Monday, August 3, 2015

It was a red Jetta.





This is not a story about cancer. I share it here because this is my place and it is my story.

It was a red Jetta.

Alpha guy drove a red Jetta, shiny and new...newer than any car I had ever owned. As he drove his Nokia lit up with a call - his friends were going to a late night party and he thought we should go.  I protested a bit, saying I was really tired and needed to head home, but he kept driving and insisted that we would only go for a little while, and then he would take me home.  At once it was clear that he wasn’t lost at all, knew exactly how to get around, and he headed toward the outskirts of town to an area I didn’t know well, far outside of walking distance to my house and the safety of familiarity. My insides turned. We went back and forth on going to the party as we drove around the curves of the hillside highway, but he kept driving. I was scared and quiet. We eventually arrived at a run down hotel five or ten miles outside of town, where he still insisted there was a party going on, and that everything was fine. I knew there was nothing fine about this, I knew I didn’t want to be there, and I was paralyzed with fear and embarrassment.  

-----

It was the summer of 2002.  I had just moved to Mexico, was living in an awkward platonic roommate situation with my ex-boyfriend, and was feeling a little lost.  Prior to moving I had told everyone, and even mostly convinced myself, that it wasn’t about him -  I was making this move to satisfy my own sense of adventure, to have new experiences, and to leave the familiarity and comfort of my home in search of a different life. While all of those things were true, I had also hoped that the relationship would be rekindled, and if I am honest, that was a big motivation in my move. Of course it was. It wasn’t in the cards for that summer, and eventually I decided that was fine.  It was better than fine, I was young and cute, and I would find my own way.  And I did.  I found a job, made friends, and was having a great time. I taught and waitressed during the day, drank and danced at night, and I was enjoying my new life.

Some evenings I would find myself just walking around with nothing specific to do but meander through the charming city, watch people go by, and daydream.  One such evening I was walking past a popular nightclub when a group of three cute guys stopped me to chat.  They were in town from Mexico City for the weekend, and were looking for recommendations for fun places to hang out. I flirted. They flirted. You know how that thing goes. They invited me to come out with them. Oh I couldn’t possibly...I didn’t know them. But they flirted more, told me I was beautiful, and insisted that it would be so much fun. And so I went. Just like that. I felt uneasy - I had rarely, if ever, accepted invitations from strangers (mostly because I rarely received them). Ignoring that uneasy feeling, I smiled and took an outstretched hand and went.  There was something about the Alpha guy that was a little off, but I convinced myself that it was fine, and that I was just feeling awkward because that’s how I am. And he was really cute. And he liked me. So we went to the club.

They bought bottles of tequila. I drank too much. We all drank too much. We danced and danced, and flirted and flirted. It was fun. It’s always fun. As the club closed and we headed out, Alpha cute guy offered to walk me home. It was probably around three in the morning, and it was definitely a good idea not to walk home alone, so I was happy for the offer, but my uneasy feeling was growing. As we were walking, he mentioned that he had left his car in a parking garage near the supermarket, but wasn’t sure how to get back to it, and asked me to walk him there and that he would then drive me home from there. Sure. That sounded reasonable, right? And so we walked to the red Jetta and took that drive.

[Can you imagine the end of this story?  Have you heard a similar beginning before? Is it fairly easy for you to come to the possible conclusion that Alpha guy raped me? The ease and accuracy of that conclusion is more troubling to me now, thirteen years later, than the story itself.]

----

He parked the car in front of the porch to the hotel room. He hopped out of the car and in an instant was at the passenger side door waiting for me to get out as I sat there, still buckled. I clicked the release and he opened my door with a charming smile, took my hand to bring me to my feet, and closed the door behind me.

[This is the point in the story where I ask time and again what was happening in this moment and why I didn’t do something, anything. I knew it wasn’t good, and I still had some chance to turn it around.  I was in public, though in unknown surroundings, and logic would tell me that there was a reception desk, other people around.  Walking into the private space of that room sealed the fate of that night. I don’t know exactly what it was that pushed me forward, but I know it had a lot to do with self worth. This, more than any other, is the moment that haunts me.]

I followed him to the hotel room “party” like a zombie, not even sure in the moment what I was doing or why I kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Of course, when we walked in I saw that there was no party. There was a bed, a dresser covered in cocaine dust and bottles of liquor, a carton of cigarettes, and no party. There was no party. I protested. I wanted to go home. I was sorry. I wasn’t that kind of girl. I was sorry. I wanted to go home. I wasn’t going to stay there with him. I wasn’t like that. I was really sorry. I kept repeating it. I didn’t know what else to say. He locked the door, kissed me, and told me everything was fine.  I insisted again that it wasn’t, begged him to take me home or just let me walk, but he pushed me onto the bed, pulled off my dress, and raped me while I pleaded for him to stop.  He was bigger and much stronger.  I pushed and scratched and yelled to no avail.  He told me to be quiet, that he wanted me, he wanted me to have his baby, that it would be a blonde baby like me, that I wanted it too, that my mother would forgive me, and again and again, to be quiet.  It was over in a few minutes, and he rolled over and passed out next to me.

I couldn’t move.  I was naked and in shock.  I was out of my mind with fear and shame.

I didn’t move until I heard him snore, and then I slid off the bed and onto the floor, acutely aware of my nakedness and humiliated that someone might see me, or that he would wake up and find me there naked and see my naked body.  I was afraid that the man who just raped me would look at me naked, and I was just as humiliated about that prospect as I was scared that he would do it again.  

After putting on my dress I gingerly picked up my cashless purse, a pack of cigarettes from the carton, a lighter, his wallet, and his car keys, and floated across the room to slowly and silently make my exit.

I lit a cigarette. Blowing out the blue smoke into the dark sky, I took a good look at my surroundings and made a quick plan of action.  I took the money from his wallet, a $500 peso bill, and threw his keys in a bush on one side of the building and his wallet in a bush on the far side of the parking lot.  I found the reception office, and rang the bell.  The hotel employee who came out was an older gentleman with a soft, wrinkled face, and a comforting ease about him.  He opened the office up, where he was sleeping, and asked me what I needed.  He looked at me and took a step back, and I quietly followed him into the office and shut the door behind me and locked it.  I took a couple of breaths without saying anything - standing there, just looking at him and him looking back at me. I told him that I had come with a guy who had treated me badly and that I needed to get back to the city, and showed him the cash I had.  He said that a taxi wouldn’t come to that part of town in the middle of the night, and that my best bet was to wait until 6am when the local buses started running.  He gave me bus fare, because the drivers wouldn’t have change for the $500, and he told me I could sleep on the couch until it was time.  He said it was ok and that I was safe.  I lay there for an hour with my eyes open until he told me it was time to catch the first bus into town.  He walked me to the bus stop, asked if I was ok, and waited with me there in silence until the bus came. He knew.

I walked up the hill to my house in my dirty dress and messed hair, and slipped into my bed and cried and slept for the rest of the day.

I told no one. I was ashamed of the decisions I had made that night, and I also knew that there would be no point in reporting it.  The police would never even attempt to find this man, and in the off chance that they did, I would be in more danger.  So I did nothing.

A month or more later I went to a local clinic to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and for a pregnancy test.  All negative.

Some time later, while a friend from the states was there to visit me, we ran into Alpha guy in the street. I lied to her. I whispered to her that I had gone out with him, we had hooked up, and it was awkward. He came up to me, kissed me on the cheek, and asked me how I was, just as natural as anything. He joked about my little prank with the keys, said I was a wily one, and that it had taken him a while to find them.  He pulled me aside and told me he had come for the weekend from Mexico City to look for me, and that this was the second time he had come to town.  He asked me in a whisper if I was pregnant.  I told him coldly that I wasn’t. He nodded his head, pulled away, and invited us to come out that evening for drinks.  We declined and casually walked home.

I never saw him again. I never reported it. I went to therapy. I go to therapy.

It is a thing that happened and I am just fine. I don’t think about it often, in fact it rarely crosses my mind.  Some time back, when that fool congressman started the conversation about what does and does not constitute “legitimate rape” it occurred to me to write this, but I guess I wasn’t really ready to or didn’t feel compelled to at the time. Then it faded back into the back of my mind. Is it a contributing factor into my personality and behavior?  I’m sure it must be.  Is it the reason I eat so many donuts or run so much?  Maybe.

I have told this story in its entirety to two people.  I have made mention of the experience to a few more than that, but not many.  I have never taken the time until now to put it in writing, read it, relive it in black and white, and share it.  My motivation for doing so now is threefold:

1) After some recent research into adolescent body image, victim blaming, and “slut shaming” for professional development in the area of education, this experience has played over and over in my mind, which usually means for me that I need to write about it;
2) In the midst of my cancer experience, and in the years following it, I have benefitted from the sharing of vulnerable moments of others because it can provide perspective, insight, and a better understanding of our own experiences, and help us feel empathy for those in similar situations, so I am here to add mine to the pot of collective wisdom; and, most importantly,
3) Someday I want my daughters to read this and know that I have been thinking about this since the day they were born, and doing everything in my power to protect them and prepare them for the world, and to help them develop into strong and powerful women who love and protect themselves, love their womanhood, and love the world and humanity enough to help change them and to forgive them for their shortcomings.

This story is sad on its face.  What is distressing to me as a parent of two girls, and as a teacher to many more girls and young women, is that there is much more going on in this story than a girl who got date raped. This is the story of a girl whose feelings about herself led her to make risky decisions that she didn’t feel right about in the moment - decisions that of course, she should be able to make without consequence of bodily harm.  Of course.  I should be able to be the girl who goes through all of those moments up until the time when I say “Please take me home.” or “Please stop.” or “No. Don’t.” and still make it home unscathed.  I should be able to walk down the street at any hour of the day in any place in the world wearing anything I want and talking, dancing, or flirting with anyone I please, and I should still be able to make it home safely, intact, unharmed. That should be true. But it isn’t true so many times. Enough times that we have to talk about it. I don’t want to teach my girls to live in rape culture. I don’t want them to think that they have to say or do or wear certain things because they are vulnerable or weak. I won’t buy into that unequivocally. We are women, we are beautiful and strong and powerful and worthy of our rights to govern our own bodies.

However true, it is my job to keep them safe and whole. Terrible things can come out of the clear blue sky and make terrible messes of life. Sometimes, though, there are warning signs and opportunities to change the course of action. This was one of those times. My babies can’t fall victim to some Alpha cute dude, ignoring their gut feelings, because they want to feel beautiful and desired. They have to listen to that voice, they have to trust themselves, they have to love who they are enough to walk away from him.  There are enough dangers that we cannot avoid.  I will teach them to recognize the ones that we can, and to proudly bid them goodnight before last call.


Friday, June 19, 2015

June Makes Me Think of Cancer

Sweet Miss Bekah

June makes me think of cancer. I don’t forget cancer for the rest of the year, but particularly in June it sneaks in to occupy my quiet moments and brings it all back to the forefront.  It’s a good thing.  I remember how lucky I am, how differently things could have gone, and how beautiful and perfect my life is, even if at times it seems otherwise.  Perspective. Gratitude.  Gravity.  These are the gains.  There were great costs and significant losses, but none of it can be undone, and we must learn to love what we have and appreciate its value.  I am well on my way to reaching that goal.  The old wounds still sting a bit, but I am blessed to have many years to let them continue to heal and for the scars to fade and melt into memory.




This year, the day before the seventh anniversary of the stem cell transplant that saved my life, marked the first anniversary of the loss of a very dear cancer sister, Bekah Furey.  She was a bright and brilliant young woman, gifted with boundless wisdom and a truly lovely soul.  If there are words to accurately describe her beauty and grace, I don’t pretend to know them.  

She is missed beyond measure.  She is loved beyond measure.


Cancer has touched the lives recently of people I care about.  While this month I celebrate living with cancer in the rear view, many are dealing with it head on, and most of us will, in one way or another.  According to the National Cancer Institute, 39.6% of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives (http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/statistics).  


I sincerely hope that you aren’t included in that nearly 40% of us, but if it isn’t you, it’ll be someone you know and love...and in either case, what do you do?  You do everything you can do.  


If it’s you, you do everything the doctors tell you.  Everything your body tells you.  Everything your heart tells you.  You do it all.  You are stronger than you know.  


If it’s someone you love you make sure they have everything they need to do all of that.  AND, you tell them...in person, in writing, in an email, in a hand-written (gasp!) note, in any way you can and as often as you can, that you love them, that you’re thinking of them, that they are strong and beautiful, that this seriously sucks, that you want it to get better, that you are scared that it won’t and you know they are too, that it’s ok to be afraid, that it’s ok to be angry, that you are on your way over with a movie, that you wish you could do more, that you are right there with them.


Bekah did that for me.  She did it for so many of us...too many to know or count.  I just read through all of her emails and blog comments and forum responses….and I cried and cried.  I might still be crying a little, but don’t tell anyone.  She made me know that she was there, even though she was a thousand miles away, and that she was holding my hand and that we were in it together.  


Some choice quotes from Miss Bekah:
“Knock it down one day at a time, cupcake, we’re all cheering you on.”
“Somehow, I’m not sure how, but we find a way to reach into our souls, and the strength of others...to find a new, better, improved life.”
“You CAN and WILL do this.  You already are.  So proud of you.”
"Big hugs to you - you're on my mind for next week, babe."
“God, we are superwomen.”
“Here’s to surviving, little black dresses, small celebrations, and life, my dear.”


She is cherished beyond measure.

--

El mes de junio me hace pensar en el cáncer.  No logro olvidarme del cáncer el resto del año, pero especialmente en junio el tema se me entra en la mente y ocupa mis momentos de silencio y toda esa experiencia se me viene a la actualidad en un instante.  Es bueno eso.  Me hace recordar lo afortunada que soy, lo diferente que todo podría haber sido habiendo diferentes circunstancias, y lo bella y perfecta que es mi vida, aunque a veces no lo parezca.  La perspectiva.  La gratitud.  La gravedad.  Estas son las ganancias.  Hubo costos enormes y pérdidas considerables, pero nada de esto se puede deshacer y hay que aprender a querer lo que tenemos y apreciar su valor.  Y voy haciendo bastante progreso en alcanzar esa meta.  Las viejas heridas todavía arden un poco, pero tengo la fortuna de aun tener muchos años para dejar que siga sanándose y para que las cicatrices desvanezcan y se derritan a la memoria.

Este año, un día antes del séptimo aniversario del transplante que me salvó la vida, marcó el primer aniversario de la pérdida de una queridísima amiga del cáncer, Bekah Furey.  Era una mujer joven y brillante, sabia más allá de sus años y con el alma increiblemente único y gentil.  Si existen las palabras para describir su belleza y gracia, no pretendo saberlas.  Se le extraña a esta mujer inmensamente.  Se le quiere a esta mujer inmensamente.

Recientemente, el cáncer ha tocado la vida de varias personas importantes para mí, y me hace pensar que aunque este mes yo celebro vivir pensando en el cáncer como parte del pasado, mucha gente lo está viviendo hoy en día, en este mismo instante, y la realidad es que en algún momento de la vida de algún modo nos tocará a todos.  De acuerdo al National Cancer Institute, el 39,6% de la gente tendrá cáncer durante la vida (http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/statistics).

Sinceramente espero que no se te incluya en ese 40%, pero lo que sí es seguro es que o vas a ser tú o va a ser algún querido tuyo, y en cualquier caso, ¿qué haces?  La respuesta es que haces todo, todo lo posible.

Si eres tú el afectado, haces todo lo que te dicen los doctores.  Todo lo que te dice el cuerpo.  Todo lo que te dice el corazón.  Lo haces todo, todo.  Tu fuerza no tiene límites, aunque no lo creas ahora.
Si es un ser querido tuyo el afectado, haces todo lo posible para que esa persona tenga lo que necesite para hacer todo lo mencionado, que no le haga falta nada.  Y, de igual importancia, LE DICES - en persona, por escrito, en un correo electrónico, en un recado escrito a mano (¿A mano? Sí, a mano.), de cualquier manera que puedas y lo más frecuentemente que puedas, que lo quieres, que lo amas, que estás pensando en él o ella, que es fuerte y bello, que ésta es una chingadera de lo más cruel, que quieres que se mejore, que tienes miedo de que no se mejore y que sabes que él o ella también tiene miedo, que se vale tener miedo, que se vale tener coraje, que ya vas en camino a su casa con una peli, que ojalá y pudieras hacer más para ayudarle, que estás ahí con él o ella...estés lejos o cerca.

Bekah hacía todo eso para mí.  Lo hacía para tantos de nosotros del club de cáncer...demasiados de contar.  Acabo de releer todos sus correos, comentarios, y posts, y lloré y lloré.  Si prometes no decirle a nadie, te confieso que todavía estoy llorando un poco. Me hizo entender siempre que estaba ahí, atenta, a mi lado, aunque estaba a miles de millas de aquí, y que estábamos pasándolo todo juntas como equipo, como una fuerza mayor e imparable.

Algunas de las palabras de Bekah:
“Hazlo un día a la vez, bombón, todos te estamos echando porras.”
“De alguna manera, y no estoy segura cómo, pero encontramos una manera de buscar dentro del alma, y con la fuerza de los demás, para encontramos una vida nueva, mejorada.”
“Tú PUEDES hacer esto y lo harás.  Ya lo estás haciendo.  Estoy tan orgullosa de ti.”
“Vaya que somos supermujeres.”
“Brindamos por la sobrevivencia, por los mini vestidos negros, por las celebraciones pequeñas, y por la vida, mi querida.”

Se le echa de menos a esta mujer inmensamente.