Tuesday, November 12, 2013

In Memoriam

It is at times like this that I wish I had paid greater attention to my professor when he taught 18th century poetry. I want to celebrate the life and mourn the death of my cat, California. When I moved from the west coast to the east coast, I thought I might just die from culture shock. I was unhappy and lonely. Someone suggested that I go to a local pet store to see if I might find a pet to keep me company. So, I did.

As I walked the aisles of the pet store, I saw two extremely small kittens in a cage. One was black and white and was taking as big a bite of the hard food in the tray as his tiny mouth would allow; he would chew the food and then spit it back out onto the plate. At once the other tiny, black creature in the cage would scarf up the food as fast as she could. I watched them do this for about 10 minutes wondering what was wrong and which one of them had the problem.

The woman at the counter noticed me watching and offered a good price for the black and white. The black one, she said, was a runt and not expected to live much longer. Well, I thought to myself, not if I take away the black and white one. So, I bought both for the price of one.

I knew exactly what to name the black and white, Q, jr. The cat I had just before leaving the west coast had been named Q. He was a rescued cat who, by the time he hit age two, was riddled with cancer from drinking the contaminated water in the Los Angeles river basin. For some reason that black and white cat was spitting out food for the other cat to eat and I thought it was an ingenious act and worthy of the name of the amorphous being of Star Trek fame, Q (also the name given to the first cat we had, by my son). 

Both cats were so small I could hold one each in the palms of each hand. The black cat was female and while she was a true cat, stand offish and aloof, I named her California. She was my California girl. When I took Q, jr. and California to their first Vet visit, I learned that California had a cleft palate and was unable to eat solid food. It was, the vet said, a symptom of a congenital abnormality that indicated with some certainty that she would not live much longer than a month. He offered to put her down at no charge. I thank him and left, with both cats. I had the answer to my question. Q was keeping California alive by pre-chewing the food that her small and ill-shaped mouth could not accommodate.

California had some trouble with regular cat behavior. Aside from her difficulty eating hard food, which I remedied immediately by buying soft food and feeding them both breakfast and dinner each day - a decision I would rue about 10 year later, I noticed that Q would clean himself and then clean California after each meal. It wasn't for want of trying. California just could not synchronize her tongue and her paw. Out would shoot her tongue and swipe would go her paw only there was about a 10 second delay in the paw movement and a gap of something like 3 inches between it and her tongue. She looked more like a sad frog shooting out her tongue but catching no flies. She just could not get the paw to meet the tongue. This did not seem to bother her. She would simply try to rub the dry paw across her face, like she saw Q do, but this, too, was difficult because she just could not seem to find her face. She might accidently connect with the side of her head or hit herself in the nose, all the while darting out her long tongue that licked air.

Once finished with his own preening, Q would saunter over and groom California. She would sit very still until his cleaning got a little to zealous and she would topple over. Figuring that was enough of that, California would go back to hiding under the couch while Q investigated every square inch of his new home. Part of his research required him to jump up on things like tables and chairs; kitchen counters came next. This happened only a few times after Q met Mr. spray bottle. 

It didn't seem like California would ever do much else than eat and sleep under the couch but one day I caught her watching. Q would jump onto the chair and from there up on the table where he could "protect" the papers I would be grading by laying on top of them. California was a runt. She was undersized, underweight, and she had very short front legs. She watched and watched until one day, about three months later, I heard someone jump up on the table and went out to yell at Q only to find California blinking her black eyes set wide apart in her very black head looking around the room as if trying to locate the person who had picked her up and set her in the middle of the table. For a minute, I, too, wondered who had set her on the table but it was just us cats in the apartment, so I knew she had learned how to jump.

And so our lives together began. Q had a three-month lead on learning but California doggedly followed him in each new skill. She was also a savant. California could open any kind of door. I often watched Q figuratively scratch his head, as he would watch California open a door that I would immediately close. Q would then try to follow her technique. It took Q a decade to figure out how to open an already open door by pulling it toward him with his claws. If the door swung in the opposite direction -too bad for Q, he would have to enlist California who would walk over, sit down, study the door for a few seconds and then with a flip of her paw swing the door wide open. 

Early this morning after a difficult week of going back and forth to the Vet's office, California passed away, quietly as she did most things. She simply did not wake up. I knew she was in pain and tried to make her comfortable. I held vigil all night to help her stand or move to rearrange herself. She finally fell into the deepest sleep she has had in months and I waited. She did not wake up. 

Thank you for allowing me to share this off topic but critical passage. I do remember when my son was a baby I believed that cats would suffocate him in an attempt to lick the milk from his mouth, so we did not have a cat as a pet until my son was ready for college. I just wanted to make sure. Over the years we have come to love these furry, funny, fanatics. Just add Catnip and there is no holding back a great big belly laugh. The sound of California snoring was a sound I could listen to forever, and the sound of her breakfast cry "Neoww" while just as adorable made me crazy.

This is not the poem I wanted to write, a poem as smooth and graceful as Miss California Kitten Cat, herself. She was well loved and she loved us well. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Real Life in Multiples

I want to start this post by saying that what I am writing about should not be considered a memoir or biography. What I write about myself, to my best recollection is accurate but recollection is a funny thing. (Re)collection is putting together things that were once whole put have fragmented over time. (re)collecting is not an exact science as any good TV cop show will tell you. So, due to time, changes in brain chemistry, emotional connection to some memories more than others, and just plain ole getting old, my (re)collections may or may not be accurate.

In literary theory there is also the concept of the death of the author (Barthes). Whatever I write today may or may not be meaningful to me tomorrow. In addition, you, as reader, play a part in "taking my meaning" as Andy Sipowicz was fond of saying. Independent of what I write, how I choose my words, how I construct a sentence, or not, what I choose to write about none of that matters once I push the publish button. The author is absent in the process of making meaning, there is only language. The act of reading the post then becomes a matter of what you meant by what you read. My intention is irrelevant and your understanding, comprehension, emotional response to what I have written belongs to you.

The coolest part of blog writing is that when I post and you respond we are both dead authors corresponding with one another in an attempt to clarify our understanding of one another or to articulate our own positions. Derrida called this kind of writing auto-bio-graphy and assigned it the function of the authors' attempt to understand herself. This is true for me. It is an ongoing process that occurs one day at a time and is subject to change. Audre Lorde named it Bio-Mythography for that reason. By the way, (re)collection, the way I have printed it on this page using parenthesis around part of a word that is familiar to most native English speakers and is similar in many of the Romance languages based on Latin, is known as a Derridean term. Derrida frequently produced fractures familiar words to allow space for readers to understand them differently. It asks the reader, and the writer, to not simply accept the word and assume its meaning but rather to consider the word and all its possibly meanings. There is always more than one.

Kym was and probably still is short, white and Jewish. That is how she described herself when we first met in the Community room at St. Anne's. Kym was a veteran. She had been here before; in fact, this was her third stay at St. Anne's inside of five years. She loved Mexican men and some of them loved, "short, white, Jewish" girls. She particularly liked blue-eyed Mexican men. I am not talking about Chicanos. She loved the Mestizo male straight out of Mexico, the more illegal the better. Kym knew the language of love, she said, Mexican, English, those languages didn't matter. Love had its own language that crossed all other barriers in the barrio. Language was not the only non-barrier. Las Chicas hated Kym. Both Chicana and Mexican national, Kym got the stink-eye from all of them. For Kym this just made the tryst more romantic. She and her Romero would have to meet outside of his barrio and outside of her mother's house, from which she had never grown up and moved away. The only time she did not live with her mother was when she was pregnant and came to St. Anne's to deliver her packages of love. Again, that was Kym's description of her babies. Kym would tell her mother she had gotten a job somewhere nice and she would be gone for eight or nine months, checking in with the Friday night phone call, and then after delivering her babies she would go home for a break from the grueling work she had been doing in Mexico City, or Portland, Oregon, or Santa Fe New Mexico.

Kym was a trifecta. She loved being pregnant, she did not want to raise children and she gave birth to twins every time. When I met her she was pregnant with her third set of twins. The state of California got their money's worth out of Kym, she said, and she was able to save up enough to carry her through her vacation at "mom's" until she could find another love interest and get pregnant again. I understood the loving to be pregnant part. As I have written previously, for me pregnancy brought a flood of hormones that made me feel like everything in the world was okay. I wasn't taking an intellectual holiday. I knew there were "bad" things happening in the world but I was not one of them. I had never felt that way before. I was just me and I was enough. This pregnancy would end and I would start a new life that would be just enough to be okay. For me that was a new thought process. I could never really think about the future in concrete terms. Not because my brain had not matured to the point of being able to do so, but because, as I now know, I was so bio-chemically depressed I could not keep any two related thoughts together long enough to make a plan.

Kym's life plan was to return to St. Anne's as often as possible until she could no longer give birth. I am trying to count up the number of possible half-white and Jewish, and half-dark and Mexican, blue-eyed babies must be living in the Los Angeles area, or at least given to parents who lived there sometime between 1970 and, maybe, the year 2000. Maybe Kym changed her mating preferences over time or, maybe she began to have single births, maybe her mom died and left her a place to live so she could have her babies at home and no longer had to stay at St. Anne's for the duration. I did ask her about that. She said that even if she did not have to hide her pregnancy from her mother she would still come to St. Anne's because she loved the nuns, she found them comforting and she felt safe there. Most people I know now who are either Catholic or refer to themselves as recovering Catholics tell me that Nuns are not just scary, they are evil incarnate. This is probably hyperbole because it often comes from those who not only belonged to Catholic families but who went to Catholic school. While they had some real horror stories to tell, I think that unfortunately there are many too many teachers in general who confuse corporal punishment with effective teaching. We had a full gamut of Nuns at St. Anne's from the innocent and kind to the old and cranky.

Kym also loved the food. It was good food. There were always three or four comfort foods, and I cannot recollect ever eating salad, but St. Anne's had the freshest fruit on earth. I actually ate ten nectarines in one sitting. I could not stop, they were so delicious. I have not since had a nectarine that tasted quite the same. Meatloaf, Tamales, Stuffed Cabbage, Refried beans and Mexican rice, Mashed potatoes and gravy, breads of every kind. St. Anne's was a multicultural smorsgas board, and it was all cooked to perfection. Even the rice made for the Asian dishes, which I steered away from, but now love, was perfect. One day sitting at a table at the back of the cafeteria, as far away from the food line as I could be, someone yelled my name and I looked up just in time to see a white ball speeding towards me and fall with a quiet splat on the table right in front of my food tray. It still held its mostly circular form but was quite flat on the bottom. Now, that is some good sticky rice.

In an anachronistic way, kym did not want to be seen in public, "in this condition."  She liked creating new life for childless couples, she liked the process of choosing them, of which I will write more later, and she liked the life stories she would make up to tell her mom when she returned home. Her mother loved to hear Kym's tales of working as a temporary clerk, accountant, police liaison in so many places that needed her help. She was a walking talking mystery novel, and to hear Kym tell it, her mother never for one moment doubted the truth of the stories. That could be a good solid strain of denial DNA or Kym was one hell of a story teller.

Over the years I have wondered how Kym's life plan may have been altered by the advent of surrogacy and open adoption. Those were not ideas that yet existed in our realm. I think she would have adapted and overcome those possible obstacles, after all, St. Anne's is still open for business 38 years later.

Kym was not the only repeat visitor but she was the only one I ever met. She told me about a few of them who's visits had overlapped with her own. They understood each other and for the most part the friendships between veterans were the only friendships that veterans ever made, while staying at St. Anne's. They never connected "outside." I think that was true of most of us in spite of the promises we made to continue to love each other in real life. I never followed up with anyone. Maybe some of the other girls did. For some, St. Anne's was a short and excised chapter in the book of their lives. Keeping in touch was not an option. For others, like me, St. Anne's is a time locked in a bottle. I return to it periodically to try to understand its impact on me. The friendships I made were short lived and intense for the duration. Continuing them on the outside should have been a way to stay in touch with the freedom from guilt and shame that St. Anne's allowed, but in thinking it through, I can see that we were more like warehouse rats coming together just long enough to carry a heavy load of booty and divvy it up (yep, that was a bad pun). We existed on the down low. Unless those were the lives we wanted to live on the outside, we had no need for each other in real life. For veterans like Kym, St. Anne's was home and the rest of us were visitors; some of us were more pleasant to visit with than others.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy Scars?

 I have been noticing moms maybe a majority of them teens, getting tattoos memorializing the births and lives of their children. I tend to assume that these children were generated, carried and delivered in ways that women’s bodies have been made by evolution or some other force of nature to deliver them, and that they were accompanied by medical intervention of some kind. Both of which tend to leave the marks of pregnancy, birth and life on a mothers’ body.

There are women who have benefited from the pre and post-natal treatment of such marks. These mothers have little to no bodily evidence of their trek through pregnancy and delivery, so they ink on a set of foot prints (that look pretty cool) or they make a heart with the baby’s name in it, sometimes a rose with the date of birth. Some of them strike me as a bit creepy but most of them are lovely, if not redundant, thoughtful reminders of a part of life intimately shared with at least one other human being.

The tattoos that signified motherhood for my generation were called stretch marks. Among the girls at St Anne’s, old wives tales for the treatment and prevention of this “Body Art” ran like wildfire through the halls. News was provided nightly after dinner when we all collected in the Community Room to listen intently as one girl or another would share her guaranteed to work remedy. The theories rarely held up through experimentation. We did not need Myth Busters to tell us that they wouldn’t work, but we really had nothing better to do.

I was a relatively small and anorexic, five feet, seven inches tall weighing in at a whooping 115 pounds and always trying to get back to that flat 100. Once I got back down to that flat 100 my life would be perfect. That would solve everything, or so my twisted brain told me. I maintained the 115 mark seven months into the pregnancy but once I got to St Anne's I shot up to 130 in a month and in the next month, the month I delivered my son, I weighed 145 pounds. I was horrified that my body could become so grotesque. I had been doing my nightly work out, walk 5 miles, 100 sit ups, 50 jumping jacks, which quickly became very uncomfortable, and I tried not to eat but the food at St Anne's was not only ubiquitous, it was also very tasty. We had cafeteria style; all you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and snacks every 10 minutes in the community room. Who knew a Graham Cracker could make yellow American cheese taste so good?

The problem with rapid weight gain is that the skin does not always have time to prepare. I grew so big, so quickly that the skin on my stomach and hips literally tore open as it stretched. I had bleeding, purple rips in my skin. Think of a sausage or hot dog on the grill as it rips open to release its delicious nectar. I had those same kinds of marks but mine oozed blood. Someone told me that the stretch marks would go away once I lost the baby weight. I would then lift up my shirt to show them what I was dealing with and no one was able to look at them without wincing and stepping back as if the baby inside was about to come forth like the Alien emerged from Sigourney Weaver, in a movie that had not yet been made.

Even girls with mild or no stretch marks were concerned with the issue because many of us planned to go back out into the world and use our bodies. We didn’t want ugly reminders of our time together. So, one day a few of us walked ourselves to the nearest 7/11 and bought a tube of Preparation H. According to Maria’s cousin on her father’s side who had heard it from her Tia’s sister’s aunt, it shrunk everything.

Many of the girls had ugly stretch marks but none were worse than mine, even little Carolina who was only twelve and weighed about 80 pounds, if that. While I was there her skin was flawless and we all wanted to keep it that way. She was so young, it seemed fair that she be allowed to return to her child's unscathed body once she delivered her baby, a product of a drunken uncle's cruelty and her family's denial or inability to protect her. Her English was bad and so was my Spanish. She mostly stayed with the Chicas; many were gang girls and all of them took a protective stance around Carolina. She and I spoke rarely but most often it was mostly after the Friday phone call line.

Friday nights we were allowed to use the public phone booths that were installed on the wall just outside the Community Room. They looked just like phone booths that used to be on just about every street corner in the larger cities. They were made of plastic Windows and aluminum frames, so you could see around you as spoke on the phone. The phone booths at St Anne's only had three window walls because they were attached to the solid wall on the outside of the Community Room. We were allowed ten minutes to call home. It seemed like I got behind Carolina every week. I would listen to her ask her mother if she could come home now and crying when her mother gave her a "NO" that was loud enough to hear standing outside of the phone booth. 

I would always pat her shoulder as she slipped past me exiting the booth. She so small and already possessed a rare beauty. She is, I hope, somewhere, today, a beautiful woman who has been able to clear away the wreckage of her past. After my phone call I would find her and we would make small talk in Spanish. She would laugh at my butchered Spanish. It made me feel good to hear her laugh as she corrected me. Carolina "Went Up" early. No one ever knew for sure but the rumor was that she had miscarried. I hoped that she had but I worried that she would just be back next year. From what I had gathered from our conversations, she was going back to a home that was not safe for her. I know the Chicas were giving her advice on how she could protect herself. I hope she did.

Have you ever touched your eye after handling a Chili pepper? At first it feels like it might be an eyelash, so you are tempted to rub your eye again but then you remember that you just finished cutting up those Jalapeños for the salsa and by that time the burn has spread all the way across your eyeball and it feels like your eyeball is being eaten away by an acid that will leave you, in just a few short seconds, with a barren pit where the eyeball used to be. That is the level of pain I experienced as Lyn watched the door for Nuns and Natalie lifted my shirt up and off of my belly, needing in some spots to tug at the fabric in order to pull it away from the bloody ooze that seeped out of every lesion. I, meanwhile, prepared the dose of "H"- one good squeeze of the tube in a nice straight line as long as my index finger. I lightly touched the creamed up finger to one of the more open wounds, at first if felt cool, almost refreshing, so with a bit more enthusiasm I continued to apply the line all the way up the torn skin. And then I stopped. I couldn't scream, that would alert the Nuns, so the tears just started running down my face as I held my breath knowing that to open my mouth for any reason would allow the scream to escape. My face must have conveyed the message because hands were immediately flying over my belly, bare fingers, napkins, the corners of shirts and dresses were all being used to wipe away the "H". So many hands were helping that the cream was penetrating further into my wounds, spreading from one stretch mark to another until my entire belly was on fire.

 Speechlessly, I walked as fast as I could to the shower room. Without taking off my clothes I stepped into the shower and turned it to arctic cold. After a good cry and some small relief from the cool water, I slogged my way to the door, dragging the bottoms of my wet limp Levis across the brown and white swirled tiles. We had to keep our towels in our rooms and use them for a week at a time, taking them with us to and from the shower room. I had not thought about getting my towel as I made my way to the shower in an attempt to alleviate the excruciating pain that Preparation H provides when it meets an open wound. I was still not thinking about the towel when I opened the door to the shower room and found ten girls all with hands outstretched offering me their towels. That silent offering was the true mark and acknowledgement of the severity of my situation. I declined the towels without speaking but just lifting my shirt, wincing and shaking my head with what I tried to make into a smile but probably looked more like a grimace. I didn't want to get any of the "H" on anyone else's towel by accident, but I did appreciate the thought. Silently, they all turned and followed me back to my room trying to camouflage the snail tracks I left behind me as I drug the bottoms of my soaked Levis along the industrial carpet to my room where soaking wet Levis and all, I climbed onto my bed and cried myself to sleep.

Giving birth scars women. As my son has grown and become busy with his life, as he should do, I have come to love my stretch marks because they remind me of a time when we were inseparable, when life was hard but good because we had each other.