Round Two

Friends:

Something has been weighing heavily for a few weeks now but it was not my story to tell. However, my dad recently chose to share his story, so I can now share as well.

Two months ago, my dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Several appointments and tests later, we now know it is a dangerous form of adenocarcinoma, Stage III, with involvement of one localized lymph node.

Dad just officially retired a couple weeks ago, which had, of course, been planned all year; we just weren’t expecting his retirement plans to be consumed with cancer treatment.

He began radiation therapy today, and chemo starts tomorrow. He will have 5 and a half weeks of these treatments, followed by a two-month “break” before they perform surgery to remove the malignancy. The surgery is extensive, essentially removing the majority of his esophagus (plus that stray lymph node), and then using the upper portion of the stomach to create a new digestive track. The recovery will take several months at best.

For those who don’t know… this isn’t my dad’s first rodeo with cancer. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007; he was successfully treated and has been in remission for 10 years. But they say that if you’re going to get cancer, NHL is the kind you “want”, as it has the highest successful treatment rate. Esophageal adenocarcinoma doesn’t carry the same optimism.

Fortunately for Dad, it was discovered before it had metastasized, which is one reason for its lower recovery rate. His oncologist believes that with This aggressive treatment plan and a successful surgery, Dad’s odds of survival are 65%. That’s a helluva lot better than the normal 25% odds of someone at Stage IV.

If you know my dad, you know he’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. He is brave and otherwise healthy, which is in his favor. He has a good care team in place, friends in Colorado to help him, and a family (including a brother who is an MD!) who are supporting him completely and will be helping as needed. Right now, we are asking for your prayers, thoughts, healing energy, and positive vibes as we tackle this horrible demon yet again.

P.S. Yes, my Munchkin knows what is going on with his grandpa. We decided that he was old enough and this was too serious to keep from him. So far he’s handling it well, but keep him in mind as well as we face the weeks ahead. He has a big heart for a little guy, and he loves his grandpa. They are looking forward to a “boys-only” Rocky Mountain camping adventure once Grandpa is well enough to go… a retirement promise that Dad really wants to keep.

My dad, The archaeologist, teaching a session in Colorado
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Triggered

The news is getting to me this week.

For those of you who don’t know my story… when the Munchkin was five years old, I was sexually assaulted on a first date. Now, I’m no idiot. I had done my homework: I checked public records on the man. I Googled and checked social media. Professionally, he was who he said he was, and he had no criminal record.

But that night, I broke my own rule and went to his house. And I paid dearly for it. It was eight days before Christmas.

I didn’t report it.

Not to the police… he warned me (via text message and email afterwards) that it would be my word against his. And who would believe me, a poor single mother, against the word of a well-established financial professional?

In a moment of overwhelm, my outcry witness was my ex-husband. He was the only one who ever saw my bruises in person. And yet, a week later, he told me that he would use the fact that I had had such an “error in judgment” to prove I was an unfit mother and take out son away from me.

I later told my pastor at the church I attended at the time. His first question to me was, are you sure you’re not pregnant? Not was I hurt, or what did I need… his concern was whether I was “at risk” of an abortion.

I didn’t told another soul for three years.

These days, my family knows. I talk about being a survivor. The statute of limitations had passed, so nothing will ever happen to the person who attacked me. On the day the statute expired, I burned all the clothes I’d worn that night. I can read (most) articles and have considered volunteering for our local women’s shelter. Sometimes I can even watch episodes of SVU (which used to be my favorite show, before he took that from me).

So the story about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford shouldn’t bother me… except it does, for one detail of her story: his hand over her mouth.

You see, that night I struggled to get away until he pressed his forearm over my neck, choking me. At that moment, it became all about making it home alive. My son needed me to get home. I had to survive.

Nothing triggers me like a reminder of that instant. Breathing as best I could with an arm compressing my windpipe while I tried to hold still against the blows of a man who had no concept of a safe word or consent.

I believe Christine Ford. I have been there. And I’ve spent this whole week wondering what I would do if, some day, the person who attacked me were ever to be cast into the public eye. Would I be brave enough to come forward? To try to protect other women and the public? I already sometimes regret not having reported him. I did what I had to do to protect my child. I later sought trauma counseling with a RAINN-trained therapist. I found an attorney who could protect my from my ex’s empty threats.

But reading all day long every day for a week the back and forth of the Kavanaugh story and how so many people think “she waited too long” or “she’s just looking for attention” or “she must be a Dem operative trying to throw the nomination” or “he was too young to be responsible” or “that was so long ago, don’t let it ruin his future”… it’s awfully hard to fight back the flashbacks when the reminder is everywhere.

Christine Ford was doing what she had to do to protect herself and keep living. She tried to forget (like me), she built a good life (like me), and she moved on as best she could, finding a healthy relationship with a good man (like me). I honestly don’t think the politics matter one damn bit. If it were me, I wouldn’t care if the patron saint of my political party were the culprit: someone has to stand up for us women and survivors and potential future victims.

Our culture lets men get away with behaving badly. And it’s bullshit.

So this week, I’m triggered.

And I believe Christine.

Dating while Brown in a Red State

Antonio is coming in for the weekend tomorrow.

I finished two of my summer classes this week, so he thought he’d come in so we could celebrate a little. He was thinking ice cream. But I have been trying to find ways for us to get out more, now that I’m so close to having life return to somewhat “normal”.

One thing we both enjoy but for some reason have never done together in our three years is go wine tasting. We’ve tasted at home, or at dinner, but not gone to a winery and just enjoyed a leisurely tasting. So I thought, “Hey! I could surprise him with a trip to French Lick!” I haven’t had a nice glass of French Lick Catawba in ages, and that sounds just lovely. And I hear their cafe’ (which is new since I was there) is really good.

And then I suddenly realized… I don’t know if it’s safe to take Antonio there.

My dad’s family is from Orange County, Indiana… home of French Lick Springs and the incredible West Baden Springs Resort. If you’re from down there, you call it “the Valley”. Springs Valley, to be more precise. My grandpa was born there. My great-grandparents both worked for the hotel’s original owner, Mr. Sinclair, back before the Great Depression… my great-grandmother was a maid who used to babysit the Sinclair children, and my great-grandfather was a livery driver who , as family legend holds, used to drive for Al Capone when he came to town.

But there’s a darker side to Springs Valley and Orange County. The side that was – and still is – a stronghold of the Klan. My big family secret is that I am only a few generations descended from a grand wizard of the KKK in Orange County. We don’t talk about it, OBVIOUSLY. It’s not something we’re proud of.

What I am very proud of, however, is how my parents made a conscious decision to raise my sister and me differently. To raise us to be accepting and to understand that race does not define a person. My dad’s interest in anthropology and my mom being raised by someone who grew up in a multi-ethnic community in Canada went a long way toward their own personal views of being people who embrace diversity, and passed along those values to us. My dad and his brother have both deliberately broken a generational “curse”, so to speak, in raising children (me, my sister, and two of my cousins) to be open-minded, accepting people who work with, love, and befriend people from all walks of life. (My two cousins are both doing amazing work in the areas of LGBTQ+ advocacy and Native American advocacy, but that’s another post.)

But down in Orange County, the Klan still lives. Even some of my extended family never outgrew those old, dangerous ways of thinking. Lots of people down home still believe in racial segregation and white supremacy. They’re not people I’m close to, but I’ve been to family reunions in the past and you hear things. Back before I knew how to speak up.

I can take Antonio somewhere else. We can come up with plenty of other places to celebrate, to spend time together. I can even think of a dozen other wineries nearby where we could do the same thing. But three years in, this is the first time I’ve run into a situation of not feeling safe to take him somewhere. I am so insulated from this in a way, because my home here in Bloomington is so diverse and all-embracing (for the most part). That’s the beauty of living in this literal liberal mecca in the middle of red Indiana… Antonio and I never feel unsafe together in downtown or out-and-about. But that’s not true all around us.

Bloomington is a bubble. Sure, we joke about “never pulling over in Martinsville”, but the fact of the matter is that this is real. Especially under the current administration. I sometimes recheck Antonio’s wallet just to make sure that his US passport ID card is still there, even though I know he never takes it out… just as peace of mind for me. I worry sometimes when he’s out flying, because while he may be relatively safe in an airport, we don’t always know what lies outside the terminal for a commuter crew. I worry that someone with an agenda may pull him over and never stop to determine that he’s a naturalized American before something terrible happens.

I don’t have any answers for this tonight. I just needed to write. For all the horrible atrocities taking place in our country tonight, for all the scared children ripped away from their parents at our southern border, for all the black and brown people being murdered in the streets… I see you. I know that my issue of where to go on date night is nothing compared to what you are facing just for being alive in what-used-to-be-America. I’m so sorry. This is not what we are meant to be. I promise to keep using my voice to fight for you, and to keep my eyes open. We can’t go back to this being normal.

In the meantime, I’ll be coming up with a new idea for date night.
I can buy my French Lick wine at Kroger. I can never buy another Antonio.

How I met my pilot

Three years ago today, I woke up nervous. I drank my coffee, took a shower, and took an extra long time getting ready.

Still nervous.

Because I was about to do something that felt totally crazy…
That afternoon, I drove an hour to the airport. To pick up a stranger.

*****record scratch*****

*****freeze frame******

Okay, let me back up.

It was early February of 2015, and I had grown pretty fed up with the whole online dating thing. After more bad dates and more verbally abusive or just gross online interactions, I decided to take a break for a while. So one afternoon, I logged on to deactivate my accounts.

Which is when I discovered I had a new message.

It was only two words long: “Storm tested?”

That’s what caught my attention. Because that simple question meant that whoever he was, he had actually taken the time to read my profile. We all know I tend to be a bit… umm… *verbose*… and I was never good at keeping my profile short and sweet. So to know that someone had taken the time to read that far said something.

I replied.

That reply became a months-long conversation.

He was a pilot, just getting ready to advance to the airlines after years of private and instructing work. He was from South America, and working in Florida, but had gone to school here and was looking to move back to Indiana. He spoke French, just as I was learning. He was divorced, too.

So we talked. And texted. For months. And finally started talking on the phone. He was in training, back and forth between PHX and YYZ. By that point, I knew I was starting to feel something for this handsome stranger who seemed too good to be true.

Then he offered to fly to Indiana so we could meet in real life.

*cue freak out*

I mean… on the one hand, who does that? Is he some sort of crazy person? On the other hand… that may be the most effort that one man has ever gone to for me. (Including my ex-husband!)

So I did something I’d never done before…

I paid for a real background check.

I felt so shady. But I am a survivor of date-rape from a previous very bad online date-gone-awry. So to meet someone who wasn’t originally from this country, and who had very little online presence, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. (Okay, I had a choice… I could have said no. But all along I just had this feeling… this Gibbs-gut-feeling that I just had to meet this guy.)

His background checked out. (I should have known… who gets hired by a commercial airline if they didn’t pass a background check?) So when he offered to fly into IND on what would have been my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary?

I thought it was a sign.

So despite thinking I may have been completely crazy, I accepted.

Those of you who have been to the new IND terminal know there’s a spot right in the center where you can watch arrivals entering from both concourses. And it was there that I stood, my heart pounding. It was hot and humid. I was wearing a jacket anyway, wearing heels with my jeans… trying to play it cool and feeling anything but.

And there he was. Antonio. Coming out of Concourse A… dark shiny hair and beautiful brown skin contrasting a crisp white Oxford shirt, striding in with the swagger of… well, a pilot.

The drive home was a little awkward, I admit. I still couldn’t get over the idea that I wasn’t completely nuts and that this was really happening. This guy really flew in all the way from Miami just to go on a date with me?!

We went out for Indian food that night. Then we walked around downtown, which is the first time I discovered he walks too fast for my short little legs. We walked down to Hartzell’s for ice cream, which is when I first actually met the real Hartzell, who happens to be an old friend of Antonio’s from when he lived here years ago.

That night we shared a first kiss over a bottle wine while the radio played “This Magic Moment“.

I know… it’s so terribly cheesy. So cheesy, in fact, that I held my breath and didn’t tell our story for a long time. I was afraid if I said too much or talked about it too much, I would break the spell. I’d jinx it somehow. I had been divorced for years, and in that time my longest relationship had lasted less than a year. Most of them only a few dates.

But now it’s been three years now. So maybe it’s safe.
………………*fingers crossed*………………..

A lot has happened since then. It hasn’t always been easy. I won the Cox Scholarship just about 6 weeks after we officially started dating. Antonio changed airlines. He has been based out of no less than 5 cities for work. I’ve learned by fire what it means to love someone who works in the aviation industry. We’ve dealt with a cancer scare (mine), losing my grandfather (another pilot, to whom Antonio had grown close as well), a hurricane (we got lucky when Irma turned left at the Keys, saving the MIA house from more damage than just the roof and the fence), sick family members in foreign countries, job changes, and so much more.

We also saw the 2016 election turn the world upside down. I went through a lot of emotional turmoil realizing that the country that I grew up in wasn’t really what I thought it was. I have learned more than ever what it means to be an immigrant and a non-white person in America right now. Antonio’s experiences have opened my eyes on a personal level of what it means to love someone who is constantly “othered” by our society. Antonio, who has never been around small children or sick people, has learned how to love both my Munchkin with all his quirks, and this girl living the fibro life. We’ve had times of frustration and misunderstanding. We have learned that we are both stubborn, and both sometimes short-tempered.

But we have also learned how to listen more. How to walk away when we need to so we can come back and work through things together. Antonio is learning to speak fibro and I’m learning to speak pilot. We’ve learned how to maneuver around language and cultural barriers. We’ve made our relationship official (at least in the state of Florida). We’ve learned to manage a relationship lived mostly apart, and take pleasure in the times when he is home. We have dates by FaceTime and Skype when he’s away. We practice French with the Munchkin and dream of traveling the world together. We’ve shared each other’s families and traded traditions. We talk about the future.

Today is the third anniversary of the day that a pilot took a crazy trip to Indiana to take a chance on some random girl from the internet. The day our lives changed. Antonio is in TUL, getting ready for a transfer to MKE, while I’m wrapping up the last of my undergrad coursework. The life of an aviation family isn’t always easy, and it’s very rarely predictable. We may have to only share a glass of wine in spirit tonight. But we’re happy. He supports me and I’m immeasurably proud of him. We’re not sure what, exactly, comes next.

But whatever it brings, we’re going to do it together. The skies ahead may not always be smooth… but it sure looks sunny from the cockpit.

P.S. I did eventually confess to Antonio about that background check. And you know what? He said he was glad that I had been so smart about it. Told you he was a keeper! 😉 

Take my hand, my son…

Today was a really emotional day.

Mom and I spent most of the weekend in our hometown working to prepare my grandparent’s house for auction. The household goods were loaded into a truck today for the auction later this week, and we’ve been painting and cleaning for months now to prepare the house itself for sale.

We were already tired when we got back today. At one point, I opened a box of Christmas decorations while looking for something, and I was struck with a familiar scent that took my breath away… my grandma. I choked down the lump in my throat, because we had work to do. Family tension did nothing to relieve my emotional state during the afternoon. A drive home, groceries, and picking up the Munchkin, and we were finally home again.

But as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one feeling emotional today.

It was a rough evening for my Munchkin, who is struggling right now. He doesn’t want to go to his dad’s house, and yet he has an extra overnight this week (which puts him at dad’s for 6 of the next 7 nights). He’s tired of being stuck in the middle. He doesn’t understand why his dad and stepmom say such mean things about his mom and grandparents. He said he is afraid that if he tells his dad how he feels, he will just be punished yet again. He told me that he is worried that if he tells people how he feels that nobody will believe him.

There were lots of tears before bedtime from a boy who is afraid to hurt anyone, and yet is quite tired of being a pawn in this grownup mess.

He may be 13 now, and he may be just a couple inches shy of surpassing me in height, but sometimes he is still very much my little boy. He still loves to snuggle. We still have a bedtime prayers routine, without which he will not go to bed.

During that routine, when he has had a rough day, I still sing to him. Usually he wants “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra“, or “You are my sunshine.”

But tonight when I tucked him in to bed, this old song popped into my head:

Day is Done: Peter, Paul, and Mary

A sign? Maybe. All I know is that it felt like the right song at the right moment.

Earlier during his meltdown , I talked with my Munchkin about our “village”. That his village was going to get him through all this stuff with his dad. That he can trust these people around him, in the village that mommy has built for him, to believe his feelings, to listen when he talks, to help him face the hard times. That just like his favorite heroes Harry Potter and Percy Jackson… even though things won’t be easy, he won’t ever do it alone. That it will be worth it in the end, and that I, along with his village, believe that he will get through this.

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m making him feel any better. Tonight was one of those nights. But I tried. God, I hope it sinks I to his heart and helps bravery rise up within him. After I just hired yet another attorney, and my own faith falters, I pray that when I said to have faith in his mom and in our village, that it planted a seed.

Sometimes, I’m not sure whether being the mom or the kid in the middle is harder…

Mixed feelings on World Autism Day

Once again, the time has come where blue bulbs grace front porch lights and enormous monuments around the world are robed in blue light. It’s World Autism Awareness Day… an international movement that has most certainly helped to make people “aware” that this thing called autism exists in our world.

But it has not necessarily brought the understanding that it should have. Despite all the media attention, so many people still fail to understand what the spectrum is, or how people exist as a part of it. There is so little understanding of high-functioning autism, or atypical forms. There is so little understanding of what life is truly like for those whose entire existence are consumed with caring for a person with severe autism. And the nuances of diagnosis – being able to distinguish between Asperger’s, PDD-NOS, or other atypical forms – have been removed from the system, for better or worse.

I mention this because at this juncture in our lives, I am experiencing mixed feelings about what it takes to “be” autistic. What does it take? What does it mean? Can it be “cured”? Does improvement mean it has “gone away”?

My son just turned 13. Last week we had a regular appointment with his psychiatrist – the one who initially made his autism diagnosis over 6 years ago. As we were talking, we discussed some newer evaluations and assessments that we had done. We discussed how he is doing in school. We discussed the behaviors that are posing challenges for him right now.

And Dr. K said that if she met Riley right now, she would probably not place him on the spectrum.

So what does that mean?

Does it mean he was never really autistic?

No.

It means that all of the intervention and therapies that we took advantage of WORKED. All the many hours of ABA and OT and ST and changing schools did exactly what they were meant to do.

Me being “that mom” at IEP meetings, advocating like crazy and never taking no for an answer?
It worked.

Me refusing to listen to nay-sayers like my ex-husband who swear that there is nothing wrong with my son that screaming and punishment can’t fix?
I was right.

But listen… this isn’t about vindicating me. It’s nice, but it’s not what this is about.

What this is about is giving other families hope that intervention can help. What this is about is listening to your gut instinct about what your child needs and fighting for it.

My son still isn’t without challenges. It’s just that as he grows and matures, he has caught up developmentally to the point that sensory issues are not the most pressing issue for him. Now his biggest struggles stem from moderate to severe ADHD, and everything that goes along with it… impulse control, struggle to focus, personal space, and all the rest. We still need our IEP. We are still working hard to keep grades up and teach study habits and find ways to cope with stress and fidgeting and social situations.

All that being said… for some families, there will be a limit to improvement. Some families will – sadly – never be as lucky as we have been. And I call it luck… because while we put in the work to get to this result, life could just as easily have gone a different way for us. I don’t know the reason why some people have severe autism that never improves or only improves to a point with therapy, while others like my son make enough progress to be “removed” from the spectrum. It’s one of life’s great questions… one for which I don’t have answers.

So today, I’m still wearing my blue. I’m wearing blue to honor our journey to get from angry nonverbal toddler to smart funny teenager. I’m wearing blue for all those other families… both for those who are working every day to make progress like my son has, and for those families who are working every day just to get through the day. For those who will live with this incredible, beautiful, and frustrating lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Is my son “cured”?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that.

He is what he is, and who he is. Maybe I don’t need an answer to that question.

Am I afraid of what others will think?

Yes.

Will others think that I’ve been making all this up, just like my son’s dad has sworn all along? Maybe. But I hope they won’t. I can only speak what I know to be true.

I am not a doctor or a therapist… I just happen to know a lot of really good ones, and fought to get access to them for my child to get past his own personal hurdles. I don’t know if the label you put on it really matters. My child needed help, and I got it for him. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t cheap, and it meant me taking on the mountain of emotional work that is advocating for one’s child in a world that doesn’t really quite understand him… a world that is built for and run by neurotypical people.

But I’d do it all again. Just like every other caregiver out there who loves someone on the spectrum. We just do what we can do. We get through each day, and take advantage of opportunities for help and progress where we can find them. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we call it, or where on the spectrum we live. Anyone who loves an exceptional or 2e person is just doing what we can to give them the best life possible, even if that looks different for every family.

Because regardless of label or diagnosis… I love this life, and my kiddo – struggles and all… and I wouldn’t trade either for the world.