Of birthdays and being alone

My father never wanted to celebrate his birthday, and it always pissed me off. Like, how on earth could there be someone who didn’t want to celebrate their own special day? Cake! Presents! Ice cream! Attention! Candles! Balloons! A special meal! AND CAKE, FOR CHRISSAKE!

It would upset me a great deal when, every year, I would ask, “What do you want to do for your birthday?” and he would respond, “Nothing. I don’t want anyone to celebrate it.” And, it wasn’t an attention-getting kind of response. I knew he was truly done and over with the whole thing. I could never understand it. I had no clue as to why he would feel that way.

Now? I do.

I see quite a bit on social media of how birthdays in the 21st century are celebrated. Some people celebrate for the whole month. Others have big parties, donate to charities, or spend quiet days with their parents or close family. I’ve done a little bit of all of the above. I’ve even traveled on my birthday. This year, though, I’m pretty sure I’m done with the whole shebang. Not because of my impending 50th. My age has never bothered me.

And this isn’t a cry for attention. No. I’m Tom Scarbro-done with my birthday.

I don’t want the cake. I don’t want the attention. I’m pretty sure that I want to just be left to my own devices. I’m going to wake up that morning, get out of the house, turn off my phone, and do a few things for me that I enjoy. Then? I’ll get home in time to get the kids off their school bus, fuss at them about homework, put on my green belt and kick a few power bags, and then go to bed.

My mother managed to destroy my 46th birthday, and I allowed that to happen. I sat, staring, at the chocolate cupcake I had purchased for myself, after organizing my family dinner, and listened to her yell at me. I had hoped that 47 would be better, but it really wasn’t. Tyler and I escaped Woodstock for Florida, but he came down with a case of food poisoning. Not his fault, but I was still sad, alone, and watching TV with room service on my birthday wishing I had just stayed home instead of running as far away from my mother as our Skymiles would allow.

There have been other birthdays that weren’t the greatest and I’m pretty sure that’s because social media, television, and movies have made it seem that birthdays need to be huge extravaganzas, full of celebratory noise. Honestly? More often than not? Birthdays are more like Sixteen Candles. Just without the hot guy in the Porsche.

Why am I saying all of this? I guess I just need to publicly put it out there that I don’t expect the fanfare. I’m not going to be secretly angry if the surprise party doesn’t happen. That this isn’t a ploy to get attention. Mainly, I’m writing this so that I don’t have to repeat myself multiple times when I get asked, “So, what are you doing for your birthday?”

My answer will be, “Nothing.” And that won’t be the honest answer. I’ll be doing something. I may go to the shelter and pet cats or wander around antique stores or make my way through Atlanta’s top bakeries. I don’t know. I just know that I will do it alone, without expecting any effort from anyone else. And that’s OK because honestly, that’s the way it should have always been.

Tiropita

“The Protector” by Jade Bryant. Click on the art to go to her web site to find out more about her work with Art Saves Lives International.

She handed me the Tupperware container from her fridge. We had navigated the path from her entryway to the kitchen, various art projects, mail, magazines, and Christmas decorations strewn everywhere. I stood in her kitchen, my heart pounding, wanting to be anywhere but here. I had come inside to retrieve this container full of my favorite Greek pastry for my birthday. But, it didn’t feel like my birthday. Instead, it felt as if I were a soldier, behind enemy lines, waiting for the ambush of her mental illness to strike. She handed the round, plastic, Tupperware to me, seemingly shoving it at me, as if she regretted making it and wanted me out of her house as quickly as possible. I turned and walked toward the front door, her footsteps following me through the cleared path. When I reached the door, I did the only thing I could do; I hugged her. She leaned in and reciprocated, but it felt wooden and contrived, as if she knew how to hug but didn’t know what it was for.

“I love you,” I said, not knowing if I really meant it.

“Love you, too,” she mumbled back.

And I walked out, the tiropita weighing down my arm, my mother’s borderline personality disorder weighing on my heart.

…—…

Getting pregnant with the twins was nearly impossible. Six months after giving birth to them, I decided to never again take birth control, because it gave me migraines. Instead, I would just not worry about it. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars, injections, scheduling, and medical intervention just to get pregnant. I figured my body was so defective there wasn’t any point in taking a nightly pill that served no purpose save to split my head in two every 28 days. Four days after the twins’ first birthday, a week after my period should have started, I was pregnant. All on my own. On the fifth day, I trekked to that same doctor, who made the twins’ lives possible, for a blood test. When Tyler told his mother that we had an appointment, she deduced what was going on, thanks to her nursing background. She assumed we had told everyone and when she mentioned the good news to my mom, instead of being excited, my mother was incensed. Angry and hurt at being left out of a nonexistent loop, she acted terse and short with Tyler and his mother. When she finally came to my house several hours later, I knew I was in for it when I saw her drawn expression and heard her brief answer to a simple, “How are you?”

“Fine.” Her lips were drawn and her eyes were angry.

“Well, I have news,” I said.

“Oh?” she replied, sour expression on her face.

“I’m pregnant.”

“I heard.” she responded, ice crystalizing her words.

“We weren’t going to tell anyone until the blood work came back from Dr. Nezhat.” I explained, trying to right the situation of happy news that had suddenly become a battle. “Betty figured it out and in her excitement, assumed you already knew. We wanted to tell everyone together.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” she huffed.

“Well, I’m telling you now.” I clarified. “We wanted to tell you, Betty, Charley, the family all at the same time. I can tell that you’re angry and honestly, I’m just terrified. I’m going to have three kids under the age of two and I really need your support.”

“Well, then. You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” she nastily stated.

I asked her to leave my house. I wouldn’t speak to her for another month. It was when she called to tell me that she had gone to a counselor and wanted me to come to her second appointment that I finally heard from her. I was extremely sick, sad, and anxiety-ridden over her treatment of me. I was popping prescription anti-nausea medication and sitting in front of a stranger, telling this degreed woman the exact same timeline of events I had already told my mother one month before. It was when the counselor told Mom, “It seems that this was all just a big misunderstanding.” that Mom finally believed me.

She never again went to that counselor.

…—…

As I ate my birthday cupcake, she blew up at us. Tyler and I had tried to reason, cajole, and assist, but everything was stonewalled and met with accusatory glares and angry responses. I begged her to see a counselor, to try and deal with her anxiety and depression, not even mentioning the borderline personality disorder diagnosis our joint counselor had handed out five years prior. She turned to me, a wild look in her eyes, voice filled with disdain and anger, “And just how am I supposed to pay for that, Heather? With what money? I’m tired of being poor.” Her face was void of everything save hate.

She hated me, my father, her parents, Tyler, Tyler’s ability to pay for her bills, her life, her age, her situation, herself, and the world. And all of that hate was focused on me in one look.

I’ve heard of disassociation. I had never experienced it until that moment. All I remember is staring at Amelia’s self-portrait on the fireplace, trying hard to imagine the quiet, calm underwater world of the reefs of Bonaire.

I disassociated from my mother.

…—…

The day after my birthday, I drove her to her doctor appointment. It was a wet, damp day, the clouds heavy and the rain constant. Normally, I loved these days, but it was the day after my mother had, yet again, treated me as an enemy.

“I’m sorry to be such a burden.” she said, turning to me as her hand reached for the door latch, rain hitting the roof of the minivan. “After tomorrow, I’ll never be a burden to you ever again. I know you never wanted me here in Georgia.”

Finding that one dagger that could do the most damage and shoving it straight into my heart had become a particular talent of hers. She wielded that sharp weapon so often against others that whenever she used it against me, I was always surprised. Even after 20 years of personal experience with that particular blade, it still caught me unawares as it would enter my psyche and twist.

I stared at the license plate of the car parked next to us. It was a Wisconsin plate, out of place in the south. As my mind turned over her words, I tried to remember everything I knew about Wisconsin.

Cheese, Green Bay, dairy farms, Madison, badgers who were really miners and not badgers at all.

“I’ll never bother you again. You don’t want me here.”

Milwaukee is in Wisconsin. But, we moved you here. Bought you a house. Given you affirmations of love. Cared for you when you’re sick. Done everything you needed, wanted, and asked for. Even when you were ugly to us, we still gave you everything, including love. Toni went to Wisconsin and brought me a cheese hat. I wish I was in Wisconsin right now.

She got out and walked inside. I knew, right then, as my anxiety hit me square in the chest, pushing the knife in even further, that we were done. Our relationship was dead.

…—…

The tiropita sat in my refrigerator for a day before I decided to eat one for a snack. I pulled one out, peeling it off the wax paper. Putting it in my mouth, I felt the gummy texture. Too late, I realized it hadn’t been baked. All of the tiropita were raw. I laughed without humor and shook my head, realizing that this food was suddenly a metaphor for my current situation. I didn’t even have a Greek cookbook to tell me how to cook it because Mom had borrowed it in order to make the cheesy pies for me. I didn’t have the energy to even want to bake any others. I threw away the half-eaten raw tiropita and put the rest back in the fridge.

They say that you can taste love in food. All I tasted was sadness.

…—…

“I need you to come over, Mom.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because, the doctor thinks I may have lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. My inflammation levels are off the charts.” I replied.

“So?” she said, dismissively.

“Well,” I said in a rush, “If I do have either of those, the only treatment is steroids to suppress my immune system and I live with three little kids who are constantly bringing home viruses. How am I going to be their Mom if I’m constantly sick all the time? How will I protect myself?”

My joints ached so badly that I could barely walk or hold a fork. I was a mess. I had been crying all day, having multiple anxiety attacks over the sudden negative change in my life. My neighbor had already been over to calm me down, but I couldn’t continue to bother her. She had work. I needed my mother.

“Could you come over and keep me company?”

“Fine.”

When she got here, I was in my bedroom, watching shitty late-morning talk shows, resorting to Jerry Springer to take my mind off the impending doom of my health. Mom quietly sat on the bed and after a few minutes, asked, “Do you have anything to eat?”

“Um,” I looked at her, disbelieving. I was barely able to make my way to the bathroom. Now I was supposed to feed her? “Feel free to raid the fridge.”

She went downstairs, rummaged around, and returned a short while later. “You don’t have anything here. I’m going out to get lunch.”

No offer to bring me anything. No calming words. No hugs. No nothing. She just left.

Turns out I had a common childhood virus that eventually went away, leaving my hands weak and my joints more susceptible to arthritis.

“Why didn’t you stay that day I asked you to come by?”

“Well,” she said, “you were just sitting there watching TV.”

The childhood virus eventually went away, but the memory of my mother incapable of being there for me didn’t.

…—…

“Mom,” I wrote, “For my mental health and well-being, I can no longer spend time with you. You need help. Please, feel free to call or text the kids whenever you feel like it or drop by to visit them. I’ll email you when they have performances or special events. I hope you get the help you need. Love, Heather.”

I slipped the note in her mailbox, always better at the written word than the spoken. It was the day after I was told that I had clearly never wanted her in Georgia. After decades of wishing her here, giving her love, time, and whatever energy I had left after being a mother myself, her only response was derision, anger, and hurt. Yet again, her borderline personality disorder was talking out of turn. Even though I knew it was her BPD talking, I could no longer take it. I felt like a puppy, always loyal, always trying to earn my master’s trust and love, instead being struck and cursed at. I was tired. I could no longer walk on this path of eggshells. Too often, the road had forked off into the distance, away from the gravelly, unstable path of her mental illness. And yet, I always chose this rocky drive, twisting my ankles, expecting love and receiving emptiness in return, giving her more than I should when my children needed me more. I took that path because it was my mother’s path. To choose the other meant walking away from her. I had stood at this fork once before and nearly chose to walk away then, but I continued onward. This time, though, I was done. I was done tiptoeing, carefully avoiding the pitfalls and potholes, only to have one open up in front of me without warning, causing hurt and distress. With that note in her mailbox, I took the road of my family, my life, and my mental health.

…—…

I turned the oven on to 350-degrees Fahrenheit, a good starting temperature when blindly baking anything. I set the timer to 10 minutes, placing the unbaked tiropita on a baking stone. After 10 minutes, the cheese pies were still flat, so I added five minutes, then another five after that. Finally, they were slightly browned and puffed up, like tiropita should be.

I popped one in my mouth, the heat burning my tongue. It still didn’t taste right. I ate another, and then a third. I sat for a moment, trying hard to enjoy what was probably the last birthday gift my mother would ever give me. Instead, they sat like rocks on my stomach, unyielding, full of sadness and grief.

I threw the rest away, washed the Tupperware container, and wondered how I would return the receptacle to her. It’s been three weeks since her harsh, yet expected, words. Except for a brief text to her youngest grandson, congratulating him on his newest black belt, she has had no contact with the kids. Except for a terse letter to her son-in-law telling him to pay her latest electric and gas bills because she could not, she has had no contact with us. I have been at turns relieved, sad, happy, mournful, angry, and content. I have self-reflected, second-guessed, wishfully imagined, and silently screamed.

I have vowed to never scatter eggshells on my children’s paths. I will love them unconditionally. I will stay true to myself and my choice to walk a path separate from my mother’s mental illness. I will love myself, take care of myself, and not feel guilty for protecting myself. For 46 years, I have carefully measured every word, assessing the possible emotional damage that could come from saying the wrong thing. As the decades have passed, I have closed myself off from the world, taking refuge in leaving my home as little as possible, because having minimal human contact meant I could save myself for those moments when I had to navigate my mother’s rough terrain.

It will probably take another 46 years to unlearn my hermit-like behavior, but I’ll give it my best.

I miss the mother who came to my band performances. I miss the mother who laughed with me over inappropriate humor. I miss the mother who cared for me when I was sick. I miss the mother who cooked my favorite meal when I was pregnant and on bed rest. I miss the mother who hugged me and told me that she loved me. I miss the mother who only ever saw the good in me. I miss the mother who supported me no matter what. I miss the mother who didn’t weigh my words against her world view.

I miss my mother.

I don’t miss her BPD.

 

The Blink of an Eye

img_9200I remember lying in my hospital bed, a mother for just seven short hours. My twin babies were in the NICU and I was full of anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, I wanted to see them but wasn’t allowed because of the danger of seizures, I was worried I wouldn’t know how to breastfeed them, and my blood pressure was so high that I was mainlining magnesium sulfate through an IV pump I had affectionately named “George.” The doctor had ordered a “nightcap” for my IV (read: something to finally knock out the psycho mother in room 15) and I was just drifting off to sleep as my breastfeeding consultant walked in the room.

See, I was absolutely freaked that the twins wouldn’t get enough breastmilk. If I gave them a bottle, then I would know how much they drank. The ounces would be clearly marked on the side and with a little simple subtraction, I could know how much they were eating. Breasts, unfortunately, don’t come with those ounce marks. Plus, writing down the amount of poop and pee they created each day just seemed a bit too much like flying by the seat of my pants which, as we all know, I DO NOT DO.

So, there she was, this tired “Breast Milk is Best” advocate who was there to calm me down and give me advice.

In the middle of her instructions, her phone rang. It was her newly-minted 13-year-old daughter who was asking if she could have more minutes on her phone. You see, September 16th was her birthday, too. And she had just received a shiny, new cell phone for that 13th birthday. But, she had used all the monthly minutes to set it up and call all her friends to say, “HEY! CHECK IT OUT! I HAVE A NEW PHONE!”

4961_85634273231_4642627_nEven through my drug-addled, anxiety-ridden, sleepy brain, I could hear the mom’s/breastfeeding nurse’s voice become more terse and frustrated as the conversation went on.

“No. You cannot have more minutes.”

“You’ll get more minutes on October 1st. Those are the rules.”

“It’s not my fault you used up all of September’s minutes in just a matter of hours.”

“You should have paid attention to what you’re doing.”

“I know it’s your birthday, but deal with it.”

When she finally hung up, she apologized, explained what had happened, and as she spoke, gestured to me and the pictures of my new babies, and said, “This? Hon? This is easy. All you have to do is feed them, change their diapers, and love them. When they get to be 13? That’s the hard part. Trust me.”

Of course, I didn’t believe her. I was convinced that trying to guesstimate breastfeeding quantities was going to be the hardest thing I had EVER done in my ENTIRE life. (Postpartum anxiety is a total bitch, yo.)

Eleven years later, and here we are on the cusp of that cell phone moment. There are many days when I can see the beginnings of the teen years with mood swings and attitude. It’s no fun being the mom who takes away the iPad and tells them “NO!” while their tears fall as if it’s the end of the world. I can tell you that even though I know I’m doing the right thing, I still feel like the most awful mom in the world.

Somewhere out there is a 24-year-old woman, celebrating her birthday. She most likely pays for her own phone, and she may have her own children. I doubt she recalls that conversation with her mother, but I remember it as if it were only yesterday. I can remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “The teen years are SO FAR AWAY!”

And yet, they aren’t. They’re staring me in the face. I sometimes wish I could go back to the easy days of baby giggles, diapers, and fuzzy breastmilk consumption math, because she was right, those days were SO much more simple.

But, even though these days are no longer easy, they are certainly more interesting. I’m never bored. I see children who are forming ideas about the world, learning constantly, loving those around them, laughing freely, crying, arguing, questioning, and becoming really cool people. They make me feel more alive and more tired, all at the same time. I know the next eleven years will pass as quickly as these have and before I know it, I’ll have adults in place of the babies I once knew.

And I’ll long for these difficult days of the pre-teen years.

Happy 11th birthday, Amelia and Heath! I love you so very much!

img_9195

All You Need Is Love

Heather_Baby

All 8 pounds and 14 ounces of newborn me.

As birthdays go, yesterday’s 43rd birthday for me was quiet and uneventful. I remember in my youth being sorely upset if something special didn’t happen on my birthday. If I didn’t receive the present I wanted or if we didn’t go out to eat at the restaurant of my choice, then I was a very unhappy camper. I absolutely craved the attention. Even though I’ve never been one to call attention to myself (I’d rather die than let you know I want you to sing Happy Birthday to me.), I always did need it and was upset if it wasn’t forthcoming.

And so it was with great annoyance and little patience that I scoffed at those who wanted quiet birthdays, who were happy with just cards and hugs, who only wanted well-wishes rather than presents. Geez, I would think, what a codger. Everyone should get presents on their birthday. Insert extreme, youthful eyeroll here.

But, as I’ve found, with age comes contentment and with that contentment comes birthdays and holidays that are less about things and more about people and time. Yes, a gift is greatly appreciated and treasured, but what is even more special is your phone call, your email, your hug, your well-wish, and your love. I crave that time and conversation and connection more so than the physical gift.

Yesterday’s birthday was full of the things that make my life what it is. There was waking up kids for school, encouraging them to get dressed and eat breakfast on time, laundry, dishes, exercise, errands, blah, blah, blah. It was like any other Friday, except for the wonderful birthday greetings from friends around the world, the quiet hug and kiss from my wonderful husband, the amazing Greek dinner my mother cooked for me (dolmades, tiropita, spanakopita, and koulourakia – OH MY!) and the family who came to share that dinner with us.

And at the end of the night came the best gift of all. While the kids were getting ready for bed, Jarrod came over and gave me a big hug. “Happy birthday, Mama!” he said quietly.

“Thank you, Baby Bear. This hug is the best birthday gift ever.” I replied.

“Love is the best birthday gift, Mama. All you need is love.” he responded.

Out of the mouths of babes. It seems that wisdom is present in the young and in the old, and somewhere in-between, when we’re too caught up in life’s drama and minutiae, we sometimes forget that the best gift we can ever give or receive is each other’s love. I’m so lucky to have received such gifts of love yesterday and every day.

Thank you all who made my 43rd birthday so very special. I will cherish you all in the year to come and beyond!