Friday, September 30, 2011

Atonement and Reconciliation

On the Jewish calendar this is the season of atonement. It is traditionally a period of asking for forgiveness and seeking opportunities to repair wrongs and harms that one has caused. If you have known me for any length of time, you have probably received an apology from me this time of year. I tend to screw up. A lot.

Last year I decided to write to Daphne’s parents asking for forgiveness for my role in the devastating events that brought about the eventual suicide of their daughter. (I am not implying that I was in any way responsible for the actions of the attackers) That one letter set off a domino chain of events that I could have never predicted.

Her mother responded and I learned where Daph was buried. I went to visit the grave which broke me in a million pieces. It was a breaking that finally allowed me to open up some very dark places and grieve. A couple of letters more and her mother asked to meet with me. We met in NYC for lunch but never got past ordering beverages before she started an interrogation, pissed me off, I went off about how the hell could she disown her own child just because she was queer, and she abruptly left. Yeah, that went well.

And then, of course, I had to apologize for my rude behavior. This started another volley of correspondence, both of us wanting and needing information but having difficulty getting past our general disdain for each other.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the assault.  I wanted to go to the cemetery and wound up agreeing to meet Daphne’s mother there. I was both excited and extremely anxious at the prospect of once again trying for some sort of reconciliation. I spent the entire train ride there focusing on staying positive and hoping for some patch of common ground.

We met at the church adjoining the cemetery and shared an uneasy greeting and some awkward small talk. Once again, her eyes stunned me. Like looking right into Daphne’s eyes. Both unsettling and comforting at the same time. It was a gray, dismal day and we walked over to the grave site and stood their, lost in our own thoughts. Then I felt that small warning that I was going to start triggering, the rapid heart beat, the rising anxiety, the overwhelming sadness. And at that moment I reached over and held her hand, not really thinking about it, just needing to ground myself in the present. And she did not let go.

I don’t know how long we stood there like that. I remember feeling that this was an amazing moment and that I needed to remember everything. But all I remember is she did not let go. And the feeling that something huge had just changed. An entire shift in the universe kind of change.

We went to lunch and again the conversation was awkward and halting. I was once again having trouble wondering how a mother could just shut out her daughter. My mind started to wander to all the times Daphne tried to reconcile. All the Mother's Day cards returned, all the phone calls unanswered, or worse, hung up on. Yet Daph continued trying. This woman is a fucking monster, why am I sitting here?

Then I heard her ask me what I had loved most about Daphne. I paused for a long time not sure how to answer. Whoa. Was she acknowledging that we actually had had a loving relationship? This was a change. I answered that it was the way her eyes smiled when she was happy. And her mother smiled a sad smile and said "I remember that too." I could feel the tears filling my eyes, not yet spilling over. Fuck. I am not going to cry in front of this woman.

And then she asked me a lot more questions, but different than last time. Not accusatory. More like she was trying to fill in necessary gaps for herself, very much like I have needed to do. And she answered many of mine. I could see how painful it was for her even though she was putting up quite a rigid facade. Finally she asked me if I would tell her exactly what had happened that day. I hesitated for a long time, wondering if this was wise, and yet understanding that obsession, that needing to know even when you don’t want to know. I have barely been able to verbalize the events of that day, and only with my therapist who dragged the words out of me, each one feeling like a razor as it came. But I did the best I could. I tried to soften it, but there is no soft about it. She asked a few more questions and then simply said "I am sorry."   And I said "I’m sorry too."   And then the tears started spilling but I didn't really care.

Last year I wanted to do something to honor Daphne’s memory. I decided to start a scholarship at her former high school in her name. It is a very modest amount to be awarded annually to a girl who is going to college for a science. I had mentioned this to Daphne’s mom and she said she would like to supplement that. I told her the scholarship was set up to give preference to a gay woman. She nodded and said that would be okay.  Wow.

When we left the restaurant she got a cab and asked if I needed a ride. No thanks, I'd rather walk.  Then I leaned in to hug her and she gave me a slight hug back and said "thank you."  One of those perfunctory hugs that leave you feeling a little weird.  But at least she didn’t throw something at me like last time.

It is amazing to me how far this relationship has come in one year. Two people who have very good reasons to not like each to other but have the love of one amazing woman in common.

Twenty five years ago my life changed forever. For three years I walked around in a dark hole. And then I buried all my feelings and built a new life - a move to a new location, a new job, a new relationship and children. And I have lived this life with much happiness and purpose.

This past year has been one of intense therapy trying to reconnect with that person I buried long ago. It has been a year of deep and much needed grieving and confronting difficult and painful memories. And it has been a year of intense personal reflection and atonement. Mostly it has been a year of reconciliation. Reconciling the events of my past with my life today. Reconciling the grief and loss. And now, a reconciliation of sorts with Daphne's mother.

On the train ride home all I could think about was how everything I had ever learned about reconciliation and healing, all those Sunday School lessons about loving those who are hard to love, everything I had tried to practice about humility and atonement, all the emotional work of the last two years and all that therapy to be able to speak about that one day . . . all of it was preparation for this day.  This one day when everything came full circle and the pieces fell into place.

Daphne's eyes would be smiling.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Full of Grace - 25 years

Tomorrow will mark the 25th anniversary of the assault that took from me the woman I loved and changed my life forever. I am amazed to say that. Twenty five years. Sometimes the memories are so devastatingly raw it feels like I am still reliving it, and sometimes it feels so long ago that it must have been someone else’s life. It is a day I have traditionally marked by holing up and listening to Daphne’s Billie Holiday albums. Years ago this would send me into a deep depression. In more recent years, just a general melancholy. Then, after these last couple of years of therapy, I can now hold onto some good memories while listening to those songs. Kind of a hard, bittersweet day.

Looking back over these past 25 years I have so much to be grateful for:

- Lauren, my friend and therapist, who took my trembling, broken, defeated self and gave me the confidence and tools to stand back up and face the world again. I truly believe that without her I would have wound up some homeless woman, rocking myself in the fetal position, having lost my mind entirely. I miss her terribly.

- Martha, my partner, who for almost every day of our 22 years together has found a way to make me feel safe and to make me laugh. No small feat on many a bad day.

-My two daughters who have taught me the meaning of unconditional love and gave me a reason to care about the future.

-My closest friends who were with me then. At a time when I lost everything, they literally fed me and clothed me and found me a place to live. They formed a circle of love and protection around me until I was ready to live again. And they are doing it still.

-Every one of you who have shared the last stage of this journey with me in this space. Some for just a few steps. Some for quite a while. I was not convinced that opening up such a vulnerable part of me in such a public space would be a good thing. But it has proven to be one of the best things I’ve done. Not only because I’ve learned now important it is to speak about trauma, but mostly because you have made me feel so supported in doing so. Through the good days and bad days, the triumphs and the setbacks, you have been here with your kindness and encouragement.

25 years is a long time.  A long time to heal.  And a long time to feel so loved.   

Thank you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Full of Grace

I was in New York City for a long weekend:

- going to the urban design week conference and having my brain pinging with wonderful new ideas and challenges.

- spending time with my sister, niece and my nephew’s new fiancĂ© who is just adorable (and knows more lesbian jokes than anyone I know)

- delicious dinner at The Strip House. Naked ladies, great food.

- seeing The Book of Mormon and laughing so hard my cheeks hurt.

- riding a bike 15 miles from Central Park in Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge to Prospect Park. (I am used to biking back country roads, this was quite the adrenalin rush.)

A weekend of intellectual stimulation, emotional connection, gastronomical delights, humor and physical exhilaration. It was also a weekend without any PTSD symptoms or anxiety, and getting another glimpse of that clear, calm, free life.

The mountain is moving.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

And Then There Were None

Alone at last. No kids.

Its funny, both our daughters kept asking us what we were going to DO once they both left for school, as if we were going to turn to dust when they walked out the door. And we kept telling them that we did actually have a life before they came along and sucked every ounce of energy, every second of time, and every nickle of money out of us. We used to go out all the time. We’d go to the movies and out to dinner. We did projects and played golf. Went away on weekends and took beautiful Carribean vacations. Had noisy, sloppy sex, when and where ever we wanted to. Okay, we didn’t tell them that last bit, but we did have a life in what we lovingly came to reminisce about - Our Life, BC. Life, Before Children.

We are now facing Life, After Children. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but these are the biggest differences I’ve noticed.

Grocery shopping. I used to do the “big” shopping once a week. And then I would go to the store every single day for a gallon of milk and more fruit and whatever else sprang up. Not only did we feed two athletes with very healthy appetites, but we also fed whatever “3rd daughter” who seemed to have moved in, and all their friends/teammates who went through the kitchen like locusts. Now, I speed through the market, ignoring the snack aisle, zooming past the Gatorade, juice boxes and endless cereal. I am learning how to shop small. Savings in time: 1.5 hours a week.

Laundry. If I didn’t do two loads of laundry a day, someone would be yelling at me. “Where’s my uniform? I NEED my uniform! God, mom, I put it in the laundry hours ago!!!” (Although it was usually still stuffed in a gym bag.) Now I go to collect the laundry from only one hamper. It’s hardly worth carrying down stairs. And folding the laundry is a breeze. No more having to figure out whose thong is whose by trying to read the tiny tag that was sometimes bigger than the underwear itself. No mistaking putting a shirt in the wrong pile and having World War III break out because “someone” wore “someone else’s” shirt to school because it was in their pile. I think I will be able to laundry only twice a week now and folding it is a breeze - if it’s not mine, it’s Martha’s. Easy. Savings in time: 3 hours a week

School activities. Once the girls had their licences and their own car, we saved a considerable amount of time in taxi services. However, we still attended all their games, conferences, banquets, award things, etc. Savings in time: 6 - 10 hours a week.

Miscellaneous. All those little things - errands, listening to the latest boyfriend dilemma, making lunches, mending clothes, helping with homework/school projects, finding lost cell phones, repairing computer crashes, etc. Savings in time: 6 hours a week.

Wow, that’s a lot of time to gain. Almost three working days. What do childless people do with all this time?

Because Martha and I both work during the day and are very involved in volunteer and community activities in the evenings, we really won’t see a change in our schedules. The biggest change is that 4 - 7 pm block where we were usually at some athletic activity before heading to our own stuff.

It’s nice actually, I come home from work and we cook together. Okay, she cooks. I try to be helpful by getting the stuff she asks for or chopping something. We sit at the table and chat while we eat. (I absolutely refuse to eat in front of the TV) We take the dog for a walk and then go off to our other commitments.

We had been concerned that once the girls were gone we would have nothing to say to each other. But we are finding just the opposite. Martha and I can now have a conversation without any interruptions. We are still amazed. We can speak in complete sentences . . . about any topic . . . and actually finish an idea. We keep laughing at this, giddy with our new powers.

We are going to try and reserve one night a week that we will both keep free to spend together. Date night. Tonight we are taking a class at the gym, but maybe just dinner and a movie or some other entertainment.

This is not to say that we don’t miss the girls. I am still getting teary when I pass their empty bedrooms. I hate not being able to hug them morning and night. I miss hearing that “love you mom” as they ran out the door, hoping to sneak some inappropriate outfit past me. I miss their friends and their energy and the loving chaos that always filled our house. They leave a huge hole.

But it is a new chapter. And frankly, I am glad that my life has had many chapters with different characters and plots. I am looking forward to having time for just me and Martha to get reacquainted. And hopefully to have some more of that noisy, sloppy sex.

And for all you moms who are raising, or raised your kids as a single parent - you are frigging amazing. I don’t know how you do it. You have my utmost admiration.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Full of Grace

Great conversation while driving six hours to see Peachie’s team play.  And having a wonderful picnic with her afterward.

Returning to find Beanie had come home to surprise us. Well, she actually came home to support a troubled friend, but we got her most of Sunday.

The rain finally stopping.

Sexy time.

Apple picking on a crisp, sunny, Sunday morning.

The fruits of my labor

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Healing, part 4 - Therapy Goals

Trigger warning: this post contains references to sexual assault and violence which may be triggering to survivors.

While I was in therapy, Lauren and I spent a lot of time defining my goals and working toward them. My goals were always these big, amorphous things like “I want the flashbacks and anxiety to stop” or “I don’t want to be afraid to go to sleep.” Or “I want to remember the good things with Daphne, not just the horrible ending.” And then she would go through each goal and dissect it, breaking things into little manageable pieces - what exactly is triggering the flashback? What is it about that particular trigger? What are the parts of that trigger? What are the feelings associated with it? With what senses am I feeling it? On and on, forcing me to look at all the pieces and then finally trying to pull back and look at the whole picture. Every week I knew what we were going to work on. She gave me homework - writing assignments and mental exercises to get me to try to recall and feel things from all angles. Practicing calm. We exchanged emails throughout each week, she always pushing me to dig deeper, remember more, acknowledge feelings, etc.

It didn’t always feel like it, but by the end, I had actually achieved many of the goals. I am most grateful that I am now able to share great memories of Daph with my friends who knew her. It is still a struggle not to flash directly to the last terrifying hours, but with effort, I can hold onto the good and hold the horror at bay. That alone has made this journey the biggest success of my life.

But there were still a few goals left. Well, those smaller parts of goals that were left incomplete with Lauren’s death.

The Laundromat: The smell of a laundromat has always been one of my most violent triggers. And even though I am fortunate enough to never have to use a laundromat, Lauren always believed that until I could master it, the anxiety would always master me. I never knew why I had the fear of laundromats, and it took me almost a year of therapy to pull together the pieces of why the smell was such a huge trigger - I had been kicked in the jaw which dislodged two teeth. I was choking on blood and the teeth and couldn’t breathe since they had stuffed a shirt in my mouth to keep me from screaming. Those moments of pain and panicked suffocation are now linked with the smell of that shirt. I now understand the trigger, but the smell is still a problem. Lauren had taken me to laundromats a few times, trying to disassociate the smell from the memory. And I had gotten better with it, I thought, until later I walked into a laundromat on my own and had a total debilitating physical flashback. And so, that is still my goal. I have enlisted a few trusted friends who are going to help me with this - gradually increasing my exposure to the smell until I can convince my brain that a laundromat is just a laundromat, and the smell, while once associated with a terrifying experience, is no longer a threat to me. This is a work in progress.

The Accused: I don’t know why, but I have always thought that if I could watch this movie, it would be a sign that I’ve had conquered something. I can’t even explain that. Jodie Foster. Gang rape. That’s really all I know about it. Lauren had thought I had moved to a place where I could watch it, and we were going to view it together. Now I am going to try it with my closest friends at my side. Then I saw a blog where folks all rented a movie from NetFlix and watched the same movie at the same time and then blogged about it - like a book club. And so I thought I would ask any of you if you would care to join me. I know many of you who read this blog are rape survivors yourselves and I would not recommend this. I am already apologizing for whatever triggers you may be experiencing. But if anyone else is interested, I will set up a date and time in the future - let me know if there are days/times that work best for you. I would be most pleased to know that there are people out there supporting me through this.

The whole story: Two years of immersion therapy and I still could not fully retell the story of what happened to me. This was to be the final hurdle but I didn’t quite make it. It still looms in front of me as the finish line. I don’t think I will be able to tell that story here, in such a public venue. But there are those of you with whom I have grown special and trusting relationships. And so I am asking if you would be willing to hear that story, or parts of that story. To hear my confession so to speak, in a safe and affirming space.

The sudden death of my therapist was quite a setback to me. But I think the best way I can honor her is to complete the journey she gave me the confidence to start and the tools to finish. I have lost my safety net. Now I need all the cheerleaders and support I can get.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Full of Grace

I sat down to write my weekly Full of Grace post, where I intentionally recall some of the things I was particularly grateful for during the week. I had started a list which included the incredible crop of heirloom tomatoes in our vegetable garden this year. And going to see Peachie's first game at college and being able to hug her again - the thing I have found I miss the most about her being gone. She is a great hugger.

But this past week, my friend Ren called and said she had friends deeply impacted Hurricane Irene who needed some clean up help. Denise and Dan own a farm in the river valley just west of us. I was utterly unprepared for what I saw when we arrived. Piles of furniture and kitchen appliances, stacked outside and covered in mud. The whole front porch had torn off the house and lay like a pile of splintered toothpicks, across the farm. The main barn too. Their field crops were totally destroyed and their sheep, goats, chickens and assorted other animals had been swept away in the raging flood waters. Everything . . . trees, bushes, vehicles, the kid's swing set . . . everything was covered with a thick layer of grey muck.

When we arrived there was already quite a crew of people helping. Men were out in the field trying to coax a tractor out of the mud. It was buried almost up to the seat. Ren left to go help dig out, and properly bury, animals that had been drowned and trapped in fencing. I could not allow myself to even think about that. I went into the house, which had had 5 ft. of water inside, was handed a pair of barn boots to slosh through the mud and started helping rip out the horsehair and lath walls and insulation. Others were removing all the kitchen cabinets. Everything had to be stripped from the interior of the house, right down to the studs. The wide plank floor boards were still covered with a thick coating of muck. It will all need to be professionally sanitized.  Because the front porch was missing, there was a 3-foot drop from the front door to the ground. Everyone carrying things out of the house had to jump down and then climb back up. So I thought, woodworking being my hobby, I could be most helpful by building a temporary porch and steps.

I left to get some wood and returned to start my project. Then I realized there was still no power to run the tools I had thrown in the car. All power had been cut to prevent fire. Someone found me a hand saw and I began. I made it through one board when my arm became rubber. What a wuss! I realized that it would take me a lifetime to try to do this all by hand. Then I looked at this old farmhouse and realized that the entire house had been built by hand, long before electricity and power tools. I stood there in awe of what our ancestors were able to build with just their hands and sweat. I wanted to have that strength and determination. But knowing that time was more important than ego, I took measurements and went home and cut all the wood on my super duper radial arm saw. It didn't take me long to assemble the small porch using my battery powered drill. The first time Dan saw it me gave me a smile and a thumb's up  It is such a tiny drop in the bucket of what this family needs.

At some point someone arrived with food and everyone gathered around makeshift tables. Talk turned to plans for a barn raising and offers of equipment to get the fields ready for next year. No self pity, no blaming, no complaining, no excuses, just a "what needs to be done?" attitude.

I have lived in cities and suburbs and a small village. I have never lived on a farm. I am fortunate that where I live now is almost half rural farmland and I have had the privilege of meeting and learning from farmers. They are a unique breed of people I think. So self sufficient and yet they accept help so graciously when they need it. I suppose because they are always the first to offer someone else a helping hand. And they seem to accept all life throws at them with a remarkable ease and perseverance. Pull on the barn boots and rebuild, replant., recover. It is a way of life.

I think I am too old and too spoiled to live on a farm now. Perhaps in a future life. I think I have much to learn from farmers. Especially in accepting the inevitable cycles of nature and life. I don't think they have time to over think, or get caught up in drama or their own self importance. They just do what needs to be done.

So I sat to write my weekly gratitude list while thinking about this family who has lost almost all of their possessions. They have no idea when they will be able to move back into the house. They have lost their entire crop which is their livelihood. They have lost all the equipment they need to make their living. They have lost their animals, some of which I understand were beloved pets. And the weather forecast for the next few days is soaking rains and more flash floods.

What am I grateful for this week? Everything.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Please Tell Me

Please tell me that this is true -

More sex than anyone is comfortable admitting . . .