My buddy Helena shared an interesting article by a native Russian woman, who detailed her experiences and struggles using the language, after moving to the United States in the late 80s. Helena and I pretty much grew up together (her dad was my dad’s closest friend – they went to grade school together), and our families came to the United States within a few years of one another, although she was younger than I was when she came here. We both speak Russian, but we’re both completely Americanized, and neither one of us has a detectable accent.
My parents took extra care to force me to speak Russian at home when I was a kid. Seriously. As in, they wouldn’t answer except with a curt “Po Russki” (“in Russian”) when I tried to speak English to them. I hated it. Once I learned English, there was no turning back. I didn’t want to speak Russian. I didn’t feel it was necessary. I hated the language, because as a kid who came here during the Cold War, I felt everyone despised me, so I didn’t want to speak it. I was embarrassed.
When I was in college, I did wind up taking some Russian lit courses, because even though I didn’t regularly speak the language, I could still read and understand, and frankly I needed an easy “A.” But I still refused to speak Russian, other than in class, and my history still struck me as an embarrassment to be hidden and shunned, not taken advantage of.
Fast forward *mumblegrumblemhmmmh* years later, and I realize how wrong I was. My former job required extensive use of my Russian language skills, and while I still got the maximum ratings on my Defense Language Proficiency Tests (DLPT), I only took the lower range (easier) exams, which required little effort. Not only was I using my language skills on a daily basis, but my language pay, which we call FLPP, or “FLIP” depended on my DLPT scores, and as a linguist, I was also required to attend language refresher training that lasted six weeks.
My experience speaking Russian matches this writer’s.
But I haven’t spoken Russian with any regularity since I was in my early teens, when, tired of middle-school ostracism, I decided to become as Americanized as possible. Many psychologists think that we forget languages, and other things, because of “disuse”—the memories that we don’t try to recall very frequently become more deeply buried over time. Which explains why, even though you once aced your French midterm, you can no longer remember how to declare that you would like to go parasailing with Jean-Claude this weekend.
Other studies have shown that forgetting a native language might be an adaptive strategy that helps us learn a second one. In a 2007 study, “native English speakers who had completed at least one year of college-level Spanish were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more the students were asked to repeat the Spanish words, the more difficulty they had generating the corresponding English labels for the objects.” That is to say, the better I became at English, the more my brain suppressed the Russian inside me.
As I said previously, I literally tried to forget it – not so I could learn English, because I was already fluent by the time sixth grade rolled around – but because I wanted to forget my background. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit in.
So what happens when one has the language somewhere deep inside that brain, but the linguistic muscles atrophy from misuse?
Well, for one, remembering words becomes a chore. The Russian word is right there on the tip of my tongue. I just need to retrieve it somehow. Easy word. I know this word.
The more I focus on trying to remember the word, the less reachable it becomes. Dammit! I step back, I say the entire sentence out loud in Russian, hoping the elusive word just rolls off my tongue out of habit. That strategy is sometimes helpful, but most of the time not. The longer I strain, the worse it becomes, and by the end of the day, I can’t even remember how to say “car” in Russian (Mashina)
On my last deployment to Kosovo, I was asked to act as interpreter for the visit of Ramil Kadyrov to Camp Bondsteel (yes, I did write that article). Kadyrov was at the time First Deputy to the Minister of Defense of Tajikistan, and since he only had one terp with him, I was asked to supplement.
It was three days that went something like this.
Him (in Russian): blah blah blah
Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, blah.
His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.
Me (translating into Russian): blah, blah, derp (look at his terp for help – oh yeah!), blah.
Him (in Russian): blah blah blah
Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, (fish around for English translation), blah.
His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.
Me (translating into Russian): blah, derp, uhhhhhh, blah.
Him (in Russian): blah blah blah
Me: (translating into English): blah, blah, (fish around for English translation), ummmmmmm, blah.
His interlocutor (in English): blah, blah, blah.
Me (translating into Russian, brain bleeding into my mouth, eyes crossing): derp, derp, uhhhhhh, derp.
By the third day it became considerably more difficult to access the Russian words I needed to do my job. As the author points out, you just get plain exhausted. Much like after a strenuous workout, after having avoided the gym for several months, you are in language muscle failure.
I was surprised how exhausting it can be to operate in an unfamiliar tongue. By the end of the day, my word-dogs and I yearned to stop. I would run out of things to deem “beautiful” or “interesting.” My tongue felt fat, and my already half-assedly rolled “rs” started getting straight-up swapped for the American kind.
I was surprised, however, to realize that the three-day terp fiasco is merely a small hurdle to overcome.
When I did my mandatory language refresher course in 2013, the teacher demanded that only Russian be spoke in class, and the homework sometimes took three hours due to sheer volume.
My brain was tired after three days, but as the course rolled along, I realized that the access to words I thought I had forgotten was coming back strong. I was able to complete the homework quicker. My word recall skills returned strong, and eventually, I was able to speak without reaching back to slowly tug the words out of my brain.
I began to speak Russian, instead of translating from English to clumsy Russian in my head before opening my mouth. And yes, there is a difference. Those learning a language will translate in their heads first before speaking. Native speakers simply speak, and the sentences flow directly from their brains in Russian (or any other language), instead of English words that first have to hit a translation filter. The longer I spoke, the easier the speech flowed. I began to dream and to think in Russian, which is where you want to be as a linguist.
And then, one day – at the end of my training – I sort of forgot English.
The instructor had us watching a Russian sitcom called “Interny” or “Interns.” It was a
blatant ripoff homage to both “Scrubs” and “House,” which one episode fully acknowledged in a scene, and it was hilarious! I spent many nights watching that show on my computer, and one night I binge watched close to an entire season. For six hours straight. When I finally finished, I decided to turn on CNN in my barracks room and see what was going on in the world, and that’s when I realized I didn’t understand a single word.
Not even kidding.
I was literally listening to CNN and not understanding a word. The English sounded familiar, as if I should have been able to understand it, but I couldn’t.
And that’s how I got my Russian groove back. I did return from the course, still dreaming in Russian and yelling Russian commands at my dog, who looked at me like had lost my mind, but as my English slowly became normal again, my Russian remained intact, confirming UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork’s theory that while disuse of the language does cause words to become less accessible, relearning the information makes it stick around stronger and better than ever before.
I took the upper range (more difficult) DLPT that year, and I scored a 4/5 in listening, a 3+/5 in reading, and a 3/5 in speaking (never could get a higher grade in speaking – that score is more subjective than any other, because you’re actually speaking with a live Russian on the phone, who is grading your ability to communicate, and they apparently all hate me).
I should have listened to my parents when they tried to get me to speak Russian as a kid all those years ago.
Well, some of you wanted it, so here it is. I know I posted some of the questions in Kyle Reyes’ Snowflake test in my last post about it, and I provided some personal replies, but I thought, and a couple of readers agreed it would be fun if I answered all of the questions honestly, and provided the opportunity for you guys to do the same in the comments section.
Soooooooooooooooooooo…. Let’s see if Kyle thinks I’m a snowflake and whether he would hire me.
- Outside of standard benefits, what benefits should a company offer employees?
Opportunities to expand their skillset, opportunities to advance, and parking. Parking is a biggie for me, living in DC and paying $25 per day if I want to drive to work.
- What should the national minimum wage be?
There shouldn’t be one. Period. Employees and employers enter into a mutually beneficial contract, for whatever the price of employee’s labor is that takes into consideration both what the value of said employee’s labor is to the employer, and what the employee agrees to be compensated for said labor. If the government interferes and forces said employer to pay a higher wage, the employer will likely have to weigh the cost of increasing the value of the product and passing that on to the consumer, risking a decline in sales, or just not hire the employee and force others to pick up slack that could have been filled by someone seeking experience and a few extra bucks. Entry level jobs aren’t meant to be careers. They’re meant to be providers of experience and skill, and if someone is sitting in a minimum wage “career” and not advancing, but demanding a higher wage for the same crap, they’re slugs and looters, and they need to go away.
- How many sick days should be given to employees?
Depends. I understand the idea behind sick leave. It’s not vacation time that you spend relaxing. Generally speaking it’s shitty days you spend in the hospital, at the doctor, or in bed hoping for a quick death. But it is leave – for whatever reason. So give employees sufficient amounts of regular leave, so they’re not trying to justify it with doctor’s notes and stuffy, achy, coughy-sounding phone calls and still have enough to take a vacation during the year. Everyone needs a break.
- How often should employees get raises?
When they merit them.
- How do you feel about guns?
Best tools of self-defense on the market.
- What are your feelings about employees or clients carrying guns?
Just keep your booger hook off the bang switch and don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot, and we’re good.
- What are your feelings about safe spaces in challenging work environments?
Unnecessary and a waste of resources. Challenging work environments develop human beings as people and as employees.
- In a creative environment like The Silent Partner Marketing, what do you envision work attire looking like?
As I said previously, dress appropriately for the day. I dress in a suit if I have a meeting or a briefing – especially for senior policy makers. Otherwise, I wear comfortable slacks, a blouse and a blazer or a dress. In a more creative and less structured environment, the normal day without meetings may be different. Don’t look like a freak. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. And if you’re wondering what a freak looks like, here’s an extreme example. Don’t be this guy.
- Should “trigger warnings” be issued before we release content for clients or the company that might be considered “controversial”?
- How do you feel about police?
They are to be respected and appreciated for the sacrifices they have chosen to make. That said, the badge doesn’t come with a halo. They aren’t always right, and there are corrupt and inept police officers out there, just like there are in any other profession.
- If you owned the company and were to find out that a client is operating unethically but was a high paying client…how would you handle it?
Address it with the client directly and respectfully. You have become aware that they are operating unethically. This is not the culture we condone in our company. We can help you fix it, or you can find another marketing firm.
- When was the last time you cried and why?
At my son’s Army Basic Training graduation. Tears of joy.
- You arrive at an event for work and there’s a major celebrity you’ve always wanted to meet. What happens next?
I do my job.
- What’s your favorite kind of adult beverage?
- What’s the best way to communicate with clients?
Directly, honestly, and respectfully. At the same time, you’re the subject matter expert whose services they sought out, and you need to be firm if the client demands are bad for them or for you. “Customer is always right” only goes so far and should be resisted if the customer’s plan is bad practice.
- What’s your favorite thing to do in your free time?
Hiking, shooting, reading, writing.
- What are your thoughts on the current college environment as it pertains to a future workforce?
Colleges are leaving graduates woefully unprepared for the real world. Grading on curves, providing safe spaces, stifling free speech in favor of FEELZ, and treating legal adults like fragile children that should be coddled, while providing a substandard education that focuses on the political/social agenda of those who run the school will leave graduates unable to function in high-pressure environments, unqualified for work that involves critical thinking, and wholly unsuited for today’s competitive work place.
- What’s your typical breakfast?
COFFEE! Dark. With a spoonful of coconut oil and heavy cream. Sometimes a few slices of salmon and/or cheese.
- What’s your favorite drink when you go to a coffeehouse?
Latte with heavy whipping cream and one small pump of sugar-free cinnamon dulce syrup.
- How do you handle bullies?
Depends on the situation. My reactions range from ridiculing them until they cry, to actual physical self defense. I’ll never start a physical fight, but you can bet I’ll finish it. Ridiculing them is fun. They’re not used to being the object of scorn, so they generally fold like cheap lawn chairs when faced with someone who won’t put up with their shit. Many of them have been in that position of power for so long, and have grown so accustomed to never being challenged, that their mental acuity muscles have atrophied.
- How do you handle it when your ideas are shot down?
I try to come up with better ones. If I’m convinced my idea is great, I’ll try to persuade with logic and reason.
- What do you do if a coworker comes to the table with an idea and it sucks?
“That actually sounds interesting, but maybe we can modify it this way? Or how about something in this vein?” If the coworker sucks, “This is the worst idea ever! Slap yourself. With a chair.”
- What does the first amendment mean to you?
It means the freedom to speak your mind without worrying about government prosecution. It means being able to engage in political activities -whether speech, expression, written word, or assembly, without being targeted by those in power. It means being free to exercise whatever religion you want, or not. It does NOT mean being free of the consequences of exercising those rights. That means, yes, your employer has the right to fire you for being an embarrassing douchebag and spewing your rhetoric in a way that embarrasses the company. It means yes, a baker is allowed to be narrow minded and bigoted and to decline to bake a cake for a gay wedding. It also means that potential customers have the right to shun that baker, but the government has no right to fine him. It means, yes, you have the right to speak, but I’m not obligated to provide you with a microphone or a means of disseminating your message. It means you can worship in any way you want, but I’m not obligated to build you a church (read that as: taxpayer funds shouldn’t be used to build houses of worship).
- What does faith mean to you?
Absolutely nothing. Never been a faith person. Faith is, by definition, something you exercise without proof. Not my cup of tea, but y’all should feel free. (And yes, I realize how strange it is to say when my dad is a religious Jew, and when my family was deprived of the right to practice our religion in the former USSR.)
- Who is your role model and why?
Hmmmmm… that would be my dad. My dad dropped everything he knew in the USSR, including a decent job, to start a brand new life in the United States with zero language skills, because he knew that as a Jew, I wouldn’t have the opportunities there that I do here, and he wanted a better life for me. My dad – with his two Masters Degrees in engineering – came here and got a menial labor job until he could learn enough English to find an engineering position. My dad never got welfare. He picked up bits of furniture and electronics from other people’s trash on their curbs, fixed them up and cleaned them, and provided furniture and some basic entertainment for his family. My dad sacrificed everything to come to a brand new country, assimilate into a brand new culture, and learn a brand new language – all for me. All so I could have a future.
- “You’re in Starbucks with two friends. Someone runs in and says someone is coming in with a gun in 15 seconds to shoot patrons. They offer you a gun. Do you take it? What do you do next?”
I have my own, thanks, but I’ll always take an extra, although it probably won’t be a .45 ACP like I carry. Find cover with a good line of sight to the entrance. Ensure patrons move away from the entrance and take cover. Gunman comes in blasting? There’s only one door. Thermopylae.
- What does America mean to you?
America means freedom. America means opportunities, if you’re willing to work for them. America is the ability to succeed if you have the will and the skill, without consideration for your race, religion, etc. America is the ability to express yourself without worrying about being kidnapped in the middle of the night and tossed into a dank cell. America is accountability – both for government officials and for the regular guy. America is not easy, but nothing worth it ever is.
- You see someone stepping on an American flag. What do you do?
Throat punch incoming. That said, I am also aware and willing to face the consequent assault charge. Freedom of expression is not without consequences. If one engages in this type of repulsive behavior, one should expect visceral reactions from a number of groups of people – even those who are aware of the consequences that can range from citations to criminal charges.
- What does “privilege” mean to you?
A privilege is a special right granted to one person, but not to another.
- What’s more important? Book smarts or street smarts? Why?
Both are important depending on the situation. Tactically, street smarts are more important. Street smarts allow you to react to real world situations. They help you use rational thought and logic to achieve the best outcomes. Street smarts are common sense; they are a survival mechanism. Strategically, book smarts give you perspective to deal with those difficult situations. They provide the tools you can call upon in times of need. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. At the same time, books also make you a more interesting, well rounded person.
OK, Kyle! Would you hire me?
As for you guys, leave your own responses in the comments. I realize it will make the comment incredibly long, but what the heck.
I had what I hope is my last physical therapy appointment for my ankle today. That is not to say the ankle is perfect. It’s still sore on occasion, and sometimes it swells so much, it kind of looks deformed. But I have exercises I will do at home, I ice regularly, and the ankle is stable, which is the biggest and best effect of the Brostrom procedure I had nearly four months ago.
That’s the good.
The bad is the fact that I can’t wear the majority of my shoes. Even a small, two-inch heel leaves me in pain. I wore a pair of black boots I absolutely adore to work last week, and I literally hobbled back home! Yikes!
Luckily for me, department stores to the rescue!
Department stores have found an alternative to the low-price TVs sold by electronic chains to draw crowds over the Thanksgiving weekend: a $19.99 pair of women’s boots.
Belk Inc. started offering the heavily discounted boots as its “door-buster” seven years ago. The promotion was so successful that it has been repeated every year since, and adopted by rivals like Kohl’s Corp., Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co.
“$19.99 is a magic number,” said Joseph Safdeye, chief executive of E.S. Originals Inc., a shoe importer that came up with the idea. “When a lady can walk in with $100 and buy five pairs of boots, that’s a good deal.”
Guess what resides just across the street from my apartment building!
Hi, Macy’s! I can haz boots?
I hate tossing some of the absolutely gorgeous shoes I have! I wear them to work. They look incredible with a black suit – or a dress, for that matter. The thought is unappealing enough that I’m willing to wait a little to see if the ankle heals up enough for me to wear my favorite shoes and boots again.
In the meantime, I need BOOTS!!! It’s fall, dontcha know! BOOTS!
I’ve learned over the years that buying cheap crap made in China isn’t worth the few bucks you save. The boots generally fall apart after a few months of wear, or they make your feet sweat to such a degree, you feel like you’re walking through a swamp, toes squishing in sludge. So, the doorbuster deal doesn’t generally appeal to me as a consumer. I want quality.
That said, this year – until the ankle heals, which my physical therapist says could take six months to a year – I may be enticed to grab a pair of these things to tide me over until I can wear my boots again without crying.
Black Friday, here I come!
Did y’all burn the place down while I was gone?
Did you throw ragers?
Did you get pissed drunk and wake up with sketchy individuals in bed next to you, or your face plastered to the toilet bowl?
Yes, I missed you too, but work called, and off I want to… well, I’ll let you guys guess where I was this time.
My trip this week went something like this.
Tuesday: go to the office dressed in torn jeans and an Army hoodie. Take care of last minute crap. Leave for the airport.
Arrive at airport, get hugged by an elderly lady and thanked for my service. Stand in security line for 45 minutes while TSA monkeys stare incompetently at my backpack and swab my ankle brace lest I am carrying Semtex inside. Board British Airways flight to Heathrow. Deal with screeching, but very cute, child the entire way.
Wednesday: Get to London and discover my connecting flight to my final destination is canceled. The only available flight is either at 1700 hours that evening, which would have had me stranded at Heathrow the entire day, and forced me to miss an evening function I was supposed to be attending, or a Lufthansa flight to first Frankfurt, and then my final destination, which would have put me there relatively early, but still have allowed me to shower and rest before the evening’s event.
Get booked on the Lufthansa flight. Have breakfast with a guy I met at the airport, who was also screwed by the BA flight cancellation. Discover the Lufthansa flight is an hour delayed.
Check in with Lufthansa, get assured the flights from Frankfurt will be delayed as well, so no need to worry because of the delay.
Flight leaves Heathrow an hour and a half late, causing us to miss connecting flight to final destination. We get told we are rebooked on the next available flight… at 1700 hours, leaving us stranded at Frankfurt’s Terminal 1 for four hours (if you know anything about Terminal 1, you feel my pain, as there’s literally nothing there – it’s deserted, save for a shop and a cafe).
As a funny aside, I discovered that when German flight crews apologize for delays due to “fog in London,” they sound like they’re apologizing for delays due to “fuckin’ London.” It took three times for me to figure out that they weren’t cursing Heathrow.
Get to final destination late. Think about going to the function. Decide not to in favor of bath, room service, and sleep.
Thursday: Attend planned work conference all day.
Thursday night: Hike around with colleagues. Take a few photos. Sleep.
Friday: Get to airport. Discover that British Airways flight to Heathrow is delayed, but fortunately not enough to make me miss connecting flight back to DC – just long enough to make me annoyed at having to sit in airport.
Friday afternoon: Get to Heathrow, meet up with close friend who lives in London, drink until boarding time.
Board plane. Sit next to farting Italian guy for 7 hours. Fight urge to kill farting Italian.
Get home. Snuggle husband, dog, and cat.
By the way, I got back to read this whining complaint by a self-described “fat person” about how fat people are being discriminated against by Hawaiian Airlines because the airline has chosen to select sears for the customers to better distribute the weight in the aircraft. Apparently, fat people’s plight just went from awful and dehumanizing to even more horrible!
If it’s not the glares and stares from people praying you don’t sit next to them, it’s the eye rolls when you tell them, “I’ve got the middle seat” or the loud sighs when you put the armrest up just to get a little relief. It’s the anxious feeling you get when you need to ask for a seat belt extender. And it’s your neighbor’s flat-out aggressive commentary about the lack of personal space that results from sitting next to you.
I’ll be the first to admit that flying sucks. The seats are already small and uncomfortable, and not being able to choose where you sit will make it even more so.
But let me address something here, as a person who is not fat, but certainly not stick skinny – a person who fits into the seat and doesn’t need a belt extender.
I just paid more than $1000 for a seat on a transatlantic flight. The person next to me ostensibly paid a similar price for a seat. A SEAT. They don’t quite fit into said seat, because they’re huge, so they try to lift the armrest, as this woman whines, for a “little relief.” This leaves me with half a seat, and the fat person with a seat and a half. This leaves me hanging into the aisle, being hit by the flight attendants, or worse, their meal carts, and told to sit in my seat, where there’s literally no room, because the fat person’s idea of getting “a little relief” is taking up their seat and half of mine, for which I paid the same as they did.
Is that fair to me? No. It’s a 7-8 hour discomfort and sometimes outright pain of having to contort myself to accommodate the person who ostensibly paid for one seat, but has now taken up more than that.
Am I supposed to suffer because the fat person feels “dehumanized?”
No matter what the reason for your weight issues, you do not have the right to make others suffer because it’s ostensibly not your fault that you are overweight. You do not have the right to more space at others’ expense because you ostensibly are a victim.
For anyone who has literally been squished against a wall, been forced to hang into the aisle, or had to sit in a stressor position, with your legs crossed and falling asleep, leaning on one butt cheek, because the fat person next to you needs a “little relief,” a lengthy flight is torture – a physical torture that’s more painful than a fat person’s feelz because someone rolled their eyes at the prospect of sitting next to them.
If you take up more than one seat, buy more than one seat. Then we all win.
So, can those of you who don’t already know from social media guess where I’ve been this week?
I’m going to share something with you, my dear readers, that I don’t normally share. Obviously, those close to me know, but generally, I haven’t spoken about this publicly. The reason I’m doing so today is because many times, when you experience an indescribable tragedy, you feel alone. So alone!
Logically you know you aren’t the only one. Your rational mind tells you there are others, but your heart isolates you inside this cocoon of tragedy, agony, and loss. So you internalize and try to forget…
… Until you run across something so heartwrenching, so unreal through which one of your friends has suffered, that your own pain pales in comparison.
It happened yesterday, when my friend Chris posted something that made my breath catch. He graciously wrote this post that explores his unspeakable agony for me to publish, because I asked him to. Maybe I’m posting this as catharsis. Maybe it’s catharsis for both me and him.
In 2002, my daughter Jordan Nickole died at 32 weeks of gestation. It was a difficult pregnancy. We did amniocentesis because the OB found a large cyst or bubble that covered the entire back of her neck in an ultrasound, which denotes Turner Syndrome and can cause a panoply of medical and developmental problems, including short height, failure to start puberty, infertility, heart defects, certain learning disabilities and social adjustment problems. It means that the X chromosome is either completely or partially missing.
I was told I had the option of aborting if the test came back abnormal. We thought long and hard about it, but decided not to. The amnio came back negative, and as relieved as we were (I remember getting the call at work and getting dizzy and falling down on the floor weak with relief), the doctor watched me and Jordan closely from then on.
At 32 weeks, she couldn’t find a heartbeat. She tried several times, stayed late until after 1900 hrs., and finally sent me to the hospital.
Long story short, I was forced to give birth to a stillborn. I refused all night. I told them I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t do it. But in the end I had to.
For years, I pushed Jordan’s death to the back of my mind. And then Chris wrote this. Maybe it sounds monstrous, but I feel a little less alone.
I hope Chris does too.
This is a hard post to write. I’m not even sure of the reasons for writing it. I’ve had 14 years to process. Maybe I want to help someone else with my struggle. Maybe I want to just get it out. Maybe I just want someone to relate. I don’t know.
Interpret as you will. I’m not sure I care.
Usually when a person starts talking about regret, it’s in reference to some boneheaded mistake they’ve made in their lifetime, or the trip to Disney World they didn’t take.
For me, it was about looking for a piece of machinery.
Jessica Elise was born January 17th, 1994. Most people who take the time, either remember it as the California Earthquake or Ice-Storm#1 (There would be another icestorm in a few weeks that made this one look like a piker) Babs Streisand’s house got damaged. I remember that one acutely because I sincerely dislike Babs. Love her singing voice… don’t like her.
We knew things weren’t going to be “normal” with this one. Our son, bless his soul, had been a rough delivery and Jessica had been rough pregnancy. We’d seen doctors, and more doctors, and genetic experts and more tests and all we got were more questions.
We got answers that afternoon. The best answer is that we had a beautiful baby girl. Jessica Elise (“I will see the promise of God” loosely translated. I actually didn’t know that when we picked the name, but it actually makes a little sense now.) The not so good answer was that she was going to be a challenge, medically.
Jess was going to be a both a blessing and challenge. Micropthalmia meant she was never going to be able to see without some sort of “eyeball transplant” or Star Trek level technology. Esophageal Atresia meant surgery to connect stomach and esophagus so she could at least keep from drowning in her own saliva. So… challenges.
For eight and a half years, my wife, my son, our extended family and friends and I, and the people we came to know because of Jess faced the challenge of raising and helping that little girl live. That little girl who one OB/GYN told us would be a “monster,” and we ought to consider aborting her. The little girl who we were assured would never laugh, never talk, never walk, never love us back, and so we ought to allow “nature” to run its course and let her choke on her own spit and snot…which “might not be a bad thing.”
Sixty plus surgeries. Countless days and hours spent in hospital rooms and hallways. Hours hoping and praying for another breath on her own. Watching a pediatric nephrologist jumping for joy because she peed on her own because that meant her kidneys hadn’t failed.
Challenges and blessings.
Eight and a half years. How in the world do you try and recount all the amazing things you learn taking care of a baby like that? How do you recount all of the times when medical science was either flat out wrong in its predictions or flummoxed by a little girl with a snaggletoothed grin? (She lost two of her teeth during a surgery when the OR tech accidentally knocked them out during intubation.) How do you talk about the tears that roll down your face when your daughter, grabs your hand and desperately, frantically wants you to tell her that she’s “pretty girl” (using tactile sign) because her face was massively bruised from having eye socket expanders placed that day, and she had apparently heard her parents talking about how bad she looked (remember she wasn’t even going to be able to know we loved her)?
Having that little girl was the biggest challenge and one of the three greatest blessings I’ve ever known. My son and my wife are the other two.
Eight and a half years. That level of care will take it out of you. Even with help, it will drain you and exhaust you, mind, body and spirit. It drained all of us. We were happy to do it, glad to do it. You don’t do any less for someone you love, but there comes a time where there is nothing left to give.
There also comes a time where the body just will not work anymore. For most of us, that doesn’t happen until we reach a good ole age. But not for Jessica. For months, she had been having problems digesting food, getting weaker, getting sick easier. Looking back it’s easy to see the problems, but inside the storm it’s harder to make out, you just brace and wait for the next blast.
We’d all had it. We’d taken so many hits. We were tired. And when you’ve gotten that tired, you rely on, depend on, some sort of routine to maintain your sanity in an insane situation. That routine, almost a complacency, is dangerous. They say the most dangerous place to drive is right near your home. The reason is that you relax from the routine… you’ve driven this stretch so many times, you could do it in your sleep… right? Up until the deer jumps out from nowhere.
I was out of work but starting school for my degree. I was homeschooling Christopher and taking him with me on school days (we lived right down the street from the Christian College I was attending, and a classmate’s wife was more than happy to kind of ride herd on him with her own kids until I got out of class). Christine was working on the other side of Baltimore and thus had the only real working vehicle capable of hauling all of us. She hadn’t wanted to go, things weren’t “right,” but I made her go, so that she’d have some sort of “normal.”
The weekend had been abysmal. Jess was getting sick and was miserable. We almost couldn’t console her; we’d go into her room, quiet her down, put on her favorite music album and make sure everything was OK; then back out into the living room. Then an hour later do it again. And again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
She had gotten skeletally thin, like a prisoner of war or a famine victim. There was no muscle tone anymore. The peritoneal feeding went through her, literally. It was almost undigested.
She was breathing heavyly that day. She was probably getting an infection, I thought, as I changed her and her bedding that morning. I’ll keep an eye on her and maybe start getting things ready for a trip to the hospital.
By afternoon, I’d already contacted Christine and let her know that we were definitely gonna be doing an all-nighter at the hospital. “But don’t worry,” I said. “Don’t kill yourself getting home.”
“What are her SATs doing?” my wife asked.
“Not sure; I’ll dig the Pulse Oximeter out and run a check. (For those who don’t know, it’s that thing in the hospital you wear on your finger or two with the red light. It measures the amount of oxygen in the blood.) At least that way, we’ll have number to throw at the ER docs.”
Christopher was watching Buffy on TV as I started looking for Jess’s Pulse Ox. I had made sure the O2 cannula was in her nose earlier and had been running O2 during the day to see if her breathing would calm down. No dice.
Also, no Pulse OX. We had recently moved and were living out of boxes, but I could have sworn we’d used that Pulse OX since we moved in. I looked everywhere for that thing. I tore closets apart. I tore boxes apart. I re-tore boxes apart.
I looked in on Jess. She was breathing more labored now. She was nearly thrashing, she was in so much pain, from exactly what I don’t know, but it was breaking my heart to watch.
I had to take a break. I sat down and watched TV with Christopher for a little bit, trying to rack my brain where the machine was. I called her nurse that cared for her on weekends. Nope. Didn’t know. Hadn’t needed to use it.
I went back around the house, now frantically trying to find a piece of equipment that did not want to be found.
Christine called and had left work. Traffic around Baltimore being what it was, it was going to be an hour or more before she got home. I had to find that machine before she got home. I had to get the baby ready to go.
I went in and started stripping her down to give her a cleanup and new change of clothes. There was something really wrong. She was gasping for breath, even with O2. I had to find that damn machine.
I don’t know exactly how many minutes later it was. It couldn’t have been very long. Ten? Fifteen? I gave up on looking for the bloody thing and was just going to get her packed up.
The first thing I noticed is that she’d messed her bed. Well, that was “normal” for the day. I think I’d changed her bed at least four or five times. I also noticed that she was quiet. I went over to the crib and realized that she also wasn’t breathing. She was a very odd pale shade of… when they say blue, it’s not. It’s a weird pale.
Some people get hysterical when crap really goes wrong. I get very calm. It’s weird in its own way, I suppose. You can tell just how far it’s dropped in the pot, by how calm I am. I get bent out of shape by some of the most mundane things, but…
I told Christopher to call 911 and tell them to send an ambulance. I started doing CPR and begging her to cry or move or do something.
The EMTs didn’t take long to get there. I told them what the situation was, and they set to work. The police arrived at the same time… of course they did. I’ve been around enough LEOs and EMTs over the years to know the drill.
I calmly told them the event of the last however long it was and the name of Jessica’s doctor at Johns Hopkins where she was a patient.
I knew I was going to jail. The house was a wreck. I mean seriously a wreck. The baby’s room was a mess. She was nearly naked, covered in crap, pill bottles, medical supplies, boxes, clothes, everything was strewn everywhere during my search for the O2 monitor.
I was calm. Too calm. I was going to jail.
Didn’t really care.
No punishment could ever come close to what I was feeling. What I AM feeling even today.
My little girl died, and I wasn’t there.
I’ve said that before, and people invariably explain it away. But the bottom line is I WASN’T THERE. I will go to my grave and I will not ever feel good about that.
We spent eight and a half years preparing for the day she left us. Knowing it as a fact of life every day for eight and half years. And when the time came, was she surrounded by people who love her? Was her daddy there holding her hand and giving her to the angels. NO. She died alone in puddle of crap fighting for her next breath. How do you tell yourself that’s OK?
Intellectually, even in my faith I know that it worked out as it needed to. I want to believe, I DO believe that in her final moments God was with her. But it really doesn’t make a difference. Even if God WAS there, I wasn’t, and that’s what I regret. I probably always will.
You can say what you want. At this point I really don’t care.
I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m writing this, intending for someone to read. Some will probably say I’m looking for attention… maybe I am. Maybe I need someone to tell me one more time that it’s OK. Maybe I’ll believe it this time. Maybe I just want someone else to know that if they’ve gone through this, they’re not alone. A new set of friends lost their baby to miscarriage yesterday. I can’t say I know how they feel, but I know grief and regret, and the endless what-if’s.
I don’t know. Take from this what you will. Do with it what you will. I don’t give pat answers anymore. All I have is a hope. That I’ll see her again someday.
I miss my girl.
One more year, Jess. Miss you, pretty girl. Hopefully, I’ll be there sooner or later.
P.S. I found the Pulse Ox the day after the funeral when we returned to the house. It was sitting right on top of a box that I had torn apart several times looking for it.