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Fragile industry…

July 5, 2010

When I closed my eyes to pass the smoke over my head again,

I found the silence I’d been searching for all my life…

There was only the breath in it…

There was only the slow beating of my heart like a drum in the darkness,

and the presence of something warm,

safe and eternal wafting around my shoulders,

lifting me,

cocooning me,

sheltering me…

There was only the feel of hands,

wrinkled and lined by time,

softened by rest and calm,

that touched my face and offered comfort…

— in One Native Voice by Richard Wagamese

Sometimes when the going gets rough Starshine and Little Gem have asked me,

Mama, why did you have children with Papa???

When that question hits the ground there is only one answer,

and I don’t have to search around to find the words…

They come out loud and clear,

I had children with Papa because I wanted you…

And I tell them that I watched their father for seven years before I made the decision to have children with him…

I watched him with other people’s children…

I brought him to my classroom and watched him with my students…

I watched how he treated our dog…

I knew that he wouldn’t drink, do drugs, chase women, or hurt me…

I tell them,

I couldn’t see everything but one thing I knew was that no matter how mad he got,

he would never hit you with a belt…

Then they ask me,

Did that happen to you???

And they can’t believe the answer…

When I was little my mother took my younger sister and I to Richmond Centre with regularity…

My Oma,

and my mother,

were fashion mavens…

Having grown up in post-war Germany,

and having lived in Zurich and Paris before she had me,

it must have been quite an adjustment to be stuck in a Canadian suburb with The Hudson’s Bay and Zellers,

but my mother made the best of it…

And as soon as we got in the mall she told me,

Watch your sister…

And as soon as we got into Sears my sister disappeared into the endless round clothing racks,

while my mother flipped through hangars looking for god knows what…

This was a standard routine…

I’d be hunting for my sister,

with the weight of infinite responsibility on my shoulders even though I was only twenty-two months older than her,

and after what seemed like hours my mother would come to me and say,

It’s time to go…

Where’s your sister???

I would be calling for her in a panic,

but my sister loved the game…

Sitting in a circle hidden by a surround of clothes,

wrapped up in her own little world,

Like the village idiot,

my mother would say…

Then my mother would announce that she’d had enough,

and we were leaving…

She’d start walking out of the store while I screamed for her to wait,

until I’d done what I was told to do…

Until I found my sister…

I didn’t know then what I know now,

about myself,

and my history of lost,

and stolen children…

My ultimate failures to protect those whom I loved…

I had re-occuring dreams throughout my childhood,

until I moved away from home…

Dreams where my sister and I were in my father’s utility trailer…

The trailer careening up and down Steveston Highway at top speed,

in the pitch black,

with my job to control it,

and to keep my sister safe…

Except for,

there were no controls…

The velocity and direction were out of my hands,

and there was no foot brake…

I would wake up from those nightmares sweating with terror,

and no resolution…

In my first year of teaching I would take my class of twenty-four four and five year olds for walks around the school field…

A school field from which I could see Steveston Highway in the distance…

I counted those children every five minutes,

and didn’t let them get one step ahead of me,

or too far behind…

It took a lot of years as a teacher before I could relax a bit,

and give my students some tether…

I remember a father of one of my students,

who was a teacher,

telling me,

at the end of an assembly,

The children in your class listen to you without your needing to say anything…

It’s like they’re wired into you…

How do you do that???

At the time I didn’t have an answer for him,

or awareness of that possibility…

I was just doing what I was made for,

and what came naturally…

Another father of a student,

an older Chinese gentleman who grew up in South Africa and went to the University of California during the 60’s,

would always shake his head when we were chatting out in the parking lot,

and say,

You should have been at Berkeley…

I always said,

Maybe I was,

and that’s why I seem so familiar to you…

Was it you who took me on that bad acid trip???

Two years ago he wrote me a letter of reference,

and as I drove away from him,

out of the staff parking lot,

he leaned out of his car window and called,

YOU are a survivor…

I didn’t know what he saw in that moment,

but I felt the truth of his words,

and thanked him for the message…

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