My dad loved Norman Rockwell. In fact, Mr. Rockwell was probably the only artist he could name.
Was it Rockwell’s images of those perfect families trooping off to church or sharing a perfect dinner that did it?
Or was it simply the social notion that it was important everything ‘looked nice’ and it was really no one’s business about how things were in our home? Whatever it was, more than once I can recall my father coaching my mother before church, “You don’t have to tell anyone anything. Just say things are fine.”
I think that it was also very much a Mennonite thing. Silence on all things was best. Do not create conflict. Do not rock the boat. Do not stir the pot. Keep it to yourself. Pray.
Besides, we were to be a light unto the world. We were to be an example of upright living. We were the chosen ones.
This little light of mine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…
Unfortunately for my dad, his daughters didn’t always comply with his vision and his wife suffered from anxiety and depression and, in spite of his admonitions, kept screwing up. Tears sliding down her face as she stood on the steps of the church, telling another friend to please pray for Rhonda. As I grew older, it would be my name Mom added to the telephone prayer chain.
Later, when Dad had his first nervous breakdown, his optimistic facade that had served him for so long, fell like a verboten deck of cards.
Like so many women of her day, my mother was helped along with a little blue pill called Valium. I remember her telling me that the doctor prescribed it for her constant back pain. I’m sure it helped, but now I wonder, was that really what the doctor told her? Was it really what she believed? Was it really what the doctor believed? Or did he recognize her years of constant crying as something deeper?
I do know that my mother had great faith in all the men in authority in her life, most especially preachers and doctors. When she was diagnosed with cancer at age 63, her doctor told her she had two months to live. She died exactly two months later.
As you do.
My father, who took pride in rarely taking even Aspirin, eventually was on handfuls of medications, including Effexor and other anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills. And I have no idea what cocktail of prescription and other drugs Rhonda continues to ingest, but it has always been a rather exhaustive list.
Two weeks ago I went to my doctor to talk about my continual hot flashes. Ten years of this seemed like long enough. He told me I had a couple of options; HRT or a low dose of…drum roll, please…Effexor. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Given our Friesen genetic predisposition to broken hearts disguised as heart disease, and Mom’s side of wonky cancer-prone DNA, I was sure that HRT was not for me.
Ironically, that left Effexor.
I told him my fears of becoming like my mother and her Valium addiction (I didn’t tell him that my mother’s nickname had been Lead-Foot Mary for her wondrous ability to blast up and down the hills of Mission City. Nor did I tell him about the time when I was around fifteen when I looked up from the passenger seat to notice my mother was driving full-speed in the wrong side of the Lougheed Highway. My screams swerved us back into our lane).
No worries, he said, this is a very low dose and although we don’t really know why it works, it often seems to do the trick; half a pill for a week, then full dose after that. You might find you have a bit of a headache but it should eventually go away.
After the first day’s half dose, all my hot flashes stopped. Just. Like. That.
But the headaches were real. And every day I felt slightly tipsy, like I’d just had a martini or two. The bottle held a little red warning label cautioning me to “use care when operating a vehicle or vessel…”
Each day I woke feeling hungover, but strangely, a little bit lighter too, like things were slightly funnier than they had been. That was one aspect I liked. But I read up on the other side effects. They were worrying. Still, I worked my way up to the full dose, took it for two days and then, I thought some more about Mom, Rhonda and Dad.
Which is when I decided to break with tradition. I slowly broke the tablets into smaller and smaller pieces until I was no longer taking anything at all.
I’d rather sweat.
I don’t want to suggest that drugs do not provide a very real and necessary help to many. But I don’t think my own personal climate change warrants the same kind of arsenal.
There is part of me that is still hesitant about this kind of sharing. This is all still supposed to be a secret. My dad often referred to any form of disclosure as ‘airing dirty laundry’. But why is sharing stories about our very real struggles as human beings considered to be a bad idea? Isn’t this precisely why we watch all these Netflix series revealing the behind-the-scene true stories about people’s lives? Or why we read books and memoirs divulging all the inner bits about someone’s interior life?
Facebook and other social media has become our new Norman Rockwell-ized version of the world. Instagram feeds are filled with perfectly curated images of young women sucking in their sculpted stomachs while skipping on sunlit beaches, young men looking hipster-heroic perch atop cliff and in glowing tents, while stylized meals glisten and perfect drinks sparkle.
Meanwhile on Facebook, aside from those occasional double-dog dares to share mental health memes, our feeds stream with photos of perfect children and adorable kittens and puppies.
I’m not suggesting we share images of our grieving faces or screaming kids but I am suggesting that we push away from our screens, seek out a friend and talk, really talk, to each other. Hug. Connect.
Share some real time in real life. Perhaps you might even share a secret or two.
Let us embrace our humanity.
But most especially, let us embrace each other, even if that certain someone might feel a little too hot.