Tonight I went to see the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton “remake” of Dark Shadows. While I am old enough to remember the original series, I only saw it a few times, because my mother would not let us watch it – she declared it too scary, as was the Addams Family, although the Munsters for some reason were perfectly fine. Who knows what she was thinking. So I did not have any preconceived notions of how the movie should look, although I do remember that I always thought Quentin Collins was the cute one, and it turns out he isn’t even in the movie. In truth, I think they took the name of the movie and the basic shell of the background story to cash in on the nostalgia bucks that most remakes generate. While it had its humorous moments, it was a bad mishmash of horror and comedy, with a few sexually suggestive scenes thrown in – enough to make me glad the kids didn’t want to see it. I did like the character of the teenage Collins girl, but the character of David, who is important to the story, just seemed flat and undeveloped. You’d be better off renting the original series.
Ever since I saw the movie was playing in town, the phrase, “dark shadows” has been bouncing around in my head. It struck me that I have always visualized the many dramas of Rachel’s life as dark clouds and shadows that trail me. Rachel was born late on a Wednesday night, and for a very long time I believed that the day after she was born, before she was diagnosed with the life-threatening heart defect that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg of her physical and developmental woes, was the happiest day of my life, and that at the age 30, the best days of my life had come and gone and I would never truly be happy again. I thought that I would forever have this dark cloud hovering over me – that somehow, in some way, I had failed my first-born baby girl, the one that I had anticipated and named when I was a pre-teen. For years I blamed her heart defect on my going to my one and only Monster Truck Rally shortly after she was conceived. It was so loud, you could feel the sound vibrations inside of you and I convinced myself that those vibrations had caused her heart to develop abnormally. I have a friend who says I shouldn’t tell people that story, because it’ll become evidence in any eventual commitment hearing, but I had to find something to blame, and a random mutation wasn’t going to cut it.
I was raised primarily in the King James version of the Lutheran church (my mother made occasional forays into other Christian denominations, but my mother’s spiritual searching is just one of dozens of conversations about my mother I’m reserving for future posts). And as I was taught to do in times of crisis, I turned to God for help and solace. The 23rd Psalm, mandatory memorization for Sunday School kids in the early 60s everywhere, ran through my mind many times. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . .” In truth, my mental valley was more of a canyon - I had fallen off a cliff and was crawling along the bottom, and the rest of the world was blissfully walking along on the sunny plateau above me, oblivious to my pain and fear. But as time went on and we made our way through the first six years of Rachel’s life, which included countless hospitalizations, four open heart surgeries, diagnoses of other problems and multiple nights when the doctors didn’t think she’d pull through, and we’d stagger through these dark patches, there would be sunny moments – like when we discovered she loved log-plume rides and roller coasters and we’d spend hours and hours at Hersheypark, riding with a wildly giggling little girl. And I started to visualize my dark valley as one that had places in the sunlight, and sometimes the flat bottom sloped upward into a mini-plateau – a place below the happy people pinnacle, but where you could linger in the sun for short periods of time. Since those early years, we’ve been knocked down a few times. Sitting seven-year-old twins down and explaining to them that their big sister was going to have her 6th open heart surgery and that the doctors thought she might not survive it was certainly a biggie. The doctors had given her less than a 50% chance of surviving – we talked it over between ourselves, and with a parent we know who is a child psychologist, and decided it was better to prepare them for the worst and give them a chance to truly say goodbye than to let them blissfully see her off to surgery and then later have to tell them they’d never see her again. Not every seven year old can handle something like that, but John and Lydia are extremely intelligent (gifted) and even at that age, had a more mature understanding of the dark side of life than most kids do.
Perhaps the very worst time was the summer of 2008. My mother was terminally ill and had moved in with us for what would be the last three months of her life. Rachel was 18 years old and miserably unhappy at home. She tolerated the other kids when they were younger, but as they became more active and interfered with her life (she had been an only child for nine years and my constant companion – when we brought the twins home from the hospital, she looked at them and said “GO HOME!”) she gradually became physically aggressive toward them, pulling hair and pinching if they got in her way. She would disrobe in public, tried to pull my stick-shift out of gear while I was driving, and could get out of a seatbelt without unbuckling it faster than Houdini. But she was mostly angry with me and would pinch, scratch and slap, sometimes for hours at a time, but at the same time, wanted me near her. Although Mom had hospice care, she wanted me near, too, especially at night. Between the two of them, I was completely sleep deprived. My short-term memory had become so bad that my dear friend Amy took to calling on an almost daily basis to remind me of what activities the younger kids had so I wouldn’t forget.
We had finally arranged for Rachel to move into a group home and a week before she was scheduled to move in, two weeks before my mother died, the director of the home called me to a meeting where a half-dozen people from the agency were gathered to ambush me and inform me that they didn’t think Rachel would be a good fit in their home – So sorry, too bad. I held it together until I got out of the meeting and drove away to a side street, where I parked and called Rachel’s caseworker in hysterics. She finally calmed me down enough that I could safely drive home. I told Dennis how badly I had fallen apart and that I couldn’t understand why it hit me so hard, that I thought I’d been handling everything pretty well. His theory was that I had been holding it together because I knew that there was an end date and I just had to hang on until then, and then they suddenly snatched my rescue away. It made as much sense as anything. That was probably my darkest non-medically-induced bad day as Rachel’s mother.
Ultimately, we found a much better group home for her that fall. She lives relatively close to us and is very happy there. She likes to visit us for short periods of time, but when she’s done, she’ll bring her coat and purse and say “Go home” and as long as we do so pretty promptly, she’s happy to be with us. Within six months of her moving out she stopped trying to hurt me when she saw me. For a long time, I was very gun-shy – every time the staff from the home would tell me we needed to talk, I’d get really nervous. The program manager at her group home told me one day – “I see you tense up when we talk about how Rachel is doing in the home – please relax and stop being afraid, we are not going to kick her out and make you live through that again.” Four years later, I’m mostly convinced that’s true. Of late, my canyon has become a wide valley and it’s mostly sunny, although there are a few shadowy corners. Days like today I’m aware of the dark places – Rachel has been less than pleased with her current day program and we met recently to discuss whether we should find another place for her. With funding for social services continually at risk in this economy, any threat of change makes me afraid that she will be left to vegetate. As much as she might enjoy it, she is not going to sit around the house watching the Game Show Network all day. So today we visited a new day program. Hallelujah, she seemed to like it. She looked around, she “talked” to people (she’s not very verbal), she didn’t ask to leave, and when asked if she wanted to do something that she didn’t like, she politely said “no.” I think we are going to sign her up for five days a week, 9-3. It’s close to her group home, so it’s convenient, she’ll be outdoors a lot and involved in community volunteer work. I left there feeling reassured that she would be in a good place that makes her happy. And over time I have learned that the dark shadows in the corners of my valley help me appreciate the sunny days all the more. I’ll never get back up on the “ignorance is bliss” plateau, but I no longer want to, and I don’t envy those people anymore. I think they should envy me. I understand and appreciate the value of a full life, the good and the not-so-good. And the happiest day of my life has become the day I’m living today – with my four amazing, exhausting, exhilarating children. God gave me these incredible gifts and they absolutely make all the hard work that comes with parenting so very much worth it. And I still think Quentin Collins was the hot one.