Breadcrumb #488

MADDY BURNS

I have to say “Drive safe” when my husband leaves. If I don’t, he might get into an accident.

    I have to say “I love you” at the end of every phone call. If I don’t, and my mom or dad die, they might die thinking that I didn’t love them.

    I have to text “I love you” to all of them before I turn off my phone on the plane. If I don’t, they might think that I died mad at them.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, is the go-to reference for diagnosing mental illnesses. It contains approximately 297 diagnoses of mental illnesses, under a bevy of codes. They include codes for:

  • adult psychological abuse by nonspouse or nonpartner, suspected

  • adjustment disorder, with disturbance of conduct

  • mild neurocognitive disorder due to multiple etiologies.    

    I’m still looking for the applicable code for a two-year old girl who thinks she killed her mom with her thoughts. The code for a little girl whose mother disappeared a week after she wished her dead. The code for a little girl who doesn’t understand what spinal meningitis is or what a hospital quarantine means. Because everyone knows that little girls can’t hurt people with their thoughts.

     Except  . . .

     When I say “Drive safe,” my husband looks at me and sighs.

    “I will,” he says, his eyes tired.

    When I say, “I love you,” my mother pauses a little through the phone before saying, “I love you, too.”

    When I text “I love you,” they know what I really mean.

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Breadcrumb #483

ISABEL ANREUS

My abuela and I share the same Orisha, the santo Obatalá. Adorned in white; the eldest and wisest. The Orisha that preserves justice and reckoning. The diplomatic voice amongst a constant discord of sibling rivalry. The androgynous white knight. Obatalá is both male and female, both a Catholic and African deity. Every member of my family has an Orisha to protect and watch over them. My mother’s so accurately is Yemayá, the mother of all living things. She is all blue and resides in the ocean. She takes care of her other siblings’ unwanted children. My brother’s is Changó. He is fire, lightning, and thunder. Smudged red. Power, strength, and aggression are his most prized attributes.  He was once king of the whole earth, and Changó, like my brother, has an appetite for all things decadent. My father is the luckiest, his Orisha is Elegguá, the most powerful. Children of Elegguá are blessed; they have access to the twenty-one roads. He is the connecting agent, the negotiator with fate. Elegguá is also the trickster; the child with an incessant fervor for candy. His shrines are the easiest to spot, always covered in sweets, money, and liquor.   

Santeria translated from Spanish is roughly, “devotions to the spirits,” but most who practice it don’t use this term to describe it. The more familiar term is Regla de Ocha which translates roughly to, “Ruler/Rules of the Bark.” Orishas (spirits) are the children of Olodumare, the ultimate creator.  The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy. She left behind her eldest children, the sixteen Orishas, to keep an eye on humanity, whether they do so righteously depends on the Orisha.

    My first real exposure to Regla de Ocha happened when I was five years old. My mother hauled me and my entire family to the Cuban capital of ‘90s New Jersey, Union City, for an official reading by a babalawo (a priest). His partner answered the door in a hot pink silk robe with matching slippers. A bright red boa wrapped around his neck. I remember I reached out and grazed one of the feathers with my index finger. By the front door was a coconut covered in Puka shells resting in a bowl filled with loose change, individually wrapped pieces of candy, and mini bottles of Bacardi.

The tale goes that Oldumare got bored with Earth so she moved on to create other universes across the galaxy.

     From a time beyond my own, it stems from the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, Regla de Ocha is commonly misinterpreted as a blend between two religions—Catholicism and the Yoruba tribal ceremonies— but it exists as something else entirely. It is a religious syncretism, creating a parallel, an alignment in the obtuse patterns of mysticism. After being forced to convert to Catholicism, many of the slaves kept their own traditions and rituals, attributing its similarities to the Catholic faith. Practiced in secret, Regla de Ocha was passed down through the tongues of those most persecuted, using the steady beat of the sacred batá drum to plant the roots of their religion that traveled all the way across the Atlantic to Bayamo, Cuba.  

     My abuela’s sister first introduced her family to Regla de Ocha back in Havana. The youngest of ten children, it must have been quite a game, matching each Anreus sibling with their Orisha counterpart. Finding one’s Orisha is not just based off of similar personality, but about capturing someone’s aura, their spiritual energy. It is about an individual’s connection with the universe, highlighting one’s inner truth and recognizing it as a larger sense of purpose. My great-aunt’s Orisha is Oyá. The warrior and protector of the dead. She guards the cemetery. The female counterpart to Changó, and the only Orisha who can control him. Full of sadness, death follows her everywhere. Her magic number is nine, for the number of still-births she’s had. She finds solace in few things, one of them being chocolate pudding.

    When I visited my abuela at the nursing home during the last several months of her life we developed a routine. I would rub Shea butter all over her hands and face, fold up and feed her an extra piece of Wrigley’s Freedent gum, and take off the garish nail polish the aids painted on a weekly basis— hot pink, fire engine red, burgundy, colors my abuela would claim were, colores de putas. When I cleaned her nails she wouldn't speak to me, she would just surrender each finger one by one. I clipped, filed, and buffed; scraped out the dirt and old food building between the edge of nail and skin. Then, I would coat each one with a glob of clear polish, exactly how she liked it. Her nails were shaped exactly like mine.

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Breadcrumb #482

KRYS MALCOLM BELC

Every few weeks you shave my head in the bathtub. I sit naked on the wood stool and you stand behind me, cutting so close to my head I look bald in certain lights. The moment after one of your haircuts is the closest I come to religion. In the damp bathroom church I step out of the tub covered in discarded hair and trim my beard in the sink mirror before showering. Samson has been growing out his hair for over a year. For months his bangs have fallen in his eyes and he wears pins clips ties headbands and sweatbands but still wild blond pokes through and through. Samson says he will never have a beard but also says he likes mine. He rubs his hands along my face and calls me beautiful because that is the word I always use for him. His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson. I tell you it makes me anxious to think about how different he is from most boys, from our other boys, and you say Well, that’s on you. It is my job to be ok with what I made. He is sweet and soft in a way I’m terrified of crushing. In his little white drawers dresses stack on leggings stack on jeans. There are bracelets and LEGO creations scattered on his windowsill. You wonder if Sean would have needed his leg braces, if he would need speech therapy, had anyone else made him. Sean looks just like your mother. He is skeptical of me just like she was. But what good is the wondering, we know. We know it does not help our children who are alive, so alive, in front of us right now. They are us and they are their donor but mostly they are themselves.

His name feels fuller in my mouth now that I worry one day he won’t want it. Samson.

When I shaved my head for the first time everyone was shocked but I did not care. You said you were surprised how perfectly round my skull was. It was the first time anyone ever said the word perfect about my body. Your long fingers on my head felt new and wonderful. You held my hand as we walked across campus, heads turning. The air so cold so good rushing all over my scalp. What did we know, then? Samson says other children do not believe in dads who make babies. When he says this my stomach turns like it did when he was old enough to eat something other than my milk because that meant we were separating. We are separating. Thread by thread I am letting him fall away from me. There are no stories of his life that could begin without me but many that could end that way. I do not like to write about Samson as he is now because I cannot make him a character like I’ve made you into one. You can handle it. I can only handle writing about the Samson who used to smear berries all over his face. You stuffed them lovingly into a little mesh feeder and taught him to wrap his hands around food that wasn’t me. His eyes so blue, like mine, his face smudged all over with red and purple sweet. Samson says he doesn’t want to be the only child on this Earth made by his dad even though I’ve assured him he isn’t, showed him pictures of dads and children I’ve only met on the internet. They don’t always seem real to me either. Samson is older now, holds dark berries gently in his fingers before placing them on his tongue, sacred like. The Samson who needs me constantly is as gone as the me who made him. I miss the way his head felt when he used to let me shave it. So round and prickly, so much like mine. My heart burns looking at old pictures of him. I gave him this wild life.

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Breadcrumb #474

SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD

Once my husband remarked how the sky opens like a gift as you turn off Weaver onto Quaker Ridge. Now every time I make that turn I think of that. And about the farm that was once there, an actual working small farm with fields where a fancy market and Condos now stand. We'd go in summer in my mother's little red car to buy tomatoes still warm from the field, strawberries for shortcake, and corn that I never wanted to eat because sometimes while shucking I would find tiny little worms and my mother, a farm girl's daughter, would say nonsense and she'd just cut out the wormy parts and insist the corn was fine.  

Take a right off Quaker Ridge down a sloping curve past a wooded area where once I saw a wild turkey take flight into a stand of trees. I pulled the car over, something mythic and holy about the moment, cars hurtling past me rushing home as dusk began striping the sky in indigo, rose, and gold. Once my daughter was sad and I told her to get in the car and we drove random streets for nearly an hour as I played Nick Drake's song Pink Moon over and over because it was a pink moon that night. We saw a fox and I turned the car around to follow it up a dark road and we stopped when it stopped, staring at us from a tangle of bushes, rust colored fur, defiant eyes. We let it be and drove on under the pink moon.  

Once my daughter was sad and I told her to get in the car and we drove random streets for nearly an hour as I played Nick Drake’s song Pink Moon over and over because it was a pink moon that night.

Tonight the trees are black against a peach sky and I am rushing home because the dog does not like to be in the dark and no one remembered to leave a light on. Once my oldest son played in these woods using sticks for swords and their bikes for horses, coming back exhilarated, scraped and bruised, and deaf to my declaring someone would lose an eye. Once my daughter told me her friends claimed the woods were haunted, how none of them would go in them after dusk. I later joked to a friend that it must have been a rumor started by coyotes to keep the kids away.  

So many things have happened that my mind could turn to, keening times of despair, difficult times we stumbled through, fears about the unknown future, and yet driving I see the peach of the sky and think about my children and wild geese and pink moons, and how I am mostly like that, one who notices the color of the sky, and I am so grateful for it.

  Once by these woods I drive past, very late at night, I pulled my car over to the side and wrote a poem about magic, and hot soup, and keeping the wild things at bay. Even as I wrote it, I felt the press of something against the windows of my car and I kept glancing up, feeling both fearful and foolish. It's easy to believe in anything when you're sitting in a dark car by even darker woods writing a poem by the glow of a streetlight. So I wished peace to whatever might be there and kept on writing because words on paper are angels enough to guide a lost soul through whatever forest they might find themselves in, and lead them home.

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Breadcrumb #470

RACHEL AYDT

“But when he calls me, I will be able to meet my family at God’s table.”

- Gillian Welch, “Orphan Girl”

Orphan: One Deprived of Some Protection or Advantage

My wispy septuagenarian neighbor Nick paces my block with a bulky camera around his neck. Nearly half a century ago, he was an extra in The Godfather. “I was in that scene where all the Dons sit around the table,” he says. “They were trying to make the peace after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, was slaughtered by a brigade of hitmen.”  I remember the scene, but he tells me about it anyway.  

I always learn a lot about Nick when we stop to digress, for example, how he used to box at Gleason’s Gym, “back when it was still in the Bronx,” and that the East Village Boy’s Club was his second home because he grew up orphaned. In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.  “See her in this picture? She’s giving me a thumb’s up.” I find wonder in this man-child who carries a crinkled newspaper clip of his fantasy Queen Mother from a New York daily.

  Ours is a tight East Village community in New York made up of multiple tenement buildings. When someone dies, a flier is hung in the vestibule on the cork bulletin board with a black and white photograph, a paragraph about their contributions to the community, and information about the wake. I’ve come home to find fliers blowing beneath a single thumbtack with a photo of Marva, who walked with a cane in the rain to my son’s 4th birthday party before skies cleared and everyone else showed up an hour late. I’ve come home to find Maritsa on a flier, who had chirpy lovebirds and a Puerto Rican flag hanging on her fire escape, and leaned from her window to holler down when she saw us walking by. “He’s gonna be a football playa!” In my bones, I know Shirley is next. When she sits in her beach chair on the sidewalk next to her home healthcare aide, she reaches her shaking hand towards me, looking confused. Her fingernails haven’t been cut in a long time. At least she’s not looking for her dead dog Gizmo anymore, who she took over from Hank after he died, the same Hank who took mint care of his Cadillac so he could drive his wife to and from her cancer treatments in style. Both of their faces were also on fliers. I feel orphaned when the elders on my block die.

In addition to his camera, he carries around a crinkled newspaper photo of Queen Elizabeth everywhere he goes.

  There is something ridiculous about my literary-infused idea of what it means to be an orphan: Ragamuffin dresses, calloused feet, and matchstick girls huddle in the cold, furnished with warmth from scraps of tinder. The most rollicking of them have their own soundtracks. Cue up Oliver Twist and Lil’ Orphan Annie, and their Hollywood posses who swell up in choral waves of support, either with extra spoonfuls of porridge or hard-knock broom and mop dances. There is a wide bridge between the orphans created by Dickens, and by Hollywood, and the reality of earth-bound parental abandonment. There’s a primal satisfaction in the fantasy endings when Mr. Brownlow and Daddy Warbucks, respectively, put aside their misgivings to embrace the scrappy but vulnerable children who tumbled into their lives. In these redemptive endings, we can say goodbye to the turned-out child wrangler Fagin, and his literary sister Mrs. Asthma, who ran her orphanage with a cruel streak. There is a distinct and satisfying Before and After with these collective mythologies. Before, there was destitute, abandoned, and empty. After, there was abundance, love, and comfort.

When my husband and I applied for our wedding license in Philadelphia, we were sent to an unassuming room called the Orphan’s Division in an ornate state building downtown. “The word ‘Orphans’ in the name of the Court is derived from the general definition of orphan as one lacking protection,” their website reads, “not the common association of a child deprived by the death of his or her parents.” I’d never considered my future marriage as a thing that would land me in a state of protection, an orphan finding shelter.

Orphan: A Young Animal that Has Lost Its Mother

For three years in a row, the mourning dove on my fire escape has come back to her hard-scrabble nest. She lays two eggs the size of quarters and alternates day and night shifts with her mate until they hatch. The first year they emerged but disappeared.  When I glanced at the landing below I found them tucked into a potted plant, dead. The next year new eggs hatched, and the babies grew from mangy pin feathered creatures to cooing beauties. Within a week, one got stuck in between the slats and died, his neck broken. This spring, one hatched prematurely. Draped in a U-shape over a stick poking from the nest, it was barely the size of my pinky, its downy feathers matted down by rain. Still, its mother sat on the second baby. A few days later mother bird stared into my window. I cracked it open for fresh air, stuck my head out, and offered her a few crumbled Frosted Mini Wheats. Threatened, she raised her left wing in a defensive posture. Sitting in the nest was her other baby, the size of my palm, his beady eyes shining. I closed the window and let them be.

Orphan: A child deprived of one or usually both parents

When I was 24-weeks pregnant I nearly died from the sudden appearance of blood clots that crept from my left foot to my kidneys. An unsuccessful surgery led to a more successful one, and for two weeks I recuperated at the now shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan. Before the surgeries I signed a DNR form and included my unborn son in the waiver. Being a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee came into my room one, two, three, and four times to debate my decision.  

“I want him to come with me if I don’t make it,” I explained, over and over again. I’d heard the risks of babies born at 24 weeks. Undeveloped lungs, cerebral palsy, life-long care. They responded over and over again. “We have a world class NICU. There’s a blue balloon we could put over the fetus’s head to keep him alive in an incubator. If your husband loses you, he could still be a father.” I didn’t want to die, and I also didn’t want to leave my husband with a premature baby with a blue balloon over his head in an incubator. This did not come to pass, but these conversations were stark and unbearable.

Orphan: A first line (as of a paragraph) separated from its related text and appearing at the bottom of a printed page or column

One of my favorite editing tasks is cutting orphans, those pesky one and two-word hangnails that reach beyond their allotted space on the page. Easiest to cut are articles and adverbs, useless adjectives and redundancies. When this is done, the columns align as they are supposed to. There are days when I look around and sense invisible fibers that connect people and birds and balloons and fire escapes and musicals. Eventually they snap, making orphans of us all.

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