Loving my Step Children into my Life

When I first got together with Troy he told me about his children from a previous marriage. Of course, I nearly bolted when we had the conversation: I felt as if someone had clamped concrete shoes on my feet and thrown me into a lake! Troy, calmly, kept talking. I don’t know if he realised that I was unable to breathe – I mean, there’s no way I’m going to break up a family of youngsters! Troy, calmly, as if to a skittish horse, kept talking. At some point I realised that he was talking about that he wasn’t talking about his current wife. Wait! How old are the kids? When did you marry your current wife? You’ve been married twice? Oh! OOOOH!

So at that point I had a decision to make: do I get involved with someone who has children from a previous relationship? I’m in my 30s at this point in my life. Do I want to be lumbered with the commitment of children? I was back in my bedroom later that night, standing by the window, looking across the back garden and over the trees. The moon resonating along the leaves like a song. Over the hum of crickets, I heard an owl screech in the time with the moon music. The song was of Troy and I knew, no matter what baggage he had, I couldn’t’ live without him. The universe was singing the chorus: Troy. How could I resist him?

The first time I found that I loved someone into my life was my baby sister: I spent several nights while Mom was pregnant wondering what she might be like…  Who would she be friends with?  What music would she like?  What would she enjoy in school?  It was in this way that I discovered I loved my sister before she was born, before she was a whole person.  

When I got together with Troy, he was not in touch with his children. Like so many men, he was cheated by circumstances and a former partner of the opportunity to watch his children grow. In the deep night when I thought of them, I began to wonder: Who are they friends with? What music do they like? What do they like about school? I was so keen to know them that I would imagine whole conversations with them. I’d ask how their day was; how they found school; what did they like to read? What do they believe? Do they like art? What did they want to do when they got older?

In the same way that I began to love my sister, I found a deep love for Troy’s children. How could I not? They were as much a part of Troy as his arm or his leg. How could I not love them as I did the rest of his family? The sad part was, like many men, he didn’t have access/visitation for several years. The day Troy and I married, I remarked that I was a stepmom (!) and he said not to worry because I’d never see his children.

My personal goal was to be better to my stepchildren than my stepmother was to me. She used to look at me with pursed lips – as if she were smelling dog shit. I suppose you could say I set the bar high on that one!

When the kids did get in touch, I was keen to ensure that I facilitated contact. Troy is originally from Plymouth and his family still live there. We organised to meet Cody (Troy’s son) at a public place in Plymouth town centre. Troy was worried that Cody wouldn’t show up and was really jumpy. However, I spotted Cody a mile off. He’s the spitting image of his dad – except younger and blond. When we left him that first time, I gave him a big hug and said “Thanks for coming”. I was particularly keen to ensure he knew (knows) that he is a big part of my life. Those first few visits were in Plymouth and were nerve-wracking but worth the effort.

The first flat that Troy and I owned was a one-bedroom tiny thing (Honestly, you could put your arms out and touch both walls of the living room!) but we had big windows and a huge (even by American standards) back garden so the first time Cody came to visit, we borrowed a tent and he slept outside! I warned him more than once that I wasn’t kidding when I said he would have to sleep outside! Cody is a lovely boy and he and I get on particularly well, mainly because I listen to him.

Every time Cody comes to visit he and I go to London for the day. Sometimes Troy comes too but it’s normally just Cody and me. We’ve been to a number of museums and exhibitions.

Cody asked me once if I ever wanted children. I told him the truth: in my 20s I did. I was particularly keen to spend the rest of my life with children. But then, in my 30s, and with all the health problems I had, I couldn’t bring myself to try for children with Troy. Miscarriages with someone I didn’t profoundly love was hard enough. And although Troy gave me the option of having children but only on the understanding that I would have to want it “110%”, I couldn’t bear the thought of miscarrying with Troy: it would have destroyed me. I wasn’t brave enough to try. Bearing in mind all the problems I had, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t.

Sadly we still don’t have an easy relationship with my stepdaughter. Lily is still angry about the past – about things that no one can change. My only consolation is that she struggles with her mother and brother as well as me and Troy. Therefore the issues are hers to overcome. But I love her all the same. I consider Troy’s children my English family. I love them as much as I could ever love children of my own flesh and blood. I didn’t have the honour of giving them life but I consider them mine. I told Cody that if I could have had a son, I would have wanted him to be just like Cody.

Troy – Friends, and more?

During the last three or so years of marriage with Brian, I was friends with Troy. He worked in the Newbury office while I worked in the Godalming office. We only talked on the phone, and getting to know him was a slow process but I was attracted to him. While on the phone with me he would say things that turned me into a liquid and I melted into the floor. I didn’t dare dream that he would be attracted to me…

We met for the first time in person at Guildford Train Station before the last visit my mother would make to England – in 2006. I had arranged for him to bring me some artisan chocolate that could only be found near his office.

Here was a man who, the more I got to know him, the more I wanted to know him. He had served in the RAF. He was a trained first-aider who had had a couple of serious experiences in saving lives. Brian measured the worth of a man by the amount of money he made. Troy’s ultimate goal was, to quote Billy Connolly, to be “windswept and interesting”. Being friends with Troy gave me an interest in living life again…

And then it all hit the fan when Mom and Louise came to visit. By this point Troy and I had expressed an interest in one another – physically. I had lost weight and was obsessed with feeling alive – something that I had lacked for so long that Mom and Louise could see a difference in my clothes (decidedly baggy) and a nervousness that Louise kept pointing to. It was difficult to keep the light of my soul, so long hidden, under wraps. Something was different. Louise made comment after comment… Brian did some checking and, although he didn’t see all the comments that had taken place between me and Troy, he saw enough to pull me aside and ask me WTF? At that point, and since my mom and sister were still in the UK, I didn’t want to put them through the gory details of the end of my relationship with Brian. So I was frog-marched downstairs to sit, as if for interrogation, in front of my mom and sister and I was made to reveal my horrific transgression. I endured it, but instead of feeling beaten, I was angry. How dare he treat me like some felon after everything he had done to me?

Unlike with DJ, Brian and I sought counselling and talked about what had gone wrong, the things he said, the things he did to hurt me, the ways in which I should have talked to him. I encouraged him to continue counselling and he did. I got counselling for myself and worked to leave my relationship with Brian on amicable terms. If I spent 10 years with him, I didn’t want it all to be for nothing. I moved out and into a miniscule flat on the other side of the village. Brian and I came to a financial settlement reasonably and quickly. If I’m honest, from a financial perspective I probably should have stuck with it to get what I was fully entitled to, but I was so keen to get away that I would have taken less.

And then I was officially alone. Troy was talking about leaving his wife, but men don’t always leave wives. I didn’t pressure Troy because I wanted to enjoy the relief of being away from Brian. Finally I made my own decisions! Without bullying from Brian nor his mother! I had a bed, a chest of drawers, a chest, a fully-stocked kitchen and some blankets. I loved the freedom of having nothing.

Although I did feel guilty for hurting Brian (by leaving), I know that it was the right decision.  When I left, I felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.  Although I had romantic feelings for Troy, I lived alone for a number of months and didn’t get my hopes up for a future with him.  My first priority was taking care of me and getting away from Brian.   I will note here that Mom was very disappointed in me for remaining in England after I divorced Brian.  Mom blamed Troy but the fact was that, after three miscarriages, one laparoscopic surgery, a significant weight loss and approximately 6 or 7 prescriptions daily, I knew what I needed was some stability in order to get to grips with all the changes that had taken place.  I didn’t want to go to live in the US again only to find that I might not be covered for one or more of my existing conditions.  If I gave up living in England, I was unsure how I would go about coming back if I found that I was not covered by US health insurance.  

Depression and Suicide

It wasn’t long after Andrea left the US that I decided that the world would be better off without me.  I would go home after school and, before Mom got home, I would get a number of tablets out of the cupboard and wonder how many I would need to take to get the job done.  The only other means of escape was with a knife…  but I thought that pills wouldn’t hurt as much as cutting my wrist.  I was displaying all the symptoms of a girl who wanted to die.  I was doing a project in school about death.  My very soul ached from the lack of affection but my desperation made me too vulnerable in the world of a teenager.  I was being picked on at school.  I was alone and lonely.  I prayed to God to take me in the night.  I couldn’t see a reason to go on.

Finally one day I’d had a bad day at school.  I got home.  Called my mom (because I was a latch-key kid) and I got the pills out.  I opened the bottles and started to swallow…  Then the phone rang.  It was a friend.  Someone cared.  I don’t remember what we talked about – just the usual stuff.  But for me, that was enough to make me look at the tablets, put the tops back on the bottles and tucked it all back in the pantry again. 

A couple of years later, I was talking to the same friend.  I was concerned about him.  Those of us who have been so very low can recognise others who are on the bottom rung.  He didn’t have a reason to go on.  So I gave him a reason: I told him that he saved my life.  I don’t think he quite believed me at first but, the more I talked, the more he understood where I had got to emotionally, what I had done, what I had planned to do, and how his just being there was enough to make me keep going.  If he decided that his life wasn’t worth living, then he would have to take me with him – because he had saved my life.  

Indentured Servitude

I first met my first husband, Brian, when I was working as a maître-d’ at a high-class steak restaurant in Champaign. Table for 3? Great! Come in and sit down. *smile* Here are your menus. Your server tonight will be Kyle. My future husband had shoulder-length blond hair worn loosely around the face. From behind a shy wall of hair I heard, “Dew yew dew vegetarian meals?” I said, Yes of course! Being a corn-few Illinoisan, and not one to ever turn away a paying customer, I thought Chef could find something without meat.

I sat them all down in the smoking section and went about my travels around the restaurant. By this point I’m dating a Naval Officer, have finished my Bachelors degree and am looking into teacher training schools. The best one at the time being in Eastern Illinois. I was still doing volunteer work at my old high school where my shifts at the restaurant permitted. I was still keen to teach, but I was so sweet on the Naval Officer that I would have followed him almost anywhere.

When the Naval Officer went to Pensacola for flight school, he broke things off with me saying “The Navy is no place for a woman.” For a few months I lounged romantically. I wasn’t in a particular hurry to get involved again. I introduced Brian to a few of my friends in the hopes that they would hit it off. No such luck. He appeared to be smitten with me and, in getting to know him a little, I decided to call him a friend. He was funny in a caustic sort of way. He was kind in a generous sort of way. Was I developing romantic feelings for him? If I’m brutally honest, I would have to admit that I didn’t feel for him romantically.

Brian invited me to come to England for a month and I jumped at the chance. When else would I ever see a foreign country than in my early 20s? So Brian (although we hadn’t yet slept together) paid for my airfare and I stayed in Southend-on-Sea for a month. It was glorious! A history nerd like me – I was in my element! I was taken to ruins. I went to London. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and all appeared right with the world.

When the month ended, I got back on an airplane and landed in the middle of my boring corn-fed existence. I found a job, thanks to a friend, at a retail shop near the mall in Champaign. I thought to myself “That trip was wonderful. I will never have another experience like that again!” and I went about my life as if nothing had happened. Except Brian wanted me to come back. “Really? I don’t have the money for that.” He would pay. So I thought “Why not?” I hopped on another plane and stayed in England for six months – the maximum length of a Visitor’s Visa.

While Brian worked, I did DIY to his newly-purchased house in Guildford. I stripped wallpaper (Woodchip is disgusting!), sanded baseboards, scrubbed, cooked, cleaned and basically became a girlfriend/housewife. Because we had “no money” between us, I couldn’t really leave the house. I didn’t know anyone. I had no social life. All I had was my boyfriend and endless tasks in the house to keep my hands busy but my mind numb. By the time I had stayed six months, I had missed Christmas with my family. For anyone who knew me, I was displaying signs of depression: I wasn’t sleeping, not eating, not cheerful. Although I genuinely liked Brian, I was truly ready to go home – I might not have much of a bright future there either but at least there I had friends!

So at the end of six months, I hopped on another airplane and I thought, “That was great. I will never have another experience like that.” I started looking for jobs. But Brian kept calling me. Why? Brian had had a meeting with a lawyer. If I wanted to come back to England, I would have to marry him. I said OK, as if that was the reason that he never wanted to see me again. I decided to chalk the relationship up to experience and my heart wished him well.

Instead, I received another frantic phone call a day later:

“I realised I didn’t ask you.”

Ask me what?

“If you want to get married?”

I was so surprised and shocked that I said, Um, OK. Sure.

A few days later, the gravity of being engaged began to sink in and, as I was visiting a friend in Champaign, her mother got out the Tarot cards… The cards gave my friend financial advice but told me – twice! – that I should avoid churches (i.e. Christenings, Funerals and Weddings). Avoid weddings? The cards were telling me what I had suspected. Getting married was a mistake. I broke it off with Brian.

Two hours later I got a tantrum of a phone call saying he couldn’t live without me and he loved me and …. Wow! I didn’t realise how much he cared. Looking back, I didn’t realise how much he cared because I didn’t feel the same way. But, at the time I thought, Brian must be serious. OK. Let’s do this!

The next memory I have is of being on another airplane – back to England. On the headphones was the Sting song, When We Dance:

I would love you more than life

if you’ll come and be my wife.

And I knew I was making a mistake. I sobbed. I wished someone loved me enough to sing that song to me. I wished that I was in love enough to deserve someone singing that song to me. Instead I was numb. The wedding took place a mere six weeks after I landed in England with my Fiancée visa and less than two weeks later I was at the British Embassy asking for an official change in my status so that I could stay another year.

I started looking for work and thus began another new normal. After the first year, I applied for Permanent Residency status and that was my official status for the next decade. I would like to say that Brian and I decorated his house together but, by the time I got back to England, his mother had put her stamp on the place and put a stencil in the dining room and bought Brian an iron Victorian bed. I didn’t hate what she’d done, but I did feel left out. Brian seemed to talk and make decisions that affected me with his mother and not me. When I mentioned this to him, he would still talk to his mother and take the decisions but he would do it without me in the room.

I (stupidly as it turned out) thought that Brian would be more interested in being physical with me once we were married but the incidence of intimacy quickly dried up – from once every couple of weeks, to once a month, to once every couple of months, to twice a year… At one point, I was trying to get him to be interested one night in bed, I curled up against his back and stroked his thigh. He pushed me away and said “Sometimes I wish you weren’t so masculine.” I was so shocked I just rolled over to my side of the bed and stewed.

At one point one July afternoon, I managed to discuss the physical side of the relationship… I said, You remember the last time we were, you know, intimate?

“Yes”

It was nice wasn’t it?

“Yes”

Do you remember when it was?

“No”

It was in February.

“Oh don’t talk to me about that! You know I have had problems that needed sorting out! Why does it always come back to sex with you anyway?”

Do you remember the time before that?

Pouting, “No.”

It was in September.

Brian turned to me and said, “Oh, I’ve been neglecting you, haven’t I?” Although he now knew that he’d been neglecting me, things really didn’t change. He always found an excuse to not be physical. When we were physical, he would immediately run downstairs and take a shower – as if the act itself was unnaturally dirty. He didn’t even look at me during the physical act. I felt as though he wanted to be with someone else – anyone else… The only time I could remotely interest him was when I talked about other women…

After Brian and I finished decorating his first house, he started looking for another house to “do up” and his mother found an ad for a house in Godalming at a stupidly low price… His mother went to see it with him before I did. Ultimately I did see the house before Brian put an offer in to buy the place but it was after his mother was needling him to buy the place and asked what I thought. Brian said:“Jade’s opinion doesn’t matter! I’m the one with the money! I will decide if I buy the house!”

This attitude, in my mind, just reinforced my feeling that I was an irrelevance. I could have been anyone. I toyed with the idea of becoming an alcoholic but I just didn’t have the taste for it. I began looking for times when I could leave him. Every time I thought I had found a good point, something would happen, either with the structure of the new house, Brian being fired, Brian looking for another job, my taking on more work at work for extra money coming in, Brian wanting to host Christmas for all his family, more structural problems with the house, Brian breaking a bone in his foot… There never seemed to be a good time where I could just say “You know what? I’ve had enough.”

Brian was ambitious and moved job and position often. He worked 12 hour days. I rarely saw him when he was not thinking about work.

During my 10 year marriage with Brian, I had a number of dreams which, in hindsight, I interpreted as “escape”. One such dream has stayed with me. I was in an underground airport – the runways were on top of the subterranean structure. I arrived, like everyone else, riding the escalator down to the duty free shopping area. At first I was content to just look around but, once I realised that the police were gathering groups of people through a set of looked double-doors – never to be seen again. I began looking for a means of escape. I gathered together some people in the same boat – they thought they were on borrowed time by missing round-up after round-up… I talked to a woman who worked in the diner – I asked her to come with us but she couldn’t. Her top half was human but her bottom half was attached and hard-wired to the space behind the counter – as if her lower body was a diner stool- chrome and clean but welded to the floor. She cried and thanked me for the offer but wished me luck. Then, I motioned to my colleagues and we barrelled towards the only available means of escape: up the down escalators and into the bright lights…

(Aside: an old friend more recently commented that all the dreams I characterised as “escape”, I’m actually rescuing others. I will consider this in more detail at some point.)

Of course the longer I stayed, the more the odd, barbed comment from Brian pierced my soul. When my family came to visit it “Couldn’t have come at a worse time!” When he and I went away for a few days, the break “Couldn’t have come at a worse time!” When I was in pain (with what transpired to be Endometriosis but, at the time, I didn’t have a diagnosis), he said “You’re always in pain!” as if I had planned to be in agony. He didn’t even take me seriously when I said I was suicidal.

I think it is a reflection of how I couldn’t talk to him that, when I suffered my miscarriages, I did so alone. It happened three times and each time, in the middle of the night, I felt that he would simply not want to take me to hospital anyway. As if I had imagined it. As I was an irrelevance. I was alone. The only time that I felt as though I had been *together* with someone was DJ, and that was just the first six months/year of that relationship. I realised I’d been alone living in the same house as Brian for years.

Being unable to carry a pregnancy was what finally made me wake up one morning and think “Why am I doing this to myself??” I got myself to the doctors, had surgery, got a number of diagnoses and lost weight as a result of following a better diet for my conditions. Brian arranged for my family to come to visit that summer and I put off leaving him until after my mom and sister were safely back in the US and away from him. My plan was finally in motion.

DJ – Whiskey Chronicles

I fell in love for the first time in the back of Kmart in Urbana when I was 17. I was working freight one evening with the new guy with warm chocolate coloured eyes. I was stripping the plastic covering off the clothes and he would scoop up the plastic and take it to Igor (the trash compactor that smelled of mould and vomit). I felt DJ’s eyes on me and thought I saw movement towards my belly. I thrust my arm out and down and hit – nothing. I was caught! DJ said “What was that?” Um…. Embarrassed, I explained that I thought he was going to touch my belly but I was obviously wrong…. I may as well have put a neon sign on my head saying “Idiot!” Oh he was so cute! Perfect posture. Great shoulders and a bum that you could fling money at. I was instantly smitten and intimidated. Here was a man and I’m still in high school. He wouldn’t be interested in me, would he? I got his phone number.

He and I arranged to meet for a movie – Scrooged! In the car when he took me home, I bounced with a happy heart and sang “Put a Little Love in your Heart”. After the movie his eyes smouldered at me.

One evening, I don’t remember what started the problem but I was bound and determined not to go back to Mom’s: I’d finally had enough of the overbearing accusations, the constant pressure, the ice. DJ and I talked. Just talked. Nothing physical happened. A policeman came to the door of DJ’s apartment and asked me to go home to Mom. I called Mom and said that I was not going home. I would go to Dad’s but I wasn’t going home to her. Absolutely not. She said that she had called the police and that I was now on some sort of register of children in trouble – which I knew was a lie. If I was really in trouble, the policeman would have taken me away. If I absolutely had to leave, I would go to Dad’s but not Mom’s. Not ever again – as far as I felt at that point. So I piled into my car – a 1978 baby blue Chevy Monza wagon – and drove to Dad’s.

I think, over the years, Dad must have expected my coming to stay with him.  He welcomed me with open arms and no questions asked.  He and I sat up the rest of that evening – I talked and he listened. 

The next day I went to school and then back to Mom’s.  Maybe she would understand?  I went to bed early because I’d been awake for over 24 hours.  Then at breakfast the next morning Mom said “Did you sleep with DJ?”  I said no.  She said “How many boys have you slept with??”  I told her that I’d slept with one boy.  Just one.  My high school sweetheart who graduated the year before I did.  She said “Is that all??”  I collected my things and left. 

Looking back, and to be fair, because I’d lied to her so often in the past, she had every right to think I was lying to her – even though I was telling the truth.  However, in some respects she had brought it on herself because, she was so overbearing that I couldn’t ever be myself around her.  Of course, she had her own reasons for being a control freak.  In raising me, she acted in response to her own unhappy (and sometimes violent) childhood.  What she could not have known was how profoundly lonely I was and how intensely I needed to feel loved.  Maybe that is why, to this day, when I fling myself into love, I do it wholeheartedly – abandoning all sense of conserving my delicate heart. 

My 18th birthday was difficult. (Understatement of the last century!) I went to Mom’s purely for my sister’s sake. Mom bought an elaborate cake and I blew out candles. That was it. I expect I must have stayed for a piece but I certainly don’t remember it now. I had cut Mom off in order to spare my soul more pain.

The summer before I moved in with DJ, I listened to the Joe Jackson Live cassette while the rain incessantly beat down against the windows of my efficiency sublet.  It was so humid at night that I slept with the fan on at the end of the bed.  I owned so very little but everything I had, I treasured: hand-me-downs of all sorts – a plywood bookcase, a thin unicorn blanket, Mom’s old plates and a couple of bowls, one knife and a whetstone. 

My relationship with my mother improved partly due to a discussion that Mom had with her niece – the relationship between Mom’s sister and my cousin was terrible and Mom didn’t want us to go down the same route.  Although Mom made the first moves with the olive branch, I did most of the heavy lifting thereafter because, tragically, Frank was diagnosed with cancer.  My mom and sister needed me.  I wasn’t about to turn them away…. 

I moved in with DJ and we started settling into another new normal. He began driving a bus locally. He started an N scale train model and I loved him so much that I sculpted and painted N scale people to go with it. I gave my people names and wrote improbable adventures for DJ’s mother and youngest brother in letters. But there was trouble in paradise. DJ began to ignore me. He drove the bus at night, which didn’t marry well with my university schedule. Instead of growing closer, the relationship changed. It began to wilt. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to hold DJ down and show him what was happening. Instead, when I tried to talk to him, he would say “When I do something that upsets you, just tell me and I won’t do it again.” But the problem wasn’t a matter of a couple of badly thought out actions…

It was around this time that I had a particularly vivid dream: I was watching a softball game on some bleachers. I had a Bible in my hands. Then, from the left, a glowing spirit walked in front of me. I wish I had words to express what I saw… But I knew it was God. So I clambered down the bleachers and stood in front of this being – not daring to look at its face. I heard the words “I Am in Awe” and I collapsed in front of the being and said to my knees I Am in Awe! There was a bright woosh! I next found myself asleep in bed next to DJ. At first I thought he and I were in his room at his parents’ house – a room that had darkly painted walls. The light didn’t illuminate the room the way that sunlight or a lamp does. The light was so bright that everything in the room was dark. I felt I had a vision of God. If God’s big toe is as bright as what I saw, then God is indeed great!

After my dream (vision?) of God, I carried a New Testament with me. I asked Dad if I was baptised. When he said no, I asked him if I could be baptised. He was delighted. At the time his Parkinson’s symptoms were bad enough that he couldn’t work full-time, but wasn’t so bad that he needed full-time living assistance. So Dad was there when, on a snowy winter’s day, I stepped into a tank of cold water and came out a fully-fledged Christian.

For the rest of the time I lived with DJ, the more he pushed me to be atheist the more Christian I felt the need to become. He did this by playing that Rush song, “Freewill” and pointedly singing the lyrics at me; by reminding me of George Carlin’s diatribe of “Not needing a lift in my shoe” and telling me on more than one occasion that when we die, we die. That’s it.

Whatever other qualities I have, I am stubborn. As many have discovered, if I am pushed too far, I end up going the opposite way to the intended destination. The final straw was when DJ asked me what the actual appeal was to Christianity? I told him – You mean besides eternal life? I made him cry. I’m not proud of it now but I couldn’t let him bully me into something I didn’t believe.

I was growing and he wasn’t prepared to understand why. I felt disrespected because, if he didn’t love me for who I was, and he didn’t care enough to get to know me, then he didn’t love me. He might have loved the illusion of me, but not me the person. I realised that I had to leave.

Initially I arranged to leave DJ’s apartment to stay somewhere else for the summer. I needed some space. I wasn’t sure if I would go back but I wasn’t prepared to stop loving DJ. DJ took the opportunity to start sleeping with other women. So I went ahead and slept with a Frenchman who was nice but leaving at the end of the summer. Francois was not the marrying type. He was a rebound and I used him to try to forget DJ. When Francois left the country (and I took him, tearfully, to the airport in Chicago) I struggled to stay away from DJ.

One evening I went to visit DJ, he had moved to a trailer to be closer to his work, and we almost reconciled. I say almost because I wanted it and he said he wanted it but he still didn’t know how to love me. After we were physical, he showed me the door and I rode my bicycle to my apartment. When I got there, I called him to let him know I was OK but his line was busy. And busy. And busy. I was reminded of all the times when I needed him but he wasn’t there. Not for Frank’s funeral. Not for my transformation to Christianity. Not for me. I wondered if he went from me to the arms of another. I wondered if he loved me. If he ever loved me? As with my parents, I wondered if he ever loved me. And, for the sake of my sanity, I cut him off.

After I married the first husband (which I will get to in due course) I sent DJ a letter saying that the last time I saw him he only wanted to punish me for leaving him. I wasn’t prepared to stick around for that. What I didn’t tell him was that I still loved him. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up that I might one day be available for him. But I loved him. Despite the fact that I cut him off, I was attached by my soul to him. He was my first love and, in a loveless marriage, it was hard not to compare the two… and despite DJ being a complete and total arsehole, DJ was the one I loved.

What do you want to do when you grow up?

I can only speculate what my life would have been like without my sister.  Although I was lonely and felt decidedly unloved, I doted on my sister.  I didn’t feel I could trust my parents, so I wanted to be the kind of person that Louise could rely on.  I grew interested in child development.  Since Frank didn’t live with us, I was involved in every aspect of Louise’s life.  Diapers.  Walks.  Babysitting.  Santa Clause.  Trick or Treating.  Science project for her school.  I would look after her while Mom would go clothes shopping and then we would trade off.  I would entertain Louise while Mom cooked and cleaned.  I taught Louise how to dance.  In some ways I was another mother to Louise because of the age difference of 12 years. 

My last semester of high school I lived with my dad in Mahomet.  I was a member of The Executive Internship Programme where I received high school credit towards my diploma by volunteering in a local school.  Each morning, I would drive to Urbana High School (no point in telling them I had moved since the year was almost over) where I would sit my English and French class.  Then I drove across town to Martin Luther King Elementary School.  Because I lived in a university town, a number of visiting foreign students and professors would send their children to King School.   I got the opportunity to sit in a general classroom of 7-8 year olds, assist teaching French to English-speakers, teach my students about the planets (which included a trip to the local planetarium) and helped a girl from Zaire maintain her French language.  Her first language was a tribal language, then she learned French and then she learned English – she was only 7!  At the end of the school year she was expecting to travel back to Africa where she would go back into an all-French-speaking school.  By the time I finished with her, I was thinking in French myself – no point in translating back and forth!  It seemed a waste of time… 

At first, inspired by my sister, I had planned to be an elementary school teacher or a child psychologist.  Although I loved the classes at the U of I, I changed halfway through my course to study history.  I tell friends that it had more to do with the math class (where I was told that 2 times 2 was not 4 but actually 2 groups of 2.  Seriously??  I’m paying thousands for a professor to tell me that 2×2 is not 4?)  but, as I’m looking back and being brutally honest with myself, it probably had as much to do with all my volunteer work, and time spent with my sister, that I found some of the practical classes rather dull. 

I changed my focus, started a major in European History and a minor in French and began volunteering at my old high school where I assisted a US and World Cultures teacher.  I wrote tests, copied, collated, cajoled and prodded.  At one point I gave a lecture about the Ottoman Empire!   I loved the energy of working in a high school!  I was teaching intellectual constructs – concepts.  I brought my University coursework into my classroom.  I told them all about the Tuskegee Institute Study, The White Rose, The Long Walk Home and The Night and the Fog.  I felt involved and useful and every moment I was there was worthwhile.  I stuck around after classes to answer questions if anyone had questions and I attended school plays. 

Even now – all these years later – I miss not being in a classroom.  I miss the energy, the constant noise, the endless activity…  I felt useful there.  I was strong.  I had purpose.  I still had potential when I was there.  Now…  by a change of circumstance, I was unable to get into teaching and, because of gynaecological problems, I didn’t have children.  I feel that, in the most important ways, my life has been a sham and, thanks to my circumstances and health, I have had to find other ways to give my life meaning – not always with success. 

Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion/philosophy of lists. Historically, the lists start with the enlightenment of the Buddha (aka someone who is enlightened and does not have to reincarnate again). Buddha is not a god. Buddha is someone who, over hundreds of lifetimes, achieved enlightenment. Buddha said that there are four noble truths:

1) Life is ultimately unsatisfactory. Everyone has pain, in one area of life or another, and we will all ultimately die.

2) Desire/attachment causes suffering. This covers not only wanting what other people have, but that mental/emotional block that we all have from time to time – the thoughts we cling to when we struggle to sleep for example.

3) The end of suffering is attainable. Here it is worth mentioning the word isn’t “pain” but “suffering”. The difference between is: pain is unavoidable but suffering is how we think of pain, which can be avoided. The end of suffering is attainable.

4) Suffering can end by following the Eight-Fold Path. See what the Buddha did there? Straight from one list into another.

The Eight-Fold Path is also known as the path to Enlightenment.

1) Right view – understanding how suffering comes about and how to reduce and eliminate it.

2) Right intention – the resolve to give up the causes of suffering.

3) Right Speech – aim to speak more skilfully

4) Right Action –aim to behave more skilfully – avoid killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. (Because sexual misconduct may be misunderstood – there are only a few rules here for lay people: Don’t have sex with people who are married or engaged. Don’t have sex with people who are supported by their parents. Don’t have sex with someone against their will. That’s it.)

5) Right Livelihood – Avoid jobs that cause suffering (such as a bartender – alcohol is frowned upon because those who drink are more likely to say/do things to increase suffering. The act of abandoning your control and giving way to saying something unskilful is the thing to avoid here. You might also avoid working in, say, a slaughterhouse because killing animals is the cause of their suffering.)

6) Right effort – prevent/abandon unskilful thoughts (based in greed, lust, hatred and delusion) Cultivate skilful thoughts (which are based in love, generosity, compassion and wisdom).

7) Right Mindfulness – Never being absent-minded – be conscious of what one is doing at all times.

8) Right Concentration – practicing the various meditations to lead to equanimity of the mind.

Points 1-2 are the starting point to enlightenment: becoming aware of suffering and resolving to give up the causes of suffering. This does not mean that you “check out” of this world! It means that you are taking a more considered approach to the physical world.

Points 3-5 deal with personal discipline and these can be observed by others. People who are good at these points may display:

1) Loving kindness – intentional and unconditional acceptance for the person being loved without wanting to change them.

2) Compassion – practice activities that reduce suffering.

3) Sympathetic Joy – is happy for others without judgement

4) Equanimity – their minds are not repulsed nor attached.

Points 6-8 deal with meditation. These skills are developed in the mind and may not outwardly be easily seen.

I’m afraid I still have a lot to work on. But at least I’m following something that feels right.

Death and Belief

This story starts in 1991, on my 20th birthday: I was due to visit my boyfriend’s parents that week but Mom wanted me to stay with her: if Frank (Louise’s dad) died in the middle of the night she didn’t want Louise, aged 7, to wake up and find herself alone in the house. The boyfriend went home without me.

On my birthday, around 9pm that night, Mom got the call she had been dreading. She threw her contact lenses in her eyes, got dressed and sped off hysterically to see Frank. I was left alone and standing in Louise’s bedroom doorway, quietly sobbing. The song “Silent Lucidity” by Queensryche was popular when Frank was dying:

I will be watching over you

Gonna help to see you through

I will protect you in the night…

Louise’s world was going to change for the worse and I was helpless to protect her. I was profoundly angry. I was helpless and in shock. Why did Frank have to die on my 20thbirthday?? Out of 365¼ days in the year, he had to die on my 20th birthday. Why?? I felt that there was some sort of cosmic statement being shouted at me precisely because he died on my birthday. But what was the Almighty saying?? When I decided I’d puzzled the reason out, I told Mom: Frank died on my 20th birthday precisely because he wanted Mom and Louise to have a happy reason to look forward to that day each year. He knew I wouldn’t take his dying on that day personally, and I didn’t. Frank was a kind man and my sister’s father. The cosmic message is, of course, of love.

In 2011, my dad’s death struck me, well, like a Hammer. Unfortunately, because of timings and money, I was unable to attend the funeral and let me tell you, not attending my father’s funeral left me a snotty wreck! I did what I could and – despite the time difference – I took the day and looked through some old photos and remembered the good times. Dad’s brother died about 10 days before I was born and Dad always had a soft place in his heart for the Beatles’ song “Let it be” – which was popular when Uncle John died and I was born.

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be

Some weeks after Dad died I had a dream: I was in Dad’s house in Mahomet in the kitchen. There was a kitchen bar as a kind of barrier that I could not get around. Dad was standing where the kitchen table used to be and he was holding a little girl who giggled despite herself when he tickled her chin. Dad was unable to talk to me but pointedly tickled the little girl and then looked at me as if to say “It’s you!” I understood but was paralysed to tell him: he might be dead but he will always love me.

For some people, the death of a parent only reinforces their belief in a religion. I went the other way because I really struggled with the idea that any loving God would allow Dad to suffer for more than half a lifetime with Parkinson’s. So I began my journey to Buddhism. Initially I liked it because Buddhists do not address the question of a deity: they are only concerned with mitigating the suffering of themselves and all others. I felt relieved at the thought of no God. I admired the idea that there is no right or wrong but that there are skilful and unskilful behaviours that may increase suffering or decrease suffering. Then, I started to wrap my head around the notion of reincarnation and Karma. There are some points that, to my mind, make perfect sense when you consider reincarnation: for instance, if you don’t get something right in one lifetime, you can try again. Also, it helps to explain why you can, on occasion, find someone you instantly bond with – it’s as if you recognise them even if you’ve never met them before… I also like my idea of reincarnation because that means that Frank chose to die on my 20th birthday. With this thought, I felt even more respect towards Frank precisely because he chose to die on my birthday. Leaving the love of his life and his young daughter must have been extremely hard, but on some level, he knew I would be there to pick up the pieces.

Divorce Court – A Child’s Perspective

Tensions between my parents regularly erupted, but the incident that affected me most took place two days before I turned 16: they went to Court and I was called as a witness. The argument that started Court Proceedings on this occasion started around Christmas 1986. Dad wanted me to visit over a certain few days and Mom didn’t want me to visit at that time. I was forced to speak to Dad on the phone, drag myself to the other room with Mom where she sat in the hardwood rocking chair as if a throne, tell her what Dad said, and then relay the reply to Dad, who then said something else, and so on. Although I asked Mom to speak directly to Dad, she was not going to do that. Finally, she looked at me and said “If you want to go with your Dad for Christmas, go but don’t come back!” I told Dad. I said I was sorry. Dad didn’t hold it against me. Dad blamed Mom.

Over the following months, I learned that Dad was taking Mom to Court.  Let me be clear: Court between my parents was not a new phenomenon.  They regularly went to Court about money and I accepted this as part of normality.  This time was different: I would also need to attend.  The build-up of the court case, day by day, layered more and more emotion upon my pubescent body.  I took refuge in friends who baffled at each new dreadful detail about the case and what I was expected to do.  No matter how I begged, I was not to be let off the hook.  No matter how eloquently I told them how they were hurting me, my head was in the noose.  Each blamed the other and neither one was going to give an inch.  I was on the chopping block.

By the time the case came to Court, I was an emotional wreck. I barely ate or slept.  I was distracted in class.  My feet didn’t connect with the ground.  I struggled to exhale.  I felt as though I was being made to choose between them.  The only people I felt I could rely on weren’t my parents anymore, but my high school friends who struggled to comprehend how loving parents could so utterly destroy their daughter.  My friends understood I felt I was no longer a person but an item to be fought over and manipulated: to me my parents’ goal was to hurt one another and bugger whoever got in the way of inflicting that pain. But on the day itself, I was alone.

I arrived at the courthouse. I was wearing the nicest outfit I owned: a long white sweater with a lace collar and a paisley skirt with blue sling-back heels. While I was waiting to be called, someone roughly my age sat across from me on the chocolate brown faux leather chairs. I didn’t recognise him, but he looked as miserable as I felt. We didn’t speak but we had an instantaneous understanding and, a few minutes later, as he was led away from me, my emotions erupted – we locked eyes: it was as if my soul escaped my body. I poured all my anger, hurt and misery into that poor kid I didn’t even know. He flinched. He almost said something… but I turned my head. He had to go but I almost heard “Are you OK?” as he was being dragged away, and I was left to wait my firing squad.

I don’t remember much about being on the stand itself – I was too overwhelmed with emotion.  I vaguely recall trembling and answering questions with no comprehension as to who I was helping and who I was hurting.  I was numb.  I want to say that the judge asked me a couple of questions – possibly to get me to feel more comfortable – but I was at that moment beyond any help.  I just needed to lower my head like the beaten puppy I was and get through the battering.  

As we were leaving the Courthouse, Dad came to me, patted me on the back and said well done.  I expect he just wanted to give me a bit of encouragement but Mom, walking with me, took it personally and I was frog-marched back home and was psychologically tortured for more details of the case.  Mom wanted to know that I wasn’t “in-league” with Dad.  I just wanted to vomit. 

A few days later Dad told me that the judge shook his finger at Mom and said that I seemed a good kid who shouldn’t have had to endure coming to Court.  But, now that I’m an adult, I like to think that the Judge delivered a stern word at both my parents.  But at the time I unloaded my grief on my friends.  I was utterly morose.  

The ramifications of the Court Incident affected my relationship with my parents for a number of years.  I distrusted them.  I was an award on a mantle to be won or lost and then won again.  I didn’t believe that they ever loved me.  

My Baby Sister

One morning when I was 11, Mom turned off the Little River Band concert on the TV and said that we needed to talk. It was springtime outside and the sun was streaming through the living room windows. Against this backdrop, Mom poured forth a story about how she had fallen in love but that the man she loved was married. At that age all I could think was, What does this have to do with me? Then she said the words that changed my life. “I’m pregnant.” As with so many events in childhood I didn’t realise the full force of the ramifications until much later. That morning all I thought At least I’m not in trouble, and said, Oh, OK. Can I go outside and play now?

I don’t know what Mom was expecting but I was not ready to play Happy Families when she introduced me to her boyfriend.  What was so wrong that Mom had to go off and drag some man into our lives?  Who needs a man anyway?  And for some strange reason Mom always seemed just a little nervous around him.  She was showing off – getting up to make him a drink and being all nice to him.  She’s not like that with me.  He knows where the kitchen is.  Get up and get it yourself!  

Mom blossomed and bloomed and then became the size of the local bus station. Although I regret it now, my relationship with Frank did not easily improve. He ate too loudly. He smoked. He never stopped talking. He smelled funny – like a man! Yuk! And he liked to kiss Mom. Loudly. Double Yuk! Oh sure my dad smelled like a man, but he didn’t invade my space and then leave a lingering man smell. When Frank came to visit, Mom cooked and served at the kitchen table – which we never did when he wasn’t around. I was appalled at the hypocrisy – when Frank wasn’t around, the house was still church-quiet. I believed that Mom only wanted to spend time with Frank and their baby – but not me.

In some ways I was involved in many of the preparations for my sister’s arrival.  Mom, being slightly older, was recommended to have an amniocentesis.  As well as letting Mom know the baby was healthy, would also show the sex of the baby.  Mom and Frank had only had girls, so they were hoping for a boy.  However, I was an only child and the thought of having a brother wasn’t as appealing as having a sister!  One evening Mom came home with a small plastic bag which I thought was from a bookstore.  She said “What do you want more than anything else?”  I was delighted!  The next book in the series from Walter Farley?  

Mom, grumpy with hormones and pregnancy and a clueless child, chucked the bag on my bed.  Inside was a bumper sticker saying in big pink letters “It’s a girl!”  I took the sticker and accepted it with the same numb unknowing I had accepted everything else in my life.  However, maybe I was beginning to understand – I gave the bumper sticker pride of place on my dresser mirror – top left corner.  Everything else fit around the sticker in much the same way that everything else in my life would have to fit around my sister.  

When it came to naming my sister, Mom and Frank had narrowed the field to two: Lorraine or Louise. I preferred Louise. I should have been more honoured at the time to help to name my sister – but I’m particularly proud now.

I was born on 30th April and my baby sister was due towards the end of August so I was hoping that she would arrive on 30th. She had other plans. I was in school – Music class if I remember correctly – when I got the news that I would have to go home to Mom’s brother that night and that Mom had gone into the hospital to deliver my baby sister. I will say now that I must have misunderstood, or perhaps Mom realised that I might be frightened by the sight of Mom with labour pains. Either way, I was expecting to leave school and go straight to the hospital. But I was made to wait until the ordeal was over. I arrived at the hospital early in that evening. My sister was officially 3 hours old. I held her gently and cooed at her. She balled up her tiny fist and punched me in the nose. I looked at her said, It’s a little early for sibling rivalry – but don’t ever forget that you started it!