What It Feels Like to be the White Mother of Black Sons

Rikki

My heart has been hurting, friends.  The world has been spinning out of control recently, and I keep thinking, “Why won’t all of us just listen to one another?  Why don’t we seek understanding instead of taking sides when we all want the same things – to be respected, to be safe, and to be treated fairly?  Why can’t we acknowledge the pain in another person’s heart and help to heal it?”

Then I read a Facebook post written by my friend and coworker, Rikki Johnson, and I was so moved that I asked her if she would adapt her post for our “What It Feels Like Series” here on Still Chasing Fireflies.  I am incredibly thankful that she agreed to open her heart to us in this way.  I know Rikki as an enthusiastic English teacher, but she and I have another thing in common: We are both moms of boys.  Our boys don’t have the same racial heritage, but her essay reminds us that ALL mothers share the same heart, and this is a way that we can connect and understand one another, even when our life experiences may not be the same.  As a mother of black children, Rikki worries about some things that I hadn’t even thought about before.  Her essay challenged me.

PLEASE read Rikki’s story.  Please read it with an open heart and mind and share it with your friends and family if you are moved, too.  That is one small way that you can be a bright light in the darkness, just like a firefly, as we all seek to be understood.

I’ve remained pretty silent lately regarding the recent incidences of the two unarmed black men murdered at the hands of police officers, as well as the murders and shootings of the Dallas police officers. I’ll start with this: it is a difficult time in our country to be a police officer. The murders of those men protecting the crowd in Dallas is despicable and it only overshadows the message so many are trying to peacefully spread. Think of this though: the distrust, disrespect, and criticism of the police these days is very similar to the reality that black men have faced as a whole throughout our country’s history.

My recent silence on this issue mostly stems from fear. I’m afraid of being disappointed in the reactions to my feelings about this by those closest to me and my boys: my family and friends. I hold so many people to such high expectations that I usually set myself up to get my feelings hurt when they don’t live up to them. I’m begging you to see my perspective and try to understand where I’m coming from. I am a white woman married to a black man, and I’m raising black sons.

So many people hold my children and husband as a separate entity than my neighbors’ black husband and children because I am white. My family is an example that I know many of my friends and family members use to justify their perception that racism is no longer an issue. My husband is used as an example that “good” black men do exist. But if my husband were caught making the same mistakes as many of my white family and friends have done, would he still be one of the “good” ones? What if one of my boys were caught shoplifting a candy bar or some other youthful antic like toilet papering someone’s house or breaking curfew? Would you label him a thug behind our backs?

Why don’t you listen when my husband openly speaks about his personal experience being black in this country?  Why don’t you listen to me when I try to explain that my husband and boys, yes, even the “good ones,” are statistically 2.5 times more likely to be murdered at the hands of police. And if they are, someone, somewhere, will try to find some past record, social media post, or picture to justify why they somehow deserved it. Heaven forbid, if my son were to ever make a mistake and be subjected to the legal system, he would be more likely to receive a stiffer penalty than a white man who made the same mistake. How many times do you get pulled over in a year? My husband was pulled over 6 times in the last 12 months while driving home through the predominantly white city where he works. Some of his driving infractions: failure to signal, failure to come to a complete stop at an empty intersection, and going 40 in a 35. Most of those times, he was sent on his way after they ran his license, insurance, and plates. Maybe it was his nursing scrubs that eased the officers’ minds that he was a “good one?” In cities across the country, black people are disproportionately pulled over for minor driving infractions compared to white people. They are also 2 times more likely to be subjected to being searched.  These are facts, and my husband and boys are not any more immune to them than the next black man down the street.

If you love us, then listen please. Please stop trying to explain away our experience as a family or my fears for my husband or my boys because it makes you uncomfortable. This is our reality, and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. These problems remain because people keep trying to explain them away or debate them or say that others are only trying to stir the pot. We all know that not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away. Listen to what people are saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and remember that just because something isn’t a part of your experience, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’m not sorry for being born white. I’m not ashamed of who I am at all. I’m comfortable being me around any person, and I always have been. But, as a white person, I recognize the privilege that comes with it. Growing up, I didn’t know fear in interacting with police. I never wondered if I were overlooked for a job because of my skin. I was never followed through stores by associates when I was out shopping with my friends. I’m mouthy and sarcastic, and I see how differently my demeanor could be perceived if I were a black woman exhibiting the same behavior. Recognizing this privilege doesn’t mean you are ashamed to be white. Acknowledging an issue is the first step in making changes.

It is scientifically proven that young black boys are perceived to be older than they actually are upon first glance than white boys. This means that higher expectations for their behavior are placed upon them at a younger age. When black boys play rough, their behavior is more likely to be deemed violent and malicious, whereas white boys are considered tough and masculine. Boys will be boys, you see. In a study testing even the subconscious perceptions of participants, adult black males were perceived as more of a threat than their white counterparts. My eldest is about to turn 12; day by day he is turning into a man and statistically is perceived as more threatening. Maybe his predicted short stature will protect him? These are the things that I think about that mothers of white children don’t.

As any good parent should, I’ve raised my children to address authority figures, such as police, with respect. But, as a mother of black boys, I have to go deeper than that. We have to practice what to say, how to say it, where to put your hands, never to move without explaining your actions, how to appear small and unthreatening. I have to remind my boys as they grow into men outside of my umbrella of protection that they shouldn’t run down the street, even if they’re in a hurry or running late. They shouldn’t wear a hoodie over their heads, or travel in large groups of other black boys. All of these actions could invoke suspicion or draw unwanted attention. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of my friends and family members with white boys ever had to go through training as extensive as this just to leave the house! And, yet, it could not even matter because last week a man did everything right when stopped and was still murdered right in front of his 4 year old and wife.

I know many of you will not have even read this far. Or, if you have, you may have been coming up with rebuttals to each of my points along the way. I’m not asking to debate. I’m trying to let you in on my reality as a wife and mother. My hopes and dreams for my babies and their futures are no different than any mother of any color. I dream that my children will lead successful, productive lives. I want them to become great fathers, husbands, friends, employees just the same as any mother wishes for her sons. However, these ongoing incidences of violence and injustice serve as constant reminders that nothing, not even my children’s lives, are promised.

To my family and friends, I beg you not to claim you love my boys and my husband, and yet still try to justify all these other men being killed for being black. My perspective–my husband’s perspective–my beautiful children’s perspectives are very similar to those of the people who are marching in the streets to end this violence on ALL sides. We’re not against police and we’re not calling anyone racist. We’re asking that you at least acknowledge the problem and find some understanding and support to help make this country better and safer for my family and yours.

Thanks again to my friend Rikki Johnson for sharing her “What It Feels Like” story with us.  Speaking out in the midst of controversy is not easy.  It is courageous, and it is important.  Starting conversations and then listening with love, respect, and patience is important, too.  Thanks, Rikki, for being loving and patient with me as we discussed some really hard things.

Do you have a life experience that you can help other people understand?  It could be ANYTHING that is stirring your heart!  You can write it yourself, or I can help!  Please reach out to me to add to our “What It Feels Like” series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

What It Feels Like to be the Son of a Father With Dementia

what it feels like

Grab a tissue, my friends.  I swear that my goal at Still Chasing Fireflies is not to toy with your emotions, but this What It Feels Like series is definitely going to bring out ALL the feels.  Last week, my husband and I were hundreds of miles apart while he was in Chicago for work and I was visiting family.  When we finally reunited, he dropped a bomb on me; he had been secretly writing this beautiful post about how it feels for him to watch his own father battle dementia.  Oh. My. Goodness.  I could hardly edit and post this on the blog through my tears. 

Love on your dads, people.  Please.  Now.  Do not wait.

Like many other young children growing up, I believed my father was one of the strongest, smartest, goofiest, hardest working men I knew. He could do, and fix, anything. But those qualities weren’t always the ones that meant something to me as a child.  I valued when he would get on the ground and wrestle with me.  I still remember the feeling of his scruffy face once in a while and how he would use that as a laughter-drawing weapon on me during the match.  

I remember how he would sit and work out floor plans for houses and buildings using my architectural building blocks on our end table in the family room.  He taught me what lintels, copings, rough openings, and many other construction terms meant, simply by playing with me and those blocks.

I recall him being excited to show me his design for our club house, walking me through the drawings and dimensions. I should note that my passion for construction and design began at a very early age, and my father played a critical part in that. Not sure he meant for that to happen, but he seemed to enjoy that I liked it.

As time moved on, he and I worked on my first car together, having the carburetor rebuilt so we could replace it, hoping it would help me get something more than 10 miles per gallon.  (It’s a good thing gas was .95 cents per gallon then; I didn’t want to spend all my paper route money on gas because I needed some for actual dates!)  I probably wasn’t the best mechanic, and I am sure I complained about holding the light for him more than doing any actual work myself.  But we got the job done.

That was also about the time my father invested in the family boat, well, Jon Boat that is, for fishing.  I had the pleasure of being one of the first passengers during the initial shove off from shore, and, well, it floated.  And that…was…about…it. Many minutes later, we finally got the motor fired and we were off.  Off to find the catch of the day. Or, in my case, to put my favorite mix tape in my Walkman and catch some rays.  You see, fishing was something my father and I didn’t have in common.  He enjoyed the outdoors, and, well, I enjoyed the cities.  

And so the distance between us grew.

It was close to the end of my senior year, just a few more weeks remaining in my basketball season, when I came home from practice to find my father in the driveway washing the family car.  For anyone else, this may have seemed perfectly normal.  But not for my father.  You see, my father worked the 4 to midnight shift most of my life.  He was either sleeping or working when I was home.  On this day, for him to be home at this time didn’t add up.  And it wasn’t good.  He had lost his job at the age of 54, just shy of age 55 – the age when he would have been able to collect his full pension.  This was the mid 90’s, before age discrimination was something to litigate. This event was crushing for the family.  With a wedding for my sister that summer and my desire to go to college, and without another full-time income in our home, life was about to get difficult.

However, that moment in time changed everything for me.  Watching my dad handle the issue with integrity and seeing him take on anything and everything to keep food on the table taught me to do the same.  But it also drove me to focus. I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life working hard and chasing my dreams, following my passions, and living the life I want.  

So after graduating from high school, I worked two jobs while attending a local community college to earn a degree and the credits necessary to transfer to a larger school.  After my first year at Kent State, I was accepted into their school of Architecture.  There was one caveat; I had to go back to Kent for Summer Studio immediately. The day I left for college was Father’s Day, 1997.  My father, who in my first 20 years rarely shed a tear in front of me, cried that day after commenting about me heading off to start the program and knowing I wasn’t going to be coming home for the summer.  I’m not completely sure if the tears were sadness or if they were happy tears because I was fulfilling my dreams, but it was a rare occasion either way.

There were many times during my college years that my father would talk to me about how he never really got to do what he wanted because he wasn’t that great in school.  He would end up working odd jobs during the semesters just to survive rather than studying.  I believe that he told me these stories to encourage me to never give up, to trek on and fight for everything I wanted to achieve.

So why am I telling you about these memories of my father and me?  Because he can’t, not anymore.  You see my father was diagnosed with dementia, and he sometimes forgets how many sons I have, or our names, or what I do for a living. He forgets where he is and why he is there, or if he has even eaten.

Watching this awful disease progress is like watching the sand on a beach fight the ocean tide. As the day passes, the memories of those footprints, sandcastles, motes, and all the fun experiences that occurred on the beach are erased.  With each new day, the experiences in the sand begin over.  There is no remembrance of what happened the day before.

My dad has memories, but they tend to be from further back in his life, not many from us as a young family. Mostly he reminisces about his days in Vietnam. And as the tide of his mind rises, and then regresses, the same stories begin again.  This happens many times during an hour.  So you sit, and listen to the same stories again, just so you can spend time with him.  Or you find yourself fielding the same questions, over and over again, trying with all your energy to stay relaxed and not show frustration at this horrible disease that is not his fault.  Often you find yourself fighting internally with the pure instinct to avoid the visits rather than see a man struggle with this relentless disease.

There are times when I am working on something at home and I am struggling or need help, and I think I should call my dad, like I use to, because I know he will know what to do.  But then I instantly realize that this isn’t a possibility anymore.  It hits you like a champion boxer just set you up for his patented left jab and right hook combo.  The man who could have done anything, who could have taught you anything, who was there to show you how, is no longer available for you in this capacity.

Sure, he is here, but not all of him.  You wish that you could call him and work on some projects in the yard or in the house together.  You wish that he enjoyed sports like you do, or that you liked fishing so that you could spend some time together doing things you both enjoy.  But most of all, you wish he could remember that he gave you some of your best qualities and made you who you are.   

This is what it is like being the son of father who has dementia.  You are not completely sure WHAT he remembers.  You are not sure IF he remembers.  You are not sure HOW MUCH he even knows about what is really happening to himself.

So I will add some gravel and Portland cement to the sand on my beach and set my memories in concrete for both of us, until one day those memories may very well erode away for me, too.  But until then, my father will always be the goofy, scruffy-faced wrestling superhero he has always been to me, preserved in my memory until the waves finally win the war.

Thanks again to my husband, Ryan Ware, for sharing this post with all of us.  It wasn’t easy to write, I am sure, but sharing our hard things can help others and maybe even heal whatever is hurting us, too.

Do you have a story to share in this series?  I think you do.  You don’t even have to write it yourself.  I can help!  Just let me know what’s on your mind.

Finally, it’s Father’s Day!  We love you, dads!  Happy Father’s Day to my own dad, Kenny, and to all the other dads out there, including my husband, my father-in-law, and my grandpa, too.   

Be sure to show your dad some love this week, and watch for the next post from Still Chasing Fireflies!

 

What It Feels Like To Have a Stroke at 41

EVERYONE has a story, and I am SO excited to share this story with you today.  Let me introduce you to my friend Kate. She is an amazing mother (our sons are close friends), a talented photographer, and a very creative spirit.   She was also shocked several years ago when she learned that she had suffered a stroke at only 41 years old.  Today, Kate is thriving despite the ongoing challenges of stroke recovery.  She is doing so well that she even wrote the first GUEST POST in Still Chasing Fireflies‘ “What It Feels Like” series where she recounts the days immediately following her stroke.  I am SO GRATEFUL that Kate is kicking off this series on the last day of Stroke Awareness Month with a very important message, a message that just might save your life.  Please share Kate’s post with everyone you love!

Self-51816-2B-BW
Kate’s self-portrait today

I hope Kate also inspires you to think about your own story.  What is YOUR story?  What moment in time will live with you forever?  What experience have you had that others may not understand?  Please consider sharing it with us!

Here is Kate’s story.

Brain
One of Kate’s brain scans

It was mid-morning, Friday, November 9, 2012. I was still wallowing under the sheets when the heavens slapped me with a streak of sunbeam on my face beckoning me to get up. I knew it was about time for me to get out of bed, but the sheets were warm and the sickness had been going on for 2 weeks then, transforming my once sanctuary of a bedroom into an infirmary. But soon the situation would change. I would no longer be living in ignorance because the mysterious affliction would be given a name. And the name would change me forever, kidnapping me from that bliss of an unconscious life to an overdue time of reckoning. 

 I had yet to feel the temperature outside that morning, but peeking through the window I saw the trees sway as the technicolor leaves danced in the wind, so I imagined it was crisp and cold. The sky was sunny and bright and inviting, so for all intents and purposes, the day should have been a fine day to be productive. But I was unable to rid the pounding in my head. No reason to get out of bed that morning, I argued, figuratively and literally. I had several real and invented problems at the time but the throbbing, stabbing, heavy head was not an invention.

The problem with my heavy head was that I had fallen down the stairs thirteen days prior and the accident left me with an extremely painful and lingering headache. I was told by an emergency doctor that I had sustained a concussion and the hospital sent me on my way with prescriptions for both a painkiller and a muscle relaxant. And so I waited for days for the headache to get better. 

Left to face yet another day of pain, I had little options other than perusing the television channels for entertainment. My husband, Eric, had been in his basement office for most of the morning, and the kids had been in school since 8 o’clock. Aside from the snoring cat on my bed and the low volume of an old movie, the house was pleasingly still when it finally happened.  
 
With no thematic movie music to signal that the moments ahead would be more exceptional than the moments before, my right arm inexplicably went limp and fell on the mattress. I looked at the right hand on my lap, so completely conspicuous from the left, and it had been rendered lifeless, spiritless, without sensation and feeling like nothing but a cold piece of meat. I picked up my wrist with my left hand and the fingers hung like dead, dangling tentacles. 

In a desperate attempt, I violently shook my right arm with my left hand, trying to bring my right side back to life. How many minutes I violently shook it, I do not know. Five minutes? Ten minutes? 30? My memory is blotchy. Whatever the amount of time it was, the sensation finally came back, but it was not the same. My body was no longer one. I envisioned that it was cut right down the middle, connected only by faulty wiring. Even though my anxiety lessened, the moment was almost too much to bear.

The moment was scary and surreal. I put it back into my mind like it had been a dream, and with good defense mechanisms for denial it seemed inconsequential to tell anyone what I had just seen or to ask someone to bring me to the hospital. I didn’t want to scrutinize the reasons or sound an alarm but I knew something was probably wrong. Really wrong. Did I want to know that something wrong happened there, or should I keep it to myself and move on? Accepting it or doing something about it needed courage but I could not muster it. I rearranged the pillows that rested on the headboard and continued to watch the rest of the movie. 
   
Denial is a powerful thing.
   

And so later in the afternoon when my speech slurred, Eric read that a possible side effect from the muscle relaxant was slurred speech. It made total sense to us. So I continued to stay in bed, hardly interacting with anyone into the early evening until my stepson, Henry, came into my room to say goodbye. He was leaving for his mother’s house for the weekend and as he left he said, “You sound kind of strange.” He was annunciating something that I was already saying to myself.

Self-Feb2013

Kate’s self-portrait a few months after the stroke

The evening came in quickly and all I wanted to do was sleep, so with no announcement to anyone, I slept. That night was the first night that I did not tuck my six-year-old son to bed. There were no kisses, no hugs, no I love yous, no alarm clocks, no clean teeth. 

I have no idea what time I fell asleep that night. 

The next morning, I got up very early and immediately showered. At that point, I still hadn’t mentioned the paralysis to anyone, including Eric. As I showered, the warm water stung my skin on my right side like prickles from a cactus. Suddenly, I felt a new sense of urgency. Suddenly, something was undoubtedly wrong. 

Suddenly, fear gripped me. 

Eric had woken and gone downstairs. After a quick shower, I grabbed my robe, went downstairs and met him at the kitchen table. I stood against it, grabbed a pen and tried to write something. The result was pure gibberish. I wasn’t able to put down anything logical, or even illogical, on the paper. Since last night I had already been suspicious about my ability to write because someone had texted me and I wasn’t able to text them back.

“I can’t write,” I slurred.  “Something is wrong. I can’t write.”
   

It was at that time that we both agreed it was time to go to the hospital again. 
   
If incoherent speech, brief paralysis and broken cognitive skills don’t give you a hint to go to the hospital, then what does? I thought, how stupid of me that I hadn’t gone to the hospital sooner! 

Denial is a powerful thing.

   
With a methodical scurry, we all got dressed, got in the car and drove to the nearest hospital. For me it was a confusing trip, fraught with extreme trepidation. And the longer Eric drove, the more I convinced myself that I was surely dying. I thought of my guileless young sons in the backseat, and my soul melted with guilt, positively certain that whatever I was dying of, I did this to myself.
   
I needed to be a better mom.
   
I needed to be healthier.
   
I needed to be a better person.
   
I bargained with God by saying my Act of Contrition. 
   
After the longest 15 minute car ride in my life, we arrived at the emergency room. At the reception desk, I couldn’t provide my full name, so Eric took over the conversation for me and gave them some particulars about how I had been feeling and for how long and so on and so on. Hearing my symptoms, the hospital whisked us into the emergency room immediately. At that point, I definitely was scared. But scared of what?
   
After a few minutes in an examination room to get personal information, health insurance cards, and vital signs, I was rolled into a CT scan room. I had just been at the emergency room for a scan one week earlier because of my fall, so the scene felt like deja vu. When the whooshing noise of the scan became louder and the red lasers rotated around my head, I looked upward, sighed, closed my eyes and prayed. 
   
Back in the examination room after they completed the scan, we all waited for news. I don’t remember how long we were waiting; in fact, I really don’t remember what we were even doing or talking about. I don’t remember wanting to talk about anything at all. I was in my thoughts, in my mistakes, and in my regrets, thinking about the year that had transpired and how life can turn on a dime. Eric and I were just married in January of that year, full of passion and good intentions with a new blended family of seven, and then found ourselves in the middle of our fair share of bad decisions and happenstance – unemployment, financial distress, and the perplexing affliction. The once lush lawn of our new home was spiraling into mud, and I spent days and weeks in despair. But the desperation didn’t seem to matter anymore. In that room my eyes were fixed on the bright, fluorescent overhead light. I tried not to blink so that I could take the moment in as much as possible. In the light I saw a collage of good things – laughter, kisses, places, dreams, plans, everything that was going to happen, everything that I had forgotten.
   
I was already mourning them all.

When I was brought back to reality by the sound of a doorknob, my destiny finally revealed its bad hand. A doctor opened the examination room with determination, and with a somewhat anticlimactic tone he said, “Well… you’ve had a stroke.”

At least I know what I’m scared of now. At least it has a name. 

MeandMe
Kate (and Kate), using her story to help others

Kate would like to thank Eric Sorenson and Dawn Hosmer for their editorial assistance with this post.  I would like to give Kate a HUGE thank you for sharing her story and for helping me to get this very exciting new adventure on the blog off to a powerful start!  If you have a story (and you do) and you are interested in sharing, please reach out to me!  You don’t have to be a writer to guest post.  I can help you!  Think about it!

You can read more about Kate and her journey on her personal blog, The House of Revelry, at http://thehouseofrevelry.blogspot.com.