I write a lot about loss and the need for healing because, having mined the ore of a challenging journey, my perspective and trail markers may benefit others.
My experience, living in an utterly normal family burdened with the legacy of my father’s World War II injury that resulted in depression, garden-variety dysfunction and for me, isolation and loneliness within our large, chaotic, Irish Catholic family, frames my life’s work: fostering cooperative communities. Because I love my parents and admire their compassion and integrity, I can finally analyze the dysfunction for which I have paid dearly on every level: academic, financial, social and emotional.
My smart, attractive, modern-thinking parents were high school sweethearts. My classy, deeply Catholic mother, a white-glove-to-church Rosary College graduate in library science was beautiful, cultured, social, literary, artsyand strict. My football hero, heart-throb-handsome dad graduated from Western Illinois University with a math degree.
My father was an Army captain in France, when shrapnel lodged in his upper leg and changed his life forever. He spent four years in the Hines VA Hospital and became so institutionalized that leaving was scary. Driving home from the hospital, my mom pulled off the road. He freaked and dove for the floor, reflexively thinking it was land mined. At the time, post-traumatic stress disorder was unrecognized.
One leg was four inches shorter than the other and required a special shoe built up with a wooden block. The doctors said that he would never walk again. Although the physical pain must have been unrelenting, he never played that card, fathered five more children and took up golf. His ankle was used for skin grafts, so the tissue-thin-skin sometimes spontaneously hemorrhaged and he was prone to life threatening infections as well. The experience transformed him from a “normal guy who could kick butt at any time” to one who lived on a different plane than the rest of us. He became excessively humble, noble, a dreamer and emotionally detached. He developed the odd belief that money was unimportant. Although I agree theoretically, it’s not a helpful attitude for the breadwinner of eight. He occasionally remarked that, “in the 1950′s, you could make money if you threw it out the window,” although it didn’t work that way in our household. He was the postmaster in our tiny town of Sheffield, Illinois until we moved to Stockton, Illinois in 1963, where he was the guidance counselor and taught high school algebra to math-challenged me and many others.
He was emotionally available only to my mother and two oldest sisters. Not wanting to compound my mother’s considerable burdens, I waited my turn for attention and, because I was a good kid, it appeared that I didn’t need any. As a result, I was not close to any adult, including my maternal grandmother who lived next door. My eldest sister, four years older than I, functioned as my de-facto mom, a role she fills even today. Once, nauseous in the middle of the night, I vomited at her bedside, not my mom’s. I looked forward to a more intimate relationship with my mom when our household settled down but that never happened. She died from an aneurysm at the age of 51, four weeks after I graduated from high school. My younger brother was 14 at the time and lived alone with my father in their separate, engulfing grief.
Although my family had issues and challenges, there were bright spots. A fond family ritual was listening to WGN Radio’s Sunday morning program with the tag line “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” while my dad made breakfast, which often was bacon with eggs basted in bacon grease. Jiffy Blueberry Muffins with the blueberries folded just so was a frequent special treat. Fancy Sunday dinners with the good china, fancy water goblets and crocheted tablecloth were also common.
The point of this background is to shine a light on family dysfunction that is so pervasive we consider it normal. My experience, feeling overlooked in a busy, chaotic household, was a cakewalk compared to the abuse, neglect and addiction that is all too common for many. Nevertheless, not having had an intimate relationship with any adult was challenge enough for me, and a definite handicap when twice selecting my life partner.
I am coming forward with this story to recognize and name dysfunction and to expose the hidden costs of war that endures for generations that follow. I feel lucky and that I came from a “good” family. I love and highly regard my parents. I know that they loved me and did the best they could with what they had. Nevertheless, I felt overlooked because the urgent prevailed over the important—deeply connecting with each child. This, and far worse, happens all the time and is happening in many parts of the world, at all income strata, right this very moment. It seems that often life includes experiences that blow a hole in your heart. Our challenge, then, is to fill it with compassion and love for ourselves and others. That’s where the pay dirt is.
Of all the things that we teach children—language, math, reading, science, and more—we never teach how to deal with loss. An astrological reading once said that because I am a magnet for others’ pain and that, being born under a new moon, I would need extensive counseling. I first entered psychotherapy at the tender age of 23 when my year-old marriage started to unravel. I stayed up at night drinking Scotch whiskey in the dark, while my sleeping husband never noticed and had no idea that I was depressed. I am profoundly grateful for my willingness to engage in the journey of personal growth that began then and has never ended. Many people will not peel their personal onion of hurt, bitterness, misunderstanding and other darkness to reveal the light that sparkles within them. When I see crust that blocks my light, I go after it with a pick ax and a scalpel. I experienced, and witnessed in others, not just dark nights of the soul, but dark decades. The dark journey surely has it’s purpose but having been there and done that, I am unwilling to suffer even one nanosecond longer than absolutely necessary.
I don’t believe that people can be isolated and also healthy and whole. People do the best they can but often lack the tools and support that would help them over a difficult hump. They often stay isolated, stuck, prone to weirdness and socially odd behavior that a supportive community could help to alleviate. My experience frames my life’s work, through New Community Vision, of community building that supports and nurtures individuals, families and entire communities to be healthier, more whole and connected.
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