It was a photo I saw on Instagram that Amy had posted awhile back about a trip her parents had taken years ago. The destination, I can’t now even recall. But something about the photos sparked my interest and so I wrote asking if she would possibly consider contributing a post interviewing her mother about that period in her life.
What she came up with proved so much more.
Thank you Amy, for sharing with us the Story of Cheryl Anne.
Over the past couple of years I have been a long-distance domestic and international hiker accumulating more than 3,500 back country miles. Spending twelve-hour days walking alone with only my thoughts as company leads to some interesting, introspective contemplation. For example, during one all too familiar drizzly day on the South Island of New Zealand, I realized there are so many questions I wanted to ask my mom. Serious questions that even though I know the answers to, do not know her thoughts or motives. Luckily, through The Ma Books, I was given the opportunity to have this conversation with my mom.
Today is Friday, July 14th. We are at my parents’ Tennessee residence, and my mom is sitting in her chair beside me with a bucket of green beans in her lap. Habitually she picks up a bean, snaps it into three pieces, and disregards the ends into another bucket that will undoubtedly be given to the horses this evening.
“Mom, we are going to go ahead and get started with these questions. I need your full attention please.”
With a dramatic sigh mom coyly says, “I reckon let’s start. I was fixin’ to put the beans on for supper. Why don’t you be a sweetheart and do that for your momma.”
“Of course.” I say as I grab the bucket of snapped beans we brought back from Mississippi last week and make my way to the kitchen.
“Now don’t forget to add that ham hock!” she yells from the other room. Of course I know to add the ham hock. My entire life I’ve only eaten vegetables seasoned with that disgustingly delicious soulful ingredient.
My mom’s style of cooking is derived directly from her Southern roots. Cheryl Ann was born November 19th, 1947 in New Orleans, LA. She was raised in New Orleans until her father died when she was two years old. After his death, her mother, Charmain, took my mom back to her home in Jackson, Mississippi to live with Charmain’s family. When Mom was seven Charmain remarried and moved to Columbia, MS. I could end the story here, because 33 years later I was born in that same small southern town in South Miss-ippi (Natively pronounced, “Miss-ippi.” When you say it a billion times in your life it seems more efficient to leave out the middle syllable.) But I’m not going to end here. I can’t. Cheryl’s story is too good. (I’m going to refer to “Mom” as “Cheryl” from now on because I’m already confusing myself. We’ll see how long it lasts.)
During Cheryl’s high school years, Columbia, MS was still very much segregated. Yes, racially separated. Separate school facilities, water fountains, bathrooms, etc. for the “colored” as my Grandmother and Papaw described these Americans of a darker skin tone. Cheryl told me not to put any of this in my final draft. She replied, “ It really makes no difference. And it’s down-right embarrassing.”
At the age of seventeen Cheryl graduated high school and enrolled in an “accelerated secretarial program” at a junior college two hours away. She was told that if she could type, take direction and dictation (from a male a superior, nonetheless) she would never be at loss for a job. The year was 1965.
The same year, after receiving her degree, Cheryl married her childhood sweetheart. (I don’t bother to ask him name; this is not my Dad. See, this story IS getting juicy.) Shortly after Cheryl and Not-My-Dad’s nuptials, the military transferred him to Anchorage, Alaska. Although Anchorage was a long way from everything she had ever known in South Mississippi, Cheryl remembers being giddy with a nervous excitement.
Over the next twelve years, Cheryl and Not-My-Dad began growing apart. Similar to the fate of many young lovers that take the plunge maybe too soon, they realized the wants and needs of their futures were no longer parallel. The irreconcilable differences became utterly inescapable when Cheryl realized that Not-My-Dad no longer wanted to have children. Subsequently, at the age of 30 Cheryl found herself 4,500 miles away from home and alone.
We paused for a few heavy moments and she says. “I have never been proud of this. It was never either of our intentions.” Specifically growing up in the South, well known as the “Bible Belt,” divorce was considered (at least at that time) a disgrace. The type of disgrace that causes hushed murmurs as you walk to your pew on Sunday morning.
“I felt an extreme amount of guilt. Especially because your Grandmother and Papaw were devastated with the news, and really were the ones dealing with the judgment back home. Once again I had disappointed them. I always had a mind of my own. Like moving to Alaska in the first place.”
But Cheryl is the strongest of women. She quickly realized she loved living in Anchorage. She had progressed professionally and was the Administrative Assistant to the President of RCA Alaska, bringing home a very comfortable salary. Cheryl had also fallen in love with the outdoors. Among other back country adventures, she became an accomplished hunter and fisherman. “The only animal I never shot or caught was a polar bear and a dall sheep.” She proudly states.
The year was 1979, Cheryl was 32, and finally feeling like herself again. She was on vacation in Hawaii when she met a particularly handsome young lad. “I was sitting on the beach workin’ on my tan when I saw this long-haired guy wearing the shortest of short white shorts walk out of the water. I just don’t know what came over me, but I curled my index finger and summoned him over.”
The next night Cheryl and the handsome lad went on a date. “It didn’t go too well.” She recalls. “He was pretty young, seven years younger as you know. And we were simply in different stages of life. I was going to just let it play out. Oh, and get this. He took me to a very fancy restaurant in Waikiki, and ordered a nice bottle of wine. When the server poured a glass for him to try, he tried it and turned it down. Amy, who does that?!” Laughing out loud while shaking her head, “He still has no idea what a good wine tastes like.”
A few days later Cheryl was making her way to her seat on the flight back to Anchorage when she looked up and saw Dan, the handsome lad, aboard the same flight. “It was then I knew I would marry your Dad.” Cheryl said.
Over the next four years Cheryl and Dan were inseparable. From starting a business together, creating a busy social calendar and forever recreating in their “Last Frontier,” my parents were extremely happy. So much so that in1982 Dan decided it was time to ask the big question. “I could tell he was a nervous wreck.” Cheryl said. “He had finally built up the courage to ask, but I turned him down.” Yes, that’s right. She explained she was not going to make the same mistake twice. Although they had previously discussed the important topics related to marriage, she wanted him to know she was serious. “I was 35 and desperately wanted children. Most importantly, I wanted children with your dad. I knew because of my endometriosis, we would have an especially hard time getting pregnant.”
Instead, Dan and Cheryl went to a fertility doctor and starting receiving fertility treatments. After only two treatments, the news came that Cheryl was pregnant with their first baby. Two months later, on February 4th, 1983 Cheryl and Dad were married in Anchorage, Alaska. I pause here and reflect on how strangely unconventional their path to marriage was. My parents followed a path that worked for them – not necessarily the path that was expected of them. I believe it shows how no matter how unconventional, love does conqueror all.
Cheryl’s first pregnancy was complication-free, with the exception of the delivery. Cheryl and Dan decided to have a natural birth and planned accordingly taking the appropriate Lamaze classes, etc. On August 2nd, Cheryl began having strong contractions, but never progressed to labor. Once at the hospital, the staff began tracking vitals and noticed the baby’s heart rate was beginning to increase at an unhealthy rate. The baby had to be delivered immediately. A cesarean section was the only option. As Cheryl recalls, “I woke up in extreme pain and was given a mild sedation pill to sleep while my healthy baby girl was kept in the nursery. I was nervous about missing the initial bonding I read was so important, but after being assured by the nurses this was normal, I complied.” Cheryl stops silent, takes a breath and continues; “I was just settling down that first night when I heard the most piercing shrill from a crying baby. Somehow I immediately recognized the scream. Moments later the doors opened and the nurse brought in my beautiful Dana Ann. “We need help.” The nurse said. Dana’s face was beet-red, her lips blue from screaming with what would become her signature intensity for life.
Truth be told, Dana never stopped crying. She slept a couple hours a day total, but never more than twenty minutes at a time. Charmain had flown in for the birth and stayed an extra two weeks to help Cheryl and Dan. “She didn’t even ask.” Cheryl said. “She knew we were in over our heads and needed help.”
Over the next year, Dan and Cheryl tried to resume as normal as one can hope for with a newborn. Except Dana was different. She was extremely active, creative and headstrong, stretching all boundaries. There was no “pretend” in her eyes. Television was not even an option; she could not concentrate long enough to retain attention. “Our only lifesaver was the rocking horse. Dana loved to rock.”
Subsequently, There were no play dates with other children, or even the option of leaving Dana with a babysitter. “After three years I began to wonder what a normal baby was like. Your Dad and I discussed the situation, and after much thought decided to get pregnant again.” The hope was that a sibling would help settle Dana down. The year was 1986; Cheryl was 39 and Dan 32. Never allowing age to become a hindrance, they once again sought the help of a fertility doctor.
September of that year Dan and Cheryl were given the news that once again the fertility treatments were successful, and they would be expecting their second child in June of the next year. Right away Dan and Cheryl began making plans for a big life change. They decided to leave their beloved Alaska and head back south to Mississippi. The plan was to use MS as a “home base” of sorts while they traveled around attending dog field competitions or “dog trials”. (Yes, I know. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.) Dog trials had been a passion for both of them since the beginning of their relationship. It was Dana’s last year before starting school, so she would be able to travel with them and the trialing pups. “Mississippi for a year was the plan. One year.” Cheryl said shaking her head. Once again, the universe had different plans for Cheryl.
“I remember this like it was yesterday. I was walking down Broad Street in Columbia taking Dana to story time at the library and began having immensely painful cramps.” The next day, after the painful cramps continued through the night, she went to see her doctor. It was then while getting an ultrasound, three months into her pregnancy, Cheryl was told there was not only one baby in her belly, there were two. TWINS.
Immediately everything changed. Every time Cheryl stood up, tried to walk, bend over, etc. she was in pain. The doctors prescribed bed rest. At five months Cheryl began growing exponentially, and subsequently developed problems with blood sugar regulation, dehydration, as well as other health issues. She was in and out of the hospital, and at six months finally prescribed complete best rest. “It seemed as if I couldn’t keep up. Every couple of weeks we went back to the hospital for an ultrasound, and every time both babies looked good. You were stacked one on top of the other: we knew the top was a girl, it was only the bottom baby we could never see.”
The next three months were hard for Cheryl, Dan and Dana. Cheryl, still on bed rest, was increasingly weak and ill. Finally, on June 28th once again she began having contractions, but did not naturally go into labor. “We rushed Dana over to Momma’s and went straight to the hospital. I was going to have another cesarean section, we always knew that. The plan was to receive an epidural so I could stay awake this time during the procedure.”
Once at the hospital the medical team gave Cheryl her first epidural. It did not take. The second epidural didn’t take either. By this time the babies were going into distress, and the doctors were forced to put Cheryl to sleep. In hindsight she explains, “Putting me to sleep was God’s work. I would not have made it if I were awake and aware of what happened next.”
At 11:00pm I was the first to arrive, a 7.10-ounce healthy baby girl. Everyone cheered. Then everyone went quiet. The doctor asked for Dan to be removed from the room. Minutes later, a 7.5-ounce baby girl was delivered. For only a few moments she lived in this world. Her name was Meghan. Mine is Amy. We would have been identical twin girls.
We later learned Meghan and I were monochorionic twins, two fetuses sharing a single placenta. Adding to the complications is that we were also in the same sac. Only one percent of identical twins share a single placenta and a single sac, and this posed a significant, eventually fatal risk. Meghan received less of a “share” of the placenta than me, resulting in less blood flow and nutrition.
When Cheryl woke up she remembers her doctor stood directly over her and said, “Congratulations. You have a fine baby girl.” Immediately she asked, “Where is the second one?” And with the look on the doctor’s face she knew. “I went numb. My first thought was your Dad. It was awful. We had two of everything – two beds, two sets of clothes, two cars seats. Two. We were supposed to have two babies.”
A lot happened in the next couple of days. Meghan was rushed to the nearest large hospital for an autopsy. The doctors needed to try and find out why she died in case I needed any additional assistance. I stayed in the ICU waiting. Cheryl said she does not remember first seeing Dan. Because of her state of shock she was given medication for sedation. Again, Columbia is a small town. Word got out fast, and the flowers, food, prayers and condolences rushed in. Cheryl stayed with me in the hospital for a week while I was watched. In the end, only my lungs were premature (causing me to develop chronic bronchitis and pneumonia over the next twenty-four months), but nothing a steady medical attention could not handle.
On June 30th, 1987, two days after our birth, Meghan was buried in our local cemetery. Cheryl was not able to attend. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.” She stuttered. She remembers being in the bathroom of her hospital room when she completely lost hope. “I was in that tunnel.” is how she explained her grief-induced state of shock. At that moment a nurse came running in and screamed, “Cheryl, come back. Come back!” Then the nurse slapped her across the face. This woke her up. The nurse immediately instructed another nurse, “Go get that baby. Quick! Go get that baby!” I was then brought into the room and placed on my mother’s chest. The nurse told my mom to look at me. “Look hard. This is what you have to live for. Focus on this baby.” At that moment I began nursing her breast, and the healing process began.
“Amy, the grass is always greener. I always think of this when I see cows stretching their necks through the fence to reach the tasty grass on the other side. During a crisis, you always want what you lost instead of being grateful for what you have.” Cheryl explained when I asked how she began to move forward and cope with the loss.
At first Cheryl would go to the hospital and sit for hours, longing to be near everything again. She read books on loss, attended numerous therapy sessions, and tried her best to function. Three months later Cheryl was randomly given a sympathy card by the man who checked the water meter. The card read, “We must move on.” Those simple words hit home. She remembers from then on packing up everything around the house to remind her of the loss, and began to move on. “I will never forget the loss.” Cheryl explained. “But the paralyzing grief was over.”
At the same time Cheryl was able to gain stability, she realized Dan needed help with his grieving process. Since the loss, he had taken full responsibility over Dana, now four and wild as ever and the domestic duties. Around the house he hid all evidence of Meghan’s death, had taken back the extra car seats, clothes; he took care of everything. It was now his turn to grieve. After attending therapy they arrived at the conclusion that personally he need to get away to fully recover. Dan left shortly after to spend four months working with his brother-in-law’s fishing boat off the Seattle coast. “How cool.” I thought to myself. That is one hell of a strong marriage. During his time away Cheryl and Dan communicated via hand written letters, allowing them to adequately work through the pain. When Dan returned, Cheryl said together they made the decision to move on. “I was 40 years old with a newborn and a very active four year old. We simply did not have the time to grieve anymore, life went on.”
As I sit here with Cheryl, a full twenty-seven years later, I realize that the circle of life is full of unknown turns, surprises, and wild rides. Mothers are endowed with a love that is unlike any other love on the face of the earth. In the end, it was Cheryl’s unconditional love and devotion to her family that created our success. After 31 years of marriage Dan and Cheryl are happy as ever. Dana has a PhD in Child Psychology, is happily married, and our new big news is she expecting her first child. Cheryl has chosen to be called, “Grandma.” As for me, we’ll see. Like mother like daughter I suppose. In our family, a Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.