I was chatting with a friend the other day, when we veered into childhood anxiety—of which we both suffered from—and I remembered that I was claustrophobic for like five years as a kid. I had forgotten about it, because it’s something that I grew out of. In fact, nowadays I feel safest when any door I am behind is closed and locked, but when I was in elementary school I couldn’t deal with a closed door, let alone a locked one.
It started when my nephew, Little Scottie, and I were playing as kids. Little Scottie was my brother’s son. My brother and his girlfriend had Little Scottie when they were teenagers, and because my brother is 14 years older than me, I ended up being two years older than my nephew, which meant we were more like brother and sister, and we treated each other like that too. Mainly teasing and taunting, always picking at each other.
One day, when I was in kindergarten, which would have made Little Scottie about four, we were playing hide-and-seek and I ran into the laundry room to hide. He saw me hiding behind the dryer (I wasn’t a good hider) and when I jumped out to scare him, he grabbed the door knob and slammed the door closed before I could get him. I heard him go running down the hall screaming waiting for me to chase him, the only problem was that when he had slammed the old wooden door shut, it jammed. And just like that I was stuck in a small room.
I immediately panicked. That’s my gut reaction to all situations. I screamed for Little Scottie, but he was no doubt hiding somewhere far away. I looked around frantically trying to figure out what my options were. There was a small window in the laundry room that overlooked the front porch where the adults were all sitting. So I ran to the window, too small to see out of it, and screamed as loud as I could for as long as I could until I heard the commotion of people coming inside wondering what was wrong.
My mom got to the door first and tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. “Missy,” her voice came through the door, “Unlock the door!” I explained through sobs at this point, that the door wasn’t locked. I heard someone say it was jammed then, and she tried the door again but this time used some muscle. Nothing.
Someone, maybe my brother, maybe my nephew’s step-dad, got the idea to come to the window and try to reach in and pull me out. They got the screen off, but I couldn’t get myself far enough up to them, and they were too big to fit far enough in to grab me. It occurred to me then, that this was my life. I’d have to live in the laundry room for the rest of my life. My mom would come bring my food through the window, and I’d spend my days listening to the neighbor kids play on my swing set in the front yard. The sobs came louder and quicker.
“Hold on now, Missy,” my mom’s voice came from the other side of the door, “I’m gonna pull these panels out.” Turns out it was one of those old, wooden doors that had slats in it. So with a little help from whomever that man was, and a hammer, my mom was able to pull the slats from the door until there was a hole large enough to pull me out. Whew! I was free. But that’s when the claustrophobia first started. For years afterward I would cry if I was left in a room with a closed door. Even when I was playing with friends. I’d always eye the door, ask them to keep it slightly ajar.
Eventually my fear subsided, and so did my friendship with my nephew. We grew apart. And three years ago he was murdered in cold blood by a monster of a man, and I never got to tell him that I know he didn’t jam the door on purpose. That I know he was just as scared as I was that day. That I still remember his little red face, matching his bright red hair, and the way he ran up to give me a hug when I was free that day. I can still see and feel it all. The warm sunshine of the day outside, pulsing down on my arms. And I hope he can too.
I had my annual exam this morning with my new doctor in Atlanta. There wouldn’t normally be much to report, it’s usually the same old song and dance. I need to lose weight. Get my medication right. But today I met my new NP, and things were different. She’s sweet, and young, and resourceful. She’s an immigrant, who left Iran ten years ago with her brother to escape religious persecution. She was raised in the Bahá’í Faith. It’s a more progressive sect of Islam. Women are viewed as equals in her religion, but still not in Iran. In Iran she was treated poorly because of her religion. She was not allowed to go to college. Her parents could not own a business, or work for the government, schools, etc. they can only work for private companies. The ones that will hire them. Her life was hard growing up, and if it weren’t for her opportunity to come here, she isn’t sure where she would be.
She didn’t just offer up this information about herself, of course. She just asked a normal “doctor” question.
NP: How many pregnancies?
NP: How many children?
This is when the doctor usually says she’s sorry for my loss. She may ask what happened, depending on what I’m there for, she may not. Today my sweet, young, Farsi-speaking NP simply said, “Tell me about your baby.”
What came next was a ten-minute conversation about how abortion, especially ones like mine, where the baby isn’t viable, are totally okay in Iran. In most of that part of the world. That this stigma here in the US, we did that to ourselves, and she thinks it’s nuts. “No one,” she told me, “No one in Iran would have expected you to carry your daughter to full-term. You’d seem crazy to them if you did that.” She went on to tell me a bit about her life and religion. She told me she thinks the powers that be in her new country, our country, use the issue of abortion to hide what they are actually doing. It’s all a game with them. They don’t see the women.
It’s weird, and a little funny how things happen. I forget that sometimes. I’ve been torturing myself all week. A wreck with guilt, as I am every year around this time, for something that I just shouldn’t have guilt about.
I was reminded of this today. I was reminded by someone who didn’t need to know my why, or my how, or my when. She just needed to see the struggle in my eyes. She put her hand on my shoulder as I struggled to sit upright, my open gown covering nothing of my upper body, my breasts hanging out all over the place, and she said, “Look at me.” I looked at her. “I would have done the same thing you did. You’re strong. Strong to know the toll that would take on you. Strong mentally to know what was best for you and to do it.” Then she took my hand and helped me sit straight up. Helped me close up the front of my gown. Helped me straighten my crown.
There’s good out there, y’all. Everyday, everywhere. And it comes to you when you need it.
Yesterday is over. I wait all year to get through the month of August, and though I still technically have a few more days left, the month is over for me. If I can get through my daughter’s birthday, well then, I can get through anything. She would have been eight years old yesterday. We would have had a party. Who knows what kind. Maybe a Minecraft party, thrown with her big brother as the host. Maybe a retro party like Jackson had last year, full of clowns, and bright colors, and a bounce house. Maybe she would have wanted a Disney princess party, or a Toy Story party, maybe she would have loved a llama party like her mommy. I think about these things.
Of course any of those parties would hinge on the fact that she would have had to be born. And then she would have had to be born “normal,” nor “abnormal” like it was written on all the paperwork. She would have had to shaken off that extra chromosome somehow. She would have had to be a totally different daughter. The one I imagined in my head, not the one she actually was.
I’m not losing it, don’t worry. I’m just letting you into my brain on the day after the eighth anniversary of losing my daughter. I cried in my therapist’s office last week. I told her that I have been having panic attacks in the middle of the night. I told her that I’ve been waking up thinking about death. Existential dread, sure, but so much more. She assured me that it was okay, and in fact normal, for eight years later to have this happen. It will also be normal in 20 years. And in 30 years. Because grief doesn’t stop just because you want it to. You can’t will it away.
I cried for the better part of an hour, while my husband held me yesterday afternoon. My people texted me. Thinking about you. With hearts and hugs. I’m here if you want to talk. I appreciate it all. I appreciate the love and support you give to us, but I am also sorry. Sorry that you have to send that text. Sorry if you feel like I talk about her more than I should. We all have our ways I guess, this is mine. I say her name, I tell her story, I educate people when I can. And I have learned that’s okay. But on August 25th I sort of just shut down. And I’m slowly learning that’s okay too.
The day after yesterday is better. Brighter. More possibilities lie ahead. So thanks to those who helped me get through, especially Jerimiah, Jackson, and Duke. Three outta four ain’t bad.
On April 19, 1999 my mom took me to the doctor because I woke up with ear pain that wasn’t going away. My doctor diagnosed me with an ear infection. He put me on a round of antibiotics and told me to stay home from school the next day. I was grateful because the pain was pretty intense and I tossed and turned all night. I woke up late the next morning. My mom was at work, a note stuck to the refrigerator said to call her if I needed anything. I was a junior in high school and I scoffed at the note: “Love, Mom”. Geez, mom, I’m fine, I can take care of myself. I made myself a bowl of cereal and set up shop on our old, comfy couch. I grabbed the remote control and flicked on the television. I’m not sure what was on tv. Maybe Price is Right, maybe one of those daytime talk shows, Sally Jessy Raphael or Geraldo, was he on the air then? I flipped the channel between bites of off-brand lucky charms, stopping occasionally at a funny commercial or to raise my hand to my throbbing ear, did I take my medicine already? At about 11:30 a.m. I stopped on Channel 9, KBMC, the local ABC affiliate in Kansas City, because something caught my attention. The scene showed a SWAT team, with automatic weapons drawn, running into a high school in Colorado.
The tragedy that unfolded in front of me that day on KMBC, was the catalyst for my high school to implement a safety protocol for an active shooter situation. I suspect Columbine, and the 15 students fatally wounded, was a catalyst for many schools across the country to implement comprehensive safety plans. To teach their children how to respond in an emergency situation. Bombs. Active shooters. School Emergency Response Plans. School Preparedness. They assessed by color. Code Black. Yellow. Red. Blue. Unsafe odor. Lockdown. Even for a Kansas kid, this was a lot. Kansas kids are used to drills. Leavenworth kids were able to tell the difference between a tornado siren and an inmate escape siren. We knew when the doors to school locked. We remembered when the doors to our school didn’t lock. We wrestled with our anxiety. Our constant barrage of drills, butting up against our desire to be cool and unbothered. The day after the Columbine High School shooting, though, things changed.
Our lunch room chat was spent on deciding with your best friends where you would meet if it ever happened to us. We all developed our own action plans, unbeknownst to each other. Those of us in the journalism room, we knew how to lift the handle of the dark room just right to jam it a little. We knew it would buy us time. We started getting cell phones. Little brick Nokias with emergency numbers and a game with a long snake. Active Shooter Drills became commonplace. We dreaded them. We stood in lines across the street from the school as the administrators would “sweep” the classrooms. We laughed and talked. Secretly assessing who we thought would be wearing long, black trench coats at our school. Our teachers told us to be quiet. They listened intently on their walkie talkies for the all-clear. We joked and made fun of their seriousness. But inside, we were a mess.
At home my mother would want to know what happened. “Where do they send you?” she’d ask, as she sloshed mashed potatoes onto my dinner plate. “How will you call me at work?” I’d shrug off her questions. “Stop worrying, nothing is going to happen at our school.” Still, she asked more. She started to leave detailed instructions on the fridge for me after school. Chores, directions to start dinner, anything to keep me home, keep me safe. “Call me if you need anything,” they would say. “Love, Mom.”
I stopped sleeping altogether. My anxiety crept up. Panic attacks started. Once I was in the back of our library. I was working on a research project. It was the big one. The last big project before school was out for summer. I was doing a close reading of a poem. I was engrossed in the book I had, sitting along the back wall, the stacks covering my view of either door. I heard a loud bang. My heart leapt into my throat. I froze. A moment later the librarian walked around, looking for each of us, asking if we were okay. She said someone slammed a door across the hall. We smiled, eased our backs into our chairs again Laughed a little. “We’re fine,” we said. “Totally good”. We were not fine. We were not totally good.
Years later I was sitting in a classroom at Missouri State University when my professor came into the room in a panic and told us to evacuate. She saw a man walking into the building with a gun. By this time I was a mother. I had a toddler at home. I froze again. Someone tapped me on the arm, “Let’s go!” We all ran down to the basement of the building. We grabbed our phones, waited for the all-call. The text to come in. The beeping and the signal: Run. Hide. Shelter. Fight. This was drilled into our head from the first day. That familiar feeling crept up into my throat just as my teacher walked down the stairs. The man was a plain-clothed officer, she explained. He forgot to notify anyone that he was coming into the building, and he hadn’t taken his gun off his hip. She felt bad for overreacting. She was clearly distraught. I hugged her. I didn’t mind her overreaction.
In grad school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we had routine preparedness thrown at us. Text messages would go out, followed by emails. Drills. Make sure the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) has your cell phone number. Make sure you are getting the Niner Alerts. I was diligent. Drills don’t bother me anymore. Overreacting doesn’t bother me. Be Niner Ready they would say. I was always Niner Ready.
And then the day came when all the practice, all the prep, all the drills became useful. Thankfully I graduated last May. Thankfully I was not on campus last Tuesday. Thankfully I didn’t need to get a Niner Alert. Or sit in a classroom, crouched against the wall, desks stacked up against the door, calling loved ones on the phone to check in, to say that I am okay. But there were people who did. And there were, as we soon learned, people who were not okay.
Kennedy, the building the shooting happened, is a lovely building. I led class discussions in that building when I was a Graduate Assistant for Prospect for Success. I remember that it was very high-tech, for being such an old building. The outside was deceiving. On my first week of grad school, I sat just outside Kennedy, out in the fresh air surrounding the Belk Tower, which was dismantled my second year, wondering how I was so lucky. How I had managed to get into a graduate program. Wondering how I had landed my cool new job at Colvard, the building just across from the Library. My library. Our library. Whose full, bright, stacks I occasionally roamed with no purpose other than to be in the library. To smell the familiar smell of books, and feel the collective tension of students with heads in folders, and in computer screens, and in their own thoughts. Kennedy is near the library. It is near the Career Center. It is right next to the Counseling Center.
I had friends on campus, and thankfully they are all okay. I had friends, professors, former classmates, and fellow Niners. I’ve checked in. I’ve seen their “Marked Safe” flags. I’ve cried for them. For my school, my community, the city that I miss. But, I can’t cry anymore. We can’t cry anymore.
You never think it will happen to people you love. You never think until it just does. And then when it does, all the pain, and all the fear, and all the anger builds up inside of you. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Will this happen again? Why is this okay? I was shocked and afraid on April 20, 1999 as I watched armored officers run into Columbine High School. I was afraid it could happen at my school, to my friends and to me. I was afraid, but I was hopeful. I just knew that this incident would be the one that would make my country work together to ensure that this never happened again. I just knew that our politicians, our representatives, our parents and teachers, the adults in charge, would protect us. Would work together to ensure that every child was safe while they were at school. Yet here we are. Twenty years later and mass shootings at schools and universities have become so commonplace that we don’t even blink an eye. We shake our head and say, “Heaven’s sake” or “Christ, it happened again,” while we make dinner, and help our kids with homework, and turn the channel to a comedy. We send thoughts and prayers. We make memes. We make hashtags.
Honestly, very honestly, I was angry the first time I saw the image on the top of this post. I was very angry. How can they sum up what just happened, hours before, into a picture. It felt too soon. It felt wrong. It felt like it was already made, just sitting there on someone’s hard drive, waiting to have the newest school’s tragedy stamped on it. Yes, I thought, Charlotte is strong. Yes, UNCC will come together and they will mourn and remember. Yes, my school, my community, my people will do the right thing. But what about everyone else?
I don’t want to get too political here. And all I can say is what a million angry mothers and fathers, and teachers and officers have said. We have to do better. And in order to do better we have to make major, sweeping changes to our guns laws, to mental health care, to insurance, to the angry in the community, to how we treat and respond to the bullied, the marginalized, those in poverty, those misunderstood. We have to revamp the systems. The public school system. The higher education system. The welfare system. The foster care system. And I know that is a lot, and I know it makes people afraid because it seems like it can’t be done. But it can, with small steps. It starts in our homes. In our backyards. In our communities. It starts with the way we treat each other every single day. Who we vote into office. Who we allow to represent us. It starts with boots on the ground.
Yesterday another gun attack happened, in another Colorado school. And today, like all the other days after a tragedy like this, we are learning of those killed and wounded. Learning about how they had to run, hide, shelter, and fight. These are children. Children. Children whose parents could not protect them. Whose teachers and administrators and classmates could not protect them. Who may have thought they didn’t need protecting from anything. I can’t stop thinking about the parents. About the mom of the boy, Kendrick Castillo, who tried to stop the gunman. I can’t stop saying his name. Wondering what his mother is going through. What about Riley Howell’s mom? What about Reed Parlier’s mom? They won’t leave their children notes on the refrigerator ever again. No more reminders of appointments, no more directions to bake the lasagna in the oven, no more “Love, Mom”.
I’m not sure what my plans are from here on out. But I have a 10-year-old son, and middle school is fast approaching and I am terrified, y’all. I have been, since April 20, 1999, and you should be too, and together we should work toward a solution. Together we should protect our children, at all costs.
I feel like a broken record sometimes, y’all. And believe me, I know what a broken record feels like. Just last week my dog ate one of my vinyls, Alabama’s Greatest Hits. At first I was so distraught, all I could do was throw myself onto the floor in a fetal position and cry, while I slowly sang:
There’s an old flame, burning in your eyes That tears can’t drown, and make-up can’t disguise
Yeah, it was as emotionally-charged and odd as it seems. But later, when I tried to duct tape the record back together, telling Sir Duke Barkington that I wasn’t so much mad, as I was disappointed, I realized maybe it was a lost cause.
Maybe a lot of what I try to fix is a lost cause. Maybe a lot of people I try to convince are lost causes, not because they aren’t capable of learning, knowing, or growing, but because they are shut off to anything they do not understand, anything that scares them, anything that goes against their beliefs, set in stone, unchanging.
This past Saturday I had an encounter with an anti-abortion protester at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.. I have never been face to face with a person like this before. Her name was Evangeline, she introduced herself after she asked my name. I told her it was Missy, and that I was the mother of a daughter who was not alive because she was very sick. Because she could not live outside of my body. Then I told her, unprovoked, Lydia’s story in short. She smiled as I spoke and nodded her head along like she was listening, but when I was finished she said just this: “I am sorry that happened to you. That is different than an abortion.” I explained that is not different. That in my hospital discharge paperwork I was released after having had a “late-term abortion”. And that if abortion rights were taken from women, I would not have had that choice.
She again smiled and said that she was sorry that happened to me but that my case “was different”, and most people just don’t “understand science”. I asked her what she meant by that, and she told me that babies are made at conception. I explained that my own children, one born healthy, one not, were fetal poles until 6 weeks gestation, no heartbeats, just a cluster of cells (I had ultrasounds to show it) and she again said, “I am sorry you do not understand science.”
I am sorry you do not understand science. I am sorry, but your case is different. I am sorry you do not understand science. I am sorry, but your case is different.
Around and around and around.
I am sorry, but your case is different.
I am sorry you do not understand science.
I am sorry, but your case is different.
My husband and best friend moved to block other anti-abortion protesters with their signs as I spoke with this woman, who was utterly mis-informed and completely lacked the ability to reason for herself. All I can hope is that when she packed up her signs, promptly at 3:00 pm (we assume she was paid to be there for a certain time) that she thought about my words and my story as she walked back to her warm van.
I know that sometimes I sound like a broken record. And I apologize for that. I apologize that you all have to keep reading my words and listening to Lydia’s story, especially when it makes you uncomfortable or brings up your own memories that you would rather forget. But for those of you still around, I applaud you. I thank you.
I see you. Trying to understand, to learn, to support me and the millions of women like me. Because there is no difference. There is no difference between my case and the millions of others. We are all women. Women doing what is best for us, for our mental health, for our economic or educational success, for our children, for our families, for our futures. And until EVERYONE can attempt to understand, can accept that legislating morality will not be tolerated, and can give grace, even to those who they fundamentally disagree with, then I will keep spinning this record. Around and around and around.
One day a few months ago I was out and about, having a hectic day. My lunch date had cancelled, my doctor visit had not gone as planned, my husband was having a bad day at work, I was confused about some choices I had, and I had spent about two hours in Jackson’s classroom, reading and working math problems with a couple of kids who needed the extra help. It was a chaotic morning and by the time I realized I hadn’t eaten all morning, I was already hangry. I was on my way home to see what Sir Duke had destroyed in my absence, when I decided I would stop by the nearest restaurant and have lunch. It seemed like what I needed to do at that moment, so I quickly pulled into the nearest lunch spot which happened to be a Showmars in Midtown, right near the hospital.
I like Showmars. It is fast and clean, the staff is friendly and efficient, and they have a variety of choices. In fact, Jerimiah and I will often meet there for our “weekly lunch dates” when we just don’t know what the hell we want. This day I was feeling out of sorts, so I knew exactly what I wanted, comfort food, which for me means fried food. I walked up to the counter and ordered the chicken fingers. I paid, got my number and drink, and walked to a booth by the windows. It was a nice day, mid October I believe, and there were people sitting inside and outside. I sat my items down on the table, making eye contact with the woman behind me who was alone, though there were two plates on the table. I smiled at her and she reciprocated, though she looked preoccupied.
I walked into the bathroom. There were only two stalls and one was occupied at the time, so I went into the empty one. While I was in the bathroom stall, the occupied door opened and the woman went to the sink to wash her hands. I was in such a weird head space, that I didn’t pay much attention to the noises. I assume she unlocked the door, I assume her heels clicked toward the sink. I assume she pushed the soap dispenser and the water shot on. I didn’t really hear any of that though. I was so frustrated at myself for saying the wrong thing to the doctor, for sending an email out of frustration, and for not giving the kids my undivided attention, that I was berating myself as I finished up. In fact, it wasn’t until I flushed that I stopped and actually listened to what was happening.
The woman who had come out of the occupied stall was crying. At first I wasn’t sure what I had heard. I waited for the toilet to finish up its water cycle, then I tried not to move, tried not to breathe, and I put my ear to the crack at the door. That is when I heard the unmistakable sound.
If you have ever cried in public before, you know the sound. Your body, full of fear or grief or anger, is forcing this reaction on to you and you are not ready for it. Or more likely the people you are around are not ready for it, and you know this. So you try to make yourself stop. You try to look up and bat your eyelashes, you sniff hard, trying to stop your nose from giving you away. You dab paper towels at your eyes so you don’t smear your makeup. You wave your hands in front of your eyes. You close them, praying to whomever, whatever, to be rescued from these emotions. From this moment or this memory.
She was doing all of those things, I assume. I was still nervously hiding in the bathroom stall, wondering what to do. My first instinct was to open the door and take the woman into my arms. Just stand there and let her cry. But, I had recently been trying to stifle these emotional reactions with people, particularly strangers, because I don’t want people to be put off by me, and I am afraid I have put people off. So instead I stood silently, and listened. I listened as she pulled more paper from the machine, as she blew her nose, as she splashed water on her face. With each moment I grew more and more upset with myself, until I couldn’t take it anymore and I opened the door.
There, standing next to the trash can, her hands steadying her small frame on the sink, was a woman in a neat pantsuit, hair pinned back, make-up running down her face. When we made eye contact she immediately apologized. I took a couple of steps toward the sink and she stepped back to let me get closer. She grabbed more paper towels, and dabbed her eyes. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just washed my hands and kept my face down. Then as I reached for the paper towels the words just sort of came out of my mouth.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, meeting her eyes.
“No,” she said. In that moment I didn’t want to push, so I didn’t. I dried my hands. I should have made a step toward the door, but I didn’t. Instead I put my hand on top of hers.
Her name was Mary. Her husband of 42 years had just, that morning, passed away in the hospital a couple of blocks away. Heart attack. There was nothing they could do. Her daughter was waiting for her in the restaurant. I didn’t know what to say. She didn’t look at me to say anything. In that moment, I just had to listen.
They’d met in high school.
They had three kids and a lot of grandkids.
She doesn’t know who she will talk to when she has a bad day. She doesn’t know who will tell her it will all be okay. They had plans and he didn’t uphold his end of the bargain. Her daughter is busy. Her son is gone. So many years, so many miles, so many separations.
I just nodded and gripped her hands tighter.
I told her that I didn’t understand her grief.
She told me that was good, and that she hoped I never did.
She said she had to go. She said her daughter would be worried.
I watched as she wiped her face one last time. Then she grabbed my hands, tried to smile, and she walked out the door.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how long I had been in there, but I stood there for a bit longer. I didn’t want to go out into the restaurant. I didn’t want to see her daughter again. I didn’t want to see her. I was sad. I was sad for her and I was suddenly sad for all the people in the world like her. I was afraid. I never want to be in her shoes, but it is an inevitability. Inevitably, we all lose someone.
Eventually I made my way back to my table. My chicken fingers were there, but Mary and her daughter were gone. I sat down at the table and called my husband. He answered. I wanted to burst into tears, but instead I just told him that I loved him. That his day was bound to get better and that this low spot we were in, these changes we find ourselves fighting, they would all work out. I told him it would all be okay.
Then over the next hour I sat quietly, watching people walk in and out of the restaurant. I overheard conversations about hurricanes and hydrangeas. I watched an old man flirt with a young server. I smiled as a mother struggled with a child on her hip and a newborn in a stroller. I thought about this life, and how we live it. I thought about death, and how it scares us. I wished good thoughts for Mary. I realized, maybe for the first time, that we aren’t just here for one reason, with one talent or one gift, but that we are all here for a lot of reasons, buttloads of them in fact, but rescuing each other might be the most important.
This past Election Day my friends and I sat in the cool autumn air of their screened in porch, in the quaint little town of Davidson, North Carolina. Our children were inside watching a movie, our husbands were mixing drinks and waxing political. We were fawning over Beto and discussing all the amazing women who were stepping up to change our world. I was content. I was at optimistic. Yet, I was sad.
The next morning I woke up remembering November 9, 2016. I didn’t remember the shock of realizing Trump had won. I didn’t remember the fighting on Facebook, or the chaos that swept through our country in the coming days. I remembered the call I received from my sister. The one where she told me that my nephew, my brother’s oldest child, the little-red-haired brat who pestered me when we were kids, Little Scottie, was missing.
Election Day will never be the same for me ever again. But even worse, my family, my brother, my mother, my sisters, my great-nephews, will never be the same again. That was the beginning of a week-long search for Little Scottie, a week spent in agony by my brother, his wife, Little Scottie’s mom, sister, children, and friends. A week of waiting. A week of searching. A week of me, a thousand miles away, helping as best I could. Getting the word out, calling in favors from people in Kansas, searching news sites, filtering the press requests, keeping everyone informed. And waiting. Hoping for good news from Flint Hills.
Then the news came. And it wasn’t good. Then the real pain began.
Jerimiah and Jackson and I went to Wichita. We hugged my brother. We hugged my mother. We transported Little Scottie’s remains, in a wooden box resting on my mother’s lap, from Wichita to his own mother in Leavenworth. We read the news reports. We read the coroner report. We read the arrest records of those involved. We wept.
It’s been two years. Two long years for my brother. Two years of ups and downs. The grief of knowing what his son went through. The grief of never being able to say goodbye. Of never having closure. And then this week, on the day we were all headed to the polls to cast our ballots relying, we hoped, on love trumping hate. On sending a message to the world that we are still here in one piece, ready to move forward in love and optimism for the future. On the day the country tried to suture the wounds of our bleeding hearts, my brother sat in a courtroom and heard the sentencing of the two most evil people he has ever known.
They were sentenced to 171 years between the two of them. A sentence to ensure that they will die in prison. A sentence to ensure that my brother gets the only closure he can. A sentence to give some reparation for a loss that is unfathomable. Unthinkable. Unknowable. Sentences in my opinion, that were too short.
Grief comes in waves. It surprises you, pulls you under, holds you there for more than you would like. Some days are better than others. Some days you can paddle and kick your feet and stay afloat, other days you let the tide pull you down. Way down. And that’s okay. That’s okay, brother. Because when you get strong enough to stand back up, we will all be here.
We miss you Little Scottie. We miss your sweet nature, your kind heart. Your love of the Chiefs and your love of family. I’m sorry I ran away from you that day in sixth grade when you just wanted a hug, but I was too cool to give you one. I’m sorry I told you to stay out of my room because “boys aren’t allowed”. I forgive you for locking me in the laundry room that time, because you thought it would be funny. I forgive you for breaking my favorite Barbie doll’s arm. It was an accident, I know. I’m sorry for getting mad. I’m sorry I didn’t say it then. I am sorry I wasn’t there more.
On April 25th of this year, I sat with my professors in a small conference room in the English Department at UNC Charlotte to defend my thesis. It’s an important step to graduation, though it sounds scarier than it is. It’s really just going over a year’s worth of work. Reading a bit, talking about why you chose that particular point-of-view, why you chose that subject, how you put all this love and sweat into these 60 pages. I was nervous, sure. But less about the conversation. Less about whether or not I would “pass”. I already knew I did what I was supposed to do to graduate. I already knew that my professors liked my thesis. I already knew this would end well. I was nervous instead that at any moment I would burst into tears and look like a fool. Not because of the very emotional subject matter of my three essays, but because I had just lost my best friend.
It’s almost humorous now, but I remember one of my professors walking in just before the meeting and I was just standing there, my items scattered all over the table. I remember looking up at her smiling face and wanting to burst into tears and tell her all about my Bentley-girl. And she would have listened. And hugged me. And told me that it would all be okay. But I felt so stupid. How do you explain to someone, anyone, how the death of a dog, a very mature, lived-longer-than-she-should-have-lived dog, was the second worst thing that you have ever lived through? How dumb would that sound? So instead, I nervously shuffled papers around, told her I was nervous about reading my work, and pretended to be the same, old hot-mess I always was.
I “passed”, as I knew I would, even with Bentley on my mind. I made it through that day and the next few days. I even made it to an awards ceremony where I was recognized for being a good student. Then, I hopped on a plane, flew to Arizona with my family and celebrated another best friend on her wedding day. All along, I held it together. In fact, I held it together through the next month. I held it together through my graduation, through a house full of guests. I held it together through a stay in the hospital, through a surgery, and a recovery. I held it together until the first time I found myself completely alone in my house, in nearly 14 years.
It was the first week of June. My mother had just flown back to Kansas from having spent three weeks with us while I recovered. Jackson was in school. Jerimiah was at work. I was up and mobile and feeling pretty good, physically. I went to sit down at my computer, I wanted to try to put words to the whirlwind that had been the last six weeks, and instead I sat on the rug next to my desk, and I cried.
It had been a long time since I cried like that. A long time since I had been under the grip of that kind of grief. Seven years, actually. And it hurt a lot more than I remember. I forgot how much you physically hurt from grief. How your body heaves up and down with each breath, until your stomach feels like you’ve done a million sit-ups. How your eyes burn from the rubbing, and the salt, and the strain. How at times you feel like you can’t control any of it. The emotions, the images floating in and out of your mind, the feeling that the walls are closing in on you. That the floor will open you up and suck you under. It’s how I imagine it must feel to be drowning.
I’m not even sure what sparked it. I suspect it was the pure silence of the house. Having a constant being near you at all times becomes comforting. After I lost Lydia I remember always having Bentley to talk to, to complain to when toddler Jackson was being unreasonable. But here I was, in so much emotional pain, and Bentley was not there to lay her head on my lap. Her brown eyes were not looking up at me in concern and love. I had always felt safe and protected with her around. I had always felt loved, even when I was at the very bottom and felt all alone. But here I was. Literally all alone, at the bottom, in another hour of dark grief, and it didn’t feel like there was a way out.
Of course I could have called a friend. I could have logged onto Facebook and shared, I could have had a thousand virtual hugs. I could have checked Jackson out of school. I could have called Jerimiah to come home. But I didn’t do any of that. I knew I needed to do this. I knew I needed to lie there on the floor, feel the feelings, remember her. All the years, the sadness, the happiness, all the moments, each one of them. I needed to do it to make it final. And so I did.
I realized then that I shouldn’t be ashamed. I shouldn’t have to defend this grief to anyone. Especially not to myself. It didn’t matter if it sounded stupid. If my grief was “normal” or even made sense. It’s when I realized that all of this, all this emotion that was flowing out of me, was very real.
In the months that have passed since Bentley’s last day with us, we have cried, we have laughed, we have shared memories, spread her ashes in Missouri, even adopted a new pup. But in all this time, the three of us still occasionally look at each other and smile. We linger at the spot on the floor by the front door, at the flowering bush outside Zada Janes Corner Cafe, at the parking lot of Dairy Queen, and at the bridge at Freedom Park. Remembering her short time with us.
RIP Bentley-Girl. You were always there when it mattered. In the important moments. You were my first baby, my second loss, my very best friend. You were all a girl could ask for, and you are missed every day.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens”
Last week a friend of mine sent me some words of wisdom from her daily devotional. She was thinking about me, and my upcoming appointment with the doctor, and thought I might need to hear them. One of the points said simply, “A time for everything, and everything in its time”. As the words came across the screen I was suddenly back in the 1980s. No, I wasn’t standing at a New Kids on the Block concert in my Jams and a Care Bears t-shirt. I was on the floor of my sister’s room listening to Terry Jack’s sanguine tribute to life and death spinning around on her record player. “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun, but the wine and the song, like the seasons have all gone…”
We’ve all had one of those fleeting moments, right? A memory that creeps into your head, seemingly out of nowhere, and encapsulates you. A smell, or a sound, or a phrase that sparks such strong emotion that you wish you could reach out and touch it with your hands. A memory so engrained in a particular season of life, one that you know you can’t get to, that its nostalgia (though tarnished from the messiness of life) still has an immeasurable power over you. It makes you yearn for a different time and place. That is what happened to me when I read that message. And that nostalgic feeling has followed me around since.
Thursday afternoon I was naked from the waist down on an x-ray table. Four doctors watched a screen as they injected dye into my you-know-what with what I suspected was a light saber. But there I was, calm, quiet, mesmerized by that memory.
Thursday evening my husband called to tell me he was going to Urgent Care because he had been having chest pains and wanted to get checked out. I wanted to scream at him. Tell him he should have told me sooner. Cry because I was scared. But I didn’t. I simply sat and listened to the doctor tell him that it was stress. All the while the memory blazed in my mind.
Saturday morning my lungs were struggling for air and I was struggling for the motivation to finish my 5K, when a stranger ran alongside me. He introduced himself. He told me I was going to finish. He told me not to give up even when the pain came. He finished the race with me. I didn’t know him, but that familiar memory was there.
It was there, in the back of my mind. The spinning of the record calling me back to a different season of life. I don’t understand the power that memory has over me, and I am not sure that I ever will, but I am beginning to understand the season of life in which I find myself today.
That is where I am. Not exactly where I would have hoped to be at thirty-five, but maybe none of us are exactly where we want to be, ever. Because each season brings its own challenges. Its own burdens. And also its own light. Each season shines a light in the darkest of times. Each season makes us dig deeper than we ever thought possible. Each season beckons us, the faint whispers of what we have experienced, collide with the anticipation and yearning of what lies ahead.
And it is scary.
And it is so scary.
And sometimes, if we have the right attitude and we set our sights on the right goals, we can change course.
And sometimes, if we surround ourselves with the right people and we look for the light, we can change others.
And sometimes, if we learn from the past and make way for the future, the season doesn’t change us. We change us.
There will always be times in our lives where we are sad and afraid. And there will always be times in our lives when we are happy and brave. And all these things might come at you at once. And you might stay a little longer in times of sadness, or you might radiate happiness out of you like a moonbeam all of the time. But we have to remember that we are not alone. That we are not bound to the old. We are not bound to a time or a place, to a season or a memory. We are only bound by what we tell ourselves we are capable of, as cliche and un-fucking-original as that sounds. It is true.
We are only bound by what we tell ourselves we are capable of.
So stop telling yourself that you are too old. That you are too young. That you are too fat. That you are too weak. Stop telling yourself that you had your chance and you missed it. Stop telling yourself that you will never get your chance. And start living the season of life you find yourself in right now. Let the season tumble you around. Let the season teach you. But don’t let it define you. Allow it to give you memories so strong that at 2 am on a Sunday you feel as though you can reach out and touch them one more time.
Just take a deep breath and give into it. Like that time you finished that whole cake by yourself. That cake is fucking tasty. So g’head, get messy.
As I sit here this evening, my son cuddled in his pajamas, my husband working on his laptop, and my dog snoring on her bed, I can’t help but feel whole, to feel complete. But this isn’t always the case. After the loss of our daughter six years ago, my days have been a mixed bag. The first couple of years were filled with small triumphs. If I made it out of bed, I was doing well. If I made dinner for the family, I was doing well. If I didn’t cry myself to sleep, if I went a day without talking about Lydia, if I stopped asking God why, then I was doing well. Now, five years later I am actually, truly doing well, most days.
Some days though, I get a little down. Today is one of those days. You see a year after we lost our daughter to Trisomy 18, we decided we were brave enough to try again. Only this time wasn’t so easy. In fact, here we are, five years later and still trying to make our family complete. But what makes this day different is that we are throwing our hands up now, we are asking for help. Tomorrow begins the process that we hope will end with another child; and we are scared, but optimistic.
We have tried all we can by ourselves. We have charted, and tracked. I have texted him more times than I like to warn him that I am ovulating. I have suggested weird positions that I saw on Pinterest. Pinterest, y’all. I once bought a kit that was supposed to show a happy face or a sad face and my face ended up being “Ambivalent”. Jerimiah wanted to know if I got the “ambivalent” face kit in the Walgreen’s clearance aisle. I called him an asshole and everyone ended the night in sad face.
We have taken vitamins. I have Googled “Does Fish Oil help sperm health?” My husband has been tested, his first step into the world of “What the hell are we doing”. “In a cup,” he said after the first time. “You have to get it all in this cup.” He wasn’t the happiest that day, but he did it. He did it for me. He did it for our future child. Even though he couldn’t make eye contact with the nurse when he dropped “the cup” off at the window. He did it.
His results came back “Not good,” said our doctor. That was three doctors ago. Doctor number two disagreed. Doctor number three confirmed. It doesn’t appear to be a “problem” with him. That means… yeah, it’s me.
So tomorrow we start this new journey. Tomorrow I go in for a series of tests, that are just the beginning of another series of tests, and hopefully in the end we find out what the “problem” is and how to fix it.
In. The. End. That sounds final, doesn’t it? I’m not sure what “the end” is or what that even looks like, but I do know that on days like this my optimism is harder to find. I read stories everyday about women my age. Thirty-five. That dreaded age where all we know about ourselves supposedly dies every day along with our desire to productive members of society. That age where our future children are all suddenly in grave danger. The age where I am supposed to hang up my hat, thank my lucky stars for the healthy child I do have, and move on with life.
I wish I were able to do that.
I wish I were able to be happy with what I have. To decide that sometimes life isn’t what we wanted it to be. I wish I could take “no” for an answer, but I can’t. And I won’t.
Sometimes we have to give up on goals. Sometimes life isn’t what we want it to be. But sometimes there is help out there. And sometimes you have to ignore the barrage of negativity and push forward. This is our line in the sand. We are pushing forward.
So tomorrow, though I am nervous, I will push forward. I will let them stick me with needles, put God-knows-what up my hoo-hah, and say things like, “You’re doing great!” and “Oh, was that too hard?” I will just close my eyes and deal with it. I will tell myself to be brave. Brave like I have a million other times before. Brave and maybe a little crazy. Cause we all have to be a little crazy from time-to-time. So there it is. And here I am. And tomorrow, there I will be.
Here’s to brave and crazy.
Here’s to a husband with good sperm.
Here’s to friends and family who support and love us.
Here’s to our son, our daughter, and our future son or daughter.