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Uncomfortable Realities

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Us, circa 1996

 

We were naive or maybe it was just me. Living as we did in Chicago among many. In a neighborhood full of old Swedes, lesbians, and Lebanese merchants. Working in a neighborhood populated by Palestinians, Latin Americans, and Lithuanians. African-American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Polish co-workers. Our inter-cultural, inter-ethnic, inter-racial relationship was not a big concern heading into marriage. Student loans and a honeymoon destination were.

The next state we lived in was a different story, far different. All of a sudden we had to demand tables away from the kitchen door. People made comments on how dark baby Ricky was compared to my fairness. Along with dead deer hanging from trucks in the fall was a growing number of confederate flags.

I began to understand a few things. Things not comfortable. Things we needed to be careful of.  Things I wanted to run away from. Most of all my own naiveté.

My true education into our country’s reality began with my marriage to a man not white. An immigrant. A Pacific Islander with a Spanish last name. Sure my many experiences working with people from all over the world both in New York City and Chicago helped. But working with those who are different than ourselves is far, far, far different than living on the other side of truth. Alone in public I was still white with all that comes with being so in this country. With Tony I darkened.

I hyphenated my last name because I understood this reality. I told people it was because I was thirty and career-wise already known by my maiden name. And there was verity in my words. But the other truth, the ugly one, was I knew now. I understood. Even if my understanding could not compare to Tony’s or his family’s. I understood more than my white family and friends. And this information about how things are in our country shaped my decision.

In between my name change and Tony’s death, many other large and small incidences occurred to Tony and to us. Happenings I began not sharing because explaining these realities to white friends and family became work, their disbeliefs needing comforting I was and am still unwilling to provide.

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United States Passport

 

But I will share one recent occurrence here. A couple of weeks ago the boys and I reentered our country, the United States of America, after sojourning in Europe. We went to new countries, visited family, and escaped a bit of our grief. Now we waited in the customs line first for the check-in kiosk and then for an officer.

The customs officer was dark, maybe Latino, not-white. He looked at us in the eyes. He said pointing to the large black X on our customs tickets, Xs’ I had not noticed in the rush and fatigue of traveling, Xs’ never before appearing on our customs tickets when reentering our country.

“From now on you will get this mark. We have to check everyone with the last name Rodriguez.”

We remain a family of color. Meaning we also continue to be seen as suspicious by others.  Worth extra attention because of our country’s shared historical story heightened now by a spinning, ill-informed ideology that continues to dictate who is possibly dangerous and who is not.

And we as a family continue to be suspicious of others when we are treated differently or with mistrust. Because suspicion works both ways.  Because I’ve learned having watched loved ones suffer in ways I do not. Because I have to go there, to that dark truth that is all of ours to own.

The cruel discriminatory legacy of color, of differences, of bias, of religion, and of fear continues in this country. In big demonstrations, tragic political stances, and heightened paranoia. But also our collective story of discrimination continues through the many seemingly small actions and occurrences encompassing a day. Small actions many of us who are white do not see or do not comprehend or do not speak up against. Our ignorance bliss in its unearned freedoms. Until for some reason we too are marked in someway, maybe with a large black X. And then our true education as to what it means to be an American begins or my case continues.

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Grief

Warts and All

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My doctor hurries. I persist. Grief emboldens me. I cling to my agenda. Pointing to my forehead I ask,”What is this?”

A scabby, bumpy thing popped out of my forehead sometime during the months before Tony died. The months in which I kept wondering if after the death of our dog, the death of Ricky’s dear friend, and the ongoing downward spiral of Ricky’s health what could be next. No time or energy during those trembling months for attending to myself.

The growth lives right in my very Swedish receding triangular hairline. The same hairline some of my first and second cousins have both male and female. Some families get identical tattoos. We just use our hairline to mark us as clan.

I pick at it in the beginning of this pain, in my ongoing angst. Sometimes ripping it off in anger only for it to grow back. Mocking me with its presence. Now at ten months into keeping grief my thinking clears enough helping me plan ahead once again and think about my own health.

“Looks like a basal cell,” she replies.

“What’s a basal cell?”

“Skin cancer,” she says as if this is a non-issue, “We’ll get you a referral.”

Shit. The last thing I need is skin cancer. But I look like the token poster child for the disease not interested in excessive use of sun block and hats until about two years ago. Skin cancer and osteoporosis popular among we fair-eyed, northern European types. So I suppose it is to be expected. Then given the stress inherent in grief, my cells are doing who knows what. Still skin cancer belongs on the list of things I do not want and cannot imagine adding to my long roll of issues to cope with.

Once home I call every dermatologist in town. Pleading. Begging. Pushing. I’m waitlisted everywhere. Still I persist, grief making me more adamant especially when my health may be compromised. Magically while trying to find an appointment at the University’s clinic, a space opens on the scheduler’s screen. “Oh!” she says, “I have an appointment now available tomorrow at 9:00 with Dr. So and So.”

“I’ll take it!” I scream. Relief floods my cells. Maybe even the ones in question.

The next morning I take off warning my younger son he may be late for school but then again what else is new? University rush hour swirls around my journey. An accident slows traffic even more. I’m running late. Parking in the wrong parking garage, I face what seems like a mile walk to the dermatology clinic through a labyrinth of walkways. The clinic moved since last time I was here with Ricky’s awful eczema which was in truth Lyme’s Disease but that’s really a whole other story and his to tell about.

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I finally check in finding a chair to slump in only to realize I left my cell phone in the car many walkways and floors away. Neither son can get a hold of me. And I don’t believe I’ve been away from my cell (just in case!) for more than a few minutes since Tony died. Except for the time in the first fall of our grief when I lost my already battered phone, freaked out, and then found it beneath our mailbox.

My heart begins pounding with worry. For what brought me to this appointment in the first place. For what could happen if I am not just a phone call away. For what happened to us in August of 2016 creating my hyped vigilance in caring, in making sure all is well, in overseeing our grief.

Later after staring at the white walls of the exam room, waiting for eons, fighting mounting anxiety with deep measured breaths and therapeutic self-talk, the doctor arrives. He looks at my growth with a large magnifying glass breathing and making non-verbal communicative sounds under his breath. Finally he says, “I don’t think it’s cancer. I think it’s…(something I now don’t remember and probably could not pronounce.) I can freeze it off or I can cut it off and biopsy it.”

‘Biopsy it! I’m it,” I reply, “I am truly a single parent. Take it off. Biopsy it.”

I also tell him he mustn’t scar me which in the middle of all this angst reveals I am still concerned about topical issues. After I week or so I find he hasn’t to my relief. My skin smooth and clear.  New bits of hair filling in my receding triangle leaving me to wonder if I lost more hair during the shock of Tony’s death than I first imagined.

After a few more days the doctor calls with my results. His typical doctor call etiquette remains non-committal. I hold my breath at the stop light along the river’s construction zone. Finally he says, “It’s a wart.”

“A wart,” my voice pitch mounts as visions of those Scandinavian warty trolls roll across my mind’s eye. “You mean I could have just used Compound W?”

“Well if it grows back you can try an over-the-counter medicine,” he replies.

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Another week passes. I laugh at the entire situation until the bill arrives. My procedure not fully covered because of our medical insurance deductible. My wart removal’s initial cost is one thousand dollars!  Obviously I am not emotionally healed yet. The old me would have researched the growth. Maybe even experimented with wart removal first before seeing a doctor. But I am still highly reactive. Measured thought remains a dream away.

More time goes by. The wart does not return. Another bill arrives. The cost of wart removal sinks by two hundred dollars or so. A small gift I think.

However in the same swirl of taking care of myself leading to the wart’s removal, I schedule a bone density test for August. In this week between what would have been our twenty-second wedding anniversary and the first anniversary of Tony’s death, I am upgraded from osteopenia to osteoporosis in my wrist and hip. My doctor puts me on medication to strengthen my bones. The ravages of my grief finally rearing an ugly head now at twelve months. Grief taking hold somewhere in my body playing on an already weakened area. Physical and emotional health responding to one another. Playing off each other. One a pinch. The other an ouch. Not so separate as we all tend to think.

Still I’m thankful for good care in all realms of our life this past year. Good care leading to emotional healing, trauma relief, medical diagnosis, and solid treatment plans. All helping us repair, rebuild and live despite it all.

And for me, well with good care there is this added benefit, a “bonus feature” as Tony used to say. One I hadn’t thought of until recently when I almost stumbled into the face of it while rediscovering with my sons the living world outside our grief. One brought home to me by warts and weak bones. A possibility which because I receive good care remains in the realm of my anxious imagination. A thought which when entertained out loud would have made my late and dear husband laugh.

The avoidance of becoming an ancient, warty, humped over troll.

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Warty troll on the street in Reykjavik, Iceland.