When my mom got breast cancer, I unbordered.

She had a disfiguring surgery, and it marked a new era for her – me too. Only later did I come to understand her experience as an extremely difficult self-consciousness regarding her body, her clothing and her sense of female wholeness. But as a teenage boy, although I couldn’t understand her conflicted feelings, and she didn’t share them with me, as I sat with her by her bed we fused over pain. The suffering-her and the anxious-me met in a way we had not experienced since birth had separated us.

G.K. Chesterton has noted that “birth is as solemn a parting as death.” When we are born, we get our first lesson in not-being-someone-else. We experience our first unhooking, a primal, existential psyche detrailering. It’s a good thing.

When I  was born I broke out of my mother, and the deep structure of my psyche must have shouted, ”I’m free!” But when she got cancer I returned to her, to an adult awareness of her, and I had the opportunity to enter the acutely poignant reality of her again. This happens.  We have chances now and again to make such movements. Birthed into liberating independence, we can be wooed by difficulty back inside someone we love. When we go through pain, there is an opportunity to trailer back up. She had surgery; the cancer was removed, but something remained in me.

It’s odd how connecting with each other works out — and when. When I was in grade school my grandma on my mom’s side of the family came to live with us in our home near Warsaw, Missouri. It was a migration that would take her out of element in the Los Angles area and into mine. She was alone at that stage of her life, her husband having died, her children having all set up their own households. Landing in our house, she landed in a thoroughly mid-west, male world.

I remember two things about her stay with us: That she bought us our first TV, and that I clubbed her to the floor in the laundry room. She changed our world, and we rocked hers. The TV she gave us saved our family. We were transplanted Californians,  lost and alone in rural Missouri, but we were saved through Gilligan and his  island and  Steve McGarrett and Dano and by the commercials where we learned what we really needed to thrive.

The TV was an efficacious means of salvation from the Baptist church we attended in Warsaw, but grandma’s clubbing was merely good fun. My brothers and I loved to whack each other, a punch on the arm, a toy gun war around the house, a generally good thumping with billy clubs. The clubs we made for ourselves by stuffing several socks inside one sock until we had nice long, hard slugging socks.

The day grandma went down, I was lying in wait for one of my brothers; grandma happened to slide open the pocket door that accessed the laundry room. I jumped out from behind the washer with the club already in motion; it landed smack on top of grandma’s little head, down she went. The apologies came next. Not too long after that, grandma moved back to California.

It wasn’t the only time my grandma had met family difficulty and had to move. My mom told me a while back that her mom was sexually abused as a child. It happened in this way; my grandma’s dad died when she was little, and her mom remarried, and her step-dad abused her.

“Really, mom?” I asked. “I never knew that! In our family — grandma was sexually abused? Wow!”

And after my mom told me this, and I knew it had happened, it crushed something in me, connecting me in some kind of bridging way to my grandma and giving me an option really, to think about and enter into a new conscious awareness of her.

My mom told me that afterwards my grandma was sent away to live with an aunt. I think of her now, our Nana, tiny like she was, when she was abused. I imagine her alone, confused and afraid afterwards, and I know she was, crying under her blankets in her dark bedroom – alone. And I wish I could have gone to her then, changed like I have changed now, changed by my own painful experiences into a more authentic self, into one who knows what to do with pain, and talked to her as if she were my little daughter — time and space swept aside for a moment – and me patting Nana on the back, this harmed little girl who was to become my mom’s mom and my very one-and-only Nana, and me putting my head beside hers like a real good dad would, in an appropriate unbordering of the self, and then breaking down with her, and saying to her with tears running out of my eyes and down my cheeks and onto her cheeks, ”What was done to you was so wrong. I’m so sorry it happened! Look at me, you didn’t do anything wrong! You didn’t do anything wrong! Something wrong was done to you. And it shouldn’t have been done, and I love you, and I am going to protect you now so that this bad thing never, ever happens to you again!”

Sticking to one’s own consciousness and harboring up within one’s own self is overrated. We cross over, at times, into someone else’s sacred space. In certain uninvited moments of life, we make this choice, when time and space allow, and as we can, and even when it doesn’t seem to be allowed, because who and what is allowed is what we choose.

And I wish I could have gone to her step-dad, and said what needed to be said to him too, in an emotionally controlled way, and then gone to other people who needed to look into this in some way that would set some boundaries up, and then I wish I could have taken my grandma away and found a loving place for her and said to her, “Now you are safe, and you are going to be okay, we are going to have someone talk to you about this and listen to you and help you be okay.”

My grandma eventually married a much older man than herself, whose first wife had died, and he was a very good man, and he had little girls that he protected and I think he gave her some of that, the place removed from harm for the wounded self to recover — and safety.

My grandma was abused when I was not yet a self, when I was still unborn, but now I am, and my consciousness of it connects me with my grandma, but not her to me because she’s gone now. The mental time-traveler’s option is to cross over the sacred border of the self and to trailer up with someone who isn’t even alive anymore, especially in a family. We do it all the time when we read biographies.  In nooks and corners of our lives we can choose to live in broken-down sameness together for a short time.

This is my experience, and it is increasingly so as I age. Over time, I find my edges smearing, fuzzing and blurring. It’s been a slow but certain transformation.

When my daughter Rosalind was two we started on the flash cards. And we made Sesame Street a habit. She made good progress – “dog, cat, lion.” We played school. I loved teaching her. I read, read, read and read some more to her. I read “Little Chick,” over and over again. These were some really good times together. At this point in life, I was working as a high school literature and writing teacher, and my wife worked in a library. Our family loved a book shelf, a pile of books head high, a campus, a life of print, but then something happened to Rosalind, and we had to learn to not make that the standard by which we measured value.

One day, when Rosalind was one and one-half, she stopped breathing, turned blue, and started convulsing. It was a moment that I haven’t yet fully recovered from. You don’t get over such things; you just take shelter, and remain hyper-vigilant and take comfort where you can. The paramedics came to the house with a siren blasting, and we all rushed off to the hospital. The needle in Rosalind’s baby spine was a tough moment. You spend all your energy protecting your baby, and then you hold her so someone can hurt her. It doesn’t feel right.

The diagnoses came in turn and over the next few years. She has “febrile convulsions.” Then she has “epilepsy.”  And eventually, we were told the kicker that we never thought we would hear. She has, “brain damage.” Finally, the label-verdict on how school would go was given by a neuro-psychologist after extensive testing: “She is retarded.”  Bam, that label hurt, all of us, from grandma on down. And with the labels came the drugs, phenobarbitol,  topamax,  depakote – a sluggish life, lots of naps. I hated it, I still do, but I have learned to be okay with it, kind of, and not.

I know that as tightly as I’m woven by my opinions and experiences and choices into a unique and personal self,  my psychic independence unravels  at the unwanted threshold I passed over with my family.

One evening when Rosalind was in grade I went into her room. Her face was red and soaked with tears, and angry and hurt.

“What’s the matter?” I asked sitting on the edge of her bed and putting my hand to her head.

“Nothing,” she said angrily.

“No, something is wrong,” I said, “just tell me. I won’t be mad at you.”

“I’m stupid!” she blurted out. “I can’t read!”

I put my head down by hers. Her pain swept up out of her and into me. I started crying. We were like that for a moment, my sobs mixed up with  hers. She hadn’t seen that so much. I a guy, touch, not given to excessive humidity, especially with others.

We were close like that for a moment, then Rosalind pushed my face back and looked into my eyes with profound puzzlement. She stared and asked, “Daddy, are you crying for me?” It was out. Our eyes were locked. Then she knew something she hadn’t known as well until then — she wasn’t alone.

I think again about my mom, my wife, my daughters my grandma, and I know and always have known, and will and always will come to times when my carefully stitched up edges unravel. It tends to be when I get close to the women in my life. I am autonomous, and yet with them, I am not, and now perhaps more so over time. I have leaky borders.

If I have to live alone someday, and I may, without wanting to, for instance if my wife dies before I do, I won’t like it, especially at night. I hate to sleep alone. And I hate to go through hard things alone.

Recently, I spent the morning with my wife. We painted our bedroom together, one wall a beautiful dark olive branch green. Painting together is not advisable early in a marriage, but after years together it can go well, evoking only a couple of testy moment for a mornings team work. One snarly incident occurred when I critiqued her work on the baseboard. She reminded me that she didn’t need or want my opinion.

At the end of the day, we sat together exhausted. I found myself shifting into my very familiar and personal I-am-with-her awareness. I unbordered, as I sometimes do, when I am very close to her, relaxing into her green tea perfume, the clean smell of her hair conditioner, the skin-on-skin tactility that feels so very safe and so extremely comforting.

I asked her only a short time back, in just such a bonded moment: “Am I you?” At the time, it seemed like the thing to say. It could have been meant romantically, but I was thinking about it epistemologically and she took it so.

“No,” she said firmly, and then threw down her own opinion on the ontological table. “Sometimes you edit my decisions too much and  tell me what to do, and I don’t like it.” My wife went to Smart Mouth College.

She’s wrong, of course, as always, but right too. I am not her. I am an autonomous self, and yet I do cross over into her, and at times I can hardly tell myself from her or her from me. I like to think back over my life; it’s been a mix of coexistence and  independence. I  have known the ecstasy of escaping my mother, and I have known the ecstasy of merging with my wife.

These many years later, I can still see my mom sick with the cancer, lying in her dark bedroom as I hold her hand, and I can see my daughter crying alone in her room with me beside her, and see too my grandma sitting on a chair in a room that my grandpa is painting. My grandma is smiling at my grandpa, her house painter, the renewer of  her own renewed spaces, her gift, her other self to shelter in. And, I can see my self too, sick with my last sickness perhaps, and my wife, my own adopted other self sitting on my bed and my beautiful daughter stroking my pale head.

How is it that a man might come to such places where he might untrailer from himself and hook on to another?  It brings to mind, oddly enough, in the shifting range of reflection, Shakespeare’s King Lear raving in the storm. The old king, once perhaps loved just a little and perhaps able to give a little love, ends up on the on the heath with no love, all bordered and fenced within himself, screaming into the wind.

He had his chances, the old coot, with his  three daughters, to cross over into them, but then in the process of his making his way through the transfer of power, they were lost to him, and crazy with pain he cries out, ”A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.”

And so I turn my no-eyed, other-seeing consciousness on the crazy king, the man of the moment who is not me and yet who is me, because we both know deep family pain, but I have lived and moved and had just a bit of my being in other persons. And I see Leer there alone in the rain, not yet ended, and I, his self-appointed fool, take him by the arm, this wacked out old king, and I lead him home with me, a piece of my own disturbed self, and I find a safe place for him within me, as if he were me.

I am capable of his foolishness, but I think I can help him, and so I take his arm, and I lead him to bed so that he might take a good, long therapeutic nap. And then I go and get his daughter Cordelia, so that he might wake to her, crossing over to him, and stroking his crazy old head sane again.

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