Chapter 2 The Switch
I was a tiny tot when I started staying with grandparents, aunties and uncles for weekends, sometimes weeks, because at points in time when moving or when pregnant with my baby brother, my mom couldn’t cope with my tot energy levels at times, or when she was sinking too deep into the depressive phase of her illness. I believe that when Creator gives a great gift, there is also a counter balance that must be present. My mother’s intellect, because it was mostly forced into a type of dormancy when she did not attend college, caused a shift in her toward more depressive states. I feel, strongly, that when a person can use her gifts from Creator fully, her life flows more freely, there is less illness and possible depression. My dad’s oldest sister told me when I was an infant, my father would leave his job at noon to come home to feed and diaper me. My Auntie A. seemed aghast that my father was checking on me, and was trying to point out that my mother was at points incapacitated and unable to take care of me. I don’t feel that way now, as I look back on it. I feel my mother did her very best, and that my father was a compassionate and wise man who knew that my mother needed help.
Now that I have had children, those sleepless nights, diaper disasters, crying hours, spilled milk, and common experiences, I admire my parents even more for their wisdom in the 1960’s when women -–due to society’s expectations and prejudices— had to be solely responsible for the children; my father was aware and awakened enough to know when help was necessary and required. How many women have experienced that kind of man? It is a rare blessing to have that kind of powerfully joined couple, and in the 1950’s and 1960’s my parents were that kind of loving couple. I know that this type of father is truly a blessing, and should be the model when a new mother needs help. My mother didn’t feel close enough to her own mother to ask for help, and I understand why as I look back at her now. I think the judgment that Mom felt from my maternal grandmother was overpowering at times. Anne needed to feel she could be on her own, and through my father’s awareness and compassion, she was able to be functional and independent for most of my childhood as a stay at home mom. I think in many ways I was protected by love from the outset. At times in my infancy and childhood, I was kept by my Aunt Leta who was an R.N., my other aunt, Aunt Mae, who was the secretary to the Fire Chief of Ft. Smith, and my grandmothers, both stay at home mothers, but as opposite in personalities as the sun and the moon. My grandmother Georgia the ex river boat dancer and cook, and my grandmother Lydia Jane who was the accountant, book keeper, grocery store co-owner. Both women were strong. Both women functioned as opposite ends of the same rainbow of love. The joy I felt in later years when I was with my grandmothers and aunts kept me stable and gave me confidence when I needed it. I credit these women for making me more whole, more able to cope with the challenges life offered up. It does indeed take a village to raise children. What kind of village does society have now? Can society begin to see the need for compassion in all areas, but especially the area of raising children?
My memories of my early childhood are fragmented, as all memories of distant times are when there is no record except a few snapshots, or perhaps a random splattering of conversations to trigger that synapse in the brain long inactive. I do remember loving the outdoors, and my mother told me once of an adventure I decided to take when she was in the last term of her pregnancy with my younger brother. Apparently, I had seen or heard or perceived something in the distance as a toddler of two and a half years, and I squeezed through a gap in the chicken wire fence that surrounded my back yard. I took off. My mother, large with child, called and called my name, but it was as if I were deaf, or totally ignoring her fervent pleas to come back to her. She was afraid to lose sight of me, and unable to get through the fence, as quite blissfully, I wandered forth to the meadow and empty lots behind the tiny rental bungalow in Bentonville. My mother panicked, rightfully so, and rushed back into the house, called my father to come home immediately to gather his willful small toddler from her wanderings. By the time my harried father arrived to rescue me and calm my mother, I had returned and was unaware I had caused such a stir. I don’t remember a scolding that day, but I am sure I received one. My mother told me that story several times, as if it were a watermark of my personality. Ignoring my parents’ calls, yes, a watermark event I would most definitely agree. As I look back on this past decade’s journey of my life, I believe I was as a toddler captivated by and perhaps listening to the angels, and yes, it was a defining moment for me. I have a hard time listening, even now, to those who love me, who would protect me in my wanderings. So, I rely on my angels and Creator to protect me. This reliance on Spiritual protection I am sure has saved me more than once in my stubbornness, my curious nature, and my wanderings.
When I was a child of the 1960’s, corporal punishment was still considered a fair and just treatment and method of discipline for a child. There were very few children in my circle and none in my family that had not been at least threatened with a switch or whipping with a belt. Both my brother and I had been the recipients of physical punishment with a leather belt, switches, fly swatters and slippers from our parents as well as time outs. I feel that physical punishment with children is never the best path, or even the preferred path. My father confessed to me when I was a teenager that he had beaten me with a belt when I was a toddler, leaving bruises on my legs and bottom. He cried as he told me, and asked my forgiveness. I told him, reassured him I had no memory of the beating, but he still had deep regrets. This speaks to the issue of corporal punishment, the guilt and the needless use of it with children. Other than two exceptions for which I feel deep remorse, my daughters were raised without corporal punishment, but rather with simple time outs. To control a child, time outs are enough. I have had deep conversations with both of my daughters, and told them that if I could change one thing about my raising of them, it is the use of corporal punishment for any reason. I am just relieved that I did not go to the abusive level of my father and mother as I grew up—and let me state here that both of my parents were mild in comparison to the abuse that some of my friends and family suffered as children. A spanking, with a slipper, or a pop of a hand at the most was common in the home of all my friends. Many argue that corporal punishment is necessary for discipline. I disagree. Creator made children small, for a reason. Adults can easily pick up a child and move the child quickly to a safe time out. The television show “Super Nanny” shows proof that time outs and consistency are even more effective than physical punishment when disciplining small children. Why would an adult ever use brute force on an innocent child when another road is possible to teach self-control? How can a lack of control —emotionally or physically—ever teach that principle?
Now for the hard part. Now for the hard part. First we need a break. First I need a break.
First, go outside. Look up. See that? That is the sky. Look down. That is the ground. Kinda crunchy white today. Snowy? Hello? You feel that? that is the wind, the air, the freezing temperature or the sting of snowflakes. Now, go back inside. Feel the warmth of the fire in the fireplace, smell the coffee brewing. FORGET that person who hurt your heart. FORGET him/ her. NOW, look at the wonderful person staring back at you from the mirror. There you are! Beautiful! Handsome! Intelligent! Funny! Worthwhile, and NOT the person you like to bash.. YOU are FABULOUS! You are GOD’s CHILD, Stardust. Period.
I am seven years old. I don’t have any memory of the previous two years, and think it is strange that now I can’t sleep alone at my grandmother’s home. I have to sleep in her bed. My aunts and uncles in general start showing extreme favoritism to me, and one aunt screams at me that I am a liar. I remember that.
Now at age 53, I finally stop having the nightmares, the waking up in the middle of the night remembering not being able to breath, feeling pressure and weight on my chest. I am able to now sleep on my back for the first time in my life. I don’t have to be curled around a pillow in a defensive position. I don’t dream of filthy toilets, or being lost. I don’t fear the dark any more. The one thing I know at this juncture in my life, children need to be respected as individuals, separate personalities from birth. Children need to have the same protection and respect of an adult. Psychological damage in a child can and does cause life-long issues that can and do often remain undiagnosed and untreated. The trauma a child suffers at the hands of an adult, whether a well- intended parent whipping a child with a belt or a sick and twisted pedophile amounts to the same traumatic results in the brain. The child is forever changed. When I was around 5 years old until the age of 7, I was routinely molested by an adult in my extended family whenever I visited my paternal grandmother. When I finally got the awareness and the courage to confront the molestations, and to inform others about him, and to confront others who knew what he was and his patterns, I was called a liar. I was later shamed by his wife, my aunt, in front of my first cousins who were also being abused by the man’s wife mentally and physically in addition to their father molesting them. To be fair, she was a woman with limited experiences and capacity to understand what was occurring right under her roof and the roof of her mother-in-law next door, my grandmother. He did unspeakable things to his daughters, to me, to male cousins, perhaps even to my brother. God was kind and wiped my brother’s memory, and most of my memory. That is why I know God exists in some form. I don’t remember much.
I remember his holding me down. I remember his smell. Sweat. Oil. Gasoline. Dirt under his fingernails. Tobacco…. I remember his mocking tone with me when I happened in his presence during the daylight hours. He called me dirty pet names. He told me how “sweet I tasted” and I was confused. He only molested me, raped me, at night when the household was asleep and I was alone and vulnerable in a secluded bedroom. I was five. It lasted until I was seven years old, when I informed others in the family about him when I was down for my summer visit to my grandmother’s home. I was ostracized immediately.
She looked up at her aunt, tears streaming down her face, snot pouring from her 7 year old nose. What had she done to deserve this disrespect? What had she done to be punished by those she had trusted and loved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There I am. A kid, a baby girl betrayed by the people I loved the most in my life. It is simply a statement of fact. I was told over and over by my grandmother, that no matter what, the man who molested me, who helped change my brain permanently with trauma and fear, was her son and she “had to love” him, no matter what. I now see that was her way of justifying her protecting him from prosecution, protecting the family from shameful exposure. I don’t understand from that little girl’s point of view, but I understand, in a way, from a mother’s point of view some 49 years later.
Called a liar by that man’s wife, I sank into shame and guilt that I wasn’t “good enough” as I had been previously told. My dad and mom and grandmother —I am not sure who—knew. Looking back now I know I will only have the fragments of the incident. I won’t ever remember or even be able to piece together all of it. A blessing? No. I wanted and still want to know it all. Who knows? Who knew at the time? I was given confirmation almost forty five years later from a first cousin who was four years older than me. I tried to question another cousin, who claimed he didn’t know, and I know that was a lie crafted to protect his culpability. Can I hate them? All of them? Some of them, perhaps only a few? My dad, I suspect was intentionally kept in the dark. I think he would have killed my uncle. My brother told me of the night something happened to me, and I was the center of adults screaming in my grandmother’s home. I was taken from the bedroom at the front of the house that I usually slept in alone, and put to bed in my grandmother’s bed, and never slept alone after that night. My brother remembers my grandmother chasing my uncle from the home the next morning with an iron skillet, screaming at him. She was a tiny 4’11” woman, and my uncle was a rawboned muscular working man who could have lifted her over his head, but apparently he ran from the house in fear. The fact of the matter is that most of the adults in the family knew this man was twisted, sick, limited in many ways, and yet it was the shameful secret. Who abused him? That was the question my therapist decades later asked. I say now, who cares? HE chose the behavior, and his victims didn’t have a choice. When I told, I was shut up, shut down, accused of lying, made to sleep with my grandmother or go to my safe uncle and auntie’s house in the next town away from my grandmother’s home. Away from the sick and twisted uncle who lived next door to her. Her only explanation was that “men are like that” —“men can’t be trusted in that way” and that I had to forgive that monster for screwing up my already stressed psychological stability. My mother’s depression, her absence from me physically, and often mentally, coupled with the molestation caused a switch to snap to the “off” position in my mind for many years. I found myself stuck in a modality of losing time, losing memories, losing pieces of myself as I grew older. As I grew into a young woman, my relationships with boys, young men, was all over the map. I was giving mixed messages at times. These mixed messages first appeared when I was just beginning the journey into womanhood. I think I still have that “switch” in my brain at times, and I don’t know if I will ever be rid of the damage, the lack of ability to guide myself in certain situations. I long for a man to feel safe with, and yet, I don’t know that is possible.
The time I remember most vividly as a twelve year old was my first crush on an older boy, who, unfortunately, was a typical older boy. My parents were too distracted, my dad with work, my mom with her depression or manic phase, and their soon to be self-destructing marriage, to realize that I was “at risk” with the 15 year old boy down the street. It started pretty innocently enough. His name was Rick. I rode a school bus to and from school, and in the 1970’s all ages were mixed on the buses, from first grade to senior high school students. Rick started to sit with me on the bus, and drape his arm over me. I was 5’ 3” tall and about 98 pounds, maybe. Rick was not a huge kid, but he was much bigger than me, lanky, tall, a seventies’ version of a curly haired red head. The bus route which my brother and I took each day to school caused me to be one of the first students on in the mornings, along with my brother, and one of the last ones off in the afternoons, around 4 in the afternoon. Rick lived three doors down from us, and rode the bus only in the afternoons. The bus route lasted an hour one way. The sitting together on the bus slowly evolved into my spending time with Rick after school in the neighborhood. I never went to his house that I could remember, but we played in the open fields around the houses, the hill in front of my home, and there is where Rick attempted to “court me” in a very 15 year old stupid way. One afternoon, as he and I were lying in the luscious tall spring green grass of a hillside near our homes, with my brother and other neighborhood kids playing only a few yards away, Rick made the first move of the typical horny fifteen year old male. He asked me, “Hey, what is the difference between a boy and a girl?” I somehow sensed this wasn’t leading to an intellectual discussion of brain patterns or psychology, actually. So, I hedged and told him I didn’t know what he meant, to be more specific. He then took my hand and drew an imaginary line at my neck across, and then another line below my crotch, across my two thighs, and asked again, “What is the difference between a boy and a girl, here to here?” I feigned ignorance and innocence and said I didn’t know. Right.
I have never ever been a convincing liar. I had a brother, and that was a clue I was out on a limb of prevaricating of the most obvious kind. I wonder now if there was some lingering behavior in me, some unconscious action that caused a 15 year old to pick me as his “first sexual target.” A few days later after my avoiding any specific description of the difference between boys and girls, but an admitting of knowing there was a difference, Rick volunteered to bring his army surplus pup tent down to my backyard to use as a “club house” with me and my brother. My mother, not suspecting any unusual activity, or simply not operating with a full capacity at the time, allowed Rick to erect the tent in our backyard, under the dogwood tree, my mother’s favorite tree.
He then left the tent (a canvas Army surplus pup tent) standing a few days and didn’t see me either in the bus or on the street. I think I was wondering when he’d come over, so when I saw him one afternoon I invited Rick to visit the tent and me. I was overjoyed at the prospect of a tent in our backyard to play in, to have as a club house. I was twelve, and this was the era of innocence for me. I had not any idea that I had a figure or shape of a woman in my innocence, even though my body was developing ahead of many of my classmates’ schedules. One afternoon, around five or so, the spring sun was already on the daylight savings’ time schedule, Rick finally came down to see me. I excitedly asked him to come into the tent with me. He stretched out, and rested his head on his hand and looked at me excitedly telling him about my day. I was in my mode of telling the story of the day, my happy place. Suddenly, Rick asked me to touch him. I looked at him and asked why and where? He smiled and said to touch the zipper on his jeans. Under the zipper, under the denim was an erect penis. I touched him lightly—red alarms going off in my head—bells—screams—yelling— cursing—-hiding—tears—-memories of something vague and scary blowing up in my head— and then I suddenly took my hand away from his crotch, and calmly I said, “Hey, I am thirsty! I want to get a drink. Do you want a drink, maybe a 7-Up?” My brain had automatically just created some idiotic excuse to leave his presence. I went into the house and told my mom. I didn’t go back out. My mother somehow came out of her valium induced passivity and called my dad. Then she walked out into the back yard and requested firmly that Rick go home. He did. That is the last memory I have of seeing Rick. As far as I know, after my dad and mom called Rick’s parents, he never rode the bus again. At least I have no memory of it. I had no memory of anything having to do with Rick nor his friendship, after that day in the tent, the ride on the bus with his arm draped over my shoulder, nothing much at all before that day in the tall grass and then in the tent, nothing at all other than the bus driver teasing me about Rick being my boyfriend. After that, I think the bus driver asked me once about it, and I didn’t reply. It was done. I stuffed any emotions, memories, or thoughts of Rick away, far away in the recesses of my mind. I had to deal with the pain of being the smart kid, artistic and quiet and obedient kid in school. The nerd. The albino. I had my often severely depressed or slightly manic mom to deal with each day. I was in a mode of letting stuff go away. I see that pattern following me throughout my life.
Years later, when dating as a teenager, I had a hard time controlling my sexuality, my blossoming libido, and I was either unable to say stop or was passive if the boy was too aggressive. All things considered, I was in a place of protection. The boys I dated, with the exception of one, were all very conservative good boys, who did not take advantage of me. I consider it a miracle I wasn’t date raped then. I consider it a divine act of spiritual protection.
What no longer serves me is that feeling of powerlessness, that feeling that I can’t be loved. When I loved, in the past, it was almost like I was desperate for some kind of attention, like a child, who was scared to be alone. What I learned as a young mother of two toddler girls was that Christ mind is in of itself a choice for love, that miracles are based in love. I had the love of my parents, my children, and in the best way he could, for as long as he could, my husband, who cheated on me repeatedly later on in our marriage. I now see this as not some betrayal of myself, but of my marriage as it was designed. I was the best wife I knew how to be, but I won’t deny that my childhood damage caused gaps in my ability to relate the way my husband at the time needed me to relate to him. I was happiest as a mom, as a volunteer, as somehow an “arrested woman” who saw sex as a duty, with little pleasure in it for me. When I finally left Tom, in the months following the separation and the divorce, I found myself alone and in a place of maturing that I has skipped over as a teen and young adult.
Psychologists state that if one misses a developmental phase in one’s youth, one will be required to access that phase and complete it even as an adult. The fact of the matter is this, whether or not one believes in psychology or religion, humans must process the trauma experienced, or I feel from personal experience, humans are doomed to repeat the trauma and make the same experiences repeat again and again until the mind, spirit, psychology of the individual deals with it, has some sort of resolution. There is no “free ride” in life, at all, ever. Whatever I don’t recognize now, in the present or in the past that was traumatic, and don’t find a way to resolve and forgive in some fashion, will continue to plague or haunt me. This can be proven simply looking at the history of mankind. How mankind chooses to deal with life, in fear or in love, bears out the necessary choice for which reality plays out in life. My some of my favorite examples are found in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness,
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Part 1, pg. 4
“Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone…” Part 1, pg. 23
The Congo was raped. The Congolese were abused, beaten, tortured, raped, left for dead if they didn’t produce ivory, rubber, or gold.
So how does this apply? I was the golden child. I was the one that was sought. For good or for bad, my body, my fair skin, was my fate, all was to be desired. That is what happened to me. I was molested repeatedly from age 5 to age 7. I was the Congo, a resource of sorts. I was the person with the “different look” from others in my gang of first cousins. I was the “favored” one and yet I was the persecuted one. I never had resolution of the lies and the trauma as an innocent child. I was physically abused on occasion—whipped with a leather belt, left alone, and psychologically and emotionally abandoned a bit too often on occasion as a child. It was how my parents knew to parent, often times. It was not that they sought to hurt me. The molestation, the rape of my innocence was most certainly not intended by my parents, who were ignorant of any risk to me, which I have to, no choice, but to believe. These circumstances —human suffering in a small child—set up in me a repeating pattern of my feeling isolated, alone, abandoned, and unloved as a young adult. These circumstances translated into my picking lessons, circumstances, repetition of anxious feelings that I had as a small child. I was attracted to boys who were at the least emotional bullies, or unavailable to me, so I looked outside to repeat the abandonment, the feeling of isolation, the feelings that somehow I was always responsible for other’s pain. Then somehow I made it to now. And now, I know it is not about me, in this way.
She carried his small two year old body up the seven steps to the bedrooms, leaving me alone in the dining-living area, wondering if I’d ever be her favorite again. My brother was now reigning. I knew things, but then, again, I was only five. I had started leaving my twin four poster maple bed in the wee hours of the morning, wandering back down the waxed hard wood stairs to sit on the brown tweed covered high backed couch to bounce my body against its spring filled upholstered back, bouncing over and over back and forth, waiting for the “honey bees” to show up… the golden lights in my eyelids. She mistakenly thought if I were allowed to stay up late, somehow that would force me to sleep through the night. I was already rebelling at the local private kindergarten during nap times. I refused to lie down without my “blankie.” There had been an uproar with the pre-school teacher and teenage assistants. I was labeled difficult. I remain so to this day.
So when I now look at teens, I see them. I see the pain, the hope, the longing in many of their eyes. Many think I am just another one of “them”—the adults who cause pain, who shut them up, or shut them out, or abuse power. At times, as a classroom teacher, I have done that. I still admit my growth is imperfect, but I understand. I know things. I see things. I understand the honey bees swarming in front of their pained eyes in the wee hours of the morning. It is as though I am linked to the pain, and also to the love that is their pot
Mothers on the Path of Life
Chapter 3 Mothers of a Different Flock
The pain and abandonment and the incredible need and drive to feel love comes from a place that must be healed. The healing really started to take place in me as I grew into my adulthood assisted by a very wonderful woman, my father’s hand selected psychology, Sabra. I adored her. She was for me, the mother figure, the father figure, that sought to help me heal my wounded child while I was still a teenager. Without her assistance, I know I would have been more wounded and possibly not made to my adulthood intact. She suspected the molestation even though I had no memory of it as a teenager. Ah, the gentleness of her therapy was amazing. Her strict boundaries she set for me just as amazing. I think in many, many ways I emulate her to this day in my teaching persona, and in many ways my mothering abilities. I remember one day showing up too early, as usual, for my appointment, and she sat in her office, door open, and had me wait on her as she sewed a patch, a badge, on her daughter’s Girl Scout slash. It was elegant and a very simple boundary setting exercise, an example. Sabra was always gentle, tough as nails, when needed, but very gentle. I didn’t show up quiet as early the next few sessions.
Sabra Stair Hassle. Dr. Sabra. She was, and is, to this day, a woman I see as a spiritual mother—full of honesty, passion, the ability to ask questions, and the ability to be compassionate with a half crazy adolescent girl. I was so envious of her daughter at that moment, but also so very proud I was witnessing a working mom, who combined her love of her family and her career seemingly so effortlessly. I knew then when I had a family, I would somehow continue my service to others, somehow be more than just the mom stuck in the traffic of daily caregiving, smothering myself as I had seen my mother do. However, what I did not fully see as my wounding, doomed me to a type of repetition of my mother’s smothered life for many years. We all have guideposts in our lives, and if we are lucky, they are living guideposts, not just words on a page, not just ancient wisdom passed down through the generations, but true people who live honest lives. We all need to see the wisdom exemplified, given credence by a human being walking the path, the path of pure intention and pur love. We then can see, with our eyes and our souls, the possibilities of life, the joy of life, the life well lived.
The healing humans all seek is there, but each human being must be willing to dig deep, to let go of preconceived notions, preconceived way of living, and breathing—even existing. There are scriptures, ancient ones, and religions to guide and to soothe and possible direct wounded or confused lives. This aspect of innocent suffering is not a new aspect for human kind. This aspect of suffering with grace, with an intention of love, instead of resentment and revenge, a newer concept than some others, has been in existence a little over two thousand years. There is healing for each trauma, for each hurt, and it begins with acceptance of the hurt. Recognizing the pain, finding the source of the pain, then letting that pain have its day, its way with the soul for the necessary time it takes to really feel the pain, and then letting of the pain. This is the healing. This is the plan. No, it is not always a plan that is comfortable, at all. No one gets out of this life without some sort of pain, some sort of growth through pain. I know that for me, that this journey to myself, began as a child and continues to this day. My dad told me multiple times as I grew up that if I ever stopped growing I would be dead. Well, Dad, I am here. I am growing. I am continuing the path you began for me.
Today I am a secondary teacher in an urban school with over 70% free and reduced lunch as my group of students. I teach seniors, mostly, with a few juniors scattered in the mix. I have the honor of being around some great kids, some excellent kids. I have the dubious duty of sharing my life with some great adults who are teachers and some teachers who are pretty selfish and self-promoting adults. It is the same in all schools, and yet my school seems to promote a sense of safety and family more than most. I was nicknamed Momma Means one year by my senior girls. I accepted the appellation as an honor. Teaching someone to keep her head above water in life, whether as a teacher of writing or literally teaching someone to make it out in the real world, that is being a mom. I was a mom only for a while to my own daughters, it seems that I did a pretty good job as long as they were just this shy of teenage time. I was thinking that might have been because I was “mothered” well more by aunties and my father, and by age 12, my mom was too distant to really connect with me. My determination to stay home so long with my girls had roots in my mother’s suicide attempts when I was a child and her eventual self-inflicted death when I was just 27 years old. My father, although completely dedicated to his job, was in many ways an influence as a parental force for my future parenting of my two girls, and subsequent teenagers as a teacher.
“Gasping for breath is to be avoided,” my father instructed.” It is the sign of a weak swimmer. “Try to take in even breaths, every three to five strokes,” he instructed. He flipped on his back and then turned gracefully over in the water like a pale pink dolphin. He glided down the length of the pool, popping his balding blond head up above the water line every so many strokes, opening his mouth just enough for a breath, and eyes closed continued to swim in a perfectly straight line. Then he stopped, ducked under the water momentarily, and rose slowly up, facing my fascinated 5 year old face. “Come on,” he said. “I will hold you under your tummy while you practice your strokes and breaths.” The water was freezing even in the oppressive Arkansas humidity of mid-summer. The sun had set behind the oaks and hickory nut trees surrounding the pool at Devil’s Den State Park. I skidded off the rough cement coping of the edge of the pool. I plopped contentedly into his waiting arms. Small, pale, happy in the water, I felt my feet leave the floor of the pool, as my dad lifted me into the appropriate position.
My mother hated swimming. She was petrified of the water. Somehow, she had learned from someone, I suspect my father, how to simply float on her back, but that was all. No real ability to swim a stroke existed in her, but she made sure that my brother and I could swim like proverbial fish. In the 1960’s kids didn’t learn to swim as infants, as my daughters both did in the 1990’s. I had my first lessons in the arms of my father, and then a year or so later, Red Cross lessons at the public pool in my home town. After those were over, my mother was motivated to hire one of our favorite Red Cross instructors to teach David and me to swim in private lessons. My mother paid hard earned dollars per hour to the young beautiful raven haired life guard named Barbara. She loved us and we adored her. She taught us more complex strokes, diving, and how to hold our breath for minutes at a time. We dove for pennies in the deep end of the pool, and later on we dove for pennies in the twelve foot diving pool. It was a magical time. Blue water, chlorine in our eyes and nostrils, bleached out hair, which for me meant white hair with a light green cast since I was already so blond.
If I got my mouth full of water, or my nose, or swallowed half the pool, as my dad used to say, it never stopped me. I just kept going back to the deep end where I could feel weightless and free—like a floating water angel or a fish or mermaid. The water was and is still my friend.
Today I walk in my classroom on the second floor of the oldest part of my high school’s campus, the hallway I traversed as a teenager in love. I now teach in this building. Some 35 plus years past my graduation, I now assist those trekking toward their own graduation from high school. Many of the children I teach are victims of poverty, survivors of abuse, neglect, and a failing educational system that is struggling to right itself with good intentions, little funding, and both burned out and inexperienced teachers. I see my role more of a mother and sage to this group of teens each year rather than an instructor of English. I can and at times do teach skills somewhat successfully, of course. But what I really teach is innately different from others’ expectations of me. I teach love. I teach spiritual enrichment, human rights, universal truths, concepts of higher purposes than what the predicate nominative is in a sentence. I don’t know if I will ever see in my life what I had hoped as a young teenager. I at one time fancied myself an artist, and on a good day now and again, I still see myself as a poet, artist, and writer. More and more, though, I see myself as myself as a kind of healer, although perhaps like and as all of the human race can be seen as artists, writers, poets, and healers, I gather to myself those attributes I can as I evolve into more of myself. There is little here now that means anything to me other than those I love and the ability to connect. I think somehow my healing and acceptance of myself has brought a healing of others as a natural consequence, a reciprocal reaction. This healing is often times disguised. I can’t see it, and the other person is only vaguely aware of it, but it happens.
Healing is not always in obvious ways, and not always on what people who understand only this existence as the final road as a healing. Death can be a healing, if it is allowed to be one. Even Christ died, on the cross, and that seeming death produced healing, resurrection, and a complete and total realignment of how this planet views healing. Healing begins on a level that is not physically seen and not physically felt. Healing begins on a level of energy that is unseen, source that is untapped, and often unrecognized.
The experience was one I knew well. The waiting, the avoiding of eye contact, the click of red painted nails on my bracelet, the shifting from one foot to another, finally sitting down in the rigid arm chair—the man with his head down, walked toward me with his air of regret and reticence preceding his pace. The oncologist sat in front of me, looking around and started his pitch. I had heard it all before, a number of times. I was not impressed, but a cold anger, an anger like frozen lake was taking over for the moment. This man’s job is to “sell hope” in an arena that begs for hope to be sold. Terminal cancer patients are assigned to him, and he gives them options. He palliates his patients with state of the art radiation and chemo therapy. He sends them home for a few months of “quality life”—but the terminal patients always come back. They always do. These patients and families are in line for that mystical healing of spirit at a level most do and will for a very long time not understand. I understand it due to my history of losses and acceptance that this life is short, wide, and a ride for not the faint of heart.
Tonight I am sitting here on my Duncan Fife 1930’s white and cherry wood sofa feeling like my guts were hit repeatedly and I am either have a fake menstrual period (can’t –had a hysterectomy in 2010) or I am empathically feeling my daughter’s monthly cramps, or I am damn near pissed off and the anger has settled in my ovaries, that I still have for show and giggles and grins. I am 53, so the ovaries on occasion still play like they care, and can reproduce. They are shooting old eggs at this point, and those occasionally cause a physical manifestation of “hey, Life, I am here!” I know that my body is over reacting now.
It is anger. It is anger and despair and grief tied in a knot, not a pretty bow. I can’t express the anger adequately. There is not a way to express it. My cousin who has been my best friend—and brother of my heart— for the past four years is dying slowly of cancer—stage 4 lymphoma, and the doctor wants to make a lab rat of him. Suffice it to say I have seen enough cancer, enough death from cancer to know that the medical community is not happy if one decided to die plump and cognitively aware–looks bad for the folks in charge of the charts. Not kosher. Not at all, so the decision to “fight it” is now coming to be the standard response. The doctor suggested a round of chemo, radiation to shrink a spine tumor, and then possibly, if my cousin survives, a stem cell transplant. I know this is crazy. I feel it. His heart, his blood pressure, his kidney, all compromised, make him a high risk patient, a patient that is slated to perhaps live through this, and suffer more, for a few more months, if my cousin is durable, strong, and unyielding.
As I continue to work hard on releasing my anger—which is my fear of loss, I realize after talking to friends, that I am not in control of my cousin’s decisions, his disease, his doctor’s spin, his sons’ need to grab ahold of hope. So, then I need to look within for the explanation of this situation. Perhaps this “fight” is exactly what his sons need to see. Perhaps this fight is exactly what I need to see. I do know this for certain— I know that I no longer have any concept of how life is supposed to be, but I have a concept of how each moment is lived in a choice for or against fear. Perhaps this unyielding personality is a healing force that I know from when he was “well” and now must look at from the perspective of “unwell” yet choosing to live now, fight now. I guess I want to be of service to my cousin and his family, but I am not in a position now to do so. I cannot lose my cousin, his love, his presence. Those are eternal, and as I have learned, impossible to lose.
The law of the universe is love, so to find conflict, to become angered is a choice based in fear. Losing a loved one to cancer, to suicide, to the past pain of abuse, to insanity, to momentary mental illness, to heart disease, to a car accident, to a plane crash… all cause pain. The pain is real. The fact that human beings experience loss is real. We all know this. The choice for fear is not real, not necessary. To survive this pain, one must choose love. One must choose to see the pain as a part of the whole, and as a blessing in growth. There is no single thing in this world but the love of Creator, as reality. So, this love, this joy, must be experienced with purpose and with intensity. At times, I believe, the best lessons in joy follow pain, loss, and sorrow. The contrasts, the antithesis, are the teachers of love. I remember after my father suffered a near fatal heart attack when I was in high school, and I was living with him and my brother in a tiny rent house behind the hospital where he was the administrator. He joked with me that my cooking had caused such indigestion, the onions, that it had caused his heart issue, but then he smiled at me as I denied it, and squirmed under the possibility that I might have caused him pain. He said, “Shannon, stop it. Don’t you for a minute ever worry about me, or my heart. I know where I am headed after this life, and it is a beautiful place. It is home. I am okay. If I die, now, or ten years from now, or twenty, you know this: I am okay. You know that I am happy and at peace. God willing, I will be here with you long time, but you know now, that I am good.” He smiled at me, and I melted into teenage tears on the inside because there was no way to cry in front of my dad who was hooked up to all sorts of telemetry. I had to at that moment, make a decision to believe him, to make the decision to be a more mature person, to finish my job as his daughter, and as his pride and joy. At that moment, I knew he was right. There is no end, but only a continuation, and that we needed to be “okay” in the moment, for the moment is really all we have.