Bit O’ Blog

“Little”

If you’re like me, you have a lot of “Saras” in your life. When you talk about them, you might ascribe adjectives to them to differentiate them one from the other – especially if many of the work-related ones have never revealed their surnames to you. Usually these adjectives are positive, or at worst, banal – Red-haired Sara, Financial-Department Sara, upstairs-Sara, Blue-car-Sara, Joe’s-Sara. Two of the Saras in my life were close friends who were always together, and so they became Big-Sara (she was quite tall) and Little-Sara (she was not as tall).

Big-Sara eventually drifted out of our group of friends, but Little-Sara stayed. It came to our attention that she did not particularly care to be called “Little”, and we have all tried very hard to call her simply Sara. We all understand, after all, that the word “little” has such a negative connotation.

It can make people think of children, or insignificance, or of things that are inconsequential, or invisible, or weak. It can connote that somehow the person so named is not as valid, or legitimate, or real as someone not so named. It can mean that the person is small, not in a physical way, in comparison to some big or tall person, but in a metaphysical way – that a “little” Sara just isn’t as impressive as a bigger one.

Of course, Little-Sara had no reason to think any of us thought any of those things – we all hold her in the highest regard. We could well understand that negative connotation, however, and she is just-Sara to us now. Mostly. Habits are so hard to break.

But in honour of her birthday, I wanted to offer a different connotation.

When I was in middle school, I adopted a nickname for myself, and I go by that name almost exclusively. But, even though I have been using it for some thirty years now, I know deep inside that it is only a nickname (rather than a “real” name), and so I’m not sure how much I identify with it. Yet my “real” name – the one on my birth certificate – just didn’t feel like my name; that was why I had changed it in the first place. It’s a nice enough name, but it just didn’t seem to be … “me”. So I don’t really identify with that name either. When I got married, I took my husband’s last name, and when we got divorced, I didn’t change it back. I don’t know if that means it’s “my” name or not.

I only identify with one name, and that’s the name my dad always calls me. I’m “Little One”. My sister is “Blondie”, my other sister is “Puff”. I believe my brother is something outside-the-box like “Boy”. And I’m “Little One”.

I connote this name with belonging to a group, with being loved and cared for, with being safe. I connote it with being singled out in a positive way, accepted for things that made me unique from my siblings and from anyone else. I associate it with my father, whom I am very much like – he is “One”, and I am “Little One”, a tiny-little-division of something important, which meant that I was important too. And now, when he calls me that, I know it is my name, and that I am the one being seen, and known, and talked to. It isn’t about a word written on paper or spoken aloud; it’s like a true name – the one that speaks to the part of me that is more than this material world, spoken by the part of someone else that is also more than this material world. It’s a name that speaks from his heart to my heart. That’s what “Little” means to me.

So I hope, when I accidentally call Sara “Little-Sara”, that she can hear what I really mean.

I hope she knows that we are all speaking to her from our hearts to hers, that we are all speaking to the real her, whatever she may be called.

Happy Birthday, Sara.

Family Stories – Martin Luther King, Jr.

My parents met in Denver, Colorado, while working at a Red Barn (now Peaches) fast-food restaurant.  My mother tells many stories of her time there, including a description of the albino boy.

There was a high school down the street from the Red Barn, and most of the students were black.  The albino boy was black too – underneath extremely white hair and skin and translucent eyes.  He was very tall, towering over others his age.  He and his friends – and dozens of others from the high school – would come to the Red Barn for lunch pretty much every day.  They would be noisy – they were teenagers, after all – but they weren’t rowdy or destructive, and my mother enjoyed seeing them.  Because the albino boy stood out in the crowd, she ended up speaking with him a bit more than with the others, but the entire group of them she fondly refers to as “the kids”.

Times were different then; a person could go several hours without encountering any media outlet or news report.  On the day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, my mother woke in the early dark hours and left for work without discovering the unhappy truth.  She walked out into a pre-dawn downtown Denver where few people walked the streets, and she made her way the several blocks to the restaurant.

My mother is white.  She is not simply Caucasian – she is red-headed and extremely fair, and she is petite.  She presented, on that sad morning, a perfect target for all who were angry at something they couldn’t fix.  A cluster of these angry souls drove by in a car, slowing down to yell at my mother.  My mother had no idea why they would be yelling at her, and she couldn’t at first make out what they were saying, but then, as they pulled away from her, she heard crystal-clear:  “When we come back, we’ll kill you!”

Needless to say, my mother was unnerved.  She hoped that, if the car did circle back, that its occupants were all talk and no action.  She began to walk more quickly, to the restaurant that seemed suddenly so far away.

The car came around the block again, and the people inside were still shouting with fury.  They spotted her, and they drove toward her as though they would run her down.

My mother is not one to waste time wondering, “Why are you doing this?”  She broke into a run, sprinting as fast as she could to the restaurant, hurtling across the dark and empty parking lot with the car bearing down on her.

There!  There was the heavy metal door in the back of the restaurant; she was almost safe!

For the first time in her memory, the heavy metal door was locked.

She pounded on the door.  “Let me in!” she screamed.  She could hear the car behind her, and she pushed herself against the door, hoping that the doorjamb would be wide enough to save her if the car did hit her.  “Let me in!”

The car did come very close, its engine heat pressing against her, but the driver was apparently unwilling to crash his car into the building.  He reversed, and the heavy metal door opened, and my mother fell into the restaurant.

“Why was the door locked?” my mother yelled.

“Martin Luther King was assassinated,” my father explained.  “It’s not safe out there.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” my mother asked, understandably angry.  “I could have been killed!”

“I figured you would have heard,” my father said.

As the sun came up, the riot swelled.  People were lashing out at anyone or anything that might possibly assuage the anger and betrayal they felt.  Up the street from the Red Barn, a store that belonged to a Jewish immigrant was vandalized, his supplies stolen.  He himself was beaten nearly to death, and after the riots he was obliged to close up shop for good.  While he lay bleeding and broken, rioters took his stores of milk and eggs – among other things – and attacked the Red Barn with them.

It seems harmless, perhaps, to throw milk and eggs, but they are very unforgiving.  They never, ever come out, providing a lasting reminder of chaos and destruction.

And, of course, the ones throwing the eggs and milk were throwing threats as well, and wielding makeshift weapons.  They were charging the glass – fast-food restaurants are largely windows with little bits of wall in between – and yelling.  Their numbers were growing, and my parents and a manager were trapped alone inside the restaurant, with no weapons and nowhere to go.

They tried hiding upstairs in the office, but it seemed indefensible – a stupid place to be if anyone broke through the only door and thereby blocked escape.  They watched helplessly as rioters surrounded the restaurant like sharks, and it was an eternity before the sounds of shouts and smashing were joined by the wail of approaching police cars.

Unfortunately, the police were outnumbered; they were stretched thin across the city.  When the police cars drove by, the rioters dispersed, but my parents had to assume they would come back, angrier than ever.

The morning’s surreal events coalesced into one succinct emotional focus: the overwhelming mess was the last straw.

“How are we supposed to clean this?” my mother thought, discouraged and devastated as she surveyed the damage – the broken glass that covered the counters, the eggs and milk that coated everything inside and out and dripped from the windows onto the floor, the streets outside that had turned into an ugly wasteland in a matter of hours.  But cleaning seemed like the thing to do, so she made her way to the front of the restaurant and began to clean up.

Down the street, she caught sight of a row of heads – heads with black hair and black faces.  She watched in terror as dozens of people, walking shoulder to shoulder, made their purposeful way toward the restaurant.  The police cars had disappeared; my parents were defenseless as an army of black marchers approached, rows deep and stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk across the wide street.

My mother recognized many of them – they were the students from the high school, the ones who came to the restaurant every day.  “Please, no,” she prayed.  “Please not them.”  They came closer and closer; there were so many of them that she couldn’t tell one body from another.

Then she saw him, a head taller than the others.  Unlike the rest, he was albino, his curly hair white, his skin pale, his translucent eyes rimmed pink.

“It’s okay!” he called out.  “We believe in Martin Luther King!  We believe in his message!”  He held up his hands.  “We’re here to help!”

And the crowd of marchers helped my parents clean what was left of the Red Barn.

When my mother told me this, she rarely used the words “black” or “white”; she talked about “people” and “anger”.  She talked about Dr. King’s message of peace that she had lived her whole life by word and deed.  She talked about how stupid it is to react to grief with violence, and how anger is useless for making real change.  She talked about being hurt that people who had known her for a long while had been so quick to turn on her.  She never saw colours.  She never took anything personally, or carried a grudge.

That day, anger and hatred and fear came up against my mother the way an ocean wave might crash against the shore.  She was plenty angry that day, and still “harrumphs” when she tells the story; she was more afraid that day than she had ever been.  But she answered violence with words from Dr. King’s speeches.  She answered hatred with love for her high school “kids”.  She answered fear by kneeling down and scrubbing at milk and eggs.

I think Martin Luther King, Jr., would be proud of my mother, and my father (they are much alike, no matter what they may tell you).  I’m sure Dr. King is proud of those “kids”.  And that’s why this family story is not called “The MLK Riots” – it’s not about the riots.  It’s about Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s about my parents’ strength and goodness.  It’s about a message that was not lost that day in the madness.

It’s about good battling evil, and about the world my mother made for me by showing it to me through her eyes.

Family Stories – Grandma’s Wedding Ring

My grandmother married my grandfather in the early 1920’s; he died in the ’70’s when I was three or four.  She was still very social after he died, but, other than a couple of friends who seemed to feel they were more-than-friends, my grandma never opened her heart to any man other than my grandpa.

She had a wedding set – diamonds and whatnot – that she wore all the time, and it was so enormous that it dwarfed her finger.  Those rings were the only ones I ever saw or knew about until after she died.

My mother was reminiscing about my grandma a little while ago, recounting a fairly serious heart procedure that Grandma had undergone in her late 80’s.  She is, in fact, in some record book for being the oldest person to have the procedure.  Since I don’t live in the same town with my parents and grandmother, all I knew was that the surgery had gone perfectly well and that Grandma recovered completely.  But my mother revealed that there had been some anxiety beforehand, as they were prepping Grandma for the operating room.

“Well, of course,” I said.  “I’d be pretty anxious.”

“Oh, no!” my mother said, shaking her head.  “She wasn’t anxious about the surgery.  She trusted her doctor completely.  She trusted God completely.  No, it was her wedding ring.”

Her wedding ring?  Well, the doctors said that she needed to remove all jewelry before the procedure, including her wedding ring.  Grandma cheerfully pulled off the giant collection of diamonds and silver that hung off her left ring finger.

And the other one too, the doctors said.

Underneath the wedding set was another ring, a simple metal band that had been on her finger – rain or shine, day or night, life or death – for more than sixty years.

She became very agitated.  Charlie (my grandpa) wouldn’t like it.  She had promised him.  She couldn’t take it off.

My mother explained to Grandma that they would put the ring back on as soon as she woke up from the operation, and that the operation was going to save her life, and that Grandpa wouldn’t want her to die.

Well no, Grandma agreed.  He wouldn’t want me to die.

For many moments, she pondered her choices.  That ring had been there, unchanging, for longer than many people get to live.  It represented a promise.  It represented all the love in her heart.  It was a way to feel that my grandpa was still connected to her.

But without the surgery, her life would be cut short.  In the end, she decided that she would rather live, and that the ring would be safe for a few hours in a box.  In the end, she chose life, and she twisted the simple band off her finger and handed it to my mother.

It took a long time, though, for her to choose.  It took a really long time.

Family Stories – The Note

My father had a heart attack several years ago.  Since then, he’s made many life changes, and he’s been in very good health.  But, of course, problems can arise at any time, and my father knows to be watchful for signs of heart attack.

Last year, my boyfriend Dustin and I drove to my parents’ town.  We were about twenty miles away when my cellphone rang, but I was unable to get to it before the person hung up.  I saw that it had been my mother, and I had a strange feeling that something bad had happened.

When we got to my folks’ house, we found a note on the door – “With your dad at the emergency room.”  My parents live about a block from the hospital, so at least I knew he had gotten there in a timely manner.  Dustin and I ran up to the ER, looking for either my mother or my father.  We found my mom standing in the hallway outside of one of the little cubicle-rooms, her arms crossed over her chest.  She looked concerned, but not horribly concerned, so I relaxed a little – he must be doing okay.

“What happened?” I asked.

“He was having chest pains,” she explained.  “But they think it was just angina.  They’re going to run tests to make sure.”  She sighed, irritated.  “I was cleaning in the other room, and he was in the living room watching TV,” she went on tersely.  “I realized after a while that the dog was in the house, but your father was gone.  I didn’t know why he would go outside without taking the dog.  I hadn’t heard him leave.  I came out to the living room looking for him – he wasn’t anywhere.  And then I found a note:  ‘Having chest pains.  Going to the hospital.’”  She scowled, understandably vexed.  “Why would he leave a note instead of talking to me?!  Why wouldn’t he come to get me to go with him?!  I tried to call you, but mostly I just got up here as fast as I could.”  She glowered into the little cubicle-room, her arms still folded across her chest.  “A note!” she repeated darkly, shaking her head.

Dustin and I went then into my father’s cubicle-room, where he was hooked up to oxygen and some other machines.  He had fairly good colour, and seemed to be in good spirits.

“I’m fine,” he said.  “They’re going to run some tests, but the pain’s gone and they think it’s just angina.”  He shook his head and gestured out into the hallway.  “You’re mother’s upset,” he added, “that I didn’t tell her anything.”  He shrugged slightly and explained in perplexed self-defense, “I left a note.”

Bit o’ Blog

A Reason To Get Up In The Morning:

I’ve watched the news these past few days – it’s distressing, to say the least.  But the “big” things – gun control, mental illness, security, the future of humanity – these may be important, but they’re not what’s on my mind.  I’ve been thinking with heavy sadness and bewilderment about the one thing that terrifies me more than any other: how does a parent who has lost a child get out of bed the next morning?  How does she (or he) go on with life as though it had any meaning or value?

The thought of losing my children paralyzes me with fear.  I don’t want even to contemplate how I would go about “getting past it”, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to.  I feel as though the only thing that would convince me to stay on this planet without one of my little guys (I say “little” – the oldest is 22) would be the need to stay here for the other little guy.

In my life, I’ve gone through the normal stuff – the adolescent self-loathing that rubs off on everything, giving teenagers the deep-seated belief that not only should they hate themselves, but everyone else must hate them too.  I’ve struggled with mistakes and faults that have made me wonder if I’m worth the paper I’m printed on (so to speak).  And I’ve gone through the obligatory growing-up phases of knowing, on the one hand, that my parents were completely ridiculous and possibly deranged (like all of your parents too, I’m sure), and on the other hand, that my parents must hate me, completely and utterly.  Why else would they always be telling me what to do? – telling me the difference between right and wrong, making me come in at a certain time and eat my vegetables.  Obviously they despised me, especially when I was such a freakish adolescent worm.

Of course, after adolescence I figured out the truth – that I didn’t need to hate myself, and that my parents weren’t mentally deficient individuals who had it out for me.  But it wasn’t just the new perspective of mostly-adulthood that showed me my value to my parents – it was having a child of my own.

You might be thinking, “Well, of course!  Having a child of your own gave you a view of things from your own parents’ side, and now you understand.”  That is certainly true enough.  But in fact it was the horrifying thought of somehow losing my child that made me see something in my parents I had never really thought about before.

My parents lost a child – a little boy whose brain did not form properly.  His name is Robert Michael, and he would be two years younger than me.  My mom does not mind talking about Robert Michael (whose name is always both words), but I have never spoken to my dad about him, or really asked what effect it had on my parents’ relationship.  They both went on with their lives, having more children and grandchildren, and it was a long time before I realized:  maybe I was the reason they got up the next morning.

I was already there, needing them.  I was already there for them to love and to care about.  They had to get up and tend to me.  They had to feed me and clothe me and hold me.  So they did.

When you realize that maybe you’re the reason someone else was able to get past such a horrible tragedy, you can’t think so badly of yourself anymore.  You can’t think that you have no value, or that you don’t deserve love.  Was that my only purpose on this planet? – to be that for them?  I don’t know; maybe it was, and the rest of my time here is just icing on life’s cake.

I don’t ever want to face what my parents faced; I don’t want to be that brave.  But realizing that I was a part of such a difficult healing process – that I made something that bad seem even a little bit better – makes it a little easier to tell my inner critic exactly where to go.  It doesn’t help me feel better about the tragedies in the world, but it helps me feel that maybe I can be a part of repairing them.  It certainly has made me feel differently about my relationship with my parents, and it’s shown me something about them that is ordinarily hidden from sight.

I still don’t know how to process the loss of a child.  But if I have anything that can help ease the suffering – whoever you are – just take it.  Take it all.

 

Bit O’Blog

The Eleventh Hour

My friend Bob used to work as a cleaner for (furnished) university apartments.  One day, after a tenant left for “medical reasons,” Bob was sent in to clean up, particularly the couch – one arm of the couch was completely, extraordinarily drenched in blood.  The blood had settled deep into the material, but Bob set about pulling it up with the extractor … over and over and over again, for hours.

He said that the experience filled him with great hope.  As you might imagine, I asked him why.

He explained that the “medical reasons” were that the tenant had tried to commit suicide.  He had entered a hole of darkness and despair, alone in his living room with seemingly insurmountable pain, and he had slashed his wrists.  But in truly the eleventh hour, when so much blood had come out of him that it was a wonder he was still breathing, he decided he wanted to live.  He called 911.  He pressed his wrists into the arm of the couch to stop the bleeding.  He waited with all of his weight pressed onto his arms and onto the arm of the couch, until paramedics came and saved him.

Bob saw hope not just because the man lived; he saw hope because the man decided to live – that in the darkest moment, when all seemed desolate and pointless, he found a light to follow.  Bob saw the hope there, the second chance, the course correction.  He saw the struggle to climb out of despair, the success achieved when failure seemed certain.  He saw this amidst all that blood, and it gave him hope that the challenges and obstacles we face are surmountable, no matter how bleak they may seem.

And he kept pulling up the blood with the extractor, until the water ran clear.

Weird Stuff

A Shared Dream

My son’s father, Bob, had a dream one night, in which our son – who was about four at the time – showed up incongruously in the middle of dream events that didn’t concern him at all.  In the dream, our son was older – perhaps ten or eleven.  He had come into the room and interrupted the other dream events, and he spent the rest of Bob’s dream just chatting with his dad about things that Bob could not remember when he awoke.  Because the original dream events had been emotional, and because our son’s presence in the dream was so unconnected to them, Bob was moved by this dream, and decided he would tell me about it when he saw me.

Before he could do that, though, our son woke up, and related to his father that he had had a great dream, where he was playing sports with some other kids.  Sometimes in this dream he was himself – a four-year-old boy – and sometimes he was an older self, a ten-year-old him that played with the other kids for a long time, but then went away.

“I don’t know where I went,” he told his dad.  “But then I came back.  And then I woke up!”

Bob wondered if the ten-year-old version of our son in his dream was the same boy that our son dreamed of, playing with the other kids and then leaving for a while – perhaps to visit his father’s dream and chat.

And now that our son is eleven years old, I wonder if he’ll have a dream some time of playing sports with a younger him, and taking a break to visit his dad.  I wonder if he’ll remember what they chatted about.