Doing the right thing. It sounds simple, but when my family was faced with mental illness in 1956, it was far from simple. My schizophrenic mother was admitted to a mental hospital for the second time in her life when I was eleven months old, and my sister was nine. My father who had a traveling job temporarily placed us with relatives. I lived with my Aunt Kate and Uncle Buddy for the next five years; my sister spent the first summer bouncing between relatives until my father could secure an eight to five job and a housekeeper. My toddler, pre-school, and kindergarten years were spent with my aunt and uncle during the week and with my father and sister on the weekends. My father says that returning me each Sunday night was the one of the most painful events of his life, which he was required to repeat weekly for five years. While it would have been easy for some single parents to walk away from this overwhelmingly hopeless situation, my father stuck it out through my mother’s craziness, mounting medical bills and his own bout with polio.
When I turned six, my mother returned home to try to put the pieces of her life back together. Collectively, my family decided it was time for me to return home too. My living pattern was suddenly reversed. I spent the weekdays with my father, sister, and mother and the weekends with my aunt and uncle. My aunt now tells me that it took my father, my uncle, and her father to convince her I needed to live with my parents. She says it was one of the most painful decisions she’s ever had to make. Looking back now, I can see that it was a wise plan, but I also see, now that I have four of my own children, how unbelievably hard it would have been to hand over a child I’d bonded with for five years to a struggling schizophrenic or how devastating it would have been to leave one of my kids in the hands of another, week after week. But if my father had not allowed my aunt to nurture me, I would not have experienced the love of a mother, and if my aunt had not released me to live with my parents, I’m convinced I would not have a real attachment to my father or sister.
My aunt worked hard at complimenting my mother during those years. There wasn’t a lot to compliment. She told me that my mother ironed well – that my clothes always looked nice. My dad in return always spoke highly of my aunt and uncle and showed gratitude towards their many good deeds and gifts. For both parties it had to be extremely difficult.
I know there had to be times when they weren’t in complete agreement about everything I ate, read, watched, and participated in, or how someone dealt out discipline or rewards, but I never was aware of any child-rearing conflicts. There were no custody battles. No snide comments. No fights over scheduled visits. No bribery to win a child’s favor. No counseling sessions. No therapy groups. No self-help books or pop psychologists on television to give advice. Everyone seemed to understand some unspoken rules about “doing the right thing”.
In the end, I was the winner in their daily sacrifices. In the end, I was the recipient of their greatest life lesson – that sometimes in order to do the right thing, we are required to sacrifice our own feelings, our own convenience, our own desires, our own agenda for the good of others.
My story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. My mother never was able to live a normal life. My father ended up divorcing my mother after 25 years of marriage when the doctors finally told him there was really no hope of my mother’s recovery. But I believe my family’s decision to put my well-being above their own concerns helped me to feel valued. I am a believer in striving to “do the right thing” because “doing the right thing” leads to a life with very little regret and lots of long lasting rewards.
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