Life Lesson 2.0

Over the weekend I went to a high school graduation party for the daughter of one of my cousins. My cousin’s mother—my mother’s sister—was there. I attempted to greet her with a hug and got a very cool reception and no hug. It was most definitely an awkward moment. A little while later, I watched as one of my brothers arrived and this same aunt gave him a warm smile and welcoming hug.

So what did I do to deserve the cold shoulder? I’ve been trying to figure that out for a few years now and the best answer I can come up with is that my first marriage ended in divorce. I’ve never done anything to personally upset this aunt, that I know of. None of my children have ever done anything to upset her. And she started acting weird shortly after my divorce was final. Maybe all these things are coincidental, but my instincts tell me they’re related.

Divorce is ugly. It’s the rendering of a lifelong commitment two people made to stay together in good times and bad, no matter what. In my case, anger and violence caused me to walk away from the “forever” commitment I made, and I am convinced that my children and I are alive today because I did. I regret that my marriage came to an end. I don’t regret walking away from the abuse. Actually, my ex filed for the divorce, not me. He decided he’d rather be free of me instead of getting help for his anger. In his mind, I caused his anger. And for most of our married life, I believed that too.

It’s been more than eleven years since my ex and I first separated, and it pains me that some relationships with friends are still strained. We had been married for twenty years and had many “joint” friends. But we lived in a small community and people, consciously or subconsciously, took sides. For those friends who really struggled with our divorce, I made it easy on them by moving two years later. Truth be told, I was relieved to move away. I couldn’t stand the whispers every time I entered our church or a restaurant. I went back for a funeral a couple of months ago and was horrified to again hear the whispers.

Losing a friend hurts. It still hurts, even after all these years, when someone I once cared about and who cared about me still can’t find a path to be friends with me. One friend, whom I thought was a close friend, has turned down several invitations to get together for lunch or to come to a party at my new home. Once or twice “I’m sorry, I can’t” can be reasoned away. Any more rejections are difficult to ignore. Some days I feel like there’s a conspiracy against me because I moved away and I’m not one of “them” anymore. And because my ex still lives there, their allegiance is to him. Some days I feel a label is etched on my forehead: REMARRIED. Is that what my aunt sees when she looks at me?

I was blessed to be given a second chance and married a wonderful, loving man. Aside from my children, he is the greatest gift I’ve been handed in life. He grew up in a home filled with love and laughter and respect. He still struggles to understand the degree of anger and violence my girls and I lived with—when you’ve never experienced something firsthand, it’s difficult to comprehend it. He accepts me for who I am and tolerates my faults. He doesn’t raise a fist or hurl threats at me. He gives me lots of hugs. And he listens, a lot. It is because of his love for me that I know I am worthy of love.

My husband was married for thirty years before his marriage ended in divorce, “amicably.” Is that even possible? After all these years his ex refuses to separate herself from his family, and that has caused us all some angst. Even though she remarried and has a new life, she still believes she belongs at all of my husband’s family’s events. She would just love it if I agreed to be best friends with her. How can I even begin to think I could be friends with someone who hurt the man I love?

I left that graduation party thinking my aunt’s coolness toward me is her baggage, not mine. And I keep thinking about the lesson that asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” And the verse from Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Important lessons. I am paying attention. I am still learning.




Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. That is my mantra these days. Full-blown anxiety and panic have set in. What a contrast to the despair and powerlessness of my last writing!

My daughter, Rose, is getting married in seven weeks. Seven!! The reception is at our house and I have so much to do! And today I learned that one of my husband’s daughters is coming to the wedding. And she’ll be staying with us. Breathe in, breathe out.

When my husband and I were in the early days of our two-year, long-distance courtship (what an old word!), Faye was not accepting of me in her father’s life. She was old enough to know better, but not mature enough to understand romance after divorce. I loved her father and I wasn’t going to let her ruin that. Our children were important to us and we wanted them to know each other. So at great expense we put all six of our daughters together for a week after Christmas, and Faye made the most of that opportunity and found some time alone with my girls to say some really nasty things about her dad. My girls were shocked—at what Faye said (some truth but a lot of lies) and the fact that she would actually say such things. It was the last time all six of our daughters were together. That was nearly eight years ago.

When we decided to get married, my husband chose to sell his home and move 1,000 miles away from his adult (married) daughters to live with me and three of my daughters. (My oldest daughter was already married.) Faye told her dad she would never talk to him again.

About a year after my husband and I were married, Faye and her husband had a baby and we traveled to the baptism. My husband and I and Faye, were eating supper in a restaurant and my husband excused himself to use the restroom. Faye took that moment to share some thoughts with me. Her point was to make certain that I understood she still didn’t accept me in her dad’s life.

And now this woman and her two children are coming to stay in my house, while I’m preparing to host 150 people for a wedding. Breathe in, breathe out. My husband assures me everything will be just fine.

Wedding preparations have been underway for quite some time, and for the most part things have gone well. Rose is very much a spontaneous person so she’s had moments of feeling overwhelmed with having to make so many decisions. Now she’s in a panic to finish up the invitations and I’ve been trying so hard to encourage her and let her know it will all turn out just fine. She’s not satisfied with my reasoning as to why the envelopes containing wedding invitations must be hand addressed. “What’s wrong with labels?” she implored. “Not even the clear ones?!” The invitations are almost ready to be mailed. Now we’re focusing on the menu. “I want a ‘modern’ cake and some good food, maybe sandwiches,” Rose told me. Breathe in, breathe out.

In the meantime, Brianna is vacillating between extreme moods of full-blown anxiety, depression, and frustration on her bad days and complete chaos, lack of structure, and indecisiveness on her good days. We’ve been communicating with a residential treatment center since the second week of April, and today they told me they have no idea when an opening will happen. I’m beginning to think it’s all a conspiracy to force me over the thin line from sanity to lunacy. Breathe in, breathe out. Brianna is freaking out because she thought she would be there in early May and would be back home in time for the wedding. Now she’s arguing that she doesn’t want to go until after the wedding, if at all. “I’ve got my life in order,” she told me. I stared at her for a full minute before I could even respond. Finally, I took a calming breath and asked her, “What about your life has changed in the last two months?” She thought about that and answered, “School is out for the summer.” Evidently the fact that the school dropped her as a student because of truancy doesn’t play into the equation at all. Breathe in, breathe out.

Not to be left out of the drama, my husband’s dog decided this would be a good time to get a kidney stone. Breathe in, breathe out.

Rose is having three “events” for her wedding. There is a private ceremony with a judge followed by an intimate dinner in a restaurant for 20 people. The next afternoon we will have about 150 people come for a celebration lunch at our house. Two weeks later, we will entertain another 50 people at a lake home in the northern part of our state for a third, and final, celebration. And I don’t know what I’m going to wear! Breathe in, breathe out.

I need to go shopping for three dresses and some shoes. The carpets need to be professionally cleaned, especially now that we’ve survived the dog’s ordeal. Rooms need to be spackled and painted to cover up six years of being lived in by teenagers. Menus need to be planned, food bought and made, decorations put together. And now bedrooms need to be cleaned to handle out-of-town guests.

Breathe in, breathe out.

This weekend we will be going to a high school graduation party one day and out for a delayed Father’s Day outing the next. Not much will get crossed off my list of things to do. Of the four weekends in July, two will be spent celebrating important birthdays. That means there are only four weekends in the next seven weeks for me to get…Tell me there are not seventy-three things on my list! Oh.My.God.

The Un-Milestone

For the last month I have been consciously ignoring some emotions and thoughts, avoiding the truth of the moment, wanting it all to go away like a bad dream. As much as I try to sweep away the thoughts and emotions as soon as they creep into sight, they keep coming back, with stealth and sneakiness and even a bit of snarkiness. So I’ve resigned to the fact that I need to face this ugliness, talk about it, feel it, grieve the moment, and then begin a healing process (if possible) and move forward. I don’t know what part will be the most painful, but I know I can’t avoid this any longer. I must move away from this dark spot.

If you have followed my blog at all, you’re aware that I have an eighteen-year-old daughter who has been struggling for the last few years to find herself and her place in the world. She is the last of four daughters and because of that she has had plenty of opportunities to watch how her older sisters navigated through adolescence and launched themselves into their adulthood. In my motherly ignorance I thought the youngest would have the easiest route through the teenage years because she would have a lengthy book of notes on what to do and what not to do, what brings success and rewards, and what has negative consequences.

But, it turns out, my lovely and super-smart daughter, Brianna, didn’t take any notes. Or if she did, she misplaced the notebook a long, long time ago and neglected to tell anyone or to ask anyone to copy their notes so she could catch up. And it appears Brianna took the path of least resistance (for her, not others) and chose to not go to school, to not show up for work, and to not be accountable for anything except personal hygiene. (Okay, a bit of snarkiness coming through, but sometimes the truth is uglier than fiction.)

For the last eighteen years, I have been focused on June 2012. This was going to be the moment when my youngest daughter graduated from high school and I could semi-retire as a mom. I was too smart to know I could stop being a mom entirely, but I truly thought a part-time effort would be all that was required of me at this point in my life. Four years ago, my second daughter graduated from high school and I remember thinking at that time that June 2012 would be a busy month because we would be celebrating two graduations, one for Rose after four years of college and one for Brianna as she graduated high school. Two years ago as my third daughter graduated high school, I remember making mental notes for better planning as to the logistics of the ceremony and parking and pictures. And I played around with menu ideas for Brianna’s day and wrote down things that she wanted to have at her celebration.

Sadly, we never made it to that milestone. Brianna should have walked to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” a week ago with her classmates. Sure, we would have tortured her with photos and “just one more” and “hats off!” But it would have been a grand moment. And then we would have partied “til the cows came home” as the last of four children and the last of twenty-six grandchildren graduated. Except Brianna took the path of least resistance, and didn’t do the homework, didn’t attend class, and didn’t accept the guidance and love and help from her friends and family.

I love Brianna. She is my daughter and will be forever, no matter what. But even a mother’s love cannot shield disappointment as great as what I feel. And even Mother’s Love cannot safeguard against powerlessness. I have found this moment to be the ultimate test—of letting go, of dealing with disappointment, of the meaning of great expectations, of the loss of a dream, of unconditional love.

Despite the darkness that hangs over me and the great despair and sadness I feel in this moment, I am not a completely self-centered or selfish person and my thoughts do run to Brianna and what she must be feeling and thinking. Truth be told, I cannot fathom what she must be going through. I cannot relate to what it feels like to spend your life moving toward a moment and then have the finish line dismantled and removed before you get there. I can’t understand what it feels like to have friends and family offering help and love, but blindness prevents you from seeing it or grasping it. As dark as my despair is, I cannot fathom hers. At fifty, I am on the other side of my threshold and the door is slightly turned in. At eighteen, Brianna’s door is just now opening. I am so frightened for her that it will shut in her face and she won’t know how to re-open it.

As I watch Brianna struggle daily with her anxieties, I am well aware that my own anxieties are surfacing and irrational fears are creeping in. I worry she’ll never get a diploma or GED. I worry she’ll never accomplish anything more than a minimum-wage job. I’m afraid she’ll be forty and will be my full-time caretaker not by choice, but by circumstance.

There was so much more I wanted for Brianna, but I keep reminding myself that this isn’t about what I want. It isn’t about my happiness as much as I’d like it to be. And therein lies the rub. I have to let go of the dreams I had for June 2012. I need to grieve the loss of a fourth graduation ceremony full of pomp and circumstance. I must accept that this is one milestone that wasn’t achieved when we all expected it. I have to steel myself for a longer run at mothering than I anticipated. And I must replenish my patience and find the means within to steer Brianna a while longer through this minefield.

Expectations and Anticipation

When all four of my daughters were younger, I often teased about how I had duplicate sets of daughters. “I had Kate and Rose, and then I had Kate and Rose again,” I told people. Kate and Rose were born about 27 months apart. Then I had no children for four years, and then Emily was born and 21 months later came Brianna. Kate and Emily both have first-born traits, while Rose and Brianna both challenge life as second-borns. Kate and Emily have a lot of structure and order in their lives. They are both very self-disciplined and driven to learn and achieve. When they were young I used to persuade them to add color into their lives, so everything wasn’t so black and white. On the contrary, Rose and Brianna are spontaneous and risk-takers, always seeking the next adventure, although Brianna is slightly more cautious than Rose. Rose is an artist and she looks at the world in myriad colors and shapes. Brianna is a nonconformist and pushes many “edges”, always wanting to “cross the line.” Each of my daughters is blessed with beauty, intelligence, and strong will.

From the moment each was born, they were told they could achieve anything they put their minds to. They were taught to have an opinion and to share it when appropriate. I wanted them to be independent women, capable of living on their own as adults—the result of my own experience of both of my parents dying by the time I was 16.

Fast forward to today, when, as fate would have it, my second-borns are both facing life-changing moments in the next several weeks and I find myself very retrospect as I watch each approach her moment.

At 24, Rose is getting married in August. She is in nursing school and has a wonderful career ahead of her. She works part-time in a restaurant and has put herself through college. She works hard, and she plays hard. There is so much I want to tell her as her big day approaches, but I find myself holding back. I have concerns, but I keep them to myself. Who am I to judge when it comes to marriage? It took me twenty years to realize I never should have married my ex-husband! To her credit, this was not a spontaneous decision for Rose. She’s been in this relationship for a few years and there has been a progression of sorts approaching this moment. As much as she wants everything about the wedding event to be spontaneous, she is trying very hard to plan and think things through carefully. She is full of expectations for the future, and there is a great building of anticipation for “the big day.” And true to her nature, nothing about this wedding will be ordinary. And, wow, is she in a good mood!

On a different emotional level sits Brianna, at 18, facing her future head-on. Yesterday should have been her high school graduation, but she has not completed her requirements and she doesn’t know when she will. Instead she is on a wait-list to head to a residential treatment center to sort out her anxieties and set herself on a path to a successful future. She accepts that this is the right thing to do, I think. She is wise enough to know this may be her last opportunity to get on the “right path,” but the truth of the matter is that she is going because it was either that or pack a suitcase and leave my house. And true to her nature, she is anxious and scared, standing on the precipice, knowing which way to step but wanting to push limits just the same and take a different course of action. It’s as if she deliberately wants to sabotage her success.

And here I stand, on the sidelines, watching each of my second-borns, wondering what changes will come with these life-changing moments. I am essentially powerless to their decisions. I am eager to offer guidance and/or reassurance, and every once in a while Rose will toss a question to me, similar to a person tossing a morsel or treat to a dog. I quickly and quietly snatch it up and then wait in anticipation for another. But Brianna remains guarded and closed. Yet one day last week I silently rejoiced when Brianna struggled through a moment and allowed me to hug her. She hates to be touched and rarely allows hugs. It was a milestone moment in my opinion and renewed my hope, but events of this week have cast shadows on the little glimmer. I know Brianna is acting out simply because her anxieties are completely over the top as her departure day approaches. But knowing that doesn’t make getting through each day any easier.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rose, gliding three feet off the ground, in love, with her rosy future gleaming before her. Nothing can put her in a bad mood.

I watch my two second-borns, my emotions a mix of anticipation and dread, excitement and concern, happiness and frustration, my life resembling a teeter-totter. Do I crawl toward the middle to search for a miniscule spot of equilibrium? Or do I push myself on Brianna, who truly needs parenting, and have less time to share in Rose’s joy? Or do I follow Brianna’s wish that I leave her alone and cross over to bask in Rose’s sunshine?