Biographical Non-Fiction posted March 2, 2016


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Rainbows and Sunsets

by maggieadams


I remember reading my first self-help book. It was all the rage when I was in college, a 'pop' psychology book, required reading in many classes. My friends and I would go around saying, "You're Okay, I'm Okay," and then we'd laugh. It dealt with active listening, validating one's feelings. We would have to practice by parroting back what was just heard: "I heard you say you felt sad when your boyfriend broke up with you." Today, it would be considered hokey--outdated-- but honestly, when it comes to communication, it works because it does not minimize feelings. It works because everyone needs to feel validated; everyone needs to be heard.

Everyone from the You're Okay/I'm Okay generation also remembers Oreos.  Picture how you used to eat them.  Were you one who took the chocolate wafer from the top and licked the marshmallow cream from the bottom wafer?  Or were you like me, keeping the cookie intact and taking little nibbles through all the layers?  Satisfying communication is much like eating an Oreo.  When criticism is sandwiched between two delicious compliments, it goes down smoother.
******
I attempted the Oreo approach after a week of silence between my daughter and me caused by years and years of toxic interactions.  I sat down and wrote an email that I knew could end my relationship, but it was time to confront reality.  Yes, it was three weeks before Christmas, and the chocolate wafers may have been thinner and the filling unsweetened, but I finally stood up and said, "enough is enough"--a stand I should have taken years before:
      
       Dearest Laurel: I appreciate how important it is to you to have good character, and you do.  I have been processing what took place last Saturday and went to counseling as soon as I could.  I have wanted to keep as calm as possible and not stir the pot of our raw emotions, so therefore, I have taken a step back--a break from you...You always have an open door to voice your hurt feelings, but, however you want that to be the narrative of what took place on Saturday, that is not what I experienced.  It is not okay to aggressively blindside anyone with layers and layers of blame and shame--things totally out of one's control or power to fix.  I felt like I had been taken hostage by your anger and deep-seated loathing of me as a person.  I had no idea your dad divorced well, and I deserved it.  I had no idea I wrecked his reputation...I had no idea I was such a loathsome person, and you hated me coming to visit in Eugene...For your own sake, I wanted you to stop with the assault because where do we go from here?  I can no longer be your punching bag. I cannot be an unemotional listener when attacked with such venom. Your deep, deep hurt and incredible anger can only be dealt with in professional counseling.
     I have deep sadness for both of us because I know that you did not want to have this day happen.  I know you are a good, good person of great character, but you need to learn how to channel your hurt and anger and communicate in such a way that does not come across as an attack.  No one can win in that situation...we both come away bloody and wounded.
     Now, we need to figure out Christmas because the wonderful, innocent children of our family need to have joy and peace.  We both have so much to be thankful for.  Hank and Maggie are the sweetest most well-adjusted children I have ever known.  I love them with all my heart.  Guess who is their mother and has rocked their world?  You, that's who.  We will get through this.  Love, Mom

When I pressed send, I wondered how my 'Oreo sandwich' would be received.  I wandered downstairs and sat in the darkened living room, staring at the evocative ornaments on my tree.  A ballerina on pointe twirled from a center branch, sparkling in the white lights.  She was an exquisite dancer, best dancer on the stage, couldn't take my eyes off her.  The fat cats, elongated cats, wooden cats and glass cats were scattered among the bobble-head Labrador, the stately Golden Retriever and the wild-eyed Shi tzu painted on a pearly white ball. All immortalized on our family tree.  We surrounded her with furry friends; she loved them so.  Her kindergarten picture pasted onto a white paper plate, now yellowed with age, hung plaintively from a lower branch, alongside her sister's picture snapped into a glittery mason-jar lid. The white lamb, which stood watch inside her sister's incubator for two years, sat prominently on a branch near the heirloom angel that topped the tree. Both invited peace and joy.  She had been fascinated by the angel--told her it would be passed on to her.  How could she rewrite our family history, leaving out the 'good' memories, the traditions?  The Christmas tree stood as proof that there was adoration---that there were good times, even magical times. 

Choosing to detach from my daughter, to unplug from the socket of her inner rage, was not an easy choice, but one I had to risk.  I did not make this choice lightly, and poured through my self-help books, reread years of journal entries, and sought counsel from my sister and a professional counselor.  I even wrote several emails to my ex-husband, who had detached from Laurel for two years before accepting conditions, so he could meet the grandchildren.  I call this a silver-lining to a very dark cloud, but that's a separate story.  All sources, including my ex, supported detachment.   And then, the first missive, filled with "You will" and "You must" and "You, You, You" arrived from Laurel's attack dog, her husband.

Clearly, Joe did not get to eat Oreos the proper way.  He didn't even have a lick of soft filling.  And I doubt that they have You're Okay/I'm Okay sitting on their book shelf, more like You're Bad/We're Good or You're Wrong/We're Right type books.  He's a business lawyer, and now I wonder if he even learned the first lesson in communication:  Always start from the "I" statements such as "I feel upset when..." not "You" statements.

I spent the week in front of my tree, licking my wounds, knowing that I would spend Christmas alone.  I stared at the carefully selected and wrapped gifts--Star Wars 'stuff', Ninja Turtle 'stuff' for Hank; an Elsa karoake doll for Maggie--I piled them up and put them in the closet.  Having them under the tree was too painful.

When one becomes a mother, does that mean she is responsible for her children's happiness for the rest of her life?  That she should shoulder all the blame for the disappointments and hurts of the past?  Unconditional love--what does it mean?  My daughter and her husband are hung-up on two terms: unconditional love and detachment.  "You cannot detach," it read, "you are her mother and you must love her unconditionally, period."  We all love imperfectly, don't we?  I believe I tried.  If anything, I gave her too much devotion, trying to make up for not being her biological mom.  She felt entitled to my love no matter what she said or did; I was expected to always be there to pick-up the pieces.

I do understand that our divorce hurt my young adult daughters--that this pain clutches to their psyche and will last a whole lifetime, but I can't redo this chaotic time in their lives.  I can't fix it or change it, so I've kissed the "boo-boos" and moved on.  One, the underdog preemie, accepts; the other does not, preferring, instead, to stay stuck in the past.  She knows she has all the power to punish me: She is the mother of my grandchildren.

I read the last "you" statement, and it broke my heart.  "You will never be G-ma again."

I texted my daughter on Christmas day, wishing her a Merry Christmas, and then on New Year's Day, wishing her a Happy New Year.  Nothing came back in response.  I took down the Christmas decorations and lovingly wrapped the eighty-year-old angel with care before tucking it away for another year.  Upon the advice of my counselor, I took all the gifts and placed them on my daughter's porch.  All said: Love, G-ma.  My grandchildren can read my name because I taught them to write and read our family names.  No acknowledgement was given.

My sister called the other day as she does every week.  We have been dealing jointly with my daughter for many years.  My sister is well-versed in the psychology of getting on with life.  "Maggie, I know how painful this is that your grandchildren have been taken from you, but somehow they will come back into your life."  She paused and cleared her throat.  "Uh, Uh...have you ever considered that maybe it is time to make yourself available...maybe just someone to hold your hand and to watch the sunset with, or maybe even a rainbow?"

I hung up and sat in the darkened living room.  Tears slid down my cheeks.

 

   

  






 

 


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Writing this was painful. Thanks for reading. Tears are sliding down my cheeks because I don't know how this story will end.
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