Saturday, March 31, 2012

Oscar Winning

Oscar and me
   This weekend I am running a local half-marathon. I participated in this event for the first time in 2007, although back then I ran the 5k distance. At the time, I had been a nonsmoker for only five months, and was only able to run about two miles. I was plodding around the same local track where I had taken my first steps toward running, and a man with a runner’s physique approached me. His name was Oscar. I am sure he sensed my awkwardness when he spoke to me. “Do you want to be a runner?” I laughed disparagingly between huffs and puffs and told him that I thought I was quite far away from being anything that even resembled one of these runner people.  He looked sternly in my eyes and continued: “I can help you,” he said eagerly. “There are two things you need to do: Keep coming to the track and sign up for a race.” I was self-conscious of the thought of running in front of others, especially at a local race. I thought: “I cannot do that! This is bad enough alone! What if I come in last?” He wrote down the name of a race and said: “Okay, it is in a month.You will love it. We will run it before race day. You will do great!” 
I was nervous and excited, though the thought of running three miles without stopping seemed daunting. I began researching races. I had no prior knowledge of  road racing, and had not even been a spectator to one.  This was most likely a result of my night owl lifestyle. Race events were already packed up by the time I ventured out into the world on any typical late morning. I had common first race anxieties, and a nagging worry about whether my new found sport would make or break me. It offered me a reconnection to an athletic childhood and to my natural, youngest child competitive nature. I nearly skipped the race for fear that perhaps it wasn't going to be for me, and that maybe I would hate it.
   I met Oscar on the Thursday before the Sunday morning race. He coached  me as I slowly ran along, reassuring me that I was going to make it, and going to love it. After I ran those excruciating three miles, I drove to the local Sports Authority store. I decided I needed a real running shirt. I scoured through every shirt to find that perfect one;  a Nike white top with solid white down the middle and  black and pink thick strips under each arm. It was expensive and certainly not a necessity. I thought to myself: “I am really running a race, I earned this.”  I thought I just might be able to use it for a very long time. 
It was race day and I had a full entourage of friends to support me for my first big race. My mom also happened to be coming through town, and this made the day even more special. I pushed hard and finished with a time of 27:19. I was, to say the least, exhilarated. The race had inspired me and I immediately began looking to see what the next racing event would be for me.  
I have made a steady progression in the last six years, becoming the competitive athlete I think I was always meant to be. I have taken my 5k time down to a personal record of 21:10 to date, taking off almost one minute per year. I began competing in triathlons, and completed my first marathon in 2010. I followed that up with completing the NYC marathon in 2011. I was interviewed during the NBC coverage of the event as a featured runner at mile nineteen.
I would like to write that I often think back to that first 5k, and to those days on the track, but that is not the case. Running has become second nature to me, and it is hard to imagine my life without it. I ran that 5k route the other day, and I was blasted with memories of that not so far-off place where I struggled in so many ways in my life. I still struggle, only at different times. I still make plenty of mistakes running and otherwise. I often compare life to running: the push, the drive, the pain, the determination to finish when the finish is not at all glorious, but rather humbling. I remember my son, ELijah, at those first few races. I would come to him afterwards, and he would say: “Did you win, Mommy?” I would explain to him every time that, no, mommy did not win, but she did her best, even better than that. This was a difficult concept for a young child to understand. When I did finally win a race the first thing I did was to run to my phone and call Elijah. He was older at this point. I said: “Elijah, guess what? I WON the race!” Of course by then he understood that for me I win every time. 
Today I see how my love, commitment  and perseverance for running has influenced Elijah. He has remarkable determination. We remind each other that things require patience, practice and, often times, rest. Oscar continues to run with me despite our busy lives. He continues to praise me with: “You can do it!” When he sees me run now I can tell he feels a sense of pride and love. He inspires me to dig deeper, to be confident, and to just let go of all that is negative. For years he would run back to coach me across the finish line until the day came when he said: “Heather, you don’t need me anymore. You are strong and fast.”  I looked at him and said: “Oscar, I will always need you.”
  I will run on Sunday, and it will be five years after my first race; five and a half years after quitting an over two pack-a-day smoking habit. When I am running on Sunday I will not focus on why I am running in that moment. Instead, I will remember where I have come from, how far I have come, and how much farther I will go.
First 5k, 2007. With Mom, Michael and ELijah.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tree of Life

It was months before Evan finally ended up in the hospital. It would be his fifth time. Our son, Elijah, was slightly over three years old at the time, and we were both in a state of perpetual fear. Evan’s mental health was no longer stable. To avoid being in the vicinity of him, Elijah and I  would travel between several playgrounds and farms each day. Our days were filled with juice boxes and in-car activities. We lived in an affluent town on the grounds of an estate. There was a mansion, a law office, a pool, a separate garage, and a little building we referred to as the cottage. During Evan’s and my endless travels, we would end our journeys at this small non-winterized dwelling. It was the off-season from touring with the Grateful Dead. I was very happy to have a place to go. My life until then was filled with years of living out of storage units. I had no place to call my own. I was always crashing at someone’s place until I overstayed my welcome. This cottage was not at all my own, but after the initial awkwardness of returning, I would settle in. Once Evan and I had a child, it established what I thought would be a permanent end to my lack of shelter. Although I never thought of myself as homeless, I had often thought of myself as a drifter, and that I didn't need anything other than the positive sensibility my mother had instilled in me.
Evan grew progressively more out of control, and I was at a loss with his parents. They were attorneys, and had threatened to not let me back on their property if I called the police. I would, however, call the police, and ask them to stay on the phone with me when Evan’s behavior got out of hand. I would be holding Elijah in one arm, and grasping the phone with the other arm, with the police standing by on other end. Meanwhile, his father would take the car seat out of our car and hide it so we could not leave. The police officer would say: “Heather, are you sure you don't want us to send a car over? Is your baby safe?”
 Elijah and I would lock ourselves in the bedroom at night. I played music tapes that Elijah liked. We would dance. Evan would stay up for days, drinking, yelling biblical quotes, and displaying out-of-control mania. Many things led up to me finally leaving over the course of those several months, yet it all seemed to happen so fast. One night while I was at work, on what would be one of the last nights I left my son alone with his father, Elijah got on the phone and told me that “daddy was having a camp fire.” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I drove down the long gravel driveway of the estate that curved around like a maze through arborvitae trees, I saw the fire. Smoke was billowing over the top of the trees. There was a crackling fire, and the smell of burning plastic filled the dark hour of that summer night. The fire contained my things: a camera, a guitar, photos, journals, and my clothes. This would not be the first time that I lost all my possessions, nor would it be the last. 
I was trying to hold down my job and secure shifts at the restaurant, while at the same time confronting Evan’s erratic and frightening condition. It was becoming increasingly more difficult. He had been hospitalized many times before this point and, despite the pronouncement from medical professionals that he was dangerous and in need of inpatient treatment, it was very difficult to return him to this system.  Finally, after so many episodes of disturbing behavior, he was to return to the hospital. In the twenty-four hours before this was to take place, he disappeared. Evan vanished into a local wooded area. We drove around looking for him. When we did find him, He walked towards the car. He was disheveled and bleeding from falling down, while trying to run through the woods. He had carved a cross onto his arm. He was delusional, dangerous, but still with his beloved dog at his side. They picked him up and placed him in a hospital. This particular manic episode took its toll on all Evan’s family. During the days after Evan was locked up, I stayed with some friends. I expected to be welcomed back to the place I had called home for many years. Instead, I received a phone call telling me that my things, as well as Elijah’s, were packed in black garbage bags and left on the porch. I remember a dear friend summing it up this way: “Heather, they are like an amusement park, when there is a bad accident. They clean the scene up and keep the line moving.”
It’s hard not to write about these things without feeling resentment and anger. I am trying to write from my heart; the heart that even in the worst times is full of love, forgiveness and compassion. I can't attempt to understand what it was like for the others who love Evan. It was not that long ago and much of it is still unresolved. 
After the initial shock, I changed into survival mode. I was not only good at this; it was a familiar way of life. You made do, utilizing whatever you could, being resourceful in every minute of the day. I still possess these traits. It was summer time, and there were more hours in the day. It was warm and this made living easier. I went to Cape Cod to see my family, and to try and put a plan together. I weighed my options. I had already established a steady, meaningful connection to the restaurant. They were becoming like a family to Elijah and me, full of the same dysfunctions and love. For weeks we bounced around, staying at various houses and sleeping in safe parking lots. I knew which ones to go to. I knew how to park so that the sun did not wake us up. I had done all of this before, except not with a toddler. I slept with one eye open, or not at all. During this time I stopped smoking. It had been two months that I was smoke-free. I would sit at a playground and cry. Elijah would notice and come to me. He would put his tiny hands on the sides of my face, holding my cheeks the way a child would. He said: “You can't smoke mommy, I don't know why, but you can't.”  He continued: “I love you mommy. This is fun at a playground, thanks for taking me here.” He would reassure me that he was happy. The days and weeks passed for me as a nonsmoker under severe stress. Elijah would see someone smoking outside of a store, and he would adamantly grab my hand.  “LOOK AWAY MOMMY, LOOK AWAY.”  
We visited Elijah’s father in the hospital. He stayed there for a month. This was one of the first of many periods where Elijah and I felt a strange level of comfort. While Evan was in the hospital, we were safe, and there was hope. I had to decide if moving to the Cape was better than staying in the area. I had been offered a low-income housing unit, but did not take it because it would mean living in the same town as Evan. I knew that I needed a safe place to raise my child, and he was not going to be safe when in the care of his father. When I struggle to pay my rent now, I always remember this decision.  I strongly believe that Elijah is the wonderful way he is partly because of me, and the decisions I made back then. I do not regret a thing.
I told my boss at the restaurant: “Look, if I you want me to work here, I have to bring Elijah with me; all the time. I have to make it work.” Later that afternoon, my boss and the guys in the kitchen, brought up an old desk from the basement. Elijah and I watched as they cleaned it off and carried it up the back ramp. Someone took out a marker and wrote Elijah’s desk on it. At the moment, we felt needed, we felt love. We felt like a family, and that we were part of a community.
As the weather got cooler we started staying inside other people’s homes for a few days at a time or even for weeks at a time. We would wait until the owners went to bed so we could quietly go into the room or space they provided. We were biding our time, slipping by underneath the radar. It was a trait I had mastered before Elijah was born.
It was November, the day of Elijah’s fourth birthday.  I did not tell him it was his birthday because I did not like that we were homeless on this special day.  I gave him a cake, but he did not know why. I whispered in my head: “happy birthday my beautiful baby.”  We would go to work, and because of Elijah’s growing anxiety, I would work upstairs in the restaurant, so that he could stay close to me, but not be under foot at a chaotic restaurant. There was a non-working bathroom off the upstairs kitchen. I gathered old tablecloths and covered the toilet and the floor. I propped the door open with Elijah’s stroller. This became his version of our car. I had movies, books, and junky, little dollar store toys for him to occupy himself. He would wait for hours. Towards the end of my shift, I put him in his pajamas, and would continue a bedtime routine. I stood in the kitchen, pushing the stroller back and forth until Elijah fell asleep. Like clockwork, the guys in the kitchen would one by one come up the stairs and grab ends of the stroller with sleeping Elijah. They would carry him and numerous bags down to my car.
      At last, an apartment became available. It was within walking distance of the restaurant. It was small, but cozy and warm. The date was December 21st. We moved into the empty apartment, and it stayed empty for many months. We moved our stuff from the car, and created a pile of flip-flops, sleds and winter coats, each of them depicting the seasons we had lived through. As I stood in front of the pile that reached to the ceiling, I looked at the woman moving out of the apartment and said: “Can you believe all this stuff was in my car?" 
Elijah desperately wanted a Christmas tree. When I was growing up, my family never had a fake tree, and getting a tree was an event. It was a hike and get lunch out tradition.  I told Elijah that we could not get one, and that all the money had been used to pay for the apartment. We went down to the local Walgreen’s. We were in the process of feeling out the neighborhood. I was sick and knew I needed to take something. Upon entering Walgreens, Elijah spotted a fake tree. It was marked down at 75 percent off. It cost 6 dollars. It was two and a half feet in height. It was my last 6 dollars. I neglected to buy the cold medicine I needed. As we carried the box in the house Elijah’s excitement turned to a slight despair when he realized that we had no decorations. I assured him this would be this tree would be the best tree anyone has ever had. Thankfully, it was equipped with lights. We gathered some candy canes, play dough cutter shapes, matchbox cars and affixed them carefully to the tree with twist ties. Elijah sat down on the bare floor we slept on, and said: “Mommy, this is the most beautiful tree I have ever seen. Thank you so much mommy. I love it!" We still use this tree every Christmas. As we hang the same decorations on it we both remember, and we are both grateful. We are careful not change a thing on that tree.
We had planned a trip to Cape Cod for that Christmas Day. Elijah’s father was still in the hospital, and the relationship with his family remained strained and painful. I was becoming increasingly ill, and had a high fever. In the subfreezing temperatures of the night before Christmas Eve, I drove myself to the emergency room. Upon entering the hospital, I started to unravel. There were remnants of a bad scene; crime scene investigators were milling about with clipboards. I was glad that Elijah was asleep in the stroller. He was covered with several fleece blankets.  As I sat there, all the events of the prior months came crashing down on me. One of Elijah’s blankets dropped to the floor. A tall, assertive police officer leapt to retrieve it. He said sympathetically: “I got this for you,” as he wrapped it in a sterile see-through plastic bag. At the time I was unaware that the blanket had dropped into a pool of blood left over from whatever previous mayhem had just occurred. I stood in front of the nurse and began to cry. I told her I was sick. She began to question me and somehow this accelerated my unraveling process.
“Is there anyone to bring your child to? Are you alone? Do you have anywhere to go when you leave here?” I was glad that at least the third question’s answer was yes. We were led to a room where I was assessed. I continued to cry, sobbing now, telling the nurse all that had transpired. She listened as she brought warm blankets for my son and me. She offered another cot for Elijah to lie on. They immediately started me on an antibiotic. I was sick but also experiencing the withdrawal of not smoking for the last several months: most people who quit smoking experience an unpleasant bronchial clearing-out reaction. 
The nurse dimmed the lights and affirmed that everything would be okay. She told me I was a good mother, and that I should rest for a while, but that I could leave whenever I was ready to go. I fell asleep for a while looking at the plastic Christmas decorations hanging off the fluorescent lights. At about 4am, I decided to make the trek home, or rather to our empty apartment with a single Christmas tree. I felt the weight of my life, the sadness; the holidays pushed down on me as I drove through the quiet, empty streets. I felt alone, sick and scared. I pulled in front of the apartment, and sat in the car, stunned, trying to pull it all together. I saw a shadow move towards the car. It was Oswaldo, my coworker and neighbor from upstairs. He had seen us leave, and waited for our return. He silently opened the door of the car and carefully carried my sleeping child into the house. He laid him out on the makeshift bed. He then came back for me and put his arm around me, guiding me into the house. He went upstairs and appeared again with a hot cup of tea. He put it front of me and said: “You are okay now Heather. I am here for you. I am your neighbor now. The restaurant is your family, we are all here for you.”
 He continued through my streaming tears: “It's okay Heather, you are home now.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Either side of the hill

When life sits still, my head fills with racing thoughts. I try to make this a rare occurrence. It usually happens when I have completely exhausted myself. I can’t tolerate stopping or sitting still for any great length of time though. I am trying to create balance, but sometimes it seems more comfortable, if not easier, to run through, past, and slightly ahead of my life, all the while thinking that I am preventing it from catching up. Many of us have moments that need reflection; although there is a fine line between reflection and ruminating.
Ruminating 1. Think deeply about something. Example: we sat ruminating on the nature of existence.
2. (Of a ruminant) Chew the cud.

Chewing the cud is an endless motion. We are all like cows, finding ourselves looking for the potentially greener grass across the field. Still, chewing on nothing, not at all satisfied, yet comfortable in a predictable existence. As I write this, I sense the Déjà vu that I have been here so many times. 
When I do start ruminating on my life, certain primal fears emerge. I am single mother, but I feel my situation has different variables than most.  It really is just my son and me. Our daily routine is a constant reminder: the homework, the school projects, sickness, everyday fears, birthday parties, childcare, transportation, holidays, and each of our emotional needs. It is a constant struggle to keep up his basic comfort, his shelter, his possessions, and even to take care of his beloved cats. What would become of these things if I were not around? Like most parents, I worry what will happen to my child. I worry about other things too: his genetic traits and even the uncertainty of our very existences. I pray that nothing happens to me until he is over a certain age. I am constantly aware of the life we had, especially when we were homeless. I also remember the life that I came from before he was alive, and I know how quickly it all can change. I am constantly in self-protection mode, which can make me act and react on fears, but at the same time I also savor each moment that I have. I think that there are not enough of those moments. 
Elijah and I are close; but the word close fails to get at how we are to each other. We are sharp and quick to know each other’s thoughts. We share a sense of humor and wit. In his ten years, we have done and seen unbelievable things. In his early years of school, Elijah suffered intense anxiety mostly caused by the circumstances of our life back then. In those days and even today I push him to do things I know he will enjoy. He learns, he grows, and some of the weight on my shoulders lessens. He continues to thrive, and has overcome so much. I try to keep my resentment of other normal families in check. I think of our quiet Christmases or when it is just the two of us at a school function. I embrace our shared one bedroom apartment, and resist the feeling of guilt about not giving my child more. I have rejected things that have been offered or given to my son or me with strings attached. Then I wonder if I am I doing the right thing. I struggle, but I am able to provide. I give Elijah tools to progress with his gifts. He takes music and drawing lessons. He sits and waits patiently at the restaurant until the late hours of the night. When I see him experience the same anxieties and same issues of self-worth that I have, I panic. I stop. I yell. I plead with him to tell his mind not to go there, and not to allow that fear or panic to overrun him. I explain to him that ultimately he has control over his thoughts. He can change those thoughts; he can train himself to live differently, to see differently and to be affected differently.  
I will not attempt to tell Elijah’s story here. It gives me peace of mind to know that he will tell it on his own in the future. It will be articulate, compelling and passionate. He is a boy with an unbreakable sense of self. He already has a moral conduct that well surpasses my own, and most people I know. He is ethical and empathetic to other people and other creatures. He is devout in his ten-year old beliefs. He instills such forgiveness to those around him. I vigilantly work to keep my child far away from the slippery slope I found myself on many years ago. I can be harsh with my demands. I want him to see now what he can get from life, and what he can control and what he cannot.
     As I chew the cud down, I have slowly moved towards the greener grass. I am still on the same hill though, and have made the trek up so many times before. This time I am with a child in tow, grasping at me like a baby animal clinging to its mother. Oddly, the extra weight serves to make me stronger. Do I do the best I can as a parent, as a person? Am I living under my own self imposed motto of everyone has something to give? Or do I demand of myself more to give? I am not sure of these things.  
I know where I came from and what I lived through before my life with Elijah. I know of the hardships that I have shared with Elijah. This leads me to another place of reflection, my story of living in my car with my almost four year-old son. It is a story of the hardest kind of parenting, a story of strength and continual perseverance. It is a story for another day...

Thursday, March 15, 2012

She gave me a Rainbow

    It was Monday and I  had an appointment with my therapist. I have been seeing her for years. What made this particular Monday different was not the appointment itself but that I ran into Evan, my son's father. My therapist knows all about Evan, and my relationship with him, or at least from the moment I finally left him. Running into him brought it all back.
I had resumed working at the restaurant though I was having severe post traumatic stress as  result of my lung collapse. At the pulmonologist's suggestion, I found someone to help me with my anxiety, as well as to deal with the rapid decline of my son's father. He was not only declining in his mental health, he was also posing a continuously unhealthy and dangerous environment for my growing child. To make matters worse, my anxiety mirrored the symptoms that preceded my lung collapse: shortness of breath, chest pain and intense panic. The condition of my lung was uncertain, and it was imperative that I held things together on the inside. It took me many years to gain confidence in the benefits of mental health services, all the while fending off offers of medication. It was a struggle to really disclose things about my life. I was a client for just a few months when my son and I became homeless. I remember my chart being left out, presumably by mistake. I read the following regarding my treatment assessment:
Address: Homeless 
Single mother, father of child hospitalized, health problems, eating disorder. Poverty-stricken.
(Only one word was listed)

     This gave me such a surprising shred of self-worth and much needed strength. It gave me validation that the  professional people who were seeing me, in the physical and mental sense, were also seeing what I, more often than not, overlooked. As I continue my therapy to this day with these same medical and mental health providers, I am able to open up more, especially to someone I will refer to as Dr. G.  Dr. G is a wonderfully smart woman. She has come to know me quite well, and always treats me with patience. She has many traits that I admire in people who are dearest to me, yet I would not confide in those people the way I do with her. I often go months without returning to the counseling center, but eventually I find my way back. They have become accustomed to this and even allow it. Evan, my son's father, found his way there as well; and this leads to me to this past Monday afternoon. 
     I entered the counseling office and informed Dr. G that Evan was in the building as well. She confirmed this, though careful not to break any privacy laws. Then she said something that surprised me. "You know, I was thinking of you guys when I saw him in the waiting room. He is such a handsome man, and you...Well, I pictured you guys out in California, driving around, dreaming. Who would think this is where your life would take you?" She then continued: "I also find it interesting that you have not been in any significant relationship since.” At that moment, it was difficult for me to process this. Often I get boxed into my own world,  forgetting that if I turn my head slightly in a different way, or make myself hear something for the first time, a light flickers, and I have a spontaneous realization. There are so many ways to look at every situation. We rarely do though, if only to avoid the stress and pain.
After my scheduled thirty minute session,  I found myself standing in the faint sun, watching Evan get out of the car to greet me. He is in a perpetually medicated state. He receives injections as ordered by a court. This alone is something many people do not experience with a loved one or their child's parent. It begins with his body language: a slow, specific movement with wide balancing steps. His normal reflexes seem lacking. He has no spontaneity in his word choice, His  dry mouth has the occasional white-colored saliva that gathers at the corners of his lips. His voice is slurred, scratchy, low and repetitive. When he speaks, he is unable to maintain consistent, coherent thoughts. He will call to see if he can come over to see his son, unaware that Elijah is in school or he will asks to babysit when I am not working.   His hands are remarkable; they are statue-like, and do not come out of their position. They were once beautiful hands that drew pictures and made bumper stickers. They are now covered with scars, and have a homeless roughness. He is disheveled, and his long black hair is often uncombed or dirty. His dark, faded clothes hang down on him, smelling of lingering cigarette smoke and with a hint of the smell of self-medicating alcohol.  Everything that he is today is at odds with the Evan I knew from years ago. It took me a long time  to get used to seeing Evan as he is today, and it continues to be difficult for his son. It is one of the most painful, in-your-face things that I have to deal with in my life. You look into his eyes, once sparkling with life, and they are glossed over, the whites now near-grayish, his eyelids hang lower. I still see him somewhere behind his eyes, yet he is gone. This is the pit feeling I often get when I am near him now. This is when you ask yourself: Where the hell did this human being go?  
  We stood outside the medical offices and had a short conversation. The reality of our shared history became apparent to me. As I mentioned, Evan has also become very repetitive; he is obsessive compulsive in his questions. He does not understand any other reality. He is barely in touch with his own, and yet completely trapped in it. I stand there and find myself sad, and angry: angry at the mental health system, and angry at his family for not getting him the help he needs. I think about how his family never puts their grandchild ahead of their own child, though I often ask myself if I would do the same. That afternoon Evan asked to see his son. He now only sees him for about 2 hours a week under a very controlled environment. Elijah grows impatient, frustrated, and embarrassed with his father.  He reminded me several weeks ago that Easter was around the corner and that dad usually "has a hard time for a while." "Remember mom?" he says, "Maybe in a few weeks dad shouldn't come by for a while." Of course, the ten year old child is right.
  As Evan and I parted ways that afternoon, I felt the normal heaviness of waving goodbye to him. I was in disbelief that the state had given him his driver's license back. Several years ago on Easter weekend, he drove his truck up an embankment of several hundred feet, over a stone wall and into the front door of the local police station. He lept out of his truck and claimed to be both  Jesus and the anti-Christ. He was arrested and his license was suspended indefinitely. This action led to yet another hospital stay and the previously mentioned state-administered medication injections.   The hospitalizations and compulsory medication is a bittersweet thing  for the family of someone with mental illness. Once the person is medicated, the family has a kind of peace of mind. Months prior to this incident, I was criticized for  insisting that Elijah was not to be allowed to leave the yard with his father either by foot or by car. I had a gut feeling that  proved to be accurate. Two years later (a few months ago), Evan's license was returned to him. This created a new level of fear for Elijah and me. These thoughts flashed through my head as he drove away and slowly raised his hand in a catatonic way of waving. 
  I went home, and within the hour I stumbled across the photo I am attaching to this piece. It signifies exactly what Dr. G. had described. The photograph was taken over seventeen years ago in Ferndale, California. It was on one of our several months-long journeys across the continent.  We had stopped to look at the snag that Evan had remembered resting his frame pack near a few years earlier during his hitchhiking days. He reminisced, and told me lively, excited stories of his traveling days. Many of my possessions, the most heartfelt, photos and letters, have been lost or destroyed along the path of my life due to various reasons. Now I have before me a rare photo capturing that one moment of two young, carefree lives, slowly unfolding. It is a moment from our pasts that no one could ever predict the outcome; a photo representing a time that can never be revisited. It was a time of normalcy and hope, a time of adventure. That particular moment was meant to be photographed, was meant to be saved, and was most definitely meant to be remembered.

Monday, March 12, 2012


  As an adult, I have never done a load of laundry at home; I mean the completing the entire process of washing, drying, and then later, folding that laundry while sitting on a couch in my own home. For many years, I was a patron of laundromats. I used to know the ins and outs of every local laundromat: the ones that offered change, the ones that had machines that actually dried the clothes, and the ones what that had a nice spot for me to smoke a cigarette.  Whenever I visited family or friends I was never without my dreaded friend: a bulging bag of dirty laundry that lingered in the back of a car while I waited for the right moment to ask: “Would you mind if I did a quick load of laundry?”
 On Feb 6 1992, my annoyances of using public laundry money-sucking machines to do something so basic would be changed forever.
I was living in a third floor apartment and had recently started working the restaurant a couple of months earlier. I persuaded a friend, Darren, to drive me around to do errands. I loaded several bags into the back of his Chevy Blazer. I had written up a short list of things we could do in the area, but he made it clear that he did not have much time. It was a normal Tuesday late afternoon, and the shopping plaza where the laundromat was located was becoming busy.  I liked this particular laundromat because of its location. I went to this shopping center as a child. My mother would stop at the bakery there. It still exists but has since moved to another part of town. It also was the home to the Amazing Store. The infomercial-type name of this business precisely described what the store contained. They carried things only found on television or things, well, not found anywhere else. The Amazing Store had tacky commercials and advertisements that one could not look away from. They sold candles that crackled with wicks that burned down the middle of the candle. They sold things that even today the junkiest of stores would not be allowed to sell. The Amazing Store always held the promise that it would have something that you did not know you needed, but you could get it cheap. 
“Can you bring me to the Laundromat?” “AND…hey, we can go to the Amazing Store!" I realize that nowadays there are several stores that offer a similar format, but back then the Amazing Store was one of the first of its kind, long before the Odd Lot, Dollar stores and Christmas Tree Shoppes. 
So while my laundry was going through the drying process at the laundromat next door, Darren and I walked around the Amazing Store. I sensed Darren’s impatience. He had a big crush on me. It was one of those things that I chose to ignore. I imagined if I gave words to his affection, then it would become reality. I liked to believe that I did not take advantage of Darren, though I could have been rationalizing my conduct, especially because I was always in survival mode. Darren was a big help to me because I did not have a car. I shared my weed with him and he drove me around. At the time, it seemed like a fair deal.
The day was growing dark quickly. It was a typical New England winter afternoon. I had been back to the dryers, moving my clothes to a different machine because the previous machine had not done its job of drying my clothes. Finally, I gave up and filled two duffle bags full of soggy clothes. I headed out through the automatic glass doors of the Laundromat. The creeping darkness outside gave the doors a mirror effect. I glanced at myself the moment before the doors opened. I was wearing a borrowed pair of jeans. The owner of jeans had drawn an intricate design down both legs. There were small, abstract shapes and subtle colors. I was also wearing a black tee-shirt. It had been given to me by my father, and it had small green letters on the top right side of the shirt that read Kool, as in the cigarette company. I wore a blue flannel over the tee shirt, with my own pack of cigarettes in the pocket, and had purple converse sneakers on. I had rings on each of my fingers.
 Darren had parked in the fire lane. He was sitting in driver’s seat of the parked Blazer and flipped the switch to unlock the back hatch. I looked down and realized my shoe was untied. I saw Darren’s face in the rearview mirror. I saw that he was growing more annoyed by every passing second, so I skipped tying the laces. I think back about forgoing this one action, and how if I had only listened to my mother’s perpetual advice about tying one’s shoes to avoid injury, the outcome of this story would have been death. Instead, I opened the top window of the back of the blazer and placed one of the bags in the truck. My thighs were pressed against the back bumper. In the next second I heard a bloodcurdling scream, a scream unlike any I had ever heard. It was a scream that would continue to haunt me for years to come. It was coming from deep inside of me. Simultaneously, I heard a loud thump, the sound of metal hitting metal. I looked down at my legs and I could no longer see them. I saw the bumper of the Darren’s green Chevy Blazer and the bumper of another car, but not my legs.My legs that were crushed between two vehicles. I felt a pain so deep that it was like not feeling anything at all. It was a physically and mentally  numbing pain. I then twisted my body around and yelled to the woman behind the steering wheel of the other car. It was a red Pontiac sedan.  I swore at her. She just sat there, presumably in shock. In a matter of seconds, I saw men pulling her out of her car, throwing her to the ground and backing the car away, off of my legs. I fell to the ground.
I was picked up off the ground by some men from the nearby hardware store. They opened the tailgate of the blazer and placed me on it. They then covered me with a heavy tarp. I was shivering, but not crying. I could not feel the lower half of my body. I involuntarily rubbed my legs and moaned. I was still yelling at the woman. At that moment my survival instincts took over I calculated the cost of my apartment and the necessity of working my newly coveted shifts.  When the ambulance finally arrived, I was carried to the back and the doors were closed. I looked up at the two handsome paramedics. They were trying to ascertain the level of my injuries. One of them said that he was going to have to cut my jeans off. I told him that they were my friend’s jeans, and that she had drawn on them, but that it was okay to take them off. I tried to pull myself up but could barely move. The paramedic said: “Do you realize you were hit by a car? You are seriously hurt.” He repeated this to me over and over again. I was in denial.  They took my vitals, and looked for any apparent wounds, blood or any other obvious damage. As I lay there I finally burst into tears. I let the reality of the situation take over. I sobbed from fear, but also, as the shock wore off, from pain. They strapped me onto the bed and placed cuffs around my ankles, telling me to not move my legs. I could not feel them, not any part of them. Subconsciously, I was afraid to look down at them, knowing something was wrong, and feeling like they were no longer attached to me.
Things become slightly cloudy and surreal at this point. I had already experienced many deathly and frightening events at that point in my life, and, in retrospect, I know now that this was my way of dealing with them. I went into a complete shutdown. I was rushed to the hospital. They took X-rays, cat scans and MRI’s.  They would not give me anything for the pain until they knew what they were treating. It turned out that I had severe muscle loss in the front of my quadriceps muscles in each leg. To this day I have significant dents above my knees. While others rarely notice them, I am always aware of this physical imperfection. They continue to be tender points on my legs. I had the imprint of the bumper, as well as severe bruising, all over my legs for several months after the accident. The doctors could not believe that I did not lose my legs. They have recounted their disbelief to me over the years following the accident. They have assured me that if both cars been the same model or type of car, I would have lost both of my legs. I certainly did not go away unbroken. When I twisted my body to look behind me, I ripped apart my tibia bone. I shattered the bone so severely that I needed several surgeries, pins, plates and therapy to walk again. It was almost a full year before I could place my left foot directly on the ground or raise it up more than a half inch. I walked with a cane for one year.
I remember that first night in the hospital. They wanted to keep me there for weeks. I begged to leave. I had spent months in a hospital previously for other reasons. I wanted to go home to my mother’s. My mother and her husband assured the staff at the hospital that they could get me up and down the stairs in their condo. The hospital reluctantly let me leave. My mother and her husband helped me into their place. I could not walk at all.  They had to slide me across the wood floor and up each stair to the spare bedroom they had. I remained in that room for several months. My life as I knew it in the outside world ceased to exist.  My new life became doctors’ appointments, and being carried outside to smoke cigarettes. My mother showered me in my bathing suit. She would lay me out on a lounge chair in the tub.  I would sleep with the lights on, or I would not sleep at all.  When I would sleep I would dream I had died.  I would not dream of the actual accident, but would dream of that scream that came from within me from the moment of impact. I remember seeing other accident victims in therapy. They were angry, and would yell to me in a crazed voice that the doctors would never help me. “Look what they did to me!" They would yell this as they limped out of the rehabilitation offices. Their words tainted my view of the rehabilitation process. To me, at such a young, impressionable age, my life seemed like a horror movie.
In the end I walked again. I even have a normal gait. I felt deformed for a while. To this day I still am uncomfortable showing my legs. The dents diminished slightly over the years. The worst part was the anxiety I continue to have about automobiles. I began to perceive them in an entirely different way. I saw them as bone-crushing, killing machines. I could not drive for many years after this accident. I still get a deep pit of anxiety when I walk through a parking lot. Unfortunately, I have instilled this in my son. I know that the actions of the driver from my accident were not intentional, but they were careless. We have all been in those moments, whether we have been the driver or the pedestrian. Yet, I know that this accident gave me my first full blown portion of gratitude.  Most times that I finish a run I am thankful that I have the legs to do so. There are days that I push too hard, that I do not care for my body the way I should. There are also those days when I am one of those careless persons, oblivious to what is around me. However, when I see my scar or the dents on my legs or when I see someone running past me at a race with prosthetic legs, I am brought back how important it is to live an intentional life in all regards.  I forget to include this story when I recount the tales of my life. I wonder, even as I write this, why I do not give enough worth to physical issues, even ones that carry so much physiological damage. I found myself stopping and starting the writing of this piece several times. Reliving the freakish physical things in my life can be so consuming. Yet everything that happens to us makes us who we are at the moment we are in: the gratitude, the fear and the anger fills another page in each of our stories. Reliving those experiences years later also helps us to grow. We reflect at an older age, going back to that moment from another time. We find it in that first step we take every morning, when we get out of bed and know that in a second the life we know can change.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

You can't get there from here

I am a waitress. That is something I do not admit to in writing or aloud, even though this fact of my life is well known. My reluctance to say that word stems from the fact that it was supposed to be a temporary job; a stepping-stone to bigger and brighter things. It became a stone across a raging river, a wobbling rock that ended up being out of reach of the next stepping-stone. Then and today I find myself standing on the damp, moss-covered rock looking for others to jump to that barely visible next rock, hidden beneath the water, gleaming with slippery growth. 
I liken this vision to standing in the middle of the bustling restaurant that I have been employed at since the age of nineteen. How do I write about my job and not appear bitter, dramatic or pessimistic? I find myself at the age of thirty-nine, still waitressing; waitressing in the best place around, yes, I mean that-a diamond in the rough, an eccentric, bohemian restaurant, housed in an old Victorian House, but still waitressing.  The restaurant has been a landmark since 1977, and has been continuously owned by the same man. He is by far one of the lead characters in the joint, as well as a prominent character in my life thus far. The owner is a hard working, loving, micro-managing pain in the ass with a huge heart, Jerry Garcia-ish, sixty-five year-old, Arab, eccentric, cheap hippy. I have had a twisted and entwined relationship with this man that will unfold thorough out my story.  I am at my twenty-first year at the restaurant, with several year long hiatuses. The place is classified as a middle-eastern restaurant. The Victorian house holds hoarder residue, some of it is classic, some of it is junk. The shelves are lined with dust, and items from the World’s Fair, estate sales and, of course, from the garbage. All different types of people come to the restaurant. The food is unique, kooky, and out-of-the-ordinary in this affluent Connecticut area, where everyone else seems to be aspiring to fit into some kind of mold. They flock to the restaurant to get a bit of realness. Some of them even expect to get a little of that outspoken, rough-on-the-edges, flighty but smart waitress. What they get is a good meal and something else that they may not quite be able to put their finger on.
When I began working at the restaurant I had just come clean from hardcore drug use. I came from a dark place, mentally and physically. Previously, I was working at a dirty little truck stop on the side of highway. They closed their doors for various reasons, and my mother suggested that I walk down the hill to that Middle Eastern restaurant. I walked in wearing a full-length, flowing skirt with bells attached at the waistband. I had a flower tucked behind my ear and was doused in patchouli oil. I informed the owner that I had just been laid off at the truck stop. I told him that I lived around the corner, and that I knew how to work. He then told me to start the following day. As he turned around to walk away to continue his usual business, he turned his head back and said: “Oh and Heather, don’t ever wear patchouli in my restaurant again.”  
Work has always had a small part in saving my life, or rather saving me. I was shy and had a low self-esteem. Waitressing forced me to interact with other people. I felt comfortable bringing people what they needed, and taking care of them even before they could ask for it. I have over the years harnessed this talent, and it has helped me with my sometimes dwindling self-worth. Being drawn to hard work, physical labor and a fast pace, I have never minded the restaurant business. Although, as I always said, it is okay now, but I do not want to be doing it when I am forty. My fortieth birthday is in April. 
Over the years, I have worked with many different women, some of these women I hold very dear; others, well, there will always be others. I have watched these women from years ago through a young stoner haze. They were jaded, angry, and burnt out. I have caught myself several times holding back that bitterness.  My story is  different: it is one of connecting with people. I think about all the people in my life who have shared part of my journey. They have changed me, as I have changed them. The restaurant has been part of all of it. It has provided me so many stories, and many of the startling and raw moments of my life. I have made many dear friends there, and many of the people I hold close are the ones I waited on so long ago, and continue to do so to this day. The nights I wait on those people are good nights, and they help with the rougher ones, like the one I had last night, Monday night.
I work alone on Mondays. I can generally handle the fast pace, even when the entire dining room fills up. I found myself in the first few hours of that evening feeling tired. It was a deep tired from not fully recovering from the previous night of working eight hours on a rough Saturday night, and then running a fifteen and a half mile race Sunday morning.  I arrived to work late, and went through the motions, starting my shift unprepared. I became the woman that I described above: bitter, angry and shut down to any new, potential connections. I think of myself as someone who can quickly come out of my own self and be present for another person. This person may be a friend or a woman waiting for a salad. I concluded a few things last night that I have observed before, but I also realized a few new things. The general public is hard to deal with. They are demanding. They are often times rude, inconsiderate and cheap. There are the ones that walk into a busy restaurant and sit down, and tell the waitress they are ready to order regardless of the several tables in front of them. They are the ones who call you over WHILE you are talking to another table; the ones that do not say thank you, or please and, ultimately, they are the ones that leave a waitress three dollars for a tip on a forty dollar dinner bill. I had quite a few of those types of customers last night, and they nearly broke my already fragile self. They were demanding, interrupting nasty people. They were people who could care less about connecting with someone else. They would ignore any opportunity to be kind. I tried to reflect and recited  something my mother often told me: "Maybe they had a bad day, maybe they are ill, maybe someone just died." The list goes on. I realized last night that these same bad apples are the same people that would cut me off at a stop sign, or push past me at the grocery store.  
What matters ultimately though is how I am. In every situation. I try to sit back and remember to open myself up, knowing something else will come along and sweeten the bitter taste these apples have left. It seems that no matter how broken I become I will walk up to a table, noticeably shut down, busy and tired, and someone will look up at me and say: “And how are YOU doing?” 
I will connect. I will thank them for noticing I was tired, or that my child was there with me, waiting patiently as he often does into the later hours of my shift. This piece could easily digress into a rant about the people that tip poorly, the people that treat me as a “waitress,” as a servant, or as a person not worthy of eye contact, consideration, a please or a thank you. I don’t want to dwell on that behavior though. It will only serve to infuriate me. It will make me want to chase someone out the door and force them to see my life, my struggle, my job, and to try to force them to care.
This story is about why I enjoy my job and how I have come to see it as the stepping-stone that I am supposed to be on. I think about the people who bring me out of a bad day, who force me out of myself and make me see them, or when I too forget to see others. When I am open, I see beautiful families, couples, strangers and friends. They leave me with much more than a tip. They leave me with my spirit in tact, with hope for a brighter day; with that sense of a connection we all need through whatever means it comes to us. It is what gives us strength.
My job has its ups and downs. The good and bad of my workplace has become my way of life. It has become a kind of necessity for me. I will probably never make those not-so-great people change. I won’t be able to make them all of a sudden see another human being the way I see them. The familiarity of my job gives me comfort and, at times, a false sense of security. We all may have a nagging feeling that there is more: more to a job,  more in our capabilities, our minds, our relationships, our connections. My job and the people that make up my workplace are full of truth. They provide me with a sometimes a stark reality, be it there’s or my own. That reality is now, 
That reality is constantly evolving.
 At least in my life it is.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Last Breath

I began writing this story several days ago. My lung story is one of a near death experience, or rather the closest to death I had ever been; so therefore I choose to not reflect on it too often.  It was when I was a new mother and sober. It is a story that is one of the most difficult for me to relive. It was also something that was random, not of my own doing, and therefore causes me to feel vulnerable. The story of my lung is an ongoing one, and every time I take that breath, be it a shortened breath of an anxious moment or a cherished breath on a long run, I am reminded of it. Certain subjects serve as a clarifying point, a long deep breath in the many ongoing threads of my life. This is one of those subjects.
I stood clutching my chest as I awoke in the northern California late September sun. Something felt strange. I hear a rumbling in my chest. I placed my then two year-old son, Elijah, in a high chair. I stood at the stove in our small, moldy California rental that was set high up on a hill over the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to the Redwood Forest. It was about the farthest I could be from any home that I had previously known and until that feeling from that morning, I usually felt exhilarated. I had an unintentional slouch in my back as I prepared breakfast, so I hesitantly called a doctor that I found in the phone book. As I waited on the phone to make an appointment, the pain grew deeper. It was pulsing within my chest and down my back and arm. I slowly spoke to the receptionist, her words exacerbating the pain. I then asked instead where the nearest hospital in this rural California town of three thousand people was. I awoke my son’s father who was suffering the most severe depressive episode yet. He told me to try to lay down, thinking that perhaps I was being dramatic, letting fear or anxiety get the better of me. I lied down and felt air in my chest, bubbling air. It felt as though my chest was caving in, collapsing.
  We drove to the hospital. It was the size of an average house in Connecticut. The town was considered a haven for transients and was a mecca for marijuana growers. My baby and his father waited in the car and I entered the hospital. I was in more pain at that moment than I have ever felt. A hardened nurse greeted me. She doubted the extent of my pain. As she methodically asked me questions, there was not an ounce of emotion behind her eyes. After a few moments, I stood up and started screaming, pleading with her to help me. Finally they brought me back. I grew up in a heavily populated part of the country, and this hospital was unlike any other I had seen before. They had two doctors, one nurse, and five beds with curtains separating each of them. Finally, after an hour had past, a stethoscope was put to my back. An intern tapped the end and told the doctor: “This thing isn't working.” The doctor clarified and said: “No, that would mean there is no breathing sounds on the left side." I thought then that I was going to die. They quickly took an overhead X-ray, and the aura of a developing emergency  filled the room. They walked me out to the bathroom and left me to walk back to the room on my own. I stumbled in the hallway, falling to the corner of the hospital floor. My face pressed against the hard, cold tile; tears streamed down my face, and drool from sheer agony seeped out the corner of my mouth. I heard voices: “who is this girl? Is there an emergency contact? Blood clot, collapseemergency.” I heard the doctor yelling: "Go get the girl, she is going to die." They scooped me up off the floor and lay me down in the bed. I vaguely remember seeing the X-ray taped to the bright light. There was one full lung on the screen. The other one was the size of a raisin. Just then, my son and his father walked into the hospital. It had been nearly two hours, and the baby needed lunch. They were forcing me down, physically holding me down on the gurney. This action caused me a great deal of pain. When your lung collapses there is air pressure; literally your lung is like a balloon letting out air. While they were putting an oxygen mask on my face, I saw my son out of the corner of my eye. I screamed with terror: “I don't want to die! My baby, my baby I don't want to die!" Pleading between sobs and pain, I grasped the doctor’s sleeve. “Please don't let me die. Please, my baby..."
I then heard my son Elijah, and saw the look of horror on his father’s face. Elijah opened his arms towards me. “Mommy, Mommy!” He cried harder. A nurse and other personnel rushed at Elijah and his father, and escorted them out. Then the doctor said to me: “If you don't want to die, you are going to have to lay real still.” As he said this, he took out a tube and a hammer.
The curtain was drawn as they began to hold me firmly against the bed. The side of my cheek lay in a pool of tears. They called for something to calm me down, and told me to try to relax and keep breathing. I started to fade out, shut down. I was not sure if I was dying. The doctor then hammered what looked like a large clear tube into the side of my chest. I was fully conscious. He inserted it up into my lung and explained: “We are going to put a balloon type apparatus at the end of this tube and blow your lung back up. This tube will stay in for 10 days.”
 After an hour of so, I felt the pain at last subside. I felt the narcotics that they were feeding me one after another slowly take hold. Then I was sent home. They sent me home with the equivalent of a garden hose stuck into the side of my chest and I was told to not smoke and not to lay on my left side. I was certain then that the only people that didn’t leave this hospital were the ones that died there.
I was given large quantities of Vicodin. Being a former addict, I knew that I could still function relatively well while under the influence of this opiate painkiller. As instructed, I stopped in the hospital every few days. They checked the hose/tube and gave me a shot of morphine, if I needed it. They assured me this was a fluke thing, and that no one’s lung ever collapses twice, or rather that it was very rare. “Less than ten percent chance,” they said.
Within a week I came across the same nurse who initially saw me that morning. As I stood in front of her for the second time, she pushed herself away from her desk and closed the pane of Plexiglas that separated us. She then came out into the hall and stood looking at me. Her eyes filled with tears and she said: “I am so sorry. I am so sorry I did not believe that you were in trouble.” She went on: “It's just that we see so much here and I ..." I stopped her, I told her that it was okay, but that I was still in so much pain they needed to give me something. I told her that I wanted to go home. Tears came down her face and she hugged me. She apologized again.  I was surprised. I comforted her as she led me to the back for another shot of morphine.
Eleven days later I found myself in that rare ten percent and, my lung collapsed again...