50 Stories, Week 14: Unbelievable

For the Vietnam veteran who laughed at my husband and I for wearing masks outside…

On Thursday, Jason and I embarked on our first mid-pandemic ‘vacation’ with a road trip to visit his Mom outside of Chicago. The last time we saw his parents was back in December when they visited us in NJ. Well before a pandemic was declared, and before my father-in-law succumbed to COVID-19. After an overnight camping on a Christmas tree farm in Ohio, we made it safely to the town of Frankfort, IL, where Jason lived as a teenager with his family. The town is idyllic. A small historic downtown with restaurants and boutiques, surrounded by both multi-generational family homes and healthy sized mini-mansions with manicured lawns.

As we’re only here for the weekend, we’ve spent most of our time with Jason’s mom, who also had COVID but a mild version from which she has fully recovered. Last night, we ventured downtown to have dinner outdoors at a local restaurant. For Jason and I, living near the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., we are used to seeing most people, inside and out, wearing masks and keeping their distance wherever possible. While Illinois had about seven thousand confirmed COVID deaths, the majority of these were in Chicago and its suburbs so I thought there would be more people in masks but it was solely the waitstaff. (Which was better than a restaurant we stopped at for take-out in Angola, IN where a young woman was serving multiple groups of elderly people inside, neither waitstaff or patrons were masked.) It was our first time out at a restaurant since early March and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.

This morning we decided to take a bike ride along the Old Plank Trail, a nearby 20 mile public trail that runs through the surrounding towns. Jason led the way and kept our pace leisurely as it was building to be another scorching summer day. There was a steady stream of cyclists, runners and walkers along the path, and while everyone was friendly, we were the only ones wearing masks. At one point, we were nearing an intersection where an older gentleman was walking the other direction. I was getting ready to say ‘Good morning,’ when he looked at us, laughed, and said loudly, “Unbelievable!” While I try not to assume that everything is about me – it seemed clear that he was referring to the fact that we were masked, outside. We continued on our way, shrugging our shoulders, and Jason saying to me, “To each their own.”

After a few more miles, it was time to turn around and this time I led the way. Eventually, we were coming upon the same man. I considered saying something as we passed but I’ve been practicing letting things go, so I continued to enjoy the mild breeze created by the simple act of moving in space. After a minute, though, I could sense that Jason was no longer behind me. I looked back and saw that he was stopped, talking expressively to the man who found us unbelievable. I slowly made my way back, trying to ascertain how heated their conversation was getting. By the time I got there, I could see the man clearer – probably in his late 60’s, early 70’s, wearing a green Vietnam veteran t-shirt. I heard him saying how the numbers are incorrect and there is zero chance that we’d spread it. And then Jason said “Even if there is .0001 percent chance, why would we risk that? My father was a healthy 74 year old. He served in the 82nd Airborne and was an FBI agent, and he just died of COVID. Before you laugh at someone wearing a mask outside, maybe consider that they’ve been affected in a way you can’t imagine.” The guy tried to counter, and Jason said neither of them were going to change each other’s minds, so we began riding again. Apparently, Jason had stopped when we approached him on the way back, and asked him point blank if he was laughing at us wearing masks, to which he replied yes because you can’t catch it outside.

I’d recently read a quote about how you don’t always have to speak in a given situation because it wouldn’t change the other person – however, if you don’t say something, it might change you. I’m proud of my man for speaking his heart and mind but I think about this older gentleman, and the many others who are full of both harmless and potentially dangerous opinions during this time of crisis, and I wonder –  what will it take to be both informed and kind to our fellow humans?

Is it because we get old and stuck in our ways, so unmoveable in our beliefs that we fear ‘other?’ I am always saying that won’t happen to me as I age, but perhaps there is something natural about that evolution. And yet, I know people who are significantly older than me that have managed to keep an open mind, to change their opinions when they are presented with new information, and who do their best to give people the benefit of the doubt. 

If you’d asked a younger version of myself if I thought, given the information that currently exists, would I continue to wear a mask outside, I’d probably have said no. Because that’s what we do when we’re young and naive, when we believe that ‘it’ won’t get us or if it does, we’ll be fine. Maybe I would have been right. Maybe there would be zero chance of transmission when we are talking or coughing or laughing or sneezing (allergies!) while outside. But what if I was wrong? Or worse, what if you were? 

If you believe I’m a fool, someone uneducated or incapable of critical thinking… Am I a danger to you if I’m the one wearing a mask? 

No, I’m not. 

So why the need to shame us? To laugh at us? Trust me, there have been plenty of times in the last couple of months where someone has passed me running or riding their bikes without covering their face when I’ve thought – stop breathing at me without a mask on! But the opposite? No. Because even if you’re right, and there is no evidence of it spreading outside, where is the harm? Does it offend you that we are being overly cautious? Do you believe we are being manipulated by an elite agenda?

Well, get over yourself, sir.

Because my sweet husband and his family lost their dad. And they can do whatever they want right now. They can wear masks until the cows come home. They can wear masks after there’s a vaccine, when there’s a cure, or if it’s 2030. Because that’s what happens when you survive something horrible – you get to play that card, at least for a little while. I would imagine that surviving the Vietnam war, you might understand what that feels like. You may have returned and wished for there to have been more compassion for your service. For you to have been provided with more resources or not had people questioning your reality, like so many veterans experienced.

So, what will it take, sir? For you to look at someone who isn’t harming you in any way, and just let it go? Evaluate whether or not they are a risk to you, in their oddity, and then move on if they are not.

But take note – the opposite is true, as well. James Baldwin said “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” So, if it turns out that you have been endangering my life by not wearing a mask, by thinking only of the individual and not of the societal collective that you benefit from, then we have a problem. One which will likely cause me to yell “Unbelievable,” as you pass me by.

I like to think that while we may not have changed that man’s mind, perhaps Jason’s vulnerability and honesty changed his heart. And that’s what we’re going for here, isn’t it?

50 Stories, Week 13: Yellowstone Summer

In June of 1993, I was pregnant – again. Despite having been on the pill for years and using a diaphragm correctly, this was the third time my body tried to make me a mother before I was ready. I was slated to spend my summer working in Yellowstone National Park and my boyfriend Richard had plans to ride his motorcycle up the west coast. After deciding to have an abortion, a close girlfriend brought me to Planned Parenthood and held my hand tightly. It was rushed – the decision making, the procedure, the healing expectations. Summer had begun and there was no time to mull the loss or feelings of uncertainty. My relationship with Richard was on hold since we were going our separate ways. I was unclear about the future, except that I was embarking on an adventure and it was not the kind that comes with having a baby.

Boarding the Greyhound bus in San Diego that night, I prepped for a 27 hour ride with countless stops and transfers to West Yellowstone. I curled my body up like a snail, knees against the back of the seat in front of me with my sweatshirt bunched up between my shoulder and cheek, and slept for hours. When I woke up, we were pulling into Barstow, and I popped out for a smoke. The layover was a long one, so I decided to use the bathroom inside the station – a luxury after the janky toilet at the back of the bus. When I came back out, I saw a sweet looking guy with shaggy brown hair and glasses, his head buried in a book, laying against a massive backpack. I was looking for a space to stretch my legs out so I sat down next to him. His name was Marc and by the time we boarded the bus, I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we parted ways in Wyoming. Marc was all intelligence and curiosity. He was an environmental studies graduate student, heading somewhere in the Canadian northwest territory on a research grant. We talked about everything – the cold war, religion, philosophy, nature, and of course, love. It was exciting to speak in metaphors and dig deep into my beliefs which, unbeknownst to me, were so malleable at the time. We used every inch of space between our two seats to eventually fold on top of each other – legs on legs and arms intertwined, even spooning while we watched the stunning countryside pass us by. I was elated and calm all at once, because I knew that part of the adventure would be over as quickly as it began. Marc wrote to me later that summer from a stop at Glacier Lake in the Canadian Rockies – saying it reminded him of Yellowstone. “I’ve been thinking about you since you got off the bus. What a ride! I should have married you in Las Vegas when I had the chance. I wonder if you got to sleep when you got to Yellowstone. Seems like I’ve been trying to catch up on my sleep for the past two days and I’m still out of it. But it was worth it. This is what you might call my basic – I really, really, really enjoyed our trip and wanted to make sure you know it. Miss you.” Meeting Marc gave me a feeling of possibility, that if I kept saying yes, I would be provided with what I needed. He reminded me that I was smart, beautiful, and interesting. And that I didn’t need to continue judging myself for my last bad decision. 

I didn’t get much sleep when I finally arrived but it wasn’t simply due to the deprivation brought on by hours of nonstop kissing and conversation with Marc. It was because from the moment I got off the bus to start my summer, so did everyone else. First we were assigned to a location – Grant Village for me. Then we had orientation, assigned our dorm rooms, met our roommates, found out our job assignments, where to eat, how to mail a letter, what to do in an emergency, and so on. My roommate’s names were Shannon and Jill – and our inner door opened to another room with two girls named Dominique and Gena. Across the hall was Kevin, Brian, Bradley, Guy and West. This was our crew for the summer and we became inseparable – from working, eating, and drinking together to hiking, camping, and exploring the surrounding areas. It was a quick initiation. Most of these kids were between 18-21 and from affluent backgrounds – their parents ‘forced’ them to work during the summer before or during college and they figured this was the least amount of effort with the most amount of fun. They were right. I was 23, though – old, relatively speaking – and working to live so I couldn’t call in sick as often as they did. 

I was assigned as a waitress at the Grant Village Dining Room, which overlooked the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Occasionally, I had a breakfast shift, which required showing up at 6am – far too early for most people, and certainly for someone who had been drinking and smoking until approximately three hours beforehand. Yet, I began to look forward to those shifts. A forced entry into the morning air where I would ride my bike on the trail from our dormitories to the restaurant. I was moving too quickly for the mosquitos to land, and when I looked up at the canopy of trees, I felt protected. In those moments of quiet and solitude, I felt fearless, which was not how I was feeling day-to-day. In addition to processing another abortion and my relationship with Richard, I was experiencing an extra level of free floating anxiety.

Choosing to live in a National Park assumes you enjoy hiking and camping. It wouldn’t make much sense to live somewhere that beautiful and not explore. Except my fear was keeping me with one foot in the safety of my dorm room. Though I’d been outdoorsy before, and I felt a strong connection to nature in all its glory, I was terrified to be in the honest to goodness wilderness. Every step I took, I fought the stream of questions running through my head… How much longer was the hike? Would I fall and get a concussion? Would I be bit by a snake or attacked by a bear? Or both? How high did one have to hike before feeling oxygen deprivation? What are the symptoms of heat stroke? What if that boulder on the hill comes loose and crushes me? It was exhausting. So, when I let myself be peer-pressured into getting out, I stuck with the mellower hikes on well-trodden paths. 

Until one day, Gena and Dominique asked me to join them on a backcountry camping trip around Heart Lake. There was strength in numbers, they said, and thought I was funny so could be good company. I remember thinking that these two girls were probably popular in high school. Cool, with an edge of bitchiness. And even at 23, my unfulfilled high school ideals of being fully accepted compelled me to say yes. I felt a bit nervous in my gut but the first day of hiking was easy, mostly downhill and I stayed distracted by chatting away. We set up camp near the lake – back then you didn’t need reservations, we just left a handwritten note at the trailhead and that was good enough. The next day, we were out for a day hike when I started feeling funky. I had an adrenaline rush and felt my guts begin to rumble. I’d had this experience with anxiety before, a rush of needing to let go of my innards. I quickly found a place for me to relieve myself, drank some water, and rejoined the girls. While I was still new to self-awareness, I had a yoga practice by then and I remember checking in with my body and mind. Is this one of my many anxious thoughts, or is something actually wrong? About thirty minutes later, I felt a swift headache. Shortly after, cramps and another bout of diarrhea. I felt clammy and couldn’t figure out what was going on until a lightbulb-slash-question mark went off in my throbbing head. Last week, when our group went swimming at those falls and I filled up my Nalgene bottle, did I remember to use my water filter?

No. 

No, I did not. 

Eventually, dehydration set in. My heart was racing, and my low energy was accompanied by delirium. Thankfully, Gena and Dominique had just the right amount of worry (or irritation that I was putting a damper on their trip) to go find a ranger. I stayed put and after what felt like days later, a nice man on a horse came upon me. The horse seemed enormous, or perhaps the man was tiny. Things got surreal looking up from the ground. Where I’d been afraid hours earlier, I’d reached a state of resolve – as in, I resolved to die out there and that seemed about right. I thought perhaps this was nature’s way of punishing me for the intervention I’d chosen. I remember being picked up and strewn over the back of the horse, then a bumpy ride back to the trailhead where an ambulance was waiting. They hooked me up to an IV and I quickly began to feel better as we headed back to the village. Until the embarrassment set in. Gina and Dominique had to go back to our site, pack everything up including my gear, and hike back out to the car. I felt like a grade A loser for not remembering to filter my water and having a body that couldn’t manage a little foreign bacteria. I thought no amount of self-deprecating humor was going to smooth it over but when I saw them later at dinner, they were genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. And it turned out they had their own adventure to tell about a black bear that crossed their path on the way back. All was forgiven.

At the end of July, there was a talent show in our village. We’d been seeing signs the past few weeks, inviting campers to bust out their kazoos and hone their magic tricks. Bradley and Guy said they wanted to play a couple of songs for the show but needed someone to sing, and asked me to join them. Could I sing? I thought so. My father sang in a barbershop quartet and chorus since before I was born. We sang show tunes together and I loved singing along with the radio. But my sister used to tell me that I had a bad voice, that I was trying too hard to sound like other people, so instead I would end up singing silly and over the top. I knew, deep down, though, that I could carry a tune and since my vulnerability was on full display that summer, I said yes. The guys wanted to do two songs, something fun and something that would allow them to get deep in their jam, whatever that meant. We went with Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz & Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance. When the big night came, I was excited and terrified but in a good way. I got up there, sang my heart out, hit all the notes, felt the levity of Mercedes Benz and the pain of Sinead’s words, and let go completely. And then… we won! Somehow, in that little cafeteria, with people clapping for me, I felt elated. Until we realized that winning meant that we were entered into the park-wide talent show the following week, in front of hundreds of attending campers. I wish I could say that I had a cold or another bout of diarrhea to excuse that performance – but the truth is that we didn’t rehearse once since winning the week before. When the big night came, performing on an actual stage with hundreds of people sitting and watching, we collectively choked. Guy broke a string on his guitar, Bradley’s drumming wasn’t in sync, and I was breathing from so high in my chest that every note sounded as if I was being strangled. Needless to say, we didn’t win that one. It was, however, a stark reminder of how with a little extra effort and less fear, we could have kicked ass.

By the end of the summer, I’d successfully done another backcountry trip, went camping with a group of twenty friends in the Grand Tetons, and whitewater rafted down the Snake River. Fear became my friend, I acknowledged her briefly then told her I was doing it anyway. On the last night of the season, we had a huge bonfire on the lakefront beach. Everyone was there, all of us over the excitement and adrenaline of our daily adventures but still unsure of what our futures held. We sipped our beers quietly and watched a meteor shower stream across the sky.

Out there, under the stars and the big sky, the safety and terror of the forest, the bison and the bears, the cool kids and the misfits… I realized that I had been healed. That I would get another chance to bring life into the world, when the time was right. 

50 Stories, Week 12: A Nap for Dad

Most of my life, my father was a traveling salesman, working for supermarket distributors and building his own business on the side. He was busy – always on the phone or planning his next trip to some small town with an A&P or Shop n’ Save. He never seemed tired to me, though. For me, he would rally, crack jokes and play, so I didn’t understand why every afternoon, as far back as I can recall, he would take a nap. I wondered if all Dads had to nap. 

When I had annoyed my mother sufficiently in the afternoons, she would give me the ‘go ahead’ to go downstairs to the family room and wake him from his slumber. I would creep in, not that it mattered because the TV was always blaring, but I was afraid he’d feel me. So I crept up behind the couch, then walked slowly in front of it, careful not to cast a shadow from the light coming through the window. Nothing to stir him. 

And then I would sit on my knees and watch him sleep. Laying on his back, hands crossed at his belly, the same way he looked at his wake. Of course, his belly didn’t rise then like it used to. Inhale, hands and belly move up; exhale, they move down. Back and forth. Sometimes snoring, quivering lips, twitching eyes. Sometimes he’d swat at something on his face, rub his nose, or yawn – all the while I sat still with shallow breath, hoping he wouldn’t wake. And he wouldn’t. He’d settle back in. And then a long pause until the next big inhale that told me he was truly asleep. I thought it was fascinating to watch him breathe. As close as I could get to him at the time. And so I sat and watched. And wondered what he dreamed about. It never occured to me that he was so tired from working all the time that he might not dream – that he might simply pass out on the couch, waking only because duty called. It never occured to me that if he did dream – he might have wished to be elsewhere, alone and free, without limits. Had I imagined such things then of my father, I might have scared myself into thinking he’d be happier without us. I might have been right.

One time while watching him sleep, I became distracted by the Dick Van Dyke show that was on. I must have laughed out loud because my father woke with a start. He had a look of sheer terror on his face, as if someone had come to take his family away. He yelled at me that I almost gave him a heart attack and that I shouldn’t wake him like that. But from then on – even when I just touched his arm gently – he awoke the same, with that startled look on his face. I don’t know why he was so upset. Maybe he was angry that I took him away from the only place he was at peace.  

It turns out that raising five children and having two jobs was exhausting, so afternoon naps became necessary. But despite his need to rejuvenate, and being an ‘older’ Dad, he was always there for me. He showed up in all the ways that count. When I was in high school, he would wait up for me every night I was out. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoking countless cigarettes and drinking Tetley tea. The Honeymooners would be on the janky, 6” portable black and white TV he’d got for listening to a timeshare pitch. I’d come home and he’d ask how my night was. I’d say fine, then he’d turn off the TV and go to bed. 

Every Friday afternoon during my first semester of college, he would drive an hour to pick me up and bring me back to Nashua so I could work the whole weekend at my old job at the Pheasant Lane Mall. Then Sunday night, he’d drive me back to school. Once, I was fired from a catering gig at the Sheraton Hotel because the line cook complained I was ‘too distracting.’ I shamefully called my Dad for a ride home. After he almost lost his mind with anger on my behalf, he told me that I’d done nothing wrong and there would always be idiots in the world.

He did all of these things for me while I continued to give him plenty to worry about. I’m sure that all of his children seemed worrisome in their own way but I wanted different things than my siblings did and made other choices all around. It must have been exhausting, to be afraid for me because he didn’t understand that I was going to be alright. I hope that as he takes his eternal nap in the sky, he doesn’t have to be worried about waking with a start and instead sees that I turned out just fine. 

50 Stories, Week 10: Coco, It Was My Privilege

In June of 1992, I embarked on a month-long cross-country trip with a woman I’d met only two weeks earlier. Her name was Coco and she’d been mildly dating my on-again, off-again boyfriend while I was out of town. (Objectively, I see now that the level of sexual intermingling amongst my friends back then wasn’t an acceptable mainstream lifestyle, but at the time it seemed natural.) Coco was striking. She was a dancer and seemed to move effortlessly through the world while I inelegantly stumbled. She was beautiful, funny, provocative, sweet…

and Black. 

I point this out now because at the time, I pretended not to care and instead continued to believe that I was color blind. I accepted all beings. My best friend was Indian. I even had Puerto Rican and Native Indian friends. I was open minded. One love, man.

We didn’t call her Black, though. We called her Mulatto. Someone else gave me this information, of course. I’d never known anyone who had a white parent and a black parent. I thought this was how she wanted to be referred to but I don’t know what she wanted, because I never asked.

Shortly after we met, Coco mentioned she was driving to Colorado for the weekend to her half-sister’s high school graduation and did I want to come with? Oh yes, please. Any reason to escape the romantic entanglement I was in with two young men, one of whom would later become my son’s father. 

While I could share highlights from our journey such as…

  • narrowly missing multiple tornados in the midwest during one of the largest tornado outbreaks in history.
  • being stuck in the car for three hours trying to leave the Grand Canyon while a manhunt ensued for an escaped convict.
  • riding old bikes through back country roads, in utter silence except for the sound of the wheat swaying in the breeze.
  • sweltering nights trying to sleep with windows open at Coco’s aunt’s house, watching the white lace curtains move slowly against the dark night before we explored each other’s bodies.
  • going to clubs in Chicago with her famous jazz drummer Dad.
  • the car finally breaking down outside of Victorville, crashing in a motel then being jostled out of bed by a major earthquake.

… I want to focus on these three moments in particular from a journal I kept during this trip.

Kentucky

At midnight, we arrived and surprised the hell out of her grandmother, her mom’s mom. It’s a very small town here. Mother, daughter and granddaughter live next door to each other (no lie.) On Sunday, we went to the local Baptist church, twice. Everyone here is white (her Dad is black) and it’s odd that she’s the only non-white person. But they love her, clearly. Except the priest kept saying that anyone who is not a Christian is damned to hell. So I started tuning out.

Massachusetts

We went to the quarries – Greg, Coco and I jumped off. What an insane feeling – my stomach in my throat. I swear my heart stopped. It was fantastic. But after, while we were drying off, we heard this argument between this white guy RAMBLING about a “fucking Puerto Rican” – no sooner did 30 hispanics come out of nowhere, picked up rocks and almost killed the guy. He had blood GUSHING from his head. We left shortly after, but we were all twisted from the experience. There I was – with a white boy, a tall Greek, a little Indian and a Mulatto rasta. I realized how fortunate I am that I don’t have ignorant friends and that to me, my friends are just as color blind as I am.

Chicago, IL

Coco and I went shopping with her Dad and stepmom and after looking around, I noticed I was the only white person in both supermarkets and the restaurant we went to. At first, I didn’t notice, but then I noticed them noticing me. Now, I know that no matter what, when we see differences in our world, we notice them. Fine. But why do we see it necessary to make definitions between us? Also, there are bars on the windows in this house, in their home. Why should there have to be? 

I could give many explanations for my thinking back then. This may even be the thinking of many ‘open minded’ people today. Look, I was noticing things! I was upset, even, that the disparity existed. But that was over 30 years ago, and up until recently, I probably would have continued to have the same reaction, given those scenarios. Oh sure, in 2012 when Treyvon Martin was killed, I signed some petitions and expressed my anger on his family’s behalf. But then I went back to my life. And then came Eric Garner and again, I was sad and confused. I wanted justice for his family but didn’t think there was much I could do. Then Tamir Rice. Then Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. 

The ignorance of youth and miseducation of upbringing can no longer be an excuse for how I behave in the world. Noticing inequity is a great first step but it isn’t enough – we have to address the cause of inequity in the first place. And we have to take brave action that will make others uncomfortable in order to create long lasting change. So I ask myself, what is a little discomfort when I don’t have to worry about the ways I will be deprived of the privileges I’m afforded because I was born into whiteness?

I wish I could say I stayed in touch with Coco but after we got back we went our separate ways. Spending 24/7 with someone can make or break a relationship, as I’m sure many are finding out these last few months. For us, it turned out that we weren’t stronger in the broken parts and that’s ok. I will never forget the indelible mark that she made on me that month, though, and it was my privilege to explore the country with her.

50 Stories, Week 9: Things That I’m Unreasonably Afraid Of (aka Anxiety 101)

How I’m coping during the pandemic…

This week of pandemic was rough. Maybe I needed a glass of wine to get those words down, but so be it. I’m not sleeping much. My dreams, like many of yours, have been absolute batshit crazy – like last night’s combo of befriending Kelly Clarkson while working at a dress shop and never being able to catch a sunset, no matter how fast I ran toward the horizon. I could analyze these dreams but most of them make zero sense other than to say my general free-floating anxiety has been amped up past 1000% and needed an outlet, so dreams it is.

In the spirit of staying vulnerable and meeting myself where I am – my story this week is more of a present tense unpolished brain dump…

I usually take pride in facing my fears. A welling up of crippling anxiety would be just the thing to get me going on my next adventure, my next bit of growth. But lately, I’ve felt paralyzed. Oh sure, I keep busy trying to make sourdough bread (four recipes down, a bajillion to go!) but when I get like this, I don’t recognize myself.

When I was a teenager, I had massive panic attacks, convinced that I would die every night. I could feel my heart beating and racing and was convinced it would stop. Just stop because how could it keep pumping so hard and fast while I was laying still? As an adult, all through my 20’s and early 30’s, I taught myself some coping mechanisms. I can say with clarity that finding yoga saved my literal life. Things became slightly more manageable. When I was convinced that stepping on a crack would, in fact, break my mother’s back, I would take a long, slow inhale and tell myself “Don’t be a crazy person. That is not based in truth.” Now, I know, we shouldn’t say that anymore – ‘crazy person’ – but back then, and even now at times, it is the difference between me being paralyzed on a sidewalk until someone bumps into me and being able to keep walking.

So, I felt some level of progress. But that didn’t always work and my racing heart or monkey mind would compel me to head to the closest hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. I cannot accurately convey how many times I went to the ER in the middle of the night – when everyone is sleeping and I couldn’t possibly wake up a friend or lover or child (!) to tell them what was going on. I was almost always dehydrated, had a racing heart and diarrhea. The nurses would dismissively tell me I’m just stressed out and usher me off, since they could be treating someone with a real emergency. At one point, a doctor just gave me a handful of Valium. I didn’t want to take it but I hadn’t slept in days. When I did, I thought “Ohhhhhh this is why people do drugs.” I wanted that feeling forever. And ever. So I’ve never done it again.

In my mid-30’s, long after my Dad died and I left my son’s father, I found a therapist who gave me words for what I was experiencing. Anxiety, OCD, possibly brought on from some trauma as a child (oh right, my brother died right before I was born!) or funky brain chemistry. I’m guessing we all have a combo but it manifests differently. Some better than others.

Here’s how my anxiety still shows up, on the daily:

I’m in Hawaii in a beautiful location, with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the waves, the breeze, the perfect temperature, fully fed and clothed and having the love of an incredible man, and still thinking ‘Well, when I go volunteer with at the horse shed, maybe a power tool is going to fly off the shelf and stab me in the leg, right where there is a main artery and since we’re on a tiny island with only clinics, I won’t be able to get help in time and I’ll bleed out alone on a farm. Or that the water I’m drinking from the water purifier is actually poison since they probably don’t change the filters and it’s so humid here I’m sure some crazy ass bacteria has been sitting around waiting to manifest in my stomach and kill me.’

I’m not afraid of things like kayaking or hiking anymore because I’ve already assumed I’ll be capsized and the kayak will hit my head and drown or I’ll be blown off a cliff when hiking. I’ve thought those scenarios through a million times in the past, while simultaneously doing those activities. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I get to be bombarded with a thousand new, tiny and enormous worries. 

Most of the time, it’s like having a constant fear that all the fire escapes in Manhattan are going to fall on my head the second I walk under them. That someone will have sneezed in my salad and they have tuberculosis and my immunity is gone and well, TB. That if I don’t touch the outside of the plane and write during takeoff and landing, we will fall from the sky. That if I don’t count to an even number while I put on my mascara or while the water is running, I will cease to exist.

Other things I’m unreasonably afraid of in no particular order: Caves. Bats. Snakes. Hiking very high, like Kilimanjaro. Did I mention caves? The Amazon. Antarctica. Helicopters. Flying inter India and inter African flights. Plane crashes in general. Heart attacks and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. The color yellow.

Being underground. Being understood. Being buried alive. Being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Being pushed out of a car but then caught on something and just dragged along the road for miles. 

What else? Oh right, I sneezed earlier and thought I had a mini stroke. 

So, I have to laugh at myself because otherwise, I will drive myself, and everyone around me, totally crazy. (Can I reclaim the word crazy? Please?) 

For the most part, my anxiety is generally unfounded. I’m not being chased by a damned bear, after all. Except right now… maybe I am. And I don’t have bear spray, I only have a mask and hand sanitizer and the hope that my fellow hikers believe in community over self. 

50 Stories, Week 8: Begin at the End

From a work-in-progress, The Mechanism of Injury

It was an unusually hot day in San Francisco. A freak heat wave amidst a spring of near constant rainfall. The realization that I had to do manual labor when I went inside was daunting, so I stood in the entryway between the gate and our front door feeling sweat accumulate on the back of my knees. 

I was moving out from living with my boyfriend Richard. We’d been doing the on-again, off-again dance for eight years by then and I was anxious for a new beginning. I had visualized this day for months but now that it had arrived, I stood paralyzed, not wanting to leave. I had a quick, panicked feeling, a rush of adrenaline like I’d left the iron on all day. Then I remembered that Jackson, just shy of a year old, was being cared for, and the wave of fear started to fade. Normally I’d be working the daycare co-op and get to be with him, but I had switched to work at the office that morning, so I could move in the afternoon. My life was already a constant juggling act, and here I was about to make it worse.

It was stifling inside, and I took each stair slowly to hold off breaking into a full sweat. Richard had forgotten to open the windows before he left for work. It was likely forgetfulness but he could have been passive-aggressively punishing me for leaving. 

There were half-packed boxes all over the floor. I had marked each box clearly, Kitchen, Bathroom, etc., but it turned out that I didn’t have enough belongings to fill up a box for each category. For some reason, that made me feel small, certainly not grown up enough to be moving out and breaking up our family. I grabbed the packing tape and started with the box marked Miscellaneous. It was the remnants box, filled with random possessions – a nativity set from Mexico that Richard’s Mom had given me for Christmas the previous year, an old cigar box filled with mixed tapes from the 80’s, a mini rainstick my friend Pam had given me at a Dead show in Vegas, a framed photograph of my brother Steven from 1968, and a paper flower Richard had made me for our first anniversary. He’d cut out little hearts from magazines and fashioned them into a blooming rose, which was the sweetest thing he ever did for me.

As I finished taping up boxes, I noticed the answering machine light blinking. I contemplated pushing the button because I was afraid he’d left some last minute, panicked, “Don’t leave!” message. This would also not have surprised me, given the fact that when I’d told him six weeks earlier that I wanted to move out, he asked me to marry him. It was the briefest of engagements. After a fancy dinner and a sweet proposal, I said yes, but when I woke up the next morning, I told him I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t marry him because to be the kind of role model my son deserved, I needed to stop being invested in Richard’s potential to love me and to start loving myself. I’d seen an Oprah episode recently where she spoke about how you couldn’t change your life if you didn’t change your mind. Oddly, this gave me the final push I needed. I was moving out and moving on. I decided that if I’d come this far, I was not about to unpack my boxes and give in, so I pressed play on the answering machine. 

“Chris, it’s Jeanne. I’m calling to tell you that Dad had a heart attack today. He’s dead.”

My sister said this as if she were reading the ingredients off a can of soup. Years later, I would look back on this moment as her audition for delivering “So and so is dead” news. Our family had a string of deaths before hand and a succession following, so she’s had an opportunity to hone her craft. We joked grimly that we’re like the Kennedys but without the money or power. 

I had just spoken to my father the night before, so her message seemed implausible. He had asked the usual string of questions before we got off the phone, “Do you have enough gas in your car?”, “Do you have enough money in your bank account?”, “Do you have a roll of quarters in your pocket?” This last one was from when I was a little girl and he taught me how to fight. My father grew up just outside of Boston and believed that all cities were dangerous cesspools, even San Francisco in 1999. California, to him, was where only ‘crazy people and druggies’ lived. Like there was a beacon coming from the ocean, summoning them from around the world. I assured him that yes, of course, I still kept a roll of quarters with me in the event I had to punch someone’s lights out. And then I said goodbye and hung up.

I stood over the answering machine, staring at it, waiting for it to tell me what to do next. Instead, it continued to blink and beep, relaying other messages that I couldn’t process. I didn’t feel my breath stop or my limbs give way. 

When I had a moment of cognizance, I was on the floor with my cheek pressed to the cool wood. It was a comfort from the fever of my tears. I rolled over and stared at the bedroom ceiling. It was the color of pearl, slightly opalescent, with arched corners and a small Victorian crystal light hanging from the center. I had spent countless nights staring at that ceiling, feeling as if I was suffocating. Laying next to Richard, waiting for a moment of weakness and desperation for us to be intimate. 

I pulled myself up and called my older sister Kathy who, in essence, raised me. My eight year old brother Steven had died the year before I was born, and my mother was far too busy grieving to be present for an infant. Kathy was 14 at the time and took care of me with a kindness reserved for a child’s favorite doll. 

“Hi.”

She began to speak but I couldn’t understand her through the sobbing. I hated not knowing what was going on 3,000 miles away and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. I imagined she’d be the one who could tell me the details about what happened but that turned out to be another lesson in our family’s history of death and ambiguity. 

“Hi…this sucks so bad…fuck. He was fine. He was going to garden…”  

“Was he in the garden?” 

My father had been keeping a small garden for years – mostly tomato plants, cucumbers and peppers. It was the last vestige of his retirement dreams. He’d wanted to move up to some farmland in Canada but when the time came, my mother vetoed the idea.

“No. He went to the hardware store to exchange a sprinkler…got in his car after…leaned over the steering wheel…that’s how they found him. They tried to…”

“How is Mom?” I wondered to myself how she would sleep at night, being alone in her bed after 48 years of marriage. I had been wondering the same thing myself lately. Would I feel free, as I imagined, or terrified and alone?

“How do you think she is?! God, that’s the stupidest question, don’t you think? Everyone asks it, but it’s so fucking stupid. Sorry. Can you come home?” 

“I’ve got to check into flights, but I’ll come back tomorrow. When is the funeral?”

We exchanged a few more details before hanging up. I looked at the piles of boxes waiting to be carried to my new home. The box marked Kitchen was closest to the stairwell. I pushed it with the weight of my grief, a low moan escaping my chest as it plummeted down the stairs. It broke open like a watermelon, scattering my spatulas and wooden spoons and new beginning across the floor.

me and Dad 1992

50 Stories, Week 7: In brief, my Mom

Short, raw, off the cuff…

Screen Shot 2020-05-10 at 4.14.17 PM

This is my Mom. She was a babe back in 1950, right? She’s 88 years old now and has no big health issues (except a bad cancer diagnosis last year, which she miraculously continues to keep at bay.) She’s been a mother to five, a grandmother to ten, and a great-grandmother to six. She’s had a boyfriend the last eight years who treats her very well. She’s got incredible skin – thanks to no sunbathing, smoking, or drinking booze. She was a favorite mother of all my friends in high school, allowing for late nights, sleepovers, and making us fried dough on Sunday mornings. 

She showed me the importance of friendship and community. She and my Dad were always socializing and entertaining with friends and neighbors. And watching her lose the last of these relationships as she ages has been heartbreaking. But she keeps smiling. She is fiercely independent, to the point that she’ll snap at you if you try to help her. I’ve had to remind myself that isn’t about me but fearing the loss of being able to take care of oneself. I understand now the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When my mother spoke of getting pregnant with me, after losing my brother a couple months before and already having three more at home, she would say ‘babies are a blessing,’ but we didn’t have a close relationship growing up. I spent most days trying to get her attention and she spent most days, well, trying to get through the day. I know that she did the best she could but I also know that her grief didn’t allow her to be present with me – how could it have? It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I could fully comprehend what she might have experienced. 

My biggest lessons in mothering came from watching both my sister and sister-in-law raise their babies with love and boundaries. But what I learned from my own mother is that sometimes we have to mother ourselves, heal our own wounds privately, build our own resilience – before we can be present enough to do that for others. Sometimes that takes years, or a lifetime. I’m happy to report that I found a place of forgiveness – for myself – for all the crazy attention-seeking things I did trying to get her to love me. I found compassion for us both, knowing we’re doing the best we can and then doing better when we know better. It took fifty years but I really like my Mom now, for the person that she is, not the person I wanted her to be. And I think (hope?!) she likes me, too. I like hanging out with her, I like listening to her tell me what she’s been up to, and occasionally she drops a random tidbit about her childhood that I can’t wait to tell in a story one day.

So, happy mother’s day, Mom. You are loved.

50 Stories, Week 6: My virginity, a break-up, and my BFF.

Over Christmas break in 1986, I was laying on my bedroom floor, listening to New Order’s “Shellshock,” and sobbing. Heaving melodramatic sobs. The kind that prompted my sister to yell from the kitchen, “Stop being so dramatic!” I felt my tears were warranted as my boyfriend Laurent* had just informed me that he was in love with someone else. I was bereft of all hope for future love in my life.

Laurent had come into my life about a year earlier, at a Mount Saint Mary dance. I went to the one public high school in Nashua, NH but there were two private parochial high schools, Mount Saint Mary for girls and Bishop Guertin for boys. They held monthly dances and opened them to us public kids. When I was in middle school, my father made up a fight song for the Mount and marched around the house, swinging his arms and singing it at the top of his lungs. He desperately wanted me at an all-girls school because he knew I was trouble and assumed an all-girls school would put me on the straight and narrow. We could never have afforded a private education but looking back, I see that he wanted more for me than I wanted for myself. In the least, he believed that attending the Mount might have slowed my inevitable trajectory toward equating self-worth with how many boys wanted to kiss me.

I’d seen Laurent once or twice before, at my friend Lisa’s house when her older brother threw parties. I recall her saying, “Don’t bother. He’s a senior and he’s got a girlfriend.” This information did not deter me. I fell in love with Laurent before ever talking to him. He looked like a mix between Bono and Simon LeBon and Sting. Basically hot all over. At the time, I was finishing ninth grade, about to start high school, and a virgin. The tainted kind. I’d done ‘everything but’ on a dare with a neighborhood boy and couldn’t wait to have sex, preferably with Mr. Hot All Over. I wore tight cropped shirts and supremely short shorts and used Jolen creme bleach to dye my incoming mustache Debbie Harry blonde.

The night we finally connected, I’d smoked too much pot at the adjoining park earlier in the evening, so was spending the last minutes of the dance in the girls’ bathroom, still riding waves of paranoia. 

What was actually in that bag of shake we smoked? Maybe it was laced with something. 

I think the cops are going to find me and test my THC level. 

Wow, I could really use an ice cream sundae

Lisa came in to tell me that she and her brother were leaving, and asked if I needed a ride. I’m not sure what bravery pushed me out of that stall but I power walked across the gym floor, fists moving in a hip-to-nip fashion, eyes darting across the landscape of awkward teenagers. When I spotted Laurent, his smile caught me off guard so I paused, mid-walk, and felt the clammy sweat I’d been holding in my hands. He walked toward me, while I stayed paralyzed, and asked me to dance. I unclenched and we held each other as closely as teenagers could while being hawk-eyed by chaperones through the last (and best) two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven.”

We spent that entire summer making out. Everywhere. Laurent had a little gold Toyota Tercel and we would drive from my house to the church a block away, park in the lot, and rub against each other until the windows fogged and our skin burned. Eventually, though, Laurent went off to college and we attempted a long-distance love affair. With no sex. I knew I had to up my game to compete with those girls in college. I believe I referred to them as skanks at the time. So, while he was home for a long weekend in October and his parents were away, we had a party and I lost my virginity. Up until it was over, I thought we were having the most romantic evening. Laurent and I were laying on the old, brown plaid, scratchy couch in the living room, watching MTV broadcast the Police’s Synchronicity concert. A box of Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler sat on the end table, along with a pack of cigarettes and a pack of Hubba Bubba. Our other friends had gone upstairs to explore empty bedrooms, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. When it became clear we were going to have sex, ie the dry humping became too painful and was boring a hole in Laurent’s pants, there was no conversation around protection against STDs because I assumed we were both virgins. Yet another painfully naive moment in my existence along with the actual sex, which hurt like hell but I convinced myself it was supposed to feel that way. The pleasure with the pain. Turns out Laurent was very well-endowed, which I only know now that I’ve had a very fair share of partners. When it was over, I began removing a small leather strip I’d had tied around my wrist. It was a virgin bracelet that a few of my girlfriends and I were wearing. When we popped our cherry, we were to remove the string ceremoniously and breathe a sigh of relief. But Laurent wasn’t having it. He tied it back on my wrist and told me not to tell anyone, because he was 18 and I was 15. (Damn those barbaric age of consent laws.)

We spent the next few months seeing each in his dorm room an hour away or when he was home for a weekend. And we were madly in love. I have old phone bills with hours of long distance minutes and letters saying I love you to prove it. I trusted him. He called me Pookie, for god’s sake. And held my hand in public. And told me he missed me. But apparently, he was also sharing these feel-goods, in person, with a girl at school.

She was short and mousey, and had a pseudo-punk short haircut. I’d met her a few times when I visited and didn’t think much of her. She was just a girl at my boyfriend’s college and like I mentioned, I was extremely naive. She seemed boring where I was… well, I wasn’t cool per se, but at least I wasn’t like everyone else. My new fashion sense was more like a cross between Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. I began wearing my father’s old trench coat (or his Army reserves jacket when he wasn’t home to yell at me for taking it,) white t-shirts with the neck cut out, a mini-skirt of some sort, a set of black nylons that I had ever so carefully nicked a thousand times so they would run in a somewhat random pattern, along with knock-off Doc Maartens. And black lipstick, of course. My friends, come to think of it, looked just like me, save for an occasional mohawk or bleached blond tail. We were so busy drowning our teenage sorrows with the likes of Morrissey that we didn’t care what anyone thought. That was the point, of course, not caring what anyone thinks. Don’t care, hard. But the truth was, I cared desperately. I wanted to be Siouxsie from the Banshees, Suzanne from the Bangles, and Suzanne as in Vega. I wanted to be a hot chick indie rock star as a teenager, but I was too busy wondering how to keep a boyfriend to actually open my mouth, sing a few notes, and be heard. And Laurent, well, eventually he decided it was better to be in a relationship with someone his own age, and zip code.

The night of the breakup, my best friend Sheelu came over to my house. After some niceties with my parents (who were always in love with her and would have traded us in a heartbeat,) she picked me up off the bedroom floor, dragged me to Rockit Records, and smoked Marlboro Lights with me until we were nauseous. Sheelu was the skate-Betty, Ska-Indian version of me – ripped jeans, big t-shirts, leather and chain bracelets, and a mouth on her that would make my sailor Uncle take pause. Though I’d had my heart broken and couldn’t see how I’d ever love again, Sheelu told me every truth and lie I needed to hear in that moment. That we were young, that we had enough time, that there was more love in the world, and jokingly (and uncannily prescient,) that Laurent was just one boy in a sea of men that would be my life. She knew what song to play to get us singing at the top of our lungs, what piece of juicy news to share about our friends, and always, always listened without judgement. When I think about my broken heart over the years, it’s less about the men who broke it and more about the friend who was there to help me mend it. One cigarette, and one song at a time.

Screen Shot 2020-05-03 at 9.52.19 AM

 

Sheelu + Me 1986

Sheelu + Me 1986 selfie

*Name has been changed to prevent any potential embarrassment

 

50 Stories, Week 5: SFPD’s Finest

jay4

I was frightened. Ten seconds earlier, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be standing in my towel, hair dripping wet on the floor, defending myself to a couple of officers. There’s nothing quite like having San Francisco Police Department’s finest on your doorstep.

Jackson had been having a tough time falling asleep and was up late that night. We hadn’t lived in that apartment long, maybe a couple of months, so he was about three years old. He was generally a great sleeper and I would put him down without incident, but that night he resisted and wouldn’t stop wailing. I was exhausted and desperately in need of a shower, so I told him he could sleep in my bed which seemed to calm him down. I tucked him in and told him I was going to take a shower, and that he needed to close his eyes and go to sleep, pronto. Normally, I would shower after he fell asleep but it was a damp November night, I’d had another crappy day at work, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I gave him a kiss on his tangled head of curly blond hair and said goodnight. 

I had just turned off the water when the doorbell rang. I popped my head out the bathroom door and said “Just a minute!” while I put a towel around me. I was about to pull on some sweatpants when the doorbell rang again, along with an urgent knocking. I hurried down the hall to peer through the peephole and saw two policemen, immediately sending a palpable wave of fear through me. How quickly my brain worked, thinking of all the terrible news they could be delivering. My stomach started churning before a word was spoken.

“We’re here to check on a disturbance that was reported. Anonymously,” the first officer stated. I don’t remember them saying their names but I told them I had no idea what they were talking about, that I’d clearly just gotten out of the shower. 

“Do you have any children in the house?” officer number two asked.

“Yes, my son. But he’s sleeping.” My bedroom was right off the front entrance. The door was open and there was Jackson, sitting up in bed, staring at the men with guns holstered to their hips. One of the policemen turned on his flashlight and shone it into the dark room, onto Jackson’s red, tear stained face.

“Are you alright in there little guy?” asked officer number one.

Jackson just stared at them like a literal deer in headlights. I told them he was fine, that he’d just had a hard time going to sleep. They informed me that a neighbor was concerned for his safety, as he’d been “screaming and crying for 20 minutes.” Twenty minutes? I hadn’t taken a twenty minute shower in years. Although maybe I’d lost track of time in there… dreaming.

“Has there been any hitting going on tonight?” Officer number two asked this in a conversational, almost friendly tone. As if to appear like someone I’d be at ease with, and admit to hitting my son. I knew I hadn’t, but was suddenly terrified at the notion they thought I had. Once he laid out the allegations, the pit in my stomach grew to encompass my intestines and I immediately needed to use the bathroom. They were looking at me as if I’d abused my child. That look of disdain. And Jackson was too little to say anything convincing without also crying because at that point, I believe he was more afraid of the two big uniformed men at our door. 

I realized that my breath had quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. I held the knot of my towel tighter to appear that I had my composure about me, while inside my tightening stomach and twisting bowels were doing battle. I’d watched too many crime shows on television and knew that real panic in this moment wouldn’t serve me. I calmly and quietly asked, “Is there anything else?” They said something about being “better safe than sorry” and began walking to their car. 

I closed the door and ran for the bathroom, barely making it in time. Two seconds later, Jackson began to cry, and so did I.

50 Stories, Week 4: 1969, A Photograph

It is 1981, I am eleven years old and holding a photograph. It is about four by four inches square, glossy, with 1969 written along the white rim. I found it in a box of photos I’d never seen before, in a storage area of the garage I’d never combed through before. I’m doing research for a school project, to write our own autobiographies. While I think the assignment is dumb, I’m wondering how I can make my childhood sound more interesting than it is. 

In the photo, a string of Christmas cards lines the wall behind a young boy sitting on the back of a couch. He’s wearing a patterned two-piece pajama set, happily holding a Jungle Book board game. Next to him is an adolescent girl in her blue nightgown and matching robe, a barrette keeping her hair back, smiling demurely with her hands neatly folded on her lap. In front of her on the couch is a little girl of four or so, grinning widely and holding a Winnie the Pooh board game. And next to her is a teenaged boy with a sleepy smile in a green and blue plaid bathrobe. I recognize the last three children as my older sisters and brother. But I do not know the first child, which is why I am standing in front of my mother with the photograph. 

“Who is this boy, mom?”

“What boy?” she replies.

My mother is not looking at me, she is standing at the stove, stirring an enormous pot of sauce. It’s Wednesday, spaghetti night at my house, and the smell of fried peppers and onions hangs like a fog in the kitchen. When she finally looks down at the picture I am holding, I see a look on her face that first confuses and then scares me. My mother turns back to the stove and begins adding meatballs to the sauce. 

“That was Steven. He was your brother. He died.”

Then she adds, “Set the table, dinner is almost ready.”

After I silently put the plates and silverware on the table, I go back downstairs to the closet where I spend a lot of my free time. It is underneath the stairs of our split-entry house and goes back about eight feet from the door. Inside, there is a mixture of Dad’s old National Guard uniforms and Mom’s special occasion dresses hanging in plastic wrap, not likely to be worn again. Along the wall are a few more storage boxes. I look at these differently now, wondering what mysteries could be inside. I crawl beyond them, to a secret refuge where I spend my free time reading books and licking Tang off my finger, after dipping it in the jar I have stashed there. 

I turn on my flashlight to look at the picture again, this time more closely, investigating. 

That little boy is my brother. Was my brother. And my family had a life with him before they had a life with me. 

Turns out my childhood is interesting. I just didn’t know it yet.

SMKJ XMas (1)