By Wendy Wisner
We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.
Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.
Then Peter throws up.
We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.
“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.”
We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.
Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.
Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”
A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.
We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.
I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.
I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.
My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.
This. This is when I begin to fall apart.
Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.
My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.
I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.
And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?
My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.
We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.
The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.
The only way to out was to get on a plane.
We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.
The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.
It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.
My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.
He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.
Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?
I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.
I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.
I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.
My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.
And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.
I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.
I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.
I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.
I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.
The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.
My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).
She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.
I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.
“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.
Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.
Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.
The little girl never made it to America.
My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.
“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.
But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.
She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.
We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.
I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.
And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.
I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.
I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.
And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.
I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.
If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.
If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.
Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.
In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.
That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.
In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.
I wonder if they ever saw him.
Did they hold him? Could they bear it?
Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.
But where did the grief go?
You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.
My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.
Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?
My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.
I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.
I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.
It started the summer I turned sixteen.
I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.
After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.
I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.
I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.
Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).
All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.
Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.
When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.
Later, we realized: egrets.
And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.
As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.
But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.
I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.
My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.
The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.
Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.
Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.
Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.
We missed the ceremony.
After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.
The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.
No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.
An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.
I began to breathe.
I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.
For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.
My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.
WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, The Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.