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Compassion, Guest Posts

Without Touch

July 5, 2020
touch

By Liz Prato

This is a story about my lying on my own massage table in April 2020, where my clients usually come to me for therapeutic touch, but haven’t come to me for touch since March 11th. Because most of my clients are in their seventies and therefore technically “at risk,” I stopped seeing them two weeks before the Oregon Governor said massage therapists could no longer see clients, to cut down on the potential exposure to and spread of Covid-19. The last time I’d received professional bodywork was March 3rd—one month from when I was lying on my own table, with my husband giving me a massage. Although it had been twenty years since he, himself, trained in or practiced massage therapy, he still knew how to effleurage, petrissage, and knead muscles.

The previous day I had slumped over our dining room table, my entire physical and emotional body dysregulated. Pain twisted through my hips, it yanked at my low back, it burned my jaw and my thighs. I was depressed, desolate, unable to picture how I was going to live like this for another month, or two months, or however long it would take before I could again access to one of my primary forms of health care.

I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain, insomnia and depression. I am easily overwhelmed by external stimuli, especially noise. My health care team includes an MD, a naturopathic physician, a psychotherapist, a cranio-sacral therapist, an assisted-stretch therapist, a Rolfer, a Reiki master, and a massage therapist. The MD is the only one who doesn’t “get” my chronic fatigue syndrome and pain. Since I was first afflicted in 2013, all MD’s have assumed everything wrong with me was a by-product of depression. Never mind that I was on anti-depressants, and relatively stable mood-wise. It’s just that Western medicine is stumped by chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s idiopathic, meaning they don’t know what causes it. Western medicine is all about applying cures to causes: medicine, or surgery. If they can’t figure out what’s causing a disease then they can’t figure out how to cure it—and then they’re out. All the other professionals on my team understand my health as a complex mosaic, and know there isn’t  just this one thing causing my problems. They recognize multifaceted dysregulation among my various body systems—nervous, digestive, endocrine, immune—and believe not just one tried-and-true cure exists.

Every day I swallow a dazzling cornucopia of prescription pills and supplements that act on my depleted levels of cortisol, vitamins B, D, and folate, estrogen and progesterone, and regulate my melatonin and serotonin. I receive some form of energy work once a month. I stretch a lot—with and without assistance. I haven’t had an ongoing emotional crisis for a few years, but I know that if I do, I can call my therapist. And every 10-14 days I get a massage.

Sometimes I forget to make an appointment, and can’t get in. Or my massage therapist gets sick or twists an ankle or has a family emergency and has to cancel at the last minute. Pain wracks my neck, my jaw, my arms, my spine, my low back—even when I’m still taking all those pills, and stretching and taking warm baths. I become stressed and depressed, and my productivity plummets, making me more stressed and depressed. Massage—effleurage, petrissage, kneading—loosens my tight muscles, it pushes away built-up lactic acid, and it stimulates my parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for feelings of calm. And it gives me something I never had as a newborn: the sense that someone cares.

#

The woman who gave birth never held me. I was born a month premature via an emergency C-section, because she had started hemorrhaging earlier in the day. Lots of blood was lost, is the story she told me forty years later, in one of two letters she wrote to me. We both almost died, she said. She told me she wasn’t supposed to see me at all, but she demanded they allow her. She didn’t hold me. She just looked at me, and maybe she said goodbye. I don’t know, because she didn’t share that part with me forty years later.

Ten weeks after my birth mother relinquished me, my adoptive parents took me home. It was the first time they met me, that day on August 11th, 1967, when Catholic Charities called and said they had a little girl ready for adoption. I hadn’t been available for adoption earlier because I’d been in an incubator, and after that “they” (Catholic Charities? The doctors?) were concerned I might be developmentally delayed. My parents—the ones who adopted me, raised me, loved me—told me that after my stint in the incubator and before they brought me home, a foster family took care of me.

“You were meant to be our daughter since the beginning of time,” my parents told me.

“Your birth mother was very young,” they said. “A teenager. She gave you up because she loved you, and wanted you to have a good life.”

Decades later, I learned my birth mother was twenty-three years old when she had me. So was my biological father. They came from middle-class homes. They were not impoverished. They were also not in love, and were Catholic. Having a baby out of wedlock was a great shame. My birthmother’s father stopped talking to her once he learned she was pregnant. He sent her to another state to live with her godparents, to let her belly grow with me, to give birth, and to leave me behind.

I spent over ten years—from my mid-thirties until my late forties—trying to find out who this woman was, the one who gave birth to me and then left me behind. There was someone out there who knew me in my first moments of being. Someone who rubbed and soothed her round belly, and therefore rubbed and soothed me. Bit-by-bit, I collected pieces of my origin puzzle, never knowing what the complete image was supposed to look like. I was eventually allowed access non-identifying information about my biological parents and adoption, later followed by two letters sent to and received from my birth mother through an intermediary who wasn’t allowed to tell me her name, then my adoption records. I immersed myself in a short relationship with a half-sister that yielded more of her mother’s story, received a threatening letter from my biological father’s lawyer, was shut out by two half-siblings without them ever speaking one word to me, and, finally got my birth certificate. They were enough pieces to solve most of my puzzle, even though the center would always be blank.

The puzzle yielded this reality: I never lived with a foster family. I was in the Infant of Prague orphanage in Denver for at least six weeks, if not longer. After I almost died being born, no one touched me, except in the medical ways required to clean and settle a precarious newborn. No one who loved me came to my incubator and put their hands through the holes to touch and soothe me and say “you are ours.” For the first ten weeks, I was devoid of loving touch. It was a crushing discovery, but also explained so much.

Touch is essential to the healthy physical and psychological development of infants. Touch deprivation can affect every aspect of their being, from the regulation of digestion and sleep, to their social and psychological understanding of self. Even touch-deprived infants who are eventually raised in loving homes still show signs of developmental and physiological disturbances years later. They produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of hormones that facilitate emotional and social bonding. While some who were touch-deprived as infants might have a difficult time forming emotional bonds with anyone, others will try to assume a deep connection with any adult, because they didn’t learn the difference between family and others in their early development. Children and adults who were touch-deprived are more sensitive to external stimuli, like noise and light, and less able to self-regulate their emotions. They are more likely to be anxious and depressed.

As a child, I cried easily. It was (and sometimes still is) my go-to response to fear, frustration, and uncertainty. As an adolescent I was desperate for romantic love. Every single day my mood would rise and fall based on whether or not a guy paid attention to me. As an older teen and young woman, my sexual potency was a measure of self-worth. How many men wanted me and how much did they want me?

Sexuality was the intersection of touch and being wanted. What good was being wanted (intellectually, creatively, as a friend) if I couldn’t get touch out of it? It got to a point where I didn’t even realize that my behaviors signaled sexual interest. Giving a male friend a hug from behind was touch. It was what you did with someone you care about. You try to make as much contact as possible. Since they were just friends, doing it without clothes on was out of the question. That barrier between skin-on-skin was still safe. Or so I thought. I didn’t realize the message others received was “let’s get rid of that layer of clothes.” I didn’t understand why their girlfriends got mad, or why it was so hard for those men to be just friends. I didn’t understand there was another way to get touch, one that didn’t blur boundaries, that could calm down everything inside of me that was so insecure and overstimulated and unloved and scared.

#

When my husband gives me a massage, there is nothing sexual about it. He glides over my skin and kneads my prone muscles from head-to-toe, and then glides up my supine body from toe-to-head. A week earlier, I’d done the same for him, treating him just like I treat all my clients, draping him in warm towels amid flickering candles and calming music. There was no sex, no sensuality, but what I know: muscles, nerves, bone and skin. I didn’t become a massage therapist by accident, and being a massage therapist is not just my job or my career. It is a calling from my fascia, from my nerve endings, from my soul. I need to give massage almost as much as I need to get it. I need to give and receive touch.

We all need touch, a lesson being learned in the most cleaved, jagged way as we are isolated from each other during the pandemic. Some people are isolated with other loved ones who can hopefully provide a hug, a shoulder rub, fingers laced together. Some live alone and only have their own hands and their own skin. It’s not worthless, touching your fingertips to your own neck, your stomach, your foot. Nerve endings still meet nerve endings. Skin still meets skin. It is the self-calming, the self-regulation, that babies who were not deprived of touch know. Babies learn by mimicking. Someone stroked their skin and they felt better, so they know to do it to themselves. But it nonetheless lacks an essential aspect of touching another living being: bonding, connection, the knowledge that someone else cares, that someone else claims you.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I feel like I might die as these quarantined months drag on, deprived of the one form of healthcare that has the most profound impact on my entire physical and emotional system. Intellectually I know I will not actually die from this limited touch. I may suffer, but we are all suffering. There are worse forms of suffering than my body pains, my fatigue, my anxiety and depression. I have a husband who tries to soothe it. I know that when this ends—and it will, someday, end—I can go back to gratefully receiving massage, and I can go back to gratefully giving it, too. We can all return to that blissful state of knowing we are cared for, through the seemingly simple, but incredibly complex, act of touch.

Liz Prato’s most recent book is “Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press, 2019), a New York Times Top Summer Read, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of “Baby’s on Fire: Stories” (Press 53, 2015), and editor of “The Night, and the Rain, and the River” (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Her work was named a Notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing, 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in over three dozen publications, including The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, and Subtropics. She is Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Daughter Lost

July 2, 2020

By Katrina Willis

We had borrowed a baby, and now the baby was gone.

“Where did you last see her?” I asked my friend.

“I don’t remember,” she said. “But look… there are turkey sandwiches for lunch.”

“We can’t eat turkey sandwiches when the baby is missing,” I said.

“I’ll be quick,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”

While she ate her turkey sandwich, I rushed frantically from baby to baby—there were so many in the stress center waiting room—looking for the one we were responsible for. But the babies all had the same faces, and I could no longer remember what our borrowed baby looked like.

The car seats on the floor—there were so many—were all empty.

People wandered around, drugged and dazed, in stress center scrubs. The scrubs had no ties. Ties were too dangerous to those who wished themselves or others harm.

We didn’t find the baby before I woke. She remained missing.

It was just a dream, of course. But it wasn’t.

The baby was missing.

***

My 19-year-old daughter had texted me the day before: I only ever wanted my fucking mom. But she died when you came out. I don’t even recognize you anymore. I doubt I’ll ever get her back.

The word was a dagger.

            Died.

            Dead.

I was dead to her.

Erased.

Eliminated.

***

I’d spoken with her brothers earlier in the week. First the baby (17), then the oldest (23). The middle (20) chose to remain his usual silent self.

The two who talked told me they wanted more one-on-one time with me. I assured them I could do that. They listed all the things they thought I’d done wrong when I came out as gay, when their father and I divorced after twenty-three years.

I let them air their grievances. I listened. I nodded. I acknowledged their pain. Divorce is hard on everyone.

“What can I do moving forward?” I asked. “What matters most to each of you?”

“Time alone with you,” they agreed. And they said I should talk to their sister. She was the angriest of all. They told me to prepare myself for her storm.

There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for a child negating your existence.

***

When she was a baby, she never cried. She watched the world with bright, blue, inquisitive eyes. She laughed at her older brothers and sucked two fingers on her right hand. Her pink blankie went with her everywhere. When I had to wash it, she stood in front of the washing machine with her pudgy, starfish fingers pressed against the window. She cried as the pink spun round and round, “My blankie. My blankie!”

Before speech therapy she could not properly say her “r’s.” And she had so many ear infections when she was little, she could not hear the mispronunciation. Her father and I used to laugh at her adorable impediment. Hands on hips, she would confront our laughter with disdain. “I not talka you, Mama!” she’d say. I would fold her up my arms, hug her into my chest.

“I love you, Mary Mack,” I would assure her. “You’re my sweet, precious, smart girl.”

She was kind and gentle with animals. She loved them all, from hamsters to fish to puppies.

She and I made bags for the homeless because she was so distressed by the thought of someone sleeping on the street without an Oreo. We filled the bags with bottled water, toothbrushes, deodorant, and snacks. She and her little brother decorated the brown, paper outsides with sentiments like, “Hope you find a home soon!” We passed them out at stoplights and intersections.

***

The initial call went well. She was 2,200 miles away at college, walking on the beach.

“It’s going to rain here soon,” she said. “I might not be able to talk long.”

I asked her what she needed from me. She told me I was different.

“How so?” I asked.

She couldn’t articulate.

I wondered: Does she think I’m different because she’s only ever known me as a wife and mother? Is it hard for her to imagine me as a human, an independent woman who has her own doubts and fears and dreams? Is that why I felt different to her?

But she couldn’t really say.

I assured her that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that I hadn’t changed even though our family dynamic had. I was still her mother, I would always be her mother.

Then the rain came, and she was gone.

***

When my four kids were little, I read to them every night before bed. In our white-picket-fence-suburban-home, there was an upstairs hallway that connected all their bedrooms. At one end, was a sitting area with a rocking chair and a bookcase.

We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows, and when the mountain lion attack came, I choked back my sadness, breathed deeply.

“Do you want me to finish, Mom?” my oldest son asked as tears streamed down my face.

But I continued to read the fates of Old Dan and Little Ann.

My sweet, sensitive daughter burst into tears and ran into her room, crying, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too sad!”

It was Little Ann dying of grief over the loss of her beloved companion that shook me the hardest.

I didn’t fully understand that kind of grief until 16 years later when my blue-eyed beauty—who no longer had a speech impediment—erased me.

***

“She thinks she should have never been born because I’m gay,” I tried to explain to my own aging mother as I sat with her in the nursing home and cried.

Of course, I ran to my Mom. My rock. I needed her then like I’d never needed her before.

“She says she shouldn’t be alive, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the fact that she is. She said I lied to everyone my whole life, but I didn’t, Mom. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know that I could create a life with a woman. Her dad and I had 23 mostly good years together, but he wasn’t perfect, either. If she knew all the details about him, she might feel differently. But those aren’t my stories to tell. They’re his.”

“Oh, Trinks,” my mom said, “I can’t believe this is happening. You’ve been such a good mother to those kids their whole lives. Why is she being so selfish now?”

“She’s hurting, Mom. And I understand that. But she blames me for everything. She says her dad didn’t leave, I did. But I never left my kids, Mom. I would never leave them. I left the marriage. Their dad did, too. It was a mutual decision. But that’s not how she sees it.”

“She will someday,” Mom assured me. “She’s angry and young and selfish, but she’ll come around.”

“What if she doesn’t?” I asked.

What if she doesn’t?

***

I’ve thought mostly about pills or a closed garage. The other options seem too brutal, too violent. I don’t have access to a gun, and I’m afraid of heights. That makes a jump pretty implausible.

I’ve Googled the effects of suicide on the children left behind, and it’s not pretty.

But neither are the effects of coming out as gay and divorcing, either.

Would they be better off without me? Would they heal more quickly if I just removed myself from the picture? Would they bond more closely with their often harsh and degrading father in my absence? Would they appreciate my life insurance money more than they appreciated my presence?

Is it the one gift I can give them to atone for bringing them against their will into this painful world?

Ending a marriage that was laced with infidelity and condescension—and at the end, physical assault—seemed the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want any of my kids to stay in that situation. What kind of example was I setting for them if I continued to stay? To take it? To let myself dissolve into nothingness?

I thought I was teaching them to stand up for themselves, to live their own truths, to never kowtow to another.

But in their eyes, the lesson was about leaving instead of staying. It was about lying instead of living.

They were happier when I was closeted and quiet.

Was I?

***

My cousin said to me, “I don’t take credit for any of my kids’ successes, and I don’t take the blame for any of their shortcomings, either.”

I’m trying to cling to that belief system, but my guilt is strong. It’s a super power of mine, feeling the responsibility for everyone else’s well-being.

Some call that co-dependence.

***

I cry most every night thinking about my kids’ pain. All I’ve ever wanted is their happiness, but I cannot create it for them. Only they can make that choice. Each of them, individually.

I have loved and supported and championed them. They have had nice homes and good food and basements full of toys and fun vacations and strong educations. They have been held, nurtured, encouraged, and cheered. They have been disciplined and taught manners and have been held accountable for their actions.

They have been beloved.

They are beloved.

And they are themselves now, no longer mine.

When my head is on my pillow, I can still smell the sweaty, sweet scent of their baby hair; can feel the weight of their baby bodies in my arms in the middle of the night, feeding them, keeping them safe and warm, their baby bellies distended and full.

But when I wake, my pillow is just a pillow, smelling mostly of Downy dryer sheets.

And the baby is missing.

Katrina Anne Willis is the author of Parting Gifts (She Writes Press, April 2016). Her personal essays have been featured in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, and Nothing but the Truth So Help Me God. She was recognized as one of six distinguished authors at the 2016 Indianapolis Book & Author luncheon, was named a BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us & Voice of the Year; was awarded the 2014 Parenting Media Associations Gold Medal Blogger Award, participated in the 2013; Listen to Your Mother&; show, and was a 2011 Midwest Writers Fellow.

Upcoming events with Jen

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Activism, Guest Posts

An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

The “Last” button on my remote is wearing out. I’m pressing it every four seconds, hopping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, popping in on my local Spectrum 1 channel because they supposedly focus on pressing news happening in my city. Maybe I have to check the networks. Did I see a “City Channel” in the guide? Back to CNN, then MSNBC, rinse, repeat… all in the hopes of finding some shred of coverage of the protests in our streets. I’m pressing, I’m hopping, but I’m not finding anything.

After fourteen days, the news channels have tired of reporting on the Black Lives Matters protests. Or at least they did until yesterday, when another black man was shot and killed in a public Atlanta parking lot. The protests are interesting once more now that their peacefulness teeters on the brink. But that will slip from the spotlight again and give way to the novel coronavirus, the un-novel and preposterous antics of Donald F-N Trump, unemployment, graduations, online yoga tutorials. And it’s finally summer. The beaches are open. The trails are packed. The ice cream truck is serenading your hood once more. No more homeschooling. No more cooking. No more hoarding of toilet paper. You finally have your lives back, and you intend to make the best of them. And your hair needs cutting, your nails need painting, the hedges need trimming. And look at what my cat just did! And this Black Lives Matter business doesn’t really affect you, anyway. The curfews are over, and if they’re not, they really don’t apply to you. Maybe your town never protested. And now you see protestors holding signs in German, the only words decipherable being “George Floyd” and “Defund the Police,” and if Germany cares, then everything must be in good hands. (Because, really? Germany? They don’t have their own problems?) But you don’t know about defunding the police. What about noise complaints and suspicious people in the neighborhood? What about people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? Besides, you have your sign in the yard that supports science and feminism and—mixed in somewhere—black lives. And there’s still that “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in the window collecting dust from 2016. But there are other things going on. Like the bats. Did you hear about the bats? What about the bats in your attic?

I get it. There’s a lot to process in your world, other priorities besides black lives mattering. And you haven’t been hearing from me. You’ve noticed that I haven’t been on social media much these days. Maybe I’m upset about all things “Black Lives Matter” because I’m black. But you don’t see me as that kind of black, and I have a lot of white friends, like you, so maybe I don’t feel involved. Is it offensive to ask? And everything is just really depressing, so you’ve been taking a break—maybe didn’t even notice I wasn’t being vocal. If I was really upset, I would say something, right? I’m not shy. So if I’m not making noise, I must be fine, right? Right?

I am not fine.

There have been so many voices raised already, so for a while, it felt like mine could wait… that there would be a time when different voices would be needed. But the more conversations I have with my friends, black and white and everything in between, the more I realize how much you still don’t understand, and the more I realize it might be important for you to hear from someone like me: someone you know and care about. Someone who is not the first person who pops into your mind when you think about police brutality against black people—me, that light-skinned, sharp, friendly aspiring writer who just earned her MFA and can frequently be spotted laughing over cocktails with her white friends. Someone who grew up in white middle America. Someone who a friend once asked, “What did your parents say when they found out you were black?” Maybe if you hear it from me, a true understanding of how black people are experiencing this moment might occur, because I don’t want these issues to slip into the constant background noise of Everything Else. Because using my voice now may help keep the focus on racism from drifting away like it always, always does. Because black Americans don’t have the luxury of detaching or checking out. We can’t simply turn off the TV or pop in a movie (most likely a movie where no one looks like us anyway, which is another issue—one that is important to me and I’m actively working to change with that MFA I’ve worked hard to earn). We can’t turn away from the movement or the moment because we are “overwhelmed.” And, more importantly, I don’t want to.

To those of you who have reached out to me personally to see how I’m managing through all of this: thank you. I know you don’t always know what to say or how to say what you mean or maybe even what you are supposed to mean, but your making the effort is acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is, I haven’t been doing well. At all. But today, I’m finally on the other side of a lot of the pain and grief I’ve been struggling with the last two and some weeks—my emotions have balanced out to some degree, and my spirit has been lifted by the domestic and global response to this call for justice—and so, although my anger is constantly triggered by the continued violence against blacks and all the damn “Karens,” I feel heartened just enough to finally reach out. But please don’t think this slight uptick in hope obscures my daily reckoning with how to get through each hour. How to manage my sadness and anger. How to manage my resentment of the silence I still see so much of from so many of you. How to manage knowing how to break my own silence. How to navigate my grief and guilt over not being able to be out there fighting all day every day. Yes, I braved the virus and went out protesting more than once last week, and this week, I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t know if it’s the virus or a common cold or a physical manifestation of emotional grief, but regardless, I don’t regret protesting. It was important for me to add my voice and my body to this movement. It gave me a direction for my emotions, and it allowed me to fully engage in a fight I dearly believe in. I am being responsible and watching my symptoms, but make no mistake, if I am physically able, I will be back out there again.

What I really want to say to my would-be allies is that this movement is about justice for black people, absolutely. But it’s also about changing society in general. Because BLM isn’t just about police brutality. It isn’t just about the outrage we collectively feel when another black person is killed on the street, in their yard, in their own home, or in prison. It’s about the social ideology of race perpetuated in our homes, relationships, schools, jobs, parks, and minds. It’s about the divides we put around ourselves as individuals and groups to feel safe… to stay comfortable. It’s about changing our perspectives so black people can leave the house without having to calculate the risks involved in having black skin in white society. It’s about not having to feel unvalidated when our non-black friends tell us we’re being “too sensitive” or “judgmental” or “aggressive” or “angry” about our experiences with racism. So we’re not constantly having to explain why something is offensive or justify our right to be heard or assuage your discomfort or white shock that racism still exists. So we don’t have to resist the temptation to scream when we’re complimented for being educated, intelligent, polite, caring, successful, articulate, and [fill in with any positive attribute] because “good on you for rising above your blackness.” So we don’t have to keep fighting for the recognition and support enjoyed as a matter of course by those of you not living in black bodies. So we don’t have to keep telling people that “not seeing color” is not enlightenment—that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let me state this unequivocally: If you know someone who is black, regardless of what other racial composition they possess or neighborhood they grew up in, realize that they—that we—have experienced all the things you hear about. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been followed by police in aggressive ways for doing nothing. We’ve been pulled over for “a burned-out license plate bulb” in broad daylight and forced out of the vehicle. We’ve had people clutch their purses. We’ve had people warn others about watching their purses around us. We’ve had people move seats when we sat down. We’ve been assumed to be employees at sporting events, music festivals, department stores, and grocery stores instead of patrons. We’ve been followed around clothing stores. We’ve been asked where we live and what we’re doing here while standing in our own front yards. We’ve heard friends tell offensive jokes in front of us and tell us to “lighten up” because “funny is funny.” We’ve been called the “N” word. We’ve been treated worse than our white counterparts in school and at work. We’ve been accused of ridiculous things by bosses. We’ve felt our skin crawl because of a single look from across a restaurant or party. We’ve wondered if we’re in danger of getting beaten or killed simply for existing. We’ve felt our idea of home taken away because of a renewed and emboldened uprising of prejudice and racism in our country. We’ve questioned whether to attend events out of fear for our safety. We’ve struggled to find our voices and learn how to raise them. And for so many, we’ve been killed by those who knew they could kill us and get away with it.

This list is just the tip of the black experience. This list is just the tip of my experience.

So let me set some things straight, because there’s been some confusion in my world, and I know harm is not what was intended, but nonetheless… here are some truths:

  • I have no desire to get away from the protests. This fight is not bad or inconvenient or oppressive. It is necessary, hopeful, and inspiring. I turn toward it, not away from it. I don’t want things to calm down so I can forget and “go back to normal.” There is no forgetting, and there is no more normal. And, honestly, what passed for normal for you was never my normal to begin with.
  • Your support is appreciated, but please understand that our experiences are not the same. I know many of you are suffering, too. You’re dealing with your anger at the world. You’re reckoning with our country’s history and your place in it, large or small. You fear what’s next. You’re sad about everything that has happened. It is an exhausting situation for everyone. But the exhaustion we feel as black people is not the same. We are viscerally exhausted from dealing with racism for as many years as we’ve been alive. We are dealing with the trauma, pain, depression, and fear of decades and centuries of being treated as less than. And the damage from generations of trauma has altered many of our physiological beings to the point where we can’t even imagine who we could be in the absence of trauma. We are tired of swallowing the hateful words of racists and misguided words of those who fail to stop and think before they speak. We are tired of the silence of the rest of society, especially the silence of those who say they love us. We’re tired of trying to make people listen. We’re tired of having to defend our pain and outrage and anger. We’re tired of having to dampen our pain and outrage and anger to make you feel better. We’re tired of seeing just how much our lives don’t matter: in the inequities experienced by predominantly black schools; by the lack of support and assistance for black-owned businesses, even during a pandemic; by the disproportionate number of black deaths from COVID-19; by the disproportionate treatment of black men and women within the justice system; by the disproportionate number of felony convictions for black men and women; and by the degree of force relied on by police when dealing with black Americans, even when they are unarmed. You can’t truly get it, and that’s not your fault. But please know we are not suffering in the same way. No, we are not awesome. No, we are not all right. We are pissed. And we are ready for change.
  • If your gut reaction is to challenge my experiences or feelings about these issues or exonerate yourself from my message, please save it for someone who cares. It’s not me. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my black experience or how I feel about racism in this country or the movement to end it.
  • If you haven’t done anything to me personally that you can speak to specifically, don’t tell me how sorry you are. I don’t want your condolences or pity. It’s an earnest sentiment, but it’s not action.
  • Please don’t thank me for sharing my story. I didn’t do it for praise. Again, nice sentiment, but not action.

My white friends and aspiring allies: what I would love instead is conversation. This movement is forcing some solid policy shifts and new laws to be enacted, but that does not equate to sweeping change. Laws were enacted to give slaves back agency over their lives. Laws were enacted to desegregate our cities and schools. Laws were enacted to give blacks the right to vote. And yet… here we are. Here, where more than 40 percent of black men and women 20 and older suffer from hypertension, black men are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of police than white men, black communities have unequal access to health and community resources, and black women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and make almost 40 percent less than white men and roughly 20 percent less than white women. Laws are great and necessary, but nothing is really going to change unless we change voluntarily on a societal level.

We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our prejudices and ask why we have felt as we have and been who we are and what we can do to move forward better. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our experiences and those of lives we don’t understand. We have to be willing to ask questions and risk sounding stupid or awkward. We have to be willing to bring down our walls and see each other. We all have prejudices. And I mean all of us, whether you’re aware of them or not. And it’s not just across race lines; it’s also within them.

A simple adjustment in awareness is not the answer. We must have a fundamental paradigm shift about how we think of each other as human beings. We have to find a real way to break the psychological divides that create “us” versus “them.” We have to talk. We have to talk. We have to talk!

What would happen if, today, every single one of you said something to spark that conversation? I don’t mean just on social media. I mean in person, in our real lives. Say something inspiring or supportive of the BLM movement. Tell a friend about a moment when you felt prejudiced against someone and why. Talk candidly about what you felt, why you felt it, and how you feel about it now. Explore where you think that feeling came from. Read up on and talk with other white people about what you can do to feel differently. If you are a non-BIPOC, talk about a moment where you’ve felt prejudice from another. Tell a white friend or a black friend how it felt. Tell them how it affected your perspective of life and society.

We all have to start being honest about how racism exists in our lives, even at the micro level. None of us are immune, and that’s okay. We can still do the work to come together to make sure that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC lives matter, so that we can truly stand up one day and celebrate all lives mattering equally.

This is my wish for us: communication and honesty. We have to change on a base level to move forward with integrity. We have to start listening and believing. We have to be brave.

So here’s my story:

I made a quick judgment about a conservative-looking white couple I saw in France last summer. They were wealthy, had southern accents, and fit every box on my list of people to blame for Trump. I assumed they were prejudice against me, which made me want to talk to them… yeah, it’s like that. I was overly polite when I asked them what part of the States they were from and was not surprised to learn they lived near Mar-a-Lago. I was surprised when they turned their chairs and started a lively discussion about how terrible things were back home and how much they looked forward to the next election. In that moment, I knew I had committed the same crime I’d accused them of. I’d judged them and held prejudice against them because of what they looked like. I was humbled by that experience and promised to be better at walking my talk. And I realized the reason I’m often quick to judge people who look like that is because it provides safety for me. If I assume the worst and fortify myself against it, when I’m proven right, it won’t hurt as much. The fact is it always hurts no matter what, and I’ve probably misjudged a lot of people along the way and missed out on enriching conversations. The talk we had with the couple was amazing. The wife even caught our French waiter trying to overcharge us. My heart opened a bit more that day. It really doesn’t take much.

I am so tired of being tired. But I will be back out there anyway, and I will keep talking, and I will keep listening.

Now… your turn.

Start the conversation in your social group. Use the hashtag #mytruecolorstory to start the conversation with the world. I’ve challenged some of you to engage in these discussions already, and I’ve been heartened by your willingness to be vulnerable and lay your experiences on the table. But it’s not enough. We must do more. We must keep the conversation going.

And if you don’t know me, you know someone like me. Reach out to them. Offer your support. They’re waiting for it, and they’re wondering where you are.

Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor. She received her BA in English from the University of Kansas and MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Low Residency program. When not writing, she can be found playing volleyball, her fiddle, and one-sided fetch with her dog, Jacopo. 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end.  We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end?  If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future.  As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance.  We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities.  Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic.  It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.

 This is one of mine.

~~~

As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.

Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.

The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.

Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.

The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.

Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.

Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.

Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.

Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town.  Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.

Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.

The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.

For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no!  She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters.  She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.

Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.

Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.

Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings.  They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.

Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m.  Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.

One Friday night was different.

I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.

Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?

This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!

Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???

My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up.  Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.

Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape.  The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.

Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.

They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.

From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.

Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.

Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.

I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.

I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.

Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.

A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.

We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.

Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t  tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup.  She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil.  She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.

I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.

We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.

When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.

It was the longest trip in the world.

Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.

We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.

That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.

Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle.  I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.

Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.

For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Guest Posts, Racism

Silence is Not An Option

June 12, 2020
option

Black Lives Matter.

Over the past week, The Manifest-Station has been quiet as we watched the world change in reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd. The subsequent flood of similar stories that continue to emerge is horrifying. The overwhelming number of people harmed or worse by a group sworn to protect is sickening. The growing list of names is heartbreaking. Support of it has to end and ending it is not someone else’s problem.

We all own this problem.

Marching, listening, amplifying…all of that is important, but those alone are not nearly enough. As individuals and as a collective, it is imperative we work for change from the inside out and the outside in. We need to learn what it really means for our black and brown friends to try to thrive in this country, we need to unlearn our own assumptions and bias. We also need to demand change and we need to be relentless in our efforts. When people talk about “doing the work” it is not a trope, it is work and it is necessary.

The Manifest-Station is about being human, and we have worked hard for it to be a safe space for words, for all writers. We are committed to continuing the support and amplification of black and brown voices, this includes the work published on the site and elsewhere. We are adding a “resource” page that will feature ways to get educated and involved. In addition, Jen’s instagram feed is filled with actionable items. If we are missing something that should be included, let us know, this is a work in progress.

At The Manifest-Station, we are proud to add our voices to the call for change. Silence is complicity, and frankly, it is not an option. Change is possible, moreover, if we work together it’s coming.

Guest Posts, motherhood

Treasure

May 28, 2020
breathe

By Shannon Lange

He arrived in December of 1987, 4 days before my 23rd birthday.

Tufts of downy black hair sticking up all over his perfect-shaped head, arms pin-wheeling, and fists tightly curled; prepared to fight right from the moment of his birth.

Those early moments and hours of watching his every movement and mood in wonder and fear-emotions in tandem. Flowing from one to the other with every breath we both took and knowing deep inside myself that nothing this beautiful and perfect can last forever. Keeping my face close to his, imbibing in the sweet scent of his neck and feeling tears run down my face as I whispered sweet nothings and loving promises into his tiny seashell ears, with the baby fuzz still intact on the tops of them.

🙢

He calls me one morning a few months back, on a work day. That in and of itself, startles me and immediately causes my stomach to clench and my hands to shake a bit as I grab my phone. My sons are of the generation that text primarily. They send funny memes to me as a means of checking in every few days, but often send them with no personal messages at all- the millennial version of Sunday dinner, I guess.

“Mom- I can’t breathe- something is wrong with me and I’m really fucking scared.”

“What do you mean you can’t breathe? What is going on, where are you, are you ok?”

“Mom, my chest feels tight and hurts and my fingers feel numb and tingly and I feel like I’m going crazy. I am sitting in the parking lot of a strip mall by work and I can’t work today. I can’t be alone and I have my girlfriend’s car and I need to pick her up at the airport in a few hours and I don’t know what to do!”

I tell him that I don’t have my own car on this particular day, as I have given it his younger brother to use. I ask if he wants me to call an ambulance, and I listen to his shaky uneven breathing as he tries to decision-make in the thick of whatever is occurring inside of his body and his brain.

“ I will drive to your place- I’ll be there in 20 minutes, Mom- I can’t be alone. I need you.”

I tell him that he can’t possibly drive in the state he is in, that I want him to stay on the phone with me and breathe, while I use my mother-voice to hopefully calm him down.

He hangs up on me halfway through, telling me he is on his way.

I promise myself that I will not call him back within the next 20 minutes, as I know he will be on at least 2 freeways driving towards my home in the burbs, and that if I call him, he WILL answer the call.

🙢

We are off to the Pediatrician’s office for the 4th time within a 2 month period between his 2nd and 3rd birthdays. He has turned into a daredevil and a constant whirling dervish of energy and impulsivity. He is prone to wildly jumping off furniture and picnic tables and the trunks of people’s cars and from branches of trees that should be light years away from his reach or climbing skills.

His first concussion is still 3 years in his future; his second 4 years ahead.

The pediatrician assesses him for lumps and bumps, bruises and contusions, and then suggests I keep a better eye on him and to hide anything cape-like in appearance, as these mishaps have a common denominator- the capes he ties around his neck. Capes made of tea towels primarily, which I tie or pin on autopilot for him when he brings them to me. I am distracted by his younger brother’s colicky wails during these months, and feel gratitude that he can amuse himself so well in his imaginary pleasures of being a superhero.

I cry tears of relief and shame all the way home from those visits to the pediatrician’s office with my son safely strapped into his car seat in the back of the car. He babbles non-stop in the car with me, telling me about Aladdin and Jafar, Littlefoot and Sara, Falkor and Bastion; also the old man next door that he talks to through the fence in the backyard.

🙢

The year he is 13, the car I am driving is hit by a train and the memory of the scent of him as an infant swirls around me in the wreckage. I am transported back to the promises I made him, and the whispering of sweet nothings into his perfect seashell ears. I babble to myself incoherently and remind myself to breathe as I slither my broken body out the shattered window.

The memory of his scent and the promises made spur me toward survival.

🙢

Three Christmases ago, he is with me in my home. He works with children and youth who are taken into care due to neglect or abuses too horrific to share. He tells me he is on call and will need to step out of the room to privacy if the cell phone he’s holding rings. It rings over and over that day, a constant background sound to the day’s festivities. He is absent more than he is present that day. Even when he is in the rooms with us all, he is not there. His brow is furrowed and he is deep within himself.

He leaves his plate of food mostly untouched and I watch the gravy on the plate in front of his empty chair turn to a gelatinous sludge, while sipping wine.

I make the mistake of commenting that he maybe should have skipped coming, as he has been so preoccupied and absent most of the day- that he couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the gathering.

“Mom, there is an infant that is one day old that is going to be taken away from its mother this evening. I have been on the phone with police and child services and coworkers and hospital social workers, coordinating the details and logistics. I am sorry I ruined your holiday.”

I sit in the chair after he leaves, and feel tears of shame and regret snake their way down my face in the dark like they did all those years ago.

🙢

The year he is 7, he ends up with strep infection and goes into a delirium state. I pull him into the bed beside me, and feel the burning heat coming from within his thin body. I rock him a bit, feeling his rigid limbs slowly relax against the softness of my stomach.  He eventually drifts off into fever dreams and upon awakening, tells me stories of pirate ships and buried treasures and makes me pinky swear I will always remember the location of the buried treasures. He says he will not remember it when we really need it when the bad times come.

He tells me he can save me with the treasures he will bring me.

🙢

The summer of his 13th year, while I recuperate from the accident, he works full time landscaping. We are living in an apartment, with no air conditioning, in the midst of a heat wave. My mother far away has taken my younger son for the summer; I am unable to care for him properly in my broken state.

He goes to work at 6 in the morning and doesn’t come home until the evening, working long hours in the heat like a man, coming home with brown skin and hair bleached by the hot sun.

He asks for my bank card and runs across the street to buy hot dogs or pizza pops or bacon- anything he can find at the convenience store that will feed us both for dinner.

He never complains, cooks for us both and then falls into his bed to rest for the next day.

He tells me that we need to talk about how often I am taking the pain pills and we make a plan together for me to wean myself off of them safely.

I begin to heal.

🙢

He arrives at my home the day of his breakdown and I sit with him.

I bring him cool water and stroke his hair and encourage him to breathe, while I strap my blood pressure cuff to his arm. I watch the numbers on the machine go higher and higher and higher, but tell him in a calm voice that everything will be ok, and just breathe.

My eyes fill with tears he cannot see as the numbers on the machine blur into the ages that my father and my brother died from heart attacks.

He worries about letting the children and his coworkers down and I remind him to breathe.

He worries about picking his girlfriend up at the airport in 3 more hours and I remind him to breathe.

He apologizes for scaring me and bringing his troubles my way and I notice that we are breathing together in perfect sync – slow life-sustaining breaths together.

I take him to my doctor across the street from my home and he tells him it is anxiety and lack of sleep and that he will be ok.

He sits with us both and reassures us that this too shall pass.

🙢

The year he is 15, we have a stupid argument over him not cleaning up after himself.

He is a man now physically and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof as only teenaged boys can.

He has started to lip me back when I scold him about things and I sometimes search desperately to see even a trace of my baby in his angular features. I need it to remind myself that this isn’t some random male yelling in my house. I am mostly angry that year, for a variety of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with him or his brother. I am in school trying to better myself and my earning potential for all of us, and worrying constantly about keeping food in the house for my sons.

I decide to employ the silent treatment on him, and I go 24 hours or more without speaking to him.

I walk past him in the hall and the kitchen and do not respond to him when he speaks to me.

I am on the computer in the spare room when he walks in and approaches me.

It feels like a Mexican stand-off- him looking tearfully into my eyes and me looking back at him coldly.

“Mom, I can’t take you not speaking to me- it reminds me of when you had your accident and everyone said you were going to die. This is what it would have felt like living without you.”

I took him in my arms on that day and held on for dear life, thinking about the treasures he told me about all those years ago, how he knew he would save me someday, how it all came to pass.

Shannon Lange is an emerging writer and who has worked in healthcare for the last 25 years. She is also the mother of two adult sons, one a film maker, and the other a musician. Shannon and her family value creativity in its many forms, and her dream is to be able to write full time. 

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Guest Posts, Health, motherhood

Promises

January 28, 2020
blood

CW: Stillbirth

By Whitney Lee

Four years ago, the Friday before Mother’s Day, a team of Emergency Department nurses barreled through the double doors of my Labor and Delivery Unit with a term-pregnant woman. It was just before dawn and I had been the physician on call overnight. In anticipation of this woman’s arrival, I’d already shed my white coat and removed my wedding rings––prepared to transport her to the operating room. As the gurney clattered across the linoleum floor, the woman twisted her body and clutched the dome of her abdomen gathering the fabric of a blue hospital gown into her fists.

Throughout the night, bleeding, adhesions, and brand-new babies had stolen my sleep. After twelve hours of standing, gravity pulled blood into the veins of my feet, my ankles, my calves. I felt as if there were weights in my shoes­­––I was tired.

The windows on Labor and Delivery glowed gold. It was a typical Southern California morning––a city with gorgeous yet monotonous weather. Soon, the sun would warm the air, the asphalt, and the enormous seals lethargic on the La Jolla shore. Light would illuminate brilliant fuchsia bougainvillea and the wings of hummingbirds, osprey, and lanky blue heron. All night, I had anticipated the sunrise that would signal the end of my shift and my escape from the hospital.

As the Labor and Delivery nurses rolled the woman into a triage room, the emergency department team explained that her name was Lisa. She was thirty-eight weeks pregnant with two prior cesarean deliveries. Severe pain started at home along with vaginal bleeding.

***

The week before I met Lisa, I’d promised my five-year-old son, Zachary, and my three-year-old daughter, Esmae, I would attend their school’s “Muffins with Mom” breakfast in celebration of Mother’s Day. I am an obstetrician and Obstetrics is a conspicuous thief. It has stolen weekends, my husband’s birthdays, Sundays at church, family dinners, at least two Christmas mornings, Zachary’s first day of kindergarten, and my grandfather’s funeral.

In truth, missing those events and navigating the interruptions was a nuisance but not a burden. I found meaning in my job and possessed a physician’s arrogance: I served a unique role. I felt necessary in a hospital, which provided instant gratification. A baby delivered, a family consoled, a diagnosis made, all justified my absence from home and validated the story I worked to build around my value as a physician and a person.

But the December before my life intersected with Lisa’s, when I came home from work, Zachary asked, “Where were you? All the mommies and daddies were at the Christmas Party but you. Esmae and I had to sit with Jonathon’s mommy.” I imagined my children in a neat, sparse, yet beautiful Montessori classroom filled with tiny versions of common adult items––china tea cups, a blue metal pitcher, glass bowls, a short countertop with a sink. I pictured them still and sad as they both waited for me to stroll through the classroom door. I imagined Zachary and Esmae sitting beside Jonathon’s mother––a woman I’d never met. But I pictured her lovely like calla lilies, ballerina skirts, ivory cashmere, soufflé, ribbons, and monarch butterflies. She wasn’t a woman who wore a pair of bloody scrubs and missed Christmas parties.

I’d sent a plastic container of store-bought oatmeal cookies with Zachary and Esmae that morning––my children’s contribution to the potluck lunch––price tag stuck to the side. The package of cookies was reflection of my approach toward many traditional maternal tasks. I found little value in baking cookies, cakes, or brownies.

***

Lisa twisted her body like a fish on a line. She pulled her knees to her abdomen, and shifted her legs right and left. I leaned over the metal rails of her bed and asked if she had any medical problems. Was her pregnancy complicated? Did she have a surgical history? When was her due date? She provided fractured breathless answers. She asked me to save her baby. She called him Jonah.

Nurses held down Lisa’s arms so they could thread needles into her veins, draw labs, and start intravenous lines. An obstetrics resident quickly rolled an ultrasound machine next to Lisa’s bed. I positioned the probe on her abdomen then gazed at the black and white image on the screen.

A baby’s heart pumps twice as fast as an adult’s. In a healthy baby, on ultrasound, the mitral and tricuspid valves, the flaps of tissue that separate the chambers of the heart, open and close in rapid succession like the wings of a starling. Rapidity offers reassurance. But the myocytes, the cells that coordinated the muscle of Jonah’s heart, were starving for oxygen. They had lost the energy and strength to beat, thus they failed to pump blood through his body. His heart contracted then fell open in a slow and labored motion. Jonah was dying.

With the tone and intensity of a drill sergeant, I instructed the charge nurse to call a Code Purple. In our hospital, like a Code Blue, Code Purple meant a life was at risk––that someone, in this case Jonah, may die without immediate intervention. The code alerts anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses, and scrub techs, to hustle, run, dash through corridors and up the stairs, toward the operating room.

I maneuvered the foot of Lisa’s gurney out of the triage room toward the operating room. The resident ran next to me and a nurse sprinted ahead of us opening three sets of double doors at various points along the path to our destination. As we rushed through the corridors, I directed the nurse to call the blood bank, call the NICU, explain to them that Lisa was abrupting­­.

An abruption meant that inside Lisa’s body, the arteries that connected her uterus and her placenta, the source of oxygen, to her baby, were shearing apart. Blood surged from both maternal and fetal vessels and spilled into her uterus, which clamped down like a vice in protest. This contraction was the source in Lisa’s unrelenting pain. Like all pregnant women, a half a liter of blood flowed through Lisa’s uterine vessels per minute. The bleeding was torrential. She and Jonah were hemorrhaging to death.

***

I had planned to leave the hospital at 8 o’clock that Friday morning. I would get to Esmae and Zachary’s school by 8:30 a.m., when the Mother’s Day celebration would begin. At that time, Zachary and Esmae would be choosing chocolate chip or blueberry muffins, opening their cartons of milk, and taking their seats at short square tables.

Every day that week, my children reminded me of the event and every day I promised them I had not forgotten. They excitedly described the details of all the presents they made for me: popsicle stick picture frames, ceramic necklaces, cards, and painted boxes.

***

Outside the operating room, the obstetrics resident handed me a surgical cap and mask. As I tugged the gauzy blue bouffant over my hair and tied the mask behind my head and the nape of the neck, I pushed through doors and passed the scrub sinks. Those sinks would remain silent––no hum of the plumbing, no water spraying on steel. We would not wash our hands. In emergent cases, sterility transforms from a necessity to a luxury.

Inside the operating room, a team of anesthesiologists and nurses moved Lisa onto the operating table. The pediatrics team set up equipment needed to resuscitate Jonah. A scrub tech opened a rectangular metal box, removed instruments and laid them on a sterile blue table––a scalpel handle, Kelly and Alice clamps, hemostats, Richardson retractors, bladder blade, Debakey forceps, Ferris-Smith forceps, Russian forceps, Adson forceps, Bovie tip, needle drivers, Metzenbaum and Mayo scissors.

I ignored Lisa’s cries and questions. There was no time to address them and I had no answers. I ran through a surgical checklist in my mind. I asked if we had antibiotics in the room. I positioned huge circular lights over Lisa. Then I picked my surgical gown off the back table, stretched my arms through the sleeves, and pulled gloves over my hands. There was no time to count instruments and no time to scrub Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa and Jonah’s condition forced us to start the case without performing the rehearsed rituals associated with almost every surgery.

A nurse tied the back of my gown. Another nurse opened two bottles of betadine and squeezed them onto Lisa’s abdomen––a crude, rapid, and likely ineffective way of sterilizing her skin before I cut through it. The brown liquid pooled in her umbilicus, spilled over her belly, then dripped down her pale flanks like a massive ink blot. The scrub tech passed me the blue surgical drape. In a synchronous motion the resident and I unfolded it over Lisa’s abdomen.

Then I paused. I could not start the surgery––I could not slice into Lisa’s skin––until medications rendered her unconscious. It took energy to alter the inertia I had set into motion. I shivered because a cold sensation grew and spread across my body––the sort of cold that comes when wind pulls sweat from your skin. I shivered because adrenaline zipped through my blood vessels teasing the muscles I worked to keep still. The commotion in the operating room had ceased. I heard Lisa’s cardiac monitor chirp. I folded my arms across my chest and bent my right leg then my left to the rhythm of her heartbeat––a subtle sway.

The anesthesiologist pushed Propofol, a thick white anesthetic, into intravenous tubing that snaked into Lisa’s arm. When her body relaxed, I peered over the blue surgical drape. He slipped a tube into her throat. “Go,” he said.

The resident pulled a scalpel over Lisa’s skin, cutting down to her fascia with one clean swipe, then handed the instrument back to the scrub tech. We hooked our fingers through two small nicks in the silver and white fibrous tissue that held Lisa’s abdomen together. We leaned back with all of our weight bending at the knees like water skiers. The force ripped open her abdomen. I split Lisa’s rectus muscles then felt the warmth of her abdominal cavity as I pushed my index finger through her peritoneum––a thin glistening membrane that draped over her organs.

The swirling muscle of Lisa’s uterus should have been pink. Instead, like India ink, shades of purple and black spread and diffused across its surface. Blood had seeped from her placenta into the centimeter of muscle that separated Jonah from me. The scrub tech placed a scalpel back into the resident’s open hand. Then he incised the lower portion of Lisa’s uterus entering the space where Jonah had thrived and grown for thirty-eight weeks. A tide of blood tinged amniotic fluid spilled from the incision, over Lisa’s abdomen, splashed onto the floor, soaked the bottom of my scrubs, shoes, and socks. The resident grasped each side of the uterine incision then pulled it open.

A blood clot, the size of a cantaloupe, erupted from Lisa’s uterus. I reached down into her pelvis, wrapped my hand around the top of Jonah’s head and pulled it up to the incision. The remainder of his slippery body followed with ease. Sixty seconds had passed from the time of Lisa’s skin incision to Jonah’s delivery.

Jonah’s dusky arms and chubby legs hung from his body motionless. He did not cry or gasp. His face did not grimace, his mouth remained still, gaping, and blue. I held his flaccid body in my hands. “Oh God,” I thought. “He’s dead.”

The resident clamped Jonah’s thick rubbery umbilical cord with two Kelly clamps and cut it with a pair of heavy scissors. Then I placed Jonah into the arms of the pediatrician. She carried him to the neonatal warmer, rested a stethoscope on his chest, and announced, “No heart beat.” Meanwhile Lisa’s uterus was failing to contract and the thousands of the spiral arterials that supplied her uterine muscle gaped open spilling blood into her pelvis, turning the surgical field into an opaque red lake. The resident sewed and stitched with a swift mechanical motion while I soaked up and swept away blood with white laparotomy sponges. Lisa had already bled enough to consume most of her clotting factors––proteins that achieve hemostasis. The more she bled, the more her body consumed the factors, and the less her blood clotted. In this situation, the only treatment is transfusion. Unless we replaced Lisa blood faster than she lost it, she would never stop hemorrhaging.

In the corner of the room, the pediatricians worked to save Jonah. They pushed epinephrine, performed chest compressions, and announced time, “One minute, no heart rate. Five minutes, no heart rate. Ten minutes, no heart rate. Fifteen minutes, no heart rate. Twenty-five minutes, no heart rate. Time of death, 7:10.”

Lisa continued to hemorrhage. I compressed her uterus in my hands slowing the bleeding while we repleted her blood and clotting factors. With my hands in Lisa’s pelvis, I asked one of the nurses to contact my husband, “Tell him my kids cannot go to school today.” I would not leave the operating room in time to make it to their school. I could not bear the thought of Zachary and Esmae waiting for me.

The morning Jonah died, no one reached my husband. Zachary and Esmae waited in their classroom. They waited with ceramic necklaces, popsicle stick picture frames, handmade cards, and homemade boxes. They each picked a muffin for themselves and they picked one for me. My kids did not know I saved a woman’s life. They did not know that Jonah died. And to them, those truths did not matter.

When I finally finished the case and stabilized Lisa, she woke, then asked about Jonah. I said nothing. Though I knew the inside of her body, though I had worked to keep her alive, though I held her son as he died, I did not know Lisa and she did not know me. We were strangers. She deserved to have someone else, someone closer to her, unveil the devastation.

As the anesthesiologist transferred Lisa to the Intensive Care Unit, I lumbered out of the operating room. My back hurt. My jaws were tired from clenching my teeth. My eyes had grown heavy.

Outside, the morning was ablaze and dust sparkled in the sunlight as it stretched through windows and across the hospital floor. The day-shift obstetrician, a colleague, had taken over the unit. He met me at the nurses’ station. As I approached, he opened his arms to hug me. I rested my forehead on his shoulder, then cried. We were not close friends. We did not confide in each other. We did not eat lunch together. But the pain we experience as obstetricians in the midst of losing a baby is universal.

After I settled, I collapsed in a chair. The rest of the world moved as it would any other Friday morning. Residents managed the laboring patients––flitting in out of rooms. Nurses wove through the unit. Pregnant women waited at the front desk to check into triage. Someone had abandoned a travel mug on the counter next to me. My white coat draped over the back of the chair where I sat. Monitors tweeted as they recorded fetal heart rates. Like a culture shock, I reeled from the contrast of the mundane world outside the operating room with what I had just experienced inside of it.

A social worker called from the Intensive Care Unit and informed me that Lisa knew Jonah had died. I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to Lisa. Through the glass doors of her room, she saw my pink scrubs, and panicked. I heard her say, “Don’t let her in here. She killed my baby.”

I bent over, put my hands on my knees and worked to catch my breath. I neglected my children who waited at an oak table with a muffin at an empty seat intended for me. I failed to keep my promise to them. For what? A dead baby? A critically ill mother? Painful accusations? This was an excruciating trinity. I found no solace or explanation for that morning. I dissolved into despair while Lisa suffered and grieved.

***

Four years after I delivered Jonah, on Mother’s Day, I wore a bracelet Esmae constructed out of clunky foam geometric beads and a pipe cleaner. She had asked me to promise I’d wear it all day, even to work. With great joy, I wore the bracelet. But after Jonah died, I quit making promises to my children because I break them. They forgive me. But I fail to offer that grace to myself. So, I don’t make promises.

But on that Mother’s Day, with Esmae’s awkward bracelet dangling from my wrist, I opened my laptop. Lisa’s name was in my email inbox. She had found me and sent a message. With reluctance, I opened it.

What waited for me was a great deal of peace. Lisa explained that she now had solace on Mother’s Day. The memories of Jonah were more of a celebration than a source of pain. I have always loved Lisa and Jonah in my own way. I bore witness to Jonah’s life and then death. I knew Lisa in the midst of excruciating pain. But I believed she would never understand how her story affected me as a mother and a physician. Yet, in her message, she acknowledged my pain and thanked me for enduring it so I could continue to take care of women like her. She shared that she only had to face the death of a baby once but knew as long as I practiced obstetrics, the tragedy would not end for me. Then, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.

Names have been changed. This essay first appeared in The Rumpus.

Whitney Lee is Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a memoir about a physician’s experience with death.

 

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

empty nest, Guest Posts, motherhood

Undone

November 18, 2019
cab

By Peg Conway

The unraveling began after we finished dinner at a Thai place in Lincoln Park. Our young adult son, his girlfriend, and another friend — all Chicago residents — had joined my husband and me for a drink at our hotel’s rooftop bar before riding together to the restaurant. After we feasted on sushi, stir fry, and bottles of wine, I expected more chatting outside during the wait for our separate transportation, a relaxed goodbye that would manage tectonic shifts beneath the surface where molten emotion simmered. Two weeks before, Michael had informed us that he and Kathryn will be moving in together this summer when their current leases expire.

Instead, I had barely exited the restaurant when a random cab appeared at the curb. Kathryn turned to Michael and said, “Should we just take this?” In the next instant, they hugged us in thanks and piled in the back seat. Michael waved and said, “See you tomorrow!” as the cab pulled away. Suddenly void of their youthful vibrance, the neighborhood became sinister.

Just as abruptly, my switch flipped, and I launched a tirade about the cavalier behavior of our son and his friends. “‘Well, dinner’s over, so let’s take this cab.’ Leaving us alone on the street corner!”

“They probably thought our Uber was on the way,” Joe said, his face angled toward his phone as he tapped out a ride request.

Perhaps, a tiny corner of my brain suggested, they treated us as they would their friends, assuming competence to summon our own transport. Pacing the sidewalk, impatient for our ride, I was not yet ready to listen to that rational voice. Finally, our driver did a U turn to pull up in front of us. I ranted softly about the slow Uber response, the traffic, and then the loud crowd in the bar as we crossed the hotel lobby, rode the elevator to the 7th floor, and entered our room. I imagined sending Michael a snarky text: “Safely back at hotel. Not that you cared.”

Then, suddenly deflated, I rejected the idea. I did not want negativity to define the evening or ruin the next day, the final one of the trip before our return home to Cincinnati. Standing rooted in place, I covered my face with my hands as tears leaked from my eyes and my breath came in gulps. The feelings that combusted there on the street corner came from something. What was it?

*****

Back when I was our son’s age, at another street corner in a different Midwestern downtown, early on a June morning, I prepared to make a right turn in my car, having just dropped off my friend Bitsy at work, when suddenly I heard a terrible, terrible THUMP half a block behind me.

“NO! Please, no!” I said aloud to myself, but I knew someone had hit her.

Without thinking, I stopped my car, jumped out, and there she was, lying in the middle of the street, her purse and tote bag beside her. I watched her attempts to get up, a dazed, almost vacant look on her face, but she was unable to muster all the necessary motions to stand. Bystanders were already gathering. A woman crouched next to her, a hand placed lightly on Bitsy’s shoulder. Stiff with fear, I forced my legs to walk over there. As sirens became audible in the distance, I realized I should notify her parents and ran into the bank to use the phone. Then I went to the fourth floor and recruited a co-worker to accompany her in the ambulance.

The two of us returned to the street in time to see Bitsy being placed on a stretcher. The sight of her in a cervical neck collar made my knees feel weak. “I really have no idea how seriously she’s injured,” I thought. I waited until the ambulance departed before returning to my car – which I’d left unlocked with the keys in the ignition and my purse on the front seat – and drove the few more blocks to my own office, where there were client projects to wrap up in preparation for flying out that afternoon on vacation with my brother.

The anxiety of not knowing the extent of her injuries numbed my limbs and tightened my chest, and I could not concentrate on the tasks I needed to accomplish. Neither could I overcome the fear of actually finding out what had happened. Seeing my distress, my colleague called the emergency room and obtained concrete facts: broken leg, broken nose, bruises and contusions, teeth damage. Bitsy was banged up, but she would heal. My exhale of relief released trembling and a few tears, clearing my mind enough to focus.

Several times during the trip, I called Bitsy’s family to receive updates on her surgery to insert a rod in her leg and her general well-being. Back home afterward, I began to notice how lost and empty I felt inside, as if I were falling through space. Perhaps it was the letdown brought on by the stress-laden vacation, but this inner void persisted. The sensation seemed out of proportion to Bitsy’s condition and in comparison to how others were handling it, but also strangely familiar in a way I couldn’t quite identify. I wept intermittently for no apparent reason, and my clothes grew loose as I dropped weight.

*****

During our afternoon in Chicago with Michael, Joe and I attended a middle school boys’ basketball game at a YMCA where he and his friend coached. The impetus for our weekend trip was to witness something of his life. The pounding of the basketballs on the gym floor, the loud whine of the horn, the piercing tweet of the referee’s whistle and the shouts of players and parents, all of it mirrored Michael’s grade school playing days. The opponents sank a bunch of outside shots early and were up by 15 points at the half, but the momentum shifted in the second and they were tied at the end of regulation. Michael and Fran’s guys went on to win by 4 in overtime, a major accomplishment for them.

Kathryn joined us in the row of metal folding chairs by the sidelines part way through the first half, and we chatted easily for the rest of the game, eventually striking up conversation with the parents on our left.

“Who is your child on the team?” they queried.

Our response — “The coach!” — evoked chuckles all around, but the interaction brought an empty feeling. Being at this game choked me up with happy memories of the past, but also sparked mourning for the present. I enjoyed watching the basketball, because of Michael’s involvement. It was something we had shared during his growing up. Now it wasn’t the same. He was out of college, working, living his own life. We were truly just spectators.

*****

Soon after Bitsy’s accident, I connected the lost and lonely feelings to another traumatic early morning, years before during childhood. It was late autumn during second grade, and my dad entered the pink-walled room I shared with my sister. His distinctive wavy black hair, normally combed smoothly back from his forehead and temples, looked tousled, and his blotchy face, eyes red-rimmed, made my throat constrict. “Well, kids, we have an angel in the family,” he said quietly, his voice cracking as he finished.

“Mom?” I whispered, launching into his arms sobbing even before he nodded yes. Soon after, I left his lap saying, “I need to get ready for school,” but Dad said we wouldn’t be going to school that day. Down in the kitchen I discovered my mom’s parents cooking breakfast. My aunt arrived shortly after. Their presence at our house on a weekday morning when I should be at school heightened my sense of wrongness. My insides felt empty, like I was floating in space, untethered. I had known she was sick and in the hospital, but no one had said the word “cancer” aloud to me. I sat in my older brother’s lap sucking my thumb as the grown-ups conversed in subdued tones.

A few days later, we stood silently at the church entrance watching the smooth unfolding of the metal stand on which the casket was placed after its removal from the hearse. Walking in procession behind the rolling casket down the long church aisle as organ music boomed, I noticed my classmates all seated together in the first few pews of the far left section. I felt glad to see them but funny about it too, the first taste of being motherless as setting me apart from other people, somehow different in a basic way.

*****

Standing there in the Chicago hotel room, the mother of a grown-up son, I confronted the specter of long-ago loss that had surfaced like it always did when life presented a transition. The feelings were the same whether it was moving to a new house or being the last to leave a social gathering or watching as a beloved child flourishes independently. I want so much to be “over it,” but the truth is that childhood loss never ceases to reverberate.

Of course things evolved as Michael became an adult. In theory I hoped that he would find someone to share his life, but this juncture has arrived sooner and in a different manner than expected. It was normal, but I was not. Broken by mother loss, I was inadequate to the task of letting go while also staying connected in meaningful ways. I’d come to understand that such harsh self-criticism pushed me to the periphery, creating the very separation that I fear. Over the nearly three decades since Bitsy’s accident shattered my defenses, this emotional cycle has played out hundreds of times. Circumstances trigger an outburst, followed by self-recrimination and then trembling vulnerability as the acute phase ebbs.

Now I asked Joe to hold me. He hugged me tight, saying little, and the physical contact broke the spell. Tears fell softly. My breathing slowed. My body anchored to the ground again. I returned to the present, knitted back into relationships, to a kinder self-understanding. It’s ok. It’s always part of you. Just let it be there. You’re ok. Breathe.

The storm’s passing washed clean my perspective to reveal the ways that Michael maintains family ties. In reality, he calls home often, and besides welcoming us in Chicago, he visits Cincinnati regularly. Though I miss him being nearby, I am not abandoned. Our relationship is not over; it’s changing. My task is to nurture this new stage gently, like a seedling, allowing it time to strengthen as it emerges and trusting the growth process.

“See you tomorrow,” Michael had said earlier from the cab, words that now resounded with hope and possibility.

Peg Conway’s memoir of early mother loss is out on submission, and an excerpt has been published at The Mighty. Her writing has appeared in America and US Catholic magazines, including an article that received Honorable Mention from the Associated Church Press, and online at Energy magazine and Feminism and Religion. She lives in Cincinnati, OH, and can be found on Twitter @peg_conway. Learn more at pegconway.com.

 

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, Young Voices

Amanda

October 8, 2019
coach

By Mary Clark

When I started texting my coach, I’d had a crush on him for two years. By the time things started with us, he was coaching a younger team. He started lending me things. I would find him after practice to return his copy of Brave New World or his first generation iPod, texting him later, “I like Animal Collective the best.”

I went to his house one warm morning for a date. We stuck our feet in the pool and joked about the legality of kissing each other. We asked, “Is this legal… is this?” as we leaned in closer to each other, or brushed our feet together in the water. We went inside to watch Ponyo and eat scrambled eggs from a bowl.

He often said formal things like “thanks for coming over” and “anime is my favorite genre.” At one point, as we sat close to each other on the couch, I farted and immediately turned to stone. I sat as still as I could, like a kid imagining I could make him believe nothing happened. No one said anything, but later he laughed too hard when a fish in the movie farted and a bubble floated to the surface of the water.

His roommate came home briefly and no one knew what to make of anything, so no one said anything beyond “nice to meet you.” I also gave a low nervous wave with the hand that wasn’t holding his under a pillow in my lap. Obviously, I wasn’t the loser in this situation, but how could I have known?

Later, I broke up with him, because one night a younger boy said to me, “I know I’m not unbiased in this situation, but I think that guy’s pretty much a creep.” I was convinced. Sam was more interesting and had already read Brave New World and was 17, not 27.

The coach and I had a date at the drive-ins that night, and when I showed up, he had two grocery bags worth of a picnic and a huge smile on his face. He brought cups for sparkling lemonade. I almost lost my mind. At that age, when I had to tell someone something horrible, I cried first so there was no getting out of it. He never took his hand off the parking brake while I told him I was done by saying, “You know that guy I went to homecoming with, remember him?”

He cried so hard and for so long I almost missed my curfew. He texted me that he loved me, that he had cried all night. A few weeks later he mailed a DVD of Ponyo to my parents’ house. I saw his tiny neat handwriting on the package in the mailbox. Thank god it was me who found it. Later, after I told my mom my secret, she told me that she wouldn’t tell my dad because he would have fought him. I thought that was ridiculous, but now, when I think about his tiny all- caps handwriting, I kind of want to fight him too.

When the roommate left the house that day of our first date, our knees touched each other’s on the couch. We had already kissed the weekend before at a First Friday downtown. I met him outside of a Spaghetti Warehouse, ostensibly to say hello. I said, “I just came from practice” and he said, “It smells like it.” Then we moved our heads around until we were kissing. It felt like kissing a brick wall. The kiss of a guy trying not to get arrested.

I changed his name in my phone to Amanda, as in, “A man, duh.” I loved that he was a man.

I went to his house after taking the SATs. He cut up an apple for a snack that we ate in his bed, before I gave him head for the first time. I hobbled naked to the bathroom for toilet paper. It was actually his parents’ house. I slipped on my green boots and drove away in the rain feeling proud of myself.

When I think about the way he looks I remember what a folk singer said about her ex-boyfriend. She said he looked like everyone she’d ever known. Walking around, I see a constant stream of similarly medium-sized sandy men with big arms and small noses.

On that first hang, at his own second-story brick apartment, we made out in his room where he had one framed Wes Anderson poster and man-themed bedding. I slept in all of my clothes on my side with a stomach ache.

My back had been tight for a few weeks, no doubt an athletic injury, and after being spooned all night by a man, I woke up feeling like I had been bent in half backwards. My mom was picking me up for church at 10. I told her I was getting breakfast with a friend, I’d meet her on the corner. I got into the car and could barely sit down. It felt like my body was strapped to a board, and I could barely bend my knees. My mom said I must have slept funny. I cried and asked if I could go home, but my mom said people were expecting me in the nursery where I worked.

When I got there, I could barely pick up the smallest baby, a recently adopted Russian orphan who was afraid of everyone except me. I tried to put her down, but she dug the plastic heels of her tiny Mary Jane’s into my back, pinching my skin and my nerves. I finally sat her down, and went to the bathroom to stand still and to cry.

Through my tears, I thought with relief, “Maybe now I can quit soccer.”

Mary Clark is a poet and fiction writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma currently living in Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA in 2015 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. Mary currently works as a nanny, and volunteers with the Prison Education Project.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Divorce, Guest Posts

Answering the Call

August 14, 2019
oprah

By Audra Carmine

My current divorce coping strategy– I walk my dog, I cry and I listen to Oprah Winfrey’s Supersoul Conversations on headphones so that no one will talk to me. My husband and I are on our second separation, and we aren’t even actually divorced yet.  There’s still time for a few more break-ups, a few more punches to the heart, and honestly, there’s a chance I’d totally do it again, get back together, be reckless like that. Say the word, almost ex-husband, and I’d jump back in, heart on my sleeve, divorce papers burning in my wake. If anyone ever told you that divorce is clean cut and the best decision they ever made, well, I am not that person. And the world needs to hear from more than just the people whose divorces served as an instant reincarnation machine, a propeller toward success, a doorway to a life they never dreamed they could have lived. I kinda want to punch that person in the face. Because the truth is, I long for my marriage. I long for it in a way that feels like an addiction. I yearn. I crave. I have withdrawls. I sweat it out. I ache. I fantasize, I idealize. I want to recreate that first blissful hit of togetherness over and over again. My abandonment issues have never been louder, and no matter how many pictures I see of happy divorced women with surfboards and small dogs living in LA, I just don’t buy it. I’m not there yet. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing

I Diagnose Other People for a Living, but No One Can Diagnose Me

July 15, 2019
surgery

By Melissa Neff

My psychology career has been devoted to helping other people learn about themselves. But when chronic back pain usurped my life, no one could tell me what was wrong with my back, or how to fix it.

As a psychologist in private practice, I divide hours into 15-minute segments, punctuated by the beep of a timer and my client’s choice of Batman or emoji stickers. A few weeks ago, I handed Jaden, an energetic and wiggly 6-year-old, a pile of putty to fidget with as we waded through an IQ test. Through a projective storytelling task, I learned what monsters were hiding under his bed, and what type of laser proton field he plans to construct to keep them out.

When Jaden’s parents return for the results, I explain, “Assessment is like pieces of a puzzle. Each test tells me something about your child.” Test by test, I plot out Jaden’s abilities relative to other kids his age on a giant white board, dotting his exceptionalities and weaknesses in purple marker. “He can solve 8th grade math equations, and he is smart enough to grasp that one day he will die; however, this thought, which most 6-year-olds can’t yet contemplate, terrifies him. So, he has constructed a laser field as a way of coping with demons that he does not yet understand.”

I inundate Jaden’s parents with labels – Gifted, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder – labels which do not define him, but which describe him so we can strategize how to best help him. When Jaden’s parents leave my office, I want them to understand their child better. I want them to feel supported and validated about what they’ve always known to be true about their child, which often, no one else saw or believed. I want my clients to have answers.

Like many psychologists, I have, too, have spent some time on the other side of the couch. Like Jaden, I, too, have been plagued by anxiety. When I was still healthy, I spent nearly every day running and dancing and hiking those thoughts away until they melted into a pool of sweat at the back of my tank top.

But all of that changed six years ago, when I twisted my left foot the wrong way while shaking my booty to Rihanna during a high-intensity dance class. When my foot didn’t heal, the podiatrist shoved it in a boot for two months, which slanted my pelvis and led to a gradual stabbing in my low back that didn’t remit when the boot came off. I began to curse the Devil Spot, the dwelling inside my low back where it felt as if tiny trolls were stabbing me from the inside, punishing me for a transgression they had yet to reveal.

No matter how much stretching and resting and icing I did, the Devil Spot nagged at me, pleading to be heard like a tantruming child. Its screams grew louder and louder until they were all I could hear. Pain eclipsed my every waking moment, and suddenly, I became one of 25 million people in America with chronic pain. At work, I couldn’t stand up and talk to my clients for longer than 3 minutes. At home, it was all I could do to not toss a spatula across the kitchen, infuriated that I couldn’t stand for long enough to sauté a goddamn pan of broccoli.

I threw all of my free time and savings into rehab. I just wanted to dance again, to run again, to feel my body sherpa up and down mountainous hiking trails the way it was made to. My osteopath glided and jerked my left leg until my pelvis straightened, explaining in carpenter-speak how a normal pelvis should connect to the spine without jamming. My chiropractor jerked me back into place, asked me for my copay, and rushed me out the door. After each adjustment, I slid back into crookedness, but I kept going back for more because I didn’t know what else to do. My physical therapist urged me to try water aerobics. After about fifteen minutes doing low kicks with the 80-year-old women in my class, the Devil Spot detonated, forcing me to hobble out of the pool in tears.

Pain became the only thing I could think about. Nothing I did to stop it helped. In fact, every intervention seemed to generate more pain. The only thing everyone agreed on was that I should avoid back surgery. Failed back surgery is so common that it has its own diagnostic code.

Months passed. Years passed. For a while, I sought relief instead of fixes. I tried every type of massage –Hawaiian Lomi Lomi, deep tissue, and Rolfing. I begged Chinese doctors to poke my feet with long acupuncture needles. I asked a woman who saw angels to clear up energy from my past lives. The stabbing would relent for a day or two, but never more. So, I stopped. I stopped getting adjustments. I stopped trying to hike. I stopped at my third physical therapist. I stopped having dinner parties. I stopped getting invited to dinner parties. I stopped having sex or only had it in the dark, where I could covertly wince.

More months passed. Each day, I averaged about a 7 on the pain scale. My stomach ached from popping Ibuprofen like Tic Tacs, but I needed them to get me through the day. I hated my life. I hated my job. I hated myself. I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize, a person whose fat clothes didn’t fit, a person who got her only endorphins from Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards. I needed answers. I needed to find someone like me, someone who would sit with my images, get out their white board, and contemplate my symptoms until they morphed into the correct diagnosis and paved a road towards treatment. I didn’t care anymore that this might mean someone drilling my spine apart, filleting me like a fish, and rebuilding me piece by piece. I was out of money and patience, controlled by something I couldn’t get under control no matter how hard I tried.

Dr. Keller, my pain doctor, agreed that it was time to consult with surgeons, who are known for their diagnostic precision.

Surgeon Number One suggested there might be a tear in my disc.

Surgeon Number Two diagnosed sacroiliac dysfunction. If he just literally could nail together my pelvis to my spine, it would become less mobile and less painful, he said.

Surgeon Number Three, the arrogant one who I was sure would break the tie, turned around slowly in his leather chair and said, “I’m not sure why you’re here. There’s nothing wrong with your back.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“There’s no surgery I would do on your back, because it’s totally fine.”

The tears I’d been holding back busted through, my face opening into a floodplain. “It’s fine? Then why am I in so much pain? Why does my back stab so badly that I can I barely stand, or concentrate? Why can’t I ride in a car for longer than an hour? Why can’t I get through Costco without an automated cart?”

“You just need physical therapy.”

“I’ve tried that. Three times, with three different therapists. It hasn’t worked.”

“Acupuncture can also help.”

“I’ve tried that. Twice. Didn’t work.” I breathed back the snot dripping from my nose. When he didn’t offer me a Kleenex, I wiped it away with my sleeve.

“Do you think there’s a tear in my disc?” I asked. “That I need a fusion?”

“No.” But he leaned in closer as he noticed my tears.

“You know, I’ve had some patients with similar pain. You know what helped them? Therapy. They go see a therapist, talk a little bit about their family, and in three, four months – their pain goes away.”

Clearly, this asshole had omitted reading the check-box where I’d listed my profession as “psychologist,” implying that I know something about this stuff. Had he read any of my check-boxes? Was he saying that I was crazy? That I had conjured this problem within my body as a way of dealing with my issues? Had he read the referral from Dr. Keller, who’d shot me with cortisone in my SI joint three times that year, issued me a handicapped parking pass, and sent me to this man for an actual answer?

In my car, my head fell on the steering wheel, dousing it with sobs. I wanted to call my partner to debrief, but what was the point? I was still at the same place, with no answers.

For weeks, I contemplated my choices. I insisted that my doctor perform the dangerous discogram that did, indeed, reveal a tear in my disc. I had a minor surgery to cauterize the disc. But when I started to move again, the Devil Spot ignited and raged on. I blew up balloons with my new physical therapist to pull more air into my left lung in an attempt to align both sides of my body. I let a different physical therapist put her finger in my vagina, inspecting my pelvic floor for tightness. I tried new medications. I cut down my hours at work. I forced myself to meditate. None of it helped.

Left without a clear direction, I made a radical choice: to have a surgery that wouldn’t fix the problem, but which would mask the pain. An implanted spinal cord stimulator would send soothing signals to my brain to divert it from the perception of pain. I scheduled the surgery, but my insurance required me to have a psychological evaluation first. After laughing my ass off at the irony, I drove three hours south and sat all day in a fake leather chair like the one I had for clients in my office, checking off answers on personality inventories I’d spent years administering to other people. The psychologist gave the green-light, but on the eve of my surgery, my gut rumbled with uncertainty. Scanning my brain for a last-minute fix, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a friend’s father years ago, who told me that a physiatrist, a doctor of the muscles, had saved him from back surgery. I Googled physiatrists, found Dr. Landon, who was new in town, and told Dr. Keller that I wanted one more consult before moving forward.

In his office a week later, Dr. Landon thanked me for sending him a three-page synopsis with all my provisional diagnoses and every treatment I’d tried. He’d reviewed that and my imaging the night before. He spent two hours asking me a series of rapid-fire questions to rule out all kinds of different disorders. He looked me in the eye and listened to my story. He offered me more Kleenex as I cried. He spent two hours examining my hips, pelvis, legs, and back. He told me that he had a few ideas about what might be wrong, and he labeled them all: Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction. Hip-Back Syndrome. Myofascial Pain Syndrome. He assured me that we would go down each rabbit hole, investigating symptom by symptom until I had my answers. He didn’t have a white board, but he did make a drawing on his iPad explaining how my hips might be causing back pain, which made me consider my symptoms in a new way.

Dr. Landon asked me to postpone surgery until I tried the rehab program he created for me. “I will do my very best to help you,” he said as I left, “But I can’t promise anything.”

In the safety of my car, I simultaneously grinned and sobbed, allowing child-like bawls to crawl up my chest and quake out my lips, loosening my grief like leaves on a tree that had needed a good shake to break free. Finally, I had found someone who would diagnose me with the same level of precision, empathy, and care as I did for my own clients. I always tried so hard not to cry, not to complain, not to ruin conversations by talking about my pain, but hopelessness had become a rock in my chest, hardening around my broken heart.

For the first time since the Devil Spot had made my life a living hell, I felt less alone.

Dr. Landon’s program is working. I can stand for 30 minutes instead of 3. I can do half of an old lady water aerobics class without tears. Last week, I walked into a gentle dance class and grapevined and kicked behind Dolores for ten whole minutes without stopping, and shouted with her along to Huey Lewis. The more I squat and lunge, the stronger the tissue around my disc becomes. I am forcing myself to meditate, and when I sit in silence, I learn things – about the way I sit, the way I stand, the way I don’t take in full breaths, how I hold in stress until it becomes a stabbing pain in my ass. Surgeon Number Three was right, even if he was a jerk about it; I needed to go back to therapy, because how I manage my emotions is a piece of my puzzle.

Twice a week in neurofeedback, my therapist attaches electrodes to the calming center of my brain. Twice a week, I leave feeling less anxious, and in less pain. I am noticing that when I have a bad day at work, the Devil Spot cramps and pulses much earlier than usual. As I lean forward to bear witness to other people’s stories of abuse and abandonment, my muscles clench more with the weight of their stories. When I am a receptacle for other people’s pain, my pain worsens.

In therapy, it is my turn to speak. I tell my therapist the truth: I am no different than my clients. I was born with big feelings, big reactions, big thoughts. I never felt safe expressing them until I met my current partner, who holds me when I cry and does not ask me to stop, who listens to my ideas and loves every part of me that’s big.

It has taken me forty-one years to realize that I’ve spent my entire life putting other people first. As a six-year-old, I became a mother to my mother. After my dad left, she secured two or three jobs at a time to make sure we had Gap jeans and could afford to play after-school sports, but there was no time for cooking, cleaning, or feelings. When I tried to tell my dad how much I missed him on visits, when tears welled up in my eyes and my words grew gummy, he insisted we change the subject because it was obviously upsetting me. For him, I joined clubs and earned scholarships, learned to courageously mute all my big feelings, and championed his marriage to a woman who smiled at me through gritted teeth to ensure that I wouldn’t take up any more of his time. It was the right thing to do – choosing attachment over acceptance meant that I would be supported, loved. When I headed off to a big city college, I felt brave, strong, and independent. By graduate school, I was on my way to becoming a logical, impenetrable adult. I had a life plan: I would help people with their big feelings, and run far up mountains away from my own.

But I didn’t respect myself. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t helping people. I didn’t know that my voice needed to be heard too, until the right people listened. Now, I’ve begun to stop and notice when the pain flares, and ask myself what I am feeling, not feeling, or not saying. I let myself feel it, although I am still learning how to say it.

The more I creep back into my body, which froze with pain until I felt safe enough to learn why, the more I release the trapped emotion from my back and baby the Devil Spot back to life, the less I want labels and procedures. I insist to Jaden’s mother, who cries when I label him with autism, that a diagnosis does not define a person, but is a valuable guidepost – a roadmap – to greater self-understanding. What I don’t say is: I understand. We are all jagged and broken in some places, but if we don’t let our edges come up for air, if we don’t let others see them, hold them, and heal them, they will fester and become unnecessary wounds.

Melissa Neff is a writer and psychologist living in Montana. Her fiction has been featured in WitLit and Wild Quarterly. She is currently writing a memoir about chronic pain and how it has unexpectedly healed her body, mind, and spirit. She is fortunate to spend most of her days supporting her differently wired clients to become their very best selves. You can follow her on twitter at @MelissaNeff17.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Enlightenment at Cross Town

May 14, 2019
town

By Brian Michael Barbeito

All the orange crates are scattered, at the Safeway Supermarket in the rain.
–Van Morrison, St. Dominic’s Preview, It’s too Late to Stop Now.

I didn’t have a mind then. I should have perhaps had a mind by then. I was in kindergarten. I went to a school called Our Lady of Fatima, which as I think about it, is nice enough, because later I became on my own terms a sort of Marian devotee. There was a church adjacent to or very close to the school. At midnight mass I would look up and there was for some reason I can’t discern, a ceiling painted with noodle designs, like macaroni and cheese before the cheese is added. I just stared at the noodles. For more than an hour. Midnight mass, which means Christmas Mass for the uninitiated, is longer than an hour. Or at least there is it ran longer. A feeling of depth or spirit was around, but it didn’t have so much to do with the church. Or maybe it did. I didn’t call it ‘A feeling of depth or spirit,’ because I didn’t know what those words meant, and I hardly, if ever, really spoke. They thought a bit earlier on than that, that I was deaf, or partly deaf, and that maybe that was why I didn’t speak. But I was tested by the doctor, and came out all right. So it wasn’t a physical thing. Before that, I had an apgar rating of 9, which is not bad. And a slight heart murmur, not unheard of either. So I checked out. Who is to know? Who can see the whole of any of us, cosmically speaking? One time they took me to a daycare or after school place, and I remember someone saying, He doesn’t talk, and the lady that ran it said in a kind but confident response. He will learn to talk here, as he will have to, because there are other kids and he just will.

I never said a word while I was there.

 But the school and the playground and Cross-town. There isn’t much I remember, but there are some things. There was at the playground races to the fence and back, and there was a kid named Johnny who used to run it pretty well. I did okay, but was in the middle of the pack. He was always first or second. I said in my mind, If Johnny can do it, I can. And I kind of trained myself to get better and better. It worked you know. Man. I really got up there through the time. I could lie and say I beat Johnny, and I was a hero or something, but that didn’t happen. I do know I tied him once, and it wasn’t that anyone really noticed, but I showed myself some inner and outer stamina.

I always remembered that.

Somewhere, anyhow.

Years later I changed high schools, from a wealthy area, all the way back to that area, which was not affluent but not poor, but a kind of middle-regular place. That as they say is another story. But when I was there this guy called me over to a table a little time in, and he was with this pretty girl, but the girl was not to become a good friend of mine, but an acquaintance. And the guy a sort of friend, just a bit on past an acquaintance, but not a friend-friend-friend. So I say, What? And the guy comes with this,

I and my friend are having a bet. She seems to think that she remembers you from Kindergarten class, and I say maybe, but aren’t sure. I know this sounds funny but she brought in our class picture and we were discussing it. She says yes, that this person here is you, and I say maybe. Could you tell us if you went to school with us?

So I looked at the picture and saw myself. I said that it was me. And the thing was that he was Johnny, and I told him so, and he remembered that. I had no recollection of the girl, who would be considered gorgeous. It turned out that she spotted me in the picture, but also spotted me for a Big Mac combo at McDonalds one day, and I promised to pay her back. But days went on, though four out of five days I had money in my pocket, it seemed like the days she reminded me to pay her, were weirdly on the exact days I had no money. She became angry, but contained, and thought I was a kind of player or something. Since she didn’t really know me, there was no way to have her know me. So she just began to see me as a liar, which I was technically. But I am not like that. A few years ago I ran a writing group and this poor guy kept coming and so I bought him, (you can’t write this as they say, I know I can’t), a Big Mac Combo each time afterwards, and the other person that ran the group never ever offered to pay. Technically the bill could be split. Gurdjieff has a saying; Nothing shows people up more than money. But yes, the friendship didn’t work out with the girl. She was more mature though the same age, but it also affected her, as in if someone says, She is pretty, and the other person says, Yes, but she knows it.

Going back to kindergarten. I waited after for my grandfather to pick me up. It always seemed a bit overcast, with opaque clouds making up the firmament, and the world seemed grey also. It couldn’t have been like that every single day. But the days I remember were. There was kid with dark hair, and he was singing the lyrics to We Will Rock You, by Queen, and not the chorus, but the beginning lyrics. I remember this. I would much later become a fan of Queen, but at that time I had no idea what the hell he was saying, and he was so intense about it. He was clear and enthralled and intent, sitting on a swing swaying back and forth just a bit while he sang,

Buddy you’re a boy make a big noise
Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on yo’ face
You big disgrace
Kickin’ your can all over the place

I think that song must have just come out and he had an older brother or father that had to have played it over and over. The other kid I remember was blonde, and I can picture him perfectly, but don’t know why. He wore a jean jacket with something yellow on the shoulders, like an intentional patch, and he said it was a disco jacket. He was very proud of this. I for certain didn’t know what disco was. Already the very few people I came into contact with knew much more than I, if even about anything at all.

I just stared into space and waited.

For something.

Then.

I guess for my grandfather.

And in high school.

For what I don’t know.

And even now.

For what I certainly absolutely don’t know.

Because my grandfather is long dead.

But I am still trying to get to Cross Town as it were. At least here. See…sometimes my grandfather when he would arrive (I think he was a little bit late sometimes because he moved slowly), would take me before going home to his house, to a set of little stores at the intersection just down from the school and the church. From what I can remember, I have to bet these were places where they had cheap wares, but good things still. Plates, forks, knives, spoons, cloths, cups, saucers, blankets (not a high thread count but not terribly low either), a set of napkins, a holder for a hardboiled egg, some old pictures of pastoral scenes and a blue sky and a white whimsical cloud and a red barn and maybe a stream and a big boulder there, of course little key chains and maybe there was a guy that cut keys in the back and maybe not.

But I didn’t then see these things like some great or even good observer. I couldn’t register them. I was just there looking at dust motes in the air, or maybe the reflection of light on a counter. And many people are like this, especially in childhood. It is nothing so special. It’s just that that is where we were, in Scarborough, instead of say, Illinois, or St. Petersburg, China, Bahamas, The Yukon Territories, Switzerland, Morocco, South Asia (where the DNA science says I am really from), Key West, Africa, or anywhere else the universe could have placed us.

Quietness inside the door and the store, inside of me, even though the soft sound of winter traffic passes by on Victoria Park, or from St. Clair, the intersecting street.

Windows somehow more on the side of dirty, run-down, but not disgusting or dangerous.

I want to think of cloth, fabrics, and utilitarian items and artifacts.

A worldly person knows what things are for and what they do.

To me, they are then if anything, just worlds of metal, copper, some colors, ceramics, frames, maybe plastics, – yes plastics, there are plastics there somewhere,- red, green, maybe they are parts of cheap umbrellas or rain jackets.

All this under a vague light yellow and a dull light that comes in from the windows.

It’s always like late dusk sad there in a sense, no matter what hour a clock would say.

The world is before night, about to blink off, but it never quite does.

I sense now I think also that something tragic is about to happen,- as if we are on the edge of a car accident, or receiving bad news, witnessing or being in a fire, a flood, a war, even a death of some kind.

But nothing really happens like that and one step is taken then the next and the world goes on.

Nobody ever bought me anything then, like a toy car, a key chain, – something, anything, – but I never wanted anything or thought of it. I was a simpleton, a visitor that didn’t really appreciate the wares one way or the other.

The street soon, – and the signs, and so many cars by the dirty, dirty snow with bits of mud and old leaves. Newspaper boxes, people. The world is so normal to everyone it feels like an alien planet to the young boy.

He doesn’t know lyrics, disco, exactly where he is or what he is.

I looked and looked then back at the stores at Cross-town. I was, not because I was special, but because I was not interfered with or talked to that much, in touch with something. It wasn’t a vision of an angel. I wasn’t a message. It was just Source. There is something when there is no mind yet, and that is what the search for full blown enlightenment is after, that nothingness and everything-ness that is there, always there, that we are, but that is obscured by the mind, even though the mind is by definition part of it because it is all One-Thing never begun and never ending. I smelt it, but not with my nose. Maybe it’s like touching the toe nail of God.

How would I explain that to the pretty girl, who bought me McDonalds and thinks I am simple moocher?

I can’t even remember her name anyways.

I wonder if her Grandfather ever took her to Cross-Town.

Brian Michael Barbeito is a Canadian writer, poet and photographer. His recent work appears at Fiction International from San Diego State University, CV2 The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, and at Catch and Release-The Columbia Journal of Arts and Literature. Nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and one Best of the Net Award, Brian is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013, cover art by Virgil Kay). He is currently at work on the written and visual nature narrative titled Pastoral Mosaics, Journeys through Landscapes Rural.

https://www.amazon.com/Being-Human-Memoir-Waking-Listening/dp/1524743569/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1539219809&sr=8-1

Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.

emily retreat

Guest Posts, writing

A Writer Changed My Life

May 4, 2019
writer

By Pam Munter

As a writer, I’ve been asked more than once: What book changed your life? My response is always the same: It wasn’t a book. It was a writer who never wrote a book. I wish I could say she was my hero but I barely knew her. Sometimes the most surprising act of kindness can transform a life.

Her name was Clara McClure and her family lived in a white clapboard house across the street from us on eucalyptus-lined Hartzell Street in then-middle-class Pacific Palisades. It was the late 1950s, long before the dawn of cultural feminism. This was the era of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” the traditional family unit writ large. Nobody was a stranger in our neighborhood, full of stay-at-home housewives, including my mother, who frequently met in each other’s homes in the mornings after the husbands and children were gone for the day. They’d drink coffee, smoke their cigarettes and talk about family members and other neighbors who weren’t there. Continue Reading…

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