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As I continue to work on my memoir, I am playing with anecdotes that I wrote a while back. What is below may or may not make it into the book. I appreciate y’all’s feedback.

“Like an Abandoned Child” by Pucko at My Opera

The most traumatic event of my childhood occurred when my mother was 40 and I was 7, and that was my mother beginning medical school.  I’ve often innocuously stated this in the past to counselors, in autobiographical papers for applications, etc.  Within the past two years, however, I’ve come to understand how deeply it affected me.  Words from Pia Mellody’s Facing Codependence are leaping off the page in excruciating explanation:

When any one of [a child’s] dependency needs is neglected or ignored, children experience abuse.  Emotional nurturing is especially important for children to develop toward maturity. … With abandonment these emotional nurturing needs simply were not met.  It happens when one or both parents are not available to the children.  One or both may be physically removed from the home or they may be physically present, but emotionally removed.  Children can be abandoned within the home when they are ignored because of parents’ preoccupation with other things or people. … Abandoned children are left to parent themselves.[1]

I previously placed the locus of this great loss in my life in my mother’s lap.  This was the moment, I had identified through difficult therapeutic work, when medicine became more important than me, and I was emotionally abandoned for a career.  I now comprehend that for about two years, between my ages of 7 to 10, I suffered the abandonment of not one, but both of my parents and accordingly received limited emotional nurturing.

I don’t know why to this day, but Mother and I moved to San Antonio alone for her first two years of medical school.  Dad remained behind in Pleasanton, TX where we were living, left to care for a house on 5 acres by himself as well as continue with his employment.  Like a parent with visitation rights, he would join us on the weekends and for holidays.

I must have been afraid and felt very insecure.  Even at that early age I was anxious. I can only assume that I fretted about the stability of my parents’ marriage and our family. I feel strange remembering in language of probability, but this is the most certainty I have. Mellody states that codependent adults will often have time gaps in their memories, due to repressing or suppressing painful experiences during their childhood. [2]  Perhaps this has occurred with me regarding my family’s temporary separation.  Whatever the case, memories are now rushing in as I recall instances of either figuring things out for or parenting myself.

One memory that is as clear as day happened when I was eight-years-old.  I was in third grade.  In the mornings rode the bus to my private Catholic school, which was across town. My mother and I had at least two plans for getting me home in the afternoons.  On one particular afternoon I forgot what we had decided and came home the opposite way.  I took the school bus home, and, like I had done many times before, I sat on a bench aside the busy thoroughfare waiting for my mother to drive up in her orange 1969 Volkswagen Beetle.

She was not always there when I first got off the bus, so I engaged in my usual pastime of looking for her unmistakable car.  I began noticing that the wait was a little longer than usual, and that’s when I realized that I’d goofed up my return home plans.  I was intensely afraid in an instant.

I thought of calling her, but I’d have to leave the bench and walk to a gas station to use the pay phone.  (This was before the days of omnipresent cell phones.)  The potential of someone kidnapping or harming me was enough to keep me in my seat.  Plus, as I considered this option I realized that I didn’t have any money.

I thought of walking home, as the distance from the bench to our trailer park wasn’t too far. But walking beside the busy road scared me. Also, I feared her driving by the bench after I’d left.  So, I waited…and I waited…and I waited.

I have no idea how long I sat on that bench, but I know that I was sobbing while every “What if…” question frantically crossed my mind and freaked me out even more.  Cars flew by, people walked by and no one offered to help me.  Finally, my mother drove by and I cried bigger tears of relief.  She did an illegal U-turn in the middle of the street to get to me as quickly as possible.

I can’t remember what she said, but I can visualize her face, as it was as red and tear-drenched as mine.  It was one of the few times I’ve seen her cry.  It was an honest mistake, and Mother got to me as quickly as she could once she figured things out.  But the resulting feelings are nonetheless seared into me.  I felt so afraid, alone and abandoned.

I also recall being with caregivers a lot – a good friend of my mother’s, a neighbor, the wife of one of Mother’s fellow medical students, an older girl from my dance studio, and a nanny of sorts.  One time when I was either 8 or 9 I walked into the bathroom while my babysitter-du-jour was using the toilet and unwrapping a tampon.  (Boundaries were not my strong-suit at the time.)  I asked her what it was.

“You don’t know what this is, baby?” she asked with unveiled surprise.  I presume this was because my mother was a medical student.  I shook my head no, and she generously told me about menstruation and the tampon, and even gave me one of her extra tampons to touch and observe.

Later that night, after my mother had been home for a while, I showed her the tampon and exclaimed, “Look what the babysitter taught me about today, Mama!  Wanna know what I learned?”  I was excited to share with Mother my new knowledge, especially since it was about body stuff and as a person studying to be a doctor, she, too was learning about body stuff.  I felt a commonality with her.  But, I didn’t receive the response for which I hoped.

Mom scolded me for asking someone else about something that only she, as my mother, is supposed to teach me.  I remember feeling ashamed and like I needed to comfort Mom as she was hurting, even though I didn’t quite understand how I’d done wrong.  I also recollect that said babysitter never returned to care for me.

I haven’t thought about these instances in years, and yet they inform or at
least symbolize how I previously and have consistently come to define this
time in my life since – the time when I lost my mother.

“Orphaned or Abandoned Child” stock photo at 123RF

I certainly feel the pain now, and I now ask the questions that perhaps I was too young and/or compliant to ask then.  Why? Why did mother separate our family?  Could she not have waited another year (or however long) to ensure that our family would journey this venture together?   Could she not have worked with her advisor to adjust her curriculum to better care for her family while attending school?

Did my father disagree?  Did he fight for me at all?  Why did he ultimately allow for this separation to happen?  Did either of them fully consider how this might affect me?  Why was I left to do so much on my own?  (There were additional instances in which I was left vulnerable again, forsaken — via parental instruction or lack of parental action — to confront relatives regarding their behaviors that pained and shamed me.)  Why was it okay with them that I was?  Why was it the babysitter who first taught me about tampons and menstruation?

And then I wondered about the most basic question of them all…

Why didn’t either of my parents properly nurture and protect their child?!  

[1]  According to Mellody, dependency needs are food, clothing, medical/dental care, shelter, physical nurturing, emotional nurturing (time, attention and direction), sexual information and guidance, financial information and guidance, educational information and guidance and spiritual information and guidance. Mellody, 180-81, 195.

[2]  See Mellody’s discussion of defense mechanisms children consciously and subconsciously use to protect themselves from the pain of child abuse.  Mellody, 130-139.