Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fourth Random Act of Publicity: My Mom

It's the last day of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity and I'm breaking the rules again today, because my final random act, like my first, doesn't involve a book at all. Not yet, anyway.

Dawn Wakefield Sullivan is a hair over 5 feet tall and 57 years old. She decorates her suburban home with crosses and icons, Americana kitsch, and pictures of her favorite actors playing vampires. She's my mom, and today I've decided to publicize her writings.

My mom is the reason I write. When my three sisters and I were young, she taught us multisyllabic words and recited "d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y" when we asked her to spell something for us while doing our homework. She encouraged us to appreciate good music, movies, theater and literature and read voraciously, all the while drinking Tab Cola by the gallon and never missing her soaps or an afternoon episode of Jeopardy (for which she mysteriously knew EVERY "question").

Decades later, she's still going strong. Last time I was in her car, she pulled out her iPod, blasted Nelly and sang her heart out. She even incorporated some upper body dance moves as she drove. Did I mention that she's 57 years old? Um, yeah.

Having lost both her father and step-father as a child to untimely deaths, my mom desperately wanted to create her own traditional, two-parent family. She made it her goal to have one, so when my dad proposed, she dropped out of college after one year as an English major and got a day job to prepare for wedded bliss. Ever the devoted mother and wife, she decided years into her marriage to go back to school. This was no small task for a mother of four teen and pre-teen girls living in a remote suburb of Chicago, but she managed to get an Associate's Degree in English when I was in high school. She's had a few careers since, from working in the insurance industry to her most recent job as a cardiac technician in a hospital.

She's a woman who accomplishes what she puts her mind to. Which is why I hope that decides, soon, to sit down and start pounding out some book manuscripts.

Right now she's a bit obsessed with vampires, thanks to Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball. Yes, she's an absolute True Blood junkie. Do I find it odd that my mom spends her days searching the web for TB fan fare, reading and re-reading Harris's novels and watching and re-watching episodes of TB? A bit. But then, it's my mom's eccentricity that makes her so lovable.

Until my mom releases her first novel, we'll have to enjoy her occasional piece of fan fiction and her blog.

Below is a piece my mom wrote a few years back, then reposted to her blog several months ago. It's a personal essay about the death of her step-father, David "Roy" Nudell.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I came of age in 1964. I was twelve. I can tell you the exact day – It was November third. My step-dad died that day.

Let me back up though. The day I was born, my dad was in the hospital. He had collapsed at work and they did not know what was wrong with him. It turned out he had a brain aneurism and he died two and a half weeks before my third birthday. I actually remember some things about him. I am certain that, even as young as I was, I felt a crushing loss. But children are resilient, and I learned even then that if you block pain, you can function. You can survive.

When I was five, my mom remarried. My step-dad became my dad. In every way. I didn’t think of him as a step-dad. He was just my dad. Life was simpler then. There were not a lot of families like mine. Not a lot of children suffered such a devastating loss as I had. There wasn’t a lot of divorce back then, and there weren’t as many blended families as there are now. This was the post-war era. Women were through helping with the war effort. They left the factories so that the men coming back had jobs. Women went back into the kitchens. Dads worked. Moms stayed home with the kids. Leave it to Beaver. Father Knows Best.

I felt like a misfit. I was already the girl who had lost her ‘real’ daddy. I just wanted to be like everyone else. My new daddy was so sweet. He loved me; I WAS his little girl. I had a second chance. Then my brother came along, and we were – gosh – we WERE just like a real family. Dad worked. Mom was home. A girl and a boy. A house in the suburbs. WOW.

But my step-dad was sick. I watched him with fear. Coughing. Slowing down. Eating a funny diet for a sick man. Coughing more. God, I used to listen to him cough and I would stiffen. He would go down to the basement – we had another bathroom down there. He would go down there when he wanted to be sick. I think he did this to be further from us so as to spare us, but we knew. We heard. Even now, today, more than forty years later, I can go down to that bathroom and look at the knotty pine paneling covering the wall, and if I look in just the right spot, I can see a tiny fleck of his blood. From the coughing. The blood remains a silent sentry. I want it to stay there. Does that seem crazy? It is a piece of him. Oddly, I find it comforting. He was there.

I made some bargains with God.


But God moves in mysterious ways.

And I lost my step-dad on November 3, 1964. A couple of days before, he had gone back into the hospital for surgery that they thought would help him. The morning he was going back in, I was getting ready to leave for school. I was almost out the door and my mom said, “Hey, aren’t you going to kiss your dad goodbye?” I said, “Well, I’ll be seeing him again real soon”. Denial. It was the last time.

So the fateful day, I came home from school. There were cars parked in front of our house. Strange. I came to the door and Aunt Sylvia was there to greet me. “Dawn, your mom wants you to go get a haircut. Walk over to Mr. Vito’s and get one, then walk home.” OK. No questions asked. It was 1964, remember? I went obediently. Sat there for an hour. There were no other customers at Mr. Vito’s, but they did not seem to be taking me. They did not walk me to the shampoo station. They did not walk me to the salon chair. They swept the hair off the floor. They chatted, ignoring me. I was patient. After all, this was 1964. Kids did not question adults. I guess they had been told to stall me. I sat there with a sick feeling. My brain was screaming SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT. THIS IS NOT RIGHT. But finally, I felt the pull to go home. I cleared my throat and asked them if I could get my haircut now. They did it and let me go.

I walked home and saw my mom, and I knew. She took me into the back yard where we could be alone. She was shaking. She looked at me and said two words. “He died”. I had never, before or since, seen such pain on a person’s face. The sound of heartbreak in my mother’s voice was wrenching. I will carry this memory, fresh as that day, my whole life. When my first daddy died, I felt the loss. Immeasurable. When my second daddy died, I felt the grief.

On this day, my childhood ended. On this day, I learned what children usually learn much later – that sometimes, things do NOT work out. That sometimes, terrible things happen to people. That you cannot protect those you love from heartbreak.

The thing about grief is, that when you’re in it with someone else, it actually helps. Because you can focus on the other person – on getting them through it – and push the pain away a little. I was so worried about my mother it enabled me to bury my own suffering. She had to go back to work. I took on some more responsibilities – mostly around caring for my brother after school. I worried about money. Twelve years old and I worried about how we would manage. We had to pay for the blood. Blood cost a lot of money. There had been a lot of blood to pay for. My mom tried to give some, to offset the cost, but her veins kept collapsing. In time I was able to function because as I mentioned above, I just wanted to be normal. But now, I was REALLY different at school. I had lost TWO fathers. Who has ever lost two fathers? I felt their pity. I felt their curiosity. I felt their judgments about how I should be grieving. I tried to pretend it didn’t matter. I used to say about my first dad, it’s OK – I don’t remember him. I used to say about my second dad, it’s OK – he was my step-dad. Can you believe it? It was NOT OK.

It wasn’t until I was married and had started having my own children that it all started coming back to me. It was always a huge milestone when each of my daughters turned three.

From that point on, they would have more than I had.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


  1. Heather I am so shocked and stunned by this. It's overwhelming, in a good way. I've always wished for nothing else in life but that my children would grow to be happy, functional human beings that were able to love life, and make positive contributions. (So far, I think you all are and you all do) The fact that you remember some of my 'mom' things (spelling dictionary - classic!!) humbles me. Yes I am eccentric. I'm thrilled that you think I'm lovable. I guess that's EXACTLY how I want to be perceived - eccentric, but lovable. You get me, don't you? I adore you, my little Heather.

  2. Oh, this is a lovely post, and waves to your mom "hi!" - your daughter rocks!