And Then There Were None
All week I’ve been going back and forth between breaking down in tears and figuratively putting my fingers in my ears and saying “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” And then there’s these times when I’m all, “Hey! Look at me, adulting like a real person and handling things!” Of course, these moments are brief and quickly followed by riotous laughter from the cynical me and the adolescent me saying, “You shouldn’t have gone there,” as the eyes of toddler me well up and spill over into big ugly sobs of hurt and betrayal.
Just a quick little disclaimer: This post is going to deal with dissociation and will likely feel like a great deal of blame and self-pity. However, it really is more about naming and accepting things for what they are. I lived a life and things happened and I dealt with them in the ways I was able to and these coping mechanisms have affected my life in the ways that they have. This is my truth and I have to see it for what it is so that I can identify when I fall back into unhealthy coping mechanisms today. I mean no one any malice. I simply need to speak and be recognized where I stand.
Early Monday morning my grandpa died. I feel like God has been foreshadowing this event in my life for about a year now. At the same time, I have been opened up and exposed to feel the weight of not only this, but the passing of all my grandparents as he was the last.
I was born with five grandmas and one grandpa. My dad’s father died about a year and a half before I was born, but his mother lived until I was 18. I had a great-grandma on my dad’s side that I don’t remember because she died around when I was two. Both of my maternal great-grandmothers died when I was 16 or 17. I was off at school a few hours from home when the second of them left us. It was surreal. Heavy, but far away because rather than being around family I was dealing with it among a bunch of teenagers, none of whom had ever met my grandmothers.
My dad’s mom was an interesting character. I had good, but mostly odd memories of her. She was loving, but also stern, distant, and entirely unpredictable. She died around the time I went off to, and then almost immediately dropped out of college. This was a tumultuous time in my life. I had felt too much grief and pain over the previous year that I did whatever I could to numb and escape it. I am aware that my grandma came to live with my parents around this time and then there was some sort of falling out with my aunt (which has never been rectified), but I was completely disconnected from any of that, mainly because I wasn’t physically there, but also because I had largely checked out of life emotionally. Somewhere in all that, my grandma died, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t go to her funeral.
So, for the entirety of my adult life, I’ve only had two grandparents, and they were the ones that were always “Grandma and Grandpa.” Whenever I talk about my family, I am not talking about my parents and siblings but rather my mom’s parents and siblings and all my cousins. We were a very close extended family. I lived two doors down from my grandparents’ house and my closest cousins lived next door on the other side. When I was in grade school, I thought my aunt’s family was exceptionally removed from the bunch because she lived all the way over in the next town, 4 miles away. And then they moved up into the city, a whole 15 minutes away and I was like, “OMG, does she HATE us or what?!” Still today, aside from me and my siblings, even the grown cousins live within an hour or so from my grandparents’.
We were tight. When I was young, we all got together once a month for Sunday dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I used to stop in to say hi whenever I was running around outside. I’d walk up the road just watch Fraggle Rock at their house because we didn’t have cable at home. I remember so well just being there with them. Grandpa would be watching one ball game while listening to another one on the radio and Grandma would be standing at the ironing board, singing along to country music or working on a jigsaw puzzle while watching soaps on the little TV right next to the big TV. There’s not a lot of my childhood I remember, but the good things mostly all happened at my grandparents’ house.
As I got older and more aware, my life at home became very stressful and dad-centric. I was much younger than I’d like to admit when absolutely everything in my life came with the thought, “How is Dad going to react to this?” I was a very sensitive and perceptive child, so I saw and felt all his anger, manipulation, and violence. We’d go through periods when he wasn’t physically violent (toward my mom when I was younger, but by the time I was in middle school he thought nothing of backhanding me across the face or lashing me all up my back with his belt whenever he felt like it), but he was always emotionally and spiritually abusive. He was exceptionally controlling and I often felt like I was his dysfunctional marionette. Anything good I did was either held up as his achievement because he had created me or criticized because it could’ve been better. And, oh my, anything bad I did – he told everybody! He told my family of all my sins. He told my friends completely inappropriate things like how my room was a mess or God knows what all. I learned to dissociate. I blocked life out.
I grew up in books. I had a novel with me everywhere I went. I didn’t trust being around people. I lived in a very small town where everybody knew everybody’s business. And growing up with a dad who tried to garner sympathy with people by telling them how awful his daughter was (I wasn’t.) meant that I quite often encountered people who teased me about something he had told them. [And this is something I catch myself doing with my kids sometimes, especially as they’re coming into adolescence and I am feeling increasingly inept at dealing with their emotions. I understand that this is a thing we do unconsciously from time to time. In me, as a child, coupled with everything else that was going on, it really affected me negatively.] I dissociated further, never telling anyone how I felt. I lived in a world of Stephen King books, movies and music, all becoming increasingly darker and darker as I grew. The only times I could let my feelings out were when I was alone. I would go down to the bridge and scream and cry at God. Today, that is still the most emotionally triggering, comforting, and melancholy place on earth. I isolated myself as best I could.
And in the midst of all this, surrounding my discomfiture, was this wonderful family. My grandma was like Jesus and Santa all rolled into one and my grandpa was stoic and wise and really kind of the embodiment of the Greatest Generation, plus he looked like Johnny Carson and laughed easily. And every month we’d get together with the whole family and eat and laugh, but my smile became more and more plastic as I grew. Yes, this was my family, but being with them felt more like a day at the zoo visiting a happy family exhibit behind glass than anything I could interact with or call my own. I desperately wanted to be a part of that world, but I had no idea how to break the glass that separated us.
Christmas Eve 1996 I was 18 years old. I had dropped out of college and had plans to leave my parents’ house. I hadn’t told my dad yet because I knew he would react badly (and yes, that night was the last time he laid hands on me, though he’s threatened it a number of times since). I wanted to leave earlier, but I had no idea when I’d get to see my family again and wanted just one last good memory with them. That year, Grandma had won at bingo so she shared her winnings with all of the grandkids. I ended up with $70 worth of ones and we joked about her wanting us to go to the strip club with all those ones. When we got back home and I grabbed my bags, things went south. My dad was hurt and surprised by my leaving and he said a lot of horrible things in his anger. One thing he said was he accused me of waiting until that night just so I could get my Christmas money before I left. And that lie broke the division I felt between me and my family wide open. I moved halfway across the country a month later and I’ve only been back there with my family a few times since.
My grandma died in 2007, about 4 months after my first husband and I split. I didn’t trust either of my parents at that time because my dad went straight left, demanding that we fix things (having absolutely no knowledge or care about what caused the split) and my mom lied to us, bringing my dad down to see us even after we specifically told them we did not want him there. I had recently started dating the guy who would become my second husband when I got the news about Grandma and it was all too much. I had so much guilt from missing out on ten years with her and the whole family, guilt about leaving my husband and kids, and all the childhood memories which had resurfaced and lead to me leaving. I couldn’t handle dealing with my dad lecturing me on how I needed to capitulate to the man who made it very clear that we needed to not be married anymore. I simply couldn’t. And so rather than go home for her funeral I smoked a lot of pot, drank a lot of booze, drove to New Orleans with the dude and did some quite possibly regrettable things. Two years later I wrote a letter of amends to my Grandpa & the rest of the family for not being there. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, but this is one that I’m probably always going to feel bad for.
July 2014, Garland died a few days after he got 40 years sober. I’d known him since I first came into recovery and he was like a grandfather to me and most all the sober people my age in San Antonio. And that kicked off a whole string of deaths that lasted a year. We lost Jimmy soon after, and he always reminded me of my grandpa with his easy smile, quick wit, and stoic wisdom. He had been a navy man like Grandpa, too. The deaths piled up throughout the spring of 2015 when, at one point, we lost 6 people in as many weeks. My husband’s grandma passed away right before the end of the school year, so as soon as school got out, we packed up the kids and drove out to Arizona to settle her affairs. On the way out there, my mom called to let me know that Grandpa wasn’t doing well. That’s about when I broke. I had a little conversation with God in which I used a few four letter words to describe what I thought about His little plan of late. Grandpa got better a lot quicker than I did. I spent the rest of the summer and most of the rest of the year dissociated, pretending like I was completely unaffected by anything in life.
This sounds much worse than it actually is. Well, okay, so it’s really not good at all, but it led to something good. Eventually I became overwhelmed with life and hit an emotional bottom. I dedicated myself to work in Adult Children of Alcoholics and I have quickly become aware of a lot of behavior patterns that I want to work on getting rid of. As emotionally cut off as I became over 2015, I have now become emotionally aware. I became a bundle of raw nerve endings as I explored who I had created myself to be. So far, 34 days into 2016, I have cried at least twice as many days as not – not in a bad way, but in a way that lets me know I am feeling and I am taking care of myself. So, it is in this emotionally vulnerable place that I woke up Monday morning to a text from my dad (because of course it would have to come from my dad) saying that my grandpa was gone.
Since then, I have certainly had a few moments in the future, experiencing fear about what sort of crap my dad is going to try to pull. How is he going to try to make this all about him? How is he going to try to separate me from the rest of the family? Too, I’ve experienced my moments in the past, regretting time spent apart from the family, time missed with both of my grandparents, feeling jealous of the closeness the rest of my cousins feel with Grandpa and with everyone else. But mainly I’m here in the hurt of it. And maybe it hurts worse than it would have if I wasn’t also experiencing the pain I ignored with the passing of my grandmothers. Or maybe it hurts in a very appropriate way, just that this is the first time I’m actually feeling it.
It has been neat to be consciously aware of ACA/ACoA behaviors popping up and recognizing why they’re there and what they’re trying to protect me from. No matter the amount of denial or procrastination or dissociation, though, it isn’t going to change the hurt I feel – hurt I need to feel. So I am gentle with myself, allowing the tears to come, letting the little girl inside throw her tantrums, but also allowing the coping mechanisms to protect me during times that I feel overwhelmed or need to get things accomplished.
And I feel, finally, at least moreso than I have for a long time, like I am a part of the family. One of the things that always bothered me was that I was the only one who called him Grandpa and I didn’t understand why for the longest time. To everyone else he was Granddad and I always wondered how I missed the memo. But I understand today. And even though we never ever talked about it, I think he came to understand, too. This one seemingly minor, but glaring difference which made me feel so separate ultimately became validation and acceptance with every card signed, “Grandpa.” I wish I could’ve been there to go through all those old pictures with family, but I will be there tomorrow and I am not afraid of what anyone might say. He was my grandpa and no one can take him away from me.