t began 5 years ago. An unrelenting, seemingly never ending series of set-backs, or, as I like to call it – “a pile-on”. I thought it was just a “bad patch” – losing both of my beloved 17 year old cats within 3 months of each other, losing my job at the same time, and going through a break-up. Nothing out of the blue, no curve balls, but sad, chaotic and unsettling in many areas of my life at once.
I’m generally pretty good at picking myself up, dusting myself off with a few ice cream and pizza binges, a good cry and a box of Kleenex. Things rewind, even out, tears dry and we’re on the road again.
But this time it just kept going. Over time things got a little better, then worse, and worse, and worse again. Like that “whack a mole” game where you hit the “mole” into the ground, only to have it come up another hole and get whacked again and again.
I was the mole.
For the first time in my adult life, I was broke. Broke and solely supporting my young daughter. In my middle-middle class existence I would so often feel like what I had, while perfectly adequate, was just “never enough”. So I went from “never enough” to “not enough”. I remember putting back a $5 poster board my daughter wanted from Michael’s art shop as I realized I really, really couldn’t afford it. Small but meaningful parental existential bumps like this became routine.
Then there were the biggies, like healthcare. My own COBRA payments replaced new shoes and dinners out with friends but what about my child? While relieved that Child Health Plus offered decent health care to those with limited incomes, the reality of much of that care took us to a whole different level. My daughter had teeth that needed to be pulled, leading us into the land of clinic care in America – with strange, dark, dank and even dirty offices and “practitioners” who might or might not show up as we – the minimally insured waited, huddling with our children, crowded into the dark, dirty reality of what “have not” really looks and feels like. Bad enough when it’s just you, but to sit with your child in a dirty dentist’s office just… bites.
To say that I was “thrown off” during this time period would be an understatement. I was raggedy. I was always tired. I was not much fun. I couldn’t afford to go to the movies with my friends and didn’t want them to know. I was bingeing on reality TV, scared and miserable… and... I was distracted.
Still, I thought I had the mommy-tasking thing down well enough to get us through it. “I’m coping,” I thought. “We’re ok. We have a roof over our head, we’re eating, I’M MAKING THIS WORK!!!” All hell was breaking loose in a perfect storm at a time when my daughter was most vulnerable. Curve balls were hitting her everywhere and I was too frantic to see the pain she was hiding. The sudden loss of material possessions can be wounding to a child, but nothing compared to the loss of one’s identity. A deep adoption grieving I couldn’t dog paddle around or save her from was hitting her hard.
Out of respect I will not tell you the specifics of the trouble going on with my daughter. I can tell you she was experiencing what our agency described as the “the identity crisis of the adopted child.” A black hole of “who am I” and ”why didn’t they want me” that could never be fully understood by me or anyone who hadn’t been adopted. “Don’t try and fix this,” they said. “You can’t keep this from happening to her – you can just love her through it and keep on going.” Just keep on going.
Little by little she was falling through the cracks right under my nose. Then one day in October the curve ball came and the straw house of our life was pulled apart, beginning with a phone call from school. The school had to get involved in my daughter's crisis as the falling had exploded. The next 6 months were crisis piled on top of crisis. With very little breathing space in between hits, a lot of unsolicited advice and not much “help” that was really helpful. I was running around the city with my hands up in the air, frantic for “the answer.” I was terrified that I wasn’t up to this, that we might not be able to get through it.
So that's where “the art of the curve ball” comes in. Just when the mess gets so messy that you can’t escape, a funny thing happens – you have to. You have to swim into the storm – crawl through the slime – dive into the abyss – not knowing what you are diving into or whether or not you will come up for air again. You just have to and that’s it. The curve ball hits you in the face and you have to get up.
We were now officially a “family in crisis”. “In the system”. I was “evaluated” she was “evaluated” we were interviewed and scrutinized and evaluated and thankfully made it through as I was deemed a” fit” parent. Still we were now being watched, supervised and, as horrendous as that might sound, it gave me what I needed and slowly helped me to turn things around.
It required the most courageous, ball busting pieces of me to fight for my daughter but most importantly, it showed her that I – the beleaguered, sole support single mom who was sleepwalking through our life would do anything to keep her safe. Anything.
I made “us” my only priority – I took responsibility for the parts of “my part” I had never given a thought to. We began to talk to each other, tell each other the truth. We got to know each other better. A lot better. And I began to listen with both ears.
I wish it didn’t take that. I really do. But it did. And today we are out of “at risk” and every single time my daughter is a “normal” bratty teenager I celebrate it. That moment in time changed everything I know about parenting, about love, about the gift of my beautiful kid.
What I did with those curve balls is probably the greatest triumph of my life.
Today things are much better. My daughter is “back” - resilient, wise and moving forward on her path. Life is still “life” and there’s always some sort of drama, but I’m on solid ground, with a good job and a wonderful partner who I met right in the middle of all of this and who has stood patiently and compassionately by my side through all of it. I don’t know if I could have found the kind of love I have for him without witnessing how, at the worst time of my life, someone wonderful like him could love me like that.
In my new job I work with homeless women who rock my world. We do poetry workshops, rail against the massive indignities with pen and paper and I bring the best “A Game” I can to them every week, knowing all too well that my middle class maelstrom, while stormy, pales in comparison to so many of the stories that get shared in our weekly safe space. The art of poetry is our port in the storm and a sacred place where we put our stories in the center and share our hits, hurts, courage and resilience.
A few weeks ago one of my ladies was quiet, somber for most of the session. I turned to her when we finished and asked what was going on. She said, “I hate it. Every time I think my life is gonna get better something else smacks me in the face”.
“Yes – it’s the curve ball” I said.
“I guess so, maybe that’s it. I’m just not supposed to be here. I’m not a “homeless” person! I’m not. How did this happen to me???” I did my best to respond, come up with something that might give this a reason, a context.
“Sometimes life sucks, I said. “For a long, long time. We try to fix it but mostly we just keep trying to make it ‘not suck’. And that doesn’t work very well. “ “So, what do you do???” she said, thinking for some odd reason I might have an answer she doesn’t already know herself. “Hmmm… I think we just let it suck and keep on going. We just keep on going.”
She cried a little, then she laughed a little and said, “That’s pretty good. Can I write that down???”
Nowadays, even in my “much better life” sometimes “things” just suck. Truth be told, the day of my client’s revelation I was feeling so many of the same feelings as she was, off kilter, out of place in my life at that moment and wondering how I got there. Her words were my words and my words belonged to both of us.
So it is with curve balls – we all get ‘em. They don’t just hurt – they knock us out and rip us to shreds. We don’t know how we got there and we don’t belong there but there we are, in pieces on the ground. There, in the midst of the smackdown we find “The art of the curve ball” – simple, self evident and ridiculously clear: Let it suck and keep on going.
Just Keep On Going.