When my nurse practitioner told me on Monday that she was treating me for pneumonia, I felt an inordinate amount of satisfaction. Smug, even. And at the same time, I was angry and resentful that my friends and family weren’t rallying around me. When I stopped to look at all that head-ichor, it felt contradictory and very, very old.
We’ve been exploring ancestry in our UU study groups—how ancestors may differ from relatives, how we receive transmissions and transfer them on to the next generation, how we are given gifts and responsibilities. With that in the back of my mind, I began to see my reactions to illness and support as a transmission. They are as much traditions in my family as oyster stew on Christmas Eve.
The only time we could count on our mom giving us positive attention was when we were sick. She touched us with care. She looked at us. It was acceptable to wake her up in the middle of the night to say, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” It was not acceptable to be scared of the Wicked Witch on The Wizard of Oz. I learned that at the age of three, sitting on Mom’s lap. “If you’re going to be that way,” I remember her saying, “I’m turning off the TV.” I got it: Emotions=Bad. Illness=Good.
It was also a long-standing tradition to value illness that could be named, especially by a doctor, or was freakishly out of the ordinary. So, my brother scored lots of points for the fast growth spurt he experienced as a teen when he woke up one morning unable to move. The story of my dad carrying him in a fetal position to the car is legend in my family. Same with the story of my brother accidentally dropping a pitchfork on my sister’s face and how the tine curved around her eye instead of puncturing it. These are the fairy tales I heard as a child.
Getting a cold wasn’t legendary, but having warts that disappeared before the doctor could inspect them smacked of magic and mystery—and worthiness. I knew when I fell off my bike I’d better have gravel for Mom to pull out with tweezers or I wasn’t worthy of her time. I learned how to wash a wound, dab on merthiolate and blow the sting away, wrangle a Band-aid without it sticking to itself. I learned not to bother Mom with minor injuries.
But worthiness carried over into other areas of our life. Recently, I talked to my brother about this. It was no secret that he won the Most Worthy Award in our mom’s estimation. He wrote to our parents every week from the time he left for college until Mom died last year. He came home for Christmas every year, a nine hour drive from Bemidji, often through bad weather. He kept the same job with the state of Minnesota his entire work-life and still works part-time, though he is officially retired. He’s a little eccentric, which somehow made him more dear rather than worrisome.
I asked him why he did it. Why did he write faithfully every week for all those years?
“Mom told me to,” he said.
My brother passed a test I failed long ago—obedience and demonstration of affection. It was our responsibility to prove to our mom that we loved her, to do what we were told. After my dad died, I think my sister understood unconsciously that a new test was in the wind. She called our mom every day. She helped her buy a new car and new furniture. Of course she wanted to support Mom in her grief and confusion, but there was a frantic quality to it, a blurring of boundaries that sapped my sister’s emotional energy. Eventually, my sister backed away enough to rebuild her boundaries. And, of course, Mom felt abandoned. And angry.
As I consider my family’s emotional legacy, I see all of it playing out in me. I made light of my chest cold as just another annual event and went about being stoic and “taking care of it myself,” because it was nothing special. At the same time, I silently tested my friends and family to see if they “cared enough” to call or offer help. When they didn’t, I got angry and marked them as unworthy.
My care-giver, Leanne, visited yesterday, and she slapped me awake like a Zen master. “How can they offer help if they don’t know you’re sick?”
Holy crap. I’d turned into my mom, expecting people to read my mind and anticipate my needs. I had carried forward a story that may have started generations ago. What happened in my mom’s young life to make her so insecure about being seen and loved? What happened to her mother to demand a boundary-less relationship with her youngest daughter? I felt compassion and sorrow, imagining my mother and my grandmother trying to scratch affection out of a barren landscape. Or, more accurately, what they perceived as barren through the lens of this family fairy tale.
So, I did a scary and fairy tale-contradictory thing yesterday. I announced on FaceBook that I had pneumonia and would appreciate kind words and help. The outpouring of love and people rushing to come to my aid knocked me senseless.
I’m well aware that being able to say pneumonia still carries a lot more brownie points in my mind than the less worthy chest cold. Editing this old story will take time and patience. But my hope is that the legacy stops here. Part of my work as a point on the continuum of time and ancestry will be to pass on a different story of who we might be. In that fairy tale, everyone is worthy.