Invisible Loyalties

me babyThey took her baby, a beautiful, blue-eyed baby girl I’m told, to the infirmary for medical care. It appeared to be nothing serious at all though in the end, so she told them she thought her little girl was well enough to be with her, rather than in their care.

They told her to come back in the morning; they would discharge her then. She went back in the morning, and they told her that her infant had died in the night. They never did produce a body though. I can’t imagine the horror.

Many decades later, a Family Constellations therapist tells me my grandmother suffered the loss of a baby, possibly two, one of them definitely a girl. I resist the statement, argue a little with him, tell him he could have no way of knowing this. But afterwards, I call my cousin to find out.

He was right, and suddenly my grandmother’s life—the magnitude of her losses and their impact on her family, on all of us in her tribe—came into focus. She’d lost her firstborn too, to SIDS or childhood illness of some sort, and then years later, was taken into a prisoner of war camp and separated from more of her children, not knowing whether they were dead or alive, utterly helpless to protect them or feed them or reassure them in the ways mothers are desperate to do for their children.

The story explains the tidal wave of pain that landed in our home when my grandmother moved in to live with us for a number of years. It explains what split her in two, what kept much of her soul hidden beneath a brittle, impervious, irritable outer layer. Why she saw not so much the unique beauty of her grandchildren when she looked at us, but rather only loss.

The story explains why she wandered the hallway outside my bedroom in the night when I was a child, why she’d stand in the shadows to watch us sleep, and why she turned gruffly away when aware she’d been noticed. It explains why she accused me of stealing things from her bedroom, even though I was too afraid to go into it, and why she disliked me utterly, for nothing more than having a runny nose. It explains, at least in part, why I wanted so desperately, even back then, to protect my mother. Why I loved her fried potatoes, but disliked my grandmother’s.

It explains why my grandmother and I never bonded even though she lived with us, and why I never thought to go to her funeral at her passing when I was seventeen years old. It explains why it took almost four decades for me to experience her as a human being, to weep for her losses, and for the way they have continued to ripple out into the lives of those who have come after her.

My grandmother was one of thousands who suffered this, I’ve learned—12,000 perfect babies were taken from their mothers during this time, to further the supposedly superior Aryan race. Many thousands of families on all sides were torn apart in a million ways during that horrible war. The aftershocks that have continued to impact so many are difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

But somehow the psychological legacy left by these experiences now makes perfect sense to me. It explains my inordinately powerful desire to protect children, parents, anyone that seems vulnerable. It explains invisible loyalties to vague but powerful feelings of guilt and failure. It explains my terror of being charged with negligence somehow, and potentially having to live with an unbearable sense of shame and self-recrimination. It explains the ever-ready flight-or-fight response so common in the family, the energy that goes into avoiding pain and conflict, my resistance to systems that claim authority and demand allegiance.

They say, in the simplest of epigenetic explanations, that our genes literally show the famines our grandmothers suffered. Do these tendencies then, present in so many variations in so many of us in the extended family, not make perfect sense in light of the fact that my grandmother was utterly impotent in the face of the thieves that tore apart her family and life?

In the weeks since my family’s story has come to my awareness, I’ve felt sorrow, but I’ve ironically also been basking in a warm glow of something I can’t quite find words for. It involves, of course, admiration and gratitude and love for my parents, for the courage, determination and resilience they have so tenaciously clung to.

But it is also a warm glow of gratitude and affection for the woman who has lent her professional skills to help me unravel some of the knots of my life, my family’s life, and who has held out hope that no matter how many and large the knots, no matter how strong the hold of the reflexes that have carried us, there is a way to undo them. I understand the term transference, and though she’s not mentioned it, I’m sure it’s apt for how I feel right now. But I also don’t know anything more appropriate than gratitude and affection in response to the depth of my experience with her.

Being deeply understood by another is profoundly moving and hopeful. And the experience of having my story move her—though it is one of countless many she has heard—is equally profound. How can I feel anything but gratitude and affection?

Mother and Child

me momIn the hours before coming back to consciousness, I was aware of one thing only: the warm and bright glow of love that belonged to a world in that moment removed from me. It came in the image of plump, small-child arms around my neck, those of my babies, all three of them in this moment babies again, their smooth and perfect faces burrowed in my neck. My husband was present too, his beautiful warm hands in mine. It was the most vivid and powerful sweetness—love, love that called me back to consciousness.

It was an anesthesia and morphine-induced trip, and exactly two years later, during the deepest of winters, it has come back to help me.

Winter this year brought with it a psychic winter for me, a slowing far beyond my normal northern-climate hibernation tendencies. I was fully aware that I was mourning the losses that accompanied my cancer treatment, but I slowly became aware that it was more than that. There was of course the abrupt withdrawal of estrogen and all hormones once gloriously energizing. There was the aching and wasting of muscles that once carried me easily, the passing of my youth, the passing of an acceptable quality of hair on my head, an empty nest, and underemployment. It was a feeling of having been tossed into a scrap-yard of sorts, one filled with elderly people lacking the vitality admired by society, the stamina required by employers.

But it was more than that, as my restless insomniac nights and the therapist I’d found slowly taught me. At her suggestion, I added to my toolkit the practice of meditation. What came to me as I stopped for a short time each day to focus on bringing warmth to the sore pocket within was a variation of the vision that had come to me in my post-surgical morphine-induced high two years earlier.

Now, my babies were on my shoulders again, their arms around my neck, but, as is possible only in these deeply relaxed altered states, I was at the same time present on my own mother’s shoulder, my arms around her neck, as was she on the shoulders of her mother, and she in turn on the shoulder of hers, as far back as the eye could see.

We inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers, always, I’ve now learned, and much strength and healing lies in that long, long line of mothers that has gone before us.

My mother’s pain originated in large part with the tanks that rolled through her long-ago home in Germany. These tanks mercilessly scattered the family, leaving a bright-eyed, beautiful, playful young child without the safety and warmth of her mother and her large and safe family, and instead, on the run with one older sibling.

For months they slept in barns and begged a little food, and watched as soldiers poked their rifles into the hay, looking for beautiful young women. In the end, there was simply nothing for them to do with their trauma—they were mere children. So they stored it deep within, in order to survive. And much later, when they’d finally been reunited with their parents and siblings, they left it packed away, and boarded a ship to a far-away country, where they knew nobody and no way to communicate, and for a long time, only years of hard, hard work.

This is what my mother and I, without understanding it, were for so long afraid to see when we looked at each other, this was the substance of a veil that has at times obscured clear sight. What she survived had left a potent biochemical imprint, and the veil through which we looked at each other was a protective one, born of love.

Hope is, as we all know, resilient. My mother married, and her traumatized self gave birth to me, and then to four more children. She and my father made a new life for themselves in sunny and windy southern Alberta. They loved and cared for us and for each other with every ounce of energy human beings can possibly have. They worked endlessly to make ends meet. They built a home with their own hands, quite literally, and grew everything that could possibly be grown in the backyard, and then canned or froze enough to feed us all through the winter months.

We picnicked and went to church and sang and camped and spent long-weekends hiking in Waterton National Park. My mother baked and cooked and hosted guests and learned the language and ways of the new country. She let us make play-tents in the living room, and nursed us through chicken pox and measles and other nameless fevers. And after years and years of babies and growing bodies and hungry mouths, happy times and frightening times and sad times, and finally faced with an empty nest, my parents rallied once again and threw themselves into making blankets for those with none, sending food to the hungry, visiting those in prison. They volunteered at the second hand store, and took care of the babies in the church nursery.

The cold heartless machines that stole childhood from my mother took from my grandmother almost everything too. She came to the new country, but was too tired to learn the new language, and too tired to know where to begin with her vastly altered psyche, and so it, to a large extent, remained raw and sore.

A number of years ago I heard the term epigenetics, and learned that our genes reflect the pain our parents and grandparents lived. And then, in this dark winter that ironically followed a full eighteen months after going into remission from my cancer, I became ever more conscious of how desperately I loved my mother and my own children, how much the protective veil between us has at times blurred our vision, how much I missed looking into their eyes.

What these images were about—the one of the veil, and the one of my babies and my mother and all those many, many mothers and daughters and sons before us—was hope. Hope that on the shoulders of those who came before us, breathing in the divine essence of creation we become able to bear anything and heal those sore spots within.

My mother’s blue eyes have always held nothing but pure love.

What the Body Remembers

heartDo we really record traumatizing injury in our muscles and fascia and hearts and stomachs? This question has been on my mind a lot lately. If it’s true, then holistic therapists of all kinds are potential healers in the truest sense of the word, and the work done by massage therapists and herbalists and acupuncturists is every bit as important as that done by psychotherapists and medical doctors and others more commonly accepted as vital to our health.

I was on the receiving end of a deep tissue massage last week—torture of the sweetest kind, I told her. (I love you, I love you, all you beautiful and patient therapists!) In the wake of this though, less than 24 hours later, came a wave of intense emotion, which, while inconvenient, seems in retrospect to have been instructive and enriching.

Can these experiences be our teachers, our guides, our medicines? I know there are no guaranteed results for treatments or medicines of any kind, and that acceptance to reality is essential. But I also know that healing takes many forms, and that movement of all kinds—physical, emotional, energetic—is better than stagnation.

We’d been invited to dinner on the heels of all this intensity, and though I’d resolved not to talk about the experience, it was inevitable that it surfaced. My friend, not the one who’d delivered the massage but also a massage therapist, offered, along with her love, some illuminating and hopeful insights into my personality and some potential reasons for the circuitous path my recovery has been taking.

But this idea of chemical or psychological injury being recorded in our tissues—is it supported by science? It’s easy enough to see how physical injury can damage tissues and result in impaired range of motion, reduced lymph flow, and chronic pain. It seems a little less logical that chemical or psychic injury might leave physical footprints, but I do know this: my muscles and fascia and joints do not behave as they once did, nor do they feel normal to the trained hands of a massage therapist.

There’s a bit of distance between theory and what we accept as fact, I know. But what we do know seems reason enough for me to continue to pursue the direction I’ve chosen. Neurobiologists, my therapist reminded me a couple of weeks ago, are discovering that our hearts and stomachs have nervous tissue identical to that found in the brain. They contain millions of nerve cells that register stress and possess the characteristics and biochemical reactions of brain cells, and have an intelligence that can actually lead our brains in how we interpret the world. (Gut reactions.) We also know that neural-like muscle cells are being considered for the purpose of treating brain and spinal cord injuries.

It doesn’t seem all that large a leap to me then, from cerebral memory to the idea that our bodies might remember also.

I know this—injury, whether emotional, physical or chemical, involves the release of enormous levels of stress hormones, hormones that have all kinds of adverse physical effects when they remain high, which is exactly what occurs with trauma.

The idea of our tissues recording the events of our lives is perhaps less foreign when we consider how our immune systems maintain information about past infections to offer immunity. Or when we consider that genetic and epigenetic research tells us that our genes store all kinds of complex information, and that the famine or death camp our grandmothers survived shows up in our genes today.

In light of all this, it ought not be surprising then that the after-effects of myofascial bodywork, or of herbs known to address stagnation, might include emotional responses. And the theory that this stirring of the waters might in the end permit us to more fully process overwhelming experience and perhaps leave us a tiny bit less scarred is extremely hopeful to my mind. But then, I’ve always been determinedly optimistic.

To my psycho- or massage-therapist friends who might happen to read these thoughts—if I’ve understood this incorrectly or left out key elements, please do fill me in!