It’s a story I’ve told a thousand times. That’s how I figured it didn’t hold any trauma. I can tell it and retell it like a Ted talk on repeat; I know just where to put the adjectives. Except it wasn’t until this past week that I realized the story I told was in fact a story of trauma, the one that deepened it and fed it, even as it prided itself on describing the details and actions with precision.
Trauma – chronic trauma that is – is less about a precipitous event and more about framing.
Here’s the story I’ve always told about the hours and days following my mother’s death when I was 14:
The evening I learned my mother died – on today’s date, June 25th, in 1990, I was whisked to my grandmother’s house in a small town an hour away with my younger brother. My aunt was there, with her mental illness and a purse full of narcotics. My grandmother was there too, her normally steely hazel eyes broken and misplaced like a Picasso. Various uncles and cousins and great aunts were crammed into her small kitchen with the brown and orange plaid wallpaper and deep freezer in the corner with a jumble of aloe plants on top. The noise was deafening.
My great uncle RC waved us all quiet as he strained to hear on the mustard yellow rotary phone attached the wall above the aloes. He hung up the phone and announced that someone would need to get on a plane the next morning to start packing up the house and to get my and my brother’s personal things, in advance of he and another uncle driving up the U-Haul in four days time. “Someone’s got to go up there right away,” he said.
There was a pause that lasted what felt like a full minute. I looked at my grandmother, her face almost unrecognizable with grief. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was still keening and rocking in her chair at the table.
“I’ll go,” I said. “I can do it. It’s fine.”
All the noise started back up in the kitchen, Uncle RC picked back up the phone, plans were made, and I was on a plane the next morning. When I reached the airport in Wichita, Kansas, my mom’s best friend and business partner picked me up and took me to her home. The plan was I’d stay with her and together we would go to my house the next morning and begin packing in advance of all the family and U-Haul arriving later in the week. But when I set my suitcase down in her grown daughter’s bedroom and sat on the bed, she crumpled next to me and put her head in my lap and wailed, “I can’t do it. I can’t live without her. And I can’t go there tomorrow!”
The next morning, she dropped me off at my house alone, tearfully waving with her lit Vantage cigarette that she’d check on me and be back after work at 5 to pick me up, and was so sorry she couldn’t face it with me.
I was fine all morning. I remember starting with my room, loading all my stuffed animals into giant garbage bags and then working on my bookshelves, crammed with Lives of the Saints books and the complete Babysitter Club series. At noon, I got hungry and went into the kitchen.
It’s permanently seared in my memory the beige enamel pot I was holding in the center of the kitchen, filled with cooked macaroni noodles, at the exact moment I froze and the shock wore off like a robe slipping off me. I dropped the pot in horror, the macaroni noodles spilled across the floor. My mother was dead. And there was no way I could be in that house alone, without her, for another second.
I screamed and ran to my neighbor’s house, the front door swinging open behind me, and breathlessly asked to use her phone book to look up the only other adult I could think of who might be able to take care me: my most recent teacher. Barbara Tuminello had taught me 8th grade the previous year and I adored her. She was one of those teachers who manages to teach how to be a good human, what to value most, and how to laugh at yourself, somewhere in the middle of algebraic equations and the transitive property. She was the one who immediately came to mind when every other adult I tried to lean on during that time fell away. And when she answered on the second ring, I breathlessly blurted out that I needed her to come pick me up RIGHT NOW PLEASE.
She was there in less than 20 minutes, took me get my suitcase from Pat’s, then brought me back to her house where I lived with her and her family for the next month, while I said goodbye to that chapter of my life along with much of my childhood.
I’ve told this story over and over as a story of hardship, a story of resilience, a story of strength, and a story of the bizarre power of automatic pilot during shock and grief. But what I missed until very recently was that this is actually a story of Help. Since I was a small child, I have told myself some version of “I am all alone and have to do everything myself.” So in wearing those particular glasses, it was easy to see this story as another one, maybe even the seminal one, of me all alone and having to carry a too-big load myself. And with me in the center of the story, that’s a pretty convincing narrative.
But what I missed until recently is that Barbara is the center of the story. She’s the one who leaps into action to help save a 14-year-old former student. There is no telling what she had to do that day. Her kids were around 9 and 12 then, or maybe even younger, and as a teacher, she reserved her summers for family time and projects around the house. As a mom of kids around that age now, I know what distraction and busy looks like, and I can’t say I would have taken the call, or at least would certainly not have been there that fast, nor opened my home up without question to a stricken teenager the way Barb did.
The story, as it turns out, is not a story of my aloneness in a crisis, nor even my resiliency and strength. It’s a story of connection, of help, of how held and supported I am, even and maybe especially when I am brought to my knees. The story has always been less about the person drowning, and more about the one who jumps in the water.
I am internalizing this new realization now, as I am again feeling so desperately alone, stumbling under a burden too big for my shoulders after my husband abruptly and mysteriously left me and our children, without discussion. In the immediate days and weeks and months following his relapse and abandonment, I would bring my forehead to the wall, or a tree trunk, or the floor, and pray the only prayer I had, “Help.” I prayed it over and over, “Help.Help.Help.” And minutes later, without fail, a friend would call or text to check on me, or my youngest would wrap his sticky arms around me and slide a note in my pocket, “Mama, I love you with my hole herat.” (sic)
What if I could change the lenses in my glasses to see the help that is always there, the abundance of the support and love always running its little stream along the margins, instead of what I have lost? How could I even revisit the old stories to see them more broadly – like my stepmother telling me she and my dad had no idea I traveled up to Wichita all alone at 14? How might I begin to expect life’s generosity for me, instead of its hurdles?
I am about to leap with my children into a new chapter, and maybe soon after a new city in order to give us a fresh start and new life. I am terrified, but I am picturing Barbara zipping into a driveway in her minivan. I am witnessing my stepmom and chosen family helping us get there and the friends of friends I have never met before in places saying, “Let us help you find a neighborhood and good schools” and dear friends now saying, “this is right.” Our transition is one colored by support and abundant gifts.
Life is generous. And there is always Help. This is the new story I am telling.