08 November 2008

The End of Rain

"Sometimes I feel like the rain will never end."

An 11-year-old girl wrote that. Theresa would be about 30 now. Where is she? Does she still feel that way? Or what, if anything, does she think or feel now when she sees the kind of rain we've had today? It's one of those days that can make it seem as if the sun will never come again.

Theresa was in a yearlong series of poetry workshops I led in a Queens school for children of alcoholics and substance abusers. During that same years, and the one that followed, I was leading similar workshops for chronically ill and handicapped kids at St. Mary's Hospital in Bayside, Queens. That work was the most spiritually fulfilling, if the most intense, I've ever done for pay.

And why am I thinking about her, or those other kids, now? Well, it's hard not to, sometimes. Like today. There were plenty of times I thought the rain would never end, too. And some of the kids--including, I think, Theresa--probably knew nothing but rain. For Theresa and her classmates, it was the climate in their homes, or wherever they went after school. And, of course, their parents or other alcoholic relatives made that climate. On the other hand, the kids in the hospital were born into it, irrespective of anything they or their parents did in this, or possibly any other, life.

I last saw Theresa and her classmates in 1990 and the kids in the hospital in 1991. It occurs to me now that I was then teaching two sides of myself. Other teachers and professors have told me about seeing themselves in their students. That was never so true for me as it was when I was working with Theresa and her classmates, and the kids in the hospital. Actually, I would look at Theresa and her classmates and think about their parents and other alcoholic relatives, whom I'd never met. I knew that I'd probably committed all sorts of spriritual and emotional--and a little bit of physical--violence onto other people when I was drinking and taking drugs. Yet I knew that what I felt--namely, low self-esteem, a misplaced sense of guilt and an encompassing despair--was much like, if not identical to, what the kids expressed in their poems and stories.

On the other hand, the kinship I felt with the kids in the hospital was not as easy for most people to understand or for me to express, at least at that time. Their bodies bound some of them to beds and wheelchairs; others to needles and feeding schedules. However, their minds and spirits took them to all sorts of places their beds and wheelchairs could not take them. And their imaginations danced, jumped, swam, ran and played musical instruments, even when their limbs couldn't.

But for some there was always the rain. So it was for Toni.

She was one of the first people I met when I moved onto the block where I now live. She and Millie would become the first friends I'd make in my new life. But my friendship with Toni was strained for a time when I first began to live as Justine: She made some disdainful and even cutting remarks. But one day she asked if we could talk. It was then that she confessed her jealousy: She always wanted to be a man, she said, but it wasn't possible. For one thing, she said, with her medical problems and previous history of drug abuse, she wouldn't be able to take the hormones. "But more importantly," she said, "I'm not brave enough to do something like that."

"Oh, don't talk about yourself that way. You were..."

"I am a coward."

"No. I was the coward, when I wouldn't confront who I am."

"But you're still more courageous than I am..."

"You're entitled to your opinion."

And then a couple of November days like this one passed. On my way to work one morning, I saw Millie, in tears. I hugged her.

"Toni...died..." she choked.

"Oh, no. What happened?"

After a seemingly interminable pause, she sobbed, "She took an overdose of sleeping pills."

Although I was shocked, somehow I wasn't surprised. Of course, I was thinking of what Toni told me. But I also knew, as Millie and I would later discuss, that she was unhappy: She suffered from being bipolar, the after-effects of her drug usage and the lack of a family. And, as Millie told me later, she had just turned sixty. "And she got really depressed when the days got shorter and she saw winter coming on.

You might say that she thought the rain would never end. Of course, it does not end permanently until you die. (As if I know what happens when you die!) But it ends some time, and stays away. And when it comes again, you can go into your place, a friend's or to a cafe or some other place with someone, or with a book, and have a conversation. Sooner or later, the rain ends.

At least it does for me. Maybe it never could have for Toni. And I wonder: In what kinds of climates have those kids lived since I knew them?

Hopefully, the rain ends some time and returns when it's needed.

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