I’m wired like my mother was, a little jittery in the best of times. But her anxiety during difficult times seemed to subside when she was either taking photos or working in the photography lab where she long worked.
I believe photography was something that gave her life meaning. It got her through some of the toughest times of her marriage – discovering her husband was gay, bankruptcy, and even her youngest daughter’s illness. If she had a camera in her hand, or was developing photos, she appeared at peace.
When it became clear that my sister wouldn’t survive her illness, my parents alternated leaves from their jobs to care for her. The combination of fear, grief, and the lack of a meaningful outlet for my mother’s anxiety subsequently put her own health in danger. After a fainting spell and a spike in her blood pressure, her doctor put her on medication which she’d take for the rest of her life.
On the other hand, my father didn’t appear stressed to me during the years my sister was seriously ill. He looked sad and grief-stricken, but serene, too. It puzzled me then. He’d sit with his grief for hours out on the deck, staring at his garden and at the clouds in the sky.
In an interview recorded years later by a friend of his, he ended the session with, “I’m well acquainted with grief.” He may have long made peace with it by the time his youngest child even contracted a deadly disease.
My father was also serene during the early years of the AIDS crisis. That puzzled me, too. It may have had to do with his role as an AIDS buddy where he comforted the dying men whose families had turned their backs on them. He held their hands when so many wouldn’t during that time, telling me it was all he could do, that there was no cure.
I look to him now, in this time of COVID-19 with no cure or vaccine. Ongoing racial injustice. During the week, I’m steady due to the nature of my work. But my weekends are filled with sadness. I’d like to transform it into something positive or helpful as I think my father often did.
I go back to something my youngest granddaughter told me when she was about six years old. We were walking downtown. All of a sudden, she stopped in her tracks, tugged at my hand, and shouted, “Stop, Grandma! I see a pattern!” The pattern she saw had something to do with the heights of the buildings.
We may be wired alike. When I’m able to identify underlying patterns in the chaos around me, my anxiety stops and I’m as calm as my father looked to me during horrendous times for him so many years ago.
As a child growing up in a closeted family, I suppose I’m primed for this. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to decode the patterns in my unconventional family. It must be my purpose.
The pattern of the societal shift that is taking place in our country right now due to the virus and racial injustice is not yet completely formed. We don’t know how it will end, but no one knew how the AIDS crisis would end or if my sister’s life would end either. But my father was able to remain calm through those times. Maybe I can do that, too, by focusing on the thing that has always powered me.
My father taught me how to write in his fancy handwriting. He taught me how to make paper chains out of his discarded cigarette wrappers and to do needlepoint. Though he’s been gone for more than a decade, he’s still teaching me. He showed me it’s possible to be at peace within myself in the midst of chaos and suffering. It’s a pattern he modeled for me throughout my life.
My memoir’s publication date is July, 2021.