A Very Unlikely Teacher
by Wendy Keller, student of life
I met Francis when I accused him of being the online ghostwriter for a semi-famous journalist. He asked me how I had guessed. I told him it was the discrepancy between the way he and the journalist used English, Francis’ vocabulary and creativity being much better than the journalist’s. He liked that comment and invited me to lunch.
I picked him up, since he didn’t have a car (or perhaps, his license had been revoked. I never discovered the truth.) He chose a deli near his ugly, decaying apartment building in the seedy part of Hollywood. To my surprise, this intellectual paragon had unkempt white stubble all over his chin, long hair growing out his ears, droopy, furry eyebrows and he wore the most slap-dash assortment of clothes I’d ever seen on someone who wasn’t homeless. Francis looked much older than he had sounded on the phone, but months later I discovered he was much younger than he appeared.
But for his glistening vocabulary, his impeccable language usage, ebullient creativity, his endless stories of his glory days in Hollywood and on the road managing a famous rock band (all true), and his sensitive, kind heart, we began a platonic friendship.
At the time, the story of my tragic car accident was seen on television many times daily, because I appeared as a testimonial for a famous motivational speaker. That’s how Francis accidentally found out that my 4 year old son and 18 month old daughter had died in the accident just a few years earlier. I hadn’t told him. Somehow, and for reasons he wouldn’t say then, this bonded him to me. He started treating me like a little sister, instead of just as a friend. By which I mean, he offered ample unsolicited advice and tried to protect me from everything he could imagine.
I knew he came from a big important political family on the East coast, and that he was the black sheep. His 8 or 9 siblings had all gone on to do astonishing, worthy things. Francis had struggled with drugs, alcohol, and depression. Then one day almost two years later, at a greasy spoon I hated and at which he was a regular, he finally told me about the Phantom.
He said he and his siblings had called their mother “the Phantom”. Apparently, his mom had finished having babies after eight of them. But then, the seventh child died, at around age 4. The same age as my son had been! To staunch her grief, as so many parents do, they had two more children. Francis was one of those.
There is no replacing a dead child.
Everyone knows that.
But a new baby is a symbol of life going on, of the potential for joy.
Problem was, his mother couldn’t cope with the tragedy. She took to intense, prolonged emotional isolation. Francis said all his life she would “flicker in and out” of being part of the family, loving and engaging with her brood and her husband one minute and completely empty the next. She glided around the house, not seeing anything, like a phantom. Francis said, “Sometimes we’d be sitting at the dinner table and we’d look at her. It was as if her body was there but nothing was inside it. She was gone again.” It might last for days, or hours, or weeks.
“We never knew when we woke up in the morning if our mother would notice us or not, if she was able to love us that day or not, if she even remembered we existed.”
“The Phantom” caused a lot of pain amongst all her children, especially sensitive, artistic Francis. Shaken, I thought about my own subsequently-conceived 2 year old daughter. I vowed not to be a Phantom on the “bad grief days” anymore, because I had been doing the same. I had been letting my loss make me recoil into myself and do only the bare minimum to function.
Francis’ mother set a powerful example of how a loss, if we let it permanently overwhelm us, can affect generations to come.
Especially those of us who are parents have a serious moral duty to get help from qualified professionals to help us cope and manage our emotions. Grief, loss, pain, suffering, financial ruin, health problems – they don’t have to be the end of our lives, the end of happiness, or an excuse to act like the Phantom. We have some control, and as we exercise it, we become stronger. Choose to make the best life you can out of what you have left, and you will find yourself surprised at how far you can progress despite your pain.
If you’d like a copy of this free eBook designed to offer you comfort and strength, please help yourself.
“The Top Ten Tips to Coping with Crisis”