(Dedicated to Dana and Bob, who make the world go 'round. )
[Edit: This is incredibly long, and I'll have to post in three parts. I'm sorry!]
We are all the heroes of our own stories. We tell and retell our narratives to ourselves over and over as we go through our lives, and in that telling we encourage ourselves, we mourn, we rue and we celebrate. This is my story.
I was born into the world on April 26, 1970. My mother, a nurse, was forty-five years old, and I was her second child. She had been trying for another baby for three years, and one of the Benedictine monks in the family had said countless prayers in Greek over her belly. I was a Wanted Child.
I was also my father's fourth, and at birth, I already had a brother (Butch) and sister (Sally) in their thirties from his first marriage (to Dorothy, or "Dot," who had died some fifteen years before), as well as a toddler big brother named Eric. My mother liked to tell the story of how my father came to open the car door for her as they arrived home from the hospital: she expected to be offered his arm, but he reached in and took me out of hers. I was Wanted by him, too.
Memories of my early childhood are many but fragmented: reciting my ABCs while hiding under a rocking chair, smushing the mustard-colored bugs that squirmed under the bark of the big oak in the yard, and many more. The most vivid is having burst into tears in the front yard after trying to "pick up all the sticks" so that my father could mow the lawn. It was my chore for the day, and I took my responsibilities seriously. However, as I sat cross-legged with a pile of tiny whisper-thin twigs and grassstems heaped in my lap, I realized that "all the sticks" was a practically limitless number, and despite having worked for hours, I'd only cleared a section of a few yards. Even at two years old, literalism had me by the throat, and I despaired of ever doing it right.
My only clear memory of my father healthy and strong was the glimpse of my face in a hallway mirror as he swung me up over his shoulder. It was the last time I'd see him for months. The next day he had a stroke while with my mother in the hospital for her hysterectomy, and I was sent to live with my cousins while my parents recuperated. The next time I saw him was on my fourth birthday, when I brought a tray of cupcakes into the hospital for an old, gray man whom I didn't recognize. Apparently I burst into tears when they made me try to kiss him, and my father cried silently after I left. He had been a Shakespearean actor, and his life had been built around communication and presence, but he had lost his speech.
My mother quit her job as a nurse to tend to him at home, and my brother and I grew to recognize him as our father again. We loved helping him do his rehabilitation exercises with his Nerf ball, and I rode my tricycle in circles around him as he practiced walking down our little dead-end street in the cornfields. He was slow, but that was okay, because I was, too.
Times were tough. We were getting by on his slim pension alone, and there were many medical bills. We scrimped and saved, having days when we ate nothing but oatmeal, doing without air conditioning or other luxuries, doing without even a car. My mother would pull me in my little red wagon to the corner grocery store, where we would pick up free government cheese from the back door.
Times got worse. The living room ceiling caught on fire from the fireplace we used for heating, and repairs were expensive. We scrimped and saved some more, sleeping in a communal bed for warmth and, after the sewage pipe was dislodged by a tree root, doing without indoor plumbing for a long while. It was a good thing that we lived in the boondocks at the river's edge, as it took a couple months to save up for a plumber. Even in kindergarten I knew that we were not like other people, and I was ashamed. Mother called us "river rats" with a fierce proud gleam in her eye, and she refused to go on charity. We were poor, but we were together, and we got by.
However, it was dumb luck that gave us loving physicians to watch over our family. Our family doctor, Robert Colvin, stopped cashing the checks for our medical visits, as he knew our copay was to high for us to afford. My father's cardiologist soon followed suit. I remember my mother weeping with frustration and relief.
I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to fix things for people. I wanted to be wise and strong, to be powerful enough to ease burdens, to Make Things Right for sad and desperate people.
Time passed, and when I was twelve, my mother returned to work. By then, my father could feed himself and walk with a cane, dragging his left foot behind him. He could speak well enough to be understood by us in the immediate family, although it was mostly garbled to outsiders. Still, he could take care of us, and we were older, and the family really needed the income.
Those were good years. I had a single best friend, Michelle Meadors, who was from a family just as offbeat as mine. Her mother sewed her own clothes, and neither of us had a clue about what went on in the lives of our peers, and we were definite outcasts from junior high society, but we had each other and books. *grin We passed Songmaster back and forth as one of our favorites, although I'd long forgotten who wrote it when I read the Alvin series many years later.
My father's health began to deteriorate when I was about fifteen, and a series of heart attacks and further strokes started chewing away at the last years of his life. As my mother was working double shifts at the hospital, she sometimes wouldn't waken when he went into distress in the middle of the night.
This is my most vivid memory of all: my father thrashing on the bed in the next room, rousing me from sleep. The room is dark and blue-tinged with moonlight. He suddenly becomes perfectly still, and the stench of urine and feces grows strong. I am shaking my mother desperately, as he has stopped breathing and I don't know CPR. She is dead tired and in the middle of a dream, calling out that she "can't do anything without his chart," she "needs his chart." She is still dreaming that she is at work; I think she is awake, although her actions are baffling.
In the moonlight I start tearing through their dresser drawers, looking for a "chart." I toss her hose into a pile on the floor, and I fumble through the dark closet. My father is still not breathing. Finally she wakes up enough to realize what is going on, and she calls the ambulance. Once he is released from the hospital again, I start sleeping on the floor in their room, as she can't trust herself to wake quickly enough. I end up calling the ambulance several times myself.
My world was so different from that of my peers. I couldn't explain and they wouldn't understand. I was already weird and geeky, but this was just making it worse. I've blocked out my memory of school during those years, although I do remember hating to go. I hated the teasing and the lies, I wore clothes from the Salvation Army in a wealthy community, and I did not fit in. Ever. Chubby and awkward and asocial, I found school in our wealthy tony community an even greater trial than home life.
But I read everything I could get my hands on, and I got through the days. (You all know the drill, I'm sure.) The babyfat melted away and I grew tanned and slim from long hours hiking alongside the riverbank. I left high school after my junior year and started classes at the local university, as I could then be with my closest cousin, a year older. My father was unable to walk by that point, but he would sit beaming next to my mother when they drove me back and forth to classe. Mother said he growled at any young men who watched or talked to me. I wasn't anywhere near my first kiss, so I never knew. But he would've found a way to get his point across to them if I had.
During my first year of college he died. It was a devastating blow to my mother, who'd structured her life around him. She sank into a deep depression with elements of psychosis, talking to him although he wasn't there, making me wear his clothing "to be close to him." I was terrified. Nobody understood, nobody wanted to listen. Nobody wanted to get involved. We were estranged from my half-siblings, who had tried to sue my mother for custody of my father at the end of his life, and the brother near my age had moved out on his own.
Sometimes we learn ways to cope that get us by, but which aren't healthy in the long run. I began cutting my wrists, just little slits to break the skin, and it was such a tremendous relief. Inexplicably, hurting myself helped ease the pain. My mother was too far gone to notice much -- she was barely able to make it into work, and at home she was hardly eating or speaking. I became anorexic as well, asserting at least that much control over my life and my own body. It was probably the electrolyte imbalances from malnourishment that triggered my first heart failure.
I'd always carried a cardiac diagnosis, knowing that my deformed aortic valve would eventually need to be replaced as it slowly scarred down. But the process accelerated that year, and just months after my father's death, we drove down to Birmingham, Alabama, for the top-of-the-line care from the father & son team of John and James Kirlin, cardiologists. They had left Mayo Clinic to set up their own site.
Alabama was warm and sunny, and the people were friendly, although they spoke funny. I loved that stay in the hospital: it was like a reprieve from my life, and I felt safe. Within a few weeks, though, we had to return, and my mother slipped back into a deep depression. She was insisting that I enter a convent and take vows of poverty and silence, renouncing the world. I had to leave, as I was becoming suicidal, and I had enough sense of self-preservation to run away from that which I could not manage. Once again, it was a doctor that helped me. The psychiatrist at my mother's work took me under hand, helped me find a scholarship and a means of supporting myself as a live-in housekeeper for an orthopedic surgeon. In the middle of the night after my eighteenth birthday, my best friend and I drove back down to Birmingham, and I read the driver's manual by flashlight as she drove. I took the driver's test the next day, and she left on the train to go back, leaving me with my brother's old car and, likely, a pretty dimwitted look of hope and expectation on my face.
These times are harder for me to talk about. Oddly enough, the worse things got, the less able I am to find the words to describe it. Suffice it to say that I worked several jobs trying to get by without student loans, as my mother refused to give me the information I needed to file for financial aid. I worked in the Billy Bob suit at Chuck E. Cheese's, I ran the newborn nursery at a church, I bartended and waitressed and worked as a janitor. I had a falling out with the surgeon I kept house for, and she threw me out. I had nowhere to live during that week of finals, so I slept in my car while I looked for an apartment. Early one morning, on my way to the gym to shower, I was assaulted and raped. I did not finish finals that week. Actually, I don't remember much of that week at all.
Eventually, I moved in to the cheapest apartment I could find, and I finally had a place of my own. Quinlan Castle was roach-infested and a crack den, but it was a historic building with a courtyard, and I was innocent enough that I didn't really how scary the environment should have been to me. I got by, reading a lot and working hard, and making friends along the way.
One of those friends was an amazing man who ended up being my mentor. He was my philosophy professor, bright and brilliant and kind, and he took me under his wing. I house-sat for him while he and his wife would go out of the country, and I helped him renovate a house to serve as a hospice for infants with HIV. He would pay me outrageous amounts to take care of his dog, knowing -- I am sure of this -- that I was too proud to accept charity.
One time I stood at the door of his office, and he looked up at me very quietly, straight into my eyes, and said, "I'm looking out for you, you know." I said, "I know," and that's all. We never discussed it further, though I probably owe him my life for seeing me through that time. I had nobody else to trust. I still love him dearly, and I always will.
I was desperate for stability, and I married at 22 years of age, just before I graduated. My first husband was a fellow philosophy student, and looking back, we barely knew each other. We were so young. I was sure, though, that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I could make this work, I could have babies and a husband and a normal life, a white picket fence and a backyard. No more craziness, no more scariness -- it would be perfect.
Again, there is little I have to say, although much happened. It didn't work. We grew apart, he was threatened by my success in medical school, I grew to hate him for demeaning and belittling me to make himself feel better. I was quietly enraged. I lay next to him in bed, planning what I would finally do once he died. (I figured it was decades away, but men tend to die before women, and I was five years younger anyway.)
Things got worse. I could barely speak to him, because whenever I tried, he would break down sobbing and berate himself as a husband. I would say anything to make it better. I enjoyed being a martyr. He enjoyed being in control. Eventually, I left him, and that was the most awful time of my life.
I was still attending medical school and grad school, still teaching classes, still determined to become a doctor. I was living alone again in an efficiency apartment, and I was crazy with depression again. There was a blackberry bush in the abandoned lot next door, and I was certaint hat as long as I could eat one berry every day, I would not die. It would keep me alive.
Needless to say, I was in another clinical depression myself. My mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she was out of her mind again. As I had left my husband and withdrawn, I had lost most of our shared friends. The only thing that kept me going was my desire to make things right, to get to a place of power where I could help other people (and, not coincidentally, not need help myself ). I told myself that my future patients needed me, that I had to be strong for them. I finished medical school.
Somehow during that time, I managed to research and write my own divorce decree, and I actually became quite good at medicine. Although I had to repeat the first year after the separation (my "crazy time" ), I got through. But having run away from home and then run away from a husband, I was pretty sure I was unable to commit and see anything through. When I finally began dating my now second-husband, I warned him that I didn't want anything serious. Given that he lived in western Canada, this wasn't too much of a problem.
We saw each other every few months, but we burned up the telephone lines and wrote reams of email. We were married just before I began residency, although we still lived a continent apart. He came to live with me after he finished out his contract to develop an addiction research center for the province. The end of his work there was at the same time that I had my second heart surgery, and we couldn't bear to be apart any longer.
Once more, so much to say but so few words to say it. I'm smarter and savvier now, and I'm safe. I love my Prozac. I'll never have my own children, although I will borrow Tom and Christy's. I watch for other children in harsh situations, and I intervene when I find them.
I've learned not to base my sense of worth on the gratitude of my patients, for that is a crazy burden to place on them. I take care of myself first, and I throw out life preservers to drowning people instead of dashing in to drown as well, myself. I have learned a lot since medical school.
Sleep deprivation is one of my triggers for depression, and after this July, I'll never work call again. My self-destructiveness has been exquisitely honed and channelled away from physical harm. Now, I aim it directly at torpedoing any chance of having a traditionally powerful, lucrative career. I like pissing people off.
When I was little, I dreamed of being untouchable -- so beautiful and strong and important that nothing could ever hurt me again, and I could be in charge of helping others. That's the black and white thinking of depression, though; that's trying to pick up "all the sticks," and that's a sure set-up for failure and despair. I've learned to put aside those thoughts of youth. I'll settle for maybe helping out a few people in hard times, maybe being attractive in my own way, maybe making a difference, however slight, in the way the world goes 'round.
That's cool. And that's the end of my story, so far.
Hey, Corwin, thanks. I see you are another Leonard Cohen lover -- he's on my list of hidden gems.
I've come to know my own limitations, and that's a real strength. Knowing where the hard parts are makes them easier to deal with in the future, sometimes even avoidable. I only wish I'd had Hatrack as a resource for advice and commiseration when I was younger, as I expect things might have been less rocky with the support here. But, you know, so it goes. And I really am very, very happy now.
Posts: 13849 | Registered: May 2000
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CT, I'd hug you long and hard if I could, but I fear it would be to draw strength from you rather than to offer support. What an amazing, beautiful, strong, sweet and durable person you are. If only everyone had a touch of you inside of them, it would be a much better world.
Thank you for sharing this and lifting up those around you.
I've always thought that so many folks get churned to the bottom of the heap in life and most just get ground up and turned to dust. A few, like yourself, get down there and get transformed in that hard, difficult place in life. There, they become so strong, so steady, that they become a foundation for everyone else. And from there, they hold the world up, Atlases in their own rights.
Sweetheart, there are no maybes about you. Its the qualifiers that make those statements true. You are beautfiul in your own way. You do make a difference (however small or not) in the world. And you are strong and powerful when you put your mind to it and especially when you need to be. Not that we don't all have our strengths and faults, and not that we shouldn't ever stop striving to be better people, but you are a wonderful, caring, fun-to-be-around person who has done quite well for herself and a person who I am very glad to have as a friend.
(And that goes for husband #2, as well, who is also a great guy and a gem to know)
Posts: 1777 | Registered: Jan 2003
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Here are some other things people may not know about CT:
1) She believes that photographs steal the soul of the subject; she will actually leave her own apartment rather than allow someone inside to take her picture. Typical of her personality is that she would leave her apartment to the malicious photographer before it would occur to her to simply take the camera away, or ask the photographer to leave. If you actually succeed in taking a picture of her, she will fidget like a small child and make whimpering noises of pain until you promise to destroy it.
2) Sara cannot stand paying retail price for anything. A person could, however, get very rich by standing outside her apartment and offering scarves at 30% off.
3) She looks very good in hats, but has a surprisingly large head and therefore rarely tries any on.
4) Sara loves to cook. She hates, however, to watch people eat what she cooks. She will therefore find any excuse to be up and moving throughout dinner. If you get her to sit down and eat with you, even the most profusive praise may not prevent her from finding something wrong with a perfectly satisfactory meal and actually whisking it out of your hands with multiple apologies. If, however, someone ELSE has helped her cook the meal, even if small rocks or live snails or something have made their way into the recipe, she will clap her hands and bounce like a small child as she lavishes love on it.
5) When bouncing like a small child, Sara's whole face lights up, angelic. See above for the reason that there are no pictures of this.
6) Sara, like Christy, often dresses for camouflage.
7) When you're talking, she figures out where you're going with the sentence and will cut in reflexively with a very Canadian-sounding, "Yeah, yeah; sure, sure." It's always those four words, in that order, and inflected the same way every time. She is never aware of doing it as she does it, and blushes bright red and hides behind her hair if you point it out.
8) Sara is completely tone-deaf; listening to her hum and trying to figure out what she means to be humming should be an Olympic sport. She has, however, an encyclopedic memory of lyrics, and consequently loves talented lyricists. Deep voices work for her, too, which explains her liking of Leonard Cohen and Fiona Apple. I don't know how she feels about Everlast, but suspect she'd like his more melodic stuff. She and Dave both tend -- at least when they're expecting guests -- to listen to "refined" things, like NPR and jazz radio and documentaries about kittens.
9) She feels instinctively guilty about being an American, but is very fond of the country. Her husband is occasionally baffled by this.
10) She absolutely hates when people point out things about her, because one of her fondest secret wishes is to disappear entirely behind a fog made of good and selfless works, vanishing like the Good Deeds Fairy into modern folklore: "Who WAS that scarf-wearing woman?" "I don't know. But thank God for her." I fully intend to frustrate that tendency at every turn, mainly because she occasionally needs to be reminded that it's possible for her to be human AND wonderful at the same time. Ergo, this list of quirks, which may in fact wind up infuriating her. *laugh*
I am quivery about being so exposed, but as Tom indicates, at least it's better than a photograph.
(And Tom apparently knows me pretty well. )
Thank you again for your kind words, everyone. I'll be rereading and savoring them all individually for weeks to come, and my already large-sized head will swell to an even more superior size.
If I don't come back for awhile, it'll be either the overwhelming mortification of this, or it will be my inability to fit through the front door. Time for a recuperation period -- I'm exhausted.
Posts: 13849 | Registered: May 2000
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After reading that, I don't think I'll ever be able to write a landmark of my own. Anything I could come up with would be puny and pale in comparison.
Posts: 1652 | Registered: Aug 2003
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Wow. Just...wow. Thanks for being here, CT, and for sharing so much of yourself. Hatrack wouldn't be nearly as classy without ya. Like Rakeesh said, I'm honored to know you, even just a little bit.
Posts: 1586 | Registered: Feb 2003
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That was a beautiful landmark!!! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself. You have been one of my favorite people on Hatrack since I first joined, and I am glad to know more of what shaped you into the incredibly wonderful person we love.
And I am intrigued -- and slightly spooked -- by the list Tom posted. Some of those are awfully similar to things I do . . . O_o
Posts: 32919 | Registered: Mar 2003
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CT, I'm so glad you decided to share this amazing history. Me? No, no, it's just allergies, really. I honestly think this may have taken over the "affected me most powerfully" position of the landmarks. Sorry, Icarus. We can still be friends, though.
I could say more, but words wouldn't measure up. Just -- thank you.
Thank you, CT. It's very humbling to read a story like yours; I am honored to have been able to do so. You are a truly amazing person, and knowing you makes all of our lives better.
Posts: 4532 | Registered: Jan 2003
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CT, I can't wait to meet you in person (it will happen someday, I swear) so that I can bask in the wonder that is you. Sooo glad to be a part of the Hatrack that includes you.
Posts: 1090 | Registered: Oct 2003
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I was deeply moved by what you have shared. Thank you for being willing to share that with us. That is no easy task, but by sharing it you have lifted us all.
You have lived through hell and have emerged to become a guardian angel. That really says something about what you are. I know that you will continue to bless the lives of the many you come in contact with.
I hope someday I will have the honor of meeting you in person. Until then, glad to know you.
Posts: 7050 | Registered: Feb 2004
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