I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch, despite the very positive start I’ve had in 2013. I’ve followed through with almost every promise I’ve made so far, something that feels really good to me. I’ve already tried to love again. I’ve realized that I am so far from having what I want in life. I keep reaching, and stretching, and not quite making it. When I wake up with tears in my eyes, when even my therapist and friends can’t understand how I feel, I remember that I have been missing a fundamental relationship for all of my adult life.
Sometimes a girl wants her mom. Sometimes all a girl has is a pile of letters. This, I find, is better than nothing.
I naively used to believe that if I cried enough tears the pain from the loss of my mother would magically be gone. I don’t believe this anymore. I recognize that the wounds will get ripped open each and every time I experience a loss. The scar tissue thickens, and thins. I forget that it’s there until a slightly raised portion gets caught on something, tears apart and starts the process all over again. I acutely experience the same insecurities I felt as seventeen year old, realizing that I would be going at this life without the physical manifestation of a very important person.
I used to think that someday I’d be whole again. That if I did enough soul searching things would heal completely. I don’t believe this anymore. I will never be whole. After 11 years I acknowledge that there will always be an emptiness. That’s what makes me, me. I accept that I feel more deeply because of this. That I have a part of me that I want to fill up with something else, even though that is impossible. I attach a little bit faster, love a lot harder, and crash a bit more spectacularly. There is no one who will ever be able to replace my mother, and there is a big part of my heart that still wants and needs her – that wants to be loved in a way that I imagine (cause I can’t ever know for sure) only a person who has raised you can.
My mother suffered from a rare genetic condition called Machado Joseph’s Disease, one that is passed on from parent to child. It’s symptoms include a loss of muscle control, double vision, increased frequency of urination, muscle fatigue and pain, trouble swallowing – as far as I can tell it’s kind of like turning back into a baby with a fully aware mind. She suffered greatly as she tried to both battle the condition, and reclaim her body and life after becoming wheelchair bound. Her fate was unavoidable.
MJD is relentless. It strikes and progresses until it’s job is done. If only I had such focus. No cure has been found and the only action it accepts is submission. Major symptoms started to present themselves at my birth. She was unable to push me out of her body. I would be dead if not for medical intervention. When I was six months old her hands stopped working and she scratched me in the face. Another time, she fell while carrying me in her arms. She was 32 years young when all of this began. She died a few months after I turned 18 and just three days before I headed off to college. I spent most of college numb, not surprisingly. I still managed to get decent grades, soooooo…no harm?
I can say with great sincerity that the experience of watching a parent die before feeling the excitement and boundless pleasure of youth had it’s effect. I recently admitted to myself that I think I want children, which is a huge step. For most of my life I equated parenthood (and my future) with death, demise, decay, degeneration, and a host of other negative d words. I saw my fate as intimately connected to hers.
In February of 2008 I decided to get myself tested for MJD because all the cool kids (my siblings) were doing it. I was 25. I lived my whole life with complete assurance that I had the disease. I had planned a career for myself based around MJD. I was looking and finding signs of the illness by the age of 22, so it was only a matter of time. I knew MJD better than I knew myself, and was prepared for it. This is what I had spent my whole life doing, preparing to be sick.
I was in Illinois, spending time with the man I was dating at the time when I got the phone call. The nurse on the other end of the line excitedly confirmed that I did not have MJD. My life from that moment on crumbled into a million, tiny pieces. Everything I’d been preparing, while thinking I had MJD was, in a moment irrelevant. I had been planning my life around an illusion.
There were a lot of things that I was afraid to do because I thought I’d be sick. I never sang or danced because these were things my mother loved, and to watch her loose her abilities was heartbreaking. I just abstained, and watched everybody have a good time. It was almost as satisfying as the real thing. At this point there are a lot of things I have done, but there are still a few youthful indulgences I want to fulfill. Having a sick parent meant being responsible for myself at an early age. There was no easing into adulthood. I could be seen doing adult-like things at an early age. I still find it quite difficult to loosen up and get silly, I’m a bit too serious. I still have never made out hard core in a movie theater, had embarrassing hickeys, bought a Christmas tree, or had a fist fight in the streets! These are all things I want to do before I die.
I’m only now finding my footing, returning to a path that will hopefully give me some stability and let some joy into my life. Being and artist and being stable seem incongruous, but this feels like the only way I can live my life: sharing my experiences, celebrating my life, loves, failures, successes, desires, and problems.
Time for a musical interlude.
The title of that song is Freedom/Motherless Child. There is a freedom in being a motherless child, but at a pretty high emotional premium from what I can tell. I sometimes look for other women who have lost their mothers around the same age as me. We are hard to keep up with because we like to run around, from place to place, trying to fill our hearts with something that can never actually be re. I dedicate all 7 of these posts, and the many more to come, to all the women who’ve lost their mothers during the sensitive teenage years. I know that it has made me both fiercely passionate, and in some ways developmentally stunted/emotionally sensitive. It’s hard for me to know what changed, but something did.
A few weekends ago, the same weekend that my father went in for radiation therapy on his prostate, my aunt found a box of letters from my mother to her mother, spanning the years from 1969 (my mother’s first year in college), to 1973 (the year of my parents’ marriage), and beyond. It’s the best gift I’ve been given, but I was hesitant to dive in. What if I found some horrible secret? I threw the bag in the corner and felt generally uninspired by the gift until last night when I woke up with that empty feeling. I knew what I needed, (Mot)Her Words.
I spent a few hours trying to piece together her experiences, and perhaps light my own path, through page after page of of nearly illegible, missives. I will start with a letter written in the fall of 1969, a few months after my mother entered college at the University of California: Santa Cruz. My parents met there.
It is notable to mention that the last person I dated went there also. It is not altogether unusual to meet people who went to UC Santa Cruz here in San Francisco, in fact, many of my friends studied there. This is the first time I’ve lived and dated in my home city, so something about it felt special. Like maybe I could reconnect with a lost part of my life through him. With me, everything feels special. I hope I never lose this quality. This last guy also studied the same things and had the same general interests as my father (psychology and music). This doesn’t mean I found him to be like my father, just that those were some of the things that made me feel connected to him, that made me keep up with it despite the doubts that I had. I think sometimes my brain tries to find my past and my future by being attracted to people that seem familiar. I want to connect deeply, so I find people who relate to important parts of me. I’m actively looking for something different now. I’m looking to make more of an authentic connection, not one based on things that I think feel familiar. Basically what I’m saying is I won’t be dating any more musicians.
I posted this Facebook status a few days ago in a desperate attempt to exorcize them from my romance sector.
Can I break a curse by making an offering to the musical gods on Facebook?
Throughout my romantic life I’ve seriously dated what I consider an inordinate number of aspiring/actively practicing musicians. There was the lead singer of the metal band in Spain, the sound designer and composer in Utah, and the drummer/dj in Virginia.
I’ve casually dated even more of them. The guy who was the backup vocalist for Santana in the 90′s, the bass and drum dj, the traveling songster who came and left with little more than a broken guitar, and the voice behind the shape-shifting, orchestral rock band.
I can only think that I’m attracted to these people because I was raised by two aspiring musicians, and for reasons still unclear to me, deny myself the right to openly and actively explore what songs I could be singing. The creative forces are after me, and if I deny it within myself they force me to try and date and love it, which is a punishment worse than the humiliation I experience at Karaoke.
Music runs deep on both sides of my family. My great grandfather, Frank Fairfax, led a big band in Philly in the 1930′s. The same big band that gave Dizzy Gillespy his big break. Dizzy was a figure in our family, and I met him a few times as a child. My father, brothers, and cousins have spent countless hours with their respective instruments and inspirations.
I have a cousin in LA, who I’ll admit to not knowing very well, who spent the last ten years playing keys for a band called The Mars Volta. I think people like this band. I remember visiting his house as a teenager.
Music, music, music, everywhere.
And so my offering is this:
Most holy music gods,
I will actively explore the music within me, support the musicians around me, and will wholeheartedly appreciate the gift that music is. I will even make a small shrine to music in my room, and pray that all the musicians in the world record often, tour comfortably, and remain addiction free.
I can get my guitar back and start playing again (yes, I’ve already started this process). I will even start paying for music instead of downloading if that’s what you want!
Please, don’t let me choose anymore musicians. There are too many artists in my family anyway. Send me a doctor, or a scientist, or a venture capitalist, maybe even a contractor, or a chef! I like food!
Hoping this reaches you soon.
Your humble servant,
I am backing these words up with focused action. Concrete works, backed by a faith that I will be able to find someone to love me the way I deserve to be loved. I’m being honest and I have evidence.
Last weekend I got trashed with a good friend while trying to forget that my heart was hurting after yet another unwise romantic decision that resulted in me getting rejected. Not only was I super annoyed by the end of the night, but my Saturday basically got absorbed by being ridiculously hungover. A man handed me his business card as we left the final bar at the end of the night. I stuffed it in my pocket, barely noticing what it said. I awoke the next morning and pulled the card out, squinting in horror after realizing that the man that I exchanged information with was a musician. A jazz pianist. FML.
He texted a few days later and we exchanged these words:
Jazzy Fingers: Hi Leslie.
Me: (I hadn’t put his number in my phone, cause who actually expects guys met in bars to call?) Is this the piano player?
Jazzy Fingers: Yup, that’s me. How are you doing?
Me: I’d be better if you weren’t a musician. I attract a lot of them. Trying to break this habit.
JF: Ahhhh, gimme a break. Not all musicians are the same.
Me: That’s what all musicians say. But seriously, I made a promise to myself to not get involved with any more music oriented folks. Love and respect what you do, but looking for something different at this phase of my life.
JF: So what kind of guy are you now looking for if I might ask?
Me: Warmth, empathy, emotional awareness, depth, commitment, humor.
JF: Are you sitting around at home texting like I am?
Me: (the next morning) Sorry, I fell asleep.
Hahahahaha! He never texted back, which was the goal. Apparently falling asleep while texting and telling a guy about it is seduction kryptonite. Look Ma! Ima changing my ways!
I spent a most selfless Sunday trying to connect a musician friend up with people who are totally into his band. I don’t know if my actions will bear fruit, but I sometimes think that it’s the intention that is important. My goal is to redirect this energy. I’m proud of myself for trying.
Without further delay, here is the seventh installation in a series I like to call In (Mot)her Words. My mom was probably about 18 at the time of this letter. She wrote it to her mother.
Sunday, October 19th, 1969
This is the first weekend that I haven’t seen all of you. Monica Ferris, that girl from Willow Glen [where my mom grew up], has gone home every weekend. Glen, has gone home every weekend. I’m beginning to like it here because all of the used-to-be unfamiliar faces are becoming familiar. The other day I bought another text – Basic Psych. Oh yes. I’m not taking Biology, thank goodness. I changed to Psychology instead. The lectures are 10 times more interesting. Prof. Marlowe, the instructor is a dirty old man and very funny. I think he is a frustrated comedian.
I would like to thank you for being such a good mother They are hard to come by these days, you know. I also want to apologize for all of the hard times I might have given you, criticizing etc., but you must understand that we adolescents do have it kind of rough. Am I still an adolescent? Golly, I guess not! Oh well, you have to grow up sometime.
We don’t get breakfast on Sundays and I’m starving!
Shirley’s mom wrote her a letter telling her that she could come home the weekend of Halloween. Did you know that Halloween falls on a Friday this year? That’s good for all the little school kids. Anyway, I think I’ll come home that weekend, too. Shirley and I can take the Greyhound to San Jose and we’ll get there at about 4:30. Her plane leaves the San Jose airport at 6:50, or something, so maybe she could eat dinner at our house that night.
You wouldn’t believe what a bad case of zits I’ve been getting! Big, deep eruptions that are really ugly and hurt. Speaking of physical disturbances, I can join your club for “those females with a vaginal fish odor.” It’s not all of the time; just occasionally. Brunch in 15 minutes. [WTH!]
How are you, Mother dear? Are you or are you not getting along with Dad? Cyd? Do you miss me? I miss you (Golly, doesn’t that sound babyish?)!!
I got a letter from Andrea Sennot and she had another breakdown. When she went to Santa Clara U last spring, she had one too. She said that she stayed up for three days working on a paper. That did it! She went screaming into the infirmary and they sent her home for the weekend. Poor kid. Reed must be really hard.
Last night I played frisbee and twister with some guys and girls. That’s Saturday evening excitement at Santa Cruz!
Thank you for sending my jacket and toothbrushes. I wore Shirley’s coat (which was a jacket) until it came.
Kiss Cyd and Donne and Baly for me (you can flush Tareyton down the toilet).
This letter makes me feel especially vulnerable, for both her 18 year old self and for me. I can only think that I was just as insecure as my mother was at that age. I can’t imagine how I survived after moving across the country for college, far away from my family and friends, at a time when I was so young and had experienced such a deep loss.
I don’t know how I’ve made it this far. I wrote no letters, had no home to go to on weekends, and was most likely experiencing deep depression/greif during my first (second, third, forth, and beyond) year of college. I find it borderline miraculous that I am still here, that things didn’t turn out worse because they definitely could have.
So through my mother’s words I have been able to gain perspective, to imagine what it felt like to be away from home and to be inching towards adulthood. I am filled with gratitude knowing that I survived that time in my life. I’m especially glad that I finally opened up the bag of letters. I’m glad I loved, and lost, and was once again forced to reach into the big, great emptiness inside of me.
I have an admission (as if the whole blog weren’t a giant confession already) all the art that I make, all the writing, all the “talent” comes from this empty space – from a very deep and fundamental need to create something outside of myself, to try and fill in the gaps, to try and make sense of what I once thought was a senseless existence. I think everyone has this hole. Many ignore it, some fill it with pleasure, with the immediacy of addiction. Some people fill it in with a significant relationship or two, others with children, some with jobs and money, musicians are people that fill this hole with sound an rhythm. Whatever works!
Love and Enjoy.