We can choose many things in life, but our families aren't one of them. As a child of drug addicts, local blogger Sosha Lewis has turned a childhood filled with addiction, uncertainty and loss into a series of uplifting and inspiring stories of healing and growth. From being a child to having a child, join Lewis on her journey in this raw, honest, and heartfelt eight-part guest blog.
Part One: January 1984
The living room of my grandmothers apartment, the one she moved into when she and my grandfather divorced after 35 years of marriage, was separated from the rest of the house by a large blanket, tacked haphazardly, to the wide doorless frame. The blanket was used to keep the heat and my grans Lucky Strike smoke contained to the room where we did most of our living. My mom, Starr, and I also lived in this two bedroom apartment with a small deck that looked onto the once bustling main street of our small hometown. I liked it there - especially the living room with its comfortable sectional couch and large floor model TV.
It was in this room, on a bitterly cold January day in 1984, days after I turned seven, that I learned that the man I had called dad all of my life was, in fact, not my dad.
My mom, Starr, swept the blanket back and squinted into the blue-smoke hazy room where I was settled in with an after-school snack and my daily dose of Scooby Doo. She said, So- So, I need to talk to you. She used my special nickname and said it in a pleasant voice, but I was still apprehensive as my seven years of life had taught me a few things; one of the most important was to always be on guard with my mother. Her moods were as plentiful as they were varied.
She punched the power button on the TV and Scooby and the gang disappeared. I tried not to look too disappointed, but I really wanted to find out how the mystery ended. She pulled one of the large foot stools across the room until she could sit facing me.
My beautiful, twice-divorced, 25 year old mother simply stated that Dom*, my dad, her first husband, was not my father. She went on to inform me that she and Steve, the guy that had been hanging around a lot, was my biological father and that they had married earlier that day.
Steve wasnt with mom when she told me this. She thought it would be easier coming from her. I am not really sure how I handled it. I was seven, after all. However, I knew not to question my mother. She was a firm believer in corporal punishment and even at that young age I knew that if I ruined her wedding day, albeit her third, it would be hard to sit down for the rest of the evening.
After our talk, she handed me a notepad with a single word on it: Testerman. My new last name. She told me to learn to spell it. We were a family now.
My name was never legally changed to Testerman. In 2012 my father and I started exchanging letters; his sent from Potomac Highlands Regional Jail. I asked him why my name was never legally changed. He admitted that he didnt really know; it was just something they never got around to. They did convince every school that I attended to let me go by the name.
Our family continued to live in my grans apartment until I finished first grade. My parents descent into hardcore drug abuse was in its freshmen stages and they had horrible screaming matches that often escalated into physical altercations. I was walking back from the bus stop when I witnessed my dad throw my mom through the glass door of my grandmothers apartment building. Right before second grade started my parents decided we were moving about 45 minutes away. Away from my school, my friends, and most importantly, my grandparents.
Although my grandparents were divorced they remained a united force when it came to me, there only grandchild. They were bitterly disappointed upon learning of my existence, but they quickly became my biggest fans and advocates.
My life had been unconventional from the start, but I had always felt loved and as unbelievable as it may sound, stable. In our new home, a small one bedroom HUD- funded apartment, our lives started swirling into a landscape of disaster and heartache.
*Dom is not his real name
Part Two: September 1984
My family and I moved into a tiny, bleak one bedroom apartment in a newly built complex in Oceana, WV, a small strip of a town nestled down in the Appalachian Mountains. We had a scratchy army green couch, a set of plastic TV trays, a small TV and two mattresses that rested directly on the bedroom floor. The government funding of these projects attracted my parents.
Basically, they were paid to live there.
Until this move, my life and living arrangements had been unconventional, but, for the most part, I had been comfortable. In many ways, I was even spoiled.
My grandfather owned a small bar in my hometown of Welch, WV. However, it was no secret that he was the town bookie. We had nice furniture, a new car every four years, we took Florida vacations and at six years old I had accounts at many of the main street stores and restaurants. This meant I could treat myself to ice creams, cherry Cokes and hot dogs anytime I liked.
My granddads bar was officially called the Sports Center, but it was affectionately referred to as The Place. I spent a lot of time in his bar wiping off the counters, emptying the ashtrays, and cleaning up the bottles and cans.
I was a six year old pig-tailed, front teeth missing, pink bike riding barkeep - a good one. I was tipped heartily. Eventually, I had well over $100.00, mostly in singles, that I bound with a thick rubber band and secured in a toy safe. It was not the life of your average first grader, but it was a good life.
This all changed when I moved with my parents.
My parents had no money and neither of them had full-time jobs. Soon all that remained in my coveted safe was the thick rubber band that once held all of my earnings. We started receiving food stamps. At my new school, I got free lunch. This was a humiliating experience because they separated the free lunch kids and the paying kids into two different lines.
After a short stint in the barren one bedroom, we were awarded a third floor, two bedroom apartment. I was so happy because I would have my own bedroom.
However, my favorite part of our new living quarters was the bathroom. The tub was housed in separate room from the sink and toilet. I considered this fancy. Considering my family saw nothing wrong with barging in on you when you were practicing your latest Michael Jackson moves in the shower the separation came as a huge blessing.
It was in this bathroom, the shower area, that I have my first vivid memory of my mom being proud of me.
One night I stumbled upon a thin white line of powder. I knew that this was the stuff that made my mom act funny and sleepy. I had watched my parents dump the contents of the red capsules that they procured from a local doctor that they referred to as Cuz, take my library card and neatly line the powder up, roll up a dollar bill and clear the line in one long swoop. They would always bang their heads back, sniff and smile.
It made them happy - until it didnt.
I stared at the line as the steam filled the room. I thought about washing it down the drain, but was deathly afraid that my parents would remember that they left it there. When they realized that I was responsible for destroying that powder line the punishment would have been swift and harsh. Therefore, I wrapped a towel around me, walked into the living room and asked my mom if she would come back with me. She did.
I pointed at the line. She ran out of the bathroom, returned with a small straw and sucked it right up. When she got up she was smiling and she gave me a big hug. She yelled to my dad, She will always be my girl. You see who she told about. She's my girl. They laughed and laughed.
Although I knew drugs were wrong, I couldn't help but smile and give myself a little hug. I stepped in the shower, but I didnt feel like practicing my dance moves that night.
When my mom became pregnant, we moved to a three-bedroom apartment. I was less than thrilled about the arrival of my little sister. I had been an only child and an only grandchild for nine years. Plus, even at my young age, I knew that she would just add to the unsteadiness of our rocky family dynamic.
The stress of a newborn coupled with not having enough money for the basic necessities of life served as a trigger for an even heavier reliance on pills.
And, when there was a shortage of their drug of choice, Tylox, my parents withdrawal often culminated with overturned furniture, screaming matches, and my mom bruised and battered.
I blamed my dad for the drugs, the crying baby, the fighting - every bad thing that happened in our lives.
When my mom became pregnant for the second time in three years, we moved again. This time to another town, Bluefield, WV. As tumultuous as my life had been in Oceana, I had made friends and gained a certain level of comfort. I did not want to move...until, I found that my grandmother would be moving with us to help my mom with my sister and new little brother.
I loved living with my grandmother again. Plus, my father, whom I had always tried to avoid as much as possible, started working on a more regular basis.
His job, like most everything in our life, was not normal. Steve had been born and raised in mountainous, landlocked West Virginia. However, he found work as a commercial scallop fisher.
He was gone for weeks on end and would either come back completely flush with cash or if the trip had been a bust he could barely cover his Greyhound ticket home from Norfolk, VA. The paycheck was unpredictable, but the vomit-inducing wretch of his clothes was always a sure bet.
It was in the middle of one his trips that my mom appeared in the cafeteria of my elementary school. Instantly, I knew she was upset. She informed me that something had happened to my dad and that I needed to collect my coat and book bag and to meet her in the car; I had been signed out for the day. I secretly hoped that he had been killed. I felt if he would just go away we would be happy again.
He was not dead, but he had sustained a grave injury.
His right hand been caught in a wench and mangled to the point of uselessness. It was the moment after my mom told me about his hand that my history of inappropriate responses to stressful situations began; I asked her if he would have a hook. I laughed hysterically, but my mother didnt really appreciate my joke.
Steve elected to keep his crushed hand rather than to have it completely cut off and replaced with a prosthetic. He underwent several surgeries at Duke University with the hopes of retaining some mobility in it. He never did. It creeped me out. It still does.
There was a lawsuit. Im still not exactly sure who was sued: The boat company? The wench manufacturer? God?
Eventually, the lawsuit was settled and my parents cleared almost $800,000.00. They immediately bought a Mustang 5.0, a pick-up truck, and a small bungalow in the swanky area of Bluefield. They also used their new-found wealth and my fathers hand to travel to doctors outside our home area to score prescriptions.
They were investing in the powerful narcotic Dilaudid, drugstore heroin.
Part Three: The Arrest
My parents cleared almost a million dollars in a lawsuit settlement after my fathers hand was mangled in an accident while he was working on a commercial fishing boat. Considering the relatively low cost of living in southern West Virginia, with a simple lifestyle, a smart investment or two, and my fathers inevitable disability check, our family could have lived a quiet, comfortable life.
However, Steve and Starr Testerman were anything but quiet. They were addicted not only to narcotics, but, as my father explained in a letter, to the hustle. They had no desire for a simple life.
In a 2012 letter from my father:
Freeland S. Testerman
Inmate #: 29547-3
Martinsburg Correctional Center B-4-3
Martinsburg, WV 25408
The hustle! You even get addicted to that. The whole way of getting your love, for that is what it becomes, your lover, is an addiction all to itself. Ive always been a good hustler. When it came to getting dope, I could work a doctor like you would not believe.
And, work he did. My fathers disability actually propelled him to the upper echelon of the drug dealing profession - for a while, anyway.
I can work a doctor like you wouldnt believe. I always could, but after my hand got messed up - it was on. I scored so many pills because of my hand. It is one of the reasons I didnt have it cut off. I knew I could use it to my advantage.
Although my parents had plenty of money to take care of their family and my dads hand could secure more than enough of the drugstore heroin they desperately craved, it still wasnt enough. They needed more. They got greedy.
Drug addicts do not make successful drug dealers.
It was a still-warm, sunlit fall day when my parents addiction and greed got the best of them. As the colorful leaves floated down from the trees on a postcard-like autumn Appalachian day, my mother, with my two-year old brother on her hip, was arrested by undercover federal agents outside of my grandmothers apartment - the cute two bedroom garage apartment she moved into after my parents bought their house.
We were living with her until my parents added a bedroom and bathroom in the basement.
For years, I thought my mother had sold drugs to the cops. However, my father informed me that she was actually arrested for buying drugs from an undercover informant.
Your mom didnt get caught selling pills. Starr got caught buying dope -100 Dilaudids. She paid $2,700.00 for them.
My father went on to tell me that it was me that told him that mom had been arrested. He and his brother were working on the remodeling project at the new house. I do not remember this, but I believe him. My memories from that day are very fragmented.
This is what I remember: I came home from school, I was a freshmen, and my grans apartment was in complete disarray. They had tossed the house just like they do in crime dramas. My clothes and books were strewn everywhere.
My gran told me that my mom had gotten herself into trouble and had been arrested. She assured me that everything would be fine. Just fine. However, this is not a memory that I own. It is just information that Ive pinched and grabbed through the years.
Furthermore, even now, more than 20 years later, my jigsawed memories have never pieced together where my younger brother and sister were at this time, and Ive always been too much of a coward to ask. I have a faint memory of my sister crying on my grans large unmade bed, but my sister cried frequently and my grans bed is hardly ever made. Therefore, Im not sure if this is an accurate recollection from that day or just a piecemeal memory of my sister and her daily toddler drama.
Had this day been a scene in a movie it would have been one with nausea-inducing swirling camera shots and pulsating music. The only vivid picture I have of that day is grabbing a black trash bag from the kitchen and throwing some clothes and books into as I mumbled, Why did they touch my stuff?
I threw the bag over and my shoulder and headed straight to my great-grandmothers house - or at least I thought I headed straight there. Apparently, I made a pit-stop at the newly acquired Testerman house, the one we had yet to move into, to let my dad know that his wife had been taken to jail.
My gran had called ahead to let my great-grandmother know that I was coming. It wouldnt have mattered. I was always welcome there. Her house was my safe haven. I willed myself not to cry during the two mile walk. When I arrived, sweaty and exhausted, I climbed into my great-grandmothers, a woman who had lived through the Great Depression, bore 13 children and buried three of them, bed. The beloved matriarch of our family, kissed my check and patted my hands. Then we both opened books and read in silence until I feel asleep. She just knew.
Later that night I slipped out of her bed, crept to the living room and turned on the eleven oclock news. I curled into a ball, pulled my t-shirt over my knees and sobbed as I waited for my moms picture to be flashed across the screen. It never was. However, it was in the newspaper the next day.
I was told that I didnt have to go to school the next day. I did. People whispered, students and teachers. I did not acknowledge the hushed voices. I laughed too much, talked too much, tried too much. I was just fine. Just fine.
Almost immediately the federal government froze all of my parents' assets. The only thing that they were allowed to keep was the house. This was only because we had not moved in. Therefore, it could not be proven that drug activity had taken place there. It had.
My mother became an informant, a snitch. She received a 10 month sentence at Alderson Federal Prison (the same prison that eventually housed Martha Stewart). I visited once. It looked like a college campus.
My father received a much harsher sentence. His reputation preceded him.
My 60 year old grandmother adopted my sister, brother and me (my grandfather had passed away a few months before my mothers arrest). My brother and sister became Yokosuks. I had always been one - technically. However, we all continued using Testerman in school.
The four of us moved 116 Powhatan Ave. The little white house with the wall-less rooms in the basement. My father and his brother had just finished the framing for the additional bedroom and bathroom when my mothers arrest, which lead to my fathers arrest, occurred. This house was almost as wonderful as it was horrible. It was great because my gran didn't have to pay rent or a mortgage. However, gran had lived in apartments her entire adult life; she knew nothing about maintaining a home without the aid of a landlord.
Even without the mortgage, we were poor: welfare-peanut-butter-hidden-in-the-back-of the-cabinet-poor, not-knowing-if-the-lights-were-still-going-to-come-on-when-you-flipped-the-switch-poor, using-dollar-store-dish-detergent-for-shampoo-poor.
Eventually we had to go on welfare to make ends meet. My mom had been on welfare most of my life, but it was a blow to gran's pride. However, she did what she had to do. I was absolutely mortified of being seen paying with food stamps. This seemed to embarrass me more than my parents being in prison.
My gran got a job at Payless Shoes. She worked - a lot. She often pulled 12 hour shifts. Therefore, I helped out with my brother and sister - a lot. I wish that I could say that I rose to the challenge, that I loved them and protected them and that it was just like Party of Five. It was not. I resented it. I was bitter and shallow. I wallowed in the teenage unfairness of it all.
I was a 15 year old virgin mother of two.
Part Four: When Mom Goes to Prison
My mother left for prison a couple of weeks before I started my sophomore year of high school; August 1992. I was 15. My sister, Angie, was six and starting first grade. My brother, Zack, was three.
My anger was palpable and I lashed out at those that I shared a home with. I yelled and screamed at my siblings. I would even spank them on occasion. If I was going to be forced into mothering them, I was certainly going to teach them a thing or two. I vowed that I would never have children...I had had enough parenting for several lifetimes before I was 16 year old. Angie and Zack were so sad, confused and hurt that my mom was gone. My grandmother was overwhelmed. She had always relished her role of fun-loving, free-spirited gran. Suddenly she was both mom and dad. She was the breadwinner, the disciplinarian, the teacher, the cook, the driver and the emotional wound soother for three children who were crumbling under the weight of the parents bad choices.
In an attempt to provide stability and structure to our lives my gran threw herself into being a Jehovahs Witness. We had family members that were Jehovahs Witnesses and my grandmother had been an on-again, off-again member of the religion for decades. We were expected to attend services three times a week, have once weekly personal bible study and participate in door-to-door preaching.
Basically, I had both parents in prison, we were poor as church mice, and just to add a little flair to that we were part of a religion that didn't celebrate any holidays, didn't salute the flag, and went around banging on doors.
Although I was an indignant, spoiled tyrant around my gran and siblings, I was fiercely determined to be fine, just fine, around my friends. I had started climbing the social ladder of Bluefield High School. I dated a senior and my best friends were two of the most popular girls in my class. We nicknamed ourselves Triple Threat, with our official name being Triple Threat in Full Effect (this is, by far, the most embarrassing piece of my life that I have ever shared).
Furthermore, my hometown, Bluefield, is a town where the type of drinking and partying that was done by the local teenagers has only been accurately showcased in movies about Texas high school football. We partied and we partied hard. I was a great partier. I excelled at partying. Alcohol was a great equalizer. It allowed me to forget my awful home life. When I drank, I was just like all the popular kids. What I failed to realize was that I was, in many ways, just like my mom.
I realized how much I was like my mom the day I promised to help my little sister with her solar system project. The day before it was due, my friends and I skipped school and spent the day drinking on top of a mountain. I came home to help her, but was fairly incoherent. The project was a mess. I was embarrassed that I had done that, but rather than apologize I puffed up and yelled at my sister. I then stormed out of the room and slammed my door when Gran confronted me. It was Angies fault. It was Grans fault. It certainly wasnt my fault. I was fine. Just fine.
When Visting Mom in Prison
The gates of Alderson Federal Prison slid open and the hunter green Buick Riveria stuttered slightly, knowingly, as we, the family that remained, continued down the tree lined road. The lawns were immaculately kept and stalwart brick buildings peeked out from behind the colorful fall leaves. A beautiful, even idyllic campus. Even the razor wire seemed to cooperate by blending in.
I shrunk down in the seat and crossed my arms angrily on my chest. My much younger sister and brother, Angie and Zack, could barely contain their excitement. Glee. I swiveled my head around and glared at them. Until. Until Gran told me to cut that nonsense out.
With some parting daggers I turned around. Sulked.
My teenage face, twisted with a mixture of disgust, angst, bitterness, betrayed my true feelings. My practiced mask didn't show that I too was excited. Filled with glee. Tempered. But, glee.
It had been two months since we had seen her. Since I had seen her. I wanted to be mad. I was mad. But, I wanted to see her. Needed to see her. Feel her put her arms around me, wrap me up like a favorite sweater, and let me believe, for that moment, that everything was fine.
Gran parked the car and Angie and Zack pushed on my seat and begged me to open the door. I took my time. Gran opened her door and ushered them out her side. Angie twirled in her new dress. Zack stood patiently as Gran smoothed his hair.
I checked my eyeliner. Untied and tied my shoes. Gran stuck her head in the door, gave me a quick dirty look, then softened. C'mon darlin', let's just go do this.
Angie and Zack ran ahead, holding hands, always holding hands. Gran with her long, graceful strides quickly caught up with them. I lagged behind, shuffled, kicked a stray rock, sighed, rolled my eyes. I looked up at the sign hanging over the door of the brick building that would have looked completely at home on a college campus - Alderson Federal Prison Family Center.
Mom walked up to us, slightly ashamed, nervous, but happy to see us. She had put on some weight. She looked better. Healthy. It would only be seconds until I felt her again. Breathed her in. Went home.
Zack and Angie ran to her. Screaming, deliriously happy. I lagged behind, using Gran as a barrier. My conflicting emotions waging a brutal internal war. I wanted to cry and throw my arms around her. When she made her way to me, I remained stone faced. She hugged me - tight. I wanted to fall into it. I stood plank straight. Only bending my arms and patting her on the back when I caught Gran's side eye.
We stayed most of the day. I grew bored. Surly. I wanted to go home to my friends, my boyfriend - all of whom thought I was being forced to visit a great-aunt. Zack and Angie were both weeping when we climbed back in the car.
I should have hugged them, joined them in their anguish. I looked straight ahead. I refused to look back. I was fine. Just fine.
It was the only time I visited.
When Mom Comes Home From Prison
My mom served around 10 months and returned home in the middle of the summer in 1993. We were all excited.
She was home, she was clean, she was happy. We were happy. She got a job at Western Sizzlin'. She got a small portion of the confiscated money back. She bought a car, some new furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting, and some Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson CD's.
As I started my junior year, life was better than it had ever been. I had great friends, I went to the best parties, mom always had plenty of cash from tips, I didn't have to go to the Kingdom Hall very often. It was the best of times.
I had no idea how fleeting these times were.
My great-grandmother passed away a few months after my mom returned home. For the first four years of my life, I had a great-great grandmother, a great grandmother, and two grandmothers. To cut down on the naming confusion, I started referring to great-grandmother Conley, simply as Conley. It stuck. Although she had a multitude of children and great-grandchildren I was the only one that referred to her as this (she is my daughters namesake). Given that Conley and I had always had a special bond, it was bittersweet that we gathered for her viewing on Superbowl Sunday. I was born 17 Superbowl Sundays before that one. My great-grandmother had a full life. She was loved like few people have ever been loved. She also loved like few people have ever loved. When she died the world became a little less lovely, and I was a little more lost without her guidance.
It was only a few months after Conleys passing that I had become suspicious of my mom's behavior. When she first came home everyone was just so happy that she was back that all they expected out of her was to be happy and clean. However, as time wore on, and she was expected to just deal with life, she got bored or despondent or both, and started using again. I found syringes hidden on top of the bathroom cabinet. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. However, I didn't say a word. I did not confront my mother. I got drunk. I was fine.
Part Five: Teenage Angst Set to Iambic Pentameter
The gymnasium was stifling hot even with the heavy metal doors flung open. The audience fanned themselves with the paper programs and were instructed to hold all applause until the very end. I smirked knowing that gran would put two fingers on her tongue and whistle - loudly, and well before the very end.
The first chords of Pomp and Circumstance screeched through the speakers and the Bluefield High School class of 1995 was lead to their seats by the valedictorian. Although I did not graduate with honors, because I quit trying to be smart when I started trying to be, like, you know, totally cool and unaffected, I still got to sit on the stage with the top of my class. I was chosen by my AP English (one of the few classes that I put forth an effort) teacher to write the class poem.
The poem was some drivel asking Father Time to turn back his hands. It was angst-ridden and overly-sentimental. When I approached the podium I looked around and found my family - they took up a large swath of bleachers in the upper corner. I gave them a little nod and cleared my throat. Then I adopted the visage of a serious poet. Or at least that is what I thought. What my face actually portrayed was anger. Sadness. Hurt. Confusion.
When I looked up to see my family, I saw my gran, my younger siblings, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles and a slew of cousins. There was one person missing. My mom. As I became the first person in our immediate family to receive a high school diploma my mom was once again in Alderson Federal Prison.
Not long after I found the syringes on top of a bathroom cabinet, my mother became a two-time inmate. She failed a random drug test, thus violating her
parole. It was possibly even more devastating than the first time she went away.
She had been in such a good place when she got back from her first stint as a convict. We all thought that prison was her proverbial rock bottom and that this would be the time that she not only made positive changes, but made them stick. And, she did - for a while. When she first returned home she was the beautiful, bubbly, loving, fun-filled mom with the mega-watt smile that I remembered from before she and my dad married.
However, after a few months, life settled in. She was no longer praised simply for being a responsible adult. There were no more ticker-tape parades because she pulled a double shift at the Sizzlin. Everyone stopped alerting the news because she packed lunches and signed permission slips in a timely fashion. She started to crumble under the mundaneness of life. The craving was back.
She craved not only the drugs, but the lifestyle - the hustle.
Once again, my life and the lives of my younger brother and sister and my then 62-year old grandmother were in turmoil because of my moms addictions and poor decisions. I walled myself off even more than I had the first time. I pushed everyone away. Hated everyone for having a better life than me...even my two best friends. Triple Threat was no longer in full effect, we were barely in effect at all. It was my fault.
Not long after I stood atop our leaky toilet and ran my hand across the shuttered plastic cabinet in search of a tampon but instead finding a bag of
syringes, one of my best friends parents went to Italy for a week. We partied like Led Zepplin - in their younger years.
On the night before her parents returned, a school night, we decided to go out with a Fouth of July-like bang. Eventually, everyone, but the other third of Triple Threats boyfriend and me, passed out. We started making out - heavily. We stopped. Shocked. Sad. Confused. We swore we would never speak of it and it would never happen again. It did. About 15 minutes later.
I told one person about the incident. Considering a small town gossip grapevine is light years faster than Google it didnt take long for my friend to find out. As sad as I was that our friendship was over and as guilty as I felt about what I had done, there was a small part of me that felt empowered. The day after it happened, I woke up nauseous from the liquor and the guilt, but I had a slight adrenaline rush when I realized that her life was a little less perfect now. We got ready and she gave me a ride to school - in her Corvette.
I hadnt applied myself nearly as much as I should have or could have in high school. However, I did very well in the classes I cared about; English, Journalism and Drama. Furthermore, I had a couple of teachers and an extremely kind guidance counselor who took a special interest in me and basically refused to let me fail.
Despite all the problems in my home life it had always been a given, to me at least, that I would go to college. My grandfather, before he passed away when
I was 14, instilled in me that college was not an option. He left me a sizable college fund in his will. Unfortunately, my mom and uncle talked me into
signing over this fund to them with the assurance that I would have it all back before it was time for college.
I did not.
However, my ever-diligent guidance counselor nominated me for the William and Jeans Swales Scholarship at West Virginia University. It was a full-ride - tuition, books and housing. The scholarship was for a student who showed academic promise and needed financial assistance.
I got the scholarship.
My mom got out of prison in time to drive me the four hours from Bluefield to Morgantown. The campus was huge and bustling. We stood in the financial aid line, bought sweatshirts at the book store and went to lunch. We were just like everyone else. I realized that although there were plenty of students from my hometown also enrolled at WVU it was still so large that I could just blend it.
I embraced using Yokosuk as my last name and I vowed that I would never return to Bluefield for longer than a short visit.
Part Six: A Mother's Betrayal
The dorms known as Towers, located on the Evansdale campus of West Virginia University, were four squat, industrial looking slabs of brick and concrete. They looked more like inner-city projects than majestic, scholarly halls of academia. The buildings were unremarkable at best and down right ugly at worst. However, to me, they were more grand than the Taj Mahal. To me, they were beacons of stability, normalcy and freedom all rolled into one.
As soon as I hugged my gran and mom goodbye I ran into the lobby of my dorm and just breathed it all in. Actually, it took every bit of will power I had to not twirl around ala Mary Tyler Moore. From those first moments, I loved everything about college.
Furthermore, after standing in the financial aid line for hours on my first day on campus, I got dizzy when the financial aid officer told me that they would be giving me money, almost $1,000, for living expenses and that I would get approximately the same amount the following semester.
The only catch to this terrific news was that my mom was standing right beside me when they told me. She hugged me. She was happy for me, but she was also happy for her. She took a few hundred dollars of the grand. She said it was for safe keeping so that I wouldnt blow through it all. We both knew this was a lie.
However, I knew it was pointless to argue. Plus, I knew the quicker I handed over the money, the quicker she would be gone.
I made great friends and we quickly started partying - hard. I did a lot more partying than studying my freshman year. In high school, I had gotten use to putting forth very little effort and still get good, if not great, grades. Furthermore, I have always thought I was much smarter than I actually am.
My first semester grades were abysmal. I received a kindly-worded warning letter from the scholarship committee stating that they knew adjusting to college life could be hard, but that they would like to see an improvement. This put a mild fear in me, but still I continued partying a lot and studying a little. My grades improved - marginally. The scholarship committee was not impressed. This time I was summoned to the chairs office. I was told that since there had been an improvement that they were giving me one more chance. However, if there was not a marked improvement the first semester of my sophomore year that my scholarship would be revoked.
I broke out in a cold sweat thinking of the possibility of not coming back to my beloved WVU. I vowed that I was going to be the student I was meant to be.
Throughout the school year I had only visited my hometown a scant number of times. My mom was in a downward spiral. My guilt about leaving my brother and sister in such a mess was overwhelming at times, but I truly felt that it was the only way I would survive. She asked me for money every time she called or I went home. One or any combination of the phone, electricity or water were cut off at any given time. I desperately did not want to go home for the summer.
But, I was in love.
My now husband of 11 years and I met, or I guess I should say, met again during my freshman year. We first met in Kindergarten. Tony and I lived in a very small town, Welch, WV. Therefore, our families knew each other. Well, everyone knew Tony's families. His dad's family owned H.C. Lewis Oil Company and the Lewis name was plastered all over huge oil tankers that chugged through the mountainous roads surrounding Welch. His mom's family owned Marino Insurance and everyone in town had their policies through Tony's granddad.
There was a perception throughout the community that these families lit their fires with hundred dollar bills and filled their indoor pools with liquid gold. Tony had to endure the "rich kid" label most of his young life. It still makes him bristle.
My grandmother's joking (well, kinda) line was, hang on to that one, and get that oil.
Tony was attending another college right outside of my hometown and he had secured a great job for the summer. I wanted to be closer to him. So, I went home. Plus, I knew that I could work at my old after-school job at Little Caesars pizza through the summer to save some money - or at least that was my plan.
Ill never regret that decision. However, my relationship with my mom changed forever. Before the summer of 1996 - I had always forgiven her. Until that point I craved her, longed for her. Although my mom was often a raging addict who caused me several lifetimes of heartache before I could vote, I loved her deep in my soul and when she was clean, she was, well, she was amazing.
Although I never stopped loving her, that summer I knew that I had to break away - for good. During that summer, I found out that she had taken a credit card out in my name. She maxed it out. Granted, it was only about $1000.00, but it still took me years to pay off.
After the credit card was cut off, she forced me to call her first husbands parents and ask them for money. Despite the turmoil surrounding our relationship, they had always been very kind to me. I visited them often, went on vacation with them, and considered them my grandparents in every way. Furthermore, they sent me $50.00 a month when I was in college...they called it my walking around money.
I protested, I yelled, I screamed and I refused to do it. However, my mom then played her trump card and told me, in front of my brother and sister, that she would pawn their bikes and Nintendo if I didnt do it. They sobbed. I dialed.
My mother gave me a script to follow when I called my grandparents...something about some unplanned college bill that had to be paid immediately. I stuck to the script, but I sobbed the whole time I talked to my grandmother.
She told me that it was not a big deal at all and that I knew that she and granddaddy were happy to help. My grandmother said she would put a check in the mail that day, but that was not good enough for my mom. She told me to tell her that I didnt have time to wait for the mail and that she would drive me, in her beat-up, piece-meal car, the two hours to their house to get it. Of course, my grandparents knew that this money was not for an unforeseen college expense. Nonetheless, my grandmother gave me an envelope of cash and then slipped a $50.00 in my pocket and simply pressed her index finger to her lip.
I just flung the envelope in my moms lap, slouched down in my seat, and silently cried for the entirety of the return trip.
I thought that there was no way my depths of humiliation could get any deeper. Until it did. Toward the end of summer, I spent a weekend at Tonys parents. Tony is the oldest of four. His parents house was always abuzz with loud, talkative, loving people. I loved being there (I still do).
Mom arrived to pick me up in the same beat-up, multi-colored car that had carried me to my grandparents a month or so before. The car was embarrassing enough. I scurried down to the car with the hopes that we could make a quick getaway. However, mom had other plans. She said that she going to say hi to Tonys mom, Mary. Granted, they had known each other since they were very young, but they werent exactly chummy, and mom usually stayed far away from people who knew her before her life became filled with drugs and despair. Red flags all around.
Shortly after the hellos and general niceties, mom asked Mary if she could speak to her privately. Catching my moms glance, I silently pleaded with her to not do what I knew was inevitable. I listened at the door as she spun a tale of hungry children and being unemployed due to a bad back. My mom worked up a couple of tears and asked if it would it be possible to borrow $100?
My body filled with rage, dread and utter embarrassment. Normally, I did not confront my mom as I knew that it would not end well for me. Not this time, every bit of good sense and self-preservation left me when she cashed the check Mary had given her.
I screamed, How could you do that to me? How am I suppose to face them again? Do you not understand that you have already given me enough to live to down?
She pushed me up against the paneled walls of the ever-deteriorating small house that she and my dad had purchased after the lawsuit settlement, slapped me across the face, and hissed, Do you think your rich boyfriends perfect little family will ever accept damaged goods like you?
I left for school. I never went home again.
Part Seven: Building a Family
Home, with the comfort, love and stability that it brings, is a place that I always wanted, coveted. Considering my home, the one with my addicted parents, confused siblings, and burdened grandmother, was often filled with stress and strife, I had no desire to be there.
Family was the other essential nutrient that I craved. I made it my mission to build my own home, make my own family. Therefore, I embraced my college life. My friends became the family that I leaned on, counted on...even if the walls I built around myself during this time hindered me from letting them know.
Another saving grace was that my then boyfriend, now husband, Tonys family took me in as one of their own. His parents provided me not only with love, but with the parental guidance that I desperately needed - all while giving me enough space to figure it all out.
Figuring it out was not easy. There was physical distance between mom and me, I was mapping out my own life, but she still had a powerful hold on me. Furthermore, mom, as she had all my life, had clean, productive stages when I was in college.
I wanted to believe in these stages. Each time that she got clean, I hoped that this would be the time, the time she got clean and stayed clean. During the cleans, as I called them, she would send me care packages filled with sweaters, warm socks, bags of donut holes, and roll after roll of SweeTarts. There would be an envelope of money and a note - a lovely note.
In front of my roommates, even my boyfriend, I would keep my guard up - act as if the care packages werent a big deal. However, alone in my room, I would put the sweaters to my face and breathe her in. By the dim light of my desk lap, Id trace my finger over her perfect school teacher penmanship - so very different than my serial killer scrawl.
Charlotte or Bust
After graduating from WVU, Tony and I moved to Charlotte. We had no jobs, just a whopping $3,000.00 in savings. We were too young and too dumb to know any better. Fortunately, we both found jobs quickly. Charlotte was yet another fresh start.
The cleans, the care package mom was long gone. She was soon calling the toll-free line at my new job - begging for money. When I would say no, she would just continue to call - over and over again. It was difficult to keep smiling and pretending I was talking to a client as my mom called me an assortment of vile names and threatened to pawn anything that wasnt nailed down.
If I didnt give in, she would simply call all day long. However, if I gave in and sent her the money, which always had to be sent Western Union, Tony, who was now my husband, would be upset. It was not that he did not understand the situation - he did, all too well. It was just that he was certain that my mom would never stop asking until I finally said no and meant it.
Despite the on-going issues with my mom, Tony and I were building what we considered a near perfect life. We were married a little over a year after moving to Charlotte. Taking Tonys last name gave me an overwhelming sense of security, of family.
As much as I desired a sense of family there was one aspect of that unit that I was adamant that I wanted no part of - children!
My husband and I were young, newlyweds. We had great jobs, plenty of discretionary income, we ate out, we partied, we took wonderful vacations. Why would we want to mess with our winning formula by adding a kid?
I adopted the slogan: Ive been a mom most of my life. I am tired of taking care of people.
This was partially true. However, what I really was, was scared. Terrified. One night in 2005, after several bottles of wine with some of my favorite female relatives, my 28-year old bluff was called.
Tonys aunt, emboldened by liquid courage, told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong. Dead wrong. That I did want to have children, but I was scared. My floodgates, pushed to their limits by the wine, cracked and then opened - wide. I admitted that I was scared,
I lived in daily fear that my mom was going to die. I was afraid that I would become my mom. I was afraid that my child would get the gene of addiction that I had somehow missed.
That is when my husbands grandmother, Rose, who had been sitting quietly and not drinking, offered some advice that eventually changed my life. She had lost two sons, one to a brain tumor when he was seven and one in a car wreck when he was 15, quietly said, Sosha, I've lived through the worst thing that a mother can live through - twice. However, I would do it all over again.
It took a few years for Grandma Roses advice to completely sink in, but when it did I was overtaken with an almost primal urge to have a baby. Seeing that I had been inundated with how easy it was to get pregnant since before I hit puberty I assumed that Id go off my birth control pills and be pregnant the next day.
This was not the case. Month after month in 2007-2008 the pregnancy tests would come back negative. It was demoralizing and soul crushing.
By nature, I am a competitive person, especially with myself. Furthermore, I am accustomed to succeeding. Therefore, I saw my inability to conceive a child as the ultimate failure. This perceived failure made me overly-sensitive and bitter - especially toward my mom.
My mom was extremely fertile. In addition to the three pregnancies that resulted in me and my siblings, she had miscarried several times and had one abortion. Why did she get to ravage her body with drugs and still get pregnant anytime that she wanted?
By this time, I only saw my mom only on rare occasions. When I saw her at our family reunion in May 2008, she was in a bad way - physically and mentally. Physically she was skinny, with sunken eyes, missing teeth, and ill-fitting hand me down clothes. She did not know that I was trying to conceive. Moreover, my mom certainly didnt know that I was struggling with my inability to do so.
At the family reunion, she smoked one Native Spirit cigarette after the other...she had only started smoking a couple years before. One of her go-to lines had always been, I don't have an addictive personality, I've never drank a cup of coffee and I've never smoked a cigarette. She was the most unnatural smoker I had ever seen.
She was crying when she arrived. She sat down at one of the picnic tables. She removed a letter from her once-again-imprisoned husband, my dad, stating that he had been denied parole, from her back pocket, lit a cigarette, and took a swig from a 20oz Mountain Dew.
Years and years of experience had taught me to steer clear of her when she was like this. I huddled with my cousins, drank some beers, and pretended that everything was great - something else that years and years of experience had taught me.
She did not stay long. I was relieved. It wouldn't have been long until she would have made a scene.
She hugged me, said, I need to go baby doll. I'll talk to you soon. I love you, So-So!
Love you too, mom. Take care of yourself.
These were the last words we spoke to each other. My mom died of a drug overdose in November 2008.
I was six weeks pregnant.
Part Eight: She's a Rainbow
Youve been gone almost five years. Some days it feels as if you havent been here for decades, other days it feels as raw and fresh as it did on that bright, cloudless, Carolina blue sky day when I learned you had finally lost your fight.
I can still hear your voice. It is getting harder. I have to be very still, the room very quiet, but it's there. The voice, that with one syllable could, in one instance, soothe all that troubled me, and in another voice fill my soul with anger. Anguish. Disgust. Disappointment.
Your voice. Mama's voice.
When I hear you in my head it is always your warm, dancing, smiling voice. It is the one I am holding on to. The one I don't want to fade. The one I wish I could hear - just one more time.
The other one, your other voice, was the last one I heard and it is the one that I try to forget.
The voice that crackled, and spit, and faded off like a dying robot in a late night movie. Your last words were, I gotta go, baby doll. I love you, So-So., spoken in that disconnected voice. I wrap the words around my heart - tightly. But, I swat away the sound of that voice like one does an annoying fly.
I miss your voice. I miss you. It makes me so mad that I miss you. It makes me so mad that you missed out on so many beautiful aspects of life. It makes me so mad and it completely shatters my heart that the day you died, alone, in a sad, beaten-down trailer on the side of muddy mountain that you didnt know that you had missed out on what should have been one of the most joyous experiences of your life being a grandmother.
Even before I was pregnant, I worried about the role that you would play, the role that you thought you should play in my childs life. Truthfully, you did not deserve to play much of a role at all, but I knew that I would not have completely denied you this wonderful little creature. I have never been able to completely deny you, but I knew that I would have to protect her and that I would not let her be exposed to the life that you led. As sad and unrealistic as I knew it was, there was a part of me, the part where the scared but trying to be brave, the sad but trying to be happy little kid still lives that thought that maybe she would finally be the push that you needed to become the person that you should have been; the golden, smiling person that your monster would allow us glimpses of before devouring you again.
However, that worry came to a quick and bittersweet end on Sunday, November 9, 2008. I was standing in the kitchen, in the house that I love. You never saw my house. It is not a mansion, but it is warm, and clean, and comfortable, and welcoming. It is filled with love, and with laughter, and with happy times and with caring, loyal, supportive, loud, funny, trustworthy people. It makes me feel secure. You never stepped foot in my house.
You missed out on my house.
Nonetheless, it is where I was the day that my gran, your mother, had to call me to let me know that you were gone. I do not remember most of the conversation. I cried in an instant, violent way; a way that when you see someone doing it in a movie, you roll your eyes and think, Really? Do people actually act that way? When gran said, Baby, its over, its finally over., I did act that way.
Tony was outside mowing the grass and I had to get to him. I had to lean into him, put the side of my head into the space between his chest and shoulder, hear his heartbeat. He was running the weed eater so it took me a minute to get his attention. He saw that I was crying and thought something was wrong with the baby that we had just learned I was carrying. It is the first time that I have ever seen him look stricken as sad I was at that moment, I had a powerful surge of love for him because I knew that he would gladly step in front of a bus for his unborn child. I told him that you were gone, that it was, in fact, finally over. He wrapped his strong arms around me kept me upright. He smelled like leaves.
I allowed myself to collapse into him, allowed myself to weep and allowed him to just be silently strong for me. It is a shame that you never got to know my husband. He is what a husband should be. He is what a man should be. Even on the days when he makes me want to shake him hard I know that I am fortunate to have him, am fortunate that he did not let my insecurities and fears push him away, and am fortunate to have denied the odds and did not marry someone like my father. He is the exact opposite of my father. He is a real man. He is hard-working, secure, sincere, loyal, tough, tender-hearted, loving, funny, trustworthy. He adores me and I him. He, unlike your husband, has never laid hands on me and there have been times when even I thought I could have used a good slapping. And, now, he has become the most admirable thing on earth: a dad - the best dad.
You missed out on my husband.
He is the dad to this magical little person that now lives with us. Conley Marie Lewis was born on June 17, 2009 at 8:14pm. She was 6lbs, 2oz and 18 inches. She was two weeks early and she was delivered by C-section because she was breech.
For years, I said that I did not want to be a mom, said I had been a mother most of my life. However, I have never been more wrong about anything. A mom is what I was meant to be, her mom was what I was meant to be. And, I had certainly never been close to being a mother before. I had been an extremely scared teenager that was put into a situation where I had to take care of even more scared little kids. I did not do a very good job.
I am going to do a much better job now. As for the damage that had been done to me, it was as if I could physically feel myself heal when I held her for the first time. I was okay with myself. I knew that I could stop trying so hard. I knew that people liked me for who I am.
I am intensely loyal. I sometimes deflect hurt with sarcasm. I love to vacuum. I count to 18 when I dunk an Oreo in milk. I am a hard worker. I make a mean BBQ meatloaf. I love red wine. I have great friends. I am dependable. I completed a marathon. I like to read in the bathtub. Movie theaters are one of my favorite places in the world. I love spending Friday nights curled up on the couch with Tony and Conley. Snoring drives me crazy. I am no longer afraid to say I am a writer. I tell a pretty good story. I am going to tell your story, our story. I know that I will screw up from time to time, but I am determined to be the best mom possible.
You missed out on your daughter.
You are gone and there has been enough sadness and strife to fill several lifetimes. Forgiving you does not make those memories disappear. However, I hope it allows me to be a better mother as there is nothing, absolutely nothing that I would not do to ensure Conley knows that she is loved and that she is secure.
She makes my sky bluer and my sun brighter. Music sounds better and food tastes better because she is here.
In the past five years I have had to bury you and then your sweet, well-mannered, good intentioned beautiful baby boy - my little brother. In the past five years, there have been times when it felt as if the ground was crumbling underneath me, but she, my beautiful, kind, goofy, gap-toothed little girl, has saved me. Simply, she has made me happy, really, truly happy. It was never simple with you, with us. It still isnt. However, for Conley and me, it is simple. Easy.
Your granddaughter is Batman - and, a rock star. She loves bacon - really, really loves bacon. The girl has never met a stranger. We call her The Mayor because of this. Conley is chatty. She hugs every one. Taking her to Disney World was one of the best times of my life. She has good manners and she shares. We sing a very off-key version of You Are My Sunshine every night before bed. We have a daily kiss quota. The beach is one of her favorite places. Her giggle can pull me out of the darkest funks, and her hugs have healing powers. She has an imaginary friend named NeNe who can be quite the trouble maker. Conley is secure. Happy. But, when she is upset, we dance it out. Her favorite song is Shes A Rainbow by the Rolling Stones.
You missed out on my daughter.
I dreaded the day that Conley would ask about you. It happened not that long ago. We were talking about her nonni, Mary, being her daddys mom. She asked if her nonni was my mom too. I told her that in many ways she was, but that she didnt carry me in her belly.
She asked, Well, why I not know your mom?. As gently as I could I told her that you had died and it was sad, but that it was okay because you werent sick anymore. She said that she wished she had known you because she would have brought you some chicken soup to make you feel better. Your granddaughter then asked me to tell her about you. So, I pulled her on my lap and told her about her grandmother.
Your grandmother Starr had a wonderful smile that could make a room come alive. She occasionally gave me a "free Friday" where I would skip school and we would watch TV and go for cheeseburgers. Her laundry always smelled so good. She bought me an authentic Duke sweatshirt when I was obsessed with Duke basketball. She carried me off a mountain side when I broke both of my arms. She gave great hugs. She taught me to swim at Linkous. She took me for cherry Cokes at the Flat Iron. She loved orange SweeTarts. She introduced me to Janis Joplin. Law and Order was her favorite show. And, she sure would have loved you.
Mom, you missed out on you.
I will always miss you, but I am glad that your struggle, our struggle, is over. I dont know what happens after you die, but I feel you with me, with us. I like to think that you look out for us, and that in death you became the mom you could never fully be in life - the one that you were meant to be.
I hope that youre getting to be that mom to Zack. Tell my baby brother that I love him and that I miss him. Tell him that Ill see him on the flip side - hell know what youre talking about.
Sosha Lewis is a former buttoned-down corporate executive turned running shorts and t-shirts wearing stay-at-home mom. She and her husband, Tony, whom she has known since Kindergarten, are the happy, albeit tired, parents to a talkative, energetic, extroverted four year old, Conley. Between playing the "bad guy" to Conley's Batman and answering approximately 4,756 questions a day, Lewis maintains a blog, Its Not Sasha, and volunteers for Promising Pages. Her writing has been featured in Charlotte Magazine and the anthology Robocup Compendium 2013.Its Not Sasha is a blog about overcoming. Sosha has turned a childhood filled with addiction, uncertainty and loss into a series of uplifting and inspiring stories of healing and growth. By shining light on the darkness that comes from addiction, Sosha throws out the shame and offers up hope. Sometimes funny, other times gritty the stories on It's Not Sasha are filled with honesty, forgiveness, and most of all, love.