My earliest memory

There are a series of three or four photo albums at my dad’s house in Salem. There are not as many photos in those albums as I imagine other families have. For one, we didn’t take photos very often just “around the house”. When my mother was dying, somewhere between her final diagnosis and final surgery, she tore up all the photos with her in them. In a time before digital anything, she deleted herself.

I came home one evening after school and found her sitting in her bedroom floor. Shoeboxes were strewn around and the albums were out. She had a pile of little photo pieces.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I don’t remember my tone, but I feel it must have been one of confusion and seriousness.

She never replied. This was at a time when her speech was clear, but words were hard to come by. I still don’t know if she was silent because she didn’t know what to say, or if she just didn’t want to say anything. Whatever the case, she knew what she was doing. I assume this was just her way of forcing us — me specifically — to move on.

As I get older I find I don’t remember as much of anything. I don’t remember what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember what her last words were to me. I don’t remember the people who attended her funeral. I just remember random flashes of scenes of phrases.

This is all to say I want to start writing things down. I’ve been journaling more lately. From time to time it might be worth sharing on my site.

And that is all to say what is my first, earliest memory:

Somewhere in those photo albums is a picture of a young me, probably barely old enough to walk. My grandfather is holding me up as he sits in his rocking chair. His ever-constant toothpick was in his mouth. He was a big, strong man with a bald head. One I evidently saw fit to stick a suction cup toy on to.

I remember looking at him, placing this toy on top of his head and watching it jiggle back and forth. It stuck on his head so perfectly, like a hood ornament for pop.

Someone, presumably my mom, snapped a photo. When I saw the photo many years later I could remember it. That is my earliest known memory.

Haircuts

When I was a kid, my mom would take me to one of the local barber shops along Water Street in Salem to get my hair cut. Except, we had a process for this. We’d get up eeeeextra early on non-school days, or Saturdays if it were the school year, and we’d go in and sit outside in the car waiting for the barber to flip the “Closed” sign to “Open”. Then we’d go in, mom would explain how she wanted the hair cut (“shorten the bangs, blocked in the back”). I would just sit there uncomfortably in what was clearly a place for old men to gather, and cringe at the sound of the razor and struggle to keep my sleepy eyes open. Mom would sit in the corner.

It was until yesterday morning I realized why we always had to get up so early: she hated going to the barber shop.

Mom went to the House of Fashion in Salem and Vivian had cut mom’s hair for years and years. It wasn’t until after mom died that I myself started going there. My grandmother still goes there. Mom, I assume, must have thought that boys should go to barbers, and thus, she would take me to the barber because that’s what moms do and Dad wasn’t inclined to doing it because of work.

In life’s little ironies, we should have just always gone to the place mom wanted to go because it was the place I eventually wanted to go when I was old enough to start making that decision on my own. I came to trust Sheila at the House of Fashion with my hair and was satisfied with her work and went there right up until I moved to Indy.

Once in Indy, I bounced around to all sorts of places trying to find the right place for a fair price (I’m sorry, I’m not paying $50 for a haircut; I don’t have that much hair. I get that it’s often priced for a woman’s amount of hair-cutting, but that’s not me, so I’m not paying it). I didn’t find such a place until I tried Snipz in Irvington, which I found and had my hair cut and slightly colored at once. I liked the decor, it was gender-neutral, had a great staff, fair prices, and they treated hair like the art that it is. It only took me 7 years to find that place. Then I moved to Connecticut.

So now I’m in this process again, scouring Yelp reviews and trying to find a place that meets my exacting standards. Because of my experiences at the barber, I detest having a razor taken to my hair. I want it hand-cut with scissors. I want it to be to no more than $25 for a haircut (and even that irks me, but I’ve grown to accommodate that much). I want someone who makes good conversation, not idle chit chat, while cutting my hair. I prefer to have a gay man touch my hair because I can get persnickety about color and style and I don’t have to feel weird or “gay” about it, but I don’t want an older guy or any woman who has that “stylist look” (you know the type: the overly fussy hair, colored all to hell, sporting ridiculously long fingernails (I detest fingernails, who knows why).

It’s not easy finding that sort of place. Here I am at it again, but over the last 20 odd years, I’ve at least learned what I don’t like. In the meantime, I keep wandering by places, noticing the fonts and graphic design on the shop window, checking out the website (no prices listed or photos of your work is a flag to me), checking Yelp reviews, peeking in at the decor because I don’t want to sit in a pink chair with a box of rollers sitting nearby, and ultimately wandering on because of a failure to match my requirements by so many places.

It’s been 10 years since my mom died

Ten years ago today, at 11:16 A.M., my mother died at our home in Salem. She would have been 50 years old this year.

This is one of three photos I have of her with me:

Mom me

Which means, that exactly 10 years ago today at that time, I walked into Mrs. Duffy’s Spanish class. I was a freshman and had just come back from lunch. Someone walked into the room as the rest of the class filed in and handed her a note. It was pink, which meant I was going home. I still remember the look on Mrs. Duffy’s face when she saw the note, which read, “Justin Harter to office, ready to leave.” She didn’t have to say anything. That’s when I knew my mom had finally lost her two year battle with a brain tumor.

Mom only ever wanted to do one thing, which was to see me graduate from high school. She was three years too short.

I remember riding home from school with an aunt of mine. I was the last person to make it home. My grandmother, who was staying with mom, was obviously the first to know. She said mom “took a deep breath, exhaled, sighed, and was gone.” By the time I got home, Dad was standing near her, crying. My other aunts, uncles and cousins were there. Everyone looked at me as I walked into the living room from the back door via our kitchen.

I was mortified. Mom was lying there, in a hospital bed that had been setup in the living room (because the bed was so large). Her arms were in no particular order or fashion, her hair was unkempt, her body turning blue and bruised. I looked around the room and everyone was just staring. Mom would have been furious at people seeing her in that condition. I turned to my aunt and said, “Go get her a pillow.” I turned to Dad and said, “Dad, go call Ben.” Ben was the funeral director in town. I straightened her arms and neck. I pulled the blanket up just over her chest.

A few moments later, one of mom’s hospice nurses arrived to check on her at her regular time. She came in, said her condolences to everyone, and called another nurse to help them gather the medical supplies. I would later be the one that would have to witness them flushing the narcotics.

When Ben arrived with the hearse, he came in dressed in a red flannel coat and jeans. I was irritated that he hadn’t bothered to put on a suit. “I didn’t think you’d mind. I was out cutting wood when you called.” He said to my Dad. “No, no.” Dad replied.

Everyone left the room and stood in the back of the hallway, leaving me, Dad and Ben to lift mom onto the gurney to take her out to the hearse. I turned to my right and saw my grandmother crying in the dark hallway, her sister hugging her.

We put mom on the gurney, Ben wrapped her in a bag, and wheeled her out to the driveway and placed her in the back of the hearse. Just then, my bus drove by. The afternoon went by so fast. The driver, Betty Starr, stopped in the middle of the road with her lights on, opened the door, got off the bus and came up to me and Dad. “I’m very sorry for your loss.” She turned, got back on the bus and drove on to finish the last few stops on her afternoon route.

Ben left and drove her to the funeral home, in preparation for the funeral the next day, which was a Saturday. I walked back inside the house and waited until everyone else left. About an hour after everyone left, around 6 p.m., J.D. Martin, my 8th grade math teacher from a year prior knocked on the door. The faculty and staff at Salem Middle School had pitched in and donated money, about $700 worth, to me. He was the one to deliver it.

I went back into the high school to see my teachers in the classes I missed and get my homework that Friday afternoon.

We had the funeral the next day, everyone asking, “Are you ok?” and saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I kept thinking, “I wish people would stop asking me that.” and “I don’t know why people say they’re sorry about a loss. She’s not lost. She’s right there and in a minute, she won’t be anywhere.”

I went up to mom, just after Dad and before my grandmother, as the procession started. Claude Combs was waiting outside to lead the funeral procession in his police cruiser. My grandmother turned to me and said softly, without looking up at me and keeping her gaze on her daughter, “You should touch her, say goodbye, Justin.”

“Amazing Grace” was playing in the background. “Mom never would have liked any of this crap.” I said to myself. “If mom had her way, we’d all be listening to Lou Begga’s “Mambo Number 5″ right now.”

I touched her hand and said my goodbyes. I didn’t cry that day.

I almost didn’t recognize her. I hadn’t seen her with her hair cut, wearing glasses or in nice clothes in over a year. Vivian Wilson, who cut mom’s hair since she was a girl, was the only non-family member we invited to the funeral, as she was the one to cut mom’s hair. She did the best she could. It had thinned quite a bit, and the scars from the brain surgeries meant her hair was growing in odd new angles.

We buried her in a beautiful solid oak casket, draped and surrounded in red roses (her favorite). She was wearing her favorite pair of blue jeans, her favorite Winnie The Pooh sweater she hadn’t worn in years and her watch, wedding rings and glasses.

The ride from the funeral home to Salem to the cemetery in Pekin was the longest ride of my life. Dad driving his blue truck, I sitting in the middle and my grandmother on the right. We followed directly behind the hearse, which followed directly behind Claude’s car.

It was cold and snowing that Saturday, the day of the funeral. Just as it was cold and snowing the day mom was diagnosed almost two years to the day. She was diagnosed on January 16, 2000. She died, January 18, 2002.

At the cemetery, a cheap looking green drape was placed over the hole and another drape over the pile of dirt that would soon entomb her. The Pastor, Paul Martin, said a few words there, too. He was the Pastor at the church most of my family went to. We did not go to church.

It ended with everyone getting up and walking to their cars. I sat in that crappy wooden chair, directly in front of mom, as everyone filed by me. Eventually, after most everyone else left, I stood up and said to the now-closed casket, “I love you, mom.” I turned and walked away. It was the most unceremonious ending to the worst two years of my life — and hers.

I went back to school on Monday. That morning, as I got on the bus, one of our neighbors and a friend of mine said, “Mom and dad were sad they couldn’t go to the funeral.” “We had a private funeral.” I said. “They wanted to say goodbye, too.” She said. “Yeah, well, I think I knew my own mother well enough to know that she damn well wouldn’t have wanted anyone there but immediate family.” I replied. In my head I thought, “I’m sorry that you and your family couldn’t go gawk at my dead mother. Perhaps when you have to bury your mother you’ll think differently.”

The heads of every counselor in the office damn near exploded when I walked back into Salem High. Evidently, I should have been sitting at home, staring at a wall, I guess.

That was, and remains, the longest two years of my life. Since then, everyone has chided me for living such a dull life, for seemingly being bitter and angry with most everything. Perhaps it’s because while you were 13 and 14 and 15 years old, you were playing video games and spending time with your friends. I was struggling with my sexuality and holding a bucket under my mom’s mouth so she could have something to vomit into.

It changes a person.

I know what killed my mother

Just a quick disclaimer: this is probably going to end up rather lengthy and deeply personal. I’m writing this for myself, for anyone who suffers from depression, anxiety, cancer, disease or any other illness.

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This is a bittersweet time of the year for me. In November, when most people celebrate Thanksgiving, I do not. No one in my family really does anymore since my mom died. November is also the month I put in my resignation to quit my job at the State. December 1 marks the two year mark for me running my own business.

Speaking of December, when most people celebrate Christmas, I do not. The last memory I have of Christmas was in 2000, when I was 14, with my mom sitting on the floor of our living room, her shaved and scarred head wrapped in a thick layer of gauze. She had had her second brain surgery to remove a brain tumor just a month earlier. Like always, she made sure there were presents under the tree for me and my grandmother and my dad. And like always, she made sure to have each of them neatly wrapped and labeled. Except this year, as she sat on the floor, she wasn’t able to write so well anymore. Her spelling was off, her once pretty handwriting had been reduced to scribbles. She didn’t have enough labels, so she was forced to scribble over misspellings. The wrapping paper wasn’t as neatly folded as it once was because her vision was starting to fail in one eye. My memory from that year is of me sitting on the couch, looking down at her, as she squinted at the labels on the presents and refused our help to sort them. It wasn’t long after that that she became completely immobile, blind, deaf, incapable of coherent speech, constipated and in pain. She lived most of 2001 that way and then she died in January 2002, just two years and two days after she was diagnosed.

And in January, this January 18, 2012 at 11:14 a.m., I will travel to a small cemetery outside of Pekin, Indiana, in rural Washington County where mom and her grandparents and her little brother (who died two days after birth), are buried. I will place a wreath of red roses (her favorite) on her grave and mark the 10 year anniversary of her death. She was born on August 26, 1961. She was 41 years old.

Now, a decade later, I’m 24 years old. I know and have experienced a few more things now than I had then. Then, and up until somewhat very recently, I suffered from chronic depression. Taking care of my dying mother, living for two years knowing that she could die at literally any second, coming to terms with my sexuality, puberty and enduring the American Hell that is high school drained me. In recent memory, working at a depressing and draining job, struggling with dating and breakups, close friends that seemingly moved away in a constant stream, balancing finances and avoiding the debt for school, my dad’s near constant four-year unemployment and other things left my physically and emotionally void.

For a while it was incredibly difficult for me on a variety of levels for a variety of things, things that I’d rather not bore you with or rehash at this moment, but know that I’m speaking about things that most people don’t suffer with or endure much (or ever) in their lifetime. I’ve never told anyone personally about the things that happened to me during a period of time in my life between about 2008-2010.

And for a while in 2010 I tried medications to help with the stress and depression. I was diagnosed with kidney stones that year, too, and racked up medical bills that, thankfully, I’ve managed to pay off with the “help” of the insurance company (the same one that later revoked my coverage for ulcers and urinary tract problems). For a while, I tried modifying my diet to reduce some things, but it proved difficult because of my relationship at the time. It was the same ol’ problems, around and around.

And now, in 2011, I feel like I have the knowledge, the experience, the solution and the living proof to my problems of ulcers, depression, kidney stones, headaches, lethargy and weight gain: my diet.

I’ve long sworn-off fast food. I haven’t touched a fast food burger in about 7 years now, since 2005. But it wasn’t until 2010 I got a little more serious, by removing sodas and other sugary and carbonated beverages from my diet. I did it because my research lead me to believe that most kidney stones and urinary tract problems were caused by sodas. I also started filtering my water religiously to remove as much as I can from the city water. In addition, some stones are caused by calcium bond formations in the kidneys, calcium that’s usually delivered in large quantities by red meat.

So, I tried reducing the amount of meat I ate. And I started to feel pretty good.

And now, for the last month or so, I’ve taken my diet to a new level: I eat only whole foods and whole grains, based entirely on plants. I exercise more now than I ever have in my life by cycling, which I found that I love. For it, I feel better now that I have my entire life.

Some say that my diet is too extreme, too hard to live by and too restricting. To that I say: “Name me various kinds of red meat.” To which you will reply “Beef, pork, chicken.” You could go on to say venison, sheep, buffalo, etc., but really, people eat three main animals: cows, pigs and chicken because that’s what’s lining the shelves at the store. And then I will say, “Name me various kinds of edible plants.” To which you will reply, “Grapes, strawberries, cashews, peanuts, lettuce, wheat, corn, green beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, bok choy, celery, oranges, apples…” and on and on. I imagine the combinations of vegetarian dishes works out to many thousands. I do not think three meats can do that. Maybe if you’re generous and pretend that different cuts of meat are in fact different “things”. But in my book, chicken tenders, chicken breast and chicken nuggets are all the same.

Going to a whole foods diet sucks for the first couple of weeks. I lived my entire life around concocting meals by asking, “What meat do I want?” And then throwing “something else” around it. Now that I’ve gotten my bearings around this new style of cooking, the food’s actually just as easy and tasty to prepare as any meat dish ever could be. I don’t miss it.

In the last month I’ve lost about 10 pounds. This morning I weighed in at 158.5 pounds. I’ve been losing about a half pound every two or three days and I still eat about as much as I used to in volume. Heck, I’ve got two dozen oatmeal raisin cookies sitting on the counter right now.

My mood is extremely better, my body is clearly (and trust me on this one) pushing out a bunch of crap. Literally. I didn’t know a person could have so many bowel movements in a day. The high amount of fiber I’m taking in is working.

But enough on that matter; the point is this: I feel and am a whole lot better than I was just a month ago. I’m leaner, happier, more focused and more energetic. I rarely feel “stuffed” anymore, to the point of sickness, but instead I feel “completely full”. You know, like how you feel when you eat at a buffet right before you cram in “just one more plate”. And it doesn’t break the bank, I spend just as much on groceries as I did when I bought a lot of meat. I just spend it on different things now.

I’m able to cycle 20-30 miles in a weekend, plus another 30-50 miles throughout the week. This week I’ve not started my car once; I’m not even sure it will start at this point. Who knows; and I don’t even really care.

I’ve done some research, only after I’ve started eating whole foods, and it backs up what I’m experiencing. I’ve read books from the library, including “Diet for a Small Planet“, which is probably the most all-encompassing that I’ve read. I could go into the science behind it, but I won’t. However, I will say that it seems very clear to me that the science is there and repressed a great deal by concerned interests, particularly in the government. I mean, just this week Congress voted to make pizza a vegetable because it contains 2 tablespoons of tomato paste for sauce. Why? Because the frozen pizza companies, yes, those Titans of Industry, didn’t like the idea of not selling all that gray, frozen pizza to school cafeterias.

The gist of the science is this: plenty of things give you protein, not just meat (ever eat a peanut? Those fuckers are great, aren’t they?). In fact, your body can only absorb so much protein, which isn’t much. The rest is wasted, which means most of that protein in your steak just gets wasted or stored as fat.

Why am I so adamant about this now? Why do I see fit to tell everyone I can about this? Because in addition to knowing and experiencing this now at the age of 24, I also know that the shitty diet you have of sodas, fast food, processed frozen crap like frozen pizzas and fries and macaroni and cheese in a box plus the money-driven drugs for your depression, anxiety, pain, jitters and emotions is killing you.

It killed my mother, that’s for damn sure.

We lived in the wide open countryside of Washington County. We didn’t have pollution problems. We had water from a natural well under our front yard. Mom was a homemaker, so she didn’t have stresses of a job. Dad made good money at his factory job at the time (it’s since gone), so we didn’t have terrible financial troubles. I went to a good school and got good grades, I was not causing her any stress.

Her diet, however, consisted of sodas. In the 14 years I knew my mother, I never once saw her drink a glass of water. It was always sodas or heavily-sweetened tea (I still drink plenty of sweet tea, but only with two tablespoons of natural sugar per 8 cups of water). Mom drank so much Big Red soda her tongue was often just as red. We ate a lot of fried foods, particularly sodium-heavy ready-made things like Hamburger Helper meals, things that came frozen like frozen pizzas and fries, plenty of red meat like pot roasts and pork chops and steaks. In the summer we’d eat a lot of fresh tomatoes from the garden, because that’s what my dad would always grow. We’d slather them on white bread (which is completely void of anything nutritious, at all), Miracle Whip and bacon, hold the lettuce. It was a BLT minus the L (the healthiest thing).

Then, after mom was diagnosed, that’s what we kept eating and drinking. Mom went in for three surgeries, endured intense amounts of radiation — even going as far as implanting radiation and chemotherapy wafers directly into her brain — and was on medications galore. She took a pill for something every hour of the day around the clock, including numerous “experimental pills” that the doctors at University of Louisville and Norton Healthcare claimed did “very, very well in the clinical trials” at reducing the sizes of tumors.

Well, you know what, of course they did well in the clinical trials. Has anyone ever heard of a drug that didn’t do well in a clinical trial? Of course you haven’t because they always “do well” at something.

Then, after mom would have surgery or visit the hospital, they’d feed her Jello and white bread (toast); she’d have a Pepsi to drink. Really? Seriously? Did no one think it prudent to maybe give her carrots or tomato juice? Mom loved tomato juice — it was the only thing she’d drink when she was pregnant with me because she said it was the only thing she could keep down. That and 7 Up, because again, she never drank water.

If I could go back in time, I honestly believe that if mom started a whole foods diet in the mid 90’s or even the late 90’s, she’d still be alive today.

You’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, Justin, we’ve all gotta go sometime! And if we do, I want to enjoy my cheeseburgers.”

To that, I say, “You’re flat wrong.” If you think it’s normal for human beings to sit around like sloths because you’re “always tired”, or for people to die before they’re 40 for something that wasn’t a surreal accident or that it’s normal for people to be grotesquely fat or for you to have random aches and pains in your 20s or 30s, then fine, go ahead. If you think it’s normal to take a pill because you’re always “angry” or “upset” or that it’s normal to give kids pills to make them calm down or that it’s normal for elementary school kids to have diabetes or be so fat they have to use special reinforced chairs, I hope that cheeseburger is freaking delicious. Add a few more and you’ll be dead, or, at best, living on a diet rich in expensive drugs designed to treat symptoms just so you can function.

As proof, one only need to visit Japan. Ever see a fat guy in Japan? No you have not. Ever hear of a cancer epidemic in Japan? No you have not, because they have one of the lowest rates in the world for overall cancers. Rates of some cancers, like breast cancers, barely infects half a percent of their population. This is, of course, changing now that the Japanese are leaving their diets high in fish and vegetables for…”the traditional western diet.” KFC and McDonalds are growing fast there. In addition to the Japanese, this is why I don’t worry about the Chinese, because our diet will kill off their people with hardly anyone paying attention as to why.

Hippocrates believed that the body had an “innate ability to heal itself”. He believed that it was up to the doctor to help springboard the recovery of their patient by just giving them the right vitamins and minerals. The human body would take care of the rest. You have to agree that as our diets have gotten worse, the amount of deaths by cancer keep growing, even after the outlays in spending to research cancer treatments grows and grows each year. I don’t think that’s just a coincidence. And when’s the last time you felt like your government was really doing anything useful for you anyway?

Our medical system is so expensive because we have the worst diet of anyone in the world. All that crap people eat is killing our hearts and brains and keeps us inventing other things that don’t naturally exist to help the problems that also shouldn’t naturally exist! Granted, our system is great at trauma — if you get hit in the head or get stabbed with a rod in a car accident, our system does wonders. But disease? It’s pathetic.

I’m convinced eating crap turns you into crap. I’m convinced that the drugs people take for a medley of issues are completely made-up and designed to “temporarily cure” the symptoms, but never the problem. What use is it for people to take Prozac once if they can’t ever take it again? Keep taking it and paying for it and hey, everything’s “better”. Your Big Macs make you sad and depressed, not your life. If you have to take pills just to “function”, why does that seem normal to you? Do you think people in the colonial era had problems with ADHD and stress and depression? Certainly not at the rates we see today.

You can take expensive pills, or just eat foods rich in Niacin (Vitamin B3; like mushrooms, peas and beans), which has been proven to lift a person’s mood. At a fraction of the cost, that’s for sure. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous suggested that his patients take Niacin to help their recovery based on his own experience and research of dozens of patients. But, by the time he suggested it, other medical groups had already inserted their influence and decided against that. They favored new drugs on the market instead. Somehow, in our society, a multivitamin can be dangerous in large doses, but Ambien is just fine (another pill, of which, I took for a while because of sleeping problems caused by two years of waking up at odd hours of the night to be with mom).

At the very least, stop eating white bread (look for “whole grain”, not just “whole wheat” — by USDA standards, a bread can be considered “whole wheat” just by sprinkling the wheat grains on the top of the bread after it’s been processed out, which makes it completely nutritionally defunct, like sprinkling boiled and rotten apple slices on top of a doughnut.). And stop eating fast food — tacos aren’t supposed to cost 69 cents and come in boxes labeled as “MEAT PRODUCT”. Food isn’t supposed to be manufactured, period.

Why isn’t everyone shaking their heads and wondering what’s gone wrong? How are people not questioning things they put into them more?

I know I’m right about this. I just wish I knew it in 1999.

I Found a Photo of Mom and Me

It’ll be ten years this January that my mom died. I was going through some photos my grandmother gave me recently and found some new ones. I only have three photos of mom and me together. Mom destroyed all of the photos of her about a year before she died without anyone knowing. I think she was trying to create some level of separation.

Two of the three photos I now have were in this envelope from my grandmother. This is one I hadn’t seen until just now. I’m guessing I’m right around two years old here; probably taken in the spring or summer of 1989. I do not know where this was taken, though. It’s not anywhere I remember.

Mom and me