21 Years

Twenty-one years ago today, you died.

Twenty-one years and one day ago, you went to the hospital for a routine heart catherization.

Twenty-one years and two days ago, you called me, scared about the procedure. You were worried that something bad was going to happen and that you wouldn’t make it to Georgia to help celebrate my 26th birthday, nine days later. I scoffed and told you, “Oh, Dad, if you had died all the times you said you were going to die, I’d have a grave dug to China by now.” After all, you were only 66 years old. It was 1998. Unless you had cancer, you weren’t going to just up and die at 66.

 

I was wrong.

Twenty-one years and one day ago, you checked into the hospital and had the catherization. During the procedure, you had a massive heart attack. The doctors gave you blood thinners and scheduled an angioplasty for the next day.

Twenty-one years ago today, you woke up with one side of your body paralyzed and your temperature dangerously low. Through slurred speech, you acquiesced to a CT scan, during which the doctors found a previously-unknown brain tumor that had started to bleed. All because of those pesky blood thinners. It was decided that before the angioplasty could happen, the tumor had to be removed. Underneath piles of blankets, through garbled speech, you reminded Mom to take care of the mail, to pick up the newspaper, and to change the furnace filter.

You didn’t make it. Your heart wasn’t strong enough to survive general anesthesia and you died in the St. Mary’s OR. They revived you once, but your heart stopped a second time. Clearly, you were done. They tried to revive you a second time, but you weren’t having it.

You were gone.

I was in a rental car, thirty minutes away from the hospital when you died. Nothing was moving fast enough. Security at the airport was too slow. The plane flew at a snail’s pace. The luggage took forever to show up on the carousel. The rental desk took their sweet time giving us the car keys. The interstate roads to Huntington stretched out longer and longer. When I arrived at the hospital, I should have known something was wrong when I saw our family friend, Sarah, in the doorway of the waiting room. Vicky was there, too. And there was a nun. And then Mom told me you were gone.

Twenty-one years ago.
7,670 days.
184,080 hours.
11,044,800 minutes.
662,688,000 seconds.

We entered, single-file, into the OR. You were on the bed, blanket pulled up to your shoulders, very pale, but still somewhat warm. There was a tiny bit of dried blood that had leaked out of your right nostril. And your chest wasn’t moving. While the nun and everyone else prayed, I stared at you. There was no life. The essence of you was gone.

When we returned home to 5312 Kentucky Street, your smell lingered, your clothes were waiting for you in your closet, and the newspaper was on the end table. I sat at the kitchen table and stared at the food in front of me. Kelley had blown in like an ocean wind, fluttering around, pushing us to eat and move. As the days progressed and we made your funeral arrangements, ate the “death buffet,” and greeted friends and family at the funeral home, we discovered a cache of letters you had written to special friends and family. Here is the letter you wrote to me:

“Tuck”

Writing this letter to you is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Cause you know that I love you more than anything in this world. I’m writing your letter last – I have kept putting it off.

My hope for you Heather is that you will find true happiness and live a full and clean life and if there is a Heaven that we will meet again.

Heather please remember me every now and then – I would never like for you to not think about me now and then.

It seems only yesterday that Mom and Dad brought you home from the hospital. It was snowing and you rode home on Granny Smith’s lap.

The years sure flew by and I always wanted to be near you and hear about what you did – sometimes I know I bugged you a lot. I remember all the good times at Montrose – the Halloween parades when I would dress up in the rabbit outfit. Then to junior high and the band – all the good times we had. I always remember you bringing the band onto Oaks Field – you made Dad so proud. Then on to high school and the old band podium I had to drag around and nobody would help me and when you kicked butts in your last year.

I remember the first junior high band festival at Wayne County when you won first place. I can still see you hollering “WE’RE NUMBER 1!” and that you were.

Heather I can’t write of all the good times we had. Maybe from time to time you can remember them. Space Camp, trip with the Spirit of America band and me crying. All the Rainbow Girls trips we made. The trips to Lewisburg – I never did take a short cut home. When I had the back trouble and you were in the floor with me. We really had some times, that’s for sure.

And all the trips I made to Georgia.

What I’m trying to say Heather is that you have been one heck of a daughter and I wouldn’t trade you for a sack of boys – you were always strong and willing to run with the big dogs.

Heather as you go through life there will be a lot of bad times. Just try and do your best – I always tried to treat everyone like I wanted to be treated. Of course, you will run into some assholes – the best thing to do is just get away from them and do what you think best and always keep the ones you love the most around you. I love you, Dad

PS See you upstairs.

I read that letter every January 30th. Every time I read it, I sob out loud just like I did the first time I found it, in 1998. I think that if I live to be 100, I’ll still cry over this letter.

What I’ve discovered on this 21-year journey without you is that I will ALWAYS miss you. I will ALWAYS cry when I think of you. I will ALWAYS grieve your absence. And I will NEVER stop loving you. I see you every day in the mirror and in the faces of your grandchildren. And I wish so very much that you were here.

I love you and I wouldn’t trade you for a sack of perfect fathers.

Love,  your Ferntuck

Tiropita

“The Protector” by Jade Bryant. Click on the art to go to her web site to find out more about her work with Art Saves Lives International.

She handed me the Tupperware container from her fridge. We had navigated the path from her entryway to the kitchen, various art projects, mail, magazines, and Christmas decorations strewn everywhere. I stood in her kitchen, my heart pounding, wanting to be anywhere but here. I had come inside to retrieve this container full of my favorite Greek pastry for my birthday. But, it didn’t feel like my birthday. Instead, it felt as if I were a soldier, behind enemy lines, waiting for the ambush of her mental illness to strike. She handed the round, plastic, Tupperware to me, seemingly shoving it at me, as if she regretted making it and wanted me out of her house as quickly as possible. I turned and walked toward the front door, her footsteps following me through the cleared path. When I reached the door, I did the only thing I could do; I hugged her. She leaned in and reciprocated, but it felt wooden and contrived, as if she knew how to hug but didn’t know what it was for.

“I love you,” I said, not knowing if I really meant it.

“Love you, too,” she mumbled back.

And I walked out, the tiropita weighing down my arm, my mother’s borderline personality disorder weighing on my heart.

…—…

Getting pregnant with the twins was nearly impossible. Six months after giving birth to them, I decided to never again take birth control, because it gave me migraines. Instead, I would just not worry about it. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars, injections, scheduling, and medical intervention just to get pregnant. I figured my body was so defective there wasn’t any point in taking a nightly pill that served no purpose save to split my head in two every 28 days. Four days after the twins’ first birthday, a week after my period should have started, I was pregnant. All on my own. On the fifth day, I trekked to that same doctor, who made the twins’ lives possible, for a blood test. When Tyler told his mother that we had an appointment, she deduced what was going on, thanks to her nursing background. She assumed we had told everyone and when she mentioned the good news to my mom, instead of being excited, my mother was incensed. Angry and hurt at being left out of a nonexistent loop, she acted terse and short with Tyler and his mother. When she finally came to my house several hours later, I knew I was in for it when I saw her drawn expression and heard her brief answer to a simple, “How are you?”

“Fine.” Her lips were drawn and her eyes were angry.

“Well, I have news,” I said.

“Oh?” she replied, sour expression on her face.

“I’m pregnant.”

“I heard.” she responded, ice crystalizing her words.

“We weren’t going to tell anyone until the blood work came back from Dr. Nezhat.” I explained, trying to right the situation of happy news that had suddenly become a battle. “Betty figured it out and in her excitement, assumed you already knew. We wanted to tell everyone together.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” she huffed.

“Well, I’m telling you now.” I clarified. “We wanted to tell you, Betty, Charley, the family all at the same time. I can tell that you’re angry and honestly, I’m just terrified. I’m going to have three kids under the age of two and I really need your support.”

“Well, then. You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” she nastily stated.

I asked her to leave my house. I wouldn’t speak to her for another month. It was when she called to tell me that she had gone to a counselor and wanted me to come to her second appointment that I finally heard from her. I was extremely sick, sad, and anxiety-ridden over her treatment of me. I was popping prescription anti-nausea medication and sitting in front of a stranger, telling this degreed woman the exact same timeline of events I had already told my mother one month before. It was when the counselor told Mom, “It seems that this was all just a big misunderstanding.” that Mom finally believed me.

She never again went to that counselor.

…—…

As I ate my birthday cupcake, she blew up at us. Tyler and I had tried to reason, cajole, and assist, but everything was stonewalled and met with accusatory glares and angry responses. I begged her to see a counselor, to try and deal with her anxiety and depression, not even mentioning the borderline personality disorder diagnosis our joint counselor had handed out five years prior. She turned to me, a wild look in her eyes, voice filled with disdain and anger, “And just how am I supposed to pay for that, Heather? With what money? I’m tired of being poor.” Her face was void of everything save hate.

She hated me, my father, her parents, Tyler, Tyler’s ability to pay for her bills, her life, her age, her situation, herself, and the world. And all of that hate was focused on me in one look.

I’ve heard of disassociation. I had never experienced it until that moment. All I remember is staring at Amelia’s self-portrait on the fireplace, trying hard to imagine the quiet, calm underwater world of the reefs of Bonaire.

I disassociated from my mother.

…—…

The day after my birthday, I drove her to her doctor appointment. It was a wet, damp day, the clouds heavy and the rain constant. Normally, I loved these days, but it was the day after my mother had, yet again, treated me as an enemy.

“I’m sorry to be such a burden.” she said, turning to me as her hand reached for the door latch, rain hitting the roof of the minivan. “After tomorrow, I’ll never be a burden to you ever again. I know you never wanted me here in Georgia.”

Finding that one dagger that could do the most damage and shoving it straight into my heart had become a particular talent of hers. She wielded that sharp weapon so often against others that whenever she used it against me, I was always surprised. Even after 20 years of personal experience with that particular blade, it still caught me unawares as it would enter my psyche and twist.

I stared at the license plate of the car parked next to us. It was a Wisconsin plate, out of place in the south. As my mind turned over her words, I tried to remember everything I knew about Wisconsin.

Cheese, Green Bay, dairy farms, Madison, badgers who were really miners and not badgers at all.

“I’ll never bother you again. You don’t want me here.”

Milwaukee is in Wisconsin. But, we moved you here. Bought you a house. Given you affirmations of love. Cared for you when you’re sick. Done everything you needed, wanted, and asked for. Even when you were ugly to us, we still gave you everything, including love. Toni went to Wisconsin and brought me a cheese hat. I wish I was in Wisconsin right now.

She got out and walked inside. I knew, right then, as my anxiety hit me square in the chest, pushing the knife in even further, that we were done. Our relationship was dead.

…—…

The tiropita sat in my refrigerator for a day before I decided to eat one for a snack. I pulled one out, peeling it off the wax paper. Putting it in my mouth, I felt the gummy texture. Too late, I realized it hadn’t been baked. All of the tiropita were raw. I laughed without humor and shook my head, realizing that this food was suddenly a metaphor for my current situation. I didn’t even have a Greek cookbook to tell me how to cook it because Mom had borrowed it in order to make the cheesy pies for me. I didn’t have the energy to even want to bake any others. I threw away the half-eaten raw tiropita and put the rest back in the fridge.

They say that you can taste love in food. All I tasted was sadness.

…—…

“I need you to come over, Mom.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because, the doctor thinks I may have lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. My inflammation levels are off the charts.” I replied.

“So?” she said, dismissively.

“Well,” I said in a rush, “If I do have either of those, the only treatment is steroids to suppress my immune system and I live with three little kids who are constantly bringing home viruses. How am I going to be their Mom if I’m constantly sick all the time? How will I protect myself?”

My joints ached so badly that I could barely walk or hold a fork. I was a mess. I had been crying all day, having multiple anxiety attacks over the sudden negative change in my life. My neighbor had already been over to calm me down, but I couldn’t continue to bother her. She had work. I needed my mother.

“Could you come over and keep me company?”

“Fine.”

When she got here, I was in my bedroom, watching shitty late-morning talk shows, resorting to Jerry Springer to take my mind off the impending doom of my health. Mom quietly sat on the bed and after a few minutes, asked, “Do you have anything to eat?”

“Um,” I looked at her, disbelieving. I was barely able to make my way to the bathroom. Now I was supposed to feed her? “Feel free to raid the fridge.”

She went downstairs, rummaged around, and returned a short while later. “You don’t have anything here. I’m going out to get lunch.”

No offer to bring me anything. No calming words. No hugs. No nothing. She just left.

Turns out I had a common childhood virus that eventually went away, leaving my hands weak and my joints more susceptible to arthritis.

“Why didn’t you stay that day I asked you to come by?”

“Well,” she said, “you were just sitting there watching TV.”

The childhood virus eventually went away, but the memory of my mother incapable of being there for me didn’t.

…—…

“Mom,” I wrote, “For my mental health and well-being, I can no longer spend time with you. You need help. Please, feel free to call or text the kids whenever you feel like it or drop by to visit them. I’ll email you when they have performances or special events. I hope you get the help you need. Love, Heather.”

I slipped the note in her mailbox, always better at the written word than the spoken. It was the day after I was told that I had clearly never wanted her in Georgia. After decades of wishing her here, giving her love, time, and whatever energy I had left after being a mother myself, her only response was derision, anger, and hurt. Yet again, her borderline personality disorder was talking out of turn. Even though I knew it was her BPD talking, I could no longer take it. I felt like a puppy, always loyal, always trying to earn my master’s trust and love, instead being struck and cursed at. I was tired. I could no longer walk on this path of eggshells. Too often, the road had forked off into the distance, away from the gravelly, unstable path of her mental illness. And yet, I always chose this rocky drive, twisting my ankles, expecting love and receiving emptiness in return, giving her more than I should when my children needed me more. I took that path because it was my mother’s path. To choose the other meant walking away from her. I had stood at this fork once before and nearly chose to walk away then, but I continued onward. This time, though, I was done. I was done tiptoeing, carefully avoiding the pitfalls and potholes, only to have one open up in front of me without warning, causing hurt and distress. With that note in her mailbox, I took the road of my family, my life, and my mental health.

…—…

I turned the oven on to 350-degrees Fahrenheit, a good starting temperature when blindly baking anything. I set the timer to 10 minutes, placing the unbaked tiropita on a baking stone. After 10 minutes, the cheese pies were still flat, so I added five minutes, then another five after that. Finally, they were slightly browned and puffed up, like tiropita should be.

I popped one in my mouth, the heat burning my tongue. It still didn’t taste right. I ate another, and then a third. I sat for a moment, trying hard to enjoy what was probably the last birthday gift my mother would ever give me. Instead, they sat like rocks on my stomach, unyielding, full of sadness and grief.

I threw the rest away, washed the Tupperware container, and wondered how I would return the receptacle to her. It’s been three weeks since her harsh, yet expected, words. Except for a brief text to her youngest grandson, congratulating him on his newest black belt, she has had no contact with the kids. Except for a terse letter to her son-in-law telling him to pay her latest electric and gas bills because she could not, she has had no contact with us. I have been at turns relieved, sad, happy, mournful, angry, and content. I have self-reflected, second-guessed, wishfully imagined, and silently screamed.

I have vowed to never scatter eggshells on my children’s paths. I will love them unconditionally. I will stay true to myself and my choice to walk a path separate from my mother’s mental illness. I will love myself, take care of myself, and not feel guilty for protecting myself. For 46 years, I have carefully measured every word, assessing the possible emotional damage that could come from saying the wrong thing. As the decades have passed, I have closed myself off from the world, taking refuge in leaving my home as little as possible, because having minimal human contact meant I could save myself for those moments when I had to navigate my mother’s rough terrain.

It will probably take another 46 years to unlearn my hermit-like behavior, but I’ll give it my best.

I miss the mother who came to my band performances. I miss the mother who laughed with me over inappropriate humor. I miss the mother who cared for me when I was sick. I miss the mother who cooked my favorite meal when I was pregnant and on bed rest. I miss the mother who hugged me and told me that she loved me. I miss the mother who only ever saw the good in me. I miss the mother who supported me no matter what. I miss the mother who didn’t weigh my words against her world view.

I miss my mother.

I don’t miss her BPD.

 

January 30, 1998

So. Yeah. It’s January 30th. Again.

If you know me and are connected at all with me through social media, this is the day I typically flood my news feed with pictures of my father and remembrances of him. This is the day he left this plane of existence for the next. This January 30th, though, is different. It’s different because it’s the 20th without him.

When Dad died on January 30, 1998, I sat and counted the minutes and then the hours I had been without him. On February 1, 1998, I started counting days. On my birthday, February 6, the counting of weeks began. Then months. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.

Twelve hours ago, Dad was still alive.

Four days ago, Dad was alive and talking to me on the phone.

Two months ago, Dad was alive and planning to come visit me.

Then, there were the holidays and missed birthday. Those were always the worst, especially Father’s Day. Father’s Day 1998 was a day when I just wanted to crawl into a hole and pretend the world didn’t exist.

When I reached the first year mark, on January 30, 1999, I still counted, but it started to seem pointless. My mind was blown that it had been a whole year since he left. My daily dose of Zoloft and weekly trips to my psychologist had somewhat helped with my grief, but it was still there, simmering just under the surface. The worst moment was when I opened my dad’s letter to me.

Several years before his death, as his health declined, Dad wrote letters to me, my mother, my Uncle Curtis, and others. I don’t know how many he wrote in total, but they were all sealed and stored in a drawer. When I read it after his death, I bawled. I thought, one year later, that re-reading it would be easier. It wasn’t. It still emotionally ripped me apart.

Each year thereafter, on the anniversary of Dad’s death, I would read his letter to me. Sixteen days later, on the anniversary of Uncle Curtis’s death, I would read Dad’s letter addressed to his older brother, a letter I had inherited upon my uncle’s passing. And every year I would cry horrible, ugly tears all over again. I did this up until 2008, when the distance between my father and I added up to ten years and my children were small. I remember reading the letter, crying, wiping away my tears, and getting on with the business of taking care of my babies. Amelia, though, noticed my wet, red eyes, and tried with her little hands and arms to soothe me. It was that year that I decided to stop reading the letters.

They sat, folded and untouched in my dresser until today. I opened them up, read them, and cried as if today were January 30, 1998, not January 30, 2018. Twenty years later and the grief is still just as fresh as yesterday, the big difference being that the grief no longer squats on your heart. It may, instead, follow you from ten, twenty, one-hundred feet behind you. Yes, life continues and you get busy and get on with the business of living and moving and breathing and continuing. Your brain fills up with grocery lists and vacations, to do lists and time with friends and family. Seeing Dad’s picture isn’t as heart-wrenching as it once was and the fun memories with him have overtaken the bad memories of January 30, 1998, but the hole in my heart is still there and still as raw when I decide to look closely at it.

This year, rather than pictures, I decided to share the words my father wrote to me.

“Tuck”

Writing this letter to you is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Cause you know that I love you more than anything in this world. I’m writing your letter last–I have kept putting it off.

My hope for you Heather is that you will find true happiness and live a full and clean life and if there is a Heaven that we will meet again.

Heather please remember me every now and then–I would never like for you to not think about me now and then.

It seems only yesterday that Mom and Dad brought you home from the hospital. It was snowing and you rode home on Granny Smith’s lap.

The years sure flew by and I always wanted to be near you and hear about what you did–sometimes I know I bugged you a lot.

I remember all the good times at Montrose–the Halloween parades when I would dress up in the rabbit outfit. Then to junior high and the band–all the good times we had. I always remember you bringing the band onto Oaks Field–you made Dad so proud. Then on to high school and the old band podium I had to drag around and nobody would help me and when you kicked butts in your last year.

I remember the first junior high band festival at Wayne County when you won first place. I can still see you hollering “We’re #1!” and that you were.

Heather I can’t write of all the good times we had. Maybe from time to time you can remember them. Space Camp, the trip with the Spirit of America band and me crying. All the Rainbow Girls trips we made. The trips to Lewisburg–I never did take a short cut home. When I had the back trouble and you were in the floor with me. We really had some good times, that’s for sure.

And all the trips I made to Georgia.

What I’m trying to say Heather is that you have been one heck of a daughter and I wouldn’t trade you for a sack of boys–you were always strong and willing to run with the big dogs.

Heather as you go through life there will be a lot of bad times. Just try and do your best–I always tried to treat everyone like I wanted to be treated of course–you will run into some assholes. The best thing to do is just get away from then and do what you think best and always keep the ones you love the most around you.

I love you,

Dad

PS See you upstairs.

Pardon me while I wipe off my computer keyboard.

If you’re reading this and have yet to experience the deep, horrible sadness of the death of a parent, sibling, or child, just know that there is no timeline of grief. There’s no magic day that you wake up “over it.” You’ll never be over it. And fuck the first person who asks, “Why are still crying and upset? Hasn’t it been long enough?” It will never be long enough. I can guarantee you that if I live to be 100, I will still cry huge, nasty tears over Dad’s death, his birthday, Father’s Day, and his letter to me.

In writing my book, there’s a chapter that talks about the day my father died. I cried as I wrote it and went through my edits. In fact, the editing of that chapter took about two months because my editor wanted me to go deeper into my emotions and I just found that it was too hard. It was raw, the process was harsh, and it proved that my sadness is still there, still more fresh than ever. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t want to ever do it again. January 30, 1998, will always hover just behind me, waiting each year to remind me that life is fleeting and sometimes horribly unfair. Knowing it’s there just makes me appreciate my life, children, husband, and memories all the more.

So, in honor of my dad, go hug your parents today, or the people who are like your parents. Hug your children, your spouse, or your best friend. Hug the person or people who mean the most to you. Tell them you love them and raise a glass to Thomas Edward Scarbro, and let’s all remember his unique spirit.

Love to you all.

 

Rituals and Journeys

Rock Lake Presbyterian Church’s annual “flowering of the cross” ceremony is held each Easter. My mother started this tradition and this is this year’s cross.

Disclaimer: Is religion wrong? No. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about my journey from Presbyterian believer to atheist. This is my journey and I’m writing about it because there may be another person out there who needs to read this. They may be on a similar journey and they need to know that they aren’t alone. I’m not dissing on religion or God. I’m trying to explain why I have let go of my belief in both.

I very much like rituals. No, I’m not talking about routine or habit (that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy always putting my pants on right leg first then left leg because the other way would just ruin the whole day), I’m talking about ritual.

rit-u-al n 1: the established form esp. for a religious ceremony 2: a system of rites 3: a ceremonial act or action

I grew up in Rock Lake Presbyterian Church and each Sunday, the service followed the same pattern:

Opening Hymn, Call to Worship, Doxology, Prayer of Confession, Bible reading, Gloria Patri, Apostle’s Creed, Sermon, Invitation, Blessing, Hymn, Postlude.

I haven’t stepped foot in my childhood church in decades, but I can still sing the Doxology from memory.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise Him, all creatures here below! Praise Him above, ye heavenly host! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! Amen.

Pretty ironic for an atheist, eh?

I’ll let you all in on a little secret that I haven’t told anyone. You may want to get a little closer to the screen because I’m going to whisper it to you.

During my eighth grade year, when we had to take state-mandated standardized tests, we had to mark our career interests. I put down, “Presbyterian Minister.”

Shocker, right?

When my father went into the hospital in 1981 for a triple-bypass surgery, my love of religious ritual was fractured when I overheard my mother telling a friend that our minister hadn’t visited my father in the hospital because we hadn’t tithed enough money that year. I realized at that moment that for some people, religion wasn’t so much about faith as it was about money and influence and I was determined to not make it about that. I wanted my church to be about God, family, and fellowship, regardless of whether my manse had a hole in the roof or if the church’s stained-glass windows had cracks.

The longer I stayed around religion, though, the more of a bad taste it left in my mouth. I saw people praising God for their raise or their tax return while children were starved or beaten two streets over. I witnessed a friend’s church state that only baptism by immersion could save souls while my church baptized by sprinkling. My Sunday school teacher proclaimed that one uttered cuss word would damn us straight to that fiery place and because of that, I lay awake many nights, terrified that I would spend eternity with the likes of serial killers and rapists because of a misplaced fuck, not to mention the fact that I’d possibly been baptized wrong and couldn’t be saved in the first place.

I slowly, but surely, realized that religion wasn’t always one thing for one person. That it could be grace or fellowship or volunteerism for some, while others used it for money, power, and selfish ego. Yes, I did experience the selfless sacrifice of a few people but overall, I experienced the opposite from many. And never once did I feel God was there directing any of it.

I recall one afternoon in high school, on the school bus, passing my church and wondering, “If I were born in India, I’d be Hindu. Or if I were Japanese, I’d be Shinto and Buddhist. Religion is geographical. It’s a birthright” Well, how could that be right? I knew there were missionaries, but why did there have to be? Why wasn’t everyone already Christian? Why did we have to “sell” it? And weren’t those same Hindus and Buddhists and Shintos convinced they were right? And then it clicked. It wasn’t so much about geography as it was indoctrination, what you’re born into and taught all your life. I was taught to worship God as a Presbyterian because that’s what my parents were taught, and their parents, and their parents, and so on. It wasn’t necessarily right or correct, but it was genealogical.

As an adult, I announced my affiliation with deism, then later agnosticism. But was I really a Deist and then an Agnostic? No. I think it was me, after decades of reading the Bible, being preached to and frightened into belief (or else) that I couldn’t let go of. It was after suffering from infertility that I finally set my belief in any higher power free. So many things were said to me and about me during that period in my life that I could fill a book. (Funny I say that because I’m working on an outline for said book as I type this.) Many of those things were helpful and caring. Some, though, weren’t. A few were callous and hurtful, but the one that absolutely broke my heart was a Bible quote.

Halfway through my fertility treatments, I received an anonymous card in the mail. There was no return address and a generic Atlanta postmark. Inside the innocuous card was handwritten the following:

Psalm 127:3

Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him

I was stunned. There was no signature. I remember shaking from head to foot, unable to process how one Bible verse, so well-placed, could be so utterly hurtful. I cried loud, angry tears and screamed at the ceiling. An hour later, I wiped away the snot and cleaned myself off. I placed the card on the kitchen counter along with the rest of the mail so that Tyler could see it. I wanted him to read it without my influence and when he read it, he agreed with me that because it had been sent anonymously, it had been sent to hurt, not heal. A person who followed God was telling us that for whatever reason, we were unworthy of the gift of children. And no inner voice told me otherwise.

I finally proclaimed my atheism several years later because I hadn’t seen or felt God in my life. Ever. I realized that nowhere in my life did a divine power ever step in and assist. I never felt guided or helped or loved by anything celestial or beyond me. I have always felt alone. There has been no voice or direction, just me and my singular judgement. And the day I came out as an atheist was the day I admitted to myself that I was fine with that, that I accepted that, that it didn’t make me sad or angry. It’s just life. Good or bad, we are responsible for ourselves and our actions.

The guilt I felt for many years was lifted the day I admitted I’m atheist. We are all human, with mistakes and foibles and bad and good, all rolled into these physical forms. We screw up and we triumph every single day. This is humanity. And I refuse to apologize for being human, what religion calls a sinner. I’m not a sinner just because I’m human. That’s wrong. Accepting my humanity with no strings attached? That’s what’s right for me.

Crossroads

Even though I’m 45 years old, I still celebrate “firsts.” I am realizing that you’re never too old to celebrate a “first.” Each birthday is a first time experiencing that age and each time my children do something, that’s the first time I’ve experienced that thing through the eyes of a mother and not a bystander. But, there have been other “firsts,” as well.

At the ripe-old age of 33, Memorial Weekend 2005, I was heavily pregnant with my twins. Even though they weren’t due for another five months (and, in reality, came six weeks earlier than that), I felt the weight of the world on the small of my back. Tyler and I had just spent the weekend, our 10th anniversary, at my mother’s house in West Virginia. This was to be our last weekend there since I was close to the date I would have to stay home and my mother was two months away from moving, permanently, to Georgia.

Our last morning there, I woke up and waddled into the shower. And the reality of leaving this place, my childhood home, hit me. I began to cry. As I stood in that shower, I realized I would never again step foot in this house, that it would only ever exist in my memory, that I would never again be able to just casually walk through the front door and flop myself down on the couch. It wasn’t a great house, mind you. It was tiny and had its problems, but it was the house where I took my first steps, celebrated my birthdays, practiced piano, cried when my parents told me, “NO!” and laughed more often than I can count. The evening after my father’s death, I sat at the table, too tired to eat. I stared at the food in front of me and wondered if I would ever laugh again and I knew if I ate the salad sitting there, I would vomit. And, yet, it was just one day after his funeral that I sat at that same table, with a slice of chocolate cake, a Coke, and my cousin and aunt, laughing so hard over a stupid Trivial Pursuit question that I couldn’t catch my breath. That house saw me through so much and I knew that after this day, it would never again be “my” house.

Tyler and my mother rushed in to see what was wrong. They thought I was hurt or in early labor. “No,” I sobbed, “I’m just crying over a stupid house!”

Thirteen months later, I did step back into my old house. It had been sold and the new owners had redecorated. As I carried Heath, they allowed me inside and I don’t remember too much except that the smell was the same and my bedroom was now an office. Where there now sat a desk, I could still see my hot pink walls and my green shag carpet, my stuffed animals and my white bed. In a daze, I quickly walked through, thanking them profusely and hastily leaving. It was too painful.

Last week, I loaded my children up in our minivan and drove eight hours north to visit my home state. I’ve now lived in Georgia for longer than I ever lived in West Virginia, but I still consider myself more hillbilly than peach. As I drove down those well-worn streets and through the neighborhoods of my youth, not much had changed. The paint is peeling a bit more than before and the streets are bit more bumpy, but it’s nearly identical. And as I pulled up to the intersection of Kentucky Street and Rock Lake Drive, I realized another first. If my life could be summed up in a graph, this house, its address, near this intersection, would be coordinates 0, 0, 0. This was my beginning and my children were seeing it for the first time.

I’m very much a realist. I quite like to slip into my imagination from time to time, but I understand, quite clearly, that my graph will someday have an end set of coordinates. Where those will be, I have no idea. But, I do know that 5312 Kentucky Street, South Charleston, West Virginia, will always be my home, no matter who holds the deed. It’s as much a part of me as my current home. And those memories will live on and can never be taken away. Someday, my children will pull up to this house in Woodstock to show their own children where they grew up. They will cry a few tears of remembrance just as I did last week. Their children will wonder why this house means so much, but they will understand when they take their own children to see where their coordinates began. My children’s firsts fill me with joy and heartache and I hope when they come back to this home of ours on Wellesley Crest Drive, that their memories of it will be as happy as mine are of Kentucky and Rock Lake.

In Mourning

I woke up last Tuesday morning to a quiet home and a dark street. I had to be at the church across the way in one hour to help set up our voting precinct’s polling place. Nine of us would set up the voting and ballot-creating machines and spend the next fourteen-odd hours making sure the registered voters of Rose Creek precinct were able to select their candidates smoothly, quickly, and without conflict or interruption.

You see, I’m a smart bunny. I know what’s up. I know that there’s a good portion of the country who, ideally, would only like white people to vote. Hell, I’m pretty sure those people are also pretty fuckin’ bitter that the suffragettes won the right to vote in 1920. They would rather only white men voted. So, they make it difficult with gerrymandering and voter ID laws and Jim Crow-esque regulations. And those are the same people who swagger into our precinct and loudly proclaim, “IT’S MY SON’S FIRST TIME VOTIN’! HE’S 18! BUT, A’COURSE, HE AIN’T VOTIN’ THE RIGHT WAY!” So, let’s amend this that there’s a demographic who wishes only white, English-speaking men, probably 35 and older, had the right to vote.

Now, I also know there’s also a whole other cross-section of the country who wants EVERYONE to vote. Particularly those who aren’t citizens. Oh, they pay taxes, so they should be able to vote! It doesn’t matter that they come here in a less-than-honest manner, let’s give ’em all voter access! Let ’em vote! No matter that only UK/Commonwealth/Irish citizens can vote in UK elections. No matter that Mexico, France, Poland, Singapore, and Brazil require IDs when voting to establish citizenship. HERE, IN THE STATES, WE LET EVERYONE VOTE!!!

I get all of this. I absorb it. And I know that, as a Georgia poll worker, I have to follow certain regulations and rules. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow anyone to make it difficult for anyone else to vote. And so, I got ready.

But, I didn’t wear the usual red, white, and blue. No, that day, I had a statement to make. I wasn’t allowed to wear an elephant or a donkey, a candidate button or t-shirt, so instead I chose the only thing I could choose.

All. Black.

I donned my uniform of mourning. Black skirt and shirt. Black boots and jacket. When I arrived at the church, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Everyone else was in their festive red, white, and blue, all matchy-matchy with the precinct decor. And there I sat, behind my Express Poll station, in my emo black. I joked to everyone who asked that, with my purple hair, I was the outcast of the group. What I didn’t say was that I was in mourning for my country.

And still am.

I am sad that the only two major candidates our country could offer was a criminal and a sexist, bigoted, racist loudmouth. I am sad that lip service is only given to two candidates at a time. I am sad that moderate candidates are ignored and tossed aside like yesterday’s trash. I am sad that the pervasiveness of racism and sexism in this country is on the rise. I am sad that Democrats look down their noses at the very people they once proclaimed to defend. I am sad that Republican have worked on a policy of obstruction and not on a policy of doing any actual work. I am sad that evangelical Christians have hijacked the Republican party. I am sad that our news media is no journalism and all entertainment, catering to one extreme or the other, and in turn, filling our heads with partisan excess. I am sad that a presidential election is treated as though it were a Super Bowl. I am sad that even in this contentious an election, 50 million American citizens couldn’t find the time, energy, or inspiration to vote. I am sad that social media has allowed us to become armchair activists, giving us license to spread pretentious views that are empty of any substance, yet make us feel like we’ve actually done something.

To say that I went to bed on Tuesday, November 8th pissed at everyone would be an understatement. To say I woke up the next morning pissed and sad? Another understatement. I was so disappointed and crushed and, just, tired. Tired that people still think it’s OK to treat women like pieces of meat especially since their president-elect told them he does it. Tired that people think it’s acceptable to break federal laws and still run for the highest office in the land. Tired that people think #alllivesmatter is an acceptable answer to #blacklivesmatter instead of asking why we have to have that second hashtag in the first place? Tired that people think a wall dividing us is perfectly acceptable, but figuring out a way to give people an opportunity to live and work here legally isn’t. Tired that people think a third party is a waste of a vote, even when that third party has the only rational people on the ticket. Tired that one side is extremely pretentious and unyielding, calling the other “uneducated.” Tired that the other side is extremely rigid, unbending, and unwilling to admit that we. need. to. do. something. for our brothers and sisters of color/other-religions-not-Christianity. Tired that if I walk through Woodstock, Georgia, Bible Belt USA, in an “I’m an Atheist, Ask Me Anything!” t-shirt, that I’ll be more reviled and more distrusted than a convicted felon. Tired that my daughter will have to grow up wary of all men as I did. Tired that the children of my black friends may not live past their 30th birthday because of the violence perpetrated on them by society. My society. Tired that my sons may have to listen to their friends demean a girl simply because she exists.

I’m in mourning. For all of us. For all of our actions and inactions. I’ve decided, right now, that I’m stepping outside my privilege and making sure I’m fully educated. But don’t expect me to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own. I will continue to be a safe harbor for anyone who needs me. I will continue to learn and try my best to understand. I will continue to try and make people laugh. I will continue voting third-party and anti-incumbent in the hopes that my children will one day walk into a polling place and see more than two choices on the ballot. I will continue to teach my children to be good people, who treat everyone equally and with respect, and to not be pretentious asshats.

I. Will. Be. Me.

And I will one day be proud of my country again.

Stopped in My Tracks

img_9370Tyler bought me a monitor for my notebook, so that when I’m sitting at my desk I don’t have to squint.

Some husbands buy flowers, chocolate, and lingerie. Mine buys electronic things. This is one of the many reasons why I picked him. But, I digress.

I set about getting my desk organized with the behemoth which meant I needed to pilfer through the basement detritus for a mouse and keyboard.

(By the way, that’s the other great thing about Tyler. Our basement is like a Circuit City/Best Buy/CompUSA/Apple store all rolled into one room with bunches of cardboard boxes full of cable and cords and keyboards and computer cards and on and on. I’m pretty sure we could cable the neighborhood and take care of their electronic needs for the next year.)

As I walked by a bookcase of old CDs, I found an interesting stack of paper I hadn’t previously seen. I took a closer look and was so overcome I had to set down my electronic treasures. It was a stack of papers that had been saved by my Uncle Curtis, that had probably been in a box, most likely found by Tyler, and set aside for me to peruse.

The stack, a small portion of which is in the picture above, was full of bits of things Uncle Curtis had saved: letters and cards from me, newspaper clippings about me, my research paper, pictures of my father, my honor roll certificates, his Camera Club ribbons, and on and on. It wasn’t like I was excited to read these old letters and newspaper clippings. What touched me and stopped me was that he saved all of this as if he were my parent, which he pretty much was. He was my third parent. He was my way-cool uncle who listened to me, took a huge interest in my life, spoiled me, and held me tight. He was the absolute best uncle a girl could have ever hoped for. My parents were and are awesome, but my Uncle Curtis was something special. When I went through that stack yesterday, I didn’t smile over the memories of writing those cards or receiving those accolades. I smiled and remembered my times with him, those special moments we shared.

One of the items in the stack was a sheet of paper containing my Uncle Romie’s thoughts about his brother Curtis, read at Curtis’s funeral. Some of Uncle Romie’s thoughts about Uncle Curtis included:

When Curtis started grade school, Mom had him ride the garbage truck home (about 2 miles).

Curtis was a very generous person who would give you the shirt off his back.

We lived in Maryland on the Eastern Shore where there are no mountains. One night he looked out the window and became a little disoriented. He said he wondered why the sky was so “low.” Being from West Virginia, he said he was used to looking up to see the sky.

As I look back on Curtis’ life, I see a very generous man who will be missed very much. Our children loved him and will miss one of their favorite uncles.

Uncle Curtis (and Uncle Romie and my father) are missed every day, still, after all of these years. I am thankful for finding that small stack of papers so that he was next to me again, even if only for a little while.