I made my first magic wand out of a Popsicle stick and one of those sticky gold stars that teachers used to slap on the top of papers when you did a particularly excellent job. Don't know if they still do that, but I do know that I still believe in the power of wands.
Growing up, I did a lot of wishful thinking, mostly focused on the twists and turns of an unpredictable life. Sometimes my wishes worked; sometimes they didn't. I came to learn that wishes required more than a hopeful thought.
In 1986, I moved to Maryland from Oklahoma. I was living under a protective order, escaping from my abusive ex-husband. All the magical thinking in the world wouldn't make him disappear from the face of the earth. But thanks to family and friends, I was able to start a new life. I must admit, just for old time’s sake, I bought myself one of those cylinder wands with glitter inside. I'd wave it around when I was feeling low, and like Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz, it gave me a confidence I didn't know I had. After moving here, I have met and married a wonderful man, adopted our daughter, worked for pay for two great organizations, and volunteered because I wanted to for many others.
Living and working in and around DC, I have been privy to the wishes of lots of people. I'm sure you've heard them, too: I wish I could meet a man. I wish I could meet a woman. I wish I could get a new job. I wish I could have a baby. I wish I could find a good sitter. I wish I could get that grant. I wish that dress would fit me. I wish my car wouldn't run out of gas until I hit that station with the cheap prices.
I bet you have a few wishes too. And I'm pretty sure you aren't certain how to make them come true. That brings me back to wands.
About 10 years ago, I was in a freak accident that required a half knee replacement. My terrific doctor warned me that after a decade, it would be time to get the total knee replaced. Ten years sounded like a really long time back then, but here we are. I spent months and months preparing for surgery, getting things in order at work and going to yoga six times a week. But I knew something was missing. Of course, a wish! And not just my wish, but wishes for and from lots of people. So I started buying wands.
I put a picture of myself in warrior pose on Facebook, holding a wand. My cover photo was of Glinda, the Good Witch, telling Dorothy that she "had the power all along," while, of course, waving that shiny stick.
I gave wands to my yoga teachers, my colleagues, and my family and friends. I packed one in my hospital suitcase, alongside my books and dry shampoo. At the appointed hour at Sibley Hospital everyone was supposed to turn towards DC and wave. In the hospital, nurses and physical therapists waved my wand. When I came home, every one of my visitors received a wand, too. They waved them at me, and they waved them for their own wishes. One friend wished for a winning lottery ticket. Another turned a snarky checker at the supermarket into a snake. I am healing well from my surgery, getting ready to go back to work and doing a pretty mean downward dog. Could wands have played a small part?
Why am I telling you this? Because you can get you own wand at the dollar store. Because, sometimes, wishes do come true. Because I trust with every part of my being that we all need something to believe in.
And because, as my grandmother used to say, "It couldn't hurt."
Cheryl Kravitz works as communications director at the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region and lives in Silver Spring. More of her published works (including a couple from Washingtonian) can be found on her website.
Booking two interconnecting rooms at the Holiday Inn in Leiden, Holland, seemed so perfect at the time. Although the Innocents Abroad travel guide—which was my Bible for living and traveling with two young children in Europe—didn’t mention the hotel, all of my ex-pat friends had assured me it would be the best place to stay during our upcoming trip to the Netherlands. And they were right…sort of.
Almost three years earlier, my husband John and I had moved to Belgium with our newly two- and six-year-olds in tow. His law firm wanted him to represent clients in their Brussels practice. So after a bit of trepidation on my part, we found a house and a school, and the kids and I tagged along for the adventure.
We were determined to make the most of those three years in Europe by scouring the continent and beyond as much as we could, taking into consideration work and school schedules and the young ages of our children. First stop: EuroDisney in Paris, the carrot we dangled to get the kids to move. Then, it was the canals of Brugges and the sidewalk performers in Antwerp. In Rome little old ladies would stop us in the street to run their fingers through our children’s white-blonde hair, exclaiming, “Bellissimo!”
The kids learned to ski in Austria and rode an overnight train to Switzerland. They zipped to London on the EuroStar and saw the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. There was Portugal, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Greece, and perhaps best of all, the Arctic Circle in Finland—that final Christmas—to see the real Santa Claus.
During our last spring living in Belgium, we had one more trip to make. We had to see the millions of tulips in the Keukenhof Gardens one last time. We had to see the Anne Frank museum now that the kids were a bit older, and we had to see my favorite artist’s work in the Van Gogh.
Amsterdam houses many wonderful art museums, but I knew the kids, then aged 4 and 8, would likely withstand only one, and the Van Gogh was the winner. He had been my favorite since high school, when my artist boyfriend introduced his paintings to me. I knew his colorful, bold paint strokes appealed to my children—they loved to imitate them in their coloring books and read about them in Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt. I had bought the storybook for them a couple of years before, and I read it aloud to them every night the week before we left for Holland.
Out itinerary was set but we still had to make our hotel reservation.
“You have to stay at the Holiday Inn in Leiden,” so many friends said. We had been to the Netherlands previously but had never stayed in Leiden, a centuries-old university town. Why is there a Holiday Inn there? I wondered to myself.
“The kids will love the hotel!” we were assured.
It did look appealing from a kid’s point of view. It had an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, miniature golf, a movie theater, and a food buffet with options that would appeal to my carbs-only eaters. It even had a life-sized chess set in the lobby, right next to the buffet restaurant.
The open plan of the main floor was a godsend for parents wanting to keep their eyes on their children. The place was a kid’s heaven and a parent’s purgatory, kids running around loose everywhere. But they were happy, very happy.
Our friends and neighbors, the Finnegans, happened to be going to Leiden the same weekend and had been to the hotel before. I didn’t know their itinerary, but I did know that while we were at the hotel, Daniel would have his friend, Ryan, to play with. That would be a plus…or so I thought.
When we arrived Friday night, Daniel and Ryan quickly disappeared to explore the hotel's offerings. Ryan’s mom stayed close to them while I got our things settled in our two rooms and explored with Nicole. John found the bar.
Ryan and Daniel were beside themselves with excitement. There was so much to do! They watched a cartoon movie, went swimming, ate macaroni and cheese, and then bowled. That first night, my calm, mild, reasonable Daniel, was a wound-up spring ready to uncoil at any second. It was time for sleep.
He was so exhausted when we returned to the room that he fell into the twin bed next to Nicole without complaint. I told him our plans for the next day as he dozed off, foregoing his usual reading of Camille and the Sunflowers.
He woke early the next morning, so excited to join Ryan at breakfast in the lobby. We quickly got dressed, Daniel found Ryan and his family, and we all ate together. While the parents were finishing their coffee, Daniel asked to be excused from the table. He and Ryan ran over to the giant chess set. The pieces were bigger than the kids, and they struggled to slide them across the painted squares on the floor.
The Finnegans informed us that they were planning to spend the morning at the hotel, and I told them we were off to see the sights. After breakfast, the Van Gogh Museum would be our first stop. We called Daniel over so we could leave, and he came bounding across the floor. “Here, sweetie, put your jacket on. It’s time to go.”
I had always taken pride in the fact that Daniel was such a reasonable child. Even if he didn’t like something or didn’t want to do it, as long as you explained the reason, he would comply. I never had to resort to the fallback parental retort ‘Because I said so!’
“I don’t want to go," he told me. "I want to stay at the hotel.”
“But we’ve made this trip to see fun things," I implored, "not just hang around the hotel. It's time to go look at the Van Gogh paintings.”
“I don’t want to go, " he insisted. "I want to stay here with Ryan. He’s not going anywhere and I don’t want to either.”
“But then you’d miss seeing ‘Starry Night’ and the ‘Sunflowers.’”
I hoped to appeal to his rational side. He loved those paintings in the books. I knew he’d love the real thing.
“I want to stay here," he insisted. "Ryan’s parents can take care of me. He said so.”
Daniel had it all figured out. He and Ryan had probably been conspiring as they took turns moving their rooks and bishops. It was then that it hit me: Van Gogh's masterpieces were no competition for bowling, swimming, mini-golf, cartoons, and life-sized chess with another 8-year-old boy. Duh.
But I remained firm: “I’m sorry, Daniel, but you have to come with us. Ryan will be here when we get back, and you can play with him then.”
Daniel wasn’t happy, but to his credit, he didn’t scream or yell. He came along peacefully, albeit begrudgingly. I would learn that he had another plan, one he knew would gnaw at me more than any verbal protests.
In the car on the way to the Van Gogh museum, Nicole chattered and sang in the back seat next to her big brother. He was silent. His little sister’s attempts to engage him in song were for naught. My attempts to cheer him up and assure him he’d have a fun day—and my promises that he could play at the hotel as soon as we returned—had no impact. He stared out the window in silence at the old university buildings and the red tulips lining the road until we arrived at the museum about 45 minutes later.
John bought the tickets, and I held Daniel’s hand as we walked in. I was thrilled. Here they were—live—the paintings I had loved all these years. John held Nicole in his arms so she could get a better look. I squeezed Daniel’s hand.
“Look, honey, look! Aren’t these magnificent? Look there’s the painting of the sunflowers! Oh, and look over there! There’s ‘Starry Night.’ Isn’t this great?”
I tilted my head down to see the excitement in his eyes, but the only thing Daniel would look at were his black-and-white sneakers.
“Daniel, look up, honey. See!” He refused. Through three floors of the museum and over 200 paintings, he never once looked up. My heart sank thinking he might never again have the opportunity to see all these incredible paintings in one place, but his gaze held steadfast to his sneakers. This was my punishment.
When we returned to our home in Waterloo after that weekend, I was tempted to write the authors of Innocents Abroad to tell them they were right to have excluded the Holiday Inn in Leiden. It was too much damn fun.
Many years have passed since then, and I’ve told the story of Daniel and the Van Goghs whenever the subject of art or travel with children comes up. Daniel once told me he really did look up at the paintings that day, only not when I was looking at him. I suspect he only said that to try and make me feel better.
Now, Daniel is 25. He recently graduated from law school and moved back to DC. A few weeks ago, I read a review in the Washington Post of the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips Collection, where multiple copies of his work—his variations on a theme—were displayed side by side. I knew I’d have to go.
On October 11, Daniel and I were text messaging about car insurance. As we wrapped up, I said: “On another note, everyone doesn’t get a second chance in life, but you may. There is a Van Gogh exhibit in town at the Phillips. Remember how you refused to look at the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam because you were pissed that we made you leave the fun at the Holiday Inn? Wanna go some time? No looking down at your sneakers though.”
My phone dinged seconds later.
“Haha yes I would like to go.”
And then after a few days, when I hadn’t gotten back to him with any arrangements, he nudged me: “When do you want to see the Van Goghs?” I bought tickets for the next day.
The name of the Phillips exhibit has special meaning for us—‘Van Gogh Repititions’—and this time Daniel never looked down.
Van Gogh Repetitions runs at the Phillips Collection until February 2, 2014.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children—she writes about her daughter here—and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Still smitten with our beach vacation, I ask my husband if we might consider buying a place on the shore. His arm around my waist, he squints slightly into the setting autumn sun as if seeing into the future. The boys are a few steps in front of us, familiar with the after-dinner stroll.
The baby stops to pick up a rock then throws it into the street. My husband and I simultaneously remind him not to follow. A comfortable silence settles over us while he contemplates his answer, a canopy of autumn leaves overhead.
Our corner of Del Ray is quiet. We almost never see other pedestrians strolling through the neighborhood on our evening walks—a rarity in this town, to be surrounded by solitude. I haven't decided yet if I like it.
"I think it's feasible," he finally spits out, though I know the reason for the delay.
We turn the corner, holding our boys' hands as we cross the street without a car in sight. I know what makes this a difficult question. It's the same reason we are not still in Buenos Aires, taking after-dinner walks through the Bosque de Palermo on the expansive walking path that encircles the lake and rose garden. It's the reason we lived with my in-laws in Springfield for eight months while we waited for my husband to heal, for decisions to be made, for our belongings to arrive. The same reason I am, somewhere buried deep, still scared to death. Cancer.
The uncertainty of the future, the complete loss of control, is not lost on me. And yet I ask him about the beach house in search of a false sense of security. He knows it. "We could do it, and then if we have to move, we'd make sure it's rented. But we could do it.” He placates me while he kicks a rock down the sidewalk holding a leaf in his left hand, a gift from our toddler: Here Daddy, hold this.
The boys stop to collect some fallen leaves; our toddler points out the red ones, and our baby collects the yellow but calls them pink. I watch my husband as he squats down alongside them to try and determine their origin: oak, maple, cherry. As they study the leaves, I study my husband. The glow in his cheeks and his muscular frame paint a picture of health. No evidence of disease for six months, and yet the evidence is everywhere.
I watch with a smile on my lips as my baby attaches a leaf to a stick, spearing it then waving it around overhead. But my thoughts are on those who hold our fate in their hands: Georgetown Hospital, the Air Force, and, primarily, my husband's body. The baby starts down the sidewalk once again, stick with speared leaf in hand, and we move with him.
"Daddy, where are we?" our toddler wonders, swinging his blonde hair out of his blue eyes. Haircut, I remind myself, the kid needs a haircut. We are walking our usual route, only in reverse. All the same houses, the same streets, but from a different point of view.
I am surprised at his confusion—the three year old who can tell me how to get to the grocery store. "It's the same walk as always, sweetie,” I say, “you'll know where you are in a few minutes." I’m certain he will recognize the house on the corner, the one he calls the castle.
I think back to a year ago, on a walk to the park after dinner in Buenos Aires. The air is damp and cool, a perfect spring evening. The jacarandas in full bloom proudly wave their vibrant purple blooms in the breeze, sprinkling their petals into lush carpets underfoot. We walk past the guards of the ambassador's residence, stopping so they can high-five our toddler, who is perched in the front of the double stroller. We wait for the light to turn and then quickly cross Libertador—a busy ten-lane thoroughfare—and then roll our way into the park, engulfed in a sea of people.
To say the Argentines are obsessed with fitness would be an understatement. We are always the only ones who simply stroll, and tonight is no exception. We are passed by runners, walkers of varying speeds, rollerbladers, cyclists, people on unicycles; we pass the nightly street-hockey game at the far end of the lake and the Argentines learning to tightrope walk on the other side of the rose garden between palm trees. A noisy flock of neon-green feathers flies low overhead, squawking loudly. "Mommy, look! Parrots!" our toddler shouts.
The familiar sound of castanets puts us all on alert—we know what this sound means. Suddenly, he appears behind us, and we stop in our tracks to watch him go by. On rollerblades and dressed in his usual black trousers and black T-shirt, his long, dark hair flowing out behind him, he dances toward us, performing a kind of rollerblading flamenco.
His headphones prevent us from hearing the same sounds that so inspire his dance, but the effect is the same: utter joy. His joyfulness, his total inhibition, it's infectious—everyone takes notice, and everyone smiles at the authentic happiness he exudes as he dances atop eight small wheels. We marvel at him as he rolls by, hands high over his head, stretching to hit the pose. Completely lost in his world, he brings such happiness to ours. "There he goes!" shouts our toddler, clapping his hands and kicking his feet. I squeeze my husband's hand, happy for our first four months here and not believing that this will be our life for another two and a half years.
And as it turns out, it wouldn't be.
The sun is almost gone, and I am keenly aware of the change of seasons as the breeze hits my cheeks. What was a refreshing wind a few weeks ago has now become winter's warning. My husband and I exchange a glance, reading each other's minds: We're not ready.
What my husband calls "the dark days" literally were last year—the heart of winter spent undergoing surgery to remove 17 tumors in his groin; three subsequent skin infections, one rendering him septic; a clinical trial for stage III melanoma at Georgetown. Our memories of dark winter days in DC are not ones we often revisit.
But the spring, the warmth, the promise of growth and change: We devour that. I think back to the garden—the first finished project at our new townhouse—the need for my husband to cultivate, to get dirty after so much illness, so much sterility. The days lengthened by sunlight mirrored my husband's healing, each day a little brighter, until finally, summer. The warm, humid air filling our souls. The joy of watching our boys harvest small cherry tomatoes everyday, picking jalapeños and kale in our urban garden, popping mint leaves in their mouths. Relishing life.
I think back to our warm, summer's end beach vacation at Cape Charles, a small town where our history wasn't present, where cancer didn't exist, where we were free—all reasons I need to go back, need the promise of a beach house, the promise of an escape. A chance at happiness. A way to outrun the disease.
"I'm not ready for winter," my husband mumbles, zipping up his jacket.
We round another corner on our walk and I break the silence that has befallen us. "I'd like to stay here," I proclaim, partly because of his trial at Georgetown and partly because I'd like to live in one place for more than eight months, but mostly because I love this city. I hear the metro rails whine as the train slows into the station a few blocks away. So do my boys, who stop dead in their tracks and turn toward the sound.
"I know," he says, breaking the metro spell by lifting our baby onto his shoulders. The baby grabs hold of my husband's hair as if it were reins and then giggles, trying to push back against my husband's hands, which hold him firmly in place. "Me too. I'm glad we came back here for the trial," he finishes and then laughs, chiding our baby as he continues to giggle and lean back.
We are at Braddock Road, the "busy" street where I force my boys to hold our hands as we walk, listening to the fast cars pass, drivers intent on getting home. A stone wall emerges along the length of a front yard. My toddler sits here every night, just to feel the slick stone, to watch the cars. Tonight, he decides to wave.
I sit with him, half worried about the owners of the home, half exhausted from the weight of too many unknowns. My husband follows suit, and soon we are a family of four, seated on a stone wall in front of someone else's house, watching DC traffic heading home for the night.
A break in commuters allows us a moment to speak without being interrupted by zooming engines. "Let's wave at this car," my husband suggests, making a game of our stop. As the headlights approach, preparing for the sunset that's only minutes away, we wave. The toddler yells and waves furiously, the baby watches, hand up, frozen in the cooling air. The driver, caught off guard by this waving family, waves back, smiling, laughing. Our baby relishes this game—the cause and effect leaves him giddy: Wave to a passing car, watch people wave back. He erupts in laughter and doesn't stop.
We wave like this on and on, to both lanes of traffic, under a pink-hued sunset. Without fail, each driver is surprised and thrilled. Some lean over their passenger seats, some look up from texts, all with the same reaction—unrestrained joy. For those brief moments of surprise while the drivers are still trying to understand what they've seen, we glimpse the real humanity of this town. Everyone trying to get home, everyone eager for a smile, a laugh. We’re all so similar that way.
We stay and wave and laugh until the sun has finally set, until the drivers can hardly see us. Then we leave our stone seats and waving game behind. "Let's do that again tomorrow!" Our toddler bounces, gripping my hand, delighted by the happiness he's caused. He bounds ahead and then stops in his tracks, turns toward us, and shouts, "Hey! I know where we are! We are right here!"
I smile at his exclamation, the wisdom of his simple yet profound words. We are right here. Our life has been punctuated by a cancer diagnosis, but we know right where we are. We are waving at strangers and taking a stroll in a city we love. Because DC or Buenos Aires, it doesn't matter. We are seeking and creating joy. We, like drivers in those passing cars, are searching for certainty in a sea of unknowns, but tonight, we settle for commuter smiles.
Kate Reimann is a mother of two. She writes—between teaching cycling classes, cooking plant-based meals, and stepping on stray toy cars—from her home in Alexandria. She tweets at @KateReimann and posts stories of life in spite of cancer on her blog, effthec.com.
When you sleep on the street, you never fully sleep. If you can make it until around 4 AM, you know you’re okay…at least for that one night. Once the sun begins to rise, your body naturally does the same, and you are back to your daily grind…until the next night.
Even if your eyes are closed, you train your ears to always stay awake and alert. So even now, in my comfortable dormitory bed, I never fully sleep. It’s become second nature for me to always be alert.
My first life goal was to earn a high school diploma. I accomplished that and, at 18, I was working to realize an even greater aspiration: to become a college graduate. I was into my first year at Delaware State University when things began to spiral out of my control. I have dealt with financial and health difficulties my entire life—I've been diagnosed with a heart condition as well as hypertension, asthma, and glaucoma. When my health began to decline and tuition at Delaware State increased, I had to leave school.
When I left DC for school, I was a child. But when I returned, I was considered to be an adult, so I needed to pull my weight as one. I had no clear direction; I could not find employment, so I knew what was next.
I found myself going from house to house, couch to couch. I stayed with my mother here and there, but we never got along and because I was unemployed and over 18, it was clear that I was a burden. In between staying with my mother and sometimes other family members, I realized I didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were plenty of nights when I slept outside, even during the winter. I remember being tired of trying to find ways to survive; I just remembered being really tired. Tired of the cold. Tired of managing all of these issues by myself. Tired of wearing a mask that I was a normal “teenager.” This was not normal.
I reached out to my college advisor Mr. E., from Friendship Public Charter School. He had recently participated in a Sleep Out at Covenant House Washington that encourages business professionals to sleep out for one night to raise awareness about youth homelessness. He referred me to Covenant House, and I called to explain my situation. I felt that they were my last hope. I was referred to the crisis center—an emergency shelter for youth—and I was given a stable place to stay immediately.
I no longer had to worry about where I was going to sleep, but I still had to deal with health and financial instabilities, and for the first two or three weeks, my caseworker could not get me to talk. She would ask me questions and I would meet her with silence. In retrospect, I realize that I was reluctant because, as I understood it, what I said and how I felt didn’t really matter to anyone. Nothing that I said was going to change my situation, so in my mind, sharing my thoughts served no real purpose. When I spoke, people didn’t really listen anyhow.
My caseworker was patient with me. She told me one day that my story was "worth hearing,” and that meant a lot to me. As a resident in the crisis center, I worked with my mentor and the staff at Covenant House Washington to get back on my feet. I was involved with all kinds of community service and volunteer efforts. As a volunteer at Friendship High School, where I graduated, I met a gentleman who was interested in hearing what I had to say. I told him my story and he offered me a job at Friendship Public Charter School in the corporate office. Things started to look up. I guess my caseworker was right. My story was worth hearing. Now that I had a stable environment, I was also ready to receive the moral support that I previously lacked. For the first time I didn’t feel like a burden.
I still keep in contact with a few of the workers from Covenant House Washington. Ms. Freeman from the Crisis Center reaches out and calls every now and then to check up on me. Ms. Alexis and Ms. Keller are important to me as well, always making sure I am okay. Ms. Keller even brought a care package to my dorm.
This experience of being without has made me very sensitive to others who have the same struggle. So when I encounter friends in similar situations, I always encourage them to at least consider Covenant House because I know how much they’ve helped me. As long as you are willing to try, the staff there is willing to help. They help you find your way, create a plan, and reach your goals. Most of all, they respect you and let you know that you count and you have a bright future.
My future is bright. I am currently a student at Bowie State University majoring in Biomedical Engineering. My relationship with my mom has gotten better over time. We have both grown. We understand each other a little better now. I am still working towards my goal of becoming a college graduate and then a biomedical engineer. I guess the rest of my story is to be continued…and I am okay with that.
Not long ago, Donte Davis was homeless youth in the District. He now lives in Bowie and writes to bring attention to National Homelessness Awareness Month, which takes place each November.
On February 6, 2010 my entire life changed in a second. I was in Miami for the Super Bowl, and at 11:30 AM, I dove into the ocean. It was much shallower than I thought, and when I struck something hard, my entire life flashed before my eyes. The waves came crashing down on me, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t move.
My cousin, Bernie McKeever, was with me—he saved my life by pulling me out of the water, and I was transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. After surgery, I learned that I had bruised my C5 and C6 vertebrae. I couldn’t move anything from my chest down.
After two months in the ICU, I moved into the hospital’s rehab center. My injury seemed like a life sentence, and I wasn’t willing to accept it. I am a sports fanatic (Go Redskins); I had played sports all my life and always been very active. After my injury, everyday was slated to be a struggle, not just for me but for my entire family.
When I started rehab, our insurance company was covering the expenses. But after 21 days—when I’d made little progress, if any—we learned with no notice that my rehab would no longer be covered.
It turns out that if you break your back, insurance covers rehab, but if you have a spinal-cord injury, it doesn’t! The insurance company essentially kicked us to the curb. At the time, I couldn’t lift my arms up to feed myself; I couldn’t move my body. The actual plan was for me to go home and live in an electric wheelchair for the rest of my life.
In the last three-and-a-half years, I have continuously learned the value of unconditional love, compassion, and, of course, patience from my family. My parents got me to a spinal-cord-injury rehab center in Carlsbad, California, called Project Walk, which costs over $100,000 a year. I have been attending rehab there for over three years now. I’m lucky.
Today, I am stronger, healthier, and more independent. I’m back at work, I drive a car, I have a beautiful girlfriend. I have my life back. I continue to make tremendous physical progress, which would not have been possible without the financial and loving support of my family. This progress continues to cost money, and my entire family has been there as a support system.
The thing that has been most concerning to me throughout this process is to think: What about everyone else who suffers a spinal-cord injury in an accident? What about the people who don’t have the resources to pay for rehabilitation? How are they getting by? I researched and found that insurance companies, like mine, typically only cover 22 days of rehabilitation. Recovery from a spinal-cord injury is costly, and it takes a long time—but it is possible.
Once I learned all of this, I decided I wanted to help other people who have had traumatic injuries like mine. So my mother and I started the Walking With Anthony Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the rehabilitation of spinal-cord injuries. We raise money to help individuals pay for rehab and to expand rehabilitation centers and support research related to recovery.
This is what brings us to Fairfax this week. For three generations, my family and I, including 22 aunts and uncles and 29 cousins with deep roots in the Washington area, have been die-hard Redskin fans. When we contacted Jerry Olsen, president of the Washington Redskin Alumni, about potentially co-hosting a fundraising event, he and the organization were excited to work with us. And I’m especially excited about the golf tournament and dinner we planned for next week because 100 percent of the proceeds it generates will benefit individuals with spinal-cord injuries.
This is the part where you can get involved: Foursomes, foursomes with Redskins alumni, and tickets to the tournament and/or the dinner and reception that follow it are all still available at walkingwithanthony.org. I hope to see you there!
Anthony Purcell lives on the west coast but will visit Washington this week for his foundation's charity fundraiser Monday, October 21. To see a video about his recovery, click here.
Our trip from Washington, DC into Sea Island, Georgia, in the midst of a May 2012 tropical storm seems now like an omen for the turmoil ahead. I had been looking forward to having a week with my husband, John, son, Daniel, and daughter, Nicole—a rare week when we could all be together, given that my children were in their twenties and away at school most of the year.
During the two-hour drive from the airport, I focused on the road ahead. My knuckles turned white trying to keep our rental car from blowing across traffic and off the Causeway into the water below.
We arrived safely and didn’t mind those first couple days of forced confinement. We read and assembled a near-impossible 1,000-piece “Paris by Night” puzzle on the living room coffee table, tropical rains pounding the roof, wind whistling through the fireplace. It was fine. We were cozy in our familial solitude. Cocooned in our house, our daily rhythms resumed, despite the past year apart. It was when the weather broke, oddly enough, that my tranquility did as well. The turmoil inside of me about our daughter’s upcoming departure for a semester abroad in the Middle East began to swirl.
After Nicole’s freshman year of college, she decided to forgo her five-year study of Mandarin and switch to Arabic, much to her dad’s chagrin. He felt certain that knowledge of Chinese would provide countless future job opportunities, but having taken a number of courses about the Middle East, she had become intrigued by its culture and history. She decided she wanted to spend her junior semester abroad in an Arabic-speaking country to further her language skills. As parents, we wanted to be supportive of her, whatever her pursuits, and we felt that, as a young adult, these decisions should be largely hers to make.
I wondered whether growing up in Washington contributed to her inquisitiveness about other cultures. Nicole has often commented on how she enjoys living in DC, listening to the mix of languages spoken on the Metro and in the streets, seeing the amount of racial and ethnic diversity. She also learned to appreciate different cultures and languages early in life: First, when we lived in Belgium for three years and also through the many trips we’ve taken with our children around the globe. But she had never experienced the Middle East, except in books and lectures.
She and I had many conversations her sophomore year about her study-abroad options. When she was back in Chevy Chase for fall break, I looked over her shoulder as she clicked on her laptop from one study-abroad program to the next. There was no disagreement that Egypt and Tunisia were out of contention. After the Arab Spring uprisings, things were too unsettled there. Morocco and Jordan seemed the most reasonable alternatives. Her research about different programs, the language dialects, and the political climate led her to her decision. “Jordan will be the best place, Mom. The Moroccan dialect is too different from the standard Arabic I’m learning.”
That seemed reasonable, and we felt somewhat comforted because Jordan has traditionally had good relations with the US. Even though Jordan has seen its own protests since the Arab Spring, it’s been a seeming oasis of calm surrounded by Israel and Gaza to the East, Syria to the North, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the West and South. Nicole had considered studying in the university town of Irbid, but its proximity to the Syrian border and the conflict there caused great concern for me. Ultimately, she chose Amman, Jordan’s capital. But our overall concern—allowing her to go anywhere in the region—hung over us like a cloud.
On the Wednesday morning of our beach vacation, when the sun finally burned through the clouds, we began our daily bike rides beneath the canopies of huge oak trees laden with Spanish moss. In the afternoon we lay on the beach, each of us immersed in the book of the day. I was engrossed in Reading Lolita in Tehran. As if I weren’t disturbed enough thinking about Nicole leaving for the Middle East, my anxiety heightened as I read about the treatment of women in Iran.
By Wednesday night, Nicole, too, became anxious about her much-anticipated fall semester abroad, but for a different reason. She hadn’t booked her flight to Amman yet, and she was getting emails inquiring when she would arrive. She did an Internet search for flights but quickly became flummoxed with all the connections, layovers, early AM arrivals, and varying prices.
We sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch, her laptop balanced on her thighs, and sifted through the myriad options, none very palatable. I didn’t want her to arrive in Amman at 2:00 AM, when no one from the program would be available to pick her up. I didn’t want her to spend seven hours alone at night in a foreign airport, waiting for a connection. I heard the panic rise in her voice and felt my heart palpitate, our nerves feeding off each other, jumping from one shoulder to the next and back again. It wasn’t just the flight. It was the four months to follow.
We finally found an acceptable flight and booked it. Despite my fears, I knew it was right to let her go. We have to let our children go, regardless of how much we love them—we let them go because we love them. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier.
I tried to minimize my negative thoughts. She’ll be fine. It’s not like she’s going into a war zone, for God’s sake. She’s going to Jordan. She’ll be fine. But somehow, I just couldn’t quiet that opposing voice or forget the knitted brows of friends whom I’d told of her plans. Will she be safe? Will she be treated well? I had known this day was coming since the previous October, but now that the plane ticket had been purchased, the trip became real, and all my fears about her safety in that part of the world resurfaced.
I tried to tamp down my heart, so we could enjoy the rest of this vacation together. Nicole and I took a ten-mile bike ride to see the remains of a 1700’s fort and town. As we pedaled slowly back toward the house, exhausted from the heat, we decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant in a small shopping center. After parking our bikes near an outdoor table, we slumped into our chairs and gulped down the ice water the waitress poured. Looking around at the shops, Nicole commented, “We need to shop when we get back to DC. I don’t have clothes appropriate for Jordan.” True enough—skinny, tight-fitting jeans, shorts, and sleeveless blouses would not do.
“I’ll need some large scarves to cover my head.”
“Cover your blonde hair, so you don’t stand out so much.”
We discussed the two-page list of protocols from the study-abroad office. It said: “Jordan does not have decency laws or official dress codes. However, there are clear social norms regarding appropriate dress that students are expected to follow Women must avoid shorts, skirts above mid-calf, spaghetti straps, low-cut tops, sleeveless tops, bare midriffs, and any clothing that reveals upper arms, décolletage.” She would be dressing according to cultural norms, not the desert heat.
Along with proper dress, proper decorum was stressed. “Jordan is a traditional Arab and Moslem society with deeply ingrained social norms. However, because Jordan has a deceptively ‘western’ veneer, students can easily get fooled into thinking certain modes of dress or personal conduct are acceptable when they are actually Haram, forbidden or shameful.” My throat tightened.
Biking over the bridge back to Sea Island, I was on edge. The sidewalk was narrow, and the traffic was moving quickly just a few feet from us. I was worried about Nicole, recalling an infamous bike ride about ten years earlier, when I’d warned her about a tree coming up in the middle of the path and, so focused on its location, she slammed smack into it. This time, she was the confident one—I felt shaky and tired, anxious to peddle those last couple of miles home. Halfway across the bridge, I ran into the metal guard rail, bruising my leg. I decided to walk my bike the rest of the way across, lacking the confidence to ride any further. She stayed with me, concerned.
A few days later, back home in Chevy Chase, I purchased trip insurance for her flight—just in case. I envisioned some incident causing the entire region to explode. I could only hope that, if something like that were to happen, it wouldn’t be while she was there.
I knew the summer was going to whiz by. She was working at an office in the District, but we caught moments together when we could. We searched for clothing she’d wear for four months and then, perhaps, never again: long skirts; long-sleeved, loose-fitting, opaque blouses; headscarves. At night, we sat together, legs curled on the couch in our family room, eating Snyder’s sourdough pretzels and hummus, watching the news and mindless TV shows. Nothing special, but it was.
On June 18, 2012, we watched news reports about the Muslim Brotherhood having won the election in Egypt. A reporter from Cairo expressed his concern that the entire Middle East might erupt. I sat upright in my chair: I hated hearing these stories.
Nicole wondered aloud about the election choices in Egypt. I thought of Lara Logan, the pretty, blonde CBS reporter who was brutally attacked in Tahrir Square while covering an Arab Spring uprising there. I reached over and stroked Nicole’s waist-long blonde hair. It had always been her hallmark but soon, I feared, it would be the thing that would mark her. I gently kissed her on the cheek. She smiled.
A few weeks before her departure, on a Sunday afternoon, we were floating together in our backyard pool trying to escape the Washington heat and humidity. We faced each other, arms draped across a shared raft, legs dangling in the cool, blue water, the smell of suntan lotion permeating the air. We chatted about her boyfriend and the upcoming visit by her Vassar College friends. Then the discussion turned to more serious topics: the conflicts in Syria and Egypt and her safety in Jordan. The air became even heavier; my chest tightened.
“Get out of the area if you ever see a large crowd forming,” I warned. “Let’s think of a secret code to use if you find yourself in a bad situation. You can call or text it to me. Remember we did that when you were in high school?”
“Ok, Mom,” she laughed. “But you won’t be able to drive to Amman and pick me up. Seriously, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I promise I won’t do anything stupid, like walk near the Syrian border.”
Then, she reached over to my face and with her pinky finger, gently lifted a fallen eyelash off my cheek. Holding it before my lips, she said, “Make a wish, Mom.” I hesitated for a second, trying to precisely formulate the wish I wanted, trying to encapsulate all my concerns for her and wish them away in one fell swoop. Then I blew as hard as I could.
The next morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I checked the weather on my iPhone. It was a habit: Everyday, I checked the weather in Washington and, during the school year, in Poughkeepsie and New York City, where Nicole and Daniel lived. That day, after seeing the local weather, I hit the plus sign to add another location. I needed to navigate through my internal storm and focus on the road ahead—the one Nicole would travel alone. I typed in A-M-M-A-N and added it to my list. It was 97 degrees there.
As I looked more closely at the screen, there appeared to be a tiny crack. It was an eyelash. I gently picked it up on my pinky finger and blew, making my wish once again, and watched it float away.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children, and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“No, mom, I’m not going to straddle the printer or anything,” I said, trying to explain to my technophobe mother the concept of ordering, but not receiving, sperm from an online bank. She didn’t get it. “You order it by selecting a donor online, but they ship the actual sperm to your doctor’s office,” I added. In this discussion ten-plus years ago, I told her, “It’s not like you get an AOL audio announcement, ‘You’ve got Sperm!’ and there it is ”
Still, it was a hard concept for my mother to grasp. It was hard enough for her to get that I was with Lisa to begin with, let alone how she would be getting her grandkids. I had known she’d have a hard time when I first came out to her. Lisa was, after all—in order of importance—not Jewish, not a doctor, and not a man.
Maybe my mom didn’t really get the gay thing because I didn’t I fully get it either. My coming out was not a torturous struggle to be true to myself, nor was it a gleaming moment of epiphany and pride. I had grown up in a liberal household, in an era where gay couples were visible. I had gay friends and friends with gay parents. In the zeitgeist of a crunchy granola high school and college, I conceptualized a fluctuating sexuality continuum, as did I life, mental-health, and sense-of-self-worth continua, which everyone moved on a bit during their lives. I dated men and women.
In my late 20s, though, a long-term relationship and possible marriage and children meant I’d reached a declarative moment. It meant announcing to the world that I was gay by virtue of my family—which meant that I would be a juggler of pronouns and others’ comfort levels, would never be in the mainstream, and would be without universal rights.
I cried. And cried. And cried a lot. Then I floated back to a place of higher self worth on my likert scale and became generally ok with it. The world would just have to deal. Now, in my 40s, I’m comfortable in my own undefined skin.
Oddly, I was worried that I wasn’t “gay enough.” Lisa used to ask me if strangers knew she was gay. “They’re not visually impaired,” I’d answer. She is, in a traditional sense, butchy, dykey, and well, lesbian-looking, if there is such a thing. I am not butchy. And I’m not chic enough to be a lipstick lesbian. I’m more the imperfect, middle-aged, Jewish, big-curly-haired, funky-earrings-wearing, messy, tired-mom, heavier-than-I-want-to-be-looking lesbian. Which requires a bit more explanation after heterosexual-by-default assumptions.
Without a declarative uniform, I find myself having to decide whether or not to announce my sexuality when people make assumptions that I am with a man. If I correct people, they sometimes apologize for their heterosexist assumption. Or they give me the awkward so-you-like-vaginas smile. They don’t get that that’s not it. Instead of explaining that I think of my body as a vessel for a deeper self, where sexuality and life are fluid and that, yes, I love Lisa, but I don’t define myself by that, I just smile, as if to say, yup, I like vaginas. But not yours. Really. You can sit next to me.
My mom got over the gay thing once she realized she might still get grandkids. She supported us in our long struggle with fertility and was pleased as punch when I finally gave birth to two beautiful girls.
When my oldest child was two, we were in the bathroom of a community center, when a random girl tapped me: “That little girl called you mommy and that other lady mama. Which one’s her mom?”
I responded with the ease and a grace of a stumbling hippopotamus. “Um, well, she, see ” The girl’s mother quickly interrupted, “Like your friend Ashley and your other friend Brianna she has two moms.” And I realized I could do the two-mom thing.
Laws are now catching up with progressive attitudes. The recent defeat of DOMA and the expansion of gay rights and gay marriage throughout the country are marvelous. Really. I have benefited a great deal from all the progress. I can be who I am and reap the legal benefits of true marriage in all senses of the word. But in everyday life, I still choose to be closeted. A lot. Not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but because I don’t wish to make folks uncomfortable. This is especially because, as of late, I’ve been hanging out with an octogenarian crowd.
“Ya married, dear?” Gladys* asks me as she sips her coffee, her mauve lipstick imprinted on a slightly cracked “Myrtle Beach” mug with a palm tree. We’re making a plan to help her sister stay in her home and out of a nursing home as long as possible. Gladys is 82 and her sister, Gloria*, is 87. Gladys lives in a different city, but she came to town to help, and she is staying with Gloria at her house. The sisters look strikingly similar, except for the fact that Gladys dies her hair red and Gloria’s face looks much more weathered. They have similar mannerisms, and both are chronic coffee drinkers with deep belly laughs that include snorts in variable intervals. They’ve both been retired for about 20 years—Gladys from the government and Gloria from being a magazine editor. Each was widowed twice. Gladys is sharp as a tack and Gloria, well Gloria is not so sharp. A pretty typical Adult Protective Services (APS) case, she was found confused and wandering in the street at 3 AM wearing only a pair of pants and one slipper. She hadn’t taken her medication in days, her place smelled like urine, and her fridge was empty. I was assigned as her APS social worker by Montgomery County.
“Yup, I’m married,” I answer Gladys, not mentioning that, according to federal law, I have only been married for a few hours. That DOMA was struck down that day, and my marriage to Lisa in Canada in 2004 is only now legally valid. I don’t mention that my whole financial and tax picture will change and that my young children won’t remember a time when we weren’t legally married.
“Well don’t get old and outlive your husband; its no fun,” she says. “I’ve done it twice.” All I can think is that if, God forbid, Lisa does die, now I could theoretically get her social security and vice-versa. I tilt my head and give Gladys my best “that must have been hard” look and touch her shoulder.
All afternoon, Gladys and I have been discussing such intimate matters as trying to obtain a urine sample from her sister to help the doctor determine if she has a urinary tract infection—a common cause of temporary delirium in older folks that can mimic dementia. I had also helped her clean her sister’s set of false teeth and get her sister into an adult diaper from the spare pack I had in my car. But there was no way I’d even hint to Gladys that I was married to a woman. There is intimacy, and then there is respectful professionalism—I’d only make her uncomfortable, and not correcting her does not diminish who I am. Maybe I don’t give Gladys enough credit for being okay with me being gay, but really, today is not about me, it’s about Gloria.
“Your husband is one lucky man,” Gladys goes on. “You’re such sweet gal to be helping me with Gloria.” I smile and think that I’m the lucky one to have this kind of job.
My wife says that “we” wouldn’t have gotten where we are today in gay rights if people stayed closeted at all—people have to be challenged in their homophobia or they will never change. They have to realize that their friends, neighbors, or daughters could be gay and would still be the same people they’ve known and loved, in order for their attitudes to change. And she’s right. I know. Unlike Lisa, though, I choose not to be out in every situation because, frankly, it’s easier. I am thankful I have that choice, though being closeted in some situations but not in others definitely takes a toll.
One recent Saturday evening, after a long day spreading our radical gay agenda by getting milk from Safeway and carting kids to play dates, we are all on an impromptu trip to Baskin-Robbins. I smile as I look at my sweet girls’ mint-chocolate-chip laden faces. I look at Lisa, and I think of all we have gone through to become a family. I want to hold her hand, but I know I can’t. Not here, not now. Not worth ruining the moment with strange glances from onlookers. I hold my little girls’ hands instead.
Liat Katz is a clinical social worker for Montgomery County Adult Protective Services. She lives in an estrogen-filled home with her wife, two daughters, and two female cats in Rockville. She is the author of an (as yet) unpublished memoir, Creatively Maladjusted: Essays of a Broken Life.
*The clients from Ms. Katz’s work have had details of their identities changed to protect their confidentiality.
Driving. That was one of the things I most dreaded when I married Liz and moved down to DC from Baltimore two years ago. I have my own issues with road rage, so I wasn’t looking forward to this region’s renowned traffic. I never imagined, though, that I would have to contend with DC’s other distinctions: A gold medal from an Allstate Insurance report about the nation’s worst drivers and a bronze from Travel and Leisure magazine for rudest city. Put them together, I’ve learned, and you’ve got a daily mash of macadam mania and animus that smacks of apocalypse now.
For two years, I have been negotiating Derby Dystopia, as I’ve come to think of local roadways, and up until now, it has only intensified my venom. But I should thank DC drivers. The motorists who are 112.1% more likely to get into an accident than the average American have unwittingly helped me do something I never thought possible—curb my own road rage.
When I first moved to the area, I was concerned that I might get myself or my family seriously injured on the road. At the very least, I worried that our toddler son, Macallah, might mimic the steady stream of invective spewed from behind the wheel. My road rage was just that bad. Even when Liz drove, I could barely contain myself; once I had to sit on my hands when the urge to push down Liz’s gas-pedal leg nearly overwhelmed me. A driver had suddenly appeared in the vanishing lane on Colesville Road and bullied her way into the merging lane, where we had been waiting—no blinker, no wave of thanks—nearly grazing our car. “Try visualization to calm yourself,” Liz said, ever evolved. I followed her advice, sort of: I visualized our headlights. Retrofitted with howitzers.
A psychologist once suggested that the road rage I've embraced since my 20s stems from taking other drivers’ misdirected aggression too personally. “It’s not about you,” she said. She was right. Mostly. This became clearer one morning when I was driving my 10-year-old stepdaughter, Aliya, to school in Northeast DC. She was learning about cultural conflict in school, and we were discussing the reasons behind King Philip’s War—a colonial conflict that occurred when Metacomet, sachem of the Massachusetts Wampanoags, lashed out against the Pilgrims’ land-grabbing descendants in an uprising that was doomed from the start. A woman in a Lexus swung from behind us on Sargent Road and passed us in the next lane over, the one intended for oncoming traffic. “See that?!” I screamed. “That’s a perfect example of what we’re talking about!” I sped up to catch the Lexus and saw it turn at the next traffic light. At the intersection, I struggled to open my window in time and from a slim crack yelled, “You—you Pilgrim!”
This was the source of my road rage: I was Metacomet. I didn’t care about personal trespasses. I cared about the larger, tribal ones. As I saw it, my rage bloomed into spear-waving stewardship. I needed to prevent these poachers, who believed that their private-property rights extended to the highway, from encroaching on the dwindling sanity and safety of our roads. It was the good fight, and it didn’t matter that mine was an ill-fated stand from the start. (The irony wasn’t lost on me. I knew full well that my vigilantism aped the corrosive antics of the very people I sought to rein in.)
For a long time, my Metacomet moments only deepened my resolve. Until recently. I was driving Macallah to his daycare provider’s home near Forest Glen, heading south on Georgia Avenue during morning rush hour. I signaled to turn left near the Woodside Deli and was met with a rash of blaring horns behind me. (I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn left from Georgia Avenue during rush hour.) I cleared my throat—something I do when I’m pressed for quick answers. Mistaking this for a cough, which warrants benediction in his two-year-old world, Macallah chirped “Blessh ouuu!"
The next thing I knew, a Ford SUV screeched up alongside us. It came to a stop, in the oncoming traffic lane, blocking my turn. I saw that it wasn’t a cop but another motorist, a balding, beefy guy with a beard. “Here we go,” I hissed, steeling myself. He screamed at me from behind his closed window, hands gesticulating violently. I rolled down my window, preparing for a clear verbal shot across my bow, and cleared my throat again. “Blessh ouuu!” Macallah chirped.
That was when a woman in a minivan appeared. Her van approached Beefy Guy head on and came to a stop—directly in front of his car. She, too, signaled to make a left-hand turn, essentially boxing him in. (The farcical skit was now complete.) Beefy Guy turned his rant toward the woman in the minivan, honking his horn, screaming and flailing about like some B-list silent-movie actor. At one point, he stopped ranting and looked my way, still from behind his closed window. In his window I saw our reflections: Superimposed over his flushed, seething face was my own face, stoic and serene.
Talk about a jarring moment.
For some reason I still don’t understand, I asked him a question, politely no less. “Am I not supposed to turn left here?” From behind his window, he continued to rant. Then he sped off. Apparently, the woman in the minivan had finally made her turn.
I made my turn, too, and heard Macallah sneeze through the bleating horns in our wake. “Blessh ouuu,” I said, relieved that this time my mimicry came from inside the car, rather than from outside of it.
When not taking to the warpath on local roads, Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University, works on a collection of essays, and shamelessly moons over his two-year-old son. He, his wife, and their family live in Layhill.
My mid-August business trip to Asunción, Paraguay, was well timed. A Washingtonian since the Reagan era and veteran of numerous American Presidential inaugurations, I was thrilled to learn that I would be in Asunción when the newly elected President was set to be sworn in—August 15—a day that marks the founding of Asunción in 1587 by Juan de Salazar y Espinosa. I would witness my first foreign Presidential inauguration in a South American country that seeks to strengthen its bilateral relationship with the US.
I had been to South America several times before, mostly to Argentina and Brazil, which both border Paraguay. But this was my first trip to Paraguay, where 6.7-million people live on a piece of land about the size of California. Until this trip, I had only known Paraguay through the eyes of two friends who had been Peace Corps volunteers there, and I’d heard mostly of the warm and hospitable nature of the Paraguayan people.
New President Horacio Cartes—a well-known businessman—was not involved in politics until he joined the right-center Colorado Party in 2009. He had studied and worked in the US, and his business background turned out to be of significant appeal to voters. His running mate, now Vice President Juan Afara, whom I had the honor of meeting during my stay there, comes from a farming background and was the popular Governor of Itapúa. In the US, they would have been considered a "dream ticket."
The night before the inauguration, I asked my colleagues from Paraguay and Argentina if they would be attending the President's swearing-in. For various reasons, I was the only one who decided to go. I’d been warned about the traffic (nonexistent), the security (nothing like ours), the crowds (quite small compared to those in Washington), and the weather (brisk but sunny—a perfect day nothing like January on the Mall).
I took an early taxi from my hotel, no official ticket in hand, and headed off for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The friendly driver sped past the official Presidential parade-reviewing stand, much simpler than the Washington version of Fort Knox that marks our inaugural days. We saw a small group of opposition demonstrators, whose low-key protest felt nothing like a DC political protest. When we could go no further due to restrictions, I jumped out and made my way toward a young couple with camera equipment, hoping they could direct me to the swearing-in.
Good fortune struck in meeting these new friends. Marcos, a graphic designer, had media-photographer credentials and Biera, a specialist in university accreditation, was planning to take pictures, too. They invited me to tag along, and I was delighted to.
Marcos entered a highly secured area, and Biera led me to an excellent viewing spot. She translated the speeches and proceedings into flawless English. (In addition to Spanish and English, Biera speaks Guarini, the country’s native tongue, as do most Paraguayans. I find this impressive, given that its American equivalent would be something like the residents of southeastern Massachusetts speaking the language of the native Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in 2013.)
Biera's family had emigrated from Russia as "White Russians," anti-Communist and pro-Czar, and Marcos had Italian and Spanish roots. Other locals I met that day had families originally from Lebanon, Germany, and China. It turns out that Paraguay, like the US, is an ethnic melting pot. And unlike the US, Paraguay has historically integrated and appreciated the natives who were there before the Spanish. Also interesting, the country maintains ties with Taiwan and has excellent Chinese restaurants.
On inauguration day, the red, white, and blue Paraguayan flag and the red flag of the Colorado Party were everywhere. Colorado party supporters in the streets were exuberant. The crowd was bursting with national pride, like we do at such events, but the military pomp and circumstance alongside the native cultural ambiance was much more noteworthy than it is during our inaugural productions.
The Presidents of Brazil and Argentina arrived approximately 18 minutes late to the President's swearing-in. The Paraguayans were not pleased, and the media was sharply critical of this affront the next day. To make matters worse, at the end of the prayer service hours later, Argentine President Kirchner could be seen on her cell phone, ignoring calls for her attention from the crowd. To put it lightly, she and Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, are not aligned with the new Paraguayan President. I’m told that the Presidents of other nearby countries Bolivia and Venezuela were not invited to the inauguration.
During his inaugural speech, Paraguay’s new, charismatic, youthful President told the crowd: "You are not the future, you are the present." He emphasized: "Paraguay is a rich country with poor people, and that has to change...this is the government of opportunities." He quoted Pope Francis I, who said "Paraguayan women are the strongest in South America,” to thunderous applause.
The crowd was electric. Many people I spoke with that day believe Paraguay is positioned to be the next global boom economy, given its new leadership, the human capital of the population, and the country’s significant potential in such sectors as agriculture and energy.
After the ceremony concluded with a song by Biera's aunt, I joined Marcos and Biera in a trek by the new Congress building, the old Congress building, and many other architectural gems, on our way to the Catholic cathedral for the prayer service. I was struck by the number of military groups dressed in colorful uniforms and helmets (with artfully designed monkey tails) that lined the road and by the order of the crowd. I even had the chance for a brief visit with Frank Sanchez, our Under Secretary of Commerce, who was part of the official US delegation sent to Asunción by the White House.
Biera and I followed Marcos, covered in press credentials, into the cathedral area without being stopped or questioned once. Maybe it helped to have on a Boston Marathon jacket and to be taking photos (with my iPhone) alongside an official photographer. I had somehow made my way into the center of the action on this historic day, and it dawned on me how Forrest Gump or Zelig (from the Woody Allen movie) must have felt.
At the steps of the cathedral, older women stood in traditional dress ready to greet the Presidential motorcade. Most of the women who entered the cathedral were exceedingly elegant—they would have looked at home on the red carpet on Oscar night in Hollywood. Just a single line of security flanked the arriving VIPs on each side of the cathedral steps. Biera and I stood close to Prince Felipe of Spain and the incoming line of Presidents (from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru) as they went solemnly into the cathedral after arriving on buses, not in limousines.
Nice Italian girls from New York and New Jersey aren’t supposed to move away from home, like I did when I came to Washington, DC. That makes me somewhat of the family rebel, even though I’ve never put a joint to my lips or a razor to my scalp. Check my body for tattoos; you’ll find none. But move away from all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and paisans? Miss out on mom’s Sunday sauce and meatballs? I’m no better than Fredo Corleone.
But I have to think Fredo would have eventually regretted turning on the family. It did get him whacked, after all.
Maybe that explains an incident not long ago at a Dupont Circle deli that claims to sell “NY-style bagels” and baked goods—a euphemism at best and a bald-faced lie at worst. The man next to me reached across the counter for a clear container filled with Neapolitan cookies, my father's homemade specialty. As a little girl, I called them rainbow cookies: three layers of dense dough that he dyed the colors of the Italian flag, almond-paste bunting that he separated with thin coats of jam and sandwiched between two more layers made of chocolate. These cookies looked nothing like my father’s careful handiwork. I stared at the neon garishness of the food coloring, the unnatural thickness of the chocolate. Globs of sprinkles stuck to the top like shards of glass. Sprinkles! An abomination.
I turned to the man, a stranger whom I had no business judging despite his clear lack of taste. “My dad makes those,” I announced.
The words must have come out strangled, because it was getting harder and harder to breathe. It felt not unlike the time I had a panic attack at a job interview, when two crusty, veteran Washington reporters asked me to summarize the entire trajectory of my journalism career thus far. In a testament to his fine sense of character, the stranger did not judge me for the intrusion. “He must be a special man,” he said.
He is. But he’s two-hundred miles away.
I left for Washington when I was 18, when I was too young to know what it meant to give up spontaneous family get-togethers, when all I wanted was to get out of my parents’ house. I’ve never looked back until now. The older I get, the more it seems like I’m missing out on a birth, a baptism, a Holy Communion with God that invariably involves a deejay and an open bar. There’s always a meal on the table at mom and dad’s requiring nothing more from me than a fork and a hunk of crusty bread to wipe my plate clean. I would venture to say that after nine years in the District, I've given almost as much of my money to Amtrak as Joe Biden.
At 27, I have an appreciation for my family—especially for my parents—that I lacked when I left home. There's nothing like their camaraderie, their love. But does that mean I should move back? How far away is close enough? Is Manhattan acceptable, or do I actually have to inhabit my childhood bedroom until I find a nice Italian boy who wants to marry me? (Shudder.)
The more I think about it, the more I bristle. Look at all I’ve worked for in nearly a decade away from home—the career, the friends, the decidedly not-Italian boy who maybe wants to marry me. In Washington, I answer to no one but myself. I’ve earned my keep in the halls of the Capitol, notebook in hand. I’ve toasted my youth in neighborhoods with names like Adams Morgan and U Street, Jameson in hand. Often, I've found myself typing and drinking as one day turns into the next. I’ve created a home here, my own life, not the one that seemed preordained. And I’m proud of that.
So is my family, to an extent. My parents never fail to tell everyone from their closest friends (the aforementioned paisans) to the receptionist at my grandfather’s assisted-living facility about my latest achievements. Even so, I’m sure they would still rather have me in shouting distance for supper. Where does their pride end and disappointment set in? Where does mine?
Earlier this year, an online literary journal published my very first personal essay. Shortly thereafter, my mother posted the following loving but grammatically incorrect message to Facebook: “Congratulations Christine ...We are so proud of you xoxoo So when are you moving back home? lolol” Facebook, forgive her, for she does not know what she’s doing in a public forum.
Friends and family began clamoring for my return. “I love you all but hold them horses,” I wrote, completely serious.
“We’ve waited long enough!” my best friend since the fourth grade replied. I couldn’t help myself from clicking the “Like” button, even though I’m not sure how much I would like giving up what I have gained for what I left behind.
Instead of making up my mind, I damn near throw temper tantrums in public like the same little girl who could hardly wait for the rainbow cookies to cool. Maybe there’s a happy medium, but I haven’t found it yet. Whenever I return to Washington with containers of my father’s finest creations, they don’t taste the same as they do back home. They can only stay frozen for so long.
Christine Grimaldi is a writer delayed on the Red Line in Northwest DC. She is pursuing an MA in creative nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Talking Writing magazine and in 140-character bursts on Twitter.