Friday, February 25, 2011

In Memoriam: Heather MacAllister, 25 Feb. 1968 - 13 Feb. 2007

I've been thinking about Heather all day, on what would have been her 43rd birthday.

I guess this is kind of an "I knew her when" post. Because later, Heather became famous as an LBGT and fat activist. Which never actually surprised me. Even when I first met her, at an anti-Apartheid shantytown on the steps of the University of Michigan Undergraduate Library, she had that thing. I don't know what to call it. Drive, determination. She was an activist to her soul.

She was sixteen, then.

We used to argue a lot about the value of radical activism versus a grass roots approach. Heather, of course, was on the side of radical activism. I don't think that ever changed.

We were good friends for what seemed like quite a few years at the time, but now, from the perspective of age, seems like only a little while. We used to go out dancing together. We were housemates; we moved in similar circles. We talked about starting a band. It seems kind of odd, now.

I moved to New York and she moved to Santa Barbara. She came to visit me at Christmas. Later, she sent me an airline ticket to come visit her. I ended up never going back.

I remember when she wanted to dye her hair silver. It turned out green, and she looked like a mermaid.

I remember being so pissed off when she ate the ice cream I had been saving for after work. "I had a couple spoonsful of your ice cream; I hope you don't mind," she said, and when I looked in the carton, only a little New York Super Fudge Chunk was left clinging to the edges of the cardboard.

I remember her saying to me, "How can I be a voice for fat people's rights when I'm only attracted to skinny people? It seems really hypocritical."

I moved to Colorado. She moved to San Francisco. I didn't hear from her much after that. One day, out of the blue, she called me to tell me she was back in Ann Arbor. She had met the love of her life and they were going to move to Sweden, or maybe Arizona. She promised to send me a letter and stay in touch.

I never heard from her again. From time to time I looked for her, but somehow I could never get in touch with her. I didn't even know about her struggle with ovarian cancer until after she had died.

Heather was one of the most positive and determined people I have ever known. Today, thinking about her, I read a lot of articles about her on the 'net. She touched so many lives. I wish I could say that I predicted that when she was sleeping on my couch because she had no place else to go, but I didn't.

Here's a poem I wrote for her in the long-ago time. It probably sucks, but well.

Perfect Shades

Get laid
back. Your shoulders loose you dance
with twisting hips completely
real, let
go. You are
the coolest. Make

it; shake
that cosmic groove thang, baby! Be
my blonde sex-mama, my amoral
rhythm queen. Show
me how it is. Be

my seer-priestess high
on dream-inducing herbs. Teach
me secret
hymns you chant in full moon
circles when frenzy tears

you from yourself, wings
you past the walls of night. Get laid

back. Reach
through my poker-assed
uptightness. Rip off
perfect shades and chill
me with your icebox eyes. No acting

here. No pretense. Take
me out front; expose
me naked. Red earth
natural you are.
You are.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I don’t know how to write this. I keep having the same thoughts, over and over again—splintered, incoherent. I believe they must go together somehow, must make a pattern that will help me make sense of what my life has become. But I don’t know.

When I was one year old, my oldest sister, then fifteen, got pregnant.

This was in 1963. These days, teen pregnancy is almost taken for granted. Maybe in some social classes it was even back then; I don’t know. But to our middle-class family, the event was devastating. It shaped everything the family was ever to be, then and after. It shaped my life.

Mt parents made arrangements for my sister to leave school, go to a home for unwed mothers, and give the baby up for adoption. That didn’t end up happening, but what did happen isn’t really part of this story. Whatever; in any case, my mom had to go to the private school my sister attended, where she was a teacher, and explain to everyone why my sister “wasn’t coming back.”

According to my dad, this was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of my mother’s life. According to my dad, it was the worst thing that could ever happen in anyone’s life. He told me this when I was fifteen and going through some problems of my own. According to him, I could never experience anything so painful, so humiliating, so soul-destroying as my mother had in that instance.

It gave me a clear message: Pregnancy is wrong. It’s shameful. It causes pain to everyone around you. Don’t get pregnant.

By that time, though, I had already deciphered that message many times over. Because my oldest sister wasn’t the only one in my family to transgress in that way. My second sister did the same thing, having two children by two different fathers by the time I was ten. I didn’t find out about this until later; the whole thing was hushed up, never spoken of. I stumbled upon it, actually, when I walked in on my parents looking at pictures of the grandchildren of whom they had never made me aware. Many years later, a similar event: my mother sent me a picture of a little girl, about seven years old. Upon asking, I learned it was the daughter of one of my nieces. I had never known my niece was pregnant. The subject was taboo.

As far back as I can remember, whenever I did something that my parents disliked, which in my family meant anything that showed I was an individual with needs and desires of my own, my parents told me I was going to end up “just like my two older sisters.” I was doomed to fail them, break their hearts. Transgress in some irredeemable way.

I spent the first twenty-five years of my life being punished for something I had not done.

Of course, like any child, I wanted my parents’ approval. I wanted to be good. I wanted to show them they were wrong and I would not do the horrible thing. I’m sure there were many horrible things included in the litany. But the more I think about it now, the more it seems that one thing was at the core: Sex and pregnancy. Dangerous, shameful, wrong.

How to reconcile this with the desire, which I experienced from quite a young age, to have children and a family of my own?

I couldn’t. And so I wasted my fertile years.

As I write this, I know it is an over-simplification. Many things went into the fact that I never had children, never even allowed myself to experience the desire for children until recently. All my life, I have struggled with depression. For many years, I told myself I should not have children; I could not be a proper mother, given my mental state. Moreover, it would be irresponsible to burden a child with my family’s defective genes, the ones that carry mental illness. Too, I have been financially impoverished. I had not the physical resources to support a child. Until I was thirty, I didn’t even meet a man with whom I wanted to have children. All those things contributed to my waiting, and waiting, and putting off. To saying, over and over again, “Not now.”

I did try, at one point. After I had been married for several years, when I was thirty-seven—already what is considered “Advanced Maternal Age,” though then I didn’t realize the implications—I broached the subject with my husband. It was hard. Admitting to wanting children was like admitting to being morally flawed, dirty, perverted. I was ashamed. And so, I made it sound like no big deal I’d like to try, but if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.

I wonder how much this attitude contributed to my two subsequent miscarriages. Because I did get pregnant, twice, and both times lost the baby.

It was a long time ago, now. I can’t remember what pregnancy felt like, now. I remember I was sick. I remember the physical pain of the miscarriages. But I have to imagine my mental state. Trying to balance the desire for a child with the certainty that I was contaminated. I do remember telling my mother, the second time, and feeling so bad, as if I were confessing to a heinous crime.

It is tearing me apart to write this, and I don’t know where it’s going.

Ten years later. My husband has gone back to college, earned a degree in education, gotten a steady job. There have been advances in medicine. I am on a new anti-depressant, and it works better than I could ever have dreamed. And I face the unrealized desire: the desire for a child of my own. Everything seems to have come together. Financially, emotionally, the time is right.

And I am too old.

I do not feel old. The years lie lightly on me. But in terms of reproductive biology, I am ancient. I tell myself otherwise. I tell myself that it could still happen for me, that miracles occur. That women even older than I am have experienced healthy pregnancies. I tell myself these things because if I did not, I do not know how I could live.

I keep track of my basal temperature, trying to pinpoint ovulation that never comes.

By evolutionary standards, I am already dead. I did not pass on my genetic material; there is no use for me.

But aside from that, the thing with which I cannot come to grips is this: The way I have bought into my family story and followed it to its inevitable conclusion. I have allowed myself to be negated in a way that I swore I never would be. I have let the defining event infect me to the point that I could not even address its implications and my desires in words until now.

I had hope for a while. But today I just heard back from a new doctor about some blood work she ordered. My FSH, the hormone that stimulates your ovaries to produce viable follicles, is 33, exceptionally high. This means that, barring a miracle, I cannot have a child of my own.

I feel wasted. How many years have I spent, trying to be the good daughter? How long have I been supportive to other people's dreams while putting my own on hold? I cannot believe in any gods. I cannot believe in any justice. You don't get rewarded for doing what you think is right; you just get more shit heaped on you, over and over, until you break.

I do not know how to live with this pain. So many years, I've lived with various pains and told myself that some day, things would get better. Some day, I would be able to have what I want. But I can't.

I don't know why I bothered to live so long.