"Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash". Wow, I never understood those specific lyrics to the song "Royals" by Lorde, as well as I do now reflecting upon them. Digesting them. Feeling them, actually feeling them. Taking in the words for the first time, I attempted to sing them when I first heard the song and every opportunity since (horribly of course - my ass can barely carry a tune). My first time ever hearing the song was in the basement with mom during the fall of my senior year - bonding over our favorite show - "The Vampire Diaries". It was the season five premiere during the scene when Elena gave Damon a final kiss before rushing out the front door to college. I loved the song, but I just didn't get why the producers selected this song for this moment. And then I came to a conclusion. This song is about a journey that changes lives. The song choice suggested - perhaps rightfully so after seeing the season five finale - and I'm still shocked that Katherine died - that Elena's journey to college marked a transition into certain life events that would change her life forever. This made me anticipate my own transition to college - this was my final year of high school. Ready or not, my life as an adult was on the horizon. I began to reminisce about my past and how the events prior to my transition into high school had changed my life forever. Would this next transition produce a similar transformation in my life? What kind of change would college bring? In an attempt to brainstorm some answers, I decided to compare the effect of my pre-high school life events to the possible experiences that I thought I would be likely to encounter in college and what they might teach me. And so began the flashbacks - shit.
The putrid odor of Newport cigarettes and reggie-weed having an affair in my apartment often welcomed me home from school. The drugs and the dishes of course. The drugs, the dishes, the screaming, the crying, the cursing, the threatening, and the fear. Fear often rolled out the welcome mat when I returned from my average life as a seventh grader, to my beautiful apartment in inner-city Philadelphia. Cottman and Bustleton Ave.; I knew Regency Apartments' first floor apartment 6 all too well. Like clockwork, Xavier would enter with me as we would come back from school and we would both be greeted by sweet little Miss Ava. Ava, who would be un-bathed and often unchanged smelling of urine with a mouth sticky with Hawaiian Punch and Aunt Jemima's signature maple syrup, would run up to my little 8-year-old brother and I and embrace us after our return home each day. Ava, the sharpest little 5-year-old going on 55, would always breathe a sigh of relief that her two older brothers were finally home. That her two saviors had returned. Mom would often remain in her room until dinner while her "fiancé" would head back to immediately lock himself in the room after having brought Xavier and me home from school. Home, if only this place felt like home.
How did life happen this way? Why the f*ck am I stuck here when I had such a great life in Staten Island where mom and step-papa Kellyn took great care of us in the family military housing complex in Fort Wadsworth? I suppose New York was where I first began my struggle to understand the world and intiated my attempts to understand what it meant to be a man. What did it really mean to be a man? Was being a man synonymous with showing no emotion? How could I be more of a man? Mom would often tell me that she was teaching me how to be a man and even more frequently instructed me to "toughen up". Was a man expected to be "tough" while a boy was supposed to be weak?
I played outside with my friends each day from afternoon to evening, did quite well in school, and everything just seemed better. More quiet. It was always quiet in our military housing apartment number 6 on the third floor. Except for the blaring ambulance sirens that would often sound in the middle of the night to transport my mother to some magical hospital. When I was eight I always wondered about this magical hospital. The hospital that Kellyn and Grandmom repeatedly said would make "mommy better". But it never really did make her better, did it? She still tried to leave home through her wrists and would remember to call us from the hospital to say goodnight before her return home in the proceeding few weeks. Then after mom would return, the silence would again be broken, but this time by arguing and fighting over the belief that Kellyn cared too little for her and that she was "done" and getting a divorce. Despite mom having happily married the Coast Guard petty officer who took us with him from my birthplace in Philly to his place of employment in New York when I was about seven, I've now returned to Philly at the age of twelve. Age is so integral to my story. Age was how I kept track of all of the lessons I learned in life. At eight, I learned what borderline personality disorder meant. Well, I witnessed what it meant, but I didn't really understand its definition until the age of eighteen. But for now, at age eight, I knew it meant two things. One, mommy cries a lot. Two, mommy hates me. Mom would never say much to me unless a teacher had called home or I happened to catch her at dinner. I always wondered why mom wasn't much like the mom's on TV. I always thought that our family seemed to be like the sad movies on TV, but mom never mirrored the loving mother who always died at the end. I just knew that as a man, it was up to me - it was expected of me - to stay strong and to give little to no thought to the details of our family.
Regency Apartments' apartment 6 was the second life experience which helped me to become a little more in-tune with what I concluded the definition of a man was. It was there that I witnessed the physical and mental abuse delivered to mom from her drug dealing "fiancé". Fiancé - what a funny joke. Mom, as a result of her feeling unloved from her mental disability, took respite with this man who in turn took pleasure in her mental disability and practically destroyed her. Tough - yeah that word again. It was tough - practically having to raise my siblings while barely averaging C's and B's in middle school. Yet, it had to be done. Because that's what men do right? They toughen up - they rise above all odds and get shit done. A man also wasn't allowed to be gay, permitted to cry or able to think about the well-being of anyone else other than those around him. I cared deeply for my brother and sister who had no way of being tough all on their own so I sought to being tough for 'em. I sought to being tough for mom also until she did the most ballsy thing that I could've ever imagined. For so long she had threatened her loving fiancé that she would leave him for the pills in her container which read the days of the week. After she finally managed to send the affectionate dick-head packing towards the end of my 8th grade year and my brother and sister had been taken from her by Kellyn, it happened so suddenly. Remaining with mom since Kellyn couldn't legally abduct me from my birth mother, I began to spend more time alone with her. During this much needed mother and son bonding era I began to feel all the more obligated to take care of her. Our cable had been shut off and I tried to care for her as well as I could. My mother who had once been a beautiful model in her youth, with eyes full of potential and bright brown was now an overweight depressed hollowed-shell with eyes red with struggle and fatigue. She had truly hit rock bottom. I guess it shouldn't have come to any great surprise then that she would eventually count on her medication to fill her hallowed being with purpose again. It was this third experience - after New York and after the events of the apartment in Northeast Philly - that guided me even closer to the meaning at which I would soon arrive.
Luckily, mom had survived her suicide attempt, but then became rather distant. It was then that Grandmom with the help of Angel, her fiancé of four years who indeed lived up to his name, had taken me in and helped me to face what hurdle came next. In all of the family excitement, I neglected my schooling. I remember this conversation like it were yesterday - the fourth and the final experience - this one gave me a more distilled definition of what I believe it means to be a man. Grandmom sat me down and asked if this was the life that I wanted. Did I want to stay in Philly and remain a slave to my family's tragedies? Well, I wanted to take care of mom, but Grandmom helped me to understand that it wasn't my obligation. But wait, wasn't being a man about growing up fast and taking care of my family and being tough about it all? Grandmom helped me to see that those functions had nothing to do with being a man - that that belief would only make me a prisoner. She helped me to realize that life isn't about being what life conditions you to be, but it's about what you choose to be. I realized that my life wasn't teaching me to be a man. I was already a man by biological definitions. Life was teaching me to fight. Tough meant perseverance and ordering me "to be a man" was just my mother's way of demanding that I take on the world with this understanding.
By the time my high school graduation day had arrived, I had worked my ass off every day in high school to now be the first in my family to attend college and to be the first to graduate with zero debt - "god willing", as Grandmom has a habit of saying. She successfully helped me to register what I could not at age eight, age twelve, or even at age fourteen. It was during my four years of high school that I truly exercised what it meant to be a man in my opinion and what it meant to be successful. But being successful isn't necessarily what it means to be a man. To be a man or to be a woman even, is to be human. Being human is fighting for what you believe in. Learning from our individual life experiences is simply the prerequisite to achieving the means to do so. And upon listening to "Royals" for the thousandth time during my sentimental morning car ride on move-in-day, I realized something else. I concluded that indeed "we'll never be royals" as the song argues. However, if we attempt to turn our fantasies into reality, I mean, if we really chase our dreams, then and only then - if we catch those dreams, may we actually begin to understand the meaning of the dreams and all that it took to finally get to them.
My mother is now a makeup blogger who attends cosmetology school and her steps towards a happier existence are what inspire me each day to become the man I aspire to be. My mother's story inspires me each and every day. I hope her story and my own will inspire you as well.