Marrying Young in Kentucky

shit show short stories

Just a 30 minute drive north of Metropolitan Nashville will take you to a place where fine southern heritage meets plain white trash. That place is Kentucky, where I grew up. In Kentucky, you can get married at the age of 16 with your parent’s signature, just like a permission slip for a field trip. You can’t vote, join the army, or buy cigarettes or alcohol, but by golly you can file joint tax returns. Who wants to waste money on a wedding rehearsal when you have a perfectly good prom coming up in April? By the time I was 18, I had been in three weddings, not as a flower girl, but as a bridesmaid. I’ve actually never been a flower girl, despite my requests. I was already my full adult height in second grade.

As an educated southern woman in her early thirties, being unmarried without children makes me stand out worse than a beer belly in a beauty pageant. My friends and family can’t imagine why I have restrained myself from the magic of matrimony all these years. I have a delightful boyfriend of 10 years whom I live with and co-parent two pugs. I love the idea of having a huge party with an open bar where all my acquaintances buy me gifts from a pre-selected registry. As far as I can tell, I don’t have issues with intimacy, commitment, or changing my bizarre last name. Despite all this, I’ve just never felt compelled, nor motivated to make an honest woman of myself. Maybe it’s my own counter-culture movement against my home state where legislation will chronologically grant you a marriage license before a driver’s license. Where the people you choose to be in your wedding party have a curfew, and are counting down the days till they get their braces off. I was in more weddings in high school than I have been in all the years since, and that’s saying a lot since I was in a sorority.

collageIt all started when my aunt, who was only nine years older than me, got engaged. The whole family pitched in to throw her a simple wedding on a shoestring budget. We made all the food, bought our dresses secondhand, hosted the wedding at our house, and my mom and I were the bridesmaids. I was 12. We worked hard to make everything look as perfect as it did in Leisure Arts and other craft magazines, and there wasn’t a single snag until I went upstairs to get ready for the big event.

I started my period for the very first time just minutes before the ceremony. I decided to keep it a secret and threw away all the evidence, including my undies. That’s loyalty to the bride. I didn’t want to take any attention away from her, even for my first menstruation. My sanitary supplies were limited to what I could sneak from my mom’s stash, so I was basically wearing a diaper underneath my bridesmaid’s dress. I felt my maxi pad crinkle and crunch under the green polyester dress as I stiffly marched down the aisle. I felt so grown up. My aunt, who was raised like a sister to me was getting married, I was ovulating, and my mom let me get my haircut in layers for the first time. With my confidence and eyeliner, 12-year-old me could have gotten served at a bar.

My next stroll down the aisle was for a friend at the small Christian school I attended for two years. It was the year 2000 and we made it through Y2K with all our appendages, so anything was possible. All threats of the apocalypse were silenced after the clocks struck midnight and the world’s computers refrained from resetting to 1900. We climbed out of our underground bunkers and carried on with life. My friend graduated high school that year, and was getting married to her manager at Wendy’s where she worked.   I’m not making fun of them, they’re still together, have three sons, and a wonderful life together. She even told me recently she was happy she got married, but looking back she didn’t know why the hell her parents went along with it.

This wedding took place in our church/school/building we used for everything. None of us had much money– we worked part-time after school for minimum wage. We had our dresses made by the most efficient seamstress in three counties, a Mennonite lady.  You can milk a goat without breaking a seam in your dress, but they don’t pay much attention to the frilly details. You want a bow? You don’t need a bow.  We do ankle length, and turtleneck.  You don’t want to look like Mary Magdalene do you? This was pre-Pinterest and our town didn’t even have a JoAnn Fabrics, so patterns were limited. We either got our shoes at Wal-Mart or went barefoot. Being barefoot in Kentucky isn’t only a stereotype but a way of life. If you couldn’t run over gravel full speed without shoes, you’d never survive childhood.

The bride to be was raised even more religiously than I was. We were Southern Baptists, and premarital sex was a ticket straight to hell. We had both participated in a purity banquet, a ritual where we promised our parents not to have sex until marriage. As proof, we wore rings inscribed “True Love Waits”, and our parents were given skeleton keys as a symbol that they held the key to the lock on our chastity belts. Figurative, but still creepy. All this insured there would be no snarky remarks about the color of your wedding dress. No cream or eggshell for purity gals, you earned every thread of that bright white dress.

The third time I was an underage bridesmaid was for a friend in the same grade. She was actually one of the youngest in our class and we practically grew up together. Her mom signed the permission slip since she was still 17. She wasn’t hiding a pregnancy, under a purity vow, or even dying of cancer, she just wanted to be a wife.

She asked me to be her maid of honor. I had no idea what that meant. I was in high school and worked at Piggly Wiggly. Someone mentioned the Maid of Honor plans the Bachelorette party. Hmmm, I thought: Let me ask my mom if I can have people over.  She said I can only have three girls over but we can order pizza.  Also don’t wake up my dad, he works third shift.  We didn’t have a stripper but would have had no choice about male nudity when my 5-year-old brother barged in and showed everyone his Vienna sausage. He was quite proud of it, like guys instinctively are. If she didn’t like that idea, maybe I could wait outside a gas station and ask an adult to buy us wine coolers. The town we lived in was completely dry, so I would have had to go to the next city over, and I wasn’t allowed to drive on the highway at night!

The day of the ceremony, I did my best to hide how I felt about the girl I made mud pies with as a kid getting legally bound to someone. We were still kids, but our state lawmakers didn’t find anything weird about not being able to drink during your own wedding toast. At the ceremony, traditional accompaniment like the Wedding March was replaced by NSYNC, Mariah Carey, and Shania Twain. Those were the hottest singers then and if they couldn’t express her feelings that day, who could? The happy newlyweds rode off into the sunset on a John Deere Gator, because we were teenagers in Kentucky, and that was badass.

The only logical place to go on a teen honeymoon is back home with your parents. How romantic to carry your new wife over the threshold of your home, AKA her old bedroom.  What if they shared a bedroom with a sibling? Turn up the volume on your Discman so we can consummate this thang. Then we’ll move out all the Precious Moments figurines to make room for our wedding china.

A year later, my friend’s marriage had ended and I was home from college for the summer.  As we caught up on everything from divorce to the freshman 15, I realized she had matured far beyond me. A year of college didn’t teach me what she learned about life in her first month of marriage. We celebrated our reunion by riding roller coasters at Six Flags. The last time I saw her was at our 10 year high school reunion. She surprised me when she showed up with a new husband, pictures of her adorable kids, and a very pregnant belly. Thankfully her current husband was nice enough to get the old wedding photos out of storage so I could have them as visual aids for this story.

I’m still thick as thieves with all three of these wonderful women, and I know they would do anything for me, including put on a bridesmaid’s dress, if it ever came to that. We’re all a bit older and wiser now and all agree we wouldn’t go back and change a thing. If I’ve learned anything from them, it’s that following your heart isn’t the worst thing you can do. Sure, divorces are messy, and it’s a real pain to get all new monogrammed stuff when you go back to your maiden name, but it’s nothing compared to the regret you would feel of never knowing if it could have worked. As for me, I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel old enough to drink at my own wedding. But until then, I’m registered at Target.

Open at the Same Time

shit show short stories

For my sister Portia <3

Read at “Holidays on Thin Ice” at Blackstone Brewery on Dec 5, 2015.

Open at the same time

Paulina Combow

When you share a bathroom with your enemy, it’s important to let them know who’s boss every now and then. When I was 16, getting ready for
my after school job at an ice cream shop, I had 10 minutes to spare and wanted to use that time to aggravate Portia, my younger sister, before I went off to scoop frozen treats for minimum wage. She was reading a book in her room when I busted in to provoke her. She looked up from the pages with flames in her eyes, stoodportia and paulina in new york city straight up, grabbed me by the throat, and slammed me into the bathroom door. I’m pretty sure she lifted me off the ground that day. It shocked me more than it hurt, and it hurt a lot. I had to go to work with a busted lip and bruised ego. The prophecy my
parents spoke of finally came true, “One day your sister will be bigger than you, and she’ll fight back.” I believed them, I just thought I had more time, she was only 11.

My sister and I are the eldest girls of four siblings. We have nothing in common, we don’t even look related. It’s nothing unusual for strangers to casually ask us if we have different parents. She sports a barbarous brunette bouffant while I’m teasing my flat pallid tresses to look like I have hair at all. Only our blue eyes and tiny button noses reveal any hint of relation. We were mortal enemies from the day she was born. I tortured her and called her every nasty name I could think of. Among them were The Beast, Porkchop, Rude Portia, and Snake eyes. Snake eyes had its own theme song and was particularly cruel because her two front baby teeth had single white dots in the center of each one, as in the worst roll you can roll with two dice. I convinced her she was the sole survivor of a multiple birth, but her twin, Dortia’s, head was hidden in our house and haunted her.

Our intense sibling rivalry started when she decided to be born the day before Halloween, causing me to miss out on trick-or-treating that year. I’d never seen a newborn look so evil. I’d probably never seen a newborn at all before her, but I knew she was bad news. I never got anything to myself after she came. I had to share my room, toys, friends, even gifts. Everything had to be even with us. When friends or family gave us gifts, it would be two of the same thing, in different colors if we were lucky. Once my grandmother saved herself the trouble and bought “twin” baby dolls and let us each take one. As in separate them at birth, like a freaky nature vs nurture experiment from the 70’s. Obviously, my baby was nurtured, while hers was left to nature. To this very day, we’ll be opening presents on Christmas morning and mom will say, “Hold on, you two need to open those at the same time.” You would think we once shared our mother’s uterus with how concerned people seem to be with balancing the scales. I can sympathize with twins. Although our dad is a twin, and according to him, he and his brother were treated like two halves of one person and had to share one of everything, which is why no one feels sorry for us.

After the power shift of the bathroom incident, things changed. We cohabitated peacefully for two years before I moved off for college. On one of my visits home, we had our cousin over with his new wife for Thanksgiving. They were a young couple and planned to visit her family in New Jersey over the holidays. I was invited along to help with gas and driving. They planned to drive from Tennessee to New Jersey in mid-December, a terrible idea, but a cost efficient one. I was won over by the promise of going into the city during our visit, since I had never been to New York. Not being allowed to have anything to myself, of course, my sister was also invited on the trip. I’m surprised she wasn’t set up with her own dormrrom after I left. Why should I have to share my trip to the city with her? I was in college, and didn’t need some junior high dork in her Good Charlotte phase tripping over my heels through Times Square. But the only way I got to go was if she did, so we both went.

I couldn’t wait to brag to everyone back at school about my holiday plans. “Oh, you’re going back home to Beaver Dam, Kentucky for Christmas? I’m spending mine in New York City.” I conveniently left out the parts about carpooling there and staying with in-laws in New Jersey. When someone asked what airport we were flying into, or which hotel, I just changed the subject to something about finals week.

My sister and I were both teenagers, without real forms of income. We were just in awe to be in the city, ride the subway for the first time, and retrace Kevin McAllister’s steps from my favorite movie, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. We saw everything we could despite having next to no cash, being with distant relatives we didn’t know, and the freezing cold wind and rain that chased us through the streets. The night before Christmas, we watched Saturday Night Live hosted by Jack Black, knowing for the first time in my life, I was less than 1,000 miles away from studio 8H. In fact, I had walked past it that very day. The world felt more possible. The places I dreamed of were just an excruciatingly lengthy car ride away.

The hard part was Christmas morning. My sister and I were sleeping in the guestroom of our cousin’s wife’s parent’s house. We asked them to have their Christmas morning and just let us sleep. We asked this so we didn’t impose on their family time, but also the thought of waking up on Christmas morning in an unfamiliar place, without our tree, our parents and brothers, and stockings was emphatically depressing. We were teenagers and preferred to just sleep through the sadness. Our request was ignored, and bright and early we were woken up to meet around the tree with the rest of the family.

“No, you guys go ahead, we don’t want to get in the way.” No such luck. We groggily shuffled downstairs and were presented with smiles and gifts, to be opened at the same time, of course.

Looking back on my past 30 Christmases, I can’t put my finger on any disastrous ones. As a family, we created our own traditions, which we added to and evolved each year. From mom’s baked French toast that sets in the fridge overnight on Christmas Eve, to “the Bird”, a wooden bird gifted to a different family member every year disguised as a real gift, to Portia’s annual jumbo pack of panties in her stocking from Santa. Playing Spoons on Christmas Eve is our favorite card game. We had to stop using spoons because we got so competitive we put gashes in the dining room table. We changed it to Candy canes, but were still so rough that the candy canes got obliterated. Now we use candy canes reinforced with tape, and the game isn’t over until the peppermint inside is pulverized to a fine powder.

Despite everything that was unfamiliar and new about that trip, I had my sister. We got along perfectly, the opposite of any family vacation in the past. We were a team. When our cousin made a double entendre of every road sign we passed for 18 hours, we stuck together. When we ran out of gas five minutes from the house because you can’t pump your own gas in New Jersey and all the stations closed, we had each other’s backs. When the rest of our crew wanted to go to the top of Rockefeller Tower, we decided to stay on the ground level, drink hot chocolate together, and watch people ice skate around the plaza. Our new relatives felt bad for us and offered to pay the $50 for the elevator ride to the top, but it wasn’t really about the money. We needed to have our own family time, warming up in front of the most famous Christmas tree in America. As far as we were concerned, we were already on top of the world; the roof of a skyscraper wouldn’t change our view.

Pledging My Summers Away

shit show short stories

 

“I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy word. I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.” This was the soundtrack to my summers growing up in a small town in Kentucky. I would mumble through the words, then take a seat in a creaky church pew and wait to get dismissed to my assigned classroom for Vacation Bible School.

For my parents, Vacation Bible School was a vacation for them, and free babysitting for me. Every week a new church, a new group of kids, and a new Vacation Bible School. A couple summers I was lucky enough to spend a week at 4-H camp, since it was cheaper than Girl Scout camp, but the remaining weeks of my summer vacation were back to VBS.  Every church in my quaint Southern town hosted one, and each one tried to outdo the others. I was sent to each one, regardless of religion, and by religion of course I mean Christian. We had every variety of Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and several others. There were no mosques or synagogues in this town, and no need for them either.  Whether it was the wealthy First Baptist church downtown, or a tiny brick chuflagsrch out in the county, I was in attendance for VBS.

Sometimes they were in the morning, others at night. The church my family attended had such a small congregation that decided to do VBS all in one day to save money, and entice more kids to attend. With these subtle differences, they all had one thing in common, the pledges to the American Flag, Christian Flag, and the Bible. I would sit in the audience and watch the three young volunteers, each displaying one of these relics. I never asked, nor received answers to my secular questions. Since when do we say pledges to the Christian flag and Bible? Why do we only do these at vacation Bible School? And why do we have to recite them every night?  Are they just stalling for time? 

The most different and memorable of all the churches was the Mennonite Church. They sang a song every night instead of the three pledges called “Come to Bible school.” It was a welcome break from the pledges, but it had upwards of 14 different verses, and they spoke in distinct Dutch Amish accents so it sounded more like “Coom to bye-bell skyool.” It was hard not to giggle watching men, women, and children sing it with such conviction.   Theirs was the farthest out in the country, and lasted the longest. I’d estimate I spent forty days and forty nights there in the wilderness.

I was the only girl in pants, making me what they call English, or non-Mennonite. All the others wore solid colored dresses made by their mothers, and a thin white bonnet over their bun called a “covering”. If I thought I stuck out from my peers at public school, I was a flaming beacon of Other amongst these kids. There were no musical instruments, no flare, everything about their faith required them to be plain. The inside of the rooms were reminiscent of one-room schoolhouses in old movies, nothing but the basics; desks, books, and a chalkboard. VBS was a glimpse into their real school days since their church served double duty as their school. Although these kids only attended school through 8th grade, they were smart and well read. Instead of eating dinner in front of the TV at night, they read real books and actually studied the bible.

Other than that one, it’s hard to keep all those vacation Bible schools separate in my head.  I’m not sure why my mom made me go. I wasn’t an outdoorsy kid.  My ideal summer days consisted of sleeping till noon, watching TV, and definitely not doing any chores. Maybe she thought it would be good for me to get out of the house and hang out with other kids, or maybe she just needed a break from my mouth breathing on the sofa as I zoned out to summer re-runs. She was so committed to me going to VBS that I remember getting ready on the night OJ Simpson’s White Bronco was in a full-scale police chase on TV. While the rest of the country was glued to their tubes, I was reciting pledges with a new group of church kids.

As an expert, I can tell you All VBS’s start the same way. You’re herded into the pews of a musty sanctuary. Some would have cushions; others were bare wood that amplify every sound. Heaven forbid you had a heavy dinner and got a little gassy. Take my word for it, squeeze those butt cheeks during prayers, kids.

When I got bored I could stare at the baptismal pool where people went to have their sins washed away. I would watch for the stagnant water to ripple behind a small glass window where you could watch the person getting baptized, trying to act like a man in a robe holding them underwater was natural. It was almost a shame you only got to do it once. I think I could have done a much better job with some practice. I was totally unprepared for getting baptized. I was wearing the new dress my grandmother sent me in the mail; my bangs and hair were styled big because fashion-wise it was still the 80’s in Kentucky. My dad looked to me while I was playing with a doll during the sermon and asked if I wanted Jesus in my heart. Of course I nodded ‘yes’, and the next thing I knew I was getting into a pool of water with my clothes on.  My dad let me know this meant I could take communion now, which for Baptists is a small plastic shot glass with grape juice and an oyster cracker. I always wanted to take those cups home for my dolls. While I’m pondering all this, wondering what happened to that cute dress, everyone around me in the pews stands.

It’s time for the pledges. Thankfully I’m not a member of any of these churches so I don’t get picked to hold the flags or Bible. They’re always the same flags. They even have the same stand and gold tassels, and even the same eagle at the top of the flagpole. Were those included in the church starter kit? You need bibles, pews, hymnals, and don’t forget the American and Christian flags. Those are included in the Gold and Frankincense packages, but not the Myrrh.  Was there a warehouse or a catalog like Oriental Trading Company the preacher would order them from?

Those damn pledges. I bet I said them more times each summer than I got ice cream. Of course I knew the pledge to the flag.  We said that at school every day. But what were these Christian Flag and Bible pledges? Where did they come from? Were they in the old or New Testament? The pledge to the bible was easier to remember because it was poetic and rhythmic like song lyrics. It must have been written by a woman.   But the pledge to the Christian flag just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. It’s also sexist, “One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service and in love.” It could definitely be updated to be more gender neutral.

When you’re young, VBS is cool. You get to play with other kids, have sugary snacks, and eat glue. But when you get a little older, you go to the “big kid class”. That’s when you’re expected to actually learn things about the bible, and retain them. I just wanted to go in the basement with the little kids and string beads. They ask what grade you’re in. The grade I just finished or the grade I’m going into? It was hard to fake being younger since I was already my full adult height in 3rd grade, but they don’t figure you’ll fib in front of the life-size Jesus hanging on the cross. The older you get in VBS, the less fun it is. The less colorful your lessons are. At a certain point, there isn’t an age group for you and they ask if you want to help serve refreshments.

After your segregated lessons, everyone rushes to finish their projects and meet back up in the sanctuary.  We say the pledges 10 more times, then wait for parents to pick up their kids. They always remind you to come on Friday for the big party. The Friday party was always a relief because it meant the weekend was just around the corner, and that’s when I started my real summer vacation, until Sunday, when I had to go to church. Then it would all start back over on Monday, a new church, and a new group of kids, and those same three pledges.

What’s Your Stand-up About?

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(Pictured: Cam and me after his first open mic)

I’m a comedian. I’m also the oldest sister to a 9-year-old boy with Down syndrome. In comedy, we talk about our lives. We have a platform, no matter how tiny, to use as we please. You can use it to talk about your genitalia, rant about things you hate about the world, or share your hilariously keen observations. One observation I had was how strange it was that my little brother was invited to cut to the front of a line of hundreds of families to see Santa Clause one Christmas season. His legs work, he’s capable of waiting, but still one of the elves recognized his disability and escorted us directly to the jolly old man’s lap. We didn’t say no. I did a couple of jokes about how strangers feel sorry for my brother and give him special treatment, so we just started taking advantage of it. I wasn’t always sure how it would be received. I put disabilities in the category of possibly offensive right in there with race, religion and politics. I worked on the jokes, rewrote them, and retold them over and over again in front of different audiences until I felt my position was clear: people with disabilities may have “special needs,” but they’re also just people. I wanted people to relate to my brother and how we find the positive in situations. Unfortunately, not all people see it that way.

My biggest concern was that I was exploiting my brother for comedy. Isn’t this his story? Why should I get laughs from it? But it’s not just his story, it’s mine too. He’s a big part of my life, and a life is made up of experiences, and experiences are how we tell our story. I have the power, albeit a small power, to take our shared experiences and tell our story.

When you do stand-up, you get asked a lot of weird questions, the most common being “what is your stand-up about?” I’ve never been sure how to answer that, and any attempt sounds like a little kid describing how airplanes work. Since making these jokes into bits and telling them to various audiences, I’ve been getting feedback from people. Mostly people who also have a child or sibling with disabilities who understand what I’m talking about. Now that I have them on my side I feel a lot better about it, but I mostly want people who don’t know anyone with disabilities to also be in on the joke.

I could possibly affect real change here. Small examples like how people feel sorry for my brother so they will put his shoes on and tie them. True, you can probably get them on faster than he can, and he’ll be more than happy to let you do it for him. But he also needs to know how to put them on, and to know the feeling of independence when he does it himself. I was talking to a man whose daughter has Autism and he told when they’re out to eat, his daughter will ask for dessert, and even after he tells her no, the person working there might bring her dessert anyway, on the house! They think they’re doing a nice thing by giving a disabled person a cookie. It makes them happy. But what you’re really doing is going against the healthy eating habits and restraint their parents are trying to instill in them for when they’re not around to tell them no.

My little brother was five when I started comedy. It was a sensitive time for my family because he was going to public school for the first time and being incorporated with “normal” kids. We were concerned he would be picked on and not be able to tell us. About once I week I had to talk my mom out of homeschooling him. There were instances of kids picking on him, but more often it would be Cameron who was the aggressor. He didn’t know how to express himself, or wasn’t being understood, so he got his point across by pushing or shoving someone. That’s when I came up with the story “Super Cameron,” and have been reading it to Cam’s homeroom the first week of each new school year. It’s from the perspective of a “normal” child wondering why the kid in their class is different. I read the story and then let the kids ask whatever they want, and I answer as honestly as I can. It’s seemed to help them understand what Down syndrome means and that he can be treated like a normal kid, not a fragile porcelain figurine.

Kids aren’t the only ones who can be bullies, or say hurtful things though. I’ve also had to grow a tough skin in comedy. Obviously we don’t use or condone the “R” word in my family. It’s not like I never said it. I was just as guilty as anyone until it affected me, and I understood what it felt like to have someone I love labeled the “R” word. But in comedy, anything goes. I would go to open mics and have to hear people throw around the word retarded, or hear the punchline of a joke be how someone looked like they have Down syndrome. We all know the short bus jokes or the comparison, “that’s like being the smartest kid with Down syndrome.” It totally pissed me off. I was offended. How dare they say that in my presence? Then a wiser comedian told me I’d have to get over it, so eventually I did. You can’t be offended by just the things that affect you and not everything else. You can’t pick and choose what’s off limits and what’s okay. It’s the same as how a racial joke may not offend me because I’m white, but a sexist joke would piss me off because I’m a woman. It’s all or nothing, baby. If the jokes not funny, eventually that comic will dump it (unless they suck), and if it is funny, then maybe you should learn to laugh at it too.

I’ve even heard of a fellow comedian saying I’m “not funny”, and I “have to use my retard brother to get attention.” Of course it makes me sad, and hope my brother never has to hear words like that. But more than that, I understand it comes from insecurity…or maybe just ignorance. I also understand I won’t be able to change everyone’s minds, but each one I do is a win.

For now, I’m still working on making disabilities funny, and being an advocate for those with disabilities. There are comedians who have disabilities too, and they do a kick ass job. I’ve even started bringing my little brother to family friendly open mics and signing him up. He’s been treated like such a celebrity his whole life, that he feels right at home onstage. Maybe the day will come where he can articulate it himself and I’ll have to go back to jokes about food (my biggest weakness). He’s already done a great job in nine years of showing people how much a person with Down syndrome can do and accomplish. We have a more active social life than most people and like to show it off on Instagram. Until then, I’m happy to tell people what my comedy is about. It’s about my brother and me going through the world like we own the place, taking the good with the bad, and having a killer story to tell at the end of the day.

What’s your stand-up about?

Extra Candy Canes

shit show short stories

My story from That Time of the Month last night.  Thanks so much to Melanie Vare for letting me host and share a story.  This was one of the best groups of storytellers I’ve ever seen!

rockabyebaby

It was my sophomore year of college and I was openly crying while calling my mom from outside the elevators in a lobby on campus. I had just learned the Study Abroad office needed $1000 deposit that week or I wasn’t leaving the country (and probably not Kentucky) that summer. She was eerily calm telling me not to worry. We could figure it out. I wailed, “how can you be so calm!? We don’t have $1000!” Her tone remained steady as she softly replied, “I’m pregnant.” I didn’t realize it then, but this was the day I became a different person. I’m the oldest of four. My sister Portia is 6 years younger than me, and my Brother Colton is 7 years younger than her, so maybe I should have seen this coming. She stuck with the formula. Eight years had passed since she’d last given birth and it was time to breed! But I was 20 years old, the age my mom gave birth to me, making her 40. Who has a kid at 40?

I missed most of my mom’s pregnancy, being in college, then Europe, then back to college. I wouldn’t be around to change diapers and put him to sleep, to babysit like I had with my other siblings. I wasn’t even home when she delivered. He came early. Breech. That’s feet first if you don’t understand birthing lingo. I got a voicemail from my aunt one morning that I had a new baby brother. Insert pounds, ounces and inches accordingly. I didn’t understand those measurements either. I planned on finishing classes that week then heading home for the weekend to meet my tiny new brother, Cameron. A name my mom chose from an email of my approved boy names starting with “C”. I didn’t trust her to choose a name after me, Paulina, Portia, and Colton. Just let one of your kids be able to find a keychain with their name on it for Christ sake. The night before I was going to come home, my mom called me crying. This was the first time I’d spoken to her since Cam was born. I’d been communicating through other family members. My heart sank. What was wrong? The woman who remained calm and steady, the family’s rock was completely shaken. She finally revealed to me what she had known for months. Cameron was born with Down Syndrome. I didn’t know anything about Down Syndrome but I just said the first thing that came to mind, “So, what.” That doesn’t change anything. I don’t know what bad news I thought she had, but Down Syndrome seemed so minor compared to everything I had cooked up in my head.

After college I moved back to my hometown and even bought a little house in the same neighborhood as my parents. Something 18-year-old me would sneer at. It felt almost like I was living back home. I was broke so I ate dinner with my family every night and mooched off their wifi and cable. Of course living in a small town there was a rumor going around that my mom had only pretended to be pregnant while I secretly gave birth to Cameron and passed him off as a sibling. We weren’t living a plot from Desperate Housewives, so we just let people think what they wanted. People in public always assume I’m his mother. I guess the ages do work out better. Anytime someone looks at Cam and then refers to my mom as “Grandma” I just like to step back and watch them dig their own graves as she firmly corrects them. “No, I’m his mother. They’re both my children.” That’s when they usually start looking around for the hidden cameras. Sidebar, don’t assume every caregiver is a parent. They could be a relative, friend, nanny, or even a kidnapper. Don’t assume!

The summer I moved back home was also the summer Cam had open heart surgery. It’s common for people with Down Syndrome to be born with holes in their heart. Cam was no exception. He’d been taking medication for it since birth, but at 18 months the doctors felt he was strong enough to have his ribs cracked open and the holes and valves repaired. I think that was when I truly bonded to him. There were complications and times when all we could do was hope and pray, but he came out of it a different kid. He had more energy than ever before and he’s proud to show off the now white scar down his chest.

Since then I’ve moved to Nashville, only an hour away. Cam stays with me on weekends where he has laid claim to the guest room as his own personal space.

People feel completely comfortable asking if he’s adopted of if we have the same parents. It’s none of their business, but I think you can look at us and tell. Few people have blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles, and a nose you can barely stick a pinky finger in. Seriously, I can barely wear glasses. The oddest thing is the look of pity people have in their eyes when they see you with a child with Down syndrome. Cam does not want anyone to feel sorry for him. The truth is he’s got a pretty sweet life. Probably better than yours. Once my mom asked me, “Do you think Cameron knows he’s different?” I replied, “Yes. I think he thinks he’s a celebrity.” He doesn’t see himself as an outsider, but more likely above everyone else. How could he not? He’s been given special treatment his entire life. Some needed and deserved and other times it was just a perk.

The day I realized just how much special treatment he received was when I took him to meet Santa at Bass Pro Shop one Christmas Season. Anyone who has been to Opry Mills in December knows it’s a chaotic nightmare, but somehow offering free photos with Santa brought people from all over Middle Tennessee. We walked in, saw the line wrapped around the inner perimeter of the megastore, and said, “Well, maybe there’s another less popular Santa we can talk to at KMART.” We walked back out of the store when a young female elf chased us down and said, “Wait! Did you get to see Santa?” “No” I replied, “The line was too long.” She got a spritely twinkle in her eye and said, “That’s ok, because special boys and girls get to go to the front of the line!” That changed everything. She escorted us past screaming kids and exhausted parents to the front of the line. We marched right up in front of people who had been waiting days I presumed. Cam plopped onto Santa’s lap and had a chat about what he wanted, then Santa proceeded to give him TWO candy canes. I heard a kid behind us whine, “Why does he get two candy canes?” I whipped my head around and spouted, “Extra chromosomes equals extra candy canes.” Okay, I didn’t say that, but how cool would it be if I had? After that we were drunk with power. We went to Chuy’s for dinner and were beyond distressed when they informed us it would be an hour wait. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

Personally I never want kids. Cam will always need me in some form or fashion and I’ll always need him. My mom says if I did have a baby that Cam wouldn’t let me keep it anyway. I already forced my mom to make me his legal guardian. The thing I have learned the most from Cam and the way people treat him is that we shouldn’t treat kids with special needs so special. We should treat all kids that way. In fact, treat everyone in your life that way. Check on them, ask if they need help, encourage them to set and accomplish new goals, but most of all treat them with kindness.