Susan Salluce is the author of the bestselling indie book Out of Breath. She brings her experience as a bereavement specialist to her writing and her life. Today on this first day of spring she offers a deeply personal look at finding the light after the darkness.
Spring offers the promise of light after darkness, life after dormancy. Look around: trees are budding. Flowers are in bloom. The bulbs that have been laid to rest in the damp autumn soil held on through the harsh winter, and are exploding with yellow, pink, red, and orange delights. Life abounds!
Most of my life’s major events have happened in the spring: the birth of both of my children, as well as the death of my mother. That I keep tulips around me this time of year reminds me of the cycle of rebirth, promising that every year, the harshness of winter will be followed by precious blooms. Life follows death.
When I practiced therapy, many clients feared digging into the soil of their lives to experience the depths of the dark, winter pain. Once there, though, we saw that the rocks of childhood kept the flowers from blooming in their gardens. Or, sometimes we discovered the weeds of a failed relationship that choked the ability to experience new love. And just like weeds, these old issues soaked up so much attention, that their lives were dry, dull, and lacking bloom.
I revealed an appropriate amount of self-disclosure to help my clients move to a place of getting their hands dirty and unearthing these painful memories so that they could move forward. I often shared stories of my childhood: an emotionally unavailable, often violent, mother; a father who was equally violent, could not hold a job, BUT was a tender, giving, and nurturing father. He was my daddy. That he was violent to my mother was confusing, but I never doubted his love for me. That is, until my mother divorced him when I was thirteen, convinced a court that he was an unfit to parent me, and I wasn’t allowed to see him until I was an adult. What followed was an adolescence riddled with rebellion, and ultimately, a place across from a therapist who got me to stop my self-destruction. It’s no wonder I was drawn to practice therapy for many years.
Fast forward to the present, and some of you know that this father is someone I “found” in my twenties, and struggled to maintain a relationship with, as he battled his demons of depression, and tragically, developed Alzheimer’s disease five years ago. I lost him, once again…first to dementia, then to death. His dying was a welcome relief in that his suffering stopped, and I got to hold him as he left this world, cherishing his final words, “I love you, Honey.”
He died in the winter. This winter was a dark one—one that will stand out as a life-changing winter for many reasons. I’m emerging slowly; a bit like the Root Children who live underground with Father Time (a classic children’s book). My eyes sore when they see the sun; muscles cramped from being in a confined space; my being hunched with a sadness, I’m gradually standing tall, as if to say, “Here I am. I found myself.”
Renewal is spring’s gift to us. Gone are the barren trees, the brown lawns, and the dull skies of winter. So, too, am I renewed in my writing. As I emerge from my grief, I looked at the manuscript that I’d battled over the past two years, trying to breathe life into, wishing it would write itself, ignoring it like an annoying relative who calls too frequently with complaints of gout. I wondered why I was trying to write a novel with which I had little emotional connection. Where was my voice? A question that extended far beyond my writing.
Then, I began to journal about my father’s death. And life. And my life. And my memories. And our memories. And suddenly, I felt a rush…the rush that a writer feels when she has an idea that must be acknowledged. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. If you’re not, let me explain. It’s a bit like seeing someone across the room who you know. You recognize this person, are attracted to him. You must reach out, say something, lest he gets away. If you don’t, you may miss this opportunity. Your pulse accelerates. Your mind races. Emotions run wild. It’s a bit like falling in love.
I ran for my laptop, and began pounding out the ideas, writing line after line, paragraph after paragraph, until I had eight pages. It was effortless. Magical. As though this story had been with me all along. But then, of course, it has: it’s the story of me, my father, and a daughter loving him through his life and through his death; a love story, if you will. I grabbed a photo of my father and me at my cousin’s wedding. We are slow dancing. I’m standing on top of my father’s white platform shoes. I’m about six-years-old, clad in a puffy white dress, with my hair pulled back in a white bow, revealing my wide freckled-face. My smile tells it all: I’m blissfully enraptured with my daddy, as he is teaching me to dance.
There were many occasions over the years that I my father held me, but only one time that I held my father: when he crossed over from this life to the next. Nat King Cole was playing. I’d like to believe that in my father’s mind, he was holding me, remembering all the times that we were together, cuddling, tossing a ball, watching television, reading, playing games, driving around Santa Cruz, but especially dancing. Which is why I’m titling my next novel, a fictionalized memoir, Dancing My Father Home.
Though I’m in the early stages of writing, I share this small excerpt with you. It is a story that I hope offers healing to any of you who experienced a childhood of abuse, confusion, or mental illness. It’s also a story of resiliency, forgiveness, and redemption: themes in Out of Breath, my first novel. Enjoy, and remember that no matter the struggle in your own winter, spring offers an opportunity for new beginnings. Don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty. Plant your own garden, and watch those flowers bloom, reminding you that joy and happiness is a season away.
Excerpt from Dancing My Father Home
Memories are cagey. That is, they are highly influenced by storytelling, photographs, and home movies. They get exaggerated, put through the storyteller’s filter, then strained through our own view of our life, as to whether or not we saw that particular event as pleasurable, painful, embarrassing, life changing…you get my point. If you grew up prior to the ‘80s, odds are, fewer photographs and home movies exist of you than, say, the average new millennium baby whose entire life is broadcast on YouTube, so there is a chance that you are relying more on actual memory than on filling in the blanks with recorded history or even your own reality show.
All that to say that one of my first tangible memories of my father is at my cousin Antonia’s wedding—the photo of my father and me dancing at her wedding simply shook the jaggedy ice in the tumbler of my mind’s gin and tonic.
My father descended from Greek immigrant parents—his father riding into Athens on a donkey to find his bride—all very “Holy Family Feeling”, except that she was a bit on the grumpy side, a lot less Holy Mary feeling, more of a Margaret Thatcher meets Natasha out of the Bullwinkle cartoon of my childhood. Not the warm-fuzzy grandmother that was on my maternal side. Nonetheless, when we got together with my father’s side of the family, it was like stepping into a carnival: loud music; wild-smelling food that left my stomach gurgling from the richness of cheeses, meats, and sweets; voices competing for air time, which were a polka of arguing, laughter, and merriment, confusing and delighting me. In a word: delicious. Also, forbidden. My mother detested my father’s family, for reasons that I did not understand until I got my Master’s in Counseling Psychology, and even then, the “diagnosis” disturbing: narcissism, paranoia, borderline personality disorder, an inability to form attachments. I suppose because forbidden fruit is all the more delicious, I reveled in attending my Greek family events, and often went without my mother proudly draped on the arm of my father. I can practically feel my tongue sticking out as we would strut away, get into whatever car we had at the time, (Capri? Lincoln for special occasions for the wedding), and leave her behind, fuming in anger that my father would dare see his own family. If I’d had been a teenager, and it were the year 2012, I’d have said, “Whateve’.”
Then, sometimes, there were the weekends in which my father would crouch down to me, hold my shaking body, then back up and put his finger to his lips and whisper, “Shh. Now calm down. I know. She’s nuts. We’ve got to get out of here before she wakes up.”
My mother would be in her room, recovering from the blows of their morning “argument.” Bruises. Broken watches. Holes in the walls. Knives.
“Uh-huh. Can I go get Victoria?” My little hands wringing together. Don’t cry.
“Yes. But, hurry up. Be very quiet. Get some P.J.’s , your toothbrush, and some clean underwear. We’re going to go for a drive. I’ll tell you all about it on the way.”
“Okay.” I’d nod.
Then, we’d disappear for a few days to his family. We’d make the forty-minute drive from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay, up and down the hills of Highway 1, dipping, diving, keeping my eyes toward the ocean.
“It’s okay, honey. It’ll be fun. You’ll see your aunts, and uncles, and cousins.” He reassured me, squeezing my knee.
I’d scooch over and he’d put his warm-daddy arm around me, and pull me against his side. Safe. Ahh. No more yelling. No more crazy. We were going to the carnival! There were also no cell phones. No one would answer my mother’s frantic calls. And when I got home, the interrogation would begin. And I didn’t know where we went, of course. I always made a deal with the devil never to tell. I am nothing if I am not loyal.
Antonia was marrying a man with shoulder-length curly black hair, broad shoulders, and the skin the color of coffee. My outspoken aunt, whom my mother called “that bitch” at every opportunity, leaned across the table at the ocean-side reception and hollered to my dad, “Well, if he ain’t Greek, Sicilian is the next best thing, ain’t that right?” These are the only words that imprinted in my brain, and, I believe held special significance…a forecast, if you will, for my destiny.
He was beautiful. I’ve gone back and looked at the pictures. The moustache of the decade makes me giggle only slightly, but Antonia and Paolo were drunk on love. She couldn’t keep her hands off of his body, sending the crowd into spills of laughter and cheers, producing a chorus of knives clinking glasses to encourage passionate kisses. I’m sure that more than one of my uncles called out, “Get a room!” I felt my face flush with all of this intimacy. It was such a contrast to the withered up, dry, coldness with which I lived. Or, the intense violence. No in between.
We dined on rich cheese, Greek salad, lamb, and a host of other dishes that had me pleading for spaghetti with butter, to which my outrageous aunt has lovingly filled in the blanks with her Queens accent, saying, “You were such a pain in the ass! Always coddled because of your damn mother. But, we got you those damn noodles.” (This said with a measure of love and tenderness that only she can get away with, God bless her!)
Susan Salluce, MA, CT, holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and is a Certified Thanatologist–a death, dying, and bereavement specialist. With a passion for writing, impacting the bereaved, and having experienced her own sense of compassion fatigue, she wrote Out of Breath which is available on all E-readers and in traditional book form on her website in December of 2011.
Susan continues to contribute to the field of bereavement through her writing, consultant work, and her work with Friends for Survival, a non-profit dedicated to those affected by a suicide death. She is currently at work on a parenting book based on her blog and a chic-lit book due out by 2013.
When Susan is not working on her novels, you can find her either in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s or on the beaches of Aptos, Ca. What she truly calls home is anywhere she is with her amazing, loyal, and fun children, Kellen and Marina.