“I’m fifty,” I imagine saying to my mom. “Can you believe it?”
“No,” she would say back to me. “No, I cannot.”
I used to call her every year on my birthday. It became a funny thing, me thanking her for having me. I would have already gotten her card—she always mailed it early—and sometimes a little gift, though not every time. I know if I had waited long enough, she would have called me, but I was an hour ahead of her and up early to go to work. She was retired and a night owl. I would call her first thing, and she would still be in bed. I would remind her what she doing however many years ago on that day and she would always say she didn’t remember much, mercifully. Because that is how they did it in those days. My friends and I were some of the first babies born in the hospital in our town. Our mothers went in pregnant and came out not. What happened in between was for someone else to say.
She remembered enough to tell me she thought the hospital sent her home with someone else’s child; I know that. And for a long time I wondered whether she believed it. I had been big—almost ten pounds. Enough to warrant forceps, one tong clamped to the right side of my forehead, which left me with what she used to call a horn. “What do you mean a horn?” I would ask.
“A horn,” she would say, as if it were self-evident.
When I pressed for more details, she would never describe it exactly, would just say it was so big my christening cap didn’t fit and so unsightly that she heard my grandfather, leaning over my crib, say to one of his brothers, “Look at that, Camille. What the hell you think about that.” A lament. I was lamentable.
“When they brought you to me,” she would say, “you were so ugly. I was just sure you were the wrong baby. And I told them that, too. I said, that’s the wrong baby. But they kept insisting you were mine so what was I gonna do. I took you home.”
Those were also the days when babies spent most of their time in the nursery, bottle-fed, so the new moms could get some rest. “Well, my room was right down the hall,” she would say, “and there was one baby in there that cried all night long. I mean, all night long. I remember feeling so sorry for the poor momma that was gonna take that one home. Little did I know, that one was you! And that poor momma was me!”
The stories would spill out from there of her new-mother all-nighters, of the local TV stations going off at midnight and of her having to rock and sing or bounce and hum to me into the wee hours. Of me sleeping all day, through every visitor who came by wanting to meet me and my horn. “We would wipe your face with an ice cold washrag to try to wake you up,” she would say. “Even that didn’t work. You were out. But come ten o’clock—poomp!—your little eyes would pop open and you would be ready to play. All night. I would just get you to sleep, and then it would be time to get your brother up for school. I’m telling you, I thought I was gonna die.”
My mom loved babies, the littler the better, but she was not sentimental about them. She could sit content with a newborn in her arms all afternoon and talk about how hard they were, every once in a while catching the baby’s eyes with a coo and a smile and a high-pitched “Isn’t that right? Yes, it is. Yes it is,” until she got a rolling giggle in response.
It never occurred to me to wonder whether she wanted me. If pressed, I would have said I assumed she did. By the time I came along, my brother was eight. My mom and dad had been married eleven years, and she had had at least two “misses,” as she used to call them. Maybe more. “In those days, we didn’t count.” My mom would have said she was not of a generation that thought about kids as something you wanted or didn’t, or of a generation of kids who thought about whether they were wanted.
She loved the story of the time she told her nephew, my cousin Todd, that he was an accident. “He was so upset,” she used to say. “Now, why would you be upset by that?” she wondered. “I mean, I was an accident too. You think I care? By the time you’re number three or four or five, I hate to tell you: You’re an accident.”
When my husband asked what I wanted to do for my fiftieth birthday, I told him I wanted to talk to my mom. He knows I only ever most want what is impossible and that, if he waits a beat or two, I will get to something that is more possible, which I did. So I told him I wanted to spend it with my brother—my first best friend—and his family. I told him he was in charge of arrangements. All I wanted to have to do was pack.
I threw my clothes in a bag the night before—it’s my brother, it’s Florida, there’s not much that needs to happen. But the jewelry required some thought. I have pieces I love, pieces I travel with and pieces I don’t. Like most things in my life, my jewelry is poorly organized. The necklaces are tangled and often need polishing, the earrings are separated, left from right, backless, and sometimes bent. As I dug, I unearthed a cardboard box with a peacock on it. I was looking for one pair of earrings in particular, brushed metal with tiny blown-glass cornflowers on them. They’re more delicate than most of the others and I halfway expected to find them broken beneath a large pewter lily seedpod pin that only comes out during the winter. I unfolded the lid on the box and discovered a note from my dad atop the mess of chains and buttons and assorted cleaning cloths. “Nothing is lost as long as someone remembers,” he wrote.
I remember. I remember this is the note that accompanied the last birthday present from my parents, the last birthday for which my mom was still alive. It was not long after they moved from Louisiana to live near us in Connecticut. The note is written in my dad’s certain left-slanting print on an index-card-sized piece of plain white typing paper. The edges are frayed, so he must have folded it and torn it along the kitchen counter, as was his habit. I’m a leftie too. Scissors are no good. I turn the paper over. “Senoir citizen’s make do,” he wrote on the back side. My dad can’t spell, can’t punctuate. He knows what he does is wrong by someone else’s standards and he doesn’t care.
I remember the gift. A costume chainlink bracelet with a gold-and-silver heart. I wonder who it belonged to first, or who he bought it for and when. “Senoir citizen’s make do” means he didn’t buy it for this occasion, and there’s no way in hell it belonged to my mom. In Connecticut they have no money, no car, and he has not yet figured out the bus. No—he brought this bauble up with him from Louisiana.
“Do you like it?” my mom asked.
“Oh, I do.”
“Oh, good. When your dad showed it to me, I wasn’t sure.”
She was right not to be sure, about this and so many other things. But still, after fifty-some-odd years of marriage, in the end she trusted him. Because what else could she do? The bracelet is not the sort of thing I would ever wear. It slides around the bottom of the peacock box. I found the earring I was searching for tangled in one of its links and wrested it loose.
After my mom died, sympathy cards slipped through our mail slot for weeks. Most people wrote about how kind she was, how much they knew we would miss her, how she would always be in our hearts. But one I remember most of all, a note from Miss Lorraine, one of my mom’s oldest friends, who I hadn’t seen in years and years. I remember her especially from a vacation our families took when I was about eight to a state park in Mississippi, where we rented cabins and skied in the lake and made homemade ice cream and root beer at night. We did that only one year and never again.
I’ve wondered whether my parents couldn’t afford it—it was hard for them to leave their small business for a week at a time—but I also wonder whether all their friends knew. Knew what I knew, even then. That my dad was cheating on my mom. That everyone had to look away all the time. Had to pretend it wasn’t happening. Whether my mom’s friends would worry that their own husbands would get ideas. Whether the husbands worried that my dad, always and still a handsome man, would make a move on their wives. Infidelity is contagious in that way.
“I remember,” Miss Lorraine wrote, “going to visit your mom in the hospital when she had you. She was so happy to finally have her little girl.”
By the time I arrived, eleven years into her marriage, my mom was already protecting me, protecting herself, from the disappointments of being women who love too easily, too hard, too unselfconsciously. By eleven years into her marriage, I wonder whether she knew how many others my dad had already had, whether she hadn’t dared to believe, after so many misses, that this one was really hers. A unicorn. A fantastical creature.
Can you believe it? I’m here, Mom. I’m still here.
ELIZABETH H. BOQUET is a writer and educator whose work explores themes of violence, suffering, and peace-making through writing. Originally from southwest Louisiana, she now lives and works in southwest Connecticut. Her most recent work, Nowhere Near the Line, was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press.
Earlier this week, the following piece by Karrie Higgins ran on the Huffington Post’s blog platform; it was titled “Donald Trump confessed to sexual assault on tape and so did my brother, and here is what I know: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.” A few hours after it went live, Huffington Post took the multi-media essay down, then later deleted Karrie’s account. She has not gotten an explanation for either action.
I saw this going down on social media. I thought her work was, as usual, masterful, and I wrote to ask if she’d like a new home for it at FGP. Full Grown People isn’t a magazine about politics. But, I believe that it is a home for work that tackles power and vulnerability, voice and dismissal—subjects that are inherently political. So, just a friendly reminder: the comment space isn’t a place to debate candidates, but if your voice has something to do with Karrie’s work, speak up! —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.
CW: sexual abuse, sexual assault, audio depicting a pedophile grooming and threatening his victim, Donald Trump audio, sexual abuse and rape apologists
If you are a victim of sexual assault in crisis, please call RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
By Karrie Higgins
When Access Hollywood leaked a recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy,” I felt the same empty relief I get after a good puke. Finally, a misogynist with a history of violence and rape accusations would be unmasked for the predator he is. And yet, I knew deep down: a tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing.
transcript: “Honey, I did NOT … come, oh that’s crazy. Oh, my God, oh my God, I’m just sick. I can’t believe this shit. Oh my God. This is just, this is just bizarre. I just can’t believe this. I did not touch you sexually. I, if, if, you took that way, way wrong, my God. My dear, you, I’m trying to get as honest as I can with you, I mean, that’s way wrong. It’s just, tickling you or wrastling you or grabbing you. If that, if that’s what you thought I was doing, then that was just, that’s not right, I mean, I, that was not my intention whatsoever, my God.”
He didn’t know the call was being recorded. He didn’t know anyone else would ever hear him.
“I need you to tell the truth,” the girl said, over and over, until he broke down and confessed.
Confessed on tape:
transcript: “Well what we did was wrong. Well, when we were wrastling and doing all that, it was wrong. It was inappropriate. Obviously it was very inappropriate. And I did not mean to hurt your feelings or screw your head up, for crying out loud.”
Imagine that played to a jury. The charge: sexual abuse in the second degree of a child under twelve, a Class B Felony in the state of Iowa, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
Nobody could ever call me a liar again, I thought.
Now I know better.
The humiliation of a man accused is always more important than the trauma of a woman assaulted.
transcript: I don’t want your mom to hate me. [crying] This is my life. This is all I have.
I watch as Trump’s victims come forward, say they feel vindicated.
He grabbed me. He’s a big dude, 6 foot 3, and at the time I was waif-like. He was like, ‘I’m tired, let’s lay down.’ So in this bedroom — I hate talking about this — he went for it with the kissing, he had his hands all over me, really pressing down on me, definitely had a hard on. I had worn pants strategically. I knew better than wearing a skirt around him anymore. It was a barrier of protection …
Harth said she feels “vindicated” by the tape. “I would love to get some kind of apology from anybody in that camp.”
Watching him relive his sexual aggressions on the video, she said in an interview on Saturday, “made me feel a lot better.”
“It was like: ‘Thank you. Now no one can say I made this up,’” she added.
I want to be happy for them, but I know what comes next.
Men in my social media feeds:
The timing is perfect. The Clintons still got it.
It’s fishy someone held onto that tape.
Crooked Hillary is trying to rig the election.
Trump campaign decal:
May 1983, eight years old: six weeks after the first time I had sex with my brother, opening weekend of Return of the Jedi. A neighbor boy pitches a tent in the tall grass of his backyard, says, “Let’s play Star Wars.”
“I’ll be Princess Leia,” I say, “in the costume where her boobies show.”
I crawl into the tent. The boy unzips his pants, sticks the tip of his penis through the flap in his Superman Underoos, and pees on me.
Later, he tattles to his mother: “Karrie said boobies.”
And she tattles to my mother: “I will not have her polluting my son.”
I stuff my wet clothes in the laundry basket and don’t tattle back. I am a bad girl. Zero credibility.
To my students, but especially to the boys: I want to be sure you know. What we have learned about Donald Trump and how he speaks about and treats women is not ok. It’s not ok for a 60-year-old man, its not ok for a 13-year-old boy. It’s not ok for anyone.
The same high school where a math teacher and coach grabbed my pussy. Not just any teacher or coach, but the Cedar Rapids version of Jerry fucking Sandusky.
I can still smell his breath when he said, “I know things aren’t right at home.” My body pulled close to his. His hands down my pants, under my panties. I know things aren’t right at home. Not concern. A threat.
On the day he died, my Facebook feed flooded with eulogies. Best math teacher I ever had. Best coach ever!
Friends changed their profile pictures to his face.
His face. In my Facebook feed. The man who grabbed my pussy.
I vacillated between nausea and a low boiling rage: Look how he helped those students. Look what he did for everybody else.
My Kennedy High School transcript, senior year:
I never enrolled for the final trimester.
I went to my counselor’s office. I said, “I can’t take it anymore.”
He said, “You’re college material. This place is holding you back. Let me get this taken care of and get you out of here.”
And he did.
I remember my last day of school. It wasn’t anyone else’s last day of school. I ran my finger along the tile walls as I walked down the hall. I needed to feel them, needed to feel that I was there, because I was about to disappear, and nobody would even notice.
My mother forced me to attend graduation. I showed up in my cap & gown. Nobody said, “Where have you been?” Nobody asked. Nobody noticed. It went exactly how I knew it would. I was glad.
I never submitted my senior picture to the yearbook.
Poof! I was gone. Like I never even happened.
That’s what sexual abuse and assault do to you. That. Like you never even happened.
The Weekly Standard: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that’s not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don’t know. It’s not clear that he—how that would occur.
I write my hometown paper. I tattle on that teacher. I say, “Do you want to help me tell this story?”
I call my favorite high school teacher, the one who wrote get thee to a nunnery in my journal when I confessed to having the hots for Hamlet, the one who saved my life without even knowing it.
When I tell him Mr. _______ grabbed me by the pussy, he gasps. An OH SHIT YOU’RE IN TROUBLE kind of gasp. Not because he doesn’t believe me, but because that teacher is a mini Jerry goddamned Sandusky.
“The faculty all thought he was a god.”
Why now? Why now? Why now? People ask.
But it wasn’t just now.
July 25, 2015:
I panic about being grilled for the details. I panic about being accused of making it all up because I waited so long.
“What if I get a detail wrong?” I ask my husband.
They are going to attack my partial deafness and auditory processing disorder, accuse me of mishearing. They are going to say my bipolar makes me hysterical. Unreliable. They are going to say my memory is bad because of the seizures. They are going to say epileptics are liars.
“It’s the same story you’ve told me since undergrad,” my husband says. He means back in the 90s, not long after the coach assaulted me. “It will be OK.”
What do you want? Money?
Cedar Rapids Public Schools called the principal’s post “political.”
They are wrong, but they are also right.
My brother’s Airborne buddy:
Well how would you like to have the job of searching the internet on multiple sites if your job is to locate underage participants? That’s a real job. I had to do that once, took me a week to find the videos of the youth involved. It was with her step father and they were live on camera. He was a soldier. Not anymore.
Your brother was the best. He was the best of the best. He ended up getting fucked over hard. Fucked over hard by a woman.
Choosing sides is always political.
My brother was a god, too, a sex god drag racing his GTO through the streets of Cedar Rapids before I was even born. Everybody loved him. Every girl wanted him:
My brother’s Airborne buddy, when I contact him for stories and photos, 7 years after my brother would have faced trial, if he hadn’t swallowed morphine, methadone, diazepam, gabapentin, and desmethyldiazepam, and died in the fetal position in front of his couch:
All I see in your profile pic is a skinny girl with tattoos. I mean, where are the boobies? You’ve got my cell number. I want to see what you got.
transcript: I want you to get your head squared on straight, but at the same time, I’ll be darned if I’m gonna be humiliated by some court of law.
They wanted me to surrender myself to the same jail where they locked up my brother for his last Christmas on Earth. They wanted me to submit to a grope for illicit recording devices. They wanted me to sit in an interrogation room, maybe even the same one my brother did. They wanted me to play the part of my own molester.
Protecting the other victim, they said, even though I asked for her voice to be redacted.
The police know the rules of the game: the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets, the victim guards the secrets.
I told them I was partially deaf, that listening once would not be enough.
I told them my epilepsy and neurological conditions make travel an undue burden, that I didn’t have the money to get to Iowa, that even if I could get there, I would be stranded at the airport with no way to get to a small-town sheriff’s office in the middle of nowhere. I can’t drive, I said.
They were violating the spirit of open records law, I said. Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The sheriff never responded.
I am a disabled sexual abuse victim of a man he wanted to put behind bars for sexual abuse, and he did not respond.
The Fraternal Order of Police is endorsing a man who makes fun of disabilities.
I started to see conspiracies in the telephone call transcript.
I played Mad Libs. I filled in the sentences with all the best defenses.
What did the cops not want me to know?
They made my play the part of my own molester:
transcript: Karrie reading the line “This is my life” from her brother’s taped police phone call transcript in three different ways (argumentative, crying, scared).
From the settlement in Karrie Higgins v. Poweshiek County Sheriff:
Injuries and damages:
I sued the sheriff who arrested my brother.
They made me play the part of my own molester.
They made me mistrust the very same cops who should have been my heroes.
Why did the police have to become my enemy? Why couldn’t there be one goddamned hero?
The week of the Democratic National Convention, I got word from my attorney: the Poweshiek County Sheriff had produced the audio.
Validation. Corroboration. On its way to me via first class mail.
On the television, Hillary’s campaign theme:
It’s not my kind of music. I’m a Nirvana girl, a Prince girl, a Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Smiths girl.
A Bernie Sanders girl.
Hillary’s presidential campaign and my lawsuit victory collapsed into one event. Hillary’s theme music became my theme music, the only salve that made anything OK.
I listened to it on repeat. I bawled.
I wanted tosee my brother be brave. I wanted him to let the words fall out.
transcript: It just, get better because I love you and I’m so sorry. It happened to me too when I was younger, but it was not right, but I’ll tell you about that another time, I mean that has nothin’ to do with what happened with me and you whatever, but I love you- and I don’t, I don’t want to destroy our family over this.
Just locker room talk, just locker room talk, just locker room talk.
The presidential election and my abuse collapse into the same event.
I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.
based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.
barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past
I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.
I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let the words fall out.
And even though I was always voting blue no matter who, even though I backed Hillary from the moment she won the nomination, #ImWithHer more than ever. I am more excited to vote for her than ever.
one of Hillary’s campaign theme songs
“You rush in where others won’t go,” my favorite high school teacher said on the phone.
I am going to rush in, and I don’t really care if nobody else believes. If Mr. Kline is going to be censored, I am going to blow up everyone’s favorite pussy-grabbing coach.
I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.
A tape doesn’t change a goddamned thing. A tape changes everything.
KARRIE HIGGINS is a writer, magician, performance artist, ink-maker, forger, seamstress, disability activist, and rebel theologian without a faith living in Boulder, Colorado. Her writing & Intermedia art have appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, The Manifest-Station, Quarter After Eight, Western Humanities Review, Rogue Agent, Deaf Poets Society, Cincinnati Review, The Los Angeles Review, LA Times, and many more. She won the 2013 Schiff Award for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and her essays have twice been notables in Best American Essays. She is too hardcore for the Huffington Post. karriehiggins.com
My bio-brother says his father was in the movie business. He says his father played piano. His father, my bio-brother says, was an amazing piano player, long fingers, a real natural.
Bio is what my brother and I sometimes call each other to make sense of things. It’s hard to find language for what we are and how we feel about it, so sometimes we don’t bother at all.
I’m forty by the time my brother and I meet. He’s a few years younger. When we’re together, my brother and I like to compare hands. We press our palms together, measuring. Our hands are big, long-fingered.
“We get it from the old man,” my brother says.
My brother and I weren’t raised together. His mother gave me up for adoption before he was born. His father abandoned his family for Hollywood years ago.
My brother’s mother is my birth mother, but when I say mother and father, I mean the parents who raised me. I say “real.”
When my brother says mother, he means the mother who raised him, a woman I’ve never met. When my brother says father, he means a stranger.
My brother asks if I play piano.
I tell him I do.
He says he hopes I’ll play for him some time.
I tell him I will.
Soon my brother and I will be together in my basement, and I will play songs on the piano I learned on as a child. The piano is over thirty years old, an upright Kimball, but the keys are good. My mother, the mother who raised me, kept the wood polished with oil soap so it still shines.
I do my best to keep it up.
I polish it when I can.
I play my brother “Begin the Beguine,” my father’s favorite song. My father, the father who raised me, was a singer, before the war, before the mills, before he got bitter and sad and stopped singing.
Once he won a contest and got to sing on the radio in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and for a while everybody knew him as the boy who sang on the radio.
Then they forgot what song it was he sang.
Then they forgot it was him who sang it.
Then they forgot my father’s name and how to spell it.
Then they forgot my father ever sang at all.
The song he sang was “Begin the Beguine.” The story goes, my father cut a record that day as part of his prize, but I never saw a record. No one did. My father must have kept it hidden or destroyed it.
Or maybe there never was a record. Maybe that was just a story. Maybe there was just that one time in the radio studio, one take, the D.J. picking his fingernails, saying, “This is it, kid. You got five minutes.”
My father always thought the song’s title was “Begin the Begin,” as if any minute his life would start over, as if any minute it would be good.
I tell my brother this and laugh, even though I think it’s sad.
It’s one of the saddest stories I know.
I play my brother another song—“Somewhere My Love,” my mother’s favorite, the theme song from “Dr. Zhivago,” a sap story set in the Bolshevik Revolution.
I have always hated this song.
My mother would make me play it over and over for guests.
I tell my brother this story, too.
I tell him about the time my mother made me play it for her cousins, Dick and Stella.
“Dick was a bastard,” I say.
“I know a lot of bastards,” my brother says.
“Me too,” I say.
My brother says, “I know that’s right,” and puts a hand up for me to high-five.
I’m sixteen, and Dick and Stella have just pulled up in their paneled station wagon. They’re staying for the weekend. I hear Dick say, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and I hear Stella apologize three ways.
I’m hiding out in my room when I hear my mother call, “Oh, Lori baby. Come say hi to Dick and Stella. Come play ‘Somewhere My Love’ for us.” It’s her sing- song, welcome-to-my-perfect-home voice.
My mother watches a lot of old movies. She’s spent a lot of money on me—piano lessons, dance lessons, doctors, clothes and food. What she wants every once in a while is to impress people—in this case, Dick and Stella. What she wants is for me to come out and be, just once, a perfect daughter. What she wants is a lacey white dress and pigtails and for me to say “Oh, yes, Mother dear.”
What she wants is for me to skip.
Most times I try. We keep our fights between us. In front of other people, I want her to be proud of me. I love my mother. I want to prove I haven’t been a complete waste.
With Dick and Stella, though, there’s a problem. Dick is nasty. He’s also a drunk. He beats Stella. I do not know how often or how bad, but she is always nervous and he is always rough, and everyone in the family knows this and no one says much about it.
“You know how men are,” the aunts say.
“They have a lot of passion between them,” the aunts say.
“Dick has an artistic temperament,” the aunts say, that word again, temperament.
I think Dick’s name suits him. I tell my mother this.
“You will be respectful,” my mother said before Dick and Stella arrived. “They’re family,” she said, as if that explained anything.
By artistic, the aunts mean Dick is a musician, a barroom pianist, and a good one. When he plays, Stella sings along, like the terrified little lab mouse she is.
Dick is not trained, like me. He reminds me of this each time we see each other.
Trained pianists, Dick says, are like trained monkeys. Real musicians don’t have to be taught how to run a scale or play the blues any more than real monkeys have to be taught to swing from trees and fling shit.
“You’re either born with it or you’re not. Me, I never had one goddamn lesson,” he says now as he settles into my mother’s good wing-backed chair.
He’s wearing Hawaiian shorts and a tank top, black socks and sandals even though it’s October, even though there’s frost coming. He has a can of Iron City in one hand. The other hand keeps time to some music only he can hear.
I think Dick is like a dog in this way. He’s always hearing things.
He taps out those rhythms on the arm of the chair. He rolls the beat through his fingers, like they’re already on the keyboard, like they never can rest. I watch his fingers, how thick they are, how big and hard his hands seem.
I imagine him hitting poor Stella, those fingers coming down again and again in a slap. I can’t imagine what she’d do that would make him so mad.
“My sweet Dick,” she says, and her voice warbles and clicks, like a cotton candy machine filled with pennies. “He plays like an angel.”
Maybe it’s something awful and simple.
Dick the angel-playing pianist can’t bear the sound of his wife’s voice.
“I’m a natural,” he’s saying. “I play by ear. Have since I was this high,” Dick says, and he takes his rhythm hand down low, an inch above the carpet, to show he’s been playing since he was a fetus.
Stella’s tweaking, a Pekinese on the Fourth of July. When Dick tells her to get up to the piano, when he tells her to sing along to what I am about to play, she jumps like an M-80 just went off in her shoe.
Poor Stella with the horrible voice sings when Dick says sing, even if he’ll slap her for it later.
I play my best for my mother, who wants to be proud, who wants to show me off, her well-trained and talented daughter. My mother sings along with Stella. They smile at each other as they sing. They hold hands, like singers do in those movies they watch.
The two of them could torture dictators into giving up their countries, their families, their stashes of fine cigars, their own ears, they’re so beautifully unimaginably off-key.
When it’s over, Dick just sits in his chair.
“Well aren’t you two the bee’s knees,” he says to my mother and Stella. He doesn’t smile. His fingers thrum their invisible keys. He’s quiet, then he says to me, “I can see you’ve practiced that one a lot.”
I nod and think for a minute he’s going to praise me.
He says, “You’ve been taking lessons for how long— three, four years now?”
He says, “How about I give it a go?”
He hoists himself out of the chair and walks to the piano like a linebacker. He sits down on the bench and it creaks under his weight. He rolls one wrist to loosen it, then the other.
Then he plays.
I’d like to say he’s terrible. I’d like to say he hits the keys with a jazzy rendition of chopsticks. I’d like to say he thumps the keys like the brute he is.
But he plays beautifully. His fingers don’t even seem to touch the keys. His whole body becomes part of the instrument, the music. There’s no separating it.
Dick is a beautiful pianist and the world is worse because of it.
“There,” he says when he is finished. “That’s how a piano’s meant to be played.”
Weeks later, I’ll get a letter from Dick, who will tell me I have the technical skill to be a concert pianist but not the heart. I have the physical ability but not the soul. I should give up and not waste any more time.
“I figure I should tell you now for your own good,” he says. “You are not a born pianist.”
It’s a crushing thing.
“You’ll thank me,” Dick writes.
I didn’t thank him that day. I didn’t thank him ever. I wished him dead more than once. I wished Stella would kill him in his sleep—a pillow to the face, a stove left on, something easy like that.
Still, Dick was right. I wouldn’t become a pianist, though all these years later I still play, and one day I find myself sitting in the basement of my childhood home, playing the piano Dick once played, the very same piano, for a man who is my brother.
“You’re really good,” my brother says. “Just like my old man.”
Maybe I wasn’t born a pianist.
Maybe nobody’s born anything, though Dick thought he was.
“I know a lot of dicks,” my brother will say. “My father was one most of the time.”
I won’t know if my brother’s father is my birthfather.
I won’t be sure if it matters or not.
“Do you know any Bruce?” my brother will ask, and he’ll mean Springsteen.
LORI JAKIELA is the author of the memoirs Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe; The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious; and Miss New York Has Everything, as well as a poetry collection—Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point, 2012). She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University, and co-directs the summer writing festival at Chautauqua Institution. She lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. For more, visit lorijakiela.net.
It was 2:12 a.m. I woke up to what sounded like a stick being ripped across a wooden fence over and over again. My muscles tensed but soon settled when the familiar sound sunk in. I looked over at Mike sleeping next to me. My brother’s croaking hadn’t woken him yet.
Ghandy was wide awake, and the cacophony emanating from him proved it: his open palm driving his bottom row of teeth to collide with the top, his teeth clicking in rapid succession, his knee slamming against the hollow wood floor. All these tics had the paradoxical quality of making him feel comfortable in a new setting.
My mom and brother slept on an air mattress in the living room ten feet away from our bedroom. My dad was on the couch. In my hundred-year-old apartment with no proper doors to separate the two rooms, a typical scene played out between my parents. Since Ghandy was born with brain damage twenty-seven years ago, they have always argued about how to take care of him.
“Don’t force him to go back to sleep,” my mom said. “Just leave him alone.”
“He was too hot,” my dad said. “You should have taken off his long-sleeve shirt before he went to sleep.”
“He’s awake because he had a wet diaper. You gave him too much water before bed.”
My family was in town visiting. And like a good Vietnamese daughter, I invited them to stay at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend.
The noises didn’t bother me. I had learned to sleep through them a long time ago. But a pulsating feeling filled my stomach, like my heart had slid out of its proper place to a spot right behind my belly button. Even though I was in my bed in my own home, I had the feeling that my family and I were being stared at and judged. Ghandy waking up in the middle of the night was nothing new for my family, but having Mike there caused a tension that I didn’t know how to quell. When it comes to Ghandy, my parents’ attitude is that Ghandy comes first, and everyone else can adjust. I felt like my family had just become a huge imposition on not only Mike, but our upstairs neighbor, who I was convinced could hear all the commotion as well as we could.
This made me feel like a helpless little girl again. When people used to ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I replied with what I thought they wanted to hear. “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer.” But what I really wanted to say was, “I want to be normal.” Growing up, my family was different. We were the only immigrant family on our street. We were also the family with the retarded brother. People looked at Ghandy like he was an animal.
Ghandy’s noises grew louder. Mike was now awake. He wrapped a pillow around his head, though it was useless.
“What’s wrong with your brother, Maggie? Can we do anything?”
“He just woke up. I don’t think he’s going back to sleep.”
“I didn’t realize how loud he could be.”
“I just feel bad for our neighbor upstairs.”
I didn’t reply, just turned my back to him and pulled my knees up to my chest. In that moment, what I had feared for the entirety of my adult life was impossible to ignore. My parents will pass away one day, and Ghandy will need someone to take care of him. As the oldest, I knew this responsibility would most likely be my inheritance. I had promised my parents that Ghandy would never end up in an institution or a home. But it was scary to think about what this responsibility would hold me back from. Would it keep me from traveling? From having my own family? Would Mike be willing to take on this burden with me? Would anyone?
My brother was named after Mahatma Gandhi. Just like mine and my sister’s before him, Ghandy’s namesake was a world leader whom my father admired. I was named after Margaret Thatcher and my sister after Golda Meir. Ghandy is a name that my brother has never been able to say himself, a name that holds significance he will never understand. Throughout my childhood, my parents referred to Ghandy as sick. I only came to the term “cerebral palsy” after accompanying my parents to numerous doctor appointments.
As the oldest sibling, my instinct to protect Ghandy was especially strong. My dad took us to the doctor once, and records showed that Ghandy and I needed some vaccinations. I wanted to be brave and go first. Still, I was scared. I had the urge to pull up my legs, which hung lifelessly a foot above the ground, and make myself into a tight ball. The nurse lowered the needle to the taut flesh pinched between her fingers. My breathing quickened, and I had to look away as the needle punctured my skin.
“See, that wasn’t so bad.”
“That kinda hurt,” I said. “I think my brother’s gonna cry a lot.”
I looked at Ghandy, took his hand and caressed it. He had the cutest hands—soft skin, portly fingers, chubby palms; the only blemish was a wart by the knuckle above his left-hand middle finger. The wart bothered me. I picked at it, hoping it would fall off. Ghandy reacted as he usually did, looking around the room like voices from different directions were calling his name. I stopped obsessing about the wart and started to sing his favorite Vietnamese nursery rhyme. He smiled and laughed.
“There. All done,” the nurse said.
I learned something in that moment. What worries me doesn’t matter to Ghandy. The beautiful thing about him is that he doesn’t know fear. He only knows what it is to be loved. Since he was born, he has been the center of my family. It is an unspoken truth that my brother will always be taken care of.
This truth has been too heavy to bear at times. It feels like an impending sentence, ominously lurking somewhere in my future. I never know when it will happen, only that it will. To soothe this anxiety, the only remedy that I’ve come up with is to avoid what is inevitable. But as I get older, I know I can’t keep putting off this reality. Ultimately, this is the thing I’m scared to face: that when I become Ghandy’s sole caretaker, his life will eclipse mine, and whatever I have done or accomplished in my life will mean nothing.
I want to be a wife. I want to be a mother. I want to be a writer. I want my own life. Having a brother like mine, does wanting these things make me selfish?
This was the question that circled my brain since Ghandy woke up. As morning approached, Ghandy’s croaking turned into cooing. Still, it was enough to keep Mike up. Around five a.m., Mike got out of bed, put on some headphones, and did some work. I didn’t know if he was mad or not. I was afraid to ask.
My brother was able to sleep well for the rest of the trip, although that first night had planted a seed of dread that grew for the remainder of my family’s visit. After they left, I knew I had to talk to Mike.
“Mike, can I tell you something?”
“Yeah. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I know I’m probably going to have to take care of Ghandy one day. I’m really scared because I don’t know if I can do it alone.”
My eyes fell to the ground. There was a possibility Mike would give me the look that said, This is a big responsibility. This is asking a lot. I wanted to avoid that look if possible. I didn’t expect the next thing to come out of his mouth.
“Maggie, you’re not going to have to do it alone. Me, you, your sister, and her husband—between the four of us, we’ll figure it out.”
After all that time wondering what would happen if Ghandy were to hijack my life, this was all Mike needed to say to make me feel that this fear was conquerable, that he would help me find a way to make it work. That I wouldn’t be alone.
On a typical Wednesday morning, Mike and I woke up the way we always did. I was barely cognizant of his alarm going off. He threaded his arms through mine and buried his face into my neck. We always say how this is our favorite time of the day. We’re not watching TV, or eating, or doing something else. We’re just together. I told him everything that had been on my mind that I was too exhausted to tell him the night before.
“There was this article I read yesterday about how little women know about their fertility,” I said, half-awake. “At thirty, your fertility is affected. At thirty-two, it goes down significantly and then at forty, it can be pretty hard to get pregnant. I mean, I have a couple years, but it’s just a lot of pressure.”
“Then let’s get married soon.”
“Okay. Sounds good.”
“No, really. Will you marry me?”
“Yeah, of course,” I reflexively mumbled. I forced my eyes open when I realized what he was actually asking. I turned around to look at him. “Wait, seriously. Are you proposing to me right now?”
“Yeah. I don’t have a ring or anything, but, yes, will you marry me?”
“Yes. I would marry you a thousand times.”
After we kissed, I pressed my face into his chest and took a deep breath. I was overwhelmed. He rested his chin on my head and held me while I cried.
Since then, some people have asked me about his proposal, anticipating some kind of get-down-on-one-knee, ring-hidden-in-a-fancy-meal story. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t deliver the story they want. When you get engaged, you feel there are certain expectations you need to meet. I’ve learned things don’t always go as expected, though. The life I will eventually have won’t be what I envisioned when I was younger, but acknowledging all the obstacles that might lie ahead makes them easier to face.
When I go home, I am in awe of how my aging parents take care of Ghandy. They change his diapers, apply lotion on his face, feed him every meal. And yet they never complain. My dad hauls Ghandy in and out of the shower and shaves the small patch of hair on the left side of his chin. My mom pats Ghandy’s back before he goes to sleep and gets him ready for school in the morning. This is the easy stuff.
What’s harder for me to deal with are the stares that Ghandy attracts in public. The same protective instinct that drummed through me as a little girl is still as strong today. This sets off a perpetual preoccupied state of mind. I get angry, I get defensive, I feel shame. And then I just want to disappear. I can’t be in the moment because these feelings are cycling through my head. But Mike often reminds me that this is family, and you can’t change your family; you can only accept it.
I know taking care of Ghandy will feel like a burden at times. I might revert to that self-pitying mindset that engulfed me when I was younger: looking at people who I think have perfect lives and wondering why I was given the heavy load. But just as my parents have had each other to lean on in caring for my brother, I, too, will have someone to help carry the load when it seems insurmountable. Mike has lifted that looming dread that has afflicted me for so long. In its place has come acceptance and the reassuring knowledge that Mike will be there to help me, no matter what our future holds.
MAGGIE THACH is a writing and literature teacher living in San Diego. Before she received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the low-residency program at UC Riverside Palm Desert, she was an award-winning sports journalist at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was recently selected as a 2015 Peace Writer for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. In this position, she will be paired with a female human rights advocate from around the world and document the advocate’s story of living in conflict and building peace in her community and nation.
Standing at the podium, I felt numb with shock. I thought my grief would have subsided a little by now, because three weeks had passed. Three weeks. I had that lost feeling you get when you dream, where you know it can’t be real, but you’re still going through the motions in an altered world. There I was again, in front of a crowd of mourners whose eyes were all focused on me. My palms were wet and my heart raced. I shook, as if pure caffeine were running through my veins, and then in the next moment, I shivered from a cold that only I could feel.
Here, in Pennsylvania, the audience was more familiar to me than it had been at the funeral in Michigan. It was filled with my brother’s closest friends, members of our family, and my children, who sat in the front row. I hadn’t brought them to the Michigan funeral. At the time, they were still in school, and I was in no condition to be a parent. I was doing this all again for them. It was the least I could do; I’d kept them away from their uncle for almost two years.
Edmund had adored my children. Although he didn’t have any of his own, he truly loved kids. He spoiled mine with attention and presents, until he couldn’t anymore. Even after circumstances changed for him, I don’t think that the kids ever really noticed that the gifts and the attention slowed. To them, he was still their loud and gregarious uncle. He remained a steady presence and influence in their lives, until his demons got in the way. Until he didn’t look the same. Until his speech became incoherent. Until their mother made her decision.
In the months prior to his passing, I’d had a feeling that perhaps time was running out. There had been previous hospital stays, and during the last one, doctors suggested nursing care. I had no idea that things had gotten so dire. I called a friend who’s a nurse and she was brutally honest, and I panicked. I was familiar with Edmund’s disease, because it was the same one that had afflicted my parents. It’s the one you get from having a good time. From being the life of the party. From being the person everyone wants to hang out with. That is, until the disease flips the script and no one’s having a good time. And family and friends no longer want to hang out with you. I knew what the outcome would be, although I’d imagined years not weeks. I called my brother and planned a trip. As soon as school got out, the kids and I were headed to Michigan.
During the last few years of my brother’s life, I grew accustomed to late night phone calls. I didn’t enjoy waking to the ringing phone in the middle of the night, but at least I heard his voice and knew where he was. When the calls started, I would wake with fright, instinctively reluctant to pick up the phone, remembering the old adage about bad things happening in the middle of the night. The relief that I felt upon hearing his voice and the he’s okay feeling would soon turn to sadness when I realized that I couldn’t understand anything he was saying.
When the last call came, I wasn’t asleep. It was late, but I’d been restless, tossing and turning, my mind racing over all I had to do in the weeks leading up to the end of school. I jumped out of bed on the first ring, but I also rolled my eyes as I reached for the phone. I assumed he was hoping to get a “Happy Mother’s Day” in, just under the wire. But then I saw Kelly’s number. Kelly, my sweet sister-in-law who never called in the middle of the night. A lump formed in my throat as I answered. Adrenaline started pumping through me because it wasn’t Kelly’s voice that I heard, although her tears echoed in the background and pricked the surface of my skin as an unfamiliar voice said, “This is Lisa, Kelly’s neighbor…”
Almost two years before, I’d made the decision to keep my kids away from my brother on the heels of one of our many heart-to-heart discussions. During Edmund’s last visit we sat at the breakfast bar in my kitchen. He had become a different person and it scared me. He’d lost weight and moved slowly. He looked like a young man, but his gait was labored and wobbly. His speech was hesitant, as if pronouncing each word was difficult. His once bellowing voice was reduced to a hoarse whisper and he was uncharacteristically gentle.
I made my case and used all the clichés you do when you feel helpless. “I’m very worried about you.” “You have to stop.” “I don’t understand.” “You know what can happen.”
He was a master of deflection; he didn’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. Instead, he wanted to talk about my kids. He told me how much he loved them and that if anything happened to me or my husband, he wanted them. Then he took a slow sip of his poison, claiming it was innocuous because it was beer. I was nauseated as I felt the inevitability of history repeating itself. He was going to lose the battle, just as our parents had. With a shaky voice, I tried to explain the fear I had of having to tell my kids one day that he was dead. He promised me, “No, no, you won’t.” But he didn’t look at me and I did not believe him.
The year and a half that followed was a roller coaster, one that I navigated on the fly. There were rough moments, many of which led to months of radio silence between us. The kids would talk about him, but less frequently. Bear broke his foot and appeared on television with his class. Hunter graduated from elementary school and learned to play the trumpet. Audrey was accepted into the Company Ballet Program and received her First Communion. Camden learned to talk and joined a soccer team. Our life went on, minus Uncle Eggie. It was quieter, for sure, but also drama-free.
But when things deteriorated with Edmund’s condition, I had second thoughts. I changed my mind.
My kids missed the reunion with their uncle by sixteen days. Sixteen days.
I didn’t bring them to the funeral. I just couldn’t. I’d never felt grief like this before. Never. I cried constantly and was so dehydrated that no amount of water could satisfy my thirst. I lost ten pounds in four days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was heartbroken. And angry. And guilt-ridden. I wanted to be alone, and yet people were everywhere. I had to help plan my baby brother’s funeral. There was no way that I would have been able to comfort my children, and I didn’t want them to see me in that condition. I knew that seeing my brother at the funeral would haunt me forever, and I couldn’t risk letting that happen to them.
When I learned that my brother’s friends in Pennsylvania were having a memorial service, I decided to take the children. I wanted them to have an opportunity for closure, although I didn’t know what that would mean.
Edmund was a Marine and a Gulf War veteran. His funeral and memorial service were attended by an honor guard. Watching the Marines fold a flag and ceremoniously give it to his widow wasn’t any easier the second time. As the mournful melody filled the room, my son Hunter sat straighter, filled with pride. Audrey crumbled in tears. Cammy, wide-eyed, stared at the soldiers, not fully comprehending the significance, but watched the ceremony with the awe that only a five-year-old can possess. Barrett, my child with autism, was on a computer in an adjoining room and occasionally made his presence known with giggles.
When I spoke during the service, I felt a stab of pain each time I made eye contact with my children. Hunter had the anguished expression that he gets when tries not cry, but Audrey made no such effort. She was weeping in my Aunt Ginny’s arms. Cammy looked around at me, his siblings and his aunts with profound confusion. As I spoke, I was desperate to connect my kids with Edmund. I reminisced about how each of them reminded me of him in their own ways. Barrett exudes his innate cockiness. Hunter is emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve. Audrey possesses his dance moves and the need to be the center of attention. Cammy has his charm and his way with the ladies.
I was so worried about the kids. I wanted them to feel the loss, but not the pain. As I watched their carefree innocence at the reception, I knew they were going to be okay.
I’m not okay. Grief aside, I still have much to resolve. If I could do it all over again, knowing how and when it would end, I would do it so differently. I would answer every phone call, I would visit every chance we had. I would say, “I love you” over and over again. I would accept that it is what it is—sometimes people can’t get better and it’s not their fault. I would make the most of the time we had left with him.
I’m so afraid that my kids won’t remember their uncle. I carry the burden of wondering if this will prove to be even more difficult because of the two years they lost with him. I thought I’d made the right decision for my children, to keep Edmund out of their lives. But was it? Or was it my ego and forty-one years of sibling history that drove my decision?
I have beaten myself up for this, talked it to death, forgiven myself, and then repeated the cycle all over again. I have been down the road of unsaid apologies and good-byes that were too late before.
I can claim that events, unfortunately, played out in the manner that I predicted. I knew that he was going to die from the disease, and I was right. Yet I so wish I hadn’t been right. I honestly, naively, thought it would have taken longer for him to succumb, but his body was done. At forty-one years old. In the immediate aftermath of my brother’s passing I doubted my choices. With the passage of time, I’m not so sure. What would have been the cost to my children if I had? What if he’d collapsed in front of them, or been incoherent? Would they have been scared? Or what if they’d laughed at him, not understanding that he wasn’t trying to be funny? As it is now, they smile when they talk about Edmund, which they do quite a bit. Would that have been the case had they seen him at his worst?
I followed my gut and did what I thought was best for my kids. Maybe I did the right thing, but it still hurts and that’s a pain I’ll have to live with, but at least they won’t.
ALLIE SMITH lives in suburban Atlanta and is a wife and mother of four children, with twins and special needs in the mix. She writes about parenting, autism and the journey of motherhood at www.thelatchkeymom.com. She also writes book reviews for Chick Lit Plus. During the summers, Allie takes epic road trips with her children, exploring the wonders of our country. These adventures are documented in a travel column for My Forsyth magazine.
Hours after I became a mother at the age of forty-three in a remote city in China, I got a phone call from my brother Kent. Our father had suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was unlikely to live for more than a few days.
It was December 9, 1994. My father was seventy-six years old, living with his fifth wife in Florida. My mother—his first wife—had died eleven years earlier, and in those terrible ensuing years, my father went crazy and kept getting married to any woman who would say “yes.” He was depressed, desperate, defensive. No matter what his three children advised him, he always had a “next in line,” a woman he knew we’d all love.
The women were younger, destitute, uneducated, and amazed that a man had come along to rescue them. They had no idea that money was one thing, but what went with the money was a man who desired to control their every move. Always headstrong and impulsive, he became worse, so much so that my brothers and I wondered if he suffered from a borderline personality disorder. The judge in his second divorce hearing (the divorce after just a month from his marriage to Bert, a woman I never met who left her job as a waitress at his country club to marry him) suggested my father see a psychiatrist, which my father found absurd. He had no need for psychiatrists; in fact, he considered it a sign of weakness. It was whispered for years that his older sister, Anne, had seen a psychiatrist while she was at Wellesley College, because she was so “high-strung.”
The truth of the matter was that Anne had suffered at the hands of an alcoholic, abusive father who was an embarrassment to his family in the upstate New York town where they had lived. A graduate of Hamilton College in the same class as writer and critic and fellow curmudgeon Alexander Woollcott, of Algonquin Round Table fame, my grandfather was a brilliant, spoiled man who got a law degree at Columbia University and then never bothered to work.
“When was Grandpa’s last case?” I’d ask my father.
“Of Labatt?” was always the response.
We’d laugh and laugh at this private joke.
My grandfather would sit in an overstuffed, low-lying easy chair in the parlor of the Greek Revival home purchased for him and his bride Lucile by his father-in-law and smoke cigars and drink Labatt beer all day long, living off the income from a family bakery business that his wife’s ancestors started in 1896. When my grandfather fell out of bed, drunk, in his late seventies and broke his hip, the end was near. As he took his last breath, my father was at his side, and he told people later that he had said, “Good riddance, you son of a bitch.”
The night before my husband Gregory and I left for China in December 1994, I called my father in Florida to tell him we were on our way. I had seen him a few months earlier at the “celebration” of his fifth anniversary to his fifth wife. She had taken me aside and had said she was leaving him because he was crazy and a womanizer and told anyone who would listen about his new penile pump. I’d told Gregory to call Continental Airlines because we were returning to New York City immediately.
During my final conversation with my father that night before going to China, I tried, as I always had, to get him to focus on me, his youngest child and only daughter.
He talked about a cousin I barely knew and his wife’s friend who had gone to China to adopt a child. He relayed every detail of their trip.
“What about my trip?” I almost screamed into the phone. “What about me?”
I told Gregory that I hoped my father would drop dead.
And he did.
Did he die because I willed it? Did I kill my father?
“There’s nothing you can do,” my brother, a doctor in Richmond, Virginia, where my mother had grown up, told me. “You could never get back in time.”
I knew that I couldn’t leave China without first going through the legal adoption process, which would take place at the U.S. Embassy in Guangzhou in a few days. So I didn’t even think about leaving. A DES daughter, I had endured years of infertility, IVF, a stillbirth, and two ectopic pregnancies; nothing was going to stand in my way of becoming a mother now. I told Gregory that I didn’t want anyone in our group of twelve adoptive families to know about my father. I wanted to keep this separate from the joy of becoming a mother. I would file it away somewhere deep inside my brain and deal with it later.
And so we went on as we had before the phone call from my brother, delighting in our happy, beautiful baby girl. We have photos of the three of us, laughing and clapping our hands, in the hotel restaurant.
When my brother called two days later to say my father had died, never regaining consciousness, I cried, for the first time. And then we prepared for our long trip back to America with our baby girl, Wei Xin-Fei, renamed Lili.
I flew to Florida for the funeral, which took place on a golf course. Golf was his only real passion, so this was fitting. The master of ceremonies, if you will, was Patty Berg, the winner of a record fifteen women’s major golf championships and a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association. My father had become friends with the five-foot-two powerhouse Patty Berg because she was the pro at his golf club. After one of his divorces, he had nowhere to live, so he moved in with Patty. I had a hunch that she was a lesbian, although she never came out, which is the only explanation I had for why he didn’t marry her. I’m sure he asked, as he always did. But she was not his type; she was smart, successful, independent, tough. He liked the thirty-year-olds he met at shopping malls and bought televisions and VCRs for, the ones who had been mistreated by men. He was there to save them. His mission in life.
Patty Berg told funny stories about my father, like the time he got a hole in one and then tried to duck out of having to buy drinks for everyone. A notorious cheapskate, we had many family stories about how he’d put rotgut vodka in Smirnoff bottles. There was never a brand name in his cupboards; he was the king of store brands. Heinz Ketchup or Crest Toothpaste? Forget it.
He was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer, and not a very good one. He cut his own grass and hair, did the family laundry, whites and colors all together, and mended our clothes. My father prided himself on his sewing ability. When I’d visit him in Florida, I could see him eyeing my jacket to see if there were loose buttons.
“Take that jacket off, and I’ll sew that button back on right now,” he’d urge me. Or rather, order me.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d respond.
But he was a dog with a bone, and in no time, he’d whisk out his olive drab sewing kit, which he received during World War II, where he had served in North Africa soon after graduating from Yale. He had everything he needed in that frayed kit: small Wiss bandage scissors; a tape measure; some hooks and eyes; a thimble; sewing needles; a safety pin or two; and a couple spools of Coats & Clark’s Boilfast fifteen-cent thread. He had two colors of thread, forest green and blue-grey. Oblivious to matters of fashion, he paid no attention to matching his thread to the item in need of his attention.
When my father’s widow/almost ex-wife asked me to select a few items from his desk drawer in their condo in Florida, I came across the sewing kit.
AMERICAN RED CROSS
BEAVER CO. CHAPTER
NEW BRIGHTON, PENNA.
“I’d like to have this,” I told her.
“Oh, that Rex,” she laughed. “He did love to sew. And he was terrible at it.”
That Rex. Rexford Walker Titus Jr. My father. A lunatic, in so many ways. He drove me crazy, and then he died, before meeting his granddaughter. I rarely discuss him with her.
But now, days after she has turned twenty, I think I’ll show her the World War II sewing kit. And maybe I’ll tell her about Patty Berg and the funeral on a golf course and the grandfather she never knew.
I may also tell her a terrible truth of my own life: hours after she was brought to our hotel room, her father and I called his parents and my brother Kent to tell them we were parents. This was before Skype and Instagram, so there were no photos.
I planned to call my father in a day or two, but I didn’t, and it was too late. So he never knew of our joy. Why, oh why, was I so damn stubborn, such a child, at the age of forty-three? Why did I still feel the need to punish him, a confused, frightened man who lost his bearings when his wife died?
I return often to the final paragraph of a 1954 story by Harold Brodkey, called “State of Grace,” that I first read when I was an English teacher in Philadelphia in 1974. It left me speechless then, and it still does, forty years later. The author looks back at his arrogant, guarded thirteen-year-old self, filled with guilt and self-blame at his lack of tenderness toward a younger boy:
“I’m thinking of all the years that might have been—if I’d only known then what I know now. The waste, the God-awful waste. Really, that’s all there is to this story. The boy I was, the child Edward was. That, and the terrible desire to suddenly turn and run shouting back through the corridors of time, screaming at the boy I was, searching him out and pounding on his chest: Love him, you damn fool, love him.”
ELIZABETH TITUS has been a journalist (Gannett), an English teacher, an advertising account executive (Doyle Dane Bernbach), and a communications director (fifteen years at American Express). She has a BA in English (Skidmore), an MA in English (University of Pennsylvania), and an MBA (Wharton). She left the corporate world in 2002 and has not looked back, dedicating her time to freelance writing, traveling to places she always longed to see (Africa, Russia, Turkey), taking courses at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and volunteering for two nonprofits devoted to educating Afghan women, the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (awwproject.org) and The School of Leadership Afghanistan (sola-afghanistan.org). She is the mother of Lili, age twenty, and the legal guardian of Sabira, an Afghan woman, currently at a boarding school in New England and hoping to attend Middlebury College in 2014.
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.
Introduction: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I am packing for several days away from my family, away from my husband, Jonathan, and our three children. I am going to spend much of that time in a hospital, I know. I am preparing for this by carefully considering what I will need and what I need to leave behind. I stand before my closet, my Wardrobe, and consider my options. I pull out two skirts. They strike me as nicer than my typical jeans and perhaps they will somehow help me feel more comfortable, more grownup, more respectable in the hospital world I am about to enter. Maybe I’m reaching for a fur coat as I pass through the Wardrobe and into Narnia.
I move from the closet to my nightstand and gather my laptop and cell phone and coil up their power cords. I take several folders and books of work I am in the midst of. And then I grab a book of fiction, thinking I might have a lot of time on my hands, and I toss it into my shoulder bag. The one I grab is from the pile of middle-grade-reader books I have recently collected from the library for Julia, our daughter. Books that expose young readers to the world outside their family, with themes of the difficult but doable, dark but with a promise of a happy ending.
Julia and I are working our way through this stack, both of us happily devouring the stories. So perfect for her because she is nine. So perfect for me because apparently this is what I need right now. As I enter this new stage of my adult life and grow up a bit, and I reach for the fairy tales of my childhood to help me walk through this new terrain and find a path through the dark forest. Just as C.S. Lewis promised. They are my sustenance right now, and, like a gingerbread house, they have me enchanted and captivated.
So. Two skirts, a cell phone, and a child’s book to keep me company during a very adult journey. I register the irony, and also how it seems just right.
Somewhere within me, down deep, I know. I know it is very important what you select for a journey. In your bag will be the only things you will have when you face problems, uncertainties, riddles, witches, and wolves. What seems random, what seems thrown in for another purpose, or by chance? Could be what you trade for your very life.
At least that’s how it works in fairy tales.
As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment. When given the chance, he will return to the same tale when he is ready to enlarge on old meanings or replace them with new ones.
Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment
My father has been gone from the hospital’s surgical waiting room for quite a while. Really, for a long while. Though I am not sure this is actually true. It feels as though I have been here alone—alone but surrounded by strangers who are separated from me by their own internal struggles and worries about their own loved ones—for hours.
My mother is in surgery, a minor surgery, a surgery resulting from her age, a “tune up” as we explained it to our three children when I told them that I was going to be away for two nights in order to be with Grammie in the hospital. I am here just in case. Here to keep my father company. Here to try to make sure my mother moves more easily through the complicated sequences of hospital care. Here to get her home as quickly as possible.
I have come to that place in my life: I am caring for my own children, big enough to not need me at all moments of the day, but often needing me more, needing me to be figuring, wondering, considering with them in more complicated ways. This time of tending my children blurs and overlaps with the beginnings of tending my parents. Helping them out here and there.
And then, my father returns to the waiting room from a trip to the bathroom and from a walk out to the car to find something to pass the time. He gives me a small smile and walks over to our chairs with his lopsided gait, never quite having regained his surefootedness after his knee surgery a few years ago. He eases into the chair beside me and says, “I should have left a trail of breadcrumbs. I got a bit lost.”
I look at him, assessing his seriousness.
He does not seem upset. If he was lost, he seems to have handled it. And then, I look down at my hands in which I’m holding the fiction I grabbed as I packed at home. It had remained tucked away in my bag until, alone in this room, I had dug it out in order to help me ignore the pain and sadness of the people around me, to drown out the daytime talk shows blaring on the TV in the corner of the room. To hold my gaze so I could give myself and those around me a sense of false privacy.
Its title? Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu.
In this moment, I realize that this book is my Floo Powder, my portal between two worlds. My magic beans, my potion in a vial, my key tied around my neck opening the last door I need to pass through. From the moment I started to prepare for this journey, and really for every moment, every major event of my life, there is a steady undercurrent of story. Moving like a river that guides and explains, flowing under the surface of real life. These fairy tales and children’s stories—with their themes and roles and relationships, their adventure and struggle with maturation and separation and needs and desires. They are told to us when we are young and are here with us in every conscious moment. We retreat to them, draw upon them, quote them, and use them between us as a shared experience and vernacular to guide us.
Fairy tales, given their oral storytelling origins, hold common truths. In fact, they must. For in order for one narrator to decide to pass them along to another, tales had to have been deemed good stories. Had to hold themes and roles and problems and resolutions that resonated with their audiences. They were told again and again until eventually they were written down. And then read again and again, until they became a part of our cultural history, and of our personal narrative and compass for our own lives, internal and external.
I look over at my father, my former woodsman, to see if somehow he knows, if he is referencing my book’s title. But he is not and does not know that I am reading this modern fractured fairy tale. He is instead listening to his own internal map, relying on the network of story that is within him as well, trying to make meaning, trying to understand these unfamiliar woods by following the rules of those storied woods he does know and has visited before. Hoping that perhaps he will know what to do now.
He and I have been adjusting ourselves to each other in these past hours, figuring out who sits and who stands near my mother during admission. Who gets the first kiss goodbye as my mother is wheeled off to surgery. Who answers the phone when my mother’s name is called in the waiting room. Who pays for snacks from the cafeteria. Who is in the lead and who is following behind on this path. It used to be him leading, always. But today, as uncomfortable with and as ill-suited to the task as I may feel, I think it may be me. If my father is not the woodsman, then I may not be the little girl anymore. Even if these woods are dark, and the nurses and wolves are scaring me a bit.
My father, as many do who reference this story, seems to have forgotten that the trail of breadcrumbs was faulty. On their first trip to the woods, Hansel cleverly drops white pebbles to lead them home. It is on their second trip that he uses breadcrumbs, his only available material, and these impermanent, edible, and disappearing trail markers are what ultimately cause Hansel and Gretel to get lost in the woods, unable to return home. Only then, faced with this problem, does Gretel rise to the occasion and lead the way on her own self-determined path to their happy ending. Somehow it is troubling to me that my father has forgotten that we don’t want to leave breadcrumbs, that what he needs is something more permanent. And inedible.
So far? My role is to hold things. I have placed my mother’s car keys in my shoulder bag next to my cell phone and have tucked her wedding ring, the one they snipped off her finger in case there were complications, into my change purse. Before I did so, I checked the engraving. The nurse had not cut through the inscription, my parents’ initials, followed by the date of their wedding. Somehow I am relieved. And like any fairy tale, each item I collect has some kind of meaning, some kind of purpose, each statement a window into underlying wishes and needs.
This is what happens on journeys—the things you find are not necessarily the things you have gone looking for.
Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs
My phone vibrates, a text from my brother. He is at work, a doctor, several states away. He hasn’t heard from me. My father and I have been waiting here for six hours for what we were told would be a three-hour procedure. I have not texted my brother for a while with an update. Because I am trying to sit still, trying not to move. Movement might be interpreted as panic by the imaginary wolves of possibility in the room with me. I am waiting for some information. I have been hoping not to have to send a message admitting that I have no idea what is taking so long. I know right now where my father is, but I have lost my mother for a bit.
Despite the states separating us, my brother and I are here together in this new place. Trying to figure out how to make this shifting role with our parents work. And how it will work between us. Because we are still the same people, the same children. We are still on the same path, walking together, he the older brother, me the younger sister. Our roles, our history, the story of our childhood together cannot be ignored as we take these next steps.
My trickster brother, my fellow backseat rider, has grown into a brilliant and successful adult. He actually saves lives on a daily basis. In his role as Hansel, his focus is on the world in front of him, and he moves through it with strength, skill, and confidence. He expects, as darkness falls, for the white stones he wisely laid earlier to begin to glow, to keep us safe, and he expects to know the right thing to do.
I’m not sure he would ever leave a faulty trail of breadcrumbs. That’s my role. I am much more likely to leave behind a trail of the accidentally vanishing variety, birds eating the crumbs and making our way home impossible. And this mistake would not shock anyone who knows me. I have been given the role of observer, wanderer, emoter, but rarely leader. My ear is more likely pressed to the forest floor, listening to the rumblings and undercurrents and meanings that are held beneath the surface of the action above. When I try to walk the path that Hansel would blaze, I trip and stumble and get lost, because this is not my role and not the path I would choose for myself. But with my lifetime of poorly chosen materials, I am afforded the ability to laugh at myself and not be very surprised to find myself lost in the woods because I was listening to the rhythms below, with no plan for getting home. I look about the room. It is relatively empty. There is no one to ask for directions.
Some time later a nurse and then a doctor come to tell us everything has gone well. My mother is doing just fine and is in recovery. I am relieved. And a bit angry at the doctor for the frozen fitful slumber my father and I have been plunged into for the past three extra hours. I ask a few questions. My father is quiet but asks for reassurances that she is okay. My mother’s doctor looks tired. I try to forgive her. I tell her I hope she can go rest for a bit. She looks taken aback. I realize that this was not the thing to say here. She is the one doing the caring.
We are told we have another hour before she will be ready to be transferred to her room. I tell my father I will be right back, and I go to the bathroom. I text my brother and Jonathan from the stall. I need a few moments of aloneness with my relief.
I emerge and go to wash my hands. I look at myself in the mirror. I reach up to my hairline and pluck a grey hair from where it has been sticking straight up toward the florescent lights. I stare at my reflection for a few moments before another person enters the room.
She had done her best to be prepared, but had not anticipated crazy people.
Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs
Despite all my preparation, packing, and collecting along the way, I had not expected to get into an elevator with my mother, pale and scared looking, still under the influence of anesthesia. Nor had I anticipated where this elevator would take us.
“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?”she asks when she sees me walking toward her. Despite the drugs, she knows her role, her lifetime as the Baker. I feel comforted that she seems lucid. This is a very typical question from her. I answer that yes, we have. And glance at my father. Should we tell her we’ve had lunch, too? I wonder through my eyes at him. He does not answer. Unlike in fairy tales, we cannot apparently speak with our minds.
I squeeze in beside her and hold her hand, lifting my large shoulder bag above the railing of her bed. I turn to her. She is focusing on me. Staring at me. The attention is unsettling. I crack a few jokes and then swallow more, realizing that the recovery room nurses in this incredibly small space with us might see my retreat to being silly as inappropriate. Or more likely, as the rantings of a heartless mad woman. My father is silent, making himself as skinny as possible, standing behind my mother’s head. I am not sure she knows he is there.
“I think I might be talking funny,” my mother says thickly, as though her face is numb and her tongue non-responsive. And then, “Did you and Dad get some breakfast?”Her eyes grow wide, and even more scared as I answerthat we have. And lunch, too. “Did something go wrong? Am I okay?” She’s garbling the words.
Her vulnerability is dawning on me. I respond by being overly cheery. I explain to her what the doctor told us, that it just took longer than they had anticipated, but that there had been no complications. I start trying to be funny again. My father can’t hear me. My mother is loopy and confused. The recovery room nurses just look at me. I am babbling.
“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?”she asks for the third time. I turn to my father, who either has not heard her or is really good at hiding his reaction. Are we trapped in some small circle of time together, sleeping in this moment for eternity while the rest of the world moves on without us? Or maybe I am just being childish and this is just something that happens when Moms come out of anesthesia?
This hospital. I was born here. And as if to make this all come full circle, I follow my mother’s wheeled bed out of the bank of elevators and onto the maternity ward. “Ah,” I say, “this is where we met.” I say it mostly to myself. But my groggy mother and her recovery room nurses look at me with equal amounts of confusion and concern.
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Once we are settled into her room, we focus our efforts on the same things that I imagine my mother and father focused upon when we were last here all together forty years ago: eating, sleeping, and pooping. I notice families outside her door taking their first walks in the halls together, babies pushed before them in wheeled bassinets. I see lactation consultants come and go. I watch some newborns being cared for in the nursery. I run into tired fathers in the kitchenette downing coffee. I think of my children, and of my now-woodsman, Jonathan, to the north of here. And turn back to my parents.
I order my mother meals on the phone and I take my father for a third meal in the cafeteria. On my mother’s ward, the mothers’ ward, we pass by the newborn nursery at its center. I see myself there as a baby and see my own children being given their first baths in nurseries very similar to this one. I quietly register that I am now like my mother in another way: there will be no more newborns for me.
My mother is struggling with her lack of control, of being the one who now needs tending, and her mood is rolling in unexpected waves. As she wakes from her long slumber, we are cast as children, then as evil step-parents, pulled in and then pushed away. Her eyeglasses now returned to her, she holds them up, looks at me through them and then not through them. With glasses. Then without. Over and over. She sees me blurred followed by invisible, and I am not seen well in either case.
I step out and go for doughnuts. I nibble from the gingerbread house for a bit and bring back treats to my parents. Upon my return, I once again enter this shifting, muddy, dim terrain populated by the where and who and when we are, and by what we packed and who all of us have been up to this moment. We crash and bump and collide into all of these selves in the room together. The Woodsman and Gretel, the Snow Queen and the Gingerbread House Woman, the wolves and the birds. Hansel is on the phone, asking me about medications for which I do not know the names. I try to make light, but know that I should have asked about this already. I would like to talk to him about how full and noisy and messy it is here in the room with all of our past and present selves dancing about like wood nymphs. But I don’t. I just go find a nurse to answer his questions.
The chaos in that room. The spilling and boiling emotions. The things that have been felt and seen and said. My instinct is to talk, to process them, as I have awkwardly attempted to do throughout the day. But I choose to hold them instead. And not just hold them, but bottle them, thrust in a cork, and pop them into my bag. That is something I can offer all of us. For now, I will keep my awareness to myself so we can all continue moving forward together. I can wait to press my ear to the ground. I can choose to just keep walking.
Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people—a great many people—who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes. But we know better.
Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs
Finally, I am heading home. My mother is doing well. My father is at the helm. My brother will be here later in the day. We have our happy ending. Yet I know I have now entered unfamiliar woods. And that I am going to have to walk around in them for some time now. And contend with the rustling noises.
When I get to my car, I notice that I have a message. From my father, to whom I have just said goodbye a few minutes before. I dial voicemail and set my phone on speaker. I begin my long drive back to my children, hoping to meet them outside their school, to hear about their days.
I just got outside and noticed there is a steady sleet coming out of the sky. The temperature is hovering at freezing. But as you drive north, it may be slippery. I don’t think it is going to accumulate, but I wanted to let you know. Please drive carefully.
The Woodsman has returned. So I grab a bite of turkish delight. Feel the fur coats brush against my face as I pass back through the Wardrobe. Flick the reins of my Subaru. And head north, toward home.
REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and three children. She has a doctorate in child psychology but uses it mostly to help her better understand all of her parenting blunders and to help her children choose good books. She has contributed to Taproot MagazineandGrounded Magazine and writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at www.treetoriver.com.
I was deep into middle age and so was my childhood home: 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut. It had been forty-nine years since my parents had bought this house, and it had not held up well.
But neither have I. I take several pills a day for maladies like high blood pressure, cholesterol, anxiety, and depression. No pill helped me to sleep in the days before we cleaned out 1735. Dad had been dead for a decade, and it was time to move my mother out.
My sister Carol, my brother John, and I each took a couple of rooms to empty. I volunteered to go through the master bedroom. I wanted to be alone with the detritus of my parents’ lives. Alongside the cancelled checks and the thumb-smeared Polaroids from the seventies was my master’s degree thesis that I wrote in the late 1980s—a collection of short stories called The Ninety Day Wonder in honor of my father’s service during the Second World War. John said he saw Dad read my thesis cover to cover in one sitting, crying as he turned the pages. The book was dedicated to him.
By the time 1735 sold, my mother had erased any traces of my father. The house was teeming from years of hoarding. She hung on to tests that she administered when she was a Spanish teacher in the seventies and eighties. She saved every single greeting card anyone sent to her. She saved her children’s baby clothes— clothes disintegrating from age. Then there was my prom gown, the dress I graduated high school in.
Maybe that is a sign of age—an unkempt house filled with stuff. Or maybe it was a bulwark against leaving. When my father died, the house was still habitable. Then the heater broke down and had to be replaced. The sump pump wasn’t up to the task of keeping the basement dry. Weeds shot through cracks in the driveway. The shrubs were overgrown. The window air conditioners—streaked with bird droppings—wheezed asthmatically. The wall opposite the banister was forever scarred after my father’s chair lift was removed.
That final time we cleaned out 1735, my mother was in a rehab facility, and we made the most of her absence. Two months earlier, she’d spent her last night in the house. She had called me in a panic that she was feeling very unwell. Although I live in Boston, I made the call for an ambulance to take her to a hospital in Hartford. My mother will tell anyone who will listen that that hospital stay was the beginning of the end for her. I will tell anyone who will listen that summoning an ambulance saved her life.
Here is what my siblings and I had to do to save my mother further: During her extended stay in the hospital, we used the power of attorney that we had wrested from her the year before. We sold the house with her grudging acceptance. We promised to salvage pictures and other mementos. She decided to go to an assisted living facility in Connecticut rather than one in Massachusetts near Carol and me because leaving the area would cause unbearable changes like watching a different local news anchor.
“I brought these,” Carol said waving boxes of masks and latex gloves. These were the same gloves that had to be worn to take blood or give a shot. These were the same gloves my father’s aides snapped on to toilet him, to wipe his drool. These were the same gloves we had to wear at 1735 where a family of raccoons recently lived in the chimney. These were the same gloves we were glad to have on when we found mouse droppings or the mice themselves.
These were the masks that made us look like mad surgeons or hygienic bank robbers. These were the masks I saw people wearing in the freezing, flu-ridden streets of Boston. These were the masks we wore our last days at 1735 to inhale less mold and dust.
I used to dream of the day I would watch a wrecking ball smash into 1735 Asylum Avenue. I thought that watching the house collapse would be satisfying, cathartic. I would take pictures upon the first impact. I would cheer. I would cry. I would dance on the edge of the house’s open grave. But that’s not what happened. We sold 1735 in less than a week to a builder who intended to take the place down to its studs and renovate the unhappiness imbedded in its walls. “An open plan,” he said. No more dark corners of sadness and dust mites. The house would be turned to face the sunlight and the side street. 1735 Asylum Avenue would vanish as a house and then as an address.
It turns out that selling 1735 unmoored me. It set me adrift without an ancestral home to go back to. We had cut a deal with the builder that we would take out personal items and leave the rest for him to deal with. Leave the green-swirled sofa stuffed with old circulars under the cushions. Leave the hi-fi missing the first A of “Magnavox.” Leave the dining room table with the warped leaves, the table I sat under when I was a little girl as my parents fought their way through another year of marriage. We left the chipped, cow-jumping-over-the moon-lamp that dimly lit the bedroom that I shared with Carol.
I left love letters written by bad boys and pleading letters that I wrote and never sent to those bad boys. Bad karma to move that stuff. I looked for a packet of poems that a nice boy wrote for me the summer after I graduated college. He was the sophomore who loved me—the senior girl who had a boyfriend I was afraid to leave. I gave him a chapbook of poems by a poet I thought was profound at the time. I can’t remember the name of the poet nor could I find the nice boy’s poems to me. I just know those poems were once mine, and now they would become part of the ash and rubble as 1735 Asylum was reincarnated.
I left the rotary phone in the den where it had been for almost half a century. The phone wheezed when the wheel spun and 523-0765 was rubbed off of the circle in the center. After all these years, it turns out, my mother was still renting from the phone company.
We were disappointed that Mom couldn’t take the phone number to the assisted living in the town over.
“What about just keeping 0765? I can deal with a different prefix,” I said.
“Taken,” said John who was in charge of getting the new phone number.
My siblings and I salvaged what we could and went back to the hotel to toast to our exhaustion. We barely lifted our glasses of the default Pinot Grigio we ordered in mediocre restaurants.
“Are you going to miss the place?” I asked Carol.
“Too much happened there,” she said.
She meant that my parents had papered the place with emotions that ranged from my mother’s mania to my father’s depression. But for the longest time, 1735 also represented permanence to me. It was the address on my driver’s license for the nine years that I lived in New York City.
Like houses that have been in one family for decades, my parents’ place burst at the seams with memories that were good and bad and ugly and beautiful. There were fights and reconciliations and moments of pure love. There were the deaths of parents and grandparents. There were great parties, the hi-fi blasting, where my parents danced rumbas and drank Cuba libres. There was my wedding gown that I hung on the living room lintel the night before my nuptials. There were grandchildren who toddled around the house.
My mother romanticized the home she made with her husband, and for better or for worse, she wanted to stay until death did part her from 1735. We must have appeared to be the most negligent children in the world as the neighbors watched her haul the pails out every Sunday night or noticed that her sidewalk was not shoveled after a big snowstorm. She lied to us and said her lawn man did snow removal. She lied to us that she had a lawn man. She lied to prevent her own removal from the house.
Visiting 1735 over the years, we often choked on agitation and the dust that accumulated as thickly as the plush carpeting that once covered the floors. For the last ten years we begged, we fought, we threatened Mom, and still she sat immobile in the chair my father had spent his last days and nights in the den—the chair that ejected him so he could go from recliner to wheelchair in one jerky motion.
Then I had an epiphany. Of course the idea of giving up the ancestral home in Connecticut was anathema to my mother, who had already left her first home in Cuba forever. My siblings and I were forcing my mother into another exile. We had already scattered from 1735 and left most of its dower contents in place. Like my grandparents who walked away from twenty-five years of silver and jewelry and dishes in Old Havana—“with only the clothes on their backs and their toothbrushes,” was my mother’s description—we shut the door on a house in West Hartford that was full of furniture and clothes and things we could not bear to dig deeper into.
We, too, had exiled ourselves from Asylum Avenue forever.
In the hospital, my mother screamed that she wanted to be buried seis pulgadas in the backyard. But we had bought a double plot when my father died. My mother would be six feet under the ground next to my father. And after 1735 had passed on, the furniture and the clothes went to the backyard to die. The builder promised that everything would be disposed of efficiently and quickly. I assumed that meant there would be some dignity in the process.
Instead, 1735 was stripped bare and its furnishings laid in the front and back yards for random people to pick over. They came with pickup trucks, U-Hauls, and minivans and took away my parents’ bedroom set. The living and dining room furniture were parceled to strangers. I hoped my bedroom set went to a little girl who would feel like a princess with a white and gold etched headboard. I didn’t see any of this myself, but I heard about the scene from one of my mother’s former aides, who got giddier as she told the story.
“It was like looting,” said the aide. “And they even took the clothes no matter how scrappy they were.”
Other families seem to have physical objects, talismans of sorts, to evoke their history. I pointedly remember that we had nothing from Cuba except some creased black and white photographs. If I, the child of exiles who went from country to country with little more than the clothes on their backs had known, I would have taken those things before they were outside for the world to grab.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and O Magazine. She is at work on a memoir titled 1735 Asylum Avenue: A Family Memoir.
My brother Josh and I are walking through the cold San Francisco mist. It’s four in the morning and we have just left the ICU at University of San Francisco Hospital where our stepfather, David, lays unconscious. He has countless tubes being fed by drip bags filled with saline and medicines. He has tubes down his throat which push air into his lungs, and a dialysis machine which is filters his blood for his failing kidneys. Electrical sensors are attached to his skin and connected to machines by plastic coated cords. The outlets in the room look like plates of spaghetti, covered with twisted cords. The monitors by his bed have five rows of lines in different colors, each forming its own pattern as it moves across the screen. It looks like a child’s Spirograph with its red, blue, green, yellow, white designs.
Earlier that day, we got the call from our mother that it wasn’t looking good. David had been in ICU on an oxygen tank for a week while he tried to fight a mystery illness which had taken hold of his lungs, weaving spider webs throughout, making it impossible for him to get enough air on his own. Day by day, the opinions change as to what exactly is wrong and now to whether he will survive this. Today they fear the worst. Our sister has gone home for the night, exhausted by days at the hospital. Our brother is stuck in Houston; he and his wife are trying to get in by the next day. We all thought we had more time.
Back when death was theoretical, David told his doctor, wrote in his papers, that he did not want invasive procedures should he fall critically ill. No machines, no rib breaking electric paddles. But then the moment comes when his doctor presents him with a choice. He is not responding to treatment, his body is shutting down, and the oxygen tank alone cannot sustain him.
“David, you can remove the oxygen mask and die peacefully with your family around you,” the doctor tells him. “Otherwise we’ll have to sedate you so we can insert the necessary tubes down your throat and into your lungs to get oxygen in there. You may not survive the procedure. Even if you do, you’ll be unconscious and won’t be able to talk. And there’s still no guarantee.”
Given the choice of certain death or invasive procedures, David decides on the procedures. He doesn’t want to die. He dreams of the cushy retirement community where he and our mother are going to move, far away from the never-ending work of the ranch where they now live. He is ready, and has been for years, to while away the hours reading and playing music and never fixing another irrigation head, feeding another horse or mowing another lawn, even if it is on a riding lawn mower.
Now he lies in a room full electronics, looking gray and pale and thin, while our mother and his son speak quietly about how long they should let him linger if he doesn’t respond to the medicines. If his heart doesn’t give out, he might live for days on life support with no hope of regaining consciousness. When do they let go? They decide to give it a few more days, to pray for a miracle. David had made it clear he wants to fight.
I shiver from the cold as Josh and I make our way to the parking lot to retrieve his cell phone from his car. I wish I’d brought a heavier sweater. The streets are empty of people and cars, and yet we pause automatically at the Do Not Walk sign blinking red in the dark. We are on automatic pilot.
“We don’t have a road map for this one, Sis. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to do it,” Josh says as we cross the deserted street. This six foot four man and me, both in our fifties, we feel like children. While we’ve lived through the death of our grandparents, being in the middle of the experience this way is new. We want to protect our mother, and we have only instinct to guide us. We’re exhausted and more than a little punch drunk. He’s just driven six hours from Los Angeles, his second trip down here in the last week. I’ve flown in from Houston and we have been up way too long now.
We reach his car and he hits the electronic car door opener on his new pimp-green Mercedes. The headlights flash their recognition.
“Nice!” I tell him. The interior is softly lit with an amber glow that reflects of the deep brown wood paneling. The soft-as-butter, tan leather seats are calling out to me to come: take a test sit, take a test sit.
“Let’s just lie down for a few minutes,” I say. “Just a few minutes.”
We lie there, reclined in the sumptuous bucket seats, and drift into our familiar combination of banter and revelation. He tells me about the drive up from LA, how the nice electronic lady in his car suggested several times that he might want to stop for a cup of coffee. We both think the warning system is sadly incomplete because while it cautions you that you may be sleepy because you are now driving erratically and so you just might want to pull over for a cup of coffee, not once does it offer to brew it for you. We laugh about how tired we are, we laugh about how two of my kids are in therapeutic boarding school, how he’s lost his job and his son is on the streets. How as a result we’ve had to learn to lower the bar to ground level with zero expectations. We laugh about how in the midst of our game of My Life Sucks More Than Yours, our mother has swooped in at the last minute to steal the prize by tossing down her “My Husband is in ICU and May Die” card. Competitive bitch. She always has to win.
“So, have I told you about my dog?” I ask Josh. He looks over at me with his bloodshot eyes half closed.
“Nah, what about your dog?”
“Well, she’s white, right, and when white dogs lick themselves a lot in one spot, the fur turns rust colored. So her fur was all rusty and yucky around her butt and she was always licking and when I really took a look at it, it looked like maybe something was wrong with her vajay-jay. So I took her to the vet. You’ll never guess what the vet told me.”
“What did the vet tell you, Shaunton?” Josh asks me.
“The vet says my dog has an enlarged clitoris and I need to rub steroid cream on it twice a day. So I asked her, like, with all this licking, is she, well, enjoying herself? The vet wasn’t sure. Don’t you think having to rub cream on a dog’s enlarged clitoris trumps losing your job?”
“I could have gone a lifetime without ever hearing about your dog’s clitoris.” he tells me, but I can see his chest heaving with suppressed giggles.
“Josh, you know how you said we don’t have a road map, any instructions on how to do this?” I ask him. “I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to be doing this.”
“Fuck it.” He says. “Guess we should go back in now.”
“Do you think there’s a chance he’ll make it?” he asks me.
“I don’t know.” I answer.
We walk slowly back the hospital and ride the empty elevator up to the ninth floor. There are people sleeping in the waiting room, curled up on chairs. A nurse pushes the button to let us into the ICU ward where all is quiet but the beeping of monitors. For what must be the tenth time, she has to tell me to step back, the doors open outwards! We make our way to David’s room. Our mother and David’s son and daughter look stricken. Mom is leaning over David and frantically gestures to us to come to her side.
“Oh god, he’s passing! His heart is stopping! “ she cries. We all watch the bright red line on the monitor which blips as his heart rate drops, beat by beat, 24, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 11, 10, 6, 3, until it finally stops all together. It is less than a minute since Josh and I walked into this room. Ten minutes ago we were laughing, gathering our strength in the soft leather seats of Josh’s car. Now we hold our mother as she sobs, her eighty-two-year-old body shaking. We’ve never seen her like this, never seen her look so lost. “But he was fine two weeks ago,” she keeps saying. “How did this happen?” We have no answer for her. We hold her close.
The room is quiet now. The endless beeping of the monitors, David’s labored breath as the oxygen pump fills his lungs and then releases, all of it is silent. His skin is still warm to the touch. The nurse asks us to leave the room so she can remove the tubes and clean him up so we can say a more natural good-bye. We wander out into the hallway. There are family members to be called, arrangements to be made. David wanted his body to be donated to science, but there is a possibility he had TB. We need to talk to patient services about this, speak with a funeral home, write an obituary, plan a memorial. We are given pamphlets, all neatly collected in a manila envelope labeled “Bereavement Papers.” It includes lists of helpful books for people who have lost a loved one, lists of important papers to file and agencies to contact. The detritus of death. We need to get our mother home to rest. She has not slept in almost two days and she looks frail.
Josh and I are alone in the hallway as the others go back into David’s room for a bit. I am as tired as I can remember being in a very long time. “Okay,” Josh says, “I know this is going to sound really bad. Really bad. It just tells you what a weird fuck I am. But you know when we were standing there in all of that craziness of machines and drips and pumps? I was thinking about when people talk about ‘pulling the plug.’ How do they know which plug? There were at least twenty plugs in there. What if you pull the wrong one? Do you just keep going, just keep pulling and pulling until you get the right one?”
He looks childlike at that moment. It’s more than gallows humor. He has a good point. Things often sound clear in theory, only to turn out to be quite different in reality. We can’t help ourselves; we laugh at the inappropriateness of our inappropriateness.
“You know I’m going to write that you said that, right?” I say.
“Whatever,” he tells me, “We’re both going to hell anyway.”
The early morning blends in to the next day. Arrangements are made; David’s body can’t be donated and must be cremated instead. We separate; Josh takes care of our mother, and I go to the airport to pick up my teenage son, also named David, who has just missed being able to say goodbye to his grandfather. He’s devastated. We talk and talk as we make the long drive to mother’s ranch. He’s better by the time we get there, hoping to be helpful and supportive to his grandmother. My siblings fly and drive in. They have been on high alert for days, and the house quickly fills. Platters of food and comfort come from loving neighbors throughout the small farming community. Our mother finally lies down to sleep.
And we siblings and our spouses do what we always do. We laugh, delight in each other’s company, deliberately needle each other, tease relentlessly, and together we get the job done. We make the necessary arrangements, we write the obituary, we plan the memorial service and write the program. We find pictures of David and have them printed to make a memorial display. My brother’s wife, Jackie, my best of friends, cleans the house until it shines and smells like oatmeal cookies.
After lunch the next day, as she washes the dishes in the Martha Stewart mint green kitchen of the old farmhouse, Jackie looks across the kitchen at my mother and me and asks, “Where’s David?” My mother and I both look at her in shock. “He’s dead!” we say in unison. For just a moment there is complete silence. Jackie’s jaw drops. “I meant your son,” she says. Oh, well of course she did. We double up with laughter, all three of us, until the tears stream down our faces.
The memorial comes. It is sad and joyful and beautiful. The simple Grange Hall is decorated with flowers from nearby farms; David’s bass cello and his tuba sit at center stage in tribute to his deep love of music. It is clear that this is a man who was loved by many, a man who was an integral part of his community. The tears come and they flow, and a pile used tissues grows around the room. There are more than one hundred people in the Grange Hall, people from David’s church, from the homeless shelter where he volunteered much of his time and talent, and from the brass band in which he played the tuba while dressed in red regalia. People speak of his generosity and his humor and his deeply intellectual nature. We think he would be pleased.
“I think you and I better have private services when we die,” my sister Lisa says to me as we stand in line for food. The potluck table stretches the length of the room and it is piled deep with casseroles and salads and breads and desserts.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“To cover up the fact that no one would come!” she answers.
It’s true. We haven’t lived in the generous fashion of our mother or stepfather. We’ve been recluses, wrapped in our own worlds. Clearly it’s time to step up our game. At least if we want those we leave behind to be fed and cared for by our neighbors. At this point they’ll be lucky to get room temperature string cheese and a bowl of stale saltine crackers.
I watch my son David through all of this; watch him watching me with my siblings. I hope he is sees the love we feel for one another, the fun we have together, even in this time of sadness. He is loved by all of us, treasured by his grandmother. I hope that love will fill him up, help him to love himself a little more.
And then it’s over. The neighbors go home. The food gets eaten, the flowers begin to droop and drop their petals. After a couple of days we disperse, home to our own families. I stay a few more days with our mother to help tie up loose ends and to give the others reports on how she is doing. She and I talk long into the night, look at photographs, write to-do lists, cross off what we can. My mother rides the waves of feelings that go up and down. The tasks are like an inflatable life boat. If she lets go of all there is to do, she might sink beneath the waves. It is important to her to hold it together, and she does.
My son David has gone back to his boarding school, and I have a conference call with my husband and David and his therapist.
“So David, how did your family deal with their grief? People have a lot of different ways of handling pain and stress. Could you relate to any of them?” his therapist asks.
“Well, they were all kind of laughing a lot. I don’t know. I didn’t really get it. It was weird,” he says.
“Were they laughing the whole time?” she asks.
“Yeah, pretty much. Up until the memorial. Then they got more serious and sad,” he says.
“It’s interesting, David. People deal with stress in many different ways. It’s important to get to the underlying feelings, to process them. But as long as you do that, humor is considered one of the more mature ways of dealing with stress.”
None of the books on death told us to laugh until we cry or wet our pants, whichever comes first. But here we are. Sad, dealing with loss, worried for our mother. And laughing. Because we are, if nothing else, a very mature group of people. Particularly when we are stressed. Particularly when we are together, finding our way down a path without a map.
SHAUN ANZALDUA has a graduate degree from the University of California at Davis. She is a writer, real estate agent, and licensed private investigator. Shaun currently lives in Houston with her three teenage children. She is a contributor to Brain, Child and is currently working on a collection of essays.