The Family We Choose

In my 20s I was involved with someone, A, who had a daughter, DW, with a friend of his. It wasn’t planned and he didn’t really want to be a father. In fact, I only found out about her after he and I had been going out for a while. There came a time when her mother wasn’t capable of providing a secure home for DW and A felt pressured to step in to obtain custody.

It was a rather quick, but unpleasant custody battle. In the middle of it all A and I got married. DW became my step-daughter when she was 4 and I was 25. DW hardly ever saw her biological mother again. Ultimately DW’s mother committed suicide when DW was 14.

When I was 30, despite enormous misgivings around DW’s well being, I decided that the relationship between her father and I was really unhealthy for me. I also felt that the unhealthy state of the marriage was not a good environment for DW. I was desperately depressed and my anxiety was so intense that I’d gone on medication for it.

DW was devastated by this change of events. We talked about it and she wanted reassurance that I wasn’t divorcing her. She felt like it was her fault, as children often feel during a divorce. I let her know over and over again that the problems were between her father and I, that it wasn’t her fault, and that I would do my best to remain a part of her life.

Things were really hard for a while, a few years in fact. DW spiraled into all kinds of unhealthy behavior. I kept trying to get through to her that while she was a minor my being her “Mom” was wholly contingent upon her father going along with it. That her choices were jeopardizing any help I could offer, particularly if she were injured in any way. I was heartbroken when I finally told her that she had to live with her father for a time until she could have honest communication with me. She was furious.

While she was living with her father DW ran away. She was 13.

I was utterly, completely devastated and as an adult who was not her biological nor adopted parent, and having divorced her father no longer even a step-parent, I had no legal recourse to demand to be involved in all that followed she was eventually picked up by the police. I was convinced that it was all my fault. I felt like the worst person in the world for having so grievously failed DW. More than anything else that I’ve been through in my life, these events are what finally drove me to seek therapy.

I would barely see or hear from DW for a few years. The incredibly strained relationship with her father meant that he quite often didn’t think it was important to share information with me. When she was closer to leaving mandated treatment and group home I was asked to join a meeting with the DW and her father. She was incredibly angry when I said that I wasn’t ready to just open my home to her unless she could agree to adhere to some ethical behaviors. When she left treatment at 16 she went back to live with her father and saw me infrequently.

DW made a dangerous choice in her life when she was 18. Once again it was terribly painful for me to watch her while she struggled. Even more painful to try and set my own boundaries knowing that DW felt let down by my response.

Now she’s just about 5 months shy of her 21st birthday and has completely turned her life around. It admirable and a great joy to see her grow into the ethical, responsible, compassionate human I would glimpse often during her childhood. We’ve grown a lot closer this past year and it has meant so much to me to share her life. I feel very proud for her accomplishments, all the hard work she’s done to be person she chooses to be now.

Now that DW’s an adult I’ve shared more with her, opened up about things she felt I was withholding from her as a child. I admit to her honestly that I was withholding, but not because I didn’t think she was old enough to know or didn’t trust her. It is a relief to me that she is able to understand that I withheld things from her because I didn’t want to color her young mind with my feelings toward her father. I wanted to treat DW and her father ethically, no matter how painful it was for me to have her feel like I wouldn’t talk to her.

DW still calls me “Mom” and has told me that I’m the only one who really tried to be her mother. She just refers to her biological mother by her name, never “mom”. Neither of us bother to explain our complicated relationship to people when they exclaim at the idea that I could have a nearly 21-year old daughter. If I’d had her when I was 20 it would be true. I didn’t, but that doesn’t really matter to either of us. We are the family we choose to be and that is no less compelling or important than biology.

We laugh a little when people remark upon our looking similar.

Gratitude 2010

I really enjoy Thanksgiving and not just for the fabulous food. I love the idea of enjoying the fruits of the harvest right as winter draws near. I love sharing the day and the meal with loved-ones. I also particularly enjoy reflecting upon those things I am truly grateful for.

This year I decided to participate in a little letter writing project. The challenge was to make a list of 10 things you are grateful for in your life and to write a little about each thing. I decided to include a photograph for each item on the letters I’ll be printing and mailing out this week. I enjoyed producing this list a lot and it seemed like a really good thing to add to my blog.

Halloween 2010!

1. My Health

I am currently 41 years old and thus far have managed to beat the odds stacked against me. Unlike all of the other women in my family I do not take any medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or anything else related to heart-health. Nearly all of the women in my family were taking daily medication at my age. I also am only a little bit overweight, no longer morbidly obese. Although I do have chronic pain in my back from degenerative disc disease, it doesn’t prevent me from taking long walks, going on strenuous hikes, riding my bicycle, swimming, or practicing yoga. Moreover I have access to, and the ability to pay for vitamins, supplements and medication whenever I need it.


I'm in red and CK is in the snappy suit

2. My Wife
It has been a long journey to find my way to sharing my life with an amazing spouse. She is my best friend, my biggest ally, and an absolute inspiration. It is still hard. We live in a country that doesn’t recognize our marriage and the state we reside in passed a constitutional amendment a few years ago that defines “marriage” as something only a man and a woman may do. Despite all these limitations and refusals to recognize what is true, we held our wedding this past September regardless (that’s us just after the ceremony which took place in a park near our home). We may not be able to say we are “legally” wed, yet, so we announced that we are “lovingly” wed until the time when the laws catch up to our civil rights.

 

Our home with a little snow

3. Our Home
In a world where many people do not have a safe place to rest, we enjoy the amazing luxury of owning our own home (well, we have the ability to make mortgage payments). The two of us share our 3 bedrooms, living/dining room, bathroom, kitchen, and partially finished basement (where we have a TV if we want to watch a movie) with our 4 animal companions. Compared to much of the world we have a ridiculous amount of space in which we can accumulate countless books, enjoy my Grandmother’s china set, and decorate with any number of pieces of artwork we have collected. We also have a very large lot and are able to plant a large vegetable garden. Really, it is an amazing blessing even when there are all the tedious details and work of being home owners.

 

Photo by Kris Arnold

4. Access to clean water
I live in a city that is dotted with beautiful fountains. The downtown area features several public drinking fountains donated by a city founder in 1912. Water, safe water is everywhere. While we have easy access I am aware of places where children are sent miles on foot with 5 gallon buckets to get water for the day. They make these trips more than once in a day in some cases. Lack of access to clean water leads to all kinds of suffering and is such a simple, obvious blessing. (These are some of the “Benson Bubblers” near City Hall in Portland.)

 

Gorgeous display at the Farmers Market!

5. Access to a multitude of wholesome foods
Much of the world has inadequate food and people manage to eek out desperate lives on less than one USD $1 a day. Conversely, in many places people have access to calories, but not wholesome food. There are many areas that are veritable food deserts. Places where only a “convenience” store or a fast food establishment are the only options to get food. I am profoundly grateful for access to all kinds of wholesome, fresh foods. Not only do I have my choice of farmers markets during many months of the year, but I also have the ability to travel outside of my city to farm stands to buy produce. We receive a delivery of organic produce nearly every week. We also have a large vegetable garden in our yard. (pictured is the display at the farmers market)

 

image by @pdxdiver

6. Choice
I consider myself very fortunate to be able to make many choices in my life. I can send our my resumes to companies that both interest me and fit my skills. I have sufficient skills to find employment that allows me to choose where I life, choose the food I eat, pay easily for clothing, heat, water, electricity, and have access to all kinds of entertainment. Moreover I am able to participate in elections and I have a say as to what happens to my body. I am allowed an enormous number of choices in my life.

 

CK trying to get space to nap!

7. Our Animal Companions
I feel tremendously grateful to be able to have animal companions to share my life with. I am also grateful to be able to spend money to make sure they are healthy and have access to wholesome food best suited to them. One of our kitties has a minor health problem and requires special food; it is such a relief that we’re able to afford to do this for him. In return they provide us with hours of affection, entertainment, and connection.  We currently have four cats and hope to eventually have a dog.

Pictured, from the top down (my wife trying to have a nap with Zonker, Puck, Oberon, and Phoebe to keep her warm)

Some friends at our wedding.

8. My Friends/Community
I am really blessed to be surrounded by compassionate, loving, intelligent, funny, giving, amazing people. At times they have been more of my “family” than those people related to me by genetic ties. They provide me with support, good ideas, wisdom, and at times they have the courage to tell me when I’m wrong!

When we put together the guest list for our wedding we were both touched at realizing just how many close, wonderful friends we have in our community. Pictured are some of the friends and family at our wedding.

 

Gorgeous Autumn Afternoon

9. My City
I live in Portland, Oregon. There have been very few places that I’ve ever considered moving to. I have lived in a handful of other places, but while doing so I longed to return to Portland. It is an amazing place filled with creative people, great food, bookstores, parks, trees, and lots of beauty. In general people are friendly and giving with their resources. I love my city.

Picture of Portland taken in a small park downtown, Director Park, recently.

 

Photo by Scott Mills

10. Books
I learned to read at a rather precocious age. The ability to pick up an object and have it tell me a story was magical. Books were my first and best friends as a child. They were both a refuge during unstable times and a constant source of knowledge. Books told me things about the world no family member would. As much as I love the Internet and the promise of instant information it fulfills, books will always be an important part of my life and my home will always be filled with them.

The photo shows a long view of the incomparable Powell’s Books in Portland – I’ve been going there since I was old enough to be allowed on public transportation by myself!

The Nay-Sayers

I didn’t intend to write a strong statement about National Breast Cancer Awareness month and then say nothing else. I’ve actually had all kinds of ideas kicking around my mind to write about this past month, but I’ve been sick and have had some job interviews. Then there are the home improvement plans that are underway (new furnace, advanced weatherization). These plans require that we pack up and store most of the furniture and stuff on the first floor. I also got my new food blog as well as the total revamp of this blog up with CK’s considerable help.

So it has been busy since I posted about breast cancer. I realize that I rather glad it worked out this way. My statement against the national pinkwashing that breast cancer awareness has become stood there for the whole of the month of October. It has been an interesting experience putting myself out there with that post.

I’ve been absolutely stunned at the overwhelmingly positive response my post has received. In addition to comments on the blog itself, I have received compliments on Facebook, Twitter and during a phone call with a technology recruiting agency. I have received a lot of appreciation for making so firm and courageous statement. I’ve been thanked for saying something many people have felt, but have been afraid to express for fear of negative push back.

That brings me right to “The Nay-Sayers”, those people who did not agree with my viewpoint. There have been a handful of these people and I want to acknowledge that a small minority disagreed with me. You can see the comments attached to my post, some were made on Facebook.

Some merely commented that they thought the bit of fun from a Facebook meme used to remind people that breast cancer is still out there, still scary was totally wanted. Humor helps us to find strength in the face of fear. Humor helps many patients, my Mom included, get through the ugliness of breast cancer. Fair enough.

Another person said that so long as pink ribbons on ridiculous products saved one woman’s breast than it is worth it. Honestly, I don’t have a lot to say about that other than to point at the message some of those pink products are sending and more importantly, look at where the money goes.

Then there’s the more strident detractors. To date there’s been three people who’ve posted rather seriously negative stuff to the blog. I moderate and approve all comments and when the first of these came in, I’d hoped to respond directly to the sender but found that her comment resolved to a blocked Blogger account. Each of the more seriously negative comments have had this kind of anonymous post; a first name but no real way to connect to the person (essentially anonymous).

I have devoted a fair amount of time considering how to respond to them (if at all) and wondering if I should even post these comments at all. One of the negative comments came complete with what I feel is a rather mean-spirited comment about the person who had posted a link to my blog on her Facebook page (I’ve removed this bit from her comment). All of these comments have lead me to consider how I want to handle them going forth. In fact, you’ll notice on the new blog an email address is required to post comments. I’ve also published a disclaimer and my policy regarding comments.

Ultimately I decided to post these three comments I’ve been holding. You can go wade through all the comments to find them if you want. I’ve also decided that although I did publish them, I’m not responding directly to these comments.

What I will say is that I’m all for reminding people to take care of themselves. I’m all for supporting our loved ones who survived, like my Mother (emphasis as a reminder to those people who somehow missed that I’m the daughter of a two-time breast cancer survivor). I’m equally for remembering all of those people who have not survived (including several of my friends’ mothers). I’m emphatically for publicizing this disease and taking away any stigma associated with anyone who is struggling with cancer of any kind. Or frankly any kind of stigma associated with fighting any grave illness.

I’m really not that bothered by anyone being “proudly pink”, as one person said. Whatever. Just don’t expect me to go out and buy myself a case of bottled water (or anything else for that matter) with pink ribbons on it to support “awareness”.

I think we have spent a hell of a lot of money on “awareness” while the efforts to understand WHY have been underfunded, at worst, and uncoordinated, at best. Yes, there is a whole lot of funding that goes to treatment, curing breast cancer, and that’s great. I’m all for finding better treatments that don’t disfigure and poison patients.

That said, funding more “awareness” avoids my question: Why is breast cancer still so common after all this awareness has been raised?

Buying “awareness” does not bring us any closer to understanding why. I’d like to see the same level of energy dedicated to “awareness” directed toward understanding and eradicating the causes.

I’d like answers, not more “awareness”.