Stories about Jane

part 2

I recently spoke with my niece and nephew about their aunt Jane, whom they never knew. They were living in Asia at the same time that Jane was in a mental institution. Jane was a few hours away from them. But they did not know it at the time. Jane was a prisoner of mental illness in a country that commonly housed the insane far away from mainstream society. Jane had become a victim of decisions made by two men in her family. These men controlled her fate after our mother died.

My mother was a shrewd woman and she was ill for a year before her death. I imagine that she knew that Jane would be institutionalized after she perished. I hope that my mother had a role in choosing the private facility where Jane languished for 20 years. I hope that it was not a horrible place, but I think that is a pipe dream.

When I talk to my niece and nephew about Jane, the narrative is generally G-rated. But during this recent visit I intentionally wanted to paint a more realistic picture. I know that their father has spoken very little to them about Jane. This time I let my nephew know that my social work career is dedicated to the memory of Jane. Jane, who was sweet-hearted, emotionally fragile, and neurologically diseased. Jane, who was an accomplished classical pianist. Jane, who went to university for a couple years and who studied engineering.

I want them to know that Aunt Jane existed. She walked this terrible earth. She went to school and did her homework. As an adolescent she made her bed every day. She learned how to ice skate. She liked to eat raw onions with a soy-based sauce. She never went skiing with the rest of her siblings and her father. She never had a date. She never had a boyfriend. She never learned how to drive. Her last paying job was at a Pizza Hut in a god forsaken rural town in Pennsylvania. In her bedroom I remember seeing her uncashed paychecks crumpled and strewn on the top of her dresser. One night while I was home during college break, my mother and I went to pick her up after her evening shift. Our aging orange Subaru had a busted tail light and we were pulled over by a cop. Oh great, I thought. I cursed my father for not maintaining the old Subaru.  I cursed the mean little white town where my parents were living at the time. I cursed the mental illness that had reduced my eldest sister to working part time in a Pizza Hut. The job would only last a few more weeks since her illness prevented her from functioning in a job. She only had that job because my mother had pushed her to apply, so she could get out of the house and interact with other people. It was the last paying job she would ever have.

Before my mother passed away in Asia, she tried to get Jane involved in an adult center where she could engage in arts and crafts. My mother was tenacious. She was a role model for me. She taught me the value of community inclusion for people with disabilities. Many years after she passed, I would intern and later work for an agency that served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Yes, my dearest nephew, my social work career is dedicated to the memory of my mother and my sister.

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“Stories for Jane,” a new project

I have a new project that I will start to roll out on this blog. “Stories for Jane” will be a series dedicated to my late sister (the eldest girl in my family) who passed in 2004. Jane had paranoid schizophrenia and for the last 20 years of her life she was separated from her family. She was institutionalized and I never saw her during those years. I did not know where she was exactly, I had no address, I could not write any letters or send any packages.

A few months ago, my older sister passed. We had come together during the last 24 months of her life as she battled cancer. We met regularly, after decades of being estranged, and we exchanged gifts. The greatest gift was being in touch again, this time on an amicable basis.

Now, as the only female left in my family, I sense an urgency to enjoy every day that I am still here. L’Chaim is a paramount value in my chosen religion. I am rededicating my life now, I am starting again, I am living for teshuvah–a daily renewal.

Part of my teshuvah process is to examine Jane’s life and the role she played in my own life.

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A few minutes of clarity

Walking home from Pilates this afternoon, I felt a moment of beautiful clarity and hope. It was gray and misty as I made my way past the lovely brownstones in my neighborhood. My body felt good; my mind seemed clear. Had my chakras finally cleared? That recent four-week class on chakras and healing was worth it then. I lowered my shoulders, opening up the heart chakra.

Every day I say my Jewish gratitude prayer, to remind myself that it is good that I woke up and that my body is functioning. No matter what is going on, it can’t be that bad if I am alive and walking and praying. For a few moments I feel light, unburdened by persistent worries, and even mildly happy.

Adonai, I will try to be more hopeful and less unpleasant. I’ll smile at a fellow classmate, either in my Pilates studio or in class. Just for a few moments at least.

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I’m still here. I recently turned 57 and yes, it’s true, that I have not been blogging or journaling lately. My head feels too full: so many thoughts and feelings coursing through me. It may be time to return to psychotherapy–as client, not therapist. Physician, Heal Thyself. No, I can’t. No one in a healing profession can really self-heal. Everyone needs help.

It’s challenging to be a student at this age. I was chatting with a classmate this week and it occurred to me that I could be her grandmother. Yes, I am hung up on this age thing. I am older than most of my professors. Only one other classmate this term is older than me. She is slender, extremely well-dressed, dyes her hair blond, and wears full make-up for a Saturday class. As for me, I usually wear a T-shirt and comfortable cotton pants (pants which my sister refers to as “pajamas”). My gray/black hair is severely pulled back into a high ponytail and my overweight face reveals only traces of make-up. Mostly clear lip gloss and eyebrow pencil. My goal on Saturday is to be clean and ready for my classes.

After my classes I get something to eat in the cafeteria and then head to the university’s high-ceilinged modern business library for a few hours of study. Saturday evenings I relax at home with a lovely dinner (solo) and usually a Netflix movie. Did I ever imagine that this would be my life at 57?

Since my mother passed away a few months shy of her own 57th birthday, I wrestle with being 57. Why was her life so short? How long do I have left? How will I chart my life, going forward?

One day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute at a time. First, take a deep breath. Inhale serenity and exhale toxins (lost friends and lovers, anxiety and anger, bitterness and regrets over lost opportunities).

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This past week I spent nearly six hours with my sister, visiting her at a renowned cancer hospital. After many years of not speaking, only exchanging a few cursory emails a year, we had our reunion in a hospital room. For the past few years we had, in fact, a fragile connection based on our shared interest in her two daughters. I made a point to see them when they were visiting the city. Once or twice I had even caught a glance of my sister.

I said some Jewish prayers, as I walked to the hospital for the first visit this week. This is a mitzvah, I told myself, to visit a sick person. I am doing Jewish, being righteous. I would not judge, I would not blame, I would start anew. After all this was teshuvah time. Baruch ata Adonai…

She smiled ever so slightly when she saw me for the first time this week. She was lying in her bed; her two doting daughters beside her. She asked me a lot of questions, as I took off my heavy backpack filled with my graduate notebooks, food, water, internship materials. What was my new internship? What were my clients like, at the community mental health center? Did I always carry a backpack? How was my hip? Did I still play tennis?

Her gray/black hair was very short, and I thought it was a cool look for her, although it made her face look more full. Or was it all the medicines she was taking, since her surgery? She was on powerful pain medication, and although her speech was clear, she was more mellow than I had remembered her. Her company was almost pleasant. But on my second visit this week, when she was feeling stronger, her real personality emerged.  She was finding fault with her hospital roommate, she was even demeaning her two grown unmarried daughters, and she answered my questions with a cross look.

She insisted on sharing her hospital food with me, as it was early evening and her daughters had left for their hotel and a well-deserved rest. No, I protested, I can go down to the cafeteria and get something. She wouldn’t have it. She produced a menu from her cluttered bedside table and told me to choose a main dish and a side. Back in college, when we were attending nearby institutions, she would make delicious meals for me in her university suite. She had so many talents, which I lacked. She could sew like a professional. She was small-boned, super smart, and she had been Grandma’s favorite.

I’m going to leave now, I told her after dinner, so you can take a nap. Just remember that you are not alone. I spoke slowly and deliberately. You have your daughters, and you have me.

Thanks for the flowers, she said.

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Stories about Jane

Jane was my eldest sister. She changed her name to Jane, in the middle of her illness, because she didn’t like the original American name our parents had given her. In the throes of paranoid schizophrenia, she tried many things to relieve her pain or to obey the voices.

During one summer when I was in college, I drove Jane and my mother to a nearby state where Jane received cosmetic eye surgery. My mother thought that creating a western crease in Jane’s eyelids would lift her spirits. Another time my mother persuaded my father to adopt a puppy for Jane; my mother had heard that pets could be therapeutic.

The only thing that seemed to help Jane was pharmacotherapy. When I was a senior in college near Philadelphia, I regularly visited Jane at an excellent psychiatric hospital. My parents lived in a remote corner of the state then, too far for regular visitation, so I was the sole family member who met with Jane’s psychiatrist. He was young and had shoulder-length wavy brown hair. In addition to drugs, he was also using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with Jane.

I didn’t know Jane very well before her illness, and I would never be close to her. She had a severe and chronic mental illness, and she never really got better. Except for that brief period with the long-haired doctor when she had some lucid moments, she succumbed to this terrible disease.

This kind of disease breaks up families and marriages. My parents fought about how to care for Jane. My mother was Jane’s stalwart advocate. My father was exasperated and impatient. When my mother passed away, Jane lost her primary guardian. My father couldn’t live with Jane in the house. Within a year he remarried and Jane was sent to an institution, where she would languish for twenty years.


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Raising a child in inner city

This morning I watched a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, with his mother and her female companion on the subway. It was a distressing scene. The mother looked exercised. She was arguing with her companion while her son was flailing and shrieking, trying to get her attention. She suddenly grabbed him by the arms and pressed her face close to his.

She yelled, “It’s not your fucking business!” My heart sank. I knew that this was going to get worse.

He continued to flail about and then the female companion got up from her seat. She was a tall imposing woman and she swooped down and grabbed his arms and strapped them to his side. He screamed, “Stop!” He tried to shield his face to no avail. She was too strong for him. She delivered a sharp slap on his face. He started to wail.

She sat back down and reported to the child’s mother that she had slapped his mouth.

He continued to cry and he put a hand over his mouth to let his mother know what had happened to him. She sat motionless and silent. She continued her conversation with her companion.

He laid down on the subway seat across from his mother and continued to scream.

I could have taken the child and tried to soothe him; I could have taken him to the next subway stop and tried to call Child Protective Services. His mother and companion could have beaten me up. I could have called for help.

Instead I did nothing and cried inside. This is why my classmates had told me that working with children in social work is so difficult. How many parents in this city are incapable of parenting? Because they have so many problems and issues in their own lives that they cannot care for a child?  When you are poor, uneducated, not white, and unemployed, how do you raise a child in this city?

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