Sunday, May 24, 2015

PTSD is a Family Illness

For Uncle Paul

On the Memorial Day weekend I wish to honor my late Uncle Paul. He enlisted in the Marines at the oldest age accepted, and was seriously wounded after landing on Iwo Jima during World War II. He won the Purple Heart and a host of other medals that he proudly framed on his mantelpiece—and which were routinely discarded by the wife who outlived him far too long to care, if in fact she ever did.

He was the first of several substitute father figures I had in my life, as my own father, like many divorced fathers, disappeared when I was a baby. I was told my father pretended to be mentally ill to get out of serving in WWII. His Jewishness did not compel him to serve. 

Uncle Paul was the only boy in his own fatherless family, and had three younger sisters. They were quite poor, but from what I’ve heard he used to make toys and games for them. He was their champion, had many friends, and loved having pet dogs. And, as I experienced years later, he loved children, though he never had any himself.

Like many immigrant families, ours was an extended one, so uncles and cousins were seen frequently and were almost like parents and siblings. Uncle Paul lived in our same town, and he frequently took us kids to a nearby boardwalk for ice cream and balloons, or to the local root bear drive-in for window trays of soda and hot dogs. He was one of those grown-ups who knew how to enter the world of children, and delighted in it. He made our few broken toys come to life and stimulated our imaginations. He knew dumb tricks like the “broken thumb” that held me mesmerized.

I remember literally crying tears of joy for how happy he made me. When the time came for my momentous kindergarten “graduation” ceremony, I invited my mother and Uncle Paul, though my soon-to-be-stepfather was already in the picture. I can still see my uncle in the audience, smiling at me through the entire sordid extravaganza of six year olds attempting to sing and dance, and not minding when I messed up routines on purpose just to be different.

Uncle Paul was married, and he was my mother’s brother, but I used to ask my mother if she would marry him. I guess she thought it was cute or something, but she did not take the hint about not marrying my lemon of a stepfather. In any case, I was somewhat on target. They had a tight bond as brother and sister, and confided things to each other that they told no one else. My mother’s untimely death was an additional nail in his eventual coffin. I had just turned nine, and my grandmother asked him to tell me my mother died, as she believed it would be better for me to hear it from a man. But he cried and said he couldn’t do it, so my grandmother did it herself.

Still, I wanted to be just like Uncle Paul, and so when he exhibited the odd habit of walking back and forth in a room for hours, mumbling to himself, I followed right behind him. My grandmother told me not to do it because I’d pick up the habit from him. I disobeyed her, and she was right. I, too, have been a lifelong floor pacer. Though I could not have verbalized it at the time, I wondered how my happy, wonderful Uncle Paul could have so much on his mind. Once, when he had an especially bad day, he picked up the telephone and had a long conversation with the operator, unloading all his woes to an unfamiliar voice. I guess he trusted strangers with his troubles more than he did us.

I used to think that Uncle Paul told us “war stories,” but looking back they were never about combat but funny tales about K-rations or off-color jingles about the enemy. He kept old issues of Leatherneck magazine in a trunk in his attic, as well as an old Japanese flag that enemy solders had signed. When my older brother played with his green plastic army men, I always thought of them as being Uncle Paul. There also were a lot of old movies on TV back then, and some of them were WWII epics in which the good guys bloodlessly always won. For us kids, it seemed like fun, even though the grownups never liked to watch war movies for some reason.

While Uncle Paul was off in the Marines, his mother and sisters did not, to my knowledge, do much for the war effort besides worry about him and resent the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.  I think some relatives worked in a munitions factory, but this was at least in part because they had to work anyway. Food rationing was just business as usual for a poor working class family that weathered the Great Depression. They were republicans during a war effort led by a two democratic presidents, and anyway world events were too large for their mental and emotional landscapes. All that mattered was Uncle Paul coming home alive.

My grandmother could be a complex person, even an inscrutable one, but sometimes her responses had a childlike purity about them. And from what I gathered, she spent several years ceaselessly worrying about her son. I was told that this was what made her hair turn gray. Even though my mother married a German Jew who became my father, there was never much of a sense that winning the War freed occupied nations or concentration camp prisoners. Movies or TV shows that dealt with the holocaust were deemed unnecessary because they were not happy things to watch. First, foremost, and finally, the Second World War was the war that ruined Uncle Paul.

His wife, in old movie terms, was a good times gal, a floozie. From what I gathered between the lines, she had no intention of letting World War II cramp her style. To my family’s Old World values, such cavorting already was a sin, but it was especially unforgivable while her husband was overseas. Uncle Paul left behind a beloved dog that his wife claimed ran off searching for his master, but everyone else believed she got rid of it on purpose. She was not renowned for her honesty.

Her partiality to Martinis and men over dogs and children, combined with her eager bad temper, made her an intimidating presence for both young and old. (Though at times, her undomesticated nature made her a better, less judgmental listener than other relatives.) Still, she often was characterized as ruining my Uncle’s life—his wife and WWII, quite a combination. Let’s just say that when you saw the two of them at their zenith, there was no need to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

I have been told that when Uncle Paul came back from the war, he was “never the same.” People did not know to call it PTSD back then, or understand that it was an illness that does not just go away.  He did tell me that when he came home from the war his mouth was crooked. The doctor recommended he take up singing to straighten it out, and it worked. He even sang professionally in a choir. (Alas, I did not inherit the familial music gene.) He could also draw and oil paint and was an all-purpose builder and handyman. When I was little I thought he could do everything, but by mid-childhood I started realizing he could hardly do anything. I got old enough to see his irrational fits of rage and unwarranted cruelty for what they were, and no longer found them thrilling to witness.

Uncle Paul bought a white elephant of a big house in an upscale neighborhood, and spent the last 25 years of his life endlessly fixing it up, long after it supposedly was “finished.” In between carting bags of cement, he drank quite a lot and had the largest arsenal of prescription pills I have ever seen. (And I have seen some mighty big ones.) There were sad, violent episodes, and the family grew wary of visiting his big house. There was nothing in their frame of reference that told them how to deal with such things. Political-like factions were formed that created more ill will and destroyed any lingering sense of closeness.

Yet long after the extended family utterly fell apart, Uncle Paul insisted that being close to family was the key to happiness. I suppose his own life upheld this hypothesis, given how unhappy and bitter he became.

The last time I saw Uncle Paul I barely entered his house before he grumpily drove me to visit other relatives that supposedly were the key to happiness. But he did not get out of the car to see them himself. In fact, though his house faced a picturesque seascape, he began filling in the windows so that no one could see in and he could not see out. For many years my grandmother lived with him and his wife, but above the objections of his siblings he routinely put Granny in an indifferent facility for the elderly, where she died feeling abandoned and scared.

Yet she outlived her son by a year or two. He died of heart failure, I think, and without a clue as to what had gone wrong. My grandmother was not told of her son’s death, and kept insisting she needed to be taken back “home” in order to take care of Uncle Paul.

I am glad that, as it happened, I called to wish him a happy birthday during the last year of his life, and we had the first pleasant conversation we’d had in years. As what might politely be called a rebellious youth, I engaged in some high theatricality myself. When he lectured me that I needed to spend more time with the family, I’d say things like, “Well, they call your wife a whore behind her back.” Somehow his own growing isolation from these same people did not count. It was not in his cosmology to say, “I see why you keep your distance, I feel the same.” Decades of PTSD had severely warped his ability to reason, and the accompanying pill fog was too thick to penetrate.

Most of my family did not venture far away from familiar turf, so as Uncle Paul fell apart, small pockets of people became increasingly isolated themselves. The older generation seemed happy only when they were talking about olden times when they’d go to the movies or an amusement park. I long thought it was careless of them to create such an obvious impression that they were happier before their children were born. But I see now that their good times actually ended when my uncle came home from the war. The 2006 film, Flags of our Fathers, made me understand much more about those men and sometimes women who came home from the war and said nothing that made much sense as their lives crumbled like bombed out buildings.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hi Mom

I am the son of Rozalia and Richard

One week ago on Mother’s Day I did something I never did before. I wished my mother a happy Mother’s Day. Thanks in large measure to the gravediggers who started shoveling dirt on her casket the moment it was being lowered into the ground, I’ve considered my mother nothing but dead since she died. I felt like the gravediggers were slapping me across the face, but a point was made. You’re alive or you’re dead, and my mother was the latter. Message received.

I’ve never “talked” to my mother since she died, have seldom dreamt of her, and until about a week ago never thought that maybe someday I’d see her again. Like most kids, as I got older I realized my mother wasn’t perfect. But unlike many mothers, she was not here to defend herself, so my anger and impatience toward her won every time. I suppose first and foremost, I was mad at her for dying.

She was confined to her bed with uterine cancer from about the time I was six, and died just after I turned nine. She was not told she had cancer, and neither were I or my older brother. My sister knew as the eldest child, but when I’d ask what was wrong with Mother (as we had to call her), I was dismissed or yelled at by everyone who knew the truth.

How my mother’s illness and death were handled would make a textbook example of how not to deal with such things. Like many cancer patients, her behavior grew erratic, even irrational, as her illness progressed. At night her cries to God to let her die woke me, and when I mentioned this to others they snapped at me as usual. She of course also physically degenerated. I was an observant child, and this experience gave me a lifelong sixth sense as to when someone was about to die from illness. It’s a dubious skill I could live without.

For the last week or so of her life the door to her bedroom was closed so I could not see her. Yet on the morning of the day she was to die, I opened her door. Various relatives called out, “Don’t go in there,” but I already manifested the curious boldness that so often would get me in trouble over the years. My mother turned to me and said, “Yes?” as if asking what she could do for me. I mumbled hello before they pulled me away and whisked me off to school.

My maternal grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe when she was only twelve years old. She kept talking about wanting to come to the USA, so her dirt poor farming family somehow arranged it. (She came by herself, and would see her family of origin only once more.) Granny arrived at Ellis Island knowing but one word of English, “broom,” which came in handy. She was a house servant for a time, and then worked in a factory until she retired. For over seventy years her home was Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a good place for blue-collar workers to find jobs.

Her husband died when she was pregnant with her fifth child, and in fact Granny would outlive three of her children. She worked a man’s machine in the factory for extra money—in other words, an extra dollar or two per week. Only two of her children would graduate high school (one was my mother), while the two others still living were forced to quit school to work in the factory. Granny herself never learned to read or write, though she always had an opinion.

My grandmother was devoutly Russian Orthodox, and like most everyone in my family—and many Russian Americans—a lifelong conservative. However poor she and her children were, they never took a handout. She kept a picture of the Czar in her bedroom, and believed communism to be evil. Taking money from the government was shameful in her eyes, and she always gave thanks to God for all that she had—which was not always much in other people’s eyes. (When I lived with my aunt, I was not allowed to get an after school job or eat at a friend's house, lest the neighbors think we were poor. I likewise got fed the riot act one day in summer, when I left the house barefoot. The neighbors again—they’d think we were too poor to buy shoes.)

Like her mother before her and her sisters, my mother grew to be an attractive young woman. And like something out of The Glass Menagerie, she had many promising suitors, but chose an exceptionally irresponsible one to marry. By the time she was pregnant with me, she and my father were literally broke—as in, no food in the house. My father also was in trouble with the law, and would do a stint in prison. He liked betting on horses more than Fate enjoyed rewarding his efforts, and men with guns came to the house looking for him. I was nine months old when my parents divorced, and none of us kids would see our father again. (Though we learned of his death.)

My mother, like her siblings, felt caught between her old world heritage and new world reality, though more than the others she erred on the side of the old world. She even made sure her second husband was Russian, though he proved no more dependable than his predecessor.

Her fascination for all things Russian rendered me highly embarrassed by my heritage. Like many third generation Americans, I strove to be 100% Americanized. As a kid, I wanted to live in a suburban ranch house like the perfect TV families. I wanted Betty Crocker cakes and Thom McCan shoes like the other kids. Granny was famous for her homemade bread and poppy seed loaves, but I refused to eat them.

At the time, it must have seen only fitting that my mother be given a Russian Orthodox funeral. Her siblings supplied the lengthy and complex a capella chorale. But not a word of the funeral was in English. There were no speakers who talked about her, nothing set aside for her children to participate in. It’s a strange sensation to feel excluded at your mother’s funeral. But everything was done as my grandmother wanted it. Even had it occurred to any of her surviving children to do it differently—and it probably did not—they could not stand up to her even when they were middle aged. 

I should also mention that my mother’s was the second of four funerals in a row I attended over a period of four months. They were all Russian Orthodox affairs, which meant I also went for several evenings in a row to the wakes for all of them. Decades before it became fashionable, I saw dead people. Perhaps this contributed to my eventual interest in writing murder mysteries. Certainly it contributed to a chip on my should I carry to this day—though I’d like to believe it’s gotten smaller—as to why other people had “normal” things like a steady home and parents. I’d live in several different households before going off on my own at fifteen. I wore my poverty as a badge of honor, proof of my emancipation from the past. Or so I told myself many times over.

I could write a book about all the thoughtless things my family did in the wake of my mother’s illness and death. But this blog post is already too long, so I’ll only mention two more. One was during her wake, when an aunt of mine smiled and said, “Well, when are you going to kiss your mother good-by?” She said this like someone saying, “Would you like an extra dab of mayo on your sandwich?” Or at least that’s how I heard it. So I walked up to the open coffin alone, and, always afraid of disobeying at the most self-destructive times, counted one-two-three and forced myself to kiss her cold dead lips. Nothing more was said about it.

Then, several years later, the same aunt told me that my birth was what caused my mother to get cancer and die. The American Psychological Association owes my aunt a debt of gratitude for all the financial support her remark set in motion over the years. 

Anyway, I got tired of feeling like damaged goods whenever I met someone, because sooner or later they ask you about your family, and the tale of my early years doesn’t exactly make for a surefire anecdote at parties. I felt ashamed to have no parents, to live with other relatives or then be on my own as a minor. I remain ashamed of my Russian heritage, and still have only a theoretical grasp as to why people take pride in their ethnicity. I don’t know what it feels like. I joined several different faiths to “erase” the Orthodox from my life. I went back to using my birth father’s surname instead of the Russian one of my stepfather, which embarrassed me every time I heard it. Better a crook than a commie.

But last Sunday, the outpouring of support I received from Facebook friends prompted me to come forward with all this. I hope I haven’t bored you. Moreover, if you are facing the loss or potential loss of a loved one, please, talk about it. Even—or especially—if children are involved. And as for my mother, I am starting to get to know her for the first time.

PS: She had some minor success as a singer, but most all her mementos were routinely discarded upon her death. I was told I could keep one picture of her for my own, and this is the one I chose.