I sat on the uncomfortable wooden bench in the recreation hall at the Bible camp where I was employed, watching a demonstration unfold. These were older campers - teenagers - and for them, there were seminars, discussing things like creation versus evolution, how God helps us deal with anger, and sexual impurity.
"Okay," a fellow employee in an orange shirt said. She poured water from a plastic gallon into a glass. "If I offered, how many of you would be willing to take a drink from this glass?"
Hands around the room went up. It was summer, after all, and it was hot.
"Okay," she answered pleasantly. "But what if I added some of this to the water?" she went on, carefully uncapping a container of liquid bleach and adding a drop to the water. "How many of you want a drink now?"
No one moved.
"None of you, right? Because that one drop contaminates the whole glass of water. It's the same thing with sexual purity."
My heart sank slowly. Though, at 23, I understood the point, seeing such a blatant demonstration and hearing the word 'contaminated' triggered something in me.
That night, I asked a different co-worker the question that had been eating away at me:
"So...what if you're a product of sexual sin? Does that make the baby contaminated in God's eyes?"
I was a fairly new Christian, having been saved only four years earlier. Most of the others had given their lives to Christ as very young children, and were raised in Christian households. I still had questions about Biblical things, about God's opinions and feelings, about everything. This, living out my faith, was still very new for me.
But she had no answer, and I left feeling weighed down in a way I hadn't before.
I have known from the time I could know things that my mother became my mother when she was just barely 16. That she was unmarried. It was never a big deal for me. I didn't see her as less, or different than anyone else's mom. I was aware that she was always younger than my friends' moms, but that, I looked at as a good thing.
My mom had gotten pregnant with my twin sister and me her sophomore year of high school. By the time classes let out for the summer, she was seven months along. A month later, and six weeks ahead of schedule, my sister and I arrived.
Our early birth wasn't the only shock. No one had heard two heartbeats on any prenatal checkups. The thought of having one baby was a heavy enough burden, but now, she had two. No one expected us to live beyond a few hours, and a Catholic priest at a local church was called to baptize "Baby A" and "Baby B".
The priest came, by accounts, annoyed at the early Sunday morning call. Apparently, he looked at my 16-year-old mom, exhausted from twelve hours of labor with two premature daughters and asked her, "Are you Catholic?"
When my mom said no, he refused to baptize us, and left the hospital.
An Episcopal priest was called instead, and he baptized us. We were both so tiny at two pounds apiece, that he could hold my sister and me in the palm of his hand.
My mom liked the name Tara, and settled on it right away, but didn't know what to call me. So, she spent time with my grandma, paging through a book of baby names. Mom knew she liked the letter T, so she wanted a name that went with Tara. Grandma read of name after name, and Mom scoffed at each one, saying she didn't like it, in a typical teenage fashion.
"How about Tonia?" Grandma asked. "It says here it's short for Antoinette."
But Mom didn't care about that. She just liked that it was short and went with Tara.
So, we had names. But both of us had a long way to go. Tara was born even smaller than I was, but seemed to pick up weight quickly, while I was addled with numerous medical problems.
I needed heart surgery at three days old to close an open heart valve, and a feeding tube to get nutrients. Tara went home at three months old, and around the same time, I left as well, but was rushed back to the hospital when my airway started to close. My aunt, who was only 24, gave me CPR on the way to the hospital, where I had a tracheotomy tube inserted to help me breathe. I was in the NICU with all the new little babies - the oldest one there - but the staff apparently made sure the same nurses saw to my needs, instead of various different ones, so that I wouldn't develop attachment problems.
I can only imagine what this was like for my mother, who was torn between being both a teenager and a mother. While she wanted a life, and time for herself, she now had us, and our needs to think about. She was constantly worried about money, and feeling like she had to work to provide for us.
And work, she did. Some of my earliest memories are of taking special trips to the local department store to see Mom where she worked. While other kids her age were going to prom, my mom was buying diapers, watching out for health complications, working and going to school.
Whenever I needed a surgery, or to have something scary done, my mom was there to hold my hand. She always made sure that we were taken care of, and that we came first. That we didn't attend daycare when she found out the floors were too cold, or go out when it was too chilly. When I got pneumonia anyway, she was by my side all the time, even feeding me, despite the fact that I was four years old, and plenty big enough to feed myself.
I have come to realize that although some may have stigmatized my mother, it's just because they don't understand. They don't see all that she has endured, and all that she has come up against and overcome to be where she is today. And while it might not be what she envisioned for herself as a child, to me, she is so much more.
Some may argue that a single act can ruin a life or define a person. That may be true in some cases. But I choose to believe that human life is a blessing, and that just as surely as one choice can change the course of a life, it is what we do with that choice that determines what we are truly made of.
My mom is made of the strongest stuff there is: bravery, determination, honesty, and a love that is unparalleled.
My mother is my hero.