I am still waiting for some of my wonderful editors to finish their copies of my upcoming book, Phoenix Morrow, but I decided to go ahead and give you all a little taste of what is to come. Some little edits might be made, but I am confident enough in it to share it with all of you, my loyal blog readers. I give you Chapter 1 of Phoenix Morrow...
My name is Phoenix Morrow, and I was born on my eighteenth birthday.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not crazy. True, I was born Catherine Victoria May, but no one has called me that in a long, long time. I am Phoenix, and anyone who would choose to call me Catherine is a fool who should know better.
Even as a child, I hated the name Catherine May. It always felt like everyone was concerned with what I was or wasn’t allowed to do. “Yes, Catherine may… “, or “No, Catherine may not…” Everyone seemed to be wondering “What may Catherine do?” I wanted to scream at the planet to stop ordering me around, and all these years later, it still gets under my skin when I think about it.
Back to my birthday…
I looked forward to that day for as long as I could remember. Every birthday prior I counted down the years. Five years left, four years left, three… two… With one year remaining I actually began counting the days. Months or weeks would have made more sense, perhaps, but by counting down from three hundred and sixty five I could enjoy each and every one. Ticking them off one by one brought an immense amount of satisfaction that is hard for me to explain, even today. Each tasted sweeter than the one before. As each month rolled into the next, I felt like I had earned that victory piece by piece, bit by bit, day by day.
I was never one to pay much attention in school, but I remember back then being intrigued by something I heard in history class. The teacher rattled on about the idea that we are supposed to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, though at the time I couldn’t have told you where that’s from. Again, I wasn’t always paying attention.
Life seemed easy. All I have to do is keep breathing, right? Check. Liberty always seemed like something I’d obtain when I was old enough to understand it, which was true. I wouldn’t really understand liberty until much, much later.
But happiness? There’s the elusive one. Maybe the reason the phrase stuck in my memory is that I laughed about the “pursuit”. In other words, “Keep trying! You’ll get there!” All that sounded an awful lot like our unnecessarily optimistic baseball coach back in gym class. He kept telling us that all we had to do was try hard and we’ll get to play shortstop in the World Series.
Good luck with that.
Growing up in Maryland was alright, I guess. Just close enough to all of that power in D.C. but far enough away from the corruption. You’d hear stories about all of the politicians and the “real workings” of our country, and I knew I didn’t need to be around all of that bullshit. But knowing that kind of raw power was so nearby was also kind of intriguing. At least it was to me back then.
I preferred the ocean myself. When I used to live near the shore, I loved to go and stand waist deep in the water and feel the waves push me around. That was real power. The constant push, over and over and over again, slamming the shore and anything that got in its way. Knowing that I could stand there surrounded by all of that raw force and not fall over touched me to my core. Even all of these years later, a part of me wishes I could go back to being just a girl standing in the waves.
Back then, all I ever wanted was to be loved. I figured if I’m loved I’ll be happy, right? Really, that was my pursuit; my “pursuit of happiness”, if you will. There’s a good chance I was happy before. I can only assume I was a happy baby, and have no reason to suspect otherwise. I’m sure I was loved, possibly even cherished, by parents who loved me more than anything. I bet they were so excited to see me grow up one day.
My parents never got that chance. They both died in a car crash when I was only three years old.
You want to know the truth? Many times, especially when I was younger, I wished I had been in the car with them. But no, I’m still here. Thankfully or sadly, depending on your point of view, I was home with a babysitter while the adults enjoyed an evening out. Somehow, someway, I escaped death for the first time that night.
I’ve always wondered why no family or friends ever took me in, but maybe my parents were loners. I had always been one, so I guess it makes sense. Solitude suited me from a young age, therefore it’s clearly in my DNA. Thrust into the foster care system because no one wanted me, I went from house to house to house all over the state but never found a home. Some of my foster “parents” were good people. Some were only in it for the money. But none of them loved me like the parents I lost when I was too young to remember them.
I think about them often. They haunt my thoughts like a ghost would haunt their murderer. But I didn’t kill them. Instead I’m the one that got left. I guess some part of me died that day, and I know that a psychologist would have a field day with that statement. It’s true, though. The version of Catherine who would have grown up in their house, happy and healthy, died that day. But who knows, maybe they would have turned out to be just as dysfunctional as I am. Maybe that’s also in my DNA.
Twice, once when I was nine, and again when I was twelve, I was almost adopted. Almost. The first time, my foster family wanted to adopt me permanently. They were good people who loved me like their own daughter, and I’ll never forget them. After getting a promotion at work, my foster dad was required to relocate, so they were about to move to a new city and wanted to “keep the family together”. After two blissful months where I thought I was never going to leave them, they couldn’t pay the lawyer to help with the adoption. After the promotion, there’s a chance they would have found the money, but they didn’t have it then. Unable to take me across state lines, they moved on without me. I learned what disappointment was that day. For a while, part of me hoped they’d come back for me. They never did.
The second family, three years later, was the one that lived near the ocean. They said I “had trouble connecting with them”, and they were right. I had trouble connecting with everybody. The last thing I was about to do was let myself get burned again, so back into the system I went.
One of the biggest things I remember about growing up in foster care was that I always felt out of place. I never really belonged anywhere, no matter what building was referred to as “my home.” Little things like where I put my backpack afterschool became a big deal, because some of the foster parents would say, “Make sure you know where your stuff is. If you leave it here someday, it’s gone.” While that always stung, they were right. We both knew I was going to leave eventually.
It was hard never really having a home, especially knowing how tragically my old life had been taken from me. Sometimes I would think about my birth parents, though I never really knew what to feel when my brain landed there. When I was really little I used to cry for my Mom, never really understanding what was going on. As I got older my musings took on more of a “fuck ‘em” mentality. Things got confusing when I felt a little bit of both at the same time. I never knew what to do with that.
After the second adoption fell through when the family said I wasn’t “connecting to them”, the social worker I was assigned to at the time sat me down in her office and told me to get my head out of my ass. I remember being shocked, largely because I assumed she really wasn’t allowed to talk to me like that.
With both of her hands on her desk, she leaned towards me and said, “Do you understand how heartbroken that family is right now? All they ever wanted was a daughter. They were looking for a teenager, which you need to know never happens, and they chose you. But you chose to be so difficult that they just couldn’t do it. And now where are you?”
I shot back, “If they wanted me so badly, they should have tried harder.”
The social worker just shook her head. “Catherine, they wanted so badly to love you, and you know what? They probably still do. But at some point, if you are ever going to connect with anyone, you’ve got to be willing to meet them halfway.”
In time I learned she was right. Looking back at those days, I’m sure that the decision to halt the adoption was gut wrenching for that family, but I imagine now that they did what they thought was best. I may not have been the right fit for that family, which probably means they weren’t the right fit for me. But still, I felt discarded. I had been returned like that ugly sweater no one wants at Christmas that you’re just glad the tags are still on.
Eventually, all I could do was choose to become stronger by relying on the only person I could count on. Me. I didn’t need anyone, and no one had ever needed me. At least that’s how I felt back then.
In school I found myself drawn to the people on the outskirts. Somehow I simply knew I belonged with them. I found ‘friends’ among the loners, but sometimes having friends like that was a lot like having no friends at all. Loners never want to hang out at the mall. That’s was fine, though. I didn’t belong there either.
One day a guy in biology class asked if I had ever gotten high. I lied and said of course, not wanting to look like a goody-goody. “All the time, I love it” was my intentionally vague reply. I joined him and his brother in their basement that night, and sure enough, I did love it. That joint became my best friend of all. I’d finally found something that could make me happy and take all of the pain away, and yet never let me down. It was always there, ready and waiting for me when I needed it.
Drugs, and soon alcohol, made me feel alive for the first time. I learned to love the fire before my eyes while simply striking a match, knowing it could burn me any second but I could control it. I’ve always been fascinated by fire. It burns with a beauty that my eyes enjoy like nothing else. Even after all these years, that is still true. Over time I moved onto candles, but the fascination is still there. There is perfection in knowing that the oxygen, fuel, and spark have to be just right or the whole thing won’t happen at all. When those elements come together, I could count on that spark and the warmth it brought. Fire was one of the few things I could count on.
My first tattoo was a phoenix on my shoulder, and I’ll never forget the joy of having that image permanently attached to me. The thought of a mythical creature born from the flames enthralled me more than I can describe. Nothing was more beautiful in this ugly world.
As I grew up, I found I had distanced myself so far from that little girl who lost her parents in a car crash that even my name felt like wearing an old pair of shoes that needed to be replaced because they simply didn’t fit anymore. Some days it felt like wearing someone else’s skin. I was given the name Catherine by people who never knew me, especially who I was then and who I might be someday. The name “Catherine May” tied me to people who don’t really exist, nor am I real to them. All I needed to do was wait until I was eighteen to legally change my name.
That day finally arrived.
Money was never an issue back then, and I was ready to be on my own. I had been selling drugs after school long enough to make pretty good money, especially for a high school student. I had the product, they had the money, and they knew how to find me. It was just that easy, or so I thought. Sure, it’s illegal, but that just made me more important to those who were willing to track me down. It felt good to be important. I felt good to feel power again.
Once again, back to my birthday…
After spending most of the night tossing and turning in excitement, I must have finally crashed in the early hours of the morning. I finally woke up a little before noon and was annoyed at myself for not already being out of the door. The courthouse opened at eight thirty that morning, but peeling myself out of bed that early was laughable back then. I was never an early riser, especially at eighteen.
The clothes I planned to wear that day had been picked out in my head for almost a month, so I was able to dress fairly quickly and finally get moving. Looking back, I was so excited that the day had actually arrived that I completely forgot to eat anything. It wasn’t until later in the evening, after everything was taken care of, that a headache informed me I needed to eat something. Apparently nourishment was unimportant that day when I had more pressing matters to attend to.
As I got to the counter at the courthouse that afternoon, the woman smiled to see that I had all of my paperwork in order. She seemed grateful but surprised, like she didn’t expect me to have my shit together. Of course I did. It had been together for months. That clerk had no idea how important this was to me. She looked it all over, wished me a “Happy Birthday”, then said in a falsely sweet voice, “Just to make sure I have everything here correct, please tell me what you would like to change your name to.”
I remember closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, enjoying the moment I had been waiting so long for. This was it. I then looked her straight in the eye and stated clearly, “Phoenix Morrow.”
“No middle name?” the woman asked with a furrowed brow. I thought this over for a moment, a little surprised I hadn’t given it too much thought beforehand. I didn’t need a middle name. It seemed unnecessary, and I stand by that decision still. “No.” I replied, “No middle name. Just Phoenix Morrow.”
“But what if you need a middle initial for something?”
“I’m sure I’ll manage.” Drop it, lady.
Once we had finished everything that needed to be done, the woman behind the counter smiled once more and said, “Thank you, Catherine. Have a nice day.” I didn’t need to say anything, and just walked away with a grin on my face. I was determined to never respond to Catherine again, so I didn’t. Catherine May didn’t exist anymore.
As I walked through the double doors and on to the steps going out of the courthouse, I’ll never forget stopping to take in the fiery red hues of the sunset. It looked like the world was on fire for me, celebrating that I had finally arrived. With my new name, a fire had begun to burn in my chest. Just as it implied, I knew I would be born new out of the ashes tomorrow.
My name is Phoenix Morrow, and I was born on my eighteen birthday.