I have a hard time avoiding getting ahead of myself when I think of 1988. This was a year that was emotionally loaded from its inception. Michael was going to have his last birthday in his 30’s. My 20th high school reunion was coming up in the fall. I think we each felt the weight of fully entering adult life. Both sets of our parents were still alive but mine had both gone through some challenging health scares. I guess we realized that we were inching closer to the head of the mortality line. We were still politically engaged, fun-loving, hard-core rock and rollers, and very much into each other. But our decision-making processes were more and more about our kids. Priorities can shift either subtly, quietly, or drastically, loudly, depending on the circumstances. We were responsible for so much more than the “us” we’d been just a few short years before. At least we were conscious of the weight of the choices we were making for others while we were making them which, overall, was a positive thing.
In January, we celebrated my parents’ 46th wedding anniversary. My mom was ticking off the years, looking forward to getting to their 50th. Her parents had been lucky to get there, celebrating with two bashes, one in Chicago with our family and my youngest uncle’s crew, along with a second party in California with my other uncles’ families. My mom and dad, with all their quirks, were undeniably as madly in love with each other as they had been when they met as teenagers. Mom’s vivid stories about their early days together, their small wedding ceremony, and the butterflies they always felt every time they listened or danced to The Anniversary Song, were so powerful that I always felt I’d been right there with them from the beginning. I wanted what they had only in a more evolved version. We had a long way to go.
Our son was still being cared for by my parents but was scheduled to start at the same day care center which our daughter had attended at the beginning of the summer. I visited him every day, trying to soak in as much of his babyhood as I could, despite the constraints of work. Somehow or other, I was lucky enough to be aware of the importance of staying in the present, paying attention to the little moments which were so fleeting. I would never experience babyhood again, at least in this iteration, with me being the mom. At the time, I thought baby life was disappearing from mine.
Our daughter was a first-grader with an expanding set of activities outside school. My early life experience was void of extracurriculars as my family didn’t have the resources to sign me up for lessons that were available to kids from more financially comfortable situations. Michael had more opportunities in his childhood than me. Although we weren’t exactly rolling in money, I was determined to expose our kids to a wide variety of possibilities, ready to take cues from them about which paths interested them most. She was taking ballet lessons, flute lessons, playing soccer and participating in theater. Some of these activities would stick, be combined or disappear. An energetic kid, she had no trouble handling an organized and full schedule.
Our primary concerns with our interesting daughter were more with her social skills than her schoolwork or activities. She was a blunt child who started questioning virtually everything when she was quite young. I remember her watching the film “Superman” when she was four and proclaiming that it must’ve been made by men because the women characters were always screaming and being afraid. While watching “E.T.” in a crowded theater filled with sobbing kids, she was talking in a loud voice, completely unemotional, asking questions like, “if that red light goes out, will that mean he’s dead?” She said she knew Santa Claus was a cartoon character because no one could possibly be in so many places in one night. And then came the tooth fairy question. She came up to me one day, deadly serious and said, “I have a question for you and you can’t lie. Is the tooth fairy real or is it just parents leaving the money?” Groan. What can you do in a situation like that? I went for truth and trust. But after her brother was born I wrested a commitment from her to let him believe what he chose without ruining everything for him. That was easier to enforce in our home instead of out in the world. Michael and I worried that our practical girl was going to become a social pariah. We set up appointments for her with the school social worker, a kindly person who reminded us a lot of Mr. Rogers. After a few meetings with her, he scheduled a meeting with us. His analysis was that our kid was going to be a much happier adult than a child. We’d have years to digest that accurate assessment.
We moved along through the winter months. Both kids grew and evolved in healthy ways, a good thing, so much luckier than other kids whose lives were marred by significant traumas. My parents spoiled our son rotten by taking him out to a pancake house three times a week. A place with large windows, his special dollar pancakes were put on the griddle as soon as the staff saw him approaching with my mom and dad. A great start to being in the world. Our daughter was a happy student, interested in everything and enjoying herself.
Spring brought a visit from Michael’s parents. Always a stressor, especially for us grownups, the kids enjoyed their extra attention which included field trips to see bunnies and chicks on display during the Easter holiday.
The biggest event of late spring was my younger sister’s wedding which happened at the end of May. Our extended family gathered in town to celebrate and to spend some extra time enjoying each other’s company. We felt especially happy to get all the cousins together which only happened on rare occasions. The expense of far-flung families.
Summer came. E. was attending our park district’s day camp and H. was finally in day care. The kids played in the backyard where Michael had installed a swing set. We were gardening, me attending to the flowers and shrubs, while Michael was busy testing different tomato varieties, his preference being those which were “big as your head.” That summer we began a tradition which lasted for years, heading to a homey old-fashioned resort on a lake in Michigan with old friends and their families. We each had our own cabins but gathered for meals, ultimately becoming a crowd of forty plus people who dined communally. We swam, fished, rented boats and jet skis, baked, played cards and generally had a wonderful time.
When August rolled around, school resumed, with E’s 7th birthday happening at virtually the same time. As summer waned, I started thinking about October which would bring my 20th high school reunion and Halloween costumes.
As we headed into fall, I had a lot on my mind. My oldest friend Fern had been struggling with mental health issues for as long as I’d known her. She’d been my best friend since we were the same age as E. was now, two little seven year old kids who’d developed one of those easy instantaneous connections as second graders.
We’d gone through grade school, high school and college together. During all those years, endless hours of talking and probing had unearthed what was clearly a history of early childhood sexual abuse that she’d suffered when she was pre-verbal. At age 37, she’d undergone a variety of therapeutic treatments. In September, 1988, she’d been admitted into a residential program in a Utah hospital where she was working on completing a PhD in creative writing. This particular program utilized a hypnosis-based treatment plan which she hoped would yield a better understanding of who and what happened to her as a small child. In a classic failure of our health care system, her insurance entitled her to a 30 day maximum hospital stay which was just long enough for her to finally attach a face to her unspeakable problem. Then she was kicked out of the facility. Suddenly she was back on her own, bearing the burden of that newly discovered pain.
Fern had been through dark times before and on multiple occasions, she’d come to stay with Michael and me to re-group in a safe space. We were talking frequently and I was encouraging her to hang on until our reunion which was only a few weeks away. After that, I wanted her to come home with us to rest and find a therapist who might help her through this crisis. On the evening of October 3rd, we had a long telephone conversation. I knew she was fragile. We talked about suicide which had been an act she’d considered for many years. That night she told me that one of the worst parts about dwelling on her own death was thinking of how painful that act would be for those who survived. Nothing was particularly unusual about what we’d discussed in the past. We told each other “I love you,” and made plans for meeting in Chicago for the reunion. On October 4th, I woke in the middle of the night sobbing after a dreadful dream in which I’d died. Michael was consoling me, reminding me that I was alive and vital, right in our bed. The next evening, I decided to go out to a movie on my own, to distract myself from the night before and to take a break from my daily grind. My unfortunate choice of films was “Gorillas in the Mist,” the sad story of the environmental activist Dian Fossey who’d devoted herself to studying and attempting to protect lowland mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Ultimately she was murdered by poachers. I came home somewhat undone by the tenseness of the movie. I’d barely arrived when the phone rang. A strange woman was calling from Utah to inform me that Fern had killed herself. She died at about the same time I’d had my dreadful dream the night before. This woman knew who I was and was surprised I hadn’t shown up for the hasty funeral. No one, not even Fern’s family, had chosen to inform me of her death. I remember handing Michael the phone and sinking to the floor, wailing and disconsolate. I was shattered. A scant year ago, my cousin had ended his life. Now Fern was gone. I couldn’t work for days. I sat on the phone, talking to her Utah friends, trying to piece together what had happened. I knew I would never recover from this egregious loss.
I had my family and my life and needed to move forward. I tried to pull myself together because it was required of me. I was glad for those needs because I thought I’d spiral away without the necessary order of my reality. Michael and I went to my reunion which I thought I could manage but which was an emotional nightmare for me. I survived, but Fern’s death eroded the deepest part of me. The grief I felt for her absence became part of my essence which would accompany me forever.
October rolled forward. E. was a fortune teller for Halloween and H. a dragon. Early November brought H’s second birthday. We celebrated Thanksgiving. We were grateful to have our family together but I was haunted by these losses of the past two years.
I remember thinking back then that if a time machine was ever invented I would never go forward. Whatever is required to forge ahead, to fearlessly go toward the unknown, to break new ground, was not on my to-do list. I was wanting to stay right where I was, or to look back, to figure out how the past came to be what it was. That attitude informed my playbook for the future – don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Life was going to dish out all kinds of challenges no matter what we might choose. My strategy was to develop excellent coping skills because the only way to have a good life was if you could navigate whatever was thrown at you. I still feel that way.
The year drew to its end. Michael and I hung out with my parents, celebrated Hannukah and left the kids for a needed New Year’s Eve date. I wondered if bad things really happened in three’s which was something I’d heard many times in my life. I never bothered to figure out where that maxim began. Perhaps it was just a superstition. What would 1989 bring to us all?