Saturday, February 21, 2004

Musing about the men who so influenced my life for so many years ...

has provided a new lens through which to see them. Maybe -- because I now have such an extensive range of experience -- given all the years of living that have softened memories, there is little that can be defined in black and white terms. The "greys" feel so much more right. Comparisons are inadequate measures of almost anything.

Did I love Mel? Yes, and deeply felt as only a romantic 19 year-old can. He was everything I needed within the limits of what my inadequate experience would have demanded. To measure that love against the mature relationship Bill offered to a 50 year-old mother of four who had lived so many more experiences would be unfair. But by the time I married Bill, most of the "first times" had been used up in my first marriage to Mel. There would never again be a first childbirth, our first home, etc. But there were many new experiences of an entirely different order and not yet lived. These were beyond my expectations at the time and would be later shared with Bill -- and were.

I married Mel at a time when total reliance on my father's wisdom was waning. Dad was by now far less mysterious and was beginning to develop flaws that I'd never been able to see during those years when I needed him to be all things against a world I wasn't quite ready to take on. Forgiveness of one's parents for just about anything comes with the advent of one's own parenting. In addition, moving from a father's hand to husband's was the path to leaving home at the time, with few alternatives. College was hardly a practical choice for a young woman -- unless she couldn't find a good husband. How times have changed! A woman's fulfillment was in finding her place as wife and mother, in that order, and my acceptance of those terms fit the mold of the times precisely. I can blame no one for my later frustration when this choice proved to be inadequate to the demands of my expanding personal universe.

No one told me how much growth comes with the creation of life. Each of my children -- in their varying strengths provided views into "being" that I'd never have guessed were there. Yes, even Dorian, with her obvious deficits -- pushed me to my limits over and over again. And, I wasn't simply learning about her, but about myself through her. There is no greater source of "knowing" than the experience of motherhood. Wish I'd known that earlier. That emerged through life with Mel and the sharing of parenting, for good or ill. Nothing in my life with Bill compared with this. This is the debt that I owe to my children. In many ways, they ushered me into my own deeper self, and they still do.

If you can imagine, after years of being a suburban homemaker and mother of four, I would find myself in a failed marriage and beginning a totally different life -- unrelated to anything that has gone before.

Entered a summer seminar on mid-life career changes and met someone who had just taken a position at the University of California as chief administrator. One evening after class he asked if I'd consider interviewing as his assistant on a research project. My very naive answer was, "...I'm not sure I can do that, but would be willing to work for you for two weeks without pay to see if I'd like to." Three months later I was not only an employee of UC Berkeley, but was romantically involved with the principal investigator of the project! Within a year I was married to a Dr. William F. Soskin, PhD., psychologist of note.

I'm not sure that being single was ever an option for me. Didn't know it at the time, but the thought of not being in a relationship was still not quite normal. I was still being externally defined in relation to the male in my life. Without that, I had no idea just who I was. That was to come much later.

But now it's time to pick Dorian up for the weekend. Today's her birthday, and I have a cake to bake. Everybody will be home for a celebratory dinner!

Photo: Married to Bill by dear friend and mentor, Rev. Aron Gilmartin, Unitarian-Universalist pastor of the Diablo Valley UU Church in Walnut Creek, California (1975).

Friday, February 20, 2004

The continuing drama at San Francisco's city hall heightens my anxiety and stirs painful memories of Rick's death. I won't linger on the implications of a parent outliving her young. This has happened to countless others, and brings up the natural feelings of regret and the guilt of survival for each of us, I'm certain.

But maybe this is a chapter on mortality as much as it's a chapter about the loss of my son -- and what sense I've been able to make of it as one without a belief in divine intervention:

It was a day of changes. I'd decided to sell the home in El Cerrito. I'd bought it ten years before in order to accommodate mother's last days. Dad died at 95 in 1987. Mother survived him by six years, to the age of 101. Eventually, she'd passed on and the cost of maintaining "a house that could accommodate the Christmas tree," could no longer be justified. I'm sure that I wasn't alone in this. Many parents continue the myth of being the center of the universe long after it's appropriate to do so.

I'd located a one-bedroom condo in Richmond's Hilltop Village, and was in the process of crating up all the "stuff" that would go to storage when the call came. It was Rick's landlord. "Mrs. Soskin, we haven't seen your son for three weeks, and there is growing concern among his neighbors that ...". My heart stopped for a fraction of a second, and I could hardly catch my breath.

Called my niece, Gail, who lived reasonably close by -- and David (by now hysterical) in Berkeley to relay the news, knowing that I couldn't drive across town to learn the truth. They immediately dropped everything and took over. David still does "'s'ponsible" very well. I sat and waited with a growing feeling of numbness, my body magically preparing to protect itself against what was sure to come.

The phone pierced the silence with a shrill ring and the landlord's voice on the line with, "...I'm so sorry, Mrs. Soskin." I screamed! David hadn't reached me yet. He'd opted to drive to tell me in person rather than to speak those fateful words by phone knowing that I was alone. When he did arrive, we called Bobby, together. David's words now engraved on my brain, "'s over, Mom. It's over." How difficult, even now, to admit that embedded in the horror and pain of grief lurked the feeling of relief. He was right. It was over.

This wasn't new. There was a familiarity about this strange mixture of feelings. It was a reminder that in 1987 and within three short months, the key men in my life had all passed away. My father first of all, then Mel (my first husband and children's father), then Bill -- the man I'd married at 50 after the first marriage ended. I was at first devastated with grief. I'd been at the foot of my father's bed at the hospital when I heard his last breath being expelled. Bill lay in a coma for months before the end came. Mel died after years of living as an amputee -- living death for a former athlete. I'd experienced his death as merciful. They'd all died in that brief period.

Imagine my surprise to find that, only a few months later, right behind the grief lay the exultation of emancipation. I'd had no sense of my individuality, my womanness. As it is with many women in my age group, I'd been consistently defined by the men I'd loved for an entire lifetime, and without question. I don't think that I'd yet decided whether feminism was a step up or down, and my life as "part of a whole" seemed destined to be.

How many months I lived in that space of silent joyful/sadness I'm not sure. It wasn't something to be talked about. But springing out into the world with new horizons and unfamiliar mountains to climb became all-consuming. Having married at a very young 19, I'd experienced being child, daughter, wife, mother, but had skipped over "woman," without any idea of just what meant, or awareness that I'd not lived out that essential part of myself; nor had I missed her. Tapping into new capacities in myself drowned out the eulogies in a flurry of activities and interests. The need to maximize the second half of life moved to the top of my priorities, and I sensed a new sense of purpose and preciousness of time -- made the more urgent by the loss of those I'd loved and lost.

Rick had been dead on his bathroom floor for three weeks when his body was found. He'd died of cirrhosis from years of alcoholism. He'd died alone. His death followed that of his lover, Gordon, by no more than a year. His death had been one of the longest acts of suicide imaginable; a slow inescapable descent into the hell of self destruction. David was right. Rick's life had never really started. A bright potential had been snuffed out years before for a variety of reasons -- some beyond my understanding. Some not. I'll never know how much I contributed to that despite all the love invested. None of us can ever know that, and it's probably just as well.

But the mystery would deepen in days to come.

Both Bob and David had a sense of having reached Rick a few months before his death, at a time when he was hospitalized in crisis. His blood pressure had risen to dangerous levels and though close to death, he'd survived for the moment. Both younger brothers had spent time visiting with him in the hospital. Bob's approaching wedding (only two weeks later) held excitement for us all. Bob believed that Rick had every intention of participating with us, and that they'd connected meaningfully after a long period of separation. Bob lives on the Monterey Peninsula and has for many years, so their lives rarely crossed at that time. Though we didn't give it words, I suspect that we each knew that he'd not live much longer.

Knowing doesn't soften the shock or finality of death at all. Nor do the lost lives of those who went before. Each loss is all-consuming. Experience does little to prepare one for losing a loved one though, as we age, there is some movement toward the acceptance of one's own ending. A child cannot imagine non-existence. I can. Maturity may be measured by just when we accept the fact that we must die as all beings do, and the emphasis begins to center on just how well we are using and have used the privilege of life. A friend said to me on the occasion of my mother's death, "...remember, Betty, no life is complete without a death." He'll never know how important those words would become in my own struggle with the acceptance of my own mortality. Being all used up before the end, has become a driving force -- an obsession. The growing sense of urgency has added spice to my days and lightness to my step in this most recent decade when life has become more precious than ever before.

Just stopped long enough to scan through the binder that holds the records of Rick's last days and read through the descriptions of the strange events that gave a date certain for his last hours. Will copy them here if only to reinforce the experience and remind myself (and you) of how wondrous is the capacity of the human mind to skip across the limitations of time and space when the need is great enough and openness undisputed.

More later.

Monday, February 16, 2004

The plight of all those hopeful Gays and Lesbians ...

camping out at San Francisco's city hall (thought of them as the heavy rains pelted down during the night) in the hope of getting married today ... . Thought of Rick, and wept in the night.

Rick's homosexuality was obvious from infancy (as I look back). I recall reading an article in Parents Magazine when he was about five. Something about testes that fail to drop by a certain age, or glandular development that might be delayed -- not sure what it was, but whatever caused my questioning, I made an appointment with our pediatrician to talk about what I suspected. She was shocked by my questions and let me know it. "This is simply a gentle child. You Americans are so strange. In Europe we allow our men to be gentle without suspecting homosexuality. In America it is different." She continued, "children don't choose gender until they reach puberty and it is impossible to tell anything until that choice is made."

I continued, "but if a child is continually having his/her gender questioned, isn't that choice somewhat prejudiced?" She didn't answer me. I figured that this information was suspect and that my "gentle child" was gay and that it was okay with me. One can't share life with a youngster for his five earliest years and not be smitten for life. My biggest problem would surely be to protect him from his "testerostonous" father!

I remember (very athletic) Mel -- on the occasion of about the tenth time Kenny Allen (around the corner toughie) sent Rick home bloodied and bent-- decided to teach Rick to defend himself. Perfectly ordinary thing for a Dad to do, right? Wrong. I knew that this was a gentle child who would never make it against the strength of a bully like Kenny! This ritual went on for weeks. Mel would kneel with both hands held out before him for Rick to punch his little fists into. First left, then right, then crossover, then upper-cut ... made me nervous to watch this futile game day after day.

Some time later Rick came home from play -- nose bloodied, chin scratched, tears of humiliation and fear of facing his dad mixing with outrage! I ran to gather him up for comforting before Mel could get to him -- but it was too late. Mel popped out of the kitchen with, "...why didn't you hit him like I taught you?" Poor little Rick, "...but he wouldn't hold his hands up!"

There was no male killer instinct in my child, and there never would be. He loved dolls and math, in that order. Built his first crystal set for radio reception when he was eight. Taught himself algebra with books from the library when he was in 6th grade because he needed it for a science project he was working on. This was a special child. He was bright, a linear thinker, sharp, and far more feminine than masculine in some important ways. And he'd been so since he came into my life at only a few months of age.

When he was in third grade I attended a teacher-parent conference and was told that Rick was a good student but that he was often seen "passing notes with another little sissy boy." At about the same time, my mother-in-law visited the house and noticed Rick washing dishes. Her warning, "...Betty you mustn't let that boy do those kinds of things...". But the pediatrician had told me years before that boys needed to play with dolls and do household chores just as girls did because "...they grow up to be parents just as girls do." An early feminist? At least she was partly right, but just a little twisted in her diagnosis.

The part that stuck was the part about there being a choice at puberty. I tried very hard to keep open and accepting so as not to effect that "choice." (If there was the slightest possibility that she was right.) Never allowed myself to hint that I knew, at least until it was so obvious that Mel and I were unable to discuss his homosexuality at all. We never did, though I heard Mel call him a sissy in anger -- but only once. Their's was a love/hate relationship that tore them both apart for years.

Poor Rick! His alcoholism was his only out from the misery. He was -- first of all -- an adopted child in a family that later produced three more biological children. He was an only child until he was five, then Bobby and in quick succession, David. He suffered the agony of being the only black child in that suburban school where he was scorned. He was Black and Gay. He was a lost soul.

After a tumultous and painful adolescence, at twenty-one he moved into town from Walnut Creek, into his first apartment. He was on his own. The call came, the one I'd expected all our lives. "Mom, can you come to dinner next Wednesday? Dress your prettiest. It's something special." When I arrived that evening, a young woman was waiting in the livingroom with Rick. He introduced us, and announced that he had something terribly important to tell me. It was at that moment that he told me about Ron, a handsome (white) man in his early thirties and owner of a kind of "Sharper Image" store in San Francisco. "He wants me to move in with him as his roommate, Mom." "And will you," asked I? "But you don't understand, Mom." "Yes, I do," says I. The young woman (obviously here for moral support) enters the conversations at this point with, "yes, she does, Rick." "You've always known, haven't you" says Rick? "Yes."

We left to join Ron at a fine restaurant where he announced that he and Rick were planning a trip to Amsterdam soon, and that he'd not wanted to take off without our family knowing about their relationship. Ron's family lived in Connecticutt -- a place they would visit on the return trip from Europe. I felt relieved and grateful that we'd together crossed some threshold that freed us all. We'd all come out, that evening.

But all that's left of that relationship are a few shares of Ford Company stock, given to Rick as a Christmas present years ago. The documents have been in my safe deposit box for all these years, a box I thought I'd closed out long ago when I moved. He had a key and had placed them there in a sober moment, I guess. I knew nothing of them until recently when they appeared in my name in an announcement of unclaimed property from the State of California. Have sent in proof of ownership and one day soon they'll arrive, the last vestige of a lost life... .