a family’s erosion

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton,
you may as well make it dance.”

George Bernard Shaw


(should not the day a new baby comes home be one of joy? Try telling the little girl on the
right / 1964)

It seems that even at the tender age of 5 I was gifted with intuition…
as in knowing something is a bad idea from the get go.

Just look at that all-knowing face captured on the day the new little brother was
adopted and brought home.
The younger me must have had a premonition that none of this was going to end very well…

and I was correct, it did not.

As most of you who know me recall—
I have written at length in past posts about both my adoption as well as the
dysfunctional life my family suffered at the hands of the mental illness that
engulfed and eroded my brother…

In his erosion, my family eroded.

Today it is not my desire to rewrite any of those posts but maybe today’s post can be a
bit of an addendum…

(https://cookiecrumbstoliveby.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/forgiveness-one-step-at-a-time/
and
https://cookiecrumbstoliveby.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/mr-mole-continued-forgiveness-and-grace/ )

The reason for this heavy revisiting is due in part because I happened upon a letter
that I’d found in a box that has been buried deep within dad’s basement for many years.
It was in a box tucked away in a forgotten back corner, under a table,
left to the spiders and whatever else lurks in a dark 65 year old basement.

The letter was written, or more accurately typed, in 1986.
It was a letter from my dad to my brother.
Wednesday was the first day I had ever seen the letter.

I want to share the letter with you and I’ll explain why after you read the letter:

September 2,1986

Dear Ed,
As you know, your mother is seriously ill and will probably die within the very
near future.
Because of that I am under probably as much stress as I have ever felt.
At the same time, it seems that our past problems have come to a head and are causing
me more stress than I can handle.
I had hoped that we could continue to relate as father and son, and to live in the
same household.
That has become impossible, so I have had to ask you to move out.
I hope you understand that I take no enjoyment from all of this.

I realize that you have some personal property in the house and will make it
available to you if you will just call me and set up a time to pick it up.
I cannot, however, consent to you coming and going if I am not present,
so please do not come to the house without calling.
If you don’t have any place to store your things I will help you with a mini
storage warehouse for a couple of months.

I want you to have the bank account your mother and I set up for your education,
and hope you will use it accordingly.

When we talked last Tuesday you said I couldn’t make you leave, and you refused to return
your house key: so I checked with my lawyer to see just what our respective right are.
He said that technically I could ask you to leave the house, or not return, and have
you arrested if you come back. I sincerely hope this never happens, but you must understand
that I will do whatever is necessary to preserve my sanity and to be sure I can be supportive
of your mother during her illness.
I hope you can understand how I feel and that I still want to help you to whatever
extent I can and feel justified, but cannot have you living at the house any longer.

Please let me hear from you and let me know what you want to do about your belongings.

Love, Dad
(the typed letter was signed personally)

And now a little background if you are new to this history of mine…

My brother and I were 5 years a part in age, with me being the oldest.
We were both adopted and not biologically related.
Even in the beginning Ed was different from me, mother and dad.

He was very fair complected, burning easily rather than tanning and he was covered
in freckles where we were not.
His hair was much lighter than our darker hair.
Despite my not being biologically related to mom and dad, no one could
tell it by just looking at us..
Ed however was different….and he always sensed it.

Even his head was more elongated than ours.
He cried incessantly as a baby.
He wet the bed long past when such was considered “normal”
He was considered hyper in school long before there was ADHD.
He struggled academically but soared in the area of physics.
He loved music, didn’t play sports and had a difficult time “fitting in”
He ran away when he was a senior in high school and was found in Texas,
driving Mother’s car, on his merry way to California, “to watch the moon and the stars.”
He fought dreadfully with all of us as his temper was dangerously violent.
He had threatened each of us at different times by promising “to blow our brains out”
Dad tried to get counseling but it was to no avail.

He eventually attended Ga Tech where he excelled in science with a keen interest
in aerospace engineering.

During this time Mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at the tender age of 53, only
to die within a 9 week window from the initial diagnosis.

I know without a doubt that death was mother’s blessed release as she had lived 15 years
of abusive hell at the hands of my brother—
who was especially vindictive to her despite her unending kindness.
He succeeded in eventually breaking her spirit.
Cancer and death were her ticket out.

I know now that his “abuse” to her was the misplaced anger he had so wanted to direct
to his own biological mother.
He was full of rage and simply could not live with that initial rejection.

During all of this time, my brother had actually begun a quest into his adoption and to
finding his birth parents.

I had long since gone off to college, graduated, moved to what I hoped would be far
enough away from the madness, and eventually married.
I had promised myself to “get out” and out I did.

My brother was the first case in the state of Georgia to have an adoption annulled—
my dad wanted to do whatever he could to help this troubled son of his find the peace
he so desperately sought…as is evidenced in his letter written prior to the court case.

This was a story of two loving people who simply wanted to have a family and because they
were unable to do that on their own, they turned to adoption.
And this is a story of a family member who suffered for years without
understanding what was wrong with him.
Life in a family where one member has a severe undiagnosed mental illness….

For those of you who don’t buy into the fact that much is happening in utero with a
fetus except for the physical development….
Let me tell you that there is also a great deal happening as far as mental,
emotional and cognitive development is concerned.
I am a firm believer in the transference of both positive and negative emotions
from mother to forming baby…
that there is much in the way of a lasting impact from mental and emotional miscues
just as there is with the physical miscue.

The long story is that my brother was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he
did eventually locate his birth mother…moving states to be near her…
However she resoundingly rejected him again.

The adult rejection was more than he could bear, and so in his rejection he found no
alternative but to end his life.
He shot himself.
He was only 30.

I don’t write about this to make you sad or upset or to discourage anyone hoping to
adopt a child…
I share this story because I want to hopefully bring awareness…

I am the sole surviving member of my little family of four.
I am an ardent advocate for adoption as I am gravely opposed to abortion.

Yet there are those who would callously argue that had my brother’s birth mother sought
an abortion or had it been in a time when an abortion was legal and “acceptable”
perhaps years and lives suffered in misery, with an eventual suicide,
could have all been avoided.

Yet murder is never truly justifiable now is it?

I also know that despite the tragedy, the heartache and sheer madness—
God’s hand was alway there for me…guiding, steadying, leading….
but I also know that He is not a manipulator and will not
stop folks from doing what seems to be on their inevitable radar…

Yet He can bring goodness and light from both the bad and the dark.

I believe this, because I know this.

I simply write this because I want others to know that there is now help more readily
available for those who suffer mental illness than there was even 30 years ago.

Sadly my dad had also became broken in the loss of his son—
for he lost this boy he had loved on so many different levels,
only to find the loss unbearable.

For my dad was not a strong man who could bear up under tragedy.

He went to his grave just two months ago still feeling guilty over ever having to have
written that letter, for “kicking Ed out of the house”
He had rationalized, unjustly so, that somehow he too had contributed to my brother’s
rejection—
and no matter how hard professionals and loved ones tried to convince him over the years
that he did what he had to do in order to perserve the safety and sanity of his
remaining family, he carried that painful guilt with him to the day he died.

So this little story which is all about adoption, rejection, mental illness, suicide
and even survival is just as much a story about Grace…

For I have seen and lived both the dark and the bad and had it not been for God’s healing Grace…
this sole survivor of 4 might not have been here today to share her story.

So everyone who has ever been touched by tragedy, sorrow, heartache, darkness, cancer, suicide,
mental illness…must know that even in the darkest dark, there is always HOPE!!!
Because there is help…on so many different levels!!
And no matter how bad things often seem…God is always God and He has overcome the darkness
so that we may find our way to the Light….

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:4-5

A short story

The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.
Billy Graham

DSCN0358
(early 19th century tombstone / Colonial Cemetery / Savannah, GA / Julie Cook / 2014)

Hushed voices whispered across the back porch under the sweltering blanket of an oppressive late August evening.
It was almost 10 PM and the thermometer was reading 86—a welcomed drop from the triple digits which had only added insult to injury in the tiny crowded church. Her thinning frail hand was now working harder than it should, waving the paper program back and forth as she hoped to stir up the stifling night air.

Familiar steps echoed cross the well-worn wooden planks as the screen door creaked to life.
“I thought I told you to oil that door last week”
Her words taking more effort than she had strength to offer.
“Has anyone seen Ellington?”
“Not since lunch” was the whispered response.
Ellington was for the legendary Duke Ellington.

He had always loved listening to the Big Band orchestras. This love began during that most surreal time, back in ’44, when he and the others waited on their orders to come in–orders for the offensive assault that would mark that fateful June day for all of eternity. The days leading up to the invasion were passed nervously while everyone just sat waiting and wondering. There were the endless games of cards, letters written and rewritten home and those same familiar bands playing over and over on the only record player aboard ship. If he ever made it back home, he promised himself, he’d get himself a dog and name it Ellington.

“I haven’t seen him since we got back from the Church.”
“You know how that dog loved your daddy.”
“How old is he now, 12?
“Yeah, I bet he’s sitting down by the gate still waiting on Daddy to come driving up the road in that stupid old pick up.
“It isn’t a stupid pick-up” she shot over her shoulder at her brother sounding angrier then she had intended.

“Mama, can I get you some more tea?” She asks as she stands and stretches muscles now stiff from sitting in the old man’s rocking chair.
“It’s not as comfortable as your Daddy would have made you think, is it?”
“No mam, it’s not. How in the world did Daddy sit out here every night reading that paper of his? I’d rather sit on a fence post. . .” Catherine makes this statement as she gently rubs a weary behind.

“Your daddy had a bit more padding back there then you do sweetie.” At 92 she was a woman still full of warmth and grace. They had been married almost 70 years. He had actually asked her to marry him in a letter, written from France, once he knew he had survived the worst part of the war. It took the letter 6 weeks to make it home. Six weeks of her not knowing if he was dead or alive. When her father brought the mail in the house that evening, he silently slipped the letter across the dinning room table once they had sat down to supper. She looked nervously at both her mother and father, and then slowly opened the thin airmail post, trembling over what it might say.

Suddenly, sending her chair crashing on the floor behind her, she jumped to her feet shouting, apparently to no one present in the room, “Yes, Yes Yes. . .”
That was August 1944.

It would be two more years before they would marry, once the war was finally over and he made his way home with several citations, a silver star and an honorable discharge.
It had not always been an easy life, but it had been a good life. They had raised 4 decent and caring children on that small farm, managing to always pay the bills while keeping everyone feed, especially the three boys. They even made certain that the kids would have the option of going to college if they so chose. And choose they did.

As Catherine made her way inside to the familiar kitchen, pulling open the faded door to the old Frigidaire, relishing the blast of fresh cool air, she hunted the pitcher of tea. “I thought we were all going in together to buy them a new one of these last Christmas.” Catherine mumbles while lingering in the coolness of the refrigerator’s contents. She knew her younger brother had followed her inside.

Gathering the courage to speak his mind, with her back now sufficiently turned in his direction, her younger brother boldly begins to blurt out his quasi-rehearsed speech.

“I think you ought to take mom back with you and I’ll take Ellington back with me. It’s not like she. . .”

He doesn’t even have time to finish his first thought before Catherine slams the door to the refrigerator and whips around so fast that it catches James off guard.
“ WHAT?!” she hisses through clenched teeth as she fights back the angry stinging tears.
She always did have Daddy’s quick temper.
“Are you crazy!?
She proceeds to unleash the full fury of the pain and frustration built over the past few days upon an unsuspecting and well meaning, if not clueless, younger brother.
“I’m not taking her anywhere and you’re certainly not taking that dog back to Boston.
You want to just kill both of them right now?
Taking them from here, especially now, would certainly do it.”

James, now a bit frightened, doesn’t recognize the ranting woman standing across from him.
“Oh I get it. . . Robert knew you were coming in here didn’t he?
I bet you both have been planning all of this when Daddy first got sick.
He’s out there right now ready to tell Mama ya’ll’s plan isn’t he?
And Paul.
What about Paul?
He’s not even here for Christ’s sake.
He can’t even get a plane out of Venezuela for the funeral and you two have already moved her and that dog!
How dare you James!”

And just as quickly as the furious storm is unleashed upon a hapless younger sibling, the rage thankfully subsides.
Catherine suddenly feels as if all the energy, all the anger, mingled with the terrible heaviness of the immense sorrow, has now simply evaporated from her very tired body—as if a tempest wind had suddenly vanished taking all of the energy from the raging storm with it.

Her brother, her younger brother, is no longer looking at her but rather standing with both hands stretched out on the counter, his arms are painfully straining to hold up his now very weary lanky frame–with his head cast downward, he mumbles “ I just thought the boys would like having the dog.”

Catherine, reading the pain in his words, reaches her hand to cover her brother’s. She’s amazed how much James looks like a much younger version of the man she lost only yesterday.
She begins slowly. . .“It’s not like Daddy owed any money on this place. He paid it off 10 years back when he sold off the cows. Mr. Johnson has been paying them for the hay— and Randal and Wilton pay Daddy for renting the fields, plus they’re giving them a percentage of the corn. They can now simply pay Mama.”

“I know you think Richard and I never can agree on much but the one thing we do agree on is Mama and Daddy. I know how much Richard loved Daddy, he’s only wanted the best for both of them.
We’ve talked about it.
I’ve got enough years in at work.
I sent in my letter of resignation last month.
I’m going to stay with Mama for as long as she needs me or wants me.
With the girls now gone, the house is really more than Richard and I need.
We’ve talked about letting Robert list it and we’ll just come back here to the farm until we find something smaller.
Richard can commute to the college.
I can stay a month, six months, a year. . .
You can go back to Alice and the boys, buy the boys a dog, but Ellington has got to stay here with Mama.
Robert is less than two hours a way in Des Moines, he can be here when and if I need him.”

By now a wealth of tears has finally come to both weary faces. Whoever would have thought this pair of once rough and tough siblings would be standing at the counter of the kitchen, the same kitchen that had once witnessed a myriad of mud covered frogs in the brand new porcelain sink, a lethargic lizard placed in the freezer for safe keeping, one too many missing cherry pies from a lone windowsill, as well as the late night secret ins and outs of restless teens, who were now sadly finding themselves, all these many years later, deciding the fate of an aging mother and dog.

“Look at it this way” Catherine interjects attempting to put a much needed smile back on her brother’s face, “this will finally give Mama the chance to teach me how to make that famous gooseberry jam of hers. You know how much she always resented Daddy for turning her only daughter into a 4th farm hand, dashing all her hopes of a little feminism on this male dominated farm.”

James lifts his tear-streaked face to meet his sister’s glance.
“You know how I hated that crap” he sheepishly replies.
“Yeah, I know, just as much as Daddy did.”
James now wide eyed stares in disbelief at his sister.
“Yep, he hated it, said it reminded him of eyeballs covered in sugar, but he’d eat it any way cause he knew how hard she had worked on it”
By now the distinctive boyish grin was slowly returning.

“I suppose that’s what happens when you love someone for 70 years” sighs a very tired Catherine who is now smiling back at her equally tired kid brother. “You’d eat anything they cooked and in turn love an old hound dog named Ellington.