The Fox at Dawn

11.26.21 A Full Plate

It’s a sunny, cold morning, the day after Thanksgiving. I only have an armful of firewood left, so I’m sitting in the living room pretending that the fire is lit. It’s cozy anyway. We, my daughter Jess and I, took my mother and Jess’s boyfriend to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving yesterday. There were twelve of us, much larger than just the four of us last year at the height of the stay-at-home era. The year before that, we had travelled to Zionsville, Indiana to have Thanksgiving with my cousin and aunt. And the year before that, we were at my brother’s- a dreadful time I cannot remember without pain. Jess was in the full grip of her eating disorder and I was just beginning the long journey of seeking help for her, finding out what treatment options there were, trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with. I was plunged deep in darkness and fear and the agony of guilt. How could I have let this happen? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why did I take that second job that kept me from home so much? Why can’t I make more money? How am I going to pay for all of this? What can I do to help?  You dogpaddle, go under, sink down, fight your way back up for air. Over and over.

It was so very painful at home. Day after day, Jess closed herself up in her room, answered only in monosyllables or not at all, cut herself with blades she’d steal from my pencil sharpeners. She had nothing but contempt in her eyes for me as she fought all attempts to get nutrition into her before the silent, grim drive to school where I knew she’d eat nothing. Intake interviews, meetings with therapists and doctors, directions for what she should be eating, the endless looping fights, the ‘I’m fine, you’re the problem-leave me alone- I hate you-I wish you never adopted me- I wish you were dead’. No life partner to tag team with, no arms to shield me even a little from the attacks that seemed to come from an alien inside her. In the middle of this we had to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family and with new family from my brother’s recent marriage. What a trial it was. Walking on tightropes, on eggshells, on broken glass, on hot coals. Any of those, all of those. Some of the family knew what was going on, most didn’t. I didn’t have the language to talk about it, didn’t want to cause pain to Jess by talking about it to people she didn’t want to know. She was a long way from being able to talk about it herself, a long way from admitting that starving herself was wrong. She was a long way from even being herself. Mental illness is the devil.

Sitting here in the peace of this beautiful day, the panic and fear I felt then rise right back up as I write. Within a week or so of that dreadful holiday, it was clear that she needed to go into residential treatment. McCallum in St. Louis was recommended. It was a race against her 18th birthday- I had to get her well enough by her birthday in February to recognize the severity of her illness and the value of continuing treatment, or she would walk away from it all and cling fast to her anorexia, choosing it over life. I’d then be in the position of taking her to court to get medical guardianship. That Thanksgiving was the beginning of very dark months.

I’ve always been an intensely private person. Something I have always kept to myself was my pain. A lifelong habit, a reflex. Snapshot: My brother and I have spent the morning down the street in the tot lot, sent out to play because Daddy was ‘sick’ and needed a quiet house. I was six, maybe seven, my brother was four or five. Dad had come to get us, calling us when he was within earshot. We went to him and then walked toward the house. Out of habit, I reached out my hand to hold his as we crossed the street and met the lit end of his cigarette. The cherry ember lodged under my thumbnail. I whipped my hand away and held my fist behind my back. ‘Oh baby, are you alright?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine’ I lied. I remember feeling embarrassed. I remember feeling it was my fault. I remember not wanting to make my dad feel bad, even as my thumb burned.

That Thanksgiving, the dark months that followed, I let go of that silence. I let the people at my jobs know what I was dealing with. I knew I needed to talk about it, be open about her illness. For her sake and for mine. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of it I didn’t want her to blame herself. If she was going to get better, she would have to embrace it, accept help, talk about it. If I was going to keep myself from coming apart, I was going to have to do the same. I had just started sharing art again on this blog as a practice, as a source of fun. Those drawings reflected a little of that early pain. I didn’t start writing about J’s journey with Edie, the demon Eating Disorder, until her return from residential treatment. 

The writing helped, the talking about it helped, not having to pretend that everything was okay helped. My family was there for me. My friends were there. I was still falling through space, but not quite so afraid. There was so much to navigate- working with her high school, would she still graduate? What support could she get at school? Would they accommodate her half-day group therapy treatments? The looming 18th birthday- would Jess sign on to continue treatment? That was a terrifying day, skillfully handled by the doctor she loved. Jess signed the papers, she would continue therapy. My knees were literally weak as I walked out of the doctor’s office to drive to school. I was still working two jobs- full-time drama teacher at Walden School and part-time Director of Religious Exploration at 1st Unitarian Church. I was in the middle of directing Mary Poppins, for chrissakes, the all-school musical involving 85 K-12kids. I was told I should join a parent support group, should get therapy myself- but when? When? I wrote, I shared, I made art, I talked. It helped. 

It’s been three years. She is in college now, studying early childhood education. She has joined a sorority, has a part-time job. She has worked hard, very hard at her recovery. There have been trials, setbacks, additional diagnoses, medication changes, trips to the emergency room, progress, many tiny victories, several larger ones. After three years, we are back at Uncle Will’s, back with family after a long Covid separation. It is Thanksgiving and there she is- Jess, herself. Smiling. Cheerful. Helpful. Funny. Beautiful. Proud. Her plate is full. My plate is full. Thankful, so so thankful.

8.18.19 The Night Before
August 18, 2019, 9:17 pm
Filed under: Art of the Day, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , ,

Cleaning out the attic eave storage space this summer, after the possum frat party that had been raging there all winter, I found many treasures I had stowed away. Some that still cause pain, some that are bittersweet, but many many that are simply sweet. I’ve set some sweet ones on my desk to look over when I need them, like tonight as my daughter is downstairs packing her things to leave for college for the first time.

This is her “Where I’m From” Poem, written in Ms. Sorise’s middle school language arts class. It is based on a famous template by the Kentucky writer George Ella Lyon, who has become both a treasured friend and a teacher of mine.

I found that poem again. It has been pinned to my bulletin board above my desk. And I found again the words I wrote for her baptisms, for she did indeed have more than one. The first took place in the church I grew up in, Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. The second was in my Chicago church home- Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ.

From the Kentucky baptism:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  I did not know what to pray for, what to hope for.  I tried to live with the idea of never having a child of my own and I found I could not.  But I did not know what path to take or what path to make.  I didn’t even know who to ask.  Then between projects, I took on work as a nanny through a service.  My very first job I walked into an apartment to find Katie, a 2 1/2 year old girl adopted from an orphanage in China.  I became dizzy, the ground moved under me and I quite literally saw a curtain open in front of me and I heard the words, I really really did, “This is your future”. 

See, the miracle is not that the bush burned without being consumed, the miracle is that instead of running away from a brush fire, Moses stopped long enough to notice that fact. The miracle is that absorbed as I was by my own fears, my own despair, my own feeling of being abandoned, I was able to look at Katie and see that curtain open. I was going to adopt a daughter. There was an answer to my wordless prayer, and I was the answer to hers. A motherless child and a childless mother, and now we are we. 

And from the Chicago baptism:

Three years ago on this day I was a couple of months away from my epiphany, still grappling with myself, wrestling the angel to the ground to demand my blessing. Two years ago I had gathered my demand for a blessing into a dossier that then sat on a pile of such demands in some Chinese official’s In basket. A year ago today I held the little photo of the blessing in my hand and today my arms and heart are full of blessings, full of her, my daughter, my gift from God.
            Her name came to me long before she did. At a time in my life when I was particularly alive to everything around me, especially the natural world, I was struck by the name of Jessamine County, Kentucky. It was early spring and I was driving through it a couple of times a week, commuting to Eastern Kentucky and those blessed mountains. Jessamine. And then from somewhere another word attached itself- kindred, one of the most beautiful words I know. Jessamine Kindred, the daughter I dreamt about, my secret child whose name I wrote in places that no one else would ever see. And now that name appears beside mine on a piece of paper that says we belong to each other, and on her very own Social Security card, and on this church bulletin. My eyes still can’t quite believe it. The daughter I dreamt of. The name that she was given when brought to the orphanage was Meng Ai. It means “Dreaming of Love”. 

We both dream of love still, conjure it everyday, make mistakes, try again. “I am from those moments where my mom and I walked hand in hand looking for new adventures”. Now it’s time for her to walk on her own and it’s breaking both our hearts, but golly I’m grateful. She’s healthier, she’s ready, it’s time.

April 1, 2019

The first glimpse I had of my daughter came with the letter informing me that I had been matched with this baby, if I chose to accept her. Two small photographs of Chang Meng Ai at six months of age, a deeply worried baby whose name, given by the orphanage, means ‘dreaming of love’. No baby should look so worried. I’m sure the photographer was even trying to make her smile, after all, these photos were to advertise her as a good candidate for adoption. Smile baby, smile, no one wants a sad baby.

She had that worried look seven months later when the elevator door opened to release into the hotel lobby all the orphaned girls held by their caregivers. They stepped out, names were called, and one at a time we rushed up to receive our girl- which is mine? Is that her? It’s her, my daughter. That very first embrace. I can still smell her sweet fragrance in that blue onesie with the ghost bib. I cried, she cried. I was crying with happiness and overwhelming love. Perhaps she was crying from fear. She was thirteen months old and had passed through many arms. I wanted more than anything to let her know that mine would not let go.

All these years later, I find I am still trying to convince her. Failure is not exactly the word I feel. Daunted. Helpless. Seventeen years of loving her with all my might, putting her first in every consideration, protecting and nurturing and teaching her in every way I can is not enough to stop up that chasm inside her. Fear rises up through it like a sea monster spewing poison- you are not lovable, you don’t fit in, you are different, you are not beautiful, you are fat, your body needs to be thinner, only then will your boyfriend love you, only then will you not be left behind, your life is worthless, your mother would be happier without you. So cruel, those lies. And there are moments, almost whole days, when she knows them to be lies but then the sun goes down, or her boyfriend doesn’t respond or her mother is sick and nothing on earth seems more true to her. Drama, wild swings of happiness and wretchedness, self harm, anger, ugliness, tears.

Borderline Personality Disorder is the new name of the beast she is trying to learn to ride. Her eating disorder is an outgrowth of it, a lovely little perk you get along with it. She begins work with a new doctor soon. Meanwhile it is life on The Scrambler, for her, for me, for anyone who loves her. Dreaming of love, it is the hardest thing to love oneself.

January 9th-14th
January 15, 2019, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Eating Disorder aka Edie, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

It’s been a time. Some days have felt like a week.

It’s really over, Christmas, and the house has never felt emptier. The only thing to do is clean it and trust that in emptying it, it will fill again.

I may have made a miscalculation in traveling to St. Louis this weekend, arriving the same time as the storm, the worst one in forty years. But it was the first weekend since her intake and I would not miss the chance to see her. I got stuck twice, and twice, people came out of nowhere to push my car further up the hill until I made it to the treatment center. We had an hour together, ran out of things to say, held each other in a corner of the day room. All the kids were having to camp out there at the treatment center instead of taking the van to their residence because the danger on the road was too great. Mostly girls, they were tucked up together in groups, huddled around their small screens, or talking on the phone with loved ones, some of them had feeding tubes worn casually taped to their cheek. I could not stop thinking about the novel “Never Let Me Go” by Kazua Ishiguro and the harvesting clinic and that image made me ill to my stomach, and still days later I cannot shake it. I had to head back to the hotel, a close call at the bottom of a hill when I could not stop my car at the red light, the cross traffic unable to stop either. A fresh round of snow starting in the morning sent me back to Louisville without seeing her again because I knew I would never make it back up those hills for the afternoon visiting hours. I drove home without being able to tell her that I was leaving.

Saturday night back in Louisville a late phone call from the girl. I’ve worked very hard to become someone who embraces solitude, who at the end of hard days can sleep without the arms of love wrapped tight. But I’m not there yet.

The grace of friendship.

The week begins again. Rehearsals begin too for Mary Poppins. Over 80 children in the cast. I will not want for things to do, I will not want for company. And Jess is better, medically she is better already, and emotionally she has come through those dark days, for now anyway. Grateful, grateful for the cheerful FaceTime just now, Jess standing on her head, her new friends jumping into the frame, smiling and laughing, feeding tubes and all. Sweet children in an anxious world.

Some Days: December 2018