Once in a while I have to remind myself that I am strong. People around me seem to think I am weak and easily malleable. They mistake tolerance and willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt for weakness. Unfortunately, I am embarrassed to admit, after a while I start believing them and I become overly critical of myself. So please forgive me this self-indulgent pep-talk, but I am in severe need of one.
I had a happy childhood with loving family to support me; a sister I still call my best friend, amazing mom and dad, protective grandparents, and a few great aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was happy but not necessarily easy. My parents were low-middle class, which where I come from amounts to poverty in this country. I never went hungry and my parents always provided for all our needs – sometimes at great sacrifice to themselves. My coloring set me up for all kinds of taunting as I grew up. In a country of dark people, my very white complexion, my reddish-blond hair (now almost a brown) and green eyes made me stick out like a sore thumb. I dreaded Summer because as soon as I set foot on the beach all I heard was, “Look at the Snow White. Has she ever been outside?” I hated it, but it made me stronger. Eventually I became aware that people were actually envious of my coloring and I hated myself a little less.
When I was about 10 years old my country experienced a revolution, a political coop that unseated the fascist government that had ruled for decades. It was a mostly bloodless revolution, but it was scary. The military who ruled in the interim was fond of flying jets low over towns in warning. Television became a tool of indoctrination and the horror stories being told by once political prisoners were terrifying and mind-blowing, especially to someone as young as me. How could humans do these things to each other?
My parents travelled a lot. My dad worked for an airline and once every so many years we were “stationed” somewhere else for a year or two. I lived in Cape Verde where I learned how to survive by telling jokes to keep the many bullies (both white and black) at bay.
I lived in Angola where my second grade teacher used to bring her adult brother to class with her. He would stand in front of the chalk board holding a huge machete and she would tell us, “The first one to misbehave will have to deal with my brother.”
When I was 12 I lived in Santa Maria, a tiny island in the Azores where a good friend of the family passed away in front of me and I discovered that child neglect is a very real thing (a good friend of mine had been left alone with her cats and dogs in her big house to fend for herself while her parents and older brother travelled around Europe—the whole year I was there).
When I was 16 we moved to Kinshasa, old Zaire where I got my first job as a secretary for a Japanese company and learned the ugly truth about human inequality and inequity. A country where a family man with a master’s degree had to live in a hovel with dirt floors and no electricity while his peers (who were lucky enough to be born elsewhere) lived the life of the rich and famous. A country of expensive skyscrapers whose walls were lined with men, women, and children suffering from horrifying diseases. In Kinshasa I also learned that no matter our differences it IS possible to live together in peace. My group of friends included a Jewish Swiss national, an Algerian agnostic, a Lebanese Muslim, and of course me, a white Catholic.
I learned I am good in an emergency. I manage to keep a cool head and I am not afraid to do what needs to be done to either solve the situation or at least avoid worse. My grandfather went into what looked like cardiac arrest. I performed CPR—probably incorrectly considering I was mimicking what I had seen on TV. It turned out to be a seizure and thankfully he survived.
I saved a little boy who had fallen in a swimming pool while the parents were distracted by their other child.
A co-worker and I saved a child choking on a hotdog by quickly reacting and taking turns doing the Heimlich maneuver.
I immigrated to a strange country where I had no family other than my new husband’s family (which I didn’t know then) and I brought my two boys up by myself while my husband served this country in the Navy. I had no one to babysit or help me when one of the boys needed to go to the hospital (and it happened a few times). I had no one to lend me money when times were tough. I taught myself how to sew and how to become really creative with ground beef and hotdogs. I drove the bus to the hospital when I needed surgery so my husband didn’t have to miss a day of training and I drove it to work every day through bad neighborhoods so we could make a little extra money to keep us afloat.
I AM strong! I survived my kids’ (very) trying teen years, my son’s frightening struggle with mental illness, my dad’s (my hero) sudden death, health scares, multiple surgeries, and betrayals…I am strong. I can do it! I will be all right…