Staying angry is too much damned work…

I’ve been visited by images of my Dad recently. I would see his head of white hair, curved shoulders and back, leaning forward from his blue wheelchair. I would see his chin resting on his palm, his eyes aimed at the ceiling, lost in a small moment of reverie, reliving a happy memory or some past triumph.

The images like this are from Dad’s “toothless tiger” phase of life, his last few years after a heart attack, five strokes, and a fractured hip had put him close to death, but not out of the game.

His age fascinated me, because he represented a distant generation, where all the values and the photographic evidence was rendered in black and white. He had an answer for everything, and spoke in powerful and confident tones about his beliefs and actions. He was right, godammit. He had always been right.

During the toothless tiger phase of his life, he was 65 and I was 20. He had become more of a survivor of his own misfortune than anything by this time, and his power was gone, lost due to personal neglect of his health.

Dad started smoking when he was about thirteen as I recall. Back in Prince Rupert in 1934, you rolled your own smokes if you couldn’t afford filtered cigarettes (which he told me were known as “Saturday Night Specials”). I’m willing to bet that he started with alcohol not long afterwards. Smoking and drinking always seemed to go hand-in-hand, and were seen as socially acceptable and expected as yound men grew into adulthood.

Once, James Evan Love had been a provider, a force, a protector, and a threat within our family, but now he was definitely diminshed and pacified, and as I finally lived away from him, running my own life on my own terms, our relationship changed to be more like two grown men.

Over the years from 1983 to 1985, Dad transformed from an authority figure whom I feared and respected, to a broken old man whom I pitied and feared to lose. We’d both faced his mortality and come away shaken. Now, embedded in his true sunset years, he seemed gentler and more light-hearted, and I think it was because he was actually much happier. Living alone in his care home had represented a form of new start for him, a physical change of pace and place, a new world that might allow him to forget his past and to pretend to be something much simper, like just Jim.

To stand by an alcoholic and an abuser is to be faced with contradictions and hypocracy, and to oscillate between love and hate, respect and revulsion, and loyalty and betrayal. It’s a delicate balance to flip the mirror between hero and villian, with both images being absolutely true, yet relying on time, place, and intention for their wavering validity. It’s complicated.

Letting go of Hopeless Situations (or not)

Some situations are worth saving and working at, and some situations are dead-ends, or inevitable loops, that won’t change, grow, or improve.

Some people relationships are limited by how little two people can realistically share or give. Some parents are cold and selfish and don’t bond with their kids. Some people just want free therapy or a passive sounding board. Some people just grow apart due to a loss of shared context. Some friendships may be just circumstantial habits.

For my part, my need to be a helper, to care or empathize, always seems to have a limited lifespan. Eventually, I seem to hit a saturation point where something about the person I’m helping just pisses me off; the novelty of the new friend wears thin, and the fun or excitement trails off.

As a young person, my need to be helpful developed along with my need for approval. If I did good, I was good. This was tied to my parents mostly, and even after Dad and Mum passed on (when I was 23 and 29, respectively) I kept a connection to them in my heart and held on to my need to reach them, or to be good in their memory. I kept loving them from afar, even after they’d left for good. Sometimes, I felt afraid to let go of them. I didn’t want to lose what little that might still be there.

Initially, being able to help someone feels like a bonding, sharing thing. But after a while (years, usually), the thrill can fade and the situation can begin to feel one-sided, repetitive, or even exhausting. That lack of novelty could signal my slow decline in interest in another person. It also makes me wonder if I’m too passive or not making effort to be a good friend. Does it make me a bad friend, or a maybe just a poor judge of the kind of person whom I choose to befriend?

Circumstantial friendships which sometimes feel unsatisfying or one-sided to me will probably trail away after the shared circumstance changes. That kid who lived in your neighbourhood, whose company you once enjoyed, she or he who was your friend, drifted away after one of you moved to a different neighbourhood, remember? Situations never last forever, and it’s somtimes circumstance that drives mutual need. If a relationship doesn’t feel fun or invigorating anymore, maybe should not be “fed” by me just to try and keep it alive for myself, so I can tell myself that I still have that friend or relationship. That sounds just a little needy, insecure, or pathetic on my part. In some ways, I always feel like a solitary man. Maybe that’s just a familiar fallback position for me.

In some cases, some relationships have been terminated permanently by me because of perceived offense or chronic selfish behaviour of the (now ex-)friend. In other cases, their offense is temporary and forgiven, because the relationship seems truly irreplaceable, or after months have passed to help me cool off.

Friendships are difficult and human hearts are precious and fragile things. Each relationship provides chances to see things through new eyes, or to reflect on one’s own behaviour. Each relationship is a learning opportunity to become a better, healthier person.

Cordova-Dino Family Time

Sept. 29/19

The arrival of Grace’s cousin Vince Cordova and his fiance Maricris brought to us a fun week of activity, touring all around greater Vancouver with them, sharing the joy of their company, and reflecting on our families and shared relatives.

It also made me think about my marriage: Vince and Maricris are fiancees, planning their wedding next year. As we talked to them about their future plans and hopes, we told them the story of how Grace and I met, became a couple, and eventually married. Grace’s family and mine became gradually woven together, creating a strength that has lasted over thirty years, and which has made me feel proud, needed, and warmly connected.

To me, Vince feels like a younger brother, and Maricris feels like a little sister. They are warm, easy-going, and friendly, and have been the most lovely and generous house guests.

To them, we have been “Kuya John” and “Ate Grace”, which is kind of the Filipino equivalent of saying older brother and older sister in Tagalog.

I think that the words “Kuya John” are the nicest words I’ve heard all week.

A personal balancing act…

With my parents, I find it hard to know how to feel about them.

Emotions and drives, like love and loyalty, never seem clear and obvious where Mum and Dad are concerned. There’s no clear sense of sympathy or empathy with their memories. With Mum, I have seen her as a victim of depression, genetics, bad medicine, and maybe a lack of self-worth. With Dad, it was too much ego, shame, and a need to be the boss – the need to be in the right – the household authority.

Both of them felt the pain of losing people they’d loved, and neither of them relied on the other for support (at least not that I ever saw). They each used alcohol to self-medicate, for years.

All this tolls up to what looked like hard, unhappy lives, with little personal forgiveness, and lots of stored guilt and unresolved anger.

And so, almost thirty years after Dad’s painful passing, and over 25 years after Mum’s final release from her pain, I am having trouble remembering them that well. Their voices are like faint whispers, third-hand stories or rumours, and it takes effort to convince myself that it all really happened.

My storytelling of them is the only thing keeping their ghosts active. I think that the less I use it, the more I lose it.

That’s a bit scary, but relationships are not supposed to be eternal. They mostly expire and fade away, along with the leaving of their human hosts.

A banana a day…?

Since Grade six, I’ve gotten the occasional severe neck cramps. Debilitating might be a better word for them. I’d be walking along, and then get a lightning bolt shoot right up one side of my neck into the back of my skull. That neck muscle would contract, and burn like it was on fire. They were painful enough to stop me in my tracks, and at least once or twice, knock me to my knees. It was a very painful and scary experience – one that I dreaded.

I attributed them to a reaction to stress. I didn’t use those exact words in my head, but I do remember feeling like that was an accurate description.

The neck cramps seemed to subside as I got older, and got into my teen years, and by about 20, they might have mostly disappeared. As I grew up, I don’t think I ever told my parents or many friends about them (although one or two friends may have seen me have one).

They continued to happen a few times every year. At the age of 53, they still happen to me today. I forgot about my “stress” rationale, and in fact, as my life became happier, my neck cramps all but subsided.

But I recently read that poor diet and some aspects of malnutrition, like low potassium levels, can lead to neck and leg cramps.

I still believe that stress played a major factor, but could eating a Banana a day have kept the neck cramps at bay?

Processing the Posthumous…

Eventually, it seems that something always puts you back to where you need to be. Not long ago, a cousin (another Love) asked me if I had a photo of the Love family house, up in Prince Rupert. I replied that I had taken a couple of snaps of iot back in 1999, when visiting my Dad’s bother. But, no matter where I looked, I could not find it. I hate misplacing anything on the best of days, but this was different: actual photographic evidence of a big piece of my Dad’s childhood, a home I’d been inside to witness myself, in which I could imagine many of my Dad’s childhood stories taking place. If I’d lost that photo, what could I do? I couldn’t very well fly back up to Prince Rupert and just shoot another one.

Could I?

About the Love House

The story my Dad told me (as best I can recall) was that his Dad, Albert Bruce Love, had the lumber for his new house barged in, and each piece of lumber had the name “LOVE” stamped on it. Dad described how he and his younger brother Eric shared the attic as their bedroom, and would lay there listening to the rain hammer down on the roof. Dad extolled the virtues of deep eaves (not like these modern houses with their shallow eaves that let the rain blow in all the time) and Dad said that if you looked in the attic, you’d see the name “LOVE” stamped on the ceiling.

C. 1928: Eric, Bruce, James, and Charles in front. Aunt Marion (“Molly”) holding baby Patricia in the background.
C. 1928: Bruce, Eric, James, and baby Patricia.
C. 1934: James, Eric, Patricia, and Charles (Behind them, my Dad’s Dad, Grandpa Love)

If I couldn’t find my 1999 photo of the house, how could I recreate it?

I decided that I could do the next best thing: I could use Google Maps and Street View to take a new photo. This required two things: (1) that I could find the house’s address, and (2) that it was still standing in place. I worried about that the most. The two houses that my Dad’s parents lived in later, down here in Vancouver, were long ago bulldozed and replaced with apartment blocks. I could only hope that Prince Rupert’s urban expansion had stayed relatively quiet over the last 20 years.

It had.

With some emailed descriptions of the location of the house (“on 8th avenue, near such-and-such”, “not far from the school”, etc.), I was able to get to the right section of Eighth Avenue East using Google Street View, and go for a little walk. Before long, my virtual steps had taken to a corner that looked vaguely familiar, and… there it was, I was sure!

The old Love family home, on East Eighth Avenue, in Prince Rupert (circa 2012)

But How Can I be Sure?

Even feeling like I had found the house, I wanted some irrefutable evidence, and finally realized that I could search for the address in other records attached to my Grandfather.

Sure enough, a 1921 census listed this address as that of my Grandpa Love, my Grandmother, and their infant son Albert Bruce. (This tracks with my Uncle Bruce’s story that he was born in the house.) A 1940 voter registration list from Prince Rupert also confirmed the address, so there it was…

A network of people and places…

After over ten years of neglect, I’ve returned again to pay more attention to my on-again-off-again genealogy project.

My “True Life” web project was at one point the home for my genealogical research, hosting a family tree, a name index, and over fifty personal stories. I kind of looked at the project as if it had two sides: a subjective side (my personal stories and memories of growing up), and an objective side (the names, dates, events, and places that were documented in various online databases). There are many dualities like this in my life, from contrasts between people with different personalities, to the conflicted, contradictory natures at work inside each of us.

For whatever reason, at some point back in 2009 or so, I just stopped searching and building, I stopped corresponding with distant relatives, and I wrote few family memory stories in “True Life”. Whether I got burned-out on the project, or other disruptions in my life just got in the way, I cannot say for sure – the project just stopped moving forward.

Flash forward to 2018, and life caused me to do some serious mental and physical cleaning up: a renovation to our building forced me to clean out a lot of junk, and to confront my pack-rat mentality and all the dust bunnies that had burrowed in around the edges of everything in my home. I learned to let things go, and to detach from some of the obsession and internal symbolism that had been some of the early fuel that drove me. Maybe clearing out some old junk physically and psychologically had created new space in which ideas could be revisited.

This Christmas, after I treated myself to a new laptop, I reinstalled Family Tree Maker and started exploring again. It felt warm and pleasant to revisit the tree as a structure, a framework and model of my family history. All the names and dates and whatnot were still preserved there, but while I’d been doing whatever else over the past ten years, I was happy to see that Ancestry had also provided lots of new suggestions and hints to add to my old 2009 Family Tree database file.

The next rediscovery was in my old 2008 emails with two gentlemen who were related to my Mother’s and Father’s side of the family, each of whom had originally contacted me after seeing my tree published online. I decided to reach out to them again and also to re-read their old emails, which had been packed with information that Ancestry had only hinted at in its “Notifications”. It was low-hanging fruit still waiting to be picked.

It has all helped me to recall that there’s a rich history still worth discovering and exploring, and a giant puzzle that’s worth trying to complete.

Clinging to an idea of a person…

An hour alone in my room, just kind of staring at my bookshelves, brought something into focus for me: I’m sometimes clingy, and can develop strong emotional attachments, but not to real people. I think that I tend to cling to my conception of people, to my symbol of them.

I’m fairly sure this is a reaction to not getting enough attachment as a kid. (I agree with attachment theory, as applied to interpersonal relationships.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve found that my strongest emotional attachments seem to be to women with whom I’ve grown close or have bonded as friends. By this, I mean feeling deep empathy for a sister, a cousin, or a close friend, such that you experience that rush of oxytocin-fueled trust and closeness, and the dopamine shot of joy and fulfillment that comes from feeling close to someone and from believing that you are special to them. I can feel close and bonded to male friends, but it always feels lighter, less intimate, and less powerful. That’s my deal. Draw whatever you want from that.

Add to that the idea that if my woman friend shares some story of a personal struggle with me, or seems to be caught in some kind of dilemma, then my “big brother” reaction kicks in hard. In that moment, giving advice or sharing some relevant personal story feels like the role I was meant to play. The more fucked-up the person’s situation is, the more I feel that I have the right answer for them, and want to give it. My wife says that I seem to be drawn to troubled women who have issues. It was hard to hear when she first said it, but honestly, nobody else knows me better, so I accept her assessment as axiomatic of my character.

I’m not playing defense here, but I do believe in cause and effect, so I’m going to say that I think my behaviour stems from not having had any kind of an adequate bond with the one woman who was supposed to be my life’s major female archetype: my mother, Angela. For all intents and purposes, my Mum’s mental illness and alcoholism kept me and my sister from ever having a relationship with her. Since her youth, Angela had been “manic depressive” as they called bipolarism back in her day. And since her twenties, I guess, she’d self-medicated with alcohol.

When Mum was manic (only a few times that I can recall), she was unapproachable and disconnected – a bit scary to be around. When she was depressed, she slept (or maybe feigned it) in order to isolate herself mentally. Alcohol just further blurred and distorted the territory between her extremes, or accentuated her worst, most selfish tendencies. We really couldn’t get close or feel close to her. Angela was often unwell, as I remember her, and almost never reached out to me or my sister. It just wasn’t in her.

I never knew how much I missed Mum, or how much I’d missed out on motherhood, until she became institutionalized. When she was still at home with us and starting to slide into her last major depression in 1977, she just felt like the elephant in the room, but it was the same ol’ elephant we’d been used to seeing. Her depression and anti-socialism has become a normal state in our family. She was someone we were not supposed to acknowledge, or something. Maybe we were all scared to communicate.

But once Mum was no longer in our living room, I missed her presence – even her non-speaking, hair-twirling, weird compulsive-rocking presence. After she was moved into private care hospitals, and later to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, she seemed to be just a little less real to me, even while still living. Slowly, she became more of a memory to me than a member of our family; someone to whom our Dad referred in the past tense.

She became a mystery in the neighbourhood – someone whom other people claimed to have seen once. She was out there somewhere in the world, but just not really in our lives anymore. What a loss for us, but more than that, what a terrible loss for her. We lost her, but Angela lost everything and everyone.

In Angela’s absence, as I approached my teens, I began to notice my friend’s mothers a lot more. I noticed when they showed affection to their sons, how they cooked and cared for them, how they punished, steered, or guided them, how they bribed, sweet-talked, teased, or cajoled them, and essentially, how they actively loved them.

Each mother I met was different: some were weepy and drunk, some were modern and progressive, and some were traditional and gentle. But no matter what, they were all a presence in their families and a factor in their kid’s lives. Being around other mothers and being treated nicely or fussed over by them felt like receiving a kind of richness, a lush and fulfilling sense of presence. It was like feeling the safe, cozy warmth of a thick Terry-cloth robe for the first time, or the luxurious softness of a bear skin rug when you’re used laying on bare cement. It felt like being spoiled, and I didn’t know how to react to it. Sometimes I told myself that my friends were soft and didn’t know how lucky they were. I also hated seeing kids who mouthed-off or swore at their mothers. Those kinds of kids disgusted me.

Angela was not cut out for motherhood, and she’d been such a rare commodity to us, such a non-player and a non-force in our family. She’d had no power (Dad was the boss), she’d showed no initiative, taken no responsibility, and had almost literally done nothing to bond with her kids. She just wasn’t there in any meaningful way. So after her depression and declining health had physically removed her from our house, even though it was a traumatic exit, it did not feel to me like I was losing a beloved mother or even a friend. I felt the pain of the terrible absence of a mysterious and hard to understand person, the worry over what would happen to her and to us, and the guilt of enjoying the silence left in her wake. Confusion, loss, and guilty relief. She left in the manner of a distant relative, who’d stayed over without chipping in on anything or even joining us at the dinner table.

So, over time, my mother became more like a “figure” to me, an idea, a person in the abstract, someone who’d been devolved down to a concept. She had gradually started to become an outsider, almost a stranger.

So, I read and watched and interpreted what motherhood was like from other sources, and I dealt with the awkwardness of feeling my gut twisted into knots whenever a woman cried in my presence. The old man hated weakness in others as much as he hated it in himself. He modeled that shame for me, and I still feel twinges of it in my gut every so often.

Emotional attachment had not been an area I’d ever explored in myself, and having spent most of my professional life working with male engineers, technicians, or managers, I suppose I was never really faced with it very often. I never confronted that part of myself.

Now, at almost 53, I feel like I’ve seen that part of my personality play itself out, and somewhat publicly. I’ve seen my clinginess in the light of day, and I can now own it and have a good idea what triggers it. I’ve also learned that I can remove some of the more toxic people from my life, telling myself that it’s okay to let some people go.

It’s important to recognize the people who deserve your help, and those who are just using it.

I still cling a little. I cling to whatever it is some people mean to me, and I cling to how they make me feel. It’s like clinging to a distorted reflection of oneself.

Shocked into submission…

Between about 1981 and 1995, my mother was a resident at Riverview Hospital, our provincial mental health facility. I was probably about 15 when she was admitted. It was the last and most drastic move in a series of difficult moves for her.

The reasons for her landing in Riverview went something like this:

  • In 1977, she tried to drink herself to death, self-medicating through a serious depression. She almost succeeded, but survived and came out of Burnaby General Hospital with permanent brain damage and a different, more simplified personality.
  • We could not keep her at home, unsupervised – she would need some kind of constant care and supervision – so she was admitted into the first of what would be a few different private care hospitals around Vancouver. (I remember one out in the Old Orchard neighbourhood of Kingsway in Burnaby, and later, Como Lake Private Hospital in Coquitlam.)
  • She was, I was told, difficult to care for, and at Como Lake had to be strapped to a bed on one occasion. Apparently, after she struck a nurse and walked out into the snow, trying to find her way home, Como Lake Hospital said that she had to go.
  • I really don’t think those private hospitals were equipped to handle her manic-depression or emotional outbursts. So, after that, she went to Burnaby Psychiatric Centre, near Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby. I thought she seemed to be doing much better there. It seemed like a more professional and structured environment. Dad told us that it was basically a “holding pen” for Riverview.
  • Dad said the word “Riverview” like it was a threat – a bad consequence that Mum would get if she didn’t behave herself. She’d been there before, back in the early 70s, when I was about 8 or 9, so she knew what it was like. I think Riverview was not anywhere she wanted to be, but by 1980 or so, that’s where she ended up.

I was very afraid of Riverview with its high ceilings, large heavy doors with their loud metal locks, and the wide linoleum floors surrounded by windows covered by metal grills.

The women’s ward that my mother was on in what was called “Centre Lawn Unit” was, to my young eyes, identical in age, layout and spirit to the men’s ward shown in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or to the wards seen in the movie “Awakenings”. Not kind of similar. Almost identical.

It was heart-wrenching to leave Mum behind in there after our first visit. She cried and pleaded to come home. She kept asking us “when can I come home?”. It hurt so much to not know what to say, or worse, to know that there was nothing that could be said, that she might never ever leave, and that she either didn’t realize it, or worse, that she knew deep-down, but couldn’t accept it.

Gradually, over the first year or two, our Sunday drives out to see Mum at Riverview lessened to only every two weeks, and then even less, as I recall. It seemed to have become too much for Dad, and on our visits, he began to claim that a sore back prevented him from climbing up the stairs to go inside, leaving it up to me and my sister Kim to go in while he sat in the car and smoked. I saw through his smokescreen, and in my teenaged binary thinking, I deeply resented him for being a coward and for leaving the burden solely for his kids. Looking back now, Mum’s near-death and physical and mental degradation must have broken his spirit and defeated him utterly. It was the final break-up of their marriage – a consequence of things that I only partially had seen as I grew up, and the full truth of which I will never really know. He still loved her, so he told me later, but he always talked about her in the past tense even while she was still alive. Nobody really talked about my Mum Angela after she went to Riverview. She was out there, but she was also just… gone.

Eventually, after Dad had a heart attack and multiple strokes in 1983, his driving days were finished. In 1984, I went out on my own on the bus to visit Mum a number of times. I wanted to take some responsibility for her in a way, and I wanted to see her and maybe try to know her in some way.  I also didn’t want her to be basically abandoned by her family.

By 1984 or 1985, she seemed to not recognize me any more or to remember my name. It was painful to try and remind her every time, but I perservered, and would also bring her a chocolate bar and enjoy her enthusiastic, child-like chewing. She was toothless by this point and ate with the enthusiasm and impatience of a toddler, sometimes coughing it out onto a bib or towel around her neck. She was reduced to a baby’s kind of existence, and I never knew if it was due to some of the meds she was on, or to some mental degradation from years of minimal stimulation.

Over the first couple of years that Mum was in Riverview, we noticed her behaviour change. Her emotions seemed dead and gone, as if her remaining spirit and personality had left her. She had become quieter and distant, and would only speak in monosyllables. In the years later, she would rock back and forth, somewhat extremely, or tremor or shake her arms up and down on the sides of her wheelchair. I never knew what her body language was telling me. Was it involuntary, or was she agitated or excited about something?

Once, after one of Mum’s cousins visited her in Riverview, we heard that the cousin had claimed that Mum had undergone electroshock therapy, nowadays called E.C.T. It was, to me, at the time, a barbaric idea, and I didn’t want to accept it. It felt like that was the worst stigma of psychiatric treatment, like a form of modern-day torture, and I didn’t want to think that my mother would be put through something that I thought was so violent.

But, there’s every likelihood that Angela did go through E.C.T. at Riverview. I’ve read recently that it was a fairly commonly-used therapy at Riverview until maybe the early 2000s.

I’ll just leave this here…