I was born on a cool November evening with a tiny hole between the ventricles of my heart. My mom was in labor all of two hours and got only half of an epidural before I made my entrance. My dad, quadriplegic after a diving accident at 18, was the first to hold me. He stroked my cheek with his calloused hand and welcomed me to the world. And so I was: a little damaged, a lot restless, and forged by the immeasurable love of my parents.
My parents are fearless in the face of tragedy and suffering. During my childhood and into my teens, my family of five (I have an older brother and a younger sister) fostered 15 kids in succession. Because my mom is a nurse, we got the challenging cases. A set of newborn twins, a premature baby, and the infant with a heart defect. We had the child with a colostomy bag, the toddler with developmental delays and the adolescent in the full-body cast. Once, my mom stopped her Volkswagen bus (carrying my entire Brownie troop sans seat belts) on the side of a busy freeway to rescue a dog that was loose. She even rescued a rabbit-fur coat from a Goodwill, just because she didn’t want those sacrificed animals to be abandoned and forgotten. Everything in me that is fierce, capable and compassionate comes from her.
My dad taught me that if you aren't already a fan of either sports team in a game, always root for the underdog. His philosophy didn't apply just to sports. He embodied this outlook in his life, defying the dire predictions of doctors after his accident. He worked in customer service for Eastern Airlines for over 20 years, supported his family financially and emotionally, and taught his kids to stand up against prejudice and bigotry. He taught us how solve problems creatively. Instead of raising our arms up when we wanted to sit in his lap, we held them down to our sides. That way, he could hook his forearms under our armpits and pull us up. He taught us how to be fair. If there was only enough cake left for two, one kid got to cut it and the other got to choose their piece first. You’ve never seen such perfectly equal slices. He taught us to focus on what’s really important in life. He never cared how stupid our haircut was, or how artfully shredded our clothes were (hey, it was the 80’s) as long as we didn’t do anything that would change our lives forever: pregnancy, tattoos, HIV. I get my thoughtful analysis, sense of fairness, and open-hearted nature from him.
Because my mom was a nurse, my dad was disabled, and we all had great senses of humor, death was a common dinner conversation topic. As kids witnessing the effects of adult problems like mental illness and addictions on our foster siblings, talking through the scary stuff made us feel better. Mom would tell us stories about patients who died and how different the room feels after they’ve gone. Later on, as a psychiatric nurse, she’d tell us about the funny things her patients said and do amazing impressions of their various diagnoses. We talked about serious things too. Like how she thought very seriously about killing herself during nursing school when she was just 20 years old. When I was fourteen and my best friend was killed in a car accident, she was there to guide me through the grief. My dad was equally comfortable talking about disease, disability and death. He considered himself lucky to have lived after his accident. He figured it was his second chance and he wanted to make the most of it. Never questioning if he would walk again, he accepted himself as he was and worked hard to make a fulfilling life.
Like my parents, I’ve always had a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done approach to things. In my life, mostly to put myself through college, I’ve worked some very odd jobs. I’ve been a (terrible) waitress, a fast food worker and a pot scrubber. I’ve organized medical missions to foreign countries, taught people with cognitive disabilities about healthy eating, and I’ve worked as a county elections assistant. I did short stints at a car wash, a fish cannery and a phone-sex line. I’ve written a style guide, held workshops to teach it and presented it at an international conference. Most recently, I’ve been caring for a couple, both in the end stage of disease (Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s respectively). Nothing much shocks me or keeps me from doing what needs to be done. As happy as I am to be working with my hands, I’m equally at ease being still. With my hospice work, I bring a calming, comforting presence with me. I can just be there, holding hands, wiping brows, spooning ice cream. All those years of rocking babies was good practice for this work.
My family has a complicated history with water. My dad's older sister and brother drowned in a lake while my Grandma was pregnant with my dad. He broke his neck while diving into a shallow wave at the beach. My mom's uncle drowned in Boston Harbor, tangled up in seaweed. My sister nearly drowned when a strong current pulled her out to sea with only an inflatable duck to cling to. Still, I find myself drawn live where earth, water and sky meet. I lived near the Atlantic Ocean in Miami, the Gulf of Mexico when I lived in Tallahassee, the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, and the Inside Passage in Ketchikan. The only state I lived in without a major body of water nearby was Colorado and I high-tailed it out of there as soon as I could. Restless all my life, always pushing westward until I reached Portland, where the Willamette and the Columbia Rivers meet.
I find myself living near the edges in other ways, too. I was a very, very quiet little girl. I didn't start speaking until I was three years old. Family lore has it that when I did finally talk, it was in full sentences. Apparently I said "may I have a cookie please"? Even as a teenager, I was painfully shy and preferred to observe the world from the outside looking in. Being the quiet, bookish one in a boisterous family, I often felt like I had one foot in peace and one foot in chaos. I spent most of my time reading every book I could get my hands on. I learned about the hero’s journey. I read about our great big world and began to see the connections between things. When I wasn’t reading, I was watching people and eavesdropping on their conversations. I liked to imagine entire lives for people based on a few small clues. That inquisitive spirit is the same force powering me today. Discovering humanity one story at a time.
And so I am. At once damaged yet no worse for wear. Once restless and then found a way home. Once silent, now a storyteller.