Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Empty Rooms (Part One)

While I was able to comfort my infant daughter when she cried during the night, during her childhood there were many times when nothing I could do or say would stop the tears.

The first day of kindergarten was traumatic.  When the bus arrived, five year old Emily, looking fresh and smart in a plaid skirt, locked her desperate arms around a telephone pole and refused to get on the bus.  The driver invited me to ride along with her, and my acceptance of the offer was the only way she released her determined grip.  This new situation of school struck terror in her heart.  As I sat in our seat, the children in the rows ahead turned to stare at us.  Again, as with my failure to uphold the advice of Ferber, I gave up trying to be the socially acceptable firm parent.  My daughter was crying, and it weakened my heart to see her suffer.

In the years that followed, Emily would have to change and adapt to a new school five times.  Most of those moves happened in the middle of the academic year, when classroom friendships and loyalties had already been established.  By the time we found ourselves in North Carolina, I remember feeling a wash of helplessness as I sat on the edge of her bed while she cried about yet another new school with a completely different set of expectations and people.  Her second grade teacher said she was silent and withdrawn.   The instability of our many moves was making a negative impact, not only on Emily, but on my relationship with her father. So many moves in such a short time prevented me from continuing my education or establishing myself in a job. I wondered if the tendency to pack up our family and relocate was a predictable pattern that could go on forever.

I became more isolated with each move.  More desperate for a sense of autonomy, friendship and empowerment.  When I saw a sign advertising "help wanted' at a local garden center, I called the number and was invited to an interview the following day.  After five minutes of this interview, I found myself shaking hands with the owner and agreeing to start on Monday.

Here's a brief version of what happened next:

I fell helplessly in love.  With my job growing baby plants in a beautiful greenhouse.  I also fell into a terrible situation with the grower.

And then suddenly I was standing in the empty rooms of my first apartment as a single parent.

 Emily had to change yet another elementary school.  And later say a heartbreaking goodbye to her dad when he moved back up north four months later.

Emily's wounds were so deep and raw during that time, and my self hatred and desperation so acute, one day I took her for a drive so she could scream at me and kick the back of my seat until emotion would subside in the rush of exertion.  We came back home to that spare apartment with white walls, defeated and drained at the unfairness of it all.  People wondered when I would give up and move "back home."

Even I wondered. Especially when the garden center closed and I lost my job.  Especially when the state couldn't find a record of my employment to offer me unemployment benefits.  Especially when I found myself at the department of social services, waiting a dreary eight hours in line for food assistance.  People wondered when I would give up and go home. The sight of an under-weight person is something that makes people feel uncomfortable.   I did honestly consider going back to Michigan, but at that time of struggle I experienced an unseen power holding me steady in place. An invisible magnet seemed to keep me driving the same routes every day, leaving me without a common sense explanation as to why I felt so strongly rooted to this place.  All of my family lived over seven hundred miles away.  Friendships were light and casually floated on the conversations of small talk.  Or, they were negative friendships based on unmet need.

I'm beginning to recover from a time of great stress and survival in this photo.  I don't have pictures of me at the lowest weight as we didn't have a camera.

It was a hard, dark time.  But in the middle of this grieving, there were signs of hope that life was going to improve.  I found a part time groundskeeper position at an apartment complex that allowed me to be home every day when Emily was home from school.  At my new job, one co-worker was sexually harassing me.  Every day, as I rode around in his dirty golf cart while we picked up cigarette butts in the parking lot, I listened to his lame attempts to get me into another bad situation.  I would come home and shower, never able to completely wash out the creepy feeling of his hungry eyes.  I kept going to work every day in spite of the shame. My mom sent funds to help us pay a month's rent while I waited for my first check, and the food benefits and medicare for Emily started to arrive. Later, my ex decided to start sending monthly funds and to call Emily every single day.  We made friends with other single parents and their children in our building and formed a little community of support.  I let go of my desperate hope that the grower would ever appear in my life in a positive way.

One year after my separation, I filed for divorce.  Soon after the papers were in process, my supervisor asked  if I would like to have some extra work cleaning an apartment for a new renter who needed to move in within the week.  Normally this job was already done by husband and wife, but they were out of town and in order to seal the deal on the new lease, this apartment needed to be ready for move-in in three days.

I worked for six hours one afternoon, degreasing a stove, scouring tubs and tile, cleaning windows and blinds.  I left the empty rooms with a feeling of accomplishment, wondering about the people who would make this place a home.

As I locked the door, I had no idea that this wouldn't be the last time I would see the inside of these empty rooms.

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