The summer my family made the news

(Jean Chamberlain Froese photo)

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday July 14, 2018)

So, it’s my 50th, that time to remember. And celebrate.

No, not that 50th. Not my 50th birthday. That day came and went three years ago today. It was something else.

On that day, the children – God bless them – decided to crack open their savings, walk to a local party store, and buy a collection of 50th birthday items. This included a significant 5-0 piñata that they carefully hung from a maple tree out front.

When I arrived home to the surprise, I returned the favour by picking up an old baseball bat and, with a funny face and blindfold, slugging that piñata into kingdom come. Candy fell from the sky like pouring rain. The children rejoiced. Fifty, after all, only comes once.

Except when it comes twice. Today, July 14, my birthday, is also the day I can celebrate the 50th anniversary of my broken family.

A broken family, you say, is not much to celebrate. And I suppose it’s not. It’s the sort of thing that can put you on the street. Or in the papers. Maybe in jail. A broken family might even kill you. Life can turn like that, like a game of inches and seconds.

Fifty summers ago my broken family of origin did, in fact, make the papers. The old Toronto Telegram told the story, the sort they make into movies. “One man’s fight for his two children,” was one frontpage headline describing my father’s efforts.

My parents, German-born Canadians, had separated. My mother (pregnant with myself and also taking my sister with her) flew from Canada back to her family in Berlin. Three years, four months later, in July 1968, my father and I first met. It was the day before my third birthday. There, in Cold War Germany, a West Berlin court had awarded him custody.

We – my father, my sister and myself – then returned to Canada where we’d make our home. Two years after that, my mother, Hannelore, still in Berlin, took her own life. What had been broken was now smashed into a million pieces. I was in kindergarten.

Of course, 50 years is a long time. It’s long enough to find healing. Even in the pouring rain. Even by a cold grave. It’s long enough to try to make sense of things that have no sense. It’s long enough to listen, too, and realize that you’re not alone.

The other day, at the Y, a swimmer, a stranger one lane over, as if we’d been friends forever, shared with me about a loved one, a father of a four-year-old girl. He’d just taken his own life. I hadn’t said a word of my own story.

But these stories, these heartbreaks and illnesses, are out there. This spring we were all greeted with the news, just days apart, about celebrity designer Kate Spade and popular chef Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives.

In fact, in Canada, on any average day, not including medically-assisted suicide, 11 people will kill themselves. Rates are increasing. In my own lifetime suicide rates have increased about 60 per cent, worldwide. Suicide now accounts for more deaths than war, terrorism and murder combined. Did you know?

This is the truth. Under the façades, people are broken. The human family is broken. And lonely. And it’s the young, not the old, who, according to surveys, are most lonely. The most connected, somehow, are the most disconnected. As Albert Schweitzer once put it, we’re all so together, yet all so alone.

And yet. We need not hide our scars. Or the dark times. No, not any more than anyone should ever hide their light under any bushel. Because even amidst your fears, and mine, the sun does rise. Children do laugh. (This is probably why I write so much about my own children.) Healing, every day, is there, even in the letting go.

Yes, if life is anything, it’s learning to let go of one thing or another, even your mother, over and over and over. Live with all this long enough – say 50 years – and this is what you’ll feel. Inside your bones. This is the strange celebration of it, even in the fragmented pieces. It’s true.

If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. And I would have ended up God knows where.

 

10 Comments

  1. Ruth Smith Meyer July 16, 2018 at 9:22 am

    Thomas Froese, you never cease to inspire me! Thank you for sharing the story of this anniversary. They say difficulties in life can either make you or breake you, and you have certainly let them make you into a strong, yet sensitive man, a great dad and a man who inspires many. I’ve remembered you since I first met you at a writers’ workshop in Lambeth, many years ago.

  2. Bonnie Thomson July 16, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Thank you!

  3. Marny Watts July 22, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    Powerful, Thom! Thanks for sharing your pain and your celebration and may God continue to help and guide you on the journey and bless you and your dear family.

  4. Thomas Froese July 22, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    Ruth, thanks for the note and encouragement. Keep writing!

  5. Thomas Froese July 22, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    You are welcome, Bonnie. Thanks for reading.

  6. Thomas Froese July 22, 2018 at 9:33 pm

    Thanks Marny. Yes, it has been a journey with, as they say, one step at a time.

  7. Emmanuel July 23, 2018 at 10:16 am

    Thom thank you so much for the story. Ever since I read the 99 windows, your work has continued to inspire me and many others in Uganda. God bless and may you keep giving

  8. Thomas Froese August 12, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks Emmanuel. We think of Uganda and our friends in Uganda very often. Good to keep in touch this way.

  9. Norbert August 14, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    Thom, thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this deeply personal part of your life in such a sensitive and inspiring way.

  10. Thomas Froese October 7, 2018 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for the encouraging note, Norbert. So good to your family recently.

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