I wouldn’t say I was a sheltered child, per se. I was, however, regularly threatened prior to social engagements to be on my best behavior or else I would be beaten/ have something taken away/ left somewhere. Only one of those three things ever happened.
It was a weird dynamic growing up in a home with a chain smoking, functioning alcoholic, successful real estate broker and an emotional eating, workaholic, manic depressive father. My parents lacked consistency in regards to their raising techniques; they loved my brother and me, no doubt, but their words of encouragement were generally masked with negative reinforcement and body image put-downs as a motivator to want to be the best we could be. Modern child psychology would argue that telling your overweight child she is a pig and looks like a sausage in her pajamas has the opposite desired effect of being a weight loss inspiration.
Although the under-the-roof pep talks were seething with backhanded compliments and flat out insults, my parents were known to defend me to the death in public settings, especially in regards to my intelligence. When I was in the second grade, my teacher had me placed in remedial math under the impression that I was, in some way, developmentally disabled. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t entirely blame her. Almost every morning I hid underneath her desk and scared her when she sat down. I challenged kids to water chugging contests in between lessons. I was horrible at math, and I wrote with my book on an almost vertical angle. I did, however, excel in art and writing.
I spent days and days in the library of the elementary school with other autistic children, utilizing coloring books and bright worksheets, listening to stories, and frequently occupying space in the form of circles. I thought I was having a good time, that is to say until my mom received a progress letter in the mail praising how much I excelled in the remedial class that the school transferred me into.
This was the first time I heard my mom use the word “fuck” in all its forms.
“How could you fucking… why the fuck… put Mike on the fucking phone…” Mike was the principal. Mike was also my mom’s boss at one point. Before she made it as a real estate broker, my mom was a waitress, a stay at home mom, and a secretary in the special education department at the school. Even though the door to the kitchen was closed, I watched in awe as she reamed into this man about me, my education, my abilities, and the lack of faith the school had in my performance simply because I was a little eccentric as a young child; I couldn’t act out at home, I never acted out in church – where was I supposed to truly express myself? Where else, other than school, was I going to play pranks on my educators and challenge students to chugging contests that would be the precursor to my college chugging abilities?
Once the conversation ended, by my mother’s own discretion, I was promptly removed from the special education class and put back into the “normal” class, where I resumed my learning sans pranks – by fear of death by parent. I couldn’t help myself at times, though, wanting to be smart and wanting to be funny. Nothing ever added up in my home, so why did it have to add up in my head? I spent the entirety of the second grade with a backpack full of beanie babies and a pink shoe box in my cubby filled with classic rock tapes I stole from my mom’s car. I had Zeppelin, AC/DC, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd to name a few blasting through my headphones each morning before we sat down to practice cursive; I knew the words to “Another Brick in the Wall” before I knew how to write my own name in the allotted cursive guidelines. My parents didn’t want to limit my experience in life, but there were certainly points where they shielded my experiences with death.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere on Long Island. We always had animals coming in and out of the house that my dad would save – baby birds, rabbits that the cats tried to eat, an adult quail. My brother and I had pets as well that were full-time, not just save, rehabilitate, and release. We had a large mutt, and two outdoor cats. The cats always got into trouble with other wild animals around the property. They would chase moles, bunnies, stalk birds, or even harass our dog when we took him outside for a walk. The interaction with the animals was never really a concern, until one afternoon my mom spotted a raccoon outside in the backyard.
“That’s weird, it’s the middle of the day; raccoons don’t come out until nighttime.” We sat in the bay window of the kitchen and studied the animal, weeble wobbling from side to side as it wandered closer through the high grass towards our house.
“I think it has rabies.”
“What’s rabies?” I was standing behind my mom, trying to peer out the window with her and observe the animal.
“That means it’s sick. If it’s sick, it could get the cats sick. If the cats get sick, we have a problem.”
“Oh.” Seven year old me didn’t quite understand the complexity of the situation. I thought of rabies as some kind of cold, like what kids got, except only animals could get it. My mom picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police station. We can’t have a sick and wild animal on the property.”
“Are they gonna take it to the hospital?”
Within a few minutes a cop showed up to the house and met my mom in the driveway. Cops were only needed for bad situations, I thought. When we watched the show Cops as a family, it was always a bad guy trying to run away. I wondered what the raccoon did to be so bad that the cops had to come. It was only sick, right? Sick people go to the hospital to get better.
My mom walked back down the driveway to the bay window where I was standing, but not before I noticed the cop reach around to his waist belt, slowly approaching the animal. She tapped at the window, “Close the blinds. Don’t look.”
“Kaitlin close the blinds or so help me…”
Anything ending in the words “or so help me” never needed to be finished. I knew what she meant. I closed the blinds and waited for an eternity.
A gunshot is a lot scarier when you don’t see where it’s coming from. My ears rang for a second as I stared long at the cloth curtains of the bay window, little birdhouses lining the trim. I thought it I looked hard enough I’d be able to see through them like magic, but even at seven years old I knew what I’d see. I’d see a cop, standing over a dead raccoon, or my dead mother, with his gun drawn.
When my mom walked back inside I let out a sigh of relief knowing that she didn’t do anything to get herself killed by the cop.
“Where’s the raccoon?”
“The raccoon is dead.”
“Can I open the curtains yet?”
My mom looked over the top of the curtains, past my line of sight, “No.”
“Why did he have to kill it, though?”
“Because it was sick and suffering. And sometimes when animals are sick and suffering, it’s better to put them out of their misery.”
I didn’t want the raccoon to feel misery, but I didn’t think it was fair at the time for it to die. As a child, I lived almost zero; I experienced almost nothing. I knew I wanted to do things, I knew I had dreams. I thought the raccoon, too, had a full life left to live, I didn’t want it to die because it was sick. I wanted it to keep living.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, sitting in the bed next to my mom, watching an oxygen mask push air into her otherwise lifeless body that I prayed to whatever god I didn’t know to just take her out of this world. I was exhausted and my head was pounding, and she just lay there, most likely unaware of my presence in any form, her body so frail I could see her carotid artery pulsing in the side of her neck. I counted her breaths, wrote her eulogy, and cried until my head hurt so bad I had to consciously prevent myself from crying. All that existed in those moments was the suffering of life; the lack of living, the suspension of consciousness where I had zero control and just wished for her to stop breathing. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew she would never live again.