have happened?  My daughter seemed to be the most together person I have ever known in my life.  Graduated valedictorian from Whiteville High School, graduated summa cum laude from Campbell university in 2 and a half years and got accepted to medical school where she could pursue her lifelong dream of being a doctor and she was doing extremely well in it.  She had friends; she had just taken a Step One medical board exam that she felt she did well on.  She was an artist, a writer, avid runner, she had common sense and was wise well beyond her years.  She was excelling and seemed to have the world in her grasp.

I had just seen Kaitlyn the weekend before as she had come home for a few days for Easter.  We had a wonderful mother/daughter day and we went shopping, out to eat and the movies.  We had a wonderful time and she seemed totally happy.  How could this have happened?

She wrote my husband and I a two page suicide note, (as well as letters to some of her friends and her sister Stephanie.)  In this letter she stated that she had been sad all of her life and had worked very hard all her life to hide it and protect us from it.  She said that she knew she would have been a successful doctor, wife and mother, but that she was exhausted from the weight of the sadness she has had all her life, could not go on, and this is what made sense to her.  She stated that I might wonder why she had not sought help and that she did not know why herself.

She was a high achiever, but we never put any pressure on her to succeed because she set these high goals for herself.

The reason I am writing this letter is to tell all parents, friends, or spouses, that no matter how happy someone seems to be, there may be a devastating depression within that they are hiding.  Parents, ask your children from time to time, “how are you really doing” and make them talk about their feelings.  As you do this, I hope that they are forthcoming with you, my daughter was not and we had a very good and close relationship.

I’m devastated by her loss, lost in a sea of “what could have been”, the wonderful life that she could have continued to have had.  But I celebrate her life, thanking God that I had the honor of having this beautiful being in my life for 23 years.  But I wish I had more.

If this letter helps at least one person to come forward with their depression, or a loved one to ask about it and have that child open up to them, then it is worth it.

Rest in peace my beautiful daughter, the peace that I thought you already had.  And as I’ve always told you, I love you bigger than the universe.

Rhonda Sellers Elkins

Clarkton, NC