A strange ode to parenthood.

Sadly I do not read much; spending a large part of my life reading technical and legal documents wears on me and leaves little desire for pleasure reading. At work one night late the voice of Dr. Tara Westover, author of the book Educated, on NPR stopped me in mid sentence. For a solid five minutes I was transported away to a life so unlike my own yet eerily similar. She spoke of a family in the thrall of illness and her evolution beyond it. But what really forced my hand to buy the book and read it (pretty much in one sitting) was that she shamed me. Her clear and full love for her Father and Mother who disowned her is perhaps the most enlightened way of dealing with this dilemma, an enlightenment that eludes me to this day.

When my tormentor died, of liver cancer, I shed no tears. There was no mourning or sad reflection. I was outside when the call came and my Mother was hopeful for some sadness or remorse for the “pain I had caused” in his life. It was cold for June and the wind blew dry from the east as I waited for some emotion to arise from the gray depths of my heart that would offer some comfort in her sadness. The only feeling to surface was relief; my Mother was not pleased. Even knowing what had made him so; the suffering he had endured that twisted his heart to darkness I could not forgive him.

I will not speak ill of the dead, but nor will I lie to cover for them; he is beyond my judgment now. While at fifty now he is rarely in my thoughts his actions have formed me, mostly for the worse and struggle to make amends for the injury I have caused as an adult before understanding the depth of the damage. The house of my life is built on a shitty foundation; I have long ago quit trying to aspire to great heights and focus on keeping the walls up day-to-day.

So when Dr. Westover spoke so sublimely of moving beyond her family at an age when I was still struggling to figure out who my family was, and how to be a functioning human, it go my attention. She has some perspective that has eluded me. Reading her book, my understanding is that she has a great capacity to love; greater than mine and maybe greater than most. She does not love as a child without reservation, but in a clear eyed acceptance of all the good and bad of the whole experience.

I recall an old friend when she spoke of visiting her Father at the Woodbury State Hospital for the Criminally Insane until he died; “it wasn’t his fault he was crazy, he just was” she said so quietly and simply that her words hung reverberating in the back of my VW camper. I was twenty-four when she said that, and I believe she was twenty. The answer has always been there for me and I never saw it; the answer is love; not love-as-we-wished-it-was, but love-as-it-is.

In the interview she said that people often seem to “know” if she will reunite with her family. To me the very question is moot. Her story is her own now and beyond that page. At some point all children become in charge of their own story and as my oldest moves further into adulthood and I see that more. My chapter in his book has passed and means less and less but that is as it should be; his life is his own and I do not love him less but respect him more for it.

If you have ever lived with a person with an undiagnosed mental illness it will resonate with you; if you know an adult with a parent suffering from mental illness it will answer questions you never thought to ask. It is a great, sad, hopeful memoir and a reminder of the power of healing in the human heart.


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