(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.