My Last Letter to You

Dear Fabian,

I wish I had something to say to you to encapsulate how I feel right now. But the main thing I want to say is that you came into our lives at one of the most difficult times of our life, and because of that, I don’t feel that I could give you what you needed. My three daughters, but especially the older two, have been experiencing major mental health issues, and it has been very difficult for me to witness and alleviate. It has been a major strain on my own mental health.

The pandemic truly exacerbated all of this and made my job more challenging and stressful than ever before. With Izzy moving away to college, I feel a great sense of loss. And Mythili is so depressed that she doesn’t even want to consider college or find joy in anything anymore, which also weighs heavily on my soul.

I wish that you had come into my life at a different time and that I could have helped you more. But I feel so strained with my mental capacity, and I became so frustrated with your lack of motivation and adamancy against learning English and focusing on school that I couldn’t focus on anything else.

I still believe that you truly have the potential to be much more than what you give yourself credit for. You had the tenacity and courage to leave your entire family and homeland at a young age to seek an opportunity, and I hope that one day you will truly take advantage of it. If you don’t finish your education now, I hope that you will in the future after a few years of working tirelessly. I hope that you will one day have a family of your own and give them all the things you couldn’t have when you were growing up.

Mostly, I hope that you will look back at your time with us as a lesson. Not a perfect lesson, not a painless lesson, but a lesson. Everything happens for a reason. Someone left their job as the Newcomer teacher, and I took the job, and that same year, my first year, you came into my classroom and told me your story, and I wanted to help you, and I tried my best. I’m sorry that my best wasn’t good enough, but I hope that one day if someone stands before you and offers you all that we have offered you, you will work one hundred times harder to show how much you want it.

Speak the words, one at a time. Study the lessons, one at a time. Make small goals, one at a time.

Love yourself, bit by bit. You must start with that. Just take everything one day, one hour, one moment at a time, and you will find yourself a brighter future.

I will always love you and hold you in my heart, and I am sorry that it must end this way. I wish nothing but the best for you, and I hope that you don’t completely cut me out of your life. I want to hear about your successes, your failures, your loves and losses… your life. Because I want you to have a good life.

Love,

The Mama You Didn’t Want (But Needed)

Six Years Back

Six years ago, to the day, we had a snow day just like today. I got out the art supplies and all three girls colored all morning. All three girls put on their snow gear and built a snowwoman. All three girls giggled. Mythili finished a book she’d started three days prior. Riona helped me shovel. Mythili walked over to the local cafe and ordered tea, just like me.

Six years ago, they were still children. So happy to have a moment to themselves. To enjoy. To laugh.

And now what?

Before the day even began, I was crying. I cried myself to sleep, and now my eyes are so red I can’t even see straight. My husband tried to love me so hard last night, my perfect husband, but the pot smell seeped into the room, the door shut, the Camry reeked, and my worst nightmare crept under every crack.

It’s been two weeks and three voicemails to a non-responsive therapist since Mythili lost one of her closest friends to an overdose. And the last thing I want to smell is pot coming from out of her room. Pot she’s smoking alone. Because she’s lonely. Because she’s alone.

She was one of her closest friends whom she’d cut ties with months ago, months when her therapist deemed her better and stopped seeing her every week… every two weeks… every month… to not at all.

Not at all.

As if my girl, my child, was cured. As if all the phone calls I made to various medical and psychiatric doctors, begging to get her medicated, to no avail, were just washed down with every other aspect of this dark pandemic, a pill too solid to be swallowed. As if, after six months of therapy, her mind could go back to the mind of the girl in these pictures, from our snow day six years back:

I want to go back. I want to go back to that smiling child. I want her to tell me what I did. What someone did. I want a reason for the pain that torments her soul.

In two days, I have a four-day weekend planned. Booked months back with the hope that, with an outdoor heated pool, a cool town with tons of shops, and a hot springs right downtown, she’d want to come with us.

She used to love swimming. Skiing. Snowshoeing. Hiking. Camping. Traveling. Drawing. Doing puzzles. Riding her bike. Talking to me. Walking. Eating. Cooking. Baking. Reading.

All the things, all the things that I love, she loved.

And now she hates all of them. She hates everything. Even a snow day.

And do you know the weight of this? Do you know how much it hurts to see her hurt?

I’m not even at noon yet. I’m not even halfway through this hellfire snow day. When I went cross-country skiing to and around the park, trying to find peace after another night of four hours of sleep, I didn’t find anything but loneliness. I haven’t slept in days, weeks, months. Is it her? Is it Fabian who we’ve asked to leave, whose program sent the email today confirming that it will be within two weeks, that there’s another big meeting on Friday, the day we leave for Steamboat Springs, the day I begged, fought to have off, the day I requested as a personal day (along with Monday), putting in for my reason, “Mental Health Weekend,” and my principal’s secretary responded with, “Due to class coverage concerns, the principal is asking if you could just take one mental health day?”

One mental health day? I didn’t have a planning period for nearly three weeks because I was either covering classes or proctoring an English-proficiency test. Then my co-teacher got COVID and I had to fully run her class, too. Then my principal got COVID and couldn’t meet with me to discuss my request. And then I just gave up and changed my personal days to sick days. And this is the world we are living in, where we can’t take two days off, where the person who has to quarantine with their under-five set of kids for a week has priority over the mental breakdown of this mama of teens.

Before I went skiing today, before Mythili reluctantly agreed to go grocery shopping with me, this is what she told me:

“None of my friends want to listen to my problems. None of them care. I don’t want to talk to another therapist. I’m tired of talking to so many people. I just want to talk to her. I want to be home alone all weekend. I don’t want to be around anyone because nobody understands. Nobody understands how I just go through each day. I just go through each day, going through the motions, and I can’t find joy in anything, and I have no reason for it, and I don’t understand it, and it’s like something is just wrong with my brain, and I AM SO TIRED OF IT, I’M SO EXHAUSTED.”

And the tears took over. Hers and mine.

And what have I done through my tears today? I have been working on a puzzle and telling my son that he’s moving out next week because I failed him and texting my husband, to which I knew he would say yes, “Can you, for the second year, stay home with Mythili this weekend instead of having this amazing weekend together?”

Because there is nothing amazing about wanting to take two days off in the middle of winter, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a mental health crisis. There is no new snow in Steamboat, no leniency for teachers, no grace for a mama whose heart is as broken as her child’s.

And the boy who is leaving my house next week? Am I supposed to feel good about it? Relief? Gratitude?

There is nothing, nothing but remorse.

Because he’s probably feeling much like Mythili, and I couldn’t help him.

Because I’m feeling much like Mythili, and I can’t even have a long weekend. I can’t ski the pain away, drink the pain away, pretend that the pandemic, my job, my family, don’t exist.

We exist.

And we all hurt so fucking much right now that we cry ourselves through a snow day.

A snow day–the best day ever. Six years back.

You and Me at Twenty

Now I am a hypocrite to myself. As a Taurean, this hurts more than you will ever know. Because I said I would never, and now I have.

I have asked you to leave.

When I was twenty, the age you are now, I married my husband. We were already living together. We scraped together enough money between his pitiful Airman’s salary and my two part-time nanny jobs to pay our bills and put on a small wedding. He was already fully an adult, calling the bank daily to be assured of his balance, setting up online payments before the rest of the world knew how to do so.

I know he isn’t you and I am not you, and that he and I had a calm childhood, raised as regular kids by two parents in middle-class America, and not as feral cats in gang-ridden Honduras, and that you have a million excuses and valid reasons for your childish behavior.

I know that, and I’ve been using your background as justification for your behavior for the past two years. Justification to keep you here after stealing our car. Refusing to clean your room for so many months that it looked and smelled like a homeless encampment. Ignoring our house rules by staying up all hours of the night talking on the phone and preparing food. Not taking school seriously. Shirking tutoring. Refusing to speak even one word of English. Taking all the money we’ve carefully saved for your future and burning through it faster than we can count it.

And in a year, when you turn twenty-one, will you magically change? Will you mature? Between now and then, would you speak English? Sit with me and set up a spreadsheet to count and organize your spending habits? Regularly attend classes and study for the exam that would give you a diploma? Set an alarm so as not to miss extremely important immigration appointments?

Learned behavior. I know. Learned from a childhood of chaos, never going to school regularly, searching the garbage for food for you and your sisters because your mother could never keep or find consistent work. Playing in the streets till all hours of the night. Trying to avoid gang initiation. Trying to get by.

You learned so many things in your childhood. Most of all, you learned how much you wanted to have a better life, and that is why you came here.

And I tried to give you a better life.

I tried to teach you English, but you prefer to speak to me in Spanish. I tried to take you to beautiful places, but you complained about long drives and boring views. I tried to include you in my family, but you called them cold and never used an English word with them. I tried to emphasize the importance of education over all else, but you goofed off in class and played on your phone. I tried to save your money, but you got your hands on it and lit it on fire.

I know, I know. I’m not being asset-based. I’m looking at your deficits.

Let’s take a look at your assets.

You can learn. You are intelligent and capable. You eat any food we prepare without complaint. You exercise regularly. You maintain many friendships. You can repair your own bike. You learned how to ski after just one day. You have a beautiful smile. You help me with heavy things because you are stronger than anyone in the house. You can sing. And you can read and write despite being brought up by illiterate parents and never consistently attending school. You care deeply about your family back home and plan to take care of them forever.

But I can’t take care of you forever.

What was my breaking point? The money or the mama comment or the night in the midst of a hellish week when you woke me yet again?

It was all of these things and more. Mostly, it was just one thing: you just won’t try.

And I have failed in many ways, and I have lived in situations I have hated, and I have been in toxic relationships, and I have something inside me that makes me want to get out of that, to work harder, to find a better place, to end the toxicity.

But you won’t.

So I will.

I’m sorry that I lied to both you and myself, that you didn’t want another mother, and that you couldn’t just grab hold of the opportunities in front of you and see your one-in-a-million chance.

I hope that you will grab hold of the next one, fully sink your teeth into it, and live the dream you imagined when you took all those trains and crossed that river and came to this country.

I really hope you will.

This Is Not Another Zucchini Post

I want this post to be about this zucchini. About this pathetic, limp, underdeveloped zucchini. The singular zucchini that grew in my garden this year.

That’s right. That’s accurate. And for any renowned gardeners, for any beginner gardeners, for anyone with a handful of zucchini seeds that sprout into the weed-like plant that I’ve always labeled zucchinis, for anyone who has, year after year, made enough zucchini bread to feed the entire nineteen-person English department and half of the block at Christmas, who has had enough zucchini to make pies and cakes and dinner every night for weeks, you could understand how painfully small and broken and brutally ugly this zucchini is.

And can’t I just sit here for forty minutes on a Monday night and cry over the singular garden zucchini that I chopped up and put into chicken marsala tonight, its flavorless flesh still so perfectly adaptable to any recipe?

No, I cannot. I cannot cry about how much I failed in my garden this year no matter how perfectly this pathetic zucchini encapsulates how much I have failed in my life.

What I am really writing about, English-teacher-symbolism be damned, is parenting. Or lack thereof. Mental health. Or lack thereof. Pain so deep, so dark, even a limp zucchini is too weak to be an accurate representation.

Oh no, you’re not gonna do this. You’re not gonna put that up for the whole world to see, are you?

I can already hear the critics. Like voices in the back of my brain, like cobwebs in the corner, telling me that We don’t talk about this.

And isn’t that the problem? Isn’t that exactly the whole problem? That it’s a secret? That it’s a faux pas? That we can’t say it out loud? That we can’t take that damn zucchini and throw it out into the middle of the street, ready for the next set of tires to splatter it, to expose its soft center and ready-for-next-spring seeds?

When they were little, and something broke like their finger nail or their Polly Pocket head or their sister’s promise to share, when they came to us crying, we knew just what to do. Trim the finger nail. Reattach the doll’s head. Have a conversation with their sister.

What about now? What about pandemic-social-media-climate-crisis-humanitarian-crisis-societal-collapse-adolescent-angst NOW?

Can we even say the words aloud, on a page, to each other?

What do you do when the one who is hurting your daughter is herself? With her thoughts, with a razor, with words on a page, with repeated mantras in her mind?

What do you do with yourself, Mama? How many times will you think, “If I had said this… If I had done this differently… If we weren’t in this situation… If I had listened… If I had stopped…” The ‘What-Ifs’ will haunt you worse than a Shel Silverstein poem.

But we’re no longer reading children’s poetry. We’re listening to screaming-guy music and painting our eyes as black as night and hiding in our rooms and holding dark secrets and shaking with bad news and confronting no one.

Especially ourselves.

Until someone confronts us.

I don’t have a picture of the courtroom. I don’t have a snapshot of me standing at my door at 2:30 in the morning last Friday, my husband out on a call for a telecommunications emergency while I dealt with the emergency that is my household, five and a half hours after calling 911, and the police officer bluntly telling me that a protection order against a juvenile is not likely to be approved in court, that I could invite him in for a criminal investigation if we’d like to file criminal charges, that if we miraculously got the order approved, then his job would be to protect and enforce it, that I could find the paperwork online, that

this

is

our

life

now.

I don’t have a picture of Monday morning, of how surprising it is how many people are out to breakfast in this diner downtown two blocks from the courthouse. Our consolation breakfast. Our after-filing-for-a-protection-order-against-one-of-her-best-friends breakfast.

Where did it start, and when? March 13, 2020, when we were all sent home for eighteen months of remote learning nightmares? The day we moved our kids away from everything they knew and placed them in a not-so-friendly classroom in Spain? The day we moved back? The moment she started high school? The moment she met this girl? The moment she stopped reading books in favor of Instagram? The day her period began?

This is my child:

This is my child:

This is my child.

And I want the world to know that I can grow zucchini. That I can have three beds overflowing with enough zucchini to feed the neighborhood. That it will fill every plate and erase the stress of holiday gift-giving, that it will easily blend in to any meal.

And that I can raise a child who isn’t lost, hurt by herself and others, threatened by the world in which we live.

That maybe I can’t. That maybe my garden and my parenting have failed me. That maybe I have failed her in a way I can never understand nor take back.

And that maybe, just maybe, the soil wasn’t right this year. The sun was too hot, the sky too dry. Maybe my daughter made the wrong friend. Maybe all of this is out of my control, and even though I only dug up one zucchini, and even though she’s lost, she’s not alone. She’s going to therapy and making progress. She’s smiling more. She’s setting boundaries with friends who she knows aren’t good for her. She’s saying no. She’s standing up. She’s not using the razor and instead finding her voice.

And maybe I fixed up her favorite meal tonight, chicken marsala, said zucchini still inside, and even though she had to work, I packed it up and put it in her black lunch bag with an apple and her favorite yogurt and a napkin and a fork and a spoon and no note.

Because she doesn’t need a note to know how much I love her. To know how much I feel her pain and want to take it from her. Every ounce. Every last seed.

And I want to plant it and start again. I want a new garden. A new tomorrow. Enough zucchinis for Kingsolver’s ‘Zucchini Larceny.’

Because we’ve been robbed. But we are not thieves. We are not victims.

We are gardeners. And someday soon, we will bloom again. And you won’t even be able to count how many loaves we will bake.

Street Smarts

it’s a public street
they can’t tell us we can’t park
in an unmarked zone

rich white people suck
all the joy from their mansions
and spit it elsewhere

yet, we shall obey
for we’re mere public servants
who just can’t get home

how can one measure
twenty-five minutes a day
taken from our lives?

simple math, of course:
the same numbers measure how
we teach our students

it’s a public street
and we park on our soap box
with no microphone