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My Childhood

I had a normal, happy, uneventful childhood until I was about 8 years old. I still had a mostly happy childhood past those years, but it was far from normal. And there were times that were dark, horrible, times when we were almost taken away from my mother, times where I almost ran away, and times that I wish to forget.

My dad was a military man, loving, but firm and very strict. Manners, respect for elders, and education were what he focused on teaching his children. He is an amazing dad, I am lucky to have him. But we aren’t exceptionally close. We love each other and have a great time when we are together, but we are two very different people and I disappointed him a lot when I was a teenager and I don’t think we’ve quite moved past that. I think once I graduate with a college degree, I will be held in higher esteem in his eyes.

My mother was the complete opposite. She was happy-go-lucky, fun-loving, let us get away with almost anything, and didn’t care about education. She is two years younger than my dad, and dropped out of high school at 16-years-old so they could get married. I’m not sure why they fell in love, but they had a very happy marriage for 16 years.

My older sister (that I adore and think the world of), was the apple of my dad’s eye. I wasn’t jealous. My mom poured the attention and love on my little brother and me plenty, and I have an amazing relationship with my sister so I never envied her. She is a genius, kind, sweet, caring, with a great sense of humor. She’s beautiful. Who wouldn’t love her? She is extremely close to my dad. I felt like my dad gave most of his time and attention to her, and I don’t blame him. I was a “hip” baby and only wanted my mother. She was born with a love of learning and a passion for education, and with my father’s urging and approval, excelled in school effortlessly. She was placed in gifted classes almost immediately and scored high enough to skip grades, but my parents never let her. I’m not sure why. My mom wanted her to be happy, my dad wanted her to become a doctor or lawyer (which I’m sure she would have succeeded at either), but she wanted to be a special education teacher. My mom was proud, but my dad did not like this idea at first, until my sister politely but firmly put him in his place. He told her she was wasting her intelligence, but she replied, “Why shouldn’t smart people be teachers? Just because I won’t make as much money as I could have, isn’t educating young minds more important than money? Should only stupid people teach our young? Isn’t it just as important to put my intelligence to use in educating and guiding the minds of children, the future leaders of our world?” Those are not her exact words, she would have said something even more intelligent and wise, but this conversation happened about 10 years ago and I can’t remember exactly what she said. My dad never pressured her again about her career choices, though. And she is very happy and loves what she does.

My little brother, love and light of many people’s lives due to his joyful personality, friendliness, empathetic nature, and silliness, adores my dad. My mom told me that my dad was so happy to have a son, their third and final child, finally a boy! They were so thrilled. And he was such an adorable baby too, with his curly blonde locks and bright blue eyes. Everything seemed perfect at first, they had their three children and their family was complete. We were healthy and were mostly well-behaved and well-mannered children. But things changed when my little brother was four months old. My mom noticed that he wasn’t hitting the milestones that he should be. He couldn’t hold his head up, he couldn’t roll over, and she said her mother’s intuition told her something wasn’t right. They took him to the doctor and after months of testing, got the news that no parent ever wants to hear. Their precious first and only son was developmentally delayed. He didn’t have a specific diagnosis, he wasn’t autistic and he didn’t have Down’s syndrome, but he was definitely mentally challenged and would never be able to take care of himself or live without constant support and supervision. They cried.

My mother is a strong woman, and an amazing mother. She researched everything she could get her hands on in a time before the Internet. She contacted every agency that worked with disabled children to get him the help and support he needed. He was in a special education preschool by the time he was 12 months old. I was only about 2 years old at this time so I don’t remember anything, just what my mother tells me. She told me from the moment he got his diagnosis, my dad started pulling away. He was still a good, loving father, but when he got the news that his son wasn’t “normal”, he didn’t engage with him as much as he did with his two daughters. My mom took care of Ben the most, she changed his diapers (he wasn’t potty trained until his preteens), drove him to appointments, took him to preschool and therapy. Mom is the center of Ben’s world, but he loves his Dad so very much. Dad loves him too, of course, but he is very strict on Ben and disciplines him a lot more than my mom does. Ben loves everyone, he always has a smile on his face, and he loves to greet people. My mom taught him not to grab people, he use to try and hug strangers sometimes, or run up to them and at least grab them to shake their hand. But this is inappropriate behavior, and both of my parents wanted Ben to be as socially adept as his mental capacities allowed him to be. He was not allowed to throw tantrums, or get away with doing naughty things just because he was disabled. I am so thankful for this, that my parents didn’t just say, “Oh, he’s special, he doesn’t know any better,” they made sure he was taught better than that. But of course he will never be “normal”. He loves people so much that he couldn’t be taught to cut off contact with them completely, so he settled with enthusiastically waving at them, and giggling crazily with delight whenever anyone smiled and waved back to him.

Sometimes people who had experience with special needs persons would come up to us, and after briefly talking to my mom (my mom is a social butterfly), would sometimes hug Ben after learning how affectionate he was. This would excite my brother so much he would put his hands on my mother’s (or my) shoulders and bounce up and down gleefully. Both his gross and fine motor skills are lacking, and he had poor balance and can’t get his feet off the ground, but I’m sure if he was able, he would have been literally jumping for joy. My dad would always try and correct this behavior, it still wasn’t good enough, he had to ignore everyone, and he definitely shouldn’t giggle when others waved to him, no normal person does this. My brother always tried to please my dad, was always on his best behavior, but he will still never be the son he wanted. He is considered non-verbal, he communicates mainly using sign language and he gets by with a few gestures and partial words. He can say, “MaMa, Nae (René, our sister), Neenee (me, Jennifer or Jenny as my family use to call me as a child), ah-lah (Hello), Miiiii (Mike, Mom’s longest-running boyfriend), DeeDee (Dad), Ho-Ho (he cannot say just “Ho” (thank God), it is a very fast HoHo, for Santa Claus), Dee-de-Dee (Trick or Treat, he loves Halloween), and a few others. I think Ben is perfect just the way he is. He is tough, he has had injuries before, he has fallen down stairs and tripped stepping both on and off the sidewalk, but he always bounces back, he never cries. But when he does cry? You feel like your heart is being ripped out of your chest. After my parents divorced when I was around eight, I heard him cry for the first time. My mom was fighting with one of her new boyfriends, and they were screaming at each other and my mom was crying on top of her screaming. My brother cannot stand conflict, he hates to hear people upset, and he burst into gut-wrenching sobs. They both stopped dead in their tracks and didn’t fight again for weeks, and when they did, they made sure my brother wasn’t around to hear.

And then there’s me. I don’t really like to talk about myself, but I will try and do the best I can. I am the middle child, almost three years younger than my sister and one year older than my brother. I have read articles that describe middle children as eccentric, and I’d have to agree with that. I have been told by multiple people that I am extremely sweet, kindhearted, shy, goofy, compassionate (I’m sure this is thanks to Ben), always willing to help someone out (which gets me in trouble with my husband sometimes because I get taken advantage of a lot), trusting to a fault. I’m not afraid to be weird or be seen as weird or off the wall, and again, I definitely think a part of is because of my little brother. My sister and I had to entertain Ben a lot and most of the time we did it by trying to make him laugh because he had the cutest damn baby laugh I’ve ever heard in my life. I remember one summer, my sister was messing around by the pool and decided to imitate that movie slogan where the guy is running across the letters and then jumps and falls off. She ran up to the side of the pool, flailed her arms wildly like she was falling in accidentally, screamed, and then really fell in (on purpose). My brother laughed so hard he snorted, his face turned red, and he had tears running down his cheeks. As soon as she surfaced, he ran up to the side of the pool, and signed “More” over, and over, and over again as fast as his little hands could. We were always trying to find ways to make him laugh like this, so we learned early on how to be weird and how not to care what anyone thought of us. Ben loved his silly sisters and to be quite honest, due to his disability and lack of normal social skills, we were always being stared at anyway. Our lack of caring about what people thought of course has faded over the years, we both really do care what people think of us and we aren’t as crazy as we were as kids, but that weirdness still comes out when we’re together. My sister uploaded a picture of all of us this past summer to Facebook and titled it, “Normal is just a setting on the dryer.” I love that picture and that quote.

I know I’m not as smart as my sister, but I’ve been told I’m extremely intelligent as well, above average. I didn’t really care for school, but I did okay while my dad still lived at home, because grades were so important to him. I wish I realized how important education was, because as soon as he moved out, my grades started to slip. Over and over my report cards would come home and say, “Jennifer is very smart and bright, but she just doesn’t apply herself!” That was teacher speak for I was lazy. I was more interested in my conduct grades, I am a people pleaser, and always wanted to be liked and thought of as a good person, and my self esteem went up every time I got an “O” for Outstanding, the highest conduct grade you could get in elementary school. Despite my laziness in school, my intelligence was proven when it was FCAT time and my scores were the highest in my class, I was scoring in the high school levels while I was still in elementary school. But I despised homework and studying so my grades remained low. I really regret that now because I wasn’t born with a passion for education like my sister was and I didn’t realize how I was screwing up my future. I had a carefree mom who didn’t care what I did, and a dad who now only saw us a couple of times a year, so I had nothing to motivate me to do better until I was much older and realized I didn’t want to clean houses for a living like my mom.

I was also teased a lot because the students who lived around me saw my brother in diapers, so I was the kid with the retarded brother. Now, I may have been a sweet, passive child who abhorred violence and ignored when the kids picked on me, but I saw red if they made fun of my brother. He didn’t deserve that, he loved those ignorant assholes and just wanted to play with them, even though they stood at the end of our driveway and pointed and laughed at him. When my sister got to middle school and started staying after for activities and clubs, my little brother and I were put in daycare. I was in the same classroom as him because we were very close and I knew how to handle him. When another little girl in our aftercare class called him a retard, I pushed her off the jungle gym. No one had saw me act like that before and they started leaving my brother alone. Plus he started to win some of them over with his never ending friendliness and playfulness. He is 25 now and still loves children, probably due to having the mind of a four-year-old.

Our childhood took a turn for the worse probably when I nearly finished with middle school. I was still a child so I didn’t realize the stress my mom was under, caring for three young children, one of whom had a severe mental disability. She had no respite from him outside of school, she had a full-time job cleaning houses to supplement my dad’s child support and alimony, and we still struggled financially. She went from being a child herself, to a wife, and quickly to being a mother. She had no time to party with her friends, and my mom was as wild as they come. She missed out on her youth and she couldn’t contain herself any longer. She fell in love with a bad man who encouraged her to drink and she developed alcoholism. She was pleasant enough when she was sober, but she turned into a raging monster when she was really drunk. The man only wanted her for sex, and after a short time, they broke it off. Shortly after the break-up, I started hearing stories of this horrible world we lived in, people just wanted to use us and hurt us, nobody loved us, and people would assault us and rob us if given the chance, and men especially were the enemy. We were nothing but sex objects to them and they would do and say anything to get into our pants, and finding a man who actually loved us was a million in one chance and wouldn’t happen to girls like us. When my sister left for college, my mom started going out drinking nearly every night, leaving a terrified and anxious teenager to take care of her younger brother, feed him, bathe him, put him to bed, and protect the house from all the robbers that so plagued the world. And don’t forget the molesters who were out there on the hunt for young victims. I stayed by the front window all night long, just watching to see if anyone came near, phone clutched in my hand, ready to dial 9-1-1 if needed. Nothing ever happened, thank God, but I lived in constant fear because of my mother’s grooming. Most nights she brought different, random, drunk men home with her. Many years later I realized what a miracle from God it was that I really wasn’t molested by these strange, creepy men.

She found a new boyfriend through a dating website, though, an over-the-road truck driver. He had two children, an 8-year-old boy, and a 10-year-old girl, and they were sweet, fun children, and I liked them very much and was so happy that I wouldn’t have to be alone at night anymore. His children were living at their grandmother’s house but when she found out he was dating someone, she kicked those darling children out and they came to live with us before my mom had even met their dad. That should have been a warning sign that something wasn’t right with this man or his family. As a child, I could read people pretty well and I had a very sick feeling in my stomach over this new boyfriend. But he was kind to my mom and brother so until he did something otherwise, I was friendly to him but cautious. I never wanted to be alone with him and I didn’t understand why.

He would be home with us for a few days, and then be on the road again for weeks. When he was gone, my mother would go out drinking. She didn’t bring any more men home with her, though. He returned one night and they were in the kitchen drinking and having a heated discussion, while us kids were in the living room watching TV. Quickly, though, the discussion turned into a fight. They were drunk, and screaming at each other, and I was suddenly very afraid because this man had a terrifyingly loud, angry voice, and a scary face. But I had to be strong, with my sister at college, I was the oldest now with three young kids that looked up to me, and I could not let them know I was afraid. I loved every one of them, but I did not want to be the oldest, I did not want to be in charge, I wish my sister was home because my mom has a huge amount of respect for her and would never dream to act this way in front of her. My sister has that aura about her, no one acts like a drunken fool in front of her because everyone always wanted René’s approval.

He tried to walk away, still screaming of course, but my mom followed him, yelling louder and louder, and throwing cups, cigarettes, whatever she could get her hands on at him. The kids cuddled in closer to me and whispered they were scared. I faked a smile, and tried to tell them a funny story to distract them from the adult’s fighting, turned the TV up a little louder.

They walked out front and slammed the door, and we could hear the continued screaming. Then it got quiet, and we heard the neighbors come over and politely tell them to knock it off. They came back in, still fighting, and my little petite mom picked up the coffee table from right in front of us and tried to throw it at him; it grazed his leg and started to bleed. He yelled, “Oh, you want to fight like a man? You think you’re tough? Okay, FINE, we’ll fight like men!” and he picked up a dining room chair and threw it at her.

I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t safe out there anymore, so I took them into my bedroom, locked the door, and we hid in my closet. My brother was crying, and the kids looked close to tears too. The throwing of furniture, the name calling, the horrible, horrible fighting continued. I was scared one of them would kill the other in their drunken rage. I called the police. For many years I wondered if it was the right thing to do. They showed up with record speed and quickly tried to assess the situation. My mom didn’t have a scratch on her, but because of his barely bleeding leg, they wanted to arrest her. I felt fear like I had never felt before. I cried to the police officer, I wasn’t sure what to do, why are they taking my mom away, I wouldn’t have called if I knew they were going to take my mom away, I don’t know what to do, this man scares me and I don’t want to be left alone with him. They asked if there was anyone I could call. The only person I could think of was my sister, and she was currently living in the dorms at her university, 45 minutes away. I called her anyway though, and she came rushing over. The police stayed with us until she arrived.

I asked the kids what they wanted to do. They wanted to stay with their dad, at our house. So I packed some clothes for my brother and me, and we crawled into my sister’s jeep and she took us back home with her. No overnight guests under 18 were allowed, which we both were at the time (I was maybe fifteen or sixteen), but she didn’t care. And my sister is normally very strict on following the rules. When we got back, I burst into tears and told her the whole story. I was so tired. I was tired of taking care of my alcoholic mother, her rage-driven boyfriend, his two young children, and my little brother. I was so darn tired. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know how to connect with other people my age because while they were talking about going to the mall and their plans for the weekend, I was thinking about what awaited me back home. My mom had a lot of friends though, and they stayed over a lot, so I talked and interacted with them mostly, I wasn’t alone. Even now, I still get along better with people older than me. But I can’t handle my mom when she’s drunk like my sister can, and I wish she was the one in charge that night. To this day, I still don’t like being the one in charge.

Luckily it was a Friday night, and we spent the next day with her. She tried to take us on a tour of her college, show us how much fun it was, but I was too emotionally drained to really care. I tried to smile, feign interest, but all I could think of was my mother. We called the jail and was told she was being released, since her boyfriend wasn’t pressing charges. René drove us home and had a stern talk with my mother. She was always so mature, wise beyond her years, and here she was, having to parent her own mom. No child should ever be put in that position.

The relationship lasted long enough for all charges to be dropped against my mom, so she doesn’t even have a record. I heard stories that this guy use to bring 13-year-old girls into his truck and molest them, but I have no idea how true it was. I prayed they weren’t true, I wished it didn’t really happen, no one should ever have to live through that, but with my intuition about this guy and my fear of him for no known reason makes me wonder if they were really stories or not.

(I originally wrote this post about a month ago, but I was really shy and nervous to post it. It’s long and kind of depressing. But I have meant so many other wonderful bloggers through this site that bravely shared their stories, most of them going through way worse things than me, and I thought if they so graciously let me into their lives, that I should do the same and let them into mine. Thank you for letting me share with you.)

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Surprising the Family

Life is good right now, even though my dad nearly ruined our surprise trip home. I was so angry at him for that, and I still haven’t quite forgiven him! My mom, as always, is super late on wrapping presents and she was freaking out over not having wrapped my little brother’s gifts (he’s 25, but mentally challenged, and still believes in Santa Claus…or as he affectionately calls him, “Ho-Ho”) I offered to take him to my husband’s house and play games and watch movies so she could get them wrapped woot I got out of wrapping presents. I tried to show him the Wii U, but his caregiver gave him Despicable Me for Christmas and he has been carrying it around the rest of the day, he even brought it to the dinner table with us, and he wanted to watch it. So we watched that instead and it was really cute, I’ve never actually seen the movie, just clips here and there. He passed out near the end of the movie and I got a cute picture of him and sent it to her (and she returned with a picture of her labrador-sized dog hiding in the dryer because of the thunderstorms we’ve been getting daily).

We found out the two days before we left that my dad was coming down from Atlanta for the weekend and would be leaving Sunday morning and we wouldn’t get in until Sunday night. I didn’t want him to get upset if we didn’t at least try to see him, so I had to let him in on the secret. He had to work Monday so he couldn’t extend his trip, but he promised he wouldn’t tell my mom or sister we were coming in. He dropped my brother off in the morning and told both of them that “they would be very happy by the end of the day.” My mom said he was acting giddier than she had ever seen him before. Now my sister’s freaking smart and my mom is pretty darn clever too so I was pissed about him saying ANYTHING that could give us away, and of course they started to wonder. My mom thought she was getting Edible Arrangements delivered, and my sister wondered briefly if we were coming in. By the evening when nothing else had showed up, my mom started wondering if we were coming in too. THANKS DAD. Ugh!

I just had to take a break from writing because Ben woke up and wanted to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I taught him well.

Our surprises didn’t go exactly as planned but they still went great and I’m really happy about them! My brother goes to a work program for disabled adults from 9am until 3pm and his caregiver keeps him from 3pm until 5pm so my mom can work or just get some time to herself. We wanted to meet him at his work program, surprise him, and then give the caregiver the day off and meet my mom at the mall at 5pm (where they meet to drop him off and pick him up and say, “Oh, hey, surprise, F couldn’t make it so we thought we’d bring your turkey butt to you instead.” His program is pretty far away, and his caregiver lives close to it, so the mall is a good half way point for everyone to meet at.) Well, we showed up at the day program and my mom’s car was in the parking lot! She must have gotten off work early. It was sprinkling as we walked up, and typical for Florida, it started pouring within seconds. We couldn’t find the door (the program is in a strip mall with multiple spaces as theirs, but only one door remains unlocked and we didn’t remember which one it was) so we’re running, trying to get out of the pouring rain, and we come across three people all by themselves in a room. It just happens to be my mom, brother, and his caregiver. We bang on the window, my mom’s mouth literally falls open, and the caregiver lets us in because Mom was too shocked to move. Hugs and laughs and surprised stares were given, and it was declared a success!

My sister teaches Zumba and her class is Tuesday night, so I thought it would be fun to sneak into the class shortly after it began and then just start dancing as if I belonged there. But she called my mom Monday afternoon and told her she was really sick with a fever and had another teacher take over her class. Bummer. I didn’t want to wait until Christmas day to surprise her, so after we found out she was feeling better Tuesday afternoon we showed up at her apartment and yelled, “SURPRISE!” It was still nice but I wish I could have done my original plan.

And now I’m just sitting here, enjoying reliving my childhood watching Harry Potter with my brother, and hoping my mom calls us soon. Not for me, I love spending time with Ben, but as soon as the sun went down he has been obsessed with Ho-Ho and worrying he is going to miss him. As soon as we pulled in Robert’s neighborhood, he was asking, “Ho-Ho?” (No, buddy, it’s only 7 o’clock and Ho-Ho isn’t even near us yet, he’s delivering presents to other children on the other side of the world). As soon as he woke up from his nap, he panicked and said rapidly, “Ho-Ho? Ho-Ho?” (No, not yet, you were only asleep for 30 minutes. I promise I won’t let you sleep through Christmas.) He still asks me occasionally and I keep having to remind him that it’s not time yet. He won’t be at peace until he is home in his bed. It was hard to get in the Christmas spirit before we arrived, but it’s wonderful to see the spirit still alive in my brother’s world. He will never outgrow his childhood wonder and love of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Since we still have a few days of it left and my husband is Jewish, I wish everyone a very happy Hanukkah, a very merry Christmas, a happy Kwanzaa, and a wonderful holiday season with your loved ones!

Edit: Oops, my husband was informed wrong and we don’t have a few days left of Hanukkah, it ended Christmas Eve. That shows how much we know about our own holidays!