My body’s immersed in the warm bath water. But instead of feeling relaxed, I’m in pain. The pain throbs across my body, eats up my mind, but mostly, pierces through my heart.
I replay the images from last night in my mind—flashes I desperately want to forget.
The rage in his eyes, so unfamiliar. As if I were staring into the eyes of a stranger and not the eyes of my brother. My brother—a pastor, my role model, the spiritual leader of an entire congregation. My brother who has known me and, although imperfect, has loved me my whole life.
Lips curled in fury, his face unrecognizable. And then the chokehold. Flying across the room. Hitting the wall. Feeling my body land in an unnaturally distorted position.
Looking up from down below, everything was out of focus. Upside down.
When he came to me while I was still on the ground, I knew right then and there that nothing would ever be the same again.
I was right. Things have never been the same.
In Korean, “Oppa” means “older brother” from a girl’s perspective. The perspective of a little sister.
These days, “Oppa” is commonly used as a flirtatious term popularized by k-pop and Korean dramas.
But when I was growing up, “Oppa” was a serious term of respect. I was never allowed to call my brother by his given name.
Oppa and I learned to grow up fast as children of first-generation Korean store-owner immigrants. After a successful stint as convenience store owners, my parents would often leave us at night to go work at their clothing factory—a new business venture they were exploring. Oppa would go through my bedtime routine, put me to sleep. He would guard the phone at home. Three rings, a pause, another ring. That was the code my mother taught us so that we would know when to pick up the phone.
Left at home, too often by ourselves, we had a love-hate relationship; we fought viciously, made up, fought again and made up.
We couldn’t live with one another but couldn’t live without each other.
My childhood memories are entangled with images of his face, his expressions, his mannerisms, his lectures, his embraces.
Growing up, he was the closest person to me in my life.
There were signs, of course.
His flashes of rage. The holes in the wall from his punches. We placed calendars over each hole and excused every outburst as teenage angst.
When Oppa went to high school, he struggled with his weight and consequently, his self-confidence.
Although I had my own personal angst, something about him, his vulnerability, his sensitivity made me feel protective.
Likewise, Oppa personified all the tell-tale behaviors of an over-protective older brother.
There were years of miscommunication and distance.
By the time Oppa went to college, we had re-kindled our friendship. By the time I went to college, we were so close that he gave me The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and told me that he would always be there for me.
He was the one I turned to over and over again with each dramatic incident of my teenage years, for each critical decision I made in my years as a young adult.
He was truly my Giving Tree, and the most influential person in my life.
In the summer of 2007, I was visiting California to meet my boyfriend’s parents. We were planning to get married.
I had been visiting California since Oppa attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Oppa was now the Pastor of an English-speaking ministry at a local Korean American Church. My boyfriend attended that same church.
That morning, Oppa and I had a big fight. He was complaining I wasn’t spending enough time with him, that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend.
He’d become so angry, hurtful, since I had started dating my boyfriend.
I came home early that evening. I was staying with Oppa and my sister-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment. The fight from the morning seemed inconsequential. I was ready to make up.
But that night, something snapped.
I saw true rage in Oppa’s eyes. Was it really because of my boyfriend and Oppa’s over-protective stance as an older brother? Was it because I was about to launch my legal career and Oppa had always wanted to go into law but hadn’t? Was it because my parents already loved my boyfriend and were considering him as their son when Oppa had always struggled with self-acceptance as the eldest son of a traditional Korean family?
Is there ever a reason or justification?
This time, there is no making up.
I’ve always prided myself on being an advocate. I consider myself a woman of action. I protest. I march. I fight.
I’ve always loved arguing, the heat of debate. In law school, I specialized in criminal litigation and international human rights—always one of the few Asians in my classes.
I’ve always been told how “non-Asian” I am; how I break the stereotype of a submissive, quiet, well-mannered Asian woman. I am loud. Confident.
Never would I have imagined myself to be so submissive…so Korean…so silenced.
I’ll never forget the panicked look of my sister-in-law as she forced the phone out of my hand when I was trying to call the police. I’ll never forget the sound of my weeping parents begging me not to call the police. Instead they told me to roll an egg on my bruises to make them go away faster.
I underestimated the power of my subconscious need to obey, to comply, to help my parents in sweeping this messy incident under the rug. The driving force to save our family’s reputation was also clouded by my internal voices of justification. This was my brother, after all. He loved me; I loved him. Surely this was not something I could send him to jail for, ruin his entire career, ruin our entire family. I felt forced to do nothing.
Me, an English-speaking lawyer-to-be with a background in advocacy and activism.
I’ll never forget the self-loathing and shame I felt as I retreated within myself, my voice silenced. Oh, the hypocrisy. And I called myself a lawyer? An advocate?
To this day, my father claims that what happened that night was not a big deal. So an Oppa hit his dongsaeng, little sister. He’s always wondering why I’m being over-dramatic. We were family. We loved one another. Why couldn’t I just get over it and move on?
So, I did nothing. I moved on.
That night, my boyfriend picked me up and took me to a nearby hotel. He held me as I sobbed. He gently placed ice packs and eggs on my bruises.
He also went, the very next day, to hear my brother preach.
He, too, is Korean.
I did nothing. In 2007 nor in all the following years.
But there were moments of clarity, of progress.
When I found out I was giving birth to a little boy, I cried. I was anguished that I should give birth to a little boy that could become a man who could potentially hit another woman. But I found strength in my husband, a good man, in knowing that we could raise our son differently.
Within a year after my son was born, I joined the Board of Directors for a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence. In my application to join the board, I shared, for the first time, openly about what my brother had done to me.
It was cathartic. Empowering.
I now have a daughter. And with the dismal statistics of women experiencing domestic violence in North America today, I want her to know that she can have a voice. She needs to have a voice. I need to raise her so that she, unlike me, will not be silenced.
I get out of the bath water, unsure of what to do next.
I look in the mirror. I don’t even recognize her—such uncertainty in her eyes. That can’t be me.
When I look up close, at the bruises, she’s even more unrecognizable. I take out my makeup bag. I cover up my bruises. I put a smile on my face. I meet my boyfriend’s parents.
A year later, we get married.
I won’t go into the details of my depression and journey of spiritual healing and revival after the summer of 2007.
I won’t go into the decade-old disappointment towards my brother and my beloved well-intentioned parents who have never acknowledged the criminality of what Oppa did to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the strength to publicly share my story.
Surprisingly, this strength came in the form of an unexpected phone call from a police investigator conducting a background check for my brother who had applied, of all things, to become a police officer.
As I shared my story, ten years later, to this random police officer, I did feel a refreshing sense of vindication. Oppa should have never become an ordained pastor, an American citizen, a Navy Chaplain. He should have received court-mandated counseling. I should have received a restraining order.
Then he wouldn’t have dared to threaten me again. Which he did, five years later, causing me to cut him off completely.
And my parents, first-generation immigrants. To this day, condoning my brother, asking me to be the bigger person, to think of the family’s reputation. To this day, asking me how they can choose between Oppa and me.
They don’t realize that by choosing to protect my brother, they gave up their daughter. The broken trust and abandonment I felt in my deepest moments of pain have never left me.
I know what I experienced is nothing compared to the unspoken tragedies of domestic and family violence in too many households across North America. But that’s why I need to tell my story. This story.
I loved my Oppa. I love my parents. But Oppa hit me.
SYLVIA KIM is a lawyer and human rights advocate currently residing in Southern California. Although it took her much too long to publicly share this story, she hopes this will encourage other women, particularly from cultures where domestic and family violence is highly stigmatized, to share their stories as well. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and usually writes on international human rights issues, racial justice, and politics.
I got the call at ten-thirty at night. It was typically dramatic, as my family was at that time. “They found him,” said my mother. I hung up and shook my boyfriend awake. I let him know I needed to drive to California with my mother tonight. I was meeting her at midnight in the parking lot of the House of Pancakes in Salem, Oregon. We were going to get my brother.
Adrian was twelve and his face could be found on cartons of milk with the giant words “MISSING” on them. He’d been listed as a kidnapping victim since my stepdad (Adrian’s real dad) had driven off with him eight months ago. He’d actually been gone for a while before that, but these were the questions I imagined the police asking my mother.
He’s with his father?
You had custody?
You had custody but you allowed him to live with his father?
You’re not sure of the date he actually went missing?
You’re the one who left the marriage?
You have how many children? Five?
Said or unsaid, these questions delayed the process. Officials put that file on the bottom of the pile.They were questions I still had myself. The weeks had gone on. My mother began taking anti-depressants. I was in college, reveling in books, falling in love and pretending that I had a stable family who didn’t kidnap each other.
My oldest son, Logan, is telling me a very long story that has something to do with Minecraft. As I put away the dishes, I listen to him with about twenty-five percent of my brain. I say, hmm mmm and yeah, and that’s funny, when I realize that he’s just told me something that’s supposed to be funny, although I have no idea what it was. With my remaining seventy-five percent I’m planning what to put in the kids’ lunches and preparing for the eight-thirty meeting I have at work. Adrian used to talk about comics like Logan talks about video games. When Logan finishes his story, he looks at me expectantly. I laugh, hoping that was the appropriate response. He wraps his gangly arms around me for a spontaneous hug, which is something he does still, even though he’s nearly twelve. I run my hand through his thick hair, which needs another cut. He is almost as tall as I am.When he was younger, I sometimes called him by my brother’s name.
My mother had custody of Adrian, but rather than force Adrian to move with her and his three younger sisters into a two bedroom apartment with new stepbrother and stepdad, he was allowed to continue living with his dad and me in our mobile home in Camano Island, Washington. My mother was choosing her battles. I was just starting my senior year in high school, so my mother, thankfully, had left me there as well. Adrian and his dad wiled away the days eating ice cream from the carton and watching Tron. I tried to drag Adrian out of bed so I could drive him to sixth grade, but he was too big and stubborn for me. I gave up, leaving them both sleeping. This went on until my stepdad and Adrian moved to their own apartment and I was the only one left at home, finishing high school. I went to school, worked at the grocery store, sautéed mushrooms for dinner and listened to the silence of the house, telling me it was time to go.
After my first semester at college, I spent Christmas with my brother and my stepdad at their apartment. We ate pizza and they both fell asleep early on Christmas Eve. I stayed up reading Adrian’s X-Men comics, carefully replacing them back in their plastic sleeves when I was finished. Shortly after that Christmas, my stepdad quit his job passively, by not showing up, stopped paying his rent and disappeared with Adrian.
Last summer, Logan went to an overnight camp for a week. He had been excited when we signed him up, but the week before it was time to leave, he insisted he didn’t want to go. His stomach hurt. He couldn’t sleep. I showed him videos from the website of kids around the campfire smiling broadly. I talked about camp games, bonfires and horseback riding. I assured him he was going to love it, so he reluctantly rolled up his sleeping bag. But the camp rules didn’t allow phones and as the week approached, I tried to stifle my own fears. What if some of the kids were cruel to him? What if something horrible happened and he didn’t feel like he could call me? Outside of the letters I wrote ahead of time for him, I would be unable to reach him. By the time a handwritten letter from him arrived in my mailbox, he’d be home. While he was gone, I dreamed when I went to pick him up, he wasn’t there. Kids were reuniting with their parents all around me, but no one knew where he was. I tried to call the police, but over the line the officer said things like you left him there in the woods with a bunch of strangers? and he didn’t want to go, but you pushed him into it?
I left my car at the House of Pancakes. As I climbed in next to my mother, she handed me a thermos of coffee. We pulled onto the freeway. She was all business, filling me in on the way. They were in a small town in northern California. The policewoman who called her had suggested that she just go back to sleep and come get him tomorrow. Adrian was fine so there was no rush. My mother said she’d been looking for her son for eight months and he’d been found, so how could that stupid woman tell her to go back to sleep? She’d come and get her son right this instant, thank you. Adrian wouldn’t have to spend one more night with that asshole he had for a father. I sipped my lukewarm coffee, extra sweet like my mother always made it, so it tasted less like coffee and more like a melted candy. I wondered how we got to be so dysfunctional. I was in a small, private college that I’d bullied my way into with good grades and multiple phone calls and I didn’t see anyone around me with families like mine. I was nineteen and not yet done being embarrassed about my entire life up to this point.
We drove into the night, up through the curving hills of the pass, often silent. I knew I was supposed to be helping my mom stay awake, so I tried to talk about my classes, my friends, my boyfriend, but she didn’t ask many questions. I knew her focus was elsewhere. As we pulled into a lonely open Chevron in the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass, she said, “I should have never left him with his dad.”
“How were you supposed to know he was going to take off?”
“I should have known. But I’m getting him back now. He’s going to be part of our family again.”
I didn’t mention that her new family with my second stepdad was not my idea of our family and probably wasn’t Adrian’s either. None of us kids knew what our idea of family was anymore. She gripped the wheel tightly as we drove south and the shadows of the trees flew past.
Eventually, she told me to go ahead and lie down in the back. The back seats had been turned down so there was a space large enough to curl into. I pulled a blanket around me. Adrian had never called while he was missing, causing my mother to go frantic with worry. I had figured he was safe. My stepdad had never hurt him. Not physically anyway. However, I also knew my stepdad was a broken and twisted man, one with dark wounds inside. I couldn’t be totally sure of anything about him. Before he disappeared, he’d written me letters describing the futility of life. He was giving away what meager things he had left. I watched the darkness through the window and wondered why my brother had never called. When I woke three hours later, the sun rose over the mountains of northern California.
Logan complains loudly and frequently about school. He tells me he’s bored and he’s learning nothing. In the morning I wake him and he rolls over, whining do I have to go? As if I ever tell him anything different. Yes, you have to go. If he were allowed, he would eat ice cream out of the carton and watch Tron all day. I make him go to school. I get dressed, make lunches and make myself go to work. I don’t call in sick to stay home reading all day and watching bad movies for hours, complaining that going to work is just buying into the system and letting corporate American run your life. I am not my stepdad. I am my mother, who forced herself to finish her last term in college while Adrian was missing, made lunches for my sisters every day and tried to create a family, as complicated and exhausting as it was.
I took over the driving and a couple hours later we rolled into Ukiah, where my brother had been living for the past few months. My mother had closed her eyes, leaning her head against the window, but she had not slept. I longed to grab coffee, but my mother was not stopping. We pulled into the police station parking lot to get Adrian. I wondered if my dad was in jail and if I’d have to see him there.
Inside, I was unnerved by the police officers and the official feel of everything. It was as though I was in a world where I didn’t belong. My mother told the attendant at the front who she was and we were asked to wait. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. After a while, a man came out to shake our hands, introducing himself as an officer. He led us back to a small room where we sat at a round table.
“Where is my son?” my mom demanded, embarrassing me with her aggressive voice.
“Adrian is just fine,” the officer said in a placating voice. “You can get him shortly. I just need to go over some paperwork with you.” In the conversation, the officer said things like, just needed to get away for a while, didn’t mean to cause a big problem and were just getting on their feet. When he told my mother that Adrian had been allowed to go back with his dad yesterday to their apartment for one last night, my mother flipped her lid.
“You allowed what?” My mother had that hysterical tone she got when she was about to throw something. I hoped she wouldn’t. My mother had thrown glass plates, laundry baskets and toys, although generally not at any person. Once she threw a plastic Sesame Street mug so hard it chipped the Formica counter, leaving a vivid reminder to stay out of the way of her wrath. My mother pounded her fingers on the paperwork, stood and slapped her purse down on the table, demanding to know why, when my brother had been kidnapped and missing for so long, he was allowed to go home with the person who kidnapped him. I wondered if I should move the stapler out of her reach.
Even I could tell my stepdad had gotten to this officer. I’d only just recently begun to separate myself from my stepdad’s manipulation and to recognize it for what it was. It was just a year ago that I’d secretly arranged a visit between him and my three younger sisters, against my mother’s wishes. He always seemed so sad, such a victim of circumstances, such a victim period. Nothing was ever his fault. Emotional wounds. Neglect. He twisted things to where I found myself forgiving him, feeling sorry for him, blaming someone else. Sometimes myself.
My mother was having none of it. The officer looked at her as if her hostile behavior proved everything he had suspected. I wished I had slept more. I wished I had coffee. I wished I was at home eating breakfast with my boyfriend. I had a philosophy paper to write. I wished I was anywhere else but here. The officer finally broke in. He told my mother that Adrian could be picked up now. However, he suggested strongly that my mother shouldn’t go, since she was obviously volatile and would likely upset the household. My mother looked like she might upset the entire police force in about five seconds. “I’ll go, Mom,” I said quickly. “I’ll get him.”
Logan and I read together every night, still. He knocks on my bedroom when he’s sick, his lanky form a shadow in my doorway. When he’s in trouble with his dad, he brings his tears to me. When he is pushed or punched at school, he eventually confides in me. He curls his thin body against mine when we watch Harry Potter. I can’t imagine him being without me for eight months. I can’t imagine what I would do or say. What I would throw.
The apartment was one in a row of one-bedrooms on a street with cracked sidewalks with tufts of struggling weeds in the yards. My stepdad opened the door when I knocked, giving his small, sad sigh. “Sorry,” he said, “that you had be here.” He kicked a few empty Chinese food cartons out of the way as he shuffled to the kitchen. His dark hair flopped in his eyes. He wore jeans and a ripped tee-shirt. I doubted he was working. Probably doing advertising copy for the local paper occasionally and calling himself a writer. My brother came in from the hallway, lugging a box of comic books.
“Hi, Nomes,” he said. His hair was greasy and unkempt and he was distinctly taller than I remembered, with ankles showing under his too short jeans. He smiled at me awkwardly, then looked at his dad.
“I’ll get your bags,” my stepdad said, heading down the hallway with a hangdog look.
Adrian and I put his comic books in the car. “Can I have a hug?” I asked and he leaned in. He needed a shower. As we separated, I felt the weight of the trip, my mother sitting back at the station, steaming mad, the months of waiting. As we looked at each other, I crumpled into tears. “Why didn’t you call?” I asked, covering my face with one hand, the other gripping the trunk.
He looked at me, surprised. “Dad said we might as well wait to call until we got our apartment and knew where we were going to be. And he said if I called then I’d never be able to see him again.” He leaned over to pat my arm as I continued to cry. “It’s no big deal. I was fine,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.” He repeated it, “It’s going to be okay, Nomes.”
My mother and I took Logan to the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible museum full of twists, turns, nooks and crannies. Kids climb up in a tube through the walls and into the ceiling to spy on the people below. Dark and sneaky spots lurk throughout. I thought Logan was right ahead of me, but I lost him. I tried to keep calm, telling myself he was just in one of those dark corners, sorting out a spy code, looking over a watch with a secret blade. I had left my mother choosing her spy name. I walked quickly back through the entire museum, scanning all the crowds. I hurried through the rest of the exhibits, not noticing anything but the fact that he was not there. When I reached the gift shop a second time, I counted back. He’d been missing maybe twenty-five minutes. If he’d been taken, he’d be twenty-five minutes down the road now.In some unmarked van. A lot can happen in twenty-five minutes. I found a security officer and trying not to look like I was hysterical, I described Logan. He radioed out to the other staff and we began walking back through the museum. Thirty minutes? Thirty-five minutes? My breath shortened as I realized that this could actually be happening. The thing that terrifies every parent.We turned the corner to see a different security officer standing with Logan. “Hi Mom,” he said. I started crying. Surprised, he reached over, patting me. “It’s okay,” he said, “I was fine.”
What I remember is Adrian arguing with my mother on the long drive home. He hadn’t been to school the entire time he’d been with his dad so he’d have to repeat sixth grade. Adrian’s protests went on and on as the miles distanced us from California. Insisting he didn’t want to go to school. Demanding his own room. Informing her that his stepbrother was jerk. His stepfather was a sellout to society. My mother tried to reason with him until she finally argued back, in frustration. He was twelve years old, she was his mother and by god, he would be living with her and following the rules of her house. That’s what I remember.
My mother remembers none of that. She only remembers being so grateful, so relieved, so happy, as the road took the three of us back up north through the long afternoon and into the night.
NAOMI ULSTED is a fiction and memoir writer. Her work has been published in Salon, Narratively, and Luna Luna. She is currently working on a middle grade urban fantasy, with help from her son. She lives with her two boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, where she is also the director of a Job Corps center training program for at-risk teens.
“Are you related?” a woman at the wedding asks me. When I tell her the father of the bride’s my brother, she says, “You look just like him.” As much as we resemble one another physically—deep-set eyes, crinkly smile, and fair, freckled skin—we couldn’t be more different emotionally.
My only sibling looks like a stranger, his belly protruding over his pants and a once reddish beard now grey. For his twenty-year-old daughter’s wedding, he dresses in black trousers, pressed white shirt, solid tie, and black hat covering short payot, or sidelocks, tucked behind his ears. He wears a long, black, silk robe, reserved for special occasions. This modern-day Jerusalem affair could be a Hollywood movie set of a seventeenth-century Polish shtetl.
I observe my brother at the bedecken ceremony where my niece sits like a queen in a special chair, her upper body pitching forward and back, as she feverishly mumbles words to God and awaits her groom’s arrival. The couple hasn’t seen one another for a week. In their Ultra-Orthodox community, where males and females eat, dance, and celebrate separately, divided by a makeshift wall, men escort the groom into the women’s section so he can verify the bride is the correct woman then lower her veil, a tradition of Jewish males since Jacob wed a veiled Leah in error.
Mike identifies as Haredi: an Orthodox Jewish sect characterized by strict adherence to Jewish law and rejection of modern secular culture and the state of Israel. I’m secular. Tonight, dressed demurely in a long-sleeved dress that hugs my hips and hits my knees, considered sexy and off-limits in his world, I decline to wear a hat for modesty.
We are two California-born Jews living in Israel, but the chasm between us is wider than the Red Sea. Often, over the past thirty years, I’ve wondered how siblings with the same DNA can be so different. How, after being raised Reform, which emphasizes ethics and behavior over belief, can a brother and sister end up embracing such opposite lifestyles?
Growing up, I’d beseeched my parents for a baby—someone younger to cuddle and carry, to play dolls and draw with, to love me unconditionally. “Please, I want a little sister!” I pleaded throughout grade school. My brother, three years older, had never sufficed.
Sometimes he and I skied off-trail at Northstar or played Battleship in the basement. Mostly, we occupied our own orbits: me with Barbies and coloring books, him with his rock and comic collections. My friends and I devised dance routines to Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” while he and his friends fled to the backyard treehouse. I yearned for heart-to-heart conversations and emotional closeness. He communicated through sarcasm and jibes.
In middle school, after reading Judy Blume’s Forever, my mother delivered the verdict: “My tubes are tied. Our family’s complete.” Then why, I wanted to scream, did I feel so incomplete?
Mike left for college during my sophomore year. The quiet house hurt my ears. My father worked long hours at his law firm, while my mother’s graphic design business dominated her time. They proposed we host a female American Field Service student for a year perhaps to assuage their guilt.
The following August, Lee, a seventeen-year-old South African Jew, arrived. Every night, we stayed up late, analyzing our siblings’ deficiencies and confiding our latest infatuations. We shared tee-shirts and sundresses. We had spit fights while brushing teeth in the bathroom sink. We fought about emptying the dishwasher or folding the laundry. We introduced one another as sister. By Thanksgiving, she called my parents Mom and Dad.
I no longer missed my brother or ached for his attention.
The following year, when Lee returned to Cape Town and Mike spent junior year abroad in Jerusalem, I busied myself with college applications, youth group, and a new boyfriend.
“Have you called Mike lately?” my father sometimes asked. His sister lived in New York, my mother’s brother in Los Angeles, and while they’d been distant as kids, they became closer as adults, reinforcing their friendship with visits, especially on milestone birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs.
During my freshman year in college, Mike’s senior, I flew from Chicago to Manhattan to see him. He introduced me to friends, showed me the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, and took me to Gus’s Pickles on the Lower East Side. Later, he visited me at Northwestern, where we ate Giordano’s deep-dish pizza with friends and strolled through Lincoln Park Zoo. Still, our conversations remained superficial.
That summer, Mike packed his worldly possessions into two large suitcases, boarded a one-way flight to Israel, and immigrated. I cried during our farewell parting outside our parents’ house, my eyes red and swollen with sadness. I felt distraught, like I’d run out of chances to be friends with my brother, losing my only sibling to a far-away land.
The following winter, during my junior year in Paris, my parents and I met in Jerusalem. Mike greeted us at the airport in his khaki green army uniform, an Uzi over his shoulder, a scraggly beard and a colorful, knitted kippah on his head. I admired his decision to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces, but since when had he become a God-fearing Jew? We’d grown up in a culturally rich Jewish family as staunch Israel supporters, but God, his commandments, and ancient customs had never been the focus.
Throughout our visit, my brother mentioned studying the basic tenets of Judaism—the laws of Shabbat and kashrut—with an American rabbi. Mike began talking in should and should nots, coulds and could nots, Rabbi Eddy said this, Rabbi Eddy said that. His holier-than-thou attitude made me cringe.
A year later, I flew home from Chicago over winter break for my father’s fiftieth birthday. I donned my best Parisian blacks—mini skirt, leather bomber jacket, pointy flats, and a paisley scarf. My mother tinkered in the kitchen. My father and I listened to Suzanne Vega’s latest album in the living room. The bell rang. We glided to the front door.
“Surprise,” boomed a familiar voice. “Surprise,” he said again.
My brother stepped into the foyer. My mother snapped a picture of my expression, a mixture of disappointment and resignation. With Mike around, our family’s easygoing time together exercising, eating sushi, and watching movies would be overshadowed by his newly acquired religious restrictions.
That night we met my grandparents for dinner at an upscale French-Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco. I hadn’t seen them since leaving for school in September. All attention was focused on Mike. “Oy gevalt,” Boba shrieked when she saw my brother. Zeida embraced his eldest grandson, the Zionist, with pride.
Dressed in one of my father’s blazers, a button-down shirt, tie, and trousers, my brother resembled a college professor. In addition to his thick, wavy, reddish head of hair, he sported a moustache and beard. His large, round glasses reminded me of Elton John’s. But this time he wore a kippah under his hat. He couldn’t show the beanie publicly, he said, lest a religious Jew see him and think the restaurant kosher. I’d never seen him wear a kippah in America.
As soon as we were seated, Mike said, “I really don’t want to eat here. It’s not kosher.” He’d already harangued us during the car ride over the Bay Bridge. Didn’t he understand he was the party crasher? “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Once out of earshot, my mother hissed. “I wish he’d take that hat off inside.”
A new family dynamic was emerging: Mike said or did something inconsiderate or insolent, my mother overreacted, and my father sided with his son, so my mother spewed her anger toward me, her safest ally. Her disdain for Mike’s new lifestyle fueled my rage and resentment. He didn’t appear to care how we felt, but I digested every word.
Mike returned. One waiter filled our water glasses, then uncorked a bottle of wine. Another delivered a warm, freshly sliced baguette. My father approved the wine. Zeida reached for the bread. My brother, still standing, bent his elbows and flapped his arms like an injured bird trying to fly. My mother and I looked at one another and back at him. Why the pantomiming? Mike sat, snorted, jabbed his finger in the air, furrowed his brow and grunted so loud diners nearby turned.
“What do you want? The bread?” I asked. He nodded. He took the baguette, muttering something under his breath, words I couldn’t decipher, then bit it.
“Finally. Thank you,” he said. “But it’s a problem the bread’s been warmed in a non-kosher oven.”
Mike explained he’d gone to the bathroom to wash his hands and wasn’t permitted to talk until he’d recited the prayer and bitten the bread. If he’d explained that beforehand then maybe we would have understood. Or maybe not. His new ways were alien to all of us. Even to my Eastern European grandparents.
As my brother plunged into Ultra-Orthodoxy, my parents’ friends offered backhanded condolences: “At least it’s Judaism and not some weird sect. Imagine if he’d become a Hare Krishna or joined a crazy cult.” I wanted to say, “But he did join a crazy cult.”
My brother asked for the chef to discuss his order. Was it okay if they wrapped the salmon in aluminum foil before putting it in the oven? Silver cutlery or plastic? China or paper? They spoke quietly, nodding their heads. My mother elbowed me under the table. I heard her snicker.
I thought about how much Mike had changed since he’d left his American life. Now, he refused to eat from my parents’ plates in their non-kosher kitchen. He checked the labels on every food item in the pantry for a kosher symbol. He was loud, judgmental, and disrespectful. His extreme fanaticism had become the focal point of our family gatherings, causing me to retreat inside, wishing he’d never come.
Upon his return to Israel, Mike probed deeper into the texts, laws, and interpretations of rabbis, scholars, and God. He began sentences with “Baruch Hashem” (Thank God). Every day he recited countless prayers and blessings upon waking up; when putting on a tallit, a poncho-like garment with a hole for the head and special twined and knotted macramé-like fringes known as tzitzit attached to its four corners; when inspecting the tzitzit; after wrapping the tallit around the body; while laying tefillin—a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah—on the arm, on the head, and around the middle finger. He recited blessings during the ritual washing of the hands upon rising in the morning and again before eating bread, before eating grain products, before drinking grape juice or wine, before eating fruit, before eating non-fruit produce, before eating other foods, and after every meal.
Oftentimes, when asked food- or family-related questions, he said, “I have to ask my rabbi.” His rabbi, I was convinced, paid no heed to the fifth commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. Because if he had, the communication about my brother’s needs and chosen lifestyle would have been better, perhaps reducing the tension between him and our mother, maybe even him and me.
Despite the emotional strain and geographical distances, my parents, particularly my father, continued to attempt family togetherness. For my mother’s fiftieth birthday the following year, he invited us to meet them in Manhattan, to surprise her. Since I was living in Paris, my brother stopped en route to visit. When he called about logistics, I assured him I lived down the street from several kosher restaurants and near a handful of synagogues. He could eat anywhere, pray any time of day, and sightsee.
I agreed to host my brother but felt ill-prepared to face him. I worked as a bilingual assistant for a Jewish non-governmental organization. Since relocating to Europe, my world had opened in unexpected ways. I befriended people from different backgrounds because of my hard-earned fluency. Mike’s world had shrunk, making him more close-minded. I fretted about his reaction to my French boyfriend.
On Mike’s second day, I broached the conversation. “So I wanted to tell you I’m seeing someone. And he’s coming to Manhattan.” We faced each other in my sun-drenched studio.
“Okay. Is he Jewish?”
My mouth opened in shock except I wasn’t shocked at all. I’d anticipated this question and mustered up my strength to stand up to him. “No, Christophe’s Catholic.”
He sputtered. “What did Mom and Dad say?”
His forehead creased as if trying to solve a calculus problem, his favorite subject in high school. My floor slanted, and I felt its unevenness.
“They don’t know yet. It’s still new, not so serious.”
“If it’s not so serious then why is he—this goy—coming? It’s Mom’s birthday!” He turned his back to me. We fell silent. He spun around and bore his eyes into mine. “I have no intention of meeting whatever his name is, and if you try to introduce me, I won’t look him in the eye or shake his hand.”
How dare my brother spurn my boyfriend without knowing anything about him? His refusal to acknowledge another human being because he didn’t share our religion incensed me. No wonder countries and cultures still fought religious wars in Israel, Ireland, Iraq, and elsewhere. No wonder Eastern and Western Europe remained separate and so unequal. No wonder my brother and I had never been close.
“And what would you say if I really were serious with Christophe, or some other non-Jew? What if we decided to get married?”
“You know you’ll never even be able to marry a Cohen if you sleep with a goy.”
“I couldn’t care less if I ever marry a Cohen, or any Jew for that matter!”
The next day, we took separate trains to the airport. Once stateside, Mike refused to be in Christophe’s presence. My folks blamed me for making them choose sides. Sensing the pressure, Christophe packed his bags, broke up, and bolted. I worried that my brother and I had ruined my mother’s birthday, and she might never forgive us. But, perhaps still immature and self-centered, I felt less remorse toward her than rage toward him. I struggled with anger and found forgiveness difficult. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever forget Mike’s behavior.
For the next two decades, Mike and his shtick dominated our get-togethers. Until, one Thanksgiving weekend, I snapped.
In my early forties, married and a mother now, I stormed out of a three-generation reunion in Manhattan, not far from our house in White Plains. Every year, we divvied up the planning; everyone pitched in except Mike since, he decided, his family lived abroad. My duties involved organizing one field trip and two Shabbat meals—ordering, paying, and coordinating food delivery long before Friday sundown. After extensive research, Mike nixed Saturday’s lunch from a kosher restaurant, claiming it no longer met his standards, forcing me to cancel last minute. Then, he arrived an hour late to Sunday brunch because of services.
“Why is it okay for Mike to do whatever he wants?” I yelled. “Dad, why are you so silent? Are you afraid to stand up to him, to put him in his place?” My relatives stared, stunned by my outburst; usually I behaved as the accepting, younger child.
“It’s okay, honey—we understand why you’re upset,” said my aunt, a social worker. I left.
I may have sounded like a spoiled, second child clamoring for attention, but what I sought was ease during our inherently tense family gatherings. I despised kowtowing to Mike, eating at ultra-kosher establishments and prohibiting TV in his children’s presence. I especially loathed my family of origin’s chain reaction. Following my tantrum, I wrote him and my parents a letter proposing we each start therapy and, when visiting one another, we attend together.
Before parting ways, Mike initiated a meeting. We rendezvoused, a week after our Thanksgiving debacle, at a suburban Starbucks, where, according to his rabbi, the tea was kosher. We barely spoke as the baristas concocted our drinks. We carried our tea to a table in the back corner.
“You start,” I said. I had one hour before carpool.
“Okay, I know you’re angry with me. And I’ve been thinking about how we grew up. I think Mom and Dad paid more attention to me. Maybe you felt slighted. I think Boba and Zeida did the same with Dad, making Auntie Mona feel second best. It’s like a family trend.” I wrapped my hands around my cup and inhaled the faint smell of bergamot.
“Sorry, but that’s not it,” I said. “When someone tells me something that’s hard to admit, I get teary. But what you’re saying doesn’t make me emotional. I don’t question or doubt Mom and Dad’s love or my relationship with them.” I sipped my Earl Grey. “I’m angry because your laws and adopted religious lifestyle make you difficult to deal with. You hide behind Judaism and other arbitrary rules. You use them as excuses, why you can’t spend Shabbat somewhere or eat something. I’m sick of dealing with you.”
Mike remained silent, pensive. He nodded. He listened. He didn’t defend himself or cut me down with his usual sarcastic comebacks.
I pointed out our flawed family dynamic. How my mother had pressured us to attend his eldest son’s bar mitzvah in Israel, making my eldest miss the first ten days of middle school and my youngest, kindergarten. How, a decade earlier, for our firstborn son’s bris on Rosh Hashanah, Mike didn’t attend due to logistics like finding a shul and food for the long holiday in Haifa. My parents never intervened.
“I didn’t know Mom pressured you. I would have told her to stop. It’s your decision, not hers. She’s doing that to make Dad happy. If she does it again, tell me. I’ll tell her to back off.”
When our hour ended, I faced a difficult truth. One I couldn’t admit aloud. While I felt bound to my brother because of our shared gene pool, I didn’t like him as a person. I wouldn’t want to be trapped alone with him on an island. I wouldn’t choose him as my friend. How could I tell him I’d contemplated cutting off our relationship to preserve myself? Each time the thought had crossed my mind, I dismissed it because breaking ties takes just as much energy as maintaining them. I’d also considered my kids. He’s their uncle, his children their first cousins. Despite Mike and me, their bonds are strong.
My brother and I bundled up in our winter coats. I accompanied him to the train station. He hugged me.
“I love you,” he said, turning my face toward his. “Don’t ever forget that. I’m on your side.” It reminded me of our curbside goodbye in California when he left for Israel twenty years earlier.
Over winter vacation, my family flew to San Francisco to see my parents. I accompanied my folks to the therapist they’d started seeing upon my suggestion. During a ninety-minute session, we spent seventy-five discussing my brother. After endless conversations starting with “When Mike this” or “Mike that,” the therapist interrupted.
“Hold on, please. Mike isn’t in this room. Jennifer is. Look at Jennifer and talk to her.” It took my parents several tries before they addressed me, without mentioning my brother.
At the end of the session, the therapist drew an unforgettable conclusion. “No one in any one family should have so much power. Mike shouldn’t hold this much power,” he paused. “And you,” he said, looking at my parents, “you gave it to him.”
I felt affirmed, validated. As if this man gave me words I hadn’t possessed and my parents an opinion they could no longer ignore. But the question became how, forty-five years later, do you reclaim this power?
Maybe Mike and I had never been chummy due to a clash in personality or communication style, and his fervent Judaism only made matters worse, widening our rift. But, I realized during that session, my parents played their part, especially my mother. She hadn’t just started whispering in my ear when Mike found Hashem, Hebrew for God, in Jerusalem’s Old City, immersing himself in the religion of our ancestors. Whenever our sibling strife had struck—whether I was ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years old—she always said, “Your brother reminds me of mine. And we were never friends.”
In that room, I faced my mother. “Please, I beg of you. Stop talking to me about my brother, behind his back. My relationship with him is hard enough.”
My brother approaches his daughter, and I attempt to catch his movements and expressions on camera, to try to understand his need for all-encompassing rules and pre-ordained boundaries. Does he cling to Hashem to avoid making decisions? Does he cleave to the laws because he felt unmoored as a boy, with too many freedoms? My mother remembers feeling challenged by his wit, as if he outsmarted her, while my father stood on the sidelines, only fueling her indignation.
Mike folds his hands on his stomach. He maintains distance from his second-born as he whispers in her ear. Is he allowed to touch the bride? To kiss her? Or does that aspect of their relationship, in their Haredi circle, disappear as soon as a young girl menstruates or announces her impending marriage? Did he consult his rabbi or did he know the answer?
My niece stops rocking to listen to him. Is he gushing over how beautiful she looks, telling her how proud he is, or how much he loves her? Or is he quoting some scholar’s words on marriage, some Jewish proverb about love, or the weekly Torah portion, passing down other people’s knowledge to avoid expressing his own emotions?
I stare at my brother’s face through my lens and recall the familiar words of friends, telling me he might never change and to stop expecting it. “The only thing that can change is the way you react,” they say. One friend whose husband has a huge extended clan shared her trick to surviving family get-togethers: look for the good in each person.
Mike is a devoted father, an uncle who emails my kids jokes and asks about their army service, which his children avoid as Haredi. Would his children think the same of me? Am I a caring, involved aunt or unapproachable, detached? I fear the latter. He might not be the brother I always dreamed of, but I’m probably not his ideal sister either. I remain aloof, removed from him and his offspring. I harshly judge them, their lifestyle, and their decision not to eat in my home. I find them intolerant, but, in fact, I’m equally so.
Yet no matter how challenged I am by our relationship, he remains steadfast—the first to call after recent surgery and on every birthday. He is and will always be the only other person who’ll remember and reminisce about our parents’ foibles and follies and the household in which we were raised.
Mike knows I write about him, about us. Whenever I ask questions, he answers reluctantly, saying, “I don’t want to know why you’re asking.” He doesn’t like digging up the past. I cannot imagine him willingly reading my words, but, if he did, he might surprise me and say, “I’m sorry you feel this way. Because I love you. Remember, I’m on your side.” Like he did nine Thanksgivings ago in the New York train station parking lot.
JENNIFER LANG’s essays have been published in Under the Sun, Assay, Ascent, The Coachella Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, among others. Honors include a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Essays nomination and finalist in the Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 Literary Contest. Currently, she serves as CNF Editor for the Flexible Persona literary magazine. Since receiving a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts last summer, she’s been obsessing over every word in her first memoir. Look for her in Raanana, Israel, where she teaches writing at http://israelwritersalon.com/.
For privacy reasons, Jennifer’s brother’s name was changed. —ed.
Lucinda shows up in Wisconsin, on September 25 by way of North Carolina—our half sister from another mother. She is the younger, better version of me in every way, but I’m the only sibling that she talks to—there are three others.
She arrives after a twenty-five-year absence in our brother’s life; a seeker, a philosopher, convinced she can carry the weight of his impending death, that she could, in fact, be his angel of death. Like Charon, she has the gold piece for passage in her teeth at all times. She is both midwife and doula for the dying. Our first night together, at the all-night grocery store, Mark wears flannel pajama bottoms, white socks, flip-flops. His eye sockets are purple under the canopy of fluorescent lights. She’s Martha Stewart on crack:
Pro biotic for your belly. Score! Fresh ginger, for nausea, Ooooh, I like this soap, it’s organic, it’s lavender! I love these fruit cups! I love mandarin oranges! We’ll have lasagna for dinner tonight.
And he’s in absolute thrall to her: a school-boy crush, for this paragon of love and light. My god, so much light, so much energy—it crackles from her skin like static electricity. This girl is lit up. I trail behind the two of them; so animated, so colorful, it’s like watching a passion play. He willingly hands over all his power to her. I am completely stupefied, silenced, erased. Back at his apartment, breakthrough pain! Lucinda calls her mother, who is not our mother. Mark takes the phone, turns his face to the wall. He might be crying. I don’t know. I can’t bear to see him like this. It unhinges me. I smoke at the window in another room. Lucinda enters, crying—she takes my hand. She wants to be the doula for my pain and grief, too. But here’s the thing. It’s not what I want from her, at all.
I want her to get out of my way; I need her to shut up, be humble, bear witness, and respect a bond she knows nothing about. But she’s too high on her mission to help, to fix, to redeem—and doesn’t see this, or if she does, chooses to ignore it. I’ve been dispossessed in my role as the oldest sister, his oldest friend. She is the changeling who replaces me, and then tries to help me. When he’s passed out on his pain meds, she wants to go to a salon and get a pedicure, go shopping for new clothes, sample cheese curds, go for a drive. I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, too. This is not a vacation. And does it really matter if your intentions are pure, and your compassion is real, but your actions ultimately create even more chaos? Who can really tell when times are so fraught?
I can see her mind working: He’s a cool guy, after all, full of flaws, like we all are, but also charismatic and funny. And I see her guilt and her regret, for ignoring him all of her life, but I can’t fix it for her. I can’t fix it for anyone. And I don’t want to. I don’t have the bandwidth. I have my own path to walk—this is my mandala. Go find your own.
At the V.A. clinic the next morning, his doctor examines him. He sits on the table, emaciated, yet still very much in his power, in his body, and still very hip, a rocker—in his black hat, purple hair, and Tibetan beads. We’re in an air-conditioned, windowless room, beige walls and tiled floors. Lucinda and I sit on folding chairs, facing them, doctor and patient, as if it’s a performance. And he’s the star of the show. At one point, the doctor says to him, So yes, you could die in your sleep, and that’s when Mark got up and left.
As I leave to follow him, I hear Lucinda still with the doctor: He needs a higher dose of Fentanyl, now. Today.
In the parking lot, in the sunlight, Mark leans against her neon blue rental. His beads are loose around his wrist and his neck. We don’t say anything. It’s too much; I try to hold him, but we both pull away. What if Lucinda sees? But also the idea of his death is just too crazy. We try to square up to his mortality—the white clouds roil in the sky above our heads. It’s a perfect September day. The leaves are just starting to turn. We’re on the south side of town, in a neighborhood I don’t recognize. He has six weeks to live. Lucinda triumphantly emerges from the clinic,
The patches, she announces, one thousand milligrams, will be in your mailbox, tomorrow! Fed-exed, baby.
Back at his apartment, she draws up a complex schedule for his complex meds, puts it in a spreadsheet, gets it printed, and tacked to the refrigerator. Also tacked to the refrigerator are all her cards and letters to him—spanning the entire length of their relationship, almost six weeks, including a selection of her favorite quotes from their time together:
Screw break out pain!
You’re like a real sister to me!
And taped to the purple wall in the hallway is a hand-painted birthday card from her son. It hangs next to a Xeroxed copy of a prayer by Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, which reads:
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
In the kitchen, she heats up the lasagna, and I pour vodka into a green plastic cup. Mark eats a tiny sliver of his dinner, and then they’re off to the dunes of Lake Michigan, so he can smoke his evening joint .I don’t go. It’s not my ritual. It’s theirs. I pour more vodka into the green plastic cup, which I drink in silence and utter confusion in his empty living room. The hospital bed is to my right, Tibetan prayer flags overhead, courtesy of Lucinda. When they get back, she kisses me on the cheek, says, I love you, and is gone. She sleeps at my aunt’s house. She’ll get her hands dirty, but not that dirty. I’m happy that I’m getting out of here tomorrow.
In the morning, I’m confident, at the very least, she’ll give me some space to say goodbye to him. I have to go home. I have a full teaching load. I have a dog. I pay New York City rent.I’m at the limit of how many classes I can miss before my pay is cut. In his bedroom, I’m packing; she arrives precisely at ten a.m. to take me to the airport. She picks up my hair brush, and pulls out a new one from Walgreens: Look! I got it for you on the way over! The old one is so gnarly. She marches into the living room, calls out his name:
Mark! Honey, hi, you up? Did you take the anti-nausea meds? Let’s look at the schedule.
He’s been avoiding me all morning, will not talk about how this might be my last morning on earth with you. I don’t want to go there either, but I do want five minutes at some point in the day, before I get on the plane, to say goodbye. Because it might really be goodbye. So, will you, Lucinda, will you give me that space? But it’s not looking good. I stand in the shadow of The Changeling, a sister he never really knew, who now controls everything. Because in the land of dying, everything is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. It’s like the circus has come to town. Lucinda and Mark make plans to eat lobster, in downtown Milwaukee, after they drop me off at the airport.
And I see as I get in the back seat, and they get in the front, that this is the way he wants it. He’s not going to say goodbye to me. It’s a much smoother ride with The Changeling in charge. It’s easier on him. He hardly knows her. He basks in her reflected light, as they talk cornfields and lobster rolls. I’m in the back still holding out hope—two minutes alone at the airport, that’s all I’m asking. This is all I want. And Lucinda is an exceptional woman. We’ve been friends for 20 years. She will honor this connection, which doesn’t include her, and step aside, but when we are pulling into the entrance for my airline, she says,
Let’s take a family picture!
She gets out, helping me with my bags, I whisper furiously to her,
I do not want to take a family picture.
And I can’t even manage to sound like a sane person. I’m acutely conscious that my head might explode. She wants a picture to post on social media? My brother looks terrible. I look terrible. I don’t want a digital snap shot, or simulacrum of any kind, of this day, this moment. This moment can burn in hellfire, the second I don’t need it to move to the next. Mark stands at the curb, says, What’s wrong? Lucinda, on the verge of tears, replies, She doesn’t want a family picture, and points at me. I pick up my suitcase and throw it at her. It’s too big and too heavy to make much headway, but I make my point.
I’m out of control.
Mark calls out to me, as I walk away, You’re coming back, right?
In the lounge, at my gate, I call my younger brother of the same mother, and tell him what has just happened. I stand in front of a row of floor to ceiling plate glass windows, overlooking a 747, illuminated by a brilliant afternoon sun. I’m center stage, on the red carpet, in the brightest spot in the room, practically blinded by the light, and I weep. It is such a relief to finally be the despairing, messy, breaking-down woman that I’d been holding back for so long and so hard. Everybody in the terminal watches me cry. It’s the happiest, and most satisfied I’ve been in weeks.
The next time I fly back, The Changeling has vanished, for good, dethroned when my brother didn’t want to go along with their suicide plot. She said it was time, and he said, no. He texted me: She’s Dr. Kevorkian! Tell her to stay away! She got on a plane anyway. She called me from Atlanta. I knew her heart was breaking. I told her, don’t go. Turn around and head home. She didn’t listen. She didn’t know him. When he says no, he means it. She pounded on his door. Crying. Let me in. But it was over.
This long-lost half-sister brought him, for a brief time, what he needed—organization to the chaos of his dying. This must’ve been a relief, and maybe it even promised a different ending, a kind of redemption. But in the end, she didn’t prevail. She was banished. Two weeks later, I flew back into town, at his request. Left to our own devices, we watched movies and smoked pot with cousins and siblings, ate frosted cinnamon muffins for breakfast, and a candy bars for lunch. I didn’t try to fix him, redeem him, or help him.
I bore witness, and believe me, this is infinitely more difficult because it’s acknowledging that you are helpless, and power greater than you is in control. I tried to stay longer, but he said, no, go home. I knew better than to argue. He died a few days later.
He died like a hero going home.
LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and was winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by CCM, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Vol 1: Brooklyn, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, BUST Magazine, Angels Flight, literary west, and others. Her latest book is: How to Travel with Your Demons (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. @laslugocki
“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.