The Woman in the Corner
When Grandma stares, points at and talks to the invisible woman in the corner holding a baby, just ignore her. Don’t be afraid, even if it is 10 p.m. and you’ve just finished watching Paranormal Activity. Grandma will grab your arm hard and tell you to go towards the corner but don’t. The corner is usually dark so cut the light on or keep a flashlight handy just to shine on it. Grandma will understand. There’s something about light. Later on, when she goes back to sleep and you are still awake, pray. Keep the radio on the Christian station low. Ghosts don’t like Christian music. It works. But don’t play old Black Southern gospel. Something about those songs attracts ghosts. Play the cheesy contemporary stuff; it repels them. Whenever Grandma talks about the woman in the corner holding the baby, it keeps you up. But stay strong. Remember, dementia isn’t just about forgetting things. It’s about reliving things. The woman in the corner holding the baby at 10 p.m. at night could just be the younger version of herself.
When Grandma starts to flirt with you because she thinks you’re her husband, run. Grandma raised you since you were a little boy, and now she makes passes at you. She will wink her eye at you and blow you kisses and call you “Papa” and “Honey”. She’ll even urge you to get into the bed with her. Take her mind off of you by playing old music from her time. The Ink Spots. Sam Cooke—before he went solo and sang with The Soul Stirrers. She’ll immediately go into song and forget about being anybody’s bride. Dementia is scary that way.
Grandma forgets the days of the week, but she always knows it’s Sunday. She wakes up and puts her white dress on backwards. “No, Grandma,” you say, “We have to get washed up first.” “Okay,” she says, “I don’t want to be late.”
Grandma needs church. She’s 87 and has outlived all eight of her brothers and sisters, outlived her husband, outlived her firstborn; and all of the ladies in her sewing class have died. Church is one of the few places with surviving faces.
After church, Grandma will scold you and call you a drug addict, she will call you a whoremonger, she will call you a thief. Dementia is a cruel bitch. But before church and during church she will sing praises to the Most High.
Despite not knowing the days of the week, somehow she mysteriously knows its Sunday. That’s why there has to be a God. There has to be a supernatural. God is strange; and, yes, strange things, too, have a right to be real.
It’s important to not neglect yourself while taking care of Grandma. As you get deeper into caregiving, you easily give up on a lot of goals. So remember to go to grad school. Take some online classes that are designed for working parents. Since you’re great at writing, go for a low-residency MFA. An MFA is a terminal degree, and some colleges put it up there with a PhD. Grandma was there during all of your education. She taught you to read at four years old. Just you, her, and the Little Golden Books. She stayed up late nights helping you with your homework. She watched you graduate elementary, middle school, high school, and college. Out of all of the children she raised, you went the furthest in school. Keep in mind, though, that her mind is done. So when you graduate with a master’s, she won’t even know. Prepare yourself. This is one educational journey you go at alone.
Others like Grandma
You know that old White man at the laundromat on Tuesdays? He walks around opening up other people’s washing machines: “I lost a pair of blue jeans. I put them here!” Have you noticed how people laugh at him and then get pissed at him when he becomes irate? “Where are my jeans, dammit!” That’s dementia. You see it in Grandma. He probably has no grandson to do his laundry. He’s left to wander the laundromat making enemies and making a fool of himself. And the people who laugh at him aren’t real grandsons because, if they were, they wouldn’t laugh.
Being Black sucks. Things were cool as a kid, but the older you got, things just changed. The world looked at you differently. People became more suspicious and rude; and, if you don’t keep your head you can become suspicious and rude back. You have to pray and meditate every day, and it gets tiring.
Being Black is crazy, and only Black people know how crazy it is. Non-Black people don’t get it. They say things like, “Get over it. Your struggle is no harder or different than mine.” Well, you can’t always get over something that you deal with daily. It’s like having a wound on your arm that’s trying to scab up but is constantly being scratched back open. Every single fucking day.
At work, they whisper, and you overhear them. They whisper because they don’t want to be called racist, but you have good ears, and you hear anyway. And then there are the cops. They stop you because someone whom they think you look like you did something illegal. And, even though you have no connection with this particular person, they will stop you anyway, just to ask you about “the word on the street”—as if somehow you know.
Cops will stop you while you’re on your way to do errands for Grandma. They will ask you why you have bags in your hands. Just show them the receipts. Always keep them in your front shirt pocket so you can pull them out quick. Do not keep them in your pants pocket; they’ll think you’re reaching for a weapon. At work, just wear a tie. It won’t stop the bleeding whispers, but it acts as a temporary Band-Aid. Now, when you come home to Grandma to make her a meal or to give her medicine, have a song in your head to keep you calm. Because with Grandma’s dementia comes Grandma’s mood swings. And, after being whispered about at work and stopped and frisked by the cops, it’s those mood swings—those mood swings at the end of the day—and that name calling that she does that digs and digs deep into your soul. It’s okay to cry, but do it when you’re alone and Grandma is asleep. End your day with a long hard cry, and a teary meditation. It’s what the old timers—your ancestors—called The Blues.
Find a friend who is a caregiver like you. It’s a good and valuable thing to have a friend in your life who is going through a similar situation. Having a friend who knows—about the sleepless nights, the shit and diaper changing, the disputes with the medical industry and family who say they care but back away when times get hard—can be quite useful. You will have people in your life who like you but who also think you’re crazy. They like you and doubt you all at once. Having a homie that doesn’t doubt you is gold.
Have a band of friends that are a band. A band you sing songs with, record albums with. Have friends who have lived life decades longer than you have; have friends who are of different races. Listen to all of them, and then tell your side of things. Let them learn from you, and you learn from them. Diversity brings wisdom, and wisdom is a much needed tool in caregiving.
Many lonely nights will come to you. You will be alone, and life will feel extremely confusing. It’s in these nights that wisdom will begin singing to you, and you will be comforted.
Family & Relatives
Family hurts the most. If you’re the first in your family to graduate college or the only one in your family with good credit, they will swarm around you like mosquitoes with a list of favors. When you say no to them, they will respond back with, “But we’re family,” or, “You’re arrogant.” If they are Christian, they may say something like, “But the Bible says [fill in the blank].” Family is the first to fuck you over. They are the first to disapprove of you being power of attorney. The first to disapprove of you being primary health provider. They will gossip and criticize you on your funeral arrangements. They will criticize you on your choice of an assistant or a sitter. Keep a sharp eye open. Guard your heart. Guard your soul. Don’t become bitter. Family won’t go away.
Get your paperwork in order. As soon as you become power of attorney, graduate to conservator. There will be family who will contest your power of attorney. They’ll even draw up their own document and try to get Grandma to sign it while she has dementia. With a court-appointed conservatorship, they’d be blocked from even attempting anything like that.
Have money set aside in an emergency fund for an attorney who specializes in elder law. Stay away from prepaid legal. Prepaid legal is a scam. They’re rude on the phone, they won’t always represent you in court, and most of the questions you have you can get answered for free on legal websites. Stay away from limited scope attorneys. Limited scope attorneys won’t answer your phone calls; they’ll even make shady deals with the opposing attorney.
If you think divorce is nasty among family members, welcome to the world of caregiving. There will be crazy cousins who will make threatening phone calls to you and who will even want to get physical with you because they object to you being the primary caregiver. The craziest thing about it all is that no one will ever pick up a book on dementia except you. The loudest mouths are the least educated and least involved. No one will ever go to support groups or seek to educate themselves on the nature of the illness but you.
Ways to Stay Sane
First of all, stay straight edge. Listen to bands like Minor Threat to keep you inspired. Read Think and Grow Rich, and read it not to get rich but to get stronger. You can’t drink your pain away. You can’t fuck your pain away. You have to stay sober. One little slip and your family will say, “See! Told you so!” Martial arts help a lot. Do traditional martial arts, something meditation-based like tai chi. Don’t do anything ultra-violent like MMA, because your aunt, the antagonist, will use it against you. “See! He has violent tendencies!”
Run distance. Do marathons. 26.2 miles. Something about running takes away your hunger to fuck women. Sexual energy travels from your dick down through your legs and into your feet and then gets pounded away into the asphalt when you run. Running is a great way to stay celibate. Plus, it helps you clear your mind after being called names by Grandma during her demented fits. Your prayer life gets better when you run marathons. It’s important to keep your mind sharp and your body strong. You have to lift a fully grown adult into a bath tub. You have to think for two people, you and her.
Get a dog. A smart one, not a dumb one. When you come home to Grandma’s mood swings, it’s good to come home to a friend. When months turn into years and things get even harder, you will find that you need your dog more and more. Your dog can’t counsel you, but you can learn from her. Sometimes the only sane individual in your world is your dog.
Women Part One
Remember before Grandma got dementia, she’d give you random advice on love like: “Don’t marry a woman because she got pretty legs, marry a woman because she knows The Lord.” Stick with that shit. That is gem-quality knowledge. You would think that being a caregiver would be a turn-on to the ladies. It shows them you are responsible, patient, sacrificial, compassionate, things that a woman wants. Hardly. A woman will get sick of you always needing to check up on Grandma while you’re out on dates. She’ll get sick of you being busy on certain nights. And if she’s wanting to get married, she will probably start hinting about nursing homes. Or she’ll just come out and say it bluntly, “What are we going to do with Grandma? When are we getting married?” It’s bad enough being pressured to get married; it’s even worse being pressured to throw Grandma away.
Impatient dates make impatient girlfriends who become impatient wives who become impatient mothers. If they can’t handle that Grandma has dementia, what makes you think they can handle if you ever get it? Or worse, if your child was born with autism or a missing limb or born blind?
Some women may try to take advantage of Grandma’s dementia by trying to steal you away for a holiday. “Let’s go away for Thanksgiving,” they’ll say. “But I want to cook for Grandma for Thanksgiving. The sitter won’t do it,” you’ll say. “But your grandma has dementia, what difference does it make? She doesn’t even know that it’s a holiday.” And they will always miss the point. It’s less about Grandma’s mind and more about your own. Every holiday you spend with Grandma just may be your last holiday with Grandma.
Dating may not be feasible for you, but, if it is, keep it casual. If you are looking for something serious, you owe it to both yourself and the woman to be upfront in the beginning. It takes courage to be upfront. And, if she gives you hell, tell her that, if the roles were reversed and she were a single mom, she would need love, respect, and compassion—three things you also need.
Go to eHarmony or similar sites. They help you to weed out certain women in the beginning. When you see the button that says I am a single dad, even though you are not a single dad, click the button anyway. The ladies will at least have some clue of what they’re getting their hands into with you prior to the first date.
Women Part Two
Be careful not to enter into any codependent relationships once you do find a woman willing to date you. Seriously. Remember, you have sacrificed much for Grandma. You learned to deal with her mood swings. Her accusing you of stealing, accusing you of drugging her. Her calling you names. You’ve learned to deal with the negative criticisms of your family. You’ve learned to shut it all off because you are a caregiver. But there is a difference between shutting it off while taking care of Grandma and shutting it off while being in a relationship with a woman. Sometimes you can get so used to shutting it off that you become numb, and then you will never feel in a relationship the love you truly deserve. You may even start to be drawn to certain women with Type A personalities. Bossy women may even start to attract you, not because you are attracted to them, but because you’ve just gotten used to being yelled at. Be careful. Listen to how the woman talks to you.
Or you may find yourself dating women to rescue them. Caregiving can be that hard to turn off. You may find yourself contemplating bizarre things like, Maybe I should marry my friend whose boyfriend got her pregnant and left her. I can help her raise her child. I hate to see her alone. We can agree to end it anytime. It’s just something to get her over the hard time. Or, Maybe I should marry my other friend whose student visa ended and they need to stay in the U.S. I can help them get a green card. It’s only for two years. What’s worse is when the eHarmony prospects start looking shallow, and you start looking at dating sites like meet-an-inmate.com or loveaprisoner.com. That’s when you know you have a problem. You have become addicted to giving. You need therapy. It all starts when you begin paying women’s parking tickets for them. Immediately stop yourself and refocus. Chivalry is one thing, slavery is another thing.
The Medical Industry
They quit on old people quick. The most age discrimination you will face is from the doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. They will say things like, “Because of her age, we are not allowed to [fill in the blank].” Some doctors will blatantly tell Grandma—right to her face and in front of yours—to die, “Go to sleep, Miss. Go be with God and the angels.” Hospitals may try to discharge Grandma early, don’t let them. There are social service agencies, patient advocacy groups, and attorneys who specialize in elder law that you can report your matter to. Call them up and complain; hospitals get scared when they know they’re being watched.
Never let Grandma stay overnight in a hospital by herself. Nurses don’t always do a good job. Some of them are lazy, but most are just overworked. Some hospitals have one nurse per 10 rooms. If Grandma needs help at 9 p.m., a nurse may not get to her till 9:50 p.m. Organize a 24-hour “Grandma duty” with your family and friends while in the hospital. Pay your sitter to work her normal hours while you take the rougher graveyard shift, and give the in-between shift to a family member. Always pay the family member for gas and food. Have a notebook that you all write in as a log. When doctors and nurses notice that family members are present on a 24-hour basis, they tend to respond to Grandma better. Just like with your own health, you have to be proactive.
Working and Caregiving
Working while caregiving can take a big toll on you. Caregivers who have full-time day jobs suffer from poor health, low work productivity, and emotional burnout and breakdowns. The important thing is to always get enough sleep, and keep your nutrition up—take vitamins. You have to keep a disciplined schedule. Wake up at this time, do you, then do Grandma, then do you again, then do Grandma once more and be off to work. After work, come home and do Grandma, then do you, then do Grandma till she falls asleep, then do yourself once more and go to bed. Somewhere in-between the Grandma and the you and the work, don’t forget to do God.
If you have a boss who’s battling an illness or who has a spouse who’s battling an illness, they tend to be the supervisors who are the most tolerant and understand the needs of caregivers. The sitter or the doctor will call you at work with an urgent matter which can’t always wait to be dealt with at 5 p.m.
Stay on a job long enough that you work your way up the totem pole so you can have a bit of power and leverage, which gives you freedom and flexibility. Or, just stay low on the totem pole. Be invisible so no one even sees or cares that you exist, and you can have a bit of freedom and flexibility.
Stay healthy, and use your sick time to take Grandma to the doctor. You can’t just use it for you; you have to share it with her. Don’t take days off just to take days off. Schedule Grandma’s doctor appointments in the morning or in the evening; don’t schedule anything around your lunch break. If your job can allow for you to work from home, do it. But know that sometimes leaving Grandma and going away to work can be a solace. You may need that change of setting to clear your mind. Going to work can start becoming your daily vacation.
Grandma is going to call you a thief when she doesn’t know where her keys are. Grandma is going to spit out her pills when you give them to her. She’ll throw them at the wall, and, if you don’t know how to duck, they will hit you. She will scold you for not bringing her the food she wants to eat even though the doctor tells you it’s bad for her blood pressure. Grandma will call you names she’s never called you before. Ain’t no scorn like a woman’s fury.
When your mother buys Grandma a red dress for Christmas, Grandma won’t know that it’s a gift. She’ll accuse you of bringing home a prostitute and placing the hooker’s dress in her closet. “Tell your damn whore to take her dress with her!” she’ll say. “But Grandma, this is your dress. It’s a Christmas gift. Christmas was yesterday,” you’ll say. “You’re a damn liar! Whores wear red! You need to pray! God’s got His eyes on you, but don’t let Him put His hands on you!”
When Grandma’s anger gets to the point that she starts breaking things, this is another good moment to play music from her time. Play old Black gospel music from the South. In midcuss she’ll break out into song. Remember, you can’t play that type of music when the ghosts are around, but you can play it to drive the demons out of Grandma. It’s a strange reversal.
Grandma was born in rural Mississippi in 1923, and segregation ended in 1964. This means her entire childhood was spent being told “Colored only” and “White only.” To go against this was not just legally wrong, it was even felt to be morally wrong. Childhood trauma tends to creep back during adult dementia. Occasionally, Grandma will forget that it’s the 21st century and that segregation has ended. When she has to pee, she’s going to hold it because she thinks the house she’s in isn’t her house but some White person’s. She’s going to ask you to take her outside to the back to the Colored toilet. “But Grandma, this is your house. The bathroom is right there,” you’ll say. “No, it ain’t,” she’ll say, “Take me outside. I have to pee. They gonna get mad! They gonna get mad! Take me outside!” See, you have to be creative in these situations. You may have to tell her you’ll sneak her into the bathroom and you will watch out for her. Sometimes she’ll comply. Other times you have to go get a bucket and tell her to pee in it. She’ll do that.
Sometimes you have to lie to her just to keep her healthy. When it’s time to take her to the doctor, don’t tell her she’s going to the doctor, she won’t budge. “There ain’t nothing wrong with me. I’m fine! No! No!” Instead, tell her that you are going to the doctor and you need her to ride with you. Oh, she’ll definitely go then. She’ll be ready to help you. Some days, when she’s not in the mood to wander, it’s the only way to get her to leave the house.
When it’s time for her to take her medicine, do not show her the bottle. Just hand her the pills and tell her it’s either vitamins or candy. Have a Tic-Tac or some other type of mint in your hand and tell her, “Grandma, let’s take our vitamins together.” If she sees you taking one, she won’t spit them out or throw them at you. She’s going to take hers, and she won’t accuse you of poisoning or drugging her.
Keep the television on 24 hours. You’re going to run up the electricity bill, but you have to do what you have to do. Keep it on Sesame Street or the animal channel. There’s something about children and animals that calm her nerves.
With Grandma, every 15 minutes is different, and she has no set bedtime. She can be up at 3 o’clock in the morning looking out her “window”—and her “window” is the television set. She really thinks the people on television are actually people outside a window. Keep the volume muted, just let her watch the screen, because if not, she will start talking to the television and answering the characters on TV, becoming part of the dialog.
Never let Grandma watch the news, especially since she thinks the television is a window. The news always has some sort of murder or car chase. When Grandma thinks there’s a crime happening outside the house, she’ll get stressed. And when your aunt calls to say hello, Grandma will tell her that your friends are outside shooting guns, and when your aunt hears this—even though your aunt lives 3 hours and 18 minutes away—she will still call the police station in your neighborhood just to have them come by to question you, and if not them, she’ll call Adult Protective Services. Remember, you aunt is not your friend, and she will use anything in her toolbox to discredit you.
Put the landline on mute. Screen all voicemails. Don’t let Grandma answer the phone, because she will, and she will get herself in trouble. She will say yes to every phone solicitor and give out personal information.
Don’t ever sleep in your bedroom. You can kiss that goodbye. Sleep in the living room; this keeps Grandma from wandering outside the house at night or early in the morning. When you camp out in the living room, she knows she’s not alone, but close your bedroom door and Grandma will be gone by the time you wake up. This also means, unfortunately, you have to shit with the bathroom door open or cracked because Grandma will wander outside while you’re in middrip.
Get used to not being called your name, and, when you’re called another name, don’t correct her. Correcting will only get her more stressed and confused. Just let her call you whatever and whoever she thinks you to be. Tell yourself every time you look in the mirror: I am nobody and I am everybody. But if you really care about being called your name, just wear a sticker that says Hello: My Name is [fill in the blank]. Oftentimes when dealing with dementia, you just have to dress up. Grandma will forget people, but she will always remember uniforms. Dress up like a doctor, she will call you “Doc.” Dress up like a chaplain, she will call you “Pastor.” Dress up like the average Joe, and she’ll call you “Joe.”
Dreams Are Real
When you and I have dreams, we know they are dreams once we wake up. Grandma, not so much. She’s trapped in her dream even when she wakes up. Whatever nightmare or daymare she’s having while she’s sleeping, she’ll still be having it while awake. Whatever good dream or pleasant encounter she’s having during REM is still present and real to her, and you’d better believe she is alert to it while awake. Usually, she has to fall back asleep to put an end to the dream, and, once she awakes from that “second sleep,” she’s fine. Can you imagine being trapped in a nightmare for half of your waking day? It’s as if Freddy Kruger’s got you.
Document Everything You Do
Document well. Take pictures, video, keep a log. Since you live alone with Grandma and you are a man and she is a woman, people —particularly the females in your family—may question your competency. “You’re a guy, what do you know about taking care of a woman?” That’s the question you will often get. Your aunt will try to call cops and social workers on you. You need something to show them. You have to keep proving yourself to others no matter what you do. You already deal with this as a Black man. You deal with this as a young man. You will deal with this as a grandson caregiving for his Grandma. When you are a grandson, you are trusted less than if you were a biological daughter. That’s why you video, that’s why you audio, that’s why you photograph, that’s why you log. One day, your family is going to turn against you. One day, your aunt is going to do some outlandish thing like take you to court. You want to have a recorded history; this, along with your integrity, is your armor.
The Desire to Be a Dad
Remember before Grandma got sick? Remember when you had thought about marrying the woman of your dreams, settling down and raising a family, having a son and daughter? People even told you you’d be a good dad. Then those thoughts changed. Right around seven years into your caregiving experience. Seven years is a long time. Staying up late with Grandma, putting bandages on bloody hemorrhoids, taking time off of work to take her to the doctor, paying for a sitter while you’re at work, hoping that every time you leave her alone for 30 minutes and you hear a siren, it isn’t going to your house because Grandma wandered or fell. You become tired after seven years.
Your friends who are your age may ask you why you aren’t married with kids. Some people may question you as being immature or not ready for commitment. The women you date who want to get married and have kids will start asking, “Why are you so slow?” You will wake up one morning and your desire to be a dad is gone because you’ve been one already. And your woman who’s never been a mother will be heartbroken; she’ll say your post traumatic caregiver syndrome and your waning desire to be a dad is unforgivable. “It’s just unforgiveable,” she’ll say. “You’ve wasted my time.”
After Grandma Dies
Brace yourself for a tidal wave after Grandma dies. You’ve structured your life around taking care of her. Your schedule. Your job. Your relationships. Parents feel a sense of completion after their child grows up and finally heads off to college, and then they can focus on their work, their hobbies and dreams, because, as a parent, they’ve had to put a lot on hold. You’ll feel the same thing; but you’ll still be young. You’ve built a dedicated daily routine of feeding, bathing, cooking, cleaning. When you no longer have these things to do, you will have a huge chunk of time on your hands that you haven’t had in eight years. You won’t be bored, just in withdrawal. You may even become so used to the life of a caregiver that you decide to take on a night job being one. You start thinking about weird things like joining the National Guard even though you’ve aged out. Being a firefighter. Once you turn it on, it’s hard to shut it off. Any old person or any crippled person you see on a walker with no one helping them, you stare and you want to help. Or, maybe they have help, but you tell yourself, That caregiver is doing it wrong. But I won’t say anything I’ll let them be. And so you do. Society is an impatient place.
You’ve had to walk slowly for eight years because Grandma had bad knees. You’ve had to talk slowly and use simple words for eight years because Grandma’s mind was slow. You’ve had to chop up food into small portions for eight years because you didn’t want Grandma to choke. And you still do these things after her death. The women you date tell you that you are strange. The women you know who’ve been pregnant, who have scars and stretch marks across their bellies, they tell those others that you have scars and stretch marks across your soul.
“Why?” They Ask
Why take on the burden of caregiving? Grandma lived her life already; why give up yours? Why put everything on hold just to take care of her?
There were several slices to the pie of why.
Slice one: Your father left, and your mother wasn’t much of a mother. It was Grandma who took you in when you were just three months old, and she didn’t have to. And, no, you didn’t have to care for her, but you hate a quitter, and you just don’t want to be one.
Slice two: You loved the familiar. You loved your neighborhood. Both your neighbors and your hood. You loved the smell, the look, the touch, the sound of the familiar. The memories. The mountains from your backyard. Every street you walked or rode your bike through, from a child to a man, was still present to you. Leaving Grandma would also mean leaving your hood and that’s not something you were ready to do. For you, you are where you sleep just as much as you are what you eat.
Slice three: Fatigue. You were just tired of the world. Tired of the system. Tired of seeing selfishness. Tired of entitlement. See, taking care of Grandma was freedom from all the shit the world was showing you. Like that movie, The Matrix—you just wanted to wake up.
Grandma taught you to be human in a society where humans are slowly becoming cyborgs—blue teeth hanging from ears, android wear wrapped around wrists. You’d read book after book, listened to sermon after sermon—religion, philosophy—it all went in one ear and out the other. But once you started to serve, religion and philosophy became real, tangible to you. You no longer had to ask: Why is there evil in the world if God is so good? You no longer cared to ask because you were too busy serving and trying your best to be one less quitter in the world.
LARRY HANDY is a poet based in Monrovia, California a town where he has always lived. He holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. His creative work (poetry, nonfiction and fiction) has appeared in Quiddity, Rivet, Straight Forward Poetry, Westwind, GetUnderground.com and elsewhere. Aside from writing, he is a distance runner and practitioner of Chinese martial arts. Larry Handy leads and performs regularly with the award-winning music and poetry ensemble Totem Maples. This essay, a finalist in Proximity’s inaugural Personal Essay Prize, was originally published in Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks.