Grief for the Child Lost

Untitled-5We have just returned from my step-daughter’s wedding.  It was held at sunset on a beach in Mexico.  My step-daughter, Rebecca, was raised in Mexico by her mom and step-dad with a half-brother and half-sister.  The venue for the wedding was stunning; the bride was gorgeous; the ceremony was heart-felt; and the celebration was beautiful. But the wedding day and all of the days surrounding it have been a roller coaster ride of emotions for all of us.

My step-daughter did everything in her power to make her dad, our two children (who are also her half-brother and half-sister) and me feel welcome.  She provided us with a beautiful place to stay; she included us in the ceremony; she made my daughter a bridesmaid; and she visited us every day.  But during the three days of celebrations, we felt like outsiders in Rebecca’s life.

When we spend time with Rebecca here, she feels like part of our family.  She fits in seamlessly.  She shares stories, and listens and laughs and cries with us.  But, when we were down in Mexico, we saw her with her mother and the sister and brother with whom she was raised.  We could all see how much more intimate those relationships are.  My daughter came away feeling like an imposter; crushed by the closeness she sensed between Rebecca and her other sister.  My son came home feeling like a distant relative to Rebecca.

Rebecca, 9 years oldFor Dan and I, the really difficult part was seeing Rebecca with her husband’s family. She has married into a very big, close-knit family with aunts and uncles and cousins who have little interest in people outside of their family or their ethnic group.  We were overwhelmed by this family in numbers, in wealth and in energy.  The groom’s parents treated us like “guests” at their son’s wedding; not the family of the bride.

Rebecca and her husband live close to this big, loud, extended family.  Rebecca works with her father-in-law.  She and her husband are currently living with her in-laws while they renovate their home.  The wedding was held in the in-law’s vacation home.  Dan and I could not help but feel that we have lost Rebecca all over again; this time to the family of the groom.

The reality is that we lost Rebecca many years ago when her mother took her to Mexico; the first time when she was two; the second time when she was five; the third time when she was 11.  It is a reality we fought at the time; a reality that we have fought over and over again.  We know we are important to Rebecca.  We know that she wants to be close to us.  But the reality is that she did not get to grow up with us or with our children.  We wanted her to; we fought for that; but we lost.

Today Rebecca lives in Los Angelas, on the other side of the continent from us, and five minutes from her husband’s big, wealthy tight-knit family.  While someone might have been to blame for tearing her out of our lives many years ago, today there is no one to blame.  She has done nothing wrong; she has found love and happiness for which we are incredibly grateful.  We have done nothing wrong but moved on with our lives as we needed to.  No one is at fault.  It just is.  We love her.  We miss her.  And her life is somewhere else.  There are other people; other parents; others siblings who are closer to her; physically and emotionally.  It is heart-breaking.  But there it is.  Today we feel grief for the child that we lost many years ago; for the young woman who never got to be part of our family; for the future grand-children who will grow up on the other side of the continent.

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Something about weddings….

I don’t know what it is about weddings but they bring out the crazy in us.  I have not been to a lot of weddings in my life.  Mine was the generation that rejected big weddings and marriage in our rebellion against patriarchal convention.

Our Wedding, 1989After living together for 8 years, Dan and I threw our wedding together in a matter of four weeks.  We had just gone through a year long custody battle that left us broke and exhausted but excited to have Dan’s daughter, Rebecca, back in our lives.  We wanted to get married to demonstrate to her that we intended to stay together; to be a family for a long time.  So, I bought a white dress that was on sale for $40, we borrowed the community room in a friend’s housing co-op, we borrowed tables from the union I worked for, we put a few music tapes together, we invited a small number of family and friends with invites that we photocopied ourselves, and we threw our own little wedding for less than $1000.  It was all we could afford financially after blowing $100,000 on legal fees, and after the year we had been through, it was all we could manage emotionally.  We had a Minister from a Unitarian Church do a ceremony for us with passages that we wrote our selves.

Mom's Wedding, 1954But still, this tiny wedding brought out the crazy in people.  Dan had an Aunt who refused to come because she felt that we had not made enough of an effort to visit her over the last year.  The fact that we were fighting a custody battle to protect Dan’s daughter from sexual abuse seemed to be lost on her.   One relative was upset that I did not invite our cousins.  We drew the line at Aunts and Uncles to keep the numbers below 50; extending an invite to cousins would expand the numbers much closer to 100.  My Italian grandmother was upset that we were not getting married in a church; that the wedding was so small; and that we were not having a proper wedding with bridesmaids and all of the other trappings.  But I remember Dan’s sister saying to me quietly that it was the most beautiful wedding she had ever been to.

This is all coming back to me now as we prepare to head south for Rebecca’s wedding.  It has been a stressful week for the entire family.  My son and daughter are going crazy; wrapping up papers and assignments for their final and first years in university.  The wedding will fall in the last week of their school terms just before their exams start.  The timing could not be worse for them.

Mom & Dad, Wedding Day, 1954Dan and I have been scrambling to take care of all the little details; plane tickets and accommodation, wedding gifts and cards, suits and dresses, high heals and pedicures. We have each taken turns having melt-down about suits that look worn and dresses that don’t fit well.  It seems that weddings evoke all of our worse fears; strip back the years; melt all of our armour.  They force us to face the passage of time; to re-examine the years; to re-evaluate our lives.

As we flipped through our family albums, selecting photos for Rebecca, we saw our youth pass before our eyes; we remembered friends who have drifted out of our lives, family members who have passed on, and wonderful times that we have spent with our children. When we were done, I said to Dan, “We have had a really good life together”.   Dan laughed and replied, “You make it sound like it is over.”  And it isn’t, but a child’s wedding, which marks a new beginning for them, also marks an ending for us.  And maybe that is the source of all the crazy?

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Life & Death Pressed Together

Backyard Fence-March 13, 2014-KPThere are times in our lives when it seems that the life and death are pressed up against each other.  This has been one of those months.

On March 13th, one week before Spring officially begins in Canada, we received 16 cm of snow!  Today, only three days later, I can see the soil in my garden for the first time in months and our little backyard pond has thawed for the first time in weeks.  This month, the world has been fluctuating between Spring and Winter on a daily basis it seems.

The same has been true in the human world.  My sister, who is visiting my mother in Barbados, has shared photos of my mom on Facebook.  I am shocked to see that my mom, who has been slipping away from us mentally for years now, has become a shrunken version of herself.  Where once she was a tall, sturdy woman with high cheekbones and lively eyes, she now looks gaunt and emaciated.  I have not had an easy relationship with my mom, but I can see death in her face, and it fills me with grief for the strong-willed and passionate woman who gave birth to me.

DSC_0102While I process the end of my mother’s life, I am immersed in stories of new beginnings. My son celebrated his 23rd birthday last week, which took my husband and I back in time to the day of his birth.  One of my colleagues gave birth to her first child last week.  My nephew has announced that his wife is pregnant.  Their child will be the first one from the young generation in our family. And we will end this month with the wedding of my step-daughter on March 29th; which happens to be the day of my mother’s birth.   

And so it goes, life pressed up against death; spring pushing up against winter; new souls born into this world while old souls give up material existence; joy pressed up against sorrow.

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Celebrating Change & Thinking about Women

Many times, over the years, I have listed a litany of things — small and large — that have changed in my life time to my children.  I have done this because I wanted them to know that things can change; that injustices can be overcome; that attitudes can shift; that we can make a difference in the world and in the lives of others.  When I was young:

  • Girls were not allowed to wear pants to school.  No matter how cold it was, we had to wear skirts or dresses.  In winter, we wore those horrible leotards that kept sliding down our legs.
  • My mother could not get a bank account of her own without my father’s signature.
  • My mother signed her name with both my Dad’s first and last name.  When I married, I kept my last name.  When our children were born, they were given my name as their last name. Their father’s name became their middle names.  
  • When I was growing up, I knew no women who had gone to university. Today, I work many women who have masters’ degrees, doctorates, medical degrees, law degrees and degrees in engineering.
  • When I graduated and landed a job with a small industrial union, I was the first woman to be hired into a non-clerical position.  At that time, no woman had ever led a political party in Canada.  No woman had ever been the Premier of a province in Canada.  Today, two of the three political parties in Ontario are led by women, while four of the ten provinces have female Premiers.
  • When I grew up, I lived in the suburbs where we, with our Italian last name, were the most exotic people in the neighbourhood.  All of my friends were white, although many had families from different parts of Europe.  Today, my children live in a multi-cultural world with friends whose families hail from China, the Philipines, India, Central America, the middle East, as well as Europe and small-town Canada.
  • When I was young, I did not know anyone who was openly gay or lesbian.  Today, I have several close friends and a few family members who are gay, and my children are close friends with people who are gay, straight, lesbian and bisexual.

Women's Day Buttons-KPWith International Women’s Day upon us, I feel overwhelmed by all of the problems still facing women around the world:  Women raising children in war zones; Women watching their children die of starvation; Women sold into the sex trade; Young girls forced to marry against their will; Girls deprived of schooling because of religious ideology; Women subjected to rape and abuse.  But, I remind myself, that things can change.  People can make a difference in other people’s lives.  We can change the world we live in.  And this gives me hope.

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The Cycle of Life

Orchids on my Desk-KP-Mar2014I have several small pots of orchids on my desk.  They produce magnificent blooms that last for several weeks.  When the flowers die, the stalk dries up, and the plant goes dormant and quiet.  A few months later, a new stalk begins to grow, and then buds, and the these intricate flowers bloom once more.  While I never tire of their beauty, I have to admit that I can go days and weeks without noticing them even though they sit right in front of me on my desk.  It seems that I notice them most in the days following their blooming.

I have often wondered if I would appreciate the beauty of trees and flowers and grasses and birds as much as I do if I were surrounded by them year round.  In the deep throws of a long winter of ice and snow, whites and blues, and shades of grey, I am waiting impatiently for spring; for warm air heavy with the scent of living things; for a world painted once more in greens and reds; for the sound of birds; for the sight of sprouts pushing up through hard earth; for fruit trees bursting in colour.  Would I love Spring as much as if I did not experience Winter?

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