READ ALL ABOUT ME: BIO, PICS, VIDEO. Please see below, following this week's chapters.
FIRST, YOU GET PISSED: A Memoir
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
"How long would it have taken me to feel that I had a right to be outraged?"
The memoir will be posted every Sunday, one chapter a week.
If you're getting a late start, you can READ CHAPTERS 1 - 26 by clicking "PREVIOUS CHAPTERS" on the red menu bar above.
HERE IS WHAT I learn from Laura when we meet for our very first session: When the troops come home from first, Iraq, and then, Afghanistan, a large number of those soldiers survived the explosions of roadside bombs, also known as IEDs, without physical injury. However, they still can't drive their cars waiting for them in garages and driveways without having panic attacks. Untreated panic attacks, naturally, leads to misery, depression, worse.
Laura tells me how this is relevant to me: "At first, the soldiers who witnessed the IED explosions, often just a few feet away, were just glad they were alive. This was your experience, wasn't it? After the traffic light fell."
"Even when you were sitting in a car covered with cables and live wires, even knowing you couldn't open your door to escape."
"Yes. I saw the traffic signal lying on its side up against the door and I was so relieved that…."
"Close your eyes. Think back. Do what you have to do to put yourself back in the car."
I don't want to do this. Too bad. I trust Laura. I close my eyes and Laura starts talking to me about I don't know what. Then she stops. I open my eyes.
"Tell me what you're thinking right now."
I double over and burst into tears.
Very gently, she says, again, "What?"
It takes me a while to sit up again. "I should be dead."
"Mary-Ann. That is exactly what the soldiers say. You weren't relieved at all, were you?"
I close my eyes. She talks. She stops. "What are you thinking?"
I open my eyes. "The construction guys came running to my window. They yelled at me to put the window down. The live wires weren't crackling anymore. I pressed the button and the window came down. I remember what one of them said to me. I just heard him say it. I'd forgotten till now."
"Tell me what he said."
I can't speak. I am doubled over again.
Laura waits, and when I stop this new miserable round of crying she asks, "What?"
I gulp down some air. "The first guy to get to the window, the one who yelled at me to put it down, says…. He said, 'I thought you would be incinerated.'" I look up to Laura. "They thought I should be dead, too."
Laura says, "The troops that were nearly killed by IEDs came home, and they cannot get behind the wheel of their cars because their brains expect a bomb to go off right there on the shoulder of the road and when it does, this time they will be killed. They become recluses. I'm not saying it will happen to you, but I bet you can benefit from the process of the treatment they eventually had available to them."
EMDR therapy: Let me say it involves two physical things. Headphones that beep first in your right ear and then your left, over and over. Also, buzzers that you grasp in your hands that buzz in rhythm with the beeps, right to left, pause, right to left. Google it for more details. So while you're closing your eyes, listening to your therapist, and then coming back to her on demand, you're moving the trauma over to the far left side of your brain until it stays there. Took me six weeks and it stayed. The memory doesn't go away, but it's pushed out of your way so you can function. All I know is that it gives me back my sense of safety and I am able to stop driving in circles to avoid going under traffic signals, turning five-minute trips into half an hour.
At the end of each session, Laura has me breathe slowly in through my nose and out through my mouth for about five minutes. It's a good thing or I would fall off the first curb I come to. I must say though that my poor diaphragm keeps preparing for a contracting uterus to slam into it.
Now, at our last-minute session, just the sight of Laura is soothing. I review what's going on in a nutshell. She asks, "What do you think you need to do to get through the radiation?"
Because Laura teaches me that I don't know is not a helpful answer. I think for several minutes because she knows and I know that this isn't time to blurt out an answer like you do during the actual therapy. Finally, I have half an answer. "At least I'll need something in my hands."
"Well, that's a good idea."
"Can you give me a spare pair of buzzers?"
"I could but I don't think you'll have a place to plug them in."
"What else could you put in your hands that would give you the feeling of calm that you experienced with the buzzers?"
I think some more but just for a moment. I say, "Stones."
"What kind of stones?"
"Round ones. Smooth stones. Pretty ones."
"Perfect. Where will you get them?"
"At the beach."
"When will you do that?"
She laughs. "Isn't EMDR a miracle?"
I say, "Yes, and so are you."
She leans forward a little, her eyes sparkling a bit. She says, "After my last appointment today, I'm going down to the beach and I'm going to find some round, smooth, pretty stones too, and I'll hold them when I need to calm myself. If we meet again, we'll compare stones."
If we meet again. She is saying we probably won't, but if I need her, we will. I don't need five minutes of EMDR/LAMAZE breathing because I don't come apart at the seams. We hug, say goodbye, and I go to the beach. I do that aimless-looking walking beachcombers do. I find one stone right away. It's a little round cobble, charcoal gray granite, coated with multi-colored speckles. I nestle it into my palm and close my eyes. The stone fits perfectly into my right hand. It's cool and then it warms.
The hunt for a stone for my left hand takes much longer. Is it any wonder? We're talking my Starbright side here—that's the side that needs the most attention. My left hand, as it turns out, seems to require an oval. I swear I look at more oval stones than I did Stepmom-of-the-Bride dresses. Then I see a yellow one (my favorite color), a translucent quartz. As soon as I pick it up, I know it's the one.
This stone is a little bigger than the cobble, but then Starbright is a little bigger than Starlight. Both stones are made perfectly smooth over many years by the movement of the Long Island Sound tides washing them across the sand. In and out rather than right to left like my buzzers and beepers. I love the stones. I put them in the compartment of my bag meant for my phone charger. I throw the charger into the main part and hope I don't lose it.
Late that afternoon, Charlie comes home from fishing with Salty and shows me the fish we're going to eat for dinner. He puts it in the fridge and then pours me a glass of afternoon pink wine. I tell him how happy I am that I made it through the ultrasound, and then about my session with Laura. I show him my two stones. "I'm going to hold on to these during my radiation treatment."
A little pause before he says, "Good." Then he says, in as melancholy a voice as I've ever heard from him, "I remember when I had two testicles."
I say, "Power Puff is great at doing the work of two, Charlie." (I'm sorry, Dear Reader, but I told you we have nicknames for all intimate body parts, right? If you're rolling your eyes, I understand.)
He says, "Sometimes the one that's gone still hurts."
I make him one of his favorite appetizers while he grills his fish out on the deck—mussels in garlic and white wine broth and whatever herbs I feel like throwing in. I get a loaf of the high-end French bread out of the freezer that Charlie bought from the same bakery where he once got a loaf for me—the night he took me to the German club in Bridgeport, the first night we made love. The bread that bears the ultimate combination of the three C's: crunchy crust on the outside, decadent chewiness on the inside, and creamy butter spread out across each chunk you yank off. My father teaches me that you don't cut a great loaf of bread, you tear off a chunk. Why? Because it tastes better. It's true. The exception is when you make a sandwich with it. In a story he used to tell me, "Nanette Visits the Chateau," Nanette's mother makes her daughter special sandwiches when the radishes tops pop up in her garden in early spring. (This is France, after all.) Sliced radishes rest snuggly into the butter on the bread. When my father makes the sandwiches for me, he says, "Along with the crunchy, and the creamy, and the chewy, you get a nice little zing from the radishes."
Anyway, it's been a damnably long day, and it's taking me a damnably long time to get to what I'm needing to tell you, isn't it? Sorry. Here goes:
At the very end of this long day, we watch a movie. Then I'm about to take the shower where I have to wash around the dabs of the Sharpie. I go in the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror. I go get the stones out of my bag and come back. But I can't take off my clothes and hold the stones at the same time. I put them next to the sink. What I'm thinking I'll see will be barely noticeable little dots across my upper torso. I see something else that makes me gasp. There, staring at me from my chest are big, black, hideous, X's. I see swastikas. It is as if someone wrote obscene graffiti over Starbright and all around her with the biggest, blackest Sharpie that ever was. Each of those terrible X's has a broad, black circle around it.
I have a meltdown of such massive proportions I can't stand up. I have to sit down on the tiles. I am crying in unmitigated despair. Salty gets to me first. I'm shaking so hard I just lean against him and he bears up to my weight. I don't remember Charlie getting there but he's there, yet again, and I'm folded up in those muscular arms. He just waits till I stop shaking to loosen his grip, and then looks down and sees the X's.
He says very calmly, so like the same calm of Laura's voice, "When I got radiation, I had little blue dots. I'm sorry, baby. I wish I could have known."
I pretty much weep until I can speak again. When I am able to, I say, "Charlie, this is a warning."
He says nothing, just waits.
"I am not having fucking radiation."
Still, he doesn't say anything. He just keeps holding me. When he feels my muscles lose their tension, he says. "C'mon. We'll take a shower. I'll wash you around the marks so you won't have to do it."
I say, "They're not marks, they're swastikas."
He says, "Yes, they are." And then I know another reason why I so love him. Does he say, No, they only look that way? He does not.
I say, "I'm washing them off."
He helps me stand. He takes off his clothes, too. We get in the shower, and he picks up my lavender-scented Stella Marie soap, tinted by Kim the exact color of lavender in bloom, and he's soon got a washcloth full of lather.
While he's washing me, first my arms, he says, "Radiation saved my life."
I say, "Okay. Don't wash them off."
Then there's Salty getting into the shower, too, nudging us to make room so he can get beneath the showerhead. I say to Charlie, "I will not look at my naked body in a mirror again till I have my treatment, and even if I have to use Brillo, I'm going to get it all off."
He says, "Yes, you will. You won't need Brillo."
Charlie's knee-replacing doctor didn't draw a big X with a circle around it on his kneecap. He drew a happy face. Charlie got little blue dots when he was treated for testicular cancer, and then a happy face from Dr. Komninakas.
I take a Benadryl and sleep for ten hours.
Sunday, October 21st, Chapter 28.
A BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY (with pics and video to follow)
I was born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut and have lived in Connecticut until I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. There, I lived in Buea, a town situated on a series of ledges five thousand feet up the side of Mt. Cameroon, an active volcano, its peak nearly 14,000 feet above the equatorial sea. Having aspired to be a beach bum, I am happy to say I now live a half-block from the Gulf of Mexico in the town of Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island that takes the brunt of any hurricane leveled at the city of Fort Myers. Most fortunately, I have a water-loving family and a labradoodle named Saltalamacchia, also a water-lover. Salty is my first dog.
My grandparents on my father's side emigrated from the Italian Piedmont, and on my mother's, Quebec. My fondest childhood memories are of sweltering summers blue-crabbing with my French-speaking grandfather from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., my grandfather wearing a worn three-piece suit and cap, and me, my underpants. When I told my Italian grandfather that I would be going to Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer he told me there were very good grapes grown in Africa.
My brother was autistic, a savant, who would not allow singing, laughing, sneezing, electronic sound (including television, radio and anything that produced music), and the flushing of the toilet except when he was asleep and he never seemed to be asleep. He had a library of over two thousand books all on WWII. As his adjutant, I attained a vast pool of knowledge on such things as identifying fighter bombers from their silhouettes and why we dropped the atomic bomb. "To win the war," Tyler told me. "But it didn't work so we dropped another one. Victory at last."
The relationship with my brother was one of three influences on my writing; the second, my father's bedtime poetry and prose following the Our Father and Hail Mary: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!" The third influence was the shelf of classic children's literature my mother kept stocked with such gems as The Swiss Family Robinson, Bambi, Tom the Water-Boy, Silver Pennies, King Arthur and the Round Table, The Child's Odyssey. Somehow, The Bedside Esquire (1936) found its way to the shelf and I read the extraordinary short fiction within, including Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Gallico's Keeping "Cool in Conneaut," Salinger's "For "Esmé with Love and Squalor," Hecht's "Snowfall in Childhood," and my favorite, "Latins Make Lousy Lovers," by Anonymous who turned out to be Helen Lawrenson, the only woman with a piece in the collection. (Sheesh.) There was also an excerpt from the novel, Christ in Concrete, by Pietro Di Donato, that so bowled me over I decided I would be a writer, too, just like all the writers who wrote fiction for Esquire Magazine in 1936.
After Peace Corps service, I taught, worked as a librarian and got my first freelance writing job with Reader's Digest. The Digest editor assigned me sports and games for How to Do Just about Anything, a book which sold 50 million copies world-wide. Reader's Digest made a vast fortune on that book alone, while the writers earned $25 to $75 dollars per article. I learned economy of language writing such pieces as "How to Play Tennis" in fifty words.
In 2010, I was awarded the Diana Bennett Fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV, where I wrote my most recent novel, The Honoured Guest: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words.
My work has been reprinted in several foreign languages. I have taught fiction and memoir writing at many venues including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT, and on the Aran Islands through the National University of Ireland, Galway, and online via this website.
Presently, I spend time in Fall River, MA, where I went on a tour of the Lizzie Borden house. By the time the tour had ended, I knew who killed Lizzie's parents and it surely wasn't Lizzie. The competition, however, is stiff. Since I started writing this novel, another novel with an entirely different take on the crime was published. And there is a film presently in the works, again, with another take altogether. I'll keep up my work on my own version, which, I'm convinced, is the real one.