As I type these words, I don’t know if I have the courage to
submit this column for publication. What I’m about to write might
be a little personal to make public. Tears now fill my eyes.
As I type these words, I don’t know if I have the courage to submit this column for publication. What I’m about to write might be a little personal to make public. Tears now fill my eyes.
It all started when someone told me the story of an 11-year-old boy living in the South Valley. The kid is facing a tough time in his life – a time far more demanding than most people ever have to face. His single mom is very ill. Every day, this young boy has to bathe her, dress her, cook for her, as well as clean their apartment and do other household chores. He does it because he loves his mom. He does it because he is the man of the house.
This heavy responsibility brings a huge toll. The boy goes to school exhausted. It’s hard for him to find energy to do his homework, let alone have an ordinary home life. Adding to his burden, his teacher scolds him and demeans him in front of the class because he falls asleep and is often not able to concentrate. It’s hard to focus on math and reading when you’re worried about an ailing mom at home.
I don’t know the boy’s name or which school he goes to. The reason I care about this young lad is because I faced a similar childhood burden. A couple of months after I turned 13, my dad suffered a major stroke. It paralyzed the entire right side of his body. It also affected his personality.
A devastating infirmity can hit a family hard. I’d just started my teenage years, and suddenly, I was the “man of the house.” Dad became an infant child. I gave him baths, dressed him every morning and gave him insulin shots for his diabetes. I did it because I loved him.
The pressure of caring for an ill husband and the financial burdens of medical bills had a heavy toll on my mom emotionally. She frequently went into severe depression. Normally, she was light-hearted. She loved making silly jokes and telling funny stories. But when the black fog rolled in, it was hell.
I recall on several occasions her suicidal impulses. One time, I found her in a park near our house. Under a pepper tree, she sat cross-legged and stared with this horrible vacant gaze at nothing. She kept screaming, “I kill myself! I kill myself! I kill myself!” I pleaded with her to please come out of it. When she did, I saw the anguish in her eyes.
Thinking about how the 11-year-old boy’s teacher treated him in class, embarrassing him in front of his fellow classmates and friends, I feel an anger heat burn in my gut. I understand his classroom turmoil.
I attended a Christian school in Hollister. Soon after dad suffered his stroke, the pastor of that church school told me God was punishing me for my sins. Dad’s stroke was my fault. The pastor’s words generated a huge wave of guilt that burdened my soul for years. It still does.
My mom took me out of that school and sent me in my freshman year to Palma High School in Salinas. Some of the teachers and the Catholic brothers at Palma knew about my private childhood pain. They treated me with respect, compassion and understanding – and that made all the difference in my life.
I try not to think too much about what I went through as a teenager. I’m amazed at that youngster back then who loved his parents so much he sacrificed his childhood to take physical care of his dad and emotional care of his mom.
Those five years before my dad died were a tough time. Occasionally, the teenage Martin felt like running away from his problems at home. He wanted to flee to a faraway place, a place safe and secure from the ordeal. But he stuck it out. The adult Martin would not have that kid’s courage.
I’ve shared my childhood situation with few people. It’s not a very nice story. But recently, I told it to a friend who is running for a South Valley school board this election campaign season. I wanted to make a point that schools are not just educational institutions. They are places where young people who face a harsh life and painful family realities can find some kindness and understanding. Educators and school administrators can make a difference.
I’m sharing my story with the hope some teacher might read these words and decide to show some kindness to the kid who tends his ill mom. Childhood is hard. Reality sometimes sucks. Some heart-felt tenderness shown every now and then can make a big difference in a little boy’s life.