My brother was in town a few weeks ago, the first time I’d seen him since his wedding in November 2012. We ate at a diner in Greenwich Village, and then headed to a couple of jazz clubs to meet up with a friend of his who has made a name for himself as a tenor saxophonist not only in New York but around the world. It’s someone my brother mentored throughout high school—my brother was the saxophone section leader in marching band, and then first chair from almost the first day of freshman year on—who’s never forgotten the impact my brother has had on his career’s trajectory.
For my brother, though, seeing this man was like seeing a ghost of what his own life might have been like, had he been able to make different choices than he’d had the knowledge to make at age 18. My brother had auditioned for and been awarded a full-tuition scholarship to Berklee, but it didn’t include living expenses. My brother somehow didn’t know about student loans (or maybe my father didn’t want him to know), and my father convinced him that going into the jazz program at North Texas State (also a good school, but not Berklee, not by far) would be just as good… and if he went there, my dad would pay for it.
Twenty years later, my brother knows all about financial aid and how he could have made it work if he’d gone to Berklee, with or without my father’s help. He’s grateful for the life he has—a wife and a wonderful son who’s about to turn a year old—but there is still a part of him that feels a deep sense of regret for teenage mistakes. [Instead of taking advantage of the excellent jazz program at North Texas State—which has put out some fine musicians; one of his classmates was Norah Jones—he chose to rebel by not working all that hard at his music, out of a sort of pouty rebellion; he eventually graduated at age 31 with a degree in music business.]
While he was in town, we talked at great length about how our stories are so similar in this regard. I left home at 16 to go to college (a year early) thinking that I’d discover on an Ivy-covered campus the sort of passionate desire for knowledge that I’d found lacking in my Texas high school. Instead it felt like one big slumber party, and if ever I was heartbroken by anything it was that my college experience wasn’t something more spectacularly more academic. By the second semester I’d moved off campus and into an apartment with my boyfriend (I was only 17); by the time I was 18 I was a high-school and college drop-out; three months after I turned 18, I was married (to get cheaper car insurance and a bigger tax return). My brother may have rebelled by lingering in school, practicing music off-campus while lingering on-, but I left academé altogether, reappearing on and off for the next decade-plus, finally getting my BA when I was 32, nearly 16 years (and two divorces) after I’d begun.
While we may have veered off in different directions—my grandmother always considered me off the straight and narrow, my brother the “well adjusted one”—we were both struggling with the same demons: a childhood filled with both abuse and neglect, adolescence marked by the absence of adults who paid little attention to us other than for their own ego-driven needs, and early adulthoods in which the “role models” in our lives expected us to magically know what to do. I can’t say, for sure, what I would have done if I’d been my mother, receiving a phone call from a 17-year-old me saying I was dropping out of college to move in with my 18-year-old boyfriend (or, six months later, an 18-year-old me saying we were eloping the next day), but I’d like to think I would do something other than offer lukewarm indifference.
Nothing I did back then—dropping out, getting married, engaging in questionable “work” of all sorts, having affairs and abortions—ever elicited a response from my mother (that I can recall) other than some version of “that’s nice, dear.” Oh, I’m sure there was some hand-wringing and some version of displeasure expressed. But if it were me, I’d have been on a plane from Texas to Chicago in an instant, putting my foot down. If there’s anything I remember from
age 14 as early as I can remember until, well, forever… it’s that I have very few recollections of anything other than indifference (or anger) coming from my mother about the choices I made. Everything I did was either the wrong thing (because it embarrassed her) or she didn’t care (largely because she wasn’t around, because she was living her own life and figured I could take care of myself) or she made it about herself (when she went with me to one of my abortions, she asked at the front desk if we could take the fetus home so she could bury it).
I should note here that this blog post leaves out a tremendous amount of information. I’m doing this on purpose. There’s no reason to give an accounting of the abuse and the tragedy and the suffering my brother, sister, and I all experienced quite profoundly—all of us in very different ways—that affected us then and continues to affect us today. Suffice it to say it wasn’t pleasant and that my brother and I have a bond that you only forge by surviving battle together. It’s a bit less with my sister, since we were far apart in age and never got along well; we haven’t talked for the past decade. But my brother and I were a bit older when things got really bad at home, and I think we have a bit of a better memory. We bore the brunt of some of the horrors, though my sister would have her own, different, ones to face later on. But that isn’t my story to tell.
In any case, my brother has recently written me to say that his trip to New York, and visiting with his musician friend (who wrote him a lovely letter about how much my brother has inspired him) has helped him feel some sense of closure on his past, a little less loss at the life he gave away to be able to have the life he has now. I wish I could say I felt the same way, entirely, but it’s only part-way that I do so.
When he was in town, he mentioned he felt that perhaps the best years of his life were behind him, that any chance he had for greatness was lost. At the time, I told him that I, too, had felt that way at his age… but then I moved to New York, and I remade myself, and I created a new career and a new life and new existence that the 16-year-old version of me (who I will always and forever view as the final arbiter and judge of the worthiness of my life) would think was the cat’s pajamas (and then some). And I still 100% feel that way. Absolutely.
Where I struggle is in the space that contains Anne Lamott’s definition of forgiveness: giving up all hope of having had a better past. I know my parents did the best they could, and that “the best” meant leaving me to my own devices much of the time, because (grrr) they knew I could handle it (I hate it when people say I’ll get through things because I’m strong and can handle it…). I also know I wouldn’t be the resourceful, strong woman I am today if I hadn’t experienced all of the terrible, horrible, no-good things I have been through in life (as well as all of the amazing, remarkable, interesting, and fascinating things that have come alongside those wretched adventures).
But I’ll be damned if I also don’t want to have had a better past!
My therapist says these feelings will get easier and/or lessen but will probably never dissipate altogether, that the wounds are too deep to be healed in one lifetime. This is discouraging. I don’t like the idea of being broken forever. She tells me to think of it like Leonard Cohen: the cracks are how the light gets in. This helps, some, but not enough (yet). In the mean time, I’m leaning on the 16-year-old me (she was tough then, and she’s tough now, especially now that she knows how she turned out…) to remember that, despite not having a better childhood (or, rather, the childhood I deserved), I turned out pretty OK. There may be times (some more obvious than others) when it becomes clear that I may or may not have been raised by (figurative) wolves, but for the most part I’m getting along fine. And the only way to give up hope of having had a better past is to give up hope of having had a better past. It’s a choice, not a feeling. My brother seems to have been able to make it, with a little help from his friend. Maybe one day I will, too.