I really enjoy writing to the prompt of the day, but today has been no normal day, not even close, so I’m going to write about suffering, its affect on humans, and how some people who act insufferably cause others to endure suffering.

For those two of you who haven’t moved on yet, let me start for saying thanks. Thanks for listening. Thanks for your time. I know how precious time is. My full-time job as a secondary English teacher requires that I have a second job. I got a Master’s degree in professional writing in order to get a job working at the absolute bottom of the heap at a University, teaching English Comp, also known as 1113,as a part-tune adjunct. This second job is far better than the first, but now I owe the Government more money in student loans.

So I’m  trying to manage five different curricula simultaneously. I know others who have gone the route of trying to teach as an adjunct part-time at more than one institution, but they get no benefits. My high school teaching job affords benefits. Not much income, but I can go to the doc when I get sick. A former professor graciously offered up an hour of his precious time counseling me on what to do with my Master’s degree.

“Less than half the people who obtain PhDs in any branch of English, whether Lit Crit, Creative Writing, or Rhetoric and Comp, wind up in a tenured position at a University after the time and money they have spent proving their expertise.” Dan clearly felt great empathy for me. He has one of the few remaining tenured, subsidized seats in the English Lit Department at my University. He was the best teacher I had, in my undergraduate work (As was David Gross, cannot neglect his influence). Someday I’ll tell you about my best graduate professor, but that’s a happy story, and we’re suffering at the moment. He suggested that my best option would be to become a public school teacher, to gain certification (which I’ve had since 2009), and to work full-time at that. I felt a bit down in the mouth, to say the least.

This is too long, and I’ve barely begun. So back to the narrative. The balance I’ve been seeking, which really represents my ability to remember which class I’m teaching at any given time, was close at hand. I had worked very hard on two curricula over the summer, not to mention shopping around a novel. (Total brag, that.) I had all courses planned out throughout most of the semester. I started learning how to post material on two different new software platforms, and had accomplished some on one of them, then we were given a holiday.

We all know about holidays. I truly believe that there are people who have  holidays that look like the Norman Rockwell paintings. Ours is closer to A Christmas Story than It’s a Wonderful Life. After gifts (most of which I had purchased with a wad of foreign bills my mother gave me when I flew to Singapore to buy Christmas), Mom cracked the Vodka open. I’d like to say champagne, but that was a rare bird in Sumatra at that time. Hard liquor had a markedly stronger market in Southeast Asia in the 70’s. By the time my Mom started feeling good, my Papa became angry and left. My little brother, ten years my junior, and I played with his Christmas toys. I knew he would love the Hot Wheels cars I’d picked out in Singapore, and the little race track I had managed to find.

I anxiously monitored my mother. There was food to finish preparing, and food already ready to consume. No holiday meal in my mother’s house was ever a simple affair. It was a major undertaking, detailed down to the hors d’oeuvre toothpicks (again, from Singapore), and the festive table arrangement of unusual forms of greenery. No holly or fir, wrong part of the world. Whatever was prettiest and green was around a candle she must have been hoarding for over a year, in place of privilege in the center of the dining room table.

The oil lamps had been lit, as it was a dark day, heavy with rain, and the electricity was on the fritz, as usual. Rustin and I were growing hungry, Papa had left over two hours ago, and  Mom was passed out on the sofa in the living room, amid the wrack and ruin of Christmas morning. Fortunately, we had servants, as it was “simply impossible to live as an expat in Indonesia without servants!” And it was true. So, coaxing Rustin to play with his cars alone for a few minutes, I went in to talk to the servants and see what they knew. Mom had had them double-timing for this glorious event. Fortunately somewhere in there she had communicated her entire plan, and everything that needed cooking was underway.

They were kind to me. They didn’t understand our lives, but they knew I worried more about my mother and my brother than anyone worried about me. So together we finished up the meal that only my two year old brother and I would consume (the servants were also invited to partake of the bounty of the meal). I made us plates from the kitchen, and we ate at the dining room table out of habit, large gas chandelier suspended over the long table.I promised to go outside with him after the rains moved out. He seemed satisfied wth this compromise.

My father returned some time later, disheveled, smelling of alcohol and something else I couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. He kissed me on the forehead, picked up my little brother, who had passed out after one tour through the garden, and carried him to bed. Mom had long since refilled her glass and then promptly passed out in the bedroom. (Yes, that sounds weird, but our house could only draw enough energy to run one window unit at night. No lights. So we all slept in the same bedroom).

I was reluctant to go to bed. I found one of the novels my cousin Glenda had sent to me over a month ago from the States. (I had seen the return address on the package before Mom  hid it). I immersed myself in the story of a people who created a society on an alien planet. Marion Zimmer Bradley saved my life so many times. (Thank you, Glenda! <3)


I start with this strange preface of sorts to what I want to write about, both because I want you to understand that weird families are all I’ve known, and because I think I’ve begun to realize I cannot endure any more drama on this level.

Every dysfunctional family has an enabler. That’s me. I’ve been extensively trained in this role by both my mother and my first husband (yes, I see the connection).

Several years ago my current husband made known his guilt over not caring for his mother, and wished he could find a way to do so. He is an only child. I foolishly suggested that we could buy a larger house, and she and my daughter, who was about to start college, could live in for as much time as they needed. Both satisfied with the benefits for our beloved family members, we moved forward with selling out existing home, and locating another.

Not only was it far more expensive than anticipated, packing and moving remained to be done. It was left primarily to me and to a young man who had done occasional labor for me on other projects. And we closed on the house we were selling a week ahead of the house we were purchasing, so we had to store all our belongings and stay with friends until the new house was purchased. Then we (read “I”) moved all the stuff from the storage unit into the new house. Summer in Oklahoma is miserable, with hot winds blowing from the southwest, and a blistering sun that frequently brought the temperatures up to and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought this might kill me, especially as classes at my school started in one week.

We’ve had rough patches, off and on for the last six years. One patch was so bad that my MIL moved back to the south, from whence she had come. But then she returned, because the people who were assholes when she left had remained so. The daughter tried college, then dropped out without telling me. Later she moved out, coming by to pick up things, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Finally she told me she was living with her boyfriend. “Well,” I thought, “that’s life.”

Then she came home, and she was a hot mess. Some things had happened to her a few years earlier of which I was wholly unaware. The theory is that this trauma caused her latent mental illness to come front and center and make itself known. The first time I took her to the psych ward we went to this inner-city hospital and waited for ten hours for a bed to be found for her. She spent about ten days that time.

Every time I drove 45 minutes one way to visit, she clearly made me understand that everything she was doing she did to shorten her time in the facility. She was not using it to find her feet and get her meds straightened out.She had learned that if she was compliant, they would allow her to leave. The doctor there prescribed a drug for her that nearly killed  her because of her intense allergy to it.

The second time (I think), she was in the orthopedic surgery wing of the hospital until they rebuilt her tibia and fibula. Her car broke, and the telephone pole broke, but it did not quite crash down on her car and kill her, so she succeeded in making what for her seemed a desperate situation (obviously) into an even worse situation. Once her wound had stabilized, they moved her to the only facility that would take someone in a wheelchair. Oh. My. God. It was a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sanitorium-style facility. It was horrible. And her doctor refused to speak with me, even though she had not only given permission, but had requested that he do so. His soul is black, and he will eventually reap what he has sown.

Every time they change her medication, new demons pop up. It’s bloody unreal. We are all suffering because of her suffering. But I thought we had a plan to help her gain independence, and that everyone in the household was on board. I was mistaken. The MIL doesn’t believe in mental illness, and whispers in a judgmental tone, “she is just such a good actress!” I want to break things. Really.

And the last three weeks had been so wonderful, because no one had tried to provoke anyone into an inappropriate emotional response (you get to learn a new language with mental illness, too. It’s great!), and the one under scrutiny was managing to adjust to a job while maintaining her chores at home. She is like a small child. She cannot see logical consequences of her actions, and sometimes she totally flips her shit and lays into someone. It was the MIL most recently. The child was not in the wrong, but her actions were inappropriate. She grabbed the Wicked Witch’s wrists and accidentally cut her with her fingernail. She thought the woman had the remotes for the TV, which she had been denied, hidden in her car — Really.

The Witch hollered at her to call 911, so she did. She called 911 on herself.

Tell me, do you think someone would choose to live like this? Mental illness is real.

She just wanted to watch TV, and it was her turn. The Wicked Witch called her fat, lazy, a slut, and for the piece de resistance, stated that she stank. When I heard this I was frozen. My heart iced over immediately and refused to converse with the mind. The mind wasn’t sure what to do, but we do have some good friends who have suffered vastly more than we, who care for my daughter. The friend told us to take her to the hospital. It was better than jail, for someone who is mentally ill, and perhaps the MIL might not press charges.

Okay. I cannot live this way. I get along with my husband quite well, and for the brief period when both MIL and the daughter were gone, we had a wonderful interlude. We’ve never had time alone. We’ve always been giving care to someone.

I am personally exhausted. My father left us when I was fourteen. I lost my mother when I was about 45. (She’s not dead, merely estranged, with occasional bursts of communication). I’m about to lose my daughter, as well.

Life is nothing if not challenging, and our loss of over $1500.00 a month income has had a profoundly negative affect on our lives and ability to function, as well. It’s all on me, nobody else will deal with the money. I am tired. I want to stop being in charge. I want to walk to South Padre island. No, I’ll crawl there on my knees, as if to a great shrine. I’ll gain employment as a teacher in nearby San Isabel, and I’ll live on the beach. And my heart will heal, and my soul will be soothed by the balm of the ocean. I fear I will be alone. What man wouldn’t choose his mother over his wife? Especially when the wife comes with baggage in the form of a girl child, almost 24, and an ex-husband who should probably be in prison.

The house needs some TLC. I have to dust the walls. Gather up the small nick-knacks that have sentimental value, and pack them away.Leaves less to dust, some of moving prep done. Don’t know where we’re going. We might want to take an apartment for a while to decide what we want. And will I be a “we?” I don’t know. He has only wavered a few times, when Sarah was clearly just being a brat, being lazy, but she has stepped it up and that bitch better never talk to my daughter that way, or there may be some spitting and cussing a’coming.

I can’t fix her, but nobody is trying harder than she is. She was just fired over a stupid incident. It could have been contested, but she just said, “Mom, let it go. If they will fire somebody over so little, I don’t want to work there,” So I kept my mouth shut, but I’m not done  with that issue.

She works really well with little kids. She lights up around them, and they love her. I hope she can find her niche in life. I’ve looked so long for mine, through so many rich experiences, and maybe I’ve found the beginning of the next layer of life experience.

I sat this morning and sobbed. I felt pressure in my chest at the screams that wanted to be let out but which I refused to allow escape. I hiccoughed a couple of time, with sobs. Tears washed my face. I cannot fix my daughter. I cannot take on her suffering in exchange for a better life for her. I would that I could.

But I can’t take on the constant drama thing. It’s disruptive to my productivity. I have to be productive. I have things to do, yet, what with the bees and the monarchs and all the sea life being endangered by man’s actions. We have not been good stewards of “this earth, our island home.” And those aren’t the only things that I worry about.

After seeing my daughter safely ensconced in a facility designed to treat people with her particular illness, I came home to a sad house. Stella, my daughter’s dog, was missing everyone very much. Husband had left for work, daughter is in hospital. Wicked Witch is locking herself in her room every night, because she’s afraid of us.

I have promised to not physically threaten her. (She’s 78, for God’s sake!) But my words are regularly sharpened and oiled and there are so many that will flood over her, like starlings picking seed from the newly mown field, that she will be so confused that she will not know how to respond. She will go with bitchy, and I’ll respond in kind.

Those concrete abutments look more and more tempting as time goes by.

The Things We Need

When you go onto private property unexpectedly, you’d best do so with some caution. There are all manner of things you may encounter. Once I spoke with a convicted murderer who had been released from the hospital where he had been treated for mental illness; he was living in an abandoned house with the roof open to the sky. Haste isn’t your boon companion; better you employ careful observation.

There were no dogs visible, no dog food bowls, doghouses, or lengths of chain attached to stakes; probably no dogs outside. The house was set back into the property at least a quarter of a mile. I drove down two dirt tracks with dried Johnson grass and earliest wildflowers growing up around them. Four old Chevy trucks sat on the south side of the entrance, in varied states of decay, and there was a pile of old tires under some pine trees on the other side of the drive. I inched past a hill of rotting cardboard boxes that later I’d find were filled with canning jars, summer’s dead weeds growing up and over and through.

A complaint has to be filed before The City can go onto private property to investigate, and it helps if you can see a violation from the street. Had there been a gate, I might have just documented what I could see from my jeep with binoculars and called it good. But there was no gate, and the property looked like a veritable hoarder’s paradise, with a cornucopia of health and safety violations. Such a collection of violations that I would work the property for several months, really sink my teeth in and get the property cleaned up.

I’d verified the broken down trucks, dripping their internal fluids onto the ground, inexorably polluting the ground water. The piles of stuff were almost too many to count: old lumber that had been salvaged for some long-forgotten purpose, steadily degrading and returning to the earth; about fifteen washing machines, all lined up neatly in two rows; a collection of rusting bicycle frames, tossed heedlessly in a pile.

The house was almost at the western edge of the property. The jeep slowly rolled to a stop near the house, at the end of the drive. As I carefully stepped out I touched my baton and slipped my ID case out of my back pocket; what had begun as a routine preparedness check had become ritual. My boots crunched on pine needles and dried oak leaves. The late winter air was cold enough to leech any trace of scent. “Hello?” I called. Birds were singing, and for a change, the wind was gently whispering through the hackberries, pines, and pecans. “Code Enforcement!” No response. No sound from the house, or the nearby ramshackle shed.

There were relatively new, wooden steps up to the front porch. On the door there was a “stop work” sticker, put there by someone else from The City, in building inspection. I knocked on the door, waited, and knocked more insistently. Still no sound of human habitation. I tried the knob, and the door opened easily. The house was only partially finished, with a foundation and floor, exterior walls and roof, but only bare wooden 2 x 4s where wallboard would be hung. There was a rough wooden work bench in one of the larger rooms, with crude construction plans on it.

Back outside I set about cataloguing the numerous health violations, taking pictures of some of the most outrageous mounds of things to prove my stories when I got back to the office. When I returned to the city proper, I’d run the property ownership records so I would know to whom I should address the collection of violation notifications.

All the certified as well as regular mail letters that I sent came back; the property owner’s address was listed as a P.O. box, long vacated by these elusive people. I covered the front of the property with bright signs detailing the violations that the City would abate, one way or another, if the owner didn’t. Still no response.

The next step was to re-inspect the property. It had been three months since I had first hesitantly set foot on the property, spring was eagerly invading winter, and fresh green growth had joined the remaining decay of the last growing season. The signs had been removed from the front of the property; I felt a flutter of hope as well as the slight foreboding I always felt when going onto another person’s property. Again the jeep and I inched slowly in, only this time there was what appeared to be an operational car up by the house.

As I pulled up next to the car, a woman stepped out of the house. She walked over and introduced herself to me, and shook my hand. Her story was one of shocking sorrow. She had lived on the property with her husband in an old single-wide trailer house while working to save money to build a house; they had been saving for 15 years. They had begun working on it when the trailer caught fire and burned to the ground, fatally injuring her husband. They had no insurance.

She had been living with family in Midwest City, trying to put her life back together.

Her brown eyes in a plain, round face were so kind. Her hands reached out for mine, and she smiled warmly at me. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want you to think bad about my husband. He was a good man.” She shook her head, ruefully. “He had started tryin’ to clean up the property before the fire, but it was hard on him, workin’ and tryin’ to build the house, so it wasn’t goin’ so good.” Then he had died in the fire when a worn electric blanket shorted out and set his bedding aflame. She had been asleep in the recliner in the living room, “because he snored like a chainsaw.” She had been unable to go into the rear of the trailer once the fire woke her.

“I couldn’t bear to come back for awhile. We didn’t have no insurance. I went to stay with my sister in Shawnee until I could get myself together,” she explained somberly. Her face clouded momentarily as the memory possessed her, but she visibly collected herself and continued her tale.

She had decided to finish her house. Her brother-in-law was taking over, and had an appointment with building inspectors to determine what exactly needed doing to continue construction. Some friends from her church were going to come out and help her clear away the flotsam and jetsam of her husband’s life. She was happy, she said, that the City was making her deal with the mess. The woman told me she felt God had sent me.

There were lots of things I felt at that moment, but godly wasn’t one of them. I had been relishing towing the vehicles away, having the junk scraped off the soil, and filing charges because of the state of the house. Usually I felt a genuine desire for folks to just clean up their mess, but experience had taught me that many would not, and would leave it for the City. Over time my heart had hardened towards my “clients;” defendants, rather. I had been spit on and threatened enough times that the collective vitriol had scoured away their faces and names, removed their humanity.

I had identified my “others,” those I could safely disdain, holding myself to be better than they in some way. This was an idea that had been creeping most obtrusively into my conscious mind for a couple of years, the concept that I wasn’t truly acting in a charitable, Christian manner. Instead, I openly joked about their disgusting habits, and participated in that most hateful of group activities, ridiculing others.

My eyes stung bitterly. My chest hurt from holding in the anguish. This woman, whom I had openly disdained, had thanked me for helping her. She sent me a little floral notecard when she had finished cleaning up the property, so I could come out and close the file with my last re-inspection. She hugged me. I cried.

I came to believe that I needed to return to working for those who struggle with life, instead of against them. This epiphany changed me permanently. It made leaving the job easy, even preferable. My investigative work had burgeoned again, as it is wont to do. During a flush cycle, I left the City and went back to work doing criminal defense. That work was not easier, but at least I believed in the charge to do the best you can for your client, regardless who they are or what they are accused of having done.

The woman had broken my heart; the hard outer surface cracked and fell away. The exposed tender flesh ached for some time, but at least I could feel it beating, I could feel again.