The Lie of the Best Self

A year after my mom passed away, my brother and I sat down to do the laborious work of going through the boxes of things she had kept over the years. There were four large boxes full of keepsakes: letters, photographs, newspaper articles, notes written on scraps of paper and works of childhood art created by Patton and me. We quickly found ourselves immersed in memories attached to feelings of joy, admiration, grief, dismay and even anger.

These boxes opened up both the wonders and the wounds of our childhood. For us, like so many, these two are in an inextricable knot.

We found our father’s license to minister and sat in silence over the absurdity.

We found elementary school report cards, noting the teacher’s observations that we were not okay.

We found dozens and dozens of letters from our maternal grandmother and aunt expressing veiled concern for our well-being in their attempts to skirt under the ever-watchful eyes of our father.

We found at least 20 Valentine’s Day cards our father gave to our mother, expressing love and devotion that surely meant nothing to her in the face of all the pain and suffering he caused.

And we found our own notes and letters – written to one or both of our parents from early childhood into adulthood.

It was uncomfortable for me to read these letters and see more clearly than ever before the work I was committed to as a child and young adult – the work of holding my parents up when they were down.

And they were almost always down.

There were hastily written notes of love and encouragement from my teenage years attached to gifts of money from me to my father. Even though I presented them as such, they weren’t really gifts. My father expected me to hand over to him much of what I earned through odd jobs, babysitting and house cleaning with my mom.

Mom even kept a note I wrote late one night in high school…hastily on a scrap piece of paper apologizing to my father for getting angry with him when he wrecked the car and didn’t have the means to fix it.

As we sifted through Mom’s boxes, I came across a letter I’d written to my parents when I was 11 and in sixth grade. This was the year that my father’s money-making schemes truly failed him, as the women’s clothing store he’d opened the year before (named Kaysie’s…for the love) was upside-down financially before it even began, and dad’s work ethic wasn’t such that he could or would ever turn it right-side up.

And the creditors came calling.

They’d had enough.

I can’t say that I blame them. My father accrued massive amounts of debt throughout his life and then ran away from the consequences… dragging his family with him as he ran. This instance of bankruptcy was the first of three for our family.

Why people continued to loan him money is beyond me.

Of course, with bankruptcy comes repossession, and the bank repossessed our house.

Our beloved Archwood house.

Here’s the letter I wrote:

I actually don’t remember writing this. I don’t remember thinking that everything would be okay. I don’t remember feeling grateful for all the things my parents had done for me, and I certainly don’t remember thinking they were moving us for my own good. I don’t remember telling my parents that “I can take it if you can.” Instead, I remember feeling afraid and angry.

Reflecting on it now, I realize it wasn’t so much the loss of the house that broke me. It was the loss of the neighborhood. It was the loss of belonging somewhere. But mostly it was the lie my parents told me in their attempt to soothe my pain – this was happening for my good and God was in control of these events that so clearly were the fault of my father.

Once we left Archwood, we never gained a true sense of belonging again, and their lie made me believe that God was responsible for that. We were displaced emotionally as well as physically for the rest of my childhood – moving no less than ten times over the following six years. We finally landed in Colorado my senior year of high school, and it was there that I felt the sense of belonging I’d been searching for ever since the loss of the kudzu-covered green belt I’d spent so much of my elementary years exploring and running to for my sense of calm. Living in rental houses, apartments, the empty houses of strangers who were traveling, and a random one-bedroom cottage for a month in California – shuffling our ever-diminishing stash of possessions with us as we moved – doesn’t exactly cultivate a sense of belonging. We were received with love and kindness almost everywhere we went, which I know is more than many in similar circumstances ever get, but when we lost Archwood, I lost the sense of who I was in the world and struggled to find it again for the next 15 years.

At least.

Also, with this letter I embraced a lie of my own that I’ve struggled to disentangle myself from ever since.

The best version of me is the only acceptable version of me.

I took it upon myself to present to my family a strong front. I kept my emotions in check, I stuffed the pain of loss, displacement, neglect and loneliness, and I turned instead to positivity, chronic busy-ness, levity and false hope in order to protect my parents – and worse, to protect God – from the “bigness” of my true feelings.

And I chose to believe my parents had my best interests in mind.

But they didn’t.

They had survival in mind.

I knew this deep within my core and so reasoned that I needed to be one less thing. It became my mission to be small for the sake of my parents.

Only I’m not small. In fact, I can swallow a room with my essence if I’m not careful.

At the age of 49, as I read the letter I’d written as an eleven-year old girl, I was no longer able to hold back the bigness of my true self – the despair, fear, panic and rage I’d really felt when I wrote it.

And these emotions swallowed me.

This has been happening a lot lately.

In therapy, I was finally given a term for this experience of overwhelm from the big feelings associated with the pain of my childhood – emotional flashback. These flashbacks are different from what others describe experiencing when dealing with PTSD. There isn’t a visual component for me. I’m not reliving a particular moment in my memory. The reel isn’t replaying in my head. Instead, a tidal wave of emotions I can’t associate with a particular instance washes over me. Being unable to connect these feelings with a moment in my past makes me feel out of control. Not my favorite feeling. Then there are the times when something painful in the present triggers an emotional flashback, and I find myself caught in the tension between the present and the past. This is the worst of it because then I feel I’ve lost control over both.

My therapist is slowly and very patiently showing me that the path to healing is to embrace the eleven-year old I left behind when I wrote that letter… with all of her big, painful emotions and her sense of loss over the necessary move. And to embrace the three-year old who felt responsible for easing her mom’s constant state of overwhelm. And the eight-year old who felt it necessary to watch over her little brother and fill in the nurturing holes in his life our parents could not or would not fill. And the six-year old who thought it was her job to stop her father’s drinking, to stay vigilant in his presence and ever-watchful for signs of danger, and to motivate him to make something of his life.

To nurture the child in me is to let go of my attempts to continue to control the state of my being and to present more than the parts of me that feel safe enough and together enough for others to see.

It is my work in therapy and my work with God – trusting in the end that He is with me, was with me (in the pain He did not create) and loves whatever version of me I make available for Him to love.

This work is so very hard to do.

But as I do it, I find that my hold on the lie I have believed is loosening. I don’t have to always present my best self. Or maybe I’m learning to redefine what my best self is. God has been kind to place safe-enough people in my world that love me despite my big-ness, despite my brokenness. In fact, I’m beginning to see that they love me because of those things. When I let them love me, I let God love me. And that is my best self.

Lucy and My Shadow Self

I have a friend named Lucy.

Lucy is witty, thoughtful, passionate, committed to her people, a fashionista in the truest sense and maybe a little bossy.

She also happens to be eight years old.

Every summer Lucy and her mom, my best friend Keek, come to Oklahoma to stay for a week. We swim, watch movies, play in the park and go shopping. It’s a highlight of the summer for Davy and me, but for Lucy it turns out it’s her favorite week of the year. Somehow Auntie K’s house in Tulsa, Oklahoma has become her go-to vacation destination. In fact, she is so taken with the wonder that is my house that she announced to her mom her wish to have her ashes sprinkled in my backyard when she dies.

I try not to let it go to my head.

The truth is I have an amazing collection of Littlest Pet Shop toys I held on to when my daughter outgrew them, and I’m pretty sure they are the real attraction.

Whatever.

I’ll take any love she has to throw my way.

During our week together this summer, we made a special trip to a favorite store of mine. I was in the market for a new stone for my Qudo ring and thought Lucy would be the perfect shopping partner. We made our way to the counter, and Lucy chatted up the attendant while she pulled various stones out of the glass cabinet and laid them on a cloth on the counter. She observed the sizes and qualities of the stones, making her observations known to pretty much everyone in the store.

She’s enchanting, to say the least.

We were having a grand time until it became clear that her bold and colorful fashion preferences and my generally muted style choices were going to clash. Everyone in the store was clear on the fact that Lucy’s tastes were by far superior to mine, so I indulged her and her audience by taking the time to “try on” each stone, screwing it into my ring one-by-one. Not an easy task for someone whose hands shake constantly from the impact of pain, depression and anxiety on my body. Nevertheless, I persisted, and about 25 stones later, Lucy and I were at an impasse as to whether I should choose the large, fuchsia stone with rose gold encasing she preferred or the much smaller deep gray, gold encased one more to my liking.

I gotta tell you, it was hard to look into her beautiful Asian brown eyes and tell her the hard truth… I was going to buy the gray stone.

Hand modeling isn’t the career path for me

Lucy is a resilient young woman, and she took the news well despite her disappointment. But I guess I was struggling to release myself from some misperceived eight-year old judgment, so as we were driving home I said, “Lucy, I’m sorry I didn’t choose the pink stone, Gray is my signature color, and I really wanted a gray option to go with my mostly muted wardrobe.”

Lucy, all solemn and serene while staring at the passing cars, responded with the wisdom of a woman who has lived out the fullness of a long and complicated life, “It’s okay, Auntie K, you have to be true to your shadow self.”

Have you ever had a moment with a child when such innocent insight and clarity is thrown at you that you can only respond with wondrous – and maybe a little bit of uncomfortable – laughter?

I felt as though this eight-year old princess of China had reached into my soul and seen the essence of my struggle with self.

And then gave me permission to embrace it.

Depression and anxiety accompany me through most of my days. I can’t remember a time in my life without at least one of the two by my side. They present themselves a bit differently in different seasons, but they’re always there.

I haven’t made their presence welcome. I’ve resisted. I’ve suppressed. I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve done the work recommended in the best books… all in an attempt to leave both depression and anxiety in the dust.

Several years ago a therapist described their presence in my life as my “early warning system” – my self’s way of letting me know it needed my attention. He recommended I choose a position of gratitude towards them, noting that many who struggle with this sort of melancholy are often caught in the wave of it unaware that it is coming. Yet my unwanted friends have a way of showing me trouble is on the rise.

At the time I couldn’t embrace his way of thinking because the idea of welcoming their presence felt wrong when compared to my ideal that the end goal in the work of therapy should be to rid myself of depression and anxiety altogether.

That was many years ago. And like you might with a neighbor who never brings in his trash cans, has a dog that barks late into the night EVERY NIGHT, walks out to his mailbox wearing nothing but his robe and a pair of boxers… and wants to chat, but also keeps an eye out for possible hazards or intruders because your safety is a genuine concern to him, I’m developing an unexpected appreciation for my companions.

I mean, we’re not going to snuggle up together on the couch, but there’s a growing embracing that is happening that allows me to more readily relax my posture toward the presence of both depression and anxiety in my life.

And I guess with that change is coming some much-needed kindness towards my shadow self Lucy so astutely discerned.

50

Two weeks ago I celebrated my fiftieth birthday.

I’m fifty years old.

FIFTY.

Is it odd that I cannot say that the age that I am is equal to the age that I feel?

I look in the mirror and see an aging woman. I feel my body aging much faster than I would like. I have the gray hair, the progressive lenses, the cane in my car – granted, my body is much older than the average 50-year old.

I have four children – three of them grown.

I have a grandbaby.

I’ve been married for 25 years.

The evidence of my age is all there.

I’m fifty; and yet, I thought this milestone would come with an inner sense of grown … one that I’ve never been able to grasp, but hoped would come with the passing of each decade.

Maybe at 30.

Or when I hit 40.

Now that I’m 50.

But instead, in contrast to the aging happening on the outside, I still often feel very much like a child on the inside.

Oh, I can adult up, if you will. I can parent; I can wife; I can friend; I can counsel. I can do the things for the people.

Until I can’t.

Because the thing is, when you spend your life as a child being the adult in the room, it’s hard to be the adult in the room feeling like a child.

So, in honor of my 50th birthday, and as part of my ongoing effort to let my child self know I see her and am trying to make peace with her, I made a couple of “unique to me” grownup decisions for myself.

First, I did this.

Lots of gratitude to Marceau at Anchor & Rose in Tulsa, OK for his care and dedication to getting this exactly right for me

This is probably the most not-at-all me and yet the most totally me thing I’ve ever done. I absolutely love it and appreciate the daily reminder it is to me of this journey I’m on toward healing and wholeness, and the growing hope that I have that there will be something redemptive birthed from it in the end.

I have to admit that I love the badassness of it quite a bit, too.

Second, I did this.

Maybe not quite as badass as the tattoo, but whatevs

I have had one ear double-pierced since I was 18-years old. I desperately wanted to double pierce my ears as a teen, but my father vehemently forbade it. When I turned 18, however, my grownup friend, Cheryl, offered to do it for me because … EIGHTEEN.

Right? I mean, what was dad going to do? I was an independent woman at 18 years of age. It was time to exert myself and live my own life, dammit.

YES.

Pierce. My. Ears.

So, Cheryl proceeded to ice my left ear, needled it and put the earring in. I loved it! The problem was, she had to get to work after we finished the first ear. I don’t know, maybe it hurt more than I thought it was going to hurt and so it took longer than we thought it was going to take. It was a long time ago, okay? I really don’t remember. Anyhoo, she had to go to work, so I had to go home with one ear double pierced. We planned to finish up later.

You can guess where we’re heading with this story, right?

My father, whose awareness level as to the needs of his family was somewhere close to nil, somehow was immediately aware of the single gold post in my left ear.

And he lost his ever-loving mind.

It wasn’t a good day for me. It’s way worse to think you’re your own person and then realize you’re not, than to never think you were at all. It’s like getting a gulp of fresh air before the window is slammed shut to a suffocatingly hot room where the air barely moves. That gulp of fresh air is just not enough. How could it be?

I never got the other ear pierced. I considered doing it a hundred different times over the years, but I think I just wasn’t able to make peace with the 18-year old who couldn’t stand up to her drunk, deadbeat father who needed her to help make the mortgage payments, but wouldn’t let her get her ears pierced.

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this girl. It’s not my favorite work, I’ll be honest. I’m not loving the process. There’s a lot about her that makes me uncomfortable, but I’m getting some new perspective as I do this, and I know it’s important that I learn to see her with new insight and understanding.

Besides, my therapist is making me do it.

So on the day I turned 50, I went to Claire’s with my grown daughter and my 9-month old grandson, sat on that stool like a brave girl (though I was trembling on the inside, tbh), and let the crabby store clerk pierce my right ear.

And then silently vowed to never willingly pay another person to cause me pain unless she can do it with a blasted smile on her face.

I am now evenly pierced; balanced, if you will. And not just in my ears.

I feel like I closed a loop.

Maybe it’s in the closing of the loops and in making peace with the child in me that I’ll finally be able to know myself as a real grownup.

Mrs. Sneed, the Grownup

Walking down the sixth grade hallway of my school, I scanned the class lists posted outside the classrooms. But I knew where my name was listed. I could feel it in my gut – deep inside of me where the things I prayed would never happen but felt certain were going to happen liked to sit and churn, making me queasy and forcing me to spend copious amounts of time on the toilet.

I was right. My name came into focus on the list as my heart sank within me.

I was in Mrs. Sneed’s class. The teacher everyone in the school feared.

Mrs. Sneed was a tall, stern woman, with perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly pressed dresses, and perfectly polished shoes; with a pair of pink satin slippers she kept in her desk drawer and unabashedly pulled out to wear in the classroom whenever her feet needed a rest. A shocking routine I never could get used to.

And she was scary. I knew she had very high expectations in the classroom, the cafeteria, the gym, the hallways and on the playground. It was clear that her eyes were going to be on us at all times. This was an unsettling prospect to the kid who spent her days roaming the neighborhood freely with little-to-no adult supervision. It’s not that I was out tearing up the town, mind you. But I had grown accustomed to a great deal of independence. I was trusted, given a lot of responsibility, and shouldered it well… at least on the outside. I wasn’t interested in giving up that autonomy.

The year was 1980, but the town and the school were still tethered to the ideals of previous decades where classism and racism determined your place both in the workplace and on the playground. The school was guided by principles of strict discipline enforced both with a sharp tongue and a swift paddle, and the teachers were white women working in a difficult environment with what I’m sure was a piddling salary.

So a soft side to any teacher’s personality was a rare bonus. I was quite sure Mrs. Sneed didn’t have one. As the days of the school year turned into weeks, however, I began to see that there was more to Mrs. Sneed than her severe exterior.

There was a girl in my class, a bit of a loner, named Susie. She started her period one day in school – while wearing white pants.

Dear God.

This poor girl was in the hallway with Mrs. Sneed when I was summoned there to join them. The compassion in our teacher’s eyes directed me as to how to respond to my classmate in her moment of shame – one I was still unfamiliar with since my menstruation cycle had yet to begin.

Mrs. Sneed looked at me and said, “Kaysie, take Susie to the nurse, but make sure that you walk right behind her the entire time. Susie, here,” she said as she handed Susie the attendance book. “You carry this book behind you. And try to look natural.”

Ummmm….okay.

I’m pretty sure we did not look natural. But Susie wasn’t alone, and I could tell that meant something to her.

As the school year progressed with Mrs. Sneed securely at the helm in the classroom, my family floundered at home with no one securely at the helm. Being in the house was rarely a welcome prospect, so I tried to be just about anywhere but there, and that was most often on my bike. One day, though, the chain snapped in half, leaving me completely stranded and worse, without the means to fix it. We couldn’t afford to buy a new chain.

My mom forbade me to ride my bike until we could replace the chain, since without the chain it was also brakeless. This was devastating.

And an impossible ask.

So I rode it anyway.

I took my bike up the biggest hills in the neighborhood, hopped on the seat and coasted down, allowing the bike to glide to a stop on its own. This worked great.

Until it didn’t.

One night, I took it across the street to the neighbor’s driveway where I began to use the momentum I gained going down to ride back up again, doing this same motion over and over again until I was riding the circle with some force. It felt great, and I was really letting off some steam. The situation turned on me, though, when my instinct kicked in as the urge to brake hit me when my bike’s speed became too difficult to manage in the tight circle I was navigating on that driveway.

And without a chain, remember, I was without brakes. This, in and of itself, wouldn’t have been that big of a deal except that (1) my pedals spun out under me, (2) my pedals were steel spiked, and (3) I was barefoot.

The left pedal carved a two-and-a-half inch long gash into my heel that probably should have been stitched up, but guess what I didn’t do?

Tell anyone.

First of all, I wasn’t supposed to be on the bike. Second, we had no money. Like, NONE. Like, my parents were sleeping on a mattress on the floor because they had to sell all the bedroom furniture so we could eat and keep the lights on (and buy dad’s booze). There was zero chance I was making myself the reason my parents were going to be that much more stressed about cash. So, I hobbled across the street, parked my bike in the carport and cleaned the wound with water as best I could before putting on a sock to cover it up.

I did a good job of keeping the foot hidden for a few days, but for some reason, my attempt at first aid was inept. Go figure. By the fourth day or so, wearing a shoe at school was horrible. I couldn’t bear the pressure against my heel so a limp was really hard to hide.

Mrs. Sneed, with her excellent skills of observation, noticed. She called me to her desk and asked me why I was limping. I tried to come up with an answer that I thought would satisfy her curiosity, but as I hemmed and hawed over the possibilities (damning myself for slowness of creativity in the moment), she ordered me to take off my shoe and sock so she could see things for herself.

Humiliated, with the eyes of all my classmates on me, I did so.

It took some effort to peel the sock away because it had adhered itself to my foot, but as I did, Mrs. Sneed gasped with horror when she saw the small river of infection running down my heel. Green pus oozed inside the gash and a smell wafted from the wound that turned even my stomach. She quickly put her handkerchief over her face, then grabbed me by the arm and led me, hobbling at her side, down the hall straight to the front office.

Fear gripped my heart as I knew now my secret would be out. My mom would know I’d been on my chainless bike, directly disobeying her. That fear turned to the familiar feeling of shame as I realized that medical costs were now unavoidable.

Shame swallowed me up every time my need cost something of my parents. Having a need caused our roles to switch, and it was uncomfortable when need moved me from care-giver to care-needer.

I think for more than just me.

Not that my mom wasn’t loving and tender when I was hurt. She was. But when there was money involved, she was so distracted by the enormous stress and the resulting anger from my father, she struggled to remember that she was the grownup.

And I struggled to remember that she was the grownup, too.

Inevitably, though, I landed in the pediatrician’s office with an infected foot.

“It should have been stitched,” my doctor sighed, “but the best we can do now is bandage it up and give her a shot of penicillin.” I took my shot like a big girl, thinking I’d gotten off pretty easy in the end. Of course, I didn’t have to write the check.

When I returned to my classroom the next day, Mrs. Sneed took one look at me hobbling in and said, “No ma’am. You come here right now.” I approached her desk with dread, having a vague sense that she cared maybe a little too much about my wellbeing and was about to do something that would scar me forever.

I wasn’t wrong.

She sat me down in front of God and the whole class, ordered me to take off my shoe, pulled her SHINY PINK SLIPPERS out of the desk drawer and forced the left one into my hand.

I looked at that slipper. Then I looked up at her.

My mouth gaped open.

“No,” I finally managed to get out.

“Oh, yes,” she firmly replied. Then she took the slipper out of my hand and slipped it gently onto my foot. She stood up, placed her hands firmly, but kindly on my shoulders and nudged me towards my desk.

“Kaysie will be wearing my slipper every day in school until her foot has healed. NO ONE will say one word to her about this. NOT ONE WORD. Do I make myself clear?”

She did. Crystal clear.

I wore that blasted pink slipper for almost two weeks. It was awful. There were a few kids in the school who routinely tormented me anyway, so this was a delightful scenario for them. But in the midst of this somewhat tortuous affair was the presence of the previously dreaded teacher who saw me in my pain and shame and, even though she was clear on imposing appropriate (although severe, to my eleven-year old thinking) consequences, she met me there with compassion and kindness.

She saw me and made sure I wasn’t alone… even though I thought I wanted to be.

I’m glad my prayer wasn’t answered that year.

I think God knew I was going to really need a grownup in sixth grade, so He gave me someone who was quite confident in her ability to be one.

Visiting my elementary school alma mater (2nd-6th grade) in 2015

Stinkfoot

When I think of my family of origin, I see my mom, my brother and myself in one tight circle – intricately connected, and my father outside of the circle, but with a rope tethered to each of us, binding us to him in different ways.

It’s with new understanding that I now see how mom was bound to my father and helpless and defenseless to his treatment of her. Her binds also made her incapable of protecting my brother and me. We were all vulnerable to his manipulation, emotional and physical abuse. It’s taken me a long time to frame what happened in my childhood home as abuse and what went on between my parents as domestic abuse, but I do understand this now most of the time (and I turn 50 this month – for the love).

My eyes are opening, although they are crusty, cloudy, and the light is painful.

With this awakening has come anger towards all the people, which is unsettling to my almost 50-year old self who understands the above and feels great sorrow over it, but often gets sucker punched by this flash of anger. I’m learning in the therapy room that there is also this younger part of me who needs a chance to come to terms with what happened in our home and until the child in me can do this, she’s going to feel a lot of big feelings – anger, rage, anger, and then some more rage.

Good times. #prayformyhusband

And, yes, I know there are a host of other painful emotions to feel, but I’m most comfortable with the anger, so let’s go with that for now.

The real challenge for me is to hold the tension between my adult self who is almost 50 (almost – let’s be clear on that) and has deep compassion and love for my mom knowing she did the best she could to protect me, and my child self who is pissed as hell at my mom because she wasn’t able to make the choice to get out and rescue us from the hell we were in with my father.

I’m not quite sure how to do that without tearing my soul apart.

I guess I say all this to say that this journey of mine is going to be messy. And since I’m choosing to write publicly as I walk it out I thought you as a reader should know that I’m aware of this and mostly okay with it. I know of too many people silently suffering alone with a childhood that they don’t quite understand to hide my journey in a diary with a little key that doesn’t work anyway.

I tell my stories as well as I can. Some of them are funny, some of them are powerful, some of them are sweet, some of them are sad. But a lot of them are messy and still in process.

Just like most of life.

And today I am messily missing my mom because I caught myself inadvertently using one of the quirky little nicknames she used to call my babies when she played with them (which was all the time) as I played with my own grandbaby. She was an amazing grandmother, and I hope it’s the first of many times I look at my little grandson, Teddy, and call him “Stinkfoot” without even thinking because when I do I know that’s a tiny piece of her so ingrained in me it comes out without even an ounce of effort.

And every little piece of her in me counts.

Mow Your Own Lawn

My father never allowed my brother and me to leave the dinner table without first offering our mother the requisite “I enjoyed it” statement of gratitude and respect. This didn’t feel like too big of a deal to me since even if the meal consisted of black-eyed peas, cornbread and milk, mom always seemed to find a way to make the meal enjoyable. She often even scraped together the simple ingredients to make a chocolate pudding that was worthy of plating at any five-star restaurant. So we almost always did enjoy dinner.

What was maddening to me about dinner was the presence of my father at the head of the table, watching him enjoy the meal with some twisted sense of pride and accomplishment and knowing he’d done little to provide the resources necessary for the meal. I dreaded the end of the meal the most, knowing what was coming as dad would inevitably, in a satiated state that sparked a magnanimous spirit so contrary to his true self, end the meal by ceremoniously offering to help with cleaning the kitchen. Mom always feigned delighted surprise, joining the charade by replying, “That would be wonderful, Billy,” while I white-knuckled the chair under the table knowing full well what was coming next.

“Kaysie, help your mother clean the kitchen.”

He then promptly propped up his feet, popped open another Pabst and lit a cigarette.

That was his way. He regularly swept in and took credit for the work that others were doing – usually the others were my mother, my brother and me.

The lawn our little house on Archwood sat on was my father’s pride and joy, and he took great care to make sure I attended to all the details of keeping it manicured to his satisfaction.

I learned how to push a mower around the age of eight, with Dad either standing over me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth or sitting off to the side in a lawn chair with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth – but either way, he did plenty of pointing, yelling and criticizing when I let that heavy mower veer to the side and missed a sliver of grass.

Not actually me.

When Mark and I were raising our older three children, and our oldest (and only daughter) hit ten, I began to nag Mark about teaching her to mow the lawn. He looked at me like I was a crazy person.

This pissed me off.

What?

She was ten! Isn’t that the age you learn to mow? In fact, isn’t that LATE?! Weren’t all the other kids who were ten already mowing? When our sons came of mowing age a couple of years later, I about lost my mind. Are you freaking kidding me?!! A ten-year old boy isn’t old enough to take over the mowing responsibilities?!!!

My poor husband. Thankfully, he held his ground and protected our children from my ignorance about such things. Not that it’s inappropriate to begin to teach and bring your own children into the family process of working TOGETHER to take care of the lawn. Yes, of course that’s completely appropriate. But that’s not what was happening in my childhood home. So it took some reframing on my part since I thought it was very normal to be responsible for the lawn by the age of eight or nine.

Of course, I also thought it was normal to be responsible for the emotional stability of my family at the age of eight.

So there’s that.

My brother has been doing some writing of his own as of late (copycat) and recently sent me an essay reflecting on his experiences with dad and the lawn that really prompted all this musing on mowing. In fact, his writing threw me into a spiral of sorts because he has a way of writing that really places the reader in the moment with him – living it, if you will.

Or RE-living it if you’re me.

Not fun if you don’t care to relive those moments.

I do not.

My therapist, though, is quite pleased it’s happening, insisting it’s a necessary part of my healing journey.

Journey, shmerny.

Since reading that lawn mowing essay of his, though, I’ve been doing a helluva lot of lawn mowing. Not literally. In my dreams. While awake I close my eyes and see the rows of cut grass – but then there’s that one line I missed, and my stomach drops. Or while actually sleeping, I push the damn mower back and forth over and over across that giant lawn in the heat and humidity of summer in Tennessee. Or I finally finish and go inside the house so glad to be done and so ready to cool off, only to be ordered back outside by my father because I didn’t rake up all the grass and bag it.

And I’m tired. Like, deep in my bones tired. In the present, not in my dreams.

While reading my brother’s essay, I discovered that my mom was watching the mowing shit storm from inside the house, and I didn’t know. My baby brother wrote about his memory because even as a preschooler he was insightful enough to know something was wrong with what was happening, and the memory cemented itself in his brain… and then connected it to his own mowing woes with dad later on.

Yeah.

The revelation of her awareness has been a sucker punch to me. I know it must be obvious to most that of course she was aware of what was happening to us and should have done something to stop it. But it is a new way of thinking for me to see my mom in this light when I have always placed her as just another victim in our family, or even as someone I needed to look after.

But, no, mom was watching, mom was aware, mom was participating in the charade at the dinner table, and mom needed to step in and tell my father to get off his ass and mow his own damn lawn.

If You Don’t Cry

A playground in the 1970s was the most dangerous place for a child to be.

First of all, there was rarely any adult supervision.

Second, the play equipment was more along the lines of an American Ninja Warrior course…minus the safety nets and water underneath the hazards.

The swings alone were responsible for countless injuries. Those wooden planks with steel bolts held massive steel chain links that burned your skin off in the Southern summer heat and collided with the head of many a child who miscalculated the pendulum of the swing.

Yes, I was one of those children.

We lived in an apartment complex in Nashville, Tennessee for two years when I was five and six years old. The complex had one of those ninja playgrounds complete with a massive swing set, a solid steel merry-go-round that spun so fast the real challenge was to avoid being thrown to the gravel ten feet away, a steep metal slide with a ladder that threatened death, and a wooden see-saw that seemed out of place in that sea of metal.

The see-saw, however, had dangers of its own. My five-year old self can’t accurately measure the length of the wooden plank that made the see-saw, but it was so long that the real draw of the thing was the slide up and down the length of it. Its wood was weathered, making the top smooth and slick, and excellent for sliding. If I could convince two sturdy kids to sit on the ends and be the bobbers going up and down, then I could enjoy the sliding. I had quickly learned that the role of bobber was not for me. Control over when the other kid might bail and send me crashing to the ground from the full height of the see-saw was, quite simply, something I was unwilling to surrender.

So I was the slider.

The thing about this slide was its edges. Yeah, it was smooth and slick on top, but the sides were not only rough, they were splintered and breaking down. One day as I slid, I held onto the sides a bit too tightly and felt a painful prick in my left hand. When I looked down, there was a tiny drop of blood at the entry point, but across the entire width of my palm was a giant splinter measuring three inches long.

No big deal, right?

But it was.

No one could get it out. My parents took turns poking and prodding and pulling and tweezing while holding me down, as I screamed and writhed underneath them. They had neighbors come over and attempt the same. My poor little hand was traumatized with the effort.

My soul wasn’t faring much better.

It. Was. Not. Budging. Much to my father’s chagrin, we needed help. These were the days well before urgent care centers were on every corner, so we had one option – the emergency room. And, for reasons I will never understand, my father was the one who took me.

At the hospital, I was placed on a thin, metal bed in a freezing cold room with bright lights above me. I remember the hospital staff around the bed with their blue gowns and masks on. Someone walked over to my left side and strapped my arm down and out away from my body.

Then, suddenly my father’s face was above mine as he said to me, “Kaysie, if you don’t cry, I’ll buy you whatever toy you want from the toy store.”

Now, before I continue with the story, I think it’s important to note here that I can count on one hand the number of times my father bought me a toy. This includes Christmas and birthdays. So, you can imagine how he was able to get my attention with the above proposal.

Five seconds later two masked doctors stood on each side of my arm. One of them pulled out a huge needle, told me to hold still, and injected it into my hand.

I mean, for crying out loud.

Except, I couldn’t cry out loud.

We’d made a deal.

Kind of.

I never really agreed, but I never said no either. Not that there was time. Between the shock of what was happening to me, the sheer lack of comprehension of it all, and the blinding pain I was experiencing, it was all I could do to keep the contents of my stomach inside me.

But I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. I didn’t shout. I held my breath or barely breathed, pinched my right leg with my right fingers as a distraction (a coping skill I’ve held onto, by the way), and held still just like the doctors asked, while they surgically removed a three-inch piece of wood that had embedded itself in the muscle tissue of my hand.

Because as soon as I heard my father say toy store, the game was on.

I don’t think he was baiting me. I don’t think he was daring me to see if I was gutsy enough to get through the procedure without crying. I think my father was a coward.

Looking back on the situation now, as an adult and a parent of four children of my own, who has accompanied each of them to the ER for various needs (some of them multiple times, bless their exhausting little hearts), it feels to me that he knew that it was going to take everything he had, which wasn’t much, to get through my procedure, so he was desperately trying to find a way to make it easier for him.

Because you see, there were no hospital vending machines for gin.

And gin was how he got through the things.

But you know what? I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. At the time, I was focused on one thing…this:

And I wanted it bad. Just real bad.

I wasn’t a doll person, typically, but THIS doll was primo. I mean, she ate, she drank from a bottle, AND she peed in a diaper! It wasn’t a toy! It was like having a real, live baby!

Spoiler alert: not so much.

After the procedure, I was placed in a wheelchair and wheeled into what must have been a holding area with my dad. I didn’t know this, of course.

Why didn’t adults talk to children in the 70s?

My dad must have decided he would die without a cigarette at this point because he told me he’d be right back and left me sitting there alone in my wheelchair. Suddenly, a nurse approached my chair and began wheeling me down the hall to another room…without an explanation and WITHOUT MY FATHER. She was one of those lovely no-nonsense nurses, so without fanfare, she pulled up my right sleeve, sanitized my arm and gave me what I now know was a tetanus shot.

For the love.

After that little bonding session, I was returned to the holding area just as my father turned the corner, so No-Nonsense Nurse Nancy passed me to him, and I feel confident he was quite relieved to then walk his five-year old stitched, splinted and dry-eyed daughter out of the hospital.

I never shed one tear and, for once, my dad was true to his word. My Baby Alive was delivered to me brand new and in the box by my father later that same day.

I gotta tell ya, though, I paid way too high a price for a doll that kept getting clogged with baby food.

Because this became a pattern between my father and me.

Once I proved my strength in a crisis, I guess he thought it meant he could expect me to step up the next time it was needed. And the next time. And the next. And so on.

I guess I thought so, too.

You know, I never went back to the middle of that see-saw. I realized that the bobber position was perfect for me after all.

Choosing Life When Death Is All Around

I spent many happy hours playing in a funeral home as a child.

Not the likeliest play place for a child, granted, but for me it was quite the haven.

We visited my mom’s hometown of Belmont, Mississippi frequently throughout my childhood. It was only a couple of hours away from where we lived, so we drove over there about once a month if someone (usually her mom or brother) paid for the gas to get us there.

This tiny town had one stoplight in the whole of its intersections, and I’m pretty sure I was somehow related to a good 80% of the population, so there must have been an enormous feeling of safety for Mom when we were there.

She felt known there. She felt cared for there.

I did, too.

In Belmont, Mom had her mom, a brother and two sisters, and an extensive extended family. Her father died when she was only five years old in a freak boating accident. He was a hero in that small town – a WWII vet and an entrepreneur – and he left behind a funeral home business that was just beginning to thrive.

Fast forward to my childhood, and my great-grandfather, great-uncle and uncle ran two funeral homes that served much of northeastern Mississippi.

It was the lifeblood of the family.

When death is essential to your livelihood, your experience with it and around it is very different than the norm.

My uncle, aunt and my cousins lived in the apartment above the funeral home, so when we were in Belmont I spent the night there with my cousin, Karissa.

I anticipated those sleepovers, but I look back now and think of the language the adults used around us with a tiny bit of horror.

“Where are Kaysie and Karissa sleeping tonight?”

“At the funeral home.”

“But Mike went to Corinth to pick up a body. Who’s going to be with them?”

“Well, Sandra will, I reckon.”

There were bodies getting picked up all the freaking time.

I mean, my kids would die.

But this was my second home.

My cousins and I played hide-and-seek in the casket room. Sometimes we extended that game beyond the boundaries we’d been given (I mean, this is me we’re talking about), and we’d stumble into one of the embalming rooms where a body was being prepared for the memorial service and burial. And, yes, I snuck around to those doors when my uncle was working to see what I could see.

I mean, of course I did.

Unfortunately (really, thankfully), he was mostly very good at keeping those doors shut tight.

The funeral home chapel served beautifully as a school, a store, a doctor’s office and a church where my cousins, my brother and I spent many happy hours pretending.

I learned to mow in the nearby cemetery. When I was ten, my uncle was the first to put me behind the wheel of a vehicle, and it was on the country road that led to the cemetery.

My mom is now buried in that same cemetery.

We had her memorial service in the same chapel where we played school and church as children. It was literally standing room only…packed with those who came to honor her life and show us their love and kindness.

Her body was lovingly prepared for burial by my first cousin, Jonathan, who spent all those years playing with us, then grew up and became a part of the family business.

His older sister, Karissa, coordinated the entire funeral service, plus the burial and all the flowers and the meal afterward and so many things I don’t even know about, because when your mother dies you can’t think straight, and you really just about lose your mind. Karissa also grew up and became a part of the family business. She was my first playmate as a child, and she was an angel for me during some of the darkest days of my life.

These people who took care of all the death things when mom died were also the people we ran to at least once a month growing up because my mom needed a safe haven from the death we lived in every day of our lives at home.

We experienced more life living in and around that funeral home as children than we ever did inside our own home.

In 2009, Patton and I went back for the first time to visit Mom after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was seven months pregnant with Davy, my fourth child (just in case you’re unclear on why the giant belly).

After forty years of marriage to my father, Mom finally saw the death in her marriage, made the hard choice and ran home to stay. She was embraced by her family and friends there and allowed the space to begin to heal. She rekindled a romance with her high school sweetheart, Jack, and found true love.

Mom was given 11 years of love and at least some seasons of wholeness after the choice to walk away from death and into life.

My father, though, after forty years of keeping mom ensnared by telling her he would die if she ever left him, did just that. He died just ten months after she left. Alone, with nothing and no one.

Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t know why mom stayed with dad for as long as she did. I can guess at it and probably hit on the top five reasons pretty well.

  • She didn’t think she could raise two children on her own. (She did anyway, by the way)
  • Religious teaching at the time was consistent with the cultural norms in the South that said women were inferior to men and should stay in a submissive and committed role unless he commits adultery. She was literally being indoctrinated with this even though her husband was drinking away all of the provision for the family and at the very least abusing her emotionally, while also abusing his children.
  • She really, really, REALLY wanted to hold on to the hope that he would fulfill his promise and someday change.
  • She didn’t want to be a burden on anyone else.
  • By the time we were older, she didn’t want to raise us in a small town.

It’s hard to look at this and wonder at why she stayed in this tomb of a marriage for so, so long. Painful, even.

But in the end, here’s what I really do for sure know… Mom tried really hard to choose life in the midst of death and Dad always chose death in the midst of life. This meant that my brother and I were given many lessons in life from our mother and many lessons in death from our father.

You can guess at who we preferred as a teacher.

Belmont, Mississippi is now a sleepy little town. It was a little sad to drive through and around so many places of significance to me as a child and see that they were gone or stagnant.

But when death came for mom and we gathered there for her memorial, life was teeming all around her.

I’m really glad she chose to live.

October 2017 at an oncology visit just five months before Mom died.

My Brother’s Keeper

If you were a kid worth your spit in my neighborhood, you had a BMX bike.

There were a couple of exceptions…

A couple of banana-seaters who were still pretty daring on skateboards and sledding hills… and my baby brother.

That kid, with his light brown curly locks and big blue eyes, could follow us anywhere. I’d dash for the door as soon as I was released from my chores or homework, but without fail that little guy would catch my eye on my way out, and simply ask, “Can I come, too?”

And even though Patton insists on memories of being sad because I left him at home, the truth is it was rare that I told him anything but yes, although I may have done my share of age-appropriate moaning and groaning about it from time-to-time.

And as long as he could keep up, NO ONE was sending him home.

The Christmas I got my BMX is seared in my memory.

Most of our childhood Christmases were donated, and I was well aware every year that it was never a given that we would receive much of anything outside of what our extended family gave us, so I was overjoyed to see that most desired of all items under the tree that year.

It was a beaut. A shiny blue Schwinn with spiked pedals and everything.

Kids these days get bikes to ride with helmets up and down the same street with their parents watching the entire time.

So lame.

Kids in my day rode bikes all over the freaking town.

A bike pretty much meant total freedom.

Oh, and that baby brother I mentioned above? He got a little training wheel bike. Bless.

God, he was cute…but that bike was getting him exactly nowhere.

It was okay, though. When he couldn’t keep up on that, he fit just fine on my handlebars.

Our neighborhood was filled with a passel of kids all around the same age, and we tended to move around as a unit, finding ways to stretch the limits of our BMX skills.

We thought we were awesome.

We loved to jump…for height, for distance, for dares… and just for the heck of it.

One afternoon, a neighbor boy brought out a new ramp he’d built for us to take turns jumping. This ramp was special. It was about three feet tall with a long slope leading up to the edge — not necessarily built for acquiring great heights, but, man, if you came at that ramp with some good speed, you could really go the distance.

You know how I know?

That day we decided to measure our jumps.

Keep in mind that these were the days before sidewalk chalk, and none of us were stupid enough to risk our lives by swiping the treasured tape measures out of our dads’ tool boxes.

So we came up with a genius plan.

We decided to use our own bodies to measure the jumps.

Laying our bodies on the pavement, making sure to place the youngest (my baby brother) on the outer edge, we started with a reasonable number – FOUR – and added children from there.

It was thrilling.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the back tire of your BMX just barely clearing the left femur of your five-year old baby brother.

I cleared six kids.

The neighbor boy who built the ramp astonished us all by clearing ELEVEN kids.

And then, as we were setting up for the next jump — where I was going to attempt seven kids (Dear God) — across the street I saw Loyce Ann Frankland, one of the moms, come crashing through her front storm door, all the parts of her body swinging with the rhythm of her frantic dash across the front yard, while screaming, “STAAAAAAAHHHHP!!”

I don’t know that hysteria and verbal thrashing is the best combination for getting a reasonable point across, because even after the massive “talking to” we received that afternoon, I was a grown-ass woman with my own children before I fully realized how serious things could have turned out that day — especially for my little brother.

Honestly, I’m not sure how my brother managed to get through second grade.

Oh, his grades were fine. It’s just that I was the one keeping an eye on him most days, and I think it’s well understood now that children don’t do a great job at taking care of children.

This wasn’t understood then, though. At least not in my house. In fact, I think my brother was considered better off if he was with me. I know I for sure felt that way.

I rarely left him at home. It was either too damn sad, too damn lonely, or worse — too damn scary.

But when I think about it now, and examine some of my behaviors towards him that conflict with the sense of responsibility that I felt for him, I can see that with the sense of responsibility and love I felt came feelings of anger and resentment.

I’m not sure how I didn’t clearly see it before. It’s kind of embarrassing, really.

I mean, the kid would lay on the floor with his giant red blanket, sucking his thumb and minding his own business, when I would walk through the room and, instead of walking around him like a normal person, or at the very least jumping over him like an active kid, I stepped ON him as I moved through the room.

What in the actual hell?

One particular display of rage left its mark on us in different, but definitely troubling ways. When Patton was three, and I was eight, I was on my bed drawing or writing something, and he wanted my attention. I was busy, so his problem-solving resources went into action to try to get my attention. Like any conniving little brat of a three-year old, he proceeded to swipe my pencil, causing me to mess up what I was doing. I asked him to stop, erased the mess and started over. He did it again. This time, I TOLD him to stop, fixed it and started over. HE DID IT AGAIN. Now furious, I did what anyone would do in the same situation…

I stabbed him in the arm with my newly sharpened pencil.

I know, I know. You’re thinking, “What? That’s not a big deal.”

No. I mean.. I broke the pencil in my three-year old baby brother’s little arm.

Yep.

And 40 plus years later, that lead is still there. This is the mark left on Patton.

I just about had the life beaten out of me for that, by the way.

And I 100% believed I deserved that beating. This was the mark left on me.

I still have a hard time explaining to myself that I was a child often looking after a child…and shouldn’t have been. The level of responsibility that I not only felt for my brother’s well-being, but was expected to shoulder as well, was immense. The truth is, there were times when I tried to say no to taking him along with me on my adventures — and guess what? Inevitably, I was told to “look after your brother.”

So, yeah, I felt responsible. And I felt guilty.

If I’m honest with myself, the responsibility I feel for my brother continues to be out of proportion to what is generally expected and acceptable to a typical family. I will at times make statements that cause close friends or family to stop me and remind me that he is an adult human who I am not responsible for…bringing me to tears as I try to wrap my mind around this truth that does not feel true.

So why the cruelty and dismissiveness towards him when I so clearly loved him and desired to keep him safe from whom/what we most feared?

Well, first of all I think I was just a really pissed-off kid. Pissed-off kids sometimes do mean things — especially to those closest to them.

I needed a punching bag. I needed to feel big and strong and in charge, and I was certain to feel that way when I had my baby brother in my control.

But also, I needed to take big risks so I could feel like I was in control of some of the chaos in my life, and since my brother was always with me, there was no separating him from the risk. Not in my mind anyway.

I think when you mix a craving for risk and danger like the one I had and the immaturity of an 8,9, or 10 year old… you’re just for sure creating a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, disaster never came.

I never even broke a bone. His OR mine. He never needed stitches (I did, of course — several times) in my care, never got stung by a bee in my care… I don’t think the child even got a splinter while he was in my care.

What’s everyone griping about anyway? He’s obviously perfectly fine.

Aside from that pencil lead thing, I mean.

Words, Words, Words

My mom loved to tell the story of the morning she came to get me from my crib when I was just ten months old, and I looked up at her and said, “I want one now.”

These were my first words.

Ya’ll, I’ve had four children, and I’m here to tell you that if my ten-month old spoke words to me – ANY actual words to me – I would freak the hell out.

This is not natural behavior for babies.

But my 21-years young mom didn’t really know any better, so she simply asked me what exactly I wanted “one” of and gave it to me.

Done. Check.

I wanted a pacifier, by the way.

It was probably my way of saying “Get me the hell out of this crib,” too.

Cribs are a funny thing. They’re meant to be a space where we can place our most treasured humans and feel certain that they will be safe from harm.

But I’m guessing that to some children that barred bed is often less a safe space and more the prison cell it looks like.

That could explain the time I forced my toddler-sized head through those bars and got myself quite stuck, requiring the sawing of said bars in order to get me out.

Bless my mom. She had a LOT going on.

Imagine being 21 and married to a drunk, PLUS mother to a talking dare-devil baby.

That first baby-talking incident must have been the beginning of my sense for the utility of words, whereas the love that I eventually had for words and the almost compulsive need within me to use them to make my way in the world sparked not long after and certainly never left, even if the medium of expression perhaps changed now and then.

I was reading fluently by the time I was three.

No, I don’t think I was exceptionally smart.

I was certainly precocious.

And words just came easily to me.

In my first three years of life, my father dragged my mother and me with him across Mississippi and Tennessee, preaching in small churches but never staying long enough for the truth of his lifestyle to come out. My mom didn’t mind my chattiness. In fact, I think she relished it. It soothed her. I guess I wasn’t the only one who needed a pacifier while in a cage.

I think my father enjoyed my constant flow of words, too. I could charm the socks off the congregation of the church during the welcome dinner, allowing some grace to fall on whatever his state might be at the time – given that his “state” was usually somewhere between edgy and slightly inebriated to barely functional and totally sloshed.

I was pretty handy to have around.

When my brother came along, I became his “words.” For whatever reason, our parents couldn’t understand a word that came out of his mouth until he was about four, so until then they relied solely on me to interpret for him.

Bless.

I remember one day he came running into the living room, babbling desperately to the bewildered adults there, who, of course, turned to me.

For the love.

And yes, I understood perfectly what he was saying and interpreted for them with as much condescension as my seven-year old self could muster, “He wants the clown mask in the top-left corner of his closet.”

Sheesh.

As I grew, I became quite skilled at using my wordsmith superpowers to collaborate with my brother and masterfully distract mom from the reality of our situation. We were the perfect pair. Patton’s dry wit and my dripping sarcasm, along with her ability to take our good-natured, but unrelenting teasing made for constant entertainment in the midst of what was often otherwise a miserable existence – especially for her.

Distraction was good medicine, and words made that possible when not much else was available to us.

But here’s the thing about how words work in the home where the driving force is alcoholism.

You think they work, but they don’t.

Because even though I could wordsmith my way around and through many things, my words never changed my father.

And I had more power over him than anyone else in the house.

I’m not sure why that is.

He certainly had plenty of power over me as well.

But when I was older and dad was working more consistently, if I was with the family when we went out to eat, he asked to eat in the non-smoking section and didn’t order alcohol with his meal.

And he never smoked in the car when I was with him.

These were weird and small, but noticeable boundaries that he started observing when I was maybe ten.

I think my complaints, my obstinance, my unwillingness to just take it from him worked in these areas, insignificant as they were.

And honestly these small victories for me were defeating in many ways because power with great limitations is just… bondage.

It’s funny how I felt so strong about confronting him when it came to his smoking in the car or, later, in the house. I could argue with him for days about what smoking was doing to him. Eventually, by the time I was in college, I even got brave enough to hunt around the house and pull out all his hidden bottles of cheap liquor, pile them in the middle of the kitchen table, and prepare a speech meant to convince him to “finally” face the truth and admit that he was an alcoholic and needed help. My brother and I would do it together, and my body would fill with a very persuasive energy assuring me I had the upper hand this time around.

And it was a lie. Every time.

And the really upending part of this story is that it played on repeat.

For 38 years – until the day my father died.

Well, okay. I’ll cut myself some slack and say that I managed to stop believing my own lie a few months before he died, when I finally realized my words actually held no sway over my father.

Growing up a wordsmith child of an alcoholic makes for a complicated human. Although I am hard-wired to use words to make my way in the world, my childhood experience makes me reticent when futility lurks in the shadows.

And so when words are required to make progress say, in the realm of my own emotional and mental health, I can get quite stuck.

It’s hard to unlearn the things we are absolutely convinced of in childhood.

My brother’s middle child, Henry, who shows the kind of economical wit most grown men never achieve (Don’t tell him I said so.  It’ll go straight to his head, and I just can’t have that.) likes to welcome my wordsmithing family to his Texas home with his charming freckle-faced smirk and a dripping with sarcasm Words, words, words to his mom.

The boy doesn’t yet appreciate what my voice can bring to the table.

And when it comes to the emotional work I’m needing to do, I’m not sure I do either.