Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you ― Shannon L. Alder
In the course of over 2 hours on the phone with my mom last night, something very significant changed: I remembered I have a family. I remembered I am part of someone else's legacy. Put another way, I was reminded that I am part of something bigger than just my life.
Let me back up a bit. In two weeks time, I'll be leaving Portland to come back east for the summer, staying with several friends in different cities, doing TaskRabbit jobs, and emotionally preparing myself for the next chapter of my life: moving to South Korea to teach English. The next several months will involve some of the most drastic changes I've ever experienced, and you know what? I am here for it.
Part of my travel back east include nearly 2 whole weeks with my parents, something that hasn't happened in years. The last time I spent that much time with Mom and Dad, well, I genuinely had hair. Still, of all the people I'm visiting this summer, of all the people who are offering their homes to me for some much needed recuperation, I am perhaps most excited about being with my mom.
All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair ― Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Growing up, my mom didn't tell me much about my biological father. There weren't pictures of him. He never called or wrote. As far as I knew, he didn't even exist outside of his name written on paper or spoken on my mother's lips. For a long time, I was angry with my mom. I felt cheated because I'd never met Kenneth Ray (bio-dad), and as a child/teenager/adolescent, it was easier to blame the woman in front of me than the man invisible to me. Thankfully, that anger dissipated and was replaced with a deep feeling of thankfulness for my mom and all she made possible for me. It also came with the realization that Kenneth Ray had his own agency and made his own choices, including the choice to not be my father.
In 2012, I learned of his death (October 30, 2010). I didn't know it then, but not having had the chance to meet my birth father was more painful than I cared to admit. I desperately wanted to know more about who I came from. Last night, my mom shared more with me than ever before, not only about my father but also about our family at large. We talked about where she and Kenneth Ray lived when they were married, about how he was more than a bit of a party animal. We talked about Papaw and how he liked to have every detail of a trip planned in advance, a trait he passed down to Mom, who in turn passed it down to me. We talked about how Nanny and Papaw disagreed about things on more than one occasion. Still, hearing about Kenneth Ray and his family felt cathartic to me.
Do I have his nose?
Do my eyes remind you of him?
Do I sound like he did over the phone?
Do I walk the way he walked, even never having seen his stride with my own eyes?
Do we have the same laugh?
Do we have the same smile?
I wish I could tell you all the questions I have about my birth father. Hell, I don't even know all I want to know about him. But I do know something now I didn't before. I have aunts and uncles out there. Cousins. Nieces and nephews. I have people who share my blood and snippets of my genetic code, whose eyes share my same glimmer, whose voices share my same timbre, whose hands probably feel the same as mine. I may never meet these people, but still, we are a family of sorts. For me, learning this, I cried. Hard and ugly. Ask my mom, she'll tell you.
"Are you upset," she asked me. And I was, but not because I was angry. But because it felt like I'd been given a gift, a kindness. I told mom how losing Nanny left me feeling like I had no family left. Mom used the word "orphan", a word she had used to describe how she felt about losing her mother. But hearing about these people — about an uncle who my mom knew would keep her safe and protect her, about friends who she turned to when Kenneth Ray's shadow side started to emerge — I was overwhelmed by this deep sense of connectedness. More so, I felt grateful to these faceless people who loved my mom through some difficult times.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light ― Brené Brown
Mom and I talked about a lot last night, including her parents and her relationship with them. She shared more with me about her childhood than ever before. After our conversation, I realized something else: Mom was 27 when Papaw died, and I was 27 when Nanny died. Being a few years older now, I was able to listen to my mom's stories with a sense of gratitude. Let me tell you this: there is something really special about having the kind of relationship with your parents where they start telling you the stories, you know, the little ones, the important ones, the ones that the family keeps quiet and sacred. These stories, these similarities, give me a new sense of family, of connection.
If you had asked me seven years ago when Nanny died what kind of relationship I would have my mother in seven years time, I would not have imagined us being on the phone for 2 hours, laughing and crying together, telling stories, or planning a 2-week visit. I would not have imagined her being one of my strongest supporters during a divorce, a toxic job, or countless hours of therapy. I would not have told you she would be the first person I called when I really just needed someone to listen. I would not have told you how important it is to me to make her proud with the kind of life I life and the kind of man I become. I most certainly would not have told you I was excited to spend 2 weeks with her.
For now, I think my mom will be okay with me telling you all this, and if she's not, well, I'm sure she has some chores for me to do to make it up to her.
photo credit: Soro0113 (via Flickr)