The conversation went on for over twelve hours, locations and topics changing throughout the day, but always the steady stream of words offered between us, sharing ourselves and offering materials from which to build a bridge from one woman to the other. The joy that Sarah, my birth mother, wore that day seemed to perfectly fit her as if she had worn nothing else all of her years of living. Her aliveness seemed to exude from her physical movements, the cadence of her speech, and the readiness of her laughter. She seemed to sparkle like the essence of her fairy spirit. Yet throughout our hours together, the presence of a dark and ominous shadow lurked, revealing itself only in fleeting moments at first, but more pressing and solid as the evening unfolded. It was as if the power of the darkness coerced its demand for prime space from Sarah and she gave credence to its persistence as she had so often done before. It would be in my later retrospection upon those numerous scattered pieces she shared that day that I would formulate my own understanding of the disruptive, oppressive blackness that had lulled her allegiance in the past. I would wonder, too, about her present well-being and the current impact the darkness emitted now.
Sarah had been born a twin and like so many paired births, she shared a unique connection with Kenneth despite their gender difference. She talked of outdoor play they pursued together as well as serious conversations undertaken at an early age regarding allegiance pledged to one another. Her childhood seemed to have been carefree despite the economic challenges faced by her family of seven. It was during the Christmas of her tenth year that Kenneth died in a tragic house fire while staying at a friend’s home. Within the following week, her grandmother would also die leaving Sarah’s mother wrapped in a shroud of heavy grief. Sarah recalls the resumption of life “as usual” and yet the loss of her “soulmate” left an unaddressed emptiness in her own soul. She had no recollection of focused attention on her emotional well-being during this time of loss and attended to her immense sadness within herself alone. Her outward concern was for her parents, especially her mother, who she tried to comfort by “staying out of trouble” and “keeping herself busy.”
Around this point in life, Sarah’s remembrances become hazy, recalling brief pieces of experiences but finding it difficult to weave them into a narrative. By the age of thirteen Sarah was disinterested in school, relishing instead the socializing with friends, particularly older friends who enjoyed partying together rather than playing silly childhood games. Watching Sarah’s charm, quick wit, and talkative style in full swing, I could readily imagine these same gifts in action during her early teens, easily engaging herself with an older crowd who would find her captivating. Already her use of alcohol was frequent, being moderated only by its access. I wondered how Sarah’s parents, who she reported to be loving and attentive, were not alarmed by her growing pursuit of the party scene. Perhaps they had wearied from the raising of the other children and the challenges of simply managing their daily lives, leaving little energy to focus on the last of their brood. Perhaps Sarah was the master of disguises and was cleverly able to conceal the increasing space alcohol was demanding in her life. My wondering left me a bit unsettled with it all.
By the following year, Sarah would drop out of the eighth grade and head to Oklahoma to marry an older boyfriend, her mother accompanying the pair on this escapade. Again, I am perplexed by the telling of the story…of a calm mother who wants her daughter to be happy and participates in what seems an ill-advised pursuit. It was a different day and time where marriage was most often seen as the defining moment for a young woman’s future, yet Sarah was still just a girl and I simply couldn’t imagine her mother supporting this decision and not advocating for Sarah’s education. Sarah interpreted her mother’s actions as demonstrative of her love and care and her familiarity with Sarah’s headstrong nature. Perhaps it was the best response her mother could offer, preserving the relationship between mother and daughter while a disastrous course of action was undertaken. Within months the marriage would be annulled with Sarah channeling her energies into what would eventually become a blur of drinks and the men who would pour them for her.
Sarah can recall little of this period of time, reporting days spent recovering from the previous night’s effects only to repeat the vicious cycle again and again, days collecting themselves into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. While her parents and siblings attempted to calm her chaotic lifestyle, she resisted their efforts, running away into the world of liquid numbness. Appearing the life of the party, she was never physically alone, yet constantly engulfed in a loneliness that ate away at her soul. Sarah referenced a “blackness” that surrounded her and a growing disconnection with any dreams for a brighter future for herself. She saw only a repetition of these dark days as reflective of her actual worth and she gave herself over to the inner demons who shouted for her demise. The blackness became consuming, the drinks providing momentary reprieve from its crushing power, the sex the necessary commodity exchanged for the numbing elixir, and the self-loathing the residual remainder from this exhausting and frenetic dance. Her eyes, when momentarily sent in my direction, reflected the hollowness she must have experienced during these years. It was a vast difference from the energetic fairy that had bolted from her car to gather me into her grasp.
Sarah’s self contempt was evident as she would speak to this twelve year period of time in her life, changing the subject frequently as if she could only hold her thoughts there a few minutes at a time before the weight became too burdensome. Her eyes would focus anywhere but upon my face as she offered these pieces of history, expecting my repulsion and rejection of her. I would take her hand in mine and rub her palm lightly as if to say, “even though you cannot look at me right now, I am still here and I will not run away from you because of your past.” In time, she would use humor to alter the mood or simply move to a new topic, creating a disjointed rhythm in her storytelling, but perhaps offering an insight into a coping style that had helped her survive these dark years.
It would be during this dark era of time that Sarah would conceive six children, all encased in alcohol infused fluids during their gestation. Even while in the maternity home awaiting my birth, Sarah along with several of the other residents would sneak out to party on most evenings. I was stunned to learn of this component of my own history, assuming that the home offered a more regimented health care option for my beginning. As Sarah spoke to the frequency of the imbibing, I marveled that I am not faced with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome! Her drinking was altered very little while staying with the Volunteers of America. The same would hold true for her next two pregnancies with her son who she would raise and the second set of twins now known as Dale and Gail, placed through the same maternity home. An earlier set of twins were miscarried due to domestic violence suffered by Sarah, an all too frequent occurrence in her life. Such abuses are common for lives embroiled in drugs and alcohol, becoming easy targets for violent outlashes and sexual predations. Sarah had endured all of them, a list horrific in its completion, taking responsibility for these men’s actions toward her as if her drinking literally evoked their criminal behaviors of assault, rape, and theft. She readily excused their behavior by assuming the liability for all involved. Her contempt for herself and this portion of her life was apparent. She believed that it was understandable why she had been treated with this abuse…she deserved it by the way she was living her life! I was stunned and appalled! Here was a woman who had endured and survived repeated violence, believing that she had actually instigated its presence in her life! She wore her shame visibly and my heart broke for her and other women who cloak themselves in abdicated responsibility others should bear but all too willingly concur with their abuser’s twisted ways of thinking….”If you would only act differently I wouldn’t have to get so mad. You know better,” or “You know you were asking for it. Look at the way you dress,” or “ It serves you right. Who are you to say no to me!” She had spent years wishing she would die. I shuddered and looked at her aging face wondering how many women at this point in their lives are weighted down by holding the responsibility for their perpetrator’s behavior. The aging process is challenging enough on its own…this unnecessary press of these repeated horrors creates an unending emotional burden from which there is no escape.
In time, Sarah would leave the constant presence of the darkness, but its scarring would walk forever with her. She would rally for the “sake of her children” and fight off its constant hold, but at times it would drag her back into its blackness, squeezing out any light from her very soul. Somehow, she would find her way to hold only the light emanated from her children faces, the three that she had found the strength and energy to raise, and she would live for them when there was no other reason within herself to go on. They were her saving grace and she adored them, treasuring each one for his or her uniqueness. Her very countenance changed as she spoke of them. Her heaviness somewhat lifted and I could catch faint glimpses of that fairy spirit hidden within and I marveled that it had survived at all.
Sarah’s description of intense, overarching, severe depression was classic. She would have met all of the nine criteria listed in the manual utilized by mental health care providers to diagnose her condition of major depression, a condition I suspect emerged shortly following the death of her twin. She had coped in common ways, through numbing the feelings with alcohol, surrounding herself with a social outlet that appeared to be enjoying life, minimizing thinking about the horrors surrounding her, getting lost in someone else’s physical comfort, and isolating herself from friends and family who encouraged a different perspective to her present reality. What was amazing was that she had survived the years of blackness to re-emerge at all. She had found some way to “pull it together” for the sake of her children and in time her balance had grown more steady. Today she was certainly not that young woman she described, the one her three children had never heard about. She looked nervously in my direction as our evening drew to a close. “Are you sorry you opened this door?” she asked. “Sarah, there is nothing you could tell me that would make me sorry I have looked for you, “ I replied. Worried that I would be disgusted with her, I struggled for words to express my awe and wonder at what she had endured and who she had become. She was a living miracle manifested by the power of love for three shining faces who broke through her darkness. They were her saving grace…and it was an amazing grace indeed.