One of my favorite professors from college stood five feet away from me, staring at me as though I was a minor celebrity she was trying to place. An off-off Broadway show? The bassist in an obscure girl band?
“Becca?! Is that you?!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “You look so different, you look so … professional.”
I admired her word choice. Most people were not so quickly able to exercise discretion. Almost everyone else who commented on the changes in my appearance over the last year went for the obvious: You look so thin. You’ve lost so much weight.
They weren’t wrong. Between the summers of 2014 and 2015, I lost around twenty pounds, not a small sum on my five-foot frame. Chipmunk cheeks became cheekbones, flabby arms turned muscular, an obviously round stomach was now relatively flat.
Also in that year, I worked over fifty hours per week at a brunch restaurant where each plate weighed ten pounds. I went from eating five meals a day to one or two—a meal at the restaurant and some granola bars at home. I decided to move across the country. And, for eight of the months of that year, the time during which I lost the majority of the weight, I was in the throes of an intense resurgence of the anxiety disorder that has affected me, on and off, since I was a child.
I did not simply lose weight because I was anxious. Panic made me eat less, made me move more. I began running; at first I didn’t count the miles. But when the sun-drenched blocks stretched long enough that they began to seem countable, I did, and then the miles ticked up—three, five, seven. Those runs were one of the only things that helped my jilted brain.
People came up with many creative ways of expressing their approval over my new look. You are so slim now! How did you do it? They loved to talk about it, as though it were a pop culture phenomenon or a collective accomplishment. You look the way we’ve always wanted you to look. People that I did not realize ever thought about me came out of the woodwork to comment—friends’ parents, friends’ coworkers that I’d met once, the boyfriends of my own coworkers.
There were things in life that I had not necessarily loved but that had been easy and joyful: eating, sitting, chilling. These are things that normal people do, and they provide contentment.
The clearer it became in my mind that I was not normal, the harder it was to take pleasure in these simple acts of joy. Innocuous comments thrown out in conversation at a bar would send me nearly to tears, and I could sense the discomfort in my companion’s voices as they tried to carry on a normal discussion. Standing in the kitchen overhearing the banter of my roommate and her boyfriend made me twitch, I started hoarding cups of water in my room so I wouldn’t have to listen to their easy comfort. If I was so strange that even my friends recoiled from my bare emotions, why should I be allowed to partake in the simple pleasure of cooking and eating a meal? If I was to be barred from the intimacy that others found so easily, why did I deserve contentment?
And yet, despite all these connections my brain made, the weight was separate. I didn’t notice it until it was gone. I had never seen myself as fat, so now I did not see myself as thin. I was the same. My pants were looser, my cheeks were gaunter, but I was the same.
Only to everyone else was I different.
I didn’t notice that I was thinner, but I noticed other changes: I noticed that I was no longer laughing, I was no longer eating, I was no longer able to sit and think without my breath quickening and my chest hurting. I spoke in shorter sentences, if at all. Nervous tics sprouted, my eyes darted around every room. If people could notice weight off my midsection, I’m sure they could notice the changes in my personality as well. But all I heard was this: You look slim. You look different. You look healthy.
I probably am healthier, physically at least. A person who is capable of running four, then six, then eventually ten miles is likely healthier than a person who cannot run one before giving up and going home to eat hot Cheetos.
As a byproduct of the anxiety, I became a person who was able to run four, then six, then eventually ten miles. I didn’t suddenly love running. But I could no longer do the things I loved—painting, writing, sitting in bed and eating a snack. I couldn’t sit stationary without screaming or crying, without nearly imperceptible shrill noises of fear coming out of my mouth. I had to move. I had to run.
People loved to hear about the running, too. I’d always been a sloth. You couldn’t get me out of bed before dinner on a Sunday in college. If my sorority did a 5k run for charity, I walked. The weight loss and the running were the favorite conversational fodder of acquaintances and friends alike that spring. But I didn’t need to talk about running or about my weight. I needed to talk about my anxiety. They did not love to hear about my anxiety.
If it’s that bad, even if you’re exercising and eating healthy, you just need to get a therapist. But I have a therapist. Then you should go on medication. Nobody wants to hear you talk about how upset you are this much.
It’s just, kind of boring, okay? You aren’t interesting when you’re like this.
Of course, the unspoken words were louder than these comments. The friends who I normally texted back and forth with all day suddenly weren’t responding. I used to go out with friends every Friday and Saturday, and I found myself at home curled in bed at eleven, realizing I’d never been contacted about the bars that they were Instagramming from. Eventually I heard the complaints about me through the grapevine, a chorus that I couldn’t hear: Why is she like this? Does she do this to you, too?
And I get it. Dealing with someone with manic anxiety is frustrating. I know incredible people, so I firmly believe that this discrepancy was not intentional, but nevertheless it disturbs me that nearly everyone in my life had more to say about my weight loss than my obvious personality changes due to the anxiety. They were happy to discuss how different I looked (Not that you looked bad before…), but when I tried to reach out for help with my addled brain, people recoiled. I don’t blame anyone for this—I didn’t want to deal with myself, so why would anyone else? But again, the discrepancy is startling, is scary, is something that deserves to be known.
I want to reiterate: I love the people in my life, I blame them for nothing. I understand that it was easier to concentrate on the socially acceptable (a thin body) than the taboo (a ravaged mind).
I can’t claim lack of culpability. Part of me relishes the compliments that I look better than I ever have (Not that you weren’t good looking before…) Especially now that my anxiety has fallen to the flow of a nearly dry creek, trickling along, whereas before it roared like an ocean. I’m able to appreciate that more men want to sleep with me, that more clothes fit, that I look better in the clothes I buy. Pictures are more flattering, and I’m asked to model the new uniform at work.
Now, you look like a small person. Well, you were always a small person but, you know…
And I do know. I do know what she means. Before, I was short in stature, but I was not truly small. And the culture loves a small woman. I’ve never been able to reap the benefits—nothing about me is small. I talk loudly, I talk too much. My personality ricochets off the walls instead of staying in a neat box. I’ve always taken up far more space than is allotted for a woman. Now that my body seems to fit into that space, even if my words and actions do not, I occasionally get to cash in on the rigged pleasure that the slot machine of society delivers. It is not a large pleasure; it is not the pleasure I feel when having the first long conversation with a new friend, when completing a piece of writing, when meeting a woman I admire. It’s a sick one, like a fifth drink when you know you should already be walking home, like reading old emails from an ex-lover.
I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of my anxiety. When my brain enters the place it was living in last spring, it’s frustrating, it’s intoxicating, it comes alive like a virus that can mutate anything into a curse. If we lived in a different cultural climate, I might be able to work myself into anger at my friends, but I can’t. It isn’t their fault that we are taught to fear a woman who is seemingly crazed with her thoughts. I can’t find fault with anybody I know because all of us are taught to praise a woman for dropping pounds off of her body like hail in March and to shun her for letting words of anxiety and fear exit her mouth at the same frequency.
I know that I’m not the only woman I know who has felt such intense anxiety, but no one has ever come to me in the state in which I tried to reach people last spring. Is it because my anxiety is outsized, abnormal, problematic? Or is it because others were taught better than I to hold it inside, to only contact appropriate outlets? I want to say now what I have never said aloud. Please, come to me if you are ever so afraid that you cannot breathe, cannot speak, can only cry.
I don’t want people to be afraid of complimenting me on my appearance. I love hearing that I’m having a good hair day as much as the next person. What I want is for people to not be afraid of telling me that I look good, but to also not be afraid of telling me that I seem bad. Of asking me if I am all right. Because I was not all right. Although I feel stronger in some ways for pulling myself out of that hole alone, I also yearn for the feeling of floundering in the trenches with the people I love and knowing that we can show each other the messiest parts of ourselves, not just the thin ones that fit into the smallest spaces.
How to stop the fear of the anxious woman? I don’t know, but I want to try. I can’t stop anyone else from turning away from the ruminating thoughts turned into monologues, the wide eyes, the tears that are louder than anyone is comfortable hearing. But I can turn into it when I see those signs in others, and ask, attempt to ask, despite the fear: Please, tell me the truth: are you all right?
BECCA SCHUH is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Southern California and Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared in the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and the Soundings Review. She is a graduate of the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies at the University of Redlands. Follow her on Twitter @TamingofdeSchuh.
I sat at the table nervously clutching my purse, hoping I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth. And then I saw them. A handsome couple in their mid-forties. The husband, with strands of silver in his hair. Her, in a perfectly pressed blue blouse and manicured nails. Normal, I thought. But nothing is really normal about meeting the soon-to-be-parents of your egg.
They walked over to the table clasping hands—I stumbled a bit as I stood up. We hugged. She reached up, tucked a strand of loose her hair behind her ear, and sat down.
The next two hours turned into a peculiar exchange: a tender disclosure of precious information reserved usually for the most intimate of relationships. I learned that they had met later in life after two failed marriages. Soulmates, they called each other. And I believed them by the furtive glances they exchanged and the ease in which they unfolded their story. After years of searching for the right person, they were devastated to learn that they could not conceive a child together—a tangible expression of their love and commitment. They had tried for three years. There was nothing left.
And there I was, sitting across from them, fresh-faced from college, fertile, and in need of some cash. Making ends meet outside the gates of the ivory tower was not an intellectual exercise. I was sleeping on a bunk bed and barely earning minimum wage working a full-time job. My dream of going to law school was quickly slipping away. I wandered into the egg donation world on a whim—never expecting to meet two souls to whom I would connect so intensely.
The waitress leaned over and sat down a plate of pasta in front of me. I grinned at the thought of free food. I rattled off my personal stats: above average height, 3.43 GPA, Ivy-League degree, excellent health, no injures or prior hospitalizations, and a clean psychological evaluation. I was acutely aware that I was everything they wanted—not by anything I had done, but by sheer circumstance. I slid my baby photos across the table and saw his eyes linger on one. He picked it up and glanced over at his wife. “She looks like you did as a child,” he smiled.
They offered to give me time to think about my decision as they walked me to my car. But there was nothing for me that think about. This wasn’t some mediocre date spent listening to a man-child trying to impress me with his entry-level tech job. I wanted to be part of them in some way. My desire, perhaps, came from the little girl in me that yearned to have been born in such a stable and loving home.
“You can have my eggs, ” I said.
The wife, who had sat with her mouth pursed during our time, came close to me. Tears streamed down her face. “Thank you,” she whispered into my ear. I hugged them both, got into my Hyundai, and we went our separate ways.
I embarked on the egg preparation and retrieval process with the doggedness usually reserved for finding a closet to turn into a bedroom in NYC. I wasn’t giving my eggs to a faceless void —but to a couple who were in love—and my egg would be loved.
I have to be honest: The egg donation process isn’t for the faint of heart. I injected myself daily with hormones, visited the doctor twice a week to have a giant alien dildo shoved into me. I was poked, prodded, and stuck by nurses who often missed my veins and drew air. But after three weeks, I was ready and brimming with fresh follicles. I was so proud of my ovaries.
I enlisted my mother to care for me on the day of retrieval. “You’re selling my first grandchild,” she joked. But I felt no attachment to my eggs. I had spent twenty-three years trying not to get pregnant. Twenty-three years guarding my vagina like the United States Mint. Twenty-three years trying not to become a teenage mother like she had been.
I forced myself into the thin blue paper gown, shuffled onto the table, and opened my legs. The procedure was over before it even began. When I woke and dressed, the nurse handed me a gift bag. Inside was a hand written note from the couple, a lavender-scented Bath and Body gift set, and a check for $7,000. I read the note and cried.
You always wish that you had paid more attention to the list of “201 things that could go wrong” when of course, shit goes wrong. A week after the retrieval, I woke with a swollen stomach and could barely breathe. “Oh no, they got the wrong one pregnant!” I laughed.
I wasn’t pregnant, but I did have number three on the “201 things that could go wrong list” list: Ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome. An excess of hormone had flooded my system, causing my abdominal cavity to swell. Luckily, it resolved on its own with rest and lots of fluids. And even though it was scary and uncomfortable, I did not regret my decision.
I went to law school with the money they gave me. Our contract stipulated no contact after the egg retrieval, and I never heard from them again.
Time has passed with fierceness. After a career change and with the feeling of my own mortality creeping in the back room, I think back to our brief interlude. I am thirty-five years old now and childfree. My once fertile, blushing and bouncing eggs are committing suicide, jumping off the shelf one by one. Apoptosis they call it—spontaneous cell death. I guess I should be in a panic about the cliff-like decline in my fertility, but I am not. I do have a sudden aversion to omelets, though.
At twenty-three, I didn’t realize that my life would involve no children of my own. I naturally thought that I would marry, have 2.5 gluten-free kids, a modern husband, and live in an overpriced commuter condominium. But that’s not my reality. I’ve had a colorful and interesting life, stockpiling degrees like weapons, moving across the country, falling in and out love, and coming closer to my dream job. I’ve lived big and without restraint on purpose.
Dinner with most of my high school and college friends usually involves booster seats and sliced finger foods. “Don’t you want to experience unconditional love?” they chide. “Life is so much more meaningful with kids.”
I smile, each time, politely. (And then I want to hurl a chicken nugget across the table.) I appreciate their concern for my well-being and happiness. However, they know, and I know, that there are privileges I have as a child-free adult that they don’t. It’s an even trade.
I was never prepared to give birth to a child. My life was always coming together and falling apart in sweeping change. And for this very reason, I am eternally thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to play a part in bringing life into this world without possessing it. I could have never realized how meaningful the decision I made thirteen years ago would become. How three strangers with different needs could come together for a brief moment, change the course of each others’ lives, and never meet again.
I’ve read the note they left for me from time to time. And now, more than ever, after the passing of my mother. Sometimes I think about my egg, now a pre-teenager, and I wonder what (s)he has become. I wonder if (s)he is living their life with the certainty that (s)he can be their truest self and be accepted. I wonder if (s)he feels expansive. I wonder if (s)he is good and kind. I wonder if (s)he is as thankful his or her life as I am for it now.
SAKEENAH EL-AMIN is a passionate social justice advocate. She manages a law education program for young adults in the juvenile justice system and is in the process of starting a progressive, social-justice oriented school for low-income girls of color. This is her first published piece.
In my dream last night, I was raising a child in some kind of low-class addict’s crash-pad. She was a toddler. After I woke up on a mattress on the floor to the sound of some guys setting up a keg on the front lawn, I found her in the bathroom. She’d crawled up onto the sink for a little bath and had her clothes ready to put on. She couldn’t have been more than three. She was doing a good job looking after herself.
I realized I didn’t know what had happened, or if I’d tended to her at all the day before. She was happy to see me and my misery was deep. You should’ve seen the carpet in that place.
Look, I didn’t fuck it up. Not in real life. It was just a dream.
That parenting gig, I didn’t fuck it up even remotely. My son didn’t spend a minute in a place like that. Not a minute. And I wasn’t high when I was pregnant, nor when I was raising him. His dad was getting high a lot when I met him, but by god, he picked right up. He was already picking himself up by the time I got pregnant—okay, we didn’t plan that part—but there was no way we were going to mess up something so obviously meant to make us better people. There was just no way. We loved that kid fierce-like from moment one. Then we sent him to college. Follow-through like a medal of honor. I was always grateful to my son’s father for seeing things like I did when it came to loving our kid.
Recently, my son told me that his father and I consulted him more often on family decisions than he and his partner ever consult their son. They just tell him what’s what. We treated him like he was the Prince of the Place. We gave him choices, asked for opinions, provided opportunities as fast as most people change the TV channels. We weren’t perfect, but we gave the task our attention, our care, that’s for sure.
My grandson has opportunities too, but it’s different. They decide a thing and lay it down. He goes along. That kid’s happy. My son was happy. Sure, he had troubles; it’s life. And now he’s exhausted; they’re parents. They seem like good parents but they’re not precious about it like his father and me. They were both raised in households where nobody was drunk or hitting them or trying to have sex with them when they were kids. Okay, I yelled more than I wish I had, but I didn’t belittle him. I apologized. I provided. Lots of things, including lasting love. Maybe that made some difference.
I was up at two a.m. before falling asleep again to have that dream with the little girl who was probably hoping I’d get cleaned up, too, and go to the grocery store. Before I had the dream, I was awake and reviewing conversations in my mind with colleagues, with ex-lovers, reviewing things I wish I could say now. Mostly those “can’t we just take a look at ourselves?” kind of things that help people have a laugh, re-connect in a loving way, and get on with feeling fine. Damn it, I can’t stand not being able to just get on with it. I forgive everything. I mean, I do. I may not trust a person again in the same way after things get shitty. Or I may even decide to trust again. People aren’t all one way or another. People have to do what they have to do, be who they are, work out their own stuff. That includes me. I definitely want someone to cut me some slack, keep loving me even if I fuck things up. Mostly, I get back what I give in that regard. Mostly I’m still loved. Mostly.
So, I was up thinking through past conversations, as I do at two a.m. Sometimes I’m reviewing how I’d like to give someone a piece of my mind, but usually it’s not an in-your-face kind of piece of my mind. It’s more like, why can’t I get you to understand me? Jesus, will you just listen? It’s like that. I hate being misunderstood worse than most things, and somehow as soon as people are attracted to each other in some kind of big way, the possibility for misunderstanding skyrockets.
But even when I’m trying to get someone to understand me, it’s usually so we can just have a little look at ourselves, have a little laugh and get on with it. I value ease. I value intimacy.
Here’s what I don’t do at two a.m. nearly as often as I used to: pick up the damn phone and call the person. Send an email. Text or message them looking for a response.
So, at two a.m., I was thinking through what I would say to whom, if only there was someone listening. But even though my mind gets going enough that I can’t sleep, something’s still all right in there. My mind’s not all evil-carnival-at-midnight and goodness knows it can be. I’ve gotten into deep shit in my own head after dark. But not so often anymore. My mind can get going, and still, there’s that witness part of me that stands off to the side of those head-conversations and offers gentle observations and commentary. She never used to show up at two a.m. I used to have to go find her during meditation, or on a long walk, or in the calm after a good workout. This feels like progress that she’s with me almost all the time now. Not always, but hey, she even shows up at two a.m. on occasion and she was with me last night.
She was saying, wow, look how much you still want to be loved. Look how much you are still playing out the programming of your childhood, in which you longed to be valued and understood, no matter what you looked like. You felt so different and you just wanted to be known by a few people who got you. You didn’t want to feel used for someone else’s pleasure or pride or to soothe another’s misery. It all makes sense. Look at you now, trying to get the love you want. Good for you, not trying to use others to soothe your misery. Good for you. Good you. Good.
See how that works? The mind that wants to explain something to others and make me seem lovable again? It may still do that, and now explains that stuff to me too.
Look, it’s been decades since I’ve spent any time at all in those misery-hovels where people are broke and getting high and neglecting their kids and eating Taco Bell for dinner again. Holy shit, I recall thinking once. That guy’s eaten nothing but Taco Bell for, like, thirty years. How is he still alive? I mean, that was never, even remotely going to be my life. The witness in me knew it wasn’t going to happen and yet, I stood on that carpet enough times. Carpet that’s been puked on and dried up and scrubbed every few years by somebody’s new girlfriend, and worn through and plywood’s showing underneath and who could give one shit because the landlord never—I mean never—comes to even have a quick look. In my dream, I looked down at my feet on that carpet, and the scent of piss came back like it was yesterday. I still look down at my feet on that carpet and it feels like something I deserve. Sometimes I feel a rage when that happens. Sometimes I just feel small.
My god, when I saw her giving herself a bath in the sink and realized that I had fucked up, the pain was almost unbearable.
In the waking hours, the real time, the day-living in which all of the actual things happen, I don’t fuck things up. I don’t let people down. I’ve done things lovers didn’t like; I’ve left. But I’ve never lied about fucking around or disappeared or stolen from someone I loved or made the slightest vindictive move toward anyone when I’ve felt wronged. I’ve felt wronged and I’ve yelled about it. I can ride a sarcastic tone off into the sunset, but yippee-i-ay, I always hope someone comes looking for me there, sitting by my campfire sobbing, sarcasm sleeping in the sagebrush.
Sure, there may have been times when I could’ve done more to keep a friend from going off with that guy who raped her or to talk someone out of an abusive relationship, but that’s hindsight stuff. That’s in the probably-wouldn’t-have-worked-anyway category of things that might’ve been. I always did my best. I always pulled up out of my own pain on behalf of others.
Sometimes I didn’t even take the drugs so I could look after the wasters in my company. Like that time I pocketed a hit of acid at the last minute when everyone else dosed because wow, traffic. It’s like we were dropping acid in the middle of a racetrack. I was stoned but then that wore off and I acted as babysitter for the next eight hours and no one walked into the headlights on my watch. That’s just how I was. How I am. Always thinking it through.
Even still sometimes, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I could still be to blame for something. Two a.m. me is particularly suspicious. Maybe I think I have it together, but I really don’t. I want to be better than everyone else. (Because let’s face it, how easy will that be?) And I also want to learn to let it rest. It’s tiring. I do okay. And it’s tiring.
At two a.m., the witness asked me, “Will you always be trying to prove you’re worthy of love? Or can you just accept love?”
And I paused, in whatever review-of-the-pain I was conducting and said, “Shit man, I don’t know.”
That witness, she’s kind. She’s patient. No matter what.
Then there was enough spaciousness in my head to allow sleep. But that dream came. And when I woke, I shed a few tears, shook my head and thought, wow. The fear of forgetting, the fear of fucking up is long and wide and deep and maybe sometimes useful. It’s like a wound that doesn’t close. A long, beautiful blood-lake you could sail under the light of a full moon. Like a tear in the earth after a volcano erupts, making new land.
KIMBERLY DARK is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who wants you to remember that we are creating the world even as it creates us. Read and gawk and learn at www.kimberlydark.com.
My mother burned all her appointment books. It was a ritual, something she did at the end of every year; she would sit with the book—usually a spiral-bound week-by-week one with a nature photo on the left side and the dates on the right—and she’d look through all the appointments and commitments she’d had, taking the time to reflect on the things she’d done over the previous year. Then she’d burn it. I don’t know how or where she did that—in the bathtub, out in back of her house—but I suppose I do know why.
My mother wasn’t at home in time.
What I mean is that she struggled with time. My mother struggled with the present moment, for example, because it was generally a disappointment, characterized as it usually was by isolation, too much work, and not enough money. The future, on the other hand, was promising but often hinged on improbable things, like a windfall from who knows where. The future never seemed to arrive, or at least not the promising one she was hoping for; instead it just turned into a series of disappointing present moments. And the past—the past was worst of all.
My mother didn’t like to think about the past, let alone talk about it, and, on those rare occasions that she did talk about it, you got the sense that you weren’t supposed to ask too many questions—sometimes she said so explicitly—and you weren’t supposed to bring it up again later. “Anyway,” she would say, when she wanted to change the subject to something more comfortable. This was the psychological counterpart to the annual appointment book ritual: One’s personal history sometimes surfaced, but it was best to turn those memories to ash afterward.
And so my mother was homeless in time, disconnected from past, present, and future—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, when my mother died in 2013—in November, a month she hated for its darkness—my sister and I weren’t expecting her to have left behind a tell-all memoir. There were memories in the form of photos—old photos of our childhood, for starters, and, from more recent years, some very beautiful nature photos that she’d taken herself—but we figured what little she may have written down about herself would be long gone.
We certainly weren’t expecting to find, among her things, a folder labeled “Poetry.” But that’s what my sister did find, one day when she was looking through things; she was looking to see if there was anything in there that I might want to keep as a remembrance.
I’d been having trouble imagining anything I’d want to keep. I wasn’t sure there was any object, any thing, that was going to mean much to me. What can an object mean? Your mother’s gone and, in the face of that, the things—all the things—are actually nothing. But then Karla found this folder.
The folder—a regular manila one—held a bunch of poems on pages and partial pages torn out of newspapers and magazines and a couple printed out from the web. Wislawa Szymborska, Jorge Luis Borges, Rosanna Warren, Yehuda Amichai, Richard Wilbur, Anna Akhmatova, others. There was even one poem—“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy—that I’d given to her, because it meant something to me at a time when things were dark for me, and I thought it would mean something to her, too. Apparently it did. She had plenty of her own dark times, of course. It struck me, too, that there weren’t any of my poems in that folder. I think my poems would have changed the collection, made it something it wasn’t supposed to be.
What really arrested me, though, were the ones that were in her handwriting—the ones she’d written. My mother wrote poetry. And I’d had no idea.
Think about that: I’m a poet myself; my mother had been watching me write poetry since I was a kid, had been listening to me talk about it for years. Meanwhile, here she was, writing her own poems—and she never shared them with me. Never brought them into any of those conversations about poetry. She never even told me they existed.
They say you often learn new things about people after they’re gone; you keep getting to know them. It’s true.
When I got the folder, I read all the poems with feverish attention—the ones by other people and, especially, the ones by her. I read hers many times. I wrote about them in my journal. I typed them up so I could (almost) feel what it was like to write them myself, letter by letter, word by word. I savored and inhabited them.
And for sure I recognized the woman who did the writing. There’s sadness there, for one thing. She writes:
the wind finds its way
through every crack in this
my body like a
massive ink blot
I know this woman. Honestly, I know those feelings. Sometimes the wind does find its way in.
And there’s my mother’s familiar desire to relocate to a particular kind of future—pleasant, better, and out of reach, though in these poems not necessarily impossible:
think I would feel better
if I could sit under a tree and
look at the mountain….
I’d wait for peace
to come down the mountain—
Anything green would be welcome,
a patch of grass would do.
I am waiting for spring
in its own good time
But it’s not all yearning, my mother’s poetry. There’s something else there that I didn’t expect. She wrote about nature, mostly, and moments of stillness—and what she did is she froze these things in place. She looked right at the present moment, in other words, and held on to it.
For now the pond is still.
Even the frogs are quiet.
clouds on the
Even when the moment was complicated, she held on to it:
Gloriosa daisies and
Long shadows on
the aching beauty of
Even when the moment was hard, she held on to it, and sometimes transformed it:
there’s a slight
feeling of melancholy but
there is a sweetness to it.
Most surprising, sometimes she actually wanted to keep the past with her:
trying to remember
There’s one pair of poems that especially move me. They’re both about the same moment where she was outdoors and a rabbit hopped out from beneath a hedge. Something about this touched my mother profoundly. She wrote about it in a beautiful eleven-line poem. Then, on the next page of her notebook, unwilling to turn from the instant—needing, in fact, to go further into it—she wrote the experience over again, this time in twenty-nine even more attentive lines.
Right, I thought. This is what we do as poets, I thought. We see something and we can’t bear the idea of losing it, so we write about what we’re seeing in order just to hold it. Richard Wilbur’s blackberries; Rosanna Warren’s mother between the bed rails; Thomas Hardy’s blast-beruffled thrush. We’re the people who don’t let go.
And my mother was one of us.
For my mother, any given present moment was tough, if she stepped back to take it all in. Things generally hadn’t turned out the way she expected; she was living alone, working too hard, post-dating checks, eventually ailing, watching November come in with its shorter and shorter days. The big picture was sometimes understandably hard for her to look at.
But what if the focus was smaller? Closer?
In these poems I met a woman who made peace with time, a woman who managed to split minutes and seconds into instants tiny enough for her to embrace them—tiny enough to allow her to be at home. I didn’t really know this woman when she was alive. I have to say I’m upset about that; there’s a loss there, beyond the original loss of losing the mother I did know.
But I’m glad she didn’t burn these poems. I’m glad that I’m starting to know her now—starting to know a woman who over and over again did make herself a home, who was able to make it out of what she had at hand.
I am sitting, just
sitting and aware
and wide awake
DAVID EBENBACH is the author of five books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach) and the short story collection Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House). Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.
My girls like rocking out in the car to “Uptown Funk,” “Shake It Off,” “Insane in the Membrane.” One knows all the bad words now, the other still mispronounces the same words she did as a toddler, her Rs coming out, adorably, like Ws. I worry, worry, worry about them as much as I try to enjoy them and remember how fleeting this all is. I want for them to experience some kind of unorchestrated magic in this life.
When she was alive, my Mom used to complain every year at Christmas that she wasn’t feeling it, wasn’t feeling the magic like she used to. It used to annoy me—why couldn’t she just feel it?—but now I get it. I’m rushing too much. I want it to be all home-made snowflakes and fresh-baked sugar cookies for the girls, for me. But my to-do list is long, my grocery bags so heavy, and I don’t have a plan for Christmas cards yet. It’s not magic, it just is.
I read about this scientist who studied serendipity, that crazy pleasant insight or experience that can happen when you wander off script. She classified people into three categories, from those who were most likely to find happy surprises—the meandering super-encounterers, to those who were least likely, the boring, to-do list-bound non-encounterers. And even though I sound pessimistic and unfun and may be exaggerating a tiny bit to make a point when I say this, it seems to me that many of the skills related to good parenting place me in the latter category.
When you get up each day and say this is how the day is going to go and then your day goes that way, you’re not going to find much magic. And yet, as parents of young children, that’s kind of what we have to do—to measure out our days in routines and activities and downtimes to achieve maximum happiness and flow as opposed to crankiness and someone chucking her bike helmet from the back of a moving bike. It sounds mechanical, but it’s absolutely prophetic.
For those of us who are hard-wired to move through our days with a semblance of organization, to wake up and say, Today I will soak the beans and finish the scarf and write the thank you’s, well, having kids sort of reinforces that tendency. Their nourishment and well-being depends on your ability to keep their dresser drawers in seasonal clothes and to get the burritos on the table at a relatively similar time each day. Which is funny, really, because most kids I know don’t move through their days like structured beings at all. They stop to read every word of the signage and inspect pebbles and stuff oak galls in their pockets and build homes for baby snails. They resist rush in the most wondrous and infuriating ways.
How we let our stories and theirs write themselves while also keeping everyone on some kind of schedule is maybe the best flow. As we hunker down in the grayest, rainiest of indoor months here in Oregon, I find that the most difficult. Wintertime, especially where we live in the Northwest, is when we settle most into our routines.
Sure, it’s easy to be spontaneous in summer or on a vacation. But in winter, I know what our days will be like. There will be card games and mancala and lentil soup. There will be a couple of trips up to the snow, where we will forget something, where we’ll be ill-equipped for the wet cold, and then a damp ride in the car back to Eugene, with our lukewarm cocoa and the girls falling asleep in the safe womb of our rattly minivan. In February, I will desperately Google discount flights to Mexico.
One of my favorite people is my friend Diane, a true super-encounterer. I lived with her during the summer of 1995 while I interned at a small newspaper on Whidbey Island. Diane was in her fifties then, splashed her face with a little rose water every morning, wore charcoal eyeliner, and cut-off shorts, Birkenstocks. She always had red wine on hand, toasted with every fresh glass, quoted Shakespeare, ate chips and salsa for dinner, let the chickens come in the house, which was comfortable, full of dusty children’s art, dog hair, sand everywhere.
I’d never known a free spirit before, but I was drawn, and whatever parts of me that leaned that way were magnified, justified, made sense. Diane’s a vegetarian—a very persuasive one—and so I became one. I wore a batik dress and every morning I gathered the chickens’ eggs in its folds. I took the two unruly dogs to the beach, bought wine and loaves of bread from the Star Store, kissed the reporter from the local alternative paper, listened attentively to Diane’s many, many stories involving serendipity and new friends. Diane and I walked the beach downtown one night to the Clyde Theater to see “Muriel’s Wedding,” which we thought was hilarious. On the way back, the tide had come in, so we had to wade, waist-deep, all the way home. We sang ABBA in the moonlight, and I don’t think I have ever been so happy.
Even meeting Diane was serendipitous. I had applied for an internship at her local paper because I’d been turned down for a more coveted internship in a city that I loved. After moping around in my college apartment for a few days, I applied to Whidbey on a whim, thinking it might be soothing to sleep on an island for a summer. After I got the job, a columnist for the paper told me about her neighbor Diane, who needed a roommate for the summer, and then I found her eating chips and salsa and drinking wine on her sun-soaked back deck with a friend.
I met my husband around then—also serendipitously—and I think he’s sometimes disappointed that I’m not that long-haired girl anymore. Sometimes, I am, too. When I’m on Facebook too much or rushing the girls through errands or spotting a conflict on our calendar that’s three weeks away.
I’ve been trying to remember one of the things found by that the scientist studying serendipity. You can cultivate the magic. You can actually train yourself—and hence your kids—to notice more: to read the appendix or investigate the birds hanging out in the branches of the tree in the parking strip. Or maybe you get small doses of unexpected joy in a mixed tape, a snow day, a Goodwill find. That tall Dad getting down to bhangra in the elementary school gym at the diversity conference—just totally letting go amid a sea of kids and moms. That time when I was passing through Portland and called an old friend to see if she could recommend a family- friendly brew pub in the neighborhood where I was lost and she said, “I’m at a family-friendly brew pub in that neighborhood right now.” A small serendipity, for sure, but if I hadn’t been lost, if I had Mapquested my way through my trip as I sometimes do, I wouldn’t have spent a fun afternoon with my friend.
My girls love a road trip just about as much as I do. They seem to recognize that it means anything is possible, like ice cream in the middle of the day or gum balls at the rest area or pooping in a field of wildflowers. They’re still talking about the time we hung out on a beach in Northern California and when we went to fly our kite and a crow stole some of our picnic bread. We’d also seen the Redwoods that day and had rolled up our pants and jumped in the waves, but that crow is what they talk about when they talk about that trip.
And so, waking up from our winter slumber two years ago, the girls and I got a three-week housesitting gig in San Francisco. We were to watch two dogs, three cats, and four chickens who resided at a bungalow in the Outer Mission. We took our friends Chloe and five-year-old Lucien with us, and we drove all night to get there. The house was smallish, dusty, full of children’s art and games, familiar.
The trip was tough sometimes, especially synchronizing our different parenting styles, and glorious other times: dim sum in a big ballroom, a butterfly exhibit in Golden Gate Park, listening to one of my favorite bands play a concert in an old mortuary, marching the kids up and down hills in search of another park or mural, another ice cream shop. Once I found myself caught in the rain with all three kids as we walked up Mission Street looking for a bus stop. I don’t know why, but they decided to pound on the plate glass window of a wig shop and they wouldn’t stop. The shopkeepers came out and scolded them but they continued to pound more and more riotously until I bribed them with pie, which was very good and gave us a place to rest and for them to poop—the triple public restroom poop being an excruciating specialty of theirs when we were out and about. Our days in San Francisco were like that; there was something wonderful every day and something difficult, or three dozen difficult things.
Not surprisingly, we went a little off the rails. One morning we took the bus to the Gay Pride parade, but it was so crowded that we couldn’t see much of anything—a few rainbow wigs, the back of Nancy Pelosi’s head. After an hour or so, the kids, who’d been promised thrown candy and trinkets, revolted. There was a little scene on the sidewalk where a glass bottle was thrown precariously close to someone’s head. Chloe and I couldn’t agree on a plan and so we split up for the rest of the day. We were all tired, I think, worn out from so many different days, so much wonderful.
At the house in the Outer Mission, we left behind a broken plant pot, a torn curtain, a clogged drain, and a garbage bag full of the siding the dogs have gnawed off of the house. It had been a challenging and surprisingly cold and damp few weeks; I’d gotten three parking tickets. But the next spring, I contacted the homeowner to see if she wanted us back.
JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times,theatlantic.com, The Sun, Utne Magazine, and Oregon Humanities Magazine, among other places. Her last essay for Full Grown People was “A Mild Suspension of Effort.”
“Will we be tying your tubes during the procedure?”
I was sitting cross-legged on the sticky pleather—the doctor’s sterile office familiar by now—my hands clasped under my full belly.
Moments earlier, my weight gain, blood pressure, and a healthy fetal heart rate were all scratched in tiny illegible marks on my overstuffed chart. The nurse with a tendency to call me “hun” had taken her two hands and caressed my bump as she spoke softly of her own family. Three boys, like me. And she tried, tried for that fourth. Three miscarriages later—the last at twenty weeks—she knew it wouldn’t be.
“Do you want your tubes tied?” I looked up to meet the doctor’s expectant eyes. The question was not new. He or the nurse, sometimes both, asked at each monthly visit.
I had yet to answer.
I once loved a man who kept coming back.
He’d show up at the side door of the seventies-style off-campus apartment in the Portuguese section of Providence. I’d let him climb the spiral staircase to my room in back, the one facing Ives Street, with the lone blue wall we’d painted together when our love was young. Back when we drank and smoked and snaked his shitty silver sedan up the coast over winter break, The White Stripes streaming through the speakers. Back when we jumped up and down on that old secondhand mattress on Williams Street when, wasted, he proposed marriage before we collapsed, slick with sex and sweat.
Years later, he’d show up in bars across downtown Manhattan. We’d drink together because that’s what we did, huddled at the bar or in some corner booth, our heads touching, our speech slurred.
We stood on the dark Soho street corner, embracing as the cab idled. I was already seeing someone else, but we kissed all the same, our mouths full of memory. As if we didn’t know how to part without it. The mere taste of his tongue made me think of the scar on my knee from that time on the car console just over the Arkansas border. Part of me cherished the memento.
“I’ll call you?” he mouthed through the taxi window.
“Okay,” I said. “Sure.”
I’d already be under the knife—that much was clear. My babies only came out with the help of a surgeon’s hand. After forty-eight hours of labor and over four hours of pushing, my first son—a week late—still held on.
Now I was facing my fourth C-section. At thirty-five, with a husband of thirty-eight, I had plenty of potentially fertile years still ahead of me. And, the doctor warned, a fifth C-section would be unwise. A tubal ligation is the recommended course. He—everyone—assumes I’m done.
And probably, I am.
But some of us have a hard time letting go.
There’s a bin under my bed that no one ever sees.
In it, a pair of socks with iron-on labels from an old summer camp beau, floppy disks with early drafts of college papers, locks of towhead blond baby hair, a burgundy waitress apron from a gig in a breakfast place fifteen years back.
There’s a box of decaying Godiva chocolates from a boy I dated in 1989. Midway through that year, he moved upstate and would send me letters on primary colored paper drenched in prepubescent cologne. I saved those too.
Affixed to a broken bookcase against the wall of my parents’ garage are index cards with phone numbers of old friends or lovers in faded Crayola marker. I haven’t called any of them in years; those aren’t even their numbers anymore. I don’t take them down.
There’s a pair of two-toned oxfords with frayed laces and eroded heels stashed in the corner of my closet. I keep shoes long past their prime; they’ve walked with me; their soles bear bits of where I’ve been. My shirtsleeves hang past my wrists, and I should get my pants hemmed, but I don’t. They drag in shallow puddles, soaking up the muddy moisture, and I take that with me too.
I’m heavy with the weight of all I hold onto.
I went into labor with my third son four days before my scheduled C-section. I was tucking my older two boys into bed when I felt an insistent gush of fluid between my legs. Some frantic Internet research confirmed: my water had broken. I called my husband to come home, my in-laws to get the kids. Two hours later, we were walking to the hospital four blocks down the road.
By the time we reached triage, the contractions were coming fast and fierce. They only intensified as we waited for anesthesiology. Four minutes apart, then two. It took eight tries to land my intravenous line, my veins thin and resistant, my hands and arms bruised from failed attempts. Each time, the nurses would beg me to lie flat on my back. It was unthinkable in the midst of a contraction, as my body tensed and fought to push this baby out.
“It’s not fair!” I wailed again and again, thrashing my arms against the crinkly bed paper. All the labor pain was for naught—they’d be cutting me open regardless. But what I mourned most were the four days I expected him still inside me.
Sometimes I try to trick time. I wake in the dark early morning, at three or four a.m., lengthening the days by stealing hours from the night. I am unwilling to let moments pass without living as many of them as I can.
One day, I look up the definition of tubal ligation online and read that it’s a sterilization procedure, according to Wikipedia, “in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked, or severed and sealed…”
My mind wanders to the days and weeks following my firstborn’s birth. “I’ll remove them for you in a single swoop. You won’t feel a thing.” My husband, a surgeon, stared disapprovingly at the Steri-Strips that still railroad-tracked my incision, over six weeks since the C-section.
“What’s the rush?” I countered. “They’ll fall off eventually.” I feared not pain, but a sense of loss. The tape residue on the backs of my hands from where they inserted the IV was long gone; my body was steadily shrinking as my son’s swelled—he had already outgrown all the newborn-size clothing.
The Steri-Strips, cruddy and useless, were all that was left of the lengthy labor and delivery, of the day that morphed me into a mother.
“A woman’s fallopian tubes are…severed and sealed…” I flinch involuntarily and close the computer screen.
At my tenth college reunion, I pass the old dorm where, in room 150, we first made love. I close my eyes and linger there for a little, letting the wind whip my face, my feet unsteady. I force myself to feel back there—to remember the room, what I wore, how we laughed and worried we were doing it wrong. I try to conjure any scraps of conversation my imperfect memory will allow.
For a long time, on that date—of lost virginity to a lost love—I would carve out a few moments to recall whatever I could. Each year, it was less. Eventually May 8th came and went without me even noticing.
I lie awake in bed and feel the flutter of the baby low in my abdomen. Soon my body will be emptied of another for good. I will the days before the birth to pass slowly.
It’s not aging that fazes me; I’m not particularly attached to my youth. But it’s the letting go, the slipping away of anything I’ve been, known, loved.
Maybe if I carry enough with me through this life, I’ll move so slowly that nothing will change.
My belly feels heavier this time, if that’s possible, my mood constantly shifting. Most of the time, I feel damn lucky. But tired, too, weighed down. Laden with another life.
For weeks, I hedged. I never felt uncertain of my answer, but the utter irrationality of it kept me from admitting it to myself, from speaking it aloud. One Tuesday, halfway through the pregnancy, I found the words:
“It’s the finality of it,” I start. “I’m just not ready to have my tubes tied, even though this is likely our last. So no.” My voice gains strength. “I can’t.”
The rain pounds mercilessly on the roof, ricochets loudly off the metal gutters. It’s only three p.m., but the skies are black. My oldest son’s school bus turns slowly onto our street, delivering the last of my three children home.
I’ve collected the stray lawn chairs and trash pail lids from along the driveway, stowed them in the garage. I gather whatever I can, keep it close.
We are safe against the storm.
DINA L. RELLES is a writer with work published in The Atlantic, Atticus Review, River Teeth, STIR Journal, Full Grown People, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. A piece of hers was recently chosen as a finalist in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and is currently at work on her first book of nonfiction. You can find her at www.dinarelles.com or on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
The old lady comes up short, but she didn’t budge, failed to budget, couldn’t fudge it. She with her Camels and six-pack of beer and chips who stares at the checkout screen with eyes of disbelief, or what she wants Register Man to believe. Need’ll make you fake things.
She mutters to Register Man, who replies the total again, blank-faced. Nods past the old lady at me, as if to signal: Sorry sir, you’re next. Though I have no purchase, am not in line yet. About my age, the old lady, let’s just say.
The standoff: She fingers her envelope—CURR. scrawled on it (Register Man, take this dog by the ears!), and CHANGE scrawled on it (our only certainty), with rows of meager totals. Silver hair shags out the back of her baseball cap. Imagine her school pictures in forgotten shoeboxes. The small round face, peg teeth, beaming into the future. This one.
We have a problem, each of us edgy for slightly different reasons, but mostly it’s our possible sad destinies standing in front of us smacking her pockets in faux astonishment. Or the old lady has a problem. Register Man only seems to, really. He owns the place.
Last week he scolded me, shrill: Why you not buy case wine, ten percent discount! You in here almost every day, buy wine. You like Whitehaven so I add supply, boxes in behind for holiday, I am overstock!
I scan a row of jars. Gourmet pickles, truffle paste, rare Italian beans. How did she find her way here? Our neighborhood swarms with youth. They slog to dreary, high-paying jobs—an equation: the more numb your soul, the fatter your paycheck, they learn to accept—and avert their gaze from stray elderlies, the ones I pretend I’m not. As I do right now, and to escape at least mentally, I get on my phone and call Joyce. A few blocks away, she doesn’t pick up. Stirring dinner.
As a kid I once hurled a telephone to smithereens. One of those runkenclatter rotary-dial apparatuses, so unlike the wafers children of today tap and smile into, hefty with the promise of serious plaster damage, which it delivered thereon. To me, the possibility that one person could talk to another not within sight or earshot seemed deeply, even infuriatingly wrong. That I caught myself up in trying, worse. Maybe you think I’m crazy to feel this way still.
The silly cell-phone burble repeats in my ear. Pick up, pick up. No Joyce.
And then it starts again—a different kind of ring.
The diagnostic term, tinnitus, reminds me of that light tap of stick on cymbal that drummers sometimes do. Unlike the noise in my head, where a jet engine revs, whines. Or locusts drone in trees. Or a uniform tone beeps long: this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. It arrives at the oddest moments for no apparent reason and subsides the same.
I consider paying for the old lady. Not because I am an exemplary person. Not because of the season, this pageant of do-goodism looming over us a week before the 2015 calendars flip. I consider paying for her because of reprieve. For the old lady, who wants only to recline in her distant hovel with suds and smokes. For Register Man, who knows that if she blocks the flow of commerce a few minutes more he must give her the heave-ho, and nobody wants to haul a crone out the door screaming this time of year. For me, of course, phone still clamped to head as I pretend to listen and converse. I actually say a few words—to nothing.
Now I am outside, under the strung lights. Now at the street. Cross.
Three nights ago, on the fifth floor of our gated complex’s parking deck, I peered over the wall (an easy climb) to the cement below. Could happen fast. Up and over. Air whistling past my ears, the delicious impact.
Briefly I left myself.
Back in the body. How long passed? No more than a few seconds—amazed, I saw my foot drop from the ledge where it had waited for the rest of me to follow. Half over, like bounding a country fence. How the deed gets done when it does. A moment of inadvertency.
The near-George Bailey episode followed a night of trying to write through the confluence of agitations become chronic. At my keyboard, all the world’s clamor. Pop-ups and videos, Facebook ever hailing. The full internet of tags and links, chains draped, hung off my invisibly distributed personhood, not anywhere.
Now, almost home. Outside the tall-paned bar I pause to examine the women, fresh, much hair-toss and throat-show. Gust of wind chafes my face, a filthy looker, and suddenly I realize that if I don’t go back and help the old lady, I’ll fret hours over my inaction. Another clog in rusted wheels.
I turn. Cross.
To find the scene unchanged, as if time stopped. Incredulous old lady. Register Man with fists on hips. A second queue open, twitchy adolescent handling the overflow.
My voice comes out how much. What does she owe? Register Man, whom nothing surprises, says $3.27. What about the tax on, I say, there’s tax on, tax on—a fool stammer, I throttle—everything. At last I step in. Swipe the card. We’re almost touching. Let the fossil be gone, into the dark.
I want to chase her down the street, deranged, and grab her by the knob shoulders and shake answers out. I want the grand epiphany, balm. I want to know that everything I believe I understand is more than a stuck-on symbol.
Instead, I’ll let the elevator hiss-groan me to the top deck again. Trace the city skyline with bent finger. Dream what’s nearing from beyond, if there even is.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.
Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.
I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.
Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.
I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.
“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.
By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.
One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.
The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.
Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.
One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.
Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.
When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.
I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”
Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.
I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.
This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?
The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.
Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.
The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”
“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”
Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”
I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.
I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.
Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.
Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.
And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.
As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.
Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.
As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.
I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.
My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.
Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.
I’m stopped at a busy intersection when it happens: My eyes close, then open, and for a few long, blank seconds, I can’t fathom how I got here. I can see the red traffic light swaying above me, the plastic flags fluttering brightly over the used car lot. But everything feels remote. I could close my eyes again, I think, and the world might disappear. I’m tempted to let it.
Fatigue presses on me like a weighted blanket. From beneath it, a thought emerges: No. I am on a four-lane street, at the wheel of a one-and-a-half ton vehicle. Soon the light will change. I need to wake up.
“Stop,” I say aloud, suddenly afraid. “Just stop this.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But at the sound of my voice, the unreality recedes infinitesimally.
I switch off the radio, stilling the soothing saxophone music. The light changes. “Turn right,” I instruct myself, clutching the wheel like a terrified old lady. “There’s the Safeway, keep driving.” I narrate myself home like this, the sound of my voice tethering me to the car, the road, the world. When I get inside, I climb into my son’s bunk bed and close his blackout curtains, but I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s the problem.
“Are you anxious about anything?” asks my doctor, not for the first time. She’s a bit younger than me, a mother; I like her. What I don’t like is this focus on my anxiety. I am untroubled by anything except my inability to sleep. Admittedly, it’s making me crazy.
“Nothing going on at home?” she presses.
My beloved grandmother died. I endured my parents’ bitter, protracted divorce. My Peace Corps journal was stolen, along with my backpack, en route from Casablanca to Dakar. A man I loved didn’t love me back. I had a terrible time breastfeeding. That’s it. Those are the worst things that have happened to me. My litany of woe is minor. My life, relatively speaking, has been a cakewalk.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “I’m a very lucky woman.”
But ten days ago, three hours after I went to sleep, I felt myself swimming unexpectedly up to consciousness. Beside me, my husband slept on. Out in the backyard, the wind stirred the heavy dark branches of the fir tree. Any moment now, I thought, I would dive down, back into sleep. Instead, I lay stranded on the surface.
We all have our strategies for this. Mine is reciting “Kubla Khan” in my head. Invariably, I’m asleep long before I get to the damsel with the dulcimer. This time, depressingly, I made it all the way to the end. There was Coleridge, ecstatically drinking the milk of paradise, while I watched the red numerals of the digital clock progress inexorably from two to three to four to five. Wakefulness felt like a door jammed open, and I couldn’t shut it.
It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.
For years now, whenever my friends and I kvetch about our kids, someone always puts things in perspective: “Yeah, but at least they sleep through the night.” There’s a collective shudder. Like our memories of labor, the subsequent sleep deprivation is still disturbingly vivid. But that was a decade and a half ago. I was too old for this. By the fourth morning, I was queasy, snappish, fumbling for familiar words like a stroke victim. After ten days, during which I averaged three hours of sleep a night, I went to the doctor.
And really, I assure her now, nothing is troubling me. I explain about my loving husband, my healthy children, the work I enjoy, our generous health benefits. Even in my present affliction, I am fortunate: I work from home, so neither my freelance clients nor my bosses at the literary magazine can see me, haggard in my pajamas every afternoon, laboriously improving sentence flow.
My doctor prescribes a sedative and tells me to take it for a week, in the hope that this will re-set my system. At home, I shake one of the tiny white pills into my palm. It looks harmless, but I regard it with trepidation. I enjoy a glass of wine, but except for that one time with the marijuana cookies—all right, and that other time with the mushrooms—I have avoided mind-altering substances my entire life. Not out of moral qualms, but because they make me uneasy. This little pill is going to do something to my brain, something I can’t predict, and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of not sleeping. But I’m desperate. That night, I take the pill and go to bed. As always, my husband falls asleep in three minutes. I wait in the dark, listening to him breathe. Fifteen minutes later, I feel an unclenching in my body. A heaviness steals into my mind. Then it’s morning.
A week later, well-rested, I go to bed without taking the little pill. “You’ll be fine,” says my husband. Three minutes later, he is asleep. Three hours later, I am not. I try again the next night. But nothing has been re-set. Like a record with a skip, my brain wakes up at one a.m. each night, and nothing I try moves the needle back into the groove.
“This medication can be addictive,” my doctor emails, when I report back to her. She tells me I can take up to three doses per week, and we arrange a follow-up two weeks from now.
“So that’s it. I’ll only sleep three nights out of seven,” I tell my husband.
“You don’t know that for sure,” he says.
I am too disheartened to believe him. But I pull myself together and try to think strategically. Which nights to take the medication? Sunday, for sure, so I can drive my son to cello on Mondays without killing anyone. Friday and Saturday, for a good weekend with my family? Or midweek, so I can work a few days with a clear head?
“It’s the Sophie’s Choice of insomnia,” I wail.
Immediately I feel guilty. Somewhere in Syria, a woman like me lies sleepless, wondering if the bombs will fall on her house tomorrow. I should think about her. But the insomnia has demoralized me with unnerving swiftness, shrinking my focus to my own exhaustion, and little else. If the universe is testing me, I am failing.
A few days later, driving home from the grocery, I nearly hit a biker in an intersection. Appalled, I register his shocked face through the windshield. After that, I stop driving. My husband drives me to book group and picks me up. He arranges to take a morning off work for my next doctor’s appointment. One evening, I overhear him telling the kids to be extra patient and not argue so much, Mama’s having a hard time. I should be grateful. I am grateful. But I’m sick of feeling so damn pathetic.
I dread going to bed now, knowing that three hours is all my brain will allow me to rest. The moment of waking is the worst, the defeated awareness that it’s happened again; and then the despair as the dark hours pass, and the sky lightens, and the birds start up. If I could just make it to two a.m., I think, instead of one. But I never do.
I get used to moving sluggishly through the days, dazed and bewildered most of the time, yet performing basic functions all the same. I make school lunches, cook dinner. I don’t feel hungry myself, though. On a hunch, I try on a dress that’s been too snug for a while, and it zips up effortlessly. I stare at myself in the mirror, at my hips and breasts, outlined by the thin green fabric. Despite my pallor and unwashed hair, and the thick, smeary glass through which my brain seems to perceive everything these days, I look hot. I’m too tired to decide whether this is hopeful or disturbing.
One night, after lying sleepless for three hours, I sit up and begin to cry with exhaustion. My husband wakes up and puts his arms around me. “Fucking Dick Cheney,” I sob. “He’s sleeping through the night. Why can’t I?”
At our house, when anyone is stricken by mysterious, troubling ailments, it is the custom to bitterly invoke the architects of America’s middle eastern wars. It began years ago, when my husband threw out his back while reaching innocently for a sock under the bed. “George Bush is killing thousands of Iraqis every day,” he railed then. “Why isn’t he immobilized on the floor with an ice pack?”
I nodded in commiseration. W. was undoubtedly enjoying robust health, the bastard.
Now, my husband reaches over and turns on the light. “Let me make you some warm milk,” he says.
“I tried that last week. It won’t do anything. Just go back to sleep, one of us has to feel normal around here.”
“Nope,” he says, undeterred by my grumpiness. “You’re my partner. If you’re awake, I’m awake. I’m going downstairs, and you can’t stop me.”
Five minutes later, he returns with a mug of milk. It is sweet with honey, and I tear up again, grateful to be married to such a mensch. Then I lie awake the rest of the night.
Who pays thirteen dollars at the hippie mart for a tiny bottle of organic passionflower extract? People like me, that’s who, desperate people who’ve heard that this elixir will make them sleep. Dutifully, I dispense forty drops of the amber liquid into two ounces of water and down the mixture at bedtime. It tastes grassy and unpleasant, but that, I tell myself, is a small price to pay if it works. It does not work. Neither do calcium and magnesium, melatonin, multivitamins, sleeping in a different room, napping during the day, hot baths, or staying off the computer before bedtime.
“Maybe you need to relax,” says my husband. “Come on, let me just…”
That doesn’t work, either.
One morning, after my usual three hours of shut-eye, I pause in the doorway of my twelve-year-old’s room. He’s reclining on his beanbag chair reading Origami Yoda, his floor littered with dirty socks, old Spanish worksheets, a couple of remote controls, a hot glue gun, and innumerable bits of other detritus. A surge of annoyance slices through my fatigue. “For the love of God, clean up this damn mess,” I snap.
The insomnia has produced two regrettable side effects: Everything irritates me, my children most of all. And while those children have long been forbidden to utter even the words “crap” and “suck,” in my presence, much less their saltier four-letter brethren, I myself now curse like a motherfucker. At first, the boys are impressed by the impact of sleeplessness on my formerly prim vocabulary. But soon enough they become amused, and then—to my aggravation—patronizing.
Now, my son looks up at me pityingly. “Did you forget to take your pill last night? Jeez, you need to chillax.”
If anything is more infuriating than intractable insomnia, it’s being told to chillax by a sixth grader.
“Don’t you say that to me!” It’s the wrong battle to pick, but I can’t stop myself. “Chillax? That’s not even a real word. Goddammit, I’m an English major! We have standards around here.” (I actually say these words.)
My son waggles a reproving finger at me. “Don’t be a swear bear,” he says sweetly.
A what kind of fucking bear? I am way too tired for this, but getting mad at him makes me feel less catatonic. “Clean up your room,” I shriek. “Now!”
He regards me solemnly. “Anger and hatred to the dark side only lead.”
Because I know exactly how suggestible I am, I do not seek advice from the Internet about my insomnia. Until the day, a couple of months into it, when I do. And there, buried deep on the fourth or fifth page of results, I find it: proof that this was indeed a terrible idea. It’s a reference to a New Yorker article I read fourteen years ago but have forgotten until this moment, the story of an old Italian family, some of whose members lose the ability to sleep in middle age. For generations, no one has been able to predict who will be stricken by the rare condition, and there is no cure. After several excruciating years of sleeplessness, each victim dies.
I try hard not to dwell on this horrible story. It’s a very unusual condition, I remind myself. Also, I am not Italian. Although I am middle aged. And sleepless. When I tell my husband about the Italians, a look of mingled alarm and unease appears on his face, an expression whose specificity, after eighteen years of marriage, I have no trouble interpreting: He thinks I am losing it. I need to get a grip.
I tell my doctor that I’m depressed. She perks up. “Oh? And was this a problem before the insomnia?”
Patiently, I explain that I am depressed because I can’t sleep.
“We could think about an anti-depressant. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether insomnia is a symptom, or the main issue.”
Do I really have to explain my perfect life? Again? I take a breath. She’s trying to help, she wants a fix for me, and I want one, too. But depression didn’t make me stop sleeping.
Maybe I’m cursed.
My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.
“That’s great,” says my husband, when I tell him about the psychiatrist. “You’re in the big leagues, now!”
“How can you be so damn cheerful all the time?”
“I’m sorry, did you want gloomy? Let me try again: A psychiatrist. Whoa. There is definitely something wrong with your brain.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I see that smile.”
At four in the morning, three weeks before my appointment, it occurs to me that this hopeless, unrelenting misery is what people contemplating suicide must experience. Suddenly, I cannot bear lying awake in the dark any longer. I get out of bed and email my doctor: “Three nights of sleep a week is unendurable. When I don’t take the pill, I lie awake all night in despair. I can’t work. I can’t write. I nearly hit a biker with my car.” (The biker was weeks ago, but what the hell.) “I cannot go on like this.”
My email must have struck the correct note of desperation. Four hours later my doctor writes back, instructing me to just take the pill every night until I check in with the psychiatrist.
At my HMO, doctors work out of small gray rooms with florescent lighting, the only décor a queasily pinkish illustrated chart of the human body. Despite this, I cannot help picturing Dr. Sleep—as he is quickly dubbed in our house—behind an imposing mahogany desk. I’ve never even been to therapy, let alone a psychiatrist. If the pop culture of my formative years is to be believed, Dr. Sleep (aka Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People) will want to unearth some long-buried trauma that wakes me at one a.m. every night. Or he’ll want to put me on drugs. Neither prospect is appealing.
As it turns out, Dr. Sleep operates out of a windowless gray room, just like everyone else at Kaiser. He has sandy hair and an air of mild-mannered bemusement, reminding me forcibly of the hapless Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Dr. Sleep evinces little surprise as he takes my history. “And tell me about your mental state when you go to bed,” he says, tapping at his keyboard.
It’s been over three months since I have slept soundly without pharmaceutical assistance. Surely a bit of drama is permissible. “I feel like the Titanic heading into that final night,” I tell him. “Doomed.”
Dr. Sleep looks up from his keyboard, taken aback. “Oh, dear. That’s not good.”
I wonder what he expected me to say. His other patients must desperate, too. Or am I an extreme outlier? I renew my resolve not to mention the Italians.
Dr. Sleep scoots his rolling stool over to face me. I prepare for an inquiry into my murky past, or perhaps an evaluation of drug options. Dr. Sleep pursues neither of these avenues. “Do you bake bread?” he asks benignly.
I stare at him. As a matter of fact, I bake bread every Friday. But what can that have to do with anything?
“Think of your sleep as a ball of dough,” Dr. Sleep says, cupping his hands as if he’s holding one himself.
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. I imagine my challah dough: warm, heavy, eggy. Is this some visualization mind trick?
“You want your sleep to be compact, like a ball of dough,” says Dr. Sleep. “You want it to be compressed into just eight hours.” He moves his hands, as if firmly shaping the dough into an eight-hour ball. “When you stretch it out”—he moves his hands apart—”going to bed early, sleeping late, it’s like stretching the dough too far. It gets thin, full of holes, loses its integrity. That’s what you’ve been doing.”
Dr. Sleep is going to put me on a behavioral plan to compress my sleep, he tells me. That will fix everything.
“But I barely have any sleep to compress,” I protest.
He waves this away and explains the plan. Its main point involves breaking my mental association between wakefulness and being in bed. I am to stay away from my bedroom, except between the hours of eleven p.m. and six-forty-five a.m. At night, I am not to lie awake longer than twenty minutes at a time. After that, I must get up, go to another room, and engage in a “non-stimulating activity” until I feel sleepy. Then I can return to bed again. I am to repeat this as many times during the night as necessary. Also, I will cut my medication dose in half. The plan sounds implausible and exhausting, but I nod as if Dr. Sleep is handing me into a life raft, because maybe he is.
“You can read during your waking periods,” he tells me. “But nothing engaging. Do you have any boring books?”
I picture my biologist husband’s shelf of science texts. Yes, I tell Dr. Sleep, I certainly do.
That is how I find myself in my office at one-twenty a.m., headlamp shining on Mammals of the Pacific States by Lloyd G. Ingles. The first section of this heavy tome is devoted to teeth. I read about the tribophenic theory, which posits that our ancestral reptiles had molar cusps that migrated somewhere else in the jaw. I wait to feel sleepy, but even though this is possibly the most boring material I have ever read, I am wide awake. Eventually I yawn and go back to bed. I lie awake for another twenty minutes, then return to the office, and Ingles, and his damn teeth. This goes on for the rest of the night. By dawn I have gotten up and down a total of six times and advanced to the marsupials.
That morning, I fill in the chart Dr. Sleep gave me to track my progress: time in bed, number of times awake at night, final morning wake time, and so on. “This is the one you want to watch,” he told me, pointing to the space on the chart marked: TOTAL minutes/hours awake during the night. I pencil in four hours, forty-five minutes. In the box for notes, I scrawl: depressing and pointless.
But what else do I have? Half the medication is not enough to knock me out, so every night I follow Dr. Sleep’s plan, waking at 1, reading about mammals (Pacific shrew, vagrant shrew, dusky shrew, water shrew, marsh shrew, Inyo shrew, masked shrew, ornate shrew, pigmy shrew, gray shrew), not allowing myself to lie awake more than twenty minutes, scribbling my notes in the morning.
That first week, I run into an acquaintance in the park. We don’t know each other well, but I find myself telling her about the sleep plan. “More like the Guantanamo plan,” I grouse, demonstrating yet again the effect of sleep deprivation on my sense of perspective.
To my surprise, she confides that she, too, was prescribed this technique for insomnia. “It took a while, but it absolutely worked,” she says. “You have to hang in there.”
For the first time, it occurs to me that the plan is not some quixotic regime cooked up by Dr. Sleep, but an actual thing. A thing that might work.
On the sixth morning, I record something startling: although I got up to read four times, my total time awake was only two and a half hours. Even with half the medication, I got an astonishing five hours of sleep. By the end of the second week, my time awake has shrunk to one and a half hours.
My acquaintance was right. Dr. Sleep was right. Over the next month and a half, my sleep steadily improves. I go down to a quarter of a pill, then to no medication at all. By the end of June, nearly six months after the insomnia struck, it has vanished. The sleep plan was a life raft, after all, and now, incredibly, I am back on the mainland, with its rested, cheerful inhabitants, the weight of exhaustion lifted at last. This outcome is the result of science, I realize, in the form of a proven behavioral therapy. But it feels like something else.
It feels like luck: as random and inexplicable as the sleeplessness was.
I will never know why I suddenly stopped sleeping, just like I’ll never know why cancer struck my grandmother, or my parents’ marriage ended the way it did, or why my first baby wouldn’t gain weight, no matter how much I nursed him. Possessions are lost, and love is sometimes unrequited, and we don’t always get to know why. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, not in the cosmic sense, anyway. If I did, I might conclude that insomnia was supposed to teach me something. Or maybe I would be less troubled by my knowledge that the Syrian woman is still lying awake.
I think about her now. I think about her every day. I think, too, about all the people who manage to meet hardship with dignity and grace and courage. Maybe the Syrian woman is one of them. Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s more like me. Because when it came right down to it, I wasn’t one of those people. Confronted with adversity, I was irritable, profane, despairing, and self-absorbed. In a real Guantanamo scenario, I would never be the gutsy captive, steadfastly refusing to betray her comrades. Deprive me of sleep, and you can have the plans to the Death Star.
But then, no one expected me to be a hero, least of all myself. I’ve stood on the other side of that line. I’ve been the one to hold it together, to carry more than my share of the weight. This time, someone did those things for me. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s facing, awake or asleep, I’m wishing the Syrian woman the same luck.
KATE HAAS is a senior editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have most recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, and the Washington Post. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
When my mother found out she had cancer, she said she wanted to do two things when she got better: learn to play the piano and get a bird.
“A bird? Why?” I asked, remembering the nasty parakeets I’d had as a child who kicked feathers and birdseed shells into my underwear drawer.
“Well, I have a friend who has this really beautiful bird, and I’d like to have a bird like that.”
I rolled my eyes, a childish act, that, at twenty-seven, I was probably too old to still be doing. It was so typical of my mother to want something simply because it was beautiful: bird as objet d’art. Her desire—requirement, really—for things to be aesthetically pleasing was not a trait we shared.
In the emotionally chaotic days after her cancer diagnosis, it still seemed reasonable to make plans for the future. My mother would stagger her chemotherapy treatments with her schedule at work. We located the city’s best wig store. She ordered shelving for her new apartment. And she was going to break up with her boyfriend, Steven, because, although he was nice, she said, “Nice is not enough.” She would stop postponing joy and make the time for things she always seemed to be putting off. So if a bird was part of the life she imagined for herself in her post-cancer future, who was I to argue?
Can we ever think of our mothers as unfinished? When we are children, they are whole and entire. Everything that was meant to be for them has come to pass because it has brought them to us. But in time, we come to see our mothers as women with paths not taken, connections not made, choices left somewhere in the dust of the past. After my mother’s death, I often imagined the turns her life might have taken had she lived: a new man, maybe not so nice but right; weekly piano lessons in her apartment surrounded by her lovely things; a beautiful bird inspiring her. It was all so close, and yet beyond her reach.
I walked into the garage to grab a box of waffles from the freezer. The birds—barn swallows, we’d learned from Google images—were flying in and out, tending to the nest they built in our garage each spring. My children and I loved to watch their life cycle play out, while my husband, Ken, was less tolerant of the feathers and the mess. Every morning he ran out in his suit and tie with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towel tucked under his arm to clean the poop off his car. But he softened eventually, as he did with most things involving his family.
On this particular morning, the baby birds were chirping frantically, opening their tiny beaks so wide the nest looked like one big mouth. There were five babies this time, the most we’d ever had, and the parents seemed more agitated than usual, if such a feeling could be ascribed to barn swallows. Every time I walked through the garage, they swooped down at me, coming so close I was afraid of an Alfred Hitchcock-like encounter.
I stepped over a pile of desiccated dragonflies and saw that one of the baby birds was lying on the ground. I was surprised to see it there, like I’d somehow forgotten that these birds weren’t here for my family’s amusement alone; this was the circle of life, the universal struggle for survival writ small, the real deal. The bird looked dead, so I grabbed a shovel to scoop it up. But as soon as I touched it, it scooted away. Fuck, I thought. A sick or injured bird seemed far worse to me than a dead one. If it were dead, I could toss it into a bush. But a bird in crisis: That shit needed to be dealt with.
I went inside and Googled, “how to get bird back in nest.” I read that birds don’t always fly straight from the nest. Sometimes they need to hop around for a few days on the ground or on low branches while getting acclimated to flight. Since the parents were still around and the bird was fully feathered, I should just leave it alone. Leaving things alone and letting them sort themselves out—that I could do.
When I returned to the garage, the bird was still on the ground. I looked up at the nest and saw the four tiny faces of its siblings poking over the edge, the tips of their beaks joined together in a line of collective worry.
My mother learned she had cancer on a Monday. A colonoscopy she’d had the week before had revealed a large mass in her colon, and she was scheduled for surgery that Friday, the day before Memorial Day weekend. Looking back, the speed with which her surgery was scheduled, plus the fact that it was happening in a New York hospital the day before a holiday weekend, should have clued me in to the urgency of the situation. But, like most things involving my mother’s illness and death, I only made sense of things later, when everything was over.
My mother spent the week before her operation organizing and making plans as if she were getting ready to go on a trip instead of to the hospital for a bowel resection. I stopped by every night, bringing Chinese food, which only I ate, and searching endless iterations of “stage three colon cancer” on her computer while she sat on the couch with our cat, Firecracker. What I read scared me: The five-year survival rate for my mother’s disease was low, less than fifty percent, depending on how many lymph nodes were involved, which we still didn’t know. But if my mother was concerned, she kept it to herself, placing the bulk of her worry on the cat instead. He was lethargic, not eating that much. She brushed him over and over until the wire bristles were matted with thick tufts of silvery grey hair. Then she would throw the wad in the trash and start again.
I had burst into tears when my mother first told me, over the phone, that she had cancer. I could tell my reaction had frightened her—such an outward display of emotion was uncommon in my family—so I pulled myself together and tried to ask clear-headed questions about next steps. I decided to act as though everything was going to be fine and that this was just a temporary inconvenience, something to get through. My mother acted the same way, as did the rest of our small nuclear family: my father—from whom she was separated but still close—my younger brother, my mother’s sister, Marianne. If privately we were frightened, we kept it to ourselves. We worried about the cat.
One night, as I walked to my mother’s apartment, I saw a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was in a fetal position, although I wasn’t sure that term could be applied to pigeons. What did they look like as fetuses anyway? All I knew was that in all my years living in New York, I had never seen a dead pigeon. I thought immediately of the bird my mother had just spoken about. I didn’t believe in omens, but I was convinced this was one. I looked at the bird for a few moments and then continued down the block. I didn’t tell my mother about what I had seen.
An hour after I found the first baby bird, all five were on the ground, huddled together near the freezer. I called Ken.
“Can you get them back in the nest?” he asked. I could hear street sounds in the background placing him in the city, far away from the life-and-death struggle taking place in our garage.
“Are you kidding?” The nest was a good ten feet off the ground. “I’ll kill myself getting up there. Besides, they’re fully feathered. They’re supposed to be flying.”
After my mother’s death, I became extremely sensitive to birds. If I saw a dead one lying in the road, I would become certain that something terrible was going to happen. Ken would have to grab me and say, “It’s just a bird, Daisy. It doesn’t always mean anything.” And after a while, I convinced myself he was right: It was just a bird. And yet, standing here with broken birds at my feet, that feeling of doom flooded over me again. Perhaps Ken sensed my old worries surfacing and was trying to calm me down.
But there was also a part of me that was annoyed by the entire scene. I wanted the birds to do what they were supposed to do, without my help. They were supposed to jump out of the nest and fly, not cower pathetically on my garage floor.
“Well, what do you think we should do?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should do anything. If they can’t even make it out of the nest, they have no chance in the wild. There’s nothing I can do.”
When I was nine years old, I found out that my mother had been engaged to someone before she’d met my father. His name was Leif, and he was Swedish, like her. “If you had married Leif,” I said to her, “I’d be Swedish!” This felt like magic. If only I could be Swedish like her, I’d know how to knit and crochet and speak Swedish, that secret language she spoke only with my aunt or with the au pairs who lived in the room off our kitchen. If my mother had married Leif, I would finally have access to the part of her that had always been a mystery to me: the her that existed before I did.
“If I had married Leif,” she said, bringing her long, thin cigarette to her lips, “you wouldn’t exist.”
After ten days in the hospital, my mother came home. The surgery was grueling, but she didn’t have to wear a colostomy bag, which pleased her. She wasn’t well enough to return to work or to begin chemotherapy. She didn’t talk about getting the bird anymore, and Steven—poor guy—was still around.
We were taking things day by day, absorbing one bit of bad news at a time, nibbling on it like a dry biscuit, and then opening our mouths for the next bite. The mood in her apartment was somber. My fifty-six-year-old mother, who a few months earlier had celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in St. Barth’s, needed help getting in and out of the bathtub.
“You have to get her over to Sloan-Kettering,” her friends told me, certain that the right doctors would be able to help her. They didn’t understand how sick she was, I said. She didn’t have the time or strength to doctor-shop. The ways things were going, it didn’t seem like anyone could make it better, maybe just different versions of bad. I was tired of listening to these pushy New Yorkers who thought they could control everything, that I could control everything. I didn’t want control, not over this. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. So I focused on managing her pain medications and sticking to the doctors’ instructions. Try this, then that, they said, and I did. I was always good at following the rules.
One night, while Marianne was visiting, Firecracker, the cat, collapsed.
“Do something!” my mother shouted, so Marianne shoved him into his cat carrier and raced across town in a taxi to the emergency vet. He was dead by the time she got there. Marianne, always so fragile, was traumatized, weeping as she told us how she had looked into the carrier and seen Firecracker lying on his side, his eyes bulging, tongue protruding from his mouth. I wanted to kill her.
“I think he died instead of me,” my mother told me the next day, a shadow of hope passing across her face. Her high cheekbones were as hard as rails beneath her pale skin. I was surprised to hear her speak so magically, surprised also to hear her mention the possibility of her own death. But maybe she was right. Maybe Firecracker and the dead bird hadn’t been bad omens but offerings. This made perfect sense.
After school, I took Ellie and Sam to the garage to see the baby birds. They were still on the floor, tucked beneath the curve of my car’s tires. I could tell, although the kids couldn’t, that two of the birds had died. The once-charming experiment was no longer so charming.
“Why won’t they fly?” Ellie asked, her eyes wide with concern.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But they have to. If they don’t, they’ll die.”
When Ellie and Sam went back inside, I tossed the dead birds into a bush. I wasn’t sure what to do with the other three. If I left the garage door open over night, the parents could tend to them, but I was worried about predators. I decided to close the door and hope for the best. Would they really starve in one night? I brought out an aluminum tray of water, although I wasn’t sure if they needed it or if they could even reach over the lip of the tray. I watched them as they sat there, not even moving toward the water, and I decided I didn’t like them anymore. I wished in equal measure that they would leave or die, anything so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. I just wanted it to be over.
By July, my mother was back in the hospital. After several tests to determine why she wasn’t getting better, the doctors discovered that the diagnosis of colon cancer had been wrong. She had neuroendocrine tumor, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had spread throughout the lining of her abdomen, including into her colon. We had lost precious time fighting the wrong cancer.
During this time, Ken and I left my mother in the hospital to go to a Yankees game. My mother was on the phone with J. Crew ordering a birthday present for Steven, and I lingered in the doorway listening to her chat pleasantly with the woman taking her order. I doubted she had any idea my mother was calling from a hospital room or that she would die so soon after the clothing arrived that Steven would be too shaken up to ever wear it. I worried for a moment about leaving, but my mother waved me off. “Go,” she said, the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. “I’m fine.”
Ken and I took the train up to the Bronx and, as we walked down from the subway platform, we saw a pigeon lying on the stairs with its wings spread open like a book. The crowds of people on their way to the stadium stepped carefully around it.
I stopped walking as soon as I saw the bird, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Oh, Jesus,” I said to Ken. I doubled over, suddenly out of breath. “What the fuck is that?”
He calmed me down, and we stayed for part of the game. But when we walked back a couple of hours later, the bird was still there, still breathing, its tiny chest rising and falling with great difficulty. Someone had propped a piece of newspaper around it, a tiny version of a hospital curtain. I wanted to smash my foot down on its ribcage. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
We went straight back to the hospital and found my mother talking to one of her doctors, the only one who had known her before she got sick. The steady drip of pain medication had improved her mood, and she seemed closer to her usual, upbeat self. On his way out, the doctor pulled me into the hallway.
“Do you know how serious this is?” he asked, and I think I kind of nodded, although I really have no idea. And then he apologized to me, either for what had already happened or for what was still to come; I think he had tears in his eyes. But he didn’t go any further. Perhaps he could tell that I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, that his words had barely touched the protective net of my consciousness. Everything I came to understand about that conversation, I filled in later.
The next morning, I walked into the garage brandishing a snow shovel. I tapped the ground next to the birds and shouted, “Let’s go!” It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and I had decided it was time for them to fly.
With me and my shovel behind them, the three birds hopped out of the garage, across the driveway and onto the grass. Just seeing them against the backdrop of green, with a little sun on their faces, made them look better. One of the birds kept moving away from me, picking up speed until it was off the ground and flying. Not very high, and not very strong, but flying. I watched it cut a jagged line across the lawn and out of my view.
I crouched down next to the other birds. They looked terrified, shocked, their spindly feet as delicate as toothpicks, their coats more fluff than feather, and I realized I wasn’t scared of them anymore. They weren’t a bad omen or a harbinger of death at all. If they represented anything— and I wasn’t sure they did—it was the future my mother had planned for, the one in which she got an exotic bird and redid her kitchen and lived to see her grandchildren. It’s just what we do, plan for a future we know is not guaranteed because we can’t live any other way. And look how fucking fragile it is.
Shelley was the astrologer for British Vogue and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. When she came to New York, my mother sometimes went to her for a reading. A couple of months after she died, Shelley offered to read my chart, gratis. I asked her if she had been able to see my mother’s death on her chart during her final reading. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what Shelley would say.
“Not exactly,” she said. “We might be able to see that there will be a transition, but we can’t tell if that transition will be death or not because in astrological terms, everything is continuous.”
Despite everything, my mother’s death, when it finally came, surprised us all. Just the day before, her oncologist had ordered a course of chemotherapy. A young resident had come by earlier that week to refill a prescription for the eye drops she used to control her glaucoma. Now they were telling us there was nothing else they could do.
It was evening, about eight o’clock. The hospital air-conditioning was on full blast, and I was freezing. My mother lay in bed, unconscious, surrounded by photographs I had taped to the wall behind her, proof to everyone who cared for her that she really had once been a person. One of the pictures had been taken on New Year’s Eve. In it, my mother stood with one foot crossed in front of the other like an actress posing on the red carpet. Her painted toenails peeked out of her pink, sequined slide.
My mother was really gone by then, her breathing labored, the smells appalling and vile. We had already sat in another room with her doctors and hospital administrators who had reviewed her DNR orders. I was the only one who spoke. I signed whatever it was we were supposed to sign. My father seemed folded in on himself, my younger brother shocked into silence.
We went back into her room. Steven and Marianne were there; Ken, too. There weren’t enough places for all of us to sit so I leaned awkwardly against the side of the bed, stroking my mother’s hand. I wondered if I was supposed to stay there until she died. I became acutely aware of the woman she was sharing a room with and thought how terrible it must be to room with someone so close to dying. Then I was annoyed with myself for worrying about her when I should have been thinking about my mother. The thought of staying in that room until my mother died became unbearable. My teeth were chattering, and all I wanted to do was lie down. So I kissed my mother goodbye and walked out into the hot, humid July evening. I planned to come back in the morning, although by then she was dead.
The birds didn’t seem in any rush to go anywhere, so I sat there, letting the weak spring sun warm my back. I thought about how tenuous our hold on life is, how easily the thread is snapped, despite everything we think holds us here. We fall from the nest, unable to fly, powerless to fight the gravity that pulls us down; if we’re lucky, our parents stick around to feed us dead insects. Perhaps there are no omens, nothing to let us know that bad luck—or worse—is around the bend. Nothing had prepared me for my mother’s death; the only signs were the ones I had chosen to ignore.
Then I stood up and walked away, leaving the birds on the grass. I needed them to do what they were supposed to do, without me, just as I had needed my mother to complete her journey so that I could continue mine. She never got the bird she planned for, but I got five of them, birds that grew in the cradle of my garage. Some died early, others clung to the earth beneath their feet. But one flew.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is a writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Halfway Down the Stairs and Brain, Child, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Read more at www.daisyflorin.com.