Show some love for Jessica! A former teacher, Jessica received her doctorate this month from Boston University in educational policy. She blogs at her own blog, School of Smock, and collaborates with her partner, Stephanie Sprenger, on The HerStories Project, a blog celebrating and collecting stories of women’s friendships. This post was Jessica’s own first post for HerStories.
When someone you love becomes terminally ill, a lot of people respond by talking about it all the time. They can’t stop sharing details about their loved one, their illness, the experience of death, and grief. Others turn inward and process their emotions by thinking about and talking about anything else. They share small moments here and there of their private grief, but for the most part, they keep their experience walled off from their relationships with other people.
When my dad became sick with lung cancer and died several months later, I closed myself off from most people. What I was experiencing was too big, too intense, to share with strangers, or even casual colleagues, those with whom I could not trust my heart. I couldn’t risk talking about this with anyone whose trust was not as certain and as solid as rock.
But for my closest friends and those whom I trusted most, I clung to them like a drowning swimmer clutching onto to a life raft. I needed their words of comfort and reassurance more than I needed air, sleep, water, or food. In normal times I craved solitude outside of my normal routines of work, exercise, and friendships. Now I craved constant companionship and conversation. I thought that if I talked about it enough – my dad’s sickness, my own grief, death and mortality – that I would suddenly understand its finality and its implications for my life and for my mom, sister, and brother. My closest friends listened – God, they listened — sat with me, took my phone calls at all hours. But there were truly no words that could mitigate the pain or that could make any rational sense of watching someone so young get so sick.
And then I started talking to Christina.
Another friend told me that she had a close friend, a former colleague that I had never met, who was going through what sounded like the same experience that I was. She was the same age, had a dad in his early fifties (like my dad) who was in the end stages of cancer, and she was also a teacher. My friend mentioned Christina several times and said that I should contact her, but I couldn’t imagine calling up a stranger out of the blue and saying, “Hey, my dad has cancer too!”
However, after my dad passed away a few weeks later and I returned to Boston, I kept thinking of this girl. It turns out that her dad had died a couple weeks before mine. And then our mutual friend mentioned that Christina was going through a breakup with her boyfriend, just as I was, at the same time as dealing with her dad’s death. (I was living with a boyfriend at the time, who had chosen to move out and announce the end of our relationship at the same time as my dad’s death.) Who was this person who was living my parallel life? Was she dealing with it better? Maybe she had the answers that could ease my pain, comfort me more than those who could not possibly understand.
So I called her. And it was like a window into my own soul. We talked for hours, everything about our dads, cancer, stupid men who break our hearts, worries about our mothers and siblings. I knew nothing else about her. All the other reasons for forming a friendship – having common interests, a similar personality, shared background – had no bearing. All that mattered was this huge impossible task of learning how to mourn. We didn’t talk about television shows, hobbies, clothes, our work days. Her friendship felt like having a terrible, rare disease and then finding a medical specialist who knew everything about your condition.
And then as months passed, I spent more time with my old friends and alone. I dated again. The mundane aspects of friendship – seeing a movie, dissecting an old friend’s stupid career move – mattered again. Christina and I called each other less and less until we didn’t speak at all.
But sometimes I wonder about this girl, my twin in grief. I don’t know where she is and honestly can’t remember her last name. But I hope she is well and has found joy and meaning from her life and knows that her friendship helped me to survive the hardest moment of my life.
Dear 27 year old Jana,
Hi there. I just wanted to drop you a line to let you know a few things that, over the next few months, are going to be hard for you to imagine ever happening.
You’re going to have to deliver a baby. Shocking, I know… you’ve been pregnant for quite a while now, but you’re going to actually have to birth him. It’s going to be a little earlier than he should show up, but he’s going to be full of piss and vinegar when he comes out. You’ll be a little irritated at your doctor for letting you push for 3 1/2 hours (and also for dancing to China Grove when he should have been getting the baby out) but he will turn out to be even more special to you and your family later.
You’re going to have to leave him at the hospital for a few days and I want you to know it’s not the end of the world. He just has a little jaundice and all will be well once he comes home. You will spend the next few weeks doing what new moms do: sleeping very little, crying over dirty diapers and even dirtier houses, worrying every single moment, wondering if you’re producing enough milk, and wondering how a 6 pound baby can make everything change so fast. Let me just tell you now, you’re going to do a fabulous job!
You’re going to use your mommy instinct over and over. It comes natural to you. One day, you’re going to realize that something is just “off” and that your Charlie isn’t feeling well. Your doctor realizes it, too, and is going to send you straight to the hospital.
I can’t sugarcoat it, Jana. The next week will be the hardest of your life.
I really hate when I’m the bearer of bad news, but your baby is going to die. He’s going to contract Group B Strep, a bacteria we all carry, but one that can make babies very sick. Charlie will die in your arms, surrounded by love and peace.
It will bend you so far you will feel like you’re going to break. But you’ve got such an amazing support group — your family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even people out in internetville — that’s going to rally behind you to make sure that when you need someone, there’s someone there to hold you.
You and Jason will be ok. I know you promised you wouldn’t let this divide you and well, 10 years later, it hasn’t. He will grieve differently than you, but that’s ok. You’ll work together and do it differently side by side.
I’m going to fast forward through a bunch of other stuff because at this point, you’re probably just wondering if you can stay standing to carry on with the rest of your life.
You can. And you will. And you will do it with grace.
In 18 months, you and Jason will be blessed with the most amazing child, Henry, who will test you on a daily basis in ways you can’t imagine! He will bring color back into your world and make you realize that you have the ability to enjoy life in ways you likely never would have “before.”
In the years after Charlie’s birth and death, you will become an advocate for Group B Strep awareness and through that, you will be blessed to know so many people who, sadly, have had tragedy touch their families. You’ll also meet those who have had positive outcomes and who give hope to those who are frightened to ever try again.
There will always be hard days, but you’ll always gather the strength to roll out of bed and put one foot in front of the other. It’s not always easy, but you can do it. You can do anything, really. I bet you could even run a half marathon if you wanted to truly do something crazy!
It’s my hope that in 10 years, you’ll be able to look back on everything that’s happened in your life, including many other things I haven’t told you about (they’ll be a surprise), and realize that your life so far has meant something. Your son’s death has given you strength, sympathy, and empathy that will push you through the decades.
Whether you want to hear it or not, you WILL change lives. And you’ll SAVE them, too.
You’ll be okay. I promise.
With much love,
37 Year Old Jana
Show some love for Melanie today as she explores a sensitive topic through her wonderful writing. Melanie is the author of Efforts to Save the Meat Rabbits (available on lulu.com, but coming soon to amazon.com), she works for the American Red Cross and she serves on the Board of Directors for Prevent Child Abuse NY. She organizes an event for survivors of child abuse, domestic violence and rape to share their stories with the community through all means of creativity. She also blogs regularly for Prevent Child Abuse NY, and have had blogs and op-eds appear in Care2Causes and several local newspapers. She started Rabbits and Hawks as a home for more personal, less topical blogs and to focus on the issues of child abuse survivors and their portrayal in the media. She lives in Rochester NY with her husband, dogs, cats and an assortment of other pets. When she is not working, writing or engaged in advocacy work surrounding child abuse and human trafficking prevention, she enjoys bird watching and hiking.
In a few weeks I’ll wish my cousin a happy birthday for the 23rd time. This year I’ll send the festive wishes through Facebook, the only way I can get a hold of her. This time last year, she was homeless. Not houseless, not living on the street, but homeless in the sense that she was sleeping on a series of friends’ couches. Since drug addiction limits the number of friends who will let you sleep on their couch, the line between homelessness and houselessness is thin. That’s part of the reason she moved back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend.
This time last year, I was grateful for a year between my 22nd “happy birthday” greeting to her and my 23rd. I hoped that extra trip around the sun would give me greater wisdom, and give her greater health and better circumstances. Maybe the world would change a little.
When I was 22 years and six months old I was working a good job for a good company. And I’d come home from work and feel myself start to dissolve, explode, and sink. As I started to look at websites about recovery from child sex abuse, I learned that in NY, a survivor has until their 23rd birthday to file criminal charges against their abuser. As of your 23rd birthday in NY, you can report your abuse to the police, and at best they’ll say “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. Around this time I also read volumes about how important and therapeutic it is for victims to forgive their abusers. I think I’m the only survivor out there who sees forgiveness as something complicated, nuanced and not panacean. Back then there were limited on-line resources for sex abuse survivors, and since I was desperate to hide my past from my cohabitating boyfriend, the internet, and the privacy inherent to it, seemed my only information resource. But the two things no one made clear back then were that forgiving your abuser doesn’t re-write anyone’s history, and forgiveness can be granted to an abuser who’s experiencing legal consequences for their actions.
I chose not to press charges on my father. At twenty-two and a half, I was too young to legally rent a car in NY. I knew pressing charges would completely cut me off from my mother and sister, and it’s hard to embrace living as an orphan when you’re 22. I hoped the new distance between me and my family would give me an opportunity to enjoy them on some level- from a distance, perhaps the broken glass and blood splatters would become a sort of kaleidoscope. I didn’t know exactly what pressing charges would entail, but it seemed that at some point I’d actually have to tell people what my father did to me. I simply could not do that. It also seemed like there would be appointments with police officers, DA’s, and the like… not easy to do while working full-time, and not easily hidden from a boyfriend. As I ate my slice of birthday cake at work that fateful day, I mentally made a toast to forgiveness.
Back then, I couldn’t understand there was nothing in my past worth hiding, and that literal death isn’t the only thing that can permanently separate family from you. Nor could I wrap my mind around the idea that my father was still molesting children. Until I learned he was. Then I started paying more attention to my family. And in a convoluted and slow way, I learned he molested my cousin who turns 23 in a few weeks.
The fundamental struggle of anyone who works with youth is to decide how many of their own mistakes to let them make. Little kid mistakes with unpleasant-but-bearable consequences are easy to learn from. But as youth grow, the consequences of the mistakes become bigger, and the task of imparting wisdom from those mistakes becomes harder. At those times, the person teaching the young person is wise to remember how they saw the world when they were young. Which makes ignoring this upcoming birthday very appealing to me right now.
Surviving sexual abuse as a child changes the way someone perceives the world, from the arrangement of their brain cells to their most abstract beliefs about the universe and its contents. Most sex abuse survivors I know are extremely perceptive, but learning to use those perceptions can be a lifetime’s challenge. Imagine someone who can always figure out which glass of fruit juice is laced with poison, which is laced with vitamins, but usually drinks the poison-laced juice. Especially those who are still young, with wounds un-healed and suffering not yet distilled into wisdom. Abusive relationships and drug addictions can both provide apparent benefits to survivors that other people can’t comprehend. It can take years or decades to learn that poison isn’t worth consuming. Childhood prepares children for adulthood, and when a piece of their childhood is taken from them, they enter the adult world unprepared in one way or another. And because of the shame and stigma they feel, they rarely ask someone for the Cliffs Notes for the lessons they missed. It is vastly unfair for people so young and unready to be tasked with battling the same predators who harmed them. And it is vastly unfair not to tell them what they are tasked with.
I’ll message my cousin before her birthday this year. I’ll ask if she’s safe, and remind her that I have a guest room. If my courage holds, I’ll tell her she has a few weeks left to make a decision that is far from the forefront of her mind. A decision that will have major consequences for her and for others further down the road. Consequences that won’t be entirely pleasant, no matter what she decides. I’ll tell her it’s horrible and wrong and backwards and insane that she has to even think about this now. If I’m really brave, I’ll tell her why I made the decision I made on the eve of my 23rd birthday, and what I think about it now. I’ll tell her I love her, and that even though this won’t be a happy birthday, no matter what, there are better ones ahead.
Please welcome Tarana, today’s submission writer! Tarana is a former reporter and content editor who gave it all up to be with her son, now 18 months old. She retains her love for writing and blogs at Sand In My Toes. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook!
I came upon a question on Quora about what the the most dangerous trends in parenting are. Interestingly, most people answered that being over-protective of children is the biggest failing of parents. I don’t think there’s a specific right or wrong way of raising kids. Heck, today’s environment is so dangerous that I don’t think we can be protective enough of our kids. I mean, who would have thought that they would be selling bullet-proof backpacks in the USA? And did you know that children 44,475 go missing in India every year? Yes, we have every right to be over-protective. But I also understand why people think this is a ‘dangerous trend’. It is, after all, important to let kids be kids. To not rob them of their childhood pleasures by being too cautious.
I can’t comment on what we shouldn’t be doing, but there are certain life lessons I want my child to know. Because for the next couple of years, I’m his window to the world. These are the things I want to teach my little boy:
Honesty is best: Lying is just so easy nowadays because we don’t even have to say it, just type it somewhere and no one is going to question us. But I’ve learned that being honest always pays off in the long run, and leads to healthier relationships.
Take only what you deserve: It’s easy to take credit for someone else’s work, but credit should only be taken when you deserve it. Or anything else for that matter. Don’t take advantage of generosity. But graciously accept praise or reward when you’ve worked hard for it.
Don’t over-indulge, especially on credit: We have become such a materialistic society that labels have become everything. My parents taught me that you don’t always have to ‘have’ everything. I think it’s dangerous that we can so easily buy on impulse, because we have credit readily available to take. But it has to be paid back, and it’s better to just stay within your means.
Learn to give back, even if you don’t receive: No person is completely a part of society until he/she gives back to it. Whenever opportunity arises, do something to help someone in need. More importantly, don’t expect anything back because this world is full of selfish people. I think being selfish can only make us unhappy, while helping others leads to an inner peace.
Stand by your beliefs: Once you know what you stand for, stand your ground. But remember to respect the beliefs of others too. Otherwise, you will end up being intolerant and arrogant.
Don’t clamor for popularity: I am realizing more with each passing day that what is popular is not always the best. I don’t think one should blindly do or adopt something just because everyone is doing it. Pick only what you are comfortable adopting and be happy with your choice.
You can’t always win: There is so much emphasis on being the fastest that we forget that life is the race itself. We have the same destination and it really doesn’t matter how soon we get there. We must teach our children that they will lose sometimes, and it’s really okay.
Violence is never the answer: Never, ever. It’s a dilemma for parents to teach their children to respond to the overwhelming violence around us today. Worse still, how do they respond to violence aimed at them? This is a tough one, and something I’m still pondering, but I know that I will teach my child to avoid violence and find an alternative solution.
I was listening to a local NPR program a few weeks ago in which the host and several panelists were discussing math and its current progress in the United States. Per the interview, the US ranks well below other industrialized countries in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) even below countries like Slovakia.
When I first started college 7 years ago, I determined to avoid math for as long as possible. I had only bad memories of math from my elementary years that included copious tears and late nights feeling desperately confused. My perfectionist side learned to hate math; it seemed that the harder I tried, the more confused and lost I became.
Thanks to a few good professors, I began recognizing the mathematical patterns around my world and the statistical models that made the research from my degree viable. I began to earnestly wonder whether I, a supposed dummy at math, could logically and morally ignore math in my career.
I began studying the results sections of the research I would see referenced in the Huffington Post, Pyschology Today, the Washington Post, and other on-line news sites. With a basic understanding of statistics, I could easily see the weaknesses and strengths of specific studies thereby allowing me to make a more qualified judgment of the research presented.
Later, as I moved from intermediate math (I had to start somewhere!) to college algebra and trigonometry, I connected the algebra and trigonometric functions with the natural processes I was learning in biology or chemistry or psychology. The difficult theories seemed less difficult as I applied mathematical thinking and principles to understand them.
Research regarding math literacy among children indicates that, if you want your child embrace and not shun math, help them see the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what they observe in the natural world. During your daily interactions, look for math teaching moments so your child will actually see how math applies to their real world. For example, when baking, have your child help you measure out the liquids. If they are older, ask them to double the recipe for you. These simple steps will help them gain the confidence needed to pursue math.
My daughter discovered that we have a White-Tail Kite (sort of like a hawk, this is a raptor bird that seeks it’s prey like mice and lizards) behind our backyard. I saw them circling the other day but did not think about where it lives. Turns out it is right behind our house. I love to watch it with it’s mate as it builds a nest. Below I caught a photo of one with a twig in its beak ready to build.
“Hey! Hey! Stop”, Sid called.
I had already heard him call the other two times.
*Just go away. Please not today!*
In about a moment, he was walking with me. The last thing I want on any normal day, for that matter, was Sid catching me in the recess. He started the conversation with, ”Did you hear, I have skin cancer”.
Making no attempts at stifling my smirk, I retorted “Like you had Leukemia last month?”. He went on about the severity of his new disease until after the recess got over.
It was another attention-seeking-ploy.
That is typical Sid. Probably it is his innocence or nonchalance; he never seems to be fazed by the sarcasm and ridicule he gets more often than he should.
Sid is my kid brother’s classmate. And yes for him too, hanging out with school seniors is cool. Out of empathy for his friendlessness, and out of pity for his hapless life, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him off. Maybe he would have taken it well, because that’s the grit he was made of. But what if he didn’t? I don’t want to join the crowd of bad guys in his life, now do I?
He came over to our house today, AGAIN. They are to play football and then he will stay back until it was dark. But today, nobody turned up to play, so Sid and my brother included themselves in my movie evening. Peevish, I got up to treat myself, and myself alone, with popcorn. Sid’s habits though never failed him. He followed me here as well. When the popcorn was done, he conveniently snatched them from me and made his way out.
After a brief quarrel with him, I found myself sweeping the popcorn off the floor. There went my solo movie evening!
Tomorrow, he would come again. I would have to sit with my homework for hours while he would assiduously chatter away with my over-sympathetic mother. And then again and everyday.
*Can I do something to get rid of him and still be a do-gooder? No, not really.*
After 10 months and after changing two apartments and finally in a new city, I was reading a text on the phone. It was from a friend from the old city.
“Sid is dead. It was an accident. The other kid with him is injured but fine. It was in the newspaper”.
Death does a lot of good for ordinary or even unscrupulous people, once it comes to them. Everybody who knows them, has all the good things to say about them, merely posthumous.
I am not very different from everybody else. I thought of him then -
*He was sort of my friend*
*He was way better than any other 15-year old I know*
*He was the only family of his mother*
In 2010, at the age of 15, at the end of his lifetime, Sid had only managed being a son to his single sick mother, grandson to his grandparents, the forgotten student at school, and a friend to a few
His death was indeed in the local newspaper, hidden between pages of car ads, insurance policies and trashy politics. Who wouldn’t have overlooked the news about a Nobody dying? I know I would.
I’ve been working out a ton lately.
I define “a ton” as “choosing workout clothing that doesn’t actively shame me into staying indoors” and “talking to my husband about when- exactly- I’m going to need to have time to do said work out.” Like for next week. Definitely next week. But not Thursday. Because I’m gonna need to watch The Office.
Working out can be exhausting.
Sometimes I’ll even make it into an actual Pilates studio. Once there, however, there’s a whole new batch of problems. Namely, the other people at the Pilates studio. The majority of the gals already have Yoga Butts, and they parade them off in pants which cost more than Nora’s monthly preschool tuition. I want to tell these ladies to go home, they’re already good to go. They’re got The Butts. No one likes a bragger.
Some of these women have perfect hair, which makes me so mad. I mean, I can’t even manage perfect hair for a formal event like a date night or my wedding, and they’re rocking a teased ponytail on a Wednesday night. Jerks.
Another problem is when the instructor expects me to exercise in a manner consistent with what the other class participants are doing. Things like corkscrewing one’s legs and scissor-kicking and not dying. And I always seem to be in exactly the wrong spot. Or rather, I’m in an exceptional spot if my goal is to be judged by every single member of the class. Side planks on our right sides? Suddenly everyone’s faces are turned to my heroic struggles next to the rowing machines. Rolling like a ball on our backs? Yep, prime viewing of the girl with the hiked-up shirt displayed against the mirror. And if I manage to arrive early enough to secure a prime [hidden] spot at the back of the room, the instructor gets all whimsical and directs everyone to face towards the rear. Namely mine.
But despite the hardships of scheduling and personal appearance and heaving in the parking lot, it’s pretty nice to begin seeing the effects of working out.
My ponytail looks better than ever.