Monday, November 11, 2019

The Accidental Veteran

I'm on the front page of the base newspaper, a bulky Kevlar helmet on my head, even clunkier military issued glasses on my face, frozen in time next to a 4-star general.

I'm showing him the results of my target practice. He's smiling, proudly. All the bullet holes in a tight circle in the center. I look bored.

It was raining.

I was woken up extra early, before any of the others. Placed on an old school bus painted drab brown-green. Or maybe it was green-brown. It was so long ago. It's hard to remember the details.

I sit directly behind the driver. Alone. I didn't know who I was with. I didn't ask. They didn't offer.

We drove in the dark. Stopped. Exited.

I stood waiting with two other strangers dressed the same as me. Someone pointed. The three of us, strangers to each other, walked away.

I found the perfect spot up on the wooded hill. Covered in camouflaged face paint - the most make up I'd ever wear on my face, covered my body in tree branches and leaves. Waiting in the wide open where no one could see me.

Dark can hide the shape but can never hide the sound. They thought they were so good, and maybe they were... but they weren't silent.

If you quiet your mind and slow the beat of your heart you can hear everything you need to.

The stranger-sergeant low-crawled, angry-advanced screaming directly in my ear: at least let them get halfway way up the goddamn hill, private! I still feel the sting of his spit on my face just under my right eye.

Isn't that what we were supposed to be doing? Playing pretend so they could do the real thing? Who was going to tell them that when they left they wouldn't even make it halfway up the hill?

Yelling. Lights. Banging. Bunks toppling over with the sleepers still in them. Get up! Get up! Get up!

Night drill. We flooded a concrete bunker in silence. And waited. Waited for what seemed like forever in the frozen night air. If there was light, maybe I could see my breath. 

Suddenly, chaos from all sides. We scramble over the too-tall bunker wall into a make believe hell. 

Artillery lights the sky, explosions next to our bodies, wriggling on our backs through puddles, all we had to do is get through.

But one body stayed under the barbed wire. It was no longer make believe. Two drill sergeants drag him out. They said it was a heart condition. But it was just supposed to be pretend.

Of the young men and women I did life with, only one was gung-ho. One. He knew all the insignia, all the generals, all the history. He wanted to be there with every fiber of his being. Planned for this moment in time since he was seven or eight. He bored us to tears and connected with no one. 

The rest? The overwhelming majority?

We were there by accident.

The misfits. The ones who knew they didn't fit in and just wanted to disappear. They could slip away and collect a pay check. Finally a win.

Kids who couldn't, wouldn't hack it in school. 

Kids with families so messed up the military looked easy.

One told us about growing up poor in the south. Her daddy was too mean to the other kids. He was too nice to her. She just didn't want him to touch her anymore. She knew if she left she was never coming back. But she didn't have anywhere to run to. Here she had a bed and meals. So what if she had to learn how to properly clean herself after a chemical attack. She'd been scrubbing her skin raw since she was thirteen. 

Another, in and out of foster care. She couldn't tell us how many. Shoot, all the places and the faces ran together. This wasn't the first time she had to share a room with people she wouldn't bother getting to know.

The girl taking a 4-year detour. She never wanted to learn how to wire a land mine. She wanted to learn how to write a lesson plan for third graders.

Baby-faced Elias who knew no other way to escape Watts. He had a better chance for survival in Desert Storm. Watts would definitely kill him. It had already taken his brother, his uncle and his favorite cousin. 

Selfies. Before they were a thing and before you could delete the
 entire thing if you all looked ridiculous and do a do-over.
There was this thing after boot camp - a graduation of sorts where family could fly in, take pictures, tell you how amazing you are, take you out to a fancy restaurant. The majority of the recruits had no one come. They went back to the barracks. Became their own family.

Me? Well, the unromantic explanation is I flunked out of college. I had already been disappointing my parents for the majority of my existence, so there was no use trying to go back down that route again. I was working part-time at a gas station; hardly enough to pay any rent. I didn't know what to do with my life and there was some sort of recruiting station in town. I walked in and signed up. It was that thought out. I needed a place to live and a job. Two birds, one stone. Done.

For a long time I didn't consider myself a veteran. I was a cocky young kid who had failed and just needed a place to go. The military took me in. I have a copy of my DD 214 but have never cashed in any of my long-ago promised benefits. I never used my GI Bill to go to finish school because somewhere along the line society convinced me that I wasn't "veteran enough." I was never deployed overseas, never saw combat, never killed anyone in action. I was in the very first class the Army offered Automated Logistical Specialist training. I graduated second in my class. We learned how to keep track of inventory on a computer. That hardly seems like a reason to benefit from a VA Loan.

Let's be honest, compared to Gung-Ho Military Guru Guy, the rest of our squad was pretty, well, basic.

But with age comes wisdom. And here's what I know now:

Those misfits? Those escape artists? Those family-less? They are brave. They are courageous. They saw real-life combat in a way many of us take for granted. They choose to put our country first, even if it is because it's their last resort.

So, as we're going around celebrating our loved ones who wore the uniform: the ones we have a plethora of pictures of and love letters from; the ones we finally received the phone call from; the ones with the funny stories about how their Drill Sergeant embarrassed them for getting your care package with the chocolate chip cookies and the card sprayed with perfume... think about the others.

Think about the soldiers who go through the entirety of basic training ang AIT without a single letter received nor a single phone call to make.

Think about the soldiers who stay on base when it's a holiday because they never had the benefit of a family.

Think about the soldiers who recognize the irony of ensuring you have a safe life to live because they had to escape their dangerous one.

Think about the accidental veteran. The one who never once saw themselves as a soldier but somehow ended up there.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Meeting My Dad for the First Time

Growing up, I avoided my dad whenever I could. I'd slink around corners and sit quietly in rooms wanting nothing more than to stay undetected. I'd avoid looking him in the eyes or speaking directly to him, preferring someone else to do the talking while I observed from a safe distance.

I was scared of my dad. Deathly afraid at whatever outburst was about to erupt. My dad was impatient, short-tempered, angry. He saved his best self for his friends. I got the just stay out of his way and don't make him mad. 

The most common words from my Dad were shut up, be quiet, and don't make me come up there. I could relax when my Dad wasn't home. My stomach would turn into a tight ball of nerves the second I heard the sound of gravel crunching under tires coming up the drive.

I was fourteen years old when I learned my father was an alcoholic. I knew he always had a can of beer in his hand while mowing the lawn, but alcohol was not kept in our home. (Except for a bottle of peach schnapps hidden away in the back of a tall cabinet in the kitchen that my older sister made my brother drink after he got lost in a blizzard walking up to the house when the school bus dropped him off, but that's a different story.)

Suddenly kids at school were laughing about how they saw my dad stop at an intersection downtown and get out of his car to grab a couple cans of beer from the trunk. I realized the impulsive decision to buy a horse (with pygmy goat companion) wasn't because he was artistic and saw the world in a different light, it was because he was drunk and made stupid decisions without consulting his spouse. His rantings about politics and government were not informed, they were paranoid. When he told me I was stupid and wouldn't amount to anything it wasn't because he was just too tired from working all those long hours, it was because he was mean when he drank.

My father was what one would consider a functioning alcoholic. He went to work and worked hard. He paid his bills, made sure his family ate. He kept the yard looking nice and had gardens others were jealous of. He washed and waxed the cars by hand, making sure each tire held the right pressure and the oil was regularly changed.

My Dad mowed the yard after he got home from his job at the local factory, would watch some television and fall asleep on the calico print furniture in the living room. I never understood how he was capable of startling awake the second I tried to turn the channel, yelling I was watching that! When things got really stressful, and my mom took on a second shift job leaving my dad in charge, I hung out in the laundry room. It was as far opposite from the living room as possible.

He took us kids to the driving range so he could hit shag balls while we walked up and down ditch lines trying to see who could find the most golf balls. Some people were lousy shots. Not my dad. He won trophies and people asked his advice on how to improve their swing.

But then he'd have a few.

There are far too many stories of what happened when Dad had a few. I can laugh now but I couldn't then. To be honest, I couldn't for a whole lot of years after I moved out. Like I said, he saved his best for others. We got the worst of him.

One hundred and thirty-three days ago, my Dad almost died. He started bleeding out - the result of years of drinking, ulcers, and a previous stroke which required blood thinners... the bleeding wouldn't stop. Three transfusions later and a wicked bout with withdrawal, I watched as he relearned how to sit up, stand, and eventually walk again. His vision is permanently destroyed.

But something new bloomed.

I was meeting my Dad for the first time. I was meeting the real him. The sober him. The one with focus. The one who remembers. The one who can hold a conversation, rather than repeating the same thing over and over.

I've learned that his sister Rhonda makes the best lemon meringue pie ever and that he thinks there's something wrong with people who don't like lemon meringue pie.

I've learned that he tried so hard to get his dad to stop smoking. He actually tried smoking once. Never again.

I've learned that in his early twenties he worked on a bridge construction crew, traveling about Australia fixing bridges. He told me that's why he never wanted to go camping. After having to live it, who would want to do that for fun? His favorite jobs were ones where they could reach running water in a creek or river below. Those made the best showers.

I've learned that when he was about 17-years old (he guesses) he was driving a tractor down the road and saw lightning strike a tree about 200-yards in front of him. It filled him with a powerful fear and reverence for lightning. You won't catch him outside in a storm. Nope. He's too scared of lightning because he's seen first-hand what it can do.

I've learned that when he was about 9 or 10 years old he desperately wanted a bicycle but knew they could never afford it. He went to the garbage dump scavaging for bits and pieces of thrown away bikes, took them all apart and created a new bike. He painted it blue. He loved that bike.

I've learned about people who have hurt him. A teacher. An in-law. A guy at work. All reiterating the same message... that he would never amount to anything. He wants to find that old teacher, pull up in a spot free, paid-off car and say you were wrong.

I've learned that he was the first one of all his friends to buy a car. A Datsun. Up and down the coast they'd fly! But he always asked his friends to pay for gas. That was the deal. They used his car; he used their gas.

I've learned that times got tough. Too tough. He had to park the Datsun, cover her up, and ride his bike to and from work because he couldn't afford the gas. But he did it because that's what you do... you find a way to keep going.

I've learned more about him in these past 133 days than I have in the past 45 years. And I could be angry about that.

I could stomp and pout and rail against him: it's too late! Do you even know what it was like living with you? Never able to make you happy? Or proud? 

I could hold a grudge: no. You don't get to come in at the end and expect me to clap and cheer because you're finally doing something you should've done forty years ago.

I could choose to be stubborn and refuse a relationship with him -- but I'd be the one missing out. I've been wishing and wanting my dad to stop drinking since I figured it out when I was fourteen and now that time is here. Only self-centered, spoiled people choose bitterness because they got the gift they asked for... but aren't happy with when they got it.

I finally get a chance to meet my sober dad. My children finally get a chance to meet their sober Papa. We finally get a chance to care and encourage and find happiness with each other and I am not going to squander the time I have been given just because I don't think this happened soon enough for me. And I am certainly not going to be the one who shows the world that I'm holding a grudge at someone who is finally trying to do things right.

We most definitely still do not share the same views politically or religiously, and sometimes he just gets on my nerves like any other person might, but that's okay because he's my father. And I'm learning that I actually like who he is. I don't avoid him anymore.

Avery absolutely loved her Papa. 

I don't think my Dad knew what to do with Avery...
but I know Avery knew exactly how to love my Dad.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

When Break Up Behavior Isn't Normal

I once met a young man and we got to talking. He made me laugh. We exchanged phone numbers and started getting to know each other. We were out to lunch when I realized this wasn't someone I was interested in moving forward in a relationship with. He had stated his goals and what he wanted out of life, as did I. What we wanted was too different. It was as simple as that. I thanked him for lunch, he wished me well.

I tried to end a different relationship when it was obvious that one wasn't working. He got angry. Felt disrespected. Called me selfish. Called me a lot of other names, too. It was about as opposite a reaction I ever could have imagined.

He stood across the street from my house on the sidewalk. Just staring. I closed the curtains. I called the police.

What is he doing? Standing there.

Is he threatening you? No, he's just standing there staring at my house.

Is he yelling? No. He is standing across the street. On the sidewalk. Staring at my house. Where he has been for the past 25 minutes. He is not moving. It's creepy.

Look, he isn't threatening you, he isn't bothering you and there's nothing illegal about standing on public property. 

I had been told, by the police, the ones that I was supposed to go to when I felt scared, that I was being ridiculous. That there was no reason to bother them. Just because I didn't like it, didn't mean it was illegal.

He was there all the time. Day after day. If he wasn't standing, he was slowly driving past my house over and over. Guess what? There is nothing illegal about driving around either.

I kept my curtains shut. I never opened the windows to reveal just screens. I looked up and down the street before darting to my car and leaving. I kept my lights off all the time so he wouldn't know if I was home or not. After getting far too many hang-ups after I answered my phone, I started to just let it ring. And ring. And ring. Eventually, I just switched the ringer off.

I was a prisoner in my own home and, although the legal definition might not have ever been met, I guarantee this guy knew what he was doing. He meant to hurt me, scare me, and teach me a lesson.

And he did.

I moved in the blink of an eye, leaving behind the house that I owned and renting another. I moved to a location without a public sidewalk he could stand and stare on, and without a quiet street that he could slowly drive by on every twenty minutes until his obsession wore off. I moved to a place where he and his behavior would look obviously out of place. Where others would notice he didn't belong. I wanted to make sure everyone would be aware of the creepy guy with the creepy behavior.

I did the right thing. I ended the relationships I knew were not right for me. I walked away from the thing I no longer wanted to be a part of. I stood up for myself and advocated for myself. I was strong.

It's a message we teach our young girls over and over again: get out of the relationship as soon as you know it's not the right one. Don't string another along. Don't give up your future or yourself for another. It's better to be happy and single than miserable in a relationship.

So, where are the messages for our sons? The ones where we teach: you have no right to intimidate someone just because you're mad. You are not allowed to pester someone who said they don't want to date you. She said she doesn't want to see you - so stop trying.

Who has talked to their sons about the proper way to behave during a breakup?

Because 42 text messages over eight hours is not normal breakup behavior.

Standing on a sidewalk for 30-40 minutes at a time across the street from the girl who broke up with you a month ago is not normal break up behavior.

Yelling profanities and calling the girl who broke up with you names is not normal breakup behavior.

Facebook stalking, Instagram refreshing, Snapchat spying, or trying to befriend her accounts under a false name so you can see what she's up to is not normal break up behavior.

Sitting outside her work trying to catch her coming or going is not normal break up behavior.

And maybe parents can't quite see how their sons are mishandling breakups... but I bet friends see. Because I have heard you talking.

Dude's obsessed, man! 

Yeah, I told him to just stop texting her but he won't.

He, like, got into her Facebook account and can see everyone she's talking to. 
He's freaking crazy, man!

Friends, step up. YOU'RE the ones that need to go to the police. YOU'RE the ones that can stop something from getting out of control. YOU'RE the ones that can warn a young girl that they're in danger. YOU'RE the ones that can help someone from slipping down into a dangerous place where people get seriously hurt.

I'm going to switch gears here because the area in which I live has been talking about opening a new domestic abuse shelter for women and I am probably the only person against it. Yep. Me. A person who has lived through this is against it. Not in theory - but in location.

It's a proposed location right across the street from a huge public park area. Where someone with a 300' restraining order can still sit and watch the proposed domestic abuse shelter property because guess what? It isn't illegal to sit in a park. You can even walk back and forth and back and forth in a portion of the park. It isn't illegal to walk in a park.

It's a proposed location with four different "back way" entry points straight into the housing side at the rear of the building... easy access for the guy who cannot seem to participate in normal break up behavior. Several of those access points are through commercial properties where no one will notice someone walking through late at night after the office staff left. (I don't know if you know this, but most men intent on scaring someone and teaching them a lesson prefer the surprise attack. They tend not to park in the lot and check in through the main office.)

It's a proposed location where a woman (and her children) staying there cannot see who is outside. In fact, if they're lucky enough to have a car, their car will be parked in a back lot which, I hope the neighbors daily keep an eye out to ensure no one's lurking around. Lots of guys "just want to talk" and if they could just see you one more time...

It's a proposed location with public street parking all around it. It's not illegal to park a car. It's not illegal to sit in a parked car. I don't know about you, but I want to know what I'm walking or driving into way before I get to it.

It's a proposed location where, if you don't have a car - which happens sometimes because, for some reason, those really great guys that love you so much also don't want you to have transportation - so, if you don't have a car, you get to walk 2-miles to the local grocery store, dollar store, drug store or medical center. A lot can happen in two miles there and two miles back. Or, I suppose you could spend your hard earned cash getting one of those big burritos at the gas station for dinner. Because who cares if you will ever actually have enough money to live independently in your own place? It's way more important to support the businesses downtown that happen to be more expensive than those horrible big box stores on the outskirts of town. Besides, if you can't financially support yourself, you could always go back to that great guy you were trying to flee from.

It's a proposed location where young children can walk to school! Umm.... absolutely not. If that was my kid, I'd want them on a bus. Not walking where dad/stepdad/mom's recent boyfriend can saddle up next to them and start asking questions... or maybe just offer them a ride. Kids don't know how to handle these situations. Don't make them walk into one.

It's a proposed location that, quite frankly, given the situation I was in - would never go to because I wouldn't feel safe there. Now, maybe times have changed since my situation and men who abuse/stalk women are much more polite and follow rules better. Maybe it was just my situation where they knew oh-so-well just how much to do without getting into any real trouble.

But perhaps you should take one look at the aerial photo of the entire block area just in case...

I don't pretend to have the answers, but I do think we need to start with talking to our sons about how to behave in a break-up and get some laws on the books to better identify the behavior that isn't normal in order to stop things before they slip too far. Because, when our girls are strong and walk away from a relationship that isn't good for them, they need to be able to keep living.

The proposed new domestic abuse shelter property outlined in red. The living facilities will be at the rear of the building with offices up front. Note the multiple access points to the rear of the building. Note the large park opposite the front of the building with public on-street parking. Note the parking area at the rear of the building where anyone can easily hide.
Everything about this location is not secure. Not good. Not safe.
Walworth County can do better for our women and children who deserve to be and feel safe! 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Ticket for One, Please.

I started doing something after Avery died that, when I tell people what I'm doing, they look at me with very sad eyes. But they don't need to.

I started going to the movies by myself.

I like it. I need it. I mean, I really need it.

There are obvious benefits: no one steals your popcorn or asks what just happened because they were totally not paying attention; and there are the obvious disadvantages: no one to go get you a refill because they're annoying you by asking plot questions they should already know the answers to, had they been paying attention.

But that's not why I do it.

It started as a necessity. A holiday without when my oldest daughter was out of the country on a much-deserved escape from reality and my youngest was with his father celebrating with his family. I was very alone on Christmas and the thought was destroying me. I felt frantic. That's a very common emotion felt after the death of a child: franticness.

It pops up whenever it feels like it. Frantic means, wild or distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion. Sometimes it shows up at obvious times like a holiday. Other times you're standing in the freezer section at the local Piggly Wiggly completely frantic with some overwhelming emotion because a box of popsicles triggered something within you and you can't breathe and you can't think and your baby died and your eyes are wide and you can't figure how to get out of the stupid store and why did this have to happen to you? What did you do to deserve this?

Frantic shows up a lot. Enough years pass and one day your arms are strong enough to hold Frantic at bay for a bit until you can actually get in your car and process. (That's another thing mothers of heaven-children become well acquainted with: learning how to process.)

Anyway. It was Christmas. I was frantic. I needed a plan to avoid jumping into that Dark Pit that was calling out to me so gently and sweetly. Come. I have a big fluffy mattress and pillows at the bottom. I have comfy blankets. It's dark so you won't have to see all those happy people. You know, the ones who get to keep their children... Dark Pits are liars. Plans to outsmart Dark Pits are necessary.

So, I hopped on my computer, conducted a Google search and created a spreadsheet that helped me pinpoint four different movies I could see in one given day without any awkward wait times.

I had the best time ever! There was hardly anyone in the entire complex until the 7:00 pm show started, and by then I had three movies under my belt.

Something happened that day that I needed. I needed to be alone. I needed to escape in a healthy way. (No alcohol. No hatred.) And I needed to not be required to be an active participant.

You see, something else happens when you lose a child. Those people around you that love you and care for you? They desperately want you to "get better." The thing is, we don't. We will always be grieving. We just learn how to make it less obvious so others feel less awkward. We still hurt. We still want to cry. We still long to physically hold our children. We still want to talk about it. But we know it bothers you. We know it's hard for you. So, we buck up and make sure that you are convinced that we are fine. And for the most part, we are. But not every single second of every single day. Whether you realize it or not? You really hold those stricken by grief to a higher standard of doing fine.

When we're not fine and we get quiet, that's when the trouble starts.

When we're quiet, you get uncomfortable. When we know we're tired and need to just sit this one out, you panic.

It's okay. We don't blame you. We know you don't have much experience in how to be friends with someone who lost their child. Nevertheless, sometimes we just need to process. Or ward off Franticness. Or sometimes it's as simple as we're just tired of smiling right now. We're not going off the deep end. We just need some time.

You're probably wondering why we just don't go to therapy. We do. I mean, most of us have. We frantically dialed a number and explained our kid just died and we're drowning and we get an appointment. But it becomes very clear very quickly which therapists understand grief and which ones learned about grief in a textbook.

Do you know how many times a mama has told me they stopped going to therapy after they realized they were holding back sharing because they knew it would upset their counselor? True fact. That's one of the first places we learn that Hard Grief is not acceptable in normal society.

Grief is hard and it is heavy and textbooks underestimate its power. If you can't be real with a certified therapist what options do you have?

I happen to have found popcorn is quite therapeutic.

There are times when I feel Frantic approaching and I know I need to get myself to a matinee. I have my boundaries: no killing, no deaths and no telling anyone I'm going before I go. Too often they want to force themselves along or convince me it isn't healthy for me to go alone.

Here's a fun fact: healthy people go to the movies alone all the time! No one looks at them with sad eyes. It's usually more in awe. I could never go to a movie by myself! That's so cool that you do that! 

We need to start looking in awe at those who struggle when they are taking healthy steps to balance themselves.

A lot of mamas without have started running. That's something deemed healthy and good. Training for a marathon gives you lots of alone time to process where you're at emotionally. But running is kind of hard. Then there's that cold, raining weather you have to contend with. And hills. And dogs that run out of yards. And gnats that accidentally get swallowed when you're gasping for breath.

At the movies, they have really comfy chairs. And popcorn. With butter.

Some mamas journal or write poetry, others garden. One mama told me she learned calligraphy because she liked how it demanded her to focus. As she got more proficient she said the repetitiveness of the strokes and the sound of her pen on the paper was soothing. Some mamas will knit or sew or bake fancy cakes to forget the stress of the moment. I go to the movies.

The key is to find what works for you and then make time to do it. Whatever it is doesn't matter, as long as it is a healthy choice and one that refreshes you.

Keep going, mama. You've got this.

The One in which I take my Father for his Covid Vaccine

I got a voicemail the other day from the hospital saying ‘since you’re the contact on record we just want you to know your Dad can get a Cov...