Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Dream

I can date the memory by the house we were living in: I was 10. I woke up from a nightmare, a recurring theme of being kidnapped in view of my mother and of her turning her back, tight-lipped, not wanting to see. But when I awoke from this particular dream I just could not shake the horror. I surrounded myself with stuffed animals, listened to my sister breathing peacefully in the next bed, said my prayers like a good Catholic girl: but the fear kept pounding through me. I just didn't know what to do. I finally got up and went to my mother's room.

My father could sleep through a tornado, but my mother was a very light sleeper, so I stood in the doorway of their room and whispered, Mom. She instantly raised her head and said, what's wrong? I explained that I didn't know what to do to shake off the nightmare so I could go back to sleep, that I had tried and that it just wouldn't stop. She sat up and patted the bed in front of her, and said, come here.

My stomach sank. I knew she would slap me for waking her over something so trivial, and that she wanted me to get closer so that she didn't have to lunge for me: if her legs had not been paralyzed by polio, she probably would have stood, but she could not and so she relied on our obedience. There was nowhere to run that wouldn't make it worse anyway: better to just get it over with. I closed half the distance between us and stopped, hopefully, but she patted the bed again. Come HERE, she whispered loudly.

I sat down in the spot she had indicated, shoulders tensed and eyes down, waiting. Then she did something I have never forgotten: she put her arms around me, and held me.

She had not done that since before I could remember. I was overwhelmed. The only way she had touched me for years was to smack me. I still hugged my brother, who was young enough to hug me back: but no one had touched me like this for years. Everything in me relaxed. It was such a powerful magic.

She stopped after about 30 seconds, and asked if it was better. And it was. The fear that had shaken me for the better part of an hour was gone without a trace, and I felt the most lovely peace flowing all through my veins. I said yes, and thank you, and went back to bed: but I couldn't sleep for a while. The feeling of being held like that had been unbearably sweet, and I was drunk on it, unwilling to let it go until sleep finally took me anyway. 37 years later, I still remember what a miracle that moment was to me: and it breaks my heart that my childhood was so impoverished of even the simplest affection. I know she loved me as much as she could, that she just wasn't capable of more: but Mom, it was not enough! I am still so hungry after all these years: and the mark of it will always be with me, every day, every day.

(My son is 16. He casually puts his feet in my lap when we watch TV, and I rub them: I hug him often, and he still hugs back, even in front of his friends. He will never know this particular sorrow. He will never wonder if he was loved.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

RIP Mary

I want to write about a woman I met the first time I was in jail. I was inside twice, neither time for a lengthy sentence: but the experience was profound in ways you might not imagine. I could write about facing down the head Latina King there, Ray-Ray: about how she stepped to me, and how I stood up to her with a firm dignity that I didn't know I had in me: about how she attempted to avenge herself on me, and how it backfired on her: I get a chuckle out of that one still. Ray-Ray was a thug, and one of the women who belonged there. She is probably still there.

But most of us didn't belong there. I picked up two misdemeanor charges at the age of 43. I had never been in trouble before outside of high school detention: I was new to the justice system, and believed that the guys in the white hats were mostly honest and fair. I was wrong. I was put on probation for my offenses, and was incarcerated both times for going to my probation officer in tears and admitting that I had used drugs again. Upon hearing my story, the other inmates assured me that I was criminally stupid, and they were right. I was told to ask for their help: instead I received their punishment. I was so, so naive. I watched these officers of the law blatantly lie in court, and I was stunned. I learned that justice and the law are not always related.

The first time I was in jail, I was terrified. I kept my mouth shut and my head up: I stayed to myself, nodded at people here and there, and took my time letting everyone size me up. It was hard to have no money when everyone brought out their commissary goods, candy and chips and coffee: I was starving, having gone days smoking rock instead of eating, and they don't feed you much there. But I knew better than to ask, because showing weakness is not a good plan. That much I knew. I knew not to admit that I had a suicide plan in place: their treatment would have been to put me in a straitjacket, diaper me, and put me in isolation. Think I'm joking? I saw it happen. I learned. I saw a woman have a series of mini-strokes: they put her in isolation, where we could not help her. When I left a month later, she had still not seen a doctor. Need to take a leak? Too bad. You can wait until the guard feels like getting up, and begging won't help. You are nothing in jail. You have no rights other than what they choose to give you.

There are so many other horrors I could delineate, but I want to talk about one of the women I met there. She was one of the women who taught me what it means to be a hero. Her name was Mary. She walked the pod like I did, round and round until it was time to lock down, or eat: killing time. She was in jail for taking her son to Burger King, with her ex's permission: he called the police and she was charged with kidnapping. She had a record of small drug offenses, so she was locked up with no bail. She was looking at spending the rest of her life in prison for nothing. NOTHING. She had spent her childhood being abused and gone on to make a series of remarkably bad choices in men. She had used drugs to alleviate the horror: she tried to get help, but there isn't much out there, and that's no excuse, that's the truth in the state of Massachusetts. As a crack addict, she was not eligible for detox: there are no rehabs available for less than an initial investment of $8000: and a mental hospital will not keep you for more than a week or so, even if you beg. So there she was, looking at life without: she had just been officially charged. It's fair to say that she was a little upset.

She and I were both walking our circles, as I said, and in time our circles synced up. And you know what she did with her fear and her pain, this woman? She asked me how I was doing. She was kind. She listened, and encouraged me to talk about me: she gave me some advice: but most of all, she just cared. I was amazed. In this descent into hell, I knew I was witnessing greatness. She gave me back my hope. And she showed me who I wanted to be when I grew up. She was my angel that day.

Mary died not long ago. She was 2 years older than me. This is when I start wondering, why me? Why not her? I have no answer. All I know is, she taught me something: I learned that love happens in the giving, not the taking. RIP Mary. You gave me the gift of hope when it seemed you had nothing to give, and I hold that hope to this day. I will never forget you.