Friday, April 24, 2015

The Stories That Define Our Lives

My sister Tai, who lives in Seattle, and I were relaxing in my kitchen the other day, winding down from a busy day of medical appointments at the Mayo Clinic Arizona for her life-threatening aneurysm of her abdominal aorta.

We were talking about our childhoods, only briefly shared, as she is ten years younger than I am and spent a large part of her growing up years as the only kid left at home. Still, there was much we did share: the terror and uncertainty of living with a mentally ill, sometimes violent, alcoholic, pill-popping father and a stressed-out, frightened mother. As we grew older, we understood just how damaged our father had been by his own nightmarish childhood. And we also found that, as much as the terror, we remember the laughter and the moments of love.

"He really did love us," Tai said quietly. "As much as he was able. There were times when I could really feel his love...."

And we talked about those times: times when his face would soften and he would tell us how much he loved us, times when illness or misfortune hit us and he was there, worrying over Tai and her broken arm, and gently reassuring her, weeping over me when I was diagnosed with polio at age six, times when he made us laugh with his stories or delighted us with fun adventures.

Later, my husband Bob told me that he was puzzled over our conversation. "He was a monster," he said. "He treated you kids horribly. I really have a hard time hearing you talk about his saintliness."

I saw his point, understanding his anger and outrage. My father was no saint. He could, indeed, be a monster. How does one begin to explain a life story with so many contradictions? For all the horror of our growing up years, we all came away with the feeling that we were dearly loved by both parents and with gratitude for the good times. We don't forget the terrible times, but, as we grow older, the positive moments resonate the most.

"I'm truly amazed," my brother Mike, now raising a five year old daughter and two year old son, both born when he was over 60, told me recently. "I'm amazed that, as damaged as he was, Father didn't kill us, given the stresses of raising small children. And he did make us laugh and we did feel loved..."

This made a critical difference in all our lives.

Not long ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend Sister Ramona, my favorite teacher from high school. As we were discussing a classmate of mine who has struggled for years with mental illness, Sister Ramona said "It always seemed to me that your family was, by far, more dysfunctional than hers. But then I realized the crucial difference: your parents loved you and your siblings so much. I saw it during parent-teacher conferences and when they came to see you in school plays and just during informal talks with them. As flawed or as crazy as they could be, they loved you so much. And what a difference that made!"

And what a difference, in my own life narrative, it has made to have other adults who loved me as well, especially my unforgettable Aunt Molly, Sister Ramona and a very special elementary school teacher, Sister Rita McCormack. Both Sister Ramona and Sister Rita became life-long friends of mine and it's interesting how their insights and memories add immeasurably to the stories I tell myself about my life.

My dear friend Mary recently attended a Catholic charity fundraiser and found herself sitting at a table beside Sister Rita, whom she had not met before, but she knew that I have loved her for more than 60 years. They traded pleasantries, then stories. Sister Rita told Mary about her first memories of me as a shy little girl who would walk around the playground at her side, tightly clinging to the sash of her nun's habit. This underscored my own memories of needing her love and attention so much as I struggled to fit in at school during my recovery from polio and how grateful I was that she was there at that time and place and that she was so loving with Mike and me.

During our kitchen table conversations during the past week, Tai and I talked about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the impact this can have on us and our current relationships.

We tell ourselves stories of a past remembered for its pain or its possibilities.

We can choose to remember primarily the pain, the feelings of powerlessness we had as small children with troubled parents. Or we can focus more on the ways that we were fortunate. We can choose to label ourselves throughout our lives as helpless victims or as survivors. We can be angry or bitter or we can forgive, if not forget, and go on, making our lives very much our own, taking responsibility for our own growth and happiness.

The early difficulties, undeniably, have had an impact on our lives. And sometimes these have been negative. There have been times of depression and devastation when love relationships have foundered. There have been moments of perfectionism as painful as Father's stern insistence that "An A-minus is NOT acceptable!" And there was Mike's long period of commitment-phobia that led him to postpone marriage until he was in his mid-fifties and met Amp, who brought to their loving bond her own understanding and unique insights born of a childhood filled, once again, with both love and pain.

We can be aware of the residual pain of the past while not surrendering to it.

We can tell ourselves stories of survival, of triumphs both large and small, of understanding that comes from hearing the stories of others' lives.

I remember seething, years ago, as I listened to Father talk about his tortured childhood -- his beloved father's death when he was only eight years old, his mother's lies (she told him for a year and his younger sister Molly for four years that their deceased father was on an extended business trip), his mother's alcoholism and her physical and emotional abuse of her son, his being forced to support the family from age nine on with an unwanted, but reasonably successful career as a child actor in silent films. "Your mother was so horrible!" I said at last. "I hate the way she treated you. I'm so sorry it was so hard for you. What a terrible person she was!"

"Oh, no," he replied softly. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there. She went through some very hard times. But that didn't mean that we weren't loved..."

And I began to understand more about the shades of gray in all our lives. To tell the stories of our lives in terms of absolutes limits the glorious complexities of the individuals we grow to become.

Even those of us growing up in the same family have life stories that are uniquely ours: Tai and Mike both have life stories that have some similarities to mine but with some themes that are all their own. And all of our stories are the truth for our own lives and contribute to a central life theme.

For all my stories of growing up fearful and joyous, excluded and embraced, anxious and hopeful, one theme stands out above all:  I have been dearly loved.


  1. I'm not sure if time just blunts memories or if age has brought me greater understanding and empathy. My mother was mentally ill and as a child I didn't know that. That knowledge has helped me figure out that some of her bizarre behavior was linked to illness. She is dead now and I missed the opportunity to talk to her about it. My dad has become reflective in his old age and shares his memories with us and my brother and I have learned the backstory to events that we experienced but didn't know the significance. I'd like to think that I'm over childhood. I can be wounded and hurt or damaged forever, or I can accept that my childhood wasn't perfect but that I am the creator of my life now. It is what I make it...and I am grateful for the opportunity.

  2. The shades of gray in our lives. Kathy, this is perfect. I have been lucky in life. I always knew I was loved -- sometimes more than I think I wanted at the time. As the only child I was overprotected and that didn't do me a lot of favors at times. And that continued long after I was an adult. But there were so many good times and so much love -- and deep down I understood why they hung on. But really, if that's the worst thing, well, not so bad.

    We were riding back from one of our recent memorial services. The surviving children had spoken of the remarkable admirable qualities of their parent in touching ways. Rick said "I don't know what to say when something happens to my mom." It was a hard-scrabble existence for all the boys in that family and yet moments that weren't so bad. From where I sit, his divorced, very young mom was overwhelmed with five boys within seven years. It was clear, though, that there was love. Not a lot of attention, but love. I told him he'd need to find the moments. We all have moments, even if they are precious few.

    When I was working at a children's grief clinic, dealing with middle-schoolers who had a parent or family member die, one boy had trouble expressing things. When we would ask kids to share a memory of the person who died he would always share the same moment of his step father -- "We went to buy candy." He would describe this encounter often, nearly every time we asked that question in the course of our conversations in the group. We facilitators later learned this step-father emotionally abused him and possibly physically did so. Buying candy was his only memory and we realized his grief was less what he lost than for what he never had.

    There are shades of gray and bits of light -- finding those bits of light may not always be easy, but I think it is essential. I'm so glad you have discovered and can share those lights with Tai.

  3. Very interesting.... 'Shades of gray and bits of light' are a good way to describe most families. Most families have secrets nobody wants to talk about. Most families have that 'black sheep'---or something or someone in it that you want to hate. BUT--there's something special about family.. The love is there --although hidden at times. I was always raised to forgive --and not 'carry' the heartaches.I knew that that forgiveness was mainly for ME ---and was not saying that what the other person did was okay. It wasn't okay--but in order for me to go on with my life, I had to forgive and not carry that bitterness and anger..... Another great post, Kathy. Thanks.


  4. You had a difficult situation growing up. You and your siblings were very resilient, through it all. That you chose to study and practice in the field of mental health, to understand and provide coping skills to people who suffer such ills tells me that you were telling yourself those stories early on.

  5. Wow, powerful words! Thank you!

  6. I was very happy to read your blog today because you seem to understand many things.
    People are not born bad. People dont want to be bad and if you don't walk in a persons shoes, you have no idea why they are the way they are.Once you understand a person, you can never hate. Hate stems from not understanding another persons soul.
    When we listen to the world the way it is today You can see that some one some where, is making a mint developing mob hate. The more blood and suffering, the more drugs, anxiety poverty, the more profit some one out there is making. People have to learn to stop hating. Stop playing into the hands which profit from destruction of human minds and bodies.

  7. Making sense of our childhoods and the parents we loved, hated, feared, adored, respected, and didn't respect at all is something those of us willing to look at the truth in order to become authentic adults must seek to do. Perhaps, we will never make sense of the childhood itself, but if we can come to an acceptance of the truth of who our parents really were as people and as parents, I think we can begin to forgive and move on. I knew I was love deeply by my father. I knew my mother loved me and continues to love me as much as she is able. I tried to love my children in ways I always wanted to be loved. I'm sure I failed miserably at times in my parenting, but I know my children know I love them. Always have. Always will.