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When I was 14 years old, my father was dying. He’d gone into remission from lung cancer shortly before my parents adopted me. They had been waiting for about two years for a baby to adopt, and I guess that when they finally brought me home everything was great for a while. At least, it seemed that way to me, based on the photos I still have. Those pictures were clearly taken in the late 1970's and early 80’s; the overall hue is all rusty orange, both from age and the aggressive overrepresentation of burnt umber and gold tones in home furnishings of the time.
We all looked so happy in those photos from my early years – baby birthday parties, first communion, and my confirmation were all documented, but the picture taking had gradually subsided by the time I reached early adolescence.
Whenever I talk about my father’s illness and death, it feels like I'm trying to remember someone else's history. It feels garbled, staticky, disconnected from my feelings. Today, I’m a social worker who has worked with other trauma survivors, so I know that I was experiencing dissociation and detachment, and that these were coping mechanisms to help me put one foot in front of the other and live through the experience.
My dad was still working at the plant assembling postage meters, but had stopped taking overtime. For years, he had compensated for the 12-hour days spent away from my mother by jotting down his thoughts and feelings – poetry – for her on these little yellow assembly-line punch tickets. Suddenly I began finding him at home and already in bed when I returned from school. Then, it's like I blinked my eyes and he was in the hospital. My aunt and my mom and my oldest cousin were there, and my dad was saying that he just wanted to come home, that he was done. Everyone around me was crying. I sat stiffly in the dimly lit hospital room, waiting for lightning to strike.
My father had been through months of chemo and radiation; I think because he had already fought this battle once before, he just got sick of it all. The cancer was in his lung and his liver, and my dad was sent home with a hospital bed and machines and medical equipment. All of this was moved into the spare bedroom upstairs. My mother would sit with him all day and night in that room, watching a shitty little black & white TV. My mother's eyes were blue like mine and looked just like glass during that time, always wet and milky, as though she never stopped crying. My dad was the stable center of our little family, and the sicker he grew, the more untethered my mother became, and the more I was left to drift on my own.
You have to understand that my dad was my mom’s reason for living, from the moment they met until the day she died. She had grown up feeling like a burden – broken and weak instead of soft and gentle. He treated her as though she was precious and I don’t think she was ever able to feel whole again after he was gone. My mother died a few years later of a stroke, which was clearly doctor-code for “broken heart.”
As a kid, I would wander around the house after my parents went to sleep early, opening drawers and looking at things like the cartons of Newport cigarettes they kept in the kitchen. In that same drawer, among measuring tape, screwdrivers, stray pens and other mundane objects, I found the love poetry. Part of my dad’s job assembling postage meters included filling out those yellow punch cards anytime a meter was defective. There was a form printed on one side, and the other side was blank. On the blank side of each card, in my father’s tiny, collapsed cursive, was a poem written to my mother. A whole stack of them.
I remember reading them over and over, but I cannot tell you exactly what they said. Mostly they were sweet little verses observing the softness of her hair, or how her skin smelled to him in the morning. They became this sort of magical thing that I would go back to at night, a window through which I could look and learn about my parents as people. I was young enough to not yet have experienced longing or that deep love that eats you whole; romantic and protective, and also terrifying in its ability to ensure that the void left by its sudden absence can never be filled.
After my dad got sick, my mother would tell me every day when I came home from school to go upstairs and see him. I remember loving my father so much my entire life, but I could barely get both feet into that room. I felt nothing, seeing him lying there, moaning and unknowable. I was thousands of miles away, locked carefully away from my feelings of terror and sadness.
So on Christmas Eve, when my mother asked me to come into his room and watch It's a Wonderful Life, I passed on the invitation and went downstairs to the living room while she sat with him, holding his hand. I watched it alone and I can't remember feeling anything at all, just numbness and dread. To this day, I fucking hate that movie. I got into bed on Christmas Eve and when I woke up my mother was shaking me, telling me that my dad had died during the night. He’d died, and I hadn't been there.
After the funeral, my mother got into bed and I stopped going to school. We were in that house together, both alone, both numb and mute and unable to tolerate each other’s suffering. The numbness was slowly replaced by a great, dark emptiness, and that's when I decided I didn't want to exist anymore. My mother took me to a psychologist and I was admitted to a hospital that day. It happened that quickly. I wanted to be as far away from her suffering as they could send me.
In the hospital, I found a boyfriend almost immediately. His name was Naiim and he was depressed, smart and wore a lot of sweater vests – apparently, I discovered my type early in life. We had nothing to do there on the adolescent unit but talk about our lives. I kissed him in the doorway of his room; his lips were soft and he tasted like cookies stolen from the dining hall.
This was the first time I had ever bonded with someone over the shared experience of pain, which is something I find comforting to this day. I don't trust people who haven't ever experienced a major loss. Does that sound judgmental? Friends who have had nice lives: I adore and respect you, but may never fully trust you with my deepest self. And I know that that’s unfair and judgmental, and I’m sorry about that.
One night shortly after I had returned home from the hospital, in a moment that felt very much like a dream, I awoke smelling something burning. I went to my bedroom window and watched my mother standing round-shouldered over the grill in the backyard, feeding those little yellow punch cards into the fire, one by one. She was watching my father’s handwriting turn first brown, then curl into ash, then disappear forever. It comforts me a little to think that perhaps the burning was some sort of spiritual act of reunion, but it’s also possible that she just wanted them fucking gone. We never talked about it. Was she letting go? Was it just too sad to keep these tangible artifacts of grief and pain around? Were any of the poems spared from the fire? Did she keep them hidden? Did she take them out secretly, feeling their worn, familiar edges?
These are questions I will probably never stop asking myself. After my mother died, 6 years later, I had no one to go to for answers. I haven’t been in contact with any remaining family members since her death when I was 22, and I doubt they would have any more information about something so intimate, anyway.
My traditional Catholic family had been under the impression that I did not care about my parents’ deaths, because I reacted by dissociating and isolating myself. That first Thanksgiving after she passed away, I called my Sicilian grandmother to ask what I should bring. She told me it was probably better if I didn’t come. She had been thinking about it, she said, and thought it was probably my fault that my mother had died.
That was the last time I spoke with anyone on my mother’s side of the family, and we’d lost touch with my dad’s side years earlier.
In my early 20s, I would stay up until 3am writing furious, stoned and desperate poetry about it all. It was how I coped with all of the unanswered questions, my loneliness, and the unwritten narrative of my family. What I had was a problem of origins – data that seemed pivotal to my development as a person, lost during very formative years.
Some of us learn who we are from our family histories and the impressions of those who claim us as their own, and some are left to learn ourselves almost from scratch. Suffering builds as much as it breaks down. Suffering and loss are the architects of experience; they are the rusty wire scaffolding some of us learn to wrap our lives around. And I think you recognize right away that this is the truth - unless of course it's not true for you at all. Maybe some of us are made of rusty wire and papier mache, and others are made of sturdier stuff.
It took me years to find ways to be emotionally present, to engage with and learn to trust others. I went back to school at the age of 27 and majored in psychology, in part because I wanted to make sense my own experiences. I immediately enrolled in a social work program to earn my Masters. At the time, I chose the field of social work because I imagined that I would be able to help other people who were in pain, without realizing how much nourishment and healing I would receive in return.
I wasn’t able to retain possession of many of my parents’ belongings because my living situations were unstable for years afterward. There are so many lost artifacts, objects I could have unearthed at my own pace, brushed off, examined, and reflected on.
I have never been able to learn the details of my birth family, either. It’s lonely without history. Once, I thought that this would be my doom--but over time I have found freedom in moving through the world without the weight of those who love you so much they are desperate to define you, those who count you as a beloved possession. The last remaining artifact of my family – of our love and our loss – is me.