Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Breaking Night: A Readerly Response

I've had this readerly response to Liz Murray's memoir brewing in me for months now. But I'm too busy and burned out from school papers to get all academia on ya. Let me just say I so wanted to pluck the kid-Liz-Murray right out of the Bronx apartment she shared with her drug addicted parents and her sober sister, Lisa.  The story is that Liz's Ma and Daddy spend most of Ma's disability check (Ma is blind and schizophrenic) on cocaine, which means Liz and Lisa go hungry for about 28 days out of the month. Ma and Daddy are so caught up in the cycle of drug binging that nothing is done about their daughters' empty stomachs, or the increasing filth in the apartment, or the water in the bathtub that won't drain for months, eventually turning grimy and foul, or the facts that Liz is not sleeping and that she's ditching school and DHS workers are showing up with increasing frequency at the door.

With no adult supervision and with basic needs unment, kid-Liz-Murray does what any other resourceful kid in her situation would do: she skips school most days and goes out to look for food or money for food. Somehow she averts the clutches of DHS workers long enough to pass each grade through to high school, at which point Ma is so desperate to get out of the drug cycle that she leaves Daddy and moves in with a new boyfriend ("Brick"), but not before revealing to Liz that she (Ma) is HIV positive. Soon after, Liz is taken into custody by child welfare and sent for a time to a "diagnostic residential center" before she is released into Brick's custody. What seems like a fresher start for Liz, Ma, and Lisa takes a rather downward turn as Ma continues to drink heavily and decline from AIDS and Liz lapses into truancy from school. Rather than risk being caught by DHS again, Liz decides to head for the streets where her life takes on a rhythm of uncertainty against the backdrop of friendships with other homeless youth who are also struggling to survive. Sleep comes when she can cajole a friend into letting her stay on a bedroom floor, or else on the subway or when she can find a stair landing in an apartment building somewhere, alone or with friends.  Kid-Liz-Murray's life gets more complicated with a drug dealing boyfriend from whom she finds herself needing to escape, and then Ma actually does die, from AIDS, in the middle of what should have been kid-Liz-Murray's high school career.

In case you haven't guessed it, Breaking Night is a My Horrible Childhood sort of book in the vein of Angela's Ashes or The Glass Castle.  It was almost too awful to read at times, and I found myself shaking from trauma by proxy.  But you haven't seen the subtitle of this book yet: It's this, and it's a doozy: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.  Indeed. This has a happy ending.  So happy, in fact, so redemptive, you'll wonder if Liz Murray has been on Oprah, and in fact, when you Google, you'll see that Murray was the recipent of Oprah's "Chutzpah Award" (did you know this existed?).  We find out from the book jacket that, today, Murray is the founder of Manifest Living, a company that helps grown-ups realize their potential and reach for their dreams.

But how did she get here? Well, kid-Liz-Murray had a revelation one homeless night that her friends would never be able to pay her rent. At that moment she realized she needed to get an education. What ensued was what I'll call a courageous attempt to get herself enrolled in an alternative high school, while homeless. Only two years away from turning 18, Murray managed to complete all her high school credits with high honors in those two years. She won a New York Times Scholarship, received much press, and was accepted to Harvard. Since then, she wrote this thoughtful, well-crafted book, and o yeah, her story was made into a movie on Lifetime.

If this were fiction it'd be an awfully predictable read, all-loose-ends-tied-up sort of read, but I forgive Murray the closure. The story was so riveting, well-written, and awful that, in fact, I sincerely celebrated its redemptive pieces, and wished for her only more happiness. And maybe another Chutzpah Award. Hell, I'd even watch the movie on Lifetime.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Driving the Tinies

At 16, I drove like I didn't have a future, or not one I particularly cared about.  My driving disposition was fancy free, cavalier. I thought nothing of violent accelerations that would catch me up, change me lanes, get me there faster, pass a slower driver. My rattly '79 Toyota Corolla--oh, I named her "Molly" by the way, sweet in an early 90s sort of way. So, Molly's engine might overheat on my way from rural Iowa to more rural Iowa.  I fretted and hoped for the best; staying home never occurred to me as a viable alternative. On cold mornings, such as those of late in Iowa's December, Molly was skeletal, a tin shell, and conducted cold as well as most tin does; I jittered and shivered my way through town and country even if, at the same time, Molly overheated. And car maintenance--I could neither afford it or know what it was. Probably why Molly blew a gasket and I sold her for $75 because I couldn't pay the $600 to have her fixed.

My driving disposition should have changed a long time ago--maybe about the time I got married, or began thinking about having children.  To be honest, it didn't change fully until Tiny arrived.  I think twice about getting in the car with three children in five degree weather--hats, gloves, coats, boots, check? One hundred and fifty-thousand mile maintenance, check? Oil change, check?
Also, the enormity of the act of simply getting on the Interstate with or without children in the car bears down on me.  The fact of three lives depending on me from day to day is enough to wear off any residual cavalier and shine on some sober.  Driving is serious business. I am Someone's Mother.  I am Three Somebodies' Mother. I am a M.A.D.D. and a mother against texting-and-driving, mascara-and-driving, sight-seeing-and-driving. I'm also a mother against sibling-arguements-and-driving because sometimes I use the rear-view mirror to referree the drama in the way, way back of the minivan, only to look up--when? 30 seconds later? I never know--and exhale sharply in relief that the truck before me didn't brake unexpectedly, that the light was still green.

Of course choices on the road always had forever-implications, but I didn't know Oldest and Middle and Tiny before--three lives on the cusp of bloom. And I didn't know what it would be like for my niece to live without my brother, who died because of a car, some alcohol, and the exhilaration of driving too fast. He and she together had a lot more to accomplish in this life before he left it.  I look at my girls: They have Christmas programs to sing in, snowmen to build, easels to cover with paint, dances to tap out, piano lessons to review. They have friendships to forge, books to read, wisdom to search out and wield.  Maybe, too, they have their own Oldests and Middles and Tinies to beget.

I don't drive in fear, but I do drive like a surgeon who knows she must pay careful, uncompromising attention.  Also, like a woman shaped by relief and gratitude that so far none of her miscalculations have cost her or the Tinies anything, not anything at all to speak of.