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In the Beginning, There Was Struggle
I was a thirty-year-old dad doing my best to keep one of my daughters from falling into the water while sitting on a bumpy blue boat as it rolled through room after room. Dancing dolls that sang “It’s a Small World” went from being cute to completely distracting as my phone buzzed in my pocket. Initially I had planned on ignoring it, thinking it was a work email that my director of operations could handle, but against my better judgment, I reached in my pocket with one hand while my other was busy keeping little hands and feet in the boat at all times. As the screen lit up, I stared long and hard at the message I never thought I would see. Of course, it would make sense to receive this message while being at the most magical place on earth.
“Email from Sied.”
This would be the first time in my life I had ever heard from my father.
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. This story starts long before, and one must hear the entirety of it in order to appreciate that moment at Disneyland in 2014. I want to tell you about the beginning—actually, even before the beginning—and explain how I came to be in the first place.
My mom left the confines of her strict upbringing as the only girl, with five older brothers, to go to college at Utah State University in 1983. With the move, she finally felt free to “let loose” without facing the constant lectures from her Latter-day Saint father that made up the majority of their relationship during her childhood in Burley.
Burley’s a small town of ten thousand along the Snake River in Southern Idaho. Most of the area was farms, the rest was factories. There were more cows in the locality than people. It is the type of town that folks dream of escaping from, especially my mom, but always seem to end up going back to. Some by choice, most by destiny or default.
Churches dotted most street corners, and the leftover corners ended up with bars. If you didn’t go to church on Sunday, you went to the bar. If you did both, either you were Catholic or you hoped neither of the groups would find out about each other. If you didn’t do either, it would be a hard place to have any type of group. My mom tried both and didn’t like either of the street corner options. She simply didn’t fit anywhere.
Her memories of attending The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teen consisted of dos and do nots with very little talk of love or the Savior. I don’t know if it was due to only paying attention to things that bugged her or if her leaders were focused more on the cultural side of how to be a Latter-day Saint and less on how to be like the Savior. Either way, she saw youth her age act a certain way at church and a very different way at school. It always bothered her. Ultimately, from her perspective, she never could see past what she considered to be hypocrisy at church and tended to find kindness and spirituality outside of the chapel and very much on her own.
From the stories I have heard, the culminating experience that pushed her away was a conversation with her bishop (the volunteer church leader over the congregation).
He called her in for an interview about how she was doing. She felt uncomfortable talking to him—largely due to her complete and utter distrust for men in positions of power—and decided that he needed to promise that if she told him things in confidence then he wouldn’t share them with her parents. According to her, he agreed with a trusting smile and coaxed her to continue with her story. After my mom spilled the beans about all the shenanigans that she got up to as a slightly rebellious adolescent, the bishop said all would be fine but then went right to her father. So by the time she meandered home, there was a cold chair and a stern voice waiting for her, which led to a multiple-hour lecture about how her life wouldn’t amount to much and she was headed for a premature pregnancy and homelessness unless she straightened up and started paying attention in church. Of course, that didn’t sit well with her, as she felt no love, no forgiveness, and definitely no trust. Her mind was made up to find a different path, though her next wouldn’t bear any better fruit.
I will always remember her explanation of the “underage bar crowd” in Burley. She told me they would accept anyone—well, as long as you smoked, drank, and tried whatever drugs were around. The thought of new and accepting friends allured her, and she dove in head first only to find the same hypocrisy, where friendship and kindness were always based on the condition of doing what others told her to do.
She simply longed for people who could love and accept her for who she was. She wanted to be around people who were kind. Overall, many of her teenage years were spent being let down on that front, and the thought of a new and bigger college town away from religion and the opinions of others offered her a fresh start to find herself. So when the opportunity came to head to Utah State, she couldn’t have been more excited.
My mom had a hidden beauty about her that was covered by big glasses and an extremely shy personality. As people came to truly know her, though, they were met with a very strong-willed and fun woman who preferred sports over singing and would rather visit a dentist than be caught dead in a dress.
She liked to “hang” in the student rec building and shark the pool table. She was good—so good that a chunk of the Utah State football team would line up to play her on days off. She would beat them one by one while they laughed at each other and watched in amazement.
That situation might be as intimidating as being a bull-fight- ing matador for some women, but my mom’s five older brothers had taught her long ago how to compete fiercely in everything she did. Some of her favorite moments were beating her brothers at various sports against all odds, though she knew the real “beating” would come from them later.
There was another group that liked to hang out in the rec building as well. They were international students from Palestine who found themselves in Utah looking for good education and great women. One, in particular, had his eye on my mom. He showered her with gifts and compliments constantly. He told her stories of life in a war zone and his struggle to live as a Muslim in the land of Jews. It struck a chord. Knowing her, I doubt that did much for helping him win a game of nine-ball, but it did win over her heart. My mom wasn’t used to the middle-eastern hospitality that suitors crafted for the chance to find a woman. She’d had such bad experiences with boys in Burley that the stark difference was a complete breath of fresh air. But, like much of her childhood spent trying to find her place, things weren’t exactly as they seemed.
I don’t know many of the details about my parents’ courtship, mainly because my dad wasn’t a subject that we talked about as I was growing up. I had one picture of him, and before I was eight, I ripped it up.
I honestly can’t remember why I tore the picture up. I still see the sepia-toned shot and his dark glasses above a thick mustache in my mind as my little hands tore again and again. I just can’t remember the motive. When my mom found the pieces lying on the floor, she took it as a sign that he wasn’t up for discussion, so that was that.
The one thing I did know was that their relationship obviously and most definitely did not work out.
My parents’ relationship became strained; she distanced her- self, and he overcompensated with extreme possessiveness and anger. From the bits and pieces I’ve gathered over the years, there were plenty of reasons that the strain took place. One stood out head and shoulders above the rest.
My mom developed stronger feelings for one of her professors than for my dad. That professor happened to be a woman. My mom said that even from a young age she looked at women a little differently than she thought she should. This time the feelings were too strong and too confusing to ignore. Her professor was smart, funny, and sporty and seemed to pay particularly close attention to my mom. The complications were plentiful, but my mom made the decision to do what she could to spend as much time with her professor as possible and avoid my dad. To make matters more complicated, she discovered that she was pregnant with me shortly after breaking up with my father.
I like to consider this her “hat trick” moment in life—three major events emerging at the same time that would have caused any other woman to crumble. She finally accepted the realization that she had much stronger feelings for women than men, broke up with her serious boyfriend, and discovered that she was pregnant all at the same time. I wouldn’t wish that combination of events on anyone, and yet she was in the middle of dealing with those things and trying to make sense of it all.
While many would have recommended abortion as her only option, that thought didn’t settle well with her—or me, as I sit here thinking that my whole existence might not have been— and she opted to carry on. As I have tried to understand that time of her life, I have come to the conclusion that there is no combination of words that could adequately explain the confusion and difficulty she was facing. In the midst of it, she decided to keep the pregnancy a secret from my father and fled back to her hometown to give birth.
There was a mix of reasons my mom has shared with me over the years for why she kept the pregnancy secret. Most of them were centered on the fact that when she discovered her pregnancy, she was scared of my father, his cultural views of women, and his religion. When she started to spend less time with him, he compensated by showing up at her apartment unannounced and questioning her roommates and even her professor about her whereabouts. She was nervous that if he found out she was pregnant, and they weren’t together, he might try to claim the right to her child, steal me, and flee to the Middle East, where she would have no right to bring me back home. While I have no idea if this was a likely scenario, she was definitely scared enough to go to extreme measures to ensure the pregnancy stayed a secret.
As soon as the news of the untimely “baby bump” rolled its way through her brothers and parents upon her arrival back in Burley, it became their turn to offer up advice on what she should do. Most told her that she wasn’t ready for a child and that adoption was the only option, and religion was the only way to make amends. Yet again, and with firmer resolve, she resisted and let it be known that she was going to keep the baby and do the best she could on her own.
I was born on June 30, 1984, at Cassia Regional Hospital in good ol’ Burley, Idaho. It happened to be the day that the Olympic torch came through the town on its way to the summer games in Los Angeles. Everyone told my mom it was a sign of great things for me since nothing of significance came through Burley other than constant high winds and the occasional snowstorm.
Though my grandparents had struggled with my mom’s decision-making for years, they were always very supportive in their actions. If my mom was willing to bear a lecture, then they would pitch in and help her any way they could after the fact. My birth was no different. They were not happy with my mom being pregnant. It was very much against their personal moral code. Nonetheless, they stood by her choice to keep me and offered a helping hand even when some told them that they should let my mom fend for herself.
According to my grandpa, who was in the room when I was born, I had big outstretched hands as I let out my first screams. He thought I would be great at sports while my grandma thought I would be great at piano. I ended up mediocre at both, so they could each be half right, and I could be half good at two things you need to be great at to attract womanly attention and manly respect—or at least so I thought through most of my adolescence.
My mom had a couple of semesters left to complete when I was born, and she knew that my father would still be at Utah State. Considering the secret birth and wanting to keep things from getting seriously complicated, she made the hard decision for me to stay in Burley with my grandparents until she finished her degree to become a special education teacher.
The young, carefree girl who spent her time on the pool tables of the rec building gave way to a single mother who was deter- mined to graduate as fast as possible in order to make a life for her son. She told me it was one of the hardest times of her life. She would speed home on Friday after classes jamming out to Kansas’s “Carry On Wayward Son” and then cry for the entire two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Utah State on Sundays.
Meanwhile, I got chubby under my grandparents’ care, and according to anonymous sources, I would sit on everyone’s lap, grab their ears, and suck on their chin. This is not a habit I have kept intact.
After my mom finished school against the odds, she took a teaching job in Utah, and we moved into our first place together. It was a dark basement apartment with concrete floors and lawn chairs for furniture. Though the memories are few and far between, I do remember standing at the top of the stairs to our apartment as someone was showing my mom how to swing a golf club. I stepped forward at the exact wrong time and took the backswing to the face and proceeded to fall down the stairs. I sure wish I could have gotten ahold of their ears and let their chin know who was boss.
Another memory comes from a tape recording my mom kept over the years. I never wanted to go to bed (imagine that). So I would try to tell my mom stories to postpone the inevitable, and my favorite was The Big Bad “Woof.”
She would try to put me down, and I would say, “Mom, the big bad woof is huffing.”
“It’s time for bed, Mike.”
“But he’ll blow our house down!”
“It’s still time for bed.”
“No! Three piggies have to get away.”
Needless to say, my story didn’t work and I had to go to bed.
As I got older, if I was ever trying to put something off, she would remind me of the “woof” and how she always wins in the end.
Over the next few years, we moved from Salt Lake City to American Falls and then to Pocatello, Idaho. The time was filled with Ninja Turtles action figures, lots of TV, and very few friends. It’s a period of my life that I can’t say I enjoyed. While most boys my age were playing with their fathers, I was getting acquainted with the comforts of a TV in a lonely room. The neighborhoods we lived in weren’t safe enough for an adult to be alone outside, let alone a child, so instead of roaming the neighborhood with kids my age, I learned to entertain myself indoors.
My mom worked extremely hard during the day with very demanding high school kids who hadn’t had a fair hand dealt to them. She taught kids who had dyslexia, Down syndrome, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, and everything else you could imagine. Then she came home in the evenings to a never-ending list of demands from me. She had no breaks, no social life, and no hope that her future would bring her anything beyond the life of struggle that we lived. But through it all, she always greeted me with a smile on her face. My mom was my best friend.
I did have a few other childhood friends, but I grew up a little too quickly from the influence they had on me. For instance, at a daycare in American Falls, one of my friends said it would be really fun to call our sitter a name. He told me how to spell it and said I should repeat the word over and over. So, with all the bravery a young five-year-old could muster, I stood up amongst a crowd of my peers playing with blocks and blankies and shouted, “Hey, lady! You’re a [bleep].” The actual word I spelled out rhymed with Lilo’s alien friend Stitch, but like Disney, I want to keep things PG.
I had no idea what the word meant, but her gasp and the look on her face led me to think that it probably wasn’t a great oration of her beauty and ability with children. I did, however, find out that I preferred the taste of Irish Spring soap to Dial.
I wish I could say that bad words were the worst things I learned from friends. That sadly wasn’t the case. My best friend started smoking cigarettes when he was seven and would want to play with me for an excuse to smoke outside in our fort. I hated that he smoked. I hated it because my mom did too, and it stunk and made me cough. My friend, in his best grown-up voice, told me that he was addicted and that I shouldn’t start up or I would end up like him. While I was grateful for the sound advice, it didn’t stop him from offering, nor did it stop my constant rejections.
That just scratches the surface of the situations I was in at way too young of an age. The bad thing about bad neighborhoods is that there is no end to issues unleashed on the inhabitants, and children are usually the ones who take the brunt of it. While I wish I could say otherwise, I didn’t escape unscathed.
One day, while I was walking home from school in Pocatello, an old van started to follow close behind me. I turned to see who it was, but the driver had sunglasses and a hat on. I walked a little faster. The van kept up the pace and began to close in on me. Eventually it was to my side, and I stopped. The man in the car looked at me and reached to grab something. Everything inside my little body felt sick, and I could only think of one thing to do. Run!
I ran as fast as I had ever run before through the remaining four zigzagging blocks to my house. The van followed, but on the last turn, I gained distance and hurried through the front door. I could hardly breathe as I imagined some snatcher outside looking for a way into the house. As I sat there waiting for my mom to come home, I realized how much I hated where we lived, and I desperately hoped that we wouldn’t be there much longer. A week later, a child disappeared not far from where we lived.
My younger years were slow, hard, and filled with memories I would rather forget than replay to write this book. There was one bright and constant light in my life during those times: my mom, and the love she had for me. For a third-grader, that was all that mattered.