even AIDS orphans can have white privilege

This is my longest blog post by far. I dig into my journey to understand and resist my relationship to whiteness and honestly there is just so much to say! Content Warning on this one for anyone who does not want to read about that process for me.

The first words I ever typed into a Google search (or maybe it was Yahoo back then) were AIDS+ORPHAN+VOLUNTEER+INTERNATIONAL+TRAVEL. I had been living with my foster family for a few months and getting used to all of the resources suddenly at my fingertips. My mom and I had never had the internet before even though it was 2004 when she died and I was nervous to mess anything up on the computer that the family used and told me that I was allowed to use as well. We had a lesson in school on how to use the internet and how to search for things so I tried to remember what the librarian had taught us. I clicked on the very first result that came up. A year later, I would be on a plane to Brazil with that first result without ever even considering a different organization.      ` 

For a while after my mom died, I was in a daze. But with time, the fog began to lift and the more awareness of my new reality came with the urge to flee. I wanted to run away. I am homesick for my hometown and the people and places that raised me now, but back then, I was ready to get away as fast as possible. I petitioned my high school to give me permission to graduate a year early. It could have been pretty simple. I would take the G.E.D. and then I could begin my new life as a grown up and leave behind my life as an AIDS orphan. But I was 17 and so I needed parental permission to graduate early. My foster family was kind enough to really give it some thought, but they decided that I wasn’t ready to be out on my own. It felt so weird to have this new authority figure situation in my life. My mom basically let me do anything I wanted. I felt powerless. But only for a minute. Once I realized that I was not going to make my escape to college for another year, I took a deep breath and worked up the nerve to do that google search.

I spent the next year of my life, focused entirely on my new mission to LEAVE and not only to LEAVE but to go as far away as I could imagine going. The organization that I found, had volunteer positions in a number of countries around the world, but I specifically wanted to work in an AIDS orphanage. That was really important to me. I had never met anyone other than my parents that was HIV+ and I needed that. I needed to be around people that understood this part of my history. I also really wanted to love on some kids in a way that I so desperately needed to be loved and cared for. Not in the way that people who are trying to save you love you, but in the way that people who really see you love you. Grown AIDS ORPHAN to BABY AIDS ORPHAN. I did not know yet, that while my heart was in a good place, I was stepping into a whole business that I have now learned is called Voluntourism. Shudder. Honestly, I rarely talk about my trip to Brazil, because I would never make it again. I never want to give anyone the impression that anything that I did while I was in Brazil made any positive change for anyone. It didn’t and I know now that I was part of a dynamic that actually causes harm to vulnerable communities while allowing mostly wealthy young people from around the World to feel like they are “giving back” in some way. 

I wasn’t rich, obviously, but I did have the family that I was living with in my court and although they were pretty solidly middle class, they were well positioned in our community. Everyone knew and respected them. They made ME palatable. I ran with it. Suddenly people who had never given me a second out of their day were listening to my fundraising pitch. I had to raise a lot of funds for my trip! I was even invited to a luncheon at the Club that I had previously only entered when I went to help my aunt do her job there as the cleaning lady. I stood as tall as I could in front of these men all in suits and I began my story, “….I am raising money to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage in Salvador, Brazil….This is important to me, because I am an AIDS orphan. My parents all contracted HIV right here in this town and lived and died here in secret….” Saying those words to those people (to any people!) felt terrifying. But also liberating! The adrenaline and the release was intoxicating. Soon, I was knocking on doors selling hoagies to the neighborhood, “I am raising money to volunteer at an AIDS orphanage….My parents…died in secret.” 

Over my year of fundraising I did a chicken BBQ, a car wash, a bake sale, a hoagie sale, and even a craft table at a weekend long Tractor Show. I had a lot of help in my fundraising from friends as in the picture above, but most of the fundraising success came from the resources, time and care of the Paranas, who donated money and labor to each one of those fundraisers.

I had a Chicken BBQ at the one grocery store in my whole town. I had an uncle that had worked there all of his life right out of high school all the way until he was eventually laid off after 20 years of employment. Anyway, this is the same store where my older cousin would shove her moms food stamps into my hand when we were kids so that I had to check out when our moms sent us to the store together. I had to pay for all of our stuff in stamps and then a separate order all in stamps for my aunt. The cashier looking at me like I was trash and the other people in line groaning about how long it was taking to do two orders. This was back when food stamps were actual stamps and not EBT cards like today. It was a place where I felt shame mixed with anticipation for the food that would soon sooth my hunger at the beginning of each month. 

I remember on this day, I was dressed in a long tie-dye skirt. I had recently pierced my nose and I wore a hemp bag with a rainbow peace sign stitched across the fabric. My hair was down to my waist and I was of course in sandals. This was when I was in my hippie phase, before I was told that I was too angry to be a hippie (true!) and before I realized that hippies were not the activists that I thought they were. In my hometown they were the only activists that I had ever learned about! No mention of Act Up or the Black Panther Party in my History classes. Anyway, I was there in the parking lot of a redneck town looking like THAT and talking to the farmers, the guys in pick up trucks with gun racks in the back, the faces of all of the parents of all of the kids that I grew up with who saw me as nothing more than trouble. One by one I stopped them as they approached the store. I was selling BBQ so people of course were gravitating toward the grill. The father of the foster family was graciously cooking away so that I could do what I really came there to do. “I am raising money to volunteer in an AIDS orphanage in Brazil…My parents…lived and died…in secret…” I am not proud of my voluntourism trip, but I am proud of teenage Crystal Fawn for looking my community in the eye, speaking my truth and demanding that for the first time in my life, they really SEE me. 

While he waited for his chicken, one man turned up his nose when I said the word AIDS. He gave me a look that sent chills down my spine. He was offended and maybe even scared to learn that there were people living with AIDS in our little town nestled into our corner of Appalachia. “Why would you go all the way to Brazil for to take care of sick babies when we have enough of our own sick babies right around here?” I was trained to never speak back to a man and so it took all of my courage to reply but I was almost out of this town and so I was feeling bold. Plus, all those parents were right…I was trouble. 😉 I looked at him and I said the truth. “I want to take care of all of the babies in the world. I want to take care of all of the babies, because this town never took care of me. YOU never cared about the AIDS babies right in this town. And you still don’t. I AM taking care of the sick children of this town. I am taking care of ME and I am getting the hell out of here!!” 

When school started back up and I was officially a senior, I poured myself into studying the history of Salvador, Brazil. I learned that the city was called “little Africa” because so much of the culture, religion, food, dance and everything! Was carried and now thriving in the descendants of people stolen from Africa and brought as slaves to Brazil. I learned that the slaves in that city rebelled and ran the Portuguese out! That Salvador was 98% Afro-Brazillian for this very reason. I learned all of that and so much more. 

Capoeira in the streets of Salvador. I learned about how this martial arts dance was a beautiful act of resistance. Seeing it in person was something I will never forget.
It was so amazing to go from my hometown of 2000 people to this city of more than 2.6 million.
After my time in Brazil, I moved to Pittsburgh, and was shocked to see that the city looked like this to me, all built up on the side of the hill like this. Also, wrapping my head around what poverty looked like for me in rural US to being in urban Brazil.

I began taking Portuguese lessons from the only person that I could find in my town that spoke the language. Unbelievably that person was the landlord who ruthlessly exerted her dominance over my home the day that my mom died. See previous blog posts to read about this joy of a woman. Anyway, I swallowed all of my rage and I sat at her kitchen once a week to wrap my tongue around the words that she was handing me in the hopes that it would all be worth it to be able to actually communicate with the children at the orphanage! 

I graduated from high school which mostly just felt like nothing because my mom wasn’t there and that was it. A week later, I was on my first flight. First to Buffalo, then Atlanta, then Sao Palo and finally Salvador! My boyfriend drove me to the airport. He chatted with a man who had a celtic knot tattoo similar to his own  while I checked in. We sat in the airport forever. It was my first time and I was nervous and excited and got there way too early. We were there long enough to see that man with the tattoo board his plane and then come screaming back off of it a few minutes later. He was sobbing and shaking and he glued himself to the window to watch the plane with his wife still onboard take off. My boyfriend went to go check in with him to make sure he was ok. Turns out it was his first flight too and he was very afraid. (also, side-note in case this isn’t obvious. WHITE PRIVILEGE!!! Can you imagine any man of any other race than white screaming and running off of a plane into an airport and not drawing the attention of security?!?!??!!?) I was pretty nervous about taking my first flight, but I decided I wasn’t going to do THAT. 

I kissed my boyfriend good-bye and walked away from my childhood and into the next phase of my life. It sounds ridiculously corny but I was a teenager and that is exactly what I thought I was doing. 

When I landed in Brazil, this is what I noticed. Every single airport employee was dressed in what I can only describe as farmer clothes. Or maybe what people who aren’t farmers would dress in if that were a costume at Halloween. I am talking straw hats, overalls, long gingham dresses, pigtails on all of the women and freckles painted on their cheeks with Sharpie? Straw tucked into pockets….boots…I mean. The whole thing was very…confusing. I had just left my Podunk town to experience a major international city and…this is what I was seeing? At some point, I learned that I was arriving right in the middle of a festival to honor …farmers maybe. I don’t remember exactly, but right off the bat, any assumptions of what I thought this experience would be were shattered. 

The house that the organization put me up in, was occupied by 25-30 young adults from all over the world. Turns out I was the youngest. And the only person who had ever experienced poverty. On my first day in Brazil, I ate dinner alone at a table meant for 30 people and served up to me by a Brazilian woman who explained to me that all of the other volunteers usually went away on trips during the weekends to see more of Brazil and to have FUN. This was the beginning of my realization that this trip was not going to be the trip that I had anticipated. I was coming out of high school, so having a woman cook a meal and serve it to me on a big table, felt like the cafeteria at school. I didn’t realize yet, that it didn’t quite feel that way when it happened at breakfast and dinner every single day.

After that first dinner, I went for a walk. In a city of 2.6 million people. Alone. I had already taken my first flight. I was determined to fully be in this experience. To fully be this new person. I asked around for a store and found myself at a mall. I did not go all the way to Brazil to be in a mall, so I turned back around and started for home. Except I had no idea where I was or how to get back to my “home.” I tried to use my Portuguese from my lessons with my old landlord, but she spoke Portuguese from Portugal. Also, as desperately as I have always wanted to learn another language, I am kind of terrible at it. Years of Spanish and I still sound ridiculous every single time I try to speak with friends. At some point, I got smart enough to write down the address and showed it to a kind looking person. I walked the direction that they pointed until I felt unsure that I was still going the right way. Then, I repeated that with another kind person until eventually 3 or 4 finger points and instructions that I could not understand later, I found my way back. 

Over the next couple of days, the other volunteers arrived. I felt like I had just moved into the Real World from MTV. Most of the volunteers were young women and they were all apparently in love with this volunteer named Travis who was from the US. Texas, I believe. There was a woman from India who was kinda actually dating Travis to everyone else’s heartbreak. There was a woman from Lebanon who dressed like she was a runway model every single day. There was a woman from Mexico who seemed the most down to Earth until she started sobbing over her secret love for Travis. I did not fit in to say the least, but I didn’t expect to fit in when I chose to go on an international trip so I was kinda loving it. I wasn’t jaded or judgemental in the ways I would be now. I just soaked up all the powerful woman energy and absorbed as much as I could about what it meant to be a world traveling woman! It was quickly apparent that this was not the first trip for these other volunteers. They had gone on vacations abroad with their families growing up, or trekked the Himalayas, or WOOFED in Ireland. At this point, I still believed that I wanted to be like these women. I planned to get a tattoo when I got back to the States of the raised fist, a symbol that I saw everywhere in Salvador, and then to get a new symbol on my body from every place I ever went until my body was covered in marks of places that I had been.

I do not remember all of their names, but these women took me under their wings and I was in awe of all of them. To 18 year old me, they were all so smart and strong and loving and everything I wanted to be.

Anyone who knows me at all now, will find this impossible to believe. Brazil was my one and only international trip. I am kind of a homebody. I never got that tattoo or any tattoo, but Brazil left a much deeper mark on my body. More about that later. 

On that first Monday, I got in the van that would drive me to my job placement. There were two other volunteers going to the same placement as me. One was a Black woman from Britain who had already been there for a while. The other was a white woman that I remember nothing about. The Black woman was in med school and wanted to extend her trip to Brazil. She had found the trip to be meaningful in a way that I was searching for and I hung on her every word. She had already seen so many volunteers come and go that she did not give me the time of day. Looking back, and really even then, I already didn’t blame her. I had been on the receiving end of enough well-intentioned but ultimately harmful social services to get why she didn’t trust me. (I did not yet get the ways in which white supremacy had shaped me or to understand these other significant reasons why she might not instantly trust me.) 

The other volunteers were placed with the older kids because their Portuguese was actually coherent. Also, I imagine because they were adults. I was 18 and probably about the same size as some of the older kids in the orphanage. I was sent to the baby and toddler rooms. They were across the hall from each other and I was to go back and forth throughout the day, changing diapers, giving meds, and just holding and loving on the smallest people in the facility. 

No gross pictures of me as a white woman caring for Black and Brown babies, but here I am outside of the orphanage with the other volunteers.

There was water knee deep in the building on that first day. It was the rainy season. A woman led me down the hall and cackled as she patted me on the shoulder and pointed to my first job. The toddler room had 8 wooden cribs lined along the walls and gorgeous chubby smiling blabbering faces peeking out at me from behind the bars. But I realized right away that the nurse who led me in here was not just laughing in that “good luck newbie!” kinda way. She was laughing because a girl about the age that my youngest is now, had taken off her diaper and fingerpainted the entire wall behind her crib in feces handprints. Her little fingers had smeared poop on every single bar holding her in that crib and I even found it on the babies within her reach to either side of her crib. I loved her instantly. I picked her up. I carried her to the outside plastic bucket where someone had kindly brought me a pitcher of water. I poured it down her body slowly while talking to her. The water must have been cold because she screamed and danced her body out of the stream. I imagine she must have been scared of me too, I was a stranger, but these kids were used to strangers caring for them already and she was all smiles with me as I had carried her outside. I cleaned her up and calmed her down with a towel wrapped around her body. Well not so much a towel as a clean rag for this purpose of drying off her little body. She clung to me and I carried her all wrapped up like that back inside. Now what to do with her while I cleaned out her crib. At first I made a rookie mistake of letting her play on the floor while I tried to clean the mess, but she was like all 2 year olds and was causing more chaos for me to clean up and I wasn’t making any headway on scrubbing off her artwork. I picked her up, and set her back down again in a crib with another toddler.

Soon I would learn all of their names. I would learn all of their stories. Some of them were HIV+. Some of them had parents who were HIV+ and had died. Some of them were waiting for results. On my first day, there was a new toddler to arrive. He was coming from a Catholic Orphanage that some of the other volunteers from my organization were placed at. He had tested HIV+ and needed to be moved into this group home facility. First he had lost his mom, then right as he was feeling adjusted to the orphanage, he was being asked to adapt to this new loss and adjust to this new community at the AIDS clinic. All before he turned 3. 

I did not know that this facility was for all people living with HIV and not just for children living with HIV. The volunteer organization left that part out. Maybe they thought that cute babies would feel safe but adults with AIDS might scare off the wealthy volunteers. I loved the babies and the toddlers so much, but I was also longing for connection and to be able to connect with people who might hear my story of losing my mother, father, and step-father and actually relate to it rather than pity me. Whenever I was allowed, I would visit with the older children or the adults. Visiting with the older children is how I came to realize how harmful this whole volunteer program really was. It was set up to give the volunteer just enough time at their placement so that they could write home and sound heroic and or take selfies with brown kids to post on Facebook (sorry I will not be sharing any pictures likes that) and then they could leave without seeing their impact or being accountable in any way to the people or communities that they (WE! ME! I did this!) had spent time in. The older kids weren’t going to hand out sweet smiles or pose for any cameras. They were pissed and they saw right through this whole thing. I saw so much of myself in them. I learned that they spent 24 hours a day on site, even doing their school work from the facility rather than leaving to go to school in the larger community. They NEVER left the facility unless there was a volunteer willing and able to take them. The volunteers were always needed to do the work that they signed on for and so the kids stayed inside all day every day. I asked my van driver if he could start bringing me an extra day every week on my off days so that I could walk the kids the few blocks to the beach. I got permission from the nurses at the facility and that was that.

There was also a woman who reminded me of my mom. She was skinny as a bean pole, had no teeth, and she had huge ears. But it wasn’t all of that even that made me feel my mom’s spirit when I was in her presence. It was the way she put her hand on mine when we talked and the way that she listened so closely to my words and talked to me even when we both knew that neither one of us understood the other. She made me a pair of earrings that I still have. She was always crafting, again, just like my mama. 

The day that I realized that there were adults living in the group home facility,  I found the babies all cheerful and happy, already fed and each with a perfect lipstick kiss stained on their foreheads. I discovered the lips on a person that at the time I assumed was a man with sparkly high heels, a mini skirt and the brightest red lipstick I have ever seen. I did not have the vocabulary yet for transgender or drag or queer even. I did not know yet that I could just ask what pronouns this person would like me to use. I did not know and love as many transgender and or queer people as I know and love now. At the time, I just introduced myself and this person gave me a big smile and said, “you can call me, Mama. I am the Mama of all of these babies!” In Portuguese of course, but that much I understood. Soon, I would learn that this person came by most mornings if they were feeling well to give hugs and love on each baby. To make them feel loved by a face that would stick around…longer than any of the volunteers that came through just for a couple of months during the summer …like me. I learned that this person, “Mama,” was also HIV+ and lived at the facility being a glitzy gorgeous light for everyone, not just the children. 

Every night back at the Volunteer House, I would stay up late into the wee hours, playing ping pong with the other youngest person in the house. Let’s call him M. He was young like me, right out of high school in NYC. We hit it off right away because we both LOVE to talk and have long conversations about everything in the world. I had never met anyone like him before and his experiences as a black boy in a huge city from a middle class background were so different from mine growing up in a small town as a white girl from multi-generational poverty. We would talk and talk and talk and send the ping pong ball back and forth across the table. At the beginning of the night, some of the other young people would join us, but after hours of hearing us go back and forth about race, class, gender, prisons, healthcare, education…they would eventually wear out and head to bed. Our friendship is one of my favorite pieces of the trip. 

So funny looking through the pictures, I realized that I gravitated toward hanging out with the boys even though probably its more true that I gravitated toward hanging out with M and he was hanging out with the boys. Now that I look at the pictures though, I do remember them and have sweet memories of them each. funny how much you forget over the years! Pictures are amazing at helping me remember.

One night M found me crying on the couch. I had walked to the internet cafe to check my email and received a message from my boyfriend. Feeling threatened by my new friendship with M, he came clean about the times that he had cheated on me over the course of our relationship in the hopes that I would confess my own. But the truth was, I was not in Brazil to find romance. I was loving my time at the orphanage and learning from my new friend who I saw as only a friend. I loved that we didn’t have that energy between us. It felt like what I imagined college would be like. Having peers who were smart and could teach you and grow with you. I had nothing to confess to the boyfriend, but my heart was broken. He had held my hand through my grieving my mom’s death and so he was not an easy person to move on from. But M convinced me to get up! Even though we could legally drink for the first time, we both preferred  our ping pong games to the bars. But that night we went out. I had no idea what to order and didn’t understand the bartenders recommendation so I just smiled and said, “sim.” He handed me a mug of a hot liquid that I immediately spilled when I took a deep inhalation of the steamy alcohol. We were already laughing. A couple of drinks in and M stood up. He tried to walk to the bathroom or something and one of his dreadlocks was caught in a chandelier above us. We were laughing so hard as he reached above his head to untangle himself and I tried to direct him where to go while also laughing hysterically. We were just two ridiculous tipsy teenagers out on the town in another country and I knew right then that no matter what happened with the cheating boyfriend, my life was going to be full of good people that I would love in one way or another. They might not know me inside and out. I  wouldn’t ever again be able to introduce new friends or loves to my mom, but I would find so many good people worth sharing my life with. 

Maybe it was because of this night, I don’t remember, but somehow M got the idea that he should give me dreadlocks. My hair was still really long and I was clearly a hippie spirit. We planned to start doing the process the next night instead of our ping pong game. The next morning, we made an announcement about it at the breakfast table and we were so excited. All of the white people were like, “Ok! Cool! Whatever!” They thought of M and I as kinda weird anyway, so they probably didn’t pay much attention. But there was a volunteer from Jamaica who stood up from the table and walked away angrily. Now, I know so much more about white privilege and responsibility. But then I was unaware of any reasons why me getting locks would be offensive or hurtful. I also didn’t know that while it was ok for me to not know, it was not ok for me to expect this black woman to teach me everything I didn’t know. I should have walked to the internet cafe and spent my time researching the history of how white supremacy has punished black women for wearing their hair in natural styles. I should have done the work. But instead I went to her and asked her to explain it to me. I wanted to understand. She was not a hand holder and she did not coddle me in the least bit. She was mad and she definitely made it clear that I was acting like a privileged white person. The other volunteers were watching all of this drama unfold and one by one the white volunteers piped in with things like, “Wow, it’s not a big deal!” or “She should have been nicer about it! You are just a kid!” and the more the white volunteers came forward to reassure me that I had not done anything wrong, the more I opened my eyes to her point. White privilege. It was a totally new concept to me. I had been vocally anti-racist in my hometown. Just intuitively racism had felt wrong and against my core beliefs, but my understanding of how racism played out systemically was non existent. I still thought that being racist was just when people called other people names or said mean things about them based on the color of their skin.

I learned one of the most important lessons in my life from that experience. It took me a while to digest it and to incorporate necessary changes in my life, and as a person who receives privileges based on whiteness every day, I will spend the rest of my life continuing to digest and make changes to myself. I owe her a massive thank you for giving me the gift of her time and her energy and helping me begin to lift the veil of whiteness that I had grown up with. 


Once I opened my eyes to reality, I could not unsee what I was seeing. Everywhere I went in Brazil, I was noticing some things that left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Crowds parted for me. Everyone was working to please me, protect me, entertain me and serve me. I had to really look at the fact that even as a poor orphan girl from the US who had experienced homelessness, food insecurity and constant violence, I was White. And that was a resource I had been cashing in on without even knowing I had it!

I was partially only seeing this for the first time because whiteness shields white people from seeing the truth but also because I grew up in such a “white” place. Out of a town of maybe 2000 there was only a handful of black people and maybe another handful of non-black people of color. In my town, the brownest faces that I personally knew were on relatives on my dad’s side. I grew up being told my dad’s side was Native American (I grew up in land that belongs to the Seneca’s but is currently colonized territory.) Me untangling my relationship to potentially having Indigenous Ancestry is maybe for another post but whether I do or whether I don’t (PLEASE DONT CHIME IN WITH YOUR OPINION OR ANCESTRY DOT COM RESULTS!! I get it our family has a complicated relationship to this conversation!!!) the bigger point is that I grew up believing that I was indigenous on my dad’s side and that had a powerful effect on how I saw myself in relationship to the world. Once when I was talking to one of my uncle’s on my dad’s side I said, “Listen, I will tell you what I have been up to in my life, but please don’t respond with anything racist. I just can’t handle that from you.” and my uncle said, “What?! WE Aren’t white! We can’t be racist, baby just tell me what you’re doin’ with your life.” and…ya, that kind of response shapes how you see yourself. Side note: Anti-black Racism still exists among people who aren’t white so just to make that clear, but the point is that I was being told that I wasn’t white and that wasn’t who “we are.”

Regardless of this part of me that didn’t connect with whiteness, (and now that I understand whiteness as an identity that is not even real, but was created to justify violence and oppression, colonization and slavery, I really do not connect with that identity) I DO recognize that the world does see me as white and that is how I move through my life. and when I say whiteness, I mean whiteness as a system of oppression not necessarily the color of my skin. I am not advocating for self hate. I LOVE myself and this body that I was gifted including my skin. ❤

Anyway, sorry this is so long, but race is complicated in America, and I was just beginning to really see that and grapple with it. I had to travel to another country to do it, but there it was. I was in a city where most days when I left the volunteer house, I did not see another white person. Not only that, but I had learned that Salvador was a port city and the first stop for slave traders to bring human beings to sell to the Americas. There were two doors on many old buildings a reminder that in the past white people and black people would not use the same entrance. There was still the part of town where slave auctions would be held. It was impossible to not stand in that space and feel the grief and violence and inhumanity of it all. But one night, in that part of the city, the part that made my spirit feel everything human all at once, I heard a drum thumping in the distance. I walked out of a shop that I was in and took a few steps toward the sound. I could feel myself pulled to it. My heart felt like it was trying to jump out of my chest. The drumming was so loud and it was clear there were many drums. I turned a corner and Oh my God! I could not believe my eyes. there was a dozen men with drums over their heads thumping and moving right down the middle of the street toward me. At least a hundred people were following them and dancing to the music. Like me, people were gravitating toward the parade until it was hundreds. A boy was moving through the crowd selling beers. I bought one and also bought a couple cigarettes from the next boy. I don’t remember who I was with or anything other than being in the center of a neighborhood that used to hold slave auctions and was now filled with Black joy and Black music and Black Celebration. I found out that this happened every Tuesday and vowed to go every week that I was there.

One day, M left his wallet in a taxi. The driver brought it back with every cent and even his passport in it. I remember someone in the house saying, “Wow! I can’t believe they brought back your passport. That is so valuable, because you are black and from the USA. I bet they could have sold that!” and I sat with that for a long time. It had been so easy for me as a white woman to obtain my own passport., Again, even as a child of poverty. Even as a young person new to the internet and living in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about how difficult it would be for a young person from the orphanage where I worked to come to the US in comparison to me going to Brazil. I thought about how freely I could move here in this country where I did not speak the language and was a different color than most people who lived here. I thought about the tables being turned and how unsafe and unwelcoming my hometown would be for a Black Brazilian even if they could get the passport and visa to visit. and this is when I felt like less of a tourist/volunteer and more of a colonizer. I just could see the thread so clearly connecting me from my own country built on colonization genocide and slavery and the history of that in this new land and how white people were still traveling all over the world with a freedom that was not unconnected to this history of colonization. I just couldn’t unsee it and I still can’t. I don’t know if I knew that I would not travel again out of my country or if that realization came for me after I got home, but at some point I knew that my heart would rather sit right here and invest my love and energy into getting to know people from around the world who visit or move to the US and listening and learning more about immigration politics.

I still do not feel any call to travel. I love living in a community with a lot of immigrants. I love getting to know my immigrant neighbors and working to create a welcoming community in my corner of the world. I am committed to recommitting every day to my own work on decolonization and eradicating white supremacy in myself and in my community. This is not what I thought that I would find in Brazil, but 15 years later, I am still grateful for the gift of having my eyes opened.

Back in the US, just a few years later, I was already a mom and living in my chosen home state and M came for a visit. From our late night ping pong games, he knew that I was disconnected from my siblings since our father died when I Was 7. he told me I should call him “Uncle M.”

“Uncle M” with my first baby.

There is so much more I could have said, so many more memories of my time there, but you get the point. I love telling stories and have to pause somewhere. I leave you with this sweet pic of M and my first born getting to know each other.

Maybe I am wrong about traveling. I mean this as no judgement on those who come to a different conclusion about international travel. I mean, even retelling this story, I can see that a lot of good came out of my trip…But at what cost? So, ya, I am still where I am in my relationship with seeing the world. I am not proud of my trip to Brazil, but I am grateful.

Food during my second Pandemic

The doctor says I need to buy a scale. I am resisting, but for the first time ever, I might cave. I look at my perfect children and already I am writing and rehearsing the speech that I will give them about loving their bodies and loving food and…and…and so much more. (I am that kind of mom.) I can’t believe after all these years, I am going to bring a scale into my home, bring that energy into my home, but these are weird times of CoronaVirus and Social Distancing. The kids have appointments coming up and unless I want to bring them in for an office visit and risk exposure, I need to be able to weigh them safely at home. 

In my adult life, scales have only served the purpose of “medical device.” Necessary to track my childrens’ growth and monitor my advancing pregnancies. There was even a while with my first child where I loved scales. She was born with kidney disease and the Drs. wanted me to stop breastfeeding her. She was only 3 weeks old and I just did not want to at all. Eventually we came up with a plan where I would weigh her before and after breastfeeding to get an idea of how much fluid she was drinking. I had to weigh her diapers too. Every time she ate. Every time she peed. The scale during this time was a gift. It gave me peace of mind. I trust that if I bring a scale into my home now, I will continue to interact with this machine only as needed, but it stirs up a lot. 

Born at home, this was the first time my oldest daughter was weighed. She was a whopping 9lbs even.

All of this stirs up a lot and the truth is, this is not really about scales. My story is also about Food and Bodies, Life and Death. I want to tell my babies that I have learned to LOVE my body. That I want them to love theirs. That Food is Life! And not everyone has that. I want to make sure that I love my body today, strong and beautiful and 20 pounds smaller than my postpartum body of  2 years ago. I want them to know that I loved that body too. I went out and bought new clothes to show off my sexy curves and softness. I know that they have already heard all of this and no one learns these lessons from a lecture. I didn’t learn these lessons that way. I wish it were that easy.

Here is what I remember. This memory that just came crashing down to me, forcing me out of bed to find the computer and write. With three kids at home during this Quarantine time I have not had a minute to myself to write and so I couldn’t resist this middle of the night pull to share. In my memory, I was sitting in the closet in my mom’s room. That is where she kept her Ensure Bars. I had wrappers all around me. They were disgusting but I just could not stop eating them. I was so hungry. Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry flavored chalk bars. They were not as bad as the milkshake powder which I am pretty sure was meant to be mixed in with a real milkshake or atleast real food ingredients to disguise the chalkiness, but all we had to cut it with was water.  

It was summer and I was 15 years old. I do not know how long I had gone without eating, but it was summer vacation and there were no summer food programs like there are now. Without school lunches, I would eat at the beginning of the month when food stamps came in and then somewhere around the middle of the month, I would snack on Saltine crackers if I felt hungry and try to stretch that one box out for as long as I could. I would eat them really slowly, nibbling like a rabbit around the outside edges, savoring the saltiness, and then put the center of the cracker in my mouth and let it slowly dissolve on my tongue. I know it sounds crazy, but chronic hunger makes you a little crazy.

The Ensure bars were there because my mom was wasting away. I do not know if she had “Wasting Syndrome” but I know this… Sometimes she would shrink down really small and the Drs. would tell her that her AIDS was worse. Being fatter often corresponded with a more positive review when she came home from the clinic. I watched all of this and understood. I never would have eaten the bars if I thought she would actually eat them, but they had been in our closet for a couple of months untouched. I had ripped the plastic off of the case myself just now. I wondered if my mom would take credit for the missing bars when her caseworker from the AIDS alliance came to take stock at her next visit. 

I was skinny mini as a teenage girl and as you can see my mom looks tiny next to me. You can see how full my face looks compared with hers.

I heard voices out in the living room and scrambled to my feet. I could NOT let my friends find me in here! I just knew that if they saw the Ensure bars, they would have one more clue to discover that my mom had AIDS. Quickly, I kicked the wrappers in the closet, shut the door and headed for the living room. 

“Hey, Girl! You ready to go to this Volleyball Tournament?!” My friends were both older than me. One was old enough to drive and rich enough to have a car. Not that she was rich, but it’s all relative, you know?

I leaned down and kissed my mom on the forehead. It was a good day for her. She wasn’t feeling nauseous from meds and no fever when I pressed my lips to her forehead. I gave her a smile and said, “Love you, mom! I am going to be home late. Byeeee!!” in that sing songy voice that I assumed made me sound like a “normal” teenage girl. 

The car ride with my friends was so fun. We had the music loud and the windows down and we were belting out lyrics to The Eminem Show. We were just three country girls, driving down dirt roads listening to a white boy rapper. But ya, I loved these friends and I loved this moment. The volleyball tournament was at a campground in a little town that I had not been to before. It was probably only like an hour away from my hometown, but my mom and I never went anywhere. It was fun to just be somewhere new. My friend saw an ice cream stand and grinned at me in the backseat! “Oh, we are going here!!!!” 

I felt some change in my pocket and hoped it would be enough to get a scoop so that I would not have to lie about not wanting any and listen to my friends tell me not to be anorexic. 

We layed back in the hot grass on our bellies and enjoyed our treats quickly before they melted. All was well and perfect in the world. Until we started to drive away. I felt the shift before I understood it. My two friends were in the front chatting. The music was low but still I could not really hear them. I leaned forward, “Hey guys, whats up?” 

“Oh! My stomach hurts from eating SO MUCH!” my friend took one hand off of the steering wheel to rub her belly for emphasis. 

“Mine too! I never eat that much SUGAR!” They are both groaning and looking at me expectantly to join in. But there is something else there that I am missing. They hadn’t been acting like this just a moment before…they had been talking. About what?

Finally, when they gave me enough time to decide if I would join in the charade, they told me their plan. They were going to pull off by those trees over there, and go puke in the bushes. My one friend knew how to do it and she had agreed to teach the other one. Did I want to come? 

Now my stomach hurt too. That sick realization settling like a rock on top of my ice cream and Ensure bar filled guts. Fuck. I was pissed. And terrified. And sad. And overwhelmed. And helpless. These friends were more powerful than me in every way. They were older. More popular. Had more money and just knew more about the world in general than me. Still, I tried. I begged and pleaded with them not to do it. “Please! Please! Don’t do this!” I shouted. I already had a friend that did this. I had sat on the phone with her once after she had fainted and fallen down the stairs to make sure that she was ok. I knew where this went and I did not want them to go there! They were athletes! They were beautiful! They were healthy! 

I sat in the car while they did it. I could hear them retching. I cried in silence the rest of the way to the tournament and thought about my mom. At home on the couch. I saw her skin and bones body. Her dying body. I saw her hunger. I remembered the night before when I had knocked softly on the bathroom door when I heard her vomiting. “…Mama? Are you okay?” 

She was just sick from her AIDS meds. No big deal. It would pass. I thought about our constant battle over her taking her meds because the nausea was so bad it competed with surviving. 

I wanted to scream at them. To tell them all of this. But I could not. I had to sit there in my grief. I remember nothing from the tournament. I wonder if we even made it there. My memory shuts off completely at that point. I remember nothing. 

Which brings me back to today. In a few minutes, the first of my children will wake up. The baby has already crawled over to nurse at my breast while I type away over her back. I will go downstairs and start a loaf of bread rising. I have been baking all of our bread since we are only going to the store once a week during this time of social distancing. I have an immunosuppressed kid and have to take this very seriously. I will bring out the sweet and sour cherry chocolate scones that I baked yesterday and serve them up with a heap of eggs and fresh apple slices. For lunch my kids will have leftover rice and beans and for dinner they will have whatever feast I dream up. Maybe I will bake a pie for dessert. 

I love to cook for my family. They gobble it all up and tell me that I could get rich off of my cooking. I smile at them and laugh at their wild dreams of grandeur for my culinary pursuits, but inside, I am proud. I had to teach myself this skill when I became a new mother. At first, I only knew how to boil water to make mashed potatoes. Or mac n cheese. Over the years of staying home with babies, cooking and baking became my art and my study. I read recipes for fun and study my baking books so much that they are all dilapidated and falling apart. Instead of video game apps, my homescreen is covered in recipes that I don’t want to forget to try out. 

Teaching them young how to cook. My oldest can cook better already at 11 than I could when I had her at 22!

I love food and I know that it is a privilege to enjoy it. When I hear stories of well meaning social service agencies trying to educate the poor about healthy eating, it infuriates me. I have no patience for it at all! I know first hand that if you want the poor to eat well, you need to make sure that they have access to a kitchen, reliable access to enough food, and the time to be able to play around and learn the skill. As long as we have a whole class of people who are overworked and underpaid, we will have a whole class of people who do not have the time or resources to eat homecooked meals all day. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I spend hours in my kitchen every day. Right now,that happens while homeschooling my two older children during school closures, cleaning the house, potty training the toddler, taking care of the dog, and making sure that my oldest does all of her medical treatments every day. If I had to work outside the home, (or from home right now!) I would NOT be able to cook meals like I do, no matter how much I wanted to. No matter how many pamphlets about the health benefits to my babies. I know that there are poor people who do it. Who pull it off. But the cost is high. It is working all day at a job that is often harder than any job I have ever physically done and then coming home to work all night in the kitchen. We live in such an unjust society and I hate it. I love the people in it but I truly feel pain about the injustice of it all. 

When we are allowed to be closer than 6 feet from others, I balance my feelings by opening my doors and my table to my neighbors and friends and community organizing. Right now, I am stuck at home,  protecting my children and trying to keep us all out of the hospital. 

I guess I will get the scale. My children will be ok. I will continue to model self love and love for food and ya, they have their own reasons to understand and learn the relationship between food and health and food and life. I pray that they survive this pandemic, which is so different than the one that I grew up in, without as much trauma, feeling loved and safe and fed. I hope that we can come out of this time learning more than we have in the past. 

As we watch our most vulnerable succumb to this virus, I pray that we as a society, will finally come to understand that everyone having access to food, and healthcare, and safe running water benefits us all. Please let it be so. Please. 

As I said, this isnt about a scale. It is, as it always is with me, a hope that if I show you my vulnerability, If I show you my truths, maybe you will actually see them. Maybe in this way, I can help push us toward the world that we so desperately need right now. This is my small contribution. THANK YOU to all of those essential workers who are making BIG contributions right now. Doctors at drive thru clinics who have cared for my kids who have all gotten sick during this scary time, nurses who talked me through making a plan to safely get my kids monthly labs done, all of the farmers and distributors who keep us supplied in local food even at the end of winter going into early spring in Maine, the grocery store workers, truck drivers and all essential workers, the local businesses that have shipped books for my kids to read and fabric for me to sew them up homemade birthday presents, the teachers and school staff who have worked hard to keep the children fed and engaged, the parents who have vented and laughed and cried with me over the phone and internet, the community organizers fighting for healthcare for all, income equality and an end to white supremacist colonizing America as we know it. Of course I could go on all day thanking everyone, but I will end this moment of gratitude with thanking my children for being so honest, and loving sweet and funny and smart and keeping me hopeful even on the hardest days and my partner who is still running his business through this time, while social distancing and working to keep his employees safe and working. 

The “Hug Monster I sewed up during this Quarentine for my toddler’s 2nd birthday. My older kids want one now too! We all need extra hugs right now. I am lucky to be in social isolation with a bunch of little huggers. ❤

There is a lot to be concerned about but also a lot to be grateful for. 

When time slowed down until whole years fit into 10 days

My kids have been reading a lot of books about time travel lately. I don’t know about all that. It is hard for my Virgo brain to imagine such things, but there was a time in my life where I felt like I was traveling through time. Like time sped up and slowed way down and made no sense at all anymore. The weeks after my mom died, I am pretty sure that my own body left this dimension and traveled around the Universe and then decided to come back down to Earth. Here is a bit of what I remember over those weeks. I had to cut a lot out. The other weird thing about this time that made no sense is that I remember all of the millions of tiny moments in vivid detail so they stand out and take up more space in my memories than a typical moment. I guess after preparing for my mom to die my whole childhood, when it finally happened, my mind and heart made me memorize all of the details.

I was laying in my bed with the blankets over my head. I wasn’t asleep. I hadn’t slept the whole night. I had held my mom while she died. Peeled my body off hers, our sweaty arms sticking to each other. and then left her body in the livingroom. It was still in there. I don’t know how long I spent in my bedroom like that with my mom’s body in the next room. Can you imagine being a teenager with no one else around and your dead parent in the next room?! 

At some point, they came for her body. Who were “they.” I do not remember. Strangers in uniforms. That is when I rushed out of bed. “What are you doing?! Let me see her, let me see her!” The blanket was falling off of her body and I could see that she was completely naked on the bottom. No underwear. No pants. Nothing. 

“Is that how you found her?” “Yes,” the strangers told me. I was losing my mind. I was hysterical. I was tired and delirious after watching my mom die and not sleeping all night. I demanded more information from them. Where were they taking her? I realized with a sickness spreading across my gut that the hospice worker had been by the house earlier and was supposed to wash and dress my mom. The one my mom didn’t like. The one she said was mean to her. Suddenly I was raging. That hospice woman must have left my mom to die exposed for all these people to see her nakedness. My mom was a modest church woman. This indignity would have devastated her. How had she died in my arms without me noticing that she wasn’t wearing pants? I guess I hadn’t crawled under the sheet. I had just fell on top of her and held her for dear life and cried into her sweaty hair and never crawled under the sheet! Rage was better than grief in the moment. Or rather, it is a stage of grief right? And I was going through all those stages at once right there in front of these workers in the early morning light of my open apartment door with my mom’s body on a gurney, halfway in my house and halfway onto my porch. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for them to take her. 

But they had to take her. And so I was alone. I didn’t need to hide from my mom’s dead body anymore. It was gone, but I still couldn’t leave my bed. What was the point? I was desperate for someone to hold me. To wrap their arms around me and tell me that everything was going to be ok but there was no one. So I wrapped my arms around myself. I pulled the blanket as tight to myself as I could and I didn’t cry. Or sleep. Or feel anything except a deep loneliness that still burns me today when I try to touch it. 

I watched the clock. I knew that my friends would come once school was out. The boy I was falling in love with. The girls that had just recently came back into my life. Looking back, I think how brave they were to walk to my house after school on the day that my mom died. They knew what they were walking into. They had been there the night before when the hospice worker had announced that this was it! My mom wouldn’t survive the night. And she had been right. The boy had stayed with me for way too late. His mom had called worried and angry until he told her that my mom was dying. Right in front of him. He went home, eyes puffy and red like mine.

My uncle was there for a while. He asked me if he should turn off the oxygen and I told him, “yea, she’s gone. She’s been gone.” That is when I left and went to hide out in my room. 

I do not know how long he stayed. I only knew he was gone because when the funeral director came into my room, he peeked under the covers and said, “I am sorry to ask you to make these decisions…but there is no one else here. We need to schedule your mom’s funeral. We need to plan it.Can you tell me what you are wanting the funeral to be like?” He was a kind man. He did all of the work of planning the funeral. I just sat there numb and shook my head yes. Or no. There wasn’t much to plan anyway. My mom was a poor woman in a small town who died of AIDS. There would be no big service. No music. Or Performance. Just those that loved her in the church she grew up in. a few bouquets of flowers and the urn with her ashes.  

When the funeral director left, I sat there in bed and watched the clock and waited. I touched a finger to the stitches in my upper lip. A few weeks back, a friend had tossed me a 2 Liter bottle of Wild Cherry Pepsi. I did not catch it. I had held my upper lip together and tried not to talk or move my mouth for fear it would split my whole face in half. You can hardly see the scar at this point, but the shape of my mouth was changed. The curves of my lips are less defined. More blurry. I had held my lips like that while my friend called her mom to ask for a ride for me to the hospital. My mom was too sick to take me. Today was my appointment to get the stitches out. So when my friends finally showed up, I had a tangible ask of support from them. Walk me to my appointment at the clinic. Hold my hand. Don’t tell the nurse that my mom just died that morning. I didn’t want to talk about it. 

They did their best. These two teenage girls, but they were not as practiced at trauma as me, and this was all too much for them. One fainted while the nurse had the heavy metal hook laced into one of my stitches. and so I sat there where the nurse left me, with that heavy weight pulling my lip and stretching my new scar while the nurse cared for my friend. The other friend started to sob and I just sat there and thought about how this was how it was going to be. This was my support team. They weren’t ready for this. And yet. They stepped up for me. They gave it their best shot and that is what I remember. This group of rebellious weirdo teenagers who did their best to guide me through my grief.

When we were back at my house, eating dinner (a bag of Doritos and a pop) my landlord came to the door. I do not remember her knocking. This was her apartment and there was no longer an adult tenant so what rights did I have? She opened the door, barged right in, and announced that she already had a new tenant scheduled to move in on the first of the month and so I had 10 days to move out. It was less than 24 hours after my mom died. Damn. Capitalism turns people into monsters. 

My friends were surprised by my reaction. They understood my contempt for her, or at least they kind of did. None of them were renters so…they couldn’t really understand it…but the part they really couldn’t understand was why I wanted to stay in an apartment alone that my mom just died in. I told them the truth. I didn’t want to stay alone. I wanted THEM to stay with me. And for the most part over those next 10 days, they were with me. Or someone was. Most of the time. 

My grief support team of teenagers, rubbing my feet, holding my head, and taking pictures to document this moment in time. I still love these kids that grew into adults that live far away but will always feel like family. ❤

The second day, I had a funeral to plan. I took out all of our old photos. If you walked into my home, you would have seen a teenage girl, kitchen table covered in art supplies. This was not an ordinary scrapbook project. I had found a big frame at the thrift store and sat there gluing my moms face all over the ugly poster that was in the frame. Now it was a collage of my mom as a kid with her “bowl” haircut the same as her twins, my mom as a teenager posing in a sexy swimsuit, dancing with her father at her wedding to my step-dad, and of course lots of her and me. Scattered all around me were my friends. They were laughing and being loud and maybe trying to pretend that they weren’t holding vigil over my grief over my moms AIDS death. I don’t know. It must have been a lot for them. I was doing my best to be lighthearted. To be kind and sweet and funny like they were being to me, but I was exploding inside. I was angry that I was alone in this. That I was holding such a heavy responsibility on my shoulders. When I tried to put the thin glass sheet over the new collage that I made, it slipped out of place in the cheap frame and a huge chunk of the corner broke off. I looked down at the blood pouring from my hand and the now broken collage that would serve as my moms only decoration at her funeral and I screamed. I sobbed and sobbed and held my hand and let everyone think that I was crying from the physical pain of the cut and not from the gaping hole in my heart. I wish that I still had that collage. I wonder what happened to it. I think that I might have deconstructed it, but I wish that I hadn’t. I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t want that reminder. 

On the third day, It was necessary to do all of the things that I had not been doing. Shower, brush my hair. My teeth. Look good and leave the house. I stood in my bathroom with a straightener to my hair. Desperately trying to calm my frizzy curly hair and failing miserably. I had on a black dress that someone had lent me. I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered why we do this to ourselves? Why do we pressure ourselves to look good and get all done up to mourn our loved ones. My outer appearance did not match my inner appearance and I suddenly felt sick with the feeling that vanity would hold me today tighter than the memory of my mom. So, I left my hair half done. I walked out of the bathroom and walked down the street the half a block to the Free Methodist Church where my mom was married and where she would now have her memorial service. I knew everyone would be looking at me. The couple dozen people who showed up. I hated that feeling that they were all looking at me in my pain. I did not sing like I did at my step dad’s funeral. I do not think that I said anything. I wish that I could remember. Honestly, all I remember is sitting there looking crazy with my hair half straightened and a gaggle of teenagers holding my hands, sitting all around me in the pews. I remember that damn evil landlord standing up and crying out in grief, hands in the air, eyes closed, head tilted toward the ceiling and shouting, “Oh, Debbie! Poor Debbie! We will miss you!” I swear my friends had to hold me down. They were there the other day when she had informed me so coldly that business was business and I needed to get out so that she could get a new paying tenant in. I wanted to jump over the pews and snatch her by her hair and …and….and…honestly I don’t know. I probably wanted to be held back. I am not a violent person, but I do have a temper and I would have given her an earful. But she didn’t get that earful. Because I didn’t want that to be the tone of my mom’s funeral.

After the funeral, I had a steady stream of visitors. The girls that I went to school with. Who used to be my friends. Who used to be my teammates. Who threatened to beat me up if I continued to play basketball. Who called me on the phone and told me I was a slut. Worthless. Told me they hated me. Told me they never wanted to talk to me again. Told me I deserved everything that was coming to me. They came to my house. Their mothers sent them. With cookies. They told me they were sorry for my loss. I felt like I would choke on their cookies, but I took them. I said thank you. I wondered if I had finally been punished enough?

Day 4, one of my best guy friends was home visiting before deployment. He had brought a whole group of army buddies with him to see his hometown and meet his people. They had heard stories of the kind of parties only redneck kids know how to throw. Out in the woods. Top of a Hill. Big Bonfire, Cheap Beer, Rowdy Kids, Loud Music…ok…wait a minute, maybe this is parties everywhere. I just think of it as redneck because its what I grew up with. Either way, what these boys were not anticipating, was a somber atmosphere in a sparse apartment with a grieving teenager and the belongings of her dead mother still piled all around. The boys sprawled all over my living room, right next to the bedside plastic toilet that my mom had to use in her final weeks. Her meds were still right there on the coffee table. Her quilt, half finished was there on the floor in the corner, the stitches forever to be loose on the needles. I didnt know how to bind them off. I do not know how long they stayed, but I did my best to be a hostess. Someone ordered a pizza, we called a few friends, my landline wasn’t disconnected yet, and pretended all of this was normal. Just a bunch of army kids about to be sent off to war and a grieving teenage girl who was the lone survivor of this domestic war. 

there were more teenagers and army boys out of frame. I still cant believe how many teenagers, I filled my apartment with over those days.

I was one of those kids who was more friends with everyone a little bit than tied into any particular clique. I was friends with the jocks, the theater kids, the marching band, the nerds, the losers, the druggies, the goody two shoes, the hippies and the goths. I was on the edge of all of those groups and I liked that. In those two weeks that I spent alone at home, it was like a revolving doors for each of those groups of kids to stop in, pay me their condolences and then go back to being normal kids. One night, a group of kids that I barely knew stopped by. They were the goths I guess. They were mostly older than me. Well one girl was my age, but her boyfriend was basically an adult already.  I dont know how old he was, but he was too old to be hanging out with us. They weren’t big drinkers, but they were interested in my moms meds. “Did your mom ever use medical marijuana?” the adult boyfriend asked? ….”My mom?” haha “No.” My mom was a christian lady. I had been begging her to find relief through marijuana for years and she was clear that she would never do that. The boyfriend was not deterred. “Can I see what she had?” …”Sure…..I mean…she doesn’t need them anymore…” wow. I still come out with these kind of one liners that make people uncomfortable, but i guess if anyone is allowed to make AIDS jokes, its me. Anyway, he held up a bottle for me to see. “Look what I found!” It was some kind of pill form of THC, I guess. I didn’t even know she had those! Did she know what they were? He opened the bottle, and examined the little capsules. I thought he would just swallow one, but no, he suspected that he wouldn’t get a buzz from that so he cracked one open and poured it over a pipe that he had in his pocket. He smoked my mom’s pills right there in my kitchen. “No thanks.” I said when he passed me the bowl. I smoked pot pretty regularly in my teenage years, but I had no interest in smoking my moms pills. It made me feel sick to my stomach. I could pretend all of this was normal to a point but this was too far for me. It also made them physically sick. I spent my whole night holding my friends hair while she puked into my trash, body bent limp over the same armchair I used to sleep in when we lived in the trailer that I didn’t have a room in. I have a picture of this moment somehow. I won’t share it with you to spare her. Eventually, she fell asleep like that, slung over the side of the chair and I decided I would go to bed too. I found her boyfriend passed out in my bed. Thankfully he hadn’t vomited anywhere that I could see anyway. I checked to make sure he was breathing and then I went to the only other place left to sleep. My mom’s couch. The place she slept every night for the past decade. 

The next  morning, a few hours after the hungover guests left, my English teacher came by the house. I was a junior in high school and she wanted me to be thinking about mid-terms. About how colleges were looking at these grades from this important year. I had barely been going to school and I had failed a couple of the midterms that I had already taken. She was trying to help me but I didn’t trust her. I had heard that she told her daughter not to hang out with me. That I was trouble. But that night when my friends who were all older than me, were talking about their plans for the future, I realized that I didn’t want to be stuck in my hometown forever. I wanted out. I wanted out fast. The next day, I got the Principal to agree to let me retake my midterms as long as I could get a signature from all of my teachers agreeing to the plan. One by one, I told my teachers that my mom had just died from AIDS and one by one they signed my paper until we came to my Spanish teacher. She was a white English Speaker who had never wanted to teach and wasn’t even fluent in Spanish. She hated me. I do not know why. I mean…I was argumentative and rebellious (some things haven’t changed) but I was also serious about learning Spanish. Anyway, she refused to sign so I lost my chance to retake any of my tests. She didn’t think that my mom dying the week of midterms was a legit excuse for my failures. That or she was on a wild power trip. 

    I was thinking about the rest of my life. It was as if I already knew that I would have two lives split in this exact moment. These ten days between when my mom died and when I moved into my high school English teachers house felt like being in a time machine. So much happened over those days. How did so much fit into that time? Did time stop for a moment? I look at that week and a half as if it is a movie, with each group of people entering a new scene and pushing me closer to the end of the film and the end of my old life. 

    The plan had always been to move in with my Uncle when my mom died. I loved my uncle and he lived 3 blocks away. But I wasn’t a little girl when he died and I no longer felt close with him. And in fact, and I feel terrible admitting this in case he ever reads this, I was scared of him. I was scared of most men in general. This uncle had been close with my step dad. They had bonded over their love of weapons. Guns and Swords. When my step dad died, my uncle held onto Tom’s collection…for me to have someday. (He is still holding onto them.) I knew that I did not want to live there. But that was the only family member that was in a position to take me on. Poverty is cruel that way. My mom came from a huge family, but who could take me in and not be taking food directly out of the mouths of their children? My uncle only had one son and he was grown. 

My Uncle is a good man. Even though I decided not to live with him, he totally understood. Here he is visiting me at my foster familys house on the day of my high school dance.

I had two friends at the time that came to me with offers. One was my high school English teachers daughter. Both friends were in the grade above me and would be graduating at the end of this school year meaning I would be left either way in the home of a friend without them. Which obviously felt awkward. Ultimately, I prioritized the part of me that did not want to feel like a burden over the part of me that wanted the place that would feel the most comfortable emotionally. So, I moved into my high school English teachers home. It was nice. The fridge and cupboards would always be full. Their oldest daughter was already off to college, and so I would have a room all to myself. 

The father of the family came over one day to help me move my big items, bed, dresser, etc, over to their home. My room was a mess. It was clear that I had not been packing. My clothes were scattered across the floor, books and papers covered every surface. I was not in a rush to leave this room. It was not much, but I loved it. He was kind. I knew what he must be thinking. I knew that he must be having second thoughts about bringing this trashy girl into his home. Would I keep his daughters room as messy as I kept my own? He didn’t put any of that on me though. That is what I remember. He smiled at me and said, “Ready?” I looked him in the eye and held my breath. As he lifted my mattress up off the metal frame, I realized that not cleaning my room also meant not cleaning out any of the contraband that I had stowed away under my bed. This man, who hardly knew me, kindly looked the other way, arms crossed and thinking God knows what, while I frantically picked up all of the pop can bowls, cigarette butts and empty beer cans. He gave me a small smile and said. “Ok. Now, lets get you over to your new room. Everything is going to be ok.” A lot about moving into that new home and new life was really painful and hard for me, but this moment sticks out in my mind as a time when I actually believed that everything would be ok. That I was at least in kind and loving hands. I am grateful for the sensitive care that he showed me that day. It meant a lot and most adults would not have handled that scene as patiently. 

My relatives had been coming through over that week as well. They came in and sorted through my moms things. I mostly just sat back and watched. I have been told that this part of the story makes my relatives seem mean. Coming in and going through my things and taking what they wanted. One day, they walked out the door with the couch from my living room. the one my mom slept on. But the truth is it wasn’t like that at all. Its hard to explain if you aren’t from where I am from. If you don’t know poverty like I know it. My mom couldn’t take these things with her. and I wouldn’t need them at the middle class home that i was moving into. It made sense for them to go to homes where they would be used. Not to mention, my moms siblings and nieces and nephews did love her. Some of them loved her a lot. We don’t have home videos or things like that. What we had left of her, was our own memories, and the handmade items she created and left behind. I was fine with watching it all go out the door. Those things weren’t my mom. I regret a little that I don’t have a quilt she made. But I do have the diaper bag she made for me when I was a baby “Crystal Fawn” stitched into the side with pink acrylic yarn. and the plastic canvas dolls she made me for Christmas one year. I don’t remember my grandparents coming by, but they must have. I was a teenager, and I think being with my family made it all feel too real. Being with my friends made it easier to pretend like my world hadn’t just disappeared. I am sure my family was trying to support me. I was probably being aloof and distant and sullen. I was a teenager after all.

My last night in my mom and my apartment, I sorted through what was left of her belongings. I tried on all of her old clothes and put on a ridiculous fashion show for my friends. Walking down the hall with my hair poofed like my mom wore it, with an 80’s oufit of leggings and a tyed up tee shirt. (Hilariously this style is back in and my tweenage daughter dresses like this most days!) I did a little dance, mimicking my mom’s dance moves and laughed and cried with my friends. Again, how sweet were these kids who stuck all of this out with me?!

The next morning, with the help of my new “foster family” I carted the remainder of my life with mom out to the yard in front of their home for a yard sale. Pretty sure no one would buy the trash belongings of a woman who had just died from AIDS if we had the yard sale at my apartment, but maybe they would buy stuff from this nice mowed lawn in front of this nicely painted house. Here is a picture to show you the absurdity of me selling my life away at a yard sale. “If you buy the ab machine, I will throw in the hospital shower chair!” Who knew I was such a good salesperson! (a note: we were too poor for food most of the time, but had an assortment of exercise machines bought entirely on credit that my mom knew we would never pay back because she was dying so that her only child could exercise and be in shape for basketball. <3)

Yes, this is teenage Crystal Fawn demonstrating how to use this exercise machine less than two weeks after my mom died, at a yard sale. My demonstration/sales pitch totally worked. They bought it. ❤

I remember waking up and being in the pink attic room at my new home and not really remembering how the hell I got there. Somehow I remember those weeks in clear detail now, but while it was happening, I was going through the motions more than actual living. Or like I said at the beginning, I think I was traveling through the Universe. Maybe I was trying to follow my mom to make sure she made it to safety or to Paradise or to wherever our souls go. I had to come back into my body at some point, and I just remember that feeling so well. I remember walking down the stairs to dinner with my the foster family and they didnt realize that it was the first time that I was actually “there.” My body had been there for weeks. I leave you with this image of the person who was my best friend at the time. The picture might not seem remarkable, but look closer. It is. I took this image, from the reclining chair across the room. Of a teenage girl sitting patiently on my couch, flipping through a magazine. Waiting for me to come back into my body. Staying with me. What a gift she gave me. I think of this often when I sit with people in grief. We don’t need to know how to do it perfectly. We just need to be there. and to be patient. and to love them.

Judgment Day

My mom stayed by Tom’s side every moment of his final year of AIDS related cancer and death. I was left to family, friends and finally back to the Pentecostal Homeless Shelter while she relocated to stay with him hours away at the big city hospital that would accept AIDS patients. We had stayed at the shelter before, and I had been a member of the church for years, but this was my first time staying there without my mom or Tom. I was only 10 and it was weird. 

The rooms were all organized by color or theme. There was the blue room with curtains, bedspread, rugs, everything all blue. Or another room was cow print and everything had a cow on it or had that black and white splotty print. They put me in the pink room. I was more of a basketball girl than a frilly pink bedspread girl, but I had never slept in a decorated room before and the fanciness made me feel special. I never touched anything in that room though! My mama always taught me that “if you break it, you buy it.” At bedtime, I would pull back the blankets, slip in carefully and then climb out in the morning, pulling the blankets back up. I remember how tight the sheets felt when I squeezed myself in. I was so scared to mess anything up that I wouldn’t even loosen the sheets to make space for my body.

I don’t remember how long I stayed at the shelter or really almost anything at all from my time there. I followed the rules, did my share of the farm chores and kept my mouth shut. I remember the food though! Farm cooked meals were like nothing I had ever tasted before. Eggs and toast and juice every morning! Chicken and potatoes for dinner! After all of those years of hunger and food insecurity, it’s not all that surprising that I can still remember sitting at their table savoring every bite.

Sometimes the shelter was occupied by families that were picked up from cities and relocated to this place at the end of a dirt road. Can you imagine? The shelters are full and crowded and your living in some big city and this van pulls up with these sunburnt farmers who tell you that they will let you live in their shelter if you just praise Jesus each Sunday? That’s how it was for the Irish immigrant family with 5 babies and the grandma living with them and the goth kid who didn’t last too long with us. The preacher burned all his stuff in a heap in the yard and I sat in terror at the window watching.

If you could overlook that the farm was run by witch hunting Pentacostal missionaries with a house filled with transplanted homeless people from varies cities, it was a normal functioning farm. Cows. Chickens. Gardens. One night, the farmer invited me to witness a laboring cow. I stood there , crying in the dark, breathing in the unmistakable smell of hay, blood and manure and thought, “this is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.” The farmer named the calf “Crystal” in my honor.

    One morning, the farmer/preacher’s wife came into my room. I liked her. She was kind and quiet and lovely. I still love grey hair on older women and I know it’s because she left such a mark on me. I thought she was the most beautiful woman alive when she would stand in front of us and sing in church with her sparkling silver hair swinging all the way down her back. (Women and girls at the farm were not allowed to cut their hair or wear pants.) Anyway, she came in and let me know that I was not going to school that day. 

    She put my one bag of belongings in her car, instructed me to sit in the back and drove us the couple of hours to the hospital. She informed me that my step dad was “gone” and we would be bringing my mom home. Then she was silent.

    On that drive, without radio (we also weren’t allowed to watch TV or listen to music that wasn’t religious,) I had a lot of time to think. I was so happy that my mom was finally coming back to me. My mom. I felt the rock in the pit of my stomach. I missed her so much. I thought about how she cared for my step-dad, a man that had spent the past few years beating her almost to death. She washed his body. Cleaned his vomit, carried his weight when he got weak. Let him shower her in insults while she held his hand and guided him through the world when he lost his sight. I have never given it a lot of thought but maybe a small part of me was a little jealous that she gave him all of herself that year, and I was left to protect our secret from the rumors at school, fend off bullies in the shape of cousins, and grapple with my own fears and traumas in a place where everyone around me was rolling down the aisles and speaking in tongues.  But I think even then I understood that my mom was doing the right thing. There was no one else that was going to help shoulder the weight of caring for a person dying from AIDS related illness. Not in 1995. 

    Who would do that for my mom when her time came? Would Tom have if the tables were turned? Shudder. I still can’t imagine how much worse life would have been if she had died first. Thank you mom. I know you pushed through for so long for me. Yes, for me. It would be me who would care for my mom at the end. I knew then that my mom was right that I was here to be her angel. To pull her out of the burning house and carry her to safety. There was an old man who came to church every Sunday at the shelter and his body was scarred from a house fire. He was all hunched over and even his fingers would no longer stand up straight. His voice was almost gone except when he sang “Amazing Grace!” that same song every Sunday. The preacher told me that the man had been  trapped in a burning building and only when he cried out for the Lord, did he feel himself lifted and carried to safety. I was young and impressionable and The Pentacostals do not mess around with their storytelling, so I was completely buying into every word. In fact, I literally thought that God sent me to care for my mom just like the angel that saved the old man. I hoped I would be strong enough to hold her weight when the time came. 

    The hospital was hours away from our small town, and as we drove, I thought about Death. Death  is so much bigger if you are a born again Christian than just the end of living in this physical world. It is eternity. Eternal Life or Eternal Hell. There was nothing more terrifying during that time period than the idea that my mom or I would end up separated for eternity. I already knew that she would die but the idea that our souls might not meet up in the afterlife was unbearable.

My mind would see-saw between both scenarios. Sometimes, I would imagine that my mom would be the one welcomed through the pearly gates. Sure, she had once lived a life of sin, but she was a good christian lady now. Then I would get nervous about my own standing because I had questions about religion and it seemed my questions were wrong. My inquiry into why our loving heavenly father would punish children born into families that believed in other Gods even if they lived a life of love and goodness was rewarded with a fast hard smack across my face. I thought, “Jesus loved all the little children…all the children of the world!” I wasn’t sure if God would allow a fierce believer with questions. Then my mom would chase me from one end of our trailer to the other with a knife drawn up ready to stab me for some minor unmemorable infraction and I would worry that oh no! Maybe it was her soul that was destined for hell. It was all complicated. I just kept my eyes on the skies and waited for the trumpets to sound the Judgment Day. Literally. I was delusional from living with these bedtime stories of resurrection.

I once witnessed the preacher, during a particularly rowdy tent revival ceremony, grab a girl about my age by the shoulders. His enormous farmer fingers dug into her shoulders and watching it, I couldn’t help but feel my own shoulders to make sure it wasn’t me. It was so vivid and still is to me. He was so red in the face, he was turning purple and he was shouting and spitting all over her. I couldn’t understand the words because he was “speaking in tongues” but this scene felt familiar. I imagined he was saying how she was an evil and dirty little girl and that the Devil was inside her. That would be what he was saying if he was my step-dad. Smack! He took those huge hands off her shoulders and grabbed ahold of her head and threw her hard backwards. I heard the Thwack as her body slammed into the ground. I always assumed I would be next. I always assumed they would see Satan in me, the questioner.  I understood that they never corrected Tom for his violence because they knew he was just carrying out Gods work.

    Snap. Back to reality. Back to the car ride to see my dead step-father. (I never got to see my dead father, who also died from AIDS) and pick up my dying mom. 

The preacher’s wife was talking to me. We were at the hospital. Even when I put myself back in time to visit this memory, my mind watches the scene from the ceiling as if I am watching a movie of a little girl walking in to see death instead of being that little girl. I learned to leave my body quite young. Anyway, the hospital was big and scary and white everywhere and smelled like Disinfectant and death. But I didn’t know what death smelled like yet. Did I? Not human death. So many adult faces standing over me. And then! There! My mom! Through it all, there she was. But there was no time to be comforted yet. Right then, there were big decisions to be made. Tom’s body was still in there. In the hospital bed. They hadn’t moved him yet. Is that normal to leave a dead body in a hospital room for hours? Aren’t there protocols against such things? Had they kept his body there waiting…for me? 

That was the big question. Did I want to go in and see Tom’s body? Did I want to say goodbye?

His mouth was stuck open. I could see the pain in his eyes still. I could see that he had been gasping for his last breath. It had not come for him. I did not say goodbye. I did not have anything to say to him. Or to anyone. I was not confused about where Tom would go. Tom who used every possible weapon against my mom and I. Guns, knives, fists, penis. We were never safe and now, Tom would never be safe from the fires of Hell. I wasn’t comforted by that. I didn’t want vengeance. I just wanted safety. For me. For my mom. 

This is where I became very quiet. I talked so little that my mom got me into some counseling program, “Wrap Around Services.”  The young student therapists that they would send out to the trailer could not get me to speak so they gave me a journal and they gave me an assignment to write. But I was not ready to write either. I was not ready to trust myself to tell any of this story. I knew that this is a dangerous story and I needed to be careful with how I let it out. There was still so much at stake. I still needed to protect my mother. 

I am a little surprised that I don’t have more feelings around seeing Tom’s dead body. For a few years, I would see visions of him. Walking into the doctor’s office, at the grocery store or once I rolled over and saw him lying beside me in bed, mouth open, eyes staring right through me. But other than these ghostlike hauntings, he was just gone for me. I was mourning, but not for him. I didn’t even realize this fully until I sat down to write this.

I was grieving the years of torture that my mom and I endured. Looking back I realize, I was silent, not because my grief was so huge, but because if I couldn’t speak my truth and name my grief accurately then I wouldn’t speak of it at all. It was easier and more socially acceptable for a child to be grieving the death of her step-dad than to admit that I was finally gasping for air after so many years of holding my breath. How would the world have reacted if I told them I was processing the waves of trauma flooding over me as I  realized what we had survived? If I admitted that when Tom first got sick, i prayed a thank you to God for giving us a break. It is taboo where I come from to speak ill of the dead, but I prefer that quote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” It took me another decade to hear that quote for the first time and another decade to take its advice. 

Death is just a natural part of life. Unless your parents die from an epidemic fueled by hate oppression and government neglect. All of my parents died in their 30’s. I am definitely the kind of person who is always looking for the hope and the reason to be grateful and that is always woven into my stories. I don’t want to leave you with only trauma. I want you to know there was also love. My mother’s love for me pushed her to survive for 17 years with HIV. At the end there was no question if I would see her in death. She died in my arms with our fingers interlaced. At home. 

What this AIDS Orphan wants for World AIDS Day 2019

My father was buried in the backyard of his mother’s house. This was the first time I ever saw his stone.

It’s World AIDS Day again, and I am an AIDS orphan. Most of the year, I pretend to be a regular person. A mom. President of my Public School Family Council. Basketball Coach. Community Organizer. But this one day, I let myself remember out loud. I take out the pictures, I cry, I go to the events, and I read anything that I can find written by survivors and those of us who are left behind. It helps. It does. To feel like I am honoring not only my parents, mother, father, and step-father, but  also myself. My FULL self. I keep searching for community, for belonging, to be SEEN and HEARD and to feel and weep and laugh along those who share experiences like mine. 

The only time I have ever been able to visit the place where my father is buried. He has another grandchild now, so we will have to return so she can see it too.

The World AIDS Day events that I have attended are beautiful, but they always leave me feeling slightly more lonely. Slightly more invisible. They are rarely held at family friendly hours, and I want my kids with me. They will never meet their grandparents, so I feel like they deserve to be a part of this day. They need to know this story as much as I need them to. This is not only my story, it is their story too and it is the story of this country. I need them to know this in their bones. I need them to know that this country sacrifices those at the margins for the sake of the rich and powerful and that sometimes we are at the margins when the sacrifice is made and sometimes we are safe. I need them to know that SILENCE = DEATH and that it is our responsibility to listen, learn and stand up when we see people being abused and discarded. 

This woman who at 22 years old, was diagnosed with HIV and continued to fight and survive so that she could raise me. ❤ ❤ ❤
The only picture I have of my father. This was one of the last times I saw him.

This year, I had big plans for World AIDS Day. I wanted to write a Call to Action! I wanted to try to get it published. I wanted to look into hosting an event  locally, but my current life demanded my attention. We had a death in the family. My oldest had pneumonia and spent some time in the hospital. So, here I am, the day before Dec. 1 and this is going to have to be enough this year. A blog post written in haste with my children heaped all around me on the couch and already getting antsy from me staring at the computer screen and not staring at them. “Mom, Look at me! Mom, look at this!”

Every year when I make my posts about World AIDS Day or speak at an event, people say the same thing. Some version of, “I wish that I was there! I would have protected you! I would have loved you. I would have helped you in any way that I could!” For World AIDS DAY this year, rather than telling me what you would have done to SAVE ME, I am asking you to listen to my stories. Read my blog, read the stories on sites such as the AIDS Memorial on Instagram. Open your heart and feel the grief and love and despair that we felt during the early years of this epidemic. And then. Look around you. Maybe you have an AIDS orphan in your neighborhood, and if so, give them the love you want to give me. Stigma is still alive and exacting its violence on those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Do what you can to educate yourself and break the silence still surrounding this virus.

If you look around yourself and you do not find an AIDS orphan next door, notice your neighbors. Notice the kids who go to school with your kids. Stand beside those people who are currently on the margins and suffering from the tyranny of our unjust system. Love them like you love me. See them and listen to them. See us. Listen to us.  I hold our government accountable for the deaths of my parents and I know that the violence continues for a whole new generation of people

Community Organizing with my kids. Baby not pictured, but there with us, just below in the stroller! ❤

World AIDS Day is about so much more than AIDS. It is about remembering a terrifying time in the history of this country where thousands of beautiful lives were extinguished and the mainstream and the powers that be, sat back and allowed it to happen. It’s about celebrating all of the survivors and honoring their struggles. It is about giving space to those of us with broken hearts and broken bodies. It is about remembering, out loud and committing ourselves to the struggle for justice so that we can finally end the cycle of violence in this country. 

A side note: I want to wait until tomorrow to post this so that I have time to edit and make it better, but instead, I am going to publish it now, because tomorrow, I am taking my babies to a baskteball game where I will be rocking my AIDS Memorial T-shirt in front of all those people without even a hint of shame. and I will be too busy being alive and loving my kids to be staring at a screen. Thank you for reading my blog! and for remembering with me.

Big Bucks, No Wammies!

I was dating this boy that had a huge crush on my best friend. Which was fine. I didn’t like him like that either. If I’m totally honest, I probably had a crush on her too. ANYWAY….! Everyone had a crush on her. She was that girl in high school and to this day I still have no idea why she chose me to be her sidekick for those few precious years. It was like she reached down into the gutters and pulled me into the light. I was a NOBODY and even worse, a SCUMMER before she decided I was worthy. 

The three of us had just scrambled up my porch and threw open the door to my apartment ready with our usual shouts of “Hi, Mom!” “Hi Ms. Arnett!” “Hi, Crystal’s mom!” before closing my bedroom door behind us. My house was the best for hang outs because even though there weren’t any snacks, my mom was pretty oblivious to our mischief and gave us a lot of space. I’m a mom now and looking back, I have to add that it was far too much space. She was a great mom, but for some reason, she just did not parent me once I became a teenager. She treated me like a little adult. I could come and go as I pleased for the most part. 

When we opened the door, we found a young man dressed in a suit and tie holding a paper out for my mom to sign. 

“Whoa! What is going on here?!” I was freaking out because my mom was illiterate and there was no way that she knew what she was signing. I wasn’t going to say that in front of my friends but also, WHAT WAS SHE SIGNING?!

“Hi, young lady!” um this guy was like 5 years older than me. Maybe. Ugh. I hated him instantly. “I just sold your mom a new Vacuum!” 

“We don’t need a vacuum! Mom! What is going on?”

“Let me show you how it works. You will not believe the dirt that you had in this carpet!” He holds up a bag full of filth that he informs me (in front of my friends!) that he cleaned out of this one small patch in our living room floor. Now I was boiling. And I was so embarrassed I thought I might puke. This was a touchy spot for me. I had only just started bringing friends around to my house when I hit high school because before that I was too ashamed of our poverty. My mom was too sick and too depressed to clean our house and I was too young to care about cleanliness. Plus, I was my mother’s daughter and the only time I can picture her cleaning was when she was helping my aunt at her work. 

Mr. Salesman pointed to a square of carpet that was about 10 shades lighter than all of the surrounding carpet. It probably had never been vacuumed. It was gross. I could see it now and so could my friends. 

Still, we didn’t need a vacuum! We had one. “Oh my God! This is such a SCAM! You did not get that much dirt out of that tiny area of carpet!” I snatched the paper out of his hand. “Give me that! What did my mom just sign?!” 

It was worse than I expected. The vacuum was more than $1000. My mom was unemployed. In fact, she had never in her entire life held a job on the books. Babysitting for pocket change was just enough to maybe buy us a few of the odds and ends that food stamps and HUD housing voucher didn’t cover. That vacuum would take us YEARS to pay off. We couldn’t even afford the lights and heat as it was. We were not only month to month, we were on the pay $10 here and $10 there and hope that they don’t turn it off plan! 

Maybe he didn’t know that. But he could have looked around and figured it out. I mean we were the kind of poor that you could see. 

I did not know what to do. My panic was greater than my shame. There was no way we could pay that bill but there was my mom’s signature right on the bottom. That was one of the few things she could write. I would always write out the letter or wherever and then she would write Thank you. Deborah L. Arnett. You would think that since it was the only thing that she could write that maybe she would have perfected it but no, it was so messy and shaky like a kid learning cursive for the first time. 

When I knew that my mom was dying, I cut her signature out of a note and I have held onto it all these years. ❤

I took the contract with me and I went outside. I needed space to read it through and try to see if there was a way out of it. My friends followed me. I was humiliated and pissed. The boyfriend watched helplessly as tears spilled all over the papers. He was a goofball. Silly and mischievous and not the most practiced in navigating difficult emotions. But his reaction was exactly what I needed. 

“You know what?!” He reached for the papers. “Nope. Give me that.” Riiiiiiiiip. He grinned from ear to ear as he shredded the contract. “Your mom didn’t sign nothin’.” 

The 20 year old vacuum salesman descended my porch steps pretty quick. He was red in the face and spitting words at us that I could not even hear. I could not believe this boy just did that! We dated for maybe a week longer and I never even kissed him, but that boy was my hero that day. 

The icing on the cake was that the carnival was in town and we saw Mr. Vacuum Salesman at the fried dough stand. The boyfriend went directly into action. “Hey, look everybody! There’s our friend Hoover! He likes to steal from poor people! Hey, Mr. Hoover! Where you goin’, buddy? Come back! Maybe you can sell us a vacuum!” He followed him shouting for everyone to hear until he left. He was probably just another poor kid at his first job from the next town over but I guess he learned a lesson that day. 

My mom didn’t even care that we weren’t buying the vacuum or that her teenage daughter’s boyfriend ripped up a receipt of sale on a major purchase she made. It was like she had been under a spell and once the paper was ripped, the spell was broken. She literally did not react or at least I don’t remember any reaction. 

She must have known that it was a trash decision, but also this was the same woman who watched the game show “BIG BUCKS NO WAMMIES!!!” Where she would shout that at the television and cheer when the contestants won money and actually take it personally when they lost. She would enter for the Publishers Clearning House Sweepstakes every single month and buy things on credit (who would give her credit? Oh right! Publishers Clearing House, the company that is famous for scamming poor people into thinking they were going to win big!) So, maybe she didn’t realize it was a bad purchase. Who knows?

My mom had elaborate plans for how she would spend our money when she finally beat multi-generational poverty by winning the million dollar sweepstakes. It is actually when I remember these plans that I realize how deep my moms delusions and anxiety were.

This woman who could not do basic math or read or write would sit me down and explain in elaborate detail about how if we won, we would lose our state medical insurance and she would have to pay for all of her AIDS meds out of pocket and so we wouldn’t really be rich because we would have to put aside for that. We would have enough money though to get my grandparents out of the trailer park. We would get ourselves a nice double wide and they would move in with us. We once had a landlord that lived in a double wide trailer across the way from our single sized one and it became the epitome in my mom’s mind of comfortable living. 

I do not share my mom’s desire to win big but I did partner outside of my class and although it wasn’t a conscious decision it basically was the same as winning big. In the United States, partnering outside of class is one of the few ways to climb the class ladder. Its not as impossible as opening your door to find the Publishers Clearing House delivering a giant million dollar check, but still not that common. 

I haven’t spoken to the boy/class hero in many years, but I might send this to him. This marked the beginning of a shift for me away from shame about my poverty to a healthy anger about our society’s class system.

Teenage Daughter-Death Doula

About a month before my mom died, I stopped going to school. It was January of my Junior year in High-School and everyone was thinking about mid-terms and how this would decide the rest of our lives. I wasn’t thinking about the rest of my life at all. I was thinking about my mother. I was thinking about how she was my whole life and that maybe I would just die with her. Not that I was suicidal but that I couldn’t imagine a reality that did not include her. I thought I would evaporate without her. 

One night, while I was asleep in bed, I woke up to a horrible sound. I flew out of bed and searched for my mother. Had she fallen off of the couch? She had never slept in a bed or a bedroom in this apartment. Our living room had always been her space. She wasn’t there. I ran to the bathroom, but she wasn’t there either. I told her not to get up without calling to me for help! Where was she? And then I saw her foot, curled the wrong way coming out from underneath the kitchen table. I ran to her, the tears already pouring down my face. “Mama! Mama! MAMA! Are you okay?!” I reached my hands under her sweaty head and found a goose egg the size of my fist already forming on her forehead. It was the ugliest thing that I had ever seen. “Mama!” She opened her eyes and mumbled something that I could not understand. I bent down and picked her up like she was just a baby. I was not as tall as my mom yet, and I was only 115 pounds, but she was already wasting away. It wasn’t even hard for me to pick her up. I carried her limp body back to the couch and I tucked her back in. I sat with her all of that night and watched her chest rise and fall to make sure that she wouldn’t leave me. 

Sometime that night, my whole life changed. I knew before the sun even came up that I would not be going to school that day. That I would not be going to school any day in the near future. I wanted to be there for my mom and take care of her and spend every second that I could with her. 

That also meant that I would have to write a difficult letter to my boyfriend. He was the love of my life, but things had gone terribly wrong since he left for the army. He was a few years older than me, and almost as poor. He didn’t have the option of college or a job waiting for him, so he took the only chance boys like him were told they had. At first he hated the military. He would write to me constantly about how he was desperate to get out. Over time, those letters started to change. He would write things that I had never heard him say before. He was suddenly vocally racist and turning into a man that I did not know let alone want to spend the rest of my life with. He was furious when I told him I was not going to make the trip to Georgia with his parents to watch him graduate from military training. He could not understand how I could choose my mother over him. She was dying! Why would I be so focused on the past with her when he was my future! And he needed me!

I was alone. My best friends were all older than me and either graduated or were graduating. I hadn’t seen my half siblings since I was a small child and I had no one that I felt safe with or seen by. I turned to my best friend, who was a boy, for comfort. I am not proud of cheating on my boyfriend in the army, and to this day, I feel guilty, but I was scared and I needed someone to hold me and love me and take care of me and I had always been taught to turn to boys for that. Not taught by example, boys in my life had mostly been a source of trauma and violence, but in the stories that we are fed. This boy was different. He was gentle and kind and I felt safe with him. The night that my mom finally died, it was this boy who sat with me as I said goodbye. He went home well after midnight after his mother called frantic to our house looking for him. He was an upper-middle class boy from a good home and I honestly remember feeling a little guilty for scarring him with an AIDS death. That was for people like me. Not him. 

When he left, I laid down beside my mom. We had since gotten her into in-home hospice care and they had brought a hospital bed right into our living room. It was pushed up against the wall where our couch should have been. Above my mom’s head was a small prescription note ripped from a doctors pad at the hospital. It said Do not Resuscitate. I had fought for that note but I also hated it. I wanted to be strong enough to do this. To let my mom go, but I needed her. I felt selfish. I said the right things. I held her hands. I whispered into her ear that she could go and that I loved her, but my heart was shattered and I didn’t mean a word of it. 

I wanted to scream at her, “Mommy! I need you! Please don’t leave me!” but I knew that would not make a difference, and besides, she was already almost gone. Science and medicine would say she was still there, but I had felt her leave already. I had felt her squeeze my hand after not being able to acknowledge anyone for days and then I had felt her spirit leave me. 

Our last picture together.

Now, I was laying with her body, still sweating and breathing, but barely. I will never forget that moment in the early hours of January 20, 2004. The way she looked, and smelled and breathed and lived will forever be etched on my soul. I wish that I could remember her voice too, but she had already given up on words. My mother’s voice is like that thing that you can almost remember, but not quite. It sits on the tip of my own tongue and I try to let it out. I try to hear it..and I almost do. Sometimes. Sometimes I hear it in my dreams. But these visits are never the kind that I am so desperate for. They are not the visits from the mother who would hold me and rock me and love me. These are the visits from my mother who was so deeply traumatized that she became the abuser. She chases me in my dreams. I do not fight back, but I do protect myself. I run away or jump out of windows to avoid her swinging weapons at me. Sometimes, she catches me and I can see her wild eyes glaring into mine and she is trying to kill me but I always make myself wake up. Then I can still feel my heart pounding and my voice is screaming in my head, begging her to stop. To love me again. To not hurt me anymore. Both of those mothers existed in real life. I wish my dream world could remember both. 

I never defended myself against these attacks, although I didn’t just stand there and take it either. I would run away if possible and dodge anything she could throw at me. One time, when I was finally almost as big as my mom, not too many months before she died, I grabbed my mom’s fist as it came flying at my head. I did not hit her back, but I did use my newfound strength to hold her back from continuing to abuse me. We crashed into a chair and I used that opportunity to bolt out of the house. I ran all the way to a friends house and pretended that I was just bored and looking for something to do. 

My grandmother found us walking downtown and stopped the car right beside me on the sidewalk. I gulped and gave my friend an “I’m sorry for what is about to happen” look. She had no idea what was going on. I was humiliated by my abuse and never told her, or anyone, what was happening. My grandmother snatched me by the hair and dragged me to her car. She whipped the door open and threw me in the backseat. I might have been almost as big as my mama but I wasn’t even close to as big as my grandma! She lit right into me, saying some nonsense about how my mom called her crying and how she wouldn’t tolerate me beating up on my own poor mama. Well, I opened my mouth to respond and tell her what was really happening when she turned around to face me in the backseat and smacked me HARD across the face. I gave up and just cried the whole way back to my apartment with my mom. I didn’t even have enough fight left in me when I got back to object to my grandma demanding I apologize to my mom. I just said, “I’m sorry” and locked myself away in my room. 

I was not completely innocent throughout this time either though. I know that I didn’t deserve any of that abuse, but I DID deserve some kind of punishment or something. I was convinced that I was trash. That I did not matter and that no one loved me in the world. And so it was that I fell prey to every evil small town America can muster up. Boys and alcohol and drugs were my primary source of pain and pleasure and I was not giving my mom an easy time at all. If she wanted to protect me, she was going to have to stand in my way and I had learned that she no longer could. At some point I simply stopped sneaking out of my bedroom window and started walking out the door. My mom gave up too. I would look over my shoulder and say, “I love you. Good night. See you in the morning.” and she would say it back. No questions about where I was headed or who would be there or how I was getting there. We both just wanted to make sure that no matter what happened, those would be the last words we said to each other. On one hand, because we knew too well that our time together was not going to last and also because I felt like it was a magic spell almost. Like if we always said those words, then we would see each other in the morning and my mom would never die. The night that she finally passed, she was not able to say those words and I chose not to. Instead, I said, “I love you. It is ok to go now. I love you so much mom.” Maybe they did hold a little bit of magic. Who knows. 

I thought of all of this during the weeks of no sleeping that my mom was dying at our home. After her fall, I committed to not sleeping unless the hospice nurse was visiting during the day, so that I could be sure that she wouldn’t try to get out of bed alone again. I remember staring for hours at that little note on the wall above her. D.N.R. I wanted to tear it off the wall so many times. It was such an important piece of paper, but it was just barely taped there. It looked like someone had just taped it up in a hurry because it was crooked and only attached with a tiny piece of tape. But I had fought for my mom to have the right to die at home. I had stood up as tall as I could and looked directly in the eye of the doctor in charge of my mom’s care. He would not discharge my mom without giving someone the discharge orders so that someone would know how to take care of her since she was no longer cognitively or physically able. She really had never been. 

Look closely and you will see the DNR taped above my moms bed. She was only 39 years old.

“Listen, I know you want your mom to go home. If you want that, I need to speak with an adult. Isn’t there someone that you can reach who can come here and get the instructions for her care so that we can discharge her safely?” -The young handsome doctor that everyone in my town seems to love and admire. 

“No. There is no one. There is me. I am her caregiver. I am 17 years old. If I was 18, would you give me the instructions?”

“Yes…I would. I need to give the discharge paperwork to an adult. Not to a child.” 

“I am not a child! I am the one who has taken care of her all of these years! Can I call a relative? Sure! I could call up my grandma or an aunt or uncle, but it won’t be them at our home making sure she takes the right meds or holding her hair back while she pukes or making sure she eats enough and stays hydrated. It will be me! So, you tell me what is safer, giving the discharge instructions to an adult who won’t be there or to a child who will be?”

He looks at me. I think he hears this. I know that it is not only my age that he is weighing the risks of. He has also heard of my reputation. He is close with a parent of one of my classmates. Also, it is a small town so no one is free from their own reputation. What if he sends my mom home with me and I just leave and go out drinking? Looking back I can see that his intentions were probably good, but in that moment, I hated him. I hated that he was adored and I was hated, that he was all powerful and I was weak. That he held my mom’s final wishes in his hands and could stop me from giving her what she wanted. 

“Please. My mom wants to die at home. Please don’t keep her here.”

Finally, he helped me make a plan. I would need to fill out some paperwork and we would need to keep that note in a clearly visible spot that an ambulance crew would definitely see if they were called to our home. And so it was. My mom got her wish to die at home. Over those next few weeks, I panicked more than a few times and pushed the emergency button that would get me a hospice nurse on the phone immediately. I knew there wasn’t anything they could do except keep her comfortable, but I was still terrified of what was happening. I was committed to helping my mom die at home, and I never would have let them take her, so I am not sure what was going through my head when I would slam down on that button. I think I just needed a witness and I needed someone to know that none of this was ok. 

Being with my mom as she died is a sacred gift that I am incredibly grateful for. She accidentally birthed me at home (well in a truck, not in a hospital) and then I intentionally helped her transition out of this life at home. It made sense to me that I would share that moment with her. We had always shared everything. 

A newspaper clipping about my mom’s accidental home birth.

Losing my mom was terrifying for the many years that I anticipated it, but when it happened, it was not scary at all. It just was. After she died, I took one last look at her. I tried to memorize every detail. I knew that it would be the last time that I would see her. She wanted to be cremated. Then I walked to my room, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep. I have no idea how long I laid there or if I was even really asleep. I know I wasn’t crying. I was numb. I was numb for a long time. I remember “waking up” in my high school English teachers house and realizing that I lived there now and realizing that I had been sleepwalking through my life since my mom’s death.

That morning that my mom died, the local funeral director came into my room. He knelt down beside my bed and pulled the blankets back so that he could see my face. 

“Crystal, I know this is hard. I need you to answer a few questions for me so that we can arrange a funeral for your mom.” 

“I can’t do it. Isn’t there someone else you can talk to about this?”

“Crystal, there isn’t anyone else here. I promise it won’t take long. I just have a few questions.”

“What was your grandmothers maiden name? What year did your mom’s husband die?…” I answered these questions calmly, but with hot tears streaming down my face. I thought of the irony that when I wanted to be considered grown up enough to take care of my mom, the system saw me as a child but when I wanted to be left alone in my grief, it didn’t matter that I was a child. I was the only one there. 

Just a few months later, my only grandfather died and I sat on the porch of my uncle answering all of those same questions again with that same funeral director. This time I screamed at him, “Why are you asking all of these questions again? You know all of the answers! How many of my relatives have you buried? My father, step father, cousins, grandparents! You know this. Are you trying to hurt us?” This poor man was actually a sweet guy just doing his job, and I hope he forgives me and understands that my rage was not meant for him. I was mad at death and AIDS and poverty and drugs and all of the world for allowing my family to  be vulnerable to these predators. 

There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish that my mom were still here. I miss her so deep in my chest. It still hurts to think about. I know that she would have softened in her old age. I tell myself that she would not have chased my children around with knives as she chased me. Grandparents are gentler with their grandchildren than with their children. I know she would have loved my three angels almost as much as I love them. I will never have her back.  But when it hurts the most, when I miss her so much that I can not breath, I let myself close my eyes and remember that day. 

The day she died. and it brings me peace. The early morning hours when it was just us again. Curled into each others arms in a sweat soaked bed. Her hair matted to her face and clinging to my shoulder. Our fingers interlaced as I said goodbye and as she left me. I will forever grieve my mother, but i am also eternally grateful that I got the privilege to guide her to the other side. I am not sure what waits for us after we die, but my mom was a believer in Heaven and God and the Angels and so that is where I picture her now. Singing off tune with the angels and giving my little babies angel kisses before sending them over to me on this side. 

My oldest child on a visit to my hometown, walking toward the alley where I was born. She never met her grandmother, but she stood in the spot where her grandmother gave birth to her mom. ❤

Deborah Lynn Kellner Arnett     8/02/1964-1/20/2004

An intimate history of gun violence in rural America through the story of one girl

Content Warning: Gun Violence, Domestic Violence, Suicidal Ideation, 

I am sitting in the public library trying to focus on what is real and in front of me to slow down my brain which is spiraling into anxiety and fear. I am scanning the room for exits and checking to see if the door we are near locks. It doesn’t. I try to make my eyes stay focused on my oldest, happily absorbed in a book. I  see my son building blocks with my toddler. I also see a man walk in weighted down with heavy bags. I try to make eye contact so that I can gage his mood and if he is a threat. This is not uncommon behavior for me, but given the latest news cycle of mass shootings, my alarm bells are louder and easier to set off. 

I hear a lot of debate about guns and the causes of mass violence, but I am not hearing a lot from the people who live in the communities who supposedly love guns and benefit from having easy and constant access to them. I am sure there are many people from my neck of the woods who would have a different analysis and experience than me, but I know for a fact that there are just as many women and children living in the war zone that I grew up in. I have learned that if I can not find what I am looking for, then I need to create it. The stories that follow are just one girls experiences of growing up poor in gun-loving rural America. 

The first time I held a gun in my hands, I was only five years old. I was sitting criss-cross applesauce on the edge of my dad’s bed. My dad, my real birth dad, was dying of AIDS so he lived all of his days in a hospital cot that was in the living room of the apartment that he shared with his wife (not my mom) and my four siblings. I spent a lot of time curled up in that bed on the weekends when I was at their home. 

My dad reached under his pillow. He pulled the gun out and although this is my first gun memory, there must have been something before this, because I sensed danger. Already the hairs on the back of my neck were raised and already I was terrified. Even in the arms of my dad who called me “Face” and “Sunshine” and told me he loved me at every chance.   

He was saying words, but I do not remember them. My memory of this moment is a silent film. I can feel the weight of the gun in my hands. I am already trained to play along with men, even dad-men, and act like I am interested in whatever they say so that I do not make them angry. I examine the gun with my eyes and try to force a smile at my dad. His eyes are not smiling. He looks sad. He looks scared. Why is he scared?! If he is scared then I definitely need to be scared too. I do not know what shifts but I feel it in my body as my dad takes the gun out of my hand. Now, I feel that cold metal that was just in my hands, pressed against my head. I can’t breathe. What is happening? Then. My brother, the oldest one. The one that I am also scared of. He enters the room and without thinking, I dive off of the bed and run out of the room as fast as I can. I know that my dad can’t get out of bed to chase me. I will be safe now. Not only does he have AIDS, but he had Polio as a child and his immuno-depressed state has somehow reactivated the polio and stolen his ability to walk even with a cane as he used to. 

When my mom comes to pick me up with her new boyfriend, Tom, I am still trembling. I am still not forming words, which is unlike me. If I am not talking, something is not ok. My mom would not let it rest until I gave her the details of what happened. She is furious and over the course of the next week her fury and fear are building and building. The story of what happened is building and building and I can no longer at this age decipher between what happened and what was my mom’s interpretation of what happened. 

That Friday, my mom locked the doors and turned the lights off when my step-mom, Jane came to pick me up. When Jane demanded that my mom send me with her so I could see my dying father, my mom let loose on her. If not for that locked door, I can only imagine the brawl that would have ensued. Instead, I was witness to a knock out drag out screaming match. The hysteria died down and we let our guard down and turned the lights back on. Then the police came. 

Boom! Boom! Boom! “Open! Up! It’s the police!”

Now my mom is not mad. She is terrified. We are white and therefore incredibly privileged, but in a small predominantly white town, it is this part of town, the low income housing side, that sees the most police aggression. Still, I am her only child and she has nothing to lose. She will not put me in harms way. “NO! I will not open this door! I will not let you take my child back to that place!! Please! He put a gun to her head! He put a gun to my daughters head! I won’t let you take her!” 

“We have a court document that states that the child needs to be with her father right now. We need you to open the door or we will be forced to bust it open.” 

My mom is frantically dialing the court ordered lawyer. She isn’t getting ahold of anyone. She isn’t sure what to do. My step-dad is just recently released from Prison and she does not want to get him in trouble over this. He is hiding in the bedroom. I am hiding too. I am curled up in my mom’s closet under a pile of clothes, squeezing my eyes closed and crying. I have heard from my mom that my dad was trying to kill me. That he wants to die and that he wants to take me with him. 

The police are in the house. I can hear my mom sobbing and begging them not to take me. They demand to be told where I am. They are in the room. My mom’s room. I am trying to be silent but I am still gulping for air. I can see through the slats in the closet door that they are tearing the room apart. They look under the bed. They look in the clothes basket. They knock everything off the dresser. I am not on the dresser, but clearly they are mad that they have to do this job and they are acting big and tough. It works. I am more scared than I was on my dad’s lap with a gun pressed to my face. 

They open the closet door. I do not wait for them to lift the clothes and find me. I throw the pile off me and while they are realizing what is happening, I make my escape. But I am small. I am a kindergartner. They grab for me, but I hurl my body underneath the kitchen table. I cling to the leg of the table, while they cling to my legs. I am sure they are trying to talk to me and tell me I am safe, but I do not feel safe. I am screaming at the top of my lungs, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and that is when they finally let me go. They finally see how scared I am. They tell me mom that they will send over a social worker and that they will not make me go to my fathers this weekend but that we will need to go back to court and get this all worked out. 

here I am sitting at the table that I hid under.

The trauma continues through the court process where they make me testify in a room full of adults. Men. Some of them police with guns holstered onto their hips. They will not let my mom go with me to testify because they are afraid I won’t tell the truth with her there. They make me do this many times over weeks and months to make sure that my story does not change. My accusation is pretty serious. They search my father’s apartment and never find the gun, but they also never send me back there. The next time I see my dad, he is on his death bed in a hospital and I am there to say goodbye. 

My exposure to guns did not die with my father. The second time that I held a gun in my hands, I was seven years old. My step father hands me the gun and directs me to point it up the hill in the yard behind our trailer. He tells me he is training me to hunt groundhogs. This gun is nothing like my father’s gun. It is much bigger. It is almost as big as me. My step-father is laughing at how ridiculous I look trying to hold the weight of it up on my scrawny shoulder to steady it. “It’s got a kick! So get ready! It will probably knock you on your ass!” He is cackling at this. 

I hate this. I don’t want this gun in my hands. I am afraid, but I don’t want to prove my step-dad right that I am a weakling good for nothing girl child so I take a deep breath and squeeze the trigger. The shock of the force and echo of the blast knock me flying to the ground.  I want to cry and run away but I want to impress my new dad more. So, I get up. I smile at him. I ask, “Did I do it right? Did I do a good job?” and only after he hugs me do I allow myself to touch the throbbing spot on my arm where the gun has left an already spreading bruise. 

As much as I don’t like the feel of a gun in my hands, I really don’t like having the gun in someone else’s hands even more. I have mentioned that my step-dad put me through a rigorous “training” in some of my previous writings. Basically, he was incarcerated for most of his life and so I believe he put me through exercises that he was put through in prison. Some of the training was fun. He would take me on long jogs, he would count my push-ups and sit-ups and reward me when I met my goals. 100 sit-ups without stopping would earn me a baby doll that I desperately coveted. (I earned that doll by the end of first grade.) but the training got more and more sinister. One of his favorite “drills” to put me through was a “game” where he would instruct me to run up the steep hill behind our trailer and avoid being hit by the bullets that he was shooting at me. “Remember! This is important! It is hard to hit a moving target. Keep moving! Keep zigzagging up the hill! DO NOT RUN IN A STRAIGHT LINE!” 

“………” 

“Ok! GO!!!!!” 

The hills that I would run into while being shot at.

I do not know if he was actually shooting at me, but I know that I was running like hell and I was hearing the gun firing behind me. Whether it was all just to scare me and he was really shooting at me or not, I will never know, but I never got clipped with a bullet. I believed that I felt the bullets zinging around me although in my adulthood I wonder if it was only the wind because how could he have actually been shooting at me? 

The only time I know that he was definitely shooting live bullets at me, was the time that he pointed a b-b gun point blank at my head in the living room of our trailer. I was a child and he was pissed at something I did. I ducked just as the bb left the gun and it shot right over my head. My mom was sitting right behind me and her head while sitting was right where my head was while standing. It was too fast to see where it hit her, but I saw her reel backward with her hands to her face and I again let out my loudest scream, “MOMMMMMMYY!!!’ 

I never saw my mom hold a gun, but from time to time I would see her take out a single bullet that she kept, “In case she needed it.” She would hold it in her fingers and turn it this way and that. I knew what that bullet was for. I lived in fear of that bullet. I knew I would lose my mom to AIDS, but I feared I would lose her to the bullet even sooner. I still have that bullet. I keep it not for the same reason as her, but because I want something that my mother touched.By the time I was a teen, Tom was also lost to AIDS, but still gun culture survived around me. It was not uncommon for me to go on dates with boys out some back road, not to go “parking” in the woods, but to shoot at cans and get to know each other. (In case any of the boys I dated in high school are reading this, I much preferred the “parking” to the shooting. Thanks though.) Anyway, by this time, I had been trained well and I knew that men wanted a woman who was strong enough to hold a gun. I would wear my sexiest cut-ff daisy duke jean shorts and hold that gun like I meant business. If you weren’t looking closely, you might think that I liked guns. You might think my heart was beating face and my face was flush with romance, but no. My body was panicking and I was just already pretty good at controlling it to appear normal. Because to not love guns was not normal.
I can’t tell you all of my gun stories. It would take too long and what is the point. You understand my story, I think.  But even if we didn’t live in the middle of a mass shooting epidemic, I want you to know what it feels like to live in the belly of the gun-loving beast. I never felt safer with a gun in my home.

Debbie Lynn Kellner Arnett

My mom would have been 55 years old today. She would have loved her three grandbabies. She would have drove me insane but also kept me whole. I honestly can’t imagine what she would have been like had she been given the gift of long life. I never imagined my mom as an old woman or as a grandma…even though I always knew I would be a mama.

My kids already know about AIDS, and oppression and poverty and sexism and racism and all of the factors (ok, most of the factors) that led to my parents dying of AIDS, but how to tell them who my mom really was? I never knew my mom before AIDS. She was diagnosed when I was only three months old. The mom that I grew to know and love was depressed, deeply anxious, paranoid and traumatized. She was in a constant confusing state of waiting to die and fighting for her life.

Today I sat my kids down with the blue plastic bin that I have carted around since my mom died. The “my old life before my mom died” bin. I fried up some summer squash and let my daughter share a cup of coffee with me, because her grandma Debbie would have loved that. I wiped clean every sticky jelly spot from our breakfast table and removed every glass of water. I reminded the kids that the photos we were about to take out and touch are sacred to me.

Slowly, I reached back in time and examined each picture with new eyes, just as my babies were. It is amazing how different they all look with a little perspective and an adult’s eye. Like I noticed medicine bottles lining our living room wall when we lived back in public housing. My eyes had never focused on that detail before. Why would a woman who was keeping her diagnosis a secret be so careless as to leave her med bottles out in the open where anyone could see them? Did she not realize people would be suspicious about a 22 year old mom needing so many meds? What was in those medicine bottles in the late 80’s? What medicine was my mom taking at a time when doctors did not have an effective treatment plan for even the most wealthy and privileged patients, let alone a poor rural woman?

Even after all these years, the pictures are still just crammed into the box, alongside childhood journals and funeral home guestbooks. Today as I touched each photo, I began putting them into a photo album that I picked up at Goodwill. Already, having some of the task done, I felt an ease. They felt a little safer. Why did I wait so long to do this simple task that I wanted so badly?

As I was deciding which pictures deserved a spot in the album, I was also pulling aside my favorite ones of my mom. The ones that show her as a full person. The one of her laughing her face off with her sister at my cousin’s birthday party. The one of her dancing with her father at her wedding. The one of her holding onto her parents and niece and nephew for dear life after her sister lost her youngest child in a car accident. The one of her getting skinny again at the end.

There is so much I don’t know about my mom. I dont know her birth story. She was one of eight children. She and her twin came right in the middle of my grandmother’s pregnancies. Was it dramatic because they were twins? These days, they would have most likely been a cesarean birth but 55 years ago…probably not. Did my mom tell me the story and I don’t remember? She told me my birth story a million times. (future blog post about that. Spoiler alert, I came into the world in the front seat of a pick-up truck!) I called my Aunt Brenda to wish her a happy birthday today and decided to ask her to tell me their birth story, but she wasn’t home. Makes sense, it was her birthday. She still uses a landline, so I just had to keep calling and keep hearing the endless ringing. I will try again tomorrow. How lucky I am that even though I don’t have my mom, I have her twin! If not, her birth story would almost definitely be lost along with my mom and grandparents.

I wish I could tell you what my mom was like before AIDS. I wish I could tell you what her dreams were. All I know is that she was spunky and rebellious and found a way to look cute even without a penny to her name. I only ever saw glimpses of that mom though. The mom that raised me was a born again Christian who wore cat sweaters that she bought second hand and a fanny pack (before it was trendy!)

Somehow I got the idea to listen to a song that I hadn’t heard in 15 years, My Immortal by Evanescence. It came out a month and a half before my mom died, but I don’t remember listening to the words until the day my mom died. Imagine being alone in the apartment that your mom just died in at 17 years old and that song comes on out of no where. I sobbed today in my kitchen still remembering every single word.

You used to captivate me by your resonating light

Now, I’m bound by the life you left behind

Your face it haunts my once pleasant dreams

Your voice it chased away all the sanity in me

These wounds won’t seem to heal, this pain is just too real

There’s just too much that time cannot erase

My Immortal by Evanescence

My children had been working on making yard sale signs while I was making a cherry cheesecake (my moms favorite!) and crying and singing in the kitchen. I hadn’t realized that my oldest was tuned in until I felt her arms wrap around my waist and felt her suddenly crying into my chest. I ran my fingers through her hair and reassured her that I was ok, only sad, but ok, and she said, “I know mom, I just wish I could have met her!” and just like that I saw myself pulling all three of my kids into a big snuggle and heard myself telling them that they have met her in a way! “You know how much I love you and you love me? That was the same with me and my mom and that is how she would have loved you. She was funny and loving and kind and fierce and….and…I guess I am a lot like my mom come to think of it, so knowing me, and if you can imagine a person who is like me and my aunt Brenda mixed together, that is like who your grandma was!”

and so I guess I do remember who my mama was. because I am her. I can still feel her deep in my chest. She is that achy spot, but she is also that well of love that I have for my kids, her grandbabies. She is the way I hold my lips when I am angry and the way my hips pop out when I am feeling sassy. She is most definitely my temper but also my joy. It is not the same. I miss her so much. I wish she was here tonight to hold me like I hold my kids and tell me I am safe. but this space and time that I created for her almost brought her to life for me. It almost made her memory real enough for me to hear and see and smell. It is enough for now. I will pull it all back out at the next big milestone. The anniversary of her death. World AIDS Day. but for now, mama. Good night. I love you. I won’t see you in the morning but that is ok. I will remember you and I will love you forever.

my mom and my cousin in the front and me and my step dad in the back.
I definitely make this face.
mom with her dad at her wedding to my step dad.
my mom, her twin and one of their little sisters.
my mom and I with some of my cousins and my grandparents
my mom looking happy and a rare photo showing her teeth before she got false teeth
twinsies
The last picture of my mom and her twin about a week before she died. Happy Birthday Aunt Brenda. I cant imagine losing a twin. I love you.

What you might not know that even I can only imagine.

My mom was 22 years old when she was diagnosed HIV+. I was there, but I was only 3 months old, so please forgive me if I get some details wrong. I am doing my best. I have only the pieces whispered to me from relatives and the memories of the stories my mom shared with me when she was alive. These things were never said in full voice and never ever in mixed company. 

I want to imagine what this time period was like for my mom because I never had the privilege of knowing her as an adult. Almost..I was 17 when she died. But as I mother my own children, I am reminded that children are incapable of understanding their parents as full people. And that is ok and good unless you never get the chance to grow up. 

I imagine my mama cradling me in her arms. Bottle pressed to my lips. She is numb. She is in shock. She is begging God to save her. To save us. She has been living with my father and his 4 children for the past year, playing step-mom to my half siblings and homewrecker at the same time. Most of that year, she is watching her own belly grow with her miracle baby that doctors told her she would never have. But now everything is crashing down around her. Of course it is. You don’t interject yourself into the middle of a marriage and not have some fall-out. 

But she did not expect this. No one did. Who would have expected in 1986 for a heterosexual woman in rural America to be diagnosed HIV+. and yet, just the day before, my fathers ex wife had shown up sobbing at the door. Her message was unbelievable and yet it was true. She had been diagnosed HIV+. 6 months to live. Maybe more maybe less, but there was no cure. There was not even a decent treatment. She would suffer and she would die and she would leave behind 4 children ages 6-12. But what about my father? What about my mother? What about all of us kids? We all needed to go get tested. How long was the waiting period in 1986 to get results for an HIV test in a town of less than 2000 people? How long did these mothers, and fathers need to hold their babies wondering if they would at best be orphans and at worst be lost to the epidemic as well? No one knew much about HIV yet, let alone a poor illiterate woman. There was more misinformation and stigma than scientific facts. 

My mom must have felt cursed. She had grown up in an evangelical church and knew the lesson well. If you disobey God, he will strike you down! Her dream of becoming a mother was now being held over the fire. 

My brave mom who was 22 years old, facing each day with an HIV diagnosis and a new baby.

There must have been waves of new things to fear and grieve. While she waited on her own diagnosis, my father gave her his decision. If he came back positive, he would leave us and go back with his wife. He had hurt his real family enough. He would care for his wife and care for their children if she were to go before him. As it turned out, she was the only survivor from all of the diagnosis. I am so happy for her. Honestly. I wish my mom was here too, but I am glad that she made it. 

You already know the rest. My father was positive. They had been living together out at his sisters trailer. He would move back into his ex-wife’s apartment and my mom would stay with her now ex boyfriends sister in a tight fitting trailer on the same land as her ex boyfriends mothers house. The grandmother of her new baby. Can you imagine all of the mixed feelings that all of these characters had for my mom who had swooped in and taken my father out of his marriage? Can you imagine how they felt about her after he finally went back to his wife? Can you imagine how they felt about me? I was allowed visitations with my fathers side until I was about 6 years old and even though I was so small, I can still remember, if only viscerally, which relatives loved me and which was saw me as the product of the homewrecker AIDS diagnosis fiasco. 

My mom was eventually given an apartment in the housing projects for single mothers. She and I would live there alone for the next 6 years. I would visit my dad on the weekends. 

If you have been following my stories, you know all of this. But here is what you might not know yet. My parents were forced to get their HIV tests at the local health clinic. The clinic was the best and only option for healthcare unless you had reliable transportation out of town and health insurance coverage to go somewhere else. The clinic was staffed by an ever changing physician from away and local nurses. In all of my pediatric years at that office, I never had the same doctor for more than 3 consecutive years. 

They promised my parents confidentiality but what were the laws and protections in place in ‘86? They promised that the diagnosis would not leave the clinic, and maybe the physicians believed that. I mean, they were from away and maybe did not understand the ways that information is shared in small towns. The nurses knew the truth. They didn’t even hide their disgust and hate when my parents entered the room. 

They put rubber gloves on immediately and glared at my mom on the plastic paper covered bed. She clutched me and fought to remain calm and dignified while they threw the thermometer into her lap and said, “take your temperature and then leave the thermometer on the paper to be disinfected.” They wouldn’t touch her. They wished she wasn’t in there at all. Maybe they were genuinely scared. Maybe they didn’t know the ways HIV is transmitted from one person to the next. Maybe they already hated her for being poor and trash and were used to throwing her away. Maybe this was just another round of their abuse. 

My step mom was the first to receive her diagnosis and the first to face the violence of stigma. She was sitting in a booth in the diner in the middle of our small town. My siblings were fighting over plates of chicken tenders and ranch and one basket of fries. Money was tight and eating out was more about the experience of doing something out of the house than actually buying food to eat. 

She thought she noticed a waitress staring at her. She thought she noticed the waitresses whispering to each other behind their hands. But was that even new? How much whispering had been going on about her over the past year as her husband moved in with another woman who was growing his baby? Her stomach was probably in knots but the doctor had told her to keep living. To go on as best as possible for the sake of the children. They would not have her for long and she should try to spend time with them. 

“SHE HAS AIDS!!! I HEARD IT FROM A RELIABLE SOURCE!!” The diner staff had been escalating each other. Ew! She was sitting right at the table, eating off of the silverware and plates! They would have to throw everything in the trash. They were getting angrier and angrier. How dare she put them all at risk! Now they were out for blood. They were on the attack. 

My step-mom quickly got up from the table. She tried to get out of there fast, but she hadn’t paid and she had 4 kids to corral.

“Do you deny it?!” They wouldn’t let her get away that easy! 

She didn’t lie but she didn’t confess either. “Who told you that?!” 

“The nurses from the clinic saw it on your chart! We all know the truth! You have AIDS and so does your cheating husband and his slut girlfriend too.”

Did my step-mom defend herself? Did my big brother who is a pain in the ass but also a fierce protector to this day, stand up and defend his mom? Did they all even know yet what was going on? Had their parents sat them down and explained that they had been diagnosed with a virus that had just finally been given a name and that society hated everyone who had the virus? 

By some miracle, none of my siblings tested positive. Even I tested negative. Who knew that the evil corporate scheme to convince low income mothers to pay for formula instead of breastfeeding would actually save my life? I mean, I lucked out by being born negative in 86 to a positive mom. Now, babies have a good chance of being negative thanks to testing and really effective medicines, but in 1986 my chances of survival would have been near 0. Especially if you factor my class background in. Even if HIV+ babies were surviving in the early years, factor in malnutrition and trauma and I would not have had a chance. 

My mom had always told me that no one knew she had HIV. or at least that almost no one knew. Wishful thinking I guess, but I believed her. We needed to believe that the people in our town did not know we had this vile mark upon us. We had seen the reactions even from those who loved us the most, and we knew that the reactions from strangers would be worse. 

My mom with her parents. Their trailer was the most consistent place in all of my childhood. She never told me how they reacted to her diagnosis, but I know they loved her. My grandfather died just a few months after her and her mom died just a couple of years later. I miss them too.

Most of my mom’s family eventually came around. As the years passed and they became more convinced of the science that you can’t catch AIDS from sitting next to someone or even giving someone a hug. But in those first years after diagnosis, my mom and all of my parents faced the need to say goodbye to relatives who were terrified of them.

My mom was one of many. She didn’t talk much about this time period, but there was one story she was willing to share. One story that left a scar that she could still feel years later. She took me over to her sister’s house. Not her twin, but one of her sisters houses, it honestly doesn’t matter anymore which one. She was excited to bring me over to play with my cousins who were about the same age. We were all perfect little mischievous toddlers and she was desperate for a relaxing and nourishing afternoon of family and silliness. 

Maybe my aunt didn’t have a phone to call ahead or maybe my mom was the one without a phone. This was in the time before cell phones so it wasn’t as expected to call ahead. Either way, when my aunt answered the door, it was clear that this visit was both unexpected and unwelcome. Still ,she wasn’t a total monster. She opened the door. She let us in. She even let my mom place me on the floor to steal the ball from my cousins or whatever other toddler thing I did with my time back then. But when my mom reached down to comfort my cousin when he started to cry…well that was when my aunt needed to say what needed to be said. “NO! Deb! NO! Please don’t touch my kids.” Did she look angry? Afraid? Embarrassed? Sad? Did she love my mom and feel bad saying these things? 

My mom was obviously hurt. Did they fight? Or did they talk it out. I mean they must have to some extent because my mom did not pick me right up and walk out the door. Not yet at least. Maybe her loneliness and despair pushed her to work things out even though she was not the one in the wrong at all. “Why did you let us in if you don’t want us here?! So, I am allowed in but I am not allowed to touch my nephews is that it? Hunh?” My mom was a fiery woman but she was also deeply ashamed so I can not imagine if her words were loud or forced.

“No, Deb. That is not IT. You can come here. But you have to understand! These are my children. You can’t expect me to not protect them! You can sit on the couch but that is it. You need to sit on a towel and I will throw it away when you leave. You can not touch us or eat or drink anything. And you can not use the bathroom here.”

My mom was understanding now. Now she was pissed. And humiliated. I was oblivious still slobbering on the toy that I had swiped from my cousins fingers. She scooped me up and barrelled out the door. She turned back and made sure my aunt was looking before screaming, “I won’t be back, Don’t worry!” while rubbing her hands up- and down any surface she could reach. Honestly, she didn’t blame my aunt. I mean she was terrified of giving me HIV as well, but still, let my aunt sanitize her whole apartment. Let her tear the door off the hinges and burn it. 

A note:

Every word of this story is the truth. Or as close to the truth as I can get. Not every word or thought, but the scenes and actions are all true. The story involving my step mom at the diner was only used because she had shared it herself in a local paper decades later when it was clear she was going to be a long term survivor and was living in a different community. Out of respect for her and my siblings, I would never have shared a part of our shared story involving them directly unless she herself had already shared it publicly. Just to be clear about this piece. I am sorry if I have not captured the scenes or emotions perfectly.