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Teenage Diaries Revisited: Mother And Son Listen To The Past

In the late 1990s, Melissa Rodriguez struggled to create a stable life at home for her son, who is now a teenager. Together, they've faced many challenges. (Radio Diaries (left), David Gilkey/NPR)

Name: Melissa Rodriguez

Hometown: New Haven, Conn.

Current city: Orange, N.J.

Occupation: Customer service representative

Then:

"I just started my life. I just started to go to school, I just started working, and I just didn't have anything settled yet."

In 1996, after 12 years living in the foster care system, Melissa recorded a diary about getting pregnant and becoming a mother. She was trying to straddle life as a teenager with the coming responsibilities of parenthood. When Issaiah was born, she struggled to create a more stable family than she'd experienced as a child. "I'm the keeper," she said. "When I hold him, I just feel, you know, important to him."

Now:

Melissa's son is a teenager. She and Issaiah have faced many challenges, from eviction notices to his serious health issues. Now, she shares her teenage diary with him and reveals things about her past that she's never mentioned.

On recording her teen audio diary:

"I recorded it because I had a lot on my mind, and it made me feel better when I talked about it. When you talk about it, those thoughts and those feelings kind of fade away a little bit, kinda make you understand the situation you're in."

Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro and Sarah Kate Kramer.

You can subscribe to the Radio Diaries podcast at NPR.org.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today we conclude our series, Teenage Diaries Revisited.

AMANDA: Hello. Nope, wrong button. There, hello.

JOSH: Let me do the introduction now. Hi, my name is Josh.

AMANDA: My name is Amanda.

MELISSA RODRIGUEZ: My name is Melissa Rodriguez.

FRANKIE: Hi, my name's Frankie and I'm going to give you a little tour in my Cadillac here.

JUAN: Here I am. My name is Juan and I'm here in the U.S.

JOSH: It's my radio show, thank you.

CORNISH: Sixteen years ago we heard those voices on this program when they were just teenagers with tape recorders, telling their own stories. Now, independent producer Joe Richman of Radio Diaries has once again given them microphones and recorders. All week, we've heard intimate stories of how life has changed for Amanda, Juan, Frankie, Josh and finally today, Melissa. She's a single mother raising two sons. And at age 18, Melissa documented her life in the months leading up to and after the birth of her first son. She even brought the microphone into the delivery room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODRIGUEZ: Today is October the 9th and I have a brand new baby boy, seven pounds. His name is Issaiah Seto. And we would have recorded the birth but it happened so fast...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...about half an hour.

RODRIGUEZ: ...you know, so I'm sorry you couldn't hear all the pain, but it was easy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's so adorable.

RODRIGUEZ: Just listening to it again, it's like, wow, that's me. You know, when I was 18, I just thought you gave birth to a cute little kid and he was just going to be healthy and smiling all the time and cheery-eyed and all that good stuff. That's how you think when you're young. You never think about what could possibly happen.

Issaiah. Okay, testing. Okay, we're good. Let's do this. My name is Melissa Rodriguez. This is my apartment. Good morning Tai-Tai. Oh, toys everywhere. I have two boys. This is Tyron. He's six years old. Say hi.

TYRON: Hi. Testing, testing.

RODRIGUEZ: Don't do that.

TYRON: Okay.

RODRIGUEZ: What's up with Issaiah? What he up to? Issaiah's my oldest. He's 16. Issaiah.

ISSAIAH: What.

RODRIGUEZ: It smells like boy in here. My god. What's that?

ISSAIAH: Play video game.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, what kind of video game is that?

ISSAIAH: A shooting game.

RODRIGUEZ: That's crazy. Shooting game. Are you old enough to play this game?

ISSAIAH: Mom. You sound like a mother.

RODRIGUEZ: I guess I am, huh?

ISSAIAH: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: I've actually always been fine with being alone with my two boys. We kind of like lean on each other. What time is it now? 8:00? Okay. Get ready for school. Let me know if you need help.

I had a pretty tough life growing up. My mom abandoned me when I was about two, me and my brother. We weren't even little kids. We were babies. And, well, let's see, I ended up in a foster home. Then, when I was eight I went to another foster home. Then when I was nine I went to another foster home. Then a group home, so I was bounced from one place to another. So finally at 15, I literally ran away.

And when I had my child I was determined to make it somehow, you know, to at least be a decent mother. I mean, my god, my mother gave me two years of herself. Two years. I have sneakers older than that.

So I work for Cablevision. What I do there is CSR, customer service representative. It's a call center. We have 532 reps. It's a lot of people.

Okay. Sign in. 3:00 on the dot.

I work nightshift from 3:00 to 12:00. Those hours were the only hours available. So when I come in you have five minutes to read your emails, you have five minutes to get water, whatever you have to do.

Signing on. Section 3298.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No talking.

RODRIGUEZ: 3:05 you log in and those calls - we basically say to each other, we see you in eight hours because you're on the phone constantly, constantly, constantly, constantly.

Thank you for calling, my name is Melissa. How may I assist you today? Oh sure, I can definitely assist you with that. So let's see, can you put your TV on channel 3 for me? Your TV, not the box.

I literally take about maybe 150 phone calls in an eight-hour shift. And they want us to stay on the phone no longer than four minutes per person.

I understand. Okay. I understand, ma'am. Okay. What does your screen look like? Is it blue or is it black, purple? I'm sorry. I can't hear you, ma'am.

Most people call in upset but sometimes you have to be understanding. How would you feel if your services sucked?

Is there anything else that I can assist you with today? I do thank you for calling Optimum. You have a great day. Please hold for a short survey.

I love it. I'm fixing problems. People are happy when they hang up with me. That's my calling, customer service. You're at work and deal with the complaints, you fix the problem. Come home, hear complaints, fix the problems. It's, you know, all day long. All day long. Hey Issaiah. Can you hear me?

ISSAIAH: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: All right. My kids get out of school at 3:30. So I check up at like, 6:00 I call.

What's up? He doesn't want it? So he didn't want the food so just give him some Chef Boyardee. You know how to do that, right? Anything else wrong, because I just came outside to call you real quick. I got to go back inside.

ISSAIAH: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: All right. Text me if anything.

ISSAIAH: Okay.

RODRIGUEZ: All right.

ISSAIAH: Bye.

RODRIGUEZ: When Issaiah was a baby I worked at McDonald's, I worked at a Fred Lee's being an ice cream maker. And I've even stripped. I was an exotic dancer. And I was willing to get on stage and strip for my son's money. I had no shame in that. Exotic dancing was actually extremely fun for me. It was acting, being someone completely different and no one cared, you know, where I came from, what's my real name. It was just a fantasy.

I bought myself a car, kept an apartment, I went to college. And when I was done with exotic dancing, that's when I first really had a real 9 to 5 that I could keep. And it's been like that ever since. By the time I come home it's midnight and everybody's asleep. Tai-Tai's room. The TV is blasting and the light is on. That's how this child sleeps. It's really scary.

Okay. It looks like everybody's in bed. I can rest in peace now. Let me put on some good music here. Let's see. So there is a subject that I haven't really spoken about yet. After Issaiah was born, the first few months everything seemed normal. And then I started noticing that everything that he would learn he would backtrack. Like he would learn how to walk and then he would, out of nowhere, start crawling again. I think that was the first time I said, is this normal?

And finally, his doctor, she broke the news to me and said, he has what we call cerebellar ataxia. And that basically means the brain is unable to communicate with the body. I was told that was going to live maybe three to four years from the time he was diagnosed. That was it. So enjoy your life with him while he's here, you know. I think I just lost my cool when she told me that. I was just - I was upset, I was upset with myself. I was upset with the world. I was upset with God.

You know, I just felt like, you know, I was born with so much bad luck. And I just thought that, you know, this was going to be different. You know, you're going to have a child. And I may not have been loved the way that I was supposed to be loved but at least I can love someone else, you know. I used to think if he was to pass away on me, what do I do? Who do I call? I guess 911, you know. I was not sure.

As he started getting a little older, I was pushing for him to get better, you know. You know, you got to try. You got to walk. You got to do this. You got to do that. You have to do it because I wanted him to be like me, you know, strong. It's a funny thing, you know. Here he is at 16. I look at him and I say, this gots to be my child. What other child would beat the odds?

The doctors don't understand but I don't have to understand. I think I'm done. I'm signing off. Definitely signing off. So I'm here in Issaiah's school. And today's my day off work. I wanted to talk to the teacher, see how he's doing. Just waiting at the guidance counselor's office.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ma'am.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello.

RODRIGUEZ: Hello. (Unintelligible) all right? How's he doing? He's doing much better?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Much better. Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: Good. Issaiah is in a special class for kids that need extra help. I was just a little worried from last, you know, episode. His body is fine now. There's no problem with his body. He doesn't have a problem walking. He doesn't have a problem playing sports, you know. Everything's normal. But his IQ is a 79, so it's like borderline. And his brain is unable to retain a lot of information. You know, he can remember that game. But when he goes to school he can't remember that book that he read yesterday. So the learning part of it is the only thing that's left for him to conquer.

Hello. Hey, babe, how was your day?

ISSAIAH: Good. Ready to go home.

RODRIGUEZ: Did you learn anything?

ISSAIAH: Yeah, (unintelligible) stuff.

RODRIGUEZ: You learned a couple stuff? So Issaiah, anything you need to tell me? No? Issaiah got in some trouble today. The teacher told me that he was teasing a kid who also has a disability. Issaiah, when you go back to school tomorrow, do you think you can say I'm sorry to the boy, and don't do it again?

ISSAIAH: I won't do it again, but I'm not saying sorry.

RODRIGUEZ: Does he make fun of you? No.

ISSAIAH: (Unintelligible) make fun of everybody.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, listen, we're not - you don't have to be like everybody else. You are Issaiah. You are not everybody else. We're not perfect. Okay? We both got issues, right? So can you promise me to stop making fun of kids? Can you?

ISSAIAH: Yes.

RODRIGUEZ: All right. Now I don't like to use his disability as an excuse. I feel like it's just something to overcome. I remember when Issaiah was little and it was so hard to watch him not able to talk or not even able to walk without falling or tripping over his own feet.

So I bought him a bike with training wheels on it. And I made him ride that bike every day. I remember I used to put his feet on the ground and push the bike, because he couldn't pedal. And that's how he started. He would scrape up his legs right up because I knew he wanted to ride so bad. I used that to help him get the motor skills right, train his brain, listen, this is what you're supposed to be doing.

I put straps on so he could put his foot in. And we would make me go get that mail. Go get that mail, Issaiah. It's your turn to go get that mail. And the mailbox was far. And he would push that bike and would push that bike. And then one day he put his foot on that second one and he was pedaling away. And I was like, wow. After that it was no coming back.

Hey. Chillin'. We're just talking. So let's see, when you was still in my belly I recorded how my life was and how you were made. And, you know, I was very young, only three years older than you.

ISSAIAH: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: So now I'm going to actually play you the CD that I made. And it was all about you and me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

RODRIGUEZ: That's you as a baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF CD)

RODRIGUEZ: Today is October the 9th...

Your birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CD)

RODRIGUEZ: ...and I have a brand new baby boy, seven pounds. His name is Issaiah Seto. And he was born at 1:30, right? 1:30, right? I can't believe this whole thing was inside of me.

It's funny to you?

ISSAIAH: Yes. It was hard?

RODRIGUEZ: It was hard. You were an extreme change in my life. A lot of people didn't want me to have you. People tried to talk me out of it, said that I wasn't going to be a good mother. And I said I was going to love my baby, no matter what. Love him more than anybody ever loved me. Understand that?

ISSAIAH: Yes.

RODRIGUEZ: Kind of mushy. Well...

ISSAIAH: How your life be different if you didn't have me?

RODRIGUEZ: I could say I was lonely before you was born. When you was born it was almost like I wasn't lonely anymore. So no matter how bad things got, I knew I always had you. You know, I felt bad about your father. I felt like it was my fault that I chose the wrong person to be your father, you know. I tried to replace him with other men to be your father. But I knew at the end you were just mine and I was fine with that. I was just hoping that you would be fine with that. Are you fine with that?

ISSAIAH: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: Okay.

ISSAIAH: Na-na-na-na.

RODRIGUEZ: What's that noise from?

ISSAIAH: It's like when you play a game, they say na-na-na-na. Good-bye.

RODRIGUEZ: Na-na-na-na.

ISSAIAH: Game over.

RODRIGUEZ: Love that grin. Want me to stop it?

ISSAIAH: Yes.

RODRIGUEZ: So here I am, 34 years old, you know. I've been a mom half of my life. If I could do it over again, I would want to be a kid longer. Yeah, definitely. I remember when I was 10, one of the homes I was in, they used to send us to this summer camp, Camp Squanto. I just remember the orange Indian T-shirt I used to wear on the top of my bathing suit. And just wanted to make sure you were a good swimmer.

And for the test we had to tread water. You just treaded water until you just couldn't tread water no more. And I remember there was about 12 of us. You'd see one by one, you'd see one person tread for five minutes. Next person, 10 minutes, 20 minutes. If you got 35 minutes the last three people were there. And they were struggling. And this boy was looking at me like, this girl's still treading. And he gave up.

I treaded for almost an hour-and-a-half that day. And I would've kept treading but they told me to stop. That's was probably one of the happiest days of my life. I never thought about it before but my whole life is treading water, you know. You have no support under your feet, you have no support over your head. You can't hold onto nothing. You're just out there, keeping moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Melissa Rodriguez lives in Orange, New Jersey with her sons, Tyron and Issaiah. She recently started working a day shift at the call center.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Our series Teenage Diaries Revisited was produced by Joe Richman and Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro and mixed by Ben Shapiro. At our website you can see photographs of all five people who've told their stories this week, hear their old teenage diaries and learn about our search for new teenage diarists with the storytelling website, Cowbird. You can find all of that at NPR.org/diaries.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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