Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Wrapped in Her Love, Then, Now and Always

On October 25, 2001 my beautiful Grandma, Kathleen, died at age ninety-five. She was love, kindness and generosity personified.  We each were so blessed to have her in our lives and as our matriarch.
My grandmother came to the United States in October 1930 with her younger sister Nellie.  She was twenty-four and had been in domestic service for ten years. She and Nellie had been working in a great house in England, Grandma as a cook, and Nellie as a housemaid.  Their eldest sister Mary invited them to come to New York.  My grandmother was a vegetable cook at a Schrafft's restaurant in Manhattan. She lived in Sunnyside, Queens with her sister.  They both met their future husbands at the same a parish tea dance in 1931, and both were married before the end of that year. Grandma and my Grandpa, George, were married for nearly fifty years before his death in February 1981. They raised four children, and had eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

I grew up in a house that was just a few blocks from my grandparents' home in Bayside, Queens. When I was a toddler, Grandma would jostle me on her knees and repeat nursery rhymes.  She gave me such a gift by imprinting me with the combination of love and the music of words. She doted on me, but she did not spoil me. Can you really spoil a child with a tremendous amount of love?  She had the wisdom of allowing me to "help" her in the kitchen. "My" kitchen drawer was filled with a small wooden spoon, jelly jar tops, white cardboard separators from Lipton tea boxes, crayons, and string. There was a stool in the corner of the kitchen so that I could sit and watch her prepare and cook meals yet remain out of harm's way. I felt useful and content.
Grandma taught me about resilience, determination and strength. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1940's. Her mobility became quite limited within a few years. My Grandma was a remarkable homemaker. She raised four children through the Great Depression and World War II. She was homebound when my mother was still a girl in the early 1950's. Necessity was the mother of invention in terms of how Grandma cleaned and cooked. Housework was a lot of physical labor then. There were no amenities like a dishwasher. The family clothing had to be starched and ironed. I remember how she would bring the laundry up from the basement and hang it on the pulley-operated clothes line which hung from the back of the house to the back of the garden.  I loved to hand the wooden clothespins up to her. She had so much upper body strength. She was raised in rural Ireland and was very much a country woman. With her disability, the closest she got to nature was standing on the back stoop of her home. As my own body has broadened, I take pride and comfort in seeing how similar my appearance is to hers when she was in her fifties. My mobility is limited too, but I have a clean home.  I love doing the laundry. Tasks have to be performed, and I'm a good problem-solver like my Grandma.
When she was eighty-two, Grandma could no longer live on her own without assistance. She spent the last thirteen years of her life in a Catholic nursing home. She amazed me by finding the positive aspects.  Grandma made sure she was in her wheelchair and the first one downstairs when the dining room opened for meals. She made friends with the servers, and that ensured that every day she had one of her life's greatest pleasures: a piping hot cup of coffee. Grandma was a devout Catholic woman.  She prayed the Rosary and had a special devotion to The Blessed Mother.  Mass was held daily at the nursing home, and Grandma attended.

My Grandma didn't dwell on what she couldn't do, but on what she could.  "At least I have the use of my hands," she remarked after one of the other women on the hall had a stroke. She used those hands to hold ours tightly.  "I have my eyesight," she said, despite being legally blind. When she looked at me, or anyone she loved, she really saw you, down to your soul. "I can still hear," she asserted. My mother and I would visit her on a Sunday afternoon, and Grandma would have golf on the television.  Mommy and I were stunned when a player made a fantastic shot, and the gallery began applauding. The applause of the spectators came out of the television at such a loud volume that we thought we might lose our hearing. Then we three generations of women burst out laughing.
When Grandma died fifteen years ago, I grieved. I also pushed on because when life presents challenges, that's what you do. I miss her every day, and she still is teaching me about life and how to live. I recall that the priest who celebrated her funeral Mass said that she was now "in a place where there is no pain, and where there is no judgment."  For me, that place existed here on earth wrapped in her love.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Unthinkable

Trigger Warning: This is an essay about sexual assault.

Twenty five years ago, about six weeks after my father died in February 1991, I went out with a new girlfriend on a Saturday night to a club. We met up with her best friend from college, and he introduced us to some of his buddies. Although I was unaware, one of his friends took a particular interest in me. It felt good to be out with other young people, to be dancing, to be alive.

At some point the man slipped rohypnol into my glass of water.  I began to feel oddly, and I asked my girlfriend to help me get home. The man offered to help her get me home, and she said, "Sure." She didn't realize I had not had alcohol that night., and assumed I was drunk. The three of us got in a taxi  and drove to my apartment building. They helped me into the building, into the elevator, into my apartment, and onto my bed.  Then, as they both left, I remember saying one thing to her: "Lock the door behind you." That's the last thing I remember. The drug the man gave me made me lose consciousness. 

The man made sure the door was left unlocked. He came back into my apartment. The man raped me. The man strangled me. I do not recall any of this. This is peripheral amnesia. The trauma the man inflicted made my mind block the horror from my conscious mind to protect me. 

When I came to in the morning, I was laying on my bed. I wasn't wearing any clothes. I hurt all over my body and inside. The man was kneeling at the end of my bed, and was naked, and the man looked angry and savage. 

My instincts told me that I had to get the man out of my apartment. I got out of the bed slowly, and pretended that my legs were trembling because I had had "one too many last night." I made a lame joke. "I am such a lightweight."  I faked a laugh.  My voice was so hoarse. My throat ached so badly.

I said, "Gosh, I have such a bad hangover.  How are you feeling?"  

The rage left his face, and he slipped on his Nice Guy mask. 

"I think I had too many shots of Jager last night," the man said. He used his fingers to smooth down his hair.  I put on my robe so I would not be naked. The man pulled his clothes from the floor and began to dress. I kept talking, speaking to keep me alive.

"Would you like some coffee?" I asked my rapist. 

I walked out of the bedroom to the kitchen.  The man followed me into the other room.  

"It would just take a few minutes."  I turned on the kitchen faucet and let the cold water run. I was a few feet from my front door. Then I turned my head to see where he was. The man was sitting on my sofa, and putting on his Hush Puppies.  

"Nah, I should roll," he replied.  I was leaning with my back to my kitchen stove and hoped that the man would go now. Blood pounded in my temples.  Everything seemed too bright and too loud to me. I could hear that I was breathing very quickly, from fear, and thought that the man might notice that. I had to act as if I were normal, as if everything was normal,when nothing would be normal ever again.

"Yeah, okay," I said as casually as I could, like we had had a one-night stand, like we had met at the club and I asked him to come home with me, like I had consented.

He picked up his jacket which had been hanging over a chair.  The man walked over to me, and then he was in front of me, a full foot taller than I am.  The man looked into my eyes and the man said, "This was fun. We should do this again."  I felt the vomit rise up into my throat. I swallowed. I moved to the front door of my apartment and turned the deadbolt lock. "Oh, sure," I said. I opened the door and I prayed he would leave.

He kissed my cheek, and then the man walked past me out the door.  He had a smile on his face. I kept the door open door so that I could watch the man walk down the hall and get on the elevator. Then I closed and locked the door. I walked into my bathroom. I looked in the mirror and I saw the bruises around my neck. I splashed water on my face. I recalled hearing that you shouldn't shower after, after what had happened. 

I sat on my living room floor. I needed help.I phoned a close childhood friend who was an A.D.A.. She had been at my father's wake and funeral the month before. I told her what the man did. She was shocked, but she kept her composure. 

"What do you want to do?" she asked. 

"What should I do?" I said.

It was 1991.  DNA testing was in its early stages. She told me that if I called the police, they would say, "Sweetheart, if you can't remember what happened, how are we supposed to know?"  It would be a case of my word against the man's. She said that if the police did investigate, and found enough evidence for the D.A.'s office to prosecute, the man's criminal defense attorney probably would bring out my personal life and my sexual history.  In essence, I would be placed on trial, not the man. 

I thought of my mother and how Daddy just had died.  How could I bring more pain to her?  I thought of my job.  What if my bosses found out?  I tried not to think of my father, who would have been heartbroken that he could not protect me from the man.  I decided not to phone the police. I did not go to the hospital and have a rape kit done. I did not speak up. I did not report my rape.  

I hurt inside, so I went to my gynecologist the next morning.  She wept while she examined me because of the pain and the damage the man caused me.  She tested me for STD's, and she gave me The Morning After Pill. I hadn't even made the connection that I might have caught something or become pregnant because what happened, what the man did, was not sex. 

I survived.  There has been no justice. There has been a lot of pain, and rage. There is depression and anxiety. I have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  But I'm alive. 

It sickens me that rape culture has become worse in many ways.  So I fight. I write about this, I talk about this, even if it makes people "uncomfortable."  I speak truth to power.

So listen up:  There is no way I am going to stay silent when a man who thinks he can do whatever he wants to do to women, who is alleged to have sexually assaulted several women, who says whatever he wants to say about women, who thinks he is better than women because he is a man, who believes he is above the law, is running for the highest office in the land.  

I didn't survive my rape and attempted murder by the man so that we as a nation could allow this man to become President of the United States.