Rehab Santa

The kids met Santa at my rehab last weekend.  For the first time in over three years we drove the forty minutes from Denver to Parker Valley Hope, my inpatient facility.  I have no other reason to drive down to Parker except that Lex from my outpatient speakers panel said Santa would be there for the Christmas party.

I have four kids ranging in age from six to twenty-one months and not one has ever met Santa.

“Maybe this is the year, babe!”  I tell David.  “And it’d be nice to walk through those glass doors not having just hit rock bottom.”

Tired from a long day, and a little itchy at the prospect of smelling all that Sleepy Time Tea wafting around again, we load into the car.  David holds my hand.  Nobody fought while the fiery winter light smacked all the west-facing facades of the sprawly new builds that rest on the prairie further south than we usually roam.

“Do you remember this?”  I asked him.

“Yes, some of it.  Do you?”

“No,” I chuckle.

There’s so much I remember now.  Ask me to recall very detail of Nell’s birth, the only one sober, and it’s crystal clear.  What did I wear to church on the Sunday our friend’s baby was dedicated?  The white dress with those beige Oxfords and a red scarf.  What were the first words David said to me in bed this morning?  “Hi.”

When parking at a rehab I suggest a spot in a far corner for a number of reasons.  We park between the two white lines and debrief the babies.

“Okay kids.  This is rehab, do you remember what rehab is?”

“This is where people go when they have cancer,” Lucy informs us.

“Close, but no.  That’s a hospital.  Good guess though, babe!  This is where Mama went after Atticus was born to get off all her medicine, and where people go to find their Love.  The people inside are just like you and Daddy and me, they are all just trying to find their New Story.  Some of them may act a little different, so come close to me if anyone makes you uncomfortable.  But I do not think that will happen.”

“Yeah, because nothing bad happens where Santa is,”  Rae Rae chimes in.

“Right.”  I affirm, and I believe she is probably correct.

While someone finishes up a testimonial about how terrific sober living is David, the kids, and I play volleyball on the sandy lot I spiked on all those months ago.  The frozen sand doesn’t feel great in my shearling-lined flats but at least we’re not stuck inside.  They said it would take thirty goddamn minutes, it’s been over an hour! I hear a youngster grumble through his cigarette.

An applause signals the end of the lecture that those newly sober and very raw patients needed, and we march toward the glass doors who welcomed me that one night in late Octoboer, 2014.  They let all the light in and all the light out.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again:  If you haven’t been to rehab you should go.

Lucy stays close because her keen observational skills tell her that there is too much Sleepy Time Tea in the air and the bloodstreams of these humans.  Dotted throughout the beanie-wearers and middle-age women who didn’t used to think beer & wine were big deals I see people wearing visitor lanyards, I go get two for my man and me.

Right there, on that sofa, a teenager held newborn baby Atticus (who turned three this past September).  My mom brought him for a visit on my second night, I think.  Maybe third?  Earlier in the day the girl told me about the abortion she had a few months before.  And then the heroin she started using so she didn’t have to remember the abortion.

“Do you want to hold him?”  I asked.

“You’d let me hold your baby?”  Tears huddled in the corners of her dull, brown eyes.

“Of course! Here!”

Twenty minutes later, after all her tears fell, she handed him back.  I won’t try and type out the thoughts and feelings I presume pumped through her prefrontal cortex.  I’ll just leave you with that Advent image—a  broken teenager and a babe.

“Mama I’m hungry!”  They all whine in unison.  So we hurry back and claim a circular table, add an extra chair because #4KidsIsTooManyKids, and I take the big girls to stand in line with me.

“This is just like at school!”  Lucy exclaims upon seeing the cafeteria trays and hair nets.

“Yep!”  I smile down at her.  Except here you eat way more sugar and coffee because they’re stimulants and your poor brain has no clue how to function free from addictive substances.  In this room is where I learned that I never ever need more than four cups of coffee in an hour again.  Ever.

It’s a BBQ blitz until the carolers arrive and freak Rae out.  Those songs are scary, Mama.  A handful of toddlers and big kids can sense the red suit approaching; they buzz around because—sugar.

There’s a woman who’s asking Atticus too many questions and not registering that “Booga” is his nickname, not my son’s actual name.  Nick has discovered at some point in the last twelve days of sobriety that he actually loves kids.  Like, a lot.  And when Nell motions for him to pick her up his glee momentarily makes me forget to say a prayer over her little body because I am 99% sure she is the first baby he’s held.

When the singing stops a woman in a red sweater informs us that Santa has arrived.

It’s such a good thing they haven’t seen the fancy guy at the Cherry Creek Mall yet.  My children explode.  They surround Santa as he sits on the rehab chairs I sat on with my sore, c-sectioned body.  It’s fucking magic.  The empty fireplace isn’t raging, but the sober smiles on all those parents’ faces warm the big room right up.

This all started with a baby.

I snuck away earlier during dessert to hand a list of all their names, ages, and genders to the business manager, an alumni of the program himself.  Nearly everyone who works at a rehab is themselves in recovery—we know that the 12-steps are a type of voodoo that only works when one stays tethered to the Truth.

We know that rehab and recovery are close as you’ll get to Jesus on this side of Heaven.

The alcoholic-turned-businessman hurries off and wraps up four presents for my four monsters.  Santa calls their four beautiful names and then we decide to head out, bedtime waits for no man.  Hug Amanda, wave to Nick, smile at the smokers flanking the walkway to our SUV.

The last time I left this place I was thinking thoughts so expansive I was sure I had become a superhuman at some point during my week-long stay; maybe that was true.  Because the Secret, the Voodoo, the Gospel they relayed made more sense than any sermon & it changed me forever.  Think resurrection.

We leave behind the beanies and their nurses, the middle-aged women and their rage.  But David and I know that they’re the lucky ones, because God likes to hang out in mangers and inpatient facilities.

The hardest months of my life met me the moment I walked through my front door sober for the first time, but now I knew I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t even broken.  I was alive, and in rehab we learn we’re allowed to be a human.  We don’t hide our mistakes, obsessions, abuses, psychosis, or self-harm behind the big glass doors because we can see the scars on everyone else.

And the haphazardly applied eyeliner—that’s a signature rehab move.

The secret is that you’re never alone, and you’re not broken (even though you ache), and of course you can hold the baby, and don’t drink that much coffee, and American rehabs singlehandedly keep Sleepy Time Tea in production.

The secret is in remembering what Love looks and sounds and feels and tastes like.

Booga pees his pants on the way home, after they rip open the gifts.  We listen to Lorde this time, instead of Taylor Swift’s 1989 which she had released earlier on very day of my discharge, 10/27/14.  When I listened to that album driving along Parker’s Mainstreet it was like coming alive all over again.

He’s still holding my hand.  And he is sober now, too.  The Gospel is hard to resist when it looks this good, I guess.

Every new thing I did sober hurt so good.  Like flossing too hard.  Goodhardgood.  Every new thing I do to this day feels so Goodhardgood.  It’s the voodoo that teaches us how to do the scary things even though there’re lots of sharks and fire and blowout diapers.

In the New Story we’re the Love Hulks who can have adult conversations without manipulating, and discipline a child without shame.

The Santa wasn’t real, or even great.  But he was everything we needed.  I don’t know if God is real, in the sense that Americans like to imagine.  And “great” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I look back over the last twenty-nine years, or since election day.

But I’ll be damned if God as Love isn’t everything we need.  Thank you Parker Valley Hope, for helping us remember.

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Chapter 15: Love, Sortof

To my daughters:

Hi Kittens.

I don’t have the time or the word count to waste, so here it goes.  This world is going to try very hard to get you to believe that God didn’t create you whole, it’s my job to help teach you to call “bullshit!”  Here are few theories I’ve field tested for you, I hope they spare you some of the UTIs, pregnancy scares, and broken marriage vows.

Sex does not equal power, or love.

For me, physical intimacy was a game, and the prize of winning (or losing) the match felt as real as the first fifteen minutes after an oxy dose.  You’re a Little Christ, you’re divine; power already pulses through every cell and membrane in your beautiful bodies.  Tender touches feel nice, but I dare you to find something as electrifying as True Love.

You don’t need a back-up plan.

For young girls whose fathers failed them, this one will mean more.  Your father hasn’t left you so it may not resonate.  Still, it’s a good one.  You can use it in your best friend’s room in college when shit hits your fans.  No number of men waiting in the hallway will help ease the hurt of the one you dismissed.

The sting of a lover leaving will never ache more than the pain of losing yourself, so stay near to her.  I will teach you how to do this as you grow.  It involves lots of journaling Truths and Joys, yoga, prayer/meditation, dancing, and “failure.”

You are wanted.

You are wanted.  You are wanted.  I pray that Daddy and I have shown you this.  I hope that, in our desire to raise loving humans, we don’t accidentally raise ashamed & insecure humans.  It’s hard sometimes, when all four of you kids are insulting my vegetarian bolognese in varied choral arrangements at the dinner table.  But even then, I want you there with us.  Mostly.  Love you.  Stop yelling.

Do not move in with the man who hurts you (the man you let hurt you).

This may seem logical to you, and if so, then I have succeeded as a parent.  It was not something that occurred to a younger Claire, because the hot chaos felt a lot like the fires in which I was forged.  The insults and rejection sounded truer than the alone-ness.  I pray your fires here at home don’t feel so hot.

Before you cheat on your husband (or wife), call me.

It can be distracting and fun to imagine how life would look with someone who compliments your make-up and opens your door for you, but those fantasies about another man (or woman) are invitations to start showing up in real life—less invitation and more red flag.  Call me, we will run into the pain together.

Secrets will give you cancer.

Or autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, pain, and a myriad of diagnosable physical & mental ailments.  That secrets cause cancer has not been proven yet, but my field research and the accounts of my associates has led to some convincing evidence.  I knew a woman whose Lymphoma disappeared after she came out as a lesbian.  I came alive after I completed my fourth step; confessing those last three secrets to Daddy and a few trusted sisters let me exhale for the first time in my life.

I promise you girls, nothing will shock me.

Good love exists.

Good partners exist.  Remember that Good and Hard are the same thing sometimes, most of the time.  Maybe all of the time.  The person, or people, you choose to walk Home beside will nestle into the spot that Goodhardgood-ness can hold.  If it’s only Hard, notice that and decide what happens next.  If it’s only Good, notice that and decide what happens next.  If it’s True and can hold both the Good and the Hard, keep breathing and lace up your hiking boots.

Drink a lot of water.

This doesn’t have much to do with love addiction or calling bullshit, but it’s something I think is very important.

Keep breaking the chain.

You three come from a long line of tall, powerful, seductive (read: wounded) women.  Wars in Europe and abuses in America reinforced the strength of that bondage, but something really exciting is happening.  Your mama doesn’t feel like a slave anymore, and I want to raise up women who call bullshit! instead of want me!  

I pray by the time you are all grown magazines will have stopped publishing lists of sex positions to make your man love you more.  If rage was an effective way to solve social injustices, then the cumulative internal fires of Millennial women will surely engulf the beauty and plastic surgery industries sometime in the next two decades.

You’re welcome.

Pop stars (ahem Salina Gomez and Adele ahem) might have found other topics to indulge than their ever-longing and tumultuous love lives—love addictions.

Maybe each of you is running from something that feels too Hard.  Food helps, so does alcohol and online shopping.  Imagining a life, relationships, and conversations that don’t belong to you can alleviate some of that pain, too.  I won’t lie, it all helps and it will all be redeemed.  Remember?  You can’t fuck it up.

But it hurts more to reject the Hard than to hug it.

Life is just learning how to hug the Hard and make it Good, okay?  Remember your lineage of women?  The lineage of all women?  We will help you, sweet kitty cats.  We belong to you, and you to us, and together, from our wombs and wounds we will all cry out BULLSHIT! until Shalom is un-shattered.

You are not alone, you never have been, you never will be.

Love you,

Mama

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Chapter 5: Roll-ups

Here is what cancer teaches parents with youngsters:  That our children are not actually our children, and that we were never meant to fill all the holes meant for grace, hope, love, service, prayer, hiking, and chocolate.

Whose are they then?  Because entrusting them to a God who allows/causes/whatevers cancer, war, rape, etc. feels like leaving them alone with a babysitter who may or may not identify as a psychopath.

If God is in the fritos and the barf, in the grapefruit, the gauze, the lanyards, and the redwoods, does that mean God hovers over and oozes out of the death of a young parent?  My friend Chrissy will tell you yes, God is there too.  Her daddy died of ALS when she was seven, leaving a wife and six children behind.

Fuck.  That. Shit.

Once, I dreamt of God, a Lion, circling the canvas tent my family and I huddled in like meerkats  keeping out the cold.  All the jungle noises frightened us, but none more than that scary-ass roar.

He’s coming for us.  We’re done.  Aslan isn’t a Good Lion after all—Aslan is actually Scar.

The roaring, strangely, never crept closer.  After hours of listening to the growly intimidations I peeked out.  The lion wasn’t stalking my family, my dying sister, or me.  She was protecting, keeping all the hyenas and all the jungle away.

That’s a God I can understand:  A fierce protector of the holy clay called Good.  I’m okay with scary and hard, because God always ends up swooping in the end.

Hard becomes Good after Love roars away all the fear & death.  When we peek out through the worn canvas structures we built and see the safety and freedom and life we’ve been provided, that’s when we start to say Thank You instead of How Dare You?

Then we dance.  The jungle howling never stops, but neither does the dancing.  I can get behind a God who dances.

***

By eighteen months, Lucy developed an affinity for albacore tuna with mayo and minced celery, a combo etched into my own tastebuds by my Grandma Jo.  Tuna wrapped in a flour tortilla with melted cheddar cheese, shredded carrots, julienned bell peppers, and tomato cubes.  Yum.

Don’t forget this Claire.  In fact, write this down.  Because when you die, David’s new wife will need to know Lucy’s favorite lunch.

So that’s what I did, keeping a journal filled with all her quirks served as a cheat sheet for any caregiver who might inherit my firstborn after my death.

8.31.11 “You love sucking on wet rags in the hot weather.  It’s weird and little gross.”

1.17.12 “You are a lounger, Sweetie.  Legs always up and spread eagle. I get it.”

10.21.12 “You hate cuckoo clocks, a lot.”

12.9.12 “You love dancing to Sesame Street music.”

Maybe I loved her so much that I wanted to remember everything, all her inner workings.  Or maybe my fear wanted to spare her from the pain of being unheard & unknown, two subjects in which I majored.  There’s a photo of us, I’m masked and she is new and we are waiting for an infusion in a waiting room.  There was so much I wanted to say, but the mask kept me quiet.  No words could unscramble the sloppy mess that cancer causes in a young parent’s heart.

When I die, who will Love my child?

She is only three-months-old and can’t communicate that raspberries give her diarrhea, I knew I should’ve taught her sign language.  Looking at trees calms her down, I’ll write that in red.  DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR ON THAT TREE IN THAT IPAD GAME, she will cry the saddest baby tears when that creepy bunny pops out.   All these moving parts, these pieces wrapped up inside her being, they need naming so she stays healthy and smiling.

Claire, your kids love dance parties.  Look!  The Lion DJ is safe, and starting to set-up the turntables!

Her journal became an easily-digestible program that anyone could download.  And it’s hard to acknowledge now, but that’s what I needed her to be, easy and digestible, because I was so flimsy.  I was convinced that any other woman could serve and love her better than my bald, sorry ass.  Please, take my girl, this journal I strapped around her neck will help.  Here’s my husband, too.

I stopped writing in the journals when I realized that no amount of ink would bring me back. Remembering Chrissy and all the other stories I’d heard about the horrible blessing of losing a parent helped me settle into a fragile peace.  One I still access and try to maintain today.

Making sense of the Goodhardgoodness is above my pay grade, Anne Lamott reminds me.

Instead of continuing to scratch the soil out of own grave with my fountain pen, I decided to try living for a change.  Because now I wasn’t dying; I was one year, two years, three years into remission– Alive!  (mostly…)

And ready to trust that the Babysitter could make a roll-up, too, maybe even tastier than mine.

Probably not though.

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