In the fifth grade Cathy moved onto the fringe of the neighborhood which was the edge the known universe. Go past her street and you risked falling off the edge of the ocean into unfathomable interstellar space. It was Waconna Ave. three streets south of Pratt Street where I lived. By the sixth grade she and I were great friends. We were in that in-between age, not quite teenagers but too old to play childhood games. So, we had an in-between relationship, too young to be boyfriend/girlfriend but too old to be playmates. She was not exactly a ‘girlfriend’ but I wasn’t going to be playing football with her either.
She was the kind of girl we began referring to with great affection as ‘one of the guys.’ Boys didn’t have to worry about talking to her in some special way that was different like most of the girls wanted or pretended to want. Another reason I liked her was that she was new, not part of our neighborhood history so a relationship with her was not weighted down with the ever-present competition for status. The newness felt safe. She was the sort of person who would make anyone feel safe, when they got to know her.
We walked around the neighborhood. Talking was the only real agenda. For some strange reason that seems unfathomable and totally out of character today, we stopped at my house. By the next year when I was an honest-to-God teenager in the seventh grade, I would never have even talked of girls to my parents let alone bring one home. But we were just ‘in-between’ enough to stop by the house without my parents asking embarrassing questions. The idea of an embarrassing revelation had not occurred to me.
I introduced Cathy to my mother and headed to another room to get something. The only way I understand it today is that I was probably seeking the shirt-pocket-sized transistor radio I had bought less than a week before with my paper-route money. It was one of the first times I’d ever bought anything with cash I earned. And I bought it while such radios were still popular. Most of the time, I got popular things about a year late, so I was very proud of it. Transistor radios were where science and an almost-adolescent met. They were the newest invention. Long before small cars inundated and for a while seemed to swamp the American car market, the Japanese first dominated an American market with transistor radios. Small was ‘in,’ modern, the sign of ‘with it.’
I bought a red and white Toshiba with a synthetic leather case that I carried proudly bulging in my pocket. As much as large, shelf-sized CD players were a badge of adolescence in the 1980s, the shirt pocket sized radio was the emblem of my time. And the thirty-four dollars I spent on it was at least equivalent to the one hundred dollars kids spent on the sneakers of the 90s. Probably, it was the radio that made me want to stop. I wanted to show it off.
For whatever reason, we came into the house, I went into my bedroom which, as with most apartments, was directly off the kitchen. I went in and out as fast as possible. I was in the room no more than thirty seconds and I hear their conversation swerve into unknown territory. Mother says, “How nice of you to visit. I’d like to have girls around here. Graham, would have had two sisters but they died right after they were born.”
Cathy managed a very polite, “Oh! That’s too bad.”
Bells immediately began ringing, clanging loudly, in my ears. Wait a moment, I was an only child and knew nothing of two other infants. The clanging was almost deafening.
“But that was before we came to this country. Medicine so far north in Canada is not very good. The doctors made mistakes,” she concluded.
The bell towers were now flooded and blown over by a hurricane. Sirens were going off, shudders banged the sides of the house in the midst of this tempest, windows to my soul rattled to the point of shattering. For the first time in recorded geological history there was simultaneous hurricane, tornado and earthquake. Neither the earth I stood on nor the air above it was secure. The ground shook. The air swirled. Where is the bed I usually sleep in? Where is the desk I sit at? Both are blown away. It seemed that there was nowhere to stand that was stable or safe. My mother was sharing this information with a twelve-year-old girl whom she had known for less than two minutes. It was quite nice that they were getting along so well. I guess Cathy made adults feel safe, too. The only trouble was that mother had never quite bothered to share the same information with me.
As I gathered my wits and physical stability returned, I emerged from the bedroom with radio in hand. The conversation came to a blinding, screeching halt. The eye of the hurricane had arrived with its sense of pseudo-tranquility. Cathy and I left quickly. Outside she said, “That is really sad. You could have had sisters.”
“That is the first I ever heard of it,” was all I could say. I quickly turned the radio on as loudly as its tiny speaker could tolerate. The sound of the hurricane needed to be silenced and the threat of tremors drowned out.
A few days later as Mother and I watched evening television together while Dad was at work I brought the subject up with her wanting to know more and expressing surprise. “Can I ask you something, Mother?” She would never overtly decline such a request. “I was surprised about the other babies. I want to know more.”
All she could say then was, “Some things are just better not spoken of.” That ended up a vow she held for five decades. I guess some requests can be declined after they are clearly voiced. In our family when an adult said, “Enough,” a child was supposed to back off. I wanted to know more but was unable to gather the courage to violate the rule. Many questions swirled around in my head. None of them were asked. Pushing risked having her cry or become depressed which would have angered my father, so I withdrew.
The next Sunday, my father and I were driving home after a pleasant and successful fishing trip. He caught six trout and I caught three. A great victory. After driving for almost an hour, he begins, “Look you have been asking your mother questions that are none of your business. Leave it alone.”
Knowing immediately what he was referring to, I respond, “I just wanted to know more.”
“I just told you stop it. No more of those questions.” Silence descended upon the car and the joy of the fishing victory dissolved. I sat fuming, knowing better than to say anything, feeling utterly disempowered.
This was an era when children were left out of most things. We were supposed to be children which meant not interested in adult things and certainly death qualified as an adult thing. Expressions of interest in adult topics were usually met with admonitions to stop snooping in other people’s business. The strength of this approach was that it left us with the time and space to be children: to play; hang out; walk around the neighborhood; and be, at least overtly, carefree. But the weakness was important and unrecognized. It left us out. Specifically, this secret left me wondering what else I didn’t know. What other earthquakes could rumble up from the depths of the Earth’s core?
I even tried bringing other girls into the house. If that was the only way I was going to get more information that would have to be the strategy. I would tolerate the risks of embarrassment. Unfortunately, it never worked.
The only detail I have ever learned was that the second death occurred several weeks before they decided to emigrate from Canada to the United States. Secrets do not have to be declared at the border like other forms of baggage. Unacknowledged, they spread fog throughout the family atmosphere. I even tried indirectly to find out more from my father. I asked several times why they came here. I was told that they had been talking of it and decided immediately after there was an accident in the coal mine where my father worked. A wall had collapsed, crushing a man, “I knew then it was time to get out,” Father declared; “I never wanted to see anything like that again.” That was more than I’d ever heard him say about his history and background. He then went silent.
“Close but no cigar,” I thought. Interesting, but not the whole story. What else haven’t I been told, I wondered. Wondering is hard when you can’t ask questions. In school all students are supposed to be curious. But the taboo on questions spreads throughout life. The fog does not recognize walls, windows and doors of a home as boundaries.
When a father’s instructions make no sense and the son can’t ask for clarification the child does not dare to ask questions of teachers either. Questions are forbidden everywhere. Fog flows everywhere. You can say all you want about learning disabilities and brain chemistry or function. But these things begin in the midst of family fog. There are pediatric neurology theories which insist that if the brain function is blocked the brain form is changed and various forms of fog are the result.
Secrets have enormous power in families. That which is spoken of can be dealt with, healed, and integrated. That which is spoken of can be tamed. That which is not spoken of remains forever untamed, wild, and feared, lurking in the shadows as ever threatening storm clouds that sometimes arrive as earthquakes. Even after the storm subsides and quake aftershocks stop, fog continues to lurk in the landscape.
Mother was saying, “This is simply too painful and I will not discuss it.”
I wanted to scream back at her, “You are wrong. If it is not my business, then don’t leak it out to strangers. That is not fighting fair.” I wanted to tell my father, “If she can’t tell me then it is your job. For a change, fight for me.” And, it did feel like a fight. It was a fight to discover the truth in a family and culture in which the truth was no one’s business, especially not the business of a child. My parents fled to another country a thousand miles from their home to avoid facing this grief. They certainly weren’t going to speak it now.
As an adult I understand that it was not spoken of because it was a piece of reality that was too incredibly painful. She was doing what she had to do to get through the loss and the profound depth of this pain. But secrets create divisions. Truth becomes split off from daily life and people become divided. There was no conscious intention to isolate me but intended or not it created division. There was a black hole where this piece of family history existed. Truth was sucked into it unable to emerge. Hurricanes, earthquakes, black holes and fog dominate the place where secrets rule.
This was a piece of the family heritage which, in part, created my personal quest for truth, honesty, and meaning. As a psychologist with a specialty in working with grieving people, I have spent a lifetime lighting candles in dark corners of family life. I have always had a passion for working with people in ways that enable them to speak the truth of their own lives and tame the areas which were not to be spoken. This passion has been a vital legacy in my professional life.
As a child I was remarkably compliant, at least outwardly with rules, laws, and expectations. Searching for truth was the way I rebelled. While other kids were smoking, drinking, fighting and sometimes getting arrested. I was digging and searching for what was true. I was trying to see through the fog.
Recently, I’ve realized that there is also another way in which this affected me in my life. Without consciously knowing it, I think my Soul has always looked for these two sisters. They were missing from my life, and I always searched for them in many ways. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, girls were always my best friends. As an adult, I have always had women friends with whom I felt deep bonds without any sense of sexual pressure or involvement. As I reflect on these friendships, I think of them as the sisters I’ve never known but recognized were supposed to be there.
Family shadows follow us throughout our lives. The unacknowledged is present in many forms and shapes.
Six decades later as mother was in the later stages of a long and ultimately losing battle with both Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia, I was visiting her in a nursing home. Most of the time she was in a haze, half aware and half ‘visiting another country’ as this condition has been described. It was hard to know if she was aware of my presence or not. Suddenly she opened her eyes, sat up, looked straight at me and said, “You know, people say I had one child but that is not right. I had three and two of them died.” This was the longest speech she had given in three months.
I barely managed to say, “Yes Mom; that is right.” She sighed, flopped back to her pillow and returned to the haze.
Driving to work that morning I felt great frustration. The paralysis of the secret had infected me even in that moment. In my own haze, I could barely mobilize five words. It took half an hour to marshal the questions I wanted to ask for over fifty years.