Born Into the System

I wrote this about my daughter and becoming a mother in an institutional setting.

“Born Into the System”

In the middle of the night, on January 31, 1998, my 2 lbs. 6 oz. baby girl was born to a mother who was a poor single teenager living in Minneapolis. She arrived with no prior knowledge of her circumstances. How would she know what to expect? She was innocent. Fragile. Vulnerable. Clinging to life. And not expected to live. If she did make it, her introduction to life would be filled with difficulties.

Right out of the womb, she was resuscitated. Then immediately connected to a web of tubes and wires for life-support, and encased in a plastic box, a.k.a. an incubator or isolette. Not for the first day, or first week. But for the first three months.

Every day and every night, almost like a science experiment, lying in the box, while medical professionals poked and prodded, drew blood, inserted IVs, and fed tubing up through her nose and into her stomach for nutrition.

Bright lights shining everywhere in a sterile environment.

And love?

Love could be provided when medically safe to do so. Her mother, who worked several shifts seven days a week, came to visit on her breaks. And she stayed all night. Sometimes she would simply sit there, looking at her. Sometimes she would talk to her. But she had to be careful not to overstimulate this fragile tiny life. She sang lullabies, softly through an opening in the plastic box.

There she was, in an institution. Not at home being snuggled and kissed. Not being admired by friends or family who had been anticipating her arrival. No photos. No videos. No celebration. Just a cold, hollow, empty hospital ward.

And time slowly crept forward. Slow minutes. Endless days. It seemed like life would always be like this. Would it ever change? It seemed like it would not. And from the corner with the box, with a new human being trapped inside, the young mother waited alone, watching happy couples exit the hospital with their babies, arms full of flowers and gifts, smiling with joy she could only imagine.

And day by day, time slowly crawled.

And the baby grew. She got bigger. Stronger. And she opened her eyes to look at her mother. She waved her arms around like she had so much to say. And when the tube was removed from her throat, she could breathe on her own, and cry with sound. She became conscious of her surroundings, such as they were.

She began to drink from a bottle. She stopped forgetting to breathe as often. And when her heart rate dropped, she recovered. She was moved to a crib.

Time moved an inch. At a time.

The hospital staff decided that it would soon be time for the young mother to take the baby home. She would have to be trained and interviewed, and the baby would need to be stable for 24 hours, without forgetting to breathe and without spells when her heart rate dropped to a near stop.

Permission was given to the mother to be a mother. But she would continue to be monitored.

The day came to go home. A nurse took a picture of the baby with the hospital’s Polaroid camera. She gave it to the mother, who couldn’t wait to see the picture emerge on the square. It was anticlimactic, but they were ready to go. The mother didn’t feel like the baby was hers. It felt weird to leave the hospital with this baby who was hers.

As she walked to the parking lot, now with her baby, and not empty-handed, it was a different exit than those she had witnessed every day for three months. It was quiet.

She opened her car door, placing the car seat, and buckling the seatbelt.

This was the moment. The wait had been so long. The baby was born in the winter. And now it was almost summer.

Once in the young mother’s apartment in Minneapolis, she took the baby out of the car seat. She held her close to her heart. She put her cheek next to the baby’s cheek. And softly she said, “We are home now.” She imagined showing the baby how beautiful life was.

And from that moment, she did.

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Country Girl — Grasshopper Invasion

Country girl — grasshopper invasion:

It was a summer in the late 1980s when the grasshoppers descended upon parts of Minnesota. I was a recent transplant from Arizona, arriving in the summer of 1987. I don’t remember the exact year, but I will never forget living in grasshopper world! It was like being in a duststorm, which I remembered from Arizona, except, instead of sand, it was grasshoppers whizzing and buzzing about through the air and around our heads, and escaping our approaching feet, which unintentionally and unavoidably caused squished grasshopper casualties. After being bewildered at first, and not having a larger appreciation of this ecological problem, that affected farmers economically as well, we kids did as kids would: we chased the grasshoppers, captured them, and created grasshopper homes for them out of gallon-sized ice cream buckets. Inside the buckets, covered with perforated lids, the grasshoppers sounded like popping corn as they bounced around, ricocheting off of the plastic all at once. As summer went on, we learned how to take good care of our grasshoppers by giving them different types of grass and flowers, placing them so that the grasshoppers would feel at home. It’s hard to say how many ice cream buckets full of grasshoppers we kept in our bedrooms, but our parents never complained. Leave it to kids to turn an insect nightmare into a wonderland.

June 11, 2012 en route to Europe

June 11, 2012 en route to Europe

Today begins a grand adventure! Imani and I departed MSP at noon today for Charlotte. The plane ride was 2 1/2 hours and uneventful. I sent next to a man, who was going overseas for the first time with his wife for a wedding. The bride is from NYC, and the groom is from Sri Lanka. Spain was the chosen ‘halfway’ point for the wedding party. He told me about his family. Although he is technically an empty nester, his children live on his property, when she referred to as a ‘compound.’

On the flight, I read “The House of the Seven Gables” and snoozed. I promised my Auntie Jackie Reina that I would read this book with her before reading any other books. I think there’s a good chance I will finish it, so I brought some Rachel Simon books as well: “The Story of Beautiful Girl” and “Riding the Bus with My Sister.”

At the Charlotte airport, I saw Joe Jackson, father of the late Michael Jackson. Imani and I were having lunch at Bojangles, when Joe walked up to the restaurant next to where we were sitting — the Great American Bagel Bakery. I asked some young people sitting behind us, who were talking about also having seen Joe Jackson, if that was really him. They confirmed the sighting and said that there had been paparazzi and bodyguards.

Now we are on the flight to Frankfurt. Super excited!

Country Girl

I’m a country girl at heart. I moved up to Minnesota from Arizona the summer before fourth grade. And this is what welcomed me:

At the far end of our property, in Greenfield, Minnesota, I could actually canoe through my backyard. We had 2.8 acres. Beyond a big sprawling, rolling backyard, was a thick wetland, divided from a patch of woods by a creek that flowed into a pond, that fed yet another creek, that flowed into yet another pond. Our first canoe was fiberglass, and was kept in the yard, right at the edge of the marsh. Sometimes I would even take my dog with me. His name was “Hunter” and he was half Samoyed and half Black Lab. He was one of a number of pets that I had. I also had turtles, rabbits, cats, and fish. But he was my favorite — my buddy. We ran through the backyard together, and he even tolerated my attempts at training him as a sled dog.
In the spring, the marsh was very wet. The water would get high and even flood up to the grass. This was great for canoeing! I would push my canoe, with the paddles in the bottom, while my legs were swallowed up with mud and algae, as I made my way toward deep enough water. Then I would scramble into the canoe, usually without capsizing it, and situate myself with authority on the wide seat in the back, and steer toward the pond. Along the way, I picked cattails and threw them into the bottom of my canoe. I would watch a turtle slide from a log into the water. And I would marvel at tadpoles zooming about just under the surface of the swamp water. And if Hunter were with me, he would jump out and swim around, letting me lead the way, though I didn’t have a navigational plan. I was just there to be there.

My Daughter Is Going To College!

A couple reflections on today: instead of ‘disability services,’ if you have a disability you go to an office called ‘access services.’ This is a big deal!! The language is changing and becoming more inclusive, and less stigmatized. Pretty soon I hope we get rid of the term ‘special education.’ Because my daughter has partial paralysis due to cerebral palsy, and has trouble getting around (uses a crutch, walker, or wheelchair), we asked about how much time we should allow between classes. The staff was very helpful and said the time we allotted should be fine and that we can talk to the professors to let them know that a little extra time may be needed. The fact that she is going to college is monumental. When she was born, not only did I have the right to ask to keep her alive, but I was listened to, as a young, poor, single mother, with a child with a Mexican father. Then she had great care, and has had access to the best of education. The community has been truly great. And for this, we have many people to thank — for all of the work that has been done to accept disability, value people with disabilities enough to not only save them, but treat them with dignity and respect, forge inclusive medical care, community supports, and education, and so much more. The fact that my kid is going to college is a testament to decades of work by advocates. We are benefiting because of the work that you have done, and we are deeply appreciative and honored. Moments like these, where we recognize that our collective accomplishments really do make a difference, are fuel for the fire to keep the movement alive and growing. Let’s keep fighting for equality for people with disabilities. By now, most of us know someone with a disability. Maybe we are parents, siblings, friends, or neighbors. Let’s not leave anybody out, and let’s continue to level the playing field for everyone to achieve their dreams!!

Live Like An Artist

I’ve talked about living as an artist and using everything as a medium to create something more beautiful. There’s so much we don’t have control over. We can chase a dream and watch it slip away. But that’s not always a tragedy. I’m thankful for all the plans I fought for that never came to fruition. I learned a lot in the process, and made discoveries that have led to greater self-expression. Every time my heart broke, I became less attached to each pursuit. Yet every one is always a part of me, accessible at any time, to apply how I want, creatively. I am forever an explorer, putting my whole soul into the journey. At the end of my life, I may not be successful in anything in terms of reaching the highest pinnacles or making the most interesting contributions. But I will have molded myself maximally, utilizing the environment around me to my fullest potential. I will be, within myself, an achievement in having lived. As far and as widely as I could. As deeply and passionately as I dared. Sure, I’m afraid, fragile, weak, sad, broken, and scarred. We all are, some are just more honest about their humanity than others. But I’m also powerful, loving, victorious, and untamed. It’s how you channel it. How you use that energy to fuel what you know in your heart you must do. To be happy and alive.

Ode To My Parents

We took a vote in the family. Instead of building a house in the desert, we were moving to Minnesota. It would be bittersweet leaving Arizona. My earliest memories emerged there. The world that I first saw. What I first opened my eyes to. My mother gave birth to me in Minneapolis, but my parents decided to move to Phoenix when I was a baby because they had so enjoyed their honeymoon there. What a romantic beginning for a family. A young couple in love with their new baby girl.
It was magical. My mom and dad doted on me. I was very loved and felt special. They delighted in the things that I did, and treated me like they had not only wanted me, but were even happier now that I was there. They cuddled with me, read books to me, sang with me, and took me everywhere. They were so proud.
“Bridgie, show grandma how you can say the alphabet!”
“Bridgie, walk silly!”
“Bridgie, tell us again about the dream you had!”
They were very sweet. Every child should enter the world to such a grand welcome. I’m not sure where they learned how to be so amazing, but they made life so good that I would go back and relive it.

Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story

Cristian Mihai

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most influential writers of this century, passed down a simple list of rules for writing a short story, though I think they can be applied to longer narratives as well.

He did say that Flannery O’Connor broke all his rules except the first and that great writers tend to do that, but I believe his famous eight rules can provide a skeleton to writing fiction.

And I think that this is what’s really important in art. A foundation. Simply by reading or following rules, or by taking creative writing courses, but it’s also crucial for the artist to make his own decisions. The moment rules start feeling like a cage, you should escape. It’s like strolling through a garden and picking the flowers you like. If you absorb too much or if you simply follow rules (someone else is choosing what flowers you should pick)…

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Last Dance

Twirling through the air

Catching your contagious laughter

I shrieked at the top of my lungs

We danced

Until dawn, we were like children

And when I landed in your arms

Though it was the last dance of the night

I melted into your love 

And kissed you good night

For what would be the first of many 

Because wherever you go 

My heart is always with you