I’m only forty-eight, but my Dad has cut me off. Indicative of his character, he was kind about it, even though there was no discussion. He is more of an actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of guy. I thought things were going along swimmingly between Dad and me when one day, out of nowhere, everything I understood about our relationship shot out of control. I felt like I happened to be in Krispy Kreme, not that I ever would, when a disgruntled employee flipped the conveyor belt switch. Hot glazed lard balls started pelting me from all angles. I was left standing, with corn syrup glaze dripping down my head onto my blue jeans, while the “Hot Doughnuts” sign cheerfully flashed. Even though I was licking my fingers, I was in shock. My Dad—my leader, cohort, accomplice—went on a diet.
Dad and I look exactly alike, except he is a few years older than me and has a beard. Though some days, when I am due for an upper-lip waxing, even facial hair does not differentiate us. My mother, husband and children, in their perfection, laugh about the many characteristics Dad and I share. We both throw our feet outward in a splay-footed manner when we walk, apparently “clomping” instead of walking. We both have teeth and gums that require extensive and continual dental and periodontal work.
We both have terrible eyesight and a loud snore. And for years, we have both eaten anything that is not moving. When my three girls would excuse themselves from the table, Dad would say, “Wait, wait, wait!” while he examined their plates to see what was left. A few tomatoey noodles, some limp lettuce, a crust of bread. He couldn’t stand to see perfectly good food just sitting there, destined for the disposal, so he finished every morsel of their sweet little slobbered-upon food. Usually, the phrase “See-food Diet” would be uttered by someone, somewhere.
Dad’s waste-not-want-not mindset has noble, ethical roots. Having grown up during WWII, he remembers ration cards and watching his mother chop off chicken heads in their back yard. He became an Eagle Scout when he was, oh, about five years old, so resourcefulness courses through his iron-filled blood. Last summer in North Carolina, when my girls and I went camping in the rain with Dad, I realized that I had left the tent poles at home. In Kentucky. He set up our tent, in the rain, without poles, using only string.
I can claim neither nobility nor particular ethics. Although Mom didn’t wring chicken necks, she cooked every night and we always had plenty of food. The reason I eat anything, half-eaten, slobbered-upon, is that I love food. Stare at food photos. Study recipes. Memorize menus. (Let me tell you, it is worth a 17-hour drive to the Stonewall Kitchen headquarters in York, Maine, for their Lobster BLT.)
Over the years, I watched Dad at the table with steel eyes, like a young runner watches a drug dealer. I started eating pizza crusts in the kitchen after dinner, when no one was looking. Then I became more brazen, as addicts eventually do. I began eating my children’s cold spaghetti, their meatloaf with congealed ketchup, their lukewarm tomato and cucumber salad, right off their plates at the table. Dad watched and beamed.
But it’s all over now. A year ago, Dad began The Diet Solution by Isabel De Los Rios, a name he pronounces with awkward, but affectionate, Spanish flair. He chose her diet because “it seemed to make as much sense as any other diet he heard about and because it was cheap to try.” Aside from a culinary journey to New York guided by my mother, and a trip or two to our house, where the candy drawer remains half-open, like a flag at half-mast, Dad has been faithful to Isabel and lost 20 pounds.
I could not be more proud. Dad looks great and his doctor says he is in fine shape. I hope he buys new khakis that don’t scrunch around his now-slender waist, feels his best and lives forever. But this middle-aged child who must face not only the mortality of her parents, but her own, stares at her ever-expanding bellybutton and wonders, Where does this leave me? What happens now that this father I have watched, imitated, trusted has chosen a different path?
Sure, I can remain on the streets, looking for a fix. Eat my pizza crust on a stained mattress in a blown- out, dilapidated warehouse. Prostitute myself if I have to, but I know now that the high never lasts for long. In thirty minutes, I will open the candy drawer all the way, looking for something stronger than spaghetti. Look for the dark chocolate with sea salt because I need a harder hit.
Dad emailed me last week with a diet update. His weight was at an all-time low and his doctor was “pleased, but cautioned that is low enough.” I was happy for him, but also tried to pull him back down into my dark, childish world. I typed, “I think the doctor’s caution means it’s time for a hot fudge sundae.” With non-judgmental ease, Dad responded, “Not a bad idea! Thank you for that perceptive suggestion.” But I could tell he was through for good.
I considered driving to the pink Comfy Cow ice cream parlor for a Masterpiece Sundae, just to think things over, but my kids had stuff to do. Exercise class to attend, school supplies to buy, field hockey to play, tables to bus. Kids are demanding like that.
This was the heading on the official piece of paper that arrived in the mail a few months ago. What had our eighteen-year-old daughter done to offend the Commonwealth of Kentucky? Does the Commonwealth know that Hannah is one of its biggest fans? While Hannah’s mother is reeling because Kentucky recently ranked first in fatal child abuse, forty-first in overall health, Hannah abides by her own rating scale:
People—Kentucky #1 (North Carolina, home of the grandparents, ranks a close second)
Although the wording on the court document was unfortunate, we knew the reason Hannah was to appear in court on Thursday, June 14. Mark and I had filed with an attorney for legal guardianship of Hannah so we could help her make financial, medical and other personal decisions.
Several months ago, when Hannah walked into the bright white of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Developmental and Pediatric Clinic for her recurring appointment, Valerie, the receptionist whom we have gotten to know over the past six years, did not even look at me. She addressed Hannah directly, “Hi Hannah! How are you today, hon? You need to sign the forms on the screen then we’ll get you back.” Not only was I missing my usual chat, but I was confused. Benevolent Valerie finally looked at sad me.
“Hon, Hannah’s eighteen now. Until you are her legal guardian, she makes all her own medical and financial decisions and we are legally obligated to speak only to her about her appointment.”
Probably not such a great idea for someone who is reading and writing on a third grade level—8 years, 1 month to be exact—and doing math on a first grade level, to be making complicated medical decisions. I asked her doctor about guardianship. He strongly advocated for it (some people do not) and told us of a patient whose family had begun but not yet completed the guardianship process. The patient was suicidal and needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately, but she was refusing admittance. Technically, her parents could do nothing. Only because CHC is the excellent place it is, and only because the parents had begun the process, was CHC’s legal department able to override and gain her admittance. Save her life.
Our doctor explained that we could legally do nothing to stop Hannah if she met someone and wanted to get married. Knowing how much Hannah loves country music, we considered it might be easy for someone to woo her at the Rhinestone Wedding Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee. We hired an attorney.
Although we have known since Hannah’s diagnosis at age six that she is “mentally retarded” and autistic, her “incompetence” would have to be proven in court. The psychologist said to me, “This may be difficult for you, but we want the jury to find her incompetent so they rule her fully disabled and award you guardianship. I still feel the shock of those four syllables in my gut. For seventeen years, I have worked to prove Hannah’s competence to anyone who will listen. “Hannah can remember directions better than a GPS.” “Hannah is the most observant person I have ever known.” “Hannah is more responsible than many adults I meet.” Now we wanted a group of strangers to claim she was incompetent.
Over the next six weeks, “in order to get a behavioral sample,” we received visits from a psychologist, a social worker and a psychiatrist who reviewed all of Hannah’s records and tested her thoroughly:
“Do you know who the president is?” She did.
“Can you make 75 cents in change using these coins?” She could not.
Mark and I sat at our dining room table and watched Hannah cry because she could not make change. Because she did not understand what “guardianship” meant, no matter how many times we explained it. Because she feared that court was only for “people who do bad things.”
Kentucky is the only state that determines guardianship with a jury. According to kyjustice.org, “the state of Kentucky “prosecutes” the court action, and there is a jury trial, because putting an adult under guardianship involves the loss of civil rights, and seriously changes the adult’s status under the law.” Hannah was appointed a guardian ad litem, a very nice man with an arched back and a puff of white hair on his head, to assure that we were not trying to strip her civil rights. The county attorney was the “prosecutor,” a forthright woman who called Hannah before the hearing to reassure her and gave her a red-white-and-blue cupcake when the hearing was over.
Our attorney is an experienced, cheerful father of a country-music-loving special needs adult son. He has helped many families walk this path and I was grateful every time I saw his mustached smile. Throughout the process, when I felt anxious, he reassured, “This is all going to be fine. It’s actually interesting to watch the judicial process.” He had big news five minutes before the hearing: Toby Keith recently opened the I Love This Bar and Grill in Cincinnati. Hannah asked if we could soon go. When I thought about Hannah singing those lyrics, which she does, loudly, “I love this bar/It’s my kind of place/Just walkin’ through the front door/Puts a big smile on my face…,” my anxiety shifted into perspective.
The judge was blessedly kind, explaining to everyone in the courtroom the significance of the hearing. Six jurors were selected to decide the level of Hannah’s incompetence—not disabled, partially disabled, fully disabled. Hannah fixated on the sheriff’s deputy, “He has a gun and a badge” over and over. From the first pew of the courtroom, Mark, Hannah and I listened to the attorneys’ questions and the testimony of the psychologist, who also testified for the social worker and the psychiatrist. In a ten-minute decision, the jury declared Hannah fully incompetent so we were awarded full guardianship. I was never so relieved to of Hannah’s “incompetence” as I was at that moment.
One of the jurors came over to us and shook our hands, “Congratulations. God be with you.” If we had been in a movie, a significant piece written by Michael Giacchino would have played at that moment—strings, trombone glissando. But all I could hear was Toby Keith, “Just trollin’ around the dance floor/Puts a big smile on my face/No cover charge, come as you are/Hmm, hmm, hmm I love this bar.”
Mid-May, I graduated from Spalding University’s MFA program. Maybe that sentence sounds a bit flat. Oh, I am definitely proud and ready to watch some movies instead of submitting packets to my mentor. I am ready to be a renowned published author with a movie deal. The summer blockbuster about being a preacher’s wife and the mother of three will be sizzling hot and a laugh-riot, for sure. But I will miss my friends, my writing community. They have sustained me for two years and I may not come across other folks brave enough to take me on the way these writers have.
Every semester, for the MFA writing workshop, writers submit twenty pages of new writing to a group of six or so other writers. The leader, a successful, published author, then guides a discussion of each writer’s work. What is unique about Spalding’s structure is that students must first decide and discuss what they like about a work. After establishing what works, they may make “emotionally supportive” suggestions about what will make the piece stronger. This scaffold exists partially so the writer doesn’t fall apart upon hearing she can’t write worth a damn and subsequently withdraw her tuition. But primarily, she learns to support her writing companions and employ successful techniques in her own work.
When I began my MFA, I was arrogant enough to think all I needed to learn in my program was how to write more effectively. I thought my world view was already open. That was before I mooned everybody in the class with my nonfiction writing. My whole family and I, sweaty and naked, ended up in that old classroom, flashing our foibles, weirdnesses and moments of revelation.
My writing professors and friends—people who spent time, energy and emotion analyzing every word I submitted—reflect the wideness of the world. They have tattoos, live in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, have made millions, smoke heavily, have been abused by their husbands, live in New York City, have special needs children, don’t eat gluten, have served in Iraq, are agnostic, drive Mini-Coopers, are gourmet cooks, curse like sailors, have been abused by their parents, live in Australia, have birth defects, are divorced, have no money, have deep faith in God, wait tables, live at the beach, garden, have multiple piercings, are happily married. What unites these people is their creativity and the fact that they all have hearts so big, you can see glimpses of red, of beating when you look at their pale, tan, mocha, black skin.
In my MFA program, these fine people mooned me right back, bringing all of their experiences to bear, to bare, on my writing and on me. In doing so, they changed my life.
Before my MFA, I had been noticing people in passing. Looking at them like billboards along the interstate, proud of myself for my fairness, my impartiality. But that was before I sat. And read. And talked. And listened. Before I knew that these stories and lives, my own story and life, required me to pull over, not always in the safety lane. Sometimes I had to stop right in the middle of the passing lane, pray that cars and trucks would not slam into me, and let that stray black dog cross on over into the safety of the summer grass.
Mooning is risky business. Sometimes it’s downright disgusting. But when the moon is full, it is round and luminous. Breathtaking in its ability to illuminate the night. Enough to make you stop in your black tracks and feel the beating of your own heart.