I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My son Chris

My husband at the time, Don, took this picture of Chris and me sometime in the 1960s. Chris was born in November 1961, so I figure it's around 1966 or so. He was just a little boy, and I was a young mother. Who knew what we had ahead of us?

I want to write about the guilt I have around my son Chris. When this picture was taken, I was only a year or two away from the trauma of having lost his brother Stephen, who was thirteen months old when he died very suddenly from spinal meningitis. Sick in the afternoon, dead that night. I wrote this post about it, so I don't need to go there again. But what I still feel bad about is how Chris' life was shaped so drastically by that experience.

I was never really able to be there for Chris for so many years of his young life. And then when he was 12, he went to live with his dad in Michigan, I was in California, and I basically pretended to myself that I was without any children, as I became enamored with the loose life of a hippie, traveling to Mexico and basically spending a few years bumming around until finally moving to Boulder in the mid-1970s and beginning to have a more stable life again.

Chris came back to live with me then, when he was around sixteen. He was like a stranger in many ways, because we never got over the rift of those years of separation. And I hate to admit it, but he reminded me so much of his father than I couldn't get past that. How awful is it when he would just be himself, and I would cringe at the image of his father staring right back at me through the years?

Once in Boulder, I'll never forget it, I was impatient with something he was telling me and I said, "you sound just like your father." He stood up in the coffee shop and at the top of his voice, he said, "when you can see me instead of my father, maybe we can have a conversation!" And he walked out. I sat there, embarrassed, but also stunned into reality about how little I knew about my own son.

He managed to make a pretty good life for himself in Boulder, and he lived with me at various times, sometimes for a short while when he needed to get on his feet, and sometimes for longer periods. He had jobs that gave him enough money to get by, but he never had much. He didn't seem to care, and there were times when he brought his latest girlfriend by the house. He finally went back to live with his father in Michigan when he was in his early twenties and worked with Derald, his father, in the construction business. We saw each other intermittently during those years. He would call me on Mother's Day and his birthday, and we would talk about our lives.
This is a Chris I never knew very well. He always seemed to find girlfriends who had children, usually one boy, that were not his. He loved this little one, and he raised this child with the mother until the baby was a year or so old, and then he and the girlfriend (sorry I don't remember her name) split up and he never saw the baby again. He was pretty broken up about it, when he called me and told me about it. The soft look, the heavy beard, these aspects of my son were foreign to me.

His father died suddenly when Chris was 29, and for a few more years he tried to make it in Michigan but decided finally to join the Army while he still could, before he got too old to be eligible. It was the best thing he could have done for himself, because he was starved for structure in his life, and the Army provided it. He came to Boulder for a few days before he headed off to Basic Training, and he crashed in our living room not long after Smart Guy and I had married. It was a tense time, with me trying to make everybody feel okay. It didn't help that Chris brought a fellow recruit with him. After that experience, any time Chris came to visit, or even other family members, I would put them up in a nearby hotel, and that way I could feel more comfortable with both sets of family.

The last time I saw Chris was before he shipped off to Germany, and he came to visit with his latest girlfriend, an older woman (not as old as me but darn close) who obviously loved him very much. They stayed in a hotel at my expense and we got together after breakfast, and Chris and I spent a lot of time together for a few days. He was a heavy smoker at the time, and he would need to go outside every twenty minutes or so for a cigarette. The girlfriend was left behind when Chris left the country, and she would call me, despondent, every few weeks for half a year. There was nothing I could do.

Then Chris called me, after he had been in Germany about a year, to tell me he wanted to get married to a German woman named Silvia, who had a young boy from a previous marriage. He didn't have a certified copy of his birth certificate and he needed me to get him one so that he could marry her. It took quite a while, but I was able to finally get it and sent it to him, and they were married and provided me with pictures. I never even spoke to her on the phone, because Chris said her English was not great and she was embarrassed to talk to me. But he was happy and fulfilled, and for the first time in his life he was really happy when we talked. This made me feel much better about him, his upbringing, my inability to launch him into adulthood the way the Army could.

He was in his early thirties when he joined the Army, so he wasn't exactly a youngster. He became a respected member of his unit, and he gravitated into duties in the Mail Room. I learned plenty about how important a position he felt this was. When he died of sudden cardiac arrest, just like his father had when he was 51, Chris was forty years old. He had quit smoking four or five months before that.

When I traveled to Germany to meet his friends, his wife Silvia, and to say goodbye for the last time in this life, I learned many things about Chris I never knew. He was known for standing up to the brass, far above him in the chain of command, if he felt it was an important issue. Once he walked right into the Base Commander's office and demanded that a wrong be righted. It was, and the Commander told me this story about him that impressed him, and me. After his death, the Mail Room was dedicated to his memory, and I attended the ceremony where a plaque and his picture were placed on the outside hallway.

I learned that he read palms and impressed many friends with his ability to predict the future. This amazed me, because he had never mentioned it to me, and he never gave me any indication of his interest in any area of the occult (if that is what it was). Just writing about him, remembering him, brings up such pain, because I never got a chance to tell him how much I loved him, not his father's image, but Chris himself. I think he knew it, but I'll never really know until the day comes when we meet each other again.

Perhaps this post will relieve me a little of the burden I carry around with me, every day, wishing I had been a better mother to my son.


CiCi said...

I hope that writing down these remembrances and feelings will help bring the relief you seek. I love the photo of you and Chris if front of the window. I bet you do too.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

You are brave to write this, and I hope the process will bring you peace. It's interesting that he gravitated to mothers with a single son; clearly his early years with you meant a great deal to him. Be well.

CrazyCris said...

It's sad how so many parents never get to really "know" their children. You're not alone in this DJan! I know it's probably no consolation, but I have friends in a similar situation to your son, and they've all made it through to a strong adulthood in part thanks to a good choice of solid friends. What is it that makes it so hard for parents and children to sit down and really talk? I get along wonderfully with mine, but I'd still rather go for an in-depth conversation about my problems/life/future with a friend than with them...

But I'm sure he knew you loved him! He could never doubt that.

The Retired One said...

I remember you talking about both your boys before..how heartbreaking for you..but at least you did get to know each other and know that he was truly happy with Silvia before you lost him..I know that must be of comfort to you.

Tiff said...

I hope writing this can release you from some of the pain. Remember that his life and example live on in the children that he was a fatherly figure to, so his life does live on in this world as well. Take care. :)

Anonymous said...

I believe in the spiritual world and the life of the spirit after "death." Your son probably watched you type this post about him and by doing that understands your guilty feelings and regrets. He forgives and loves you, DJan.

Far Side of Fifty said...

I think it is normal for Mothers to feel guilty about how they raised their children..everyone could have done better.

Not every Mother/Child relationship is of story book quality.

He called and talked to you..I think that means he thought about you and loved you DJan..some kids and adults have a hard time sharing their thoughts:)

Whitney Lee said...

I love that picture of the two of you; it's very sweet.

I can't imagine just how that guilt must weigh on you, and I hope this post is somehow cathartic. I would guess that he somehow came to peace with his upbringing and his relationship with you. If he hadn't, I doubt he'd have continued to seek you out at all. It's interesting that he so often chose women with a son. Perhaps he was trying to write a different story for those boys or he simply wanted to be able to help them the way no one helped the two of you.

I know that the relationship between parents and children can be convoluted and fraught with much unspoken pain. I'm sorry for you that there are so many regrets. I am sure that Chris knew you loved him.

I am, as always, amazed by your strength and courage. The twists and turns of your path would have destroyed a lesser woman. Of course, there's that saying about not being given more in life than we are capable of handling...

Nancy said...

I think in the whole scope of things, he knows you feel this way. I'm not so sure that there is as large a gap between life and death as I once did. But I do know that all mothers have guilt. We are never as good as we would have liked to be. No matter how hard we try. We all feel we could have done something better.

I hope you feel better, DJ. I cannot imagine what you have gone through.

From the Kitchen said...

I didn't visit your post today expecting this. My heart goes out to you, as you pour out what's in your mother heart. I, too, have two sons. I cannot imagine what losing one as an infant would have done to me. How it would have changed me. What kind of mother I could have been to the remaining child. I hope you've found found solace at putting your experience and feelings down.


gayle said...

My heart goes out to you!! May you find peace through your beautiful writings!!

Stella Jones said...

I think all mothers will identify a little with that situation D-Jan. We all think we could have done better, if we're honest. I don't suppose we ever know our children as well as we would like to, especially the boys. I'm glad you can write about it now because I'm sure it will help the healing process.
Blessings, Star

expwoman said...

Thank you for sharing this story with such honesty and directness.

Lucy said...

I never had my own children and cannot imagine your feelings, but I am sorry life took you down that road.
On a brighter note, I am having such fun with the eagle cam! Talk about parenting!
Did you pass along your love of the outdoors and wildlife? What were Chris' characteristics from you?

Historical sites with charmine said...

I hope you find peace as you write about your life,family and mistakes,WE all make mistakes and some can be righted,some we just have to face up to.Your post drives home the need to tell the people in our lives how much we appreciate them,to find the time for family.You did what you felt you had to do at the time,at least you can be sure he felt loved before he passed.