Our Lady of Context
Only her eyes were visible beneath her niqab, but isn't that all you need to feel someone's friendliness?
I forget the first words of our exchange. Something banal. Within seconds though, we were off to the races, the story tumbling out of her with the desperation of thoughts that must be shared.
“You know, my daughter has been missing. I paid private investigator one thousand nine hundred dollars to find her, and she is living with her dad.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Bad. Her dad is terrible man, stole her away from me, him and her stepmom and her sister they tell her bad things about me, not true. So I think if I go over there and talk to her maybe she will listen. Because if I don’t then it’s three voices against one, the three will win, you know?”
Makes sense. “Where is she?”
“That's so far away!”
“I know but I have to. I am her mother. It's what mothers do. I will go and wait for her in the street if I have to, homeless if I have to. I love her. I'm going to go over to her and try to get her back. Because that's what mothers do.”
There is no substitute for life, real life experience. Art is closest, but even it falls short: what I heard in her present voice was the power of belief. Of love. It was beautiful.
I said, “what does her dad say?”
She spoke quickly, a headlong passionate rush. I suspected she was similarly zealous in many areas of her life; a woman who coursed her journey forward with tumultuous confidence.
“He thinks I am too American,” she replied. “That I am a bad influence. But you know what, he is wrong, because she, my daughter, was born here! She is American!”
Her excitement was making me excited. “And also, we can learn from every culture! He doesn't need to shut her out of here. It should be her choice.”
“That's what I'm saying! I am her mother and I will love her no matter what, as long as she is kind and compassionate to others, a good human being to herself and those around her, I don't care her choices her religion sexuality. It doesn't matter,” she exclaimed, alight with enthusiasm, and though I couldn’t see her mouth or gesticulating hands I could feel her verve.
I said, “It doesn't matter. As long as she's a good person.”
“Yes. And her dad doesn't think like that.”
At the next red light I turned around in my seat. “You know what, you are a great mom. She is so lucky to have you. I don't know how many other kids wish they had a mom like you.”
Her mind was already whirring on to other topics, and she continued anew: “It can be hard in this country if you don't read or write good English.”
“When I first come here, I got tricked into signing paper. My husband gave me papers to sign and I didn't know what they were. It was divorce and custody papers and now the police tell me I can't do anything about, because I signed it, it's a legal document.”
“Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness! That's awful!”
“I had her young, my daughter. I met a man in Somalia, him and some others said they would take me to America and that everything would be fine, but they beat me and forced me to come with them here. So I had her when I was thirteen.”
“Oh my God that's terrible.”
“And I feel like she should know the whole story. About me, about who her dad is.”
“Definitely. Oh she needs to know, because it's what happened!”
At this point a man walked past. She asked him, “Are you sober?”
“I am too. The reason I ask is because I remember you from before. I was the girl on 12th and Jackson, really skinny, always on drugs, crazy.”
“No way!” I said. She was the picture of responsibility.
“Oh my god,” the man said. “That was you? Yeah, I remember now. You were crazy.”
“I been sober twenty-four months now.”
“That's amazing. Nine months for me.”
“Congratulations to you both,” I said. “Seriously.” To see these two connecting– opposite races, religions, attires... but survivors of the same strife. Her monologue could sit alongside Tennessee Williams:
“Yeah when you are depressed sometimes you just want something, anything. I was hurting from losing my daughter and being betrayed by my husband, and this Somali guy at 12th and Jackson gave me 300 (unintelligible) and told me I would be happy. And I took all of it and said oh my god this is everything I ever wanted. But it destroyed my body, my mind, my life. That guy, he does that to so many girls. They say they wanna help you, but they don't care. They ruin your life just to make some money.”
“Yeah, he sold to me too. Andrew is his American name.”
“I hate that guy. But I realize I have to take responsibility for my life. No one is going to help me. People help me now. If I miss my medication, there is someone who will drive me. But the only reason they help me is because they saw my dedication to helping myself in the beginning. You have to show them you are for real. That you care. Because no one can change you for you. But right now I'm sober, I have a job, an apartment, and a car. Twenty-four months. And I'm going to find my daughter, no matter what it takes.”
You felt elevated just listening to her. Inspired. You need this as a public service employee, after day after day with so many folks of less perspective, less self-awareness on the motivations behind their decisions, less galvanizing views on responsibility. I felt uplifted.
We talked about her impending Minnesota adventure. I worried the journey could be a recipe for disaster, and wanted to ensure she had the best chances possible. I don’t often hear stories like that turning out well. She had three friends in Minnesota who could help. I told her about attorneys, public defenders, how you can request a different one if you choose. She talked with the other passenger, commiserating on the challenges of sobriety. It’s all about an hour at a time, she said.
More like a second at a time, he said.
What I appreciated about her, among other things, was the degree to which she gave context. Her willingness to vociferously share with a stranger, especially about these sensitive subjects, was somewhat unique in relation to her cultural background. In sharing with me she dimensionalized the many covered faces I see from around the world, offering concrete example to the complexities even a single life can contain. No matter how many such stories you learn, you can always use a few more. Each is different. She deepened my understanding of the levels of desperation I see at 12th and Jackson. She gave those anguished lives a narratival heft and profundity.
I was grateful for the reminder.
Click for Part II!
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