(For this post to make sense, you need to have a good handle on the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life).
How I admire the man who said, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” The U.S. president who freed the slaves. But those words, “Angel Mother, “how they have shackled me, for I am no angel mother, nor do I hold out hope of becoming such.
Rejection sensitivity. Time blindness. Neurodivergence. Auditory processing challenges. Emotional dysregulation. Working memory deficits. Sleep-Wake dysregulation.
I sit staring at my zoom appointment while folding socks, grasping at words from Dr. Taylor. No matter that an audiologist confirmed my perfectly normal hearing last week, I struggle to understand what is spoken to me. My psychiatrist looks like the prep school version of Bob Marley. I watch his whole face agree with me as he translates into textbook terms what I experience every day. We both agree it sounds like I’ve been living with a circus in my head for a very long time.
We form a plan. I laugh about taking the same medication my son takes. Even starting at the dose he’s on. Check back in six weeks? Done. Our bright matching smiles are two angel wings for the saint who invented Ritalin. Light everlasting, the diagnosis offers both a beacon and a floodlight. A vision of life without my ADHD self opens before me, a last look back at the broken me who muddled her way to this point. I click “Leave Appointment.”
So easy to end the call, admire the socks I folded, and count that hour well spent. Part of me begins to move on to the next thing.
The broken me still stares at the screen, my eyes locked on the pop-up reminder for my 11 AM with Dr. Taylor. I dismiss it.
An image flashes through my mind. Strings neatly tied around fingers. Reminders because he keeps forgetting his commitments.
“You can take that one off now,” George Bailey gently tells Uncle Billy. Has he missed a wedding? A deadline? Anyway, George understands and offers his uncle a soft landing for the latest faceplant. The stakes weren’t too high on that bungle anyway.
Another scene flashes into view. George is right in Uncle Billy’s face. Yelling so many words. So many words. Grabs him by the lapels and jerks him out of his seat, calls him names. Still yelling. Shakes him and thrusts him back into his seat. “One of us is going to jail. Well it’s not going to be me!”
George, a freight train on just one track, plows on in a rage to his next stop. Uncle Billy crumples. His non-human friends, ever patient, land softly on him.
I curl around my clasped hands and sob.
“I’m so sorry, Uncle Billy, I’m so sorry.”
George Bailey and Uncle Billy are me, the broken me.
My breath constricts with all the strings wrapped tightly around memories, reminding me of every time my George has mishandled my Uncle Billy, mishandled probably every person I’ve loved who has ADHD. Cleansing pain because now I understand why I did it. Why the usual explanations for intolerance, an explosive temper, and profound guilt never fit.
And then the circus starts up. Dirty pain slinging across my vision as acrobats swing from one side of my brain to the other.
Acrophyllic* clowns take over and swoop from the platform called Grace to the safety of Anger.
Everyone praying for George. A family who loves him. His pain visible, his reasons valid. The progression of his spiral, though terribly upsetting, also humanly logical. A drink to settle the agitation. Surrounded by people who expect something of him–the teacher’s husband angry and doling out justice, the barkeeper concerned and protective because something is clearly wrong.
So he gets the angel. He gets to find out how everything he ever did changed the world for the better. He gets the town rallying around him, the forgiveness so he can come back from that ugly moment.
Uncle Billy? Always gave his best but looked the worse for it. Only a few critters and the bottle for friends.
But who was Laura? He tells George in their explosive encounter that he had searched everywhere for the misplaced money, “even in rooms that have been locked since [he’d] lost Laura.” Who was Laura? His wife? His daughter? The only person who had ever believed in him? Someone else who suffered because of his unreliable, scatterbrained, quirky, unteachable, drunken ways? Had she died?
Or left him?
No one cares. He’s just a laugh until no one can absorb the impact of his quirks anymore. The clown whose entertainment value always outlives his usefulness. If only he had never been born.
George, on the other hand, gets an angel-in-training who shows us that without George, Uncle Billy’s last commitment is to the insane asylum. With George, though, it’s a miracle Uncle Billy didn’t take his own wonderful life that night.
Because the demon offering suicide hounds those whose circus is always in town, When instead of trained animals, it’s the hapless clowns jumping through flaming hoops of fire. No matter how well they’ve practiced, no matter how many times they’ve had it explained to them, no matter how obvious it is that fire is dangerous, no matter, no matter. . .their clunky shoes and red rubber noses get in the way and they fall flat on their mask that portrays that [they] don’t need grace.**
When you’re the circus who sets the town on fire over and over, no one rallies around you. They “run you out of town on a rail,” and there is nowhere left to go but into endless night.
You feel like you’re worth more dead than alive.
I wipe my tear-streaked face with folded socks. I want to know what happened to Uncle Billy. I want to know how he got as far as he did in life. I want to know how he didn’t succumb to despair that fateful night. How he managed to pick himself up once again.
So who goes and finds Uncle Billy and gives him a way to make things right again? What angel jumps in to keep him from drowning himself?
The one who asks him to hold the basket full of donated money. The basket that signals forgiven debts.
A woman. A kind, courageous, resourceful woman. Once the angel saves George from a premature death, his wife Mary saves him from what he couldn’t fix on his own. But it didn’t start there. Her final words to her husband shattered him. Though partially unspoken, she told him to leave. And in final acts of desperation, he did.
Then the rebuilding began. She searched out Uncle Billy and showed him a way forward. Hope, a beacon toward redemption and a floodlight shedding grace on the past.
What do we know of Mary?
In her youth, she had hurled a rock at the abandoned Granville House, smashing a window to make a wish come true. But she didn’t stop there. Her tireless efforts to transform the broken into the healed get a nod in the background while George’s story takes center stage.
A home rises like beauty from ashes. An angel emerges where ghosts once haunted because that was what she wished for. She took what could have been endless night and healed it. She saw before her a barrier worth shattering, for she needed the shards to make the world she had wished for.
Could I be such an angel mother?
Arise from the daughter I thought was once shattered?
Find beauty in breaking what could not stand?
A woman wise raises a toast
Of kindness that shatters
Not angels but ghosts
She welcomes with hope
The beaten, the battered
The mem’ries unwelcome
She shows they still matter
Should old ashamedness be forgot
And severed from my mind?
No, if I want to fill my cup,
I make the old shards mine.
*Not a real word. It means, “Attracted to high heights” in my language.
**These are, of course, lyrics from a Twenty One Pilots song. I have two criticisms of “Ode to Sleep.” 1) Phantom of the Opera wants his haunted piano back (ok, so I’ve never actually seen that show…), and 2) it uses the word ”whore” when the word “war” would have worked perfectly, so now I have one word out of the five TØP albums we listen to that I feel obliged to bleep out for my kids