Coming Here

They’re coming here.

The students.  The survivors.  Those who the gunman wasn’t able to kill.  They’re coming to a school in my town in a few days.

We closed a school, a few years back, in a contentious budget cutting year to save money.  We reconfigured our entire school system and changed the culture of our district.  It was a difficult, divisive time in our town.  Every time I have driven past that closed school to the current middle school, I have felt a twinge of anger and sadness.  It sits empty, the sign in front claiming it schools students in grades 5 and 6, but it doesn’t.  On the side of the building, boards fill in a space where windows should be; when the window broke, no one thought it was worth spending money to fix.  Because no one uses the building anyway.

But now, in the wake of the horrible tragedy on Friday, our empty school is no longer a burden, a symbol, an albatross.

It is a gift.

It is a gift we can give those families that lost everything last week, so that they don’t have to return to the place where so much evil occurred.  They don’t have to go back at all this school year, if they don’t want to.  They will have the luxury of time to figure out what to do next.  Because they can come here.  They can come to our town, to our school, and hopefully feel some shred of safety and comfort in returning to some sort of routine.

I’m grateful that there is something tangible we can offer these families.

I don’t know any of those who died on Friday personally.  But I know so many who do.  I knew three of the names before they were released because they were friends of my friends.  One little boy went to preschool with a friend’s daughter.  Another took Tae Kwon Do with several friends’ kids.  A third used to work with one of the parents.  And the father of the gunman works for the same company as my husband, although in a different location.

My own daughter is fearful.  They put her school in a lockdown so strict that they all huddled in a corner away from the windows and the doors.  When the kids snickered and talked the teacher told them tersely that this was “not a drill”.  For a period of time, she thought the incident was at her school.  That the bad guys were coming down her hallways.  And now she knows that only a few miles separated her from that reality being hers instead of those poor childrens’.   She has friends that don’t want to return to school tomorrow.  There will be police, there will be counselors, there will be little learning and much talking about unspeakable things.

I do not know what kind of world it is that we live in.  Today, from my small town in Connecticut, it seems a very, very dark place.

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Wondering

“So Mom, do you think that you’ll be going back to teaching or something now that Michael is doing better in school?” asked my eldest son, home for the in between of his college days and his working days.

I understand why it’s on his mind.  He has spent every day since his graduation last May searching for a full time job.  He worked hard for four years, graduated with top honors, and is ready to strike out on his own.  I remember the feeling; I was so excited to be “near the end of the tunnel” at the end of my college experience.  Since I’d moved home when I had Z, I looked forward to that rite of passage of graduating, getting my first job and setting up my first apartment, just me and my little boy, finally self sufficient and on our own.  My end of college and subsequent job search though ended up getting intertwined with my mother’s illness and then her passing, so life and plans and expectations changed.

But Z, he has a clear path.  And he’s very focused.  So I can imagine that he looks at me, the former teacher with a degree and a certificate growing yellow around the edges in a file cabinet in the basement, with some confusion.   He’s seen me work as a teacher when he was young, and then still pursue it in the evenings when he was an early teen.  But that all fell by the wayside when we moved here and my youngest was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  I needed to be available during the days, because sometimes things happen.  And over the years we’ve lived here, R’s job has made him less and less able to help, until we’ve gotten to the point now where it truly is all on me, all of the time.  If R’s around it is a bonus, but I pretty much expect that I am the one in charge of all things related to the children.  It truly is my job at this point, and everything else plays second fiddle.

It’s not where I thought I’d be when I was standing where Z is right now.  I thought I would work and have children and be married and share all of the home and children responsibilities equally with my partner.  I made all sorts of black and white statements, the kind that kids that age make when life hasn’t thrown them too many curveballs yet.  But yet somehow, here I am.   I’m OK with it for now, after many years of struggling and chafing at the thought of being “only” a mom.  Watching Michael do well in school or Melinda push herself because of something she’s seen me do or say helps me stay in the game, seeing Z prepare to take on his first real job after college and start his life.

But still, I wonder too, where I will go from here.  I thought of the times in my life when I didn’t have a choice.  All of the choices that life took away from me.  But I realized:  I’m lucky to have choices now. And I realized that I have plenty of time to think about it and make the right choice for me, whatever that may end up being at this stage in my life.

“I don’t know yet,” I answered Z, honestly.  “I think I’m fortunate to be able to be here for all of you now, and to be able to decide which job I want as opposed to which job I need just to survive.  It’s a blessing, and I’m grateful to be in this place now, because so many people don’t have a choice.”

After the Hurricane

We made it through the hurricane, though it was an interesting time for us.  The winds started around midnight and by three in the morning, they were howling and rain was falling in sheets and sideways from the sky.  I finally got out of the bed at five thirty, tired of listening to it and marveling that we still had power.  I took the dog out and watched the wind and the rain for a second before I realized how dangerous my situation was; I was in a yard full of tall, leafy trees blowing in all directions.  One major gust and the dog and I both got the message:  get the hell back inside.

I no sooner made my coffee and posted an alert to friends and family that our power was still miraculously on that it cut out, taking my internet access with it.  The morning slowly unfolded just like I’d imagined it; me trying in vain to find information on our battery powered radio, us hurriedly removing the most perishable items from the dark refrigerator and putting them on ice in a cooler.  We cooked off the eggs and bacon and had breakfast in the only room with real natural light on the first floor; our kids’ playroom.  In its former life it doubled as a sunroom, and while we looked out of the many windows lining the walls, we realized it might not be the safest place in the house.

The day proceeded on in quiet gloom while we all read books, played games on handheld devices, and I sent texts out to family members that looked like this:  “Power out.  All still fine.  Wind howling.  Keep you posted.”  But with the power out and our basement sump not doing its job, we kept traversing the stairs in worry.  Finally, at 11 or so, we saw the water rising in the hole for the sump.  There was only one thing to do:  haul it out by hand.  And so my 21 year old son and I (my husband having weak knees and little physical stamina for heavy labor) started pulling the murky water out of the sump pump, one bucket at a time.  For forty five minutes or so until we saw the water line stabilize, we pulled out water, hauled it up the six cement steps of our basement bilco doorway, and out into the windy, light rain that was still coming down outside.

It was exhausting work that needed to be attended to every twenty minutes or so for those first few hours.  We made a lunch of peanut butter and hardboiled egg sandwiches and hauled buckets.  I read a few pages from my book and hauled buckets.  I slipped on the wet, leafy, concrete stairs, but still hauled more buckets.  I yelled at my husband, who furiously tried to get storm updates via spotty service on his iPad, and hauled buckets.  We had a dark meal of pasta and salad cooked on our gas stove, punctuated by washing the dishes by hand in the sink and hauling out more buckets.  I fell into bed at 8 Sunday evening, exhausted and feeling a knot in my tailbone from the fall.

My husband nudged me at 1:30 am; time to haul out more water.  I groggily got out of bed and took the two flights down in my still sopping sneakers to discover that the water level had finally stayed static for a few hours.  The bucket brigade was a success; no water on the basement floor other than what we’d sloshed out of our buckets.  I took a few out for good measure, and looked up at the cool, crisp night.  Without light pollution, the stars were bright and plentiful in the sky; I breathed in and out and tried to tell myself that we were lucky; no real damage; the storm by then was over; we would survive.

We woke Monday morning to another day without lights, television or internet.  I’d charged my phone in the car so that I could still send updates like this:  “Still no power.  Sump stable for now after roughly 200 buckets of water.  Kids fine, us fine.  Going to find ice today, wish me luck.”  By now our stockpile of ice was in puddles at the bottom of the cooler and we’d cooked or eaten much of the most perishable food.  R went to work (where they had power) and I set about cleaning up the branches and yelling at the kids who seemed to think the worst thing about all of this was missing a few episodes of “Totally Spies”.  A friend gifted me ice and another coffee from the shop that made it with generator power.   Our landline phone died and to my dismay, my precious cell phone stopped making calls as well.  The emails and Facebook I’d relied on the previous day stopped pulling data.  Even my update texts were no longer going through:  “Cell service spotty; landline dead; pls text back if you get this,” with no responses.  I began to feel like we were on a raft drifting further and further away from what normal life used to be.

Finally, around 6pm our power returned last night.  I was at a friend’s house who did have power letting my kids overdose on screens while I did the same with what I’d missed the most:  vodka with ice in it.   My cell phone dinged with three words from a friend who lived nearby:  Power. Is. On.  I raced home (it was only ONE vodka, btw, and we’d been eating) without telling the kids, nearly driving off the road towards the intoxicating porch lights dotting the landscape.  And sure enough, when I got home, I was greeted with the reassuring “Set…Time…Please” scrolling in fluorescent green across my microwave.  Hallelujah.  Power is restored.

So all in all, we made it through with no real damage, thousands of twigs/leaves/branches to clean up and a 36 hour crash course on How to Live Without Power (Disaster Preparedness 101).  Which isn’t all that bad, really, with so many in this area in much, much worse shape (from what I hear anyway….the only information I was able to access yesterday came in newspaper form).  We are lucky, we are blessed and now, thank goodness, can finally watch Totally Spies again. 🙂

No One

My brother was still angry and still hard to handle, but he was tempered by B’s presence in the house. We knew he was still stealing from my mother’s wallet; she caught him once while he thought she was showering, and he’d gone into her room to take the money. Normally she kept her door locked with a combination lock on a hasp when she wasn’t in it, but the shower hadn’t occurred to her.

We still had the bi weekly disastrous family therapy sessions. The therapist, after my brother’s last hospitalization, divided my parents out because the sessions with them together were “not productive”. My brother continued to blame all of his aggressive behaviors on my mother, and he denied the stealing that we were all aware of. My father tended to agree that the behaviors were linked to my mother’s actions, which made me upset. My brother was old enough to bear some responsibility for his own actions, I said. I didn’t see anyone defending me and anything I did wrong. I got so angry that I told my father that it was actually the other way around, that my brother treated my mother so horribly that he created bad behavior in my mother. For example, I stated boldly to him in the presence of the therapist, my sister, brother and B (who was now attending with us due to her constant presence in the house), that, “What exactly, Dad, might you do if your son stood there and called you a a Mother Fucking Cock Sucker??”

I then ran out of the room, exhilarated by my release of anger and began to walk.

I walked quickly, listening for the therapist, for my father, for someone to come after me. I was out of the building, in the parking lot, nearing the busy highway the office was located on before I finally looked back.

No one had followed me outside. No one.

I slowed my pace, but kept walking. Seriously? No one seemed concerned about my anger, my frustration, my behavior? We were all in these rooms twice a month because everyone was so concerned about my brother, but what about me, I thought. What about me? Who is concerned that I might be picked up by a total stranger as I walked down the busy highway in the dusky twilight.

A mile passed. Still no cars slowing down to the side of the road, driven by someone related to me. Nothing. I kept walking, my anger flaring and ebbing with each step. Why didn’t anyone care about my feelings here? I was doing well in school, I wasn’t out smoking or having sex or doing drugs. Did everyone just assume that I was handling all of this chaos with an even keel? I felt like I was drowning, that no one would even see me in the water much less reach down and pull me to the surface.

I walked five miles that night, arriving home with the streetlights on and stars in the sky. No one, even though I walked the entire way home on the same route we’d driven to get there, had come across me on the way. The house was quiet; my mother wasn’t home yet from work and my sister’s car was in her usual spot. No one greeted me when I came in the door, no one asked what had happened to me.

I closed the door and let the darkness take over.

Behind Locked Doors

My brother was in high school now while I was back at the middle school.  We now had different school schedules, which meant I saw less of him.  The high school started earlier, plus he had to be out extra early for the bus.    However, there was one time every week that I could count on seeing him for an hour, and that was at family therapy.

My brother had done a little stint in the juvenile detention center the previous summer.   He and some friends took some things that they should not have, and in classic style, asked my brother to “hold the stuff” when they heard the sirens coming for them.  Five miles down the road, “Juvi” was not exactly a positive character shaper.   His sentence of three days had been completed with our agreement to see, as a family, a therapist connected to the juvenile detention center.

“Bob” was a heavy set man, graying at the temples, an African American who had clearly seen a lot in his days.  We would all assemble in his office, once a week or once every two weeks depending on the scheduling of my parents.  He would sit with a small steno pad and take notes.  My sister and I would sit together on one side.  My mother would sit nearest an ash tray; she smoked five or six cigarettes during each hour long session.  My brother and father were usually on the other side.

Bob would ask us questions.  He would ask my parents and my brother mostly questions and they would mumble out some answer.  Bob would write it down.  My sister and I mostly were silent unless asked something directly.  If therapy was supposed to mean talking, there wasn’t much going in these sessions.    The biggest points were that my father blamed my mother for my brother’s behaviors because she wasn’t around enough.  My mother blamed my father because she had to work to earn more money because he’d cut his level of financial support to us kids.  My brother blamed them both for not teaching him to better control his impulses.   Nobody was taking a lot of responsibility for the mess we were finding ourselves deeper and deeper these days.

It was finally suggested that as a temporary help to control my brother’s impulse control and remove temptation for him, we install combination locks on all of our bedroom doors.  My brother had been stealing cash from my mother’s purse and from us girls as well, so it was agreed that we would lock ourselves up until my brother’s therapy helped him learn the lessons that he blamed my parents for not teaching him.   I was relieved that I would be able to have a little more sense of security in my room, but realized that it was kind of nuts that we had to install locks to keep family members from stealing from us.

Family therapy was so divisive that we stopped visiting my father for overnight visits once we started therapy.   He started counting the hour long complaint filled sessions as his visitation, and we started to see less and less of him.  It was a classic case of negative reinforcement; every time he saw my sister, brother and I something negative happened, so he started seeing us less and less.  Ironically, it was at this critical time when we needed his presence more, not less.

We were standing right at the top of the slippery slope, and I could sense that the conditions were right for a quick trip down.

We All Need The Human Touch

It was easy to do.

It was easy to allow myself to slip down the slope of starstruck crush.   I knew it was happening and I allowed it.   Looking forward to listening to Rick Springfield’s music and gazing into his poster paper eyes for the meaning of life was a bright spot in those early fall days of 1983.   My little transistor radio from fourth grade had been replaced with a multifunctional clock radio, which I had embellished with glittery stickers in the way that only teenage girls can do.  I positioned the dial to WHYT and was often rewarded with the synthesized tones of Rick Springfield’s “Human Touch”, which was popular in that moment.

The song’s refrain, “We’re all scared and isolated in the modern world,” was just one of many that reached out and grabbed me and let me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world.  If this great looking man with the fantastic California life could write words like that, then he must be some kind of special person.  He loved his mum, lamented the loss of his dad, and I was quite sure that this guy didn’t have a brother who punched holes in the walls.

I started buying the teenage magazines to learn more about him (remember, this was in the days before Wikipedia); I saved my lunch money to get more and more copies of Bop and Tiger Beat.  Even the ones I could afford weren’t enough, so I employed a sneaky system of pulling out articles about Rick from other magazines and slipping them into the ones I would purchase.  I would end up with six or seven colored pin ups and posters with the purchase of one magazine if I did well.

I had my Panasonic tape recorder that I’d gotten for my birthday in 5th grade, and I added Rick’s breakthrough  “Working Class Dog” to my tape collection.  That was the one with his #1 hit song on it, but I was drawn more to the ones that never hit the radio, like a song that talked about seeing the scared little girl inside the woman he was interested in.  I loved that so many songs talked about seeing beyond the outward exterior of a person.  In the glory of my early teenage awkwardness, I took it as a sign that if I ever did meet this guy (and frankly, I figured it was destined, since it was so obvious that we were perfect for each other), he would be able to see deep inside me and know that I was special.  I didn’t really believe it myself but I was sure he would bring all of that specialness out of me.  Sure of it.

So I set up my walls with my pin ups, kept my radio on the right station, made a shrine on my dresser of all of my favorite memorabilia, and walked down the road of unrequited crush.  For now, it filled the hole that was being created by angry family therapy sessions, longer and longer stretches between visits from my father, violent outbursts from my brother,  and my own insecure processing of all of it.   I felt good about Rick instead of bad about myself when I listened to his music, and at that point…I was willing to make the trade.  Ironically, the “Human Touch” was what I was withdrawing from as I headed deeper and deeper into my fantasy world of Rick Springfield.

In Which I Give the C’s an A+

Music became a dominant force in my 8th grade year.

Some of it was by accident.  When I was scheduling for the year, I discovered that I could avoid gym class if I enrolled in choir as well as band in my last year of middle school.  Now don’t get me wrong, I loved music; I’d been playing my flute since 5th grade and I planned on continuing that indefinitely; I loved the feeling of creating music from silence, I loved the feel of the flute in my hands, I loved being a part of a disparate group of students from every walk of life coming together for the same thing.  We had a band teacher, Mr. Cardeccia,  who was on the young side but thoroughly devoted to what he did.   Plus, Mr. C.  was cool; even though he taught at our middle school, he was the director of the high school jazz band.  The high school jazz band was the coolest thing you could aspire to as a student musician.  I loved music.

But if I’m being honest, the reason I enrolled in choir during 8th grade was more about my fear of athletics than it was about any great love of singing.  I knew I wasn’t a great singer after my small part in the 5th grade musical, “Annie”.  My friend Kathleen had gone on to the middle school choir and sang solos at all of our concerts (normally the choir and band performed at the same shows, so I would see her).  I had a definite aversion to trying things I sensed I wouldn’t be good at, and it was coming into sharper focus by my thirteenth year.

I’d taken gym under total duress the previous year and hated it.  I never met any of the presidential benchmarks.  It might have been during my third attempt at serving in volleyball or the way the other students never passed me the ball during basketball, or the way neither of the gym teachers ever seemed to know who I was; regardless, it wasn’t my thing.  I was given a mortifying grade of B and lamented how it was killing my grade point average.

So I joined the choir.  The teacher was new that year, Mrs. Catanese.  She was youngish, and friendly.  Everyone seemed to like her.  I was ready to try and learn how to be a singer with her.  I knew I wasn’t naturally talented at this either, but I knew enough about music from playing it that I figured I could give it a shot.  My friend Dawn was employing the same strategy as me, so we were in class together.  This was unusual, because while Dawn was extremely bright, she hadn’t qualified for the gifted program I was in, so she was never in any of my core academic classes.

In Mrs. C I found a teacher eager to take a student who wanted to learn to sing, even though she didn’t have a lot of natural talent, and move her forward.  This was the exact opposite feeling I got from my previous gym teachers.  With them, I’d felt as if once they realized that I wasn’t naturally athletic, they were not interested in showing me that with hard work, anyone could gain a certain level of fitness.  I worked harder in choir because I sensed Mrs. C wanted me to do well and thought I could do it.   I didn’t notice the stark contrast at the time, but I knew that I’d definitely made the right choice in electives that year.

It is amazing what one person’s faith in you can motivate you to do.

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