THIS STORY IS FICTION, BUT THE EVENTS HAVE HAPPENED, SOMEWHERE, SOMETIME.
TOO BUSY TO NOTICE THE CHANGES
The hands on the clock seem to spin like a fan. Leisure is something for other people. Even Clarrisa’s birthday party seemed like a job, but I enjoyed arranging it just the same. Six years old, time seemed to be a runaway train. I have little time to think about her future. Today has enough challenges.
IS THAT WATER BROWN
Clarissa likes to wash the dishes. I don’t even have to ask her. She scrubs them until every piece of food is removed. We had just finished gathering the dinner plates and piling them on the counter. Clarrisa was particular on how the dishes were arranged for washing. She wanted them grouped by type. Glasses and cups first, silverware next then plates and finally pots and pans, except one pan that she would put in the sink. All the silverware would go into that pot. I asked her why she did that and she said.
“That is how I know which ones I have washed. When I scrub them I put them in the sink those are ready to be rinsed. That way I don’t wash them twice.” She was very organized. Some day she was going to get a job organizing and putting things in order.
WHAT’S THAT SMELL
One day she had her pot full of silverware in the sink filling it with water and asked me. “Mommy why is the water brown.” I had never noticed any brown water coming from our taps. So I figured it was something on the dishes and told her so. We went about our business and got ready for bed. Sometimes I would sit on the edge of the bed and put my head in my hands to keep my head from spinning. Life was so over whelming and it seemed more so, lately. The next morning I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the shower. As I stepped in I noticed that the water in the tub was the color of tea. They must be working on the water system I thought, but there was a funny smell too. Today was not different than any other day, there was much to do.
Clarrisa and I were going out the door in our usual rush when my neighbor hailed me from her porch.
“Is your water brown and smelly?” she wondered.
“Yep, they are probably working on the water system.” I responded opening the door for Clarrisa to get in.
“I haven’t seen anyone doing any work have you?. I was rounding the front of the car to get in.
“No I haven’t seen anyone. They could be working on the next block. It will probably clear up by tonight. “I waived as I closed the door. As I drove to Clarrisa’s school I looked for crews working on the side of the road. I dropped Clarrisa at school and decided to take another route to work thinking I might see the workmen that were making my water brown.
Another day completed I picked up Clarrisa and headed home. She seemed subdued there wasn’t the usually stream of things that happened at school or how much she liked or hated certain subjects.
“Are you feeling ok?” I asked
“I’m fine, just can’t think about things it makes me tired.” She said quietly.
NOT FEELING GOOD
When we got home we did our usual routine. She set the table and I started the cooking. I rolled up my sleeves and got some pans to cook in. I saw a red splotch on my arm. I must have scraped it at work. Waitressing is not a hazardous job, but you can get some cuts and scrapes in the process. I grabbed a pot and threw in some green beans. I went to the sink and turned on the water to fill the pot. It was still brown and still smelly. I decided to let the water run to flush out the pipes. One minute, two minutes, three minutes. The water was still brown. Something wasn’t right. It was too late to call the water department. She would do that in the morning. Nothing boiled tonight. I turned off the water. We had some fried chicken and baked potatoes.
We skipped showering in the morning and had toast and eggs. The dishes would have to wait until I made my phone call to the water department. I got a water bill from the bill drawer and dialed their number. The person I spoke to wasn’t particularly helpful. She didn’t know about any problems with brown water and no one else has called to complain. The representative said she would investigate it and have someone call me back. At least I had started the ball rolling, I thought. Clarissa was getting ready to perform he nightly routine, but I told her we would do the dishes tomorrow. I was going to pick up some bottled water until we could figure out why our water was brown. She seemed disappointed so I went over to see how far she got. I noticed the dishes weren’t arranged in their usual order.
“Are you using a new system? You have the silverware last in line.” I said. She looked at her line of work and said.
“Oh! I forgot the order.” She started rearranging the dishes. I told her to save it until tomorrow.
“Are you sleeping alright?” I was getting a blank stare.
“Sometimes I wake up and can’t get back to sleep.” She said quietly.
“Well let’s get to bed early tonight, but first let me see your homework.” I walked to the kitchen table and sat down. Clarrisa brought her backpack to the table and started rummaging through her papers. She put one down on the table and continued searching. I reached for the lone page on the table and Clarissa blurted.
“That isn’t it. That’s just old notes.” She said quickly. That told me there was something there she didn’t want me to see. I picked up the paper and Clarrisa stopped her rummaging and watched me read. It was a science test, her best subject. There was a large red, handwritten, “D” at the top.
“I know why you got this mark. I want to know how you could do so poorly on your best subject?” I looked into her eyes. I didn’t see the same glow I used too, even when she was in trouble.
“I don’t know, the tests are getting harder and the teacher says I need to study harder. You know I study hard. I don’t know what’s wrong.” She didn’t say anything else. What could be causing her to have this problem? There is very little time for television. She doesn’t spend too much time with her friends. I decided to call her teacher in the morning. I would call the doctor as well. My arm wasn’t healing and the red mark was getting bigger.
The next morning I called the school to speak with Clarrisa’s teacher. The only thing I could get from the conversation was Clarrisa was not herself. She had trouble concentrating and her grades were dropping. I sat for a minute trying to think of what might be happening to her. I decided to make an appointment for both of us with the doctor. I called to make the appointment and waited on hold for fifteen minutes. Late for work again. This isn’t going to help my prospects. I thought. Appointments made I walked to the kitchen to get my purse sitting on the counter by the sink. I looked out the window. What was happening? I looked at the sink. Could the brown water have something to do with it? I took a canning jar from the cupboard and filled it with water from the tap. Still brown. I put the cap on and left it on the counter. I would ask the doctor.
I took the day off for the doctor’s appointment. It’s expensive to go to the doctors in more ways than one. We were fortunate to have my doctor and Clarrisa’s doctor in the same building. When the doctor was finished examining me I showed him the water. When I told him it came from our faucet he said.
“There is something wrong with this. I am going to take some blood from you and test it.” I told him that Clarrisa was seeing her doctor as well. I gave him her doctor’s name and he took the jar of water and walked down the hall to see Clarissa. When he came back he said that her doctor would do blood tests as well. The water was going to be tested. I was scared.
The next day I got a call from the doctor’s office. They told me to come in as soon as I possibly could and to bring Clarrisa. They refused to tell me anything over the phone. I was getting a knot in my stomach. I decided to leave work and pickup Clarrisa from school. I decided to tell my boss the whole story. He didn’t like it, but understood and asked me to call him as soon as I found out what was wrong. He lived in Flint too. The wait in the doctor’s office was agonizing. The nurse called us in, but she took us to an office instead of an examination room.
More waiting, more anxiety. Then the doctor entered and didn’t look happy.
“I am not going to sugar coat this. It’s too serious.” He said. My heart was almost beating out of my chest. “You both have lead in your blood. In other words lead poisoning. The water sample you brought me has high levels of lead. It is likely the source of lead in your blood. You should start Chelation immediately.” He waited. The only words that would come out of my mouth were.
“We don’t have insurance.” Tears started to roll down my cheek.
“Have you spoken with anyone at the water department about this?”
“Yes, several days ago, but they haven’t called me back.” I think it dawned on both of us at the same time. They weren’t going to call me back.
“That tells me they might know something.” He said. He went on to explain what Chelation Therapy was. I felt like I was going down the path of no return. The path of unknowns. I didn’t have the education or resources to help my daughter. The future was getting dark for both of us.
WHAT WATER PROBLEM?
When I got home I called the water department and relayed what the doctor had told me. I was put on hold for several minutes and the next person I talked to was a manger at the water department and he said someone would be out to check the water and pipes soon. He doubted the illness is related to the water. He apologized for not getting back to me from my previous call. Afterwards I felt like something was going to get done. A couple of days passed and I hadn’t heard or seen anything from the water department. Another day passed and I was wondering if anyone was coming. I got a phone call while at work. It was a man from the water department he asked if I would be home that night. I told him I would be home around 3pm. He asked me if he could come at 4pm and I said that would be fine. He sounded friendly enough and I was happy something was starting to happen. I felt better, but there were still the health issues.
I picked up Clarrisa at 2:30pm I had bought food at work so we didn’t have to prepare anything at home. Clarrisa had only finished part of her meal and said she wasn’t hungry. I told her to lie down for a while.
“Mommy I feel sick.” She moaned.
“How do you feel sick? Is your stomach or your head?” trying to get to the cause. She didn’t get to answer. Her hand over her mouth she ran to the bathroom with me close behind. She lost her dinner there and slid to the floor. “Do you think you’re done, honey?”
“I think so.” She said. She was weak and I was panicking inside.
“Let’s get you to your bed.” I reached down and helped her to her feet and got her to her room. I covered her with her blanket and stood watching and thinking. What would I do without her? What would she do without me?
The water department announced their visit with a knock on the door. My fear was slowly turning to anger. I needed to discipline myself and not unload on my visitor. When I opened the door I was surprised to see a man in suit. Not what I expected.
“Mrs. Williams?” he said smiling.
“Yes. Come in.” stepping back from the doorway. He stepped in and I noticed his briefcase as he stepped in.
“I’m Bill from the water department. Can we find a place to sit and we can get started.” He was looking towards the living room. I walked towards the living room and he followed.
“In here would be fine.” He took a seat on the couch. I sat in a chair opposite him.
I wasn’t sure why they wouldn’t send a repair man, but maybe he was going to look at the pipes and someone would come later. He opened his brief case on the couch and pulled out some papers.
“The city of flint is prepared to replace the water pipes from the street to your house. This should eliminate any problems you may be having with your water.” He handed me the papers. “We just need you to sign where indicated.” He folded his hands and waited. I started reading from the top. There were a lot of legal words and phrases, but I understood that if my pipes were fixed and the city paid for it I couldn’t say anything to anyone about our problem. I couldn’t even sue the city for any reason. All this for eleven hundred dollars, I read a little further then handed the paper back to Bill.
“I am afraid this isn’t a solution. My daughter and I are sick from the water. There are high levels of lead in our water. The city needs to do more than replace out pipes. We need medical treatments that we can’t afford. What is the city going to do about that?” I was angry. They thought I was stupid. They were trying to make me go away instead of the lead.
“There isn’t any problem with the water it is your pipes. The city is being very generous.” He insisted.
“What about the part that keeps me from talking or suing? Why do you want me to keep quiet?” Bill had become an adversary instead of a solution.
“Those are just standard clauses. They appear in most contracts like this. They are there to protect the city from crackpots. Are you sure you won’t reconsider? If you sign the agreement we can get started right away.” He said calmly with raised eyebrows.
“I will not sign it. You need to come up with something better than that. If my pipes are the problem you will be replacing a lot of pipes, but I don’t think it is.” I had walked to the door and opened it. He left without saying anything else. I closed the door and leaned against it. I wasn’t going away if fact I was going to be a thorn in their side. I decided to go to the city council with my concerns and a bottle of brown water.
MORE COVER UP
Aunt Margaret came over to stay with Clarrisa while I went to the Council meeting. I took a notebook and a bottle of water from our tap. As I drove to the meeting I wondered what they would say. Would they be concerned or would they treat me like a hysterical woman. I pulled in the parking lot, turned off the car and took a deep breath and went in. There was a sparse crowd so I didn’t have any trouble getting a seat. I got as close to the front as I could. I sat on the end of the row of seats next to a man in his forties, casually dressed, but neat and clean cut. He smiled as I sat down. He spotted my bottle of water and asked me if I were drinking tea.
“No, this is fresh out of my kitchen tap.” I lifted my bottle.
“Whew, that is some nasty looking water. Is that what you are here about?” he asked.
“Yep, I want to ask some questions.”
“You know I have heard from some other people that they were having water problems too.” He said. The meeting was slow and tedious. Finally it came time for public comment. I was first to get to the microphone. I determined to ask one question and I started.
“My name is Teresa Williams. I live at 735 Piedmont Dr. in Flint. For the last month this water has been coming out of my tap.” I held up the bottle. “There is lead in this water and in mine and my daughter’s body. What are you going to do about this?” The council president answered.
“I am not aware of any problems with our water systems. How do you know there is lead in it?” he asked.
“It has been tested.” I shot back. I could see some concern on his face.
“Frank Peterson is the head of the DPW. Frank, are you aware of any water problems?”
“I haven’t heard anything about this. If Mrs. Williams could stay and talk to me after the meeting I would like to ask her a few questions.” Peterson spoke in a loud voice because he wasn’t near a microphone.
“I’ll wait” and returned to my seat. After the meeting was brought to a close I said goodbye to my acquaintance and walked down the aisle towards the tables where the council was sitting then turned right towards the place Peterson was standing. I didn’t see him I did a quick spin around and he was nowhere to be seen. There was a woman standing at the end of the table. I asked her where Peterson went.
“I saw him on his phone just a minute ago. Check the hallway. He might have gone there for privacy. It’s so noisy in here.” She said. There was a set of doors to my right and I went through them to the hallway. There was no one there. I was beginning to understand the term Avoided like the plague.
The next morning I was feeling tired. I thought the previous night’s activity was responsible. I stopped at Clarrisa’s room on the way to the kitchen to get her moving.
“C’mon let’s get going we have a whole day ahead of us.” She only signed and switched from her side position to her back. That wasn’t like her. She usually popped out of bed to help with breakfast. I wasn’t going to let my family die. I planned on attending another council meeting. Clarrisa was not able to go to school. I called my Aunt again and she agreed stay with Clarrisa.
I needed to see if we could get some assistance for our medical. I called our doctor
and he referred me to a local non-profit for financial help. They were encouraging, but there was a lot of red tape. Check stubs, tax returns, utility bills with my name and address. This could take me a day or two. I would have to work on it every spare moment. I am sure I had everything. I just didn’t know where it was.
THE LIGHT BEGINS TO SHINE
I was beginning to find out the value of organization. I realized a lot of things I had done before weren’t high priority and just plain stopped doing them. Bath towels were no longer folded they were put in a clothes basket. I broke even on that because we found a laundry mat that didn’t have brown water. Silverware was left to air dry. Clarrisa did what she could, but she was struggling. I wanted to scream and throw things. Instead I started calling city, county and state representatives. Someone was going to help. I just needed to find that person.
There were many more people at this council meeting than the last one I attended. I could hear people speaking with each other in the audience. I heard water and brown water. Even though I knew I was right, now I knew I wasn’t crazy. How could they avoid this? I saw my acquaintance from the previous meeting. He waived at me and pointed to the seat next to him. I weaved through the crowd and took the seat next to him.
“Got your bottle with you?” he smiled.
“Right here.” I patted my tote bag.
“How did you meeting go with the DPW guy?” he was looking straight ahead.
“I couldn’t find him after the meeting. He just disappeared.” I said disgusted.
“What a surprise.” He said sarcastically.”They’ve done something and they’re running away from it. At any rate you are not alone this time. There are others here with brown water.” I looked around and I could see people holding bottles and containers.
The meeting was called to order. I did not see the DPW head anywhere. The meeting took its usual course and then came to the public comment time. I wanted to get to that microphone and give them a piece of my mind. Up until my turn no one had mentioned the water. When I got there I unloaded.
“Last meeting I told you that my water had lead in it and you directed me to Mr. Peterson who disappeared after the meeting. Your representative came to my house and tried to get me to sign a contract to shut me up. Well I am not shutting up and I want to know what you are going to do to fix my water and get me and my child medical attention.” I was loud and determined. There were people in the audience jumping in and jeering the council. The president of the council responded.
“I remember you from last meeting and I have been told that the water in your bottle did not come from your tap.” There were more comments from the audience.
“My water is brown and I know it came from my faucet!” From one, then another.
“Mine is brown too. It’s not my imagination!”
“We will have to look into this. The Mr. Peterson from the DPW is not here tonight.” To which another attendee said.
“He’s probably on a bus going out of town.” Then the crowd broke into a chant. “Where’s Peterson, where’s Peterson, where’s Peterson…” the meeting ended. I stood up to leave said goodbye to my friend. I was feeling a little better that I wasn’t alone, but that didn’t make the problems go away. I walked to the exit my mind working hard on my next step. I didn’t hear Rita, my neighbor from the next block, calling my name. It must have heard it sub-consciously a few times before it sunk in. I looked up and she was right in front of me.
“You were wonderful. They have been dodging me for weeks. We’ll call you back, we’ll send a man, nobody’s available to talk to you now. We need some big shots to get involved in this.” Those words rang in my head. She was right, we needed a big gun. Someone to make them own up to their responsibilities. I would call a prominent university and tell them about our situation.
I didn’t get very far with my call to the university. The person I talked to wrote down what I told her. I knew she did because she had me repeat several items and read back some of the details. Even with that I wasn’t sure I would hear from them again, but I did, the next day. A woman said they would be in Flint within the next week taking water samples. She asked if they could come to my house. Finally someone who would seek the truth and hopefully report it. Even if the water problem was resolved there was still lead in our bodies and the bodies of many others. Our lives were changed forever. I was afraid that the problem would be forgotten in time, but I was not going to forget or give up.