Here is an essay that grew from the powerful phrase “I am From”. So much in this work, so honest. It tells a story.

Steven Edward Elmore

The Imperial Valley of the Midwest

I am from a blue-collar middle-aged home. A mother and father giving birth to their fifth child at forty-one and forty-four years old respectively. My father, a butcher, wore plain clothes – rotating through three or four shirts – work boots, and the faint iron smell of raw meat. Every dog we ever owned would obsess over those boots. I was in no way ashamed of our circumstances, in large part, because material objects were so meaningless to my family. This, for me, remains unchanged.

“I couldn’t buy a smoke jacket for a pissant,” he’d say with regularity. Though I never went without.

My mother operated a cash register and arranged fixtures in the Housewares Department at a retail chain which is now just a memory to Central Illinois. I am from the time they were unable to spare, as they focused on being able to provide financially– their only way of comfortably saying “I love you” to the four children that they already had and me. At five or six years old, I was oblivious to physical and vocal affection. Though the words were never spoke, the sentiment was always felt.

I am from a sister willing to take me in when no one else was around and with absolutely nothing to spare. Without complaint or reservation, she gave me a place to lie my head. She gave me children my own age with which to associate. On a run-down farm with coarse sand beneath our feet, under our fingernails, and in our hair my nieces, nephews, and I ran amok. We knew nothing of poverty and were unburdened by the struggle my sister and brother-in-law endured. The worried lines on their faces, or her forehead resting in upturned palms sitting at the kitchen table, an off-brand cigarette burning in a brown glass ashtray, and the oven door cracked open providing heat to that quarter of the house was simply life to us. I am from the few scrawny cattle and pigs we raised for food. The ingrained detachment born of the practice of survival. I am from the respect she, and the experiences the situation demanded, instilled in me even at just ten or twelve years old. From all of this, I learned to appreciate being self-sufficient, what sacrifice is and means, and how love is its own source of nourishment. I am from the crushing grief and anger and hopelessness of watching her be dismantled slowly, piece by cellular piece, from cancer that chemotherapy, radiation, and drugs couldn’t touch 24 years later, despite her indefatigable will and strength.

I am from the knowing-everything-about-everyone of a small town, where shoulders are always available to lean on and there exists a willingness to share. Where on summer nights groups of kids, many no older than 12 or 13, would play “Ditch” over large portions of the community, the smell of fresh cut green beans hanging heavy on the humidity in the air. A place in which, as summer waned and nighttime was full of the tiny starlight twinkles of lightning bugs and the sounds of crickets and cicadas, every school aged kid anticipated Labor Day weekend and the Popcorn Festival it held. A small town that banded together and raised enough money for us to survive the initial year after my release from the hospital after a serious car accident. In this rural community, to this day, our driveway and vehicle are cleared of snow every winter without our having to ask.

I am from the all-encompassing unquestionable love of an unbelievable wife. She, who without hesitation or reservation proclaimed “yes” to the proposal from a 20-year-old with nothing but affection to offer. I am from her family taking me in as their own, complete with the arguments and outspokenness present in any close family. Even after arguments that ended in long periods of silence, we always reunite, as family! A partner who has always been willing to travel and take risks at the drop of a hat. Possessing the willingness to draw a circle on an atlas in the afternoon to choose a travel destination and show up at the threshold of Rocky Mountain National Park before the sun had risen the following day. I am from a wife who was burdened, anchored down by the immense weight, of a husband suffering a spinal cord injury. She, standing resolute at the edge of a hospital bed in Neuro Critical Care amidst the cacophony of mechanical chirps and alarms and scrambling doctors and nurses whose faces were shrouded in exhaustion and worry, below interminable fluorescent lighting and the astringent odor of antiseptics. And beyond the institutional hallways dotted with the occasional historical photo and dusty crucifix lay only uncertainty. At just 22 years old her love tipped the scales of that uncertainty. Thus, I come from the ever-present support, encouragement, care and love of a marriage that has lasted nearly 18 years. A marriage, despite statistical evidence to the contrary, grows in strength still.

I am from the challenges, frustration, and occasional triumphs of a spinal cord made incomplete. The frustration of so many joys torn away. The joy of walking around a lake fishing from sunrise to sunset. The joy of sitting in the quiet of the woods, listening for the infrequent rustle of wildlife, hoping for a glimpse, if only to bear witness to the beauty. I come from the challenges of navigating this vertical world in the seated position of a wheelchair. Hoping to avoid curbs or stairs while exploring my favorite cities. Traversing every adventure with the palpable fear of inconveniencing those who adventure with me. Seeing guilt flash across the faces of loved ones when they accept the reality of a situation in which they must press on without me or miss out on opportunities. Knowing in many cases, regardless of the assurances of those close to me, I am undoubtedly a burden. I come from 15 years of adaptation, and with this comes moments of triumph. Sometimes it’s as small as working out everyday until I’m able to raise my arm above my head, something many with my disability cannot do. This will I learned from hard working parents and my sister, who possessed strength beyond measure. Other times it’s large, like starting a company from absolutely nothing. A company still operational and growing after nine hard years. This strength and determination came from the inspiration I receive, in large quantities, from my wife, who deserves the moniker by which she’s referred, Wonder Woman. And sometimes, it’s symbolically huge, like going through the long, uncertain, and demanding process of once again being a licensed driver. A feat achieved on Thursday January 28, 2021. This comes from a lifetime of being a dreamer.

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