Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Secret Trip

She had dressed that day with her usual aplomb. My mother wore a zebra striped tunic and slacks with sandals. A silk scarf wrapped ala Kate Hepburn around her silver curls and those funky Jackie-O sunglasses she wore in the '70's. She favored big chunky white plastic "summer" jewelry and the ever present Chanel #5 floated like a comforting aura around her. She had a radical mastectomy just the year before, but you'd never know it to see her.

We were on our way to Beaufort.

My parents were Savannahians, so we did most of our shopping in Savannah. We didn't go to Beaufort very often. Today was a special trip for the two of us. A trip my mother didn't want anyone else to know about.

I sat in the passenger side of the tank-like silver Impala gazing out the window at the marshlands passing by. I recognized the spot where my brother and I had hiked back into the deep marsh to go duck hunting and remembered, as I always do when I pass that spot, the feeling of the frigid water barely held back by my rubber waders. The clamminess of it and the smell of the daybreak.

I giggled as we past the bait shop on the left, as usual. They had tried to name the place "Master Baiters" at one point. There was a huge outcry and they had to scrap the plan. At 15, I already had a fine sense of double entendre and punning. It came with the territory of living in a literary and language obsessed family.

As we crossed the Broad River Bridge with its comforting clackety-clack sound as the car went along the uneven surfaces of the bridge, I noticed again the thin, tight line my mother was holding her mouth in. Her hands were positioned at 10 and 2 and were gripping the steering wheel until her knuckles were white.

"Have I done something wrong?" I asked, keeping my eyes on the river, away from her face. I looked down at the cobia fisherman who had played hooky today to try and catch the big one with a black fish or river eel swimming on their line.

She gave me a tense smile. It was a smile that said, "It's not you, sweetie." I understood it in the silent way we always communicated.

"It's just, I'm not altogether sure about this." She said. "Your sister really talked me into this, but I have very mixed feelings about it. I want you to know that I'm not completely on board with this plan. But your sister thinks it's the right and smart thing to do."

We were making our way to the Beaufort County Health Department where my mother had made an appointment for me to be fitted for a diaphragm.

My mother didn't know at that point that I was no longer a virgin. I actually wasn't too sure about it myself, since I didn't really want to think of the rape as being sex. Sex, in my understanding was supposed to be something special and nice, and what had happened to me a year ago was nothing like that.

But she didn't know that and no one would drag that out of me for love or money. There was a time, the day after the rape, that I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and wondered if somehow I looked different. Was I now marked in some way? Could people tell just by looking at me? It was the moment when I naturally would have broken down and gone into my mother's room and told her about the dreadful, brutal thing that had happened to me. I would have cried and she would have held me. My father would have called the police and our entire family would have risen up in outrage.

Instead, my mother came into my room. She looked small, frightened and teary.

"My breast is bleeding." She said, to the just turned 14 year-old in the Catholic school girl's uniform who had just joined a disturbing statistical group. 1 in 3 women experience rape. Half of those are underage.

So, no one knew. This was a point in my life that absolutely could not be about me. It needed to be about my beautiful mother. It wasn't the first or the last time that I protected her from the painful realities of my life. But it was the most necessary time.

I dealt with my issues from the rape later in therapy, as many of us do. Unfortunately the rape gave me a lifelong legacy that therapy couldn't make go away. My rapist gave me HPV.

My story is not all that rare or unusual. I've met lots of women who share this sort of experience. Some are more damaged than others emotionally. Many, like me, contracted STD's in their childhood this way. There are lots and lots of us out there. We were robbed. All of us were.

I've been really disturbed by the resistance in certain quarters and the rhetoric involved in the opposition to the new HPV vaccine. In case you aren't aware, HPV is the virus that causes 70% of cervical cancer cases. They are proposing giving this vaccine to young girls before they are sexually active, by choice or violence, and thus give them an opportunity to not contract cervical cancer later in life. This makes good sense to me. Indeed, I think they should give it to boys so they don't contract HPV and spread it. Some states are considering making the vaccine a requirement just like a measles shot. This makes good sense to me too since it would make the vaccine accessible to lesser privileged children. If those lesser privileged children grow up to be lesser privileged adults, the taxpayers end up saving tens of thousands of dollars in healthcare costs for treating those cases of cervical cancer. Makes good financial sense to me too. A nice compromise might be to just make the vaccine available to all and not mandate it.

The opposition to the vaccine seems mired in the thinking that since HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that it should not be given to underage girls. That if underage girls choose to have sex that they should basically accept the consequence of death. Someone in my position, obviously feels differently.

I tend to think in terms of emotional damage. It's just the way I am. And I see decades of emotional torment spreading out to many people from withholding this vaccine. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, children ...entire family units screaming "WHY?" Angry, angry daughters trying to reconcile why they are now sick or dying with a preventable disease.

I believe that mothers love their children beyond whatever dogma or rhetoric they follow. I have to believe that. And if a mother is sitting watch beside her baby girl's deathbed or holding her head while she vomits from the chemo with such force that it breaks her ribs....if that mother is thinking, "Just goes to show you, you shouldn't have had deserve this."...well, that's not a mother. That's a monster.

Please tell me there aren't mothers out there like that. That's all I'm asking. I've got to believe that a mother's love is the amazing transcendent thing that I experienced as a child. That it doesn't care how you got sick or how you busted your teeth out or whatever stupid thing that you did that made you so terribly damaged. That it exists only to nurture and protect.

Even if you are opposed to this, I hope you put your sunglasses on and take your daughter to a small town where few people know you to get this vaccine for her. Grip that steering wheel with all the determination and conflict you feel. Narrow your lips with the distaste you feel for this action. Let it be your little secret with your daughter. Tell her she's getting a "cootie" shot. Please don't put yourself in the position in 15 or 20 or 30 years time, where you will shoulder the blame for your daughter's cancer. You know you will, if it happens. Because mothers always blame themselves.

The diaphragm trip turned out to be a good thing. I saw it as my mother passing a mantle of responsibility on to me. It was the right thing to do at the time. It was a responsibility I was ready for and it made me much more thoughtful and decisive about who I chose not to have sex with. The diaphragm sat in my underwear drawer with its little tube of spermicide until I went to college the next year at age 16. I got it out and practiced with it like the nurse told me to, but more often than not it ended up flying across the room like a slimy projectile. I liked it that it was there. It was tangible proof of my mother's trust and respect for me.

It never occurred to me that my mother was in some way condoning sexual activity on my part. She was just doing what mothers do best. Giving me a means to protect myself when she could not be there to do it for me.

Letting my wings grow just a tiny bit more. Encouraging me to fly.

'Cause that's just what moms do.


  1. bluemountainmama said...
    very thoughtful post...and so sorry to hear that your first sexual experience was forced on you. i've worked many years with children who have experienced sexual abuse and know the damage it does. i'm mixed on this i don't feel the government should ever MANDATE anything for parents unless there is outright abuse going on in a home. vaccines DO come with side effects and certain vaccines have been directly linked to autism. this vaccine, like many, hasn't been around long enough to know. i still think the parent should have the choice, no matter what vaccine, to have their child vaccinated or not. my brother-in-law had a severe reaction to a vaccine as a child, sending him into seizures. he also has a form of autism that suspiciously started showing up after being vaccinated. but i, also, have hpv....from choices I made as an adult and have already had cervical dysplasia twice that required i understand wanting to prevent that. like i said...mixed!
    Rosie said...
    I believe the autism/mmr vaccine myth has been pretty thoroughly debunked. There is much out there on the internet about vaccines that is untrue due to the anti-vax bunch. It's done some real harm including a polio epidemic in Ethiopia. Vaccines do come with risks. Most notably allergic reactions like your brother-in-law experienced. According to the CDC and the NIH, the bulk of the research indicates at present that vaccines and autism are non-related. The so-called autism epidemic may just be an increased awareness of autism and an expansion of the PDR. There is some promising research coming out on genetic causes of autism. Basically, an intelligent risk vs. benefit analysis based on sound science is a good place to start. As I said, a good compromise would be to make this available to all regardless of socio-economic background or resources.
    Chris said...
    Rosie, that's terrible! Did they ever catch the guy who raped you? I can't help but think of that scene in the move "Hot Target" where Simone's character takes a shower after making love with her husband coz she feels "dirty."
    erin ambrose said...
    key to this vaccine is the choice issue......the words "government" and "mandate" together tend to give me hives...esp. when it concerns anything regarding ones own body. i'm glad to see the upswing in awareness around hpv...i was infected at 15 and was totally clueless as to what the hell was happening...abnormal pap didn't surface till i was wasn't cancerous so i opted out of surgery and did major life change/self healing instead...(all praise chapparel) paps have been normal now for 16yrs.
    too bad they can't come up with a -socially sanctioned misogyny vaccine-.
    BBC said...
    Boy, long post.

    Three years ago I hung around a lot with a lady that had been raped by her brother a lot when they were teens.

    She was silent about it for many years, her mother still doesn't know.

    And she is still very messed up. Nice lady, hard worker, but can't be affectionate, it ruined her marriage. After seven months I gave up and moved on.

    And it ticked her off because I did, but come on, no sex after seven months. Yup, it was time to move on.
    Erica said...
    Oy, Rosie...I will gladly beat the shit out of the "person" who did this.

    And that's all I could comment on at the mo', because that is the pervading emotion I am left with.

    I'm so, so sorry this had to happen to such a nice person (or any person for that matter). I feel sick inside.
    Idgie @ the "Dew" said...
    What a strong and moving story. To have to deal with the horror of rape and it's lasting consequences, but then to hold the burden of it in you to shoulder your mother's health issues and worry about her dying.

    And all at 14.

    I just hope you realize what a utterly strong person that makes you. You should be very proud of that strength.
    Karen said...
    Wow. I'm not even sure what to say, except thank you for sharing what must still be a difficult thing to discuss. You wrote beautifully--

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