Quiet Lives of Desperation

Three guesses about what I spent my afternoon watching. Oh Hell, I can’t keep anyone in suspense – which is why I buy Yule gifts at the last minute. I used to claim that it was because I spent so much time finding the perfect gift. Bullshit. Pure and utter bullshit. I simply can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they see what I just had a gut-felt feeling would rock their world the instant it was in their hands.

The husband and I were broke newlyweds of 4 years when “Good Will Hunting” debuted at the theatre. We had three kids, one with the genetic birth defect of PKU and her metabolic needs required weekly trips to a San Antonio hospital to make sure I was “getting it right” with blood tests and frequent adjustments to her diet. Had we been able to afford seeing the movie, perhaps my venture into writing would have occurred earlier and I wouldn’t have had to spend a week in ICU and two months learning to walk without appearing inebriated.

Let’s start with a fairy tale, then. It will start with the frightening little kernel of Truth Robin Williams stated as Sean Maguire when he’s telling Will that he could do anything freakin’ thing he wanted to – “No, you were born with it. So don’t cop out behind “I didn’t ask for this”.

As all good fairy tales begin – Once upon a time, there were twins. Born in the middle of the nastiest coldest sleet storm you can imagine. They were also six weeks premature in an era where preemies just didn’t have good odds of survival. It wouldn’t have mattered to the mother of these children. After all, she didn’t marry the sire of her kids. He was Mormon and a good Southern Baptist girl didn’t do that sort of thing. Then again, neither did she get knocked up on her first Spring Break fling from college. So she lied to the grocery delivery boy after some serious seduction on her part and bada-bing bada-bam, the 4th generation of a Founding Family failed to handle the legacy and instead married a butcher’s apprentice.

The twins, you ask? Ah, yes. One little girl with curly red hair and a little over 4 pounds, one little boy, with dark hair like his momma at about 5 pounds. Neither had good chances of survival, and the attending physician told the anxious husband “Don’t get too attached to the little girl. She’s far too fragile to last the week.” Surprisingly, the little girl did last the week, and the next one and so on until after two months they were told to “come and get her, she’s quite capable of taking on the world now.” Only, they didn’t take their daughter home. No, they took her to the husband’s grandparents in a far flung rural area where the only advances beyond electricity were regular postal delivery and automobiles. They left her there, with aging individuals that had done their share of raising children, 13 to be exact. What energy did they have left for another? Oh, of course the little boy would stay in town. Better access to doctors and all, and he was the heir, right?

Fast forward 18 months, and the spring of that year was delayed by cold and windy weather. The little girl got to see her twin brother about once a month, sometimes twice. They delighted in each other, but the little girl was clearly an instigator if there was trouble to be found, gotten into, and created. She stood up and by virtue of being able to jostle the playpen by sheer tenacity, she was able to reach both the lipstick (Ruby Red) and the dusting powder (My Sin.) It was time to explore creativity with her brother as a canvas, and then herself. This display of mischief was captured by a relative with a camera and the resulting photo would surface many years later after all the lies began to unravel. In the meantime, it meant a bath for both in a house poorly heated, and by a mother who was more about appearance than care or concern for her offspring. After all, she was about to give birth to another child, it was about time that the girl went back to her country home. Then, there was that nagging cough that the little boy had developed. It was the last time the little girl would see her twin, ever.

Time to jump ahead a couple of more years. The little boy had died with complications of pneumonia and the little girl didn’t see her parents for over a year. “It’s far too hard on her mother to see this child when the other didn’t make it. He was such a healthy child, too!” But the little girl didn’t understand the emotional distance, she didn’t know exactly what was missing, and it was just easier to stay with Nanny and Papaw. The farm was her world; the gentle chuckling of the chickens, the earthy smell of the cattle, the warmth of being on the broad mule’s back when Papaw plowed up the garden for Nanny, standing behind Papaw’s shoulder on the rides into town once a month to “take care of business.” It was an easier existence than having to stand still in a starched pinafore and black patent leather shoes and “be good.” Being barefoot in a simple cotton sackcloth shift, having her unruly curls braided into pigtails, and squishing her toes in the warm dirt while looking for the first of the ripe cherry tomatoes was a better fate than anything anywhere else could offer.

All too soon, the big brown leather suitcase came out of the dark recesses of attic and when Nanny opened it up, there was a tiny wristband from the hospital, a small pink receiving blanket and 3 neatly folded tiny diapers. A tear escaped from Nanny’s eye and the little girl didn’t understand why her Nanny’s eye leaked. Papaw gruffly mumbled, “Come on woman, let’s get this done and over with. It’s not like she can go to school out here.” All the little girl’s clothing and possessions were being packed and when Nanny went into the bathroom to get the small toothbrush, the little girl grabbed a small stuffed lamb from the belongings so carefully arranged in the suitcase. Her small sneakered feet took her to the living room where she handed the lamb to her Papaw. “Here Papaw. You said that Nanny always would need a lamb to look after. Give her mine, please.” She turned and went back into the small bedroom she’d always known as hers to help her Nanny finish.

That was when the night terrors began. Every time the little girl saw the suitcase, she’d start crying. When she cried, the spankings, the whippings would start. So she learned to cry silently; to sit up in the horrible metal crib and smell the night air through the zinc screening on the window and sob in silence. She had a younger relative that would often show up and bully her by taking her clothes to wear them, even though he was a boy. She misjudged the ominous click of the gas floor heater and suddenly flames were melting her tiny feet to the metal grid because he’d stolen her slippers and dared her to come get them. Two weeks alone in a hospital burn unit with only nurses to see to her cries because, the husband was too busy working to support his family and the wife was too emotionally fragile to see a child of hers in this setting. There was also the matter of a younger sibling, who was often sick and screaming.

It was there that the little girl heard classical music; her godfather brought her an album and a child’s phonograph to listen to it in her room. The little girl soon learned that it was better to sit still and listen to “Scheherazade.” She could sleep, she could dream happy dreams, and she could heal. When she got home, another album joined the first, and strains of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” could be heard echoing down the hall. Her godfather and her grandmother began to take the little girl to symphonic presentations, much to the jealous dismay of her mother. Soon, all the little girl wanted to do was go to school so she could read and learn all about the music she was hearing, the stories that the music told. She even ran away one bright September morning to get on a school bus that was picking up other neighborhood children. However, 6:30 was really very early to an excited young lady and she fell asleep before they ever made it to the school. Upon being discovered by a bus driver and escorted to the police station to hopefully be reunited with her parents, the little girl steadfastly refused to give her name, her address or any other information that would help in the process.

Eventually, a panicked grandmother verbally sparred with her old school mate, the current Police Chief, and the little girl was returned to her home; but not without some string pulling that resulted in a placement in a private school. Even that day would have some distinct consequence, as the little girl had to be tested for placement. While she couldn’t yet write her name, she could effectively draw a man, anatomically correct of course, but with a hat to keep his ears from sunburn. The docent and school administrator had to walk away from the little girl for a moment to keep from laughing, so serious was the child about the addition of a fedora to her rendering. So, into the first grade went a child 5 ½ years old, but with a wisdom far older about her.

First grade flew by and so did the opportunity to continue in private school. The little girl overheard the heated arguments that resulted in her going to a public school for second grade, but she had to be “tested” again. Again, it was a sultry summer day when she was walked into the nearby elementary school, all her paperwork presented and then the testing commenced. She looked up as she’d completed the last question and saw the others still working. Her confusion must have garnered the attention of the proctor, because a tall blonde lady came and took her small hand into a much larger, cooler one and they walked out of the room with her completed paper. There was a softly spoken conversation and she was told she could go home, they’d be calling her mother later. It was frightening, but she would walk home alone for the first time in her young life. True, it was only a block, but at 6 ½ the world is a pretty big place. She would soon get used to walking home alone; and by then she would learn to love the solitary nature of each step.

Soon, the third grade came around, there was a heated controversy going on about “new math” and how it was going to cripple some children because they simply wouldn’t be able to make the transition from the older methods. German measles was also going around and this time there simply wasn’t a vaccine for this form of the virus. Both the little girl and her younger brother were stricken with the disease and both ended up spending two miserable weeks in a darkened room as the virus had “spread to their eyes” and there was a danger of going blind. Other children in their neighborhood had contracted the disease and one of the neighbor’s children was in the hospital fighting for his life. Three weeks later, short one neighborhood child and 15 days of valuable lesson time, the little girl returned to her classroom. She’d never really liked her teacher, sensing that the woman had favorites, and then overhearing her say “Well, wouldn’t you know that the white trash would survive?” An inner fear that this woman was not going to help her catch up with the lessons she’d missed began to grow and was well founded when she wasn’t promoted to the fourth grade with her classmates.

The teasing and gossip would begin, and it was simply better to turn inwards and read. The little girl, skinny from illness, began to take on some height which resulted in an awkward gawkiness. It was just better to curl up in a corner of the library and read rather than attempt to play kickball or four-square or hopscotch. The librarian appreciated the assistance in re-shelving books, and re-filing reference cards. Things at home turned darker, however and now a young lady beginning to bloom into a young woman at the young age of 9 began to hide her library books. However, there was yet another sibling joining the already crowded nest, and sometimes library books were forgotten in the mad scramble of the mornings. When the late notices began to show up in the mail box, the beatings commenced. When the young lady brought home books for a book report, she had to ask the teacher for a written assignment stating such, else face the inevitable belt whipping.

Somewhere in all of the blur of elementary school, all the children were set down with Stanford Binet IQ tests. It was just another test, the young lady thought; never even comprehending that this would change her life from “get by” to “unbearable” when her parents were contacted by the school. “We don’t have the capability to educate her properly,” her parents were told. “We can’t afford to send her to private school,” came the reply. What had been just a “deal with the child until we can marry her off” attitude, changed overnight to “how do we deal with the freak?” Then came the joys of a Yule where all her dreams of being a scientist came true with a small German microscope, a huge chemistry set, and a telescope all showing up under the Tannenbaum. There was so much to see, to observe, the sheer joy of making a “wet mount” slide and then sharing her finds with anyone she could coerce into looking thru the small oculus. So what if her grandmother was permanently sickened by the sight of chicken fat enlarged 200 times under the lens?

Santa had also brought a bicycle and it was a joy and a danger because the young lady’s mind would wander frequently while riding, thus ensuring many cuts and scrapes along the way. Other neighborhood children would gather in wheeled packs and thus conquer the adjoining streets and driveways on daily rides. Of course, shortening the distance by “cutting across” the corner lawn was a given, but so also was the anger of the lawn’s owner and Mrs. Baum was very likely to take her complaint directly to a parent. The resultant disciplinary correction inspired the creation of smoke bomb with the chemistry set that would ultimately blow a 3 x 4 foot hole in the bedroom wall of the young lady. This explosion ended the gifting of any additional scientific equipment for fear of curiosity levelling the dwelling by flood, fire or some other mishap.

The remainder of her education would pass fairly unremarkably save for the constant impediment of chronic depression. When she would ask for direction, or guidance with where her education should go, there was the stand-by answer of “oh, you’re so bright you can do anything” with never an interest taken to see where her heart might lie, what might make her sigh in the joy of completion. Somewhere in high school, an English literature teacher took an interest and challenged her to write a screenplay for a 5 minute movie. Something ignited and a joy burst forth. While the end result was a cheesy Grade B science fiction 8mm creation, that it was done and a small figment of a germ of an idea sat in the dark shadows of a heart.

It would be a dream denied not because of the young lady’s wishes, but because of parents too self-absorbed to guide their child beyond what was “expected of a young female after high school.” They’d never noticed that she’d turned her back on religion after a playmate’s grandfather molested both of them before either was 12. They’d not given much credence to a letter sent to them by the school counselor stating that their daughter had earned no less than 5 scholarships and would they please consider making an appointment for college placement?

When the young lady brought home all the paperwork from her counselor, her ‘father’ sneered and challenged, “You don’t have the guts to get your education the way I did. You and all your pot smokin’ friends are too lazy to even consider the military.” Something inside the young lady snapped; she’d worked damned hard to master Spanish classical guitar, 6 and 12 string, and spent endless hours researching the correct translations of Chaucer. Lazy? Then, there was her mother who told her that the “most correct path” for her to follow would be for her to attend a junior college and then transfer to the local university to obtain a teaching degree. A correct path? Whatever happened to “you’re so smart you can do anything you put your mind to?”

This young lady instead went to a recruiting office, with a signed age waiver and raised her right hand. Nothing prepared her for basic training, but then nothing prepared them for her intelligence when it came to radio communications. Somewhere in the marching and drill, between the rifle range and personal defense lessons the bookworm found her voice and her spine. Nothing prepared her for the politics and personal gamesmanship that the military foisted upon its cadre, however; she opted to leave when she made an issue of a misplaced hand on her thigh, and the resulting career backslap would have had her on a mountaintop listening to alpine goats take a piss.

All of her training and credentials amounted to nothing on the civilian market when she came back home; it was by happy chance that she landed a technician spot in a naval laboratory….until the funding was cut and she was facing eviction from her first small apartment. This young lady sat in the quiet of her own dining area and thought…numbers had always been difficult for her, but basic maths were nothing. Her grandmother had told her that folks would always need someone to keep their books straight, and she could at least do that. Thus began 30 plus years of taking care of other people’s money, credit cards, bills, and insurance. The dream of writing thus deferred again; sometimes it couldn’t be silenced and came out in strange little poems written in a journal or a diary. Or sometimes in a ballad or two when a guitar found its way back into her hands. Then came an accident, and accidental addiction to the pain pills…and just as quickly, the young lady found a resolution to the addiction, but the pain remained.

The years stretched out; three then four marriages failed and as a single mother, the daily grind for survival and sobriety outpaced her inner muse. Until, one night she fell off the tailgate of a U-Haul truck while helping a friend move. She hamstrung both ankles in the accident, and a sober friend took her to the ER and thence to a couch with a nearby monitor and keyboard attached to a dial-up modem and a BBS bulletin board. There, the young lady met the one, the one who would be there for her through two more babies and 20 years of marriage. He would also be there for her when her old nemesis depression came back with a vengeance and a new angle of horror known as PTSD. Then, in the long shadows of an October afternoon, after a particularly fractious phone call with the insurance company, she would stand up and a blood vessel that had formed a deadly bubble in her brain would burst. He would find her unresponsive and unconscious after coming home because ‘something didn’t feel right.’

Everything she had every taken for granted would be gone within 3 days of bleeding within her skull. Gone was the near instantaneous recall of minutiae required for her job, gone was her sense of balance, gone too was the surety that she could just “move on” when she found her way back from conquering the re-awakened demons of depression. After 10 days in the hospital, she was home – to nothing. She was on total bed rest until they could do a “follow-up” CT scan to determine the nature of a tumor discovered in her stay. Somewhere in the drab grey dullness a friend put a series of books in her hands to read and something stirred to life, something long denied stood up and said “No. Not this time.” Then, her beloved echoed the same words that her heart had been saying. “No. Not this time.”

Behind the eyes of every writer, there is a simple trigger; a switch, if you will. It takes us from those “quiet lives of desperation” that used to echo around me in every morning’s traffic, to a life spent describing the moment that a simple dragonfly landed within the landscape of my inner eye, and I want to share that moment with you. The little girl, the young lady, the single mother of this narrative was me. The story is still unfolding, but like Matt Damon’s character, I have learned my lesson about denying what you love and who you are. Hello, I am a writer.

Advertisements