Monday, June 18, 2018

“Shape Up or Ship Out”*

Spoken to me, at 11 years of age, I had no idea of its military origin, but understood the terrible meaning. Behave, or end up somewhere else much worse. The second part of the threat solidified that idea. “Or we’ll move away and leave you behind.”

The threat was rooted in real life. The Brooklyn townhouse was sold, a house in the Jersey suburbs purchased, and for some reason unfathomable to me, my very existence seemed offensive.

He had been in the Marines, my stepfather, and the wedding picture with  my mother showed him in full dress blues. He had tattoos on his arms; one that I would learn was his serial number, in case his body was otherwise unidentifiable. His father had abandoned his family when he was very young, and his mother had become a hard disciplinarian in order to keep 6 kids in line. He joined the Marines so young his mother had to sign the papers. So, resorting to military-style ordering of me around probably came naturally. But at age 11, I didn’t know any of this. All I knew was, this man suddenly seemed like he couldn’t stand the sight of me. The man I had so joyously bragged about on the subway, “Now I have a daddy!” (An incident that caused my red-faced aunt to explain to the entire subway car that my father had died when I was only weeks old, and my mother had just remarried. It was the 50s, after all.)

At night, I laid awake, afraid to go to sleep, lest the family sneak out without me in the middle of the night. The idea that I would be separated from my parents, no matter how mad they were at me, filled me with dread. Where would I go? What would I do? Who would take care of me? I prayed my rosary, pleading with the Blessed Mother to help me be good enough to go and live in New Jersey.

Fear of abandonment is a real issue for children who sense any sort of instability in their lives. It leads them to endure abuse, protect addicted parents, and take care of younger siblings. The idea of being torn from the family is that strong.

When my younger sister and I were sent to live with my stepfather’s sister for a few weeks, the terror came with me. I tried to stifle it by telling myself that they would certainly come back for her, if not for me. And if this aunt I hardly knew gave a good report, then they would take me, too.

Years later, I would feel those words echo in my head when reading stories, such as “A Christmas Carol.” I cried at the part where the young Ebenezer was left, alone, at boarding school, holiday after holiday.

I even developed a kind of magical thinking when I had children of my own – that as long as they were with me, or I knew exactly where they were and when they were coming back, they were safe. I tell myself I did a pretty good job hiding that as my kids grew up, they might say different. Today, that anxiety returns if one of my grown up children is more than an hour’s driving distance from me.  Having one live somewhere that requires airfare is really tough, and I am grateful for Face Time.

This personal history has contributed to a high level of distress, empathy and concern over the recent treatment of children at America’s border. I know how it was to live under the threat of being separated from my parents. Having it actually happen in this way is truly child abuse.

We learned after the London Blitz, when children who were evacuated from London alone, were compared to those children who stayed with their parents, the evacuated children had more trauma than those who rushed to air raid shelters with their parents, as bombs rained around them. And there are plenty of other studies that look at separation trauma.

This bargaining ploy instituted by our government, a way to force battling politicians to sit down and fall in line with other controversial policies and projects, uses children as bait. They have committed no crime, yet, they are imprisoned. They are torn from parents, who are charged, not convicted, of a misdemeanor, and given no recourse. Even murderers get bailed out sometimes. Racketeers wear ankle bracelets and stay in their palatial homes. These children have no such ways to mitigate their situations. And I not only fear their lasting trauma, but how they may visit their anger on America when they get older.

I hear them crying. I feel their tears on my face. I know the nightmares, the sleeplessness and the anxiety. I fear that some are so young, they will, in self-defense, forget their parents, or never be able to properly bond with them when they are reunited. The trauma created by this cruel and unusual punishment may last their entire lives. The price of trying to prove a point is too high.

* It is a phrase of World War II in America when armed forces first used this command. It suggested that the sailors, soldiers or marines are warned to adapt according to the rules and regulations or rightfully perform their tasks they are supposed to, if they are to stay in the field otherwise they would be expelled or sent to back zone. Later the phrase was expanded to include all areas in which improvement and performances were demanded.

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