In the wake of the Atlantic article detailing Trump’s derogatory comments about soldiers, both dead and alive, Dana Canedy wrote an OpEd piece for the New York Times. She detailed the harm Trump’s words were having on her now fourteen-year-old son, whose father died in an IED explosion in Iraq when Jordan was but an infant. Was his dad really a “sucker”or a “loser,” Jordan wanted to know?
Mercifully, Ms. Canedy could refute Trump’s implied characterization of First Sergeant Charles Monroe King with evidence not just reassurance. Jordan’s dad had kept a journal for his newborn son filled with fatherly advice ranging from favorite Bible verses to how to choose a wife. Was it prescience or just plain realism about the dangers of war that had caused him to do so? Whichever it was, Jordan and his Mom could look at King’s journal, photos and commendations as proof positive that he was a man of courage, principle and love for his family and his country.
I was not so fortunate. I had just turned two years old when my mother died. Hers was not a heroic death. She had not struggled valiantly against cancer, or jumped in front of traffic to save an escaped puppy or died fighting for her country. Instead, she had been driving home after visiting a girlfriend, possibly drunk, when she crashed her car into the back of a parked truck at speed.
I don’t remember her. There was no journal left behind filled with maternal advice. Perhaps because of the manner of her demise or the depth of his grief, my father never spoke of my mother during my childhood. I was encouraged — actually required — to call my new stepmother “Mom,” to behave as if my real mother had never existed.
That was made difficult by the fact that my stepmother, herself regularly prone to a bit too much gin, routinely reminded me, slurring her words, that my mother was a slut, a drunk, not nearly as beautiful without her makeup as her photos suggested. I grew up with the understanding that I should be ashamed of my mother, that she was a loser, that my father and brother and I were lucky that she was gone. If she really was all of those things that my stepmother said about her, I wondered, then what did that make me?
Like Jordan, I grieve for the parent I cannot remember and suffer episodic bouts of mourning. Unlike him, I struggle with guilt over my failure to ask more questions when those who could answer them were still alive. Unlike him, I have had to find my mother’s story on my own, to corroborate my need to see her, if not in heroic terms, at least in terms that do not castigate her, that see her as a capable, loving, fully human being, flaws and all.
As children, we are taught that “sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.” But names like “sucker,” “loser,” “slut,” “drunk,” “criminal,” etc. do hurt, maybe even more than sticks and stones. You see, for me, and for the other survivors of unheroic childhood loss, whether through separation at the border, death on the highway, overdose, a shooting, police brutality or any other act of violence, it is all the more important to see our deceased loved one as a three dimensional human being, even if a troubled or imperfect one. My loss was personal. Multiplied, it becomes political.
Childhood survivors of loss need to know that our fate is not sealed, that we are not apples ready to fall close to a diseased tree. We have lost part of our understanding of who we are, we shouldn’t also have to endure further heartbreak by having people in power — whether step parents, teachers, law enforcement, priests, politicians, or the President for goodness sake — dismiss our loss by denigrating our parents, and by extension, us. Just this would go a long way to healing not just my but our nation’s wounds.