I am committed to writing a book over the next several months. To help keep me on track and accountable, I am publicly committing to posting content chunks here on the blog each Friday. These chunks of writing won’t be perfect and they will go through further editing before the book is ready for publication. Your constructive comments and feedback are always welcome!
I kneel on the mottled brown carpet of the living room, my hands loosely clasping the light blue plastic beads of a rosary. My siblings kneel close by as my mom sits on the couch with a pillow under one arm, nursing my newest baby brother. We are listening to the local Catholic radio station where once a day it broadcasts a recorded recitation of the rosary prayers. There is a predictable cadence to the priest’s voice, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” and so on and on, as bead after bead passes through my fingers. It’s kind of nice to let my mind wander and just zone out to the drone of the repetitive sounds.
By this time our family had begun homeschooling, a decision that was based on religious reasons. Always devout Catholics, my parents did not fit well within the progressive-mainstream Archdiocese of Seattle. They were firmly against both abortion and birth control and suspicious even of many of the changes that had happened in the church since the reforms of Vatican II, back in the early 1960s.
In the mid-1980s, homeschooling was very uncommon. Most people had never even heard of it. We did not know any other homeschooling families. It was barely legal, and some families in the US even faced battles with state governments and local school districts over their choice to homeschool their children. If asked about school while out it public, we told people we went to “a small private school” and tried to change the subject quickly. This led to some very awkward encounters.
Friendly stranger: “So you must live in the neighborhood–where do you go to school?”
Me: “Uh, it’s a small school. A small Catholic school.”
Friendly stranger: “Oh, let’s see, I know Holy Family School, and my friend’s kids go to St. Bernadette’s…. Is it one of those?”
Me: “No. It’s really small. You’ve never heard of it.”
Friendly stranger (looking confused): “Huh. OK.”
Me: “I have to go help my mom.” (walks away without making eye contact)
We spent a lot of time at home insulated from mainstream culture. We hadn’t owned a TV since I was about 2 years old, so we entertained ourselves by reading and playing outdoors in our large back yard. My sister and I had two cats, Kelly and Gray, that we would dress up in doll clothes. We also enjoyed making up plays and forcing our younger brothers to act out parts.
Clair, the 5th-born of my siblings, died shortly after birth due to undiagnosed complications related to blood antibodies, ultimately springing from the blood transfusion my mother had had in the Dominican Republic. She only lived a few days, and never left the hospital after being born. I never saw her. I remember my father picking out wood and grieving as he made her tiny coffin with his own hands in our backyard.
There was a funeral, but I felt somewhat detached. Already, although I would never have admitted it at the time, on some level I was starting to wonder if it was really wise to have as many children as biologically possible.
When my mother became pregnant with my next brother, after Clair died, the doctors did a lot more prenatal tests and were able to catch and treat the complications, but it involved four in-utero blood transfusions and heroic effort. He was literally one of the most “expensive” babies in terms of resources, treatment and cutting-edge medicine, in an large multi-state area. This of course was at the U.W. Medical Center–one of the best in the country.
After spending many weeks in the NICU, my brother came home from the hospital, but he still needed special care and would sometimes have seizures. I remember one time holding him, wrapped in a yellow baby blanket in the back of our VW Bug as my dad drove to the emergency room. His little body convulsed and went rigid over and over again. In between convulsions I tried to comfort him and calm him down, but I felt helpless to do anything.
At one point to make ends meet my mom and dad both picked up temporary shift work at a local grocery store during a worker strike. They didn’t have anything against the regular workers, but it was a way to earn some additional much-needed money for our family. At age eleven, I was left to care for my four younger siblings, including a special-needs infant for long stretches of time. I made sure my siblings did their school work, got chores done and made dinner on many nights.
Managing all of this was almost too much for me to handle. My second brother was about three at the time and tended to be very high-energy and hard to control. One night, at my wit’s end, I locked him outside in the dark until his yells of protest became sobs and then his sobs turned to whimpers, and he became compliant. I still feel bad about that. I saw his spirit break inside him, but I didn’t know what else to do. After getting my other siblings to bed, I would rock my baby brother as he cried and cried. And I cried, silently, rocking back and forth and wishing wordlessly for a way out.