Archives for posts with tag: family

I had been waiting for the call for much of my life, the one that said my mother was dying. Over the years there have been many calls–for urgent care visits, doctor’s appointments, grocery runs, help cleaning the apartment. It’s always serious. This time, it was real. Interstitial lung disease has no cure. The lungs continue to develop scarring so that, with each cold or respiratory event, they can no longer take in sufficient levels of oxygen. This time, her lungs finally gave out. The times I saw her in the last six weeks, I could see, too, that she was sick of living.

“In case something happens” was an oft-repeated refrain. For my mother, the emotional earthquake of the divorce was compounded by a tsunami-force illness, and she almost died. I was seven or eight. Nothing was the same after that. The anger she threw at my father stormed around me, the only child of two deeply incompatible humans. Add to that the bitterness oriented toward her mother would rain down in phrases–“I am a much better mother than her” and, “you’re lucky to have me.” Meanwhile my child sized body absorbed her vitriol year after year, until I left.

My mother was not loving, but she was kind. Some years ago she shared a memory with me of a Mother’s Day elementary school assignment. Apparently I had been instructed to write something about my mother on that thin, off-white, lined paper–the kind with a dashed line between two solids an inch high and with space to draw a picture. While my classmates compared their mothers to sunshine and roses, I wrote, “my mother is kind.”

My mother was angry. Her gaze was like flint with her cool blue eyes and pale skin. When she smiled there was a kind of forced compulsion in her facial muscles to do so. And yet, I can’t truthfully say that she never smiled; it just always seemed awkward. Or perhaps that was just with me. Emotions are foreign territory for some families. I only remember seeing her cry twice in my life–the second time was around dusk when she thought she had run over a racoon and killed it. Any time she told me to do something I thought I had already gotten it wrong. The thought of ever trying to please her burrowed deep within me. It just wasn’t possible.

My mother seeped bitterness some days. The divorce and her illness took away a great deal of independence financially, emotionally, and vocationally. Searching through files for the title to her car, I found cards from my grandfather with notes saying things like, “I hope this helps get you through for the next little bit.” She hated needing assistance. She hated the one who left her vulnerable. She hated how I adored my dad and wanted to spend time with him. The worst thing I could ever do was become financially dependent upon a man.

My mother was not well. She stayed alive through sheer determination, and a fear that I would turn out like my father without her constant correction. On bad days, her conversations were disjointed, jumping between present to past back to present. I remember one particular phone conversation during a heat wave–in the midst of telling me the refrigerator in her apartment didn’t work, she suddenly recounted a story of when my father couldn’t fix the fridge in our first house. When I asked her why, in God’s name, is she bringing up something from 30 years ago, she thought it made perfect sense. A broken fridge is a broken fridge.

My mother had big dreams. The sheer number of organizational self-help books, notebooks from certificate courses, and health guidebooks she left behind, is fodder for black comedy. She never spoke much of travel, limited mobility and adult onset diabetes curtailed her energy and desire to do much. Yet she loved nature shows and calligraphy. I found prints and cards in her apartment that I had sent to her from South Korea, along with other drawings she had collected. She always said she was aiming for a Japanese style in her home.

My mother was kind. Cleaning out her kitchen, I found thank you notes left for her from neighbors. She had only been there less than six months.

This Mother’s Day was quiet, almost ordinary. The previous two had passed with no communication between us. After an especially distressing phone conversation a few years back, I had had enough. Yet there was always the weight of wondering when to get back in touch. Getting back in touch requires having something to say, and I could never find the words. So, as I learned from childhood, at some point you just stop talking.

On Sunday, while social media was a blur of flowers, hearts, deep thoughts, and sincere sayings all dedicated to the wonder of mothers, I sat in anticipation of this coming Friday when I’ll join her coworkers in remembering my mother.

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When I was a child, I could not imagine what it would be like to get married but I knew I wanted to adopt a little girl. That was my vision for a future family: me, my little girl, and our cat. Decades later, after finally meeting that someone I liked enough to want a mini version, I have wrestled with the idea of adoption to the point of not wanting to consider it at all. Yet, aside from the expense and bizarre economics that intersect with racialized bodies, I couldn’t quite articulate what–exactly–was so disconcerting. Until now.

I recently ran into two pieces on adoption, both from the perspective of adoptees (both happen to be young women adopted from Asian countries). The first was a riveting slam poem that explored the challenge of not quite ‘fitting’ one’s name. The second article laid it out like this: “Adoption can be a very good thing for an individual child, but it is not charity. It is not a religious crusade. It is never a ‘miracle,’ the hand of God at work, when a child ends up living without their original parents.” Just like that, the writer articulated the very thing that makes me so uneasy about the adoption industry: the presumption that I–by virtue of being a middle class, educated, white woman–would provide for someone else’s child better. But, as the writer questions, better than what? better than whom? So often the process of adoption skips over entire households of relations to place a child with perfect strangers.

The desire to raise a family for so many women is a visceral longing–so intense it feels like a calling. Our churches support the vision of loving families that provide and care for not only their own flesh and blood but others who are no less deserving of a stable home. Yet, here’s the problem with much of the language we hear: it is one sided. A newborn cannot ask to stay with her biological mother, whose scent and voice are the only things she knows.

I once overheard a young woman in church sharing about the infant foster child she had just received in her home. She was so excited for this child, and was (understandably) nervous about the tenuous nature of fostering. Then she commented that the mother was in rehab–one of the requirements to be considered “fit” to get her baby back–but she still hoped to be able to keep the child. I am not suggesting that she wished the mother ill, but for her and her husband to ‘keep’ this child would mean for the mother to fail at getting treatment and turning her life around. What struck me in this moment was how we have constructed a child welfare system that breaks down far more than it builds up.

And we, as Christians, help perpetuate this system. We even have scriptural justification. In Romans 8 Paul uses language describing the Spirit of adoption God has extended to us. Somehow we equate bringing a child into our home with God’s saving grace that unites us in Christ with God’s household. Adoption then becomes a means of saving children, but at the expense of a meaningful connection with relatives, geography, culture (except for those families who are very intentional about maintaining some kind of connection).

Yes, I have outlined a rather sullen perspective on adoption. I certainly do not mean to say the system needs to be done away with altogether. But I want to stretch the canvas bigger. Rather than zooming in on the portrait of a “needy” child, what if we acknowledged the other people in that child’s life, starting with their biological parents? This quickly gets complicated, but the most significant issue I see with adoption is that it requires commodifying children as individual units with virtually no relations. (Again, there are exceptions.) A child’s story began long before they were born–how could we possibly know that without developing some sort of relationship with their family of origin?

Reflecting on the gospel narratives of Jesus, many of the stories remixed household dynamics. Paul went even further to turn oppressive household codes on their head in Colossians. How then might we consider what that looks like for us today? Another way to think of it: are we looking to create family friendly churches or familial churches? Family friendly churches tend to support the individual units composed of parents and children who live in the same house. Contrast that with a church community that sees itself as an extended family to any and all who gather together. I know I have benefitted from the latter, and hope to continue nurturing familial relations wherever I end up.

Black Hole, part 3

I may regret having let go of that strand of pearls my mother gave me last year. It was one of her more tender moments—a surprise in and of itself. She wanted to demonstrate that she was proud of me for graduating from a master’s program. Perhaps she also felt badly that she missed the graduation. Yet with my mother, there is always catch. So, what started as a gift for her daughter, commemorating this move closer to adulthood, morphed into a story of a lovely old couple who adored each other, but could never have children. My mother knew this couple as family friends, and remembered fondly how they had taken her in during the summers of her college years. At some point the wife gave my mother a pearl necklace, which now my mother passed along to me, laden with the narrative of a childless couple and my mother’s angst towards her own maternal relationships.

I mentioned this gift to a woman from my church who has been praying for my husband and I. She started a bit, and asked if I felt the need to hold on to the necklace. The story—benign in and of itself—seemed to hold the impact of incanting a curse, given that we have been trying to conceive for so many months. Suddenly an artifact from a couple I never had the pleasure of knowing lands in my closet. Its sentimental significance is obscured by the current turmoil of infertility. I have never told my mother one way or another if I wanted to have children, so how could she know the shuddering chill that accompanied her gift?

So, I let the strand of pearls go with the prayer that they fulfill someone else’s desires. After dropping them off there was a sense of relief, mixed with a twinge of what might be betrayal. I know that she meant for the pearls to be special. I get that, and I appreciate the moment of tenderness when she gave them to me. Yet I also needed to parse out the gift from the moment. And that’s the thing with my mother: layers of significance get slopped together, forcing the recipient-listener to parse and diagram what, exactly, is being communicated. Even after all these years I have not quite learned to throw out the especially messy bits that can cut and damage what little relationship we do have. Ever since I was 14 I have had to delineate the contours of encroachment she was allowed on my life. Some years we spoke only with an intermediary, while in other years she provided (for a brief time) a place of shelter when I was between modes of wandering.

As you may suspect, the whole notion of motherhood has been rather problematic for me. Yet that hasn’t stopped my delusions of having a daughter of my own, teaching her to be capable, resilient, joyful even.

But now it may be too late.

Experts say it is possible to conceive naturally as late as age 40, which is where I’ll be in a year, but the probability is very low. So, once again, I feel caught between pragmatic realism and desperate cries for Creator God to spark new life. One other factor is tempering my headlong plunge into yet more fertility treatments: the holidays. November and December are trying months in the best of years. We are going into our third holiday season with no baby announcement in sight and I just might need to keep wine on the menu to accompany the Advent chocolates.

….

I have another piece of jewelry that comes with a story. For my birthday, a dear friend passed along a bracelet that she had been given when she was going through infertility turmoil of her own, waiting for her second child. Usually bracelets fall off my wrist, but this one fits quite nicely. I wear it on days when I need to feel hopeful.

 

Black Hole, part 1
Black Hole, part 2