By far, Full Grown People was the best thing that happened to me in 2013. Obviously, it just didn’t “happen”—I put in some serious hours—but it does feel magical to me, from these fabulous essays from writers I admire that appear in my in-box, to perfectly fulfilled requests for photos and art to Gina Kelly and Beth Hannon Fuller, to—most of all—you, the lovelies who read this.
Almost five months in now, I recognize some of your names in the comments on the site and on social media. FGP seems to be taking on a life of its own—growing into an honest-to-Betsy community—because of you. I’m not particularly good at predicting which essays you’ll respond to the most strongly, but one of the most rewarding aspects of being an editor is knowing that somewhere, someone is reading an essay here and is thinking, “This is just what I needed.”
Oh. New Year’s post. Maybe you’d like a list of the most-read essays of 2013?
I don’t make resolutions, but I do have some goals for Full Grown People in the coming year.
The main ones involve bringing you more of this writing, both at FGP and in the form of FGP anthologies that combine work from the site with brand-spanking-new essays. I’m very excited about this. There’s a song I like that goes, “You don’t need a thing from me/ But I need something big from you.”
This is the thing I need from you: If you like Full Grown People and haven’t signed up for the notifications, please do it. (I just installed a new notification system because the old one was nearly maxed out, which sounds impressive but kind of isn’t.) And to paraphrase someone wise: if you like something, say something, to someone who shares your taste.
Also? Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope this year brings more sweet than bitter to all of us.
The party, by definition, is not co-ed. That’s because it’s a bachelorette party, my first. I am skeptical. I’m a girl, but I don’t understand girl things. Like Anybodys, my favorite character from West Side Story, I prefer to hang out with guys. Of course, Anybodys didn’t fit in with the guys, either. Not because she was a girl, but because she was annoying. Even I know that.
The girls I ran with in high school dipped Cherry Skoal and climbed trees and swung from ropes into polluted rivers. This is not the agenda of the bachelorette party I will attend. The invitation says it’s an ’80s prom dress theme. We are to show up in obnoxious ruffled tulle gowns and tease our hair out as far as possible. The hostess assures me that there will be no male strippers.
The boys, for the bachelor party, will spend the following weekend camping. I envy them.
In middle school I peered, perplexed, over the shoulders of cheerleader classmates who thumbed through dog-eared issues of Your Prom and Seventeen. They scrutinized Jessica McClintock ads with billowing, candy-colored gowns on young models wearing white lace gloves. Sometimes if Mom took me back-to-school shopping, I’d wander from the Junior casual wear to the formals and eye the sequins and crinolines with suspicious longing. When the time came, I did go to prom, but my “date” was my friend Carrie, whose college boyfriend preferred to stay home. Carrie and I had a blast. I wore a feather boa and even shaved my armpits. Knowing I was in no danger of losing my virginity later that evening in a shared room at the Best Western helped.
The dress I wore that night still fits, but it’s not of the right era. Finding a suitable dress for the bachelorette party is problematic. After combing every thrift store in town, I realize the puff and sizzle of ’80s prom dresses faded from favor so long ago that only mid-’90s fashion populates the Goodwill and Salvation Army. I half-heartedly buy an unexceptional purple velvet halter dress, a pair of royal blue snakeskin spikes, and a large can of off-brand aerosol hair spray.
The other dozen bachelorettes arrive at the hostess’s San Francisco loft on party night. Many of them I know well already; the girlfriends of my boyfriend’s friends, they are kind and funny women who accepted me instantly when Joe and I began dating. But I’m used to our gang’s weekend meet-ups at music clubs or bars, and at this all-girl affair I can’t seem to settle in. Anxious, I have a few glasses of red wine with our spaghetti and meatballs dinner, and thus decide to stick with wine for the rest of the night. I have learned multiple times if an evening begins with red wine and moves to other, harder drinks, it never finishes well. But when the hostess brings out penis-shaped mini-cakes for dessert, I am too buzzed to remember my pledge, and I enthusiastically drink the icy, fruity-sweet pink concoction another bachelorette offers me.
The penis cakes are made from German chocolate cake mix, and they have toasted coconut icing between the cake scrotum and the cake penis for pubic hair. “I just love to put a big German chocolate cock in my mouth!” I say because the fruity pink drinks have made me especially witty, and the girls and I all laugh.
We change into our dresses and apply our makeup. I fumble with a curling iron and try to attempt the giant, fluffy bangs I was never able to nail during the real 1980s. After ten minutes I quit, stuck with a tangled coiffure that would better suit Ian McCulloch or maybe a homeless junkie. The bride wears an awful, white satin, floor-length dress with white sequins studding its halter top. It’s perfect. “Who knows,” she says, “maybe someone actually got married in this.”
The hostess collects money for the limo—twenty dollars a girl. I pay and resolve to be a good sport. Limos are for losers who want to feel important. We teeter down the stairs in our secondhand pumps and cram into the limo like glittery sardines. Right away the bride opens the sunroof and pops up, going Whoo! Some of us have to sit on each other’s laps. The driver looks at the jumble of girls before he closes the door, possibly thrilled, possibly terrified.
I am wrong about the limo. The limo is awesome. There’s a full bar and a bottle of Champagne and a kickin’ sound system and a built-in fish tank and an elaborate network of pulsing black lights that electrify the white elements of our costumes, rendering the bride trippily resplendent. We drink the Champagne and look out the tinted windows and see the twinkling city speeding by, then look at each other and grin and cackle. Some of us are mothers, some of us have masters degrees. I’ve never been with so many girls in such a small space. We do shots straight from the whiskey decanter and, with a rush, I sense our fundamental sisterhood, the universal manic sisterhood that makes girls flash their breasts and scream gleefully. Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Yellen and Margaret Thatcher could all be riding in the limo with us and they’d succumb to the collective, feminine Whoo in the face of alcohol and estrogen. I am no longer Anybodys skulking in an unexceptional purple velvet helter dress, but part of a fabulous multi-organism system of sparkles and curves, intoxicated with giddiness.
The driver lets us out right in front of the club. This is our red carpet. People take pictures of us with their phones. We strut to the will-call booth, past long lines of boring regular guys in pleated chinos who have nothing better to do than wait for half an hour to see a mediocre cover band. We came to make fun and have fun. We are the party.
We go straight to the bar. The bride wears a pink plastic shot glass on a string around her neck. On the shot glass are the words BUY ME A SHOT, I’M GETTING MARRIED, so two guys at the bar oblige. I want someone to buy me drinks. I want my awakening girl power to earn me free alcohol.
We hear music from the auditorium and, in a pack, run right in front of the stage. The band is called Tainted Love and has about seven members, all dressed in outfits way more ridiculous than ours—gimmicky costume-store stuff like fake fur ties and vinyl tank tops with designs of the Union Jack. They play “Come On, Eileen” and “Maneater” and we all dance and I dance, even if it’s to stupid Tainted Love and their try-hard wardrobe.
My bra bothers me. It’s strapless, with black lace and everything, and I never wear it. I bought it before I figured out that if you are an A cup and you don’t want someone to see your bra straps, just don’t wear a bra. Now the elastic cuts into my sides and chafes my skin, so I undo the clasp and launch it slingshot-style at Tainted Love. One of the keyboardists makes a beeline and whisks it away as if I’d thrown a Molotov cocktail or a dead possum. “Bite me!” I yell.
Then they play “I Wanna Be Sedated” (not an ’80s song) and because I love the Ramones I stop being mad at Tainted Love long enough to shout along and jump up and down until I wet myself a little. Incontinent already! I resolve to do Kegel excercises, and then start—hell, why not—right there on the dance floor.
But jumping up and down makes me hot and I forget about Kegels and tug at my black satin opera glove, accidentally pulling apart the sparkly bracelet I’m wearing over it. Rhinestones fly everywhere. I wish one would hit Tainted Love, but no such luck.
The bride is discontent. She’s crying and throwing ice from her drink at Tainted Love, who are playing “Unbelievable” (also not from the ’80s). “I hate this song!” she screams. It is our cue. We retreat to the bar. The bride sits on the hostess’s lap and then she’s straddling the hostess, and the two guys who bought her the shots look over with interest until the bride slides to the floor with a bump.
I notice plush phone booths in the lobby and dash into one, because suddenly it is incredibly urgent that I talk to my boyfriend right away.
“Joe!” I say. “It’s me, I’m here seeing Tainted Love. They suck!”
He’s confused, startled. “It’s after midnight,” he says. “Is everything okay?”
“I love you!” I say. “It’s so weird here, I just had to call you now and tell you how weird it is. What are you doing?”
“Are you drunk? You’re drunk.”
“I miss you! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Be careful,” he says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I love you! Don’t worry, we have a limo. Bye!”
I spy a bachelorette swaying/standing. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she says.
I grab her arm. We rush to the bathroom. There’s a line going out the door, but we cut to the front.
The bathroom attendant—they still have bathroom attendants?—shakes her head. “Nuh-uh,” she says. “You gotta go to the back of the line.” My bachelorette cannot wait; she vomits into a sink.
“You can’t do that in there!” says the attendant. “I ain’t cleaning that shit up.” She’s wearing a polyester smock, like a cleaning lady wears. She has seen girls like us come and go every weekend; our tawdry splendor is less than nothing to her. On our way out, my friend stuffs a handful of dollar bills into the attendant’s tip cup, hiccupping wetly.
The other bachelorettes rest in the lobby, wilting on sofas. We rally and summon our limo. I cling to my charge and escort her outside. I realize my shoes are inside the club, somewhere on the dance floor.
The hard-core party girls pop out of the limo’s sunroof again, but my once-supple reserve of Whoo is dry. I push girls out of the way to get a seat next to the door as my woozy friend lets out a gurgling belch. I roll the power window down and ease her head toward the fetid city air. The limo breaks hard and girls tumble atop each other, a tangle of stiletto heels and faux pearls and ratted-out hair. I do not tumble with them; I have made myself small and distant.
My friend leans out the window, retching. Her sickness is my salvation; the more I focus on her, the less aware I am of my closeness to the very same state. I hold her hair back to make it okay. I see the chaotic spatter on the glossy black door when we stumble out of the limo in front of our hostess’s place. We give the driver what I assume is a very generous tip.
Back in the loft, the intrepid hostess puts on even more ’80s music, and it bores into my eardrums like a dentist’s drill. The bride moans in an armchair, the empty pink shot glass still around her neck. My friend passes out on a futon, all vomited out, her dress torn. I brought pajamas, but I crawl under the coffee table in my purple dress and wish I hadn’t started out the night with red wine.
At dawn, I creep to the toilet to throw up. A few hours later, I wake up to a line of girls suffering for turns in the bathroom. “I think everyone here has puked,” the rumpled bride says from her armchair.
It takes me an hour just to get off the floor. Even my hair hurts, which, after a night under the coffee table, now resembles Robert Smith more than any member of Echo and the Bunnymen. I throw up one more time for good measure before I drive home. Joe is there, looking bright and healthy.
“What exactly happened last night?” he asks.
“I’m going to die,” I tell him. “Bed.”
I sleep until five that afternoon and eat boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner. Three years later Joe and I get married, and I do not have a bachelorette party.
SARA BIR is a chef, culinary educator, and former music critic/sausage cart worker/sportsbra salesperson/library assistant/chocolate factory tour guide. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, The North Bay Bohemian, The Oregoninan, MIX, and Section M. You can read her blog, The Sausagetarian, at sarabir.com.
“You know what I’m going to do when I grow up, Mommy?”
This is a frequent topic of driving conversation between my ten-year-old daughter and me. The acoustics kind of suck in our car, but when we talk about this particular thing, I never pretend to hear what I haven’t heard clearly. I lean my head backwards between the seats and turn my ear towards my daughter, without taking my eyes off the road.
“I’m going to start a bakery named Blue Sky Bakery. I will serve pie and gumbo. Do you need to go to college to start a bakery?” she asks.
“It depends,” I say, smiling. “A two-year college can get you some good training in food prep. But you can also go to a fancier school, like the Culinary Institute in New York City, or Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.” I’ve looked this up. I’m feeling virtuous for already supporting my daughter’s edgy entrepreneurial pie-gumbo fusion career path.
You can do whatever you want, I say.
And then I stop. My jaws click shut, belatedly, on the lie.
In June of this year, I turned down the most prestigious scholarship for doctoral work that my local, nationally recognized university had to offer. It was as generous as you could hope for: full tuition, opportunities for stipends and grants. The gracious professors there, and others who helped me with my applications, spent hours of their own time walking me through the process, writing recommendations; they said, to wit, you were born to be a Ph.D. And I knew it, because I had figured that out for myself in third grade. It was the only lifelong dream I have ever had.
My husband had always, warmly and unequivocally, supported me in pursuing the doctorate. Yet we now had a fairly unusual set of circumstances to consider. He: a Presbyterian minister, where work was increasingly hard to find, poorly paid, and mostly located in the South and Midwest. My only brother: mentally disabled. My mother: widowed. And me: needing exquisite mobility to find the kind of rapidly dwindling tenure-track job required to support my family, most of which were located in places best described as not in the South or Midwest.
It wasn’t adding up. But we tried. We spent three solid weeks, after we knew the amount of the scholarship award, talking to absolutely everyone: friends and family in academia, professors, ministers, finance people, each other. We looked up stats on line, took notes.
Finally, we went to a local diner for breakfast. I brought steno pads. We spent four hours there, the waitress stoically filling our coffee cups over and over as the “Pro” list filled one side of one page of the pads, and the “Con,” six sides. The decision was obvious. I made it.
I spent the next few days befuddled. I wrote apologetic, heart-broken notes, in a fog. Someone had not died; something absolutely had died. I had not lost anything; I had lost everything. I spun like a top on the pinpoint of an invalid assumption: that culture and commerce will part like the Red Sea in the face of your training, your commitment, your talent and desire.
Had I not, like any privileged, educated, self-aware person, identified my bliss? Had I not found and assiduously practiced what I was born for? Had I not fulfilled my obligation to Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Campbell, to step firmly away from the life of quiet desperation, to find and nurture the thing that makes me come alive? Where was the world meeting me half-way? Where, goddammit, was my reward?
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” asked the third grade teacher, and I said, “I want a Ph.D. I want to be an English professor.”
“Why do you want one?”
Because I loved to read and write, and I wanted to teach other people to read and write and to keep reading and writing myself. This was my castle, under which I had thought I had built all the right foundations.
Nearly thirty-five years later, I heard Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame in a TED Talk, quoting a farmer he’d met. “Following my dreams,” the farmer said, “was the worst advice anyone could have given me.”
My grip on the dream had loosened by the time my husband and I decided to have kids—but only to the degree that I felt I could not physically have children safely by the time I finished a doctorate part-time, as our financial situation then dictated. I counted myself lucky to know the statistics in that regard, thinking of my brother, and the steep, cold slope between the chances of having a kid with Down’s in your earlier versus later decades of life.
So kids came first. My priorities were asserting themselves, so nascent as to be practically dripping with afterbirth of their own.
I didn’t see the grace in this at the time, although I wanted children very much. It was only what I needed to do, somewhat grumpily, without the power to simultaneously exist in two different dimensions. I want two lives, I would think to myself. Or three, or four.
You can do anything you want, only not at the same time, said a friend to me around that time. I don’t remember who it was, but in my mind, it was one of my most talented and ambitious soul sisters, and I was blessed to have plenty of them. Magazine editors, advocacy lawyers, dancers. The foment of their lovely lives seemed to lend even more gravitas to the words.
I latched onto this phrase and put it on like water wings. I repeated it to myself with every pangof intellectual hunger. I would do this thing, the thing I was born to do. Someday.
So what has been the result of my decision to say no to the Ph.D.? To stay in a related job that pays double the national average with good benefits, in a decent school district, with marriage and family healthy and happy, in a big blue colonial that houses a fridge, pantry, and medicine cabinet that, by all rights, I should just empty into a cardboard box and mail to Haiti. I should mail the whole house to Haiti. This is not Sophie’s Choice.
And yet I ended up asking around anyway about our culture’s obsession with the dream come true. I nose through books and articles because if I know one thing, I know how to find the answers to life’s deepest questions: research.
My mother is a genealogist, so I asked her what American generation she felt would be most akin to our own: where we looked toward a life for our children that would be demonstrably worse than the one we experienced. “There’s always the Great Depression. But there was also one during The Panic of 1819,” she wrote to me in an email.
It was the first peacetime financial crisis of the nation. “Your ancestor George Wells got stuck administering his father-in-law Meshack Hull’s estate in New Jersey from about 1816 on, for years,” mom writes. “In 1829, he was actually jailed for being for debt, though he’d been very prosperous before. His wife and children, instead of being able to stay on the family farm, had to leave the county and, in the case of his son, find another kind of work. George disappeared around this time, and it is assumed that he died, whether by his own hand, or naturally, being a question in my mind.”
I also asked my good friend Mary, who has her own doctorate in American history. She has routinely served in the role of perspective-giver in my life: when I was battling through post-partum depression over the deeply non-crunchy-granola C-section birth of my daughter in 2003, she was the one who gently reminded me that in 1803, the baby and I both probably would have died. (Priorities.)
She felt that our closest parallel was the 1970s. “The country was gripped in an economic recession, manufacturing jobs were starting to disappear, the country seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket—Watergate, Vietnam, Iran,” she said. “One thing that historians point to is the number of disaster movies in the seventies. American exceptionalism started to crack.”
Which was interesting. Three historical periods, all different, of wondering how to suck up hardship and hand it to your child. Maybe through disaster films. World War Z, anyone?
I assumed that the American Dream came out of generations actually achieving, to some degree, the American Dream—and no one can deny the general upward trend of the standard of living. But maybe a single life, a sixty-year span if we’re lucky, is not enough to really detect that slow crawl to civil rights and antibiotics.
Could it be that there is a reverse dynamic at work: The American Dream, as panacea for the many, many times—the majority of times?—that dreams did not come true?
Mary and I also talked, at length, about the Ph.D.
She told me that she believed that every doctoral candidate has at least one Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. “Mine was to show the world that I am smart,” said my wise friend. “Why do you want one?”
And I realized that my Stupid Reason for Getting a Ph.D. ran as follows: “To not be lonely.”
And one more truth comes clear, one more layer of scale scrubbed from the eyes.
Something will work out, my mother would say to me after yet another agonized Ph.D. indecision-fest on the phone.
It’s a deeply kind catchphrase. It’s better than the first two I tried. But it’s not enough. It’s only the place where your sequined tutu, your fictitious blue bakery, your unearned doctorate, is honored by people who love you, and who know better than to make you a promise.
I have enough contact with the upper echelons of academia that at times I am still and suddenly wracked with envy. I’ll hear of some lecture, some conference. Discussing Hume as the sun sets seems then to be akin to paradise lost—because that is, of course, is how all doctorates spend their time. This scenario also involves French cheese.
These flashes are decreasing, though. It’s as if the decision actually worked, in one more reversal, to help me not to long for a misplaced future, or a misspent past, but simply, be in the present. I am, in the main, happy there.
Happy, but not content. For I still don’t know how to handle the bliss question with my kids, and that seems to be of paramount importance—especially now, when I’m reasonably certain that at least climate change is going to make many more big decisions for my children than it ever (never) did for me.
When my daughter lays plans for her gumbo from the backseat, or my son chatters about being selected for The Voice, what loving parental slogan do I use? What alternative vision do I weave for my children, in the face of the seductive, beautiful, barren American dream? And how do I do this without crushing their own creativity, their sense of the possible?
It’s not you can do anything you want. And it’s not you can do everything you want, just not at the same time. It’s not even something will work out. There’s a step, a saying beyond this, something at which my fledgling Buddhist practice is trying to aim, maybe. But I’m not sure which slogan fits it best.
There may be no slogan for the control of life’s outcomes. And we do love slogans, this side of the Atlantic. No wonder America has no words for it.
“Why do you want one?”
The last time someone asked me why I wanted a Ph.D., I answered in that way that happens sometimes, when a truth comes out of your mouth without any premeditation. I was older than eight, and I had dropped some of the bullshit—maybe I was ready to articulate the bottom line.
“Because I want to know something that deeply,” I said.
The friend who asked, having begun his own doctoral work that year, nodded in approval, and I felt as if I had passed some kind of test.
But I sense that the real deep knowledge—the real test—is now.
I remember the moments after making the decision finally to let go, looking at that mound of steno pad pages, pushing my cold eggs around my plate.
It felt very strongly like the night when my husband asked me to marry him, twenty years ago— the start, really, of the chain of events that had led me here.
That night, I did not scream in delight, or cry in joy, although I did a lot of that later. I wasn’t even aware, at first, of really feeling anything at all. I was, instead, waiting.
I waited for fear, for resistance, for alarms to sound, doubt to flood in, for my usual inner voices to clang and chime.
Instead, everything went still: as still as a pond before you drop in a pebble, and step back to watch what happens.
DINA STRASSER is a language arts educator of many stripes. She has been published in the New York Times, The London Times Online, and Orion Online, and she runs an award-winning blog on education at http://theline.edublogs.org.
Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it! Merry Meal at Your Favorite Chinese Restaurant, if you don’t!
Full Grown People will be back on Friday with a new essay (one I can barely wait for you all to read!), but to tide you over in the meanwhile, here’s a handy list of what some of the massively talented FGP contributors have had published elsewhere. (Clicking on the writer’s name will lead you to all the essays that FGP has published.) A little re-gifting in a good way, if you will.
My Hodgkin’s Disease had returned—my doctor was fairly certain. It turns out he was wrong, that the strange glows on the scan were … well, something other than cancer. But Emily and I didn’t know that at the time.
This was in 2006, six years after my last radiation treatment. This time, it was in my thigh rather than in my neck and chest area, but nonetheless, the doctor seemed sure that it was back. I would need to have a biopsy performed, of course, but that felt like just a formality. A hunk of lymph nodes would be cut out, and then we’d begin treatments—likely radiation therapy, but a bone marrow transplant remained a possibility as well. Time was off the essence. I was likely going to die. My wife and I had serious thinking to do.
What we did know was that, when I’d had my bone marrow transplant in 1998, my doctor had said that I had a forty percent chance of living for more than five years. We also knew that I had radiation therapy to treat a recurrence two years after the transplant. Emily and I didn’t meet until after I had completed these treatments, but we had discussed my medical history, and what it meant for our relationship, once we were “seriously” dating—we met in grad school while working on our Ph.D.s in English, and had tried to keep things relatively casual so that we wouldn’t be tied down to another person. Neither of us wanted to compromise on our professional ambitions by becoming too attached to someone similarly ambitious, so we self-consciously tried to limit our relationship to one of hanging out and hooking up—a bit more intimate than friends-with-benefits, but nothing too emotionally consequential.
But at some point while hiking through the Missouri wilderness, or discussing the latest academic scandal reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education over coffee, or drinking cheap wine in her small basement apartment, we fell in love with each other, and we decided the best thing to do would be to get married. I couldn’t quite tell you when I realized that Emily mattered more to me than keeping all of my options open for the sake of my career, but I know that it happened.
Our life together was filled with reading, writing, sending out academic articles and creative work, supporting each other when the eventual rejections came, applying for academic jobs, worrying about money. We also played Scrabble, sought out strange landmarks like the world’s largest statue of a goose (“Maxie” in Sumner, Missouri), watched livestock shows at state fairs, and—in the words of the girl in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—we would “look at new things and try new drinks.”
We had both been involved with other people before we met each other, of course. Both of us had been in college relationships that had continued for far too long, with protracted break-ups and broken hearts. After my bone marrow transplant, my college girlfriend and I were breaking up for the final time. I reflected on what I wanted in a romantic relationship. Someone adventurous, willing to travel and have new experiences. Someone who loved literature as much as I did, but who could also enjoy the same type of lowbrow culture I enjoyed—I wanted to be able to talk about books and art with someone who could also appreciate the sublime genius of Don Knotts’s performance in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Someone who had a sense of humor, who would laugh if I called her “scumbag” and would be willing to high-five me after sex. In short, I wanted to be in a relationship that was fun—I’d had enough of passive-aggression and adolescent angst.
As it happens, Emily had recently reached similar conclusions about her own love life. It wasn’t love at first sight, but we immediately knew that we made each other laugh and had fun together—she was not only down with the high-fiving but was willing to call me “dude.” Things grew from there.
As Emily and I contemplated what a malignancy would mean for our relationship, I realized I couldn’t really say that life was unfair. I had been fortunate to be disease-free for as long as I had been, I figured, and I had experienced a powerful love and friendship the likes of which I don’t think too many people get to experience. The only disappointment was that we couldn’t make it last forever, and it looked like our time together was coming to an end.
In the week between the tentative diagnosis and the biopsy that would ultimately be reassuring, we spent our days crying, our evenings drinking wine and trying to reassure each other that this would be okay, nothing we couldn’t handle. I’d done all this before, with only my parents for companionship and support, listening to depressing music like Warren Zevon’s Life’ll Kill Ya or Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss alone in the den that my parents had hastily converted into a bedroom when I’d been diagnosed. With Emily beside me, it wouldn’t be nearly as lonely or depressing. She knew how bad things had been before, how dark those days had been.
“I’m going to take care of you,” she said, looking at me from across the table on our screened-in porch while we drank our Pinot Grigio. “It’s not going to be like last time.”
I nodded and tried to agree. We said such things to each other, but hanging between us—unspoken, but mutually understood—was the understanding that a recurrence at this point could very well mean I would die.
The morning of the biopsy, Emily drove me to the hospital. After the nurse called me from the waiting room to the pre-op area, I handed Emily my wedding ring, which she put on her thumb. I kissed her goodbye.
What followed seemed to take forever—the shaving, the pre-surgery talk with the doctor, then watching the anesthesia drip through my IV.
I shut my eyes, then opened them to find myself sitting up, in recovery. It happened that fast. Emily and a nurse were laughing. I had a Diet Coke and a glass of water in front of me—my usual beverage order, if I’m not drinking wine or beer.
“Where did this Diet Coke and water come from?” I asked.
Emily smiled. “You asked the nurse for them when you woke up after your surgery.”
“Oh,” I replied. “I must have thought I was at a restaurant.”
At this, both Emily and the nurse exploded in laughter again.
“That’s the fourth time you’ve asked that question,” Emily said, “and then followed with ‘I must have thought I was at a restaurant.’”
I laughed too—although I should tell you that, later, when we told the story to friends, they were horrified. “I would have been afraid that it was permanent,” one friend replied. That obviously hadn’t occurred to Emily—or else, she is so used to the way I am normally that she didn’t worry that any lasting brain damage would be noticeable or change her life in any fundamental way.
At one point—still foggy and a bit confused—I glanced down at my left hand. My wedding ring was back where it belonged.
“When did you give this back to me?” I asked, holding up my hand.
This time, Emily did not laugh as she ran her hand up and down on my arm, telling me that it was the first thing I’d asked for—before the beverages, even—when I saw her after coming out of surgery.
“You said that you missed it,” she told me.
Emily and I have been together for eleven years, and as happy as that time has been, I have to tell you that we argue as much as any couple. Maybe even more—we can both be strong-willed and opinionated, especially when it comes to matters of teaching and writing, which are important parts of our careers. Sometimes, we argue over a work of literature. Sometimes, it’s pop culture. We rarely argue about politics, but it happens, sometimes.
More rarely—but more seriously—we fight about the important things in our marriage. Whether one of us takes the other for granted. Occasions of self-centeredness. Concerns that one of us prioritizes work over our relationship with each other. These are the serious fights. The ones that result in tears for her, or me stomping out of the house to “go for a walk, to clear my head.” These are the times when we get overwhelmed with thought—fears, suspicions, and pressures that probably come from outside the marriage itself, but are nonetheless real when we contemplate them.
But what I like about the story of my recovery from surgery is that it testifies to the fact that loving her isn’t something I have to think about—that even when my mind is wrapped up in a confused fog, when I’m basically just a being incapable of reflection, operating on instinct, unconscious habit, and biological imperative, I still love her. More than I love my job, more than I love literature, more than I love anything in the world. And I love her first, even before I get my Diet Coke and glass of water.
WILLIAM BRADLEY has been married to the poet and Renaissance scholar Emily Isaacson for almost nine years now. She was the one who encouraged him to try to publish the creative nonfiction he wrote, and since then, he has had work appear in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Normal School, Utne Reader, The Missouri Review, and other magazines. They spend most of their time in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University.
When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Croft, had us write an autobiography. She told us to add our address at the bottom, then roll it up, and tie it to a red balloon. That way, she said, someone might find it and write back. After lunch, we walked out to the large field by the school with our balloons in hand. At Mrs. Croft’s count of three, we let them go. I can still see those red balloons floating up and away. I watched mine until I could no longer see it in the sky.
Thirty years later, I entered a rehabilitation facility outside Salt Lake City, Utah. We called it The Ridge. After a four-day medical detox that turned most of us into sleeping lumps beneath blankets in dark rooms, our first task was to write our autobiography detailing how we got there. The autobiographies were our way of coming clean, so to speak. They told us that if we didn’t work through whatever instigated our addiction, we’d go right back to the bottle, the pipe, the pills. They called it “cognitive therapy”: Read and Write Your Way to a Sober New You. To most of the people in The Ridge, a writing assignment was punishment, so it came with a privilege: to go outside. This was enough motivation for most, as the only chance we had to step outside was during the two thirty minute breaks we got between meetings that began every day at 7:15 a.m. and lasted until 9:00 p.m. And even then we were supervised.
I had been writing and publishing essays for years and even had a job at a university in the southern part of the state teaching students how to write them, but it wasn’t until I went to The Ridge that I learned to stop hiding behind my own lies.
Since we were separated into groups by counselor, I didn’t get to hear everyone’s autobiographies, so in the evenings, I’d sit on one of the couches in the TV lounge and read the ones I’d missed. It was like being in a workshop, but one in which no one thought about the writing. The words were confessing. The words were admitting. And it made the writing immediate, raw, real. Years later, I’d teach an introductory course in the personal essay to a class of science majors who, until that class, didn’t know the genre existed. Their writing reminded me of those rehab essays—the lack of self-consciousness, the art they had no idea they were creating.
No one in that place but me and one other guy had been to college. I don’t count a college dean because she only lasted two days. Maybe she was too ashamed to stay. Maybe she couldn’t do without her Vicodin. Most of the patients were railroad workers, farmers, or affluent, bored wives. Most had no job at all—the booze or the crystal meth made sure of that. The only patients who read on a regular basis were me and a twenty-two-year-old bartender.
The bartender woke up in the hospital and was told that he had passed out with a gun in his hand, a plan voided by a pint of vodka. Lanky, dark-hair, droopy brown eyes, now he’d be described as James Franco-esque, but then, he was the guy who liked to read. David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, James Frey. He’d finish one, bring it down to my room. The small lounge across from the nurse’s station had a bookcase, loosely filled with mostly self-help and Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and one surprising Joyce Carol Oates, so his girlfriend brought our requested copies twice a week: Cormac McCarthy, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, because we both appreciated irony.
But we were there to write our own stories, detail every last drunk and destruction, the damages that had led us to the same exact spot, even on the same day, when we’d sat on a bench in early December, me drunk, him discharged from the hospital. That day, I’d stepped behind a glass door, then turned back once more in hopes that I could be let out, that it was all someone else’s narrative. He’d been locked up behind a steel door after his shoelaces and the string inside the waistband had been confiscated. His drinking had come on fast, his reluctance toward his intellect its trigger, his final insistence on an artistic portrait of the disgruntled young man, a bottle of vodka, and a gun stolen from behind the bar. He’d woken up angry, embarrassed, feeling like he was living the life he had failed to end.
The last I heard, he went back to the bar for the afternoon shift, hoping, like some guy out of Hemingway story, that it wouldn’t be as hard in the daylight.
One of the meth addicts had become so paranoid he moved into his workshop behind his house. He’d peek through the blinds, watching his wife and two teenage sons as they came and went from the grocery store, school. Then he had watched them move out.
My counselor’s last words to me on the day I checked out: “You don’t have to be Hemingway to be a writer. You don’t have to be drunk or be sad.”
They’d often tell us that the sobriety rate for people leaving rehab was ten percent, so that out of the thirty or so of us in there at any given time, three would stay sober. The rest of us would go back to drinking or drugs, or we would eventually develop some cross addiction. If we had been drinkers, we might turn to pills. Or pills might be replaced by cocaine. Cocaine by booze. It’s a trick addicts play on themselves, they’d say, kicking a habit while forming a new one. They’d also warn that if we kept doing what we had been doing, we’d be dead. Some of us soon, because we had already done so much damage that “one more drink” would be too many.
What I had been doing was drinking Chardonnay, as early as ten in the morning on some days and as late as three in the morning some nights. I had loved a man for years who suddenly left me, who left our daughter, Indie, when she was four and a half months old. He abandoned us. But I abandoned us, too. I drank myself away from Indie, from myself, from the life she and I had together.
A blackjack dealer had worked downtown Las Vegas at the Four Queens during its opening years, her cans of Bud and a Camel as quick as the cards. The doctors said her liver was in pieces, shards, really.
Most of the time, she slept in her room, a vaporizer belching loudly beside her bed at all hours, her door propped open, the room dark even in the day, her frailty a shadow beneath intricate afghans and a green sleeping bag. She wasn’t strong enough to walk, so we took turns bringing her meals on trays or holding her arm as she shuffled to the TV room. Once, someone found her on the smoking patio, her fingers fumbling to light a cigarette. Such futility, no more damage to be done. She was not well enough to attend sessions on schedule, and when she did, her head lolled to the side in sleep, her body bundled in that purple robe. She never wrote her autobiography. Either she couldn’t remember it or it didn’t matter anymore. When the coughs smothered her, we’d all look down at the floor or our notebooks, offering her the only form of privacy possible in a circle of people who saw her as a cautionary tale. At sixty, she looked eighty. Her raspiness, her weightlessness an ugly whisper from a fast life that not one of us envied.
She had been there at the beginning, she said, one of the invisibles shuffling blind under the blinks of the casino lights. “I kept a can of Bud right there at the table,” she told me once. We regretted it for her, all of it.
The last I heard, her husband showed up, belligerent, demanding to know just how long she had been there before taking her home.
Being locked up in the rooms of a rehab facility for twenty-eight days, certain phrases got repeated until they were just noise, a skipping record: “Fake it ’til you make it.” “It works if you work it.” “Work as hard for your recovery as you did for your addiction.” “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” The head counselor’s favorite: “Don’t sympathize. Empathize.” He’d explain, at least once a day, that when people read their autobiographies or shared in a meeting, we were not to feel sorry for the person. We were to understand, to share the experience, to not distance ourselves with pity. The stories we heard were ours. Or they would be if we weren’t careful.
A man checked out. He showed up two days later on the bench by the nurse’s station. He had been badly beaten, or worse. Someone whispered about a liter of whiskey, a night in the ER, but we never got to ask him. They locked him up in the psych ward.
One guy who left The Ridge on the day I arrived hung himself a week later.
For my roommate, it took only two days before a bender ended with a mess of police cars in the front yard of her Park City home. Before The Ridge, she had done two stints at Betty Ford.
One man died within a month. Sober. He died from all the drinking he had already done.
One man disappeared.
I went back to the university where I had been teaching and made it to the end of the spring semester before I drove to the next town, got a hotel room, then spent the rest of the evening at the bar, convinced that if I didn’t drink at home it didn’t count. It wasn’t a cross addiction; it was cross location. It was fucked up.
One of the railroad men had snorted coke on the long runs in the middle of the night. He chewed on plastic flossers during meetings and wore a University of Texas baseball cap backwards, even though he was fifty.
One night, I sat with him alone in the room where we usually played Scattergories. The room had one window, an elongated table, worn plastic chairs, a closet with extra blankets and plastic sheets. He was stuck at Step 1, the autobiography phase, staring for weeks at a blank page and a pen that would not take his disappointment, the guilt. So I sat across from him and asked questions about his ex-wife, the worst nights, their recent phone exchanges, and I wrote it all down. I asked until he had no more answers, so I started writing the questions then pushed the yellow legal pad across the table. I ducked out of the room, leaving him to stare at the vocabulary of his failings.
He claimed to be friends with a famous author, a woman who, according to him, had a framed picture of his chest x-ray prominently displayed in her living room next to a couple of hanging plants. He liked to draw spirals on the pages of my notebook during meetings. Once, during a session on dream analysis, he told about standing in the middle of a diving board. The psychiatrist on staff preferred Jung and told him that the board was an archetypal symbol of both risk and abandon. After we both left, we spoke on the phone once, me in my kitchen in Utah, he on his cell phone on a rail car somewhere across Oregon. The last I heard was his message on my voice mail: “I’m going to die here, but not before I see you first.”
A train track ran adjacent to the hospital. I’d stand on that porch, watching the lights of the passing cars, and think about scaling the wall and hopping one. One night during a smoke break, one of the psychiatrists came out to the patio looking for me. He said he wanted to meet the Ph.D. who drank a gallon of wine every night. “You,” he said, slapping my back, “are a legend.” I said thank you, crushed out my cigarette, and walked back inside.
Every morning after breakfast, we’d line up at the nurses’ station for our meds and blood pressure check. In the afternoon, we’d do it again. The girl who cut herself was on an antipsychotic drug. The hay farmer cussed and called everyone a “yahoo” before they took him off Prozac. After a weekend pass to visit her son at home, my roommate returned sedate and peaceful, nothing like the weeping, neurotic beauty she had been in the three weeks I knew her. Once when she was out of the room, I opened the top drawer of her nightstand and found three pill bottles and a cell phone. Contraband. I kept her secret and allowed the counselors to believe “she finally got it.” One woman was on something that made her so drowsy she couldn’t stay awake during meetings, which was a rule breaker. And the nineteen-year-old who had been sleeping in the backs of cars on the streets of Salt Lake City tried to charm the staff into giving him “something more.” I stepped up to the window and looked down at the tray. The nurse held a white cup with two red capsules. I asked if I could stop taking them. She said she’d bring it up at the staff meeting. “Not a chance,” my counselor told me.
“All of us,” Montaigne wrote, “have within us the entire human condition.” At The Ridge, they called them “autobiographies.” Montaigne called them essais. In other words, attempts. Sit down and write how you got here. Try to figure it out.
I don’t remember if any of the students in Mrs. Croft’s 1977 second grade class ever received a letter from our balloon assignment. The balloons probably ended up popped or wilted, found by a stranger who had no idea that there had been words. Most likely in the panhandle of West Texas, they drifted into the middle of some field where the blades of a tractor shredded them. I kept all the pages I wrote from rehab. The fourteen pages of my autobiography, front and back, the notebook pages framed in spirals, and the pages from the Vietnam Vet.
He had worked the rail yards in Portland for seventeen years. He was heavyset, always in jeans and a shirt that struggled around his middle. When he sat down, he’d pull at it, this way and that, trying to get comfortable. He had gotten sober before and it stuck for thirteen years until he took some “stuff that blew his head off.” He often fell into coughing fits during meetings and had to step outside for a drink of water, which was also against the rules. He’d shuffle back in, apologize, shake his head at his inability to get through an hour without breaking down. He had dropped out of school. Listening to him read was like watching a man dare the frail of a rope bridge.
On one of the last days he was there, he came to the door of the TV lounge and asked if I’d help him with something. We went out to the smoking porch where he pulled out a form and asked me to write down what he told me. He pointed to the four lines provided beneath the section: Addiction History. “Began using alcohol at the age of fifteen. Pot usage. Meth. Went to AA but stopped going to meetings. Thirteen years of sobriety. Relapse. Three years without alcohol. Came to The Ridge.” I pushed the form across the table. He looked at the words as if they were details in a photograph he couldn’t quite make out.
On his last day, he showed me to two chairs in the hallway outside his room. He said he wanted me to have something he had written. His counselor, also a Vietnam Vet, had given him a final writing assignment, one he didn’t have to read aloud. He handed each one to me, in order, and while he sat with his arms folded and his head down, I sat in the chair next to them and read:
What Joe Lovett Like?
Joe Lovett was a yung idao spud. One hell of a grate guy that we called Spud. All he coughed is talk about Betty. He love to smoke pot and drink beer and stair at Bett pitchers. She was a pairty littal thing. He love to cut trees down with his fifty calorber gun. But we all now he didn’t get to go home. He was the first of the three to be shot in the head. I will always remember him like a brother. God Bless him. He was bless of “19” of his life.
What Was Mike Stratton Like?
Mike Stratton was big boy. He look lik he cought cut trees down with two chops. But he was one big tedy bear. We all called he Miky. Miky was from Orchers Washington. He was ok until we got him riped. He cought of hurt any one of us when he was riped and in a rage. I got know Miky for only “26” days. He was number two of three to be shot in the head. In the short time I got to know him I loved him like he was my brother. Now I know whey we were num all the time we were there. We all tried not to think about it. Like Spud Miky was bless with “19 years of life. I will never for get them. They will always be in my hart and in my prairs. God Bless Them.
What Was John Bires Like?
John Bires was a nice guy. He wought have given you any thing. He was from New York. One of those guy that talk funny. He loved to smoke pot. Then he wought eat every thing. You think he talk funny. When he was riped he talked every funnier. I got know him longer than Spud or Miky. For fun we called him JB. Have you ever hered some one from New York called JB. JB loved to play cards. He won a lot of the time. I hated to play cards with him. He always took my money. I got to know JB longer than Spud or Miky. JB was there for two months. JB was three of three to die. JB also was shot in the head. But this time his head landed in my lap. I just sat there with his head bleeding in my lap. I felt like I wasn’t there. I will never foget them. I wil have them always in my hart. May God Bless them all my Brother.
It seems strange to feel inferior to someone’s pain, to the levels of their addiction, but I always I felt as if I hadn’t done near enough to be locked up with the others. I hadn’t lost my daughter. Or my home. Or my job. I hadn’t lived on the streets. Or gone to jail. I didn’t even have a DUI, which seemed to be a prerequisite. Hearing such autobiographies made me feel one of two ways: Either I had no reason to drink, or I hadn’t gone far enough with my drinking. I worried I was destined to return. Maybe it would take two years, or five, and I’d be back in the circle, reading a much more disturbing autobiography than Sunday morning Chardonnay.
Another thing: they always told us we wouldn’t stay in touch. We didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe them. I was wrong. I have no idea where any of those people are—if they’re sober, if they’re alive.
Once we left The Ridge, we were like balloons released into the air.
St. Petersburg, which my relatives still sometimes call Leningrad, is a city of water—canals, islands, the massive Neva River. Neva, sweeping to the Gulf of Finland, is an illusory barrier, giving the impression that the city is water-locked. In reality, the metro clicks out easily to a network of islands that comprise the rushing circulatory system of a huge city. These islands are hardly remote, but just far enough by metro that most tourists pass them over.
A few years ago, during a two-week trip attending a writing seminar and visiting my relatives, I took the metro out of St. Petersburg’s tourist-choked center to one of the islands. I was looking for a church. Any church, as long as tour groups hadn’t discovered it, and its Orthodox services fed the sense of mystery that an atheist like me requires from religion.
I can’t always explain this need. A fascination with faith doesn’t seem to mark most other atheists I know. And the older I get, the more grounded I feel in the lack of it. Yet something still draws me—a yearning that is both wordless and slightly annoying, probably as old as human consciousness. I don’t know whether I want to simply comprehend faith or, a more daunting thought, to find it. A place of safety, to shed my burdens.
Russia is my lodestar in this search, the country of my father and his honest, humanist parents, who had themselves chosen atheism over their severe ultra-religious existences in Orthodox Jewish villages. They left the ghettoes for Leningrad to build the new communist dream, where all that mattered were your hands and your brain. As they faced repeated defeats in their attempts to qualify as engineers—thrown back for their Jewish blood or bourgeois history rather than lack of skill—they realized Lenin’s dream was another illusion. By the time they’d survived Stalin’s purges, their noble-hearted humanism was all that was left for them.
Those grandparents would be both amused by and sympathetic to my attraction to the haughty self-righteousness of the Russian Orthodox Church. But the streets of the city they made home seemed to have given them a self-assurance I lack, and it is there, in the adopted home of my atheist grandparents, that I seek a religious conversion.
During the midsummer White Nights celebrations, when the midnight sun left a rosy light on the streets, I walked through the islands seeking a native’s church, where babushkas spent afternoons murmuring to their saints and inappropriately dressed tourists were scowled at.
On the island of Vasilievsky, I found one. A courtyard with battered grass hid an old Byzantine church from the noisy main thoroughfare.
My aching feet and struggling lungs drove me from the hot, humid street and polluted air through an entrance in the stone fencing. Prepared for Orthodox churches (and those barb-tongued babushkas), I was wearing a long skirt and had a scarf tucked into my purse. Before touching the entrance steps, I tied the scarf over my hair and assembled an expression of humility and languid determination—the Russian expression.
Inside, scaffolding for restoration work covered half of the dome over the comparatively small main floor of the nave. The public part of a Russian cathedral, no matter how decorated, always feels like a waiting room. There are no pews. Even the most gnarled grandmother must greet her God standing. Icons of saints hover about the room on stands or the walls, waiting for their tribute of thin prayer candles. The real work of the church goes on constantly, unseen behind elaborately constructed doors, surrounded with icons of Jesus and Mary and all the saints—the iconostasis. Together, the sanctuary and the icons maintain the mystery of the divine.
It is the nature of Russian Orthodox churches to be unwelcoming. The practice is founded on a sacred belief in its own superiority. The country club of religions. Its very stony-faced exclusivity is what draws me to Russian Orthodoxy. Wildly private, I always found the Presbyterian churches of my upbringing intrusive. I shrank from talking about God or Jesus, or about being saved. The Orthodox Church is its opposite, intensely private itself. Nobody here cares about my personal salvation. In this church, I must find my own way. Russians already believe themselves to be, after the Jews, the second of God’s chosen people. They don’t need my faith.
Chanting hummed behind the doors in the sanctuary. Hidden behind the iconostasis, unaccompanied by piano or organ, the choir’s reverberations hit my shoes through the stone floor in waves. I had forgotten, until this moment, that Russian churches never have any other music than this lyrical, unseen choir. The incomprehensible Old Church Slavonic—to my ears, Slavonic’s only similarity to Russian is its musical quality—orchestrates the priests’ black-swathed activities throughout the day as if helping them weave spells. Which, in a sense, they are.
The spells always work on me. There is something about an Orthodox service that creeps into the locked, lonely places of my heart, the ones that cry for understanding, for protection and salvation—or maybe for enlightenment and guidance. The service is so impersonal it seems to promise answers that other religions struggle with on a too-human level. Its remoteness breeds awe, even in an unbeliever.
Far from St. Petersburg’s tourist routes, this cathedral was nearly empty. Four middle-aged men and one old woman stood scattered around the room, as if their prayers would fill an abundance of personal space. As I adjusted myself against the back wall, barely out of the entryway, a young man in jeans hurried from the entrance straight to one of the icons in the center of the room. He bowed, kissed it, crossed himself. And stood. And waited.
The priests finally came out of their divine seclusion. Wrapped completely in floor-length black, with long beards, they walked in a group of three—one leading, the other two assisting—to swing a long, egg-shaped incense burner at each of the several icons propped on stands around the room. I’d seen churches in this country where the very murals on the walls were covered in icons from floor to domed ceiling.
The priests’ robes brushed the floor in time with their resonant singing. Realizing they were approaching the icon to my left, I back-stepped into the entryway, fearful of being found out even as a tourist, if not as a nonbeliever.
As the chanted service rang through the nave, the five worshippers crossed themselves continuously; they knelt to touch their foreheads to the floor. The old woman, her knees swollen under a plain dress and thick tights, made the “little reverence,” as it’s translated from Church Slavonic, dipping from the waist. It’s a pattern I couldn’t comprehend and couldn’t possibly imitate. So I bowed my head reverently.
In Western Christian churches, the visitor hides herself in the pews—a welcome trespasser who can usually follow the pray-stand-sit routine. But she is also prey to the curious and the missionary, a guest who has to make conversation after the service. Here, I was in an open space, with no hard bench to guard me, but also no inquisitiveness to guard myself from.
My ignorance was obvious: I didn’t belong here, but I bent my neck in solidarity and hoped that, for once, the service would lift me away from myself, as promised. I worked at it, remembering the words of one Anthony, Bishop of Smolensk: “Stand in church silently, peacefully, quietly, as for example, the candles lit by you stand before the icons … So should you also stand, striving with hearts aflame with love and prayer toward God.” My flame flickered as I shifted my feet and tried not to be seen. The music coming from behind the iconostasis plucked at locks in my soul, swelled a lonely “why?” (or maybe it’s a “please” or a “help”) that I am always aware of but rarely acknowledge.
Sometimes I tell myself this is simply the human condition; this “why” or “please” or “help” is examining nothing more than the meaning of life. Other times I think I’m fudging, that what I really want is comfort, for some acknowledgement that the invisible wounds of my childhood and the pains of the world have some meaning. But defining my yearning for faith is like trying to bottle the sense of the unanswerable that makes faith so effective for millions. What is this thing I’m looking for? The lonely places of my heart are a mystery to me; they engender too many questions. I give them these church services in hopes that answers will unfold.
This time, I didn’t have a chance. Just as my eyes began to prick with tears, a priest hurried up to me, speaking so rapidly that my mediocre Russian failed to comprehend. He waved a hand around the entryway, and I realized that it, too, was covered in icons and needed to be blessed with incense. My unorthodox person was not welcome during the sacred ceremony. I opened my eyes wide, face red and apologetic from embarrassment. Wait! I wanted to tell him. I was just about to feel something!
But he hustled me to the dusty gift shop behind the entrance, where I could stare at religious books and icon reproductions for sale until those of faith were safe from my presence. Under a wash of shame, the groping for belief slipped away. When the service ended, my heavy feet turned to the hot streets.
From childhood on, I have always been told that atheism is a willful choice to reject God—a choice to say there is no god, no deity—and agnosticism is simply the empiricist’s way of saying that there could be a god but we don’t know one way or the other. I never questioned the assertion that atheism was an act of will rather than a type of faith in its own right. But I could accept neither atheism nor faith without analysis of my motives. I dug around in feelings, memories, and reactions and found … nothing. Except myself. It surprised me.
It never occurred to me to choose not to believe. Who would choose such a thing? Only the most self-confident and satisfied person would choose to live like this—knowing that every decision and action, every mistake, is on your own shoulders only. It is a crushing responsibility: I walk bent under the weight of my own life, the weight of my choices, but worse, the weight of my accountability to humankind. If I want to change the world, the smallness and impotence I feel is terrifying next to those who believe God, or a god, is on their side.
Atheism was never a choice for me. It is knowledge. I know not that there is no God—my training in mathematics assures me that you cannot prove a negative—but that I assuredly do not believe in a god. This is a different kind of knowledge. I know I love the wilderness. I know I do not like eggplant. I know I do not believe in God. I cannot be agnostic, hedging my bets.
In seeking to discover why I have no faith, I found it was just as inexplicable as its opposite. I have no faith because it is not there.
There is an incident I’ve never spoken of to anyone: the time when atheism scurried away, and I thought faith in something had finally come to bring relief, to lift that weight off my shoulders.
When my son was born, he was very weak. Taken out seven weeks early because I had come down with a rare, nearly fatal pregnancy-related condition, he was breathing through lungs as underdeveloped and fragile as soap bubbles. Over a two-week period, the doctors had to insert tubes into his tiny, scrawny chest to drain pockets of air that threatened the viability of those delicate lungs.
The day they called my husband and me at home to tell us that John needed a second air tube, and that he was ill enough they might need to move him to a tertiary care center, my reality ground itself into little pieces. I could do nothing for an hour but huddle on the floor and sob as I hadn’t done since I was a small child. I was so scared.
That same morning, I had woken up suddenly, just after seven, certain I’d heard John’s voice calling to me. Crying for me. I felt that he was in pain and needed me. It was only later I found out that I’d heard him, a forty-five-minute drive away, at the same minute they’d cut his chest and inserted the tube. I knew because, of course, they wrote down the times of all procedures, and I had checked the clock when I’d woken up (to see if it was time to drag out the breast pump), two hours before they called us at home. That is the part I’ve never told anyone, except my husband, who forgot it in the days that followed.
A friend asked me, about three months later, if John being so ill had given me some faith in God. She’s a religious person. She can’t imagine living without God, or, especially, without prayer. I told her the truth: I’d looked for faith during that time, and afterwards, and still found nothing. I think I searched deeply. I tried. But the experience didn’t send me away with faith; it sent me away with doubt. There are things in this world that I could not explain.
Was it a religious experience? A spiritual one? A trick of the imagination? A tidbit of Jung’s collective unconscious willing hope into my dreams? An aspect of physics and quantum particles we have yet to discover? I have no idea. All I could tell myself, and my friend, is that I still didn’t believe in God. Maybe atheism has become my own personal god, because it returned, after fear and glowing, new-motherhood happiness had faded, and life shifted back to its normal rhythms. When I fidgeted impatiently while attending church for a friend’s baptism, I knew my chance for faith was lost.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell postulated that belief in God echoed Christians’ desire for safety, “a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you.” Ever since I became a mother, I have wondered if it’s more like a desire to get back to the mythical safety of our mothers’ arms, where we believed the world was a good place, and it loved us.
C.S. Lewis is said to have been a famous atheist, always engaged in debates about faith with devout Christian J.R.R. Tolkien. Then one day he went for a walk to the zoo. “When I left,” he said, “I did not believe that Christ was the Son of God. And when I got back, I did.” So simple. Maybe faith has a eureka moment like the greatest discoveries of science and mathematics. I do not believe. If one day faith should come to me, then I would believe.
I don’t find atheism fun. It’s a pest. It daily reminds me that I am alone in this yawning universe. Scrabbling for answers in the rich incense and enveloping music of Russian Orthodox churches gives hope that someday I can attain the eureka moment. Until then, I ride the coattails of others’ convictions, hitch my prayers onto those of people who believe they work.
The next day I left Vasilievsky Island and returned to the center of St. Petersburg. I walked to the Kazan Cathedral. Closed for decades during Soviet times, Kazan now sweeps its arms around Nevsky Prospect and attracts thousands of tourists. The crowds move you up the main steps, past youths swilling liter-bottles of cheap Baikal beer as you keep a tight hand on your purse.
I crept from the entrance to a blackened wall. Close up, the wall was revealed as the icon of the Holy Spirit, so faded that the only intimation of its subject was a man’s faint outline, arm outreached, and a glimmer, above, of a white dove. The dove presumably represented the Spirit entering the soul of the sinner. A candelabra in front of the icon held the skinny, toothbrush-length candles sold in Orthodox churches all over Russia. One was burnt out. I lifted it, appropriating the prayer of another, and touched its tip to a neighboring flame. Like feeling for a tooth that wasn’t there, I probed my thoughts for pricks of hope and faith. Why couldn’t they enter my own heart as simply as the icon brought light to the aching sinner?
Today, in my morning hurry, I had forgotten to bring a headscarf and was not wearing a skirt. The oversight denied me even the simplest form of acceptance. It set me in a blank world with the other tourists, ignored and despised by the faithful, the Russian women with their covered hair, humming their love for and obedience to God.
The Kazan Cathedral was built, I am told, to house the icon of Mary, Mother of God, which was set above a raised floor to the right of the nave. She represented mercy and the preservation and unity of Russia. Hard silver encased her face, and she looked down upon the line of repentants who waited for a chance to pour out their prayers, kiss her frame, and come away renewed, hopeful, humble.
Watching them, I wished I had the courage to approach, to ask for faith. I played with the idea that I had simply walked away from God for a while, that maybe He—She, it—would welcome me back to safety if I only proclaimed my desire. I hovered near Mary’s line of the devout, wondering. Here, I told myself, is my central problem. The courage to ask for faith requires an act of faith in itself.
A man stepped forward to the silver clad Mary, crossed himself, kissed her frame, and touched his forehead to her, shivering in his reverence. How I envied him.
ANTONIA MALCHIK’s work has been published in The Boston Globe, Brain, Child, The Walrus, Creative Nonfiction, many other newspapers and journals, and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on Elements, a memoir about motherhood, striving for the lost competence of her pioneer ancestors, and questioning the true meaning of sustainability. Her essay “Competence Lost,” forthcoming in February from The Jabberwock Review, addresses these themes. She can be reached through her website, antoniamalchik.com.
“Tell me about your girlfriends,” I ask the man I’ve been seeing for the last few months, my bare leg sprawled over his, my fingers grazing the graying hair of his chest. He holds me closer and begins to talk.
My relationship with Jeff was young, but we weren’t. At the time, I was in my late thirties, a single mom a year removed from the end of an eighteen-year relationship.
He’s ten years older, tall and fit, with silver curly hair and Delft blue eyes.
I want to hear about Jeff’s girlfriends not for the intimate details about those relationships (he’s not the type who would ever kiss and tell, anyway) but because learning about his past makes me feel closer to him. Plus, I’m nosy—although I like to think of it as “being curious.”
Dating in midlife is quite different from the last time I dated, in college. Then, there was still a shiny newness to it; everyone I met had only recently shed the protective wrappers of childhood. We each had fewer years of relationship experience than fingers on one hand. My college boyfriend and I had had other lovers before we got together during our sophomore year. But those early forays into sexual relationships were far more sexual than relationship; with inept fumbling in assorted cars and dorm rooms, it was mutual lust rather than lasting love. Youth may be exuberant, but it often doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.
Jeff had dated for far longer than I had. With decades of dating backstory, he was a bit like a book I’d been dying to read but one that started at chapter ten. I wanted to find out what happened in the previous chapters. It was, after all, the prologue to our relationship.
When my ex and I had met, we were essentially children. At nineteen, I was still a teenager. And like kids on a really great play date, we didn’t want the fun to end. We quickly became close, spending all our time outside of our classes together. We slouched on the grass of the quad, grabbed (too many) post-study drinks at an off-campus bar and, a few hours after that, huddled in a diner’s red vinyl booth, feeding each other greasy scrambled eggs and bacon. We skipped classes far too often, instead spending the day naked on his futon under the navy polyester-and-cotton blend comforter he’d brought from home, the one that made me itch and sweat in New Orleans’s humidity. When we graduated, we didn’t really discuss our future—we both just assumed that we’d stay together. And we did, for almost two decades. Then it was over, a twisted Theory of Relativity, parts of our universe expanding and each of us moving away from the other seemingly faster than the speed of light. For a year, I focused all my energy on our young daughter and surrounded myself with friends. It was more than enough until one day it suddenly wasn’t.
I was determined to meet someone—or someones—but, because of the large gap in my dating resume, I wasn’t quite sure how. In college, everyone wanted to connect with someone, for a night or for far longer. Now the only men I met were married to my mom friends. I saw other men, lurking in my favorite cafe and at the local food co-op, so I knew they existed, but they seemed strange and exotic and as approachable as the Yeti. So how did a middle-aged single mom of a young child meet men?
I asked my ex-sister-in-law (with whom I’d remained close) when we got together at a cafe for drinks. She suggested I give online dating a try—she’d met her husband that way. Sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc, she leaned closer on the edge of her chair and reminded me to practice safe sex. (I was actually going to have sex! … if I met someone). She plonked her glass on the table and warned me that some men actually lie and say they’re not married when they really are. I suddenly felt gullible and incredibly naive. The last time I dated, no one was married and cordless phones were the size of cereal boxes. Forewarned and forearmed (she’d given me a couple condoms), I joined a dating website, threw together a profile, and uploaded a digital photo.
Jeff quickly responded, sending me a thoughtful letter, and I immediately wrote him back. It was like a game of tag by email. As soon as one of us received a note, the other would reciprocate. Neither of us wanted to be the first one to stop writing. Email led to phone calls that led to a real-life meeting that led—eventually—to me snuggled into him, asking about his ex-girlfriends.
Jeff had an entire life before we met which, to me, sounded terribly fascinating and glamorous. He was a writer in New York City, and he’d met and dated a slew of interesting, talented women: dancers and writers, actresses, social workers and businesswomen. I moved closer and asked about the other women, the earlier ones. What were they like? Why had the relationship ended?
“So what happened with Anna?” I asked. (Anna isn’t her real name.)
“We were just at different places in our lives,” Jeff said, slowly. “She’d married young and divorced right before we met. She wanted to see what was out there.”
I was recently separated and Jeff was the first man I’d dated in almost twenty years. I told him that.
“Uh oh,” he said, raising an eyebrow. He brushed a strand of hair out of my face and smiled. “I guess I should ask where you are in your life, right?”
“I’m right here, right now,” I said, laughing, as I rubbed his arm. “And I sort of like this place. A lot.”
There were other questions that I didn’t ask: Would I have liked them? Would they like me? And why did this matter to me? As Jeff and I lay together and talked, my mind wandered. Thinking about his exes, I imagined how my life could have gone differently. I wondered what it would be like to try on an alternative life (and the men that might possibly have gone with it), like a pair of Levis. What if I hadn’t married my college boyfriend? What if I’d done something other than teach? What would my entire life had been like if I’d chosen a different path? I shut my eyes and pictured alternatives:
Me as a successful businesswoman, focused on my career in banking—no, corporate law!—meeting a series of businessmen for a quick wine spritzer after work. The men I date—power brokers in their fields!—have to have a greater net worth than me, and I’m very successful. (I’d tried dating a Ph.D. student once—a nice guy and extremely attentive in bed—but I’d had to pay for almost everything.) After yet another drink and scintillating talk of mergers, I catch a cab to my prewar classic six on the Upper East Side, stash my imaginary briefcase under the mahogany desk in the home office, and … I feel a very real nausea wash over me. Even in my imagination, I dislike Business Sue.
Instead, I pull on a black beret, tuck a cigarette behind my ear and move into a small walk-up studio in the East Village. (In my dream life, it’s 1986, and the East Village is still affordable.) I paint tiny canvasses with an eyelash brush or make jewelry from gold macaroni. (I relax a bit; this fits better.) I only date men like me, men who understand the creative process. We talk a lot about the creative process as we drink cheap red wine from chipped stoop sale teacups on my fire escape, dangling our legs over the edge. My love life is complicated. I immediately shoo away the man with the heroin habit. I get into heated arguments with another. We scream, break dishes, and make love amid the shards. Rubbing my backside, the fantasy dissolves as quickly as the imaginary relationships do with East Village Sue. She’s simply too unstable.
As Jeff reminisces about his earlier life and girlfriends, I wonder if I should’ve kept my mouth shut instead of asking about them—I’m jabbed by what I think are pinpricks of jealousy. How could I, a single mom pushing forty, a preschool teacher for goodness sakes, compete with the accomplished, interesting women of his past?
I weave the threads of my self-doubt into an insecurity blanket, pull it tightly over my shoulders, and say, “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a bit anxious. You’ve dated all these amazing women. I guess I’m feeling a little afraid.”
Jeff held me, looked into my eyes, and said, quietly, “Why? Dating was fun, but lonely. I spent an awful lot of time wishing I’d found someone who made me happy, who made me laugh, and kept me interested.” He laughed. “I wish I’d met you all those years ago.”
Real Sue smiled.
A year or so later, we got married. And now, closing in on fifty, I find there’s a comfort in knowing so much about the years before we met. But there’s also the small thrill of learning something new about Jeff (like, as a child, he never had a stuffed animal or that Frank Rich once sent him a fan letter) that keeps the relationship fresh. It’s newness and comfort rolled into one. And I still love hearing about his girlfriends.
SUE SANDERS alternatively fights and embraces her neuroses and very much enjoys being Real Sue. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Real Simple, Brain, Child, Salon, and others. Her first book, Mom, I’m Not a Kid Anymore, was published in the spring.
Ahh, the Pageant. My family’s greatest Christmas tradition was the product of my mother’s desperate struggle against in-laws for the rights to Christmas Eve. When the Pageant was born, twenty-five years ago, my brother Larkin and I were my mother’s only adult children who lived close enough for her to realistically expect to see us every Christmas. We both married into families with strong cultural and religious customs surrounding the holidays. Our new families always gathered Christmas Eve for tamales, empanadas, presents, and church. Both of our in-laws are Catholic, the divas of ritual and tradition. On Christmas Eve they attended midnight mass, complete with incense and holy water. Our own Christmas Eve traditions had been less predictable. We were raised Quakers, so we had no midnight mass of our own. Some years we crashed the service at one of the local churches; some years we didn’t. Most years my mother would try to coax us into singing Christmas carols, but once we became teenagers, Christmas Eve involved spiked eggnog and going out more than family togetherness. Not that my mother ever gave up trying. All in all, our family customs most certainly lacked the strength and conviction of our spouses’.
For the first several years of our marriages, Larkin and I tried to squeeze my mother into our holiday plans, but we rarely made it to her house on Christmas Eve to sing carols or drink hot cider. She was struggling against the bond between our spouses and their families, their mothers in particular. It was like pitting Elmer’s School Glue against Gorilla Glue, an unfair contest by any measure. However, my mother is the little bulldozer that could. She is, as she will often say, a problem solver. She wanted to ensure that we would feel the same inexorable pull to her at the holidays that our spouses felt towards their mothers. She understood that what she needed was a compelling event that could carry the weight of Mary in a manger, holding dear baby Jesus, five pounds, six ounces, wrapped in a swaddling cloth.
And so, the Pageant. It was the story of the Nativity, to be performed on the evening before Christmas Eve. It started off small. Just the family, a few bathrobes and ties around our heads for the shepherds, a nightgown and shawl for Mary, and a plastic gold crown for King Hared. And scripts. My mother had written scripts for each of us. But overall the production was quick, simple, no room at the inn, star rises in the east, Mary has a baby, sing a few carols, and it’s done.
The second year, my mother wanted to add depth and earnestness to the evening.
“Wouldn’t it be great if each of us brought a gift for Jesus?” she said enthusiastically. “Just like the wise men!
“I could tell a story! Larkin could play a song on his guitar!” she continued with truly disturbing glee. She was blind to the looks of horror on all of our faces.
My sister-in-law once removed (I believe that’s the technical term for the sister of a sister-in-law) was sixteen and a cheerleader at the time.
“Jen, how about you bring a cheer for baby Jesus?” my mother asked.
At sixteen, Jen did not yet have the wisdom or perspective see the golden opportunity in front of her. My beloved Never-Here-at-Christmas-Because-He-Lives-in Los-Angeles brother Josh, when told this story many years later, immediately rose to the occasion that Jen had passed over.
“Give me an ‘N’! Give me an ‘A’! Give me an ‘I’! Give me an ‘L’! Give me an ‘S’! What’s that spell? NAILS!!’“ Josh cheered as he flung himself against the wall in the shape of a crucifix. Josh is decidedly not Christian. My Catholic middle school–aged daughters nearly wet their pants at this, and instantly decided Uncle Josh was the coolest person they’d ever known. The nuns at their school were less taken with the cheer when the girls performed it for their friends at school after the holiday break.
But Jen was just a teenager at the time and could only roll her eyes and say, “Ah, yeah. Great. I’ll get right on that Mrs. Stallings.”
I wish I could say that we entered into this yearly production willingly, lovingly, and with true holiday spirit. The truth is there was much rolling of eyes from all of us and whispers of how bossy my mother can be. But despite our resistance, she never gave up and, in fact, her zeal and resolve seemed to grow with every passing year. So while there were no cheers for baby Jesus, we did put on the robes and the ties around our heads and said our lines with as much sincerity as we could muster. We siblings do like to amuse ourselves however, so we lightened our load by adding in lines like “And Mary rode Joseph’s ass all the way to Bethlehem,” and “We three kings of orient are, smoking on a loaded cigar.” My mother was too immersed in her role as director and producer to notice.
Over time the production became more and more elaborate. We invited friends, especially ones we could sucker into playing parts. We added real costumes with tunics and headpieces, feathered angel wings, sound effects (God on a boom box), and even a balloon star that did indeed rise … from behind the piano.
One year, ashamed of my bad attitude and failure to see the beauty in this humble play, I promised myself that my gift to my mother would be to surrender to the season and enter into the event with true love and kindness. I was doing well until we had to take a trip to the costume shop to buy new shepherd’s staffs and donkey masks and, for goodness sake, a new crown for Hared. The first store didn’t have good shepherd’s crooks and frankly their crowns looked cheap. We needed to go to the costume store on the other side of town. It was the height of the Christmas shopping season and traffic was snarled. Every station on the radio was playing stale Christmas carols sung by barking dogs. I desperately wanted to abandon the quest, but my mother was high on Pageant crack, and nothing was going to stop her.
I tried. I really tried. But I reached my limit, forgot my promised gift and screamed like a nasty teenager. “It’s a fucking pageant! A pageant we do in the fucking entry way of my house!” So much for true love and kindness.
My mother ignored my bad mood and on to the costume store we went.
As our children grew, much of the Pageant burden shifted to them. They advanced from sheep and donkeys to speaking parts. Heaven help the granddaughter foolish enough to bring home a boyfriend to play in our reindeer games because she was sure to be cast as Mary and her bewildered boyfriend as Joseph. Nothing cements a fragile adolescent romance like having to play an unwed pregnant teenager and her new baby daddy in front of an audience.
When the children were little, they looked forward to the Pageant and entered into it with joy. They were serious and studied their parts and had to be sure their costumes were just right. Then the grandchildren invariably hit an age where the only way to get them to participate was to say through clenched teeth, “Do you want to break Grandma Jane’s heart? Do you? Do you want to be the one to ruin Christmas?” Later they go would off to college and begin to miss the symbols of childhood, and return, ready to mock and make snarky remarks with the rest of us. The year my mother turned eighty, we took the Pageant on the road and performed it in a little community center in the rural California town where my mother had moved. We graduated beyond the entryway of my house to a theater with a real stage. Her birthday guests never knew what hit them.
The Pageant successfully fulfilled my mother’s purpose. For over two decades, she had a night all her own: a night that transcended Christmas Eve. She took it on like a Broadway pro. Each year she lovingly brought out and ironed the costumes, fluffed up the angel wings, and replaced the crooks that had been turned into swords or chewed by the dogs. She reviewed the scripts and assigned the parts and looked forward to an evening surrounded by family.
My mother is eighty-three this year, and travelling from California to Texas has become harder for her. For the last two years, she has lived in a retirement community where she has made a lovely circle of friends. This year, she told us she would not be coming at Christmas, and could we please send the costumes and scripts out to her. She has a whole new cast to direct, a group that will likely do much less eye rolling and complaining under their breath. I like to think of her and her elderly friends dressed as angels and shepherds and sheep. I wish I could be there to hear the lucky woman who gets to speak Mary’s line about never having been with a man. In spite of my pettiness, the Pageant has come to mean Christmas to me. It has been a constant in my children’s lives. Some years annoying, other years joyful, but always there. A thread that bound my family to my mother, year after year. I thought it was forever, just as I would like to believe my mother is forever.
Maybe this year I’ll try to guilt my teenagers into wearing bathrobes and scarves. I am not the powerhouse that my mother is, but it’s worth a try. I think I won’t ask them to make up any cheers. At least not this year.
SHAUN ANZALDUA has a graduate degree from the University of California at Davis. She is a writer and real estate agent. Shaun currently lives in Houston with her three teenage children. She is a contributor to Brain, Child and is currently working on a collection of essays.
About thirteen years ago, my husband’s grandmother, Miss Elizabeth, was moved to an assisted care facility. Initially, it seemed surprisingly nifty. There were big screen televisions, prepared meals, and lots of friendly staff members. Except for the occasional funky smell and confused outburst, it felt a lot like a geriatric college dormitory setting. This was a happy surprise—I had anticipated grungy green walls, stained linoleum floors, and rows of abandoned bodies anchored to wheelchairs. Instead, I walked into an open, airy atrium, decorated with large, luxurious Boston ferns and a spacious bird cage, home to a few brightly colored finches. Two cheerful ladies sporting tight perms and meticulously coordinated track suits greeted me as I stopped to look more closely at the finches. I was not crippled by sadness, walking into this place: a genuine blessing under the circumstances.
All kinds of folks landed at Hillside House, as I’ll call the facility. Elizabeth had been diagnosed with some nasty “female” (it was, in fact, uterine) cancer six months earlier. She had most likely been ill for some time before the cancer had been detected, but she had ignored some symptoms, assisted by well-intentioned physicians along the way. By the time her illness was acknowledged and diagnosed, it was statistically unlikely that Elizabeth would recover. Her treatment plan was labeled “palliative,” designed to give maximum comfort and healing without subjecting her to rigorous procedures and quasi-lethal medications. Reluctantly, the family agreed that she could no longer live independently and Hillside House seemed the least-terrible option available. Which didn’t make it any less terrible for Elizabeth.
When I first met Elizabeth, she was in her late fifties and I was engaged to her grandson, Ed. Ed and I had met in college, fallen quickly and completely in love, and caused our parents all kinds of consternation as a result. Especially Ed’s parents. My parents were divorced and disorganized and fairly unconcerned with societal expectations and judgments. Sure, they hoped Ed was not secretly a serial killer with a collection of severed Barbie doll heads under his bed, but he seemed respectable enough, with his gentle Southern accent and aspirations to become a high school English teacher. On the scale of crazy in our family, he was hardly a blip on the screen.
Ed had grown up in a small, rural community, where your life was fodder for community review sessions, courtesy of your friends, neighbors, and your very own respectable family members. What they knew was this: I had not been raised in Virginia, my (ahem…divorced) parents were both Yankees, and I had been baptized in the Catholic (aka “Papist”) church. I could have come with more familiar credentials, and certainly, a more civilized bloodline.
Still, Ed seemed to like me fine, and that was good enough for Elizabeth: she fed me right along with the rest of the family. Ed grew up three miles down the road from his grandparents and spent many happy days eating freshly fried chicken and as many ice cream sandwiches as he could manage at their kitchen table. Elizabeth didn’t talk about how she felt, or how you felt, or what was wrong with the world today; she was busy putting more potatoes on your plate and checking to see if you needed more chicken. She was a pragmatist, by necessity—dreamers in her time didn’t have a great survival rate. After all, there was too much work to do: there were parents, and grandparents, and if you were very, very lucky, children, to care for. Elizabeth did what was expected of her: she tucked her own dreams away and nurtured those of her children.
And Elizabeth loved children. She taught them handwriting and prayers and how to slaughter a chicken neatly. She fried piles and piles of salt fish and potatoes at four-thirty a.m. on winter mornings so “the boys” (she’d had two, three counting her husband) would have a good breakfast before they set out hunting. Both of her sons married spirited women who may have wanted their husbands home on chilly winter mornings, and as the years passed, Elizabeth found herself preparing fewer and fewer early-morning fish feasts.
When I came to the family, Elizabeth and I developed a heartfelt, if timid, affection for one another. We didn’t really speak one another’s language, but eventually I learned to shift my conversation to weather predictions and local news, and she learned that I was not judging her on the tenderness of her chicken or the tartness of her fig preserves. We became allies in the muddy world of multi-generational family allegiances, and by the time Elizabeth became a resident of Hillside House, she was much more like my own grandmother than any kind of in-law.
About three months before Elizabeth got sick enough for anyone to notice, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. This was a considerable relief to everyone involved. Initially, our families feared that our lickety-split trip to the altar indicated that a “six month” baby was on the way. After a year, there was no baby. Several years passed, in fact, with no baby, and family members began to wonder whether we were incapable of reproducing or just too selfish. Ed and I kind of wondered ourselves, so when we learned a wee one was on the way, we leaned into the future with happy resignation and notified our parents and grandparents accordingly. The ensuing excitement was tinged with achy sorrow as Elizabeth’s illness unfolded parallel to my pregnancy.
So there we were: Elizabeth, wondering how she’d ended up in this silly establishment full of old people and food without nearly enough seasoning, and me, wondering kind of the same thing.
One afternoon, as we sat in a sunny spot on the back terrace, a tiny, hunched-over woman who I’ll call Miss Emily shuffled by. As she went back in, she threw us an accusing look, as if we’d just pelted her car with raw eggs or something like that.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked. “Are we sitting at her table?”
Elizabeth snorted, coughing a little in the process. “Aw, don’t worry about her. She’s always on a tear.”
“I don’t rightly know, honey. She won’t talk to anybody. She just rushes around here like somebody’s after her.” Elizabeth sipped her chamomile tea. “It sure is aggravating, I’ll tell you that.”
I saw her point.
A few weeks later, Hillside House had become much more familiar to me. It felt less like a college dormitory, and more like the set for an episode of The Twilight Zone. At first, everything had seemed pretty normal. Which I guess it was, since aging and death are normal realities. Still, it’s outside the norm to find a whole building purposed for housing folks in this chapter of life, and there was a certain sensibility that colored the residents and their visitors accordingly.
For example, we’d gotten used to a woman I’ll call Miss Agnes, who sat on the loveseat in the corner, singing, “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready for my ice cream.” Sometimes she got a little pissed and sang louder, in a growly tenor: “I’m READY. READY. READY FOR ICE CREAM.” And so on. The nursing assistants spoke to Miss Agnes gently, and would sometimes guide her to the next activity or simply let her chant the day away, dreaming of ice cream.
One afternoon, Miss Emily skittered by the periphery of the room we were sitting in, and I asked Elizabeth if she had heard anything that might account for Miss Emily’s strange behavior
“Oh, honey,” Elizabeth sighed. “Miss Emily is nuttier than one of Grandma Sutton’s date bars.” That much I knew.
This was her story:
Miss Emily was a book thief. Since her first day at Hillside House, she’d been collecting printed materials. She started with a stash of brochures at the front desk and soon moved on to the large print Reader’s Digest magazines. Because she only took a few at a time, nobody noticed at first. God knows, no one ever saw the woman sitting, much less settled in with a good book. Two or three weeks into her residency, however, Miss Emily’s secret was uncovered. The staff tried to keep the old lady relatively happy, while quietly culling her print collection from time to time.
I was impressed. I wasn’t sure I’d be innovative enough to snatch reading materials like that.
Elizabeth let out a very soft harrumph and said, “Well, Jenny, I don’t know what in the world that crazy old woman is thinking. What is she going to do with all those foolish books anyway?” I said nothing in response, but thought I knew exactly what “that crazy old woman” was thinking. Exactly. And I tried not to hold it against Elizabeth.
Books are not a nicety for me; they’re a necessity. Books have always been my friends. There were long periods of time in my childhood when I was surrounded by lots of unhappy adults and books and not much else. The books made excellent allies, even the duller ones. Also, since the adults involved were pretty busy being miserable, they didn’t have too much energy to squander policing my reading selections. I learned a lot about sex (a few choice scenes from Peter Benchley and Ken Follett) and frontier living (Laura Ingalls Wilder) and deeply disturbed loners (Edgar Allen Poe) at a tender age.
As I grew older, and mercifully, gained access to a broader selection of books, I glommed onto young adult fiction. At a certain point in time, I probably could have recited full chapters of Judy Blume books from memory. I loved a book called The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger. I am still moved to tears by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. The clueless (if loving and well-intentioned) adults in my life had very few helpful pointers for a chunky teen with poor social skills. If Judy Blume couldn’t teach me how to talk to boys, who could? Who would?
In the end, if you’re a reader, it doesn’t seem to matter so very much what you read. There is magic in seeing the world from another point of view, regardless of whose it is. And yet, there are some people who never quite get the magic. Elizabeth was one of those people. She read when obligated, but reading held no special pleasure for her. Maybe it correlates with the “no dreaming” environment she survived; her life had been shoved into external experience. Reading was an activity only the idle could afford, and she was too busy making sure that everyone was equipped with clean undies to read some trifling book. And hell, who really knows what batty Miss Emily was up to? Maybe she was just an elderly hoarder. She never said.
I like to think she read everything she took, though. Especially the Reader’s Digest. When it’s me, sitting in the determinedly cheerful atrium of Hillside House or Young at Heart, or wherever I end up in my final days, I hope I’ll have books to read, and I hope they’ll be my books, and not crappy little fliers and magazines stashed around the assisted care facility. I can see the fun in skittering around and snatching things too, though. It doesn’t matter if you call it a nursing home or an “assisted care facility” or the geezer house. What it means is, you can’t live by yourself anymore. Because you’re too old or too sick. And the next benchmark is not a new car or Hawaiian vacation. Even the crazy lady singing for ice cream had to know that. So you might as well enjoy the ice cream and read everything you can.
I never did talk to Miss Emily, and Elizabeth lived for ten whole days after our baby was born. On the way home from the hospital, we stopped by Hillside House to introduce our new boy to Elizabeth. It was quite an event. Elizabeth was very sick by then, and spent her days drifting in and out of awareness.
Ed and I walked into the familiar atrium with the baby, hope and despair in equal measure bubbling around in our hearts. The old ladies gathered around to coo at the little one and to give us hugs. I was sobbing before we even got to Elizabeth’s room. The rush of raw joy and sadness coexisting made everything seem so terribly fragile.
We walked into her room. One of her sons sat beside her bed, holding her hand and quietly weeping. My husband and I sat down on the other side of the bed and she shifted her head slightly so she could see us.
“Oh, Jenny,” she said softly. “He’s just darlin’.” Then she managed a wink and a tiny chuckle. “Little boys are the best, you know.”
She was too weak to actually take the baby in her arms for long, but I put his tiny body down in the crook of her arm and he stayed like that for a minute or two. Then the spell broke and the baby cried and we had to leave.
We saw her one more time after that and the baby cried from the first moment we walked in. Finally, someone took the baby into another room, and Elizabeth took my hand.
“Jenny. Jenny, do you think I’m dying? Do you?”
In general, I like to think I’m okay being near very ill people. I think it’s because I am gifted in the finest nuances of denial and can carry on a quasi-normal conversation with the dying. I can discuss the weather, their medication, other family members, etc., etc. The problem is, I don’t want to scare the dying person. If they don’t know they’re dying, I don’t want to be the one to break the news.
I took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I think that’s between you and God, Elizabeth. I don’t know. But either way, it’ll be okay.”
Elizabeth coughed slightly and squeezed my hand. “I expect you’re right, Jenny. I expect you’re right.”
Just then, my husband walked in and reached for Elizabeth’s hand, resting his on top of mine. “Grandma, we’re going to have a little boy running around our hill again.” My chest caved in. She would never see our little boy run down the lovely, green hill that lay behind our house. It was the same hill she’d run down as a tiny girl, and that her children, and her grandchildren had called home. I thought I might smack my husband in the gut for reminding her of what would never be.
Of course, Ed was just as frightened as Elizabeth was, probably more so. And all he could imagine was how much she’d enjoy feeding another little blonde boy with an enormous appetite and smiling eyes. I think he was so happy and proud to have our little dumpling of a person to show his grandma that for a moment, he forgot that the story would go unfinished for her.
Elizabeth smiled again, the perfect grandma, wanting to comfort one of her boys one last time.
“Oh, Eddie,” she said softly. “I’ll dream of it.”
JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. A good story is her favorite thing.