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Flawed Parents, Heartache and Challenges Don't Slow Down Teen

By Fred Dickey

San Diego Union-Tribune

March 13, 2017

Selena Rodriguez-Cox is 18, and I’m a whole lot older, but I’d never presume to tell her about life. Rather, I want to hear what she has to say about it.

Four years ago, Selena, in a browsing moment, went online to see if she could fine anything about her mother who had largely been a stranger in her life.

She did--a record of her mother’s arrest for prostitution.

In 2014 she had barely established communications with her father who had disappeared from her life for years. She was then told abruptly that he had died--of a drug overdose.

Becoming a high achieving high school senior can have many challenges, but few as daunting as also caring for a disabled brother on full-time hours. That has fallen to her, also.

Selena has achieved a superior record at San Marcos High School by traversing a high-wire walk above the quicksand that can swallow an emotionally maltreated kid.

A scary manifestation of her pluck is the 1977 vehicle burdened with 198,000 miles that she drives in and out of North County’s whizzing traffic. Say a prayer its wheels don’t fall off.

An early memory Selena recounts of her childhood is of parents arguing about how to position an air mattress in their low-rent apartment. She observed that as a 6-year-old from her own tiny air mattress. She remembers very little of their furnishings; maybe there was little to remember.

“I think we had a couch or something,” she says.

Her parents would fight about that. They would fight about anything. And both probably had good cause.

“I would scream at them to get them to stop fighting for no reason,” she says.

Selena was the product of a coupling of two teenagers. Her parents were high school lovers who were more successful at sex than studies. She was born when they were still of high school age, which neither finished.

Thrown out into the world, the jobs they could find paid them what they were worth. That was a huge problem that contributed to the tension and strife that broke them up.

Selena’s dad was an artist who, unfortunately, couldn’t make a living at it. “I was, like--My dad’s cool. He can draw. He was a dorky character; the life of the party.

“He was one of those guys that let his hair braid out to the back. He had spiky hair with blue gel on the tips. I was just, like, ‘Oh, my dad looks funny.’”

Selena believes both parents were on drugs at the time.

She thinks the end of their relationship happened when her dad had his car “repo’d.” She recalls the split with the nonchalance of a person who saw it happen, but has found equilibrium to balance the weight of it.

People who are emotionally calm, kids included, make their peace with reality as a survival technique.

“I was like, ‘Oh, where'd dad go?’ My mom would be, like, ‘Oh, he's not here right now.’ Her character is kind of like mine; she just tries to get by. I just try to go with the flow.”

Left alone in a tiny apartment were the mother, Selena, 7, and a baby boy. Selena says, “She was being a single mom in an apartment, trying to afford rent. I would stay home and take care of my brother while she went off to work.”

Selena was given that job to the extent she had to quit first grade. Her mother couldn’t afford day-care so Selena became an elementary school nanny--full-time.

Her mother was working, but Selena didn’t know where or at what. “I was too young, so I never asked.”

So, your mother took you out of school.

“Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

Why are you reluctant to say that?

“It was just life. That's how it was.”

With her mother broke and desperate, her dad took the kids to live with him, which only lasted for a couple of days--big surprise, that.

When things fell apart, Selena and her brother were turned over to her maternal grandmother in San Marcos where she lived routinely for several years....Ah, normal--at least for a while.


Selena was a young teenager when she made that whimsical internet search on her mother’s name. Whim turned into shock.

“I was ‘Oh, I wonder if I can find her.’ I found a whole article about her, and her other buddies, and how they were arrested.”

For prostitution.

She was stunned, but Selena bounces back like a bottom-heavy punching doll. “I was, like, ‘Oh, okay. I see.’

“When I saw her photo, I said ‘That’s my mom!’ I was just, ‘This was her choice, but this will never be a choice I'll make.’”

Did you cry when you saw that?

“Yeah, I cried a little bit, but I didn’t break down. That's not what I do.”

You keep your defenses up, don't you?

She nods resolutely. “Mm-hmm. Always. I'm going to make my own choices. I'm going to do better and I'm going to prove myself.”

Were you angry?

She doesn’t ponder the question. She’s long since worked it out. “I was upset, but I didn’t regret that I'm related to her. I'm very accepting of who she is, and the mistakes she's made, and how she's progressing from it.

“I've sort of (conditioned) myself to not judge people for their mistakes.”

When her mother was in jail, her daughter didn’t visit her. Selena still had scars when, as a child, she was taken to visit her father in jail as a child.

“I never go near prisons. Last time I did that was when I went to go see my dad. That was the last time I've ever been to a prison.”

What was he in for?

“I have no idea. Might have been drugs. Might have been something else. I have no idea.”

What happened?

Her eyes are clear and her mouth set as she answers. She’s got control of the memory. “I remember crying, trying to touch his hand through the glass like they do in the movies, like, ‘Dad, when are you coming home?’”


In recent years, Selena says she phones her mother occasionally and follows her on Facebook, but never goes to visit her. She not exactly sure where she lives.

She believes that her mother, now in her late 30s, is trying to better herself through education, but a massive wall of skepticism is evident. Selena makes herself as hurt-proof as possible, and she can’t accomplish that without ample doubting.

Even so, she understands the hard life her mother has endured, and the desperate measures she felt survival required. Selena wants to hold on to whatever part of her mother she can.


During her early teen years, Selena wrote letters to her dad who was long absent from her life: Just chatting; asking how he was; telling him about her life. She didn’t mail them because she had no address, so she bound them in packets until that maybe-never time when she could put them in his hands.

In 2013, Selena was summoned to the phone, said hello, and heard a strange voice.

"Selena, this is your dad."

He had been out of her life for a half-dozen years. Who knows where, who knows doing what, but all of a sudden, his voice is in her hands.

Selena was shaken, and said to herself--I’ve got to stay calm. She turned away, and said, “My dad is calling me and I don't know what to do.”

She fumbled with the phone. “It was awkward for me because I was still in shock. I didn't know where to begin.”

They talked, haltingly at first, little inanities, but she learned he was married and living in Indiana. However, she felt the full impact when he said, "I'm so glad I finally heard my daughter's voice.”

At the end, she simply said, "Bye, dad.”

Did you say, "I love you?"

“I don't think so.” One thing at a time.

“I was just, like, ‘Great! My dad's talking to me. This is awesome. It was something I'd been waiting for.”

And then he was gone. However, he soon messaged her on Facebook and said he was a cross-country trucker and would like to see her when he was in the area.

And then came the day about four months later when she watched the approach of a big orange truck. It was her dad.

Kids have their own sense of the passage of time. Their calendar is event-centered, not on a continuum. She hadn’t seen him for about 7 years, but it seemed forever.

He had changed, as she relives the meeting: “He's not exactly the same. He's pretty heavy set now. His head is bald, and he's got sort of a mustache, and he's not skinny at all. I was just, like--Wait. This is my dad? This guy doesn't look the same, but I can feel it. It's him.

“He came into the house, and he saw my brother for the first time since he was a baby.”

He saw your brother's condition?

“Yes, he sees. They're just, like, happy. This man is the happiest person ever.”

I’m watching Selena as she talks, and I see something new--tears in her eyes. I hand her a tissue.

When you met him, what did you feel?

“It was like I couldn't stop smiling the whole time.”

When he left in the truck, did you say, “I love you, dad"?

“Yeah. ‘Oh, I love you dad. I can't wait to see you again next time.’

“He said, ‘I love you, too.’”

And then he was gone, but she forgot to give him the letters she had written.

Later, Selena went inside and gathered the letters. There was no need for them anymore. They represented loneliness. And with the lack of foresight common to kids, she tore them up. She could now tell him all those things in person.

A year went by and she didn’t see him again; contact was occasional on Facebook, and by that means they stayed in touch as time rolled into the next year.

One day she walked into her living room and saw her grandmother and divorced grandfather sitting on the couch. They weren’t smiling. They were waiting for her. She intuitively knew something was up.

When bad news is heavy on the air, you can always sense it, as does a rabbit when danger is near.

When the news is really bad, there’s no way to cushion it. She was told that her dad had died.

“I was, ‘Are you serious? My dad's gone?’ They were, like, ‘Yeah, he had an overdose last night.’

“I started bawling my eyes out. I walked outside crying and my grandfather followed me. He picked me up and held me while I was crying.“

Your voice is catching. It's still emotional isn't it?

“Yeah, it's just because it was so quick, and I wished we had longer conversations. I wished we had more time.”

A little-known writer, Melodie Ramone, wrote words that could have been for Selena: “I had a daddy, didn't I? He wasn't perfect and he certainly wasn't the one I'd dreamed he would have been, but I had one all the same. And I'd loved him as much as I'd hated him, hadn't I?”


When she was still an adolescent, a new challenge entered Selena’s life that had no one to blame. Her 6-year-old brother developed a gene-mutation disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It causes progressive muscle loss, and it doesn’t stop. The end result is the same for all of us, but usually much sooner.

With the grandmother working full-time, Serena’s brother, now 12, has become her day-to-day responsibility. For a school work-experience project Selena calculated she averages 238 hours per month in his care.

“I get him dressed in the morning. I give him meals. I give him his medication. I also do his hair. I make sure he's showered. I take him to places he needs to be. I basically take care of him like a big sister. It's just a lot more.”

You know where this disease is headed, don’t you?

She doesn’t blink. “Mm-hmm. I'm very aware. He may not have a fulfilled life, but we're going to give him the best life we can.”

Her grandmother gives her $200 per month from their In-Home Support Services benefit. “That isn't bad because I'm still just a young kid right now,” she says, but adds that she’s looking for a part-time job of about 20 hours per week, because college looms.

She enters the final dash to graduation hoping to squeeze a couple more grade points out of her studies so she can finish her last semester with a straight-A.


Given all that has transpired in her life, you wouldn’t bet your rent money on Selena developing as she has. It’s a reminder to never bet against character.

It might be said that Selena is too apologetic of her mother’s past, but it’s a daughter’s right to drown disapproval and disappointment in a sea of love.

And her father? She had that moment when he drove up in the big orange truck and told her he loved her. She still has it.

In a couple of months, Selena will graduate from high school with honors. It will not be the first rite of passage she can claim--also with honors.

Fred Dickey's home page is

He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes story ideas at

Copyright © 2017, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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