Tuesday, June 3, 2014
The Family Screw-Up
“Don’t judge me by my past; I don’t live there anymore.” - unknown
I care a lot about people. I’m actually a very sensitive person, but I don’t usually show a lot of emotion. I tend to wrap myself more in a defensive layer of sarcasm. Kind of like verbal brambles. See, I don’t always say the right thing. Or I don’t always say the right thing in the right way. And sometimes when I try to do the right thing, I just make things even worse.
I’m sort of the family screw-up.
I did pretty well making my way through high school. I was obnoxiously, boringly good. But then came college and I discovered a few things like “personality”, and “fun”, and “stupidity”. Not only did I begin college at the age of 17, I went away to college. I was a very sheltered child from Tyler, a smallish city in East Texas, who was suddenly living in a progressive dorm in Austin.
I didn’t handle it well.
After a few wasteful semesters at UT, I dropped out of college. I didn’t know why I was there (in other words, “what I wanted to be when I grew up”). I was a failure. My parents were disappointed. Instead of getting to say, “Oh, Karen is studying at UT” they now had to sidestep the fact that I dropped out and say, “Karen is spending some time at home. Her grandfather is sick.” It was true. Pépére was ill, but that’s not why I came home. Knowing I had disappointed my parents was one of the worst feelings in the world. And this was just the beginning.
It took two years before I went back to school. During that time, I worked as a waitress, bartender, and cook. I had ample opportunity to “get my head on straight”. When I returned to academia, I knew without a doubt what I wanted to study: English. I was focused. I was determined. I was in school fall, spring, and summer. As soon as I graduated with my BA, I immediately began working on my master’s degree in English. Now when people asked my mom, “How’s Karen doing?” She could answer, “Oh, she’s working on her master’s degree!” One of the few moments I made her proud, and it felt so good.
But I couldn’t even give her that moment of pride without messing it up.
I made the stupid decision to elope while I was working on my degree. I think my husband (this was husband #1) and I both knew when we were doing it that it was the wrong choice to make, but once the decision had been made and the plane tickets bought, neither of us knew how to get out of it at that point. So we went through with it.
My mom didn’t talk to me for two weeks.
When the marriage inevitably failed two years later, I was left on my own with my babies. Then my life fragmented, like glass that has a spiderweb of breaks but has not yet fallen to pieces: my son died from SIDS. He was three months old.
Don’t dwell. Keep moving forward. At least you still have Violet. You can have another baby. The world doesn’t stop for grief. Think happy thoughts. At least he didn’t suffer. I heard all of these after my baby died. As if any of these things mattered in those moments. I failed at being a mom, at the most basic task that is given to us as moms: keeping our children alive.
Eleven years later, the breaks are still there. It is with sheer willpower that I am holding the pieces together.
A year and a half after my divorce, I married “the one who got away”. He was wonderfully imperfect. Delightfully quirky. We had dated before, but when he moved to Florida we ended the relationship. Things rekindled, we married, and now Violet and I were moving to Florida to start a new life. My mother had a very close bond with Violet, and now I was ripping that apart. Even when I was trying to do something good, I was hurting someone.
After Curt died (read “Silver Linings" if you’re confused), Mom flew to Florida to help me pack up my life there. I was almost incapable of functioning. I wanted to return to Texas (I had nothing to stay in Florida for), so there was a lot of packing to do. I had to take care of Violet, and I was three months pregnant. I was having flashbacks of losing my son, Sam. The grief was crushing. It was one of those times where I just wasn’t able to handle being the adult. I needed my mom.
So once again, I had tried to make a life for myself, and once again, I couldn’t.
It took a long time, many years, before I dipped back in the dating waters. When I did, it didn’t go well. There was the alcoholic stalker. That was fun. Then there was the guy who seemed to like my kids more than he liked me. I nipped that in the bud…way too creepy for me. Then there was the one whom I thought was great, but he turned out to be a bigamist, con-man, and a serial cheater.
I don’t date now.
But even with all that, I could at least pride myself on the fact that I was able to provide my children with a good home, a home they could be proud of and always feel safe in.
Until the fire, that is.
On December 29, 2013 we came home from a happy early dinner out to find our home engulfed in flames. Total devastation. Complete destruction. We had no home left at all. We woke up that morning with our home, our possessions, and our security intact. By that evening we were homeless and our entire secure foundation had shifted. What had I missed, when I bought this house, that would cause it to suddenly erupt in flames like that? How had I managed to screw up something this enormous? I didn’t deserve to be the adult, to be the mom. It was time to withdraw and recover. We went to live with mom and dad for a few months while we got our feet back under us and found a new house to live in, a new life to build.
I am the youngest of five children. My parents can be very proud of the fact that all five of us kids graduated from college. I am not the favorite. I am not the most successful. I am not the most talented. I accept all of these things because I do know that I am loved, if greatly overshadowed. One of my siblings made history as her town’s first female chief of police. Another of my sisters is amazing at her job (she teaches maths), she made getting her master’s look easy (and I know it wasn’t), and somehow her past mistakes have all become positives (how did she manage that?). My brother’s writing talent absolutely dwarfs my own and he’s one of the funniest people I know in real life. My other sister is so creative that she puts Pinterest to shame, she’s a great mom, and she has one of the greatest marriages I’ve seen since my parents’ own. And then there’s me.
No matter what I have achieved, it is my past mistakes that are often discussed, joked about, and tossed up for grabs, like raw meat in a lion’s den, not my more recent accomplishments: I have had to rebuild my life many times after it imploded, and I have done so successfully. I have an earned master’s degree that I use to support myself and my children; I am a respected professor at my college. I am a dedicated member of Andi’s Army, helping to fight for the reform of Compassionate Drug Use. I love my family and will fight for them no matter what it takes. I am a survivor.
Maybe someday, in my family’s minds, I’ll be allowed to grow up, cast off the dubious choices made in youth, and be the adult I already am, the adult that the rest of the world sees. Maybe someday my shenanigans from the past won’t be the first thing that come to people’s minds, and my success in the present will be. But until then, I am what I have always been: I am the family screw-up.