Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Family's Geography

It is my second trip. I make the 90 minute drive north from Little Rock to Batesville. I am not nervous, simply aware that I am being moved by a bigger force than myself. This place, Kay's home, is tucked between the hugging hills of sand and rock at the base of the Ozarks.

The next three days I will proceed to absorb fifty years, piecing together fragments from my first visit in October and this Christmas visit. I cannot say that I look like the Buchanans or the Lovells really, though everybody sees in my eyes and in my gestures elements of Kay. She desperately wants me to know about this family; Uncle Paul, the newspaper man, and all the uncles who formed a strong and reputable line in service to our country through the military. I listen, but do not feel so compelled to learn of their service, their businesses, and their political connections: rather, I am struck mainly by their escapades and high functioning alcoholism. Is this from too many years of encouraging myself to become a Flaherty? Adoption does this, I think, requires you to find a way to become other. Since there is a great absence of information about your past, your roots, you give yourself permission to make up what you need to. The question of “Who am I?” has always been impossible to answer. History now matters to me as I recognize, though, that without it I was in danger: I could act out of ignorance and avoid the consequences of knowing.

Imagine, then, at almost 50, a stranger approaching you to fill in the blanks. It is like a river spilling its banks with the threat of flooding. While Kay reaches out as a mother, I approach her as a grown man. I am aware enough to know that I must not turn into a child under her touch; her pain and suffering might suffocate an innocent boy. But as a man, I am able to share and ease her pain. So, I came to Arkansas as a grown man, a recovering man, and think I will be able to absorb her story and not drown. We all come from somewhere, born from someone; a person, a place shaped by circumstance. Identity is not a perfect art, but a malleable sentience. So I begin the re-crafting of my life; merging two lives, two mothers, and two families into one Andy.

On Tuesday, December 28th we drove to Memphis. As we left the foothills and cross the flatlands of the delta, I was aware of the hum of the car and the constant migration of birds – ducks and swallows lace the vast horizon. There were fields of brown and gold in all directions and a hint of light above the skyline on an otherwise gray day. We were traveling to see Norma and her husband Robert, the only family Kay has left. When we arrived in Memphis we enjoyed a visit to the Peabody Hotel and the parade of ducks, ate some great barbeque at the Rendezvous’, and then spent the night in their lovely home.

All other family have passed in the last few years. Kay's beloved Aunt Clara Buchanan is gone; Kay's mother and father are gone too, as well as numerous aunts and uncles on both sides, Lovells and Buchanans. Aunt Clara was Kay’s angel. She invited Kay to work with her for Senator Fulbright and the Senate Foreign Relations committee in Washington, DC. When Aunt Clara died, she left everything to Kay. I can only assume it was because Clara knew and appreciated all of Kay’s struggles. This loss, combined with Kay's cancer, must have been insurmountable. I can only imagine the toll Kay’s addiction took on the family. Like the rings on rock after high water, memory’s traces are inconsistent and imprecise records. I am sure her pain and frustration must have taken center stage, just as they have in my own life. Interestingly, Norma gave me just a single picture as a memento, that of my grandfather, Curtis Lovell, at age 19. I have decided I possess his eyes, eyebrows, lips, and the golden skin of the Lovells; staring at this generational specter, one wonders what other hidden traits will surface.

Wednesday, December 29th, we spent driving back from Memphis to Batesville in the pouring rain. The flatlands heading west filled with the runoff. Strangely, hawks perched majestically along the way. This drive is like my "Trip to Bountiful." I continue to learn: Kay is alone. She is in many ways the last of the line. She likes to sing and wished she could have been a dancer. She loves art and tries to paint. Every once in awhile she sings a song such as the one her mother sang to her to push her toward sleep, a song about a soldier going off to war. Abruptly, she switches to another from "Stop The World I Want to Get Off," but his one in Russian with repeated lyrics intoning “little boy, little boy." Her choice of song is telling, as we move along this road once again, a route she must have driven many, many times with her own mother. What is familiar to Kay is surreal to me, and our stories, our songs, our struggles warp and weave.

Although the details I hear in our conversations could be the themes and repeating motifs common to most families, one truth stands as tall as a single pine on the rocky Arkansas hillside: Kay is the only person in this enormous family to ever get sober and stay sober. This huge accomplishment, in a family limned with alcohol addiction, has perhaps been underappreciated. In addition, she has survived cancer and cancer complications (a broken femur, a replaced hip, and the many side effects of the medications) in a family rife with both.

But it is when we attend an AA meeting together that I see her true legacy: "Miss Kay, we are so glad to see you and to meet your son Andy," were words I could comprehend. They fit, unlike many of the strange names and dates I was trying to put together. This simple acknowledgement pointed to a woman who has helped many addicts and alcoholics. Here is a woman who overcame her genetic disposition and continues to fight for sanity and sobriety. While her biological family has disintegrated and maybe even disappointed her, her recovery family has sustained her, and she them.

I identified with this woman. I saw myself in her unwritten history. We sat together and listened to our disease: the alcoholic thinking, the obsessions, the anxiety and panic attacks, the fear of abandonment, the disdain for authority but the need for approval, and the bottomless pit of self-pity we fell into before we got sober. Despite lives of solitude and alienation, we found ourselves sitting together in an old building saying the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” has provided a road out of the insanity of our genetic inheritance. Our meeting in Batesville had been rehearsed for years each time we met another alcoholic, looking for the truth of their existence. When her silver bracelet clinked in search of my hand, she confirms that I was always her son, a kindred spirit, on a parallel journey.

I sat waiting for my plane wondering if I had answered her question, "Andy, are you comfortable with me?" I make a note to tell her again: yes. How odd that a process I began almost 20 years ago would provide the catalyst I need now - our common recovery, more than our common blood, sustains me. The question of why I thought and felt so different my entire life is now answered. Acceptance leads to forgiveness. My recovery, Kay’s recovery, led us here to this place, a place absent of geography but full of grace.

I remember reading about alchemy - how lead turns to gold, how failure turns to success, how insanity becomes sanity, how darkness turns to light. Is this not grace? On our first visit Kay had said, “I need some light.” At first I felt sadness. How strange this alchemy thing is, though, that her darkness brought me light. Wonderfully, miraculously, inconceivably, sadness turns to joy as I witness courage, feel strength, and find understanding. I know when I face my last chapter that my continued living, with all its complications, will help me change and inspire others to change, too. After all, I am my mother’s son.


1 comment:

  1. Andy, thank you so much for sharing all your journeys with me.