Vagrant Journalism

Published pieces from the past, the present and of the potential future.

16 June 2006: “Destinations Where They’re Far More Suited Than Here”

Posted by Christina on March 2, 2009

mother-baby-motherchild74This was another piece done for a Literary Journalism class that focused on the aspect of basic creative writing when it came to a story. I took the approach of following a story that had already happened through research and interviews rather than stand alongside a story that was happening while the class was working on their respective assignments. My unconventional approach, while different than the rest of the class’s, was not incorrect but wasn’t very mainstream either.

I followed the story of a close family friend who had experienced trauma in her family life and while she has managed to take each day as it came, it effected her and the future of her remaining family deeply. However, this is her story of survival more than anything else.

“Destinations Where They’re Far More Suited Than Here”

Chances are, most ancestors of today’s first generation took that trip across the Atlantic, ended up in Ellis Island with pennies in their grandmother-mended pockets, woolen socks on their travel-weary feet and some home-spun hat on their racked heads. War and poverty tore people from their homelands, made them yearn for the stories of gold-laden streets with an abundance of opportunity.

Beirut, Lebanon was one such place. Where the late-1960s and early-1970s produced a war-torn country, citizens disenchanted with their homeland and most parents of today’s American-born generation waiting for the first chance to get out. Families sent their children away to free them from the burdens of a dilapidated government, thrust them in the face of opportunity. This usually meant the United States.

Joan Willaims sits in a Glendale Baja Fresh on a busy Wednesday afternoon. She delicately picks at her chipotle glazed chicken salad, minding the piece ratio of chicken to lettuce. It’s the carbohydrate consciousness coming out, ever since her best friend thought the Atkins diet was all the rage. When Doctor Robert Atkins died everyone thought the diet would die with him. Here is Joan, though, 65-years-old and still strictly watching her figure, firmly obeying the “less carbs, more protein” mantra.

“I’ve been tiny all my life. I was born four-and-a-half pounds because my mother had no nutrition,” she says after carefully placing a piece of a tortilla chip on a napkin outside of her salad bowl, away from her plate and consumption.

Whether it’s witnessing first hand the effects of a gluttonous lifestyle through her husband’s love for food or the Southern Californian obsession with achieving physical perfection, something makes her prone to shy away from anything too high in calories and overburdened with carbohydrates. Once things went too far when she gave some “Smooth Move” laxative tea to her daughter for a quick couple pounds off the waistline. She had so much diarrhea that it made her body weak, ending up in the emergency room with a stomach pump and intravenous tubes pushing potassium back into her system. Joan cried that night, running through her kitchen, dumping the tea into the sink disposal.

Joan is talking wildly now as the Baja Fresh bustles about with the Wells Fargo Bank employees in their shiny shoes and dress suits, a couple Best Buy employees in their cerulean polo shirts, Mexican food loving patrons and a single, renegade Starbucks employee. Joan makes a huge circle with her hand holding the fork as she talks, making a physical description of “everyone.”

“My piano was always my first love,” she says. “It grounds me every time I sit down to play. It always had back then when I was living with my aunt. I had no social life. Our Sundays, we would go to church, I would not meet anyone because everybody was married or they were too young.”

She tells everyone that her piano was her first love. She tells everyone, in front of her husband, to his face, in front of her kids and her best friends because she means it.

+ + +

It’s loud in this particular Pasadena Starbucks. Joan gabs about her morning. Her Armenian speech is quick, quips of excitement, her intonation flutters. Her fingers weave through the air, gesturing wildly about the Social Security Office, her father-in-law, the nursing home he didn’t like, the cold exit he made from her car.

Today, her days are filled with invoices, choir practice, piano, her daughter, her son’s new wife, the prospect of becoming a grandmother and the otherwise everyday and mundane.

“The thing is, I was such a frail person. When I was young, my mother would be sick, throw up everywhere, I would just run out into the streets in Beirut. My sister would be brave and clean up after her. So I guess God chose me, the frailest of all, to teach me a lesson and to show me through this experience”

Joan had been pregnant exactly 40 weeks Her Kaiser doctor would tell her she was having the perfect pregnancy, particularly for a woman having her second child at 38. She had no complications, no unnerving scares she had with her first child, Sean. The very last day Joan had retained too much salt, a swelling called an albumin but that was nothing and went away. A perfect pregnancy for a perfect baby.

The morning of the delivery though, the doctors at Redwood City Kaiser Permanente were negligent and refused to recognize Joan’s needs.

“This was on a Good Friday, Friday morning, and it was Friday the 13th so while we were driving I go, ‘Albert! Friday the 13th!’ And Albert says, ‘don’t worry about it, it doesn’t mean anything,'” Joan recalls. The barista fires up his blender. Joan is sidetracked and stares in his direction annoyed.

Superstitions of Friday the 13th stem from the belief that there were thirteen people at The Last Supper of Jesus, or that while at the feast in Valhalla of Norse mythology Loki crashed the party as the uninvited thirteenth guest. On Friday, April 13, 1979, Joan recalls her fears.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is calling. She fishes her phone from her purse. It’s Lana, her daughter. Something about not finding the socks she needed for work that morning. Something about the room she should have kept clean. Something about seeing each other at home. It ends with a quick “I love you.”

“I had a nurse who was attending me in the delivery room,” Joan says. “Everyone came, the doctor came, two nurses. There were no anesthesiologists. I found out they wanted me to have a natural birth because it’s Kaiser, they didn’t want me to have an operation. Because I am tiny, they could have done a C-section or something. The doctor comes in and says, ‘Why did you call me here? She’s not ready yet,’ and left.” She flips back a piece of straightened hair fallen in front of her face, uses the opportunity to scan the area for eavesdroppers.

“We found out later on that there were five other ladies giving birth and he was administering episiotomies and he couldn’t come to me.”

Kaiser Permanente has had numerous lawsuits against them for negligence. Their hospitals are understaffed and medical professionals are hard to come by. It’s how they’ve kept their medical insurance at such a low rate-keep the payroll low. Today’s Kaiser radio commercials have pleasant sounding voices recounting the amount of medical school their hired medical professionals attended and an upbeat tune.

“So about seven hours had passed by,” she says. “She’s telling me don’t push because she can’t handle the baby by herself. An hour later I couldn’t handle it and the baby came. They took him to the corner to give him oxygen. I still don’t know what’s going on because Sean didn’t cry when he was born, with the forceps and everything. There’s no sound, no crying, no nothing. The doctor never came.”

Most parents will tell you that they hope they never have to bury their children.

“All of a sudden they took me to my room. I’m saying, ‘I want to see my baby.’ They said, ‘there’s something wrong with your baby and you can’t see him. We have to transfer him to Stanford University.'”

“So they took the baby to Stanford. I’m in my room in Kaiser and I’m seeing all the mothers with their babies, breast-feeding them and I couldn’t take it. I asked the nurse to take me to the utmost corner of the hospital; I don’t want to see anybody.”

When Joan gave birth to her second son he was twenty-two inches and 9.25 pounds. Joan will tell you he had the biggest black eyes, that he was more beautiful than her oldest son, Sean and her daughter, Lana. At Stanford, one of the nurses wanted to adopt him, she thought he was so beautiful.

“The band that they put on his hand, it looked like a beautiful bracelet on his little, tiny, chubby hand.” Joan remembers how they put him with the other premature babies at Stanford. She remembers how he looked so big next to the other premature babies.

“They told me the baby is going to be brain damaged, already, and we have to think about putting him in an institution. I thought that was the most cruel thing to do. I thought, if they put the baby in an institution, they’ll just put him in a corner in a hospital where the baby will die,” she says.

“You think this whole time that this is not happening to you, but it is. In the mean time, my best friend, Rose, flew up. This baby is brain damaged. They put him in the incubator, there are all kinds of tubes all around him and we go to see him every night. I didn’t go to work. Three days after, they called us and said, this baby is going to be like a vegetable. They told us that if we pulled the respirator away, he would die and it would be better for everyone. Of course to me, they want to kill my baby and I don’t want that.”

“You know, it’s not like a mouse, it’s this beautiful, beautiful human being.”

A couple steps into the Starbucks noisily now. The fans fire up as they step in through the door and a man is holding the door open for his wife. They’re both looking down and smiling, watching their baby girl take baby steps through the door. She wobbles, wavers front and back. The parents are smiling, laughing as the mother holds her baby from one hand, leading her through the door. The baby’s steps are awkward but she’s laughing. Everyone is laughing. Joan is laughing.

“He couldn’t breathe or do anything by himself,” she says. “He had to stay on the incubator. If he dies, I’m going to think, what if my baby was going to be better if I took care of him. I’m going to have this terrible guilt and nightmare all the time because it’s your baby, you love him. Then [Albert] was convinced and we said yes.”

“Now, we’re imaging this tiny little, white coffin. We’re going to have a funeral for Hrag. We named him, we wanted to name him Hrag, it means little fire in Armenian.”

Hrag lived without the support. He started breathing on his own while they planned a funeral. Hrag lived to be 13-years-old. In the meantime, Joan had a daughter. She’ll tell you that Rose and her mother convinced her to have another child. They said, “maybe it will be a little girl, your life would change a little bit.” Then, when Joan was pregnant with Lana, someone told her, “oh, how dare you, aren’t you afraid you’d have another abnormal child?”

“It was a privilege for me because God chose me,” Joan says over The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” now playing loudly in Starbucks. “I would give her time and then I cannot have her suffer that much but I didn’t even suffer that much, I didn’t even take it as suffering but you have to understand that it wasn’t easy, it was a chore because God had given me this baby and I loved him so much. I loved all of my children, he was so special. So, one of each-a boy and a girl and a special one who is in heaven now.”

+ + +

Adin of California is a t-shirt printing business that has spanned their services from Disney to Glendale High School’s water polo team. Albert started the business after he quit the bank and bought it with loans they were only able to pay off after they sued Kaiser for negligence. They won that case. They won over three million dollars with that case. They never won the love of their children they blindly tried to buy off, however, or even that mansion of a house in La Cañada they had to sell because they couldn’t make payments. They squandered the money on tapestries, the reupholstered chairs and couches, the carpeting, tile flooring, the marble countertops in the bathrooms and kitchen.

They left the San Fernando Valley, their friends, pulled Sean and Lana out of the Armenian school. Albert was fast becoming a member of the higher elite in society, quickly put on the bill to be master of ceremonies for one event after another.

“Albert found a job in Marina del Rey, the factory. Then the problems started. Sean is going to high school, La Cañada High School. Lana is going to Sahag-Mesrob. By this time, Hrag is nine-years-old and he is so big.”

“All this time Sean is going very distant from Hrag,” Joan remembers. “Sean comes in the room one night and he holds Hrag’s hand and asks me, ‘Mama, does he feel when I touch his hand? Does he know?’ I told him of course he knows. Hrag made a nice little noise. Sean left and I think I saw a tear in his eye. I was thanking God. It was March 20. In the morning-every morning I didn’t know that Albert would go, kiss Hrag goodbye and go to work.”

“And Sean, before he left for the army gave me his English notebook. He told me I could go through it, read what was inside. I found a poem saying ‘He has two eyes that cannot see, two arms that cannot move, two legs that can’t walk and a mouth that can’t talk. Then he had written the story of how his mother was expecting the baby and he waited to go with his dad. They couldn’t even bring his little brother home. He waited for his little brother to grow, to be his friend and he never became his friend. That Thursday, his friend told him to make peace with his brother. Sean went to his brother’s room that night, touched him, made peace with him. The next morning, the angel went to Heaven. ‘The only thing he gave to my parents was his smile. It’s okay because he’s in Heaven now,’ Sean had written.”

Today Sean manages Adin of California. He recently married in January and they’re already expecting their first baby. Joan is going to be a grandmother.

“One day Lana says to me, ‘Mom, you can leave the house for Sean, your jewelry and Hrag for me.’ She was nine.

+ + +

“I didn’t know, though, that the children probably needed therapy,” Joan says to Rose. “I thought, well I’m taking care of everybody. Sometimes Albert wouldn’t be there, traveling with the bank in Thailand or something and here I am all by myself. I thought I did my best but at the moment I think, maybe I should have taken them to therapy.” Joan looks away, fights tears onlookers might notice during their overzealous speaking.

“The government advised us to go to these little therapy schools,” she continues. “We would barely stay one hour. Therapy didn’t help anything, just helped time pass by.”

The plush Brandview Collection banquet hall sits atop the streets of Glendale on the second floor. The ceiling is low but the chandeliers are glittering with polished crystals, each little prism tossing the color spectrum about the room. As the room fills with ticket holders, each group finds their tables, each person finds their friends and some kiss each other on each cheek, as is custom.

This somewhat cramped banquet hall is filled with members of Lark Musical Conservatory to celebrate Mother’s Day. Joan sits with Albert and Lana at a table. The chair next to her remains empty until Rose shows up, her best friend and confidant for more years than each have on their marriages. Joan sits looking about the room, even with Rose next to her. She knows about more than half of the people in the room; she’s either sang with them with the Lark Adult Choir or at the United Armenian Congregational Church choir, played piano for their accompaniment, had coffee with them between rehearsals or, as is the typical story of an Armenian immigrant from Beirut, knows the rest from running barefoot on the dirt of Lebanese streets.

Joan, in this comfort zone of acquaintanceship, in this environment of familiarity, is bored. She smiles as she scans the room. Someone catches her eye and she flashes a quick grin, mouths “hello” in Armenian, nods in recognition

Rose shows interest in Joan’s new broach and the incessant gabbing begins, ceaselessly increasing in intense laughter, quips of words here and there. It’s the kind of conversation where only the two involved can understand one another and a third party conversationalist has no hopes meddling in.

“It’s beautiful! Did you pick it up from the last convention you went to?” Rose asks.

“Yes but this isn’t even the prettiest one. There was a red one. This part was red instead of blue and this green here was blue.” Joan awkwardly bends her head forward, strains to see the rhinestones on the broach holding the open V-neck of her blouse together, pointing to each sparkle.

Rose pushes tabouleh around in her plate, Lana has just left the company of her mother for a cancer stick and Albert’s gluttony is asking to pass the hummus. Joan’s eyes begin to glaze over with a layer of tears.

“It’s not your fault Sean turned out the way he did.” Rose tries to comfort Joan, again. “It’s not your fault Lana does the things she does.”

“Automatically, when you have a child like that, your attention is most of the time concentrated on that,” Joan says.

There’s a long pause and the two look up from their intensive conversation. Sequence, three-piece suits and dress shoes saunter by. Albert isn’t at his seat anymore. Rose turns to Joan, the rhinestones on her earrings dangle with the motion of her head.

“Sean couldn’t get the night off bartending?”

Joan remains motionless. She shifts in her seat and sniffles, the tell-tale sign of impending doom.

“Sean’s in jail again, isn’t he?”

Joan nods as her eyes well up.


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