The Whole Picture

August of 2014, I had the privilege of traveling to Nice, France. The circumstances had me sightseeing alone during the day, and I plunged in immediately.

The first day, I relied on GPS and my Rick Steves guidebook, but my phone battery died, and I stayed out an hour too long. After a negotiation at a crosswalk, a gentleman in a Mercedes exchanged pleasantries and asked where I was heading. After I told him, he offered a ride, and as I was hot and tired and unsure of my bearings, I accepted.

My hotel was straight down the main street, but I knew I was in trouble when he pulled on to the freeway. He molested me as he drove, but became frustrated when I was not more cooperative. Eventually, he pulled over, and after a struggle, I slipped out of my cardigan and escaped, miles from anywhere familiar.

I held it together in public, the rage and humiliation and terror simmering just below the surface, as I made it back to the hotel. I went to my room. I screamed into my pillow, and in the shower, and felt ashamed and responsible and relieved. If he had truly been able to wound me in addition to touching me, or worse, no one would have ever known what happened to me. It was my fault. I accepted his offer.

A twisted, dark and funny aside in the middle of this: I told him I couldn’t engage with him sexually because I was married (how ridiculous is that,) and as a consequence, he kept referring to me as “Mary.”

Accepting a ride is not informed consent. Being 48 is not a reprieve. NO woman is safe, ever. There are no levers to pull, no assurances that ticking off certain boxes prevent you from being in that position. I trusted this man because he was older and reminded me of my father, and it was convenient to accept a ride in that environment. It never occurred to me that 48-year-old women were at risk for sexual assault.

My friends demanded I call the police. But I couldn’t, I told them. I took the ride. I was responsible for putting myself in that position.

This type of thinking is completely fucked up. I was adhering to societal conditioning and institutionalized norms that the onus is on women to decline, deflect and avoid. I knew better. I was a sociology minor with an emphasis on sexuality and gender studies. My lawyer-turned-sociology professor wanted me to get my Master’s degree under her tutelage, because of my level of investment in understanding and breaking down the why and how 21st century women culturally function.

Yet here I was, hiding in my room because I was mortified. I knew my husband would be furious with me, and he was. But more importantly, he wanted me to pretend it never happened, so we could go out to dinner with his clients. I needed to play my part, and that is exactly what I did.

Men I told would ask me, “what were you wearing,” and “were you attracted to him?” I was wearing capri pants, a t-shirt and a cardigan (which, as I mentioned, I left behind – and it makes me sick,) but none of that matters. My accepting a ride was not a tacit understanding he could use my body as his playground. I had zero culpability for the violations of my person. I shouldn’t have trusted him, yes. No alarm bells went off, I never felt threatened or a twinge, but that is no matter. I wouldn’t do it again.

The more time passed, the angrier I became. At myself, for possibly (and most likely) allowing this predator to do this to someone else. He was polished and calm. I doubt my encounter with him was his “first rodeo.” At him. At the requirement that I had done something indiscrete that needed to be kept secret and hidden. At a society that makes the “victim” feel ashamed and dirty. As a result, I decided I would tell my truths.

Women were sympathetic, men were understanding, but I also heard, “You’re pretty, what do you expect?” I deserve respect and safety. I expect accountability. Men don’t rape because of physical appearance, although I know some have “types.” (The man in my story said I was his type.) It is about power and control.

Statistically, most rapes/attempted rapes occur with acquaintances, not strangers. Objectification grants some men the ability to decouple a woman from being a person, and to justify any resulting abuse and subjugation. In 2016, as evidenced by the Brock trial, there is the lingering subtext that “boys will be boys,” and should be granted absolution without consequence.

Women can become targets for ridicule and misplaced blame if they choose to prosecute. Trial results with limited repercussions for men can also inhibit the reporting of rape/attempted rape, and contribute to the societal implication that sometimes, it is justified to use a woman if she is drunk/high/available.

I still struggle with feeling at fault for what happened to me. I cannot imagine how women who had to endure a much longer and more intense encounter must feel. Until we have laws that are written and enforced to truly protect women from predators, and telling someone a rape/attempted rape story elicits sympathy and support instead of ridicule, we are going to see more horrendous, unacceptable narratives.

I originally stated “Change needs to happen. Soon. Now.”

Traditional social constructs are rooted in centuries of reinforced behavior, and it is impractical to believe the trajectory is easily diverted. Family dynamics, school systems, social networks both online and in person, the media and the justice system would have to evolve, and that takes time, awareness and desire for change.

I’m not convinced we’re there, yet.

 

 

 

 

Lessons My Mother Taught Me

 

My mother passed away on May 10 after a long and tenacious battle with lung cancer, another willing casualty of the tobacco industry. Here are a few of the key lessons she imparted…

  • Take risks. In 1957, my mother boarded a ship and came to the United States, with a few dollars in her pocketbook and a job as a housekeeper in Connecticut. She moved to New York City, shared a house with five other women, and quickly learned how to do accounting for small businesses. She was a feminist without even knowing what the word meant.Extended Family 025
  • Be open and non-judgmental. My father used to joke that my mother and I had “five questions,” and we would walk away from complete strangers knowing everything about them. We met people in hospital lobbies, restaurants, grocery stores, parking lots. We learned about marriages and divorces, illnesses, job losses, joys and the endless supply of challenges human beings face. Being kind is free. Giving a person in pain a hug can comfort in unexpected ways.
  • Distance does not have to mean disconnect. My mother lived thousands of miles from her family in Scotland, but she made sure we had long extended visits with them, and we would exchange letters, phone calls and cassette tapes back and forth all through my childhood. We listened to Irish and Scottish music, and learned the histories of those countries. There is a distinct advantage being a first born of any country – my world view was expanded from the moment I was born.Extended Family 111
  • Different isn’t a negative word. My mother grew up in WWII, and had a brother born with spina bifada. Decades later, a study connected the condition with a lack of folic acid, particularly noted as there was a huge increase of that condition in the United Kingdom at that time, because of rationing. I never met my Uncle Hugh. He only lived to be four years old. I do know him through the stories my mother told about him, how difficult it was for him to prop himself up, how bright and engaging and interactive he was despite his limitations. When my own son was ill and brain injured, it was easier to assimilate the “new” version of my son because I knew “normal” has many definitions.Extended Family 030
  • Animals should be treated well. I grew up having dogs in the house. At different times, we had a Weimaraner, a Springer, a Great Dane and a Scottish Terrier. They were bona fide members of our family – they were all treated with respect and love, and they gave it back in kind. After we all grew up and it was just my parents and their dog, my mother would cook for Scotty (the creative name for their Scottish Terrier), and he would eat dinner at the table with my mother and father. I always swore that in my next life, I wanted to be my mother’s dog.IMG_0333
  • Short people have a reason to live. My mother was small, five feet tall, tops. She never let that stop her from doing anything. Ever. And she allowed us to tease her mercilessly. My mother had grit and the inability to accept failure as an option because of personal limitations.
  • Loss can be overcome. By the time my mother was 30, she had lost a brother, a sister she adored and a son. I was born a little over a year after my half-brother died, and I never felt a lack towards me because he was gone. I cannot relate to how she must have felt, but she kept her heart open despite the agony and grief. When my Marine brother died 8 years ago, time and age made her less resilient, but she still brushed herself off and went on.IMG_0046
  • Education doesn’t have to be formal. My mother was intelligent beyond words. She graduated from high school at fifteen, and even though she never pursued higher education, she read incessantly and was able to converse about a variety of subjects with clarity and insight.
  • Laugh. My mother taught me that even in the darkest hours, you have to laugh. HAVE to.
  • Lead by example. My mother waited on me. Literally. I never did dishes or vacuumed or dusted the house. Because she was a very tidy housekeeper and always ensured everything was perpetually in order, I became the same way. She taught me to care for my possessions carefully, by doing so herself. I now have a brass candlestick that has been in my family for over 200 years. It has no true monetary value, but she expects me to care for it and pass it on with all the weight and gravity of being handled by generations of Kelly women. And I will. It is as precious to me as it was to her.
  • Be exactly who you are. Pictures of my mother as a young woman show her in incredible cocktail dresses, high heels, and lipstick and hair perfect. It was who she was. But I knew her as the tomboy she was inside – no makeup, no socks, always pants. She always did her hair and still,she was vain, because she could afford to be because she was naturally pretty. She had false teeth at a very young age, but the first time I ever saw her without them was when she went in the hospital in January. She was proud of who she was, and she made no apologies for being her true self.
  • Fail. My mother taught me that everyone makes mistakes. They do not define us. We are all redeemable if we learn from our bad choices. This was a novel concept for many of my friends in relationship with their mothers, and it is the single greatest lesson I’ve given my own children. I will love them as I was loved, no matter what they do. I expect them to “leave it all on the field,” whether they succeed or not. But I will never shame them for failing or trying or choosing.
  • My mother talked with a thick Scottish accent her entire life. My friends and my own family struggled to understand her, but I never did. She made me laugh, and furious, and happy, and sad, and I loved every complex bone in her body. She gave a baby up for adoption in 1962, and in 2002, I was the first person she ever told. She could keep a secret. Even so, she was too hard on herself, after being so forgiving of others.

The last two years were the hardest, because the essence of her was lost to emphysema and cancer and leaky heart valves. But she will never be forgotten for who she really was.

My father worshiped the ground she walked on. He distinctly told me ten years before he died, that he needed to die first, because he could not live without my mother. He came to me in a dream in January, and he was happy. He knew they were soon to be reunited, and I believe they are. Scan0043_They all are.

She told me over and over again, these last four months, we knew, her and I, what we were about. That it didn’t need to be said, because it is integral, primal, as much a part of the both of us as breathing. Every Celtic superstition, every intuition, every connection to the Universe, she gave to me.

And it lives on, within my own daughter.

 

 

 

Lessons My Father Taught Me

 

My father died a little over two years ago from a terminal cancer diagnosis that lasted one week before he “shuffled off this mortal coil.” On my birthday. My father was a complicated and mysterious man, but for the last twenty years of my life, he was one of my best friends. He was reassurance, encouragement and pragmatism. He graciously took ownership of his flaws, and apologized for mistakes, and his legacy to me is rich and varied.

I have many memories of my father, and these illustrate the best of what he left to me.

  • My father taught me that Santa is real. When I heard the “sleigh bells” outside of my window as my mother encouraged us to quickly get to bed (and Dad was nowhere to be seen!), I knew I better hurry or he would pass by our house  without stopping! I frantically raced to my room, and became so keyed up I couldn’t sleep for hours, but I’ve been on a quest to replicate that type of excitement ever since.988734_10201510880746984_969269812_n
  • He taught me that imagination and the unexpected can be scary and wonderful. He knew I was a fearful child, and he teased me mercilessly.  When we lived in Lancaster, Ohio, he built a huge “monster” out of broomsticks and other found articles, and the head was a stuffed St. Bernard he had won for me at the  County Fair. I never slept in that bedroom again! He used that same imagination to build my mother a heart out of snow in our front yard, and spray painted it red for her on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes after work, especially on weekends, a box of Jolly Pirate donuts would appear on the top of our refrigerator, filled with all of our favorites.  We never knew when it would happen, but when it did! It was almost more the possibility than the actual donuts. I said almost! jolly pirate
  • He taught me that people need to present their best face at their job, no matter what it was. He worked nights at the Main Post Office in Columbus, because the shift deferential allowed to make more money for our family of six. He had the same ritual for twenty years. He took his shower, got dressed in clean, nice clothes and hugged us goodbye.  He wore the scent of Right Guard, VO5 and Old Spice aftershave, and I will forever associate that combination with strength and security and warmth.
  • He taught me that helping others in your community should not be for notoriety, but simply for the good it does. We led a comfortable life because my parents were careful with money and they worked very hard, but we didn’t have a lot of extras.  Even so, every Thanksgiving, my father would deliver baskets of food to people who had less than we did.  He never talked about it, and I didn’t find out until I was an adult. He didn’t do it for self glorification, he did it because he knew what it was like to grow up hungry, and he wanted to make at least one day a better one for families.
  • My father knew that vacations are important. My parents would make sure we did something every year, even if it was renting a vacation trailer at Lake Logan in southeastern Ohio.  We saw places like Philadelphia, Gettysburg, Washington D.C.,the Great Smoky Mountains, and Virginia Beach, (when gas was cheap!)  They would save a little bit every month and one time a year, they would pile us in the car and go. I think my father’s love of travel was inspired by being on a navy ship and sailing all over the world. He wanted to develop the same wanderlust in us.
  • Speaking of long drives, my father taught me that action has the ability to teach better than words . When my brother Chris said he could run 20 mph on one of our Sunday scenic rides, my father said “Let’s see if that’s true!” As soon as he did, we all wanted in on that action! Four kids, trailing behind a Dodge Aspen station wagon, clearly not able to run 20 miles an hour.  It took only seconds for us to discern this indisputable fact. On a side note, a farmer that saw us running after the car thought our parents were abandoning us! It taught us to carefully weigh what we say, but it also inspired us to take chances. Mistakes are the best teachers.Dodge aspen
  • He taught me boys shouldn’t sit too close to you on the couch, and if they do, he will ask them to leave. Or if they showed up to pick me up in a van. Not in a very nice way.
  • If I was scared, or sick, or worried, I knew he would keep his calm. He reassured me many times, even when we lived 1200 miles apart – I could always count on his advice. He was a Corpsman in the navy, and could have been a nurse when he retired, so he knew symptoms and treatments that most people do not. He was my anchor, my rational touchstone. He had an almost fatal heart attack when I was eleven, and it changed his fear of death. He modeled a peaceful sensibility about the brevity and tenuous nature of life.
  • He taught me that some rules are meant to be broken. He had to work the night my daughter Hannah was born, and after everyone left, he came to my room in the middle of the night and spent an hour with us in the dark. At three a.m.  No one asked him to leave. It was a man, his firstborn child and her firstborn child, celebrating the miracles that we are sometimes allowed to have.IMG_0019 (2)
  • He taught me to not care what other people think. He had a pair of orange shorts he would wear.  With no shirt.  Or anything else.  SMALL orange shorts.  He didn’t care who was in the house, or how people felt.  It was his home, and he did what he wanted.  He didn’t do it to be disrespectful or to be showy, it was just him, comfortable in his own skin, and master of his space.
  • He taught me true bravery. As a medic in Vietnam, he helped countless Marines in the DMZ feel better, even the time he was seriously wounded. He didn’t stop his attending duties until he had triaged  every other man injured in the battle. He managed the death of his son (my brother) with dignity and grace. He showed the same courage and bravery in the last weeks of his life.
  • He taught me what true love and commitment really look like. My parents didn’t have a perfect marriage, because it doesn’t exist.  But my stoic, rational, pragmatic father told me one afternoon on a visit to Texas that he couldn’t live without my mother, that he loved her with all his heart, and he hoped he went before she did.  He did it without embarrassment, or self-consciousness.  He said it because it was true.MomDad
  • The funniest thing my father ever said to me was the day I got married. I had asked him to wear his navy whites, and he was happy to oblige.  He looked fantastic, and as we stood in the doorway, ready to walk down the aisle, he turned to me and imparted these words of wisdom, with love in his eyes – “I look prettier than you do” – I laughed all the way down the aisle! He could have taken that moment to be poetic or complimentary or sincere. But that was not my father. He showed me those things far more than he said them. It is because of him I can laugh no matter how dark the clouds are.IMG_1056

The smartest and most tenacious thing my father taught me was I should never give up and it’s never too late. He harassed me for almost 20 years to go back to school and finish my degree, and 2.5 years ago, I went back. I was heartbroken when I knew that the most important influence I had would not be there, but I didn’t stop. I graduate in the top ten percent of my class, magna cum laude and I know he was there with me that day. I would never have had the strength or courage to do it if he hadn’t gently pushed me in the right direction, all while telling me how bright and worthwhile I was. He made me feel that everything was possible. IMG_20141216_164635

My last lucid conversation with him occurred four days before he died, when I flew from Texas to Ohio to take care of him for a few days. I had stopped to buy him anything he wanted, but his only request was a vanilla milkshake. I arrived in the evening, and we sat on his bed, him drinking a milkshake he did not want, just to please me and me, immersing myself completely in a moment I knew I would most likely never have again.

It was a privilege to assist my father out of this life. It was the best practical joke he ever played to leave on my birthday. I honor him by teaching my own children the same invaluable lessons he taught me.

 

Gah, Depression

I found out a few years ago my daughter had clinical depression. And anxiety. Once again, my amazing gene pool rears its ugly head. She was a junior in high school and her decline was subtle. Until the day I realized she was barely talking. I should have known.  I’ve had it often enough. But depression is surreptitious and conniving. Insidious. It can hijack your life in baby steps, until you didn’t even know how far down you have gone.

My first bout with it started when I was 19. I lost a lot of weight, stopped hanging out with my friends, alienated everyone in my path, but I put on quite a face when the occasion called for it. She gets that from me, she’s exactly the same way. God forbid anyone should know what’s really going on inside her head, that she reveal any flaws or missteps. I pray that I didn’t somehow impart my own foolishness to her, that she should accept herself while continually striving for her own best. Although it seems likely I’m the culprit.

I remember that time as a stage in a theater with black curtains and the more you parted them, the more curtains there were until I was lost in a sea of dark, heavy blackness that caused me to feel claustrophobic and suffocated. I remember a deep, relentless fatigue that made getting out of bed impossible, along with soul-sucking misery and pain.

When I finally made the decision to commit suicide, I was happy. You hear stories about that all the time.  Someone knew a person that killed themselves but in the days preceding, they were cheerful and optimistic. Knowing that it’s almost over is invigorating, exhilarating. Relief, relief is a powerful emotion, far more powerful than people give it credit. It’s why criminals confess crimes or why mothers fall to pieces when their child finally starts getting well. This feeling motivated me in ways that few others have ever been able. My parents were oblivious or ill-equipped to understand or comprehend what was going on with me but it was a different generation. Even in 2016, there is still a stigma and lack of understanding about depression and suicide.

I took a mountain of sleeping pills and as I became woozy, I called a friend. She’s the one who made sure I stayed alive, convincing my parents that I was in danger (they turned the first ambulance away). This is when I became afraid, when I could feel the heaviest of the curtains, the darkest of the blackness start to make a tunnel that was becoming smaller and smaller, obliterating all the light in its path. I had moments of regret then, but they weren’t powerful enough for me to act upon them, relief still had the upper hand. Even after my parents listened and relented, I told the staff at the hospital as they pumped my stomach that I wanted to die, because I was truly pissed off that they were preventing my timely demise.

The ironic thing is, because I don’t like to admit I make mistakes, I blew the whole thing off – I was embarassed. Really? This is the stance one chooses to take after (found out later) you’re within minutes of death? Get your priorities in order, Miss! I went to a therapist for months and while every impulse in my body begged me to leave the chair screaming when she dangled my life in front of me (and I do mean EVERY impulse), I stuck it out. The day she said I didn’t have to come back any more, I’ll never forget it. Her office was on Neil Avenue, it was a sunny day, late spring, maybe early summer and I floated to my-then boyfriend’s place. We went out to dinner, acted scandalously and had such a wonderful evening. I embraced joy in a way I never had before – I was invested in the knowledge that I deserved it. That moment didn’t last forever, of course. There were roadblocks ahead, but I had jumped one of the biggest hurdles I’ve ever had to face and I cleared it.

None of my other depressions have come close to the sadness I felt then, although after my brother died, it came closer than any other. The mother calls it the “Irish Curse” because it is rampant on that side of my family. There is always a tinge of it lurking on the edges and if I wanted, I could give it safe passage. But I made a choice decades ago, I will be happy. I WILL be happy. Of course, no one is truly happy all the time, but overall, I am content. I continually strive to not let this define me, and I refuse to let it define my child. I will do whatever it takes to make sure she has the tools she needs to become whole again.

The best part is, she has my strength of will as well. She will make it, I know it like I know that the sun will rise, that my friends are true, that I make people laugh. We’re both always going to stand on the other side of that place and be better for the journey.