Terry Cycling featured me and my poem, The Mourning Ride, in their January newsletter. Click the link to read more.

CYCLING HAVEN: POWERFUL IMPACT OF THE RIDE.

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Here is the poem.

The Mourning Ride

Empty on the inside

While life was being lived all around me

Nothing felt like it fit

Including me

Words fell flat

Hugs didn’t land

Food had no taste

Life lost its flavor

My faith kept me upright

My bike helped me heal

The cadence

The pedals

The rhythm of my breath

The sounds of the gears

Miles of solitude

I let the tears fall from my heart

Exhaustion felt better than empty

The tears and the sweat

The crashes and the flats

The poems that started to come

The cracks in my heart that started to mend

The light was still there

The smiles started to come when I would see a dog

or a flock of geese

or a momma deer with her fawn

Without thought I pedaled

From my darkness to the light

Hundreds of rides

Thousands of miles

Gallons of tears

And then one day the tears stopped

Since 2015, I have fed a Gratitude Jar with memories, cards, and expressions of appreciation. And at the end of each of those years, I have emptied it and read the hundreds of messages. Some neatly penned from home on the paper that sits by the jar, others hastily written on bits of paper while on holiday or writing trips. My jar is fed with goodness throughout the year and reading the messages has become a beautiful way to close out the year and welcome a new one.

Except for this year, I wasn’t convinced it would be enjoyable. The last week of the year had been challenging at best and I was concerned that I would welcome the new year with a heavy heart.

For months, I had driven by a lone horse in a field less than a mile from where I lived. Intuitively I was concerned that he had been neglected but I was unsure what I was seeing. As fall turned to winter and the temperatures dropped, I looked to see if he had hay. I tried to see if there were any signs of fresh water or a bucket that a caretaker would fill with grain. I never saw any sign of food, or love for that matter. When I noticed the horse was frequently lying on the frozen, snow-covered ground I felt sick to my stomach. Something was dreadfully wrong and I did not know what to do.

Finally, through the help of one friend, doors opened to a world of horse advocacy, rescue, and a Livestock Inspector. As we collectively learned more and as I increasingly came to the realization that I had spoken up too late, I struggled with a large dose of self-blame. Why hadn’t I spoken up sooner? And why was I the only person in my village who spoke up at all? It hurt me to see how easy it is for people to busy themselves away from looking or caring. It bothered me that people were surprised that I was upset about this situation – how could I not be? How could they not be? I was confused and frustrated with a culture that believes leaving a horse to starve to death is akin to “letting him live out his life.” Nothing made sense and it all hurt my heart.

Inherently sensitive and empathic, today I recognize my attributes for the strengths they are rather than the weaknesses I was raised to believe they were. As I sit writing this, the experience I’m about to share is painfully shocking yet ultimately a beautiful gift that I am still unwrapping and learning from.

I had driven by to voyeuristically see what was happening – would they release the horse to be rescued and saved? Were they trying to hide what was happening since they moved him as soon as they got word someone had spoken up? Would the horse have the happy ending I had been praying and pleading with the Universe for? And then as I sat in my car and pondered those questions and more, from my secret vantage point I watched the owner walk up to the suffering horse and shoot him in the head. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t think I can ever unsee that act.

Yet, that now unseeable act, I realize was a gift from the Universe. Later, as my body began to calm down from the uncontrollable shaking and spasms that resulted from watching, I learned that the most humane way to end the life of a horse is exactly the way I had just witnessed. Had I not seen it happen, I would have likely been tormented for a long, long time by the unknown.

Up until that point, the entire day had been gray and overcast, a fitting match for how I felt. Yet within minutes of the horse’s death, I watched the winds magically change direction. The clouds lifted and hints of blue sky peaked through directly over the place where he had died. Perhaps it wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I also trusted that the Universe knew best and I believe she was showing me that it was over – no more gray, already within minutes there was light.

That night, before going to bed early and emotionally exhausted, I decided to draw a message card from a deck of Angel Cards. In this case, the picture on the card told me everything I needed to know. As soon as I saw the card I laughed and I cried and I felt relief. The horse who had died was not white like the one on the card, but it is only one of two cards in the deck that has a horse on it. The message was clear. It wasn’t the happy ending I had wanted but I had to accept that ultimately it was in fact a happy ending. The horse was released from suffering and I would go to bed that night knowing, despite the months of neglect, he had died in the best possible way because I had borne witness.

Days later, with thoughts of the horse and his transition on my mind, I built a beautiful fire in my chimenea and sat outside and emptied my years’ worth of gratitude. My heart wasn’t heavy as I had anticipated. I relished the memories and more than once laughed out loud.

I am working hard to forgive myself for not speaking up and out sooner, I have cried tears of regret and apologies and struggled with anger at anyone who can mistreat any living being. I have to accept that as we welcome 2023, there is at least one being who is no longer starving in a frozen field all alone. I have to accept, despite the fact that we couldn’t save him, that this was somehow a happy ending. My wish for the new year is that we all work a little bit harder to use our voices to create happier endings for those who need us most.

If you live in Taos County and have even the slightest concern that a horse or other livestock is being neglected or abused, do not hesitate to call Livestock Investigator, Ruben Baca, 575-770-1490. For anyone who lives elsewhere, call 911 and ask who to reach for possible livestock neglect and abuse. They are required by law to respond and they will.

Of all those moments and all those experiences and all those days, months, and years, I never remember a time when I was angry with Justin. I was often confused, frustrated, and convinced I had ruined him by saying or doing the wrong thing. I was angry at others and our higher-than-thou-keep-poor-people-in-their-place system with that whole ‘no kid left behind’ crap as kids were being left behind, and the school administrators with their demeaning attitudes and hateful, ignorant words about poor kids. The more I learned about our flawed, yet well-marketed system, I was angry at them. I was not angry at Justin.

Except for that one time.

I got angry at Justin. Frustration and confusion blended together – boiled actually. For a moment my anger had been redirected – away from the asinine system full of talking heads and toward Justin. I was upset with him yet I didn’t outwardly voice it. My anger was mine, not his. But, I recognized it was real and I knew it was valid. I owned the anger that had entered my mind space. I wanted to explode and yell at him, “how can you not care about this?” but of course, I didn’t. That would have been harmful. I had a young, mutable mind at my disposal. I wanted to do the right thing, but what?

I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t know where the words came from but they came, and they came quickly, and I turned my anger into something I am deeply proud of. It may be the best thing I’ve ever done.

In his sophomore year of high school, Justin was making straight A’s and at times he was a bit cocky about it, which I loved. I didn’t encourage him to be a jerk but I supported his budding confidence. He had gone from a malnourished middle-school dropout to outperforming the rich kids who had every well-financed New England advantage.

Justin’s assignment was to read a book and write a report on it which was nothing new. He was good at these. He loved to read and he wrote with a rawness that while seldom polished, was always compelling. Yet, he was treating this particular assignment about some random girl who lived and died decades ago as just an every-other-day thing he had to do. “I’ll get to it,” he told me. He wasn’t interested in it. He didn’t care about it. And something deep inside of me that I do not understand angered me to my core. He was treating this like Tom Sawyer. This wasn’t anything close to Tom Sawyer. This was Anne Frank.

It meant nothing to him and it meant everything to me.

I didn’t want to “sell” him on caring about this assignment. I wanted him to understand the history enough to care on his own. I wanted him to respect how easily humans can be manipulated to hate other humans. I wanted him to respect those awful possibilities. I wanted him to be brave enough to learn about this horrible history and to have an informed opinion. This was not just another book report.

Rather than pretend to be Martian Woman or encourage him to tick the boxes of the assignment I did something altogether different. For the first time in my life, I called a local Jewish temple. I talked to a Rabbi. I explained the situation. I expressed my concern. I don’t know what the Rabbi heard in my voice but he said he would help. The next day he called and gave me the name of an elderly couple who lived nearby. They were Holocaust survivors and they were willing to meet with Justin and me. In their home.

That weekend we pulled up in front of a well-maintained home in a modest blue-collar section of town. We walked up to the door and I rang the bell. The couple met us at the door and invited us into their tidy living room. It was quaint and the furniture, which somehow seemed small to me, was covered with dainty doilies. There was a crystal candy dish filled with hard candies. There was a crocheted Afghan folded neatly across the back of the sofa where Justin and I sat. The room was spotless.

I spoke first and thanked them for having us. There was a silence surrounding us but it wasn’t awkward – rather, it felt respectful, almost like we were in a museum or a place of worship. If the couple knew of my frustration and concern that Justin did not care about this assignment, they never showed it. I explained with pride in my voice that Justin was a great student who had an assignment and wanted to learn more. If I were a lawyer in a courtroom, it would have been a leading statement. I set the tone and Justin followed.

One of the first things the man did was roll up his sleeve and show us his tattoo. The one he received when he was in Auschwitz. He walked over to us and told us to touch it and all those years later, his voice broke as he explained what it felt like standing in the line, cold and hungry, Nazi soldiers yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand, waiting his turn to be labeled in their system. With tears in his eyes, he talked about being separated from his parents, “they were separated from me, they both went left and I was told to go right.” “What do you mean?,” Justin asked having not yet read a word of his assignment due in two days. “Son, the people in line who were told to go left were gassed in an incinerator. They died right away. I was about your age. I was the only one in my family who survived.” At that moment, I do not remember saying another word. The three of them talked. The tone was somber and serious yet at the same time, there was a lightness about it. There was a sense of success – after all, they had won, and Hitler had lost. The light within them transferred to Justin. It was hard to hear their story. All four of us cried, every one of us used the tissues sitting on the dust-free, shiny coffee table.

We spent a few hours and as we got up to leave, the boy I was raising who had walked into the house was not the same one who was walking out. He grew that day in front of my eyes. It was a little bit like watching one of those fast-motioned videos of a flower blossoming.

As we walked out, I approached the small, elderly woman and hugged her, and expressed my gratitude. She turned ever so slightly and whispered in my ear, “It takes a village.” They made a difference that day and we all felt it.

As I pulled away from the house Justin was quiet. I said nothing pretending to be solely focused on navigating the traffic-free side street. I wanted him to have time to think and absorb what we had just experienced. Something had changed within me too. I needed the quiet time too. I learned that day that humans can choose to fill themselves with hate or with love – it’s up to them. It’s up to us. As I turned onto the main road, continuing to act as though I was in downtown Manhattan merging into traffic that wasn’t there, Justin, who had not uttered a word since walking off their porch, said to me in almost in a whisper, “can we stop at CVS on the way home? I want to buy them a thank you card.” I nodded, tears of something rolling down my face – love, gratitude, success, awe – I wasn’t sure. I swallowed heavily and managed to say, “Of course, Kiddo, that’s a great idea,” without my voice breaking.

I pulled into the CVS parking lot and Justin got out, “wait here, I want to go in by myself.” I sat in the car, trying not to cry yet eventually yanking napkins from the glovebox to dry my tears and blow my nose. I wanted to jump and shout and high-five the world but this wasn’t about me. I was witnessing seeds of knowledge blossoming into compassion in record time and clearly, that requires tissues or in my case, long-forgotten napkins shoved in a glovebox.

Justin mailed the couple a card and one to me too – the only piece of mail he ever sent me – words full of gratitude and of understanding. He devoured The Diary of Anne Frank not once, but twice that weekend. He received an A+ on his book report with acknowledgment from his teacher that it was the best in the class. The thing is, I didn’t care about the grade – I cared that Justin cared.

The first words Justin ever said to me were, “I don’t know.” Today, I sit remembering that experience – of intercepting the football that Justin had thrown in the air on that fateful 19-degree day, which eventually led to sitting face-to-face with two survivors of Hitler’s evil manifesto to ‘Make Germany Great Again’.

In a few months, I will be traveling to Eastern Europe to visit, honor, and pay homage to some of those concentration camps. I’ve asked myself why I am so compelled – called – to go when there are so many other fun, adventurous, easy, relaxing places to visit and my response is, “I don’t know.” I’m not the kid tossing the football in the air on a bitterly cold winter’s day, but my response is the same. “I don’t know.”

In time, we learned why Justin’s response to any question was, “I don’t know” and in time, I’ll learn why I’ve chosen to spend my birthday at the site of one of the most evil, destructive, inhumane places man has ever created. And, at the site where humanity ultimately survived. Love is stronger than hate. It has always been so and it will always be. We get to choose what we want: to be filled with hate or to be filled with love.

~ ~ ~

If I were to say to Justin, “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” he would respond with the next line, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

We initially learned to recite the Rudyard Kipling classic for a school project but eventually, the poem became a bit of a secret code – a comfort code, almost like the words to a favorite song that feels good to sing out loud.

He had enlisted in the Army and wherever he was, his emails would end with the first part of one of the lines and my response would start with the line that followed.

Then husband and I had relocated to North Carolina, hoping, wishing, and praying I suppose that somehow a change in geography would magically erode whatever was wrong – a southern elixir of sorts. I had sold my business to an employee and orchestrated the move south – leaving the life we created in Maine behind. I embraced a once-familiar culture where men wore polo shirts, everyone ate hushpuppies, and confederate statues decorated public squares – whatever it took to fix him, us, and it, I was willing. Thing is, all the problems I had hoped we were moving away from somehow got packed in one of the bags – and despite trading the grays of Maine for the famous Carolina Blue sky, the problems were the same.

It was as if I had traded the blinders I had been wearing in Maine for a thicker, larger pair. Living in a house one-third the size of the one we had moved from so he could easily step in and ride on the coattails of a retiring financial advisor in the same firm – a fresh start with a successful path was laid in front of him. Meanwhile, I started working as a healthcare paralegal.

Justin had come for a visit, a stopover on his way to Ft. Hood, the large Army base in Texas. He was preparing to serve one more year of duty and then leave the Army and enroll in college. He was going to be a teacher and despite my resistance to all things military, the Army had, in some ways, been good for him. He had just bought a car, a bright blue Jetta, and he had grown into a confident young man with a job, a paycheck, and a big ol’ dream. He was ready to leave the service and excited about college.

The Raleigh-Durham area where we were living, is a nexus for up-and-coming industries, research and technology, and both state and private colleges and universities. Durham was a particularly fun place to explore. Good restaurants, eclectic shops, and the home of Duke University. The lush campus with its combination of neo-Gothic and Georgian architecture was nothing less than stunning. As we walked the campus beneath old-growth trees and granite buildings Justin was clearly inspired. We joked that we felt smarter just for walking on the campus where some of the nation’s smartest students go to school.

That afternoon I was keenly aware of how the tables had turned. Me, feeling lost and ungrounded in a southern culture that wasn’t comfortable, and sensing that then husband seemed to be cracking at the seams yet still not knowing what was wrong or how to help and, Justin, confident and curious telling me how it wouldn’t be long before he would be walking to classes on a college campus.

“Do you think I could go to Duke?” he asked.

“If you can dream and not make dreams your master,” I replied, to which Justin immediately said, “If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,” he finished.

That particular day was one of my favorite days ever – the sunny afternoon walking the campus, sneaking into the stately Chapel, it felt like we were in Europe. “You know, we still haven’t gone to Ver-say-lees,” I said in the same way Martian Woman once pronounced it before Justin taught her to properly enunciate the Palace of Versailles. “Before you start college, we’re going to take you there just like we always said.” “I want to go to Normandy too,” he said, with a seriousness born from a young man who had already been to Afghanistan and would likely be returning.

A few days later, we stood in the gravel driveway of our small home as Justin was preparing to leave. I noticed on his front seat the notebook we had made a few years before, all the sticky notes with the inspirational and positive sayings now taped and sealed into plastic – the stickiness on the backs long gone. I held the notebook, remembering how those sticky notes had eventually covered all but a few inches of his bathroom mirror. I was proud of who he had become.

As Justin backed out of the driveway, then husband and I walked awkwardly alongside the car until he reached the road and put it in drive. He rolled down the windows, music already filling the interior. I leaned into the passenger side window and said one more goodbye. We stood in the road and watched the bright blue Jetta drive out of sight.

It would be the last time I saw Justin.

He was killed in Afghanistan a couple of months later. We were told it was “friendly fire,” but there is nothing remotely friendly about it.

His funeral was one of the worst experiences of my life. Other than the bagpipes – a sound that to this day, can still make me feel nauseated, I remember only fragments of conversations. I don’t remember where we stayed, who we saw, how long we were there, what we drove, or where we ate. I do remember boarding the plane to fly back to our new North Carolina home and having a full-fledged panic attack – the first I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to die. There was not enough oxygen on the plane – grief had consumed every particle and I could not breathe.

Over the course of weeks and months and beyond, I learned about grief. I learned those seven steps of grief aren’t like steps at all – more like waves in the ocean, sometimes politely landing on shore, other times crashing down and disrupting every grain of thought-to-be-healed sand. Life changed – I gravitated toward volunteering, my Buddhist community, and my bike. I made the decision to apply to graduate school to earn a degree in social work. I figured I would likely never walk into the street and intercept a kid’s football again but it felt like the right thing to do. In every conceivable way, I moved in one direction and then husband moved in another.

It was many months later when I learned my financial advisor then husband had drained my once-healthy investment portfolio of every penny. While his IRA was safe and sound, there was nothing left in my name. He lost his license and his job shortly after as he apparently had moved on from my depleted accounts to start feeding off of others. One would think the blinders would have immediately been ripped off with the undisputable proof in front of me, yet it took nearly two more years of listening to more lies and promises before I finally summoned the courage to leave.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… It’s just one line from the poem we recited hundreds of times but one that is difficult to achieve. Even though I understood the words, it would take more than a decade and a great deal of work for me to be able to come close to treating those two imposters just the same. In many ways, Justin had always been able to do that.

The End.

(But in all actuality, it was really The Beginning.)

~ ~ ~

In one of many hits by Coldplay, there is a particular lyric penned by Chris Martin about how he used to rule the world, and how he now sweeps the streets he used to own. From the first time I heard it, the line, like the entire song, resonated with me. Its title was inspired by Frida Khalo’s final painting of the watermelons before her death, ‘Viva la Vida’. Long live life. The full name of the song is ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.’

Back when I ruled my world and long before I started sweeping its streets, I never understood how a woman could be beaten and battered by a man, only to hide the bruises he left behind with long sleeves and heavy makeup – enabling him to hit her another day. I often thought if someone left a bruise on me, I wouldn’t hide it. Yet, later in my street-sweeping years, when my myopic vision began to improve, I could clearly see how I had done the same thing. My scars were easy to hide – they didn’t come in the form of bruises and broken bones and it took years before I realized the scars were even there – having formed from the inside out.

I suppose it started with the middle school food fight I was not involved in but paid a price for – being humiliated and made to feel hungry at the hands of my mother. The only constant was unpredictability and just like the woman trying to avoid the next punch, I walked on eggshells and learned to live a life of damage control.

Then husband and I technically met in college – me the student, he the football coach. It was fun and exciting and we ‘came out’ at my graduation – since he would have lost his job for dating a student. We dated for nearly seven years before we got married. The first time I remember him having trouble with money he was coaching in Gainesville, Florida. It was big-time football and since I lived in Virginia at the time, we spent a lot of time on the telephone. I don’t remember the details, it was something I never understood, but he had gotten into trouble about unpaid phone bills. He asked me for what seemed to me like a lot of money and when I hesitated he calmly changed the subject. It was never mentioned again.

Like the home in which I was raised, then husband was great at not seeing things and not talking about things that were in the middle of the proverbial room. It was familiar behavior to me and I never questioned it. Certainly not in those ‘rule my world’ days when we had successful businesses, and a happy life filled with all the things people strive for while watching Justin grow into an increasingly well-adjusted young man.

Justin had just joined a national reserve program for high school students. I wanted nothing to do with it and as much love and energy I had put into that kid, I couldn’t pretend to be happy about his interest in it. He was getting stronger and loved showing me how many pushups he could do. He had started talking about wanting to be a teacher and I thought, like all the preceding phases, this whole military phase would pass. After all, he wanted to be a teacher.

Then husband always called me a “math atheist” and I always agreed. For as good as I was becoming with words, I was the opposite when it came to numbers. Having decided to stop coaching, he was a budding, brilliant financial advisor. He was charming and in Maine, with his slow-cadence and midwestern drawl, even the staunchest, distrusting Yankees grew to trust him. Because of my undisputed and agreed-upon math atheist status, we easily evolved to having the financial advisor in the family handle the finances. We’d walk the dogs and he’d explain how well we were doing, how he signed me up for long-term care health insurance, and how he was handling my personal investments. I felt safe, secure, and loved. Every part of my being trusted him – it never occurred to me not to.

Despite my slight concern about Justin’s current military, pushup phase, I thought it would pass. I was happy in my marriage and I loved my life. Invariably a bill would arrive in the mail stamped in red, block letters, OVERDUE or PAST DUE. Sometimes there would be credit card bills that would arrive – thick envelopes – clearly out of the ordinary but they weren’t discussed. Then husband was handling that aspect of things while I handled other things.

Yet, the errant envelope stamped PAST DUE or FINAL NOTICE would continue to arrive and then husband would continue to say nothing was wrong. The first time I decided on a whim to open one of the ominous-looking red, stamped envelopes I read words that scared me – explaining we owed thousands upon thousands of dollars and thousands more in interest fees. There were words about debt collectors and class-action lawsuits and I simply did not know how to respond. I was scared. The words I was reading completely conflicted with the words he was saying.

And just like the battered woman who I could never understand what could compel her to hide her bruises – I started hiding my own scars. Just like I had learned to hide similar versions in my youth. And just like the woman with the throbbing hematoma who loved her husband and wanted desperately to believe him when he said, “it was just this one time” I did the same thing. I believed my charming midwestern then husband with the slightly slow speech cadence when he explained, “I had some unexpected business expenses.” “I promise, this will never happen again.” “Something went wrong at the bank, the check must have gotten lost in the mail.”

It continued to happen and we each played our role – a common pattern in every relationship. One always had the excuses and promises and one followed up with the enabling behavior. Rather than naming and claiming the big ugly thing that was erupting in our marriage, like the woman trying to hide her bruises, I kept adding more and more makeup to hide the scars – scared to say anything out loud (because that would make it real).

Increasingly concerned about Justin’s escalating interest in the military, much of my attention was on his future. “Did you know if you join the Army they’ll pay for your college?” he said one Saturday afternoon. “It’s called the GI Bill. I can go to college for free.”

My heart was sinking. I was no longer ruling my world. The scars were getting harder to hide, then husband seemed to be turning into someone I no longer knew, and ‘Death and All His Friends’ were making a beeline for everyone and everything in my life.

Much later, I took solace in learning to play ‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends’ on my violin. One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me. I discovered that my castles stand upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.

~ ~ ~

Like every region and state in our country, Maine has its particular, and peculiar, nuances. It’s those national nuances that I not only notice, but I also embrace. I’d never lived in a place where it is common for the heavily-accented demographic to not pronounce an existing ‘R’ at the end of the word yet add the sound to an otherwise softer word – as if to make it harsher. The word cellar was softened to cellah, the word idea was hardened to idear. Later when we moved south, it was at a local garden shop that I realized the plant, hosta, didn’t end in an ‘R’ because it was by and large pronounced hoster in Maine.

Having relocated from my aforementioned Basketball and Jesus upbringing of the south, I noticed things that New Englanders – having grown up with the particulars and peculiarities – didn’t seem to notice as much. For a boy born and raised in Maine who had limited exposure to life outside of the state, Justin noticed the nuances too. For every oddity I pointed out, he would match me with another one.

Life had continued to amble and speed along as it tends to do. No longer malnourished, Justin ran track in the springtime and was on his high school football team. His grades were better than mine at that age. He loved the movie Rudy and country music – it was his mom’s favorite too. He went through every conceivable teenage phase as he discovered who he was and who he wanted to become: rapper dude with baggy pants, preppy boy with khakis and blue oxford shirts, and sweatpants with flannel shirt guy – as if he were a couch potato from the waist down and a logger from the waist up.

It was his enthusiasm for life that I loved the most. Unlike many teenagers, Justin was never embarrassed to be out with then husband and me. We’d sit in restaurants during the holidays wearing those thin paper hats that come from British Christmas Crackers. His laughter was infectious, his curiosity unwavering.

He had taken to writing down positive and inspiring quotes on those little square Post-It notes and they covered nearly every surface in his rooms (the one in our house and the one in his, beside my office). You can say you can or you can’t, either way you’ll be right. I have not failed; I have simply succeeded in finding a way that doesn’t work. If there wasn’t any darkness, we’d never see the stars.

The quotes came from everyone and everywhere, including things I had said to him. The first time I saw a yellow sticky note with words I had said to him, I touched it with my fingers – lightly, as if I would rub the ink off.

It was Justin who first asked me about the wishing wells. One of the particular peculiarities about Maine is that people often adorn their yards with wooden wishing wells. As Justin pointed out over and over, “but they’re fake, they’re not even real!” and they weren’t. They were purely decorative and typically had flowers in them. Then husband would comment that they were just one more thing to mow around.

We had driven to Rockland to explore and eat pie along the way at our favorite roadside diner when Justin started, obnoxiously at first, pointing out the wishing wells. “Wishing Well!” “Wishing Well!” “Wishing Well!” Oh my god, this kid is going to drive me crazy, I would think. But that laughter of his, the antidote to seemingly all things, would consume me every time. It soon became a game – the one who could spot the most wishing wells won. You’d score a point if you saw it first which meant that these wishing well adventures devolved into mostly a car full of people yelling, “Wishing Well!” at the top of their lungs – the decibels becoming as important as the actual spotting of the wishing well.

Holiday time was no different – the wishing well game was replaced by the Christmas tree version. Another nuance of cold, dark winters in Maine, and oddly antithetical to keeping the coveted heat inside the house, many, if not most homes, did not have drapes or window coverings. It was easy to walk or drive by homes in the late afternoon (already dark outside) or evenings and see into the quaint New England-style homes and, during the holidays, spot their Christmas trees. A quick errand to the store or dropping Justin off at practice during December was nothing more than a drive from Point A to Point B, yelling, “Christmas Tree!” at the tops of our lungs.

It was a time before Steve Jobs and his smartphone invention would disrupt and forever change our ways of being in the world. We were present and we saw and participated in the world around us. We played goofy games in the car and no one sat at dinner checking their phone. Justin had blended into our dynamic and he was eager to learn and grow. He was easy to be around. Then husband’s business was thriving and we worked together to help it grow. He moved into my previous space – as planned – and my business relocated to the back of our building in a space we had refurbished. I was married to my best friend, living in a beautiful home we had built, and playing high-level tennis each week. We had cats and dogs who kept us busy. We hiked and explored. We traveled. We cross-country skied in the winter and water-skied in the summer.

It was a busy time in our lives but it was not hectic or chaotic. It felt successful. I felt successful. We were all dreaming and achieving and with Justin’s presence, there was a great deal of laughter in our lives. When I thought of our collective futures, I was full of optimism.

That optimism, however, would be short-lived. A veil was about to be lifted and a dormant darkness I never knew was lurking was about to change everything. As I enjoyed the wishing wells and Christmas trees of our lives, I had no idea what was coming. I had no idea the laughter was about to die.

When I was in the fourth grade we moved to a new town. My mother took me to the school and introduced me to the woman who would be my teacher. Always consumed with making good impressions, my mother was perpetually concerned with her image and what people thought of her.

Soon after starting at the new school, I was having lunch in the cafeteria when a student a few tables over threw food. I cannot remember if he was aiming at someone else or at me, but the food hit me. Already self-conscious about being the new student with brand new glasses (they called me names but at least I could see), I felt somewhat frozen. I’d never been in a situation where anyone other than my father had called me a derogatory name and now, they were throwing food. More food hit me and within minutes, a group of kids was throwing food. When the teacher who was overseeing the cafeteria that day – who also happened to be my teacher – asked what had happened, someone blamed the new kid. Me. I hadn’t thrown any food. I wasn’t even sure what was happening.

It was what happened after that when I was introduced to a side of my mother I had not remembered meeting before. Granted, she had left me plenty of times with a babysitter and not picked me up until days later. I spent summers (thankfully) with her parents, my Grand and Granddaddy. She made it easy to have distance between us – for as long as I can remember, it’s what she wanted. For as long as I remember the words she would utter at home, “I never wanted you.”

When the teacher at my new school called to tell my mother I had started a food fight (which wasn’t true), my mother showed up. Far too young to understand at the time, and I suppose I still don’t, a different version walked into the room. Her anger scared me, the look on her face was one I would grow to fear, but what really resonated was that she didn’t have any interest in hearing my side of the story. I had no voice. I had done nothing wrong but that didn’t matter – not to Ms. Hoffsinger, my teacher, and certainly not to my mother. All my mother knew was someone had said I had done something wrong and that was the gospel. She didn’t believe me.

It was then when she said something to me that I would hear hundreds of times, probably thousands. It was one of the last things she ever said to me, “You embarrass the hell out of me.” If there is an award for embarrassing the hell out of one’s mother, I undoubtedly should win.

That night, instead of joining the family for dinner, my mother told me that we didn’t have enough food to throw in our house and so I wouldn’t be eating dinner. I was made to write sentences – 500 every night – a sentence I remember to this day and still, cannot make myself write it again – all these years later in my healed state, I don’t want to say that sentence out loud, and I don’t want to write it. She made me apologize thousands of times in writing for something I didn’t do. She made me take it to Ms. Hoffsinger who acted like she was some kind of savior – preventing me from going down the road of sin and failure. By the 7th night of having only lunch to eat (because my mother took breakfast away too), my father actually stood up to her for perhaps one of the only times in his life. He grabbed me by the arm from sitting there writing the sentences as they all ate and sat me down at the dinner table. I remember being hungry but also feeling how it had sort of passed – the hunger had somehow felt like a new friend. Despite the food in front of me, it was hard to eat. That new friend would show up years later, familiar and oddly nurturing.

The circumstances in Justin’s life resulted in him missing far more dinners than those seven consecutive dinner-less nights I experienced, but the difference is it was never on purpose. His mother wasn’t angry at her son or cruel to him. My god, she loved her son and didn’t hesitate to talk about that. Yes, she was sick with addiction and her kid missed a lot of meals because of that but not because she was trying to prove a point she had latched onto. Jackie was fighting a disease whose side effects were societal stigma. I knew what it felt like to be in a house with the neighbors all thinking things were butterflies and Cracker Jacks when they weren’t. I continued to be wary of being the same type of mother figure that I had experienced, yet it was becoming clear that despite not knowing all the right things to do and say, I had love – a lot of it – to share. There was full-on Momma Bear in me and I wasn’t afraid to let Momma Bear come out.

Turns out, you don’t have to have experienced a Momma Bear to be one.

By the time Justin was starting high school, Jackie had signed all the permissions the form-filler-outers required. I was his contact and if there was a parent-teacher conference, I was generally the first one there. In my experience, the thing about advocating for a child you love but is not yours is teachers and administrators and seemingly every Tom, Dick, and Harriet felt like they could say anything to me. I often wondered if they spoke to “real parents” like they spoke to me but I knew the answer.

The first teacher I talked to was a bored, burnout time-to-change-careers math teacher and apparently didn’t care what he said – at least not to me. Justin’s grades had continued to improve and he had blossomed. “I think he’s doing just fine for what we can expect, the bar isn’t too high with these kids – let’s just try and get him to graduate.” Truth be told, I always hated math – still do. It was easy to dislike Mr. Bored, Burnout, Math Teacher.

Momma Bear had come out before. Momma Bear wasn’t fucking around. Her cub may not have had a voice but she sure as hell had one. She had come out when we bought a winter coat and much later when we shopped for shoes – both times the salesperson asked if I was volunteering to help the poor or some bullshit. Momma Bear came out at a doctor who made a snide comment about Justin’s diet and why he was malnourished, “these kids are raised on junk food.” I didn’t wait long enough for that asinine comment to land. Perhaps Momma Bear came out her biggest and gnarliest with a school administrator who was lucky I didn’t claw him in his face when he referred to Justin as a, “Section Eighter.”

I knew I wasn’t a mother but I damn sure knew I was motherly and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I had the capacity to love – I needn’t have worried. Some things skip a generation – my guess was the loving and nurturing capacities of my Grand skipped past her seed, my mother, and landed squarely with me. In some ways, I was indeed my mother – fearless, unafraid, ready to travel and discover all the things. I once asked her if she liked sushi, “I do now!” she replied, despite never having tasted sushi and I loved that part of her. She was ready to embrace the unknown – it was like she was offended by limitations. No one’s mother was like that but mine was and I fucking loved it. But, at no time in my life did she ever take up for me or have my back as the kids say these days. And I was the opposite of that – I could not imagine not supporting a child. All the marketing slogans in the world could whitewash our world about not leaving kids behind but the truth was, they were being left behind. They were slipping through the cracks. I wasn’t going to change the world, but I was going to do everything I could to change the world for one. Justin. With Jackie’s permission and her repeated “thank you’s,” we loved our baby cub and you don’t get in between a Momma (and Momma’s) and her cub.

“Excuse me?” is one of two things I remember saying to Justin’s teacher, as I knew I was there for someone who didn’t have a voice. As he proceeded to droll on about the limitations of generational poverty or some bullshit pontifications in his little reside-in-the-box world, he perceived simply because of Justin’s demographic, I interrupted him. As a Momma Bear, it was one of my finer moments and likely why I remember my words, verbatim. Words I later shared with Jackie who could not have been happier – because she could not have said those words and we both knew it. I turned to the weasel teacher who seemed more interested in his tin of Altoid mints than talking with me and embodied my Momma Bear voice, “Listen to me right now and you might want to take notes. (That was my favorite part, telling the teacher to take notes. To this day, it still makes me smile.) I will be here for every parent-teacher conference held at this school and I will talk to every one of Justin’s teachers – including you. If you think I’m going to miss one – you’ll be wrong. I’ll advocate for MORE of these conferences if I have to. If I ever hear you or ANYONE at this school say that Justin doesn’t have potential I’ll be speaking to the School Board about you.”

The teacher’s face turned every bit as red as the Altoid’s tin he had begun to nervously fondle. We continued our conversation in a cordial, new realization way, despite the fact that my heart felt like it was going to beat out of my body and land on the desk between us. He never stopped playing with the Altoids tin but to give him credit, he changed his tune and he changed it on a dime.

I drove home way too fast, because it felt good, and yes, the thing Momma Bear inadvertently taught her cub as he learned to drive because it’s fun and feels free. Justin met me at the door as I came in from the garage. “How did it go at my school?” exuberance in his youthful, full-of-potential voice.

“It went great, Kiddo. You’ve got a great school and amazing teachers. You’re going to do great in high school.”

After that Momma Bear moment, Justin’s teachers welcomed me – and more importantly, him – with open arms. They say it takes a village and I do believe it does. But sometimes, it takes a big, onery Momma Bear who isn’t afraid to growl.

The cub, by the way, graduated from high school with honors, at the top of his class.

In the ensuing months, it seemed every part of life changed yet in some ways it felt the same. Life continued. We embraced Justin and perhaps more so, we welcomed his situation. Given my resistance to rubbing off the not-so-good things of my upbringing, I worked hard to add goodness and love to Justin’s life without adding discomfort or stigma – he had enough of that already. We were often in touch with Jackie, Justin’s mom, to strengthen the bond between the two of them.

I continued working hard at my business, gaining clients, and hiring employees and subcontractors, yet in the evenings rather than spend time doing whatever I was doing B.J. (Before Justin), I would work with him on his studies. We would go through homework and lessons – something he had never given much consideration to before. When a chapter would have sample test questions at the end, we would go through them – we took the extra steps, we did the extra work. Justin didn’t particularly like it but he didn’t hate it. He struggled with concepts and he struggled with how to study but he worked hard.

One particularly frustrating evening as we tried to work through a concept, Martian Woman landed in our living room. She wasn’t expected and I suppose like most Martians or UFOs, no one knows where they come from. But there she was, front and center. To my surprise, as soon as Martian Woman arrived, everything got better – studying and practicing for tests became fun.

Justin was struggling to understand a science class. It wasn’t that he wasn’t trying – but he wasn’t getting it. I’ve never been a good student. I have always been a horrible test taker and I related to his struggle. When then husband and I were planning a trip to France we hired a local tutor to help us learn the language. Then husband excelled in the structured lessons and practice sessions while I floundered. Yet, as soon as we landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, without the pressure or structure, I found myself speaking and communicating while then husband was the one left to flail. I knew what it was like to be smart but to struggle with structured, left-brain assignments.

It occurred to me as we continued on a bumpy, uncomfortable, yet familiar, path that I was trying to get Justin to see something he couldn’t – something that teachers had always done to me – when really, we just needed to be presented with the information and be trusted to discover what was in front of us. Without any conscious decision or preplanning, I turned into Martian Woman on the spot – someone who did not understand the language, the steps, the concept. In essence, Martian Woman had just landed in our living room and didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Justin had to teach her.

For whatever reason, and for all the silly laughter, Martian Woman helped bridge the gap for the boy struggling with school to one who couldn’t wait to tell Martian Woman about the things he learned in class that day. Without any prompts or suggestions, Justin started taking notes during class so he could explain it to Martian Woman that night. He would stay after class and ask questions to make sure he understood how to describe the steps to her. He would raise his hand if he didn’t understand a word and write down the definition. It was as if Justin wasn’t just responsible for himself – he was responsible for Martian Woman and he loved trying to make her understand.

For me, it was comically easy to be someone from outer space – school never came easy to me anyway. It was at times, side-splitting, pee-your-pants (not quite) funny, but in what seemed like no time at all, school, studies, homework, and assignments became fun. Our study sessions were filled with laughter and more than once Justin would say, “Martian Woman is SO stupid!” I would laugh and agree every time.

The first test Justin took after Martian Woman landed in our living room, he made an ‘A’. But it was not just a run-of-the-mill ‘A’. He had scored 100, his first-ever (there would be many more). His teacher wrote a note at the top of the paper in red ink about his improvement. The 100 was circled with two or three exclamation marks. Sitting in my office, I heard Justin burst through the door and watch as he bounded into my office. Keely had quickly learned not to schedule any calls or meetings for me from 3:30 to 5 PM – although we never actually discussed it, that time had become reserved for Justin. Beaming from ear to ear, laughing and jumping around, “Look! It’s because of Martian Woman.”

I listened to Justin excitedly tell the whole story of the test and how the teacher handed them out and explained in front of everyone that Justin was one of three students who had made a 100. I told Justin to go show Keely and I’d be right there. I ducked into the bathroom, a solace to hide my tears – an emotion I had been taught was weak and embarrassing. My tears of joy and utter amazement ran down my face and soaked into my collar. Trying to dry my eyes, flooded with emotion I hadn’t anticipated, I wasted a lot of toilet paper. I looked in the mirror and saw the joy on my tear-stained face. Why was I hiding tears of happiness? How would I explain that behavior to Martian Woman?

I walked out into the office with big tear-filled eyes and laughed and cried and celebrated all of us – Martian Woman too.

I wasn’t quite sure where to start. After all, I had never enrolled a kid into school and obviously had no experience as to how to go about re-enrolling a student who had dropped out.

Still not quite sure what I was seeing in front of me, and with a renewed acceptance that I didn’t have to understand, I focused on the most basic things. Justin sat holding his football watching the fish – which I admit – I took time to watch too. We’d talk about his situation and school yet as soon as one of the colorful fish flipped or pooped or darted sideways the conversation reverted to the tank. My tank. Our tank.

Every question I asked, he answered. Not once did I hear the downtrodden, “I don’t know.” He told me his name, his age, and where he had been enrolled in school.

I was being professional and my best adult self but at the same time I was keenly aware I cared about the boy on a different level – a level I’d never experienced. Finally, I asked him why he had dropped out of the 7th grade.

Staring at the zen-like movement within the fish tank that we both had come to recognize as our safe place, he said with a maturity that caught my attention, “I’m not going to say I don’t know because you’re right, I do know. But it’s hard to answer.”

Holy jesus I thought. I’m not equipped for this – I was expecting him to say he was bored or just didn’t want to go to school.

“It’s okay, Kiddo. You don’t have to tell me, that part isn’t my business. The important thing is to figure out how to get you back in class with all these people asking me about vaccinations and acting like you weren’t just there a few months ago.”  Because he had sat there with me as the pontificators and box-checkers and form-filler-outers grilled me about the same kid who had been sitting in their classrooms three months ago.

“My mom moved out and that’s when I stopped going to school.”

Good lord. We both stared at the fish tank as the heaviness of his reality blanketed the room. I don’t know how many times I thought to myself, ‘thank god for this fish tank. I’m a fucking genius for having this fish tank.’

He was 12 when she left him behind to move in with a new partner – the fact that the partner was of the same gender added to his confusion and the stigma in which this family was mired. Over the years I would make mistakes with Justin. I sometimes did and said the wrong things and notably, taught him to drive a stick shift way too fast, but I never ever, not once, disparaged Justin’s mom – not just in front of him – I just didn’t. Ever. I wasn’t a mother. I felt like I had no right to point fingers. I knew I was too afraid to have a child – afraid of repeating the dysfunction I was raised in, I wasn’t about to judge someone for something I didn’t have the courage to do.

Her name was Jackie and from the first time I talked with her over the phone, as I trudged through the bureaucracy to get him back into school, she was supportive of whatever it was I was doing and like Justin, she trusted me almost immediately. My guess is if I added up all the “thank you’s” in my life, Jackie probably delivered more to me than anyone. She was a good person, just like her son, but she struggled with addiction. I didn’t dislike her. I disliked her disease but I recognized that she was sick and that her son was somehow slipping through the cracks of society despite all the ‘no kid left behind’ bullshit rhetoric.

If I was angry, it wasn’t at Jackie or her disease but rather it was the system so rife with judgment and limits, and the kids they were claiming to hold onto were absolutely being left behind and slipping through the cracks of society – in plain sight. Fuck your slogans – they’re meaningless if you aren’t going to follow through. Leaving her 12-year-old son to fend on his own is not a healthy mother making a decision – that’s addiction making a decision. Anyone who thinks differently needs to sit and talk with people experiencing the illness. Jackie wasn’t bad, she was sick and it wasn’t Justin’s fault. Yes, I was angry, but I wasn’t angry at Justin or Jackie, I was angry on behalf of them and the system that set them up to fail.

We all started making small steps together. For something so foreign to me, it came so naturally. I didn’t judge Jackie but I asked how I could help and she embraced me every bit, if not more, as I had embraced Justin. I focused on the thing I had seen months before as I watched the skinny kid through my office window toss a football in the middle of the street. Potential – that word again.

The word was one he knew but one he had never heard in relation to him. It was the word that had been intuitively screaming at me before I made the fateful interception on that 19-degree morning. It was the word that when I used it to describe him for the first time brought him to tears. They say when you hear the truth you know it. That you can feel it in your soul. I hoped that was what was happening when I watched that afternoon as Justin covered his face with his hands. I hope he recognized the truth I was speaking because it was the truth and I believed it from the deepest part of me.

I saw how easy it would be to label Jackie and judge Justin – blame them for being poor or lazy, feeding off of society. If nothing else, I would make sure Justin understood that circumstances sometimes impact us and it’s not our fault. I would make sure he knew that he had potential and while I would never enable Jackie, I would not sit in judgment of her. In some ways, Jackie was stronger and more courageous than I could ever be.

As Justin and I walked down to the water’s edge that gray afternoon after his first day of returning to school, he told me about his classes and all he needed to do to catch up. He didn’t mention if the other kids asked where he had been or called him derogatory names for quitting. I was encouraged. He was feeling overwhelmed and lost yet he was clearly excited. Speaking words that I no longer remember because the feeling and his response were so much more powerful, I told him about all the potential he had and what you can do when you have potential. He had it and I knew it and he trusted me – he knew I was telling him the truth.

His hands went to his face as he let the tears fall behind the safety of their veil. There was a great deal of me in that kid. I innately knew what to say and what to do to motivate and get him to see the same depth of potential in himself that I saw. He had someone who believed in him.

Decades later I now realize, someone believed in me too.

 

Photograph by Alexei Scutari

I never wanted to have children. It wasn’t that I was particularly averse to babies and kids but I never, ever, felt even slightly compelled or pressured to have a child. I’ve always known why I felt the way I did but I’ve somewhat faked the reason to protect the truth. (Apparently, I’m over that now.)

My mother never wanted to have children either. She didn’t want to have me – something that I heard many times growing up. When she had my sister she somehow assumed she would have a boy because that’s what they wanted. When she delivered her second girl she was so devastated she burst into tears and escaped to the beach. She returned home from the hospital with her newborn only to drop the baby off with my grandparents, pack a bag and leave. Is there more to this story…god yes, but that’s not what this is about.

I had always been afraid I was going to be like her. She wasn’t like the mothers I saw on TV or at my friend’s houses. I watched my friend’s mother hug them or straighten their hair or express concern or worry. “What time will you be home?” they’d ask. “Don’t forget your coat.” There was always an undercurrent of love in other homes that was missing in mine. I loved my mother’s “shit-with-it” style. While other mothers would hover and show concern, mine didn’t want me in the way. I drove the family car a full year before getting my learner’s permit – my mother simply didn’t care, “shit-with-it you know what you’re doing.” It was her way of saying, go for it, jump off the high dive, be brave enough to find what you’re afraid of, and then embrace the fear. It was one of the biggest gifts anyone has ever given me – and I will be forever grateful to her for that.

I spent normal, nurturing summers with my grandparents who loved and nurtured me. We camped in Granddaddy’s Van, the one sitting in my garage today. When I wanted to waterski with my bigger, much older cousins my grandparents said no – I had to wait until my mother showed up and if she said okay, they would let me. I’m not sure it took five whole seconds – Granddaddy asked his daughter what she thought and my mother said, “sure, shit-with-it, she knows how to swim.” I was eight years old wearing my cousin’s life jacket that swallowed me, placing my feet in adult water skis, far too big for my adolescent feet, floating in the water with my cousin yelling from the boat – “don’t let go of the rope, let us pull you out of the water, just stand up.”  I had been watching my cousins waterski all week – they were good – barefoot skier good and I wanted to learn. They say I skied nearly a mile on my first attempt. I skied far out of sight of Grand and Granddaddy watching from the shore. When they turned the boat around to head back to where we started, I fell in the wake we had created. As the boat circled to get me, my cousins were cheering and clapping – thrilled that the youngest and smallest among them had just gotten up on skis on her first attempt. My mother, who they had waited on to give me permission, wasn’t there to watch. I’m not sure where she was.

It was two years after I graduated college and preparing to leave for a European vacation with a friend and co-worker when my mother hugged me for the first time. For no other reason than pure convenience and her willingness, she dropped us off at the airport. My friend’s mother was afraid to drive to Dulles Airport with all the traffic but no, not my mother. No fear, no limitations in that regard. Even today I’m not sure I could say what my mother was ever afraid of – other than being alone.

As we watched our luggage disappear at the ticket counter, my friend, like most young women who probably have nurturing mothers, turned to hug my mother a thank you and goodbye. After all, that’s what people do at airports. I remember distinctly watching Laura hug my mother and then notice as she turned and looked and motioned at me as if to say, ‘we need to head to the plane, aren’t you going to hug your mother goodbye?’ As if that was what mothers and daughters do – of course they do, but not in my family.

Laura and I were co-workers, and both of us had high-level medical sales jobs – we loved the work and all that we were learning. I had just given a presentation in front of nearly 100 physicians three days before but the nerves and uncertainty of approaching my mother to hug her as Laura just did was terrifying. But there, at Dulles Airport, at the age of 23, I hugged my mother for the first time that I could recall. We pretended we had done it before – funny how family dysfunction leads to its own unspoken language and expectations. It was like hugging a telephone pole or a tree trunk, there was nothing there to reciprocate. The woman who had never petted or touched any of our family pets had never touched me either.

A long flight and half a day later as we sat in a pub in London, Laura, steeped in her healthcare background and curious about human behavior, asked me if something was wrong with my mother. It was the first time anyone ever posed that question to me – but it would not be the last.

We all have baggage. Some of us stop the shit show, unload the bags, go through it, and then leave it to get on with our lives. Others choose to carry that weight around with them. I was decidedly the former which speaks to why I had chosen to live my life more than a dozen states and thousands of miles away from where I was raised. It was also why I was afraid to repeat the pattern in which I was raised – I didn’t want to do that to a kid. I didn’t want to bring a child up in that same dysfunction. I understood baggage. I understood shit shows inside an otherwise normal home. I understood neglect. I understood ridicule from the people who are supposed to love you the most. I understood feeling guarded in the place, your home, where you’re supposed to feel safe.

And, before all the words and conversations that would come, the laughter and tears, the struggles with school and learning to study, and games of football and all that was destined for us as he waded through his family dysfunction, I understood Justin. I understood his sullen stare at the ground. I understood his contradictory feelings of being happy and full of life yet feeling stuck. I didn’t know it at the time, I wouldn’t really understand for years – but there wasn’t that much difference between Justin and me.

I was moved by how happy he was to make the hot chocolate for Keely, goofy and silly placing the marshmallows on top, “so it looks like a cup of marshmallows,” he said. I was moved too because he didn’t just deliver his cup of hot chocolate to her and come back to make his own – he sat in the front office and visited with her while she drank it – the same kid who an hour before could barely grunt “Hey” when introduced to her.  I knew Keely well enough to know she would drink it and be gracious but I also knew she was ambitious and it wasn’t her job to entertain this kid who was now in our office.

I walked out with my tea in hand and asked him if he was ready for his. Keely nodded at me but something in her expression has softened – the kid had a heart as big as the state and Keely’s eyes told me all I needed to know, “we gotta help this kid.”

Justin was filling his mug, putting the single marshmallow on top when I walked into the breakroom. “I think you and I need to talk about why you aren’t in school. If you’re up for talking about that, come back into my office, okay?”

And I left it like that and walked back to my office.

Would he walk out and return to the tossing the football in the air routine? What was this kid thinking? What was I thinking? But, as I already shared, I’m not the most patient person. I wasn’t a mother or a teacher or a counselor and I had to draw my own line and let him decide what would happen next.

I sat down at my desk, finally warm from the time spent outside, and watched as the steam created cloud-like designs above my teacup. It was my first day back at work after the holiday break. In my true fashion, I had checklists and those checklists had checklists. I had a lot of work to do. I had also just invited a kid into our space completely disrupting my well-intentioned plans.

Willing myself to focus on my job at hand, I pulled out a presentation I was due to give in a few days. I had a unique business in the state of Maine – the only one of its type – and the Chamber of Commerce and its members wanted to learn more. I was reviewing my notes when Justin walked in. He didn’t sit down. He didn’t look at the fish tank. Instead, he stood there awkwardly and said, “I dropped out of school but maybe I should go back. I don’t know.”

I credit the shit-with-it attitude I learned from my mother. Her actions and detachment from the normal positioned her (and me) for the limitless. I heard myself saying words I couldn’t believe – they were so hardcore, straight out of her mouth, not mine.

“Well, first, didn’t we make a deal that you weren’t going to say, I don’t know anymore?”

The boy dropped his head. My heart sank to my feet. This was so hard. Why was this so hard, I thought. How can my heart take this? Every part of my being wanted to take him into my arms and hug him. But I held my stance and sat in silence.

“Yeah,” Justin uttered.

“Okay. I get the ball then, right?”

“Yeah.”

He handed me the ball which had been lying on the chair he wasn’t sitting on. I noticed his fingers were still red but this time I think it was from holding the hot drink.

“Okay. So we squared up our deal. What do you think?”

“___________________”

Nothing.

The nothing was so loud it was adorable. We both knew he wanted to say, “I don’t know” but he didn’t.

I’m sure it was no more than 30 seconds but it felt interminably long. I glanced at the fish tank and watched the angel fish turn sort of sideways and then flip again. It. Was. So. Quiet.

Finally, he looked up and we smiled. He was refusing to say I don’t know – he wasn’t going to keep letting me win at this game. His guard was down, and for whatever reason he trusted me. He still hadn’t said a word.

“You want to go back to school don’t you, Kiddo?”

“I think I should.”

“Okay. First, take this ball, it’s in my way. We need to get your butt back in class.”  Justin took the football but in a serious way – he knew what I had done. I had just shown him that I trusted him to make his decisions. I still wasn’t sure why the football was so important but I wasn’t going to mess with that. I treated the football as if it was sacred. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t.

It was at that moment when I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers. Oprah would probably call it an ‘ah ha’ moment. I’m not sure if that’s what it was but I was aware that this wasn’t about me. It was about something bigger than me that I had welcomed when I walked out into the street and intercepted the ball. I knew I wasn’t a mother but in an instant, I knew without a doubt I was motherly. I had not received a lot of nurturing but instinctively I knew how to be nurturing.

I cared about this kid and I didn’t need to know why. I didn’t need to explain it. He sat down and I took the pile of papers and presentation notes and moved them to the side of my desk. I had a kid sitting in front of me who, for whatever reason, had dropped out of school. He was underfed and needed a winter coat. He was awful at eye contact yet his own were alive and full of light. He had just told me he wanted to go back to school.

Well, clearly, I had a real job to do.

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