Justice?

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the current General Manager of the Blue Hill Food Co-op where I worked 14 years ago. He wanted to inform me that “Co-op John” was fired. Finally.

I wasn’t emotionally ready for that email. For one thing, I posted that story on my blog over a year ago and for another thing, we are 2.5 years into a pandemic and I have a medically fragile child. It’s been a lot. On top of the chronic and pandemic stress, one of my children had a traumatic health emergency a few months ago that we are all still processing and healing from. But as I know well, life does not always let you choose when you have to face your demons.

I know that John being “permanently terminated” from his position is a good thing on some level but the truth is my reaction was ice cold fear. I knew that there was nothing scarier on this earth than male anger before I knew how to say my own name. Even a male stranger on the highway flipping me the bird can send chills down my spine and make my heart race. I hate it. I never experienced Co-op John to be a physically violent man, except for in that it is violence to touch someone’s body without their consent. Still, I instantly started plotting my escape. If he came to my house, what would I do? Do I have a plan in place? Would he be able to find out where I live by my online presence? I was on facebook within minutes of getting that email and checking and double checking my security settings. I even changed my password which doesn’t even make any sense. How would John have my password?

My partner, Jamie was home when I got the email. Thank goodness, because I needed to process. For me that involves lots of talking with tears and uncontrollable shaking. Jamie was patient and supportive through this phase but when he sensed that I was ready to move on, he let me see his own reaction. “It’s about damn time.” He was pissed, which was helpful, because under my fear was my own anger. John sexually harassed countless women. Some were teenagers when it was happening. Some were grandmothers. I had a few reach out to me directly after I wrote my post and a few more confide in close friends of mine who then connected us. I forget how many women came forward, but it was enough to forget the number. John was doing this for a long time. More than 2 decades. It ties my stomach in knots.

The fear and anger are quickly met with guilt. I should have done more to stop him. I shouldn’t have just hung my head in shame all those years ago when I first reported it. I had known even then that it wasn’t just me. I had known he was doing the same things to some of my co-workers. Still, I gave up. It had taken all of my courage to report him and when my boss refused to do anything to protect us, I just gave up. It took me a whole 13 years to write that blog post and even then, I was careful to not give the real name of the co-op. Why? To protect him? To protect myself? What about the current women dealing with his abuse? Honestly, it makes my stomach hurt to think about.

And here’s the other thing. I am a believer in restorative justice. I didn’t actually want an old man to get fired from working a job he’s held for two decades. I wanted there to be another way. I want to live in a world where we acknowledge that rape culture is all around us. It’s not just John. I want us to create a world where we don’t tolerate the sexual micro-aggressions women have to deal with on a daily basis. I want us to make this type of behavior unacceptable. I want men like John, not to be punished, but to be helped and changed. and I don’t know how that happens.

Still, I am glad that he is no longer in that position. He was far too comfortable abusing women in that role at that job for far too long. Even after I reported him. Even after I wrote that blog post. He just kept doing it because no one had ever made him stop. So, he needed to be removed from that position. I know that is a good thing.

The current general manager told me that it was only after a current employee and a long time customer reported the same forms of sexual harassment that I wrote about in my blog that an internal investigation was deemed necessary. I am left feeling grateful but with a bad aftertaste. My abuse wasn’t enough to spark a review. My co-workers enduring abuse wasn’t enough. I get that this is a new manager, but still, reading my post should have been enough to initiate some attempt to check on and protect current employees. Instead at least 2 other women had to be violated and come forward before anything could be done. I might sound bitter, but seriously. This is the same dynamic that happened when I reported my college professor for sexual harassment. I was told that they would write down the complaint so that if more women came forward, they would have it on file. Again. One woman being violated wasn’t enough to warrant action. How many women need to experience abuse before it is too much?

In the face of the current political situation in the US regarding women’s (and anyone who can get pregnant!) rights, I am compelled to share this win. Because it is a win. One man was finally held accountable for harming women. It took too long and he hurt too many of us, but still this matters. One by one until we have enough momentum to shift our whole culture.

I promise to take all of this pain, and fear and guilt and use it to continue to speak the truth and to constantly push myself and those around me to be better.

A picture of just me because even just me is worth protecting.

“Uncle-Dad”

I was scared of my father’s side for most of my childhood. Ever since the gun incident. Even though he wasn’t alive anymore, I still avoided anything and everything to do with my dad. Like when my older brother got a summer job as a “Carnie,” I didn’t ride the ferris wheel, even though it was my favorite because it was too close to the ride he was working. Or if I spotted one of my sisters in the Rite-Aid, I would put down whatever I had intended to buy and duck into whatever aisle was closest until I could sneak out. One time the store manager confused me for a greeting card thief when I was in stealth mode and banned me from the store for a year. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it wasn’t one of 2 stores in the whole town. Anyway, at least my sisters didn’t see me.

I hadn’t spoken to my siblings since I stopped going to our dad’s, but I knew they would still recognize me. Everywhere I went, people would take one look at my matching dark hair and eyes and say, “You must be a Gamet! I bet I know who your daddy is!” The truth is, and I never confessed this before, I was equal parts ashamed and comforted when people said this. It is true that I was terrified of being associated with my father’s side, but it is also true that I still loved him, and them.

I wasn’t just scared about the gun either. It was also about AIDS. I was still trying to keep my mom’s status a secret and that was much harder to do if people knew my dad. It was still a secret that he died from AIDS, because his wife was still living here in this small town with her own HIV status and of course there was still the matter of all of us kids. None of us were positive, but the town didn’t know that, and they would punish us the same as they would punish our parents if they knew. Still, there are always whispers in a small town and I knew that at least some people knew how my 36 year old father died.

My father’s people had been living in this region for many generations. In fact, some of our ancestors are Indigenous so yeah, some of our people lived here forever. You couldn’t take two steps in any direction without running into one of my relatives. I had to do a lot of fancy footwork to stay under everyone’s radar. It helped that all of my siblings were so much older than me. There was one relative though that always surprised me. I couldn’t dodge him no matter how hard I tried and eventually I quit trying. My brothers and sisters, who grew up with him in a way that I did not, call him “Uncle-Dad.” I call him this in my heart but I have never said it out loud.

To me, he was “Uncle Don” and he was my father’s best friend and brother. My dad had a lot of brothers, but I never took much notice of the other ones and they never seemed to notice me either. But Uncle Don kept tabs on all of “his kids.” He took in all of the stray kids in our family who had lost our parents to drugs, to incarceration, to AIDS and to death. Most of us were biologically related to him at least, but I know he watched out for kids who weren’t even blood.

The people that I respected most in my life were women. They were the ones who were doing all of the loving and hard work of caring in my community. I saw men as a source of violence and pain. But, my Uncle Don was this amazing exception. Now, I know he is a real person and not some fictional character. I know he has flaws like the rest of us, but at that time in my life, I thought he was a superhero. After my step-dad died, mom and I didn’t have a man to fix the little things that would break. I know that’s unnecessarily gendered and mom and I could have rolled up our sleeves and learned how to figure things out like broken heaters and mice in the walls, but we didn’t and we didn’t even know we could. We would just sit in the freezing cold waiting for the landlord who would never fix anything until my Uncle Don would suddenly appear and just like that we would be warm again and the mice would be gone.

I remember one time, this time of year actually, that’s probably why it popped into my mind. It was snowing just a few days before Christmas. Mom and I were feeling low. We didn’t have any presents and we didn’t have any food and we were flip flopping back and forth between grief and rage about that. All directed at each other. We had been fighting all morning and the snow just kept coming and coming. neither of us cared because we had nowhere to go anyway. Our car was already buried under a foot of snow and there seemed to be no end in sight. We would eventually have gone out and brushed the snow off with our arms and took a broom handle to the top. But the sidewalk would have stayed impassable for the whole winter. I don’t think we even owned a shovel.

That’s where Hero Uncle-Dad Donnie comes into the picture. Mom and I pushed the curtain aside to find him digging us out. I hardly knew this man, and yet he loved me enough to show up in a snow storm and make sure that my mom and I could get out safely if we needed to. He would never come in to say hi or look for acknowledgment. Most of the time, he would sneak off without us even knowing he had come, but when we stumbled on his small acts of kindness, we always knew it was from him. There was no one else as generous and thoughtful.

Even though I didn’t have the same anxiety around him that I had for the rest of my dad’s side, I still was a little shy around him. I would mumble a thank you if we found ourselves face to face and try to take in as much of him as I could without looking directly at his face. He is a bald man with honey colored skin. Other than those two features, I look exactly like him.

I went home for my 26th birthday, and was able to spend some time with Uncle Don and Aunt Luann at their restaurant “Don and Lu’s.”

Uncle Don was perceptive enough to understand what I needed without me ever having to ask. He would remind me every time I saw him no matter the setting or the circumstances. “Your dad loved you so much. He loved your mama too. That was his only crime. Loving too much. He was a good man who just happened to be in love with two different women.” I couldn’t agree completely with that sentiment. Loving wasn’t the only bad thing my father ever did, but I still loved to hear him say it. I only ever heard terrible things about my father and hearing good things, especially from such a good man, really made me feel hope that my father was a good man even in part. Maybe there was more to my father and to me than I knew. Once Uncle Don planted and watered that seed in my heart, he would always leave me with this. “Your Uncle Donnie is always here for you. And your mom. You hear me?” Then he would lift my chin so that I had to make eye contact. Looking into his eyes would always make a whole lump of tears form in my throat and I would just nod while he spoke the same words he said every time. “You guys were my brother’s responsibility, so now you’re mine. We’re family and no matter what, that doesn’t change.”

I never gave my Uncle Don any indication that I was hearing him or that this meant the world to me. In fact, I never said much beyond the mandatory polite phrases in response. So, I am writing this now to tell him and to tell the whole world. Thank you to my Uncle-Dad, Uncle Donnie, for showing me the kind of person that I wanted to be in the world and for still being an inspiration for me. I haven’t seen him now in almost a decade, but here he is meeting my oldest two children the last time I made it home. I am so glad that I have these pictures so that I can give my children a face to go with my stories. I want them to know that they come from more than trauma. They come from kind and good people who despite immense pain, continue to love and give generously.

I hope to see my Uncle Don and my Aunt Luann someday soon so that they can meet my youngest and we can update these photos. ❤ ❤ ❤

9/11

There was the moment right before we knew what was going on. I remember the backs of the kids walking into the classroom ahead of me. They already knew. I could feel it. Everyone could feel it. the air was charged. People were crying and the room was silent except for the tv and the crying.

I was in 8th grade and I sat down in my plastic chair. I put my backpack down in front of me and stared straight ahead at the screen. I thought we were watching a scary movie at first but that made no sense. The teacher still said nothing. She just stood there glued to the screen like the rest of us without giving us any guidance or information. I am sure she did not know what to say. Some kids had their faces down on the cold metal desks. I saw them turn away from the people jumping out of the buildings on the screen. I could not look away. I could not make sense of this. I felt numb. I could not hear the words that the news reporter was saying. Maybe the teacher muted it because it was too much or maybe my brain muted it for the same reason.

We walked from one classroom to the next that day but did not make any attempts at algebra or biology. We watched the tv in every class. My school did not have enough tv’s for every classroom so our teachers quickly identified who had one and we all crowded into that room. We sat there criss-cross apple sauce on the floor and waited for the adults to come to their senses and comfort us. But the adults did not know how to comfort themselves and they were not ready to comfort us.

Weeks passed and my mom was worried about me. The silence and the numbness continued for me which terrified my mom because I am by nature neither of those things. Big feelings and lots of words are kind of my go-to personality traits. “I ran into V’s mom at the grocery store the other day….I told her that you have been really scared and sad about all of…this…stuff going on….and…and she said that you can come over to her house for dinner.”

I did not know how going to V’s house for dinner was going to make any of this make sense or bring me back down into my body. V was a year older than me and I had never even hung out with her outside of school and sports let alone go to her house. I liked her, I guess, but she wasn’t exactly a friend. I tried to talk my mom out of it, but she had decided I was going and I didn’t have the heart to fight about it.

I had never sat down for a middle class family meal. Dad. Mom. Older Brother. V. The family Dog. A big wooden table with matching chairs. This was not the best stage to get me to open up. I felt like a fish out of water here. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and looked down at the plate. I had always wanted to have family meals like they do in the movies. I had always been so jealous of the big families like the Winslows, The Tanners, you know all those tv families of the 90’s. Mom and I barely had dinner and even when we ate food together it was just in the living room. I can’t remember sitting down with my mom for a meal even one time without it being a holiday or something.

They were talking all around me and I could tell it was meant for me even before they directed it at me. It was like watching a performance of a family conversation vs. an actual meal conversation. Everyone would talk to each other, but then look at me.

“We are going to get THEM!”

“Yea, they don’t even know what’s comin’! America is coming now. They are about to get blown to pieces by AMERICA!”

I tried to force a few small bites of food past my swollen throat. I could not choke anything down but I did not want to be rude. I tried to smile but it felt unnatural.

Finally the mom spoke directly to me. “your mom says that you are really feeling scared? Well, honey, I just wanted to have you over here to show you that this country is full of STRONG men, I know you don’t have any men at home, and we are not going to let anyone hurt you or any other Americans!” She looked approvingly at her teenage son and husband. This started them in again.

“That’s right. We got the strongest military in the world! We’re gonna kill so many terrorists!”

Masculine strength is a beautiful thing that I do love to witness but I would not say that it comforts me. I am actually terrified of male violence so any kind of aggression or even this kind of talk makes me go into fight or flight mode instantly. My tolerance for it is so low that even just a man flipping me the bird on the interstate can send my heart racing. I just don’t like it at all.

They went on like this all night until it was just awkward to still be sitting there. I shoveled the last few bites into my mouth and thanked them for dinner. I knew I was supposed to say something in response to this performance but I truly had no idea what words to use in this setting.

The mom put her hand on my shoulder. “Well dear, I hope you are feeling better knowing that you are not in this alone. All of America is in this together and we are going to win! We always win!”

I declined a ride home preferring to walk alone in the dark with my thoughts. Again, not at all like me. I almost never prefer to be alone.

My mom was on the phone when I walked in. “Oh! I gotta go, Crystal Fawn just got in. Love you. Mmhmm. Yeah. I know. I know. Mh hmm. Ok. Love you. Gotta go!” She hung up the phone and smiled at me expectantly. “Well, how was it? You feeling better?”

Why my mom thought that strangers would be able to soothe my fears with their talk of violence and war and winning will always remain a mystery to me. But I appreciated the effort and it was clear that for whatever reason that was what she had to give me. Maybe she just didn’t know that much about it herself and did not know how to answer my questions. I needed someone to talk to. To just hear myself say outloud the terrible things that we watched on those tv’s at school and to ask someone what it all meant, but instead I just said, “Yea, ma. Thanks. Love you.” and sat down beside her on the couch. I picked up the afghan she was crocheting and crawled under it’s weight. “Who is this one for, mom?”

“Oh, your cousin saw me making one for the girl at church and she got jealous so I’m making her one now!”

Mom focused on working the hook through the yarn in her hands and I curled up next to her. We had no television or computer to fill the room with the news so we sat there in silence. Just the swish swish swish of the needle. I closed my eyes and listened to that repetitive sound. I felt my mom’s arm move up and over like a machine in the same motion in rhythm with the sound. The cheap yarn of the afghan was scratchy on my bare legs. I was so close to my mom that I could smell the Poligrip in her dentures. I did not think of the towers or the airplanes or the people falling. I did not think about the big men who were going to kill terrorists for America. I just sat there, like I had a million times before, next to my mom. I did not feel safe exactly, but I felt the comfort of having a mom.

An unthinkable Request-when abortions don’t exist as an option

I could not sleep. My stomach was squeezing and my mind was racing. If I had a computer back then, I would have been up all night googling teen pregnancy statistics and suicide prevention tips. Instead I was forced to sit there with my own teenage brain as my only resource.

What were the chances that my friend would get pregnant accidentally? Mrs. B said at school that condoms were like 90 something % effective…right? and how many times of sneaking out and finding some place to have sex x that 90something % would = pregnancy?

I tried to imagine doing what my friend asked me to do. I did not know if the right thing to do was to honor my friend’s request or to go against her wishes and save her life. I knew the weight of secrets and shame and that muddled my moral compass. I just could not figure out what the right thing to do was.

I did not lay in bed that night thinking about abortions or wondering if they were ethical and if I should offer that idea up as an alternative to suicide to my teenage friend. No. I did not even know abortions were a “thing.” They were just not on my radar as an actual possible alternative to unwanted pregnancy. I had never known anyone who had one. I had never heard anyone talk about them except for in the political way and even then it was so far outside of it’s context that it didn’t occur to me in this situation. I just thought it was a grown-up politics thing not an actual medical procedure.

I was a smart kid, but I did not know more than my rural community had taught me to know.

I wrestled with this for hours, replaying the conversation that I had with my friend over and over and over and over again in my mind.

“If I ever come to your house with a box of stuff from my closet and tell you to destroy it for me, just do it. Promise.”

“O..K…What are you talking about?”

“I am serious. If I ever get pregnant, I want you to destroy this box for me so that my parents don’t ever see it. There are some things that they should just never know, ok?”

“……..” I don’t know how serious she was or if she thought I was just going to go along with this, but my mom had attempted suicide a couple of times when I was younger and I had seen it. I had sat glued to the banister on the staircase in my next door neighbors apartment (back when we lived in public housing) and watched the ambulance crew save my mom’s life. This conversation with my friend was scaring me and triggering me and I did not know what to do or what to say to save my friend’s life.

“What do you mean?” I finally asked. “What do you mean…destroy a box? If you are pregnant? …Are you pregnant?!”

“No! God, No. I am just saying IF I ever get pregnant. I’d rather die than be a teenage mom. I’d just throw myself off the Brooklynside Bridge. No fucking way would I let this town know I was pregnant. No fucking way.”

I wanted to feel relief that we were talking about some hypothetical situation where my friend wasn’t now going to kill herself but would only do it if she accidentally got pregnant. Phew. but no. I could not shake the panic rising in my chest. My friend was safe tonight but what about next month? When she came running to me, would I take the box and then hug her and let her go? Or would I go against my promise and hold her against her will so that should could not carry out her plans? But what else could I do? I would never tell on her! Oh my God. OhmygodohmygodOHMYGOD It was the middle of the night. My sheets were soaked in my sweat and it felt like there was 1000 pounds sitting on my chest. I could barely breath when I finally crawled out of bed.

My mom did not sleep in a bed in a room with a closed door like other mothers. She slept on the couch. Every single night. the living room was right on the other side of my bedroom door.

“Mama…?” I whispered but too quietly. I could not force any more words through my clenched throat. The tears started pouring out until my body had released enough to make space for words to squeeze out.. “Mama!”

She woke up to me sitting soaked on the floor beside her on the couch. I had never done this before. For all the trauma and violence and fear of my youth, I had never woken my mom up in the night because I was scared. Well not since I was little.

I poured it all out to her and remarkably I remember nothing after this. Did my mom talk to her mom? Did my mom reach out to my friend directly? Did she give me advice that I took and moved forward with? I do not know. Because telling my mom was the right thing to do and it brought relief. My friend survived. Our friendship survived. My mom took me soon after that to get me on birth control pills and she did not connect it to this night, but as I write this out, I can draw the line from one point to the next.

I was 15 and not asking for the pill, but mom brought it up one day. “Crystal Fawn, I made you an appointment after school tomorrow. you have to see the Women’s Doctor now because you’re just at that age.” I was shocked because my mom was kind of a prude. I mean she had me out of wedlock with a married man when she was young, but as a grown up mother, she was very conservative about sex. Usually she preached, “wait until you are married!” (Sorry mom, I never did get married!) or even worse, “sex is dangerous! sex gives you AIDS!” which was one of the only times that she talked directly about AIDS. Then she would get really quiet and there was no room for discussion. She had said what needed to be said about the topic. but here she was saying this now, “…and um…they will check you out in your hoo-haw and it’s not a big deal. Everybody does it and then they can give you a prescription for some birth control pills…” She stopped talking to let me catch up. She looked at me right in the eye for about one second and then quickly looked away and rattled on, “I mean it’s not just for having sex. It can be for health reasons, like to make your periods less painful and less heavy and stuff.”

I had never had heavy or painful periods. Oh my God. My mom was telling me to get on birth control pills! I did not take it for granted then but I even more so do not now. This was probably one of the miracles that saved my life. I stayed on those pills until I was out of high school and had my first baby within a year of stopping them. I am forever grateful for that gift from my mom. She gave me time to mess up and make mistakes and not become a mom before I was ready. not that I planned to have my first baby at 21, but I was ready to be a mom then. I could handle it then and I knew what I was getting into then. I knew there were options and I chose to become a mother.

This story has always haunted me. I remember the first time that abortions became real for me. In my first year outside of my hometown when girls confided to me over cigarettes outside of our dorm rooms or whispered to me when girl’s snuck into my room for advice. I became the sex therapist for my dorm floor after every one else claimed to be a virgin (It was a Catholic school) and I was honest and not Catholic. Anyway, as these girls would come to me and sit on my floor and tell me their stories in secret, I began to realize that abortion was not just a real thing, but kind of a common thing.

When a friend asked me to support them through their abortion, I sat there holding their hand and rubbing their back feeling so grateful. I would rather hold my friend through an abortion than sit with the request my friend laid on me when we were teens.

I don’t know if teenagers in my hometown have more access to abortions now than they did when I was a kid. The internet has carried information and resources that were unimaginable to me back then but without a local clinic or public transportation, I am not sure that information is enough. I looked up the statistic and found that 25% of births in my hometown are to teen mothers.
I looked this up and as I expected the closest abortion provider is 50 miles away and in another state. How is a poor, rural teenager going to get there?

An afterthought: I know I do this too much, but I almost always have more to say! Just couldn’t end this without SHOUTING that teen moms are MOMS and I love and respect a lot of badass teen moms.

Medical (Mis)trust

My mother turned 22 on August 2, 1986 and exactly one month later, she gave birth to me. Fast forward to 2 months after my 22nd birthday on September 2, 2008 and I gave birth to my firstborn daughter. I did not plan this to happen this way, but life sometimes has a funny way of repeating itself. It was a welcome deja vu. I always knew I wanted to be a mother.

Born at home (in an apartment in a high school dormitory because my partner and I were live-in dorm parents!) she was a wonder. We had not opted for any of the prenatal testing and even chose to forgo routine testing such as ultrasound. We knew we would keep this child no matter what ultrasound showed and we were concerned about unnecessary exposure to radiation. It almost seems ridiculous now because she has ultrasounds and x-rays constantly to monitor her health of her kidney transplant. I went into labor on Halloween night and continued to labor until her birth in the afternoon on November 2. Her birth is one of my favorite stories to tell, but it is not the one pressing me out of my bed in the middle of the night.

We almost went to the hospital in those first moments. She was having a hard time breathing and required oxygen and suctioning from our skilled and competent midwives. Ultimately, a trip to the steamy shower with her dad and some back-rubs got out all of the extra birth gunk in her lungs and she was breathing beautifully. The midwives said it was a close call though. They almost sent us. As previously arranged with the pediatrician, we phoned to let them know that she had been born and scheduled her first appointment for 24 hours after her birth. The midwives spent a lot of time measuring her, weighing her, and completing the newborn check-up.

We wrapped her up in a swaddle and walked her to the pediatric appointment just a few blocks away from our apartment. Our walk across the high school campus was more eventful than the appointment itself with word spreading quickly and teenagers rushing out to be the first to see our new resident. The pediatrician seemed like she was trying too hard to make us feel like she was cool and hip with our homebirth. She did not feel like she was paying attention to our baby or our questions and rather spent much of the time lecturing us on maintaining romance in our relationship now that we had a child. She told us of her own divorce and warned us of a similar fate if we did not care for each other through this new transition. All of that advice felt weird and out of place and frankly not what we were there for.

We left the appointment feeling reassured that our baby was healthy and safe and walked home discussing what seemed to be the most important thing at the time. What were we going to name her? We still had a long list and no clear favorites. Jamie did not have to return to work outside of caring for the teenagers in our dorm for another week so that was our goal. To pick out a name before he went to work. On the night before he was set to leave us for the first time, I asked him, “What is your favorite if you had to choose right now. Just tell me.”

“Corah Brigit.”

I was shocked because that first name came from my side and I loved it. I had no idea he was even really considering that one. My heart felt so full in that moment and my eyes were brimming. “That is my favorite too.” Corah Brigit. Corah Brigit. Corah Brigit. Our child had a name.

With Jamie returning back to work, I had a lot of time to sit and stare at my new soulmate. She was almost constantly attached to my breast. She loved to nurse and took to it immediately. She wanted to be no where else. We co-slept and so even in the night she had on demand access to my breast and my body. As I wanted it to be and as she wanted it to be.

The midwives had been back a couple of times over that first week to check in and do weights. She lost her initial weight that is normal after birth but for some reason she was struggling to start to gain. They were concerned but not overly so at this point. At their recommendation, we made another appointment at the pediatrician’s office. This time she seemed annoyed with us. She already told us our baby was perfect and we were supposed to be these chill homebirth parents so why were we acting so anxious about our baby? Why weren’t we just trusting the process? She told us that Corah was slow to gain but she was fine! “Look at your baby! She is not a failure to thrive baby.” She squeezed Corah’s fat little roly poly legs. I smiled, “ok.” That is what we wanted to hear so we heard it and went home to call the midwives to update them on Corah’s appointment. They were no longer her caregivers at this point but they were emotionally invested in the outcome.

The pediatrician had scheduled us for another weight check at one week past the last weight. Looking back I get sick to think of this. A lot can happen in a week. A baby that is not proving to be able to gain weight after birth should never ever go that long without a weight check. Once we admitted her in the hospital weights became an on the hour routine. and the pediatrician wanted us to come back in a week! In this time, I started getting more and more anxious. Everytime she would spit up, I would feel the panic rise in me. I would cling to her and search her face for reassurance that she could not give. She was not overly irritable and she was going through wet diapers constantly so everyone was reassured. Except for me. I could not shake this sinking feeling that she was in trouble. I did not know exactly what was wrong, but I could sense that my baby was struggling.

I could not wait the week out as directed by the doctor. Everyone was getting worried about me. “Crystal….you might be having symptoms of postpartum depression…the doctor said, she’s fine. You need to calm down and just enjoy her!” and “You need to take a break and relax. Let someone else take care of her and take care of yourself.” All of this advice and feedback made me feel wild and crazy. At this point, I knew something was wrong and I knew it wasn’t in my head. I knew postpartum depression was real, but I also knew that it wasn’t the reason that I was so worried about my baby.

I called my midwives again for guidance. They told me to just go in and get another weight even though it wasn’t time for her appointment yet. Corah was almost 3 weeks at this point. I walked down to the Hospital and asked them to weigh her. It is a simple and quick nurse visit. No doctor necessary, I just needed to see the number and get some reassurance. They put her on the scale which sent her into a screaming fit. She hated that cold hard scale and she still does. My heart fell through my body and onto the floor. The room got blurry. I could see people moving around me but nothing was clear. I scooped her up and steadied my voice. This was no time to panic. My child was in danger and now I could not be swayed from the truth that she needed help and fast. “Oh my god!” oops my voice was rising, but I did not care. I needed my baby to be safe. “Her weight is down again! Oh my god, what do we do?” I begged the nurse for answers but she was already pushing us to the door. Jamie was at work and I was a young mother who was overreacting and didn’t know anything about anything.

“Your baby is fine. The doctor will see you again tomorrow. This is a normal weight for a 2.5 week old baby.”

“But she was 9 lbs at birth! So this is NOT a normal weight for HER! She should be gaining, NOT losing!” She was down to 7.5 lbs. I was getting no where with this nurse and everyone else was ignoring me.

I wrapped Corah’s tiny body up to go back into the now chilly late fall air and ran out of there without even seeing where I was walking. I could not breathe. I knew we were in for it and I was realizing quickly that no one else knew that yet. I called Jamie first. He was concerned about the weight but also reassured that the medical advice was to wait for our appointment tomorrow to talk it over with the pediatrician. I could not wait that long. I called my very close friend who is a medical provider with a background as a nurse midwife. I knew that she would be able to hold all of the truths… Postpartum Depression… Newborn Weight loss… Advice from the Pediatrician…and give me advice that considered it all. Plus, I trust her. “Beth,” now I was crying. “What should I do?”

She did not give me the answer that I still was hoping for. She did not tell me that everything was ok. Our conversation was short and grim. She was worried and she needed to make some calls and would call me back. Within an hour, my cell phone was ringing. I was sitting on my couch and doing all that I could to hold it together. Corah was nursing and dozing on my lap with her fingers on one hand wrapped around my pinky and her fingers on the other hand tickling my belly. I tried to stay in the moment and just focus on her and love her, but the phone call made that all crash down around me. Beth had secured us an appointment for the same day to meet with a different pediatrician at another small town hospital near us. I called Jamie and he left work to take us.

The first pediatrician came in and checked Corah out from head to toe. No bloodwork. No thermometer even. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I see what is going on here. She is having a hard time nursing because of her chin. Do you see how it is kind of set back a little too much?” I looked down at my child’s face and felt the heat flood mine.

“Excuse me? What are you saying?”

The doctor continued. “Let’s schedule her for some physical therapy for that chin and get her nursing better. When babies aren’t able to nurse well, they can not stimulate enough production so that might be an issue here too.” My baby was a power nurser. I was producing a ton of milk as evidenced by my massive rock hard painful breasts that had seemed to grow three sizes overnight. (That part did not last!) I had to change my shirt every hour and didn’t even bother wearing one in the house at all because it wasn’t even worth it. Nursing was not the problem. My milk was not the problem.

I wanted to scream at this man. “LOOK AT MY SHIRT SOAKED IN MILK!” but instead I said, “No. Please, listen to me. She is a great nurser. She breastfeeds all the time. I have had the midwives watch her nurse and she latched immediately like a pro. I have enough milk. She is peeing constantly. We use cloth diapers and we have to change them every hour! She pees all the time. Please. Please.”

He stood up to leave the room. “I have set an appointment with the physical therapist. You can go see them and then we can go from there.”

This marks the first appearance of what my family has now dubbed “Mama Bear.”

I stood up to meet him. Jamie had Corah in his arms. “No. We will not leave here until somebody figures out what is going on with our baby. We need another doctor’s opinion. Please.”

So they sent in another doctor. And another. And another. Each one did what doctors working in the same practice could be expected to do. they re-affirmed the initial diagnosis and prescription for chin therapy and told us to let it go.

At this point, Jamie was trying to reason with me. I looked completely out of my mind. How many doctors had told me our baby was fine? Why was I not able to accept that? but I knew that it wasn’t healthy for a baby to go from 9 lbs at birth to 7.5 lbs three weeks later. I was a young new mom BUT I had studied to be a midwife and doula. I had watched clients bring in their chubby new babies time after time at my apprenticeship at the hospital. I knew there was a wide range of normal for weights but growing was key. She was not even slow to grow. She was shrinking.

The hospital to their credit did not boot us. Finally we got the top doc. The almost retired pediatrician who had been doctoring longer than either Jamie or I had been alive. He took one look at her and ordered some bloodwork. “What is her temperature?”

I interrupted before the nurse could even answer, “They never even took it!!” I knew that he was here to save her. I could feel Jamie’s energy beside me shift too. We looked at each other while the nurse stuck a thermometer in Corah’s armpit. and that is when the panic in me, burst into the room and everyone and everything sped up. Everyone was taking this seriously now. She was hypothermic. Her little body did not even have the strength to mount a fever and her temperature was plummeting. The instructions from hero Doc. (He deserves a name! Dr. Beekman! Dr. Beekman! Thank you forever!) came quick and direct. “She needs to be in an incubator. We need to get her temperature up fast.” He was already moving. We were already moving. To another part of the hospital. We needed to be in the PICU. “Her bloodwork came back and she is in end stage renal failure. Her creatinine and her white count are through the roof. She has a raging infection. She is acidotic.” He rattled off a list of numbers that made no sense to us then. Now I wait for the labs to come back on a weekly/monthly basis and know what those dips and spikes mean without a doctor to decode.

I had found it painful to have Corah out of my arms for any length of time as a newborn. Maybe because I Was a new mom, maybe because I was a young orphan, or maybe because I already knew she was sick. I hated giving her up for family to hold and could only physically tolerate it for an hour here or there and I had to be close. I found it physically painful for her to be out of contact with me. She had been in my body for 9 months and this shock of our disconnect was a lot.

Now she was in a hard plastic box with tubes and wires coming out from every direction. I could only reach my hands in and feel her. Dr. Beekman was not a warm and fuzzy doctor but in that moment, that is what we needed. We needed the truth. We needed answers. “I have to tell you the position we are in is serious. She needs to be life-flighted to Portland where they are more equipped to deal with her needs. Right now, she is too sick. We need to stabilize her before we can transport. There is a chance she will not survive the night. It could go either way.”

I can still see that room almost 13 years later. It was all brown and beige. I was used to hospitals being white but this room was tan. Or maybe just her incubator was that khaki color and that was the only room that mattered so that is all that I saw. Jamie and I both spent the night holding vigil, neither of us slept even though there was a cot in the room for us to try. We just stood by her side looking in and saying all of the prayers that we knew how to pray. When the Dr. agreed to let me hold her to nurse, I soaked in every second of having her in my arms again.

Jamie stepped into the hall to make a phone call. Even in this moment of trauma, the American Healthcare System demanded that he make phone calls and sit on hold rather than spend those intimate moments with our child. I am so grateful for this labor from him. He has repeated it often over these years. Corah was so new in the world that she had not officially been signed up to our MaineCare yet! So while I enjoyed skin-to-skin time with Corah, Jamie made those critical phone calls to get her enrolled. If you have never had to call to sign-up for Medi-Care just imagine the most excrutiating wait time you’ve ever had on the phone and then triple it. Follow that up with an intensely frustrating conversation where you have to beg for your child’s right to life saving healthcare.

Corah made it through the night. It was one of the worst nights of either of our lives, but she made it through. The next morning, Corah was strong enough for the transport to Portland’s Children’s Hospital, but there was a big storm and we were unable to board the helicopter. Jamie’s parent’s came all the way from Boston and his dad drove with him behind the ambulance. I had to sit in the front seat away from the incubator and my baby in the back, but at least they let me ride in the ambulance. At one point I had to call Jamie and tell him we were pulling over because the Incubator wasn’t working properly. There we were on the side of the highway, waiting for another ambulance to deliver a new incubator to switch out. Still we weren’t allowed to see her. Jamie and his dad had to stay in their vehicle and I had to sit with the driver and make small talk. I remember that driver vividly too. She was friendly and kind and I liked her energy a lot. I do not remember her name, but I will always remember her face.

A team of PICU nurses and Pediatric Specialty doctors met us at the entrance to the hospital. They were there when Corah was being wheeled in on her incubator stretcher. The first face to come into focus was a pretty young female doctor. She identified herself as a pediatric Nephrologist or for those who don’t know, a “kidney doctor.” “We will need to start logging her INS and OUTS. You will need to stop nursing her and feed her bottles. We need to keep track of exactly how much fluid goes in and how much comes out.” We learned that babies in end stage renal failure, do not stop peeing, they pee too much. Part of what had made it tricky to get a diagnosis earlier on from the other doctors.

“Wait. There has to be a way to measure INS and OUTS even if I am breastfeeding her. I AM NOT going to stop breastfeeding her.” Mama Bear again. I am MUCH BETTER now at knowing when to let her out and when to find a different way to get what I want from the medical world but back then I was quick to morph.

There was some back and forth and I was mad. I did not like this doctor at all. (Now she is one of my favorites even though she has moved into a new chapter in her career and is no longer our doc. I love her dearly and we always stop and catch up when our paths cross.) She finally agreed that I could nurse under one condition. We needed to weigh Corah before and after every single time she nursed. Even in the middle of the night. We had to weigh every single diaper too. Sometimes in the middle of the night so as not to wake her up, I would weigh myself with her in my arms, then lay her down in the hospital bed and then weigh myself again to subtract her weights. The nurses brought in an adult scale for this purpose.

Here we are in that first hospitalization. Corah looking as gorgeous as always despite being very ill and me looking as exhausted and yet madly in love as I had ever been.

This story continues. On and on years of advocacy with Jamie and I constantly up to bat to make sure that our child get’s what she needs. We often go against medical advice as we did many times in this story. We expect our child’s doctors to see us as members of the decision making process and we remind them of this when they come to us with decisions and plans looking for consent without having involved us in the process of how they got there. This just happened this summer in a major way that led to Jamie having to lay it out all over again with our new Nephrologists. They have many patients but we only have one. We also know her whole self in a way that they can not and so we need to be part of the plan.

Happy and Home together. Corah spent much of her early years in the hospital, so we made sure to never take a moment of being home for granted. Here she is with Jamie.

The reason this story pulled me from my bed to write on this night is that someone told me today that I am just “one of those people following the herd.” They said that I am a sheep blindly following the medical establishment and the media. They said that to me because I have been advocating for people to get vaccinated and wear masks. I advocate for those things because I know that informed consent is critical. I know that we should not follow doctor’s advice without robust conversation and debate about it. I believe in science. I believe in medicine. It has saved my child countless times. It has also failed us many times. In the end, I am overflowing with gratitude. Medicine is not a perfect science. It is always changing and medical professionals are humans who make mistakes. I want people to get informed. I want people to know that the people who are the most vulnerable are asking for vaccines and wearing masks. Not because we are sheep, we understand intimately the systemic flaws of medicine, but because we also know that it saves lives. It saves our lives and the lives of those we love.

We just sent Corah into 7th grade after a long 18 months at home. She is fully vaxxed and in a district with a strong mask policy. She remains vulnerable as an immunocompromised person as well as her siblings who are too young to be vaccinated. I am grateful to those who get their vaccine and wear their masks to protect others and make our community safer. I do not feel angry at the people who do not make this choice. I feel grief and fear.

Candy Cane Vomit

C came over to my house after school. I was in the 10th grade and she was one year ahead of me. She was my only friend now. Strange that she would walk willingly back into my life after everyone else walked out. Any other year, I would be in the locker room right now tucking in my jersey and lacing up my basketball sneakers, but not this year. Not after that night. I lost everything that night, even basketball.

Everyone was coming out to the game tonight for the “6th man” where the crowd dresses in the team colors and gets extra loud and involved in cheering on the team. C and I were already decked out in our tight vintage orange and black Phys. ed. tee shirts and hip hugger jeans. We applied some shimmer to our eyes and took out our Sharpies. We each had a giant Orange Posterboard laid out in front of us and we wrote something like Go Gators! on one side and Brian W Riz-ocks! on the other side. Brian W riz-ocked because he had promised to bring us a bottle of vodka and escort us personally to the game. He was older, cooler and also…he was part of that other night. I know now that he was a player and even a curator of the violence I experienced that night, but at the time I felt like I owed him something. He had escorted me to that party. I was supposed to end up in his arms that night but that is not what happened. I could not believe that he had apparently forgiven me enough to invite me, again after all that, to hang out. I had no interest in this boy personally, but I saw him as an olive branch from teenage society. If he could give me a second chance, ,maybe everyone else could too?

…not the most important thing about this photo…but yes that is Vin Diesel on my wall…and if you could see the poster beside that one, it would be Ja Rule! Lol This is me at about 15/16 years old.

“Girls! Welcome! Come on in.” Brian opened the door to his mother’s van and C climbed into the back while I took the front seat beside him. “I have been working on this for weeks. I have something really special for you girls. Here.” He handed me the bottle first. “Taste it.” I had been drinking alcohol for some time by this age, but I had never drank liquor straight out of the bottle. Like most of my rural peers, I was mostly drinking cheap awful beer that I pretended to love and jungle juice supplied in excess to all girls at every party.

I tipped the full bottle back just a little. Brian was saying something but I couldn’t hear him. My eyes squeezed shut and my mouth was on fire. It tasted like peppermint. He informed us that he bought the bottle weeks ago and saved it just for tonight. He had even gone through the trouble to soak a couple of candy canes in the bottle to give us a festive surprise.

C was laughing at me. “Come on. Let me try it!”

I passed her the bottle grateful for a minute to let my stomach adjust to this heat before pouring more alcohol down my throat. I could feel the boy watching me as he drove. I looked out the window watching the lights flicker past. My cheeks were red and I was embarrassed. I knew he was thinking about that night. We had never talked about it.

C passed the bottle back up to me. We were all pretty quiet even though we had been rowdy back at my house. C and I had bought a couple of orange candy referee whistles to blow at the game whenever we wanted to cheer our team on. Plus, I had already digested the notion that it was my job to be sexy at all times and that drawing attention to my mouth with a candy sucker was an easy way to grab that attention from boys. For now, in that van, I kept it quiet in my hand. I did not want to make this boy think about my mouth like that. I did not want him to think about anything that would make him think about that other night.

“You aren’t drinking it! Don’t you like it? I made it just for you. Come on, isn’t it delicious?”

“uhm…um…yeah. no. thank you! This is so sweet that you made this for us!” I gushed and turned to C for encouragement. “Right, C? Isn’t this so good?” I wasn’t doing a good job of being appreciative. Especially since this boy was being kind to me after everything I did. I remembered my place. I shifted my weight just a little toward him. Just enough for him to notice. I took a deep breath and put the bottle to my lips. I tipped it back and this time I took a big swig of it. “Yummm! MMMM Oh my god, Brian. This is Sooooo good.” I was lying but boys don’t care if you are lying as long as you say the right words.

He grinned at me. I could feel my body melting from the heat of the sugary minty alcohol and the last thing I remember of the entire evening is this moment with the Christmas lights flooding the van and Brian saying, “Have you ever drank liquor before? No? Well, don’t worry if you don’t feel anything right away. Just keep drinking until you start to feel it.”

I know what happened after that. I know most of the details of that night, which is lucky actually. It is worse to not know. Everyone made sure that I knew every moment of the rest of that night for all of the remaining years of high school. They loved how fucked up I was. The kids at school. The ones destined for college, and marriage and security. They loved that I was so ruined. We pulled up to the high school just in time for the Varsity Boys Game. The gym was packed to capacity. Thank God my mom wasn’t there. She went to every game back when I was on the team, but now she spent her Friday nights at the Church boxing up her old medicine bottles to send to Missionaries in some other poor place. She would carefully tear off all of the medicine labels so that no one would know they were AIDS medicine bottles. Too risky to just smudge them out with a marker. She would sit in our living room for hours with a kitchen knife, scratching away at the dangerous labels. Then she would throw away all of the evidence and carry her prayers down the street to the church.

That is where she was when the police called her. But I am getting ahead of myself. At first, C and I were the center of attention. It was a roaring crowd, but we were the loudest. Maybe I would have been able to maintain my jovial spirit and avoid my unraveling if the crowd had stayed with me. But this crowd hated me. It did not take much for them to remember that I was vile and I was to be eradicated. I was apparently walking down the bleachers maybe headed to the bathroom to pee out some of the vodka, when my ex-best friend came up behind me and pushed me down onto the court. I landed hard on my face right in front of the cheerleading squad. “SLUT!” She said loud enough for everyone in the now dead silent gym to hear. She was trying to save herself from the shame of being my friend. She needed to publicly disown me. The gym was quiet now as everyone watched to see if I would peel my body off the floor. I laid there with the eyes of my whole community on me. No one stepped forward to check on me. The players were frozen in their spots on the court and a few of the boys started to laugh. Apparently this is the point in the night where C and Brian realized I was way more intoxicated than them and that I was going to bring us all down. So they left. By the time I brought my body up to my feet I was raging. I hated all of these kids. I hated them for hating me. I hated them for hurting me so badly and then blaming me for it. I hated them for being normal kids whose parents weren’t dying of AIDS.

Brian was wrong. He had been lying too. Liquor does not immediately hit you as you drink it. If you aren’t careful, you might drink too much and not realized it until it finds its way into your bloodstream. My blood was mostly just alcohol at this point. I stood up and directed my hate at the closest targets, the Varsity Cheerleading squad. I don’t know how they reacted. I don’t remember and their reactions didn’t make it into the many re-tellings of that night that I heard about. All I know is that I started spitting on them and then… I vomited all over myself.

I was escorted off of the gym floor by a teacher while the crowd erupted in laughter and taunts. By the time the police came I was barely able to sit up by myself. I laid there sprawled on the steps leading to the boys locker room. So fitting. I could not get the taste of candy cane flavored vomit out of my mouth and I was still spitting and spitting. I was told that I kept spitting on the police. So much spitting. I have never once since that night spit on anyone on purpose. I guess that night it was my only weapon.

By the time my mom made it from the church to the high school, I was out of police custody and being strapped onto a stretcher. This is where suddenly my memories come back. The last thing I remembered from that night was the Christmas lights, but the first thing I remember when I started coming back to life was the sirens. Sirens had always been so terrifying and triggering for me. Now they were blaring in my head and I could see the paramedics, this time here for me instead of my mom. How was I the one on the hospital bed and my mom was sitting right there?

I awoke also to my own voice. I was sobbing and screaming. “Nobody loves me! Nobody loves me! Nobody loves me!” over and over and over again while my poor mama watched in horror. The paramedics rubbed my back and told me, “your mom loves you. She’s right here. Do you see her?” but I was devastated. My mom did not know anything of the horrors that had been happening to me lately. she did not know about boys in tents or girls who abandoned. She thought this was my second time drinking alcohol. I had already been found out for my first time drinking when the Rite Aid photo lab reported inappropriate pictures that my friends and I took while playing strip poker and drinking her mother’s Drambuie. But my mom was insanely naive and really truly thought that I had only drank the two times that I had been caught drinking. I hated lying to my mom but she could not know this. I was her angel. She could not know how far I had fallen. It would destroy her.

I was 14 when I started drinking alcohol. Here I am that first time where my friend and I decided to invite a boy over and play strip poker. My oldest daughter is almost this age now, so when I look back at this picture, I see a child here and its hard to believe how grown up I thought I was. or that this is what I thought grown up meant.

Mom did not punish me. She wanted to and she even tried on some vague level to say “your grounded,” but there was no heart behind it. I think I broke her. She looked scared more than angry in that conversation back at home after the hospital had pumped my stomach, filled it with charcoal and tested my blood for drugs. The school punished me. The law punished me. My peers punished me the most. but my mom was too scared and too exhausted to punish me. We never talked about how I told the paramedics that nobody loved me but I know that she was deeply affected by it. I knew my mom loved me, but at that moment in life I did not think I deserved love. I did not feel love from any source outside of my mom to affirm that I deserved it.

An afterthought: I wrote a whole blog post one time about white privilege and still there were people who could not understand what I meant. This moment where I am drunk in public acting up and SPITTING ON POLICE and they take care of me and safely get me to medical attention is a moment that is clear to me that I experienced white privilege. I think of all of the young black kids who were acting out or even not acting out but just being typical teenagers and the police used that as justification to take their lives. I deserved to be handled with care in this moment and so does every child that is hurting and messes up. Black Lives Matter.

My Mother’s Body.

Content Warning: Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Body Shaming

I was sitting in my bedroom with the door closed. I was writing in my diary (well an old notebook, but you get it) and trying not to listen to the sounds coming from the other room. They were ugly sounds. They were not the sounds of love. I started writing as a small child. Words had felt dangerous but also freeing. After the age of 6, I was raised as an only child way out in the boondocks without any other kids to talk to or spend my time with. I would write and write and write. Mostly lies. I would tell stories that I imagined the popular girls might tell about their lives.” Today, I had SO much fun at school! Then, after school, my parents took me to the movies and we ate popcorn and ate candy and it was like the best day EVER!” Things like that. But sometimes I would accidentally start telling the truth. In these moments, once my fingers stopped writing and my heart stopped pounding and my head caught up with my fingers pouring so many forbidden words out (onto papers that other people could find and read!) I would realize my mistake and burn them. We had one of those burn barrels in the backyard where once a week we would dump the family trash in and light it on fire. I would not wait until that day, because these words needed to be burned up immediately. Every single second that they existed was like an alarm blaring in my body. I would not even re-read them to see what came out of me. I would just quickly tear them to shreds. and then find the matches and let the wind carry them away in smoke.

I took this picture when I visited my hometown last. This was my father’s mom’s house. His brother lives here now and my dad is buried in the yard. The burn barrel just happened to be in the picture.

The story that I am telling you right now is one of the stories that I wrote but could never let anyone read. But now I am big and strong and I am not scared to share these words. I need to share these words because as I have said before, secrets don’t feel good inside of me.

So, this day or night, I was in my room and the more the sounds escalated outside, the faster my fingers moved the pencil in my grasp. I was escaping and it was working, almost, until Tom burst into my room. I jumped. I could feel my throat squeezing shut as I quickly tried to shove the papers under my bed without him noticing. But Tom was not there. It was Mean Tom. I don’t think it was Drunk Tom which was the scariest, but it definitely wasn’t Loving Nice Tom. He snarled at me. “Come on. Move! I need to show you something.” He guided me out into the living room and instructed me to sit on the orange chair that used to be my bed. My legs were full of lead. I could barely move. My mom was standing there in the middle of the room. Naked. Her head was hanging low and she wouldn’t look at me even though I was willing her to look at me with my eyes. I wanted to know if she was safe. If we would be safe. I wanted her reassurance, but she wouldn’t give it to me. I surveyed her body. She looked bruised, but nothing looked broken this time. I couldn’t see her nose or eyes yet and they often revealed the worst of it. Mom had her nose broken more times than I can count. She was a professional at covering black eyes if we needed to go to town.

“Good. Take a good look at her. That’s why I brought you out here.” Tom was using his scary voice. He didn’t seem angry which was good, but still scary.

What was going on? I gulped past the squeezing in my throat. I had learned not to speak unless I was spoken to. I had learned not to scream so that I did not make the attack worse. Mom taught me the rules and when she herself broke them… when she yelled back, I was angry at her, not him, for the beating she received. She knew better. You can’t yell at a man attacking you. You can’t yell for help because no one cares and you can’t yell just to free yourself from this squeezing feeling. Just follow directions and be silent.

Mom was following directions this time. I could see that. He came closer to her body. He had all of his clothes on. He squeezed her breast hard with one hand and used the other hand to point at my mom’s nipple. “Do you see this shit? Your mom has the biggest nipples I have ever seen! They are fuckin’ dinner plates!” He was laughing. I think I was supposed to be laughing too. I tried to but all I could get out was a “ha.”

“and damn these fucking hips, man. Them fuckers are so fuckin’ wide! Your mom’s got a big fat ass and hips as wide as this fuckin’ trailer. What the fuck? How the fuck did you get so fucking ugly?” He was talking about my mom, but staring at me. Was I supposed to answer?

“Crystal! Are you gonna grow up to get ugly like this fucking whore? Are you gonna get these tiny ass titties and these wide fuckin’ hips? hahahahhahahahahhahahaha” He is laughing but this time I can’t even get out a “ha.” I look down at my body. I am starting to feel the tickle of puberty. I am noticing my own nipples getting darker and my hoo haw has little hairs growing on it now. I am 9 going on 10.

My mouth is dry so I can barely talk when Tom demands a response. “What the fuck! Answer me! Are you going to get ugly like your mom? Are you going to be a disgusting bitch like her? This is why I am always so fucking mad. Look at what the fuck I have to deal with.” He looks at my mom like she is the roadkill that has been rotting at the end of our road for weeks. I look at her too. She is ugly to me and I don’t know when it happened.

I used to take showers with her when she was little. Mama would bring me in with her because I was too scared to go in yet alone. I was maybe 5 when we did this. I loved these showers and still remember them vividly. I would close my eyes tight because I Was so scared that it would hurt when the soap ran down into my eyes, but when I opened them…when I opened my eyes, I would always take in my mom’s beauty. I thought she was more beautiful than a princess. She was perfect to me. Was she always this ugly or had she changed? Could my own body get so distorted and gross?

Tom was still looking at me. He had a satisfied smile on his face. Mom and I had gotten through this unscathed. He was bored. He left us and went to the kitchen for a beer. Mom and I were frozen. She could not look at me. She did not run to cover herself up. She did not cry or try to talk to me about what happened. She just stood there. I knew not to comfort her and she knew not to comfort me. That might make Tom angry and make him interested in this “lesson” again.

We sat there until I knew we were safe and I knew it was over. Then I scrambled to my room, grabbed the papers under my bed and tore them to shreds. I did not release my feelings, it was not a dramatic action. It was more a methodical tearing. Each piece getting tinier and tinier until there was no way that anyone could possibly put them together again.

I said a prayer as I watched the pieces of paper burn. “Dear Jesus, thank you so much for keeping my mom and I safe. I am so glad that Tom did not hurt us today. Thank you for loving us and taking care of us. I love you. Amen.” I did not say those words out loud because even though I was alone in a field and Tom was already two beers deep inside the trailer, I could not safely say these words out loud. I said them in my heart and I knew that Jesus was listening.

My 12 year old daughter said, “Mama, you are so beautiful.” and then she snapped this photo of me. She sent it to me this morning and when I looked at it I realized that I did get my mom’s body. I have her full hips and small breasts. but Tom was wrong and my daughter is right. I am beautiful and so was my mom.

Blackberry Pie

Every year on my mom’s birthday in August, I make a blackberry pie and tell my kids this story. ❤

Mama held my hand tight as we approached the electric fence. We crouched down into the grass and she gave my hand a squeeze before letting go and sliding her body all the way flat against the ground. I watched her army crawl under the live wire, knowing that it would be my turn next. I knew about electric fences. I had gotten too close before. When I was five. The shock had thrown my tiny body through the air and I had landed unconscious for a few seconds before coming to. Mama and I used to pick up the “drops” from a big old apple tree that we passed on our way home from the grocery store and feed them to the horses down the road. That time, like this time, the risk was worth the reward.

Mama whispered even though no one was around. “Come on now, Crystal Fawn. Come slow just like I did and you’ll be alright.” I loved my mama. I would go anywhere she went. I would do anything she told me to do. Plus, I knew why we were crossing this pasture. The blackberries would be ripe now and there was a big patch up on over this hill.

I looked down at my clothes again to make sure I wasn’t wearing any red. This was the bull field and I could see them grazing between us and the patch of woods we were aiming for. We weren’t scared of ticks back then so the danger was only the current in the wire and the bulls. I was scared but in an exciting way- an adventure way. Mama swept her hand over my chest knocking loose the strands of hay clinging to my tee-shirt. I was allergic to hay back then. She gave me a mischievous smile, “Ready?”

It was hot hot hot. My hair was always wild back then. Thick and curly and mama did not know how to manage it. She had thin, stringy straight hair, but I had my daddy’s hair. And maybe some of my great-grandpa Walter’s. Now it was plastered to my forehead and a bead of sweat dripped off my curls and down into my eyes. It burned. I swiped the back of my hand across my eyes and focused my attention on the patch of woods, so close now. There were a few bulls nearby and they were big and fierce-looking, but they weren’t paying us any mind.

I looked up at my mom and grinned. “Ready!” We ran. My fingers throbbed in mama’s grip, and she about pulled my arm out of it’s socket, dragging me across that field. When we slipped into the safety of the trees, she finally let go and we fell into the dirt gasping to catch our breath. I don’t know if I started to giggle first or my mom but soon we were rolling on the ground laughing wild and free. I had never heard my mom laugh like that. Where was Tom this day? I can’t figure out how we got away on this little adventure without him. It was delicious. Just mama and me and the blackberries waiting for us.

Mama and I picked as many blackberries as we could carry. We dropped them one by one into plastic grocery bags that we brought. Some were getting mushed from the weight of the ones on top, but these were all destined to be pies so it didn’t matter all that much. I popped one in my mouth and then another and another and another. Blackberries were my favorite. They were my mama’s favorite too.

We didn’t run through the bull field on our way home. We were weighed down with bags of berries. We strolled down the hill with our treasure, arms and legs scratched and clothes berry-stained. Right past the bulls. Mama sent me under the fence first this time. I gently placed my bags at mama’s feet and slid under the wire. Mama carefully passed the bags of berries one at a time under the fence to me and when there were no more bags, she slid herself under the wire. That whole adventure had not taken us more than a hill away from our trailer and once we made it past the bulls and then fences and the thorns, it was all downhill to home.

That afternoon, mom and I drove into town to pick up my aunt Brenda, her twin sister. We went to visit Aunt Brenda all the time, but I can hardly remember her ever coming to our house. That is just the way it was. I guess because we had a car then and mama had a license. Aunt Brenda didn’t. She still doesn’t, actually. Plus, aunt Brenda lived in an apartment back then, not very big, but bigger than our trailer. This time is one of the few times I remember them coming to us. Mama and Aunt Brenda sat up front with Tara in the middle and the rest of us kids crammed into the back all piled on top of one another. This was before my younger cousin, Tara died. She was the baby of the family, not just the youngest of her siblings, but one of the youngest of many many cousins. We all still miss her terribly.

My beautiful aunt Brenda when she was young. I am so glad that my mom had a twin sister. ❤

We drove the dirt roads slow all the way back to our trailer with all our heads banging together at every pothole. We didn’t have much space inside for company, but the thing about being rural poor is that there is often lots of space outside. Our trailer was at the base of a hill and there were just wide open fields between us and the creek. The older kids went off exploring but us younger kids crammed into the kitchen to help with the pies and listen in on grown people’s conversations. I was always attached at the hip of my mom and I loved to listen to the ruckus that she got into with my aunt Brenda. Mom didn’t have many friends, but when she was with my aunt Brenda, she was most fully herself. Once all the pies were assembled and just waiting to be baked, they got a game of cards going on the table and played hands between checking on the oven.

One by one, us kids got dealt into the game until the trailer was rocking with the chaos of us. It was hot as death in there too. there were just a couple small windows and that oven baking for hours and hours. So many pies to bake for all the relatives. Plus all the body heat from us kids was just too much.

“Everybody OUT!” My Aunt Brenda was pushing us all out the door. “Crystal Fawn that means you too! Out! Out! Out!” I did not want to go out into the night. I hated being away from my mom even for a second. Everybody used to always laugh about how “if you can’t find Crystal Fawn, just look behind her mama’s skirts!” I was always hiding out behind her, clinging to her as much for my own sense of safety as to tether her to life and to me.

It felt better outside. It was still hot, but fresh air hot instead of stuffy trailer hot. The porch was even smaller than the kitchen so we were even more cramped now, but none of us went farther than the stoop because there were bats zipping all around the porch flying in every direction. We sat there for the first time in silence and just watched them swoop and dive for mosquitos. It was beautiful.

Some of my cousins at my 8th birthday party in the exact kitchen from this story. I love the BILLS holder that my mom made out of plastic canvas behind us with the frowny faces. I circled Tara when I was younger and using this picture in a scrapbook. ❤ Tara ❤

When our moms finally came outside and the pie marathon was over, they were wiping tears from their eyes and laughing with exhaustion. We drove them all home over the bumps, heads still banging together and no one fought or pushed or shoved because everyone was too tired and filled up with pie. The next day, our phone rang and it was Uncle Bud.

“You gave me a pie with no sugar in it!” He wasn’t mad, just giving my mom a hard time. In the hectic pie assembly process, they had forgotten to add the sugar to one of the pies. They realized it later when they were cleaning up and found a cup of sugar left on the counter, but they didn’t know which pie didn’t have the ingredient!

Mom called up Aunt Brenda laughing, “Guess who got the sour pie?” and they laughed together about giving their big brother an unsweetened pie.

broken promises

I do not remember if Bill and my mom gradually stopped seeing each other or if there was a big dramatic break-up. There was probably a fight, but there was always a fight. I only remember the sudden safety. The days and nights accumulating where no one was trying to kill us. I would sleep in my mom’s bed every single night during this time of no men. I would curl up next to her and wrap my whole body around her. I was 5 years old and forced to spend the long school hours away from her now that I was in Kindergarten. Then I spent the weekends at my father’s. So, weeknights were my mama time.


One Sunday night, I was getting picked up from my Dad’s as usual. Mom would either walk to get me and hold my hand all the way back to Brooklynside or she would get a ride with one of our relatives, often Uncle Alfred. I remember that. The phone rang and my big brother handed it to me. He stayed close so he could hear the conversation or at least one side of it. I don’t think my big brother was a fan of my mom.


“Hey, sweetie!” Mom was gonna be here soon. Why was she calling? She sounded weird. Was she ok? The anxiety was already flooding my senses and I think that is why I remember this exact moment in such detail. I knew that our life was changing. I knew it the second I heard my mom’s voice. Mom had called to tell me that she would be picking me up in a different car than usual and she wanted to warn me. She had a new… ”friend” and she was excited for me to meet him.

I can still see myself walking up the small hill behind my father’s apartment leading up to the parking lot where my mom once gave birth to me. She was now standing leaning against a red corvette with a thick black stripe going down the front. Mom was a looker back then. She had on acid-washed jeans and a flowery crop top that tied just above her belly button. Her hair was feathered in a 70’s shag. I could tell that she was feeling herself and she was loving every minute of this moment. I walked slowly toward her even though I usually ran, grateful to be back in my mom’s arms. I remember that it had been school picture day on Friday and I was still wearing or wearing again, the lacy powder blue dress that I felt so pretty in. A plastic pearl necklace was attached with thread to the front of the dress. There was a small hole in the sleeve, but you wouldn’t be able to see it in the pictures. We had gotten in at the thrift store and I felt like a princess in it.


I could feel the eyes of my step-mom and all of my siblings peeking around the curtains to see who had brought my mom in this flashy car. My father was bedridden on a hospital cot in the living room. They would definitely be reporting this display back to him.


I was scared to look directly at the man grinning from behind the steering wheel. I didn’t want to meet him. I did not want my mom to have a “new friend.” I did not like men. Well, I did not like men who weren’t my grandpa or my Uncle Bud, or my Uncle Alfred.


“Baby, Say Hi!” My mom was trying hard. I could tell she was nervous about this greeting. She knew that I would be polite. I was always polite, but maybe she was worried that he wouldn’t like me. “I have told Tom all about you all weekend. I have told him how smart you are and that you are my sweet little angel!”


Tom was a charmer. He knew how to perform and he was already in character. “Nice to meet you, young lady.” He said in a formal tone. I noticed that he talked a little funny, but my mom later explained that Tom was deaf. He could hear a little bit, but mostly he read lips. I didn’t know that yet, so I just mumbled, “hi,” shyly from the backseat.


“I have a surprise for you ladies tonight! We have to celebrate! Let’s go get ice cream!”
Mom and I never ever got ice cream out. For one thing, I had recently won a coloring contest and earned a year’s supply of ice cream from the local grocery store. Some days, that was the only food we had to eat. For another thing, going out to get ice cream was expensive! I even knew that at 6 years old. Who was this guy? Bill never took us out for ice cream. He never took us out anywhere other than the paper route.


Maybe that specialness of this moment explains my detailed memories. Mom and I stood there in line with our heads held high. We usually both slumped into the shadows trying to avoid people’s stares, but we wanted to be seen standing in line to buy ice cream cones at the window! We wanted to be seen getting into this red sports car.


I risked a glance at Tom. He was handsome. He had thick jet black hair and dark blue eyes. He had full dark lips and the beginnings of a beard. He wore his button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans and he had on a big silver buckle. He didn’t really look like the other guys I knew. He didn’t look like Bill. There was something different about him that I couldn’t place yet. Maybe it was the formal way he acted during that time.


I didn’t know it then, but Tom had just been released from Prison. He had immediately moved back to PA where he had some relatives. Tom had a wife and daughter back in Florida where he was incarcerated, but the wife had had him locked away for Domestic Violence. You can be arrested for that? This was news to me.


“She lied about me. I would never hit a woman. I’m a real man. She just wanted to take my daughter away from me.” Wow. I couldn’t believe that he had gone to Jail or Prison even for hitting his wife when he didn’t really do it! I felt bad for him. I thought he knows what it feels like to go through hard and terrible things and some part of my heart made space for him.


Tom moved in right away. He was homeless. All that he had to his name was a backpack with a few outfits, a bible that was a gift from the halfway house he was coming from, and his favorite brush. He loved his hair and he loved that brush.


Mom and I were living in Public Housing so we tried to keep his moving in a secret, but we were good at secrets so this should be no big deal. Plus, when the Housing People came to do our monthly inspections, we wouldn’t have anything to hide, except for his physical body since he didn’t own anything.
I wonder about this. How did he get that car? He didn’t have a license and he didn’t have a cent to his name. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe he stole it in Florida and then drove it all the way to PA. It is definitely a possibility knowing Tom.


My mom told Tom about my asthma, how I would just stop breathing sometimes and other times I would breathe so fast that I would pass out. He knew just what I needed. A little basic training, and he was the perfect drill sergeant. For those first few months, Tom and I would wave goodbye to my mom and head outside to run. I would race along behind him going up and down the hills in my town. Everything is hills where I am from and I would quickly be huffing and puffing. Tom told me that was good. I needed to build my strength. If it was raining, Tom would stand above me in the living room and count out the push-ups and sit-ups for me. If I did not do enough, he would not yell at me. He would just walk away and look disappointed. “You’re not even trying!” was all he needed to say. I never wanted to disappoint him. I never wanted to let him down. I had never felt such a need to impress anyone in my life.


I practiced day and night going through all of the exercises that Tom taught me. Now, I know he probably had done these exercises in prison. I can see how he must have loved to be the person in power looking down on me and training me to be a better version of myself the way that maybe some guard had stood over him. I don’t know but that is how I have always seen this memory.


Tom made me a deal, if I could do 100 sit-ups and 50 push-ups and run our whole route without stopping, he would buy me a new doll. He would buy me the baby check-up doll that I desperately wanted. I had my sights on being a Dr. Someday so I could keep people like my mom and dad alive.
I loved that doll so much. I can still smell that new doll smell as I type this up. I was in love with the doll and in love with Tom. I started calling him Dad soon after that.


One night my mom and Tom were in their bedroom. There was a lot of yelling and I was terrified. I wanted them to come out, to open the door so I could see my mom and know that she was ok.


Finally, the door flew open. Tom was in a rage. He looked just like Bill did when he hit my mom. He was yelling and ripping pages out of my mom’s bible. The pages were falling all over the floor around me. I was curled into a ball hugging my legs watching those papers fly around the room when I realized I was screaming. “MOOOOOOOOMMY!” I didn’t even hear myself, I just realized Tom was squatting down in front of me when he pried my hands off of my ears. I just kept saying that over and over. “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” Until she was in front of me too. I needed to know that she was ok.


I will never forget what Tom said to me. He pulled me into his lap. He hugged me close and he said, “Did you think I was gonna hurt your mommy?” I nodded my head with tears still sliding down my cheeks. He lifted my chin with one hand and looked directly into my eyes. “I will NEVER hurt your mom. I would never hurt either of you. I promise.”


Later I learned that mom had disclosed her HIV status to him that night. Mom had been sleeping with him for months at this point and she was only now just telling him. This was 1991. AIDS was still very much a death sentence.