Monday, February 9, 2015

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times—the 80s

Sacchi Green

Do I have to remember the 80s? Are you sure? There are years I’d rather remember. In a way, the past is a different country, one we’ve passed through, and can never truly revisit. But why I am I dragging my metaphorical feet about this particular decade? By some measures those years were the best of times for me. Once early in that decade I had a sort of epiphany, a sense that I’d figured out this whole being grown-up deal at last. The business I co-owned in Amherst was doing so well that we opened a second store across the river in Northampton. I was on the board of the local League of Women Voters, and singing with the Hampshire Choral Society. My older son, geeky and somewhat eccentric, found kindred spirits when he got to high school and was thriving, and by mid-decade was studying computer science at UMass with a full scholarship, awarded to the four highest scorers on the SATs in each Congressional district (or at least the four highest scorers who wanted to go to UMass.) Business, civic affairs, music, motherhood—I must have been doing something right, right?

Well, yes and no. Or who knows. It was that last part, motherhood, that showed how false and ephemeral that epiphany was. My younger son, ten years his brother’s junior, was geeky, too, but more than eccentric, and growing even more so as adolescence approached. The best the doctors could do was call it OCD, which was certainly accurate, but far from all that was going on. His very bright mind found extreme and dramatic ways to react to whatever synoptic imbalance was under way. Matters became complicated by a physical injury requiring a brace, a stress fracture of a vertebra due partly to very fast growth. And there was bullying in junior high school, not physical, because he was big and tall, but all the worse because he was afraid he’d be driven to lashing out and injuring his tormentors. School became untenable. We turned to homeschooling. He pretty much aced the GED test, and started taking continuing education courses at UMass, earning a BA degree after ten years. Not so bad, but the process of getting diagnosed and medicated took years, very painful years, and there were times I wasn’t sure he’d survive them. I won’t go into further details, and I really shouldn’t be saying this much, since it’s not just my story. Things are stable now, and finally a new psychiatrist (two older ones had retired) has made a firm diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, unknown in the 80s. If we had known more back then, could we have done more to help him? I’ll never know, and always wonder, whether I should have done more, pushed him harder to adapt socially, something I wasn’t all that good at myself, or whether the support I did give was the best that could be done. In any case, we’ve survived.

An odd side-effect of all this was that I finally started to write in the late 80s, fan-fiction for my son from one of his favorite fantasy worlds, the Elfquest graphic novels about wolf-riding elves descended from immigrants from a distant planet. It wasn’t until 1995 that I ventured into original sf/f writing, but the gears had been set in motion, and they’re still grinding away.

I’ve been forced to think more about the past lately, as I go through stacks of old photographs in my father’s house, helping him (because he knows he won’t be able to stay there much longer) by winnowing out the duplicates, inconsequential shots, shots with heads cut off (my mother was an avid but not very skillful photographer) and various pictures not worth keeping. It’s a painful process, sometimes rewarding, often depressing, and I can’t stand to do it for very long at a time. I’m startled now and then to see myself from the past—maybe I really was in my prime in the 80s! And my kids, at various ages. And my granddaughter, growing so fast, from a baby to an overwhelmingly cute toddler to a self-assured nine-year old who’ll be taller than I am in a couple of years. I can scarcely comprehend that stretch of time, much less the 90s and 80s and 70s—although the 60’s still seem like yesterday, a country I remember vividly and wish I could revisit.

Don’t mind me. Who wouldn’t be somewhat melancholy in an ongoing stretch of snowstorms and bitter cold the way it’s been here lately? Spring will come again, and already I have flower seeds growing under plant lights in my kitchen, as I do every year. Some things can be repeated year after year. And don’t worry about me. I still haven’t really got the hang of being a grown-up, and that’s just fine.

16 comments:

  1. Hi Sacchi!

    Sometimes when I talk to people about my near future, I say that when I reach 70, still a ways off, I will force myself to stop working no matter what. And then? Prepare for death. Not in a dark way but in the Buddhist sense of taking stock of my experiences and trying to understand more seriously where all this is going.

    I get that feeling sometimes like I think you must when you look through those old photos. Like stepping through the past. Photos are the closest to a time machine we ever get. We see our kids grow up and launch them into the world, with a secrtive somewhat guilty sense of relief. They're on their own now. Whatever happens now is on them. We look back on a period and remember the goodness of it. But no matter how successful people look, as you say, there are hidden burdens and difficulties. But I think it's also the nature of suffering to pass away and be forgotten. We remember the goodness of that period of our life and forget that we ever suffered.

    Garce

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  2. Sacchi:
    I agree with Garce but having just turned 65 I keep pushing the date of Buddhist, reconciliation out further. I can't look at the piles of pictures and videos of my children when they were young, all I do is blubber.

    A true legacy is layered as yours is where triumph and tragedy become imposters ( "If," Rudyard Kipling) and all that remains is the memory of the generosity of your spirit.

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    1. Garce and Spencer,

      My 95-year-old father (well, he'll be 95 this Sunday) showed me a newspaper column recently by someone who said that he didn't think people over 70 should get much if any medical care, leaving the resources for younger folks. Dad said he agreed, on principle, but he wasn't serious. (He's also reluctant to move to an assisted living place because they're full of old people, even though he thinks he will eventually,) I know myself that one's definition of "old" tends to move to keep well beyond one's own age.

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  3. Thank you for sharing all this, Sacchi. I knew some but not all.

    It sounds to me like you did a terrific job of caring for and supporting your son. I love that you wrote fanfic for him!

    Let's get together soon, if the snow lets up!

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    1. Will the snow ever let up? Now they're talking about two more possible storms this week! But yes, if I have any sanity left by the time the snow lets up, we should get together. Or maybe even if I've given up on sanity.

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    2. I've been wanting to email the two of you for a get together, but the snow seems like it just won't stop!

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    3. Fingers crossed for a milder March and a meetup!

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  4. Seems archetypes continue to be of most import: Self-realization, love, family, health, death. That's the real shit. The rest is often bullshit. When I see people around me making drama of the bullshit, wonder what will happen when they're hit with the real thing. It takes strength of character, trite as that may sound.

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    1. Oh yes, and let's not forget 'home' and 'sustenance' on that list.

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  5. "If we had known more back then, could we have done more to help him? I’ll never know, and always wonder..."

    Sacchi, we do the best we can, as our parents did, as parents have always done. Should I have realized my oldest son was becoming diabetic before I had to drive him to the hospital because the doc told me he'd be dead by the morning if I didn't?? Of course, since my brother is also diabetic. But I had 3 other kids and was working 2 jobs. We do the best we can.

    To me, the best tribute is when your kids want to have kids of their own. I warn them that they will enjoy the experience more than anything else in life (well...except for the creating of them--sex trumps everything!) But that they also will have moments of shame, when they react in a way they didn't expect to, or when in hindsight they realize they weren't the good parents they strive so hard to be.

    When my SIL was going to visit her mom for the final visit, since her mom was dying from cancer, she told me she didn't know what to say, since they were somewhat estranged and she was (and still is) childless. I told her to tell her mom that she was a "good-enough" mom. I know I'm not a perfect mom, if there even is such a thing. But I do work hard at being "good enough", so my kids won't need years of expensive therapy to overcome my failings. My mom told me to "love them, tell them everyday that you do." And I'll add, do your best, but remember to love yourself too. You are only human and trying your hardest to give these new people a good life.

    Just think of yourself as good enough. Because you are.

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    1. Thanks, Fiona. I was heartened when my older son and his wife wanted to have children, since there were times when I was afraid that his brother's problems and how the family was affected would put him off the whole idea.

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  6. "If we had known more back then..." All those ifs just come to nothing. We do the best we can, and I'd say you've done very well indeed.

    Going through old photos is such a bittersweet process. When my stepmom died last year, I spent hours going through her photos and my dad's albums (which she had acquired when he died). Joy and pain become so muddled you really can't begin to sort them out.

    That's an experience our kids - or our grandkids - may never have. Nobody is going to sort through the gigabytes of digital images on our hard disks or our phones. The future is ephemeral.

    I haven't gotten the hang of being a grown up either - and I suspect I never will. I don't have kids to remind me I have to be responsible and adult. In my dreams, I'm usually in my mid-twenties. I wonder if that will still be true when (if) I am in my eighties.

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    1. That's really interesting that you're usually a twentysomething in your dream life, Lisabet! Kind of cool, eh?

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    2. I don't know, Jeremy. Maybe it's a sign of immaturity!

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  7. Elfquest! I was just recently thinking I should try to track down some old copies. I used to really like reading that!

    And going through old photos... I have to set a timer. I can only bear it for half hour chunks. Or I can do it if someone is with me and will help us keep moving and plowing through (my sister and I went through all my father's stuff in a frighteningly short amount of time because we both needed to do it that way).

    Good luck with the snow!

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  8. Elfquest! I used to buy those for my daughter (who definitely does not believe that I was good enough). I never guessed that you found your way into speculative fiction by first writing Elfquest fanfic, Sacchi. Very cool.

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