Disregarded and abused in some way by so many people who should have loved her, Catie’s self-concept has been crushed. She can’t see her own worth. Her new colleague and friend Marcy sees it. All that Catie has survived, all that she has become–mother, caregiver to children orphaned or abandoned or delivered to daycare by loving parents off to work, devout Greek Catholic buoyed by her faith, selfless weaver, supportive friend–Marcy believes has made Catie a true, real-life Wonder Woman. Catie thinks Marcy is ridiculous.
What Do You See In Yourself?
It’s an all-too-human reaction to internalize what the world does to us and says to us. Because we face struggles, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, disability, chronic stress, and the ordinary challenges of daily life, we sometimes, somehow, blame ourselves. Our problems become our self-concept; indeed, we often use them to define ourselves. We look at others who seem to have it all together, and we wonder what’s wrong with us. We don’t realize that we’re so focused on our perceived shortcomings that we don’t see our many strengths. We don’t acknowledge the fact that we are alive and moving forward. We don’t see the superheroes that we are.
We see instead others’ strengths and abilities. We see their smiles, and we offer smiles of our own. We sometimes don’t realize that behind people’s silent smiles lie stories of both struggle and triumph. Behind silent smiles lies the depth of our humanity — and our super-humanity.
In honor of the release of Behind Silent Smiles, I offer you a sneak peek into this real-life Wonder Woman:
She and Filip hadn’t found anyplace to be safe that night. All these years and a lifetime later, it felt like she were still searching, fruitlessly, for a place to be safe. She was searching when she met Dumitru, she searched all the while she was with him, and she was searching when she came to this new country. And she still felt like she hadn’t found one.
She had been sitting in a rocking chair and feeding an infant—she couldn’t remember her name at the moment—as she talked to Marcy. Now the baby wriggled and fussed, and Catie became aware that she was agitated, rocking the chair too fast and bouncing her leg up and down. She dropped the bottle because her hand wouldn’t grasp it tightly enough. Marcy spoke to her, but Catie didn’t know what she said. She didn’t want to know. Marcy reached down and tenderly lifted the baby off of Catie’s lap.
“No! Don’t take her away from me. I can take care of her. I can love her properly. Let me show you.” She reached for the baby, but Marcy was already placing the baby in a crib.
“Of course you can, Catie. I meant it when I said that you are have a special touch. Right now you seem very distressed. Are you okay? I think you need to go take a break.”
“No!” Catie sat up straight and scooted to the edge of her chair so quickly that she was surprised that she stayed on the chair. “I am fine. I love these children, and I want to care for them.” She leapt to her feet and tried to move around Marcy, but she had stood so quickly that she experienced head rush. She saw dark spots and bursts of lights floating in front of her eyes. Between those spots and bursts she could see crushed, lifeless bodies; she saw fires and rubble and panicked people; she saw her mother, despondent and away from her family on a pile of crumpled apartment; she saw Filip with her in that car. She blinked rapidly. Where was she right now? She heard the cries of a baby, or was that the wailing of thousands of Romanians after the great earthquake? Catie shook her head. She was confused. When someone touched her elbow, she jumped away and stumbled on something on the ground. What was it? Debris and rubble? Bodies? There had been so very many bodies in the days, weeks, following the earthquake. Was it something of Dumitru’s that she just crushed? She dropped to her knees to see what damage she had done. This was a blanket. A baby blanket. Oh no! Had she stepped on a baby? No! Where was the baby? Frantically, she looked around but saw only toys. She was confused. From a distance, she heard her name.
“Catie.” When Catie looked in the direction of the sound, she heard her name again. “Catie.” Catie blinked to pull her surroundings into focus. She realized she was at work. She inhaled sharply and tried to stand. Her attempt to gracefully spring to her feet was a lame one. She stood up in stages, placing one foot flat on the floor in front of her, then bracing both hands on that bent leg, and then rising up just enough to place the other foot flat on the floor; hands now on both thighs, she slowly, carefully, straightened. She squeezed her eyes shut and winced at the fiery pain that shot through all of her joints. As usual, she felt like she had been struck by Thor’s Hammer. When her children were little, she and Dumitru would sometimes take them for walks through the city. Dumitru especially loved a huge stone sculpture known as Thor’s Hammer. He would pretend that he was Thor and, as Thor, he was the one who had slammed it into the ground causing the concrete all around it to break into chunks. The kids would climb and play on those chunks, and Catie would act so grateful to have her big hero “Thor” in her life. She had to act loving and grateful to stave off the blows that would come from Dumitru’s hammer if he thought she was an ingrate. Catie shuddered as she stood in front of Marcy, finally fully straight.
“Catie, I don’t think you are okay. Would you like to go home for the day? I can call Irene, and she’ll just have one of the floaters fill in here.”
Catie shook her head. “No!” she exclaimed vehemently. “I’m fine. Really. It’s just sometimes I get caught up in a memory when I’m thinking of something that I feel strongly about.”
“Yeah, so maybe you need to just chill out for the rest of the day. Go home. Your kids are in school, right? So you could have the house to yourself. Or stop by the pet store and pick up a chinchilla.” Marcy grinned.
Catie put her hands up, palms out, and made a tiny pushing motion. “No, Marcy. Please don’t call Irene. She already thinks very little of me, and this will only make it worse. I can’t lose my job.”
“You won’t lose your job just for taking the rest of the day off.”
“I might, and I can’t risk it. I…” she decided against telling Marcy that she didn’t deserve to take a day off, anyway, so she simply trailed off. She could think of nothing else to say at the moment. She sighed.
“Okay. I won’t keep pushing you. But you really should at least take your break now. Take your lunch with you.”
“Actually, I don’t have a lunch, so I’ll just stay here. I like being in here.”
Marcy crossed the room to her bag and rummaged through it until she found what she was looking for. She returned to Catie and jiggled a sandwich bag containing two oddly shaped tan clusters with various pieces of things protruding in multiple directions. “Look! Homemade peanut butter granola bars. I made them last night.” Marcy looked at the bag and jiggled it again. “It was my first attempt at this particular recipe, plus I had problems cutting them. They look a little strange, but trust me, they taste good. Here.” Marcy thrust the bag into Catie’s hand and led her out the door. “Take these with you on your break and enjoy them. They’ll give you an energy boost. Have a relaxing break, and I’ll see you in a bit.” Marcy disappeared back into the room, and the door clicked shut behind her.
A group of four- and five-year-olds marched past Catie in a crooked line. They were all singing a song, and Catie smiled. Her smile faded into nothingness when she thought of why she was out in the hallway. She sighed and surreptitiously surveyed her surroundings. She didn’t want to be caught standing here. She didn’t want to go into the breakroom and face people there. She couldn’t go back to the infant room yet. With the hallway now empty, but only temporarily, she headed for a side door and stepped outside. Before letting the door shut, she bent down and wedged a stick between the door and the frame so it wouldn’t shut fully and lock her out. She leaned back against the side of the building, looked up toward the bright sun, and closed her eyes. Her throat suddenly felt painfully tight. She looked at the tree a few yards in front of her and watched it blur. The pain, both physical and emotional, of the morning and all the way back through her past overwhelmed her, and she cried silently as she stood against the building and clutched Marcy’s bag of homemade peanut butter granola bars.
Catie wiped furiously at her eyes. She didn’t have time for this, and she couldn’t afford it. What if Irene or any other employee of Hey Little Diddles saw her out here, avoiding work and wallowing in her emotions? Catie was absolutely not her mother, and she wouldn’t act like it. What would Bunicuță have said about her being out here, floundering? What would Dumitru have done to her? She imagined the consequences, and lived them in her mind because she so clearly deserved them.
She started back inside but remembered the bag of granola bars she was carrying. She opened the sandwich bag, lifted it to her nose, and smelled it. Definitely peanut butter. She closed it again. Did Marcy’s kitchen look like Catie’s too often did, with the peanut butter jar open on her counter surrounded by a mess of other food and utensils, Catie wondered. Catie couldn’t imagine Marcy being such a slovenly woman. Dumitru had repeatedly pointed out Catie’s slovenly ways and disciplined her for them. At first, she was baffled by Dumitru’s low opinion of her cleaning habits, because from the time she was very little, she had done housework and chores and helped Bunicuță with preparations for church services. After Bunicuță had died, Catie wanted to continue to be someone who made her proud, and she strived for that every day. She honestly couldn’t see why Dumitru thought she was untidy and disgusting. As he continued to point out her oversights and shortcomings, though, she could see his point, and she was ashamed. The harder she had tried to please her husband, the more she failed. Even with his brutal instruction, she could never get things quite right. And now, look at how messy her home was sometimes—just occasionally, but still it happened. Maybe she really had needed Dumitru’s lessons and punishments. She sighed.
The deep sigh caused her to catch a whiff of Marcy’s granola bars, and her thoughts came tumbling back to the present. She needed to get back inside, but she couldn’t go back in with these bars and risk hurting Marcy’s feelings or angering her. Despite a complete lack of hunger—her gut was too full of stress and memories—she smelled the contents again. The granola bars did smell good. Maybe she could eat them. She leaned back against the building, closed her eyes and let the sun’s warm rays wash over her, and ate the bars as quickly as she could. The tasted fabulous, but her stomach twisted in protest with every bite. Nonetheless, for Marcy’s sake, she ate them both. Feeling uncomfortably full yet happy because Marcy had seemed to genuinely care enough to share her food, Catie headed back inside.
She kicked the stick away from the door and allowed the door to click shut. When she turned to walk back to the infant room, she saw Irene emerge from a room across the hallway. She wanted to hide, but there was nowhere to go. She thought about praying for the ground to open up and swallow her, but that was too much like an earthquake, and she never wanted to experience one of those again. The only thing she could do was grit her teeth, ball her fists, walk slowly forward, and say a silent prayer to St. Basil for protection.
Irene was upon her in an instant. “Catie, what are you doing?”
“I…” she began. She had to clear her throat before she could meekly respond, “I stepped outside for a short break.” She looked at her little Timex watch. “I only took a short break. I was outside for seven minutes, and I’m going back to the room now.”
Irene waved a hand impatiently. “Yes. That’s fine. I’m wondering what you are doing coming in that door. All doors other than the front are locked from the outside. Did you prop it open?”
Catie’s stomach lurched, nearly forcing the granola bars up her throat. She swallowed. “Yes. But I was standing beside the door the whole time. I didn’t walk away and leave it propped.”
Irene made a noise the sounded like a hissing tortoise, a rushed breath of air meant to be fierce and intimidating. “At least you had enough common sense not to leave an open door unattended in a daycare center. If our doors are propped, the environment is unsafe. Kids can wander out and strangers can wander in. If our parents think our building isn’t safe, they will take their business elsewhere. I hate to lose business.” Irene glared at Catie.
Catie felt the heat of shame creep through her veins and return to her heart, making it constrict painfully. She looked down. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Catie felt as though she were a child again, facing yet another chastising by her mother. She felt a longing for Bunicuță and an unexpected desire to go home, not her apartment, not home to Dumitru, but home to Romania, to the rural countryside. If Irene fired her now, perhaps she should. It would please Florina immensely. But it would likely devastate Alexandru.
Irene ended Catie’s dilemma. “Good. I do trust you that you won’t do it again. Now go care for those infants.” Irene smiled stiffly. Catie summoned the energy and the courage to smile back at Irene, and then she hustled back to Marcy.
Marcy welcomed her cheerfully. Catie felt guilty for it. Here she had shirked her duties, leaving everything to Marcy, yet Marcy still was nice. When Marcy asked her how her break was, Catie said what she knew Marcy wanted to hear: It was helpful and relaxing and she was glad for the granola bars. She fell silent, saying nothing more, especially nothing about Irene, and smiled at Marcy.
“I’m glad you feel better, Catie.” She paused and shook her head. “Man, I can’t imagine living through such a devastating earthquake, going through everything that you did with that, and losing someone I loved.” Again Marcy paused. Catie was surprised to see Marcy’s cheeks redden. Marcy must have been surprised or embarrassed, for she pivoted, walked away, and sat down on a blanket to interact with the three babies lying there.
Catie joined her. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, I suddenly feel really awful about a thought I had a lot when I was growing up. I actually wouldn’t have been sad to lose my grandma or anyone else. I used to wish that something bad would happen to my family. I’d fantasize that they were killed somehow when I was away at school and I wouldn’t have to go to boarding school anymore.” Marcy scrunched up her face. “Isn’t that awful? Did you ever wish anyone in your family was dead?”
Catie cocked her head to the side and debated whether or not to make a confession to Marcy. She decided that since she had been talking so freely to her, something that surprised her, she might as well participate in this topic that Marcy started. “Well, no, I didn’t wish my family members were dead. I did wish that I was dead, though. Especially after the earthquake. I prayed and prayed that God would send Bunicuță back and take me instead, but he didn’t seem to want to do that. However…” She looked at Marcy thoughtfully as she continued, “Sometimes I do still wish I was dead, except I don’t want my children to be sent back to their father.” Catie noticed that she was wringing her hands. She yanked them apart, but like magnets they slammed back together of their own volition. Catie watched their anxious wringing motions and said, “I often found myself wishing that Dumitru were dead. I’d fantasize all the time about him having a gruesome accident. He works for the subway, and the subway system in Bucharest is disorganized and dangerous. I mean, it’s getting better now, but it was very bad in the 1990s when he started there. The meaner he became, the more I hoped that there would be a subway accident that killed only him. But then he’d have nice streaks where he was kind and loving and fun, and I felt like the worst person in the world for wishing him dead.” Catie scooped up baby Wallace, settled him on her shoulder, and cuddled him.
“Well, neither one of us actually killed anyone, so I’d say that we’re actually pretty darned awesome. No. Even better. Superheroes. Wonder Women!” Marcy grinned. Still feeling guilty over her desire to see Dumitru die, thoughts of Florina suddenly popped into her head. “My daughter wouldn’t agree with you,” Catie said flatly. “Kicking and screaming is how she left Romania and her father, and she’s still doing it. You see, she shares her father’s opinion of me. She wanted me to let her stay in Romania with her dad, but she doesn’t know him like I do. I know that if I left her there alone with him, he would turn the rage he had against me and my son toward her.” She closed her eyes and shuddered. “I couldn’t let that happen.”
“You’re even more of a Wonder Woman, then.” When Catie snorted in disbelieving dismissal, Marcy leaned over slightly to grab the phone out of her pocket, tapped some buttons, laughed, and then instructed Catie to go check her phone. Reluctantly, Catie lifted herself off the floor, went to her purse, and took out her phone. The text message was a cartoon image of Marcy dressed as Wonder Woman and looking fiercely triumphant. Catie couldn’t help but smile. “How did you make this?”
Marcy shrugged. She showed Catie her phone. “It’s just an app. It’s called Bitmoji.” She tapped through it to show Catie how to use it. “You should get it, Catie, and make yourself. It’s fun! And don’t delete the Wonder Woman I just sent you. Use it as a reminder of who you really are.”