Today a dark cloud fell over my thoughts. It occurred to me how limited I am, how little I've accomplished, what a wienie I am. Why haven't I written my books? Why, why, why.
Immediately, unbidden, I remembered that this “wienie” once chewed through the wooden slats of her playpen to escape. Forget the conditions that led to that act of desperation because they are lost to history. The important thing is the persistence of the human spirit – of my spirit. I wonder how many hours it took to completely chew through and force my small body between the bars and squeeze through.
My stroke essay popped into my head next and I thought of the years I spent struggling just to speak a coherent sentence, to write something readable again. I remembered the years that followed my car accident in March 2002, several of them overlapped my recovery from the stroke event, when I could hardly walk. Until 2008, I literally had to crawl on my hands and knees to go up stairs.
That made me remember the couple of months our family lived with my son and daughter-in-law following the house fire and our subsequent eviction. Their apartment was upstairs and of course, it was damned hard (and dignity-destroying, needless to say) to scramble up a flight of steps like an animal.
I am not a wienie.
I was not a wienie when I pushed my IV pole across the hospital courtyard an hour after I got out of recovery room following my second breast surgery in two weeks' time. It was New Year's eve 1999, the eve of the millenium. Snow spit from a slate sky as I navigated two surgical drains and a morphine drip, my winter coat loosely around my shoulders. What motivated this Herculean effort? I wanted a cigarette!
I was not a wienie when I drove myself to chemotherapy and endured that poison. I was not a wienie when I got third-degree burns from radiation and figured out how to treat my wounds myself since the radiation oncologist seemed helpless to provide a solution (put VERY CLEAN room temperature wet washcloths on the burn until the cloth is warm to the touch, remove, re-wet, replace, repeat until the heat stops being given off through the burn. This will take literally hours but works with all burns to stop subsequent damage).
In 1992, when I sat with my brother at University of Cincinnati Burn ICU after he suffered third-degree burns over 80% of his body and bagged him with an Ambu bag so the staff had more hands to quickly change his bandages so he wouldn't have to suffer as long, or assured him I'd take care of the leprechaun he hallucinated while he was weaning off morphine and on methadone, or when I made the unilateral decision for the surgeons not to amputate both his forearms – nope, not a wienie.
When the doctors suggested my brother would make a wonderful organ donor because of his general health and youth, and I urged them not to withdraw life support – to let HIM decide if he wanted to fight to live, that it was not our right to make that decision for him – I was not a wienie.
When my son's head delivered in the car on the way to the birth center, I was not a wienie. When I endured years of systemic abuse as a child, nope, not a wienie then either. I have experienced misogyny on a profound scale in my lifetime, social and cultural systemic abuse and neglect.
When I was a divorced mother of two trying to raise my babies without child support for my son (which eventually accumulated to over $224,000) and I made $8 too much per month to qualify for food stamps or child care assistance, and my child care bill totaled 60% of my take-home pay and my father berated me for not taking on a second job but I refused to because I didn't want my children totally raised by somebody else – I was not a wienie then.
I created a game out of going through dumpsters collecting aluminum cans and glass bottles to recycle so we had enough money to eat out once a week. It served as both an outing and an income of sorts. I remembered thinking how my father was probably at the symphony or a rose society meeting right then and how horrified he'd be if someone saw me.
When I begged the man from the water company not to turn off my water because I used cloth diapers and mixed my son's powdered formula with water, and most of the food I cooked required water to prepare – I was not a wienie then. And neither was he when he went out and pretended to turn off the water and came back and warned me he would lose his job if I told a soul. (I never told until now. Thank you, Mister. You probably saved my life).
The month both my grandfather and favorite aunt died and my electricity and water got turned off and I voluntarily placed my four- and one-year-old children in temporary foster care so I could receive in-hospital treatment for depression, and despite the State's promise to keep them together, they were placed in two different homes – I was not a wienie then either.
When my agreement with the State was that I would have two weeks post-hospitalization to adjust and heal before my children came back home but the worker decided she would transfer legal custody to my ex-husband if I didn't take them back the day I was discharged – not a wienie then.
When it turned out the final straw in the whole depression dynamic had been I simply needed thyroid medication and if the doctor had only recognized or tested me for that, I wouldn't have spent months trying to find someone to agree to care for my children after I died, I didn't lose hope.
These are but a few not-a-wienie situations out of many, many dozens more throughout my lifetime. I won't but touch on being methodically beaten by my alcoholic lover and the creative excuses I offered for my various injuries because society's disapproval of interracial relationships was so much bigger than anyone's desire to help a woman find her way out of Hell.
I'll leave it to your imagination what it felt like to sit in a sheriff's office and have him tell me in a patronizing tone of voice that a three-year-old's testimony against a sexual abuser won't stand up in a courtroom, that there was nothing I could do to save others or I'd be charged with slander. Additionally, he offered the example that a thirteen-year-old girl was a poor witness too “because she might just have changed her mind and been a willing participant.” My sarcasm was lost on him when I added “I get it, just like an old woman would be a bad witness because she might just be senile, right?”
Having never been one to know when to leave something well enough alone, I felt compelled to ask “So just what IS the ideal age to be raped?” He had no answer.
Like I say, there are dozens and dozens and dozens more of these situations I've survived. Every time I tell even one lone story, people exclaim “How did you survive that? You are so strong!” All I can think is “That's nothing” and “You do what you have to do.” I don't share these experiences to elicit pity – I do not need you to feel sorry for me. I appreciate your compassionate spirit but do not feel bad for me.
What I do ask is that you do not judge me or criticize my housekeeping or my weight or my health or why I don't look at things from a whitebread point of view. I ask that you do not presume I am unaware of the way society works, nor do you suggest I don't understand what it means to be marginalized.
Don't tell me we have no choice in how to view our world. Don't call me a survivor. We're all survivors, we're all marching forward one step at a time. We are all heroes in our own plays. Don't compare your path to mine. Just keep putting one foot forward on your own journey. My friend Karen quotes a Japanese proverb, fall down seven times, get up eight.
I'm here to tell you not to stop at eight.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. Why? To paraphrase Yoda, “There is no why. There is only do.”
Because we are not wienies.