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!

Dad -v- Spider

Dad built a house for each of his two wives.  Both marriages ended in divorce, but the houses themselves have lasted. 

So I’m visiting Dad one weekend. The back of his house is a corn field. I’m In my bedroom (originally painted blue for my former stepbrother) and I’m at my desk doing some homework. I must have been about 7 or 8. I can feel something looking at me. It’s not a thought… It’s a feeling. I look around but no one – human or paranormal – is in the room. I carry on reading but cannot shake the feeling that something is watching me. Then I look down to the baseboard. There, the size of my fist, is a spider. It’s so large that I gasp but don’t scream. I’m almost 10 and I know it is irrational to be afraid of spiders. So I gather my wits about me and walk to Dad in the living room.

“Dad, would you come to kill a spider for me?”   (Yes, I know in some countries it is bad luck to kill a spider but in the Midwest, spiders can be particularly venomous!  Get me a newspaper!) 

“Sure.”  Dad climbs from his comfortable chair, walks into his bedroom and emerges with what we used to call a Flip-Flop.  Imagine if you will, a bit of foam the size of Dad’s foot with a bit of tough fabric on the top that holds your foot to the sole of the sandal.  The sandal makes a distinctive “Thowk” as you walk along.  These were particularly popular in the 1970s.

I showed Dad the spider and he immediately turned around and left the room. Dad returned with another particularly popular shoe – a high heeled, platform cowboy boot. I left the room – to escape the carnage. This is what I heard:

WHAM

WHAM

WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAMWHAM

WHAM

“Jade, come bring me some paper towel!”

Divorce – a child’s perspective

One of the only happy memories I have with both my parents is when we went to fly a kite.  I was so young (perhaps as young as 3?  Certainly no older than 4) that I couldn’t possibly tell you where we were – but I do remember the kite had big bloodshot eyes – as God Himself was watching and did not approve of proceedings. 

God had plenty to disapprove of. The memories I have of their marriage are filled with shouting and verbal abuse. Being so small, I was only in a position to watch/listen and accept what was going on. We lived as a family in White Heath, outside Champaign. Dad owned a white pickup truck with a blue bench seat and, “I’m not Lisa” was on the radio when we would go across the Interstate into Monticello. I would be dropped off at a local stay-at-home mom’s house and my parents went to work. I only vaguely remember an amalgam of afternoon TV shows like Flipper and The Lone Ranger.

Of course there was the incident where one of the older children dared me to jump down the stairs. Needless to say, I missed the stairs and ended up in the hospital. I needed 4 stitches somewhere on my scalp. It was a traumatic experience because, although the doctors gave me something to numb the area, I felt every ounce of pain that was dispensed. Four nurses and my father had to hold me down while the needle did its thing. (!) This had ramifications later in life, but I will get to that in good time.

One night I remember waking up on the back seat of the car.  I looked at the stars.  The stars were following me.  It was cold.  I didn’t spend much time contemplating the actions and behaviours of others so I didn’t stop to think that a life-changing experience was underway.  I went to sleep.  

The only other part of the actual divorce was, again, only traumatic and shocking in hindsight.  I was standing in front of Dad when he broke down and cried.  He said “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”  Of course, I comforted him without comprehending the enormity of his statement.  I just told my dad that I will see him again, without realising that the decision wasn’t mine.  He held me tight.  It was the first of only two times I can recall my father crying in his life. 

My life took shape under a “new normal” where I would see Dad twice a week and every other weekend.  At first, Dad lived in a trailer near Lake of the Woods.  The bathroom had an avocado sink, toilet and bathtub.  It had pale tulip wallpaper on the walls.  I hated bathing there because I was convinced that spiders were regularly coming up from the drains. 

In my youth I was aware of the personality differences between my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to explain their differences until I was more emotionally mature.  Dad and I had the kind of relationship where he would call me silly and then I would call him super silly – like Shazam!  He tickled my chin and made me laugh.  During our first weekday evening visits, he would collect me and we went to Mr Steak where I would eat a chicken leg and poke at the rest of the food.  Then, maybe a year later, I was taken to McDonalds on Cunningham Avenue where I would have a happy meal.  This became our place where I would peel the top of the paper off the straw and blow the rest of the paper at Dad.  Sometimes I would think Dad wasn’t looking and I would jam several fries together end-to-end and say “This must have been a huge potato!”  I called him “fatso” and he called me “skinnyso”.  I was a very picky eater – I remember Dad telling me to at least eat the meat out of the hamburger.  Jade cannot live on fries alone!  

Dad joined “Parents Without Partners” so our weekends were spent, serial monogamy style, with so many women and families that I cannot quite believe it now.  We went to Monicals’ Pizza on Washington and ate “Family Pleasers”.  Pizzas always had sausage and mushroom and the salad always came with French dressing.  I remember a particular high-pitch hum from Dad’s radio as we burned through the miles, endlessly travelling back and forth to and from Dad’s trailer.  It was a ride that I had memorized and could probably even now tell you where all the bumps were in the road, all the landmarks that took me back to Urbana and Mom. 

Mom never dated.  She and I lived in a house on Dodson before she bought a house on Lantern Hill, just a few streets away.  The house on Dodson had willow trees in the back yard and the winters we spent there were particularly bad, even for Illinois!  Six feet of drifting snow…  The house on Dodson had a gravel driveway and, somehow, she always managed to shovel us out wearing her high-heeled boots.  Mom’s brother owned the house on Dodson and I’m sure he gave us discounted rent. 

It took me years to realise that the house on Dodson backed onto the playing fields at my elementary school, so when I would chase the cloud shadows across the fields, I was actually headed home. The school was set up in wings for younger, then older children. The older children were made to stand outside in line until school started and, if we were early, we would pretend to ice skate along the ice in the corn fields behind the school. By the time I was an older kid, Little River Band was playing The Night Owls on the radio and I thought the song was about an owl the size of a person that went places hunting for food one night.

I remember summers with Mom spent in educational pursuits.  We went swimming, to art museums, to Allerton and to Rockome Gardens.  I took art classes, gymnastic classes and was basically encouraged to do anything that Mom thought was worthwhile. 

My grandmother, and her best friend Iris, enjoyed nothing better than visiting their collective grandchildren every summer.  I considered Iris another grandmother – she always showered us in beautiful handmade goodies – clothes, dolls and more than once, a quilt for each of Mom and myself.  Mine had women in each of 12 squares in Scarlet O’Hara dresses, faces hidden by a wide bonnet, and each carrying something – like a book or a note that said “I love Jade”.  Grandma and Iris were remarkable together.  Once they took me to Allerton and didn’t realise I was listening to their conversation.  I had to ask what a Wood Nymph was and, when I was told, I asked why she would be invited to a Halloween party dressed in nothing at all.  (!)  Must have been some random adult thing that I “would understand eventually.”  

When Mom did engage me in conversation, every time I came back from a visit with Dad I had to answer all the overbearing questions like “Where did you go?  What did you eat?  Who did you see?”  I learned (but regularly forgot) to hold back details from my mother in order to keep her from getting upset.  Or I lied.  I regret it now but at the time I felt it justified.  I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to be able to reassure her without giving her the details that I wanted to save for just me and Dad.  To be fair to Mom, she was in the unenviable position of “raising” me which meant ensuring I ate well, did my homework and had all the tools I needed for school.  However, at the time I resented her relentless meddling.  I know she meant well but her every little judgement tormented me.  Dad was this or that – never complimentary – adjective. 

So I grew up being silly with Dad and serious with Mom. My personality split along the highway that linked my parents’ houses. Somewhere within the time I got in the car and the time I got out, I would switch – as if speaking one language for one parent and a completely new one for the other. As I grew, the split seemed to be more and more pronounced – or perhaps I was only more aware of it and less apt to be able to mindlessly accept the relentless tension between them?

Brazilian Summer, Illinois Winter

Andrea and I were in school together – aged 14-ish.  In the hallway one day I saw some older kids picking on a girl saying “Go home!  We don’t want you here.”  I remember marching up and putting myself in between her and her tormentors.  I said “How many languages do you speak?!”  When I was told that they didn’t need to speak another language because they know English, I said “I’m learning French and let me tell you, it’s not easy.  So this girl came here to learn English (which can’t be easy) and to make friends and she has had the misfortune of meeting you!”  That shut them up.  Then I turned around and held out my hand for her to shake and I said “My name is Jade and if you ever need a friend, come to find me.”  Then I promptly forgot about the incident and continued on to my next class.  

Andrea ended up in my PE class (I think it might have been after the incident?) and I remember playing flag-football with her in class. She and I became inseparable. She was the youngest of six children and they all lived in a three bedroom house in Orchard Downs on Bliss Drive – which I always had to say when we ordered pizza because her accent was so thick! Her father was a visiting professor at the U of I and was working on a hybrid of corn that would be robust enough to flourish in the Brazilian climate. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Because my baby sister was in day-care, I spent the summer days with them. There was always something going on! Volleyball. Bike riding. Music. MTV. BBQ. It was the summer of the first Tears for Fears album and I still think of that summer when I hear anything from that album. Andrea asked her mom to make traditional Brazilian food – which I still adore. There’s a brilliant Brazilian restaurant in London where Andrea and I always go when she comes to visit London.

One time, I had stayed the night in their house and got up early.  I had forgotten my contact lens container so I used eggcups the night before.  The first thing I did was go to the kitchen and pop my contact lenses in.  Fast-forward 20 minutes and I hear a commotion in the kitchen.  Andrea’s mom was shouting at her dad (South Americans don’t speak quietly – ever.) and from the context and the words “lentil de contact” I surmised that they were talking about my lenses.  I interrupted and said that everything was ok because the lenses were in my eyes already.  Andrea’s parents were immediately shocked and I mean chins on the floor!  One of them asked how I knew Portuguese!  I did pick up some stock phrases that a 14 year old would find breathlessly cool – like how to say “I like you because you’re cute.”  

Although there was a lot of noise and action, I felt at home because there was no real pressure. Mom was happy because I had a parent’s supervision and she loved Andrea’s family as much as I did. We took them to Allerton and had a picnic and got lost in the woods. We took them to Lake of the Woods and rented paddle boats and had Dairy Queen on the way home. My sister (two at the time) used to go from boy to boy of the family, arms up and saying “My bruder! My bruder!”

Then they left.  I felt abandoned.  I was lonely for a lot of the time growing up.  I identified with the desolation of Illinois winters.  I was a warm heart surrounded by snow.  For me, life was a biting sharp winter gale with the occasional lush warm green paradise: a garden I cultivated alone until the winter’s chill came to bite again.