Ohio State Lima 2009
Coolness in the Cattle Show World
If you want to be cool in the cattle show world, you should start by blasting your music in the stalls. Maybe it’s a way to get back at your parents, or maybe it’s just for getting pumped up for the show. Who knows? If a group of people is listening to really soft country music, like Willie Nelson, for example, they would definitely be considered dorks in this context. Being part of Opie Campbell’s crew is something I always wanted to do because of his rockin’ sound system that he brings with him to the shows. Whenever I go to a show, I always try to get my cattle stalled by him. He is always playing remixes, whether it is pop, rap, or rock. Artists like Soulja Boy, Nickelback, and Kid Rock are played a lot. Everyone else at the show just walks past his stalls laughing, because he and his crew know how to par-tay!
The clothes you wear at a cattle show better be the right ones, or else. In the show ring, women must wear a shiny belt and belt buckle. They want to stick out and be fashionable but also fit in by wearing a belt like the guys. They must also wear tight blue jeans. There are practical reasons to wearing blue jeans, like wearing them to cover up the dirty spots that appear when fitting the calf. They are also worn, so you can look like everyone else at the show. The casual setting of the show calls for casual wear. The judge is usually the only one with different colored pants on. Newly polished ostrich boots and a snazzy Wrangler or Cruel Girl shirt tucked into your jeans so your belt shows is also a must. Cruel Girl brand name shirts and jeans are insinuating that women who wear these are tough and cruel, which is cool in the cattle world. Women must also wear turquoise or Montana silversmith jewelry and have their hair up in some neat design to be cool. Men must wear a belt, baggy brand name blue jeans that have dirty knees (to show they did their own work on their calf), brown boots, and a brand name shirt, usually American Eagle or Hollister. Real farm boys don’t do jewelry and consider looking exactly like each other to be their ultimate goal. It is not cool to be eccentric or a nonconformist in the livestock world.
Before going into the show ring, both men and women must be wearing over pants over top of their jeans. They are usually Columbia name brand or any other expensive kind. Over pants are usually worn to keep jeans clean for the show. Some only wear them to be cool, to show they know how to fit their own calf (which most do not). In this case, they hired someone else to do the work for them, which can also be considered cool, because obviously they have more money than the rest of us. People who do not wear these items of clothing are definitely uncool. They would get talked about and made fun of quite often. Rumors could get started on how ridiculously silly that person looked. Someone might even point them out in the make-up arena in front of a whole bunch of “cool” people. That would be tragic!
The equipment used is a key component in order to be cool. It is important to use products that are up to date and not from the 1970’s when my parents were showing. For example, a double blower nowadays is a must. The new double blower cuts the dry time on the calf in half. Having a “cool room” is also a good feature to include in a barn. Cool rooms make calves grow more hair, which is very critical at a show. People, and even judges, consistently comment on the amount of hair a calf has, and that is cool. Not having this new equipment would be like a person still using an outdated “house phone” style cell phone, and wondering why people are staring at them and ridiculing them. Staying up to date with technology is very important.
Going out the night before the show and staying out late, then waking up at five o’clock the next cold morning to rinse calves is the shizz also. I know a guy who worked for a ranch that didn’t get out of bed the next morning. and man, was he ever sorry. He didn’t make it there to help fit for the show or even see the show. His boss obviously was fed up because we did not see him the rest of the week! Most people cannot stay out late the night before a show because they cannot get their lazy butts out of bed the next morning, but the ones who do are considered legends.
The people you hang out with at the show is a major part of being cool. The cool people at the cattle shows are called “steer jocks” or “cattle jocks.” Steer jocks know how to do everything necessary at a cattle show. To be seen with a jock would be like being seen with Emeril for people who love cooking, or like being seen with Peyton Mannning for people who love football. The uncool people at the shows are called freddies, coming from the term, freddie 4-H’er, meaning one is at the level of a county fair showman. County fair showmen have no skill because they have never experienced the world outside their annual county show. Freddies use the equipment the wrong way, or just do something for no reason. For example, a blower is used to dry the calf and then fluff the calf. A calf’s hair is always blown in a forward motion, and one needs to get the calf “bone dry,” as cattle jocks would say. A freddie would normally blow the hair straight up or in a swirling motion for ten minutes, not getting to the “hidden” parts, like the belly, the brisket, or the insides of legs. “Cool” jocks know that the calf is not dry and know a freddie when they see one!! Being labeled a freddie would be synonymous with geek, nerd, dweeb, or the ever-famous Steve Urkel! Ewww! I remember a cool jock who once said laughing, while the freddie’s calf was getting away, “Hang on, man!” That is just a sarcastic comment to make when the freddie is clearly already having a bad day.
I had similar experience at the Ohio State Fair back in 2003 when I showed a bull that was behaving like a complete imbecile. His name was Lager, and I will never forget the day he darted away from me and sprinted across the show arena, dragging me in front of hundreds of people watching from the grandstand. I was at the end of the halter, scared out of my mind. While I was skiing across the arena, I got mulch thrown in my face and excruciatingly painful rope burns on my hands. I did not want to let go, so I held on. This was not one of my brighter decisions, and man, did I pay! This was definitely uncool. I filed it away under “what not to do if you want to be cool,” but it did show I was tough because I hung on tight, baby!
The last and most vital way to be cool is to win, win, win! I have had winning years and losing years. In 2001, I showed Sidney, my favorite heifer still to this day. She was champion thirteen times that year. I got so many awards I couldn’t even take it! People who never even spoke to me before talked to me after I did all that winning. I wonder why? Hmmm…. But, I also remember a losing year quite well. I placed dead last at the NAILE, a national show, with my red-roan heifer Reggie. There were twenty-five heifers in my class, and I was D A L, for those of you who know that saying. It was very devastating to me, and to the heifer I think. To be cool in the cattle show world is to be able to identify a freddie when you see one, and to hopefully know you are not one yourself!
My Surgery Gone Wrong
When I was twenty-six years old, I was told to go to the doctor’s for a checkup after applying for a job. For as far back as I could remember, I was never a sick person and had not seen a doctor in many years. So I picked a family physician named Doctor Robert Gnade out of the phonebook. I went to this checkup thinking to myself how young I was. Also, I was in the best shape of my life; I worked out faithfully and watched what I ate and drank. The only unhealthy thing I did was smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. So I was thinking the appointment would go by fairly quickly, and he would give me a clean bill of health. The appointment seemed to be going fine until the doctor checked what would soon change my life forever: my neck.
When people get sick, they do not think of the neck area: the throat, yes, but not the neck. I am in his office, and the doctor asks me in a very serious tone if I have ever been told that I had lumps in my neck. Naturally I had not been told this before, since I had not seen a doctor in years. After a few minutes he begins to tell me he thinks it is important for me to have a second opinion. And with all that information to sit and swallow, he wanted me to go see a throat specialist named Dr. William Shermer. This would be the man whose decisions would affect my life forever.
I met with Dr. Shermer in late 2001, a few weeks after I was initially told about the lumps. He confirmed what Dr. Gnade had already told me, that the lumps really did exist and that they were my thyroids. He told me the next step would be to have a biopsy done, and he wanted me to have it done rather quickly. Within a week, he had me in for one of the most painful procedures I would ever experience. Never once did I ever dream I would have this same procedure done not once, but three times. The surgeon informed me that a numbing medicine is not administered during this procedure. So after being told that, he had me lie down and then began by putting a rather long needle into my neck where they felt the lumps in my thyroid. In that needle, there was a tiny scrub brush, like the ones you would clean a baby bottle with. He proceeded to use this tiny scrub brush to collect cell samples inside of the area he want tested. He then pulled the brush back into the needle and pulled the needle out of my neck. I felt like I had just given someone permission to torture me.
I was told to go home, and that I would have to wait a week or two to get the results back from the lab to confirm whether or not it was cancer or noncancerous. Since that day, the nerve-wracking process of waiting for results would become a natural thing for me.
I was so scared, a week and a half later when I received the call about the results. The phone had caller ID, so I knew it was the doctors’ office phoning me to give me the news. My mind immediately began racing. Was the doctor going to tell me I was going to be fine? Was I still the twenty-six year old I thought I was, healthy and in the best shape of my life? Or was he going to confirm I had cancer and that my two small children would have to grow up someday without a mother? I waited for the answers to my questions that I had been thinking every second of everyday for a week and a half; I heard the doctor say that the results were inconclusive and that I would have to repeat the biopsy again.
When the results of the second biopsy also came back as inconclusive, the doctor decided the third biopsy would be done with an ultra sound. By this time, I was asking myself why they had not used it the first two times. They could have avoided all the unnecessary pain they were putting my through. After the torture ended, the doctor sent me home again to begin the waiting game. By this time I began distancing myself from my family and friends. The only phone call I wanted to take was from the doctor. I drove myself crazy waiting for my fortune to be told.
As the weeks went by, I was such a wreck that I had to go back to see doctor Gnade for depression. I started to feel that death was not such a bad option. I would sit in my room for days and not speak to my husband or my children. Doctor Gnade decided to put me on and antidepressant pills called Prozac to try and cope with the days ahead of me. After having this procedure done and having heard the results for the third time come back inconclusive, I went numb instantly. I began to think I was having a nervous breakdown.
My head was racing and my heart was thumping. I wanted to jump through the phone and slap the recorder so I could make it stop repeating itself. Then I heard the words I was not even prepared to hear. There would be no more biopsies; instead, I would be going into the hospital in two days for an emergency surgery. The inconclusive results had left the doctor with no other choice but to take out my thyroids in case they were cancerous. The next two days were the worst days of my life. I spent every second of the forty-eight hours thinking of how I would feel when or if they told me I had cancer.
My surgery was scheduled for nine o’clock a.m. on Friday, February 20th , 2002. At the doctor’s request, I arrived at the hospital at seven a.m. to do paperwork and to be prepped before surgery. The first half of the first hour was spent filling out paperwork that asked me every question imaginable about myself, except what color of underwear I was wearing. The second half of the hour was spent waiting-- waiting for something or someone. Finally, they came in and took me to be prepped for the surgery. They took all my vitals and started to administer the IV. Then again I did what I had learned I had to do: Wait.
Finally the doctor came in and explained what he would be doing after I was put to sleep. He let me know that both thyroids would be looked at, and if he thought either one looked cancerous, he would have to remove both of them. But if they did not look cancerous, he would only take one out. His reason behind this was because I was so young. The doctor said he did not want me to have to take medicine for the rest of my life. Without fully understanding the consequences of that statement and information, I went to sleep.
When I started to wake up, I could not remember where I was. Everything felt like a dream. That is when the angel in white came in and said to me, “Good news. To the naked eye, the thyroids did not look cancerous, so we only took out the left one and left the right one in.” The doctor would be sending the removed thyroid to a pathologist to have it tested. This man in white was telling me everything I had so longed to hear. Finally I had gotten good news, or so I thought.
I spent one night in the hospital and was released the next afternoon. I was given instructions on how to treat my wounds and was told I would need to see someone in ten days to look at the incisions and that someone would call me when the lab results came back on the thyroid they had removed. So I had to wait for two more long weeks for someone to call me and tell me . . . what? What would they tell me?
I cried upon seeing my incision for the first time after the surgery. I cried because I was angry, because I was sad, and because I was confused. I could not understand why this was happening to me, and I developed a “poor pity me” attitude that stayed with me for years.
The surgery was over and now I was back to the good old waiting game. When I went back for the ten day checkup, the doctor informed me that I was healing nicely, and he assured me that his office would call me when the results came in.
Within the next two days, I received a call from Dr. Shermer. When the phone rang, I had told myself that, no matter what he told me, I was going to be okay. If it was cancer, the thyroid could be treated, and if it was not cancer, then I was good. But nothing prepared me for the life-changing information he was about to tell me. First he explained to me who he was and why he was calling (as if, for some reason in the last two weeks, I would have forgotten who he was and what he did).
“Evva,” he said, “I have some good and bad news for you. Good news is that it is not cancer. Bad news is it has precancerous cells, and you will have to be monitored every ninety days for the rest of your life or until your remaining thyroid stops functioning or becomes cancerous.”
Wait. What did he just say? This is all I could think of the whole time he is speaking. I have to be tested every three months for the rest of my life? Then he proceeded to tell me the other good news: thyroid cancer is the fastest cured cancer if it is caught and treated in the first stages. The other bad news was that when the test comes back that my thyroid was not working properly, they would have to perform the surgery again to remove the second thyroid before proceeding with cancer treatments. This is the reason behind why I would have to be tested every ninety days. I was devastated; it felt like someone had just cut my throat (literally!) and was telling me they would do it again in the future. I felt the decision Dr. Shermer made to leave in the thyroid to keep me from taking medicine because I was so young had now taken away any traces of me having a normal life again. Soon after this phone call my mental health started to fall apart.
People do not normally know they are going crazy, but I knew. I could feel it. For months, I spent my days in bed after the doctor told me the results. I refused to answer the phone for fear of having to talk about what was happening to me. I stopped being able to go places in public because I would freak out and could not breathe. I called my doctor and made an appointment. He told me that I showed signs of panic attacks and wanted me to continue taking the Prozac, but he also wanted me to start taking Xanax to help control the panic attacks. I was advised not to exceed four pills in a day and was sent on my way. I started at first taking one pill a day everyday to keep me from having a panic attacks. Then by the time my appointment came for my first blood work to check my thyroid, I was eating four of them a day, everyday.
After having my blood drawn, I went through my normal waiting period of two weeks to see whether my thyroid was still working properly. I spent those first two weeks in pure hell. My mind was playing tricks on me. I had convinced myself that I was going to die and that I needed to prepare my children and my husband. I had stayed in my room for so long that they would have to come in to talk to me. I began yelling at them every time they came into my room. It was my way of hoping they would not want to be around me anymore. That way, if I died, it would not hurt them as much. I began picking fights with my husband all the time just to make it easier for him. My mind said that if they all hated me, then they would not be hurt if I was gone. I received the phone call two weeks to the day I had my blood work done. The results were finally what I been waiting to hear. Well, at least the first part of the results was what I wanted to hear. The lady on the phone said my thyroid was still working properly and to come back in three months to do it again.
By this time I was feeling completely crazy; I was picking fights with my family, I was locking myself in my room, and I began avoiding everyone except doctors. My doctor had become the only person who was going to save me, so I became totally, 100 percent dependent on him. When my prescriptions ran out, I would call him, and he would give me more without really asking me any questions. So when I went back for the third Xanax prescription in a two month period, he told me I had to come see him because he could not just give me another prescription for Xanax. When I went into his office, he began asking me how often I was having panic attacks and how often I was taking the medicine he had prescribed to me. I told him I was taking four Xanax every day and that I was not having any panic attacks. I could tell he immediately became irritated with my response. He then declared I was abusing the medicine and that I was going to have to be slowly taken back off of them.
I was so confused. These little pills made me feel so much better. Really what they did was prevent me from feeling anything, which to me was better than dealing with the emotional pain of it all. So now he was going to take away the one thing that kept me going. He began to slowly lower my intake until I was completely off the medicine. He kept me on the Prozac for three years treating my depression, and then one day I woke up and decided I did not want to take the pills anymore and that I wanted to live a normal life without doctors.
By now I could not remember what a normal life was. I just knew I was tired of doctors, pills and tests. So I made up my mind that I was done and I would no longer take any medications. Even though I knew I was supposed to be weaned off them slowly, just like the Xanax, I decided to throw them all away instead. Next, I was finished with getting my blood work done and the waiting that came along with it, so I stopped going to the doctors. Although I felt a sense of relief over the last three years of not having to wait anymore for the dreadful results of yes or no, I feared that my decision to stop going would increase my odds of dying.
So in April of 2008, I finally went back to the doctors for testing. I reminded myself that the results would come in, and whatever the results were, I would deal with them then, not before. I needed to be able to wait two weeks for the results with no medication. The results came back that my thyroid is still working.
I was scheduled to go back in July of 2008 for another round of tests, but I chose to skip it. I figure that, for now, I will go back twice a year instead of the recommended four times. It’s better than not going back at all, which is how I used to feel. I still think about all the things I have gone through in the past six years and start to go back to my pity me syndrome, but then my husband reminds me about what it is that we are doing. We are living!
I still try working out every day, eat and drink smart and have even managed to quit smoking as of September 25, 2008. I decided I have to live my life and enjoy it for every second that I am here. I cannot spend my time worrying about dying because then I will never really be living.
If I could change anything about my situation, first I would have insisted that if the doctor took one thyroid, he had to take both. I could live with being on medicine for the rest of my life much more easily then spending my life waiting for the bad news that I have cancer. Second, I would have not let the experience get me down; I would have dealt with it one day at a time. I spent so much time worried about dying that I robbed myself and my family of living. My husband is the strong, silent type who let me rant and rave at him. He never let me push him away, even though I tried many times. He held strong for me and our children. I do not think my children thought much about the surgery at that time, other than the fact that mom had a wound with a bandage covering her neck, and after that, she became very grumpy. They were very young, and to this day do not seem to remember much about that time period.
I will eventually go back to four times a year being tested until I have the second surgery. For now, I will take it one day at a time so I can think about my husband, my children, living, and nothing else.
It was white with cherries on it, and it was my favorite. I'm not quite sure what made that dress so special. Maybe it was the ruffles along the bottom trim, or the red shiny shoes I wore with it. Perhaps it was the lacy sleeves or the glittery red cherries that covered it. Ultimately, I think it was my favorite simply because it was from my father, and it's the only present I can remember getting from him.
It was a Saturday night when my dad came to visit me. I can remember this detail because I know I went to church the next morning. I remember hearing the hushed voices of my parents quietly bickering downstairs. My dad rarely came to visit, so whenever he did, I was ecstatic. He was supposed to come see me earlier that afternoon, but he had to work late. I was already in bed, and Mom argued that I needed my sleep for church in the morning. When I realized she was going to leave me in bed, I rushed downstairs before my dad could leave and ran into his arms.
It was just a few days before my birthday, and he had brought a special present with him. It wasn't wrapped, but rather thrown into a grocery bag and tied up. I ripped open the bag to pull out the most beautiful dress I had ever seen. My mother thought it was tacky, and looking back, I must admit that it was a bit gaudy. It was white and covered in big, red, glittery cherries. It had a big, ugly, lacy collar and there were bright red shiny shoes with cherry buckles to match it. I loved it.
I tried on the dress as soon as he gave it to me, strutting out of the bathroom like I was a super model. Mom and Dad applauded, and I remember feeling like a diva. I thought I owned the prettiest dress in the world and that I had the best dad ever.
I refused to put my pajamas back on, and slept in my dress that night. The next morning I wore my new dress to church. I felt like a princess walking in those doors, and of course, with my diva attitude, the adoration of the older ladies at church soon followed. I felt like every eye was on me and my new pretty dress. I wore my dress all day, not heeding the warnings from Grandma. She tried to tell me it would get dirty if I played outside, but I didn't care. Nothing could spoil such a lovely dress. After dinner, my mom had to bribe me to take it off with the promise of chocolate ice-cream.
A few weeks later my dad came to get me to take me on a fishing trip to Indian Lake. I can still remember how happy it made me when I saw the grin on his face. He noticed I was wearing the dress he bought me. Unfortunately I, like most children, was not very patient, and therefore didn't really like fishing. I decided I was going to catch a fish with my hands, like on the cartoons. I waded out into the shallow water and "caught" a dead fish, managing to get my new dress filthy in the process. After I realized what I'd done, I starting crying and ran to my dad, showing him the fish and trying to explain between sobs what had happened. I was furious when he laughed at me, and threw the fish at him and stomped towards the car.
He took me to his house, where I had never been before, and gave me one of his t-shirts to wear while he washed my dress. This is probably the fondest memory I have of my dad. I remember sitting on the counter beside the kitchen sink, watching him washing my little dress. While my dress was drying, he made us each a glass of chocolate milk, and we sat on his couch and watched various Disney movies together. I fell asleep curled up under my Dad's arm and woke up the next morning at home in my bed. That was the last time I would see my dad alive.
Sometime later that month, my grandma was helping me get ready for church when I heard Mom crying. I walked downstairs with Grandma to find my mom sitting on the couch with her head in her hands. I can still remember the look of panic on my grandma's face as she silently urged me towards the stairs with her hands and walked over to my mom. I climbed to the top of the stairs and sat on the very top step, listening quietly. The sounds of my mother's cries were vividly burned into my mind. All I heard were broken fragments weakly escaping her mouth between sobs. Words stuck out like "dead", "John", and "suicide" At the time, I had no grasp on any of the words except for “John,” so I knew she was crying about my dad, but I didn't know why.
We didn't go to church that morning, and later that night, my mother had to explain death to me in the best way that she could. I remember sitting on my mom's lap crying. I remember a few random parts of that day, like going to McDonald's with my grandma to get dinner because no one wanted to cook. My grandma was pretty old-fashioned and never let us eat out on Sundays. Regardless of what was going on, a big family dinner was always prepared. That was the only Sunday I can ever remember eating fast food for supper.
The next few days were spent with Grandma. I wore my dress every day, and Grandma didn't bother to make me take it off, except to wash it at night for me. It was as if it was part of my dad. It was his special dress, and I didn't quite understand the concept of "leaving forever." Mom stayed upstairs in her room for the most part, and the only time I saw her during those next few days was when she tucked me in at night and read to me, something she had always done every night. It's weird how in times of tragedy we tend to cling to insignificant rituals in a futile attempt to maintain normality in our lives.
The very last time I wore my daddy's dress was when Mom took me to his showing at the funeral home. It was warm outside, and I wore white sandals with my dress instead of the red shiny shoes that I ruined when we went fishing.
Mom held my hand tightly as we walked into the building filled with sad, crying people. I remember looking at my shoes, noticing the intricate patterns of the straps and individual tan threads that held it together, not wanting to look at all of the sad faces watching me. I can remember wrapping my arms around my mom, begging her to take me home. I didn't want to be with the crying strangers. I didn't understand why I was there.
I met Grandma Francis for the first time that day. She saw me and smiled lovingly through her tears. She handed me a stuffed rabbit that she said she had brought just for me. It was my daddy's when he was little, she told me. I sat on the floor and played with the rabbit while she talked to Mom above me. I can remember the rough scratchy carpet making my legs itch. After awhile, my new grandma gently pulled me off the floor and into her lap. She told me I looked like my dad, and I can remember laughing at her. It was such a silly thing to say, my dad was boy, not a girl. It didn't take me long to notice that my mom was gone, and I looked over to see her walking timidly towards the front of the room, where there was a big, brown, shiny wooden box half-opened.
I ran up to Mom and grabbed her hand before my grandma had time to stop me. I remember feeling her hand shake in mine as we walked up to my dad's casket and the overwhelming surge of happiness I felt when I saw my daddy sleeping inside. He wasn't gone forever. Mom was wrong. I reached out to touch him, and Mom pulled my hand back. I looked at her, and she was crying. I didn't understand. He was right there in front of me, and she wouldn't let me have him. She lied to me; she told me he was gone forever. I was so confused and upset with my mother.
My mom ended up carrying me out of the funeral home kicking and screaming, and for the first time ever, I didn't get in trouble for throwing a fit. When we got home, Mom told me to change out of my dress. I didn't want to make her cry anymore, even though I was really mad at her, so I did. After that, my dress disappeared. I searched everywhere for it, and was devastated for days when I couldn't find it. It would be many years later when I would find the dress folded up neatly in a shoebox with my dirty, mud-stained red shoes.
This upcoming family reunion was causing me quite a bit of anxiety. I mean, my husband hadn’t seen his brother in twenty-four years. His last memory of his mom wasn’t so great. He’d never even met his half-sisters. All I knew were the horror stories I had heard about his childhood before he was adopted.
His mother was absolutely crazy. When he was five years old, she used to leave him at home to watch over his three younger brothers while she went to the bar. She’d married some psycho that beat her kids up, eventually putting Brad in a coma. From what anyone knew, she’d had seven kids and not actually raised any of them.
This was completely opposite from my own childhood. Home life, for me, was the picture of stability. My parents had been married for twenty-five years. There had never been any abuse in my home. I certainly had never been left alone to care for younger siblings at five years old. To me, that just seemed, well, crazy.
Brad was excited to see his brother again, and I couldn’t blame him for that. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Family is very important to me, but I guess I have a rather narrow view of what a family should be.
Brad excitedly prepared for the big day, packing all of our things, telling the girls about their new uncle, Anthony. He and his wife, Renee, had been married for six years, just like us, and had a new baby. I’d spoken to him briefly on the phone. He had a loud, booming voice that reminded me of a friendly teddy bear.
I was apprehensive anyway. I worried about whether or not they would like me. I worried about what this experience would do to my husband if it didn’t go the way he wanted. Mostly, though, I worried about their values, and if I felt comfortable exposing my kids to them.
Anyway, one fine autumn day, we loaded up the car and started on the long drive to Circleville. The leaves had changed to bright oranges and yellows, and the sun was shining as we drove along. It seemed, though, that the nearer we got to our destination, an evil pall fell over the sky. It steadily darkened, the closer we got. Thick, grey clouds rolled in, piling on top of each other like huge heaps of rubble from an atomic explosion. A cold wind picked up and was buffeting around the car, ever stronger. The temperature seemed to have dropped about twenty degrees.
We checked into a cheap Knights Inn and tried to relax in the dingy room. It had the musty odor of stale cigarettes, and I uncomfortably settled on the cheap bed linens. I half expected a portrait of dogs playing poker hanging on the wall. Brad flicked the TV on, and I waited nervously for the phone call from his brother.
Several hours later, it came. I had almost managed to forget what we were doing there and had started to relax, but I was jarred back to reality with the jangling of the phone. Suddenly, apprehension washed over me like a sickening tidal wave, decimating everything in its path. My head started to throb, and I felt my pulse quicken. I started to flit anxiously around the room, doing anything I could to keep myself busy. I changed the girls’ clothes, washed their faces and combed their hair. Their freshness and innocence struck me as I finished.
All too soon, we heard a knock on the door. The knot of nervousness tightened in my stomach. My husband opened the door and stood face to face with his brother, who was at this point a perfect stranger. They stood there, one in the doorway, one out, eyeing each other awkwardly. After a moment, they spoke.
“Hey, man, good to see you!” Half-hugs and handshakes followed.
Anthony and his wife came in, lugging their young baby’s carrier. Brad almost had the door shut when in walked his duplicate, only about twenty-five years older. I saw what looked like my husband’s blue eyes twinkle at me merrily from above a bushy grey beard, but there were tiny tears glistening just in the corners. This was my husband’s father, who he hadn’t known since he was about three.
Introductions were made, kids and babies were kissed, and introductions were made to new aunts, uncles, and grandpa. Stories were told about when the boys were little. They’d take off on their bikes for hours at a time. Brad would take his grandparents’ hamsters out of their cages and hide them all around the house. Anthony talked about the little fistfights they got into when they were small. The knot that had threatened my ability to hold down my lunch slowly and steadily began to loosen. The girls were playing, enjoying all the attention. Their family seemed not too much different from my own, except for the twenty-four missing years. It felt strange, though, to see my husband in this new light, with this new family that I wasn’t yet sure I was a part of.
Soon after, Anthony suggested that his wife and I go get “the girls,” meaning their half-sisters. Instantly, the knot in my stomach recoiled, almost knocking the breath out of me. I glanced nervously at Brad, but he seemed unwilling to catch my eyes.
“Yeah, Amie’ll go with you. Go get my sisters!”
I didn’t want to offend anyone, but my husband knew my feelings about this. While I had my apprehensions about these girls, more importantly, they lived with their mother. I didn’t see how we were going to go get them without running into her. Once again, I kept my mouth shut, and we piled into the car. Renee started talking to me about her experiences with the girls.
“They’re all right, just sort of wild. I really feel sorry for them. The youngest one looks like a slut, and the older one, she’s just always trying to get attention, and complaining when she doesn’t get it. Their mom, though. . . I never really know how to act around her,” she said.
My breath rushed out of me in a gust of relief. “Yeah, I’ve been worried about that. I’ve always heard such awful things about her. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to react to all that.”
“I just pretend to get along with her. I mean, all that stuff she put Anthony through as a kid. . . I pretend it’s cool, but it’s really not.”
We made the all-too-short drive across town to pick up the girls. As we pulled into the parking lot, my stomach clenched in knots and my throat constricted. The air in the car was smoky, obscuring my view of the outside. I looked to my left, at the sister/stranger sitting next to me, and a visceral punch of apprehension flickered across my body. My companion spoke to the woman approaching the car, her voice light. “Hey, Linda, this is Amie, Brad’s wife.”
The woman pushed her straggly hair out of her blue eyes, “Who? Who’s that?”
A grunt for a response, and she shuffled off toward her door. The knot in my stomach wrenched itself even tighter. The door swung open again, and a dark- haired girl walked out, wearing a coat that looked about five times too large for her. She got in the car and started talking, but I was so uncomfortable I didn’t notice what was being said. My thoughts were reeling from the sight of the girl’s mother, my husband’s mother. I looked around, taking in the run-down apartments, the trash on the ground, and the people wandering by with vacant looks on their faces.
A young blond girl bounced out of the opened door. It opened once more, and there was some yelling between mother and daughter, about God knows what. My sense of dread increased, and a feeling of awkwardness pressed upon me like a weight. The girl jumped into the car. Introductions followed, still rather uncomfortable. The girls were excited to meet the brother they’d only just learned about and never met.
The ride back to the hotel was awkward. I spoke little, staring out the window as the unfamiliar, ugly streets slid by. To me, the sights looked barren and desolate. We moved out toward the shopping center, and the artificial lights seemed to force a gaudy gaiety. As we pulled into the hotel parking lot, I resigned myself to this new phase of the reunion.
We exited the car and walked into the room, which was now full of this new family, this family my husband did not know. I smiled slightly at my new brother-in-law and father-in-law, and hurriedly crossed the room to my kids. I pulled them in a tight, close hug, breathing them in, feeding off their innocence.
The other girls, on the other side of the room, began to talk to their new brother about the life he’d missed out on. They spoke of their mother, of her endless moves and marriages. There was discussion of the other siblings, seven all together. Four of them were in the room together now. Where were the other three? Were there more? No one was sure, but it seemed likely there were. Had she ever married Miller? No, they never actually got married. What about Johnson? Yes, but just for a short time. One of the brothers, supposedly, had died of a drug overdose; he could only have been about 15 or so at the time. But who knows, maybe it didn’t happen that way at all. Mom would never acknowledge any of this.
Throughout all this, I retreated further and further into myself and my children. It was all I could do to keep from thinking about what I was hearing. The horror of the girls’ stories touched me to the core, and yet I didn’t like them. The way they yelled at each other, arguing and cursing, sickened me, and yet I felt sorry for the lives they must have lived. The cigarette smoke filled the room like a poisonous vapor, choking the innocence out of those sweet souls, my daughters that I held close to me.
Finally, the girls started to talk to Brad about meeting his “mother.” I was astonished that, after all we had heard, he would even consider this. I was even more amazed when he agreed. Sadly, it seemed like that indefinable dread, that sense of a storm brewing that was so repellant to me was somehow so appealing to my husband. I snuggled up in the smelly double bed with my daughters, wishing for the weekend to be over so we could go back to our cozy little home.
As I lay there, the expanse of dirty carpet between my husband’s new family and his old one seemed to expand with each breath I took, separating us ever further. Brad and his sisters stood up and began to put on their coats, and he prepared to walk back into the life of the woman who had caused him so much pain as a child, leaving us behind. Once they had gone, I could almost feel that each passing mile physically separating us was also separating our two hearts. I was left to contemplate the value of what I had lying there with me, my precious little girls, and wondered how what he would find could possibly be worth more.