The Strata of Family
Read the second installment of Elizabeth Land Quant’s column, “Disabled Generations,” on parenting disabled kids as a mom with disabilities.
Stratum. noun. (plural: strata). A layer of material, naturally or artificially formed, often one of a number of parallel layers formed on one another.
My dad, a geologist, always gave me fossils, crystals, rocks, and shells for presents. My favorite was a silvery purple geode. Humble, gray, with brownish beige crusty layers on the outside, shimmery, lavender, and sparkly on the inside. Sitting on my white desk chair listening to my seventh-grade sorrows, Dad would hold the geode in his weathered hands, turning it slowly over to its rough side, his fingers finding and exploring each texture. Then he’d turn to its crystal beauty, smooth as glass, looking like just cracked ice, breaking into a tiny cavern of lavender crystals. This was his way of listening because for him, eye contact was too intimate, too intense.
Dad surrounded us with what he understood and loved.
I think my dad chose his profession, at least in part, because he had autism. He could spend hours, even days alone on an oil well, or studying maps in his office, perfectly content with the silence. Dad filled our house with his beloved objects: Nautilus shells took up space on book shelves, fossilized shark teeth with magnets glued on the back held up school papers on the fridge. A beautiful, orange, preserved piranha watched us from his perch on the mantle. Our home glowed with sun warmed rose quartz towers and clusters of purple amethyst. Dad surrounded us with what he understood and loved.
Home was my safe place. We lived on the prairie in the middle of North Dakota, in a house my parents had built made of brick and stone, providing impenetrable layers between me and the outside world. I used to pretend our home was Mont Saint Michel, the fortified French monastery, our hill the island, and Apple Creek the Atlantic Ocean. There, I felt protected.
School, however, was a different story.
“You’re far too ugly, dumb and weird for anyone to marry you,” my junior high counselor told me, “And you’ll never get into community college, so you’d better think of some way to hook a husband fast.” I moved slowly. I was clumsy. I was chronically ill. I constantly bumped into people because I kept my head down to avoid looking people in the eye. I was freckled, sick-looking skinny, glossy, shell pink, glasses too big for my face, my stringy brown hair singed from well-meaning Ogilvie home perms and partially matted down from head gear. I mumbled.
Also, I didn’t answer people because I didn’t understand their meaning.
My lips, called “fish lips” by even the gym teacher, were forever getting caught up in my braces, rubber bands, and the outer wires. Also, I didn’t answer people because I didn’t understand their meaning. Their expressions confused me. Were they joking? Sarcastic? At my expense? I was the perfect target in every aspect.
After I had related my woes to my dad, he held up the geode, saying the pretty stuff inside the geode was nice, but the best part was the outer layer, because it was strong and protective. I already knew the definition of a geode. It’s a multi-layered, roundish rock, with a hollow center that’s lined with minerals. Thousands, even millions of years ago, layers of rock slowly formed around a gas or air bubble, and mineral matter carried by ground water seeped in, creating beautiful crystals.
Dad pointed out the many outer layers, explaining that if one layer was damaged, the next layer kept the inner layers safe. These layers were so strong, that when the surrounding rock weathered away from erosion and weathering, the crystals inside the geode survived. Dad wasn’t comfortable talking about emotions, but he knew, in his own way, how to parent me. When I got older, I learned more about my dad and his own family, the layers of generations before them, and I finally began to understand myself.
The latin verb sterno, from which strata is derived, has its origins in the Greek word sternon, meaning “chest, breastbone, heart.”
I don’t know how many generations back autism and autoimmune disease go in my family, but I suspect it’s far. When my daughter was four years old, my dad saw her rocking back and forth behind the couch. “My little sister Mary used to do that also,” he said.
Dad rarely talked about Mary; she and my dad’s parents died in a house fire before I was born. He rarely talked about anyone in his family, to be honest, so I relied on family records and letters to piece together the strata of genes that contribute to who I am. I found references to nerve pain and to symptoms indicating auto-immune disease in letters that my family wrote to each other. I felt an instant connection to the physical pain they were in.
I also recognized autistic traits coming through in my relatives’ ways of communicating, their speech patterns, sensory issues and idiosyncrasies echoing what I saw in my own children and my autistic sister. With each box of old family letters, I found more clues that helped me fill in a family tree depicting a legacy of autoimmune disease and autism, and I was much better able to understand my dad and myself in the process.
I relied on family records and letters to piece together the strata of genes that contribute to who I am.
On March 11, 2016, I had a bad autoimmune flare. This one felt like a vise closing around my chest, constricting my breathing, while thin machetes sliced my head. Over and over. I had thrown up repeatedly, nothing left but dry heaving. My temperature was off, cold and sweltering, I retreated to the world under my soft, pink baby blanket, with the couch beneath me, and pillows supporting my throbbing sides.
I wanted to call my dad, but he was travelling that day. I worried about him being alone. He was on oxygen all the time now, years of inflammation from autoimmune disease made his breathing harder and harder. I kept imagining my dad’s Arkansas lake cabin, and my favorite calm and safe place on his porch.
Early in the morning before my kids would wake up, my dad and I would sip coffee and contemplate all kinds of ways to kill the squirrels that were harassing dad’s precious bird population. I would carry an old Hudson trading blanket with me from the bedroom out the door and swaddle myself with it. I’d play Willy Nelson, dad’s favorite singer, while we watched the birds.
Before southern humidity and heat would set in, I’d grab my pole off of the dock and fish for about two minutes before my line would break and I’d lose my lure and bobber. Dad knew my hands didn’t work right — arthritis and damaged nerves rendered them almost useless. He turned up as if he just knew, and without reprimand or disappointment in losing yet another of his lures, took the pole from my hands and handed me another while he fixed the line. I always was careful, though, not to fish around my dad’s geese that he fed every morning as he drank his morning coffee.
As I lay on the couch that day in March 2016 dreaming of dad and his lake home, my husband had stepped away from me to take a phone call. He came back, crying, and told me my father had just died at the Phoenix Airport from a head injury and some sort of heart attack. My next memory is riding in the ambulance, oxygen mask on.
The word stratum, singular for strata, comes from the past participle of the Latin verb sterno, which means “to lay out, to spread, to scatter.”
In the few years before my dad died, we talked every day. I would call, in tears, in rage, in frozen fear for my kids’ health problems, and for myself. I didn’t know how to process each new diagnosis, each new symptom. He, the scientist, would redirect me to find patterns in the blood work, in symptoms, in behavior, and how they related to each other.
After our daily talk, I would inevitably feel calmer and more able to focus on caring for my family. My dad was a place of safety for me because I knew that no matter when I called he would be the same: steady, calm, strong, and methodical. I see this now as one of the many gifts of his autism, which was reflected in the Arkansas cabin he built, a solid cement-block home on a large rocky, wooded point on Lake Hamilton, an area known for its crystals, fossils and rare geologic features.
My dad was a place of safety for me because I knew that no matter when I called he would be the same: steady, calm, strong, and methodical.
Dad kept adding onto his cabin until it was uniquely his, layering wood and rock over cement, fortifying each wall. Plaid couch and chairs, fish-shaped pillows, and Legos in a bin for the grandkids. He created this respite from the world, away from loud noises, loud people, too much eye contact, too much emotion, too much chaos. Every crystal, every geode, every mineral and fossil was carefully laid out on the shelves, in front of his favorite books. Books that not only covered his geological profession, but also philosophy, religion, history, psychology and the classics.
My father had Oliver Sack’s book, Gratitude, with him when he died. Even though his death was unexpected, his reading Sack’s reflections, leads me to believe that Dad was more aware of his own fate than I realized. He had turned down one corner in Sack’s small book of four essays. A picture of Oliver Sack’s table with rocks, fossils, metals, and minerals carefully arranged. Sacks wrote, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of Eternity.”
As my father had surrounded himself with layers of life, of history, of things that made him feel safe, I look around my own home and realize I’ve done the same. I’ve arranged my books like my father, by subject, from the dawn of time to the present. Two little preserved alligator heads are staring at me from their perch on a shelf. A purple amethyst sits next to a picture of Dad and me. My first cowboy boots surround pictures of my babies. The silvery purple geode leans on Shelley and Dickinson, gifts from my dad. I feel him with me, every time my fingers drift along the rough outer edges of the geode, every time I tell my kids that their uniqueness is the strongest layer they have.
I feel him with me, every time my fingers drift along the rough outer edges of the geode.
My dad lived a wonderful life letting beauty seep through his many protective layers, giving us all a path to follow. I often think about a quote that reminds me of Dad, from Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water, “Help yourself prepare for a life. Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks.”
After my father died, we spread his ashes in his beloved Lake Hamilton. I own dad’s cabin now with my sister, who is so much like my dad — strong, methodical, autistic, and safe. We keep my dad’s cabin the way he arranged it, feeling every layer of his love. Our kids come down to stay with us and together we search the banks of the lake for rocks and crystals. I drag my fishing pole along the water’s edge, carefully avoiding the brush. One day, I will teach myself how to untangle my line. But for now, my sister wordlessly takes my pole, fixes it, and then hands it back. I throw the new line back in, ripples scattering Dad’s geese far up over our lake, the rocky shore solid at our feet.
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