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Posts from the ‘Loss’ Category

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

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Lost at Sea

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I was molested by a relative when I was a preschooler.

Some of my memories of this are murky; others are surprisingly vivid. I remember blue-jeaned legs, a round red face, and not being able to breathe. The most disturbing emotion, which can send my heart racing even today, was fear for my baby brother in the next room. I was his big sister, entrusted with his care. I loved him with all my heart. His happiness and suffering I felt as my own.

I also remember what I was wearing at the time – a blue sailor dress with a red tie. I loved Popeye the Sailor Man and felt invincible in that dress. I remember standing on the couch in my dress with my arms out like Popeye – showing off my muscles. That dress and the big sister status — it had to be heady.

In one fell swoop, in that one miserable day, a terrorist entered our home and changed the course of my life forever.

When my parents reappeared to save me, I remember longing to sail off on a fairy boat with my mother.

That this occurred, is not a particularly unique thing. It is estimated that one in ten children are abused before the age of 18.

I believe my parents and other relatives knew what happened but, as was typical of the time, it wasn’t talked about. I am guessing they all assumed (hoped) I was too young to remember.

And I didn’t for a time, but eventually the clues kept appearing, memories returned, and certain mysteries about my life started to made sense.

A month or so before I moved to the Oregon Coast from Portland, I found an old photograph of a little girl at a thrift store I haunted for vintage art supplies. She cost a full $1.00, which was a steep price for where I was shopping. But, after I kept returning to look at her, I splurged and bought her. After I settled into my new coastal house, the first thing I did was pull the photograph out and begin a collage not knowing why or where I was going with it.

When I had finished, I saw a sepia toned phantom of my past – the Popeye girl in the sailor suit.

That little girl had gone away and I would never know her. I was consumed with grief. I call this collage “Lost at Sea”.

There is a memorial to lost sailors in the coastal town where I lived then. Their names are carved in stone and I think about the people they might have become had they lived.

If I could, I would carve the words “Betsy the Sailor Girl” into the stone. Instead, I made this collage memorial to the girl I was who was lost at sea – who didn’t become who she was meant to be, but lived to become another – no better or worse, but who, frankly, has had to swim through a tsunami to get this far.

Brave little girls, big sisters and beach angels

Bandon Beach Labyrinth

Bandon Beach ~ May 2015

Walking on Bandon’s beach last week, I remembered another day at this same beach — some 20 years ago. There was the same ominous heavy moist grayness, the same biting wind and moaning fog horn, and the same super low tide – which left a wide sandy beach covered in a thin glassy sheen of water. Rock outcroppings, usually underwater, were left high and dry, revealing damp caves and passageways.

20 years ago my husband, myself and our two kids were here on a family vacation. Our daughter, Hailey, was six years old. At the beach, this high-spirited little girl turned into an exuberant water nymph, kicking and frolicking at the edge of the waves. She was in her element and I always breathed a sigh of relief because, finally, here was a wild energy that matched her own.

Our son, Kai, was a new walker — a sweet chubby toddler — who we had thoroughly bundled up against the elements. He was happily walking along, with stiff arms and legs, as best he could.

With so much space and a long view, we relaxed and gave the kids free rein to run around.

But when we turned around — Kai had disappeared.

We heard Hailey screaming from a short way down the beach. Next we saw our beautiful fearless daughter plunge into a deep moat circling a large rock and fish little Kai out by his coat collar, dragging him onto the sand. He had gone in over his head – and sunk like a rock.

We ran over, bundled up our two soggy kids in beach towels and carried them up to the car. For a moment, our eyes met — sharing a silent terror – the grim knowledge that, had Hailey not seen Kai, we might not have found him in time.

This is not one of those stories that you laugh about later on. This is the story that you don’t want to remember because it leaves you chilled to the bone with “what ifs?”

Hailey is now 26 years old, a mother herself, and Kai is 21. I had happily walked this beach many times since that family vacation, but on this day I felt weighed down and traumatized. Perhaps it was the similarity in the weather or the season — or maybe even the actual anniversary. They say the body remembers these things and you never know what your subconscious has in mind for you.

I thought about the people I have known who had lost a child. I thought about the premature dissolution of that little family we were back then. The losses and traumas just seemed to pile up. I wondered how any of us can go on.

At one point, I came upon a sand labyrinth, expertly drawn in the sand. The words “Enter Here” with an arrow invited me in, so I stood at the entrance, quieted myself and began slowly walking. By the end of my walk, my dismal mood had turned to sobbing.

I cried for that scary day 20 years ago. I also cried for an even more ancient time when I was a child – a new big sister too – and had been unable to save my little brother from suffering.

I cried for all the times I had been powerless to help those I loved. I cried for the collapse of our little family, and the many times since, that their father and I had let our kids down. I cried for the times we hadn’t been there or done the right thing – or even known what the right thing was. I cried for my lost dreams of how things should have been. I cried because when we failed, it had hurt the two people I care for most in the world.

And also I cried because I was tired of being strong and brave. I was tired of being the one who carried this burden alone – the one who was blamed for everything.

The labyrinth builders, two women and a man, – unknown and nameless, but angels just the same – came up to me. I told them the story of the near drowning of my baby, just the tip of the iceberg, and they took turns hugging me as I cried.

We cannot plan these things consciously – these steps along to healing our life. They come when they do – if we give them the attention and the opportunity. I no longer believe I am to be blamed for everything. I know I cried for the person I was who used to believe that.

I meant to take a simple walk on a beach. Now I recognized it as another step toward the freedom I had been seeking when I first set off on this walkabout.

A freedom I am just beginning to taste.

A little research led me to the website of Denny Dyke, who I believe is the labyrinth maker on Bandon Beach: http://onepath.us/

 

 

The Invisible Woman?

Invisible collage 002

Me and Invisible Me

 

Last week a sales clerk gave me the senior discount automatically — without me having to ask. Whoa! That was a first.

I had dressed up too. Made an effort. Had my makeup on. I’d also recently lost a few pounds. I thought I looked good, middle-aged perhaps, but certainly not a senior. Apparently it is time for a reality check.

Or quite possibly, the clerk hadn’t read these breaking news stories:

Middle age begins at 60, says researchers

Middle age now lasts until 74 as baby boomers refuse to grow old

God bless the baby boomers. We are not going down without a fight. If we don’t like the rules, we’ll change ‘em. You wait. We might just outlaw old age altogether.

I am still sorting through what old and senior will mean for my life. My memory slips now and then. I sometimes strain to remember the title of “that book.” “You know the one,” I say to my friends of a similar age. They nod. They DO know, but can’t find the words either. Apparently we can now communicate telepathically. This is good news.

On the other hand, I can no longer learn a new language (I’ve tried), knit an Icelandic sweater, or move a furniture item of any weight and bulk up a flight of stairs. I am having to face up to some new limitations. Sometimes I look in the mirror, stretch the skin on my face, and toy with the idea of surgical intervention.

There are the jokes about aging and there will be the optimists piping in with things like: “Age is just a number!”, ”Aging is mandatory, but growing old is optional!”, “Embrace your age!” etc. My favorite one is, “You are only young once, but you can be immature for a lifetime!”

I see other people are sailing through just fine. I came to parenting late, having spent the last 15 years using my dwindling energy to make sure my children survived to adulthood. I have emerged from that absorbing effort to find myself a senior. It is going to take some getting used to.

And why am I surprised I am old?

Because inside, as other seniors will tell you, it is a different story. Inside I am stunning, a force of nature, a blizzard, a tropical storm, an avalanche, a hurricane — for god’s sake. I have it going on. I know what’s what. I have big ideas, plans and dreams. All systems are go.

And finally I have a voice!

But will anyone listen to me – senior that I am? What are these words I hear whispered on the wind: “Irrrrrrelevant” . . . . . . “Invvvvvisible”

There is something familiar in this actually. It is my home turf in many ways. As a woman I have been grappling with some stage-of-life version of “invisible” my whole life. From petitioning for the right to wear pants instead of dresses to school, to the right to choose, to the right of equal pay for equal work – to name a few.

So now it looks like I must add ageism to sexism.

And how about love and the “invisible woman”? I would like to fall in love again. I thought I would be over this by now, but apparently it goes along with being a human of any age. I’d like a chance to do it better and make – ahem – better choices. But, as my neighbor lady says, “That’s a topic for another time and a bottle of wine.”

The advocates push old as bold and empowered. I am having trouble building up enthusiasm – but maybe I’ll get there. Obviously I need consciousness raising. But, there are the grand words and then there is the reality — which seems to me to need a total societal remodel — which I do not feel up to tackling at the present time.

Being old and getting even older is the unknown. I have few close models. My parents didn’t make it to 60, like I will – if my luck holds – this August 2015. I am a little scared. The end – MY END – is coming closer. Losses are multiplying faster. If I don’t go first, I will lose someone.

So I guess it is time to get busy making long awaited dreams come true – which I am doing as best I can.

Hopefully my body and my bandwidth can keep up the pace for a good long time.

Collage artist

The Collage Artist

Love In The Time of 40 Rose Bushes

rose garden

I used to own 40 rose bushes.

They came part and parcel with a house my new husband and I bought in Boise, Idaho — when we were young, in love and wanting to settle down and start a family.

The roses were a riotous mix of colors and shades, lined up prettily against a low weathered gray fence in a sunny courtyard of our new backyard. The windows from the kitchen, eating area and sun room looked out at them. They were in constant view and not easily ignored.

I preferred to grow vegetables back then and was intimated by the responsibility for these roses, so fragile and elegant — and not at all like a melon or head of lettuce in usefulness.

Still, the roses had been growing at this house for a long time. And someone, or a succession of someones, had cultivated and maintained them – perhaps loved them. I was learning to honor love and ready for new responsibilities. Now that the baton had been passed to me — I did not want the roses to die on my watch.

I diligently studied rose cultivation with books borrowed from the Boise Public library. (These were the days before Google!) I mounded loose acidic bark at the base of each bush and put in soak-er hoses to keep their shallow roots cool and damp through the hot Boise summers. I fertilized them, vigilantly watched for disease, picked off aphids and clipped spent blooms. That first fall, instructions in one hand, sharp new clippers in the other, I pruned them rather far back – reducing them to ugly gnarly stumps. I had a few winter months of worry that I had killed them.

But no, they were consistently resilient and reliable, dying back each fall and blossoming beautifully each spring we lived there. The death/rebirth metaphor for my own life is easy to see now with the distance of age.

The roses came to be a source of pride and joy for me. I needed something alive to cherish and nurture, so I showered those 40 rose bushes with the love I was unable to give the child we could not conceive.

Now, nearly 60, with spring on its way, reminding me of my roses and those heady glory days when opening to new love was easy and untainted by its potential for crushing loss, I do another little bit of grieving for the past.

I know that some years later, after we had moved, that beautiful house and its 40 rosebushes burned to the ground — just like my life did, or so I thought, for several years after my divorce.

There are things you can not know about love until you have loved and lost. There are things you can not know about how to live and honor life until you have been burned to the ground. I could not know these things back then.

But I do know, that as long as I am alive, there are still lessons about love ahead of me.

GLORY DAYS

There were brilliant autumn days

where I stood in fields

gone rampant with abundance.

And I was full to swelling and beautiful.

My baby was a round cherub,

a pumpkin,

and my husband was puffed up with love.

And we were going to live forever.

Glory Days!

The days God gives to remind us,

as winter comes,

that in the end,

it was all worth it.

Betsy Lewis

Helpless

"And it all came tumbling down"

My startling, chaotic dreams seem closer to real

than the face I show in the light of day.

So many tangled threads to follow and sort.

So much to not know.

I’ve lived many lives,

now houses of cards that left with the tide.

I am longing for something real today.

But the only thing I can strive for is being human.

And that is no work at all.

Betsy Lewis 3/2015

The summer my mother disappeared (Part 1)

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard - In the Garden.

Margaret Keane Big Eyed Art postcard – In the Garden.

That summer began with the disappearance of my mother.

Oh, it was clear that someone knew where she was, but no one was talking. If I was to find out anything, it was what the adults blurted out by accident or what I could decipher from their code. Every once in a while, I would get a direct statement from them in passing — while they were on their way to something more important – like mowing the lawn.

“Oh by the way, your mother is visiting her brother.” There it was. The critical crumb tossed my way by my dad as he dashed out the door on his way to work. If a person wasn’t paying attention all the time, they might have missed it.

The four of us, my younger brother and my two little sisters, were moping around the house, looking like those sad big-eyed kids in the posters for sale at the Five & Dime. We were hungry for information, all ears tuned in and alert to when our next fact crumb was coming.

But we knew better than to ask. My dad had always said, “Children should be seen and not heard.” When the out-of-state relatives were called in, we knew it was something big, but that summer of 1968 — no one was telling us anything. Did they think we were morons and didn’t notice a think like our mother disappearing?

Sure, my mother had kind-of not been there mentally lately, but we always knew where she was. She had laid in bed in her room doing nothing but smoking for weeks – ever since she had returned from the hospital. Next to the bed was an overflowing ashtray of cigarette butts. Sometimes she was difficult to see with all the smoke, but at least you could always find her.

Occasionally she would emerge with her big vacant eyes and wander around the house — doing pretty much nothing. I had been taking up the slack for her and had a million questions, but she was pretty useless in that department also. I started raiding her closet and wearing the one or two outfits of her’s that weren’t ridiculous looking. She didn’t even notice.

To be honest, the whole thing was getting old fast. Everyone was always going on about how happy they were that my mother had survived brain surgery. I wanted to scream at them, “MY MOTHER IS NOT OK!!! ARE YOU BLIND, DEAF AND DUMB?” But of course I didn’t do that. I was too mature to say stuff like that anymore. It seemed easier to just nod my head and agree that everything was hunky dory.

Things got scary at times that summer too. Once, in the middle of the night, I awoke to flashing lights, loud voices and the sound of gurney wheels clicking down the hallway. Although I was afraid it was a zombie attack or the end of the world, I got up to take a look. Uniformed men with walkie-talkies shooed me back into my room and the next morning I found out that an ambulance had come to our house and returned my mother to the hospital for a couple of days. On top of that, every once in a while, my mother would go missing – just up and wander away. My dad would panic and the police would come to our house — which was really embarrassing.

One night my dad was cooking tater tots for us for dinner. We were getting a lot of TV dinners and tater tot meals — which was probably the one good thing in our lives that summer. Well, he burnt his hand taking them out of the oven. Then the worst thing I had ever seen happened. He threw the pan on the floor and started crying. I had never seen my father cry before. I felt like the world was coming to an end. I walked into my bedroom, climbed into bed, pulled the covers over my head and hid until morning.

One day, near the end of school, we ran out of shampoo. My dad told me to use a bar of soap. He said he did it all the time. That was terrible advice! My hair ended up lying flat and gummy on my head. I am not the most popular girl at school, but the one thing I had going for me was my long blonde hair. NO WAY was I going to school with my hair like that and I let my dad know — in no uncertain terms. He got that almost going to cry look on his face and yelled, “OK, don’t go then!” and stomped out the door. I was stunned. In my family you had to practically be on your deathbed to miss school. I ended up staying home and washing my hair about twenty times using dish soap. I knew mom would have known what to do. I vowed to never ask my dad’s advice again.

My brother and sisters had started to drive me crazy too. At 10, 8 and 4 years of age, they were being obnoxious and bratty, having stupid fights, making huge messes and breaking things. Once, my brother threw a fork at my sister. It missed her, but cracked the sliding glass door. I just wished they would GROW UP!

That summer our dog, Ollie, disappeared suddenly too. Dad said we couldn’t keep an eye on him anymore, so he had to go to “a farm.” The little kids were crying and sniveling and missing Ollie. Frankly, I was glad I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, although I thought “the farm” story was highly suspicious.

Mid-summer it was decided that the three little kids were going back with the out-of-state relatives for the rest of the summer. Since I could not bear another minute of their childish behavior, I decided that I would stay home with my dad. Though I knew a trip to my relatives would mean regular meals, swimming, a tan, horses, amusement parks, lots of ice cream and an unending supply of shampoo, I didn’t want to leave my dad alone. I had already taken over a lot of things my mother used to do. My dad needed me. It was time for me to grow up. I was no longer a child.

I was almost thirteen for heaven’s sake!!!

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