Browsing Tag

Becky Benson

Family, Guest Posts, Trauma

Duality: A Generational Story of Discourse

April 7, 2022
one

“I don’t know what he talks about in there. He won’t let me go in with him,” my mom said to me once while I was visiting my parents as an adult, “but I’ve seen he has tears in his eyes sometimes when he comes out.” While catching up, dad’s newfound and uncharacteristic attendance of counseling was a pressing topic. “I know he doesn’t want to go back. I know the therapist told him it was one of the most horrific cases of child abuse they had ever heard; and that they had heard a lot.”

“What would make her so mad?” dad told me once they asked him in his therapy sessions at the Veteran’s hospital. “Didn’t seem like it took much of anything to make her mad,” was his answer.

“She used to keep a butcher knife under the couch,” he once said with a catch in his throat. “She would take it out and show it to me. I was only six years old.”

That was all he said on the subject.

***

She had red hair we would casually mention sometimes when talking about grandma. “No,” someone would inevitably say, “It was piss-orange!” and we’d all laugh because that’s what she used to call it herself, the bright brassy color she so despised.

***

When the boxes would arrive, I would be elated. Often five, or six, maybe more within a single shipment. These boxes only ever contained one thing, and they were always for me. We would tear them open and marvel at each Beanie Baby to add to my growing collection. My dad built a wooden display shelf that wrapped around my entire room, one foot from the ceiling. Carefully my mom and I would put the little plastic tag protectors on each one and set them in just the right places on the shelf. Over time I amassed nearly one hundred of them. As a tween in the mid-nineties this collection was the epitome of cool.

“You must be spoiled rotten!” the UPS woman quipped once as she mock sniffed near the inner part of my shoulder and neck. She was so nice, it tickled and was funny, but she smelled like cigarettes.

Once, in the bottom of one of the boxes there was a black t-shirt with a racecar and some outlandishly bright logo I didn’t recognize, haphazardly included. It was too big for me, and obviously a boy’s style. There were never any letters included with the packages, no well wishes or explanations of their contents, and this being no exception had no note to offer any information on the oddly outplaced addition of the t-shirt.

“Must be for Jeremy,” my mom reasoned, confounded.

“Looks like a freebie,” my dad grumbled.

“I’m just surprised she sent me anything at all,” my older brother, Jeremy said.

***

“Oh shit!” I said, apropos of the milk I had just spilled across the dinner table at the tender age of two. My mom was furious. My grandma doubled over at the table and lost her breath, unable to contain her laughter. I’d apparently learned it from her, and it wasn’t just that I had blurted it out, but that I had done so, in such expert context.

It was her favorite word, everyone remembers.

***

“Grandma wasn’t always nice like she is today,” my dad would sometimes mention both casually and cautiously when talk of her arose, like summoning an omen to what I didn’t know.

“Well, she’s nice now” I blithely sing-songed in all the knowing of my nine years on earth, and all the unknowing of the information I had purposely been sheltered from.

***

She was a nurse. “When she worked at that children’s home, she’d tell stories of taking those kids and mopping the floor with them,” my mom explained in remembered horror. “I think she liked doing it, too,” she added, shuttering with a brow furrowed in consternation.

***

Once at the Edgewater hotel in Seattle she sat up all night watching the ferries slowly gliding back and forth across Elliott Bay. All night, staring out the window across the sound. She just sat there mesmerized by the crisscrossing of the boats against the water. Dad was elated. He knew he had made her happy.

The Edgewater, as the name suggests is built literally onto the edge of the shore and out into the Puget Sound atop numerous wood pilings. My mom and I giddy with joy, handed pieces of white bread out the window to the seagulls who flew by taking it from our hands. My dad and brother baited hooks and dropped their fishing lines into the water right out of the hotel window. I waved at one of the passing ferries. “We’ve got a little girl waving at us,” I heard the captain say over the loud-speaker and the entire ferry full of people waved back at me. I beamed.

***

“Grandma doesn’t like boys,” was the common refrain, but no one ever knew why.

***

“One day I came home and made a mayonnaise sandwich,” my dad said. “There wasn’t any meat. Just mayonnaise folded over itself on a piece of Wonderbread. I wanted another one so bad, but I knew I would be taking away from the family,” he continued sadly reminiscent, weaving his way through a fog of memories, each as clear as the day they
happened. Each still stinging forty years later.

“When there were cornflakes for breakfast, if you crushed yours up it would look like less in your bowl and you would get more,” he explained when I snickered and asked why he dug his hands into his cereal to crush it into dust before he poured on his milk. It was one of those old habits that died so hard. It was an act of survival.

“Here we were. Couldn’t even afford enough food to live on, and my uncles, every one of them, were millionaires,” he helplessly laughed to himself. “I promised myself that when I had a family, they would never go hungry,” he continued.

A promise made ostensibly from love and determination, but conceived in mental anguish, and one that would eventually play itself out in an obsession with stockpiling food and lead to morbid obesity.

***&

“I don’t know what happened, but they came and took those two boys away. She hurt one of them,” he offered, but it was all the information he knew. “When they took in those boys, I thought they were going to be my brothers, but then they took them away.”

I could tell how desperately he had wanted a companion. Someone to commiserate with, someone to conspire with, but not someone to endure what he was enduring. He felt sorry for them, maybe even more so than for himself.

***

“She bought out the entire dress store,” my mom recalled. “It was a little store in town that was going out of business and she bought every single dress they had,” she told me.

“Well, one thing’s for sure, Janet,” my grandmother told my mom, “she’s going to be the best dressed girl around.”

“I had so many dresses they didn’t even fit in your closet, my mom exclaimed! I had them all lined up, organized by size. I didn’t buy you any clothes at all for the first year!”

***

“I was riding a tractor at eight years old, all by myself” my dad would say. “By twelve I started working at the veterinary clinic. From then on I could buy my own food.”

***

“One time my grandparents came and took me away when I was young,” he explained. I went to live with them for a while.” He didn’t know why. It was never discussed. “They just drove up and said, ‘Clarence is coming with us’. No one put up a fight about it.”

***

His father died at the age of forty-two, when my dad was only seventeen. It was emphysema. Two packs of Camel Studs a day. Dad’s ear drums ruptured when he was only five years old. It was the fifties. Everyone smoked around their kids.

“Face me when you talk,” he always says. I’m hard of hearing, but I can read lips. “

***

“Once she put a hot iron on my leg one time he said as he launched himself down the rabbit hole of pain and remembrance. A spiral that often lasted an hour or more. I had a scar from that for a long time, my dad remembered hesitantly. “Another time she locked me in a scalding hot shower.

“Get in and wash up, she commanded. You’re filthy.”

I was only five or six. I tried to scoot as far as I could into the corner so the hot water wouldn’t touch me. Then it turned ice cold. I was in there over an hour. I was twelve when I told her she couldn’t hurt me anymore. Right in the middle of her bloodying my nose. I told her it didn’t matter what she did to me, she couldn’t hurt me anymore, ever again.”

***

“I think my whole life could have turned out differently,” he said recently. “I could have been a better father, a better Christian, even more successful in school and life if things had been different when I was young.”

It was a sad recognition of unresolved trauma, decades too late. What he still fails to realize is that we, his children were lucky to always have, enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, and the unconditional love of not one, but two parents. That in his breaking of the cycle of trauma, abuse, and neglect, his life was the ultimate success.

duality

Becky A. Benson’s work has appeared on Salon, Modern Loss, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, Brain, Child, Scary Mommy, Grief Narratives, Months to Years Lit Mag and beyond. She has written and spoken for the Center for Jewish Genetics in Chicago, and Soulumination in Seattle. She holds a degree in psychology and works for the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association serving families of terminally ill children as the organization’s Conference and Family Services Coordinator.

She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and beloved dachshund. Her passion is for helping families endure the loss of a child, spreading awareness for genetic conditions, advocating for adoption, and providing a voice to the marginalized in society. These things, above all else continue to intimately shape her writing.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

What Grief May Come

October 4, 2019
dreams

By Becky Benson

Seven years on and the dreams keep coming.  Not with any discernable rhyme or reason; rather they enter my unconscious thought seemingly beholden to nothing other than their own unknowable will.  They’ve never been exactly alike, no repeating patterns, and for all other intense and purpose one would assume there was no connection between them at all.  It’s the underlying theme that connects them; one of grief and guilt.

It’s the details, so subtle they seem to play no real part in the story working itself out in my sleep-filled mind.  So trivial they are of no concern to plot of the wakeless movie my brain projects against the backs of my eyelids.  There’s never any alteration due to my actions.  After it happens a scene may simply stop, or the story moves along without addressing it again.  Only when I wake does the panic take the place of the air in my lungs.  And only in my wakeful mind does any of it make any sense.

It’s the only time I dream of her.  Never seeing her when I’m in a realm of happiness or a state of content.  The dreams themselves only ever spin a terrifying line of questioning that lacks rationale, but presents itself to me as unavoidable reality, nonetheless.  Dreams that ceaselessly rip open the innerworkings of my thoughts and force me to contemplate my deeply buried fears.

It could be hours, days or even weeks, and in my dreams I always forget.  It’s my fault, and I didn’t do enough.  She’s laid there, unable to move the slightest bit or cry out the smallest cry, for who knows how long before I realize I have to feed her.  I forget again and again.  I never give her enough.  I don’t give it to her often enough.  I try, but it never works.  She’s on the periphery of whatever else I’m doing, and by the time I realize it, it’s always too late.  She needed it long before.  And then she’s gone.

Over and over again it isn’t enough.  Over and over again in my dreams, as it was in life, I couldn’t save her.

Tay-Sachs disease is a genetic condition that is always fatal.  Infants who are born with the flawed recessive genes their parents passed on to them will suffer a relentless regression of their mental and physical abilities until death; usually by the age of four.  As their bodies shut down they will not develop the ability to walk or talk as typically growing children do, rather they will become paralyzed and blind, suffer seizures, and lose their ability to swallow, and all of their mental cognition.

Feeding was laborious and difficult.  Her inability to swallow well consumed my daily routine.  If liquids were too thin, she would choke, if her food was too thick, she couldn’t chew. I desperately fed her four ounces at a time, five times a day ensuring I maintained that perfect balance of nutrition, hydration, and caloric density that carried her body to the next morning.  Never more than four ounces at a time as she tired so quickly from the effort it took to consume even that small amount.  I blended in peanut butter, melted butter, bananas and heavy cream.  Scoops of formula and PediaSure accompanied strawberries or chocolate milk.  Baby food, step two, not three; three has chunks, were fortified with cereal flakes or Miralax, depending upon necessity.

Feeds could take up to half an hour each time, and even at that, she was lucky she was still highly functioning enough to eat by mouth at all.  Lucky she wasn’t aspirating her food, or her medication at that point.

I lived my life, day in and out for her.  I happily carved out a routine that was dedicated to her as the center of our world, and our every waking moment was spent making sure she had what she needed to survive for as long as she could.

It wasn’t long enough.  She died at the age of three years and four months, and even though I had known all along it was coming it’s something a mother can never truly prepare for.  It goes against everything we hold dear and that rings true in nature for a parent to lose a child.

I don’t remember when the dreams began, but they’ve haunted me since their inception.  I couldn’t fix her.  I couldn’t save her.  She was broken in this world.  I knew it.  It was biology.  I wasn’t afraid to confront the reality of it; I just despised the fact that it was our reality.  As a mother, facing the impending loss of your child is a soul crushing place to exist.

Grief and rationale rarely go hand in hand, so while I logically know that there was nothing I could do better, and nothing I did wrong, something inside always screams at me, clawing its way to the surface of my conscious thought that it was I who wasn’t enough.  I, her mother; the utter failure with the dead child.  We have one job as parents; it’s to keep them safe from harm.  One job.  I couldn’t do it.  And in the end, it’s true, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t stop Tay-Sachs from ravaging her body, and I couldn’t stop it from ripping her from this world and my arms.  Nothing I could have done better, or more, or different would have changed it, but still the dreams come.

They’ve shifted, recently.  It isn’t always her any longer.  Sometimes it’s kittens.  In the dreams they live in our garage.  I never quite know where they came from, but sometimes I remember they’re there.  So small and unassuming, hiding in dark corners without sound or movement.  I realize it’s been weeks since I’ve fed them, given them water.  I’ve forgotten their existence altogether, all over again, and I search through the maze of boxes and overflowing items to find out if they’re still alive.

Waking I recognize the garage as the garage of my childhood home, but in the dream it’s the garage in my home of today.  It’s cluttered and cramped, and no place to keep a living animal.  I never know why they’re there, and I never think to bring them into the house.  I just remember, finally, after all seems lost that they need food and water.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine posted a question on Facebook asking about what recurring dreams people have.  I shared my experiences with this, and how logical me knows it all stems from emotional me’s irrational feelings of failure toward her.  I wrote on the thread that I didn’t think these dreams would be as impactful as they are if she were still here.  We as parents are given new opportunities each and every day to make more and more mistakes, but when we see our children living and thriving, we know it’s all ok.  Parents of loss don’t have the confirmation of their actions having been the correct choices.  We don’t have the luxury of tomorrow.  Our children are gone, and whether we attribute that to our own actions, or lack thereof, we will never be able to rectify their loss within our hearts.

Predictably, someone else, someone I don’t know chimed in on the thread with some unwanted advice for me.  He said, “Becky, I am sorry you are having those dreams.  I’m certain once you are able to let the guilt go those dreams will end.  Think of the great dreams you could be having about her.  Love and hugs”.

I was mildly irritated.  It was something so flippantly obviously that certainly shouldn’t deign to be pointed out, especially by someone who likely couldn’t relate on a personal level (I took the liberty of assuming he couldn’t relate first-hand since he didn’t state his own loss of a child).  “As if it’s just that easy”, I thought.  Of course I need to let the guilt go.  I have nothing to feel guilty about, this is just how my particular brand of grief seems to manifest, no matter my attempts to avoid it, or face it hear-on to change it in these last seven years.  I didn’t respond.  In the end, he was trying for kindness, and I should accept it for that.

I didn’t give the comment any more thought and went about my way.  Last night I dreamt that I was with her again.  My husband was with us.  We had somewhere to go, but I stopped us before we left.  Thinking that we’d be out a fair amount of time, I recognized that I should feed her then, before we left.  I filled her bottle, expertly mixing the correct proportions of the necessary ingredients and fed her smoothly and easily.  When I she was done, I began to mix up some food for her in a bowl.  It was soft, but chunky.  It needed to be mashed.  I mashed it by hand repeatedly, taking great care and concern to achieve the correct consistency.  I fed it to her gingerly spoonful by spoonful until she had eaten it all.  For the first time, I looked longingly at her and relished in the fact that she was well fed.  It felt like an accomplishment.  I remember smiling.  The was no more of the dream after that.  It vaporized like dew in the sunshine.

Perhaps I had sat with this form of grief, repeatedly emotionally beating myself down long enough.  Was finally speaking it aloud all I had to do?  Was hearing the validation that my guilt was unnecessary all I needed?  Will the dreams stop now?

Becky A. Benson lives in Washington State. Read her work on Modern Loss, Brain.Child, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, her Three Short Years blog, and in the pages of Taylored Living Magazine. She has both written and Spoken for Soulumination, The National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, and The Center for Jewish Genetics. Purchase a copy of her memoir, Three Short Years, based on the death of her daughter from Tay-Sachs disease, here or connect with her via Rise: A Community for Women.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Intimacy, Sex

Sex, Intimacy, and Genetic Incompatibility

April 28, 2017
intimacy

By Becky Benson

The first time it happened I thought it was great.  Easier, less messy, a change up from the norm.  Win/win for me.  I didn’t particularly like condoms; the feel, the smell, the timeout in the heat of the moment while fumbling over a loudly crackling wrapper.  How romantic.  And I’m sure my husband was no fan of them, but it did make it better for me once we were done.  He’d just pull it off and toss it in the trash.  I didn’t have to lay there waiting for him to throw me his t-shirt to clean up with, I could just happily roll over and drift off to sleep.

The only problem with this scenario:  we needed them, which made it feel less like a novelty, a change up from the norm, and more like a reminder of what we were now facing, and how in so many ways, our relationship; our sex life would never be the same.

In 2009 my husband, Loren and I had been happily married for six and a half years.  Loving, committed, stable.  We had two beautiful daughters, Skylar, five, and Miss Elliott, ten months, when we learned that we were carriers of Tay-Sachs Disease.  We had no idea this genetic mutation existed in our lineage or that we had passed it on to our youngest daughter, who at this point was beginning to shows signs of missing her milestones as she grew.  Watching my seemingly healthy infant unable to master age appropriate tasks such as crawling, holding her bottle, and or imitating our speech, I suspected something much more was going on beside the usual variances in development, and unfortunately I was right.  With no treatment or cure, this neurodegenerative disorder would rob her of all of her physical and mental functioning before finally taking her life by the age of four. Continue Reading…