“There Were Times When I Longed For Her To Be A Bitch Again”
By Ijeoma Oluo
The fact that I’m talking to Melissa Garza at all feels like a miracle. She has the same laugh that I remember when we were best friends — my 6th grade year and her 5th. There’s the same playfulness in her voice that she had as a kid, an endearing trait that’s in direct defiance of the life she’s lived. Her laugh is a testament to her strength.
“Remember how we used to write — we had that writer’s club,” she remembers when I tell her that I want to write about her life. “I’ve always thought about writing it, but I don’t ever have the time. I have drafts here and there — but I don’t know where to begin.”
Before Melissa can continue, she’s interrupted by her 2-year-old son, Jax. He wants to talk on the phone. She laughs, slightly exasperated, and asks if it’s okay if he says hi to me. Her patience with him stands in stark contrast to the way she was raised.
I tell Melissa that her mom scared me as a kid. That she was so unpredictable, you never knew what was going to set her off. Melissa laughs.
“I remember at Christmas time, you and all the other kids came over to the back patio to see what I got for Christmas,” she recalls. “My mom and Stephon [her mom’s partner at the time] had left to go somewhere briefly. I was showing you guys some stuff. As soon as Stephon and my mom showed up, you guys ran. And I had no idea what was going on. It was so random! You just ran and I was like, ‘Hey wait, don’t run!’ and then they thought we were up to no good, and I was grounded for two weeks. That was the rest of winter break.”
Melissa stops laughing.“I was stuck in my room, and I didn’t even do anything. I was just being a kid.”
Every kid in our apartment complex was scared of Melissa’s mom. She was the cool fashionable lady always tanning on the lawn, but she was also the woman screaming in Spanish while hitting Melissa in the head with a hanger. Her partner, Stephon, was a laid-back ex-military dude, but he left the bulk of the parenting to her. Melissa always had the coolest toys and her pantry was always stocked with food, but one wrong move could have you banned from her house for life. We all tried to keep our distance, even Melissa.
“I remember when you got your period for the first time,” I say. This is the most vivid memory I have of her, but the way in which I say it sounds, well — creepy.
“You remember that?” she laughs, somewhat nervously.
“Yeah, I remember because you didn’t know what it was. And you were scared your mom was going to get mad at you. You had been hiding your underwear under your bed — “
“Yeah, I remember that.” I can hear her nodding.
“You had me come over and look at it and tell you what it was,” I continue.
“I was scared to talk to her about that kind of stuff,” she says. “ I remember Stephon; he was asking me, ‘Why didn’t you tell your mom?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, I was scared to’ and he said, ‘That’s what your mom is there for.’ But I just didn’t feel like I could. I didn’t know what to expect from my mom. I didn’t know what was gonna piss her off.”
Melissa and I were the best of friends, but not for very long. We were torn apart when her mom and Stephon moved the family two miles away the year after we met, which for a 12-year-old felt like a different country. We lost touch and I never saw her again, but rumors of what had become of her would filter through my friend group over the years.
Horrible rumors, too dark to be true. I dismissed them at the time, not knowing that the truth was far worse.
After Melissa moved away with her family, her mom had another baby, who they named Stephon after his dad. “We were doing good for a while there,” she remembers. “They put baby Stephon in my room. I was 13 years old, and I was getting up with the baby. But I didn’t really mind. We did really good for a while there.”
But then things started to change — in small ways at first. “My mom started acting really weird. She would be out of it. She’d look out the window a lot. She was constantly looking out the window, locking the door, then she’d go in her room and she’d be like, ‘don’t answer the door.’”
Her mom stopped yelling, but it wasn’t because she had gotten kinder; she had stopped caring. “There were times when I longed for her to be a bitch again,” Melissa remembers. “She didn’t even care that I was talking to boys.”
Melissa soon realized what was wrong with her mom; she was smoking crack. Stephon then joined her in addction.
“Little by little, they both started to get into it pretty deep. Both of them. That’s where the spiral began. We ended up moving away from Lynnwood after we lost everything. We lost the house we were living in. It was a downward spiral, to the point where they sold all the furniture off. It was crazy. I was pretty much on my own then.”
The final straw for Melissa was a violent attack by her mom when she was 15: “She ran out of money, she couldn’t smoke, she started to have withdrawals. Baby Stephon was in his highchair eating and I was in the kitchen; she wanted me to do something and I refused and talked back to her. She grabbed me by the hair and slammed me into the countertops and cupboards. I didn’t want to fight back because I didn’t want my brother to see me hit our mom. I just let her beat the crap out of me.”
Melissa started living with friends, cousins, her boyfriend Tony. But her relationship with her baby brother kept her connected to her mom and Stephon. She still loved them and hoped to have some sort of a family.
“I remember Stephon coming to me one day, he was really sad, and he says, ‘I’m gonna go to treatment. I’m going to leave your mom, and I’m gonna go to treatment.’ I said, ‘really?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get better. And I’m gonna take baby Stephon and I might take him back to Washington, DC. I just want to let you know. But when I get settled over there, you’re more than welcome to come live with me.’ I was really happy. My friend was going to give him a ride to the treatment center, but when my friend came to take him, he didn’t show up . . .” I can hear the disappointment still in Melissa’s voice as she continues, “He was nowhere to be found.”
After this disappointment, Melissa’s boyfriend Tony thought that a camping trip might cheer her up. “He said we could take my little brother [then 4 years old] camping. I felt really bad for baby Stephon because his childhood was just so screwed. They got high every night. Sometimes they didn’t feed him. When he’d get into stuff they’d just spank him. He was just a baby, he didn’t know any better. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s take him camping, I think he’d like that.’”
If the world was just, what happened next would never have happened. “We took him camping and that’s when he got burned. He got burned real bad.”
“We were young and stupid,” Melissa explains. “We didn’t know how to light fires any other way. We were supposed to take lighter fluid. I told him, the lighter fluid is inside the cabinet, in the pantry. He couldn’t find it. The only thing he found was a thing of gasoline.”
Her voice perks up for a minute, remembering the fun they had at first. “We made hot dogs and had the campfire going and he was just having a blast, my little brother. He never had fun like that. He never got to experience anything like that. He was having a good old time.”
What happened next Melissa remembers clearly, to this day. It still plays in her head in slow motion. “We were making hamburgers on the little grill. And I was flipping the hamburgers, and baby Stephon grabs the gas can and he says, ‘I need to make the fire bigger . . .’” She chokes up, and then forces the rest of the words out: “I said, ‘NO’ and he started to pour it, and it engulfed him — the flames. He panicked. His first instinct as a 4-year-old little boy was to run to the water. The water was several yards from us. As he ran, it burned him even more. I remember Tony going after him right away. He grabbed him and rolled him on the ground to put him out.”
Melissa and Tony rushed baby Stephon to the hospital, but there was little to be done. He languished on life support for a few weeks, until his parents finally decided to take him off of it. “They kept smoking the whole time. They’re just smoking crack. I know that the nurses and doctors knew. I think that’s one of the reasons why they convinced my mom and Stephon that they needed to take him off of life support. They knew that they weren’t capable of taking care of him. Even if he pulled through it for some reason, they wouldn’t be able to take care of him. He died of pneumonia. They decided to let him go.”
Melissa was now completely alone. “They blamed me. They blamed me for a long time. At one point Stephon said something to me like, ‘Did you do this on purpose? Did you burn him on purpose?’ Never in a million years would I consider doing that to my little brother,” she starts crying again, “My cherished little brother. It was horrible. They disowned me for a while.”
Soon after baby Stephon’s death, Melissa became pregnant with her first child, Sienna. “I wanted desperately to replace that loss,” she explains.
Her relationship with Sienna’s dad fell apart soon after she was born, when he became addicted to drugs and started hitting her. She got her GED, started working, then met the man that she would have four more children with and eventually marry a decade later.
Slowly, Melissa and her mom started to rebuild their relationship. It started when Stephon finally got clean. “Around 2006 he left my mom and went to Walla Walla for treatment through the VA,” she remembers. “He got a job as a custodian at the VA hospital.”
Melissa’s mom soon followed suit. “She was gonna get better and clean and sober. Her mistake was, instead of going to treatment, she just stopped doing it. She just stopped smoking crack altogether. She never got treatment — she never got counseling either.”
Melissa’s mom traded in crack for alcoholism, gambling, and deep depression. “Stephon still loved her and he tried really hard to still be with her, but I think he just got to this point where he was like, ‘I’m getting better but you’re not. Even though you’re not smoking crack you’re still doing stuff that’s destructive.’”
Soon, her mother’s other relationships began falling apart. She started fighting with her other son Andrew, getting in fights at bars, arguing with Melissa. But Melissa was still determined to make her relationship with her mother work, and it had started to pay off.
“I felt closer to her than I’d ever felt in my whole life, in those years before. She lived with me for a while when Stephon was in treatment. I had my brother, my mom, my three kids. We were building a relationship. I felt like I’d just finally got to that point where I actually had a mom” — Melissa’s voice trails off for a moment and she takes a breath before continuing — “but she couldn’t live with the pain anymore.”
“One day she called me and the conversation was going pretty good, and then she said something like, ‘You need to clean your house’ and she wasn’t being rude, but I could tell that if I stayed on the phone with her it would have probably gone south real quick. I said, ‘You know mom, I gotta go. I don’t want to talk to you about this right now.’” Melissa sounds tired as she remembers, “And that was the night that she actually went through with it and committed suicide.”
Stephon found her body in the morning, “He begged me, he begged me not to leave him there. That was devastating.”
But Melissa couldn’t stay. “He said, ‘come visit me as much as possible,’ and I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t go back there. I couldn’t bring myself to go anymore after she died. He’s been there in Walla Walla since.”
Melissa reached out for help to get through the grief. “I went to the doctor and I said, if you don’t put me on something I’m going to start doing street drugs. That’s how much I hurt.”
She fought hard to recover, attending support groups and going to therapy on her lunch breaks. Slowly, she got better. She was able to get off of antidepressants and land a good job with the county But the next few years wouldn’t give her any relief from hardship. Shortly after her mother’s death, her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with a heart defect and had to have surgery.
“That consumed me for like two years. He had his heart surgery in 2008; he was 3. The thought of losing him — I was just . . . ” her voice trails off.
Then in 2012 her younger daughter was diagnosed with a developmental disability. Melissa was pregnant with her fourth child, Jax, and started to reevaluate her life in the city and her job at the county. She decided to quit her job and move to a small town, so that she could have more time with her kids.
“I thought, I never get to be with my kids. I never get to send them off to school, make them lunches. I wasn’t doing any of those things that kids remember when they get older. I quit my job and took a leap of faith, and I again survived,” she laughs. “I’m not making $26 an hour anymore, but we’re still living pretty comfortably. We’re struggling financially, but we’re doing good now.”
In some ways, Melissa is a lot like her mom. “My mom had a really strong work ethic. She was always working. I get that from her. I’m very resourceful. If there’s any sort of resource out there, I’ll find a way to obtain it. I’ll just do it, I’ll get it done. She was always like that, on top of her shit.”
But Melissa is determined to do a lot of things differently, “I’m really laid-back compared to her. I can count on my hand the times I’ve spanked the kids. I didn’t have them to spank them, you know?”
The determination to do things differently led to the hardest decision of Melissa’s life. Last year, she became pregnant with her fifth child. At first she and her husband were excited about the pregnancy, but as it progressed, it became clear to Melissa that she couldn’t raise another child — not the right way.
“I found my breaking point. I was four months pregnant. We were gonna go out for a drive. I was trying to get Jax ready and he was being really difficult. I was trying to get myself ready, and I got really really overwhelmed to the point that I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this with another baby. I don’t have the patience for it.’ I realized it. I was like, ‘What am I doing? I don’t want to have all of these kids and have them all half-assed raised.’ I had to make a decision.”
Melissa put the baby up for adoption.
He was adopted by a family in her neighborhood in an open adoption. “I feel good about the decision, but I — I miss the baby. A lot.” She’s still grieving, she says, “I’ll get over it — it’ll be fine. And I know that he’s safe; it’s not like I don’t know where he’s at.”
I ask her if her history with her mom influenced her decision to give up the baby for adoption. Her answer surprises me.
“I think if she was here today, she would have talked me out of it. She would have offered to help me take care of him. Out of all the family members, she’s the only one that would have been willing to do that. Nobody else in my family ever — none of them have ever helped me raise any of my kids. I did it all alone. Even when I went to school, I managed all of that by myself. My mom wasn’t clean and sober then, so she helped me sometimes, but I couldn’t trust her. One time I left the kids with her and went to Vegas on vacation; I came back and she had forgotten to pick Sienna up from school like three days in a row. But as our relationship got better, I knew that out of anybody, she would have been the one to come help me. She would have figured out a way.”
After all this time, after all the pain, Melissa is still fighting for her relationship with her mom. It’s a love that has endured drugs, abuse — even death.
This is where Melissa is at today, alive, forgiving, loving. She’s healing from yet another loss, while raising four kids. They don’t fear her the way she feared her mom. They know she loves them. Her oldest daughter Sienna, now 16, interrupts our conversation to ask her a question. Melissa would never have dreamed of interrupting her mother like this. Sienna’s working on her high-school schedule. Melissa pauses our conversation to give her some advice.
It’s time for dinner and 2-year-old Jax is hungry. It’s been a long, tough conversation, and I know it’s time to let her go. I ask one last question. What makes her happiest today?
“Number one thing is my kids of course . . . number two is that I didn’t waste my life. I pursued and I did college — I didn’t go all the way,” she adds, “but a little bit of the drive is still in me. I have a home of my own. I have my kids. Looking back, where I came from and being alone in it all, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”