Twenty-one shots fired into the drizzly morning. The veterans in dress uniform paid honor to my mother's military service, not knowing that her time in the Women's Army Corps was cut short after two months when they discovered that she was only sixteen and sent her home. Witnesses at the graveyard were few … my dad, two cousins, the overly effusive funeral director, and me, the only child, the one who got mixed up in the hospital, the one who didn't fit into the preconceived notions of daughterhood.
Five years later, at a writer's conference in Santa Barbara, a workshop leader is talking about screenplay structure, drawing pictures of story arcs and the weaving together of plot and character development. She plays a clip of "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie I've seen dozens of times. The scene is George's lowest moment, when he yells at those he loves and believes that all is lost. Suddenly, I am weeping and my chest is in a vice-grip of pain.
The scene changes and George is in his living room after seeing the world as it would have been without him. He is ecstatic even before the townspeople surround him with love and the cash that solves his problem. My tears and pain gain momentum; I am thankful I'm in the back of the room. This wave of grief puzzles me and I try to find its source. The only thing that comes is: mother.
Jung says the story of a life begins somewhere at a particular point where memory begins. My earliest memory, at about three, was waking up in a car alone in the dark. I now know that my parents must have stopped on our way home at a neighbor's where they bought milk. I am not aware of it then, however, so I decide that they must have been eaten by a bear. I wonder who I will live with now. I am not frightened, I know someone will take care of me, I just have to decide who it will be.
Then my parents return and I tell them I was frightened because, somehow, I know I should have been. I wasn't though, if anything, I remember feeling anticipation. I was on the brink of a new direction, I could see another path winding off into the distance. I didn't get to follow it that night but I always knew it was there waiting for me. Somewhere out there, my people were waiting. Years later, it appears that, by age three, I was already disconnected from my family, willing to move on to another place. I was unbonded, looking for my real life.
Thus, my story was born, told and retold through the years in a hundred ways. Now I recognize this tale as the archetype of the abandoned child. However, as Leonard says, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Feeling abandoned is the crack in my life but that was how the light got in, making me independent, self-reliant and strong. I left home as soon as possible and, by keeping several states between my past and my present, I gradually learned to love myself, grieve for my abandoned child, and, eventually, began to find my place in the world.
Perhaps the return to grief brought forth by that perennial Christmas story was for that abandoned child, but maybe it was also for my too-young mother, a wounded child who had her dreams stolen before she even knew she had the right to have some. Her life story made mine look like the Brady Bunch. She left my birth father after only a few months of marriage and found her self unemployed, undereducated and with an infant who cried continuously because her mother's breast milk was not providing sufficient nourishment.
While I was still a toddler, my mother covered over her wound by marrying a man who adored her but whose love she could never fully accept or trust. In her last months, lost in deepening dementia, she repeated the same question over and over as fast as the words would come out to anyone who came near her, but most of all to my father, "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?"
Even before she began to verbalize it in a river of pain and confusion, that desperate, unending question wrapped around her life like barbed wire, wounding everyone who came close and keeping the very people who might have cared for her at a distance. In an ideal world, together we might have healed our karmic wounds. In the real world, we nursed our wounds, separate and alone.
All of this makes me think about the great scheme of things. We seem to be thrown together in a way guaranteed to create wounds, shaken up in the great bag of life with the very ingredients (people and happenstance) that tear at our hearts and then offer healing for the wounds. It's all there … thorns and bandaids … with no signs that say, "Try this; it will make you feel better," no instruction booklet included. Was that an oversight?
The other night I listened to a reincarnated Buddhist master talking about the path of the bodhisattva which, as I understand it, includes a vow to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. Perhaps that's the instruction manual, period. In this time when purpose and meaning seem to be so illusive, maybe that's all we need to know. Perhaps all of us are here simply to learn to love, care for, and reduce the suffering of ourselves and our fellow travelers. There are a lot of ways of doing this so it probably doesn't matter which form we choose as long as the intent to help others is part of it.
Of course, that still doesn't explain why we've been thrown into a world that guarantees that we will be wounded but does not guarantee that we will be healed. Maybe we've chosen to come to this theme park where we can either ride the roller coaster screaming and shouting in fear all the way until we stagger off rubber-legged and delighted, or walk about as an amused but unengaged sightseer until the park closes and we go home to sleep.
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