People say that God, like Love, is a verb. I think Family is, too.
My very first moment of existence fractured my family, the one posing with the Doberman in front of the tiled fireplace in an old Spanish-style bungalow in LA. Because the man holding me on his knee, the one who thinks he’s my dad…isn’t.
My biological dad was probably enjoying cocaine with Charlie Sheen, he isn’t in those pictures…yet. I am the product of an affair between two high school sweethearts who may have been more love addicts than sweethearts.
Visible cracks must’ve appeared years before the paternity test, because we sold the bungalow when I was five, Ellen three. Daddy moved to an apartment where my younger sister and I shared a sofa bed.
When I think about my own five-year-olds having to say good-bye to David or me I want to reach back into the photograph and beg the two humans in charge to get therapy and/or go to rehab.
Reconcile with the traumas of your adolescences so I don’t have to deal with mine eventually in rehab and therapy! I don’t want to ever say good-bye! It’ll never get easier, ever. I’ll just get angrier and sneakier and more aggressive! Please!
My mom, who used lots of loud words and belts to discipline me, moved to a small house on Ozone Street in Santa Monica with a skinny one-way strip of street separating us from a park with a swing. A man with kind, bright eyes started to tear away at the photo with visits to the tiny abode. He took me to the swings across the street. He used to do cocaine with Charlie Sheen, but Jesus met him somewhere in Malibu and he stopped.
You’re not my dad! Except he was.
At seven, a handful of days or weeks or months after their wedding under the sycamores, my mom fractured me further by revealing that the man with kind eyes and depression was actually my father. I could keep calling him Pat though, because nobody would ever replace Daddy.
Then Fiona and her turquoise eyeballs joined the mess. Six months later Ellen—wait, does that mean Ellen isn’t my real sister?—got sick.
Because of the dying little girl nobody had time or energy to make the divorce any yuckier than it was by definition. When you’re not sure if each Christmas will be the last, you spend almost no time fighting about who gets her on holidays, and you just make one big feast for everyone to enjoy at the table.
Somehow, civility never left the frame. All my parents could exist in a room and function well enough. Thanks God.
Daddy remarried, too. She had a lot of energy and a lot of fun family members and a lot of love for us and her golden retriever. She painted a Tigger mural in Ellen’s bedroom at Daddy’s new house off National Blvd. There’s a Ross right there at the offramp where Daddy would buy my clothes, except I was a large child who kept getting larger and the kid’s clothes didn’t fit me, so he bought women’s sizes and I felt like such a failure because I had two chins & flowy flowery pants that my teachers wore, too.
And just past the Ross, a Vons. That’s where I bought the Easy Bake Oven WITH MY OWN MONEY. Ellen and I listened to Shania Twain and “What a Wonderful World” on the drive back to the house that would never feel quite like a home. Then he got divorced again.
Sean, my youngest brother and a fellow bastard, was conceived just like I was; but instead of a high school sweetheart it was a worship band member at our church. That’s why God blessed him with musical genius.
For fifth grade Mama made the single best decision of her life and put me into private school. When she tells the story she uses both hands to illustrate the two paths, one leading to drugs and jail and an early death. The other leading to Hillcrest Christian School. She didn’t know that eventually even the Jesus path would lead to drugs and social services and a nearly-narcotic death.
Jesus is in all of that too, though.
Hillcrest became the home my address never felt like it could become. At Hillcrest they didn’t hit me, and they didn’t get divorced, and not a single human there had brain cancer. Nobody ever called me a “bitch on wheels,” and even though I was fat they made room for my body and my pain. I don’t think God ever intended one woman to serve as her child’s only mother, and at Hillcrest I had a handful of women who held up all my filleted pieces.
They reminded me that no matter how many times a dad left, I had a Daddy who specialized in restoration, a Daddy nobody could replace.
And my friends were family, too. We had twelve in our graduating class and most of us had been together since sixth grade. Sarah, the tumor-namer and cutter-of-hair, whose family sustained me in every possible way. Shanen still has perfect eyebrows and is a perfect soul mate for me. And all the rest of them who let me ask year after year after year that they please pray for Ellen because her brain is broken.
I don’t know if it’s relevant, but I do know that the fact that my mom and biological dad have been married and divorced three times is worth noting. Between all my parents rest seven divorces, a graveyard of Goodhardgood.
Family is the fracturing and the act of stitching back together. It’s the ripping apart before the hot-glue-gunning. Family is the people pictured in the photo, and those who choose to show up for them when it has all hit the fan. Family are the in-laws who help rewrite every old story you ever told yourself about True Love.
It’s the community of people singing and yelling amen behind the big open doors of my church, where big stained glass windows help us all see the humanity in each other on Sunday mornings. My brothers and sisters at Denver Community Church Uptown welcome my sorry as AS IS. They’ll welcome yours too!
Later this afternoon we’ve got a big party planned to celebrate the end of summer, and my family is in town. Daddy is here, like he always has been—steady and supportive and mildly dissociated. Aunt Fi and her giant blue eyes flew in and did puzzles with the big girls before watching Project Runway with me. Mama will be here too and I finally found an identity outside of her, which means I don’t have to explode. Pat won’t be here because I don’t want rejection for a fourth time.
Claire….you have a crazy true life story!!!!! You are quite the chick!!!!! Love you!!