An Acceptable Side Effect

An Acceptable Side Effect

By Amy Szpara

Premature Ovarian Failure. The first time I heard those words was via voicemail from a family practitioner, who stumbled through my last name. I knew what each individual word meant, of course, but I had never heard them strung together before. Ovaries that quit working early. That’s what she thought the problem might be.

Months later it was confirmed. Blood test after blood test, a few doctors down the road, and then a gynecologist was repeating those words to me. This time it wasn’t through recorded message. I was somewhere on the outskirts of Dallas, following the directions of an Australian accent coming from my GPS, telling me how to get to my aunt’s house in McKinney, Texas. My cell rang. It was him, saying that I did, indeed, have a pair of ovaries that no longer functioned.

This meant a greater chance of osteoporosis, higher risk of heart disease, and other “post-menopausal” issues. I was just 31 years old. It also meant no chance of conceiving children.

This didn’t mean I couldn’t carry a baby, he offered. My uterus appeared to be fine. I just wouldn’t be able to be part of the conception process. I should be good to go on the growing part of things, though. “You’ll need donor eggs,” he added.

Donor eggs? I drove aimlessly through a chunk of farm country that I had never imagined existed between a major metro area and a booming suburb. The water filled my eyes and blurred my view of the road, as I clicked the phone off and tossed it to the passenger seat.

With no idea where I had gotten off to, I pulled the car over and cried hard. Empty crop fields surrounded me. Appropriate. I called my aunt, told her I was lost, and she gave me turn by turn instructions until I pulled into her driveway.  Then, more crying.

Just the week before, I’d been in California, kissing my husband, Ray, goodbye. A U.S. Marine, he was headed to Iraq for an 8-month deployment, and I was moving back home to Louisiana to be with family.  My sister, Kim, had flown out to ride back with me. After his send-off, we were setting out on a road trip to take my mind off of things. Before we got going, I had one last appointment at the base hospital to check my Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) level. FSH is released by the pituitary gland and helps control the menstrual cycle and the production of eggs by the ovaries, I had learned. After that one hospital stop, we were on our way.

Over the next few days, Kim and I visited a ghost town somewhere in California, hit Las Vegas for a night, stopped at the Grand Canyon for exploring and camping, enjoyed the quirkiness of Albuquerque, and spray painted our names on cars at Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. Then we eased into Dallas with a collection of great memories and completely exhausted.

The next afternoon when my sister was headed to work, I was off to spend a few days with my aunt before the next leg of my trip to Louisiana. And then the news. The blood test had come back and the FSH level was sky high.

Some things began to make sense. At 25, I had gone through a really strange period of fatigue, achiness, and brain fog. It was the summer after I finished grad school. My fresh diploma sat on a desk waiting to be framed, while I’d gone with family on a cruise to celebrate graduation. When I returned, I began to notice the odd symptoms. I was really tired – not just my body, but my brain. I had a full body, dull achiness. My joints and muscles were sore. I had trouble concentrating.

Convinced I’d caught an obscure disease while in Belize or Honduras during the vacation, I went to an infectious disease doctor. Nothing. So, I followed up with a neurologist, my family practitioner, my gynecologist, and a rheumatologist. Nothing. After a long list of blood tests and exams, I was told it was Fibromyalgia, a diagnosis of exclusion.

But no one had ever thought to look at hormones. No one thought that a 25-year-old woman’s body was going through menopause and trying to adjust to those changes. I certainly never considered that. So, I took the diagnosis, and I slowly adjusted. The symptoms never completely went away, but with exercise and a low dose of an SSRI – Effexor – (for mood swings and depression), I was okay to get on with life.

Five years later, by my thirtieth birthday, I’d all but forgotten about that bout with bizarre symptoms. I had also been off the pill for two years, without getting pregnant. And I hadn’t had a period in six months. Never had it dawned on me that any of the issues from before could be linked to hormonal deficiencies or have anything at all to do with fertility. It wasn’t until I stopped getting a period altogether and learned that my FSH level was that of a woman who had gone through menopause that I made that connection.

While in California, Ray and I had been the ultimate tourists – visiting wine country, going to Hollywood, taking trips to San Francisco, driving down to Mexico, camping in Big Sur, spending our weekends at the beautiful beaches, and taking off for Vegas here and there. The end of that tour found Ray going to Iraq and me back in Louisiana, where I shelved the ovarian failure for later.

I enjoyed the time with family, and when Ray returned, we followed orders to South Carolina, where we bought our first house and settled into a slower pace of life.

I busied myself with work, fixing up the house, and meeting new friends. But everywhere I went I was reminded that I would not have babies. Someone was always pregnant, throwing a baby shower, or asking when I’d ever have any babies.

I finally started telling people I couldn’t have kids. It wasn’t going to happen. There were looks of pity, suggestions of adoption (I really was thinking hard about that), and occasional comments that we just weren’t “trying hard enough.” I didn’t bother explaining that all the sex in the world wasn’t going to knock me up. It wasn’t going to happen.

I was 33, when I decided to make something happen.

“If you needed a kidney, I’d give you that,” Kim said. An RN, she had been doing some traveling nursing and was ready to settle somewhere for a while. So she got a job at the hospital down the road from my house, and we began the process.

We had to thicken my endometrial wall, and then see how estrogen patches and pain-in-the-butt (literally) shots worked on me. Kim had to go through hyper-ovulation, taking shots to the stomach to make her release multiple eggs at once. We all had genetic testing and then visited a psychologist to discuss our feelings about Kim being the biological contributor. My endometrial tissue biopsy proved the doctor correct in warning “it was going to hurt like hell.”

Once all those boxes were checked, Kim went under general anesthesia to have the eggs removed. Ray discreetly made a contribution into a cup in a back room. The doctor did his magic: Injected sperm into eggs. And we had embryos! (But just four.)

The doctor matter-of-factly told me we’d implant two of those embryos, freeze the other two. If it didn’t work the first time, we could give it another go. At least I could say we tried, I thought, discouraged and convinced there would be no pregnancy.

I wasn’t getting my hopes up. I wasn’t going to trust that it would work. I had heard stories of people trying in vitro fertilization many, many times, without it taking. We only had two shots.

Still, I followed my instructions like my life depended on it when my turn came around. Kim had done her part. Ray had done his. Now it was all up to me. I had to start by making sure I had a full bladder for the procedure. This, somehow, would make it easier for the doctor to see where to insert the syringe to transfer the embryos to my uterus. It meant no going to the bathroom when I woke up that morning. I downed water the whole hour-long drive to the doctor’s office, as Kim and Ray both warned me that I should maybe slow down.

Upon arrival, I was in pure bladder pain. I could barely walk from car to office. Once I was on the table and the ultrasound wand was inserted, my insides popped up on the screen, and the doctor told me to go to the bathroom and pee a little. My bladder was too full. I ran to the toilet, peed for five seconds, and came back. He took another look. Still too full. Another five second pee, and he looked again. Once more to the bathroom. Finally, after the third trip, my bladder was in good shape to begin.

Five minutes later, I was in another room, on another table, legs up in the air for 45 minutes to let things take. I peed like a racehorse after, and we left.

If all worked out, I’d get three more months of thick, progesterone butt injections and sticky estrogen patches on the stomach. But, I wouldn’t need to worry about that, since it wasn’t going to work out.

I had to wait nine days to find out if one of the embryos had implanted, and as Kim and I were walking in for the blood test, I stopped. “Hey. No matter what happens, thank you for doing all this for me. It was such a gift.” She shrugged it off, like it was no big deal. But it was. She had never once hesitated about any step of the process. She had moved to my little coastal town to be there and go through all of it with me.

The nurse called later that afternoon. Positive. I was pregnant. Ray wasn’t surprised. He believed it would happen. But Kim and I both were. We wanted it to work, but we had mentally prepared ourselves for bad news. But there was none. Only good.

I had to wait until Week 6 to have an ultrasound to detect a heartbeat, and when that day arrived, the nurse inserted the wand for the umpteenth time in the past several months.

The doctor watched the screen and, nonchalantly, said, “Let’s look at that one first.” He pointed to something. Ray and I looked at each other, confused.

“Okay, now let’s look at the other one.”

Ray looked to the screen, then to me, and back to the screen. The nurse moved the wand as needed.

I looked to the doctor, incredulously. “The other one?”

“Yep,” he said. “Both implanted.”

Ray and I looked at each other again, stunned.

“Twins?” I asked, just to confirm what we were talking about.

“Yep. An acceptable side effect of fertility treatment.”

 

It’s now been five-and-a-half years since the day I listened to my mother laugh giddily on the phone at the news of twins, and went home to start planning for two of everything. My girls, Rayne and Jayden, are five and in Kindergarten. They are best friends, or worst enemies, dependent on the moment.

Premature Ovarian Failure. I don’t think much about those words these days. I take a low dose of birth control pills for the estrogen, get lots of calcium, and workout. So I went through menopause about 20 years early. If not for that, I wouldn’t have those girls. Those three little strung-together, devastating words led me to an amazing journey with my husband and sister, which brought me the two greatest gifts I’ll know in this life.

 

Queries

I’m at a point where I feel pretty good about my book, and while I have a few minor things I plan to edit in the next day or so, I’m ready to start sending out query letters to agents. I’ve thought about submitting to publishers sans agent, and I’ve read about self- publishing and that it’s becoming more accepted these days; however, I’d much rather do this the old-fashioned way (even though that can be done online and all through email now, without having to send out paper manuscripts and Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelopes). So, it’s a new-school version of the old-school way, if that makes sense…

So, here I am. Five queries out. I keep checking my email, though I know it can take weeks or months for an agent to respond – if they respond. They often only reply if they’d like to see more. My plan is to send out 10 queries, and then wait. If I hear nothing back after a few weeks, I’ll send out 10 more.

In the meantime, I’m going to focus on conferences and contests. I have some short stories playing out in my head that are dying to be put on paper, and there’s an autobiographical essay that really wants to be written. There are a few contests that look interesting that are coming up this month and next, and I plan to register and attend a handful of conferences in the next few months. I really need to spruce up my writing resume.

That’s the plan. It’s all down on paper, in a writing log, just waiting for me to check these things off as I move forward. No looking back!imagine

Chapter Three Excerpt

From A Place Called Salvation

 It was warm inside the car, but I could see through the back passenger side window that it was cold and icy outside. The window was wet with condensation, and little lines made by the tiniest of drops had drifted their way across the glass, racing one another to the other side. It was dark both out and in, and I could only see the outlines of the trees as we passed them. They flew by so quickly that I couldn’t focus on any single one of them as they came one right after another, sprinting past. They all blurred together and seemed to be linked to one another like a continuous line of paper dolls, their long, skinny branch arms outstretched to each other, each holding the hand of the next, forming one long chain.

            I pressed my palm to the window, shivering as I felt the chill move into my hand and through my arm. I drew a smiley face with my index finger, and then quickly wiped it away with my flat hand. I moved my wet fingers across my jean leg, rubbing the cold away. 

            As we climbed higher into the mountains, the trees continued to climb with us. The elevation grew greater and greater, and my ears ached as we made our ascent into that world. I forced myself to yawn. I chewed the inside of my cheek. I moved my mouth over and over in an attempt to pop my ears, but the pain shot far into them like sharp, little needles poking at me, stabbing deep inside, finding their way to the innermost part and jabbing at me firmly over and over once there. All the sounds in the car—the radio, the hum of the engine— became distant, muffled, as more pressure pushed into my ears, blocking the sound from them. When I finally managed to pop them, I felt thankful as the pain subsided and the noise around me returned to a normal volume.

            The night outside seemed vast and quiet and empty and scary. It surrounded us, enveloped the three of us with its black wrapping, but we were safe and contained in our car, a little moving box in the big, wide world.  I felt a sense of contentment to be buckled safely in with the warmth of the car heater keeping me cozy in my backseat. The night could not harm me there.

            I was comfortable.

            My father was driving, and my mother sat in front of me with her head against the rest. I was alone in the back, and my seat belt was tight against my waist. The radio was playing, but I couldn’t place the music. I didn’t know the words, had never heard the song. It was music from another era, a time before I existed, when my parents had been mere children and had, like I did now, parents to shield them from the harshness of the world.

            My father knew the song. He hummed softly here and there, never following the tune, but adding a quiet, deep hum from time to time.

            I tried to imagine my father as a boy, listening to the old music, wearing faded blue jeans and a t-shirt and sporting a ball cap and a crooked grin. I knew what he’d looked like from pictures that my grandmother kept in a shoebox inside a cabinet in her spare bathroom. There were several from his childhood. The dusty, weathered container held a few faded photos of her and my grandfather, who had died long before I’d ever been born and who hadn’t been a big part of my father’s life. I never knew why she kept those, because she swore the man she’d married and had her children with had just about been the death of her. Aside from those few, there were a couple dozen or so color pictures of my father and his younger brother playing in the backyard, posing in front of some scenery on a trip somewhere, sitting at a table to eat birthday cake. In pictures where only one of the boys was present, it was hard to decipher which one it was—my father or his brother. They were a short two years apart, and they looked nearly identical in the photos.

            In almost all of them my father and his little brother wore jeans and t-shirts, which usually had something written across them, like a brand name or an advertisement for something. One said “Coca-Cola.” Another read “Converse.” Others had pictures of cartoon figures or were stamped with a team logo. The caps they wore always named a college or professional football or basketball or baseball team.

            As an adult, my father had still worn jeans most days, but his logo t-shirts had been replaced with plain white ones, which were worn under button-up shirts. His hair was kept very short and tidy, short enough to reveal a deep scar just above his right ear. It was a souvenir from a dog bite he’d received as a boy. It was the reason my father would never let me have a puppy.

I looked at him in the dark. I couldn’t make the scar out. I could see his right hand’s index finger and thumb thumping the steering wheel in beat with the music.

          The windshield wipers were moving slowly across the front window like a pair of synchronized performers, swaying back and forth in unison, never missing a beat. Only a sprinkle of stars and the dull headlights of our car lit the dark night, illuminating my father’s hands on the wheel. The sky was a thick, black blanket, and those few bright spots dusted across it seemed out of place, and as I pressed my face against the glass, I could feel that the temperature outside was dropping even more.

            It was growing colder as we moved higher and higher. There was such a contrast between the frigid outside and the snug inside that I shivered again, thinking about having to leave the warm car after we arrived. I snuggled my face into the neck of my loose, cowl neck sweater. I leaned back, pressed the back of my head to the seat.

            I couldn’t see my parents’ faces, but I could make out my mother’s light hair, which was long and shiny and almost glowed inside the dark car. It fell down around her face and was draped over her left shoulder. As she slept, I could occasionally hear her take a deep breath and murmur an unintelligible word. She was peaceful, and she was beautiful. I wondered what she was dreaming about, or if she was even dreaming at all. Was she picturing being in the mountains? About getting to the cabin and climbing into a warm, soft bed?

            I knew nothing of my mother’s childhood, or of her parents or any of her family. I’d never met them or heard her speak of them.

They were all in Poland, and she’d never been back to her country after having left it many years before. I wondered about them. I wondered if they looked like my mother with light skin and hair and eyes. I wondered if they spoke like her with a soft, calm, soothing voice that made me feel safe and comforted. I wondered if they even spoke English, and if so, did they have thick accents and speak in broken phrases? My mother’s English was perfect, with only a tiny hint of an accent to suggest that she had ever lived anywhere other than America. Did her family have any pictures of my mother when she was a girl? Were there any pictures of her and her family at roadside stops on summer vacations? Did her mother have photos of my mother tucked away in a shoebox in a bathroom cabinet?

            My father turned to look toward his wife several times, but he never looked back at me. He’d smile a soft smile in my mother’s direction, and then return his eyes to the road before him, where I could no longer see his expression. I could see that he loved her, and that he was happy to be with her. It was in his eyes. He enjoyed making trips with her, driving her up to a place that was majestic and breathtaking, and he was pleased to be able to take my mother to a place that she loved so dearly.

          They both loved the mountains, and they’d spent their honeymoon there. They returned each year for their anniversary, and my mother always enjoyed telling everyone about how beautiful it was during the wintertime. The busy season was the fall when the leaves were exchanging their dark green coats for shiny yellows, oranges, and reds. People flocked to visit the area during that season. But, my mother favored the winter. She liked it to be cold and damp outside, while she warmed herself at the hearth inside. She often spoke of the cabin where she and my father stayed, the roaring fires he built at night, the quietness of the place, the trees that surrounded the little log structure, the way that she felt like the world was at peace and that she was safe in that tiny little shelter in the woods. She loved the mountain views. She loved the porch that ran around the entire house. She especially loved the two rocking chairs that sat on the front porch, where she rocked and sipped coffee in the mornings as she watched the sun rise. My father kept a snapshot of her sitting on that front porch in his wallet. She was dressed in a thick, hooded coat, scarf around her neck and furry slippers on her feet, sitting in a rustic rocker, tall mug to her lips. There was no place in the world more tranquil and perfect, and she always told others that what she loved the very most about that place is that she could “just be still there.”

          I closed my eyes tightly. There was something that I had to tell my mother and father, but I did not recall what it was. I thought and thought. I had to tell them before it was too late. And then all at once I remembered.

            It was as if the world stopped. All of the calm of the moments before was gone, and my heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. I felt my stomach muscles tighten, and it seemed as though two big fists in my very center were clenching and squeezing my insides, twisting tighter and tighter, wringing my body’s core, as I realized what was going to happen.

             Everything that had been so perfect was suddenly wrong.

            I opened my mouth to shout it out, but no words came. I tried to scream at them, but I had no voice. I went to move my legs to kick at the back of my mother’s seat, but I was frozen. I could not move. I was paralyzed and helpless, as I sat stiff in the backseat watching them. They didn’t know anything. They had no idea of what was to come, and I was the only one who could stop it.

            I needed to get my seat belt off, to push forward, to reach out to my father and tap him. I had to let him know. But I could not undo the belt, and it was growing tighter and tighter against me, pushing into my stomach so deeply that it took my breath away. It was forcing me farther into the cushioned seat, where I’d be swallowed up in just a matter of moments. I was shackled as the seat’s captive, being kept from interfering with fate.

           I wasn’t going to be able to stop it. I wasn’t going to be able to tell them, to warn them, to save them. I closed my eyes. I would try harder. I would just have to try harder. I tried to speak. I tried to move. Nothing.

            My mother slept on, and my father drove further into the night before us, higher into the tall mountains. We were way up in the sky. My ears popped again, and I knew that the altitude was still rising and rising. It seemed as though we were climbing that mountain straight into Heaven.

            But, I had to tell them. And it was impossible. It was useless, and I was useless. We were getting closer to that moment. We were on our way to the place where life would change forever, where life would end.

            I started to cry. The warm, wet tears rolled down my cheeks, and my damp lashes stuck together. My heart began beating faster and faster, and my body and voice were hopeless. I was a dead weight lumped on the backseat with the luggage. I could do nothing but watch my beautiful mother, who I would never truly get to know, sleep soundly, and look at my father’s thick fingers tap the steering wheel in rhythm with the music.

            I wanted to tell them to pull the car over. We could stop the car. We could wait. We could sit there and be still until that time passed, until that moment left. We could bypass all that was sure to happen. We could watch the clock, wait, look for that time, let it go, and then move on. We could still make it to the cabin. My mother could still have her roaring fire, sit in her rocking chair on the front porch, and just be still. I just wanted to keep them, to have a chance to know them, to get a life with them.

But, it couldn’t be done. It couldn’t be stopped. Destiny had chosen what was going to happen, and so it did.

            The ice was thin and slippery and hard to see. My father didn’t do anything wrong. He could not have known. My mother never opened her eyes. She never saw what was coming for her. She never knew the terror that must have gripped my father just before the end. She would at least leave the world without having that last image in front of her. She would at least leave the world with no fear.

            I raised my head. I could see myself in the rear view mirror. I could see my face. I watched my own eyes in the mirror. They filled with water that left them, rushing down my already tear-marked face. I could see me, scared, sad, alone. And then I could no longer see myself in the mirror. All at once, I was gone. Nothing was there. I disappeared into the dark, vanishing before my very eyes.

            “Daddy,” I said inside my own head. Why wouldn’t my voice come? Why would it betray me at a time like this? Why were my legs solid chunks of clay, stone statues that could not come to life? Why couldn’t I lift my arms toward my mother? Why was I so worthless? Why couldn’t I help them?

            Suddenly, our car’s headlights were not the only ones shining on the road. I saw the lights before us, coming toward us. They were bright, piercing, burning right into all three of us. I felt them on me. I felt their heat come over me, scorching my skin.  I stared at them. “Mama,” I mouthed, but there was no sound coming from my lips. “We’ve got to stop.” No voice. “No, no, no,” I tried to scream. Nothing. My mouth moved, but my voice was sleeping.

            Daddy hit the smooth, invisible sheet of ice, and the car slid. He hesitated. Would he slam on the brakes or let the car move whichever way it would? What would be safest? I did not know. I wondered if he knew. The car jolted. I felt the movement shoot through my body like a bolt of lightning. I looked up, but saw nothing other than a massive machine of steel with all its heaviness and whatever it was loaded down with, with all of its 18 tires, and the man who operated it moving right into us. The two vehicles were suddenly stuck together like one machine, moving as only one across the dim road.

          I heard screeching wheels, shifting weight, and horns sounding all at the same time. We spun. We hit the rail. I felt my body bounce, jerk, jump, and slam as if it were not my own. I could not control my movements. Suddenly my still, rock body was all movement, where it had been frozen just moments before. I could not get a grasp on anything that was happening. There were noises, lights, and then we fell.

            I felt the falling. We fell and fell and fell. My heart dove into my stomach. We were plunging and hitting and almost bouncing – the heavy car and all its weight – off of the solid, jutting mountainside, as we went down. We hit the hard ground below us. My entire being seemed to slam through me and crash into the seat beneath me. Every muscle, joint, bone, organ—every piece of myself—hurt all at once. I tingled, throbbed, burned, ached, hurt. I raised my head.

My father was slumped over the steering wheel, blood oozing from above his ear, just where his scar was, and running down onto his jaw. My mother’s blond hair, streaked with a thick line of crimson, covered the side of her face. She lay lifeless, her eyes shut, her lips slightly parted.

            I screamed. This time my voice came. I screamed and screamed and screamed. And then I began to fall again. We began to drop. Again. I was saying “no.” I was repeating the word over and over, as if by saying it, I could stop everything from happening, from being what it was. It was all that would come from my lips, just a continuous stream of “no, no, no.”

            We were falling and falling, and I felt sick, and I was so scared to hit the hard ground beneath me.

I couldn’t feel that feeling again. I couldn’t feel everything in me move to the core of my body and then rush through me and out again. I couldn’t bear it. I felt myself falling and falling. It seemed as if it would never end, that I was going to just keep falling until I fell right into Hell and met the fiery Devil under the earth.

          Again, all at once, I lurched forward, my eyes wide, my throat scratchy from my screams. I gasped for air. I was drenched in sweat. I felt like my entire body was soaked in it, all the way through to my thick bones. I took a deep breath, put my hand to my chest. My heart beat rapidly, as if I’d been running for miles. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t stop my tears. I couldn’t do anything but feel the raw emotion of what I had been through, what I had seen, what I had just been a part of. My parents were dead inside a car that had fallen off the side of a mountain, and I was shaking in my wet pajamas on top of the damp mattress of my single bed.

 

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Chapter One Excerpt

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From A Place Called Salvation

I had a standing appointment with a social worker once a week. Every Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., right after school, I met with her to talk about my life and how I felt about it.

Carson kept an office at the end of the hall, which had a door covered in colorful Crayon drawings that some of the little kids had made for her. Little pink bunnies, purple elephants, primary-colored rainbows, and wide-eyed, brightly painted clowns greeted me every week. The clowns, quite honestly, creeped me out. I had never liked those makeup-wearing monsters, and even the childishly distorted, odd-colored jokers collaged on that thick door made me uneasy. There were times when I felt like ripping them down, but then that would be sort of crazy.

My social worker drank her tea hot and her coffee iced, and regardless of which she was having, she sipped it from her white ceramic mug that read ‘I Love Jesus’ in bright red letters – a heart in place of the word ‘Love.’

The first time I’d walked into her office, she was scribbling something with a pencil that displayed little crescent-shaped teeth marks up and down its yellow coat, while her free hand twirled a lock of hair she’d pulled loose from her ponytail.

With her red, wavy hair, big curious eyes, and plum lipstick that was three shades too dark for her fair skin, she looked more like a babysitter working on her homework while the kids played outside than a social worker assigned to my case. Her eyes made me think of the expression my grandmother used to describe someone who looked stunned: “a deer caught in headlights.” My social worker had this innocence in her eyes. They were gentle, inviting, hopeful, but just a bit sad and startled all at once.

Her Jesus mug sat on her desk in front of her; a smeared, plum lip mark stained the rim of the white porcelain. She lifted her head from what she was doing, tucked the loose curl behind her ear, and smiled those little white teeth at me. Her face was inquisitive, the corners of her lips turning slightly up when something was on her mind.

“I’m Carson,” she said. “Unusual name for a girl. But you know all about unusual names, don’t you? Please, Stormy, have a seat.” She motioned to the thick, cushioned chair that was across from her on my side of the desk.

I sat facing her, saying nothing that very first time. I knew what the sessions were all about. She would ask me a bunch of personal questions about my life, how I was getting along in my new home, what my contact with family was like, and how things were going at my new school.

Other kids had filled me in on what the social workers did, and they’d even given me the run-down on each of the 14 that worked in that little administrative building. There was a whole crew of them, just prying into the minds of kids aged 5-17. I figured I knew going into my session as much about Carson as she’d learned about me from the manila folder that sat on her desk.

What I knew about her: She was 24, single, took kickboxing class on Friday nights, was crazy about her nondenominational church that called itself a fellowship, and was always working on fundraising events for abused children. There had been a few newspaper articles about her work for charity, and she had even been on the evening news one time.

I didn’t know what was in that file she had on me, but I was sure it summed up the events of my life in short phrases that fit into a paragraph or two: Orphan. Parents died in car accident when she was 8. Grandmother raised her until she was 13. Grandmother has Alzheimer’s and lives in nursing home. Only relatives are uncle and his family.

Maybe it even went on to say that “Uncle and his family don’t want her. Uncle’s wife already has two brats to raise. Does not need a third.”

I wasn’t sure what else could have been in the folder, but it was only about as thick as a grocery store ad paper—3 or 4 pages—and someone else’s name had been marked out with permanent marker. My name was written just above the thick, black line. It was probably formerly the folder of a short-timer, a kid who would only have a few sessions and then get to go back home to a mom, dad, grandparent, or someone who cared.

I was not a short-timer.

Our first session had been just to “get to know one another.” It was strained. After seeing her once a week for a few years, though, we eventually came to know each other pretty well.

After I’d started to open up more to her, she invited me to join her in the “Comfy Zone,” which consisted of a bright yellow rug and two red oversized bean bag chairs that took up a large chunk of her office. That’s where we had most of our talks, making her, again, seem more like a teenaged babysitter than a professional who sized up my life through a series of notes she kept in a filing cabinet.

Carson usually greeted me as I imagined an older sister no longer living at home would a younger sister when she dropped in on the weekends.

“Hey, Girl,” she’d say. “How’s the week been? Anything good going on?”

At some point a few weeks into our sessions, I decided to trust her enough to mention that I often dreamt about my dead parents, which I sort of felt like talking to someone about, anyway. I thought I might as well throw her a bone. She wanted to help me with something, and I guessed that would be as good as anything. She thought the dream was brought on by the anxiety of being separated from my grandmother and having to leave my house to go live in a children’s home. On top of losing my parents years before, now I’d lost my grandmother. The nightmares were understandable, she’d said. I never told her that I’d been having that awful dream for a couple of years before ever setting foot on the children’s home grounds.

Then there were the other dreams.