Expertise

My son is 7 years old. He is autistic, but he has very little interest in understanding what that means. He has more important things to contemplate like Minecraft, board games, and planning skits with his plush toys. One night this week he got out of bed and came downstairs. I was on the couch watching tv in the dark.

“I’m scared,” he said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“I heard a very weird noise and it was coming from outside my window.”

I sighed, “No, that was your dad. He was making weird noises [meowing and squirrel calls] in the bathroom which is right under your bedroom. Come over here and sit with me and he will tuck you back in bed when he gets out.”

“Yay!” He climbed up and got under my blanket to snuggle. Then he spied something on the entertainment center. “Is that a battery charger?”

“Where?”

“There,” he pointed, “It looks like a battery charger beside the Xbox. What is that?”

I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t know, honey. You’ll have to ask your dad. That is his area of expertise, not mine.”

“What is expertise?”

“It’s when you know a lot about something and are really good at it, like Dad knows a lot about computers and technology. What do you think is my area of expertise?”

He thought for a second, “Hmm, I think it is taking care of me.”

“You are right! I am good at taking care of you because I love doing it so much.”

I could not have been happier to know he recognized this part of me as the most important one. Yes, I am an author and spend much of my day writing. But I hope I’m always best known for other things, at least in his eyes.

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To Pink or Not to Pink (Breast Cancer Awareness)

Our family doesn’t need a day for Breast Cancer Awareness. I’ve been aware of breast cancer since I was old enough to inquire why my mom had a dad but not a mom. My mom was 7 years old when her mother died of breast cancer in 1956. Mom’s four brothers were 16,14,12, and 5 years old. Mom was the only girl left in the house.

This death, more than anything else, shaped our family for generations.

In 1984 at age 36, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery (which she’s been willing to show off to any female acquaintance who finds herself with the same diagnosis). She has, thankfully, been cancer free ever since. She has shared her story, exposed her body, and offered hope to many women over the years who struggle with the fear this diagnosis can bring.

She has been cancer free for 30 years. *BUT* being cancer free in your body does not mean that your mind no longer goes there. I can’t speak for my mother, but I can’t go a single day and not wonder if I have it. Growing up knowing how devastating breast cancer can be, that it can cause someone to die, that it can cause kids to lose their mother, that it can affect generations by the loss of a matriarch. I grew up feeling that tangible loss even though it happened 16 years before I was even born.

Let me tell you a secret: My mom hates those pink ribbons. Occasionally she will receive gifts with pink ribbons on them. I don’t know why they do that. But, Mom will display them for the required amount of time to show her appreciation, and then they are promptly donated. I have seen her hold these pink ribbon items in her hands, stare at them as if someone has intentionally tried to hurt her, and then shake her head with sadness. That shaking of her head is the only expression of her pain she shows, and I doubt many people have seen it outside of her immediate family.

Mom’s life is not benefited by waking up every morning to fill up her pink ribbon mug with water to help wash down the handful of vitamins and meds she takes every day. I wouldn’t want one, either. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel for lumps and misinterpret every cyclical change in my breasts as a possible sign of cancer. I made my first appointment to have a lump checked when I was 19. I have inquired to doctors about reasons for breast changes so often that now I feel like I’m a hypochondriac and I’m ashamed. But I don’t worry less. I just talk about it less.

Not everyone feels this way, though.

I met my husband about five years after his sister died of breast cancer. She had been in her mid-30’s and had a 9 year old daughter whose father had died five years before. My husband’s other sister stepped in as the girl’s mother with help from their parents. Everyone in that family had their hearts broken and their lives changed.

But they are okay with the pink ribbon as far as I know. I think for them it is a way to remember the person they loved and lost. They fought so hard to save her when she was sick, and that pink ribbon is a sign that they’re still fighting for others. I completely understand that connection.

There are obviously different points of view. Perhaps the pink ribbon has different meanings for those who have lost someone else vs. those who have fought the battle and survived (so far). Maybe it depends on how profoundly lives were altered. Maybe it has to do with preexisting anxiety and susceptibility to bad memories being triggered.

Regardless of why, just know that not every cancer survivor wants a pink ribbon mug, tshirt, blanket, hat, fridge magnet, waffle iron, or earrings. If you have not actually seen the person donning other pink ribbon paraphernalia, it is probably a sign that they don’t want it.

If someone lost their mother in a car wreck, you would not gift them every year with a replica of the 1957 Cadillac she was driving at the time.

If someone had nearly died after falling off a ladder, you wouldn’t gift them every year with miniature ladders to promote ladder safety. That would actually make you an asshole.

Breast Cancer awareness is *SO MUCH MORE* than knowing it exists. If you are going to be aware, be aware of the stories of the survivors you love. Be aware of their wishes and fears. Be aware that it is a tragedy, not a celebration.

My kids’ school asked that everyone wear pink today for Breast Cancer Awareness. These kids are ages 5-12 years old. My 10 year old put on her pink shirt in the same way she put on her school spirit shirt the day before because of “Read with the Eagles” day. Does she understand the weight of the tragedy that is Breast Cancer? Will there be any effort to convey that on Breast Cancer Awareness Day? The answer is likely no, and I’m okay with that because these are kids. The entire thing is likely to do nothing more than equate pinkness with caring about Breast Cancer in these kids’ young minds. Will my mother, other survivors, and future diagnosed women benefit from kids believing pink = support?

When I dressed my son, I pulled a pink polo shirt over his head. With his face still beneath the cotton/poly blend, he said, “I hate pink!”

Last I heard, his favorite colors were blue and pink. I don’t know why today is any different. And yet, I do.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930's.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930’s.

My Mom Wants to Nickname You and Other Facts

At the end of yesterday’s depressing blog post about the publishing industry (warning: it contains deep sadness and sarcasm), I said I would make my next post about rainbows and unicorns. Well, this post is about something even better: My mother.

Here we are in 1973 in east Tennessee.

JulieandCarol

You will be hearing a lot about my mother in the coming year. She and I are writing a novel together. Much of it will be based on her childhood years after her mother died. I can not wait to get started on this project with her. Actually, she is the creative drive behind it and I am just the one to make it happen technically. My mom has macular degeneration (which came on quickly in 2012 making her legally blind, though she still has some eyesight), and arthritis in her hands which makes typing difficult.

But today, because it is Mother’s Day, I am making a top ten list of things she has done to make me a better person.

1. Mom never judged us or our friends for the clothes we wore, the crazy hair styles, tattoos, piercings, or cleanliness. Mom treated all our friends the same whether they were rich or homeless. She would invite them in and ask if they’d like a glass of tea. Then she would begin telling them stories to put them at ease and make them comfortable to share their own. But she never pried.

2. Mom took us for walks along our dead end road. We carried plastic bags for picking up aluminum cans. We didn’t need the money from recycling. It was just something fun to do, like a roadside Easter Egg hunt. But if we were on certain roads we were not allowed to pick up cans because it was the Potter man’s territory. He needed the money from recycling, so we didn’t take his cans. As a matter of fact, if we were driving down a road where he frequently looked for cans and we had some in the car, Mom would tell us to “toss them out for the Potter man”. This backfired the year my little brother tossed a can out the school bus window believing he was doing something kind. He ended up being suspended from riding the bus for three weeks.

3. Mom was terrible with directions and she wasn’t that great at driving in general, at least not when we were really young. But she decided now and then to take us on vacation by herself. My two brothers and I would climb in the car and she would drive us toward Myrtle Beach with the assumption that one way or another she would find it. Every time we would reach Florence, SC she would point at a car and say, “I bet they’re going where we’re going. I’ll follow them.” And somehow we made it.

4. She used big words we seldom heard anyone else use. She would ask if we knew what the words meant. If we didn’t, she would have us look it up in the dictionary. Mom always wanted to be a writer and has kept journals since the mid-80s. She enjoyed telling us true stories, rumors from her childhood, and superstitions. When I outgrew being read the Berenstain Bears books, Mom and I would read Woman’s World magazine together, take the quizzes, and read each other’s horoscope. She wrote short essays for similar magazines and had a few printed in the sections designated for reader submissions. Words made stories and stories made us live forever.

5. Cake. My mother loves to make cake. When she was a little girl she would have her little brother steal their grandpa’s chicken eggs so she could bake a cake for them. She always had a cake made for Sunday dinner. Before her macular degeneration forced her to retire from her job as a rural mail carrier, she would make cakes for all the other carrier’s birthdays. To her, cake is what you give people to make them happy and there can never be too much happiness.

6. Mom did not just deliver mail to her customers. She listened to their stories, worried about their problems, looked in on them, set them up on dates, and fed their animals if they couldn’t. One elderly woman called her at 6:00 in the morning to ask if mom could please bring her some toilet paper as she came by on the mail route. You may wonder how the woman got my mom’s cell phone number. Well, mom gave it to out to certain customers who might need her. My mom stopped and bought toilet paper and took it to the woman.  She is not afraid to be needed.

7. Thanksgiving is a time for family. Christmas often revolves around the children, but Thanksgiving revolves around the mothers and fathers, grandparents, and cousins. It can be a very difficult holiday for people who have no family. Mom never hesitated to invite people from her mail route or friends of ours who were alone to come share food with us. Not everyone took her up on it, but some did. When there is a stranger sitting at your Thanksgiving table, you see your family through their eyes. It was a gift to be able to do that.

8. Mom nicknames everyone, especially if she loves you and maybe if she doesn’t care much for you. It may be as simple as adding “Lou” to the end of your first name. Her children were “Number 1 son”, “Little Girl”, and “Woody”. Co-workers were Wild Child, Hollywood, Mary-Mary, and others I have forgotten. Sometimes she would use the person’s real first and middle names or create a new middle name. With pets, it went quite overboard. My miniature dachshund, Dorothy, had a plethora of names. Dorothy was Dorothy Diane, Pidy-Tah, Pidy, Pie, and Tah. She called dad, “Chum” and every now and then when I was very little she would say “Chump” under her breath and laugh. Her brothers were Ronald-A, Donald William, Douger, and Rinky-Dink. Whoever you were in all the rest of the world did not matter. Mom saw you as you were to her, and that needed a name all its own. (She may have picked this habit up from her Daddy.)

9. When I was between the ages of 9 and 13, mom would buy things for me and say Dad bought them. I believed Dad had actually bought me an Olivia Newton John record and my very first eyeshadow until many years later. When she told me that she, not Dad, had bought those things and had all but forgotten ever telling me they were from Dad, I was surprised and confused. But looking back on it I remembered how I felt at those times, as if the gifts were proof he really did care about me. She was not interested in being a favorite parent. She really wanted us to have a good relationship with Dad, too. Part of her efforts in bringing that about was to buy me gifts “from Dad”.

10. Mom is a peace keeper, sometimes a peace maker. She calls people Sir and Ma’am. She apologizes when people are upset, even if they are upset at her for things she did not do. We marvel at people who do these things. But as her child, especially as IBooks became her grown child, it is hard to watch. I was not born with her temperament. Justice before peace was my motto. It was difficult to see her hurt by people and know all she wanted was to move on in peace when my entire being demanded I seek justice for her. As an adult I have been known to confront people who have hurt her. I do it in private and shame them mercilessly for hurting her. I leave them with, “All she wants is to be left in peace. If you tell her I talked to you it will just upset her more than you already have, so don’t mention that I came to you.” And because everyone knows my mom is, in fact, a selfless and kind person who does not deserve to be hurt, they would agree not to say anything.

I did not turn out to be a carbon copy of my mother. But everything she is has made me a better person than I could have ever been without her. Growing up knowing my mother had lost her mother to breast cancer when my mom was only 7 years old, I valued her in a way some kids may never think about. I know I am lucky and I never take her for granted.

Our Authority to Remember

I am writing my mother’s book. Rather, I am trying to write my mother’s book.

Whatever genetics are involved in making a person a writer, whether it’s our attention to detail, our love of words, or both combined with a need to preserve history through stories, I got those genes from my mother.

I will not tell you her age, but I will tell you that she is too young to have arthritis and macular degeneration. But she does have them.

She has been journaling since the mid-80’s, about the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She has been cancer free now for 30 years.) I understand why the need to journal arose, and how it eventually became a routine outlet. We want to remember and be remembered.

Even though she still keeps a journal, her physical ability to write and read enough to create a cohesive book is impaired. Add to that these common statements which demonstrate her reluctance:

Mom: “The problem ain’t writing it, it’s finding somebody who wants to read all that.”
Me: “Believe me, people will want to read it.”
Mom: “I don’t remember things like your Uncle does. You should ask him.”
Me: “This is your creation. It’s not a legal document.”
Mom: “I told him you wanted me to write down some memories and you were going to put them in a book. He asked what kind and I told him it was fiction. He said you’d probably write him as a bad guy.” (She laughed.) “I don’t know why he said that.”
Me; “Mom, it’s your book. I’m just helping tie it together and type it out. We’ll do whatever you want. Fiction, non-fiction, fiction based loosely on real life, whatever. But it’s yours.”

I think she’s worried other people will read it and think she got it all wrong. That no matter how much I say, “it’s fiction”, people will read themselves into it. She’s right, sadly, that some people will do that. But she shouldn’t let that stop her from writing it.

Also, Mom doesn’t know yet what she wants the story to be about. Thinking about writing a memoir can be not only complicated, but also triggering. A person’s life is not just a single story, but many joyous and terrible moments. There are many stories that can be told, focusing on the good or the bad or a mix of both. There is enough material for her to write a tragedy. But she could also write the same story as an uplifting account of overcoming the odds. I worry that she is losing confidence by trying to see the entire book before writing the first words.

Honestly, I would love for her to write about her childhood. I have reminded her that she doesn’t have to write about that if she feels uncomfortable doing it. But she keeps bringing it up as if it’s a must, so I think she internally feels it’s necessary. It’s a story she’d like to share. But she questions her authority to share it.

We all have authority to each write our own stories. What people say and do to us can not be controlled after the fact. Different ways of viewing what has happened doesn’t mean that only one of those views is correct. How we experience things has shapes our lives, whether we experience them accurately or not. We own the stories that make up our memories, which make us who we are, and influence what we think and do in the present.

If she decides not to write about her childhood, eventually I will write about it. But if I do it, I will have to write it from memories of stories passed down. I don’t think that’s ideal. I know she has memories she wants preserved. I know she wants to share them. I know she loves to write. She needs to let go of her worries and pick up a pen.

Mom, let’s do this thing.

Permission Slipped

I was on the edge, my hand pushed against the wall to keep myself from falling off the bed. My son pressed his feet against my spine in his usual rhythm: toe push-push, relax, foot-push, and repeat. His legs flopped over my waist and my hand went to his calves and squeezed, hoping the pressure would help him relax. I had already compressed all of his joints, so it was only a matter of time before he finally drifted off to sleep.

In the darkness, the room was quiet except for the Angry Birds sounds my son was making. I closed my eyes and drifted inward. My mind felt the words before I saw them peeking out of the places they hide. One by one they stepped out in hopes of being examined and validated. More and more words filled the emptiness and my heart ached for the feeling of a pen in my hand.

My son’s breathing steadied with a hint of a snore. I sat up, spoiled by the time resting in his bed. Exhaustion drew my back into a slump. I pulled the blankets over him, blankets which I am not allowed to touch if he is awake. But it is okay to touch them when he sleeps, and pile them heavily on him. I tucked them in around him so he might sleep the whole night through.

When I opened the door to leave his room, the sound of Dr. Who rushed in. I quickly stepped out and closed the door to keep the noise out. But I realized it was too distracting for me to write. I would have to wait until morning. But, sleep seemed equally appealing. I imagined I would lie in my bed, as I had just been in my son’s bed, and all the words would come to me and tell me where my story needed to go. I needed that precious moment of clarity just before sleep.

So, I passed by my husband and daughter as they watched t.v., stopped to turn on the clothes dryer, and then disappeared into the darkness of my bedroom. I could still hear the Daleks, but they simply assured me that no one would interrupt my thoughts. I settled my head onto the pillow and let my mind drift to the words I had written earlier in the day. I let the story play out a number of different ways until I crossed over into dreaming.

The alarm went off at 6:17 and automatic pilot mode was activated. I brushed my teeth, feeling the mint wake me. I walked through the house with a greeting, “Oh my goodness, the sun is already peeking in the windows! Everyone get up and look out the windows at that beautiful sunrise! The sky is pink. Wake up, wake up. It is time to wake up.”

I flipped on the usual lights, opened the usual doors, gathered up clothes for each child to wear, and doled out a few instructions. I headed back down the stairs and went straight to the laundry room to look for four pairs of matching socks. While there, I started folding the clothes from the dryer. I still needed to load the washer, get dressed, and pack a snack for the kids. I had thirty minutes, plenty of time.

That’s when I heard my daughter complain because there were no cherry Poptarts left. And that’s when I heard him reply, “Well, that’s because no one goes to the store anymore.”

Me. I don’t go to the store anymore to buy cherry Poptarts because I spend my quiet time at home writing. That is what he meant. When I explained that writing is my ‘work’, it brought a grunt of objection.

I’ll spare you the details of what transpired afterward.

But, it all comes around to this: If you wait for permission to do the work you believe in, you are only waiting for something you can already give yourself. You must give that permission to yourself before anyone else will come on board. Maybe no one else ever will. But, it doesn’t matter. It can’t matter.

I, like many women, do the necessary work to keep the house in order. I, like so many others, love my family more than anything. I am many things to many people. But, I am also something to myself. I am a writer. This is my work.

Holding Together