EPIPHANY Magazine - epiphmag.com
Epiphany Magazine - epiphmag.com Issue 13
A JUDGMENT FOR TOMORROW
From Dr. Ziebold's office to Dr. Levitt's was a nerve-wracking five minute drive.
"Dr. Ziebold and I've already discussed your case. We agree the growth in your colon should be removed immediately," Dr. Levitt, the soft-spoken surgeon, told my wife, Chhoton, in a no-nonsense voice. We were at Dr. Levitt's office on the recommendation of Dr. Ziebold, Chhoton's gastroenterologist. Normally lively and vivacious, Chhoton had had her life turned upside down by a recurring pain in her stomach. Gone were the gossipy afternoons on the phone with her friends, and the morning and late afternoon puttering around the backyard garden she loved so much. She even stopped calling her folks in Kolkata with whom she regularly chatted, and through whom, maintained a link to the old country and shared her feelings of nostalgia. The colonoscopy done an hour or so ago showed a large growth in her colon, threatening her digestive system. Is it malignant, though? We wondered.
"I'll know only after I get the biopsy results next week," Dr. Ziebold told us.
We had just moved to Austin from Indianapolis, and didn't know anybody in town. Chhoton was excited about the move. We lived in Indianapolis for a couple of years, and didn't particularly care for it.
Chhoton chose to have the surgery the next day. That night, as I helped her pack her bags for the hospital stay, I noticed she had become unusually reserved. We went downstairs after we finished packing and turned the TV on but kept the audio turned off. We did not want the senseless chatter from the tube to interfere with our private thoughts.
"Don't worry, sweetie, God will take care of you."
"I hope so," she said, her voice hesitant and subdued. I felt she wanted to say more but she didn't.
In the next few minutes, I made a number of telephone calls canceling all our social engagements in the upcoming weeks. Chhoton was a party girl and was very popular among her friends. I figured she would need time to rest and recover.
We had not yet told Babla about these developments in her mother's life. She loved her mother dearly. Until she graduated from high school, she often sat by her after she came home from school and played with her as if she was one of her toys. She would squeeze her cheeks, and mumble sweet nothings to her. Chhoton feigned annoyance, but I knew she loved her daughter's affection. Babla carried on this habit even after she got married and left home and visited us from time to time. At this time though, she was on her honeymoon in Bora Bora, and we did not want to get her worried by giving her this news.
"We'll call her after the surgery," I said, and Chhoton agreed.
Soon after we arrived at the hospital the next morning, Chhoton was wheeled away for a battery of pre-operative tests while I skipped out to run some errands. When I came back, Chhoton had already returned and was hooked up to an IV in preparation for the surgery.
"I tried to call Babla, but this phone wouldn't let me," she said.
I remembered she had agreed not to call her before the surgery.
"We can use our calling card," I told her.
I called Babla's hotel in Bora Bora, and had the operator connect me to her room. I handed the phone over to Chhoton.
"Hi sweetie," Chhoton said.
"Hi Mom, what's up?" Babla was surprised to hear Mom's voice.
"Oh, nothing much. Hey, listen, I'd a colonoscopy yesterday. They found some growth in my colon, and it needs to be removed immediately. I just wanted to let you know I'll be going in for surgery in a few minutes," Chhoton said, her voice slow but unwavering.
"Can I talk to Daddy?" Chhoton held out the phone for me.
Babla always looked to Daddy for details.
"Hi Babla, how is it going?"
"Hi Daddy, what's going on?"
I went over the details of Chhoton's stomach pain, and how it led up to her colonoscopy, and the doctors' advice for immediate surgery.
"What's Dr. Ziebold's prognosis?"
"He's not sure yet. He's waiting for the biopsy results."
"Call me after the surgery."
I gave the phone back to Chhoton as a nurse showed up to take her away.
"Sweetie, I got to go. Talk to you after the surgery."
"Good luck, mom."
I kissed Chhoton good luck, and as I watched her gurney disappear around the bend, my mind reverted back to the only other time Chhoton was hospitalized since we got married. That was when Babla was born almost 27 years ago. It was a cold December morning. When she signaled to me the time might have finally arrived, I felt a strange sensation run down my spine. I took her to the hospital in a hurry. It was a quiet time of the year, and the hospital was almost deserted. She was admitted as soon as we arrived, and a nurse took charge of her. A few hours later, I held her hand and gave it a good squeeze as she was wheeled off to the OR on a gurney. A short time later, Babla showed up as a bundle of sheer pink, secure in the crook of a nurse's arms. It was a moment of ineffable joy for me.
With Chhoton now gone for surgery, I turned back, and with my laptop slung across my shoulder, dragged my sluggish feet towards the waiting room downstairs. I sat down on one of the chairs lined up against the wall and blankly stared at the fleeting images on an overhead TV directly across from me. There were a few people on my left and a few on my right, all quietly waiting with anxious looks on their faces. They left one by one as the doctors came by and gave them the results of the surgery of whoever they were waiting for. Soon, I found myself alone in the stark silence of the waiting room. Dr. Levitt had said Chhoton's surgery would last two to three hours. Time hung like motionless grey mist on an autumn morning. The evening was beginning to darken outside. The fireflies had started to emerge from the nearby bushes and made futile attempts to light up the world. Except for the occasional shuffling of flip-flops in the corridors, there was no other audible sound anywhere around. I opened up the laptop to check my emails. I wanted to take my mind away from the ceaseless streams of morbid thoughts that kept pounding me. But, no such luck. I closed the laptop and went back to staring at the TV. All I could see were fleeting images switch back and forth like a quiet game of ping pong.
As I sat in silence, my mind took me back 35 years to a day on the Jadavpur University campus in Kolkata where Chhoton and I were both students. She was in a purple dress walking with a group of friends, giggling and chattering. I was in a hurry to get to my class when my eyes fell on her. I was overcome by her mushroom-white skin, black hair, dark eyes, and her sparkling smile. In an instant my world turned upside down, but I was too shy to walk up to her and introduce myself. The heavens must have been on my side for I saw her again a few days later, looking equally gorgeous, in the National Library where I used to go from time to time. I am not going to miss this opportunity, I said to myself. Suddenly I was overpowered by a daunting fear and frayed nerves. My legs were shaking, and my hands had the tremors of a diddering old man. I felt a vague turmoil inside. In the silence of the library while curious minds were engaged in intellectual pursuits, I decided my pursuits must take a different path. I gingerly walked up to her, and almost in a whisper, introduced myself. My world, our world, was never the same again.
I don't know how long my reverie lasted. I came to myself at the sound of ding-dongs from the wall clock, heralding the pitiless march of time when I caught a glimpse of Dr. Levitt walk past the window on my right. I froze up. He shuffled into the waiting room noiselessly and sat by me. There were just the two of us and utter emptiness all around. He looked at me in breathless silence, and in a slow measured whisper, said, "It was bad."
His words fell flat on my ears. There was just one question roiling within me, nothing else mattered. The answer to that question held the key to the secrets of my world from that point on. I tried again and again to work up the courage to pop that question, but it kept getting seized up inside. I looked at his serene face. In my mind's eye I saw images of his lips, curling and quivering, as if they wanted to say something but were hesitant. I imagined he needed help to give voice to those lips. I must help him, I kept saying to myself, and then I couldn't wait anymore and blurted out.
"Was it malignant?"
"But, how could it be, she took such great care of her health?" I almost screamed.
My heart sank to the deepest depth of despair. In the sightless soundless universe in which I suddenly found myself, I hurtled headlong towards a bottomless pit of emptiness. I struggled to hold on to something to break my free fall, but there was nothing to hold on to.
"Are the affected areas all removed?" I asked in a subdued whisper.
"I've completely removed all the affected areas of the colon, but I couldn't remove the tiny lesions on the liver," Dr. Levitt sounded almost apologetic.
I fumbled for words, but they curdled in my throat. I was speechless while Dr. Levitt carried on his monologue. With each drop of bad news that left his mouth, I felt a vise tighten its grip on me.
"What's the implication?" I asked.
"I'm awfully sorry, but this will significantly cut short her life," he said.
My face went numb. I sat petrified.
"She's going to take it very hard," the words fell out of my mouth effortlessly.
"I'm not going to tell her now, but she needs to be told soon," Dr. Levitt said.
How can I tell her? Isn't she the same girl who, togged up in a gorgeous red Benarasi sari, and decked out in gold and diamond, and a makeup fit only for a princess, was waiting for her Prince Charming to wade through knee-deep monsoon waters to come and rescue her 33 years ago? Isn't she the same girl to whom the Prince Charming had made the solemn vow to live together happily ever after?
"You tell her when the time is right, I can't," I said.
Dr. Levitt stayed with me for about ten minutes. He left the room just as quietly as he had entered. Thousands of miles away from the quiet seclusion of that waiting room, a lonely man's kinfolks in India were unaware of the storm that was raging in the life of one of their own. I craved crumbs of sympathy and support, but they were too far to reach out and touch. Being friendless in a new town, there was no shoulder for me to lean on. Should I tell Babla now and wreck her honeymoon, or should I wait until she returns? My conscience kept sending conflicting signals.
I reached out for the phone in the corner. I tried to punch Babla's hotel phone number, but my fingers kept hitting the wrong buttons. After a few tries, I heard the phone ring, but nobody was picking it up. I was about to hang up and redial when a female voice came on, "You've reached Hotel Bora Bora, may I help you?"
"Could you connect me to Babla's room, please?"
I heard her phone ring.
"Hello?" she said.
"The surgery is over," I said.
"And ... ?"
She did not hear my response because there wasn't any, only squelched sobs that might have been dissolved in the chatter of the line noise. But I heard her. Her cries rose above that chatter. I let her cry.
It was close to 7:00 p.m. Chhoton was still in the recovery area. Rather than aimlessly wander in the empty corridors, I preferred the solitude of the waiting room. I remembered the summer we drove down to Daytona Beach, Florida. We were stretched out on lounge chairs on the sands close to the waters. It was late in the evening and dark, but we could still see the approach and retreat of the waves and hear the rolling sounds that tore into the silence of the night. The whitecaps drew a sliver of white strands along the shores against the backdrop of pitch black darkness.
"Oh, this is so good, I could spend the rest of my life like this," Chhoton said.
"Yea, I know the feeling."
We were lost in our thoughts, taking in the sand, surf and the winds.
"Promise, you'll never leave me alone," her words took me by surprise.
"What do you mean?"
"You won't leave me as a widow."
"We'll get a pair of swings and hang them from the rafters in the porch. In the evenings, after the sun goes down and the world is still, we'll climb on to the swings and swing away the hours, reminiscing about our first encounter and the years gone by," she said.
My eyes welled up as the memories came flooding by. It was past 7:00 p.m., time for Chhoton to come back to her room. She would be on the second floor according to a hospital staff I had spoken to earlier. I went upstairs, but Chhoton was still in the recovery area. I waited in the adjoining lounge.
About fifteen minutes later she was wheeled into her room. She was in deep sleep. I stood by her, staring at her placid face. I remembered our Florida trip and the sands, surf and the winds. I remembered the waves and the breakers. I also remembered what she had said about the swings and swinging away, reminiscing about our life together. I figured she was not about to wake up. I stepped out to be close to people. The nurses were running around tending to other patients, and the doctors were making their nightly rounds. Soon I got weary of them. I longed for a different crowd, but it was very far from there across the seas. I went back to Chhoton and waited for her to wake up.
For the next couple of days, Chhoton seemed to be in a daze from the heavy medication she had been under. She was weak and fatigued and could barely talk.
"Did they remove the growth?" she asked when she came back to her senses.
"Yes," I said which was essentially true. I didn't want to get into the details of her situation; I wanted Dr. Levitt to do that. I was somewhat surprised she didn't ask about the nature of the growth. Maybe, she was afraid to ask, or maybe, she assumed with the growth gone, she was rid of her problem.
Five days later, during his regular morning visit, Dr. Levitt told Chhoton about the malignancy of the growth. He told her he had completely removed the affected parts of the colon but could not remove some of the very tiny lesions on her liver. Chhoton listened to him with rapt attention. She lay motionless in the bed, her face devoid of any expression, her glazed eyes fixed on Dr. Levitt for the longest time. I wondered what was going through her mind as she listened to him. Knowing how emotional she had always been, I had thought she would bawl unrestrainedly when she would hear all this and break down beyond control. Clearly, I was wrong. I had never seen this side of Chhoton during the 36 years we had been together. It was as if a spiritual calmness had grabbed hold of her. Before he left, Dr. Levitt told her Dr. Finlay, an oncologist, would see her later in the day to discuss her treatment regimen.
After Dr. Levitt left, she remained just as calm as she was when she was listening to him. I sat by her, holding her hand.
"Sweetie, we're into it together. I promise I'll leave no stone unturned until I get you completely back to normal," I said.
Soon after she was released from the hospital, sluggish chemo drips commenced their invasive journey into Chhoton's body. Intense search for the latest among the arsenals of new medicines kept Babla and me turning massive amount of web pages, and the nutritionist's regimen kept replenishing Chhoton's dwindling energy with unflinching regularity. I assured Chhoton no adversary was powerful enough to vanquish her indefatigable husband. Chhoton smiled and said, "I know. "
Regardless of my assurance or maybe because of it, Chhoton herself believed in her ultimate triumph and had plans for changes in her lifestyle after she came out of the ordeal. She put up with the pain and discomfort of her treatment without so much as a whisper of a complaint and waited for the better days. Sometimes we had moments of joy and euphoria due to positive turnaround in her condition that lifted our hopes and aspirations. For two years, Babla and I stood side by side with her, and together, we fought tirelessly to ward off the scourge that portended to destabilize our lives. Ultimately, however, Chhoton's will to live was no match for her obdurate enemy, and her husband's claim to invincibility was just that, a claim, and a woefully futile one at that. Despite her extraordinary tenacity, courage and optimism, one somber afternoon everything became abruptly quiet except for the anguish of her husband and daughter who were by her side holding her hands.
BIO: "I came to North America from India more than 40 years ago. I came here for post-graduate studies with
the intention of returning at the end of my education, but I never did. I am currently writing my memoir
from which "A Judgment for Tomorrow" has been adapted.
My publications have appeared or will appear in The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage,
Front Porch, The Statesman, and The Statesman's Festival Magazine. I have also produced 45 technical
papers and two technical books.
I work for a major multi-national IT Company. By education and training, I am a physicist and computer
professional, but my interest in literary writings goes back to my middle school years."
B. Z. Niditch
1. An eye reflects upon itself, so thought
2. Paranoia is the maddest form of loneliness.
3. No gift is as personalized as ourselves.
4. Everyone wants originals.
5. No one wants to be the best man.
6. The trouble with confessional poetry is that it does not allow for conversation.
7. Old age is at least the success of failure.
8. To hurt is not to smart.
9. The soltude of the poet is the solicitude
of his image.
10. Sentience is the sentence of the poet.
11. Art, religion and politics thrive on
12. Those who live for catastrophe always
13. Talent warns the belligerent and informs on the genius.
14. Fascism is pretense, a carnival to the
invited but artiface to the excluded.
15. Even eros has its double - cross.
16. Every art is voyeuristic.
17. Only genes cause genius.
18. Poetry carries on from contemplation.
19. Jealousy sounds like a jarring duet
but plays the same old tune.
20. Remorse always finds its way.
B.Z. NIDITCH is a poet, playwright, fiction writer and teacher.
His work is widely published in journals and magazines throughout the world, including: Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Art; The Literary Review; Denver Quarterly; Hawaii Review,; Le Guepard (France); Kadmos (France); Prism International; Jejune (Czech Republic); Leopold Bloom (Budapest); Antioch Review; and Prairie Schooner, among others.
Saturday morning at Mothers Helping Mothers, and the little store was packed. I had arrived early to help sort out the bags of donations left overnight, my back sore from the same work the day before. I hefted a large Nordstrom shopping bag up onto the counter ready to sort through its contents to see if it contained any items usable for our thrift shop for young mothers. Hoping to find clean, gently used high quality clothes, I was disappointed.
Reaching into the bag, I pulled up what looked like stockings, only these were not the kind the little old ladies in my mother's bridge group wore. No, these were thigh-high fishnet, some black, some hot pink. OK, so maybe these were just thrown on top and the good stuff lay underneath.
Digging deeper, I came up with a handful of little black lacy things which, upon holding up to the light, I realized were tiny bras designed to cover only the nipple and thongs designed to cover...well, nothing. Now intrigued, I continued to rummage through the satins and silks to find tiny teddies, filmy gowns and diaphanous jackets, many in leopard print or scarlet red. Who wears this stuff, I wondered, as I held the sheer lingerie up to my body. And then I realized, at one time I did. A very long time ago.
Standing in the crowded sorting room, I thought about what panties I had put on this morning without even thinking, cotton of course for the heat of Florida and big enough to cover more than the essentials. Nothing was more uncomfortable at my age than underwear which gathered in places it should not. How long had I been this way? Am I the same woman who once wore these teddies and thongs?
As females, we can chart our lives by what we wear under our clothes. As little girls, it is white cotton vests under our shirts and flowered cotton panties which we are told to hide from the boys who may want to look under our skirts, for reasons we don't understand. Then by the time we do understand, we have changed those white undershirts to lacy bras, preferably from Victoria's Secret, and those flowery briefs to satin bikinis, hipsters, and boy shorts. Now who's looking?
We feel sexy, powerful, our lean bodies lush with hormones and power. Teddies and thigh high stockings fill our dresser drawers, slide easily against our young bodies. Under our tight jeans and pencil skirts we wear thongs to prevent what ads tell us is that "unsightly panty line." Also, we love the feel of fabric against our bare skin, the way it moves as we do.
Then come the babies. Out go the bikinis unless we wear them because they are the only panties which will fit under our bellies. We have so much laundry to do, so many baby clothes and blankets and bibs and crib sheets that the idea of having to hand wash any filmy lingerie makes us only more tired. Our delicate bras give way to solid, substantial nursing bras, strong enough to carry our heavy milky breasts. The tight jeans and pencil skirts hang in the back of the closet, but we know one day we will wear them again.
And we do. Maybe not as tight as we once did, but as our children leave home for their own lives, we once again pull out those lacy bras, those thongs, and rejoice in our renewed sexuality. We may not want to be cougars, but if older women like Diane Keaton can flaunt their porcelain skin in Vanity Fair and Florence Henderson can show off her shapely legs on television, who are we to go back to those sturdy cotton briefs our mothers wore, the white ones I often saw hanging from my mother's clothesline, hung on the line between my father's undershirts. I was once sent to my room for two hours when I asked my mother if those things hanging on the line were flags of some country we had yet to study in second grade.
Not for us those flags. The panties under my shorts today are purple hipsters which match the purple and pink bra I bought at a local boutique. Tomorrow they will be black to go under the leggings I plan to wear. Our bras may be sturdier to compensate for gravity, but they are once again lacy and bright.
As I find a place among our shelves for these sexy things, I wonder what the woman who gave them to us named her baby. And if she will ever come and want them back?
BIO: " I live in Sarasota, FL, a retired high school teacher, community volunteer, and dog walker. I have also worked in the field of domestic violence in the Chicago area and once served as park administrator for a cemetery. I began writing family history for my daughter and just never stopped.
My short essay "The Gift" was published in an anthology Wisdom of Our Mothers published by Familia Books (www.familiabooks.com) in 2009."
SUNDAY IN THE PARK
Patricia H-F Moore
I don't remember what the man said when he first spoke to me, or where I was in the park. I don't remember whether I ever got to the playground with the swings and merry-go-round I had so eagerly anticipated. I don't remember if I saw any other children.
That spring Sunday morning in London was warm and sunny. The bombing raids were light the night before and had spared our neighborhood. I got up early and headed for the park wearing Pam's old yellow dress with the marigolds on.
The morning sunshine warmed my head and arms as I skipped along the gravel path through the rose beds on my way to the playground. Maybe Greta and some of the other children would be there to play with on the swings and the merry-go-round. I was five, and savoring the sunshine, and my morning in the park.
I don't remember how I got to the unfamiliar field where he held a knife at my throat, and threatened to kill me if I didn't do as he said. I remember he took off my panties and exposed himself. I remember the smell of rancid peanuts. Sometimes semen smells like that. It seemed that I was with him a long time. Then he let me go.
I don't remember how I got home, or how long I'd been gone. I remember it was still sunny as I made my way home. I remember my family was eating Sunday lunch, and Dad was angry with me because I was late. I had lost my panties and my yellow dress was grass stained. I didn't want my mum and dad to know what happened; because I was sure they would be cross with me if I told them-so I didn't say a word. I'd missed Sunday lunch, the roast and new potatoes were cold by then so I skipped it, and ate the stewed prunes and custard.
Years later in grammar school I would look at Mr. Mortimer, my German teacher, and wonder if he was the man who had molested me when I was a little girl. He had an ugly reputation, and when girls were called to see him after school, they made sure they never went alone.
BIO: "I wrote Sunday in the Park as part of a Memoir growing up in London during WW11.
I am published in:
Peppertree Press, Write From Your Heart, An anthology, A Good Day
The Pepper Tree Literary Magazine, Christmas Cookies
The Pepper Tree Literary Magazine, England's Green and Pleasant Land
The Pepper Tree Literary Magazine, A Good Day
I am a member of the International Women's Writing Guild.
Artwork by Dan Williams
THE BREAKING OF MY BLEEDING LIBERAL HEART
"I've become cynical," I told my high school government teacher at a summer barbeque.
"It's okay to become skeptical, but cynical is dangerous," he replied.
I grinned, wanting to deny who I have become, but respecting Mr. Hayden too much to lie. I still wonder if I didn't confess to him in hopes that he would cure me.
Twenty-seven years ago whenever a student would dare say that she didn't care about what was happening in other parts of the world, he would exclaim, "This is not all there is." He would then put his hands on either side of his face, like blinders on a horse, and stumble through class. "Yucaipa is all there is." He'd run into student desks and bounce off, like a bumper car. Continuing to stumble through the class, he'd call out local street names exclaiming, "That's all there is," until he would run into the front blackboard. His hands would cup his face so that he was blind to the rest of us, now yelling so we could hear him.
"Yucaipa is the whole world. I don't need to worry about anything else, only what's happening in my town, my school, my family. That's all there is."
All these years later, I can't help but lament that because I have taken his advice and expanded my experiences, I have become a misanthropist who is concerned more with my personal safety rather than the well-being of the larger community.
And if I thought that I was special, that this transformation has only happened to me, I would be wrong. In my professional life as a teacher for incarcerated adults, I have become part of a community of "change agents" or people who work with the most disaffected people of our communities. My experiences have taught me that teachers often come from a place of wanting to change the world for the better, while correctional staff come from a place of wanting to preserve what is better in the world through an eradication of anything that threatens the good.
As an American I have been indoctrinated to believe that what makes the world a better place are people who "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and "make opportunities." We are raised to be self-reliant, but also to blame the victim if things don't work out in the ascension toward the American Dream.
As a first generation college-graduate, I take all the credit for where I am today, but also all the blame. I often think that if only I had been braver in my youth, I would be further along in reaching my full potential. If only I hadn't let others drag me down, I would have followed my passions sooner. Rarely do I blame my upbringing or a lack of support or a lack of opportunities. Of course, the American me gets philosophical about the whole thing, claiming that I have no regrets and that everything in my life has led me to this moment and this moment is one of great potential and possibility.
Likewise, I also blame myself when others harm me. How could I have been so stupid?
One day while leaving my parked car, heading toward morning university classes, I glanced back and noticed that I had left the ashtray of the car gaping, full of change. But I was running late and continued rushing to class. When I returned to my car at the end of the day, not only was the change in my ashtray gone, my wallet was taken from my purse from under the front seat where I had haphazardly hidden it. I blamed myself for being careless and took my lumps, never once railing against the thief, actually reminding myself that whoever stole it probably needed the money more than I. The thief took advantage of the opportunity set before him, an opportunity I gave him, and I was convinced I was not above acting in the same exact way if I had been in his exact circumstances. I was sure we weren't so different.
Luckily, I wasn't poor and struggling to get through university. I had advantages this poor soul did not. Through my public education, I was ascending the socio-economic situation of my parents and stolen change from a car's ashtray and stolen credit cards would not derail my path.
Education for all was aimed at creating a brighter future, whereas incarceration grew out of a need to curb crime and preserve societal good. The unquestioned presence of both institutions in the United States creates the contrasting views of what we expect from our citizens - to climb the ladder of success or to pay retribution for failing in meeting society's expectations.
Unfortunately, as research has shown over and over, our schools are failing to prevent crime or poverty and prisons are failing to reshape the habits and souls of criminals. The United States relies on schools and prisons to solve our societal problems; both failing by many measures.
Despite the growing evidence that publicly funded schools are failing our children and publicly funded prisons are failing our adults, as Americans we are quick to blame the victim. A failing school and a corrupt correctional system do not necessarily prevent a person from overcoming the odds and changing their fate. We hang onto the notion that anyone can take advantage of America's free education, and anyone can avoid committing crimes. If a person does decide to go down the wrong path, we hope that sending a person to prison allows him to reflect on past poor choices so as to make better ones in the future.
It is easy to ignore that a failing school system sends people to a failing prison system, both of which seem to perpetuate crime, poverty, and create deviant citizens, unless your entire professional life has been consumed by both, as has mine.
At first I was convinced that through the program I was working for, I could be one of many dedicated change-makers providing students with the tools and resources for transitioning back into society in a meaningful way. Imagine my surprise when teachers I supervised did not buy into my vision of what was possible.
"There are bad people in our classrooms," one teacher told me within my first few weeks on the job. I didn't argue with her or even dismiss her point of view. I reserved judgment, choosing to hang onto my beliefs until I was convinced otherwise.
But, it quickly became obvious that I had to choose sides.
When I opened four classrooms in a local county jail, I hired a mix of teachers, some having previous experience with teaching "inside" and some without. Right away, navigating the jail became more difficult than teaching the students. The staff complained if students were out of their seats too much because they felt it was a safety and security risk. The teachers complained that they were not able to implement various instructional strategies without movement in the classroom. The supervising staff complained when we allowed students to use markers and create posters illustrating their knowledge of key curricular points, worried about misplaced markers and gang writing. The teachers wondered how using markers and creating posters in class, especially if the markers were all accounted for each day and the posters clearly had positive messages, were harming anything. The staff complained when we allowed students to take workbooks back to their cells to continue working on assignments between class sessions, physically rolling one up, taping it tight, then hitting me on the forearm to be sure I understood that workbooks were potential weapons. The teachers wondered how they were to get the curriculum completed if students didn't have access to the materials needed. I was left to mediate.
Then one of the teachers told me she had been called an "inmate lover." Next a deputy cornered me in the hall and asked, "Why are you wasting your time on these people? Programs don't work."
I patiently explained the research, evidence that programs do work and actually save the state money in the long run. I patiently reminded the teachers that the deputies were doing their jobs in ensuring our safety.
Things finally came to a head when a teacher argued with a deputy about student movement. I got a phone call which informed me that either we abide by the deputies' desires or our classes would be shut down. I informed the teachers we would abide. Markers were taken out of the classrooms. Booklets were collected and counted at the end of each teaching session. Cooperative learning strategies were modified to seat work. I went from class to class explaining to students that our program was here as a guest of the correctional staff and our first priority was to adhere to their rules and regulations.
I convinced myself that limited programs and classes, those with tight safety and security restrictions, were better than no programs and classes. But I had to wonder, isn't the adherence to bureaucratic policies causing our schools to fail students in the first place and causing our correctional system to fail those it has pledged to rehabilitate. Still, I chose to side with the correctional staff rather than with the students, admitting that the students were criminals. Images of being hit over the head with a rolled up curriculum booklet haunted me as I visited the classrooms and took observation notes about instructional strategies but paid more attention to movement in the classroom, what students could potentially use for weapons, and how often a teacher put himself or herself at risk by being in a section of the classroom where custody staff would have to go through the students/inmates to get to him or her.
The struggles teachers encounter when teaching at-risk populations is well documented. Though it felt like I was special, all educators who work within the correctional system traverse a dangerous area, a space where you are forced to choose between hanging onto your ideals as a teacher and working with the realities of the correctional system.
As a nation we have convinced ourselves that we must deter others from crime. Even the name of the system, "corrections," implies the belief that we can correct societal ills through punishment and rehabilitation. No longer are prisons meant to correct societal ills by producing better citizens through rehabilitation, but rather we are attempting to manage societal ills by excluding criminals from society. If you believe you can rehabilitate a criminal, the correctional system treats you with suspect and derision.
Still, I'm not sure what has influenced my evolution. I chose to align myself, partly from professional self-preservation and partly from believing that as a good citizen I must align myself with the other good citizens, with corrections, but there has also been a realization that I am less like my students than I thought. There may actually be an us and a them.
The first time a student approached me to brag that he had eight children, I smiled and congratulated, "That's great," while wondering how he was able to support eight children. Later when I shared this exchange with a colleague, he shook his head.
"Next time a student brags about his children ask how many of those children live with him, let alone how many of them he actually supports."
I did and the conversation turned abruptly from the man bragging to me about his offspring to his becoming defensive about how he loves all his children. From that point forward when students bragged about their offspring, I thought, "You are the last person who should be having children," while visions of all the sacrifices I have made for my one child to ensure that he had a stable and supportive home life clouded my empathy.
Soon after my son was born, I wanted to adopt a child, save a soul from the system and give him or her the same advantages I had been given as an adopted child. But during the eight weeks of "parenting" classes every Wednesday night from 6:30 until 10 pm, it became clear that because of the system's insistence that the biological parents be given every opportunity to retain their parental rights, I wouldn't actually be able to adopt a child from the system until he or she was at least two or three years old, except in the rare cases when the mother and father give up their parental rights at birth due to the baby's extreme needs from being born drug addicted or handicapped. My dream of adopting a baby from parents who were thoughtful enough to recognize they weren't able to care for a child was destroyed slowly each week. We did not adopt. One more choice I made to ensure that my own son had a stable home.
And that is the difference between them and us. I have been given opportunities and taught good habits that they have not, resulting in their incarceration and in my self-determination.
Since the 1970s, we have created a counter-culture of crime and deviant behavior through our society's lack of economic opportunities for all, good schools for all, and social services for all. But now that we've created this culture, emptying out the prisons is not going to fix the problem.
Many have suggested that the solution to the problems with our system is to create a society that does not need prisons, a society where everyone is taken care of so they don't need to turn to crime.
While observing a class in a parole office, one student was consistently off-task. The teacher did all the appropriate interventions, reengaging the student, reassuring the student, redirecting the student until the teacher finally asked, "Franklin, aren't you feeling well?"
Franklin shook his head and the teacher directed him to have a seat near the exit door and once the lesson was over, he would help him.
The lesson ended and because I furiously reviewed my notes so I could meet with the teacher during his break about what I had observed, I did not pay attention to what happened to Franklin. With no on-site medical clinic at the parole office and students free to come and go as they chose as long as their parole officer consented, I assumed the teacher told Franklin where the local neighborhood medical clinic was and sent him there. While we were reviewing my observation, I praised the teacher for how he had handled Franklin but my curiosity got the best of me.
"Did he have that awful cold going around?"
"No, he wasn't exactly sick. He got out yesterday and has no place to stay. He was freaking out about where to stay tonight."
I could feel my heart breaking into a million pieces and settling in the pit of my stomach. I dared ask, "How old is he?"
I wondered why he didn't have friends and family to stay with, though after so many years in this job I know better. Still, these situations never cease to send my liberal heart into a tailspin, and I even contemplate my big house and the empty bedroom we use as an office, a place where Franklin could sleep.
But I recognize the risk I would be putting myself and my family in. A risk I am not willing to take, even if I could given my professional duties.
This is a risk I have never been willing to take with people. If I bring home a stray dog and it turns out the dog is trouble, mean-spirited and unruly, the dog lives outside, is locked up when visitors come over and trained so he behaves as well as can be expected given that he is a dog that has been rescued.
But turning a person out into the yard and locking him up when he poses a threat is not something we do as individuals, it is something we trust the state to handle for us. I may feel bad about the situation of the people I teach, but not to the extent that I am willing to risk my own well-being or the well-being of the people I love.
Though I continue to hang onto the American ideals about having opportunities and choices, I no longer just apply it to my situation and excuse the actions of others because of their situations. I have, instead of becoming more compassionate for others, become more insistent that if there is a person in trouble, they must find their way out.
When I train new teachers, I warn them about being "too nice."
"I used to be like you, but I have learned a few things. Think of these guys as having empty buckets. What you are doing for them by allowing them to hoard pencils or by bringing in donuts is spitting in their buckets. It makes the bucket appear to be filling up, but it's temporary. I think it is more important to point out to our students that their buckets are empty then show them how to fill their buckets up themselves. Provide them with tools and resources for changing their lives, show them where they can turn on the spigot then leave it up to them."
"What if there is no faucet for them?" one teacher asks, unconvinced but unwilling to voice the look on her face which betrays her feelings that the job has turned me into an ogre.
"There is always a faucet. It may be rusted. It may be stuck in off, but there is always a faucet. No one can fill up a person's bucket but him."
I go to work each day, thinking that if I show a student where his faucet is, I might make a difference in his life. I hope, without any evidence, that I have at the end of the day helped students, but to be able to do this, I avoid looking too closely at what is in front of me. Instead I harden my liberal heart, staunch its bleeding and wrap it tight to protect it from breaking.
BIO: Diane Mierzwik
HAVING A DAUGHTER AND LETTING HER GO
The desire to have children is something that many people of my generation took for granted, especially in the deep South, where I was born and raised. But I felt differently. I grew up in a family where I was abused. As the oldest of five children, I bore the brunt of my mother's jealous rages and my father's twisted desires. I left home as soon as I could, but my mind and heart were still trapped and imprisoned.
I was afraid of marriage, I was afraid of parenthood. However, fortunately for me, I met my life partner, whom I will call Keith, when we were both 20 years old, and by the time we had been living together for four years, it seemed to us that marriage would be a continuation of the life together that we already had.
And so it was, at first.
After we were married, Keith went back to school. He earned two more degrees. He found a job and began to establish himself in his chosen profession. I was comfortable - maybe too comfortable - and I didn't want to change. For a long time, I turned a blind eye to the truth that Keith wanted something more than our life together.
I was afraid of becoming like my mother. But it went farther than that - in those days, I found myself generally disapproving of parents. The parents I encountered as an artist teaching writing in the public schools seemed only interested in putting forward their own children. I found their self-interest reprehensible; I thought they ought to concern themselves - as I did - in each child as an individual.
This was neither the first time nor the last that I claimed the moral high ground as a refuge.
One day Keith said to me that his life would be incomplete without a family. He wanted to have a child, and that if I didn't want that with him, he didn't want to be married to me.
I was in a quandary: I loved Keith, and I didn't want to lose him. But could I become a parent without being overwhelmed by motherhood, as my mother had been? Keith and I couldn't bridge this gap alone; I suggested couples therapy, and he agreed.
Couples therapy was arduous. It was one-half step forward and one-quarter step back. We had allowed ourselves to grow apart from each other, and we suffered from it. And yet despite our differences, we remained connected. Deep down we shared a strong foundation and an abiding love that rooted us and entwined us like Odysseus' and Penelope's marriage bed carved out of the base of an ancient olive tree. In order to survive, our marriage would have to grow like a living tree.
The change occurred gradually, like a seed cautiously putting out tendrils underground, until one day I knew the plant had taken root, and I told my husband I was ready. Back in my mind lurked the response of a classroom teacher I'd worked with years ago. Newly pregnant with her second child, she was heroically struggling with morning sickness while continuing to teach. She had a six-year-old daughter, close in age to her students. I asked her if having students helped her understand her daughter better. "No, it's the opposite," she replied. "My daughter helps me to understand my students better."
"Ripeness is all" - once my mind and heart had changed, our bodies willingly cooperated. How fortunate at this time in our middle-aged lives that Keith and I were able, with great joy and little fuss, to produce a child. Had we not, how far would we have trod down the tortuous path that leads from infertility? Thankfully, we never had to face this question. I continue to feel humbly grateful that I was able to give my husband what he most wanted. Laugh all you like, but about certain important things, I have an instinct.
It is inevitable that our most profound emotions sound trite, because their very universality turns them into clichés.
When I became a parent, I still agreed with my younger self that judged parental attitudes as the height of selfishness, and at the same time that I acknowledged the complicated selflessness that is parenthood's territory. I tried to embrace both with a sense of irony and restraint. What I had not anticipated was the relief that would come of putting our child rather than ourselves at the center of our concerns. After years of self-examination, I'd grown sick of myself. My own problems, weaknesses, and insecurities - and Keith's as well - resisted change. How much more satisfying to focus on our child and our efforts to give her a secure and loving home, a happy childhood, and a good education.
Having a child is a way to experience childhood all over again in a better version. Attention to the earlier part of life helps to keep one's outlook youthful. As a parent, one is so focused on the present moment and its constant demands that when one looks back with a perspective and comprehends the changes wrought by the passage of time, it can come as a shock.
As our daughter approached high school graduation and her eighteenth birthday, we found ourselves at one of those crossroads where we were invited to take the long view back. For a few weeks, we cherished our last connections to the parents of other high school seniors. With some, our shared experiences dated back to kindergarten. An inevitable note of sadness seeped into our joy. Blown by the winds of opportunity, our children are about to leave us. In a few months, they will no longer be living under our roofs.
On the early evening of the senior prom, our daughter gathered with other girls at a classmate's home to share the excitement of getting ready together. Some of the parents showed up to see the girls in their finery. After they had donned their long gowns and fixed their hair and put on their make-up, we all carefully climbed the wooden steps to the roof of our host's building.
Among the flowering plants of the rooftop garden, against the soaring city backdrop, under a changing sky of sun-masked clouds, the senior girls pose for their picture. The overcast light brings out the jewel-like shades of their gowns: turquoise, champagne, a rose-and-lime print, aqua, purple, velvety black, and pure white - seven girls in a row with their arms around each other. In the fall, they will be attending colleges in Connecticut, Oregon, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, but before their lives veer off onto different paths, they band together for this celebration. They appear radiant with strength and beauty, shining with optimism. On the verge of departure, they are poised to surpass us, as we prepare to become less of what we are. And though we have anticipated it, we are not ready.
The changes of adulthood are slow, and the mill of time grinds exceedingly fine. Childhood is the opposite, and the older we grow, the faster the changes in the first part of life seem to occur.
In the beginning
she was flesh of my flesh.
All her growing was growing apart.
A multitude of children
have disappeared into the dark.
Sometimes I miss the feel
of her soft little hand in my palm,
four fingers curled around one of mine.
Her eyes alone unchanged from childhood -
their crystalline look of concentration,
one blue iris with a fleck of brown.
I never thought I'd have a child, but raising a daughter with my husband and participating in our child's life cycle have been the greatest joy and privilege of my life. My favorite saying about parenthood, one which comes to me often, is that parents must give their children roots and wings. Roots to ground them so that they will have the strength and fortitude to withstand adversity. And wings to fly away, to soar high, and go to places we never imagined. Soon my husband and I will face the reality of our empty nest. And while it is sad in a way to be left behind, it is also our wish come true.
Artwork by Dan Williams
WHEN A THIRD WORLD CAME WEST: A Wedding
We stood linking each other's hands in front of the justice of the peace (a Diane Sawyer look-alike) more because it was the thing to do than because we really wanted to do it. We both felt uncomfortable and kept shifting our weights as we stood. There we were under the white bridal arch with wicker X's that crossed and made room for the fake plastic ivy vines to wind through their spaces. It created a border that was as contrived as Sam's idea for going through with this without any relatives around except for my dad. He was doing injunctions without knowing we were here, seven feet from above us on the fourteenth floor. Except Diane and except for the handful of English as second language users who had seen me cross the waiting room aisle and into the door where the justice of the peace stood, we had no other company. She was saying all these things, Diane and I was thinking all this, how no one I knew was invited, how I really hadn't thought this through. I'd picked out costume jewelry diamond earrings that didn't even have the correct amount of pendants that the matching one did on my other ear. How I'd rushed to pick out the wrong kind of white shoes that didn't really match my white dress. That I didn't even do my hair in the bathroom, brush it, or sweep it behind my ears. And in fact I was still catching my breath from not having had on my wedding dress on in the first place. I made "Diane" and Sam wait while I went to the bathroom to slip it on and all the stuff with it that I was thinking would make this time more worthwhile. But two minutes later and she'd gotten done with what she'd said and he'd said "I do" and I'd said "yes" and he didn't put anything on his finger. He wouldn't go to RiteAid or any other cheap store to find a plastic, hemp, even a hematite ring to match my own. So there we were nearly at the end of the day, filing out with all the late workers at 5:30 through the parking garage. The only difference was that he had a yellow carnation in the breast of his - my step-father's coat pocket, I had on a white dress, holding stems of dried flowers that I'd picked. I'd tied them with some yellow string that I used when I cross-stitched the twelve days of Christmas ornaments. I'd had some left over after I'd finished the green pillow ornament with the three French hens sewed in.
"Well," I said as we walked across level 5 of the parking garage and down the steps to the fourth floor where the elevator was, "What now? Should we eat dinner?" It sounded appropriate and Sam agreed, but we didn't want to go to anyplace around here so we made a promise to go out on west I-4 towards the Olive Garden on I-Drive. I would drive. We stepped across Robinson together without holding hands and Sam slipped some Camels out from his pockets that I hadn't seen him slip in there before and I worried about the tar bits that would build up for the dry cleaners. But I didn't say anything, I just got going when the stick figure on the walk sign turned and looked out at Lake Lily. Her man-made fountain was spitting up water into the air and I saw the red awning of Lee's Lakeside behind it, thinking that the restaurant could have been where I'd had my reception. Sam hadn't even tried to talk to my parents because he assumed from the start that they didn't like him. But instead we hopped into either side of my black Jetta and headed west onto the interstate towards the Olive Garden.
He ordered steak of course with tomato penne pasta and I chose something cheaper, like salmon with jasmine rice and sea salt. I kept looking at my ring the whole time thinking "I'm married, I'm married". Because I would have never guessed it'd be this soon, I always pictured me older with my master's degree, with some experience behind my back. But who knew? And Sam was smiling, he had a big grin and we looked at each other a few times and smiled and I felt close to him, so that was good. At least something felt right about crossing this big line that would lead to a big divide. And then what usually happened when I ate too many bites at once was that I'd sit back and think, like "When was I going to tell my parents? What if dad found out? What was mom gonna say at church? What was dad gonna say at temple? What was I gonna say to my friends?" I chewed my cheek then looked at my pretty linen dress. I'd gotten it from a rummage shop or a vintage store in Chapel Hill I couldn't remember which. I looked at my ring again and Sam in his suit and in my gut I'd thought I married a match, so I took a sip of our wine and I felt settled again. "Should we order dessert?" I said. "For our wedding?" And Sam as usual said tiramisu because that was what he always got. So we ordered what he wanted to with two forks. We told the waiter it was our wedding day hoping he'd give it to us for free, add some candles for a sing-along, have the celebration for us that no one else knew to give. I'd had birthday's here where they brought out a fudge brownie cake with ice cream and a candle in the middle and embarrassed you in front of your family and friends. I'd never been to one of these though when you told them you'd just gotten married. And so ten minutes later they came out with what we ordered and I clapped with them when they sang congratulations to us. Sure enough it was probably the same song they sang to students who'd graduated high school or college. But I blew out the candles anyway.
Sam ordered more table-wine but I put my tipsy hand over his and told him not a bottle, just the glasses. I stumbled to move my plush cushion chair to excuse myself to go to the restroom. We were married. We were going to have babies and I was going to have them with him, the handsomest guy I thought, in the room. He'd be a great dad. I came into the bathroom and passed myself in the mirror going straight to lock myself behind the restroom stall. I didn't need to see how young I was because I already knew I was capable. We'd live in a small low-rent apartment around the corner from my mom and dad. He'd work part time as a waiter at Dante's where he'd gotten a job and I'd go to college for the both of us. I sat down to pee on the toilet seat and grabbed for the paper from the metal slot and felt flushed. I needed water. I came back around to the dinner table five minutes later and saw the clasp of my dress purse opened and my wallet out. "Where's my wallet?" I asked, feeling the blood rush out of my cheeks.
"Your card was declined," said Sam.
"What?" I said. I felt the wine and the enthusiasm from the bathroom drain from me and I searched around the white cocktail linen table cloth for my wallet. "Where is it?" I asked. And he put the wallet on the table. I looked through it for other cards but one was a Target card only good for in-store, the other a Firestone card valid for the same thing. I griped about it but I was still in a good mood. We could still enjoy ourselves and have a good time. There was half the tiramisu on the table with a lump of caramel on the top that no one had finished. I talked into the waiter's ear once he got to us,"You know, it's our wedding day. We're so excited. Our parent's can't be here and we're also sad." I didn't know how I came up with this: "So we're saving up enough, I worked at Disney to bring them all here." I was still talking, "So you know how it is?" The man was a shorter Mexican guy who spoke English some and waited politely for an answer. "I have a roommate," I whispered, I pulled the cuff of his coat sleeve towards me so I could do more talking, "who has lots of money. She's rich. I'll go back to my house and I'll call her and I'll give you her credit card number, I promise. I'll leave something with you so that you'll believe me. You know?" 'Almo' was his name. He seemed to agree sort of to this and I took my wine and motioned for Sam to do the same. He looked away from me. "I solved it," I said. "Don't be mad. Take a sip. I want to kiss you." But he wrote me off as tipsy. I ate the rest of the caramel on top of the tiramisu since he wasn't watching and I drank the rest of my wine and tried to drink the rest of his.
Of course I had to drop him off at the homeless shelter before 9 and it was 8 45 so we weren't gonna be able to do anything after our wedding which was fine with me because I still had to drive twenty minutes to my house and I was tired anyway. But it was sort of sad having to wait in the Orlando Magic's parking lot across from the Bob Carr theater while he changed out from Jim's suit and back into his sleep pants and worn button down shirt that he used for his pajamas. I had to do the same thing, changing into a pair of jeans and a long cotton brown shirt I'd gotten one time at the beach. I tried not to look at him when I kissed him because I didn't want to think of it all, how I wouldn't be able to crawl over into the covers with him. I drove home and parked as usual, turned off the hall lights when my mom complained that they were too bright for her to sleep, washed my face in the sink and I brushed up. I hopped into bed and kept the light on before going to sleep so that I could take out from the in-table the baby naming book that I got at Walgreens two months earlier.
This piece is a segment from a longer manuscript.
When a Third World Came West: My Wedding is a non-fiction story about a Jewish college student who falls in love with a Muslim Tunisian drifter in the midst of 9-11.
This story is something that happened to me when I was 21. I was studying anthropology at College in North Carolina and I was constantly making daring moves and outrageous travel arrangements that would fulfill my lust for thrilling cultural experiences. I met and fell in love 'Sam' because he was culturally intriguing to me. When 9-11 happened we encountered a crisis which had depths and arms that extended from the explosion from which it occurred."
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