“I got knocked up in high school,” the pretty young brunette explains to me as she jiggles a happy toddler on her hip.
We are in the kitchen of Shannon’s* small two bedroom apartment. She is standing and I am sitting at her cluttered dinette table. The apartment is clean but dingy, her furniture functional but well worn. Although only ten o’clock in the morning it is already over 80 humid degrees out. A creaky fan pushes hot air around. Summers are stifling hot where she lives but she doesn’t have central air conditioning, just a small wall unit stuck in a window in the living room. The cold air wafting out does little to combat the heat or reach the other rooms. A trail of sweat trickles from my brow.
“Graduated when I was seventeen years-old and seven months pregnant. We got married a month later, the day after I turned eighteen. That was fun,” she says sarcastically. “I had twins. Do you have any idea what having twins at eighteen is like? Twin boys?” she puffs in frustration.
The boys race past shouting pow pow with fake laser light guns clicking as they shoot each other but don’t die. Shannon hollers at them to stop or else. They keep on, impervious to her warning.
“Darren* went to work and I learned how to be a housewife. He does construction. His daddy does construction. Well that lasted a couple of years. Then he split. Left me for another girl who had no kids.” Her tongue tisks at the irony. “Deadbeat defined,” she sums up with a sick smile.
Shannon interrupts herself to yell at the boys. They are sliding around in cowboy pajamas ignoring her. The little girl on her side grabs fistfuls of her long hair, causing the young mother to wince and struggle to untangle the baby’s plump sticky fingers before her other hand snakes around and pulls more.
“So I divorced him, sued for child support and he quits his job. Asshole. I am sure he is working under the table somewhere. Mind you I am barely 20 years-old. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I took the twins and moved back into my parents house. My dad would hardly look at me, he told me Darren was going to leave me when I got pregnant and that I should have an abortion. Fuck him.” Shannon’s eyes flash anger.
The two boys start chanting fuck him, fuck him in unison as they run around the room laughing wildly. For some reason my mind conjures images of the final scenes of Lord Of The Flies. Shannon sets the little girl in her arms down on the floor and cringes as she stands back up. I play a few rounds of peek-a-boo and the baby laughs. Shannon goes over to the boys who race away from her, faking her out as she tries to use her body to block them. Finally she stops chasing and starts crying and screaming. The baby starts crying. The boys look alarmed and come to her warily. She smacks them both on the behind and says next time it’s a mouthwash with soap.
“She is so sweet. I love my little angel,” Shannon tells me as she comes back into the kitchen and grabs a box of Froot Loops from the cupboard, pouring some into a sandwich baggie. “Sorry,” she smiles apologetically at me.
I reassure her it is no problem. She hands the baggie of multicolored cereal to the little girl and takes her into the living room. The boys are sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons. The baby lurches around the perimeter of the room towards her brothers, gripping the furniture as she learns how to walk.
“Anyway, I get a job. At a really nice restaurant, actually,” she says returning to the kitchen. She refills our perspiring glasses with sun tea from a glass jar in the refrigerator. “As a hostess. Got promoted to a waitress pretty quick and made $40 grand last year. The tips are amazing. Not bad for a teen mom, eh?”
In the living room the baby drops the bag of precious sugar circles and starts fussing. One of the boys goes over and picks it up, holding his sister’s hand as he leads the little girl to join them in front of the TV.
“So I moved out and got my own place. This place. My mom still watches the kids at night when I work. She has to do it here, though. My dad is still pissed at me. Well I met Hailey’s* dad at the restaurant. He is one of the sous-chefs. We live together but are not married.”
Shannon opens up the window in the kitchen and lights a cigarette, fanning the smoke out the screen as she sits on the window sill. In the living room the little girl feeds her brother Froot Loops one at a time, squealing with delight as they disappear into his mouth. He sticks out his color stained tongue to show her it’s gone and she feeds him another.
“I am not getting married again. I am too young. I don’t know what I want. I got pregnant with him pretty quick too. It was a hard pregnancy and terrible delivery." Shannon shakes her head at the memory. "But ever since I had Hailey I have been in pain, and it just keeps getting worse. I am tired all the time. It hurts to pick her up, set her down, do anything with her. Just looking at the boys hurts me. I lose my temper all the time.” Shannon shakes her head back and forth as she explains her predicament.
As she slowly exhales smoke through the screen I see how truly young this brave woman is, facing momentous challenges head on and all on her own to boot. There is a vulnerability in her sagging shoulders I want to rescue her from.
“I went to the doctor and they took a lot of blood, but apparently there was nothing wrong with my blood. They pushed on my body in all these places that hurt like the dickens and told me I had Fibromyalgia. But didn’t really say much more than that. Gave me Adderall and Amitriptyline. But that shit knocks me out so I can’t take it. I mean I have three little kids in the house! And the Adderall is like speed. So I don’t sleep, I cry so easily! My job is killing me. My kids are consuming me. And I am barely 24 years-old!” Tears well up and spill from her large kohl rimmed eyes. She puffs on the cigarette and collects her thoughts.
I want so badly to offer her a remedy, a quick fix, a return ticket to normal. Sadly they just don’t exist in this situation. What can I say to this girl? What advice can I give her? Anything I have to offer seems trite and uninspired.
“I don’t know what I am going to do. The doctor will not give me any pain medication because I am too young to need them. He actually said that to me, can you believe it? My insurance is HMO so you can’t just go to any old doctor you feel like going to. Referrals and all that. I am starting to miss work because I just can’t do it! What am I going to do? I can’t move back in with my parents, you should have seen my dad when I got pregnant with Hailey." She rolled her eyes for emphasis. "Oh shit on a stick was he pissed! I still don’t get child support from Darren. I can do this, though, afford it all on my own, but not being sick. Not in this much pain. I won’t keep my job if I keep missing work. They are really strict about that. Hailey’s dad helps out but not much. Besides the twins aren’t his. He never lets me forget that.”
She holds her head in her hands, rocking it back and forth gently. Shannon is overcome with the sheer burden of responsibility she carries. She is young and capable, but the independent and energetic parts of her are eroding away quickly. Bewildered, angry and confused she looks up, black mascara trails down her cheeks.
“How on earth am I going to support my kids? Nobody else wants to do it but me. But some days I can’t get out of bed. I mean I do, I have to, but it’s like living in quick sand. I don’t know how much longer I can go on if its gonna be like this?”
As I make my way home my heart is heavy with Shannon’s burden. She is a good person trying to do the right thing, and getting no breaks. I was not as young as she is when I got sick. I already went to college and was married and don’t have kids to take care of. And my journey was living hell. I can only imagine what being a single mom adds to the plate. Sadly I don’t know how it is going to work out for my new friend. Her journey with chronic illness is just beginning. She has very little support. I know from personal experience the harder I pushed to normal the worse Fibromyalgia got. All I can do is hope and pray she is able to find her way.
Thanks for joining,
*All character names are fictional to protect the anonymity of the contributor.