On my sixth day in England, a Tuesday, I catch the first appearance of the sun. It’s a warmish day for January, about forty-five degrees (the temperature, I will learn over the course of a semester in Sheffield, of roughly every English day). House-bound in one of the million tiny duplexes clinging to the wet city’s hillsides like barnacles, I suit up for a ramble in mud boots, impermeable layers (the sun makes no promises here), and my wonderful new backpack, which I bought my college son for Christmas and he, horrified, rejected (as though I’d attempted to pick out his underwear).
The subtly stylish pack is one of the nicest things I’ve ever owned, a really useful object, as they used to say about obedient British trains on the “Thomas the Tank Engine” television show he adored as a child. My pack has pockets on the side where I can stash my smartphone (another really useful object) and gloves and tissues and umbrella, yet still reach them when I’ve got the bag fully on. It has a front pocket that snaps, with a carabiner inside for my new house key, which I am afraid of losing. It has another front pocket that snaps, for other fears. It has thick straps and is strategically padded on the backside, so that it feels cozy, like a hug, even when full, especially when full. It is cavernous inside, with an open top that rolls neatly down if you don’t need so much space, or blossoms up so that a bouquet or baguette can poke through. I can put a whole day’s shopping inside, including wine and bananas. It has a secret zippered panel for my laptop. It is waterproof, though the outside fabric is a soft, slate gray, like a business suit, and the inside fabric is seersucker. Its elegance was apparent to me when I ordered it from a catalogue, but its usefulness continues to dawn on me, as I find it is perfectly suited to every day’s needs—reading and writing, airplane and bus and train journeys, walking by myself in a new city.
With my backpack, I feel alone and armored, invisible and capable. With my phone’s GPS, I can locate exactly where I am—a glowing blue dot on the magical map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, alive with my movements. I don’t need the phone for long, as I soon find the route through the park I am seeking, Endcliffe (what could possibly go wrong?), and I am drawn down its paths, along a powerful stream punctuated with waterfalls and reservoirs and duck ponds, drawn by the force of water and desire, along with everyone else out and profiting from the mercurial sun: dogs of every size untethered (some charging into the water, harassing the ducks), children under school age in whimsical caps and ballooning coats, afoot with their grandparents, and babies bundled up in tank-like prams (the parents no doubt in thrall to their usefulness). The river takes me down to the Endcliffe Cafe, a simple timbered shack with tables inside and out, where one must clearly stop, for tea or ice cream, or hot soup, or beans and toast, or a chip butty, whatever that is (I am afraid to ask, still shy to broadcast English words, like “bespoke” and “butty,” from my drawling American mouth).
I’ve been walking for an hour, so I can have lunch, but I don’t want to get full and slow down; I have errands to run, a backpack’s worth of necessary things to buy. And so I order tea, and when I retrieve from my pack (snap pocket) a five-pound note to pay, the long-haired girl at the till takes it curiously, turns it over and over, and says she’s never seen one like it.
“It must be very old,” she says, and the other cashiers come around and marvel at it, like children who’ve found a toad on the path.
“I’ve just arrived in England,” I explain. “Will it work?”
They all look to a pimpled boy, presumably the manager. “I’m afraid not,” he says cheerfully. “You can try taking it to the bank.”
I go back into my pack for a crisp twenty-pound bill. “How about this one?”
And they all laugh and chime, “Brilliant!” For change, the girl gives me three more five-pound notes, which look a great deal like the old one, the inscrutable Queen not having aged a bit.
“The colors are different,” she says, but I can scarcely tell.
The old fiver must be left over from the last time we were in England, when my husband and I cycled around the British Isles in 1991, before we had kids. He didn’t tell me, when he was loading my wallet, where the pounds had come from. One of his useful habits is keeping things, like spare change, and knowing, years later, where to locate them. It occurs to me that I’ve just tried to pay for my tea with currency from before these cashiers were born, which is funny (funnier than if I’d asked about chip butties), but it also makes me feel like a time traveler, which, I suppose, I am.
I have traveled out of my normal work life in Pittsburgh and into a sabbatical year abroad. I often forget what day it is, what time (England has its own time zone, separate from the rest of Europe, and sets its clocks backwards in a daylight savings scheme called, unironically, British Summer Time, shortening winter days to roughly six hours of gloom). Useless, too, my calendars; I haven’t marked one in weeks.
I take my tea to a table outside and watch the parade of souls at leisure—granddads, toddlers, new mums, some students, me, every variety of shepherd. Off-leash, the dogs are hyper-alert, not barking, noses in deep divination. The toddlers squat purposefully over feathers, pebbles, twigs. Buggies corralled, the mothers gossip, and the students smoke languorously on the grass between fits of happy talk. The reluctant sun blesses us all. A massive green playing field stretches beyond the cafe, but no one is on it, save for a small terrier, comically chasing a ball into the void.
The field, and the brilliant sky above it, create a stunned hush, like the earth’s silence from space. I remember last night’s long restlessness, my jet-lagged body in a galactic battle with British Summer Time. I remember the scattered obligations I am avoiding (a book review, the proofreading for my sister, my writing, my writing, my writing), and my mind flits from thing to do, to thing to buy, to thing to write. Sipping my tea, warm and milk-gray, I notice how shockingly good I am at doing precisely none of it. Though I am clearly wasting my time, I feel it’s somehow useful to be here. I take off my pack and place it on its own plastic chair, where I admire, again, its handsomeness. I take my first deep inhale of open English air—dewy and sweet, laced with wafts of grease (everyone else is having the butty). Witnessing the day suddenly feels like my purest and most important obligation.
Of course, this feeling comes because I am alone. My husband’s at work, teaching at the nearby university. He would rush me along, his natural pace easily doubling mine. He’s good at accomplishing things, prefers to cycle than to stroll. Together, we would create a bland and audible reading of the landscape (look, a duck) and briskly carry on. But mostly, I am remembering my kids, their dazzling childhood beauty, and I can vividly picture each of them waddling along these paths, cheeks glowing under snug hats, those years of days I was alone with them.
I have often regretted that time, an era during which I accomplished ostensibly nothing. I was a mother at home for five years, a slice out of my timeline, a bright space on my resume. It was the last time in my life, in fact, that every day sprawled out before me like this, offering its circadian pleasures: walks, talks, snacks, songs, stories, sleep. Here, at the end of the cliff, I remind myself that we harvested each day of that bounty we could, profited, dropped everything for glorious weather, ran in open fields. That’s why I am so good at this. I could have been, should have been, doing other, more useful things, too, my grasping mind told me even then—furthering my career, renovating a house, mastering Pilates—but now I see my lazy mind was right. It was there, their beauty, those long days we played down. Winter mornings, when the sun occasionally streamed through the stained glass windows of our dim old house in Pittsburgh, the kids and I used to catch it in baskets, and then pretend to eat. Strawberry, blueberry, kiwi—we devoured the sun, tasted every flavor. That’s how you save daylight. And then they were gone, gone. Those radiant days with my children will never come back, but I had them. I had them good.
The tea is entirely satisfying, and I understand why here it is considered a meal in itself, accompanied by a biscuit or nothing at all. It, too, has done its job, which is to arrest time, halt my anxious American galloping. I strap on my marvelous backpack, still light, still full of its astonishing capacity. It will carry me the rest of the day.
KRISTIN KOVACIC has returned to Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing in the MFA program of Carlow University and at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. She edited Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), and her chapbook of poetry, House of Women, was recently released in the New Women’s Voices series of Finishing Line Press.
At six-thirty on the morning of October 1, 2015, I drove a rented minivan down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, trying to figure out how to get to Brooklyn. I’d taken the red-eye flight from Washington State, where I live, to Newark Airport the night before. I had no internet access, no GPS, no interstate road map. I’d brought hard copy directions for only one route, which highway construction had promptly rendered irrelevant. So, after an unplanned pre-dawn detour through Elizabeth, New Jersey, I blindly picked my way to the Holland Tunnel, subsequently missed the exit for the Brooklyn Bridge, and now hunted for the Manhattan Bridge. On the radio, weather forecasts worried over newly christened Hurricane Joaquin, which could soon make landfall in New York.
I’d grown up in New Jersey and, long ago, had frequented New York City. But now, at forty-four, I felt disoriented by even the few landmarks I recognized. In truth, disorientation had been the leitmotif of my forties. When I was forty-one, Asher, the child I’d raised, moved to Bellingham, Washington, three hours from home, to attend university. Now, three years later, he was a twenty-one-year-old college graduate and had relocated again, this time to New York to begin a doctoral program on a fellowship. He’d initially rented a room in Manhattan’s Vanderbilt YMCA. Today, he began a lease on his own Brooklyn apartment.
After an hour rectifying wrong turns, motorists tailing me, honking, I found the bridge and crossed the East River. Asher had arrived in New York with two suitcases of clothes and books. He needed everything. I had a rented mini-van, a two-night stay at a Brooklyn inn, and $1,500. And, in the next forty-eight hours, Asher and I needed to buy, haul, and build an apartment’s worth of IKEA furniture, procure every necessary household item from cutlery to curtains, and cobble together a grocery larder from merchandise sold at neighborhood bodegas and Duane Reed pharmacies. Still, as I drove the unfamiliar Brooklyn streets, I paradoxically felt newly grounded, about to be reunited with Asher and with my previous raison d’être: day-to-day tasks of single parenthood. Without those tasks, I’d lost my bearings completely.
I got pregnant with Asher when I was twenty-two, too old to be unprepared and too young to be well-prepared. Parenthood gave me direction; like many young mothers, I grew up because of my child. Before motherhood, I’d been a tepid student who did well in subjects I enjoyed, struggled in subjects I didn’t, and spent very little time studying. As a mom, I had a perfect GPA; I earned a bachelor’s degree when Asher was four, a master’s degree in English when he was five, and a Creative Writing MFA when he was seven. Before Asher, I reliably held down dead-end jobs. By the time he finished first grade, I had a profession. Teaching community college English, I designed curriculum, spearheaded committees, and received tenure shortly after Asher’s tenth birthday.
It’s not as if we didn’t struggle. Motherhood, though, made small triumphs seem not only possible, but necessary. Statewide budget freezes stalemated my salary, but I managed to save four years’ worth of in-state college tuition for Asher in a 529c. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune digestive condition, Crohn’s Disease, but I managed to maintain my schedule despite the disease’s erratic flares. No matter how sick I got, I rarely missed work and never missed Asher’s school concerts, back to school nights, fund-raisers, or doctor’s appointments. I was awake at five o’clock many mornings and still awake most nights at midnight. I taught twenty-five to thirty credits a quarter, a sixty-hour work week I organized, as best I could, around Asher’s six-hour school days. And yet, I managed to read and write a lot. Before Asher, my rough drafts remained unrevised and unpublishable. Now, my stories and essays got finished, sometimes got picked up by journals, and, just before Asher entered high school, my first book was accepted for publication.
I approached his adolescence with considerable apprehension, but Asher was a teenager with excellent grades and SAT scores. He fell in love with political theory and read difficult texts, which he could discuss with striking recall. He amassed an impressive vocabulary, played guitar, maintained friendships, sometimes dated and sometimes didn’t, and sang bass in his high school choir. He had no worst-case scenario teen problems—no tendencies toward violence, self-harming, substance abuse, or devastating dishonesty. He had no trouble at school, with his friends, or with the law. And he had no trouble with me. We shared a 425-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Seattle. We invaded each other’s space with our music, habits, and moods. During tense, protracted moments, we got on one another’s nerves. But with the exception of occasional, brief temper flares, we got along. We had to.
During those years, we shared certain tastes: Tim O’Brien, Slavoj Zizek, Phil Ochs, and college radio. We saw Neutral Milk Hotel and The Mountain Goats in concert. He taught me to like folk-punk. I taught him to like Stephen Sondheim. My leftist political leanings influenced his until his radicalism far outstripped mine. At sixteen, he marched in anti-capitalist protests and wrote original songs, one of which contained the lyric, “Please don’t call me a socialist. You don’t know what that word means.” Once a week, we’d go out to dinner at mid-priced neighborhood restaurants. One hosted a trivia game, and we’d lose spectacularly in categories dedicated to pop culture or the Beatles. We had favorite servers whom I tipped lavishly, a habit Asher lauded and would later adopt.
It was halfway through his senior year of high school when Asher decided to attend college in Bellingham. He would begin undergraduate studies shortly after his eighteenth birthday. That summer of 2012, fueled and afflicted by an almost unimaginable level of anxiety, Asher and I took long walks whenever time allowed. We walked from our Seattle neighborhood, Capitol Hill, to Ballard, a neighborhood seven miles north, and back. We walked around Lake Washington. We walked the entire length of the cities of Eugene, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. We walked five or six hours at a time, barely speaking except to recycle familiar, longstanding exchanges about punk music, politics, superficial happenings, and light memories. Maybe we were both too terrified of what came next to talk about it. We probably should have talked about it.
The day I moved him to Bellingham, we played Frank Turner’s “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the One of Me” in the car and sang along to calm our nerves. By the time we’d driven through two counties, even singing was too much, and we played that game of finding letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, road signs, and business marquis. We seized happily on the Quality Inn when, for several miles, we’d needed a Q.
In his dorm room, I helped him unpack his belongings, putting sheets on his plastic mattress, stacking his jeans and T-shirts in the cramped, musty wooden dresser drawers. I couldn’t identify the lumpy, khaki-colored goo on one of the bedposts and was glad that Asher had arrived before his two roommates so he wouldn’t get stuck with that bed. Even having lived in small apartments my entire adult life, I couldn’t imagine how the room would possibly accommodate three occupants. And, in fact, by winter term, one of the boys would have left school and Asher would have moved off-campus, into an apartment of his own that he’d keep until he moved to New York. But in that moment, I imagined this would be his home for the full year. Before I left, Asher stood just inside his small room, and I stood in the hall. We looked at each other over the threshold. I said, “Well,” and it seemed to occur to both of us, possibly at the same second, that I was getting back in the car to drive three hours home without him. I saw my own panic mirrored in his expression.
Over the next several months, as Asher got increasingly acclimated, and then attached, to academic life, I’d probe the anxiety I continued to feel. Particular fears, I knew, necessarily accompanied launching a child: What if they get lonely? Hurt? Hungry? Disappointed? What if they fail in the very ways they’d most hoped to succeed? What if they begin to regard us—their parents—in our increased obsolescence, with embarrassment and contempt? I shared those fears with most parents, but, like most parents, I also knew these things would happen to my child at some point, that they happen to nearly everyone. So, what was it, exactly, that I was afraid of?
I recalled that, during my years of single parenthood, I’d sometimes optimistically anticipate the roomy, productive life I’d lead after he left for college. I’d exponentially increase my writing and reading; I’d foster animals, go to conferences, make new friends, go to happy hours with colleagues, and join a gym. Instead, my life lost its shape. I went to work and I went home. I carpooled with my boyfriend, a single parent himself with a seventeen-year-old son. We’d say good-bye before dinner-time. He’d go home to the fully occupying duties of parenthood, and I’d regard the long hours ahead of me with alarm. He’d look at me with concern. What happened—he seemed to wonder—to the girlfriend he’d known, to the competent woman who made productive use of her time? I didn’t know. My time, I realized, was now the source of my fear.
I fostered no pets, attended no conferences, and made no new friends. I went to happy hour twice before declining further invitations. I joined a gym, attended briefly, and quit. I couldn’t sleep. Unable to focus, I’d squander hours looking through other people’s Facebook pictures, people who still had at-home children, who smiled with them at dance recitals and family dinners. Or I’d pace my empty apartment, saying mundane things aloud, like, “My goodness, I’m nearly out of shampoo!” Still awake at two in the morning, I’d watch through the window as my neighbor, a woman in her early sixties, staggered to her kitchen sink to pour out the remnants of her long night’s second or third box of wine. I knew she had a grown, far-away child. I worried that, in her, I glimpsed my own future.
I stopped reading and, worst of all, I couldn’t write. I revisited an old manuscript, revised it, re-revised it, and sent it to a publisher. But that was the most I could do. Whenever I tried to begin a new project, the blank document on my computer screen stayed blank. Or I’d write a sentence or two, lose heart, and delete everything. More than writer’s block, I felt the same “blank page” horror about writing as I did about every area of my life.
By late spring of 2013, Asher had been settled at his university and in his off-campus apartment for some time, and—still unable to sleep, read, or write—I started spending evenings in my kitchen, baking. I’d been a competent, though unadventurous, scratch baker when Asher lived with me—occasional cookies or muffins for him, occasional cakes or pies for company. But now, I became fearless. I figured out cream puffs, cake pops, and Turkish delight. I went from someone who knew how to clarify butter to someone who knew how to make butter. To justify the time and money I spent on my habit, I baked for my students. I baked for my boyfriend and his son. I brought goodies to colleagues. I mailed them to Asher and to out-of-town friends. I baked pies for my apartment manager, for workmen coming to fix my sink, for my physician and his staff. I baked all evening, nearly every evening. Then I branched out into meals, doing everything the long way: Manicotti with handmade shells, enchiladas with handmade tortillas, saag paneer with handmade paneer. I bought fenugreek and sumac and saffron. I made meals for anyone I could think of, including a group of women I barely knew, whom I’d met through a Crohn’s support group I began attending because, one evening a week, the group gave me somewhere to go.
More than a year after Asher left for college, a handful of women from the support group began coming to my apartment every Tuesday, after our meetings, to cook with me. They were busy wives or moms with at-home kids, dependent on pancake mixes and boxed foods the way busy people often are. They wanted to learn, and figuring out how to teach them became the organizing principle of my post-parenthood life. No, I couldn’t read novels, but I could read ethnographic cookbooks. I couldn’t write essays or stories, but I could write recipes. We called ourselves the Crohn’s Crones, and we cooked together for nearly two years. At our zenith, we provided make-ahead meals for up to seventy people. For the Crohn’s Crones, I planned menus, disseminated shopping lists, determined the division of cooking labor, cooked, oversaw other people’s cooking, and coordinated packaging and distribution of food. Every Tuesday evening, we’d cook until after midnight, elbow to elbow in my tiny kitchen, crowded so tightly that bruises and burns and broken dishes became weekly expectations. And, every Wednesday, after delivering my portion of the previous night’s food, I’d begin figuring out the next week’s recipes.
Meanwhile, my brainy teen became a true academic. On track to finish his BA one year early, he began to prepare graduate school applications. He applied to five programs, four at others people’s suggestion, and one, the CUNY Graduate Center, which he’d chosen because its faculty included theorists whose writing he admired. I imagined him walking down subway steps in Manhattan, freshly dry-cleaned shirts on hangers, over his shoulder. Compared to his scholarly acumen, my time-consuming cooking project seemed senseless—evidence, I worried, that the productive focus I’d found during motherhood had been permanently replaced by nebulous, dead-end ventures similar to those I’d known before he was born. And as though to punctuate this worry, the very day Asher received his acceptance and fellowship offer from CUNY, the publisher to whom I’d sent my re-revised book, and who’d held it in hand for more than a year, rejected it.
I sent the manuscript out again just before Asher graduated university, Magna Cum Laude, in June, 2015, the day before his twenty-first birthday. He would move to New York that summer and begin his doctoral studies that fall. He seemed delighted, full of hope and excitement. I, on the other hand, lying awake at night, still unable to read or write, anticipated his future with a kind of terrified admiration. Asher had been to New York City exactly once before—a tenth grade choir trip. At just barely twenty-one, he was moving across the country to a city of nine million strangers. He had no housing lined up beyond an extended stay at the YMCA. “I’m figuring it out, Mom,” he told me. “Don’t worry.”
But, during those anguishing weeks he spent at the Y, it seemed perhaps that it wouldn’t get figured out. He answered Craigslist ads for roommates, went to see person after person, place after place. He waited outside a shabby month-to-month basement rental in Queens for a landlord who didn’t show. He’d text me every day. “Moving to New York was a terrible idea,” he wrote once. Finally, he secured a rent-stabilized studio in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and now it was October 1, 2015, and I was here—on a quiet, residential street, outside a charming, old brownstone—enjoying the chance, however ephemerally, to be a mom again. Brooklyn is fewer than thirty miles from Newark. The drive took four times longer than it should have.
We started in high spirits—maladroitly stacking boxes of IKEA merchandise on a flat-bed cart, too heavy for us to push with any accuracy, laughing as we wrangled the boxes into the back of the rented mini-van and then, again, as we heaved them up the narrow stairs of Asher’s walk-up brownstone. We laughed at the municipal, unwelcoming “NO SMOKING” signs in his building’s hallways and at the industrial garbage can his landlord had left behind, a giant in Asher’s 300-square-foot apartment. We laughed as we spent an hour, and then two, and then four, building dressers and bookshelves, and trying to figure out the inscrutable IKEA instructions for his daybed. We got hungry and tired. We hammered our fingers and swore. Just past midnight, we called it a day. Because we hadn’t finished building his bed, he stayed in my hotel room that night. We tried to maintain good humor, noting that one of the room’s beds was a Murphy and that the bathroom’s strange shower, straight from horror movies, had a wall of tiny spigots that looked like grimacing mouths.
The next day, we went to the Target store on Atlantic Avenue. Hurricane Joaquin had blown out to sea, but Brooklyn suffered collateral rains, deep puddles, and strong wind. Crowds filled the store where shelves were largely bare. There were no microwaves, no brooms or dustbins, no curtains, no curtain rods. An emergency exit alarm blared for an hour before someone deactivated it. Later, we would be able to find humor in the young Hasidic children, whose mother was not much older than Asher, tunelessly playing plastic kazoos in the cleaning supplies aisle. Asher glared at one of them and said, “Enough of that,” in Yiddish. The child stopped, looked at him, quickly determined Asher held no authority, and, with increased volume, resumed playing. Later, we would be able to find humor in how the storm blew our cart down the block after we’d unloaded it, about the confused way I’d parked in a taxi loading zone, about my nervous, incompetent driving back to Asher’s apartment. But, at that moment, tense, rain-soaked, and exhausted, we still had a daybed to finish building and groceries to buy. I flew home the next afternoon. We were running out of time.
We finished the daybed at two that morning, went back to the inn, slept a few hours, then spent the next morning finishing whatever we could. We found a small market and bought groceries. Asher would have to purchase and hang curtains on his own. He planned to go to the Bed, Bath, and Beyond in the Village. He said, “But I think I should go with you to the airport first.” And this time, when I got disoriented trying to find the Manhattan Bridge, Asher was in the passenger seat, telling me, turn by turn, how to find my way in a city he was learning, in a life that was becoming wholly his own. This time, the drive between Brooklyn and Newark took forty minutes.
We said good-bye on the shuttle I’d take to the airport terminal and he’d take to connect with transit back into the city. My stop came first. From the platform, I could see him, still on the shuttle. During my visit, he frequently took short breaks from furniture building in order to exchange text messages with new friends. Now, he already had his phone in hand.
I slept most of the return flight. Something had shifted, though I couldn’t pinpoint what. Asher would come to visit in December. By then, I would have gotten engaged, moved into my boyfriend’s house, disbanded my cooking group, and started reading again. But on the plane back to Seattle, I only remembered something another mother had once told me, after her own child had moved away: “The only thing that makes life as different as when they’re born is when they leave.” And now I recalled that, during Asher’s first year of life, when he was colicky and unable to sleep, days and nights blurred. Then, as now, I needed years before I could discern their structure.
The day after I returned from Brooklyn, the publisher I’d sent my manuscript to, and then had largely forgotten about, accepted my second book. And now, four years after the end of custodial parenthood, I’m trying to relearn how to write. For weeks now, I’ve tried to reorient myself by writing these words. Getting here took four times longer than it should have.
CORRINA WYCOFF is the author of two books of fiction, the short story collection O Street (OV Books, 2007) and the novel, Damascus House (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016). Her fiction and essays have appeared in anthologies, journals, and magazines. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches English at Pierce College.
“What do you mean there’s something happening to you? You’re watching TV. You’re fine.”
I curled tighter into a ball, drawing my knees up to my chest as the room tilted back and forth. All of a sudden nothing could be trusted—gravity wasn’t working, at least not entirely, not consistently; the lights and colors of the television warped and stretched beyond the limits of the frame; there was no oxygen, very, very little oxygen. When I tried to get a breath, the breath wasn’t there. I peeked my head up from my knees for a second but could only see through a narrow tube of normal. Everything around the edges had gone dark.
“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I told my husband. I didn’t really think that, but there was definitely something happening to me, and my heart was racing violently, frighteningly.
“You can’t be having a heart attack,” he said. “You’re not even moving around. Something just scared you.”
I did feel scared; I was terrified. But we were only watching American Idol. Nobody was fighting; there’d been no loud noises. There was nothing very serious even happening in my life.
And then the whole thing was over.
The dark perimeter of my vision began to lighten around the center tube of clarity, and then it continued to lighten outward until everything looked normal again. The lights and sounds of the television retreated to within their assigned borders. The room steadied and the walls straightened up perpendicular to the floor again. I still couldn’t breathe quite right, and my heartbeat was still too fast, but these were left over, just aftershocks.
By the next day, we laughed about it.
“Hey, maybe I had a panic attack. Maybe I’m one of those people who has panic attacks.” I decided that’s what it had been—“just” a panic attack. I’d heard of those people, read accounts of such things, but I’d always assumed the descriptions were exaggerated. It turns out they are not, and they’re pretty terrible. Still, though, it had really only lasted maybe ninety seconds, and then it was over, and I was fine. I wasn’t particularly concerned about having another one. Now that I understood what it was, I figured I could just ride out any future attacks. No problem.
The previous summer had been tough, with all the kidnappings. Elizabeth Smart had just been found, but the details of her abduction released in its aftermath proved to be far more terrifying than the relative comfort of allowing her to remain a face on a milk carton—one-dimensional, forgettable. The news channels reported endlessly and exhaustively on two more children abducted from their own homes that spring and summer. President Bush signed The Protect Act of 2003 into national law, making Amber Alerts mandatory for all states.
So, clearly, there was reason to be concerned.
I slept lightly most nights, playing games with myself about how early was okay to get up and make sure my little boy was still in his bed. Every day it seemed to me rather unlikely that he’d have made it through another night without getting snatched. Every day he was there, though—five years old and perfectly safe and curled up in Batman pajamas—and I’d fall back into bed, relieved and exhausted. This did not strike me as abnormal. Nor did it ease my mind.
I’ve always been worried about things. Spiders, crowds, people who talk too loud, basements, hurting someone, burning the house down. Blimps. More than one person has asked me, “Why are you so worried about everything?” And I want to say, “Why are you not? Have you looked around? Have you heard of CNN?”
I wrote this journal entry in early August: There’s something wrong with my hands. They feel… nervous. My hands are nervous. They don’t really hurt, I mean sometimes they do hurt, but I think it’s just because they’re so tense. I think there’s maybe something wrong with my nerves in my hands. They’re not working so very well a lot of the time now. I can do “big things,” like move the laundry from one machine to another, but not “small things,” like paint my nails. “Medium things,” like holding a cup of coffee, I’m borderline. I tried to play cards with my little boy the other day, but the cards are so, so thin. It’s nearly impossible to hold them. I’m having a hard time changing the channels with the remote, because that muscle between my thumb and forefinger is jumping all around; I can see it from the outside now. My brother and his wife are about to have their first baby. Probably, I’m just feeling some sort of deferred anxiety. I am pretty sure I’ll feel better once that baby is born all right.
The weeks went on like this. I made little changes to my routines around the new condition of my hands. No more reading books in bed at night, because the position required to hold a book open while lying down exacerbated the tightness and twitching that continued to increase. The finer details of makeup application—eyeliner and so forth—had to be abandoned.
My little boy started kindergarten at the end of August, and I smiled bravely as I put him on the bus that first day. But then I followed it—on foot—until it got to the school. I had to go for a run anyway, and hey—isn’t that an efficient use of time? To get my run in and make sure my kid got to school safely? It only made good sense. It was difficult to get around the side of the building to the kindergarten rooms unseen, because the windows of elementary school buildings are low. But I managed it, and I really only had to bend over a little bit to stay out of sight. One quick peek over the ledge and I was able to verify that he’d made it. He was sitting at his desk with all the other children, looking perfectly calm. Amazing. So everything was fine.
Except my hands, which by September were becoming increasingly claw-like and useless. I sat down at the computer and typed “hand muscle spasms.” WebMD suggested a litany of horrors: MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s. I spent the entire day in front of it, ruling some factors in and some out. After an exercise in list-making and charting that’s both too tedious and too embarrassing to retell, I determined it was most likely ALS.
I felt so, so bad. I had all these things I was supposed to do, a child to take care of, the pets… I wasn’t going to be able to do any of it. The guilt was crushing. I did a lot of simple math. The average time between diagnosis and death for ALS patients is about six years. My son was five now. That would get him to eleven, which is a lot better than it could be, because he’d be out of the formative years, which end around age eight, according to UNICEF. I know that now, because I looked it up. So that was a comfort. But still, heartbreaking.
It was hard for me to look at him for several days. I spent many more hours playing with him that fall than I normally would have. He accepted those hours unquestioningly, happily, because he didn’t know. I waited a while to tell my husband the bad news, because he had a lot going on at work and I didn’t want to throw him off. He listened carefully, looking sideways at me, and he spoke slowly and gently. “There’s really no way you can know that, though, right? I mean, you haven’t even been to a doctor.” He didn’t understand, but how could he? I stopped talking about it.
For the rest of that fall, I survived by throwing myself into graduate school and household chores. Typing was difficult with my claw-hands, but I managed by changing my typing style and by staying wrapped in blankets with a heating pad draped around my neck and shoulders while I typed. I had become shivery most of the time, and I reasoned that staying warm would relax my muscles and allow me to use my hands better.
Despite all this, I was weirdly efficient, and probably appeared mostly fine to most people. I just had to hide my hands, but it was winter and there were pockets and mittens and it wasn’t hard to do. But then my face started twitching. I could see it if I looked closely in the mirror, but it had to be really close, so I figured it would be okay if I just didn’t get too close to people. This created some mild social problems. Once I had to walk out of class when the professor insisted everyone participate in some ridiculous group activity (in her defense, it was an Interpersonal Communication course). Another time I unexpectedly ran into a former professor at a cafe. I was so mad at him, jumping out at me like that. I was sitting in the café, so I sat on my hands and smiled and nodded a lot until it was over.
One of the first snowy days in December I answered the door to find my dad standing on the other side of it. He lived over an hour away. “What are you doing here?” I said.
“I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“We think there’s something wrong with you. It scared us when we first saw you at the birthday party last week, but we didn’t want to say anything in front of anyone. Why didn’t you warn us about how much weight you’d lost? Mom thinks you might have something wrong with your thyroid.”
I went obediently to the doctor, who also noted the change in the scale. I told him I’d been running a lot, which was true. I told him I was having trouble sleeping, which was also true. I did not tell him about my hands. He listened to my heart and took my blood pressure and drew some blood for thyroid tests. It all came back normal. He suggested sleeping pills, maybe an antidepressant, should I decide things were getting too uncomfortable. I never went back or followed up.
Some days I entertained the notion that I might not be dying, but by that point I was so worn out that I didn’t really take any interest in living, either. I’d heard people say that their lives had lost color, but I always thought they were speaking figuratively. That really happens, though. Things gray out. The days and nights ran into each other and then divided into two flat empty plains. On the one, I knew I was dying and felt marginally regretful, in a numb and passionless way. On the other, I was afraid I wasn’t dying, that it might go on like this, forever.
And my hands. Most days, my nerves were on fire. Other days were not so bad. One day, for example, in the week or two after New Year’s, I ate lunch.
Around Valentine’s Day I ran into my former boss on my way out of a restaurant. “What’s wrong with you?” he said, instead of “Hello.”
“That’s not a very nice way to greet me,” I joked. “You haven’t even seen me in a year, and you’re opening with insults.” Our relationship had always been frank, and I actually felt relieved to be confronted so directly. Everyone else was sort of working around me by that point.
“I’m serious. What’s the matter? You’re emaciated, and your face is twitching.”
So I told him. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong, except that something clearly was. But the collection of things surrounding it, I couldn’t put them all together: the hand spasms, the chills, the weight loss, the insomnia. I’d tried yoga, meditation, journaling, sleeping pills, cutting caffeine, cutting sugar, herbal supplements, running to the point of physical exhaustion. Nothing worked. I couldn’t tell whether it was my body or my mind and I wasn’t sure it even mattered anymore. I just wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop.
“I get it,” he said. “You know, you’re not crazy. This is in your head, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.” He told me he’d had these attacks, that he understood what they felt like and how terrible they were, that sometimes his wife had to just hold onto him while he shook until they were over. For a time he was unable to go in shopping malls because the crowds and open spaces terrified him. Unexpected loud noises, even still, could trigger an attack.
“Yeah, but you fought in Vietnam,” I said. “You’re having flashbacks, right? I was raised in the suburbs and nothing’s ever even happened to me.”
He allowed that the flashbacks were part of his equation, but said he thought it would have happened to him anyway. “It’s chemical. And there’s a ‘type.’ And you’re it. I know you.”
It had been almost nine months. Time enough to grow a baby, to finish a school year. It was time to face it down, whatever “it” was, and I knew it. I went to two more doctors. The first diagnosed me with anorexia and encouraged me to recognize my issues with myself. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t that I was trying not to eat, I just couldn’t eat. She wasn’t buying it, so I didn’t go back.
The second doctor, a young man, listened quietly while I talked about my hands. He held them and turned them over. He could see the muscles tensing and twitching. He was gentle but straightforward: “The symptoms you have,” he said, “they don’t make sense when you put them together. The problem with your hand muscles, coupled with your age, could indicate MS, but you don’t have other typical symptoms. Plus you’re telling me that you feel nervous, that you can’t sleep or eat. I think, and I don’t mean this as flippantly as it sounds, that this is probably in your head. I’d like you to try taking an anti-anxiety drug for a few weeks and see if anything changes.”
I did not in the least expect it to work, but I agreed to his plan because I assumed that when it failed it would prove that he was wrong, and then we could get on with figuring out what was really the matter with me.
It worked. Within two or three weeks, things began to release. It happened so gradually, that I didn’t notice feeling better so much as I noticed the absence of feeling terrible. It had been so long, I’d forgotten. One day I saw a squirrel outside my window and I thought, “That’s a cute squirrel.” And then I realized it was the first optimistic thought I’d had in several months. And then it kept happening. My husband, whom I’d not told about the doctors’ visits or the medication, returned home from several weeks overseas for his job. He walked in the house and looked at me and said, “Oh my God. You’re better.” My face, he said, had changed, and now it was changing back.
Psychotropic drugs don’t fix anybody’s problems. They don’t actually make life any happier or less frightening. What they can do, though, is open a little bit of space in which we can learn to navigate the earth in a way that’s not so painful and terrifying. They can purchase entry through small doors to small rooms of respite and recovery.
In those rooms, I had to come to terms with the fact that life is inherently scary. It’s risky, or nothing at all. I spent nine months as a black hole in the galaxy of my life to really internalize that. I can’t say it was worth it. I’d like to come to some sort of conclusion about tapping into the world’s pain or recognizing that everyone we encounter carries something heavy we cannot imagine. I’d like to say I’ve stopped cracking Prozac jokes or mocking self help books, or that I’m at peace with myself or the Universe or whatever. I really can’t say any of those things, at least not honestly. What I can say is that I’m a little more careful with people, a little less likely to take much credit for any particular good fortune. There’s a lyric in a song I like that goes, “I guess we’re all one phone call from our knees.” I think it’s true, and that it applies to the calls from within us as well as to those from without. And I think that probably the best we can do is try to appreciate the days between rings.
JENNIFER YOUNG is a writer and English professor in Ohio. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Great Lakes Review and previously in Full Grown People, and she has essays forthcoming in The Offing and 1966 Journal.
My son wanted to have some friends over and I’d set a limit on the number he could invite. Noah was a newly minted teenager and teenage boys scared me. They traveled in packs and acted with caprice. Even as a grown-up, I’d cross the street to avoid them. And now my own first-born was becoming one of them.
My own adolescence felt like a free-for-all, full of thugs doing drugs. Despite living in a nice, suburban town, I was forever afraid I’d one day be pulled into a school bathroom and shot up with heroin. Although none of my fantasies ever came to pass, they may as well have—because I entered adulthood with a distrust of teen boys that I’m still surprised to discover is not the norm.
Once Noah and his friends turned into teenagers, I thought I might calm down, but I didn’t. In fact, I may have gotten worse. They seemed to develop hard-shelled exteriors that felt dangerous. Their man-sized sneakers inside my front door forever startled me.
I thought that limiting the number of teenage boys in my house was the right thing to do. The way to be a good mother. The way to keep things safe.
My son said, “Please. Just two more?”
I said, “No.”
I didn’t know the boys would get mad. I didn’t know they would throw eggs. I didn’t know that, as my home was coated in yolk, my heart would feel broken.
Even as Noah and I cleaned the egg off the wood siding on that cool summer night, I didn’t know who threw. I suspected one boy who was known to be trouble. My son said, “No, no, he wouldn’t do that.”
I said, “Hmmm.” But I what I meant was: As sure as I’m standing here, I know it was him. What I didn’t know then was that Trouble hadn’t acted alone.
“Ask around,” I told my son. “Find out what happened.”
He said nobody was talking.
I believed him. But I wondered too if he might be protecting someone.
I hounded him for a few days. Then, I ruminated quietly. I imagined Trouble showing up at my doorstep and asking him how he could have done a thing like that. Not rhetorically. I’d say, “I’ve given you juice boxes. I’ve fed you chicken nuggets. How could you egg my house?”
I replayed this fantasy much the same way I did when I had schoolgirl crushes on mop-haired boys. There would be heartfelt notes and late-night talks and ultimately they would come to their senses and love me. Unfortunately, these relationships never existed anywhere except in my mind.
Weeks later, I found an actual note in my mailbox. It was handwritten in black ink on a small piece of lined notepaper, addressed to me and my husband, and signed not by Trouble, but by a different boy. I’d met this boy before. He was handsome, polite, and a star baseball player. He wrote: “I am sorry for throwing eggs. It was a bad decision and I feel very bad.”
As soon as I read the note, I had to sit down. It was one of those situations where you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for until you find it. I read the note to my husband and then showed it to my kids. “This is a great note!” I told them. I treasured it as if it were a galley proof of Catcher in the Rye.
However, soon my agitation returned. “Teen boys don’t just apologize, not if they haven’t been caught.” I said to my son. “Find out if that boy’s parents made him write that note.”
Noah would ask no such questions.
“You’re not meant to know,” my husband told me. “Just accept the apology and move on.”
Oh, if only I were built to move on.
Could the boy have felt badly enough to actually write that note on his own? I still wanted answers, and by the summer’s end I’d gotten none.
As my son entered the high school that fall, I started volunteering there in English classes, helping kids with their writing assignments. I had done this work with middle school kids for years, but I’d been asked this year to move schools and work with older kids.
On my first day at the high school, the air was cold. I kept my jacket on in the classroom. I sat with two or three kids, working on their stories and, right before the bell rang, started gathering up my notebooks. One last boy raised his hand.
It was the boy who’d written the note—the boy who’d egged my house.
“Do you need something?” I asked him.
“Would you read my story?” he said.
“There are only a few minutes left,” I told him. It was the last period of the day. Another writing coach had just sat with him. Why isn’t this kid packing his things away? I thought.
“Would you mind reading it anyway?” he said.
I started his story amid the bustle of kids getting ready for dismissal. It was long and I don’t even remember what it was about. I forced myself to keep my attention on the page even though all I could think about were the eggs. I felt hot in my coat all of a sudden, and my head started to ache. When I was through, I spoke some words about his story that I prayed were making sense.
The bell rang and the class cleared out. I was alone with the boy, and finally I had the opportunity to ask him all the questions that had been burning in my mind for months.
But instead, I said, “You know that note you wrote? I really appreciated it.”
He looked down at his desk. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
I could barely breathe.
“I know,” I said.
I’m pretty sure that handsome teenage boy, with the careless, loopy handwriting and a strong throwing arm, did not cry that day. I’m pretty sure that I was the only one who walked out the door into the sharp autumn air, into a wind that stung tear-streaked cheeks.
This isn’t really a story about eggs, but about grace. Because I don’t really understand grace: the way it protects what is fragile in ways we miss on our own. The way it somehow provides for everyone exactly what they need.
JESSICA WOLF’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Istanbul Literary Review. She is a writer, editor and recovering Eeyore. www.wolfwebb.com
The silence in the sunlit office grows. The priest behind the desk, young and rosy-faced, looks expectant. My mother looks at my brother. My brother looks at the floor. Nobody looks at me.
I’m surprised by the priest’s question. I haven’t been to many funerals, and it hasn’t actually occurred to me until now that there will be a eulogy and someone will have to deliver it. I’m not surprised that my mother is looking at my brother. I’m the older and was closer to my father, but my brother’s the male and has always been her favorite.
“Would you like to think it over?” the priest asks, looking pointedly at my brother this time. The priest is new and has never met my father. My parents were not regular churchgoers, and for the past six months they were absorbed in treatments for my father’s cancer. Months of radiation therapy for a tumor in his mouth. Months when he couldn’t eat, liquids and yogurt dribbling out of his nose as he sucked on a straw.
The room we’re sitting in is lined with leather-bound books. They don’t look well thumbed or personal. I suspect they don’t belong to the priest, but probably just come with the office as clergy rotate in and out of the parish. Outside the window the autumn sky is deep blue. The lawn is littered with yellow and red leaves that shuffle and recombine with each gust of wind.
“I’ll talk about his birthday then,” the priest says. “How’s that?”
He’s decided to focus on my father’s long life in his own short eulogy after the homily, and the pending eighty-eighth birthday he didn’t quite reach. After talking to my mother the priest hasn’t found much more to say. “The man was a saint,” my mother keeps repeating. Not exactly something the priest can include. Not exactly true either.
My brother didn’t say no to the priest right then, but he postponed his decision. A successful businessman, he nevertheless hates public speaking, and maybe that’s the reason he refused to give the eulogy. Or maybe it was more complicated than that, part of the damaged father-son relationship that no one ever faced in my family, as we refused to face so many things. I didn’t exactly say yes to the priest. I murmured that we’d get back to him.
Fretting over what I might say in the eulogy dominated my thoughts as my mother and I visited the mortuary, wrote and called in the obituaries, visited the florist to choose arrangements for the altar, went through decades of clothes crammed in her closet to choose her outfit for the funeral, and argued about her reasons for not calling any relatives. “It’s a long trip,” she insisted. “It’s just too expensive. I’ll tell them later.” My mother wanted to know how much she was supposed to pay the priest and the Ladies Auxiliary that was providing some food at the meager reception after the service. She wanted to give the lavish floral display she’d ordered to the church for their Sunday mass. “Might as well,” she said. “What am I going to do with it?”
What I Considered Including in the Eulogy:
My father’s love of Ireland
His love of his job
How much his employees loved him (at least according to my mother, but I think it was true)
His engineering accomplishments, drafting abilities, passion for math
His carpentry skills, and all the work he invested in our eighty-year-old house
His love of literature (a long time ago, really)
His love of music (ditto)
His love of art (ditto)
His love of his family (despite)
No, not despite. I couldn’t include that.
I can see him in his wing chair in front of the fireplace reading my high school report card. He’s wearing a maroon polo shirt, beige Bermuda shorts, dark brown nylon knee socks and slippers, his feet stretched out in front of him on the wicker footstool. I’ve gotten all As and a C in Phys. Ed. “What’s this C in Phys. Ed.?” There’s a bit of a twinkle there, but he’s also partly serious.
My brother’s hovering in the hall, his report card crammed in his pocket. He’s going to get in trouble and he knows it. At the very least he’ll be grounded for his grades. My father will force him to quit the football team. Sports are not important, in my father’s opinion. Grades are important.
When my brother responds by flunking half his classes, my father roughs him up in the downstairs hall. I hang over the second floor banister while my father shoves my brother against the wall and my mother wails. Somehow my brother manages to graduate with a good enough GPA to get into the engineering program at Lehigh, but he drops out of Lehigh, and then out of the University of Wisconsin, and then out of Middlebury, and then out of the University of Wisconsin again.
He stays there, marries a local girl, bowls and golfs and drinks a lot of beer. His grammar changes. He starts to say “ain’t.” He builds an enormous house to impress my father, who’s not impressed. My father never revises his original blueprint for my brother’s achievements. After he dies I find a folder with my brother’s name on it in one of my father’s file cabinets. He’d preserved all the bad report cards from school and college. There’s an article on college failure rates, with statistics showing that boys are more likely to fail than girls. He’d underlined whole sections of the article in red ink.
Never unconditional love. Always qualified. Years of barely suppressed rage because my brother failed to finish his college degree. “He broke your father’s heart,” my mother repeated, for decades. Years of festering anger because I fell in love with the wrong men—wrong race, wrong politics, wrong ethnicity, wrong profession, wrong income bracket. Not the conservative, Ivy-educated, white brain surgeon he’d had in mind for me to marry. Not the dazzling professional job in a big engineering firm he’d envisioned for my brother. My father’s Horatio Alger story prematurely concluded in one generation when we failed to follow the scripts for upward mobility he’d written even before we were born.
A scholarship boy in the engineering program at Cooper Union, a privately funded college in New York City, my father wanted my brother and me to go to private colleges and to climb the intellectual and social ladder he’d barely begun to ascend himself. He was professionally successful, working his way up from copy boy to draftsman to junior engineer to senior engineer to vice president and member of the board. He was proud of that. He would have wanted those achievements in the eulogy. But he never felt socially accepted. He never saw other men in management (there were no women) outside the office.
I didn’t comprehend the depth of his isolation until shortly before he died. He’d pretty much ignored my half Mexican American son until Ben got an early acceptance to Harvard. Then he showed an interest.
We were sitting on the tiny balcony of their independent living apartment in their retirement complex in North Carolina.
“The perfect son,” he said, his voice vibrating with emotion.
It was so clear he felt he hadn’t had the perfect son.
He wanted to know more about Ben’s victories in cross-country and track. I was surprised he cared at all.
“I never fit in. I didn’t play golf or tennis.” I could hear all the yearning of a bookish, working-class kid who’d spent his high school years in the dark room developing photographs, who’d started working full time at seventeen and done his college classes in night school. Who’d never played sports, or enjoyed the privilege of leisure.
“Ben doesn’t play golf or tennis either, Dad.”
“But he could, couldn’t he. He could learn. I couldn’t.” The longing in his eyes was almost unbearable.
My mother didn’t want my husband and son to come to the funeral in North Carolina. My husband was teaching in California. Ben had just started his freshman year in Massachusetts, and he was running in a cross-country meet that weekend. She didn’t think it was worth making the trip. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she said.
I didn’t realize how much that hurt my husband until he told me later. At the time it just seemed part of my mother’s insane thrift and determination not to make a big deal about the funeral arrangements.
So my husband and son didn’t attend. Partly because I was acceding to my mother’s wishes. Partly because I inherited some of my mother’s insane thrift. We’d just spent money flying out East to see our son off to college. We’d just paid our first tuition installment.
But they should have been there. Looking back, I can see that. The few relatives who might have come should have been there, too. Not for my father, who was dead. Not for my mother, who didn’t care. Maybe for me, so I wouldn’t be looking back now at the nearly empty church and a ceremony that felt so incomplete. But for something larger too. For the occasion. For all of us and our deep-seated need to mark the significance of a loved one’s life and death in a fully realized communal ritual. Our hope that we, too, won’t pass unnoticed.
The eulogy was botched in a number of ways. Before the service, I told the priest that the three of us wanted to go up to the pulpit to say goodbye at the end. I was thinking I might even deliver a full eulogy then, but I was still not sure, still turning over the possibilities in my mind. The priest didn’t call us up. It might have been because the Catholic funeral service was so emphatically directed at the joys of the afterlife and not saying goodbye. Or he just forgot.
I ended up extemporizing a eulogy at the entrance of the parish hall, with the handful of mourners standing in the vestibule. I put my hand on the coffin, which was being wheeled out of the church by the mortuary attendants, who stopped and stood back. I cleared my throat. “I’d like to say a few words.”
I kept the eulogy short, and positive. I talked about inheritance. How my father had passed on his love of Ireland and literature to me. His ability to build and repair things to my brother. His mathematical and scientific skills to my son. I don’t know why I gave the eulogy at all, under such awkward circumstances, to my parents’ cleaning lady and a small group of acquaintances from their retirement complex. People who barely knew my father, and certainly didn’t mourn his passing. My mother was misty eyed, my brother stolid. The rest of them milled in the vestibule of the empty church, respectful smiles pasted on their faces, waiting for me to finish. The daughter who’d flown in from California. “Did you know she’s a professor?” I heard one of my mother’s bridge partners say afterwards. “Isn’t it funny, Peggy never mentioned that.”
I could see them eyeing the trays of sliced cheese and cold cuts on folding tables in the parish hall behind me. The white-haired volunteers from the Catholic Ladies Auxiliary were putting out paper plates and Styrofoam cups and plastic knives and forks. The bitter smell of boiled coffee filled the air.
Tips for Writing and Delivering a Eulogy that the Internet Would Have Provided, If I’d Looked:
Think about the person and your relationship to the person.
Gather information, including special accomplishments, career, hobbies, family anecdotes. Look for humorous and touching memories.
Decide whether your tone will be light or serious. Look for appropriate religious quotations if your eulogy is serious.
Organize your information and create an outline.
Write, review, and revise.
Have tissues and a bottle of water handy. Take a deep breath before you begin. Remember to speak slowly and distinctly.
I’m used to public speaking, in the classroom at least. I was composed, and spoke slowly and distinctly. I was choked up but didn’t cry. I didn’t gather any information beforehand or tell any anecdotes, though I did mentally rehearse what I was going to say. I don’t know how useful the Internet tips would have been. Even if I had located them and proceeded in an orderly fashion, I would have been stalled on the first one.
“Think about the person and your relationship to that person.” How to express my mixed feelings about the father who nurtured my creativity and intellectual development and then turned his back on me and the choices I made? Who strong-armed me into transferring to another college by threatening to cut off my funds after he learned of my African-American boyfriend? Who thought I traveled too much, lived abroad too long, stayed in school too long? Who never fully accepted my Mexican American husband or our son? “Look for humorous and touching memories.” How far back would I have to go? I could have said more about his job. There was a lot I left out, and a lot I couldn’t say, not that anyone there would have cared.
What I Did Not Include in the Eulogy:
My father’s rages when we were children
His anger and resentment later
The burden of his expectations
The fact that I’d lived in California for almost twenty-five years and he’d never once visited
How I felt about that
My mother was pleased with the eulogy, and six months later asked me to send a copy to her. It hadn’t been written to begin with, but I typed up what I remembered. It seemed sparse and inadequate to the man and my feelings about him.
I didn’t keep a copy for myself.
“I’ve lived longer than anyone in my family tree,” he said more than once, so perhaps the priest was right to emphasize his age. The fact that the priest focused his eulogy on something my father didn’t reach—his eighty-eighth birthday—fits the man, whose expectations exceeded his grasp, whose youthful dreams dominated a life where nothing was enough.
He was a man who held on to his ambitions, even to his detriment. Whose sense of duty never flagged. Who worked hard. Who retreated into angry solitude when he felt others had failed him. Who couldn’t look past his son’s failure to finish his degree. Who may have been proud of his daughter’s Ivy League Ph.D., but never said so. Who fought constantly with his wife but may have derived more from their bond than an outsider, even his own daughter, could fathom.
When they got the news that his tumor had spread beyond the possibility of further treatment, “We just lay on the bed,” my mother told me, “holding hands. We didn’t say anything. Just held hands.”
I hold on to that. I like to think he found some comfort amid so many disappointments, some companionship in his alienation.
What I Would Include, If I Were Asked to Deliver His Eulogy Today:
After eight years, I still don’t know. I stare at the blank computer screen in my home office, fingers frozen on the keys. My wooden desk chair, a swivel chair that my father bought as a young man in Greenwich Village, creaks as I lean forward. I review my directions from the Internet, stuck on the first point. “Think about the person and your relationship to the person.” I write:
“My father had big dreams for his future and his family’s. They weren’t my dreams.”
It’s all I’ve come up with, after years of writing, so much of it about my father. I’m like him, meticulous, critical, socially awkward, a hoarder of memories and books and souvenirs of the past. Obsessive in my quests—obsessive in this quest to write something that would express the man and our complicated history together.
To eulogize is to forgive, James Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son,” a better guide than the Internet to the enormity of the task. Everyone hopes that upon death he too “would be eulogized,” Baldwin writes, “which is to say forgiven, and that all of his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity.” I continue to seek that truth and coherence, labor to forgive the unforgiving, to find the words that no one in my family wants to speak.
My father’s dreams died with him. His disappointment and anger died with him. His love did not.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s creative nonfiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Waccamaw, Southern Indiana Review, Cold Mountain Review,Under the Sun, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle
Through our mid-twenties, this friend of mine, Tom, hosted an annual party at his family’s cabin in rural Wisconsin, and that year—the last year he invited us all there, incidentally—we were the last two to crash. The dawn was coming up quick, and we were watching the blackness outside morph into gray, into a fog that would settle on his family’s forty acres and on the half-mile gravel drive leading up to the house. I called it a cabin, but it was definitely a house. This friend of mine, his parents had bought this land and built the place as a retirement escape. Then his father had died, suddenly—I think he was fifty-nine, just like that, an aneurysm—and his mother had settled instead into a condo in the city.
Tom and I were in a sunroom off the kitchen, sort of a three-season porch thing, with screened walls and wicker furniture. The air was muggy and cool, and the sweet smell of wet grass had settled on everything. He was slouched in a chair. I was sprawled across the love seat, busy pining for a girl asleep upstairs. Pining, because I was dating someone else, though I was already in love with that girl up in the loft, and I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave my girlfriend and pursue—
No, he said. Probably wouldn’t work out anyway. Why risk it?
Even then I recognized this was terrible advice, but he was himself newly single, frustrated, and lonely, with no patience for these woes. And in that moment, he didn’t want me to go. He asked if I would stay with him, if I’d sleep there with him. Sure, of course I would. We’d been friends for a decade. I’d slept next to him many times. And then he asked—with a pause, mid-beat—would I hold him? Would I hold him, just the once, and just that, out of compassion if not desire?
I knew Tommy was in a rough spot then. I’d never seen him so vulnerable, and isn’t that what we all want, what we all need, someone to just be with us, like that, through the worst parts? Still, I said No. May as well have said, Will never happen.
I did sleep there, but on the floor. I was always out of reach but never more than just then. He was looking for a little compassion, a little tenderness. And I said no. As close as we are, everything we’ve been through together, this is as close as we’ll ever be. An arm’s length away. That space between us, he couldn’t close it, and I wouldn’t. And why not?
Why didn’t I hold him, just for a minute, like he’d asked? Maybe because I was still telling myself we were just friends like any other, and because even then, especially then, I knew this wasn’t exactly true.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d invested a lot of thought into my sexuality. Not so much because Tom, my closest friend at the time, was gay, but because he had spent the previous year—since coming out to me, and to me alone—trying to convince me I was gay, too. Because he wanted to get it on? Because he wanted company? Probably a bit of both, and either way I was familiar with these impulses. I could relate. That said, understanding that my masculine self is a construction of sorts, that gender is a learned performance, and that sexuality can be a fluid, evolving thing, my own hetero-ness has always seemed inherent to me.
I am of slightly below-average height. I have flat feet and a weird space between my first and second toe. I inherited—from my mother—a genetic blood-clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden thrombophilia, for which I take an aspirin a day. My eyes are hazel. And at eighteen, the image of Brad Pitt in his Fight Club prime opening a door wearing nothing but rubber gloves only ever inspired in me a competing mix of admiration and envy, while a mere glimpse of the thigh of the girl who sat next to me in Economics roused erections like flagpoles.
So my sexuality was never really a question, not for me, but when we were teenagers—sixteen, seventeen—Tommy did what he could to convince me otherwise, mostly by telling me I was gay, over and over, all the time, mistaking my denials for Denial. Eventually the rest of our friends picked this up too and started telling me I was gay, groping my chest and asking if I was turned on and responding to my firm nos with Hey man, it’s okay if you like dick—the predictable and condescending high school taunts I never knew how to answer. Really, it was only a couple of our friends that did this. Knowing them now, I wonder if they would have been so callous if they’d actually thought I was gay. Or if they’d known he was?
It was half my lifetime ago, so his actual coming out to me is a hippocampal blur, but I think it went something like this: We were juniors and had been spending most afternoons in our high school’s weight room (and adjacent locker room, notably, surrounded by all kinds of hard-bodied adolescent boys in various states of undress: tall, short, bronze, black, white, footballers, wrestlers, runners, the gamut), and eventually we started going on long warm-up runs around town. We were friends before, but those runs were really what made us. Away from the weight room fugue, we could actually talk, and we talked about all kinds of things. Like what? I have no idea. I can’t remember any of it, except that one day Tom turned to me and told me he’d just spent ninth period in the janitorial closet by the theater with Mike Miller (a cherubic sophomore boy, and a rising talent in the drama department) getting a blowjob.
Once the initial shock—that my friend was now, apparently, getting some—wore off, I didn’t think much about that coming-out moment. I didn’t really return to it until a decade later when a group of us old friends spent a post-wedding night drunk and reminiscing, and he reminded me what I’d said to him: “You got a blowjob!” And he thanked me for how I’d immediately accepted him, gay or whatever, getting head in whatever closet. He said that back when we were teenagers he hadn’t realized how lucky he was. When he said this we were both in our late twenties—I was married by then, and lived on the other side of the country, so we only saw each other every few years, usually at a bar the day after Christmas—and I was grateful that he still thought about our lapsed friendship at all, as I did, as I do. Of course, I told him. You were my best friend.
Back in the day I suppose he was confused about my sexuality in a way I wasn’t. After he came out to me, I didn’t stop working out with him. I didn’t stop changing next to him in the locker room. Was I supposed to? Well, I didn’t. He would point out some pumped up cornerback, with a chest like a longshoreman, and I would say, Yeah, impressive. Out running together we would see the lean cross-country boys in the distance, and I would agree, Yeah, they’re something. I remember he once asked if I’d noticed Tony Steino’s junk, and I replied, How could I not?! and he said, I know! My being straight and my taking an active role in these conversations—and my lathering up next to him at the end of the day—never seemed like a contradiction. And maybe he thought my continuing to act as if nothing had changed meant I had to be gay too, but really, what had changed? For him, I suppose, a lot. For me, not much. At least not much I recognized then.
This dissonance, I think now, was the beginning of that space, that rift that would eventually grow not so much between us as between our worlds, though I wouldn’t understand this until long, long after the fact.
Eventually, after a year or so of trying to convince me I was gay, he let it go. Why? Because, get this, he realized there was no way I would have been able to resist his advances for so long unless I actually was straight. He told me this. So, so arrogant. And probably true, which you’ll understand if you were ever a horny, hard-up teenaged boy, as I definitely was.
We graduated on to different colleges, but both worked summer jobs cutting grass for our hometowns. After work, we would go fishing. We called it fishing, but really we just canoed around local lakes and rivers, occasionally casting for bass, occasionally swimming. There are more than forty lakes in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, the land where suburbs meet country, and we made it to many of them. Sometimes other friends tagged along, and when it got too cold to swim, or too dark to paddle, we’d end up smoking and drinking coffee and eating fries at the local Denny’s, eventually dragging ourselves home only to be back on our lawnmowers a few hours later. This was our routine, for a while. We didn’t spend all our time together—I had one girlfriend, and then another, and he had one boyfriend, and then another—but a lot of it we did.
At that point—our early twenties—Tom was a constant in my life, a point of reference. As I imagine I was in his.
Just the other night I drove home with my arm out the window, the evening a cool seventy-five after an eighty-five-degree, humid day. I was on gritty 35th Street in the city, but that didn’t matter. I was singing along to the radio, like we did back then, and there was the same heavy wet smell in the air, and even though if I was thinking about anything, I was thinking about the pomodoro on the stove, or the class I was coming from, or if I’d catch my two-year-old before he hit the crib for the night, that smell suddenly knocked me back fifteen years and there I was, driving home from the lake, him shotgun, the bow of our canoe dripping algae funk on the windshield, Neil Diamond coming at us with Sweet Caroline. You know, Good times never seemed so good. I’ve been inclined to believe they never would. But now I…
Summer nights are the best nights. I was so young then, and had no idea. Those were some of my best nights.
I never understood why we drifted apart. Rather, why he let me go. For a long time I thought he resented my absence when his dad died. I was living in Japan at the time, and it happened quickly, and I wasn’t there for him—not that I know what being there would have meant exactly. As it was, I sent a card. A heartfelt card, but how lame was that? It didn’t even occur to me to call—I barely called my parents back then. Later, we lived in the same city for a couple of years, but only hung out a few times. We would make plans and he would break them, and eventually we both just sort of amiably stopped trying. The only way I could understand this was believing he was still upset that I hadn’t been there when he needed me, or something like that. I was reaching for an explanation, and not having another, I accepted this as truth.
We build these truths like walls around us, and it can take a long time for them to crack. Ten years on, and one otherwise ordinary day, epiphany: that night in the sunroom, the two of us still up at dawn, my eventually going to sleep on the floor. I realized that tick on our timeline might as well read End of Era. It hadn’t seemed significant before, probably because although I’d thought about that moment many times, I’d only thought of it in terms of where I’d been, and where I was going just then. It hadn’t occurred to me that mine wasn’t the only story being written in that sunroom. But then it did occur to me, suddenly, the way a crack finally splits one thing into two.
Why didn’t I hold Tom that night, just for a minute, like he’d asked? I hadn’t said No to him like that since high school, back when he was so sure all it would take was a little convincing to get me to join him in that janitorial closet by the theater. Maybe I was afraid that if I crossed one boundary he would ask me to cross another, and we’d be seventeen again. Maybe this had been a fear of mine for a long time, even though we had both grown so much, and things were obviously different then. Maybe I was afraid things weren’t so different after all.
Anyway, he asked and I said No. A resounding No. A final No.
That girl up in the loft—we’re married now and have two kids. What if, in a way, in that moment, I chose this over that, her over him? In a way, that’s exactly what I did, though like I’ve been saying, it was never really a question.
In any case, things were never the same after that.
Losing old friends is nothing new, but I feel this loss the most. And would I feel differently, about this, about him, if he were just another straight guy I used to hang out with? If he wasn’t gay, would we ever have grown so close in the first place? Can there ever be a friendship like this without an attraction of sorts, one-way or otherwise?
In my early twenties I was close to a number of women, really close, on an intimate emotional level, and I was convinced I could maintain these intense friendships indefinitely, but the truth is you can’t, or at least I couldn’t. There simply isn’t enough space in life, because friendships as intimate as those, well, you’re never really just friends—that familiar old story. Intimacies like those either wax or wane and eventually slip away. Such has been my experience with women. Why not with him?
Tom and I were friends, just friends, but I suppose it was never so simple. I loved him, my friend, but not like he needed. Philia in abundance. Agape even. But a dearth of eros. And you’d be right to respond: As if you know what he needed. So, so arrogant. But it would explain things.
He recently moved to within a hundred miles of where I live and called a month ago, but we haven’t connected. Still playing phone tag. I know he’s getting married one of these days, to a doctor, a guy I haven’t met yet. We’re still friends, I would say, but certainly not like we were. The old Pop! Fizzle… Déjà vu. I’ve been here before, many times, but not here exactly. Such a familiar story—but suddenly it feels new to me.
I suppose this is just a blown-up case of nostalgia, what with summer sprung on us once again, and Neil on the radio, with the lakes warming up, the landscape gone green, the days growing longer, and then already, a little shorter. And these sore muscles this morning, and these joints stiff like they’ve never been before, are a reminder too that like all those summers past, my youth, such as it was, is finally and totally over, lost, and with it the closeness we once shared, irretrievably gone.
—Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
CRAIG REINBOLD’s work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Brevity, Ruminate, Zone 3, Mud Season Review, and a number of other more or less literary places. He is also a regular contributor to Essay Daily, the blog-cum-conversation about all things essay, and is co-editor, with Ander Monson, of How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (CoffeeHouse Press, 2017). He works in the emergency department of a Milwaukee-area hospital. When he’s not there, he spends his days alternately hanging out with his two boys and studying to become a nurse.
Penny Guisinger: Postcards from Here is a capturing of community, a harsh and beautiful place, a family, and the internal experience of its author in the form of micro-essays. It tells stories that are both intensely personal and entirely communal, and create a portrait of one person’s attempt to do a good job at this business of being human.
Catherine Newman: Catastrophic Happiness is a book about being crazy in love, and also just kind of crazy, while your kids are that weird, long age between toddlers and teenagers. The mundane heartbreak of it.
Seema Reza: When the World Breaks Open is a non-linear narrative memoir that traces Seema Reza’s journey from being a suburban mom to using her own lessons to build a unique writing and art program in military hospitals. Reza exposes her triumphs and fears and regret through the dissolution of a dysfunctional marriage, and investigates her own experiences and societal attitudes towards loss, love, motherhood and community, undermining the idea that strength requires silence.