I found myself cuffed in the back of a police car wearing only a skimpy blue robe. I watched as he lit a cigarette and began to tell the two male cops his “story”. He was in his element-control. I had my chance to tell what happened-that he had choked me after throwing my keys in the bushes. And had driven intoxicated to my place. With a suspended license, because of an unpaid ticket from 4 years ago that had finally caught up to him. And in a car with out-of-date tags.
“Is that bruise on your lip from him?” one of the officers had questioned me. He would be arrested for assault, in addition to DUI with a suspended license in a car with expired tags. I didn’t even realize at the time that his assault charge would have been a 3rd degree felony. I just knew I still felt sorry for him. Even after he had really shown me what he was capable of doing to a woman.
Instead of answering the policeman’s inquiry, I remained silent. I could not do it. I would take the fall. I didn’t want to take the fall, but someone had to and I knew it could not be him. I knew he was too fragile to handle it. I knew no one would come to his rescue and that someone would come to mine. I knew my circumstances were better than his, and I couldn’t do that to him.
I sat watching him gesture to his face and leaned forward, attempting to catch what tale he was weaving. They shined a light on his black eye and bloody nose. They snapped pictures of his face. They had not taken any of mine. Because I was not cooperating. I had remained silent. And that had angered the male cop who spoke to me minutes before, when the tables could have been turned. But, it didn’t matter. I was not being compliant and it was making their job frustrating. Despite the fact that I was sobbing and shaking. Despite the fact that it was my house and my son had made the call for me. None of that mattered. What mattered was I didn’t speak up. And I should have.
I was whisked off downtown to jail. They handed me over to a female officer the second we arrived at the jail, who actually brought a blanket to cover me since I was nearly naked, the superficial robe hardly covering my body, breasts spilling out for the world to see. I was so relieved to have a woman by my side. She took me into a changing room and handed me the scratchy generic striped shirt and pants and mismatched flip flops. She watched me change, but I did not care that she did not avert her eyes. I felt in this unwelcome place she was compassionate.
I tried to avoid the contusion on my right knee from touching the questionably clean standard issued stripes, but it was impossible. I numbly went through the processing of check in after I had my proper attire in place. That entailed handing over my cell phone, my keys, my money, and my flimsy robe. Any material thing that had been “mine” was no longer mine. It was just me left: hair, tissues, blood, bones, organs, skin. And my thoughts. The sum of who we are when stripped down to the literal bare bones.
Then I was placed in a holding area for females. I observed my surroundings. The fluorescent lighting harshly exposed the grit of the round ups of a busy Friday night. A highly energetic middle aged woman with bleached blonde hair was pacing the area. A downtrodden older woman was huddled up in the corner of a bench shivering. A tough looking young Hispanic woman sat directly across from me. A young, college-aged pretty girl sat whimpering next to her. I looked at them all and here we were. All of us in unfortunate situations from unwise decisions or unfair circumstances. We were linked together in our unfavorable conditions. The first thing I did was follow suit as I watched them using a phone to collect call friends, relatives, lawyers. The outside world.
I could have called anyone for help, but I chose to call my son. I called him because I needed him to know I was okay. I needed him to know that although he did the right thing to call the police and that even though the belligerent boyfriend had been in the wrong, I took the fall. He answered my call and my heart briefly lifted upon hearing his voice.
“Mom, why are you in jail? It should be him!”
“Yes, I know. I didn’t speak.”
“Why?” Yes, Why? I asked myself.
“So many reasons and I didn’t know someone would be taken to jail, I thought the police would come over and calm things down and leave, I was protecting him from the consequences.”
“Mom, why?? He didn’t deserve that. You could lose your job. I can’t bail you out. Are you okay? Is it horrible there?”
“I’m okay. My job will be fine. Are you okay?”
I could hear his voice break. “I hate him. I knew he would hurt you. I’ll be okay as soon as I know you’re out of there.”
“Don’t worry. All will be well.” And our precious connection ended. I felt as low as the dirt on the floor. My son was my advocate. And I was the adult. This was not right. How had I ended up here?
I sat back down on the cold cement bench, next to the quietly crying college girl. It was so cold, even though it was May, in Texas. Everyone was shivering, arms crossed, pacing or huddled up. The men’s holding area was only divided by a 4 foot tall cinder block wall with blue paint peeling. Most of them appeared that they had been hauled in for some type of intoxication charge. One poor man was being brought in with his pants halfway down, a condom hanging off of him. Almost as if the police took pleasure in humiliating him further as he spoke loudly about the unfairness of being caught with a prostitute.
The women of course collectively cringed at his appearance. I finally decided I needed to break the silence. I started with the tough looking Hispanic woman. “What are you in here for?” I asked. All the women’s eyes focused on me. Petite, middle-aged woman, starting a conversation with the toughest one among us. That took some level of courage.
“Assault. Shit.” She smacked her lips and nodded at me, “What about you, girl?”
“Same”. She laughed. “Ummm, did they see the bruise on your lip? It looks like they got the wrong person, girl.”
“Yes. I didn’t know when the police are called on domestic violence that someone will be arrested.” I offered.
“Ooh, girl. You didn’t talk, did you? You saved his sorry ass. Look where it got you. Shit. Fucked up, ain’t it?” She rolled her eyes.
“Yes, it’s fucked up. What’s your name?” I asked her. She pulled her shirt to the side and pointed at her shoulder, with the name Marisa tattooed on it.
I nodded my head, my mind trailing back to the fateful scene in his car, parked in my driveway, where his hands were wrapped tightly around my throat, cutting off my airway. I thought I would die there. But I kicked my heel into his cheekbone and punched him squarely in the face.
That’s when he let go. And he cried and punched me in the mouth, “I wish I’d never met you.” “You made me do that. You made me hurt you.” He kept saying. “You gave me a bloody nose!” I felt as though it was not me he was saying that to, but someone else from his long ago past. It was at that point I’d called my son. Who immediately called the police.
I wanted to erase that scene forever. I wanted to erase all the scenes when he had hurt me with abusive words in his drunken rages. Smothered my face with a pillow because I had dared emptied his vodka. Then watched in terror as he laughed maniacally afterwards and told me, infuriated, “Who do you think you are? I am not your dad. I am not your mom. I don’t unconditionally love you. You push too far, and this is what happens. We are animals. Self-preservation is all there is.” Self-preservation is all there is. Was that really true? I had not lived my life in that vein. I had forgiven him for that first sign of serious physical abuse a few months back.
Why? Why? Never before in my life had I understood the plight of the abused woman. I had lived a pretty okay life with some bumps here or there. I had sacrificed for my family, like a good wife, once upon a time. I had held up everything for so many for so long. I considered myself a strong woman. Strong women do not allow abuse. Strong women speak up. But we are flawed and life is messy. Take note. Everyone is susceptible to everything.
The other women began to join into the conversation I started. “I’m in for DWI”, said the sad looking older woman. “I wasn’t even driving, just sitting in my car, pulled over, having a drink. And I’m not even from here. I’ve never been in jail in my life!” Her raspy-smoked-too-many-cigarettes voice sounding crestfallen. I felt sorry for her. It was pathetic. We all were.
Then, the lively bleached blonde woman with bright blue eyes spoke, “Oh, honey, it’ll be okay. Get a good lawyer. I’ve been here a lot. Be nice to the judge when you see him or her.”
That statement, of course, sparked my interest in this woman. “What’s your name?” I asked her. I wanted to keep good mental notes on all of these characters.
“Carrie. Carrie Luna.” Damn, if that wasn’t the perfect name for her. I laughed. “That’s a great name. So, Carrie Luna, why are you here tonight?”
“Oh, hell, driving with a suspended license, sugar. Happens regularly. I can’t afford insurance. And I gotta work, don’t I? So, every now and then I get pulled over, taken to jail, sleep off the time. Get my car out of impoundment. Cheaper than paying for insurance.” Wow. I sure was learning the ropes of the working poor class plight and the useless criminal justice system that was like an unending cycle of misfortune. I felt like I was in a post-modern Dicksonian novel. We lived in an unenlightened society of self-preservationists.
I turned to the sweet young girl next to me and gently asked her, “What about you?”
“I turned the wrong way at a light. And I’d been drinking at a bar.” She began to cry and put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe this. I’ve never been in jail.”
I patted her back. Carrie Luna comforted her, “Oh, honey, you’ll be okay. Bet you have good parents that can bail you out and get you a good lawyer. It’ll just be a blip in your past soon enough”. The girl sobbed, “My parents are going to be so upset”.
Marisa rolled her eyes at her white, middle class privilege. There was one other young woman among us, but she remained unaffected, in a seemingly different state of consciousness.
I was taken back to the medical station to get assessed. There was a big gash on my knee that the nurse mechanically cleaned with no show of sympathy. I imagined her job was pretty depressing and often tiring. I thanked her for cleaning out my cut-It was a pretty good one. I was trying to remember where it came from, but the night had been such a blur and I was just trying to process what was happening at the moment. It seemed like I had fallen or had been pushed to the ground, somewhere around the keys being thrown in the bushes by him before I stubbornly got in his car and demanded he help me find my keys instead of leaving me stranded in a robe in my front yard, locked out of my house. She couldn’t do much for the bruised lip. And the rest of the bruises wouldn’t make their appearances until a few days later. Fingerprints on my upper arm, bruises on my head, that my hair covered well. I gazed at my forearm and thought about his.
RESIST. A tattoo he had etched on himself. I remember tracing it on his forearm and asking him about it. Back in the beginning, when he was sweet and drew me into his darkness. I was already so entrenched in a fog from the aftershocks of my daughter’s illness, that I stepped easily into his world. “You are a beautiful mess” I had told him. And he was. He was creative and deep. He listened to my sobs, he held me close when I thought I would break underneath the crush of the world. I had held so much together that I was in desperate need to be loved, whisked away from the pain. I needed someone else to be strong and certain. And he provided that for me. One lonely night, his words of comfort were all that kept me from leaving. I cried about my agonizing decision I had made to leave my marriage. I wondered if it would be easier to leave the world entirely at this point. Because then it wouldn’t be my fault. Then no one could blame me or throw cruel words my way anymore. I could just disappear and free myself like that. And somehow, somehow he understood my plight. Where he himself had traveled, to understand such a self-deprecating concept, I was to soon learn. All that mattered was that he got me. And strangely, that is exactly how I survived the loss of a marriage and everything else that followed. But he should have been a temporary stepping stone. Instead, it was an addictive, unhealthy bond that proved nearly impossible to break. Nearly, but not entirely. And there were signs. So many signs-his intense jealousy, his need to wrap himself around me until there were no gaps of light in between our bodies when we slept together. The stories of the other women from before. No lasting friendships in his life. A rift in the relationships with his parents. So many red flags. I would not see those signs while I was with him because I needed him. I thought I needed him.
I had to break that intense bond to climb out of the black hole that was his heart. So much pain radiating in and around me. We only feel what our brains allow us to feel, it is said. And I was allowing in a vast amount of pain. His and mine. I was accustomed to that role-taking on the pain of others. Holding everyone else’s anger. We only feel what our brains allow us to feel. He was a narcissistic empath. An empath who used his gift for self-serving purposes. Dangerously manipulative. He later admitted to me, “I am a spider who knows how to catch my prey”. Proud and arrogant. He was consumed in a spiral of degradation that began generations ago on his mother’s side. You reap what you sow. She had sown the seeds of abuse, but then again, she was a product of her own mother’s abandonment. Trauma is a circle, a therapist later would tell me.
An hour had passed and I had been checked in, checked out by the medical staff and had made conversations with the women surrounding me. I decided to venture into the bathroom, I had been trying to avoid it, but it was no longer an option. It was predictably dank and seemingly unclean. I hovered over the toilet to pee and was dismayed to find there was no soap for washing my hands afterwards. I left the bathroom, feeling even more filthy than I already did and headed to the station of attendant officers to inquire about the lack of soap. “Oh, no, there is no soap-we don’t keep it in the jail.” An officer said flatly to me, no expression on his face. “Umm….why not? That’s really unhygienic”. “Because we could be sued. If someone is allergic to it, we could be sued for having it.” That seemed like a really lame excuse to me. I guess there was no equivalent concern for being sued for spreading infections due to the lack of soap in the jail. Anywhere in the jail. Not even wipes, or hand sanitizer. Nothing.
I went back to the women’s waiting area and complained to the women about the missing soap. Carrie Luna piped up, “That’s why they keep it so cold in here. So as to keep the germs at bay.” “Well, that’s a little contradictory with the no soap policy, don’t you think?” She nodded and winked at me. Carrie Luna was keeping me sane right about now.
Suddenly, she was pacing around. The energy was building and she was verbalizing her concerns. “I hope they are nice to us since it’s Mother’s Day weekend. Usually we get out of here without going upstairs, but it’s taking longer than normal. It must be a busy weekend.” That caught my interest. “So, will we be put in cells? Is that what you mean by upstairs?” “Yeah. But at least you’ll get a blanket. But if it’s full here, we’ll be carted off to Del Valle.” That made me feel unsettled. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I mean, they’ll cuff us, load us up in a van and take us all to Del Valle. But it’s nicer there.”
“Yeah”, added Marisa. “At least there you can watch tv. Here it sucks.” There was no telling how long we would be here it seemed. And they intentionally kept you in a state of confusion, it seemed. To add to your misery. Along with the no soap policy.
A jailer appeared at the opening of the women’s holding area. He shouted out a list of last names. It was all of us ladies. We stood and took turns being patted down, pants pulled out so he could look down and ensure we had not snuck anything in nature’s pockets. He handed us all our scratchy grey blankets. It was such a relief to get some semblance of comfort, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, we were herded to the elevator area to prepare to go to our cells. Carrie and Marisa began groaning.
“Oh, this is gonna suck. I can’t believe we’re going upstairs.” Marissa said, very disgruntled.
I was starting to wonder how bad it could be. “What do you mean?”
“It sucks. Just sleep. Try to sleep.”
That wasn’t enough information for my furtive imagination and the places where it was going. The young college girl next to me began crying again. I tried to comfort her, but the truth was, I was just as disturbed as she was about our impending journey.
I got used to the drill. Each new area we entered, we put our hands on the wall, got patted down, pants pulled out, tongues stuck out and cuffed again. Carrie Luna, Marisa and I got put in the same cell block.
There was one woman already locked up in the cell to the left of where I was to be. I peered in at her as we walked by. She scowled at me and began yelling at the guard, “Bitch, you know I been locked up for 72 fucking hours. I need a shower!”
The guard just ignored her coolly, which did not help the angry woman’s disposition. I took stock of my surroundings after the guard locked me inside my cell. I counted the cinder blocks and decided my cell measured approximately 6 X 8 feet. There was a cement platform that was the “bed” with a well worn maybe one inch thin plastic mat that served as the mattress. The toilet and the water fountain/sink were all one apparatus placed right next to the door. There was no way to determine how much time was passing, firstly because there was no connection to the outside world (no windows, no cell phone, no watch) and secondly because I was in shock. I attempted to make myself as comfortable as possible on my makeshift bed.
I continued to hear my indignant next door jail neighbor scream periodically. Carrie was cheerful, even at this point and hollered, “Just calm down, woman. Remember this too shall pass.” The guard told us all to shut up and I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, tunneling into darkness.
I found myself in a dream. I was running in a jungle. I was from the faraway past. I had a spear and could hear my feet thumping on the ground as I ran. Then, I came to a halt and hid inside a tree. I could feel my heart pounding and I controlled my breath, slowing it as I watched a black panther stealthily walk past me. She looked directly into my eyes and I was her. I was that powerful cat for a split second. I took it in, the muscles, the innate understanding of the natural world. “Self-preservation” I heard a woman whisper. Carrie Luna was there, with me in the jungle.
“Time to eat, ladies!” One of the jailers yelled as she clanked open and shut the little doors to slide our first meal through. Her booming voice brought me back to this reality. I had no appetite, nor did I want to attempt to eat anything with my unwashed hands. I peered into the brown bag and saw an apple, a bologna sandwich, some carrots and a small bag of graham cracker cookies. They really were highly concerned about the incarcerated suing them for soap allergies, but apparently not for food allergies.
“Hey” I heard Carrie yell from the cell next door.
“Did you see me? I saw you!”
“SILENCE!” The jailer bellowed. “NO TALKING ALLOWED!”
What the hell? I thought to myself. Were Carrie Luna and I in the same dream? How likely was that? I looked back in my bag at my sorry excuse for a sandwich and sighed. How much longer was this going to be. What would be the consequences of this night? What was my lesson to learn from this mistake? Why had I allowed such darkness into my life? How was my son? I think I knew all of the answers to these questions, yet my mind kept buzzing with them. Evidently, the other women on my cell block felt the same edgy energy. I felt as if we were reduced to our animal selves. Waves of invisible vibrations synchronized us. The energy was building as I heard others pacing their cells. I thought about the animals I’d taken my children to see at the zoo when they were little. The angry woman next door began screaming again. I had to get up and move, it was too difficult to repel the push of feelings. It was like a wave of panic swallowing us all up collectively. I began to chant prayers quietly to myself in an attempt to calm my mind. The surge subsided and I could feel a sense of stillness restored. I laid back down on my cement bed and closed my eyes.
I nodded back to sleep and I began to wander off down a path into the lush jungle, where I could hear drums beating in the distance. It was dark and cool, but a fine mist made it feel humid. I was aware of the presence of other creatures nearby. I stepped into a nearby stream and realized at this juncture that I was back to being a sleek, black panther. And then, Carrie spoke to me again, “you are more than the sum of your parts”. I felt myself change into a creature of flight. I sensed a grand wingspan and looked to see the colors of my feathers. White, as white as the light that was surrounding me as I observed the world below me.
I flew above the clouds and felt the lightness of my being while I looked down. Events from my life played out below. I saw my once husband, leaning into my shoulder, a deep sadness engraved into his face as tears streamed down his cheeks. I saw my daughter at the hospital. I stood over her, wringing my fingers and praying for her suffering to be swift. I saw my son at the dinner table in a kitchen that once housed my family, sketching a grackle and writing a poem about overcoming deep pain. It was that terrible night when she had cried out and I watched myself carry her slight 13 year old body to a bath where short spikes of hair fell out. At last I saw my daughter coming out of the final surgery, a heart-shaped cotton gauze covering the opening that had been the portal for the chemotherapy-the poison and the fix.
“GET UP” I was awoken from my reverie by the harsh voice of the guard. The clanking of the keys opening up the door of my cell rang in my ears. “It’s time for you to talk to the magistrate”. A handsome jailer with a kind face cuffed me and led me to a spot in the main hallway where he had me wait while he rounded up the others that would hear their charges along with me. It was a group of men. The jailer kept me at a far distance from them. It was disconcerting, being the only female in the group. We were seated in the jail courtroom, about 15 men on one side and me, alone on the other. I listened to the judge as she counted off the name of the first man on her list. He was in for petty thievery. He must have been a regular, for he knew the drill. Stealthy. Like a crab. Reminiscent of something all too familiar once upon a time.
Cancer is known as the emperor of all diseases. It was named such by Hippocrates. “Karkinos” is the Greek word for crab. A fitting description because the hardened surface of the tumor resembles the exoskeleton of a crab. That, and the fact that the tumor would spread stealthily, much like the skittering movements of a crab. It is insidious and quietly takes over, dividing uncontrollably until you die or until it is put into remission. Strangely, for that to happen, you must come perilously close to death; taste it, breathe it, make deals with it. Live alongside it for a time. If you hope to survive.
The poison and the fix. Was that him or had he been my “cancer”? He had nearly extinguished me. The disease and the cure were two sides of the same coin.
“Stand Up” It was my turn. The magistrate looked directly at me. She was a powerful woman. All 15 men turned and looked at me. I glanced over at them. One had a teardrop tattoo on his right cheek. Two looked to be ruffians who came here regularly. I wondered what had happened in their lives that they couldn’t break the cycle. One young man was handsome, middle class and just plain irresponsible (driving with a suspended license). An older middle aged father had been charged with assault and battery of his wife. I could see anger in his heart. And pain. A lot of pain. I hadn’t listened in to the other stories, I’d been drifting alone in my thoughts.
“You are charged with assault and bodily harm” Her voice boomed. I nodded my head. I could feel the disbelief among the men. Even a chuckle from one man at the absurdity. I nodded my head to acknowledge the charge. She rambled on the same statement she had for all of the men. That I had a right to call an attorney. Blah, blah, blah. And so on and so on. Then, we all were asked to stand up, after we’d been humiliated completely in front of one another, all of us strangers. Then we were marched back to our respective cells.
“Now’s your chance to make a phone call” the handsome jailer told me. “Surely the guy who did this to you dropped the charges?” He nodded at my bruised lip and took note of the bruise starting to show on my arm. “I don’t know.” I said. “Well, you’ll be okay. Ask to make your phone call before they put you back in your cell.”
He handed me off to a guard, who patted me down and led me back to my cell. I asked her if I could make my phone call. She swiped back, “No, we have something going on down here”. I cleared my throat and summoned up my courage, “I believe I have a right to a phone call” I said. I had been in jail now for almost 20 hours. “Okay, make it quick”, she barked at me. I called my father. I was ashamed. And he and my mother were kind. They were making plans to get me out. “I’m sorry” I said. “Do not be sorry. Just know we love you.”
On my way back to my cell, I saw Marisa. She looked at me and said, “chingona, you’ll be okay”. I gave her a weak smile.
Once, inside the cell again, I took a deep breath. There was an ending in sight. I would be out in the world again soon. It was still Saturday, because I’d been able to see a clock downstairs. Four-fifteen in the afternoon. Four-fifteen was a significant time in another place where charges of a different kind were faced once. Time does not flow in any direction at all. It is shattered, like a broken mirror, floating in space. Pieces of it reflecting the past, present and future, which are only man made concepts, after all.
The clock read four-fifteen in the waiting room at the Cancer Clinic that hot August day.
“Why are we here, momma?” I looked at her perfect green eyes. Freckles from our summer vacation were scattered randomly across her nose and rosy cheeks. Her healthy face belied the malignant tumor growing inside her.
“We’re going to find out the results from your biopsy, sweetie.” Hold in the tears. Be strong for her. Act like it will all be okay. I glanced around the room at the bald toddler ambling around. An older boy, probably 10, was wearing a mask. The tv was playing the Disney Cartoon Network channel. It was loud and annoying to me. I could not fathom at the moment how this surreal waiting room would eventually become a familiar place for the next two and a half years.
My daughter asked me again, “Was it just a bacterial infection, like the doctor said it could be?” Her face was agonizingly hopeful. I glanced at her underarm where this swollen, unwelcome visitor had taken up residence in my daughter’s body. I wanted to get it out of her. I wanted to beat it to death. This was torture. She wanted to know, but even I didn’t know what type of cancer it was yet. The surgeon had advised me to not tell her 5 painstakingly slow days before that. Because we wouldn’t know and she would suffer the sickening waiting her father and I had suffered. We wanted to give her the last moments of blissful ignorance before the fall. Spare her any ounce of pain we could. But the moment of reckoning was fast approaching. And it could no longer be denied.
“Chow TIme!” Yelled a guard. The brown paper bag. The bologna sandwich I wouldn’t eat. The pretzels. The apple. “Listen, you need to eat. This is the last meal before the night comes.” She snapped at me, in a gentler way, if that was possible. I attempted to take a bite out of the sandwich, but I could not. The night was coming, but it didn’t feel like there was night or day in this place of reckoning. I was drained of energy and slumped back onto my cement bed. I counted the bricks and closed my eyes. Who knew how much longer it would be before I would get out. I drifted into a fitful sleep.
In my dream, a woman with dark brown skin and a long, black braid walked toward me. “Chingona, you’re going to need this”, she handed me a white object. We were in the desert. It was very hot and dry and my lips were cracked. I looked in my hands at what appeared to be a bone, smallish. I glanced over at a pile of bones where she began dancing all around and I heard her say, without moving her lips, “Chingona, keep going. Keep going”.
Suddenly, I was spinning inside a chrysalis. I was trying to push myself out of it, but it was sticky and I could not break free, until I remembered the small bone the braided haired woman had handed me. I pierced the sac with it and one wing pushed out and opened. Then the other. I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks in real life in the cell, but in my dream the tears were drops of liquid pumping out of my newly unfurled wings. I was fragile, new. “Keep going.” She said. And I fluttered my wings and lifted my new, light body into the sky and surveyed the land below. I watched myself from another place and time again.
I was at a visit to my son’s physician to treat his sinus infection and the doctor drew a sad look on his face when I told him that my daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. “It’ll be okay, I’m certain”, I told him, mostly to reassure myself. It was just the beginning. Her port would be put in the next day. “Yes, yes, I’m sure it will. It is just so unfortunate, though. It is just so hard for a mother”. He looked at me sincerely, with very sympathetic eyes. “No, I’ll be fine.” I told him, “I’ll just keep going”.
It was hard for this mother. And for all of the mothers I had encountered along the way. The mother I would see at the hospital’s meditation garden when I would take breaks from being with my daughter before the side effects hit. She and I would never say a word to one another. I would just look at her, and she at me, with knowing eyes. There was also Jenny, whose daughter had the good Lymphoma. (Oh, yes, there are good ones and there are bad ones). A neighbor I had run into frequently over the years at the pool in the summertime. Her daughter was my daughter’s age. And it had appeared at first that her daughter had dodged a bullet-they had removed the tumor from her neck completely. No chemo! But a month later, that all changed. She would have to walk through fire, after all. And she did. Her attitude was one of anger and defiance. That mother. We all have ways to protect ourselves in battle and I admired her Irish spirit and determination.
And then there was Catherine. Catherine I came to know from the teacher who was working with her son and my daughter. She lived very close to me. Her husband and I wrote each other emails when we learned about each other’s stories. Then she and I began our email communications. I became acquainted with her son through her words, who was on a path clearly not the same as my daughter’s. He had brain cancer, and it was the cruelest kind there was. One evening, we were visiting my daughter’s middle school for an orchestra concert, we finally met him. Her son and my daughter had both been in orchestra, once upon a healthy time. We sat opposite of one another. Two sick children watching the healthy ones perform and live their lives. He had had many surgeries by then. And it was not clear what he could or could not take in, but I noticed him staring at my daughter and he and I looked at one another. His heart knew hers. I felt that. I knew there wasn’t much time left for him. His mother was incredible, so strong. One day, not too long after that evening, I made a dinner for him. Catherine had told me he enjoyed flavors and had once been quite the foodie. He especially liked Italian food. So I made him pasta and meatballs and a salad and bought him exquisite chocolate. My daughter and I took it to his house. The father accepted it gratefully and told us it was a difficult night with hospice care. We left and I slept that night, dreaming of ladybugs in the middle of winter. The next day, I made a Christmas wreath and I did so carefully, thoughtfully, peacefully. And I felt a great release had lifted during that strange wreath-making meditation. A few days later, Catherine sent me a thank you message. That meal I made had been Jackson’s last one. She thanked me for giving him one last earthly pleasure before leaving.
“Chingona!” I heard Marisa yell, stirring me from my reverie.
“Yeah???” I said back.
“Did you fly??” she giggled, the word “fly” echoing from her cell.
“STOP THAT!” yelled a guard, I could hear her heavy shoes stomping on each step as she climbed the stairs to make her rounds. I didn’t question the oddity of her or Carrie Luna aware of my dream states anymore. That I even found myself here was already so bizarre, I just let it go.
The guard stopped in front of my cell and peered in at me. “You have a visitor” She stated coolly.
“Oh, is it my parents?” I asked, hoping to see my mother. She didn’t know, but led me, after all of the prodding and procedures into a room with a bail bondsman. He was kind, as he surveyed my puffy lip and took in my presence. “Your parents are bailing you out. But it will most likely be a couple of more hours before you will be released. All the paperwork needs to be processed. It takes time. I need you to sign these papers to get things moving quickly for you, dear.” Time. Time came at a price. I thought about my sweet, older mother waiting for me. How humiliated I felt. How ashamed I was of myself. I mechanically signed the necessary paperwork and was shuffled back up to my cell. I paced around a bit, then settled in to rest. I closed my eyes and saw my mother’s face. She was looking at the sunset in Hawaii with me, the summer before.
My daughter and I had taken a trip to Maui, care of a friend of ours during the cancer journey. My mother came to join us there, just a few days into our stay. My daughter and I had spent our time alone together mostly on the beach, where I would watch her dive into the waves over and over again while I listened to music, sketched her, wrote poetry and let go. One of those magical days a sea turtle bumped right into her and she was thrilled at the encounter. It was truly resplendent, those few days together, even with her moodiness and the chaos of our lives. Seeing her body strong again, her spirit unbroken, after everything we’d been through was breathtaking.
When my mother arrived, the dynamic changed. My daughter was tired from sun and fun. She chose to spend her time holed up in the bedroom. I couldn’t tell if she was jealous of my attention to my mother or if she was just generally annoyed with her grandmother, with life, with her sunburn, with being a fourteen year old girl in the aftermath of all that she’d experienced. My mother and I gave her her time alone and spent some time together.
I recalled my own annoyances with my mother as a teenager. How she got on my nerves, how I had sassed her or been disrespectful to her for no good reason. Just because I was a hormonal, moody teenage girl and because she was a nurturing, loving mother. And I felt as though I were getting payback for all those impudent years of youth. I found it ironic and poignant. Here I was, in my mid-forties and I could finally truly appreciate all that my own mother had sacrificed for me. I could understand her life’s pain, how hard it must have been to live through my younger brother’s hardships, my older brother’s early marriage to a pregnant girlfriend, my oldest brother’s many divorces and my daughter’s cancer.
My mother and I bonded like we never had before. Simultaneously, I bonded with my daughter’s secret sidewise glances at me about my mother’s finicky, older person needs and how we had to slow down so that she could keep up with us or how we had to compromise our time on the beach one day because my mother could only spend a limited time comfortably out there. I was smack dab in the middle of life as a woman. I was standing outside of time, watching myself as a youth and myself as an old woman. The budding and the withering of a flower.
One morning, I awoke after a very sad dream about my former life. I had a dream of my family life where all was once balanced. I could behold a tremendous sadness. Then, things went awry and the house was its very own entity, holding me to itself, suffocating me. I woke with a start and headed out to the lanai, where my mother was enjoying the sunrise.
I sat next to her and she sensed my grief. She reached over and held my hand as I cried. And I cried deep, unrestrained tears of anguish. She just held my hand and watched my pain. Because that is all a mother can do for her child. She cannot take on its pain. She cannot suffer it for them. She cannot protect them from life or death or anything in between. She can only bear witness to the beauty and the affliction of the lives she has birthed.
“I NEED A GODDAM SHOWER” the woman next to me was screaming, pulling me back into jail reality. The energy was ramping up again, there were new women rotating in and still, this woman next to me had not been allowed to shower. From my cell door, I could look below and see an area that led to the showers, where a few ladies had been given this privilege. I closed my eyes and hoped with all of my heart that this woman would be granted a shower at last. A guard came up the stairs and walked right by our cells to one at the end of our block. I could hear the lady next to me sobbing by now. The guard was opening and closing a cell door. A minute or so later, I stood by the slim rectangular window looking out of my door and watched Marisa being led by my cell. She looked over at me and gave me a quick wink as she was finally getting out. I smiled at her, glad for her release. Glad and envious.
I remembered that conflicted mix of feelings: glad and envious-it was that time when Jenny had found out her daughter wasn’t going to have to go through treatment, right as my daughter and I were in the clinic, waiting for a PET scan before the port placement. I had gotten a text from Jenny-it was such good news for her. I was happy for her. Jenny was so kind about it. But it was hard to tell my daughter the news. She was glad, too. Glad and envious. She cried because she felt conflicted. There we were, getting called into the smaller waiting room to prep for the PET scan and a woman looked over at my daughter, who I was trying to console. She called her over to her and asked her why she was crying and my daughter told her that she was scared and felt alone on this journey. This woman, who I later found out had rescheduled her appointment last minute and wasn’t even supposed to be there at that moment in time, held my daughter’s attention with her own captivating story. “I have breast cancer. And it has spread to all of my organs. I am at stage 4. I’m a regular here. What do you have?” My daughter told her the lucky news-that it was stage one Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. The woman held my daughter’s hands and said, “See? You are lucky! You will be fine! And you will carry on and tell your story of survival. You can write about it. Like I do!.” She had a heart so grand, that she could put aside her own envy and be glad for my daughter. My daughter could see this gesture of kindness and any former feelings of conflict in her own heart dissolved in an instant. “She’s my new hero, mom”, she whispered in my ear. Glad and envious in our prison cells of life, that’s what we all were. One right beside another. Everything was relative and each soul had a reason to be glad and envious in this life.
The guard yelled over at my disparaging neighbor,“I’ll be coming to get you for a shower at my next round”. I was relieved to hear this news and the woman next to me thanked the guard profusely. Several minutes later, which I am sure felt like hours to my neighbor, I heard the heavy footsteps and the clanging of her door being opened. I stood by my door and got a glimpse of my neighbor, who looked like hell, as she was escorted down the stairs and into the area outside the shower room below. I saw a few other women drying their hair. One was reading a book. What a glorious luxury-to shower and read a book. I felt glad for my neighbors. Glad and envious. I ran my fingers through my undoubtedly messy hair. I probably looked like hell, too. I imagined what a hot shower would feel like, rinsing off the grime and filth of the last 24 hours.
I did a few stretches and chanted a prayer to whoever. I laid back down in my cement nest and closed my eyes. Soon I was back in my childhood home, a place I often found myself in dreams. I was upstairs, in my room, writing. And a darkness encompassed me and I was years ahead, a mother of a child suffering with cancer, living in a different home I worked hard to create. And I was driving home from exercise class or therapy or something, that same drive I’d driven for at least 8 years…but I was discombobulated suddenly. And I could not figure out where I was. There was a sense of chaos and confusion. Where was I? It was as if time did not really exist in the order I had always perceived it flowing. For what seemed like 5 minutes, but in reality was a few seconds, I was not sure whether I was on a street from a time 35 years ago or in the now. I jolted awake. I rubbed my eyes. I realized I’d actually lived that sensation during the cancer. Multiple times. I thought I was crazy. I thought maybe it was early onset dementia. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with my mind? It had never occurred to me it was the Extraordinary world of cancer.
“Come on”, the guard was unlocking my cell. “It’s your time to be discharged”. I followed her, hollow eyed and exhausted through the maze of paperwork and rooms to the place where my parents were waiting for me. They didn’t recognize me when I first appeared. They hugged me and took me to their car as they waved to a homeless black man sitting outside with his grocery cart full of things. “You got her! Good” he yelled. “Yes, good luck with your lady!” My father yelled back at him. We got in the car. “He’s been waiting on his lady friend in there, “ my mother said. “Hopefully she gets out today. It’s Mother’s Day,” I replied. “Happy Mother’s Day”, my dad said to me. “How can I go on, now? I feel as low as the dirt on the floor?” I asked. “You summon that strength inside you and you get up and you keep going, like you always have,” my mother reminded me.
Carmen Gray has been a teacher for over 23 years. Watching her daughter fight and survive a rare cancer propelled her into creating her own poetry blog and continue expanding themes in the short stories that she’d always written.
Her latest published literary project, Daniel’s Dilemma, is a short fiction (horror) piece in the collection, Roadkill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers.
Her Mexican-American heritage and work with English Language Learners influences the characters and situations in her writing.
You can find her poems here: walkersonthejourney.com
© Carmen Gray