Just Listening

“I can’t. I can’t open this car door,” wails seven-year old Samantha, hand tugging awkwardly – ineffectively – on the inside handle of her parents’ bulky old Suburban station wagon. I was in Florida for a weekend visit from Chicago. We’d spent the morning at Lowry Park Zoo. Although it wasn’t quite naptime, both of us were a little worn from an overabundance of orangutans and ostriches on a hot tropical day.

“Samantha!” I chide. “I know a strong young girl like you can get that door open. Just open it! And stop complaining.”

I sit, waiting her out, as she tugs for a few minutes. With her loud grunts and groans, she is no doubt making it clear that I’m expecting a great deal from her. After a few minutes, the car door swings open and she hops out.

“See,” I say, maybe a bit too smugly. “You did it.” Samantha, my first-born grandchild, and I will repeat this dance in years to come.

It is the 90s and I, who grew up with a father who told me girls belonged at home, not out on his shrimp boat like my boyfriend, wanted to be a different kind of adult in Samantha’s life. I, who had lived through the I Am Woman Hear Me Roar decades and an I Will Survive divorce, I wanted Samantha to have a shortcut to the lessons I’d learned about life as a female. I was determined this little girl would grow up feeling her power. While other grandmothers might pamper Samantha, cooing over her this angelic-looking girl with pouty mouth and long blond curls. My goal was to be the abuela – or Beba – that promoted self-assurance. Over the years of her childhood, I saw each visit as an opportunity for new experiences to expand her world and to develop her inner strengths. Every visit across the 1200 miles separating us was a teaching opportunity, from the Museum of Science and Industry to the Tampa Art Museum. I eagerly awaited the day when, at fourteen, she was old enough to visit for a Beba Pat intensive.

Samantha was an indoor kid, rarely venturing outdoors into Florida’s heat for fear of getting too sweaty. As my wife, Lynda, and I planned Samantha’s week-long visit, we eagerly included an opportunity to show Samantha the wonders of the outdoors through a weekend camping trip.

We’d spent the morning lounging among the majestic trees, marveling at the ghostly bark peeling from of the Ash, periodically catching a glimpse of a woodpecker or two after pausing to hear the rat-a-tat. She’d been sent to change from Powerpuff Girls PJs to her jeans for the day ahead. Proudly, my wife, Lynda, and I had demonstrated how to set up, then tarp, a tent as the sun disappeared. This morning was a lesson in rekindling the campfire for morning coffee and fried eggs that stuck to the pan’s sides. Lynda and I sit at a picnic table in the midst of the tented campsite, peacefully watching the day grow bright as beams surged through trees, patiently waiting for the morning hike. Suddenly loud laughter-tinged screeching accompanied by a frantic scratching from Samantha’s tent disturbs our Waldenesque peace.

“I can’t get the tent door open. I can’t get out. I’m stuck inside here,” Samantha yells.

“I can’t open it,” she shrieks again, in case I missed it the first time. I shake my head and interpret the situation in ASL for my wife, who’s Deaf.

The girls say they can’t get out of the tent, I sign. That’s so silly. Ridiculous!

“I’m certain that a smart, competent female like you can figure out how to get that tent open,” I shout back to her. “Just do it. Try a little harder, Samantha.” Minutes later the tent flap opens and she bursts out rolling on the ground.

“That was really hard!” Samantha says, stifling a giggle. And I nod, knowing I have once again outsmarted her.

I feel proud that I’m not giving into her bids for help, as have so many adults with young girls for generations, undermining their confidence and resilience. Over the next ten years Samantha shows resilience, working at jobs as varied as swim instructor to fraud claims adjuster while getting a college degree and becoming a mother. Throughout it all she remains vocally adamant that this is the obstacle she cannot overcome, seemingly seeking rescue from life’s day-to-day hardships.

In her mid-twenties, Samantha’s shouts suddenly rose to a crescendo, this time coming through hourly, Facebook posts.

“I can’t do this. I can’t go on,” she cries from the screen in anguish.

“My life is over, in the blink of an eye.”

This time Samantha faces something much bigger than car doors or tent flaps. At twenty-three, she is the mother of a young child and her fiancé has overdosed in the midst of a phone call to her. Their toddler daughter is asleep in the next room. Samantha rushes home to face her own private version of the fentanyl nightmare that rocks the United States. I watch in horror the next day as she begins to give vent to her reactions to the tragic turn of her life in a very public way, on social media.

“All my dreams have been destroyed,” she posts that night, sharing her sense of overwhelming loss.

Words were coupled with stark images that are difficult to see. Daily photos of times past with her fiancé, of his funeral, of his gravestone. Pictures of their daughter with father photoshopped in ghostly fashion.

“I can’t believe he’s gone forever,” she keens in desolation.

The raw emotions of her posts go unrecognized by me and others as legitimate manifestations of grief. Like graffiti scrawled on smooth stone, the public nature of her mourning, reflecting ancient traditions, clashes with modern preferences. They also clash with the “stiff upper lip” teachings that have been a thorn in my own side throughout life.

In conversations with my friends, heads shake in disapproval, repeating the messages we were given.

“She needs to move on. She’s got a job, and a daughter. That should be enough to keep her busy,” says one.

“And she should keep all that to herself,” adds another.

I steel myself for my phone calls from afar to Samantha. Intended to be supportive, the calls quickly become stern pep talks in the voice of my mother, long gone.

“You just can’t let yourself get so upset,” I say, following this admonishment with Ann Landers-like advice. “Find a grief support group.”

“Don’t you understand?” she shouts. “I will never be happy again.”

Her voice continues to rise, her words tumbling out rapidly in clipped rage as she tries to convince me that there is no other possible way to see the world, her world.

“You’re young,” I argue. “You have a college degree. You can’t let this ruin your life.”

Samantha hangs up the phone.

Over the next few years Samantha and I manage to stay in touch through occasional phone calls and holiday visits. A year later I learn that she’s found a new apartment, a duplex that can be a fresh start, one step removed from dark memories of the horror of the home she was building with her fiancé. On my next visit I spend the afternoon with her in the apartment, and marvel over how many ways mermaids can be used in décor.

“I hear you’re not planning to come out to your father’s house for Christmas Day. What’s up with that?” I ask, as I wash a few dishes.

She talks of long distances, busy schedules, and exhaustion before admitting that holidays are difficult for her, with the man and life she’d dreamed of gone. Festivities with coupled-up siblings and nuclear families are just too upsetting. At the tip of my tongue are the many reasons for her to disregard those feelings and make the hour-long drive. Instead I pause, drying off my hands, walking to stand beside her while I recite the Serenity Prayer in my head.

“I can see where that would be painful, Samantha, and I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go,” I say softly, realizing it costs me nothing to empathize. Relinquishing the illusion that I can change this young woman who’s learning about life her own way.

“Thank you, Beba Pat, thank you,” she replies quietly. “You know, all I ever wanted was for people to just let me be upset. I just wanted them to listen to me.”

I feel a sharp pain deep in my chest as I remember feeling those same feelings while growing up in my family.

“You know, you used to say we were so much alike,” Samantha continues. “But all those years I could never see it. Now I do.”

And I’m filled with the painful pleasure of ceding ancestral traditions of fortitude and stoicism in the face of adversity to the tenderness of simply listening. And I’m aware that in this moment of reconciliation has come the redemption of seeing each other, maybe for the first time.

About the Author

Pat Hulsebosch

Pat Hulsebosch is a queer Pippi Longstocking wanna-be writing about cultures and identities in a never-boring life of teaching and learning. Her recent work has appeared in Columbia Journal, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Furious Gravity, Grace & Gravity, Vo. IX. She lives with her wife, Lynda, in Florida, Chicago and the DC Metro area.