My sister is disabled and I feel I owe my parents two lives in one

I wrote this a few weeks ago. I was just triggered into wanting to post it because I just received a treat I bought for myself – the full series “The West Wing” on DVD. I loooooooved this show when it was first on, and it makes me feel much better to know there are other people who share my liberal political agenda. 😉 It’s bolstering, as I struggle to live up to my own ideals while teaching. (And it just helps the hours pass as I prep lectures and deal with grading.) Anyways! I have just gotten to the part of the first season in which the president’s health becomes and issue – and of course, his health issue is that he has multiple sclerosis, like my mom.

What I wouldn’t give to know, really know, that I’ve made her happy and proud and that she knows I love her and fight in part because I know how damned amazing she is despite her illness and what she’s been through.

*

I’m locked in my own head pretty deeply right now. It isn’t inaccurate to wonder whether I’m in a depressed phase – not sad, depressed, where I read novels so I can feel emotions that aren’t anger, when I sleep all day and toss and turn all night, when I get the closest I get to bingeing and purging. (Weird that I can be thankful to the fibromyalgia and the now medically-soothed urge my body has had to vomit every day for weeks and months at a time. Doesn’t stop the bingeing.)

I have had many of my metaphorical nerves shocked by the media I consume, on top of whatever else I need to be discussing with a therapist I do not currently have. (Today, let’s skip the fact that I am not sure I can afford the copays to see all of the physicians I clearly need to see.) I’ve been watching Frontline, American Experience, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s Whatever, Geek Feminism, friend-recommended articles from Mother Jones, academic papers on gendering of roles in universities…and Autostraddle.

It’s taken me until this third paragraph to get to the thing I want to say, because it hurts so much to focus on it. I’m making you read that – not editing it away – to try to drag you into this place I occupy, too. Look: a friend of mine lost her mother a few years ago, too soon and after a protracted illness, and grief moved into her life. Reading <a href=+http://www.autostraddle.com/before-you-know-it-somethings-over-241440/"Before you know it something's over", about Riese’s loss of her father and the grief that moved into her life, for me, tonight? was partly something I chose to do to continue to understand that grief. (It’s also probably obvious that it fits into the larger context of my headspace right now.) What grabbed me from Riese’s essay was her talking about what she felt when she decided, as she put it, to live:

But death is not, I realize, a win-win. I have all this time, you see, and I have to use it, I have a legacy to uphold, I have to pass on his genius genes to my children. At my age he had only ten more years to live, I owe him at least double that amount.

(You should read the essay – it’s beautiful and painful and so much of what people struggling with death of a loved one want those of us not grieving to know.) It grabbed me in a way that I resented, because I didn’t mean to be dwelling in my own misery: it made me want to scream or cry or otherwise have an outburst, to shout that it’s no fair that I’m in the place I am in life, feeling unable to live up to what I feel I owe my parents: the best life, full of achievement and love and family.

Now, I know this is partly an idea emerging from my child-mind, and I know it’s worse right now because I’ve had some disappointing dating experiences, and I was recently participating in a conversation with other siblings about having our own kids. But it’s there: I feel, now, like if I fail to be amazing, I’m somehow letting down the whole family. I have to do things Lily can’t do.

I frequently have existential crises. Thanks to my current medication regime, I haven’t had a panic attack in a long time; writing this has brought me to the edge, and the flush of adrenaline has started. I’ve long been horrified and scared of ceasing to exist – much as I am fascinated by the morbid, I am terrified of not being, any more. (With the continual pain from the fibro, though, I am starting to understand the lines from childhood fairy tales, about elders being tired and ready to rest. Yup, need a therapist.) Here’s what I hate: I am the last member of my family, in a sense, and I know how proud my parents are of me, of this child they made together. That I have no children of my own ends that legacy.

Perhaps this is one reason that I pour so much into teaching – leaving a positive legacy, passing on the lessons and love from my parents.

It’s hard enough to battle my own desires for kids: I’ve wanted to be a mom for a long time, emotionally. Physically I’m at a moment of hormones such that I see the commercials for infant Tylenol and fight back tears. I keep wanting to play with my friends’ babies, but also sometimes am so filled with jealousy that I can’t be around them. (I’ve talked about this before; I’m sure I’ll do it again.)

It’s also weird, as a scientist, to think about this feeling of owing children to my parents. I study evolution, which is all about offspring that bear their own offspring, and it’s not especially comforting to think of my childlessness being a tiny version of an evolutionary dead end. It’s also remarkably selfish to think that if I don’t have kids, the world loses out somehow! Add in to that the genetic uncertainty of any conception, and the knowledge that we don’t understand Lily’s disabilities, at all (or, hell, my own, or our mother’s multiple sclerosis), and risking having kids is that much more dramatic. But it’s there: I feel like I owe it to my family to have kids, aside from my own very strong, very clear desires.

You can see why dating is somewhat complicated. 😉

By so very many standards, society views me as a success. I have a PhD. I am a professor, and although new to the job, have (by their own words) had a positive impact on my students. My research papers have been cited pretty often, all things considered, and I live on my own and sometimes knit interesting stuff and cook delicious food for loved ones. How much of that is me, as I would be without my sister’s influence? How much have I worked to earn awards and to stand out and be amazing because of what I felt I owed my family, for the things my sister can’t do?

*

That’s how far I got. Here’s the list of people I feel like I owe:

– my mom
– my dad
– my parents, together
– my sister
– my students
– my “chosen” family, the sisters I made in college
– my country (which my liberal dictates say needs me)
– the world
– the future (this overlaps with my students)
– my previous self, before my diagnosis
– the people who have believed in me and paid me and loved me

Here’s the list of people I am sure my loved ones would tell me I owe:
– nobody

Okay, MAYBE, maybe, they’d agree with me that, having made the choice to take on activism and having signed a contract to teach, that I owe some effort to my allies and students. But they’d phrase it another way that emphasizes my choice and my duty, rather than “owing” things.

I think many sibs might understand how I’m feeling, along with anyone else who has lost a loved one too soon, or had a loved one who has been a hero. Maybe it’s just “normal” grief for the life we might have had, which some of us experience early, some late, and some, perhaps, never. I wonder if a lot of us have trouble connecting with others (and by that I mean I wonder if this is MY trouble) because we feel like this is a burden we bear, this owing the world for the disappointments and sorrows it feels, and like the burden is for us alone. Maybe it’s because I am the only other child? I don’t know.

All I know is that I feel like I owe the world more than I have given yet, and every day I push myself to try.

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