A Trip to France Begins with a Shock

My sister Molly and my niece in happier times.

My sister Molly and my niece in happier times.

Those persons then, who have passed from the world

are not non-existent, but they are absorbed in the attributes of God,

even as the star disappears in the presence of the sun. -- Rumi

 

Rob and I are just back from a two-week trip to Paris and the south of France. I had intended to blog during our travels, and also to post additional excerpts of my memoir, Face. But we got news upon touching down at Charles De Gaulle that my younger sister had died overnight.

It was a shock, and though we decided to continue with our trip, I felt an overshadowing of grief throughout. I said it was a shock, but it was not entirely unexpected. Molly had struggled with chronic pain and pain medication addiction for more than 20 years. She was rear-ended all those years ago while working as a rural route carrier for the Postal Service. Neck surgery to repair the damage actually caused more injury—and the chronic pain she battled for the rest of her life. The doctors had recently been trying to wean her off of the pain meds. It appears she died of a withdrawal-induced seizure. She was only 55.

I have to say we didn’t have an easy relationship. Her life was drama-filled, and I (unfairly) judged her. We had hardly spoken the past few years, though I always loved her dearly.

Two days before she died she sent me a Facebook message—one of those ubiquitous memes about admiring someone in your life, and if you agree could you send it to 10 (or 12 or 15) people in YOUR life whom you admire? I remember being a little surprised, and sent it back to her with a clipped “back at you, darlin’.” In retrospect, I wish I had said more, and I’m also glad at least I said what I did.

Since we’ve been home from our trip, her death has hit me harder. I’m so sad for the struggles she had, and particularly grief-stricken for my niece and nephew, who lost their dad 17 years ago.

My niece, Jayna, who lives in Nashville, flew back to California and my other sister and her husband drove down from Oregon to help make arrangements. My heart goes out to Jayna, who with her younger brother must now pick up the pieces of Molly’s shattered life.

She was such a beautiful young woman, bright and sprightly in the best sense of the word. Loved horses and her pets, and was beloved by her friends. Despite the hardships, she always had a ready smile and a willingness to help others. I only wish she could have helped herself.

As I think about this loss, and remember other losses—my mom and dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles—I consider how fleeting our time is upon this earth. The plane of existence may or may not be the only one we’ll know, but I’m reminded, once again, to let go of judgments and intolerances, and to try to embrace loving kindness—toward myself and all beings.

We are all worthy—we just have to remember it.

(The mortuary in San Luis Obispo has put up a web page with Molly’s obituary, for those of you who knew her. A memorial service will be held sometime in coming months.)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Six

This is Part Six of my memoir, Face. I was hit by a car and severely injured as a child--my left cheek and eyelid were scraped away, and I endured fifteen years of surgeries after. Many years later, as I was getting ready to be married, my dad gives me a folder containing photos that force me to confront a time I had stuffed deeply away...(Read Part Five here.)

Twenty-four years later, as I sat on the concrete floor of a rented storage space and once again leafed through the files, I was instantly transported back to childhood, to when I was five. My hands shook as I sifted through the papers. And then I saw them. The photos. They were close-ups, taken a few months after the accident.

The left side of my face was red and raw, with ridges of skin built up in the middle of the left cheek like the spine of a mountain range. A piece of thick skin bisected the left eye, connecting the top and lower lids. I wondered if my dad had looked at the photos before he gave me the folder. Certainly he had seen them before, but did he consider how it would make me feel to look at them now? Or had he just put them out of his mind and not realized the impact they would have on me? Or perhaps this was his way of giving me back a part of my life that he felt belonged only to me, that I had to be the keeper now, of the story and all its attendant heartaches. Today, I believe he was giving me a gift, the gift of a past that I didn’t want to look at then, didn’t intend to look at ever. In a way, it was a gift of great love. Though I wouldn’t realize it until after he was gone.

As I sat on the concrete floor, I stared at that face, and let the tears come. Great heaving sobs pulled at my lungs and shook my ribcage. It was as if those pictures had the power to hold me hostage—that they had held me hostage for forty-five years. And I was reduced to a quivering, fearful child once again.

A few days later I took the photos out again. I could barely stand to look at them. They represented all the hurt, all the taunts, all the pain I had spent years stuffing away, convinced if I didn’t think about the accident and how it made me look, it couldn’t hurt me anymore.

I lowered myself to the floor. I wanted to be as close to the ground as possible; I feared I might collapse if I wasn’t. I peered at the first photo. It was taken from the front, and that little girl was staring straight at the photographer. Her eyes appeared to be the eyes of an old soul, someone who has suffered and survived. There was something in the eyes of that child, that five-year-old, that was way beyond her years. Way beyond the pain and suffering, beyond the here and now, planted firmly in the Divine. Sure of herself and sure she would survive, no matter what. The second photo, taken from the left side, was entirely different. It was of a small child afraid, terrified of being hurt, of being abandoned to the nurses and doctors once again, of being left in the hands of people who didn’t care, or didn’t seem to. That child’s eyes reflected such a deep sadness, a grief so profound I wanted to hold her, reach out to her across the years and make her safe. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

(Part Seven)

Excerpt from 'Face, A Memoir,' Part Five

This is Part Five of Face, A Memoir. When I was five years old I was hit by a car and lost my left cheek and eyelid. It was the beginning of nearly two dozen surgeries over fifteen years. In this section, I decide to see a therapist when, as an adult, my life seems to be falling apart.

(Part Five)

I am sitting on a white overstuffed couch in the Santa Barbara office of a therapist a friend recommended. South-facing windows let in filtered light from the late morning sun. Japanese paintings hang on the cream-colored walls, creating a sense of serenity and intimacy. A box of tissues is tucked behind the lamp on the side table, within easy reach. Michael sits in a straight chair in front of me, his long legs tucked under. His square, tanned face framed by waves of blond curls. We are talking about self-esteem.

“I don’t have a problem with self-esteem.”

“Yes, you do,” Michael says.

I am stunned. “No, I don’t.” 

“Yes, you do,” he repeats, more emphatically.

I look out the window at the jacarandas in bloom, their graceful purple flowers nudged by a gentle offshore breeze.

I’d always thought of myself as confident, secure in my self-image, strong and independent. I was a successful journalist – had been editor of the editorial pages of a medium-sized daily newspaper and a recognized leader in the community. I did not lack confidence in my abilities.

But that wasn’t what he was talking about.

When I first went to Michael for help, it was because I suspected – and feared – my marriage of twenty-four years was over. After a month of weekly meetings, he suggested joint counseling with my husband. But after nearly six months, we were making little, if any, progress. So we stopped, and I returned to individual sessions with Michael.

Now here I was, sitting in Michael’s office wondering what had gone wrong. With my marriage. With my career. With my life.

“Talk to me about your scars,” Michael said.

“What do you mean?”

“How did you get them?”

I shrugged. Gave the rote response, something I had spent years perfecting: “I was hit by a car when I was five. I was nearly killed and lost my cheek and my eyelid. I underwent twenty surgeries over the next fifteen years.”

“How do you feel about that?”

How did I feel? I didn’t feel. I hadn’t felt about it in years. I hadn’t thought about it in years. But the more Michael and I talked, the more the memories flooded back. Then I remembered a folder my father had given me just before I got married.

My mom and dad were visiting me in Redding, where I was a reporter for the newspaper, and I was sorting through clothes in my bedroom when my dad knocked on my open bedroom door.

“Hi, Dad. Hot enough for you?” It had to be 102 already, and it was midmorning.

He smiled. “I have something for you.”

He sat down on the bed and patted the spot next to him. I plopped down.

“I am so proud of you,” he started. “Now you’re getting married, I guess it’s time I gave you this.”

He held out a thick, faded, dark-blue folder.

“What is it?”

I opened the folder and was surprised to see dozens of hospital invoices, insurance documents and doctors’ bills, all dated from the 1960s and ’70s and all carefully marked “paid” in his distinctive hand.

“Oh my gosh, Dad.”

He had saved and noted each bill, each surgical procedure, each hospital stay. As I leafed through, I came across a yellowed photo envelope and opened it. That was when I saw the photographs for the first time. I looked for only a moment, then shoved them back into the envelope and put it back into the blue folder.

There was an awkward silence.

I didn’t know what to say. Why had he saved all these things? And why did he feel it was important to give them to me now?

Finally, I mumbled, “Thanks, Dad.”

He patted my leg again, and stood to go.

“I think your mom’s waiting to go shopping,” he said as he walked out of my room.

“Okay.”

I sat alone for a few minutes. I felt confused and overwhelmed, as if he had shown me a film clip from my childhood, one I hadn’t expected and didn’t want to see.

Then I walked over to the dresser and put the folder in the bottom drawer, under some old jeans. I gathered my purse and my shopping list for the wedding and walked out to the kitchen where Mom was just finishing putting away the breakfast dishes.

“Ready to go?” she asked. I nodded, and as we left, I put the folder out of my mind.

(To be continued...)

Poem—In the Parking Garage

In the Parking Garage

(After Philip Levine’s “The Two”)

 

She opened the door and got out of the car,

walked briskly around and toward the

parking structure stairs, certain they

would be late. But it didn't matter. He

was trailing behind, as usual. There

was little said between them, 

too little said for too many years,

too grief-stricken at the prospect 

of there no longer being a them.

 

What unsaid things have passed between them,

what unthought thoughts have gone unbidden,

what fears unexpressed, what sorrows suppressed

in the face of exposure, of distrust.

The distrust that destroyed them. She stopped

and waited for him to catch up. The parking

garage waited in silence, too quiet for 

comfort, too cold for a moment that might

allow them to stop and remember.

 

The years have passed without understanding,

without recognition, without the knowledge 

that would come with too high a price for either.

Now the parking garage is silent. They have left,

left behind, left in a lost time that neither

can quite grasp again, time they would both grasp desperately

if they could.