WHAT I NEVER EXPECTED by Molly Caro May

Molly Caro May

On a cool April day, a close friend fielded my questions about motherhood as her toddler leapt from stone to stone nearby. I gazed up at cottonwood trees, stroked my pregnant belly and told her my plan.

“I’m going to strap my baby to my chest and hike into the woods right away,” I announced, “Like hours after birth. I mean women do it all over the world, right?”

“Yeah, but your vagina might hurt for a few weeks,” she said.

Somehow, I hadn’t ever considered that possibility. As a girl, I had hung upside down from tree branches and run faster than the boys. I grew into a woman of physical endurance—long bike races, long hikes, and long manual labor building projects. After birth, I would simply pull on my old jeans and get on with it. But my pregnancy had been rough. Nausea didn’t go away after the first trimester. I became a pro at vomiting into a mason jar every day while driving to/from anywhere. It was, at times, demoralizing. I complained, and yet told myself the intensity had prepared me for birth. Labor, well, labor I would do a thousand times over. I touched into my wisest animal self—all breath and moan. No fear surfaced, even in pain, even when my home-water-birth turned into a van ride to the hospital as my midwife straddled me, held an oxygen mask to my face and requested that I don’t push yet, even though the urge was strong. I ended up pushing for five hours until my umbilical-wrapped daughter came out. She wasn’t the blue breathless baby they expected. We were okay. I could have dropped to the floor and done 100 push-ups on the adrenaline of my empowerment. One of the nurses lifted her arms and said, “You were amazing! Look, I sweated through my scrubs. That was awesome.”

Pregnancy may have knocked me over, but I had labored like Wonder Woman. If the upswing trajectory followed, postpartum would be manageable, maybe even a breeze.

Within a week, it was clear that the liquid coming out of me was no longer the standard lochia but urine. And not just when I sneezed. When I walked to the mailbox. When I squatted to pick up an errant sock. When I bounced to sooth my daughter to sleep. I was officially incontinent. I bought a Costco-size box of Always extra-long pads with wings and pasted one in my underwear at all times.

Maybe this problem would go away.

But it didn’t.

I went hiking anyway.

I strapped my daughter to my chest and peed all over myself, through my pad, onto my shorts, onto the trail. My car seat smelled of urine, no matter how hard I scrubbed it. I learned to wear a skirt so other hikers wouldn’t notice. When my new mama friends couldn’t believe this was my new normal, I learned to make it normal.

“Oop, peed on myself again,” I would laugh.

But the grief pressed against my face, my mouth, my neck. I refused to acknowledge it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that and everything else. There was so much everything else in new motherhood.

One afternoon, at a museum, my birth class friend had to carry both our children up the stairs because being pee-soaked in a museum isn’t as acceptable as on the trail. I watched her strong arms and strong back and the sorrow of this comparison dug a groove through my heart. If I hadn’t been in a public place, I would have collapsed. Would I never be able to carry my daughter up stairs? Where was I? Why couldn’t I pull it together? Where was the woman who had labored without fear, almost without effort?

This went on for six months, for a year.

I saw some pelvic physical therapists. They looked at me with kind doe-eyes and gave me elaborated Kegel exercises. I did them solidly for a week or so. Maybe they were actually helping. At my cousin’s wedding, I couldn’t wait to dance. It had been so long. When I hit my first hip thrust/bounce, urine poured down my leg and almost onto the dance floor. I scuttled outside under the moon. There, alone, I could release my sobs. This was not what I had expected for our first evening out alone. Later that night, I begged my husband to suck the milk out of my breasts because they were so engorged without my daughter there to nurse them. So he did—in the dark of the parking lot with the car windows down, the smell of sagebrush on the night air. “It’s sweet,” he said, and we laughed, because the gap between laughing and crying was invisible. I woke desperate in the early morning. No breast pump. Hand expressing would not be fast enough. I grabbed my own large, painful breast and drank my own sweet milk. Urine or milk. Life is about fluids or being fluid, I think.

In the haze of sleep-deprivation, I couldn’t manage a plan to do my pelvic floor exercises. All I could do was lie on the concrete floor and stare at the ceiling fan, the red latex PT strap unused. One morning, I woke unable to move. “Help,” I gulped to my husband as he made his way out the door, “Help me.” My battery had died and I couldn’t lift my daughter. I watched her watch me with wide eyes. Panic washed over me in waves. A blood test revealed postpartum hypothyroidism on the edge of becoming an autoimmune condition. I morphed from someone who never took prescription medicine to someone who did. Healing this thyroid issue would also require, in part, more exercise, but every time I exercised I peed. Sometimes I found myself in the woods throwing, no hurling, rocks at a tree. How had I gotten there? My rage scared me enough to request more blood tests. No serotonin problem, no postpartum depression, but my neurotransmitters were all off. Months later, adrenal fatigue became part of the picture. My doctor started an email to me with, “Dearest Molly, …”

None of this was the worst thing possible

None of this was a death sentence

But I didn’t believe it would ever change.

This was not the mother or woman I had ever wanted to be.

Every day I scanned my perimeter for someone to blame—my husband, my mother, my father, my friends, my dog, myself. My anger became volcanic. During the day, I sang, swam, laughed, loved, and smooched my daughter. When she fell asleep, I paced the kitchen and drove down dark roads at 1:00 AM, fantasizing about walking into the woods and never returning. Was this what giving up looked like? But my daughter kept me accountable. I could never have left her. I made gratitude lists. There was so much to be grateful for. Hard as I tried, my gratitude practice fell flat.

Two years into this situation, something changed.

I don’t know what clicked. I began to swim laps at our local hot springs. There I could exercise and pee and no one would know. At my doctor’s suggestion, I stopped nursing and took progesterone and herbs. My daughter started to sleep through the night. As she potty-trained, I chanced it and stopped using pads everyday. We could let go of diapers together. Summer came around again. Sun. Heat. Green. Maybe it helped that time had passed. I don’t really know. I still wonder how nothing changed but everything did. Maybe I decided to step back from the edge.

I decided.

I decided.

I decided.

For the first time, in 35-years of living, I decided to be kind to myself. I started to talk to myself the way I talked to my daughter. “It’s okay, I know it’s hard, you can do it, do you need a hug, I see your radiance, I see you, I see you…”

When a body-worker recently told me that my pelvis was in shock and all tangled up, I didn’t catastrophize with images of doom. I let her words pass out of me and replaced them with My body is healing. I could cultivate this belief—despite the externals. Of course, this story is still alive. This, right now, is me finding my way. I still pee on myself but mostly just before my period. I still take thyroid and adrenal medicine and may have to for who knows how long. But I’m off progesterone.

And now, I wouldn’t want any part of my continuing journey to be different.

It forced me to break up with my beloved anger. That, turns out, was the only way to open the starting gates to heal. My righteous self used to quietly judge the hell out of people who make poor, life-altering decisions. Now I understand that we all walk an edge, whether we touch it or not. My pelvis is my new gal pal. We talk everyday. I’ve gotten comfy with the mess of life. I’ve learned that grief can take time. The laboring woman in me has been laboring all along. She is the woman I was looking for. And this is the only way I could have found her.

Molly Caro MayMolly Caro May is a writer whose work explores body, place, and the foreign. She leads writing workshops across the country and her work has appeared in Orion Magazine, Salon, and Fourth Genre, among others. Her memoir, The Map of Enough: One Woman’s Search For Place (Counterpoint Press) was published in 2014. She lives with her husband and daughter in Bozeman, Montana, where she is co-founder of the Thunderhead Writers’ Collective. 

AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN by Sohini Chakraborty

Sohini Chakraborty (Micky Wiswedel photographer Photo Courtsey Vital Voices)

I decided at a young age that I wanted to live my life as an independent woman. I know a lot of women are independent in spirit, but in my case, I also wanted to live on my own, outside of my family’s home. In the cultural context of life in India, this was very bold, as family is a big thing. The traditional way of life in India is that children continue to live with their parents or their families until they are young adults, usually until they marry. I was single, and I wanted to stay single, but I also wanted complete independence. I wanted to not only live in my own space, I also wanted to have financial independence. That was my choice, my decision alone. I was considered a rebel.

My mother died young, so I grew up living with my father. I was a dancer, but I had a degree in Sociology, so I think he wanted me to get a good government job. My decision to live independently was not a decision against him; it was a decision for myself. This was very different from the traditional or “normal” life of a woman in India and it was very, very challenging.

When I was 21 or 22 years old, I had a big idea that dance could change lives. I began to fully pursue that idea when a lot of people were saying that it wouldn’t work. It was a bold decision, but I’ve chosen to live life on my own terms. I think that my independent spirit has helped me to be successful.

Prior to starting Kolkata Sanved in 2004, I had spent about nine years pursuing my dream of changing women’s lives through dance. Most of that time was a constant struggle, but I decided that all those challenges provided me the opportunity to move ahead in life. That’s how I got to where I am today.

I had a daring dream that dance could change lives and I transformed it into an organization: Kolkata Sanved. It was only my dream, one person’s dream, but now it’s the collective dream of many women, and it is truly transforming lives.

For all women who speak Bengali, I share this video message (I have also inserted English subtitles:)

 

Sohini ChakrabortySohini Chakraborty is a sociologist, Ashoka Fellow, dance activist, and Founder/Director of Kolkata Sanved, which has expanded the notions of dance and traditional rehabilitation programs. Through Kolkata Sanved’s groundbreaking dance/movement therapy program, survivors of violence and trafficking release trauma, develop confidence, identify their own potential as human beings, and become independent and empowered individuals rather than victims.

BORN TO ME by Leslie Caplan

Born to Me by Leslie Caplan

I had no choice but to let him go.

Half his blood was there. He was born there. He belonged as much there, as he did here, and perhaps now, even more so. What kind of mother would let her 16 year old boy fly half way around the globe for an open ended length of time, to land into the arms of an estranged father, culture, family, language? I had no choice but to surrender to his inner calling and to my own knowing that this journey for him was essential to his growth. I trusted what he needed for himself. His placenta was buried there next to the family temple, along with past and future generations. And now, he was being called back to his roots, as I always knew one day he would be.

I could not stop thinking of all the dangerous things that could happen to him when he left. I had lived on that island for seven years and the darkness of it beats like it has a pulse of its own. Where road rage, venomous snakes, spiders the size of starfish, and black magic breathes through the dark veils of jungle riverbanks. The haunting melody of its temple walls swaying in ceremonial procession, was now beckoning my son’s return.

As he boarded the plane at midnight, tears fell like a monsoon of emotion flooding the terrain of my motherhood. Submerged in my own fear, my own absolute amazement of his courage, his rite of passage, I took a deep breath. It was all I could do to find my way back to his eyes – dark like mine, burning with intensity, mystery, and a wisdom that stunned me.

He looked like a man as I watched him board the plane through the glass wall that now separated us. He held his head high, and I could not help but be completely endeared to that famous Balinese dude swagger as he moved from deep inside the curve of his lower back.

His slow purposeful walk embodied the strength he was born with.

I held my breath as I weaved a prayer deep into the sky that was about to take my son half way around the planet and away from me.  And with all my heart, I exhaled life into these words:

“Dear Bali, you birthed me into a mother as I birthed my son to you 16 years ago. He returns to you now, on a solo journey of self-discovery. Keep him safe and protected in the womb of your love. He is yours now.”

With the umbilical chord cut and hanging like a vine in the indigo sky, I watched him take his first step into manhood.  Through the glass wall that stood between me and my son, I saw him blow me a kiss and mouth the words, “thank you, Mama. Love you.”

My heart ached so deeply, I could feel it in my womb. It broke open and outward into a rhythmic, pounding pride of fierce love for this courageous young man who was headed into the abyss of his own heroic journey.

Without me, for the very first time.

Leslie Caplan

 

Leslie Caplan is a Writing Coach, Editor, and Facilitator of Writing as a tool for Therapeutic Healing & Self-Discovery. She lives in Ashland, Oregon.

 

MOIST: A JOURNEY OUT OF CHAPSTICK ADDICTION by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta

Moist, a journey out of chapstick addiction

Earlier this month I gave birth to a daughter. My first. She was born with midwives but had to go to St. Luke’s for an infection. She had an IV in her hand, and when it wore out after a day, they put it in her other hand. Then her foot. Then her other foot. I watched each part of her 7lb-10-oz body turn scaly as it got wrapped with IV tape and parched by the dry air of the NICU.

I wanted to rub oil onto her extremities. I wanted to touch each dry part and make it moist, but she was connected to wires and away from home, not ready for me yet. Every part of her dried out that first week of her life, her eyes, her small inverted nipples, her fingers. Everything but her lips. Her lips stayed perfect — soft and moist.

I talked to her even when I couldn’t hold her. I told her about myself, about some things I had learned. I told her, one evening, about need. About how important it is to need people, not things. How not needing too many things makes a person portable, able to travel light. I told her things I learned almost a decade ago, from being addicted to chapstick.

Since discovering lip balm at age ten, I put it on my lips between 50 and 100 times a day. These are real numbers, by the way, not fuzzy math. I had to keep it with me at all times: I had vanilla lip balm in my glove compartment; Nivea rose in the pocket of whichever boyfriend I was dating; standard cherry chapstick in my backpack; Body Shop strawberry next to my bed; Rachel Perry banana-coconut in the kitchen; and my favorite of all, Montana huckleberry in my purse – that one I always ordered in bulk in case I ran out.

Jump forward eleven years – I had just graduated from college, and I used the first paycheck of my first writing job to book a trip to NY. I packed clothes for a week, my notebook, toothbrush, and half a dozen tubes of lip balm: plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry.

I stayed with my friend Yo-El who was a first year medical student, and spent my first day exploring. When Yo-El finished class, I met her for oysters at a little restaurant near Battery Park. I was telling her about my day when she interrupted me and said: “Hey, Liz, when’s the last time you looked in the mirror?”

“What?” I asked. “I don’t know. This morning, probably. Why?

“Well,” she said, “I was just wondering what’s wrong with your lips.”

She ushered me off to the bathroom to have a look.

Both my top and bottom lip looked as if they had been burned. They had this awful blistery flakiness, and had turned a bright lipstick burgundy. The corners of my mouth had cracked into sore-looking circles, sort of like the red dots on clown-cheeks.

Perhaps, I thought, I needed better lip balm. I dragged Yo-El out of the oyster bar and to a Walgreen’s a few doors down. I bought a new tube of Vaseline lip therapy and thought that by the end of the night, the problem would be solved.

But the next morning, my lips had gotten worse. When I got up for breakfast, Yo-El was sitting at her kitchen table, practicing her sutures on a piece of raw chicken, and still she looked at my mouth and said, “Gross.”

In addition, she began trying to diagnose me, telling me all of the things it “might” be – such as oral cancer. “That’s what it looks like,” she said apologetically. “Oh, I hope it’s not squamous cell carcinoma! Or worse …  what if it’s syphilis? If it is syphilis you’d better treat it – untreated syphilis can lead to blindness. Or you might have Steven-Johnson Syndrome. That wouldn’t be too bad – except that it’s untreatable.”

I still thought the problem was as simple as my needing more lip balm, so I went out and bought something stronger, with soothing herbs and lavender.

But this new lip balm didn’t work, either, and my face was getting worse; the cakey redness was spreading down toward my chin and up toward my nose. So I cut my trip short and went home that day. As I took the subway back to my apartment, I noticed tactless people – mostly children and very old people – staring at me. It was disconcerting.

That evening, I had had enough. I had two more weeks before my college health insurance ran out, so I gathered every lip balm I owned and frog-marched myself to University Health Services. I wasn’t sure which floor to go to – was this an Ear, Nose, and Throat Problem, or simply Dermatology? Should I go to Sexual Health, or the Cancer Center? It turned out that all of the different wings closed at 5pm, so any problems afterward were considered Emergency.

So I waited in the Emergency Room, sitting among people with broken arms and legs. And finally I got called back. The doctor looked exhausted, like those interns you see in movies who haven’t slept for 3 days. “Well?” he said. “What is the problem?”

I explained about my mouth.

“Did you try lip balm?” He asked.

“Yes!” I said. “About twenty different kinds!” And I opened my purse, and out spilled plain mint, gooey grape in a tub, Dr. Pepper-flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime, Montana huckleberry, and dozens of other kinds that I had tried and that had failed me.

The doctor wanted to know how long I had been using lip balm. I told him eleven years.

Then he asked: “How many times a day would you say you use it?”

I decided to give a conservative answer. “About thirty,” I said, casually. “Give or take.”

“Thirty!” He said. “Jesus.” It dawned on me then that this had to be serious, as the doctor probably wasn’t supposed to say “Jesus” in front of patients.

He put on gloves and examined my mouth. He took a culture. He left the room and returned a few minutes later, and said:

“The problem is that you are addicted to lip balm.”

He went on to say that my lips had stopped producing moisture, and that the only way to fix this was for me to go cold turkey.

I told him that that wasn’t an option. I asked, “Can’t you send me home with, like, a prescription or something? What is normally done in these cases?”

He gave me a scornful look. “We don’t see a lot of lip balm addicts in the emergency room.”

But he disappeared again and returned with a sample tube of steroid cream, the kind you use for athlete’s foot. “You may put the cream on your lips twice a day. No more. If you come back here in a week addicted to this cream, I will refuse to see you.” Then he left the room for good, leaving me in it, surrounded with colored lip balm tubes poking in all different directions.

It was a sad walk home that Saturday night, but I courageously stopped at a trash can in Harvard Square, surrounded by punk teenagers and homeless people, and I began to empty my purse. Down went plain mint, gooey grape in a tub; down went Dr. Pepper flavored, banana-coconut, lemon-lime. Down went all tubes, including Montana huckleberry.

There is an invisible line dividing before and after in most addictions, and even in such a ridiculous one, the line existed.

The things I couldn’t do until my lips healed included kissing (when I tried to kiss my boyfriend, he refused because he said I was “scaly”); eating spicy food; taking big bites of any food; and using lipstick. I learned this last rule a month after the initial flare-up, when I tried to test the doctor’s orders by using moisturizing lipstick – and I ended up, once again, with starchy clown-lips that took another month to heal.

But soon I learned that there were also things I could now do: for example, swimming. I used to have to stick near the sides of the pool or the lake, because even in the water I needed to have fast access to lip balm. But now when I went swimming with friends, I could swim out further. I could also travel more lightly, since I no longer needed to carry a purse to tote around all my lip balms. I could just stick money and keys in my pocket and go.

And it made me wonder: what other things did I think I needed that I could give up?

First on that list was the boyfriend. He was a place-holder, you know the kind of person you date while waiting for someone better to come along, and also I could not get him to stop using the word, “irregardless,” which is not actually a word.

I thought: I don’t need him.

Then I realized how many belongings I had that I didn’t need. That year after college, I started giving them away. It was sort of the beginning of my life as a generous person. If I wasn’t using something well, I felt that the thing should go to somebody who would love it.

I moved into a smaller apartment. I looked at my life and all its commitments – did I truly need to be a member of this club? Was that friend actually a good friend? Did I need this job, or was I just wasting my time and keeping it to feel safe? I reexamined every thing, every person, and every commitment that I had. And I consciously chose to either keep them or let them go. I began traveling lightly in a whole new way, choosing to focus my time and energy only on the things that mattered to me. And it was all because of lip balm.

And  that’s how lip balm became a divider between my teens and my twenties, an  addiction that I left behind in one decade to move, unaddicted, into the next.

Elisabeth Sharp McKettaElisabeth Sharp McKetta is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Monkey Puzzle, Anderbo, Luna Station Quarterly, and Talking River; her play “Zelda Speaks of Swans” was performed in two long-standing new works festivals, and she has been the featured storyteller at several events, including Story Story Night, where she first ’fessed up publicly to her chapstick addiction.

FULL CIRCLE by Terri Lyne Carrington

Teri Lyne Carrington

When I look back on my life there are a lot of instances where others told me how fearless and daring I was, but I always felt like I was just being me. Due to the fact that I am a drummer, playing an instrument predominantly played by men in the male-dominated music world, I have had to be fearless and daring; otherwise, I basically would not have gotten anywhere in this business.

What I find interesting is how I have had to present myself in order to be accepted in this community. This has not really been a fully conscious effort on my part.

I was always pretty good at reading personalities and figuring out what needed to be done or said in order for a situation to produce or fulfill its maximum potential. My personality is strong and I think sometimes others find it intimidating, so I naturally developed a way to present a more softened version of myself – a “me” that I actually grew to be quite fond of as well. Still, what repeatedly rings in my ears is my mother’s voice scolding me as a child for being too concerned with what others thought. And later on in my life, I recall my dad’s voice remarking on the fact that is was the older musicians, as in one or two generations earlier than mine, who were the ones to hire me because I was never fully accepted by my peers.

I finally realized that a big part of the “me” that has developed was for the comfort of others, based on the spoken and unspoken social laws of behavior for women. Well, now in my forties, as cliché as it may sound, I am finally daring to be my fabulous self, however it may turn out.

I am finally realizing how much time I have spent and wasted on trying to fit into a box here or a box there. From worrying about who likes me or who doesn’t, to worrying about my pant size or hairstyle. My good friend Dianne Reeves once told me that I spent too much time trying to find “what is hip?” and that I did not realize that I am “what is hip!” I thought about that one day and cried for hours because of the truth in her statement. Though I am confident, intelligent, strong-willed, and relatively outspoken, I have felt very much misunderstood over the course of my life and I finally get it that I have some responsibility for that. I see that it takes a lot of courage to discover and to be your authentic self in the world.

Most of us are complex people and it can be difficult to exercise the beauty of all of our complexities in personal relationships, in both business and in society in general. I have figured out that it is freedom that I am looking for and now see that I have been the only one in the way of having it. I see that I possess within myself the freedom to live the life I want. It’s not something that someone else will grant me. So what I am saying is that, with all of the praise, awards, and critical acclaim I have received over the years, this outward reinforcement of my being “fabulous” never really stuck with me because career accomplishments alone did not make me feel complete. It is my own personal achievements and growth that have made me feel fabulous. It is who I am on the inside that makes me feel special.

And I would have to say that the one thing that has made me feel more fabulous than anything else is my decision to have children and start a family with my partner Tracy. Having a family, something that is simple for (or even expected of) most women, is something that I have to work for, something I have to change my life for in order to accomplish. I feel that I have finally grown up in the sense that I am making a switch in priorities, away from career and more toward family. There have been many challenges in our journey of trying to have children by birth and by adoption, but we are now grateful and proud to be parents to an amazing little boy. We had faith that in the right time the right “child spirit(s)” will choose us. And so another journey begins, back in my hometown on the opposite coast, far away from everything I’ve known in Southern California for the last 17 years, but with family. I am also a full-time professor at Berklee College of Music, the very school I went to 25 years ago! My life has come full circle.

So this is who I am – a partner, a mother, a hope-to-be-one-day grandmother, as well as a daughter, a drummer and a teacher. And though my family is being formed alternatively, there is a natural joy and sense of purpose that comes with this, and I am so glad I did not allow myself to be robbed of that!

Terri Lyne Carrington Grammy

Terri Lyne Carrington was a child prodigy as a jazz drummer. She got her first set of drums at seven, and by the age of 11 she received a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music. She has toured with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, and Al Jarreau. She also produces jazz albums and has received GRAMMY awards as both musician and producer.

 

FEAR CITY by Penny Ross Burk

Fear City

The traffic going up Route 81 was a little heavy but pride kept me on the highway and passionately directed. I was scared to death, an introvert flying down the road trying to function in an extrovert’s world and heading towards a destination almost too frightening to talk about.

After a recent divorce and a very quiet spring, I decided to challenge my still winterized mind and body to an impromptu trip to New York City with my two kids. It represented some of my worst fears, ones that my ex-husband alleviated by taking complete control. For the past ten years he was the one to drive in the city, find parking, ward off strangers, negotiate the subway, and then pay for everything. This left me with the awesome responsibility of, well, tagging along.

Over the years I had become totally dependent on him and now that he was gone, I had spent the entire winter and spring immobilized by my fears. I had to get out of the house, cabin fever was setting in and I wanted to see my dear aunt and uncle. We lived a solid five hours from them and they lived in the heart of (tremble, shudder) mid-town Manhattan.

Monday night Uncle Milt called to announce his departure from the city to his retreat in Maine, where he and Aunt Molly have been spending summers for years. “But Milt,” I complained, “I really want to see you, it’s been ages.”

“So, come up,” was his answer.

“That’s it, come up? We would have to leave,” (first checking the calendar and then panicking), “Tomorrow.”

I heard Molly in the background snickering, “She won’t make it, she’s stuck in the country without a man – she couldn’t even make it to Maine last year without him!” That did it. “Milt, I’ll call you before I leave.” I slammed the phone down while I cursed Molly for knowing how to push all my buttons.

I searched frantically for reasons not to go, but couldn’t find a single illness, gas shortage, or flat tire. But, just because that’s the way the cookie crumbles (especially in the back seat of our car), we found ourselves hurtling down the highway into the unknown.

The children watched Mommy quietly from the back of the van while she strangled the steering wheel with pale white knuckles. “It’ll be fine,” I told myself over and over again while periodically looking over my shoulder at the kids. “Hey, guys, don’t look so scared, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.”

Pennsylvania was okay and to my surprise New Jersey wasn’t too bad either. Even the dreaded New Jersey Turnpike offered no obstacles. There was hardly anyone on the road and my eight-year-old daughter noted the color coming back into my hands. We were three exits away from where we needed to be but for me, the tough part was just coming up.

The Holland Tunnel looked like any other tunnel, but being in a paranoid state of mind I imagined it turning into a giant spiraling sliding board going much deeper than the harbor and of course never ending. However, it was the other side that scared me even more.

What happens if I get a case of amnesia and forget which way to go, or no doubt I’d get cut off and miss my turn and be lost driving in circles forever and then get accosted by some psycho-killer just waiting for a mom with two kids from West Virginia to attack.

That thought got to me.

“Lock the doors, guys.”

“But Mom, we’re only four blocks away!”

“I don’t care lock ’em anyway!”

For some mysterious reason the garage was right where we left it one year earlier and hadn’t been replaced by a sky scraper or 12 new one-way streets. We had arrived, with nary a wrong turn and without the use of husbands, boyfriends, or any other adult.

Now if we could make it to Milt and Molly’s storefront apartment, shlepping pillows, clothes, stuffed animals, and five ears of corn, life would be perfect. To my amazement, one foot fell in front of the other and in no time I was a functioning independent person knocking on my aunt and uncle’s door.

After hugs of greeting and surprise at the great time we made driving up, we talked briefly about family, dinner, and then our plans for the next day. In order to get the kids to go along so easily I had to bribe them with a visit to the Statue of Liberty. My four-year-old son called it the Statue of Levity and couldn’t wait to go. As we sat around discussing plans, I cheerfully asked who was going to go with us. Molly said she would be at the dentist and had other appointments through the day. Milt immediately said no, not even waiting for Molly to finish listing her excuses.

“You mean no one will go with us?” I was beginning to panic (again). There was no way out of this one. I had promised the kids and of course they just had to go by subway, otherwise known (at least to me) as the underground-snake-maze from hell, which devours innocent country people like us. I was trapped.

Milt and Molly told us where to go and when to transfer. Transfer? Oh great, the snake pit maze was going to swallow us whole and we’d never come out again except as raving mad people, with torn clothes, matted hair, and drooling.

“Then what, Milt? I didn’t hear what you said, you’re not sure of the stop? Not sure of the stop?”

Could it get any worse?

“You mean I’ll have to look at a map, which I won’t understand because they’re all written in a foreign language, so then I’ll have to ask a New Yorker who will sneer at me and he’ll speak so fast that if I ask him to repeat the answer he’ll knife me?”

“Bowling Green, Molly? What’s that? You mean the subway doesn’t go right to the ferry and we’ll have to walk through Battery Park,” (major freak out), “with the kids?”

Swallowing became an audible event and my heart quickly sank into my stomach. “Is there any other way?” I asked hopefully.

“Sure the bus on Broadway goes right there.”

“You’re kidding,” (visible relief). “Did you hear that, kids? We’ll be able to see everything – above ground!”

“We want the train – we want the train!”

Milt and Molly were already discussing eggplant lasagna at Ray’s for dinner while I slid deeply into my chair wondering if I could feign some illness like irreversible brain damage. I ate lightly and decided this looked just like the kind of fear that needed to be faced head-on. Okay, I’ll do it, I thought, and if we wind up in Newark then I’ll never have to mow the lawn again. Sounds good to me, I told myself and made the deal.

The next morning I asked again – just to make sure. “No.” was the simultaneous answer. The directions were repeated for the emotionally handicapped, the front door opened, and there it was, the kind of concrete nightmares were made of. “Bus, right, guys?”

“We want the train, we want the train.”

“Okay, okay.”

I don’t know what happened, there must have been some happy gas sprayed in the tunnels the night before. The token man smiled and a lady showed us where to transfer and in Bowling Green, the sky was blue and the sun was still shining, as it had been when we started.

I was beginning to get the hang of this: adult; two legs; two eyes; most of a brain. Hey, no problem, I could do this in daylight. Did it matter that my daughter complained she had no more circulation in the hand I was holding?

The Statue of Levity was filled with people like myself, that really did speak a foreign language and I was ready to help if asked.

“Okay, guys, you’ve seen the statue, now let’s go explore!”

“Can’t we just go back to Uncle Milt and Aunt Molly’s?”

“Sure, let’s take a different uptown train.”

“We want to take a cab.”

“Forget it; it’s cheaper to take the subway.”

Did I just say that? I went through the bowels of the city and came through unscathed and, in fact, feeling more confident than I had in years.

Back at the apartment, the sun was setting on a beautiful summer day in the most exciting city in the world. I grew up around here you know. I know the city pretty well, I walked the length of it once, years ago and in the middle of the night…yeah, I used to hang out in Washington Square Park and St. Marks place, back in the late ’60s. We were up in Harlem once and…

It’s amazing how I’d finally grown up enough to be as independent as I had been 30 years ago.

Penny Ross BurkPenny Ross Burk is an artist/writer living in the Northern Virginia area. She has worked for many years in the film and TV industry which serves to keep her art alive.