Mama Tried. The roots of guilt, the guilt of roots

“A guy comes back from a retreat and tells his friend that he’s achieved enlightenment. To which his friend replies, “Wait until you have to spend the weekend with your parents.” – Unknown

Years after I allegedly started to grow up, which presumably began towards the end of high school and when I went off to college, I shared with my parents my thanks and love for all they had done for me and then expressed sincere apologies for putting them through whatever hell I put them through. I emphasized that for the most part, any and all actions which gave them pause, incurred unforeseen expenses, or made them consider military school (a far cry from the loving, pacifist embrace of Abington Friends School) were never intended as acts of rebellion.

“I was just having fun,” I shared. In high school, I had great friends and solid grades. I was class president, student council president, cross-country team captain, wrestler, thespian, chorus member, journalist and self-appointed environmental crusader. My friends and I, were just trying to have fun. “Duh Mom. Duh Dad.” “No, Mark. Duh Mark.”

It would seem that for everything I accomplished to make them proud, somewhere along the twisted path of teenagedom, I would occasionally take a wrong turn and do something to make them very unproud. Wreck a car, have a party, push the car in neutral, engine off, down the street to visit a girlfriend at 2 AM. Invariably, no matter how smart I thought I was, my mother, bloodhound she, would always find me out. That single, solitary beer cap which had slipped into the cushions of the sofa. The fact that the car was parked, oddly, ten inches closer to the garage than it was the night before. Or the fact that in my senior high school yearbook page, I had very uncleverly published a photo of my friends…in our living room at a party held while my parents were away for the weekend. She noticed the corners of some framed artwork which happened to hang on the wall behind our conga-line. Cause and effect. Rats, foiled again! How was she so damned smart? It did not help that she was also the Dean of the Upper School, as she often managed to find out things before I thought she would.

note Hawaiian theme

As any teacher, parent, psychologist or neuroscientist knows or soon discovers, the very last part of the adolescent brain to develop, the pre-frontal cortex, is that which helps determine cognitive flexibility and cause and effect. (for a terrific Frontline special, watch Inside the Teenage Brain) The adolescent brain, while having reached its full size, is nowhere near full developmental capacity as it undergoes a tidal wave of growth. One only needs to watch “Jackass” or a group of boys in 8th to 9th grade (give or take a grade) to verify this seemingly stunted developmental growth whom, for some, never seems to really take off.

I think of the multiple lives, if I do in fact have at least nine, I have managed to sacrifice what with several car wrecks, playing catch with a gasoline soaked softball and shovels, falling through a plate-glass window into the sun room while standing on a ladder two stories up or blowing myself up (unintentionally) in college while incorrectly firing a propane-powered raku kiln. In that episode, I was observed madly running across campus to the infirmary, clothes and hair smoldering, where I was then taken to the burn unit in Syracuse an hour away.

After Hamilton College called my parents to share news any parent dreads, (“Mr.Green, your son has been in a kiln accident”) my father had already booked a direct private flight. My mother called my friend Doug, who assured her that there was no need to charter a flight and that the burns were mostly first-degree with some second-degree about my face and hands. Sobbing and fearful that I was permanently disfigured, my mother was inconsolable and Doug sought to calm her down. “Mrs. Green, I assure you, Mark will be fine and there is no need to come all the way up from Philadelphia. “OK” she said, “but how does he look?” After a lengthy pause, Doug exclaimed “He’s fine. He just looks a little more like your husband now.” After another pause she started laughing and all was well.

The next day my friend Doug came to pick me up as I stood outside wearing a hospital gown, jeans and cowboy boots. I had implored the hospital to let me go as I was losing my mind. Hands and head bandaged, still wearing the gown, we headed straight for Dowling’s Bar in Kirkland for wings and Saranac beer. As I opened the door to the bar, Jim Dowling, proprietor, large, bushy beard, his arms akimbo, asked loudly “where the hell did you escape from?” With Van Morrison on the jukebox and the pool table free, all was well again.

This event, this brain cancer, offers a chance to pause and reflect on the past 16,178 days of my life, or at least what I can recall, in ways I never imagined. Recently, before the diagnosis, I had been reflecting on my past with a more focused energy and had decided that being “middle-aged” is: 1) what you make of it 2) a state of mind and 3) the point in your life where you begin to look back as much as you look forward.

One of the many slide shows scrolling past my screen is that of my family, my parents and my past as much as I am looking optimistically (albeit with equal measure of fear, uncertainty and trepidation) to the future. Of the many emotions percolating to the surface from time to time, is guilt. What matters are left unresolved and need purging, like the radiated dead cancer cells still floating around in my brain and causing me terrifically painful bouts of headaches and insomnia? Have I made amends with those I have hurt intentionally or unintentionally or vice-versa? Is it even worth walking down roads that have long been cordoned off, washed away or re-routed?

Guilt. It comes in many forms, has much of its roots in the heavy-handedness of religion and culture. Guilt is a potent genetic hand-me-down and walking backwards down the path of my youth I think, “Ma, Da, I am sorry!” I know we are all “way past that now” as I was not an exceptionally difficult or problematic child. I just wanted to grow up faster than time would allow and my concept of “growing up” itself was immature at best.

As for the unresolved, I continue to reflect and make amends, either within myself, or, if possible with those people still accessible, recognizing that some wounds, healed or not, by my hand or another party, leave scars too deep to be erased. Hopefully, as time passes we have all grown from those painful experiences and moved on. Time indeed does help heal many things as we are able to add new perspective as we view events from a new angle.

I have one issue on the table involving a severe violation of trust from someone I thought was a friend who acted inappropriately towards my own and other children nearly three years ago. That event, barring an unexpected apology, will always simmer in the background as conflicting notions of frontier justice and extending an olive branch come to mind. I know that his cowardice ensures that he is living in his own hell as he lives a lie. And yet there is the larger part of me which simply wants him to admit his wrongdoing and that he has received the help he needed. But this issue, I recognize, needs to be brushed off the table. No closure here.

As one friend shared as she moved through a painful divorce, “you cannot go backwards, you can only move forwards” and as another friend shared, as she walked into her own cancer-forest and wrestled with the same, “there are some things that simply cannot be fixed and you have to move on, let it go and keep walking towards the sun.”

“Jewish guilt” is a stereotype and is rooted in the intensity of the connectedness and emotionalism of family members within the Jewish culture. (One might argue that Catholic Guilt has roots in the draconian nature of Catholic School and notion of repentance) When I asked friends where they thought the roots of guilt were buried, most replied with either “religion” and/or “family.”

In addition, many Jewish families are matriarchal and the power of the Jewish Mother, also a stereotype, cannot be overlooked. There is nothing more powerful than my own Mother’s L.O.D., an acronym for “Look of Disdain,” “Look of Dismay,” “Look of Disgust” or, the most lethal, the “Look of Death.” Words need not be spoken with this nuclear weapon. Both grandmothers had similar mystical powers of guilt-inducement. Mind you my mother and I, are also quite alike, with intense emotion (father is the calm, quiet, cerebral sometimes brooding member of the family) and she is also a doting, loving woman who has been too devastated by my two brain surgeries and cancer diagnosis to even go near this blog and I understand and accept this completely. She also played a critical (literally) role as I lay withering in the hospital before the initial surgery. I suggested she put herself out for hire as she was an exceptional advocate.

The matter of religion in general and its role in this “event” is another matter entirely and I find myself, as I have always been, searching, rejecting and embracing bits and pieces of spirituality from many sources, faiths and friends. This is a time for going to what I know as well as a time for discovery. Quaker, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist. A piece of music. A sunrise. A tree. A hike up the mountain. At the end of the day, my church is that of the outdoors. My bonds are those made within several small communities, from high school where I graduated in a class of under 50 students, many of whom I have known since elementary school, college where I resided in a co-ed alternative “Co-op,” and the communities within the many small villages, residential schools and neighborhoods in which I have lived and loved.

Abington Friends School

The beloved Abington Friends Meeting House, Est. 1683.

Of all the intense emotions wrought from this disease, I find the subject of religion and its role most complicated and most of my apprehension comes from the arrogance of the entire religious complex and those who take it upon themselves to tell you what you should or should not be doing to heal thyself. To each their own path.

As for the element of guilt and examining its role in the healing process after being diagnosed with a deadly disease, I suppose it is more an exercise in reflection and a realignment of priorities. When we get whacked in the head with the baseball bat of life (or death), as we all eventually will, it is a logical time to stand up, aim for a 360-degree perspective from wherever you are, take stock of what is good in life and what gnaws at your heart and let that which gnaws slip away.

“And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” – Confucious


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One Response to Mama Tried. The roots of guilt, the guilt of roots

  1. Annie says:

    This brings me a lot of comfort as the mother of a kid just as thirsty for life, adventure, risk and fun as you (and I know you know what I mean, since you’ve known him since he was five). I’d heard some of these stories but my god, your parents are staggeringly strong people to have withstood the Tasmanian-devil-prankster-rogue-wild-pony-free-spirit-class-clown-trail-blazer-dastardly-trouble-making-leader-of-men that is you. And I hope Timmy retains all the feisty joie-de vie that you so clearly have…you’ve been a role model to him for a long time (but I am not going to let him read this post, eek, it’ll only give him more ideas and he has plenty up his 14-year old sleeve!). But, like you, he has reflective moments. The other day we were talking about his early youth and I was recounting (now funny) stories about the various times he risked his life (and my sanity) by doing totally dangerous maneuvers (which other kids his age were most definitely not doing, out of sheer survival instinct) all in the name of unabashed joy. It suddenly dawned on him that he must have been a bit of a handful as a wee sprat and he apologized for whatever parental torment he put me and Don through. Of course now he’s going longboard tricks in the middle of the road, so…it ain’t over yet. But YOU my dear, are a shining comfort to me that he’ll probably make it through his minefield mindset just fine. Thanks for being you and part of the village in which my kids are growing up (emotionally that is, since you’re no longer in the village of Saxtons River!). And thanks for one of your most sparklingly beautiful posts yet….I’m going to read it and reread it and share it with a lot of folks who will love it too. The kids say hi, by the way, and want to see you soon!!!!

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