Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Scarlet Letter, No More

Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

For 45 years, I have locked my secret away in a vault.

Lead lined, buried deep, for me and me alone, always to keep and never to tell.

Under lock and key, it seemed safer that way.

Forty-five years ago, just sixteen years old, I went looking for love, wherever I could find it.

And it wasn’t at home.

Outside looking in, I was Doctor Peacock’s daughter, well to do, parochial school girl, goody two shoes, and middle child.

Inside looking out, I parented myself from a very early age. While my alcoholic bipolar mom was behind closed doors and my workaholic dad was forever making rounds, I learned to take care of Joani.

So I found love in the boy next door. Both refugees from our dysfunctional households, close friends, we clung to one another for love and support.

And then I was “late”. O my God, O my God, what have I done?

1972. Alone and disowned by my parents, I had become a disgrace. A shame on my family, impossible to erase.

Should we have a shotgun wedding? My parents said no. His parents said yes. But both sets agreed that teenage parents, we were destined to be.

But I was a minor, just a child myself. And though I had conceived this child, I could not possibly conceive of  being a mom at 17. No, not yet. No, not now. No visible means of support. No diploma. No degree. Not even a bank account to call my own.

I was terrified. Out and out terrified.

A junior in high school, at Immaculata Prep, I hid my belly beneath a sweater buttoned up well into the spring. And on May 19th of ’72, the priest having refused us, we were married at the courthouse by the Justice of the Peace. I bought a calico hippy peasant dress for the occasion but my mother insisted I wear white.

I might, as well, have worn a Scarlet Letter.

scarlet-letter-two

And though, I knew I could not keep her, I also knew I had to bring her into this world.

The social worker at the adoption agency, whose name I wish I could remember, mothered me three trimesters through. But it was 1972. There was no Planned Parenthood. No birthing classes. No Lamaze. Just a stick figure pamphlet from the Medicaid clinic.

I remember going to the public library to find a picture book, so I could see and understand what was happening inside of me. Blushing at the circulation desk, I was terrified to actually check it out.

September 28th of ’72, in a cab all by myself, I made it to my final appointment at Georgetown Hospital. Already in labor, the nurse rushed me to the delivery room. No time for drugs. I did nothing but push.

And out she came. Purple and slippery and squawking and full of life. Shaking and in shock, I could not bring myself to hold her. I knew that if I did, I risked not giving her up.

I had no plans to even name her, for she was never going to be mine. But the birth certificate sat on my tray table. I had to fill in the blanks. Elizabeth Catherine. Or was it Elizabeth Beatrice? I can’t quite remember.

But I did visit the nursery, though I did not go inside.

“Please, hold her up to the window for me, so that I can see her before I go.”

“Goodbye, little Elizabeth. I wish you a good life. I wish you the best it can be.”

And I have never regretted this decision. I am proud of that child that brought this child into the world in 1972.

So I signed the papers, a sealed adoption. She would never know us and we would never know her. It seemed best for all concerned. And what did I know? I was only seventeen.

So I locked the secret up tight and threw away the key. Grieving was a luxury, I could not afford. Traumatized teenagers, kicked to the curb, we had to survive.

So I skipped my senior year and a year or so later, I made it to CUA. We got jobs in a preschool and the tiniest efficiency you have ever seen.

And now, to make a long story short, we took ten years to grow up. Built a marriage. Built a home. Built a life. And ten years later, in 1982, we had Zach and then Colleen and then Jacob.

All three babies made possible by Elizabeth, the baby I never held in my arms.

And even to my three children, she was a secret. Locked up tight. Never to tell. Why? What good would it do? What would I say? What purpose would it serve? Forty-five years is a very long time. It seemed the vault would hold forever.

And then she found me.

Through a DNA test on Ancestry.com (my brother’s account), just before Christmas, she found me.

An emotional tsunami broke loose in my head. Pummeled by waves, I was certain, I’d drown. Buoyed by therapy, I did not.

Rebecca Dragon is her name. Mother of three. Lives on a farm in Vermont.Spiritual seeker. Russian Orthodox, by choice. Theater major. She found and read my blog. My daughter’s too.

Excited beyond words, she had found her tribe.

Terrified beyond words, I froze, not knowing what I would do.

But, of course, I did.

The next morning, I called her. The hardest phone call I have ever made in my life. We talked for half an hour. Crying. Incredulous. Laughing.  And now, we have talked many more times. Texting, emailing, Face Booking, too.

She is happy, healthy, and whole. A down to earth, sort of off-the-grid parent, she home schools her three children. Crafty, she spins and knits. Comfortable in the kitchen, she makes real food from scratch. She is snarky and hysterical, theological and spiritual. And a blogger, herself, twice over. An urban expat, living on a rural route, she grew up in D.C.

Though those domestic genes are certainly not mine, she reminds me so much of me. Different, of course, taller, green eyes, and a different nose. She is definitely one of us. Primarily a Peacock, I would vainly say.

DNA is much more powerful than I ever could have imagined.

And now my children know and have happily connected with her, too. And my siblings know. And my coworkers know.  And my friends.

And now you know too.

Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, I fly to Vermont, to meet Rebecca and her children: Bella, Jude, and Meir. And her husband too.

I am going as “just Joani.” I am not “mom” or “grandma”. Rebecca’s fabulous parents, alone, deserve these titles. I did not raise her as my own. I like to call her “my long lost offspring” and as for me, maybe “biomom”, at least for now.

But we are definitely biologically joined at the hip. And I really, really like her. And I look forward to knowing her and her family, more and more.

So the “Peacock and the Dragon” will meet and we’ll take it from there.

No more “Mea maxima culpa.”

Scarlet Letter, no more.

(And meet Rebecca! Yes, also a blogger @ The Wee Dragon!)
JoaniSign

 

 


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The Bartender Kid, the Bipolar Mom & The Bishop

people who drink old fitzgerald

I learned to make Old Fashions in 1965. I was nine. My father taught me by the book. A red hardbound cocktail cookbook, kept on the shelf behind the bar in our basement.

I still remember the recipe. My mother’s favorite. Equal shots of bourbon and water (Old Fitzgerald preferred.), sugar water boiled on the stove, bitters, and a slice of orange. In a Waterford glass.

I was quite the little bartender, and so were my siblings. Besides Old Fashions I could whip up a Tom Collins or a Gin & Tonic, on command, no problem. And when commanded, which was often, I would fetch my parents a beer from the fridge: Heineken for my mother, Lowenbrau for my father.

And in 1965 when I was nine the nightmares began. This one in particular:

My mom and I are alone driving down a highway in the sky. The sky is bright blue and the sun shines bright. We pass through fluffy marshmallow clouds. The highway is a thin ribbon with no beginning and no end. Just one lane. No shoulder. My mother is passed out drunk behind the wheel of our Plymouth station wagon. Somehow I slide into the driver’s seat and take her place. I clutch the wheel I can barely see over to steer. One tiny mistake left or right, and we crash into the abyss.

I wake up silently screaming.

My grandmother makes breakfast, my older sister packs our lunch, and my mom drives our carpool to school. A bit embarrassing to a nine year old, my mom often just threw her raincoat over her nightgown to get out the door and to get us to school on time.

Now my mom under the best of circumstances was not the best of drivers. Having learned to drive with a stick shift, she still drove the automatic with two feet. Clutching, breaking, we were never sure what she was doing.

She always drove under the speed limit, even on the interstate. She told us she only drove as fast as she felt safe. I remember slinking down in the back seat as cars whizzed by, drivers honking and flipping us the bird. I was both mortified and terrified that somebody would crash into us.

Miraculously no one ever did.

I was never aware that my mother was ever drunk when she was driving. But I can’t help but think that with all the medication she was on – prescribed and not prescribed – along with the Old Fashions, that indeed sometimes she was.

My mother loved us most dearly and never would have intentionally put us in harm’s way. But most sadly now I believe unintentionally likely she did.

Like my mother before me, I too am bipolar. And like my mother before me, I too am a terrible driver. I have no sense of direction and I am easily flustered behind the wheel. Even with Google Maps, I can get lost in my own backyard.

And while I do not share my mother’s addiction to alcohol, flights of mania have had me fly down the highway at rocket speeds. And in 2005 one very dark Sunday at the crack of dawn flying down I95, I fell asleep behind the wheel. My car crossed three lanes of traffic, crashed through the guardrail, rolled over twice, and landed on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.

My roof was caved in. My windshield shattered. My front end folded like an accordion.

I could have been killed. But more horrifically I could have gotten other people killed. Someone’s loved one. Someone’s mom. Someone’s child.

All because I thought it so important that I get to church in time to preach on Stewardship Sunday. Even though I knew that my new combo of meds made me exceedingly drowsy — I thought I could shake it off by rolling down my windows or turning up my radio. I thought of pulling over a few times, but my bad judgment prevailed.

The impact of the crash woke me up. When the police arrived, they had to force open the driver’s side window. The officer leaned in and said, “Lady, are you all right?” I responded, “I’m fine, officer, but I have to go church.”

Blasphemy. In the name of God, I risked everything. In the name of God, I jeopardized the lives of God’s children. Innocent lives. A mortal sin — if there ever was one.

I was charged with reckless driving. But because my impairment was medicinal and not alcoholic or narcotic, the charges were dropped. It did not hurt either that I wore a clerical collar to court. I never wear a clerical collar. Blasphemy compounded.

All the mitigating circumstances did not mitigate the fact that I was responsible: Responsible for taking care of my illness. Responsible for my medication. Responsible for choosing to get behind the wheel of my car.

And so was my mother.

And so is Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook — held responsible in the hit and run fatal accident in Maryland that cost a 43 year-old Baltimore bicyclist his life.

All the circumstances are not known, but what is known is that she was charged four years ago of drunken driving and drug possession. She pleaded guilty to the first and the second charge was dropped. Her record was expunged in exchange for future good behavior.

Truly tragic from every possible perspective.

All over Facebook folks have been chattering. A prevalent sentiment expressed by clergy and others is that the bishop is just as human and prone to human frailty and sin as anyone else.

This I tragically know is so. There for the grace of God go we all.

Alcohol use and abuse is pervasive in the life of the church – at receptions, conventions, meetings, and meals. And it is too often ignored or excused and at great cost.

Alcoholism –along with alcohol abuse – is an illness, an insidious illness. An illness the bishop may likely have confessed to and for which hopefully she sought treatment. But her failed recovery likely cost the cyclist his life and untold grief for all those he left behind.

Possibly she was rushing off to church like I was. Very possibly under the influence and very possibly with her judgment impaired, she chose to get behind the wheel of her car — just like I did.

And she is just as responsible. No mitigating circumstances can mitigate that.

I pray for the Bishop’s recovery. But I pray more for the life that cannot be recovered and for those who grieve an unspeakable loss.

There for the grace of God go we all.

Therefore I implore you, sisters and brothers, this New Year’s Eve, to not drink and drive. Do not let a friend drive drunk. Toast the New Year with sparkling cider. Be the designated driver. And this very night you might save a life.

And please, dear God,  grant us the wisdom and the courage and the presence of mind needed to so make it so.

JoaniSign