I was asked recently at a grief counseling session whether my missing people who have died might be tied to other events in my life. Thinking aloud, I mused that I struggle with a chronic feeling of not being enough, and wondered whether it was due to a feeling I often had in junior high and high school that my parents had more important demands on their time. I still can’t help looking with envy at kids whose parents lives rotate around them like merry go rounds, attending every game and school activity of their precious progeny. I read their glowing Christmas letters bragging about the minutiae of their lives and wonder whether it was my moral bankruptcy that caused little notice to be paid. My memory is that when I won the social studies and language student of the year award as a high school freshman, my parents were not in attendance. Whether that is the case and how much of my memories are selective, I don’t know.
Recently my step father was doting on his grandson, telling me about his stint on the debate team in high school. A few days earlier, I had sat for hours listening to my aunt, who regularly waxes nostalgic about her wonderful children, without whom she would surely die from neglect. Despite the fact that I regularly visit and listen to her ad infinitum, she never recognizes or thanks me for that. Normally I don’t need thanks, but her glowing words about her compassionate progeny leave me cold. Especially because they are anything but to me, not even bothering to respond to repeated requests to get together.
Back to my step father. I’d had enough of being silent, and decided to represent myself. I often feel like I have to become a legal advocate in order that the truth be known, and the facts be presented. I told him about being on the debate team in high school, the year we had to formulate a comprehensive federal energy policy, and the many debates my partner and I won. I decided to up the ante and described a particular speech contest (I regularly participated on the speech team in impromptu and extemporaneous events) in which I competed as a high school sophomore. It was an extemporaneous event in which boys and girls competed (most of the time, the two separate contests would be held to give girls “a fair shake”). I had arrived by bike to the event at Blackford High School, a long 45 minute ride from home. Those were the days when parents not only didn’t drive kids to events, but didn’t attend or even know what their kids were doing much of the time.
I won the tournament. I’m not sure that my mom knew that. She was sitting next to Bob, and beamed at me. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for kids now who experience fierce competition just to get into college. I didn’t have any anxiety about doing well, as my parents didn’t ride me about grades. It probably didn’t hurt that I got straight A’s, was enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, played classical piano and clarinet for five years, as well as participating in marching band, theater, track and cross country, field hockey, soccer, tennis (played Varsity as a freshman), Girl Scouts, long distance cycling (I competed in 100 mile rides regularly), and had Spanish and French language fluency. Yet I was and continue to be plagued by a great sense of inadequacy, the feeling that my accomplishments meant nothing, and more significantly that I can’t rest on my laurels and am not accomplishing enough now. I think my parents did the best they could for me, and my mom in particular wanted to make sure that I was a happy child with good self esteem. She tells me that that was her question to my teachers during parent-teacher conferences, not how well I was performing academically.
I think I experienced a great sense of abandonment when my father left our family to start a new life in San Francisco. I was 12 and in sixth grade, and even though his treatment of myself and my mom was punctuated with frequent verbal abuse and rage, I missed him greatly when he left. We had been close when I was young. Despite his temper and arbitrary way of meting out punishment, I loved him dearly and would follow him around, helping him with projects, gardening, and anything he’d allow me to join in. I remember sitting on the back classroom steps for most of my sixth grade year, alone and bereaved. I was inconsolable. And my mother, a strong and intelligent woman, soon fell into a deep depression, and struggled with her own sense of self after experiencing so much ridicule. She finished her masters degree at Stanford in Environmental Engineering just as my father left, and with new job responsibilities, had less time to spend tracking my activities. Nevertheless, I know she did her best. It was a hard time, and she was in survival mode as much as I.
Last night before bed, I read a few lines of a letter my mom had written on my birthday some years back. I keep it framed next to my bed, to remind me of her care when times got rough. Her letter ends with these words: “Thank you dear Lisa for being who you are. I love you with all my heart.” My eyes filled with tears, realizing that circumstances had made it difficult for her to be there for me as she’d hoped. Probably for my father as well. I am trying to find the grace to not make that about my worth. After all, I do believe that we are all enough.