Sunday, November 17, 2013

Suzanne and Forgiveness


I kept bumping into this dear lady in the Somali neighborhood I mostly work in. She runs a little store on one of the side streets. A single mom, thoroughbred Irish with flaming red hair, in her 40s, recently separated from an abusive ‘other’ raising 2 boys and a daughter with her own baby. And she just realized she is pregnant. Could her life become any more complicated? It seems likely.

We got along as if we had been kindred spirits in a past life, funny how that works sometimes. We were both very moved by the recent influx of African refugees in the city, both finding little ways to make them feel welcomed and their move half way around the world possibly easier. Suzanne (not her real name) was able to employ some of their teenagers in the store, and begged donations of warm coats during the winter months to give out during their first winter in America. For most it was their first experience of snow.

We soon realized we could do twice as much if the two of us teamed up, so that is what we did. With her car and my referrals for expectant moms in the neighborhoods nearby, we started doing what we could, finding food pantries to match families up with and free clothes and even picking up homeless moms and finding shelter for them. We took one mom on a shopping spree when it looked like she would burst her non-maternity clothes. And then Suzanne found out she was pregnant. It had been over a decade since her last baby, so she didn’t think it was even possible, but it was. An unexpected gift – her little miracle, she calls her. I don’t know who was more excited: me or her. And of course she wanted me to be her doula.

I find it amazing that she thanks me for some of our adventures. But then, I guess my life seems exotic to someone who grew up next to a corn field in a suburban neighborhood in Minnesota. I grew up the eldest child of Greenwich Village bohemians – the hippies of their day, back in the 50s. My mother sang opera, my dad became a professor. We travelled, we entertained people from all over the world. I was told that I could do anything with my life that I wanted, I could even become the first woman president of the United States when I grew up! Yeah, right, a pudgy Jewish girl becomes the first woman president. Well, anyway, they believed in me and it was a heck of a fun family to grow up in, sometimes. Like when my brother announced he wanted to be a fire truck when he grew up. No, not the driver… the truck! And when my mom brought a live lobster home from the fish market when I was two and I asked her if it was perhaps a pussy cat.

So for me to walk into a housing project and not be afraid for my life, seemed to Suzanne to be downright foolishness, if not dangerous. But I knew I could size up a dangerous situation pretty fast, and this was not one of them. I always texted her whenever I had a new ‘adventure’ for us like the day we needed to pick up Shavonne because her boyfriend’s alcoholic mother had just kicked her and her 4-day-old baby boy out – in the middle of January in Minnesota. And now Suzanne was having her little miracle girl. We needed to find baby clothes and things so we started hitting the garage sales on weekends with quite a bit of success. We both felt, before we even talked about it together, that this baby must have a very special mission here on earth, though we could not imagine what that might be. We would find out soon enough.

We spent all our free time together haunting the thrift stores, visiting expectant moms and figuring out how she was going to manage to keep her family together. I referred her to a low-cost clinic which turned out to be a very wise choice. She had decided early on that in spite of her age, she did not want any testing done that might suggest she consider interrupting the pregnancy, like a diagnosis of Downs or some other problem with the baby. The doctor and midwives at the clinic were very respectful of her choice to do nothing extraordinary and that helped take a bit of stress out of the whole situation. I visited a food shelf in my neighborhood and found out that I could pick up food for families I visited as a doula, sometimes up to 85 pounds of groceries per family per month. This way I could help Suzanne with her food bills and she wouldn’t have to take time off from the store to do it. I resurrected an old shopping cart I had found one day in my travels around the neighborhood and we were in business. I could walk to the food shelf from where I lived and then take the shopping cart on the bus and deliver the goods right to her car at the store.

I had not pried into the circumstances of this baby’s appearance but one day Suzanne offered to tell me about it. She had been praying for her husband for most of their 19 years together. Years ago a priest had counseled that if she fasted and prayed enough, she could fix their marriage and somehow ‘cure’ her husband’s alcoholism. Year after year of abuse continued and the advice that she got was that she just had to pray harder. At one point she did pray harder: that she would die and the whole nightmare would be over. She fantasized about a car accident that would be swift and virtually painless. She fasted until she became anorexic. Then she met me.

I figured the bad marriage stuff was none of my business but when she and I became such close friends, she decided to tell me her story. I listened. He father had also been abusive, so when she married and things began to go downhill she figured this was just the ‘new normal.’ She blamed herself and her lack of faith. Maybe if she was able to become ‘good enough’ he wouldn’t be so bad or drink so much. She went to church sometimes daily. They drifted into two molds: one good, attempting to be a martyr perhaps, the other, an unrepentant sinner whom the world judged.

I listened. I couldn’t believe that in this day and age people could put up with so much hurt for so very long. How was it possible? I had taken a continuing education course on abuse the year before and what I was hearing was so very, obviously, there on every point. Every single box on the class handout could be checked ‘yes.’ I told Suzanne that I only wanted to support her and be a friend, but that I could not have put up with what she had endured for so long. I told her I would kick him out and only then pray for him. I did not believe any God or higher power would demand this suffering of her. There was no way that that was right. End of sermon.

So she did. Kick him out. It was liberating. Freeing. And it was hard raising teenagers alone and trying to work and keep the business afloat. The business did go under, but that was the least of her worries. Then she told me that while she was working there she had met someone: tall, dark and handsome. Except he wasn’t dark. He was nice, and Irish. He was the nicest man she had ever met. He knew how to treat women. This was totally new to Suzanne. No one had ever not hurt her, or been in a relationship where he was only in it for his own gain. She fell in love.

Three months later she is telling me her story over soup at my apartment. And she is three months pregnant. She is convinced her kids will hate her, her church will judge her, and her family will be furious with her. She admitted that she thought about an abortion for a fleeting moment, but that was all. She could not do that. I told her that this baby must have a very special task here on earth. I told her that I still loved her and would do anything at all to help her in the coming months. And I would be her doula!

She couldn’t tell anyone else, not yet. She wasn’t showing at all, but she knew that would change soon enough. Eventually she did tell her kids. The older ones were shocked, one still has not talked to her since. The youngest was still confused by the separation, and now this. She assured them all that they will make it, that things would get better and that she was excited that there would be a baby in the house. It would just take time for this all to settle down. They were still a family and they still had the house and each other. It would be OK. Then the tall, handsome love of her life vanished as if into thin air. Disappeared, and no one has heard from him since.

The kids told their dad the latest news the following weekend. It turned out to be a wake up call for him, though we didn’t see that at the time. Suzanne and I continued to do what we could at the women’s shelters and in the refugee community. Time flies when you are having fun. Before we knew it, her midwife was talking about induction and a C-section for a whole host of reasons, though her age was not one of them and her care was transferred to the clinic’s OB doctor. Suzanne was ready to be un-pregnant by this time. Pregnancy in your mid-40s is not fun. The date was set and we tried to get psyched up. It wasn’t what we had hoped for this birth, but it was OK.

And the week before D-day, who should appear but her ex asking if they could go for a walk and talk. They met and walked every night that week. He had started therapy to address his issues, the drinking and the abuse -- all of it. He also wanted her to know he had started going to church. He didn’t want to lose his family or his wife. He asked her forgiveness and said he would agree to counseling or anything else she wanted. He knew she had no reason to take him back. Then he also pointed out that this baby will need a daddy to bring her up. She was floored, to say the least. Then she asked his forgiveness. She had never gotten herself in such hot water in her life. She couldn’t imagine why he would want her back, especially with a baby that was not his. At this point they both realized that they were no longer a lost soul and a saint. They were both on the same bench for the very first time in their 19-year relationship. They both felt somehow unworthy and needing forgiveness. It was enough for him, perhaps since the dynamics had changed. He wanted to step up and be there for her now, be a better dad to his kids and stop throwing everything that was dear to him out the window. I continued to be wary of his sincerity. Suzanne agreed to try this on a trial basis with absolute agreement on his part to her list of requirements. He agreed. Then he told her he wanted to be at the delivery to support her. He had been there for the last 3 and didn’t see that this one was any different. I doubted that this guy was for real. I had turned into a skeptic, but she was determined to give him yet another chance.

And he was there. He asked to hold the baby as soon as she was born and proudly danced around the operating room with her. One of the nurses commented, “Oh, look! She has your eyes!” to him at which Suzanne and I rolled ours at each other. 

He has turned out to be for real. It isn’t always easy, but when Suzanne told me one day that she found it sad that her baby would never know her real dad, I told her in no uncertain terms that her husband was her real daddy, that the Creator had brought the perfect daddy for her back and she should never again doubt that. This baby does have a mission: she is a real peace-maker, as much as Gandhi or Mother Teresa. I had never seen anything like this before. This time it was Suzanne who took me on an adventure, not the other way around.

Stay Tuned: This and other stories will be appearing in my upcoming book, Call The Doula! a diary© by Stephanie Sorensen.



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