Reflections in Memory

We took a walk on the beach one day, in the summer. It must have been late summer because I remember the slanting sunshine: the warmth of it. We walked along the beach in Salisbury Cove: the part of the cove that would later be left behind for the quieter end, off Old Bar Harbor Road. My father and I, probably five or six years old, walked the beach.

The beach in that part of the world is gray with shale and rusty with ironstone. The stone forms in thin layers and is cracked into a thousand million pieces with the roots of trees. While they crack the stone, the root hairs also hold its myriad pieces in space, braving winter’s storms and the shrinking-expanding process of freeze and thaw. The beach itself is made of tiny to large pieces of stone, too many to count. There is no sand here; the closet thing is tiny pieces of basalt that have been tumbled and thrashed for eons. Here and there are pieces of kelp, ends of rope, bottles, a jellyfish or two, sea urchin skeletons and so many mussel shells. Mussel shells are demure on top: brown, black and white, but reveal indigo or lavender pearl inside. I have always loved them and they were my brother’s favorites when he was a little boy. I have many memories of Carew carrying mussel shells by the dozen back to our cottage.

On the day of the walk, my father and I sat on the top of what seemed like a very tall rock, out on the edge of the beach. I don’t know how long we sat there, only that it was warm. Over time, the tide came in and separated us from the beach. In reality, the water was probably 2 or 3 feet deep, but I couldn’t cross, and my dad hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me to the beach, to safety.

My father has many stories. When I was studying for the GRE, which I never used for graduate school, I learned a word, legerdemain. Meaning slight of hand, I always thought it applied very well to my father. He is a gifted storyteller who holds his own cards tight to the chest. He plays no personal hand: very little is divulged. He is like the Wizard of Oz, hidden behind a curtain.

During the process that I related to readers here, I realized that I had held guilt as my definitive characteristic for twenty years. It took hard and heavy realizations to see that I had to let that go in order to be happy and be in my present reality. It took risk and resulted in reward, but the path was frightening and new. I think that guilt such as this is ultimately useless, and a barrier between ourselves and those who would really love us. Nothing anyone has done, save very few barbarous actions, could result in someone not being worthy of love from those who choose to do so.

When I think of my father and his life, I can see a life of a world traveler, an instructor, a bridge jumper, an oil man, a golf player, a Mercedes lover, an eldest son, a highly sensitive person, a Vietnam veteran, an alcoholic, a rage-oholic, and a depressive. But despite all of that, my father is worthy of love. However, it would seem that he believed he was not, and so acted out so intensely as if to prove that fact. My mother, my brother, myself, his friends and his family are here to prove that otherwise, despite his faults.

I gave myself and was given forgiveness by those who love me. Forgiveness, like commitment, is freeing and highly emotional. It is the letting go, of staring off into a space of love and friendship, and stepping out into the mystery. As my father sits in the television room of my parents house, on the quiet side of Salisbury Cove, staring down at a coastline that we once walked, I hope to say to him: “I love you. We all love you. You have done nothing to disappoint anyone. There are no mistakes. This is the time to think about all the stories, all the adventure, all the things you have to be thankful for. Let it go. You are loved.”

This Is My Story

***This story will make you uncomfortable, it sure does me. I am trying, in my own way, to end a stigma that has affected me for twenty years. In my own way, I am trying to #shoutmyabortion.***

I am fifteen, and a very scrawny one, at that. I have been dating a boy named Chris for about six months.

We met at the beginning of my freshman year, in debate class. Truth be told, I had a crush on his friend Steve, and, at debate tournaments, remember sharing conversations about oranges. “Did you ever think that the little sacs in an orange are like little tiny Capri Suns?” I did.

We started dating because my friend Becca told me, in the lunch line, that Chris had a crush on me. On our first date, we went to Barnes and Noble and chatted with our friend Jeff who worked at the Starbucks inside. We also perused the philosophy section, awkwardly talking. That summer, we convinced our parents that we were volunteering at the library so that we could spend every sunny day together, at the bottom of the hillside behind the Woodlands Pavilion. It was there that I realized I was so nervous about becoming sexual: that I thought the ins and outs of sex were so confusing and icky, I didn’t know what to do about it.

I was very tall, even then, and a late bloomer to boot. Chris and I used to treasure stolen moments on soccer fields, the bottoms of hillsides, and the backseat of his 280ZX. One night, on the jungle gym of the playground behind my house, we first had sex. I had never had a period, so didn’t think to worry. And then, over the next few months, still didn’t. We kept having sex in stolen moments, usually in the parking lots of the technology companies that decorated The Woodlands with cool night-lights. It was the stuff of high school romance: we would party with our friends in the trees that surrounded the Montessori School, or on the paths that wound around the faux lakes.

It was about four and a half months later that my mom began to worry that I hadn’t had a period yet. I was fifteen, and even to her, it seemed strange. So we went to the gynecologist, and I had the first oh-so intrusive exam of my life. Little did I know what would happen. A few minutes later, I was called into the doctor’s office, with my mom, and was told that I was pregnant, and in my second trimester.

What happened next was a blur of shame and confusion. My dad was out of town, as he always was. Chris, myself and our parents met at my house and sat in the fancy living room: the one that no one sat in. We were forced to write a pros and cons list of having a baby. Obviously, the cons won out.

Soon thereafter, Chris, myself, and both our moms went to a clinic off FM1960 and I walked past protesters telling me that I was a terrible person for doing what I was about to do. I remember sitting, and waiting, and being given medicine. I had to go home that night and wait, throwing my guts out all the evening through. I was experiencing what is now known as a partial birth abortion, later made illegal. The next day, we went back to that clinic and back through those lines of protesters, sat, waited, and then I went back with a few other women. I remember being shown a sonagram of the baby, and hoisted onto a table. Later that day, the moms took us to get cake at a Vietnamese bakery. I remember wondering: why are we eating cake? I was in a haze of medicine and confusion.

We went to counseling for six months, and even ran the evening day care at the United Way to “deal with it”. And then, we never spoke of it again. My dad came home from wherever he was, and life carried on. Or so I thought.

My mother never told my father, perhaps to protect me from his rage and his incoherent style of parenting that combined public praise with private punishment. I internalized this and realized that I had done something so terrible and so wrong as it had to be hidden, forever.

Years later, I wrote my mother about these feelings and she apologized saying that she felt she and my father hadn’t shown me enough love, and so I went out and found it with Chris. This isn’t true, and shows a simplistic and dismissive outlook on what family and love is. In fact, I felt such love with Chris, despite our age. I felt a sense of family with him and his family: something I didn’t have with my family of origin. The lack of family with my mother and father stemmed from an intense instability: my dad couldn’t function without anger and rage, and my mother just tried to hold it all together. When I went to Chris’ house, we watched movies and ate dinner, we went on family vacations and drank Kool Aid. We sat in the driveway and listened to Wu Tang Clan and talked about the world. We drove in that 280ZX and visited with friends. We were family. When I went home, it was cold and beautiful: so clean. It was without love: it was no one’s fault. My mother was living in a charade that she desperately hoped to maintain: one that looked like a married couple with two children. The reality of it was far darker, and none of us wanted to look at it. I was a child, and my mom was in denial.

For years, I have wondered where the shame comes from. I have been investigating the shame monster lately: he comes up when I am afraid or threatened, and I have put myself in situations where the shame monster transforms into a pain monster and all the shame becomes emotional or physical pain. This makes me feel at home, as if I know it, and its implications make sense. I am bad, therefore I should be hurt. It is a classic survivor of childhood abuse scenario: I search for another abuser. It is remarkable how easy they are to find. First was an insecure college boyfriend, then came a job working at a school where I was threatened by my students. Then came another abusive boyfriend, so like my father that I interchanged their names during fights. Then came moving to a dangerous city and an equally dangerous school. Then came respite, in Maine, and confusion. In Maine, I was close to my family and looked at their daily crazy life as normal. I began to think: maybe this is what all families are like? I realized: this isn’t so bad, they are getting better!

And then I left. I came to Austin last spring and found myself in a beautiful relationship with a truly loving man. We all know how this story ends up. I didn’t know how to handle what was happening: being challenged in a positive way, being loved, being appreciated. One night we got into a fight because he was feeling insecure about my new teaching job and my time away from him. He chose poorly: I recognize that. We got into a fight, found resolution, but the shame monster woke up. He perked up, like those goblins in The Labyrinth. He said, “here! There is food for me here!” I became insecure about that fight, and over-internalized its meaning. I gave it more weight than it needed. I talked about it in such a way to friends, friends who have long been too involved in my emotional decision making. I had planned a trip to Maine for a week before school started, and off I went.

During this trip, the same old same old happened. Three days of peace followed by…something. I don’t know what I did but it pissed my dad off. He yelled, I felt terrible. I called Cody on the phone, realizing that the situation wasn’t better….it was the same, only I had been away a while. I felt like shit, like dog shit. I hated my family situation. I walked with my mom to the beach, trying to get her to see clearly. She kept saying “I’m fine.” I left, again. I arrived in Austin in a white dress to my loving boyfriend, who had prepared a beautiful reception for me, and I thought, I am fine. The shame monster laughed. He knew better.

I decided I needed therapy because I was having a hard time understanding that one fight and school and being back in Austin. I verbalized this fear and Cody answered with fears of his own. I think he was afraid that if I went to therapy, I would break up with him. This was his stuff. Then I was struck in the gut by a surprise: I had to have my IUD removed because it was lodged in my uterus and cervix. The can of worms that was my shame associated with that abortion twenty years ago reared its ugly head. I had to go and have the one barrier against that fear happening again removed. I had to because of my health. Cody went with me and was loving and wonderful and took care of me for the two days that came afterwards. I remember not wanting him to leave: being afraid of it, even. Now I understand why.

The next few weeks were confusing. I was stressed out at school and also feeling shame, so much shame. So much fear: as if I couldn’t control how I was feeling. I was falling, deep, deep down. So far down I couldn’t see the bottom. I told him I couldn’t go to Thanksgiving. He became very upset. I went with him to get pizza on his way out of town and couldn’t stop crying in the parking lot. I was afraid but I didn’t know what of. He left and I went to a friend’s family’s house. During those two days, her father did what my father always does to me: criticized and judged, yelled and berated. I felt accosted, and I left. I called Cody and he was understanding. The shame monster laughed so loud, but I still couldn’t hear him clearly.

Time passed. It got worse. Cody broke up with me. I went to his house late at night. We got back together. We went camping for my birthday. I kept it all secret. I had booked a flight to Maine for Christmas and wanted so badly not to go, but went anyway. Three days later, my dad screamed at me for cooking a sausage in the kitchen. My mom blamed me for his anger. The shame monster stepped in. Cody picked me up, late in the evening of the 3rd of January. It was so late, and the airport was packed with Christmas travelers. He was not so happy at the idea of it all, and I internalized it and said: he doesn’t want me, he doesn’t love me, he is angry with me. Shame took the wheel.

Since then, I haven’t been able to relax. Every aspect of my life became taken over with shame. Shame that I couldn’t do “this”, that I was failing. I had a man who wanted to love me but I gave him every thing I had to tell him he didn’t, and that it was a bad idea. We went to Houston on Valentine’s weekend and it was fun, but I was avoidant and strange. The next week, I abandoned everything and went to Pittsburgh. He wouldn’t answer my texts and didn’t call. The Tuesday afterward, he broke up with me.

Someone told me a few weeks ago that I hadn’t hit bottom with my feelings yet, and that’s why I couldn’t identify them. When Cody broke up with me, and perhaps even a few days earlier, I approached bottom. I cut off my hair, and after that, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried and cried. I cried at every moment, sparing only my students. When they left the room, I cried. At first I thought I was grieving Cody, and I was, but as my friend Barbara told me, I was also grieving myself. I wrote pages and pages, trying to decipher my feelings. I realized, after that conversation with Barbara, that I don’t think I have lost Cody, but that I lost myself. This is what I realized.

When I was 15 and an abortion, I took the stigma associated with it to heart. I internalized that I was bad. I did not deserve good. It was very simple. I went through relationships, and even got married in this methodology. I married a man who never challenged me, and therefore never had to face this. After my years of introspection in Maine, when I thought I was safe, I fell in love with Cody. Cody, despite his own faults, is a good man who loved me through and through. I didn’t trust this love, or my feelings. I talked about it too much, I doubted it. I lost it. The shame monster came in and said: you don’t deserve happiness!! How dare you even think that??? You are a fool, and an idiot, and if anyone sees you, they will know this to be true. Every relationship after this was affected by these beliefs. I never allowed anyone that close, every again, until Cody. In Cody, I believe in love and redemption. I felt family. I love him, and his son. I love everything about him, even his faults. There was no one else I wanted to be with, but yet, I felt like he would see me and leave me. He would see the badness in me and know it and leave. So I did everything I could to make him see it. And, despite never seeing the bad, he was overwhelmed by it and left.

When I made this realization, one that came after twenty years of internalization, denial, and repression, I couldn’t stop crying, and I still haven’t. The amount of regret that I feel, and the grief that I feel for that fifteen year old girl is almost unfathomable. I reached out to Chris, my high school boyfriend, and we talked at length about how fucked up it is that we haven’t talked about this in twenty years, and that it is the defining moment in both of our lives. He turned to drugs and avoidance: I just turned to avoidance and denial. I blamed myself and thought I didn’t deserve love. I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard for me until right now. Now I realize that that 15 year old girl felt so terrible about what had happened to her, that she had let down her family, was a bad girl, had done something so terrible she never deserved what EVERYONE deserves: compassion and love. During that moment, when I was 15, my mother never asked me how I was doing. She never hugged me and asked me if I was ok. This is not her fault: she was locked in her own prison, however, I was the child. I deserved love and compassion and help. And hope. However, I am angry with her, for compartmentalizing my own pain because it was easier for her.

So, over the last few days, I made some important decisions. One was to cut off contact with my family and with some friends who make me feel judged and untrustworthy of my own decisions. It is too easy for me to trust my own decision making processes to others: I think this is an affect of an abusive childhood. This has been the single most difficult decision of my life to date. The second was to not travel for at least one year, for I have used travel as an escape for too long. When things get hard or tricky, I leave for four or five days. This is something that Cody pointed out to me, and he was right. It is time to stay. Third was to go to therapy, twice a month.

My hopes for this time are multi-fold, and all involve forgiveness. Forgiveness of myself, for I was a little girl and had something so complicated and hard happen to me, I had no way to understand it. I needed love and hugs and time to talk. I want to forgive my family, but that will only happen with time and distance. I want to seek forgiveness from Cody, the first person I have truly loved in twenty years.

Last night, my two friends and I were in the desert. I painted a prayer to the baby I lost almost twenty years ago. I have never described her this way. I also wrote, on a rock, her name that Chris and I had invented all those years ago, her birth and death year, and this:

 

“You are forever loved, and so are we.”

Her spirit is buried beneath a mesquite tree, with a view of the arroyo and Mexico beyond. May God grant me the forgiveness I seek, and may the shame monster who has heretofore defined my emotional life, be starved of food. May he live in the shadows, never to return. May I be able to be honest.

We wear these lenses that through which we see life. I have wiped some shit off some of those lenses over the last few weeks. May I be able to continue to see clearly, and to live in love, with few distractions. May I find my way back to me and to love.

Thank you. I love you. Please forgive me.