13 September 2010

Big Tough Guy

I wrote this following a July 2006 "incident" with my niece. I'm posting it now because my Hobbit started Pre-K today.

I’m speeding down the Palisades Parkway with a baby screaming her lungs out on the seat right behind me. They’re the kind of screams that only a baby can make; the kind that slice right through the skull to run down the spine; the kind that put any pathetic slasher-film fake scream to shame. And she’s been screaming like this, nearly non-stop, for two hours. The worst part is, we – we being my mother, father and I – can’t figure out why. Her parents brought her to our house to stay for a few days, so they can get a few full nights of sleep, and so Noni and Pop-Pop can spoil their first, and only, granddaughter. Now, mere hours later – sans spoiling – we’ve packed the baby and all her clothing, toys, food, and various other supplies into a minivan – a suddenly very small minivan – for the 45-minute trip back to her parents house.

When she started crying we checked “the usual suspects.” Food in her belly? Check. Clean, dry diaper? Check. An uncle to comfort her? Check. Noni and Pop-Pop to make faces, and talk to her in baby talk? Check. Anbesol? Baby Tylenol? Gas drops? Check, check, and check! Amongst us, we have more than half a century of child care experience, the vast majority of which belongs to my mother. She has raised three boys of her own, and helped raise a menagerie of other children for days, weeks, even months at a time. But, we’re all stumped on this one. The only thing that is certain – my niece, Becky, is in pain.

So, I drive as fast as I can, and I pray silently. Praying is not something I do very often. In fact, it is a rarity. I’m sure, if there really is a God, that he did a double–take when he saw my button light up on the old prayer switchboard. Usually, when I invoke God’s name, it is only to take it in vain. On those rare occasions when I do pray, I never request things for myself – my hypocrisy does have a limit. I prayed for my father before his cancer surgery, and before his hip replacement, and before his shoulder surgery. I prayed for my brother before his gastric bypass surgery, and I prayed for a friend’s mother before her hip replacement surgery. But tonight? Tonight I’m asking God to take Becky’s pain and give it to me. I tell God that I’ll happily bear whatever she’s suffering in order to give her peace. To me, compared to what I live with every day, more pain is nothing. To her, however, three days short of five months old, the pain is consuming her world.

And it is consuming mine, because I’m failing my mission; to help protect and raise this little girl. I’m 6’3” and built like something akin to a tank, and I’ve been trained by the Army to destroy people and things. If a dozen wild Gypsies, or any of the deranged killers from the aforementioned slasher-flicks, kicked in the front door and tried to kidnap Becky, I could easily defend her and then stack their limbless torsos like cordwood in the backyard. Right now, though, I feel a fear that I haven’t felt since my days traipsing around the jungles of Panama, because none of my supposed destructive capability can stop the cold sweat from running down my face, or the hairs on the back of my neck from standing up with each scream Becky lets out. I can’t protect her from the pain coming from inside her, and the helpless feeling is eating me up.

I call her “Hobbit,” and I watch over her with a Gollum-like obsession. I’ve told my mother that, once she starts walking, I’ll wrap the baby in bubble-wrap to keep her from getting hurt when she falls down, and Mom just laughs. She tells me that I can’t protect the baby from everything. It’s a long time until Becky turns 18, and there will be some pain and crying along the way. That’s just life.

When Becky was born, I joked with my family that I’d never change her diapers, only because I wished to respect the child’s privacy. Now I change them every day…several times a day. It seems that this child is full of poop. Of course, as anyone who knows my family will tell you, my whole family is full of poop. It’s not that I enjoy changing diapers, but it’s really not that bad. It’s part of life, and poop wipes off with enough Baby-Wipes. Another, more distressing, challenge we’ve encountered is that Becky is happiest when she’s naked on the changing table, or when getting a bath. If this trend of joyful nudity continues, it will become a real concern for her father, and her Uncle Boo, in the coming years.

My friend Ian thinks I’m crazy for volunteering to take care of the baby. He worries about my intellectual stimulation. He thinks I should be back in college, working toward my next degree, instead of slinging Similac; or managing a college newspaper, instead of making the lion on Becky’s activity mat sing and dance like the lemurs in the movie Madagascar. He thinks that changing poopy diapers, something he and his partner Dave have sworn never to do – EVER – is not stimulating, and he’s right. But, just like in his job as a college professor, there are good points and bad points – good students and bad students. And, just as the few students who actually get Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener can make teaching worthwhile, there are things that make being a “Manny” worthwhile.

Thankfully, by the time we get on the Garden State Parkway, Becky is asleep. My prayers have been answered, or perhaps it’s just the rocking effect of the car that put her to sleep. Whether through Divine intervention, or the bumpety-bump of the highway, she’s finally getting some rest. I can relax my grip on the steering wheel, and let my foot off the gas pedal…a little bit. The quiet allows my mind to wander. I worry about what’s wrong with her. I think about what my mother said, “That’s just life.” And, I worry about a future over which I have no control.

Two minutes after we arrive at her parent’s house, Becky is awake. She’s not screaming now though. She’s smiling and laughing at us all. Her mother takes Becky to the bedroom to feed her, and her father makes his third call of the night to her doctor’s phone service. When the doctor finally returns the calls, he advises, “If she’s not crying at the moment, just wait and see.” Brilliant! This is what he went to school for 63 years to tell us? My brother decides, with some gentle persuasion from Mom and I, to wait until the next day to see the doctor in his office. Still, I can’t help but feel like Chicken Little. At our house, the sky was falling...I swear it was. But now, here at Becky’s house, the sky is blue, well (since it’s nearly midnight), black, cloudless, and right where it should be.

The next day we discover that Becky was slightly dehydrated, a diagnosis my mother beat the doctor to by several hours. So, the sky was falling, at least a little bit, and we, for all our experience, learned that we can always learn more, there are things we can do better, and things we can do differently.

I realize that Becky is going to be hurt during her life. People, events, and the world in general, are going to take their toll on her. Ernest Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks every one.” Eventually, Becky will be broken too, no matter what I, or her parents, or her grandparents, do to protect her. Hemingway continues that sentence though…, “Afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Maybe that’s what my job – our job – is; to teach Becky, to love her, to make her strong at the broken places.

Since her birth, I’ve received a handful of new jobs: Uncle, Godfather, Lord Protector of Her Majesty’s northern possessions, etc. But what I consider my most important job is that of teacher, a job I’ve told countless people I’d never have the patience to do. During the days that I sit with Becky, in addition to Sesame Street, we watch CNN, and the History Channel, and The Discovery Channel, and I tutor Becky about what we’re watching. I don’t get much back from her in the form of discussion, but she does watch the TV screen, and I know that the human mind works in strange ways, so I’m hoping that somehow, in some subconscious way, a little of the knowledge is sticking in her brain.

She already has her own library. I’ve bought her a dozen books, starting with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I read to her every day. She’s fascinated by the story about a mouse and a cookie. And she can already reach out to turn the thick pages of a book narrated by a frog, and another about a cat and his long tail. When we watch the country music channel on TV, I sing and dance with Becky. I whisper to her that she’s going to be President of the United States someday. I try to impart some of my hard-earned wisdom to her. I try to download to her the things I’ve seen and learned, so that she can avoid my mistakes…or at least be strong at those broken places. And, most importantly, I give her all my unconditional love in hopes that, as a couple of pretty smart guys once wrote, “All you need is love.”

Despite the poopy diapers, and the crying, and her pouting, and the Similac burps, and the too-short naps, the fact that I have no time to write my own “stuff” while I’m watching her, and even the occasional scares she gives me when I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I get the better end of the deal. When she smiles and sticks her tongue out at her Uncle Boo, I get paid in a way that money, or writing a research paper on “The Legal and Social Standing of Bastards in Elizabethan and Jacobean Societies, and a Comparison of the Same in Several of the Works of William Shakespeare,” could never compensate or stimulate me. When she grabs onto the crinkly wing of her stuffed butterfly, and her bright blue eyes go wide at the discovery, it’s like watching an entire universe open up. And what could be better than that?

08 July 2010

Sleep No More!

For Arthur H. Monigold

"Macbeth does murder sleep." Alas, I fear,
For all his genius, the Bard is mistook.
No, it was not the good Scot who crept near,
To steal innocent slumber, like a crook;
Nor did Claudius truly wrack sweet dreams
With "murder most foul" in Denmark's garden.
'Tis but fiction, though foul indeed it seems
When guards prey upon moments unguarded;
In truth, 'twas one familial – one of trust,
That condemned me with his lies and incest,
Who used a child to sate his vile lust,
And damned me to endless nights without rest.
Weep, not for Dunsinane and Elsinore,
But for the child that lives, yet sleeps no more!

04 June 2010

Safe Haven

Note: I wrote this piece in Dec. 2006, and updated it in Feb. 2007.

At 7:30 in the morning, on December 12, 2006, the body of a 7-pound, 6-ounce newborn baby girl, umbilical cord still attached, was found by maintenance workers, face-down in the grass outside the Eastchester Gardens project on Burke Avenue in The Bronx, New York. The baby was thrown out a fifth-floor window by her 14-year-old mother, who then went to school.

This is not the opening scene of a fictional prime-time TV crime drama. The baby, according to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, died due to, “Blunt impact injuries to her head and torso.” The mother has admitted to the crime, and been charged with murder. Unfortunately, this is but one sad story in a string of murdered, abandoned, or abused newborns.

In the month preceding that murder, in the New York/New Jersey area alone, one baby was found in a plastic bag at a recycling plant, and another’s body was found in a garbage can. In one truly hideous case, parts of a baby girl’s body were found at a garbage transfer station in Newark, New Jersey. In other cases, around the United States, a baby was micro-waved by its mother, one was sent through the X-ray machine at an airport, and another was given formula mixed with four ounces of vodka. Several other children were shaken or beaten by their parents or babysitters, resulting in brain damage or death. All this in one month.

In February 2007, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a 23-year-old man woke up early on a Saturday morning and found his daughter, not quite two years old, playing in a hallway. When she refused to go back to bed he, according to the criminal complaint, “Hit her so hard she lost consciousness.” He then wrapped her in a blanket, carried her outside in single-digit temperatures, and left her to freeze. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this particular story – if anything about the death of a child can be more or less heartbreaking – is that the police found child-sized footprints around the body, leading them to believe that she woke up from the blow her father gave her, and walked around before she froze to death.

Several years ago, a young woman on Long Island threw her newborn baby in a garbage can after giving birth in the Ladies Room during her high school prom. Not long after that, much the same thing happened at a high school in New Jersey. These girls threw away a human life rather than telling their family, friends, teachers, or any counselor about their pregnancy. Clearly this is not a problem that exists only in “poor” neighborhoods, or in the “projects.” It is happening in all our neighborhoods, and on an all-too-regular basis.

I’d write that I’m sorry if this editorial turns your stomach, puts a lump in your throat, or even brings a tear to your eye…but I’m not. We, as a country, need to wake up to what is going on. We see so much violence and death on a daily basis that we have become desensitized to it all. And we begin to miss, or, at best, barely notice, the death of a child. A 30-second report on the evening news, a quick quote from someone who’d seen the baby, and then it’s gone…on to another story, while we finish writing-out our grocery lists. But the stories I listed are not those of children who died in car accidents, or of some incurable disease, or who died in areas of the world where high infant mortality rates are a cruel reality. No, they died – were killed – right here, in America; supposedly the most advanced and civilized country in the world!

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to these stories because I have a 13-month-old niece, but I have to admit, I’m stumped. How any human being could willfully hurt a child – any child – is beyond my comprehension. As a United States Army Infantryman I was trained to protect the weak or defenseless; and as a human being, I would be dragged across a mile of broken glass before I would intentionally allow a child to be harmed.

The first step toward stemming this growing epidemic of violence against our children is education. We must educate our young people about sex. Exposing younger teens and children to sex education will make many people uncomfortable, but several recent scientific reports have shown that our children are going through puberty at earlier ages than we did, and they are having sex earlier than many of us did. They need this education at earlier ages. We must teach our children about the dangers of unprotected sex; not only about pregnancy, but about the possibility of disease as well. We must educate our children about “safe-sex” and abstinence. Hiding our heads in the sand and pretending that there is not a problem will not make it go away.

In addition, we must educate our young people about the resources available to them if they do become pregnant. There are several public and private organizations, including the State of New York, that provide free pre-natal care for mothers-to-be who can’t afford those services. Thirty states, including New York, have Baby Safe Haven Laws. An unwanted baby – usually under 7 days old, though in some states, up to a year old – can be dropped off at a police station, manned firehouse, EMS headquarters, or at a hospital emergency room; with no questions asked, no criminal prosecution, and without notifying the parents of the mother. The baby will be cared for by Child- or Social Services until it can be placed with a foster family. And there are thousands of people willing to adopt these “unwanted” babies.

We must toughen the penalty for killing a child, and we should develop and implement a National Baby Safe Haven program, standardizing all the individual and varied State-level programs. We must protect those who cannot protect themselves. We must stop, literally, throwing away human life.

22 April 2010

Death, and the Victim

There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

It wasn’t like I was an attractive child; “Husky” was the diplomatic euphemism the J.C. Penney catalog used to describe my body-type. Of course, being beautiful would not have been any kind of excuse for the things he did…for what he took from me.

For years, I’ve been able to lock the memories away; way back amongst the cobwebs in a seldom visited corner of my mind. Occasionally, of course, something would remind me – catching a whiff of cigar smoke, seeing someone chewing tobacco, a news story about a child being sexually abused – but I’d quickly push the memories back into that corner, until now.

Why dredge up the memories now, after nearly three decades? Why reveal something that I’ve never told another living soul? Because, my maternal grandfather, Arthur H. Monigold, the man who sexually assaulted me several times in the early 1980s, is dead.

He was diagnosed with Cancer early in 2007, but he didn’t tell anyone. A week before he died, while he lay in a hospital bed, his doctors informed family members that they expected him to die at any time. And, on October 17, 2008 – my 40th birthday – he did.

Standing beside his casket; seeing him for only the third time in nearly 25 years – knowing that it would be the last time I would see him on this earth – he didn’t look like “Grampa.” He was no longer the man who towered over me back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. He looked like a wax sculpture. His once-strong fingers and sharp hawk-like nose were withered and shrunken. He was nothing more than a pile of wrinkled, leathery skin buttoned up in the last suit he’ll ever own.

And I was happy to see him off. It took a long time, certainly a lot longer than expected, or deserved, but I guess that if the good die young, the evil seem to live damned-near forever.

Most people will find it a bit strange that I’m celebrating a death in the family. I don’t mean celebrating the life which preceded the shuffling off of the mortal coil, but actually rejoicing that a family member is now residing in the deepest, darkest, hottest pit, in the lowest level of Hell, with several demons assigned to make his eternity as terrifyingly uncomfortable as possible. I assure you, my vivid imagination turns to the worst horrors that John Milton and Dante Alighieri ever described.

I could tell you some of the good things the man did in his life. He served in the United States Army during World War II. He spent decades working in Ohio steel mills. He married, fathered seven children, and adopted another. He provided food and education for the entire clan, and watched them all marry-off.

But those good things only make what he did to me more difficult to understand. His abuse wasn’t like a father teaching his son to be tough by telling him not to cry when he skinned his knee, or when he got hit by a pitch while playing baseball. It was a grown-up taking sexual advantage of a child. A child entrusted to his care, a child who trusted him; a child who was probably more damaged by keeping the secret of the abuse, than by the actual abuse. My grandfather told me not to tell anyone, and I didn’t…for nearly thirty years.

I wasn’t the only child he abused. Unfortunately, I’ve learned of three other children – all family members – that he hurt. In addition, over the last several years, I’ve received hints and heard rumors about his abuse of two other family members. The knowledge that I might have been able to stop some of the others from being hurt burns me – if I had just told on him – if I hadn’t kept his secret…

When I learned of his imminent death, I did not travel to Ohio for some kind of death-bed reconciliation. I did not wish to hear an apology or an excuse – if he had even offered one. Too many of my “issues” can be traced directly back to his abuse.

It is why I don’t like being touched by any but my closest friends. It is why I don’t trust many people – and rarely give a second chance to the few I do. It is the biggest reason why I don’t sleep at night, even in my own bed. It is the reason that I am always suspicious of peoples’ intentions with children and constantly self-conscious about my interactions with my 4-year-old niece. No, I felt – and still feel – no need or desire to forgive him or to forget what he did to me!

What I do feel is hate! Hatred at him for what he took, and hatred at myself because I let him take it! Because I couldn’t do anything…because I still can’t do anything. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to drive to Ohio and strangle the life out of him with my bare hands. I wanted to look into his eyes as the life left them, and see his final realization that I was taking something valuable from him. But I didn’t. I didn’t use the fact that I’m bigger and stronger than someone else to hurt them!

Too often, I hear people use their own past sexual abuse as an excuse to explain their abuse of a child. As if that is any kind of justification for visiting that kind of pain on a child. As if there could ever be any justification for that. Yes, I was sexually abused as a boy, but I would drag razor blades across my eyeballs before I would intentionally hurt a child.

I didn’t make a scene at the funeral home. I politely declined a request to serve as a pall-bearer. And, despite my repeated blustering that I would remain at the cemetery to help the workers cover him with dirt, I did not. Before the service began, however, I found a quiet moment to stand beside his casket and slide a list of his crimes – the ones I know about – inside his jacket, as a kind of boarding pass for the trip to Hell. I wanted to make sure that the Devil didn’t miss anything.

This revelation…this confession…is not about finding some kind of closure for myself. I’m certain that if I haven’t found closure by now, I never will. No, this is about the truth; a truth that should have come out a very long time ago.

I know, of course, that I’ll see my grandfather again…someday. We will have a lot to talk about while we both spend eternity in Hell. Until that day, however, I’ll go on living my life as best I can – an endeavour more difficult some days than others. As painful as it is, I’m trying to learn to accept the past for what it is – rather than pushing it back into that dark corner – because I know that it will always be there, and I can’t change it now.

F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrates this struggle in the last sentence of The Great Gatsby. He writes, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The fact is, we each suffer from the accumulated wounds of our lifetime. We can wash away the scabs of immediacy, but the scars remain to remind us of the pain much longer…sometimes forever. My scars will never fade completely. My memories will always have the power to carry me back to the past. All I can do is beat on against that current.

For information about missing, abused, neglected, and murdered children, please visit these sites:

Child Abuse and Neglect – HelpGuide.org: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/child_abuse_physical_emotional_sexual_neglect.htm

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/PublicHomeServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US

The National Sex Offender Public Website: http://www.nsopr.gov/

NetSafeKids Home Page: http://www.nap.edu/netsafekids/