You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.
The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.
Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.
The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.
In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.
One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.
And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.
These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.
Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”
He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.
At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.
The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.
A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.
A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.
People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.
No one mentions it.
Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.
I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.
Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.
Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.
She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.
“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.
She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.
We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.
“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.
When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.
There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.
At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?
This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.
That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.
If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.
After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.
When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.
During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.
“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.
“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.
Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.
On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.
The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.
At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.
“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.
“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.
“No,” I say.
“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”
What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.
What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.
Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.
But how do we do this?
What is supposed to help?
What is the right thing to do?
“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.
SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.
After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.
I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.
As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”
When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.
KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.
This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.
Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.
That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.
Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.
The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.
Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.
After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.
Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.
After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.
Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.
From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.
On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.
A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.
That was twenty years ago.
Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.
“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”
I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.
I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.
KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.
Just off Central Avenue they’re tearing down Eastland mall—the dead mall as I like to call it. Bulldozers and cranes cluster near broken concrete and piles of rubble. In the beginning, I saw the front of the building removed, the insides exposed like a little girl’s dollhouse. As the rubble grew, I wondered if between the dust and crushed walls, a lone hanger could be found, a pair of new shoes, or perhaps a going-out-of-business sign. Do dead malls hold on to any of that?
“Mommy, what are they doing?” my preschool-aged daughter asks from the back seat. My throat tightens. In an uncharacteristic neutral voice, I explain the demolition of the empty building and the city’s desire for something new. Given Sekai’s keen sense of observation, I wonder if she notices how I stare when we drive this block of Central. How can I explain to her my want to stop the car and bury my head in my hands when I can’t even explain this to myself? Who cries over a mall?
As a recent arrival to Charlotte, I never knew the dead mall when it was alive with the hum of eager shoppers and squalling children. I never walked through the stores and ran my hand across soft fabrics or sifted through piles of sale CDs. I never sipped lemonade while middle schoolers exchanged first kisses just beyond the food court. I don’t know what it was to circle and circle around bright green trees in search of an elusive parking spot. Still I keep driving by, watching the demolition of a mall I never knew. A few more weeks and the dead mall will be a wasteland of concrete. Hundreds and thousands of parallel and perpendicular lines will provide parking for nothing. Not even an abandoned building.
What happens each day off Central makes me think of my hometown. A few blocks from Anchorage’s local college is the University Center. Or to be more accurate: my own dead mall. Mine. As in the theater where I watched movies with high school friends I no longer know. The stores where I spent my babysitting money on books, cheap jewelry, and the occasional hair scrunchie. The studio where my family posed for one of our final portraits before the divorce. My dead mall.
I’m not sure anyone else—my parents or my sister—remembers that day where we slipped in the back entrance by the movie theater. Still dressed in our church clothes, we walked through the doors as the smell of liquid butter coating stale popcorn flooded my nose and the click of my sister’s high heels tapped the tiled floor. That family portrait remains among the last with frozen smiles on a mother, father, and two girls. Did my parents allow their fingers to entwine with each other’s when I stopped to flip through comics at the bookstore? Did my father’s face shine with pride as the sun’s rays streamed through the skylight and streaked his wife and daughters’ coordinated spring dresses? Does it matter that no one remembers the photo except for me?
A few hours before dawn, the baby’s hiccupped cries shake me from my dreams. Before I can shrug off the weight of sleep, the mattress creaks as my husband, Nyasha, rolls out of bed, and his bare feet pad across the carpeted floor. He brings Shamiso back to me where I fall asleep nursing her. Both of us too tired to return her to the crib, she’s still there when the door handle turns, and Sekai shuffles towards us with a blanket dragging behind. She exhales a hot breath near my cheek. “I can’t sleep, Mommy.” As I drift back to sleep, she climbs onto the foot of the bed. A few hours later when the blue-black shadows of night dissolve into day, we still remain there with our bodies brushing against each other. Shamiso sleeps between Nyasha and me, and Sekai is perpendicular to our feet. The stuffy smell of sleep sweat wakens me, and my baby’s warm hand touches my nose. Lying there I wish the sun would forget for a moment its command to climb higher in the sky and let me stay here, near my family, forever.
When my sister and I were small, the dark of night and the quiet of the house made us tiptoe towards our parents’ bedroom. We crept down the hallway in our pajamas, tapped the wood, and pressed our faces to the slit between frame and door. In soft voices we said, “We’re scared. Can we come in?” Then the click of the knob turning, and my sister and I piled into the warm bed.
Back when I used to whisper to my parents in the middle of the night, could they have guessed the light in their marriage would dim, and they would clutch regret amidst their crumbled dreams? When the morning sun snuck through the blinds, and they saw their daughters resting next to them, could they have predicted what they had wasn’t the kind of structure to survive a generation?
It’s senior year of high school, and I lie on my bed with a book in my hand. The radio on my nightstand spits out one pop song after another, and I hum along, a disconnected soundtrack for the plot unfolding in my book.
“Well aren’t you just righteous.” I hear my father’s words from beyond my closed door. My mother’s cries muffle her response before I can make them out. “You think you’re better than everyone else.” And then I am not on my bed, the book tossed on the floor where the cheap pages display their frailty against the carpet. On the middle stair, I stand between the volley of words moving up the steps and sliding back down. From the bottom of the staircase, my father stares at me, and I feel my mother standing behind.
“Stop it. Stop it,” I say. “Don’t say that. Stop saying mean things.” My voice grows louder as something in me bubbles. Anger? Annoyance? Fear?
“Go back to your room, Patrice. You don’t understand.” My father walks away, and I hear the door to his basement office slam. Behind me, my mother disappears into their bedroom. I am left on the middle step where I lean against the cold wall. By the time I stand up, I wear an imprint of the wall’s texture on my temple and the side of my forehead. In the background the soundtrack continues with the levity of top forty hits.
I’ve seen other dying malls. A few cars may sit near the entrance while a scraggly tree or two sway in the wind. In the parking lot dotted with potholes, a gush of wind skips across deserted concrete that once held rows bursting with cars. A large sign hangs over the entrance. Yes We’re Still Open, the taut plastic reads. Inside an elderly couple rummages through the clearance rack. A handful of workers stand behind the counters of the food court peddling soft pretzels and day-old cookies. Of the shops with the lights still on, the names display unfamiliar words since the chain stores have vanished leaving behind only local establishments. Still Alive. For now.
But declining marriages elude me. Growing up in the eighties, the culture of divorce no longer shocked as in previous generations. During childhood, friends and classmates shuffled between parents every other weekend and through the summer. Still, my breath shortened into rapid pants when my parents separated after twenty-three years when I was eighteen years old. What makes a marriage survive? A cup of love? A bushel of respect? The anchor of loyalty? Uncompromising fidelity? Extra laughter? A shared purpose? A common faith? Perhaps all of that? Perhaps more? Holding my wedding pictures, I stare at my scarlet dress that reminds me of the small, faded photograph on the wall of my childhood home. Framed inside, the twenty-something version of my father wears a bright red suit. His arm loops through the arm of my mother, who’s dressed in a traditional white gown. When Nyasha and I lace our fingers together and sit close, is there something our eyes ignore, hidden beneath what we create? A sign to illuminate what stretches beyond our view?
In the middle of the night, a few months after I marry Nyasha, my water glass accidentally crashes into shards against the tiles of our kitchen. In the dark I stand with my bare feet against the cool floor. Crumbs of glass splay around me, stretching beyond the beam of moonlight shining through the window. Not even a moment passes, and he stands at the light switch.
“Let me get your slippers,” he says as he flips on the light.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “So sorry.” Fat tears appear in the corners of my eyes.
“Not to worry,” he says, setting my slippers on the ground, reaching his hand to me. “Why don’t you go back to bed,” he says. “I can take care of this.”
Back in the room under the comforting weight of the duvet, I see the yellow light from the kitchen, hear the crinkle of swept glass, and wonder why I am still crying.
In the year following my parents’ divorce, I asked my sister if she was surprised when she heard. Beneath my question, there was a longing to share the remembrance of the unexpected. “Not really—they used to fight,” she said matter-of-factly.
A while back, I returned to my hometown and walked through the University Center. I was surprised to see the building still limping along. Even a year earlier, the mall’s fate had seemed destined for dark hallways and caves of empty shops. “The local university gave it new life. They reclaimed it as an extension of their campus,” my mother explained.
My mother and I joined a sprinkling of other mall walkers in search of sanctuary from the single-digit temperatures beyond the sliding glass doors. We walked the faded hallways with a spattering of shops: a furniture store, a hair salon, a restaurant, all butting up against the green and yellow wing owned by the university. In the repurposed section, I saw the portrait studio had transformed into meeting rooms. The bookstore had become an office or a classroom. When I reached the entrance of the old movie theater, the lights were turned off. The locked door refused to let me see what now existed in the dark space.
As my hand touched the metal handle of the once familiar door, I felt transported back to my final time in the old theater, several months before my parents announced their divorce. In that awkward summer between high school graduation and the start of college, when my friends and I had shed girlhood but had yet to determine what womanhood looked like, we filled a row in one of the dark theaters. Tubs of warm popcorn and boxes of M&M’s moved up and down the line. In the smooth vinyl seats, I watched as Julia Roberts tried to sabotage her best friend’s wedding. Along with everyone else, I walked out of the theater believing something magical about marriage.
I’m six or seven years old. In front of their bedroom mirror, my father’s arms wrap around my mother’s body. He leans over and kisses the top of her head and feels her silky hair beneath his lips. For a moment I watch and then burrow between them to stretch their hug to include me.
Despite the past, I still believe in lifetime marriages with elderly couples and their wrinkled palms pressed together. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle sandwiched between my parents. I rested one arm on the curve of my father’s elbow while I looped the other through my mother’s arm. As our trio of bodies moved as a unit, I pretended that I walked between something breathing, something that still flourished. Moments later I stood before my husband where, with our hands entwined and eyes alive, we made vows to begin. We slipped rings on our fingers, the cool metal sliding on clammy flesh. While my sister held my white calla lilies with the scarlet bow, my husband and I declared forever to each other. And with our fingers laced together, we walked back down the aisle into something new.
And I still give my subconscious space to imagine. In routine moments of life like a drive home, I let myself see my parents together. I envision my daughters speaking of Grandma and Grandpa as a single phrase. When my palm brushes my daughters’ smooth cheeks, I pretend the place I thought I would bring my children to swaddle them in the memories of my childhood still exists.
I started running after my parents called during my first year of college to announce their divorce. First down the hallway to where everyone gathered in a friend’s dorm room. Then to the mall where I swiped my credit card as if it were a magic wand that could give me a different life. Ribbed turtlenecks, soft sweaters, double-zip boots. Perhaps beautiful clothes draping my body could make my life beautiful, I thought.
Finally, I sprinted across the world. A decade of traipsing the globe. I called it “finding myself” or “spreading my wings.” I believed tired clichés could disguise my desire to not go home. A year in England, ten months in Madagascar, a semester in Spain, a first job in upstate New York where I knew no one. Thanksgivings were spent with a college friend’s family to avoid interacting with my father and his new wife. During a backpacking trip across Europe, as a night train zipped from Rome to Venice, I refused to admit to a friend that I longed for a beautiful marriage that lasted. Instead I said that I didn’t believe in love and certainly not the kind of love that could survive the years.
And then I met Nyasha. On the final stretch of my lap around the world, during a ten-week trip to South Africa to fulfill the requirements of a grant I wrote, twenty minutes after my plane landed, I met this quiet man. He listened while I made sweeping statements about how I would make the world a better place. He challenged me to give greater thought to what I said. Our conversations hovered in the realm of ideas, and his reserved ways balanced my impulsive personality. At the end of the ten weeks, we stood in the international departures terminal of Cape Town’s airport.
“I’ll write,” Nyasha said.
“Once a month?” I asked, attempting to make the moment light. I forced a teasing smile to appear on my face.
His face mirrored mine. “At least once a month. Absolute minimum.” His arms wrapped around me and drew me close before his whispered response tickled my ear. “And maybe more.”
Nine months later, he slipped an engagement ring on my finger, and six months after that we exchanged our wedding vows.
Fifteen years after my parents divorced, they still don’t communicate with each other, and I don’t talk much with them about the past. My father speaks in hyperbole tainted with anger, a conversation combination I avoid. My mother’s eyes grow sad. It’s a clothing store of blame where everything that could have gone wrong fits the other person. But crumbs of the past trickle between their words, and I become a timid mouse trailing behind, grabbing phrases, sniffing them inside. “Be careful. Some women don’t care that your husband is married,” my mother says as she helps me bring in the groceries. “Don’t try and change him,” my father remarks while the ocean salts the air and our feet sink into sand near where Nyasha and I will wed.
“You remember Grandpa,” Sekai says to my mother. My daughter stands in the doorway of the laundry room and holds the phone to her ear. From where I crouch pulling warm clothes from the drier, I can hear her side of the conversation unfold. My father and his wife left yesterday, and Sekai is telling my mother about their visit. “Gammy, you remember Grandpa. When Mommy and Auntie were girls, you were together a mommy and a daddy.” For the length of my mother’s response, I stop my work. Instead of remembering the past, I linger over the fresh smell of my husband’s shirts and my daughter’s pastel socks.
One day I may ask my parents what happened to their marriage. Maybe we’ll sit across from each other in an all-night diner with thick slices of blueberry pie between us. As my fork scrapes the remains of the violet filling, I’ll ask them if they understand what happened or how their marriage could have been different. I imagine my father raising his diet coke with beads of condensation sliding down the glass and my mother squeezing a fresh lemon in her hot tea. From across the table, they will look away from me for a moment. All around us waitresses will take orders, plates will hit tables, and perhaps a glass will break in the kitchen so the silence at our table won’t become awkward. Then they’ll begin to speak; slow at first but gaining momentum. Perhaps the talk will center on what disappeared, how they changed, or what may not have been there from the beginning. Maybe I’ll discover some answers. Or perhaps just sitting together will be more important than what I hear. As the night transforms to morning and the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon wafts past us, I will reach my hands across the table and rest mine in theirs. With damp cheeks, I’ll tell them, “It’s okay. We are okay.”
A few weeks before Christmas, Nyasha, the girls, and I slip in the side entrance of a mall. Not Eastland mall with its empty parking lot stretching wide, its wrecking balls and broken concrete. But another mall in Charlotte where cars circle and circle in search of a spot near the door. The windowless structure beckons for people to disappear behind the guise of shiny trinkets and the smell of new clothes. With our outfits coordinated in red and faces ready to smile, we join other families in the portrait studio waiting our turn. Just as I straighten Sekai’s dress and slide a matching headband on the baby, the photographer calls for us.
Christmas music bounces in the background mixed with the rumble of waiting voices. “Move in. Your faces almost touching,” the photographer says as she snaps an image. Then she stretches us into a row and with the help of stools and boxes, our heights stagger into a descending staircase. Arms rest on shoulders, and I hold Shamiso in my lap.
In a week or so, I will find a slim package with our family prints waiting on the stoop. Sekai will sit near me as I tug at the cardboard to release our memories. Later, I will hold up the two 8x10s of our family for her to choose between. “Which one should we display?” I will say to her.
Sekai will first stare at the one of our faces almost pressed together and then at the one of our staggered heights. She will point to the second photo, the one where Nyasha and I sit in the middle, Sekai leans against her father, and I hold Shamiso in my lap. “We are all looking ahead in this one,” she will say. As I slide the new family photo into the frame and place it on our bookshelf, I will think that she is right. We all look ahead, this small family, linked together, staring at what may come.
But today, after we sit for the portrait, we slip out the side entrance of a mall. I hold Sekai against my hip, and Nyasha carries the infant car seat. Beyond the doors, thick raindrops plop against the ground, and the musty smell of wet cement tells me to inhale this moment and remember the day. We stand beneath the massive umbrella of awning that stretches over our heads for just a moment before Nyasha suggests I wait while he gets the car. As he sets the baby next to me, his palm brushes against my bare hand. The touch of warmth against the chill creeping through my fingers reminds me of the beauty of all that remains. I watch my husband walk across the parking lot, through the rain, and I think this moment could be hallowed ground.
The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.
Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.
Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.
No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.
I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.
Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.
Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?
The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?
“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.
Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”
My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.
“And why not?” I asked.
“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.
“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.
My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”
Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.
What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.
At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?
That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.
I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?
The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.
In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.
I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.
My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.
With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.
The rhythmic clicking is so far in the background that I think, how bad can this be?
Country, top 40, ’80s rock…
I wait for the technician to list a station I like, classical or maybe jazz.
…hip hop, jazz?
The right earphone lands a little too far south. It cuffs my upper cheek and skims my ear. It will have to be close enough for the next half hour or so because I don’t speak up in time. As she motors me into the tube, the technician drops a soft cloth on my face. It’s still bright behind my shut eyes. I open them and peek beneath the cloth’s bottom edge at the glossy, spiraling cavern. I shut my eyes again fast. Later, my husband Mat will ask me, How close was your face to the ceiling?, and I’ll say, I don’t know.
The technician tucks a buzzer button beneath my left hand. In case of emergency, she says.
I squeeze it without meaning to. It buzzes.
Are you okay?
The first test will last one minute. Hold real still.
My feet are taped together as if I’m in a hostage situation. I try not to think of it that way, like I’m enclosed in a thick plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. Only one person could hear me scream, if I screamed, and I just met her. I don’t even know her name. She’s wearing false eyelashes and a wig, as if in disguise. I’m here to diagnose and regain control of my left hip and my life, the very same life a stranger now controls. Now that’s irony. For the moment, the only option is trust.
Are you okay?
The next test will take about three and a half minutes.
The sound patterns change. Grinding happens, and then the noise my printer makes when it spits out pages. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it’s fine. I wonder if she’s selected the correct station because the song sounds more like swing than jazz. The machine gnashes and moans, while a smooth, clear, female voice sings up-tempo about something wonderful. That’s the honest-to-God lyric: something wonderful. More irony. Every time I want to fidget, I bite my tongue hard to yank me back to the top of my body, the part that can will my toes not to shift position.
Are you okay?
The next two tests will take about four and a half minutes each.
I want to ask about the tests. What exactly are they testing for four and a half minutes? Then what different thing are they testing for the following four and a half minutes? But I also want to get this done, and she’s chatty, this technician. Her children are both grown, the boy is married and works nearby, loves his job, and the girl lives farther away but has provided grandbabies who compensate for the distance. I know all this from limping in socks and a hospital gown from the waiting area to the room I’m in now—about twenty-five steps, maybe less. If I ask about the tests, she will want to be clear, explain every detail, and I appreciate that, but I want this done more than I want to know what’s being done to me. I want information about this stoppage in my joints, so I can walk properly again and go through with my daughter Hannah’s high school graduation trip. I splurged on plane tickets to Italy for one last family hurrah and the promise of daily gelato before college tuition payments begin. I’ll never be forgiven if I cancel it. I’ll ruin it if I go and can’t walk. A bad diagnosis is lose-lose. Still, I want to know.
Are you okay?
It’s the correct station after all. The instrumental jazz I’d hoped for plays, but I can barely hear the saxophone above the machine’s jackhammering. I was a New Yorker for a while, so the noise is no big deal. Over time, we adjusted. The baby slept through it, but not Hannah, my sensitive toddler. She approached my side of the bed in her pink princess nightgown, a curl stuck to her forehead glistening with sweat and sleep. Frowsy and blowsy, Mat called it when the kids awakened disheveled, warm, and pink like that. At eighteen, Hannah’s pincurls have softened into waves but remain the same brown and blond and red. The sun still tracks freckles across her nose. I still see that frowsy and blowsy child in the pink princess nightgown every time Hannah the young woman barrels through the door after a run, ponytail swaying. When she was little, I wanted her to stay curled into me forever beneath the cocoon of sheets, yet I itched for her to return to her own bed, where her twitching and breathing wouldn’t keep me awake. Now it’s differently the same. When she’s home, sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about her leaving for college in just a few months. I can’t sleep when she’s not home either, worried she’ll pile into a car driven by some drunk teenager, even though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me if there’s ever a situation like that. No questions asked; just call.
Are you okay?
The next three tests will last about four minutes each.
The pole towers over a deep, bottomless ravine, swinging wildly from wind, and I balance in a chair on top like a character from the Doctor Seuss book Daddy read to me before bed. Lurching awake saves me, though the nightmare pounds inside. I’m frowsy and blowsy, and lace ruffles down the front of my flannel nightgown. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting stretches down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s beehive hair, flattened on the side from sleep, is either real or lifted from pictures I’ve seen, but the warm, safe smell of her perfume leftover from the day is real. The curving ivory edges of my parents’ monumental headboard remind me of animal tusks. I never liked that headboard. (Mom tried to give it to me during a cleaning spree and told me how expensive it was as a selling point, but I didn’t take it.) Mom lifts the edge of the sheet, and I curl into her and listen to her breathe. In and out. And then I listen to my own child’s breathing, in and out, while she cuddles into me and jackhammers attack the street outside the apartment window.
How are you doing?
You moved during one of the tests, so we’ll have to do it again.
What did I move? I didn’t think I moved anything. I sound defensive. I don’t mean to; defensive is just the way it comes out.
The monitor tells me you moved something, but it doesn’t say what. It could be that you rearranged your hand, or a toe.
It was my toe. I must not have bitten my tongue in time. I’ll try to do better.
You’re doing great. It will only be three and a half minutes.
Why always a half? What can they possibly tell from that extra half a minute that they can’t detect from the first three? I bite my tongue, so my toe won’t move. I try to go back to the safe spaces, with nightgowns and mothers and deeply sleeping, trusting little girls. I open my eyes and shut them again, but I can’t seem to return to my childhood home or our old apartment where my entire little girl fit into the pocket of my body curving around her. I’m alone and powerless inside a plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. When my girl leaves for college in the fall, I can’t drown out the jackhammers or conquer the nightmares for her.
That’s it. You are done. I’m coming to get you out of there.
The original rhythmic sounds re-emerge. The saxophone, the bass, the brush against cymbals abruptly stop, and the platform moves like a forklift delivering rubble onto a pile. The technician removes the tape from my feet. I’m free. My hip is stiff, my mother is old, my child has grown, and we mostly wear pajamas instead of nightgowns now—except for Mom. Her light cotton nightgowns with pleated fronts must be forty years old, and they’re still her staple. My daughter has switched to 100% pajamas. She told me once the pink princess nightgown is in her room somewhere. She’ll probably leave it behind when she moves away for college. Moving forward, always forward, and here I was going backward for some reason, when I should’ve been moving forward too.
I’m afraid you owe $150.00, the receptionist tells me. These tests used to be free, but now the insurance. The receptionist is nice about it.
I limp out of the hospital and drive home with my good leg pressing the pedal then I pump the brake when the car begins moving too fast. I wish my hip would heal already, so I can walk properly. We will take that graduation trip. Hannah will leave. I’ll grow old like my mother, but I’ll wear pajamas. Maybe I should’ve taken that giant, ugly, valuable headboard when Mom offered it. Maybe I should search for the little pink nightgown folded in the closet of Hannah’s vacated room when she’s gone. I’ll keep moving forward, but sometimes it feels too fast, with no button to press in case of emergency, no break to pump.
Mat asks, How did it go?
Is it weird that I almost enjoyed my MRI? For forty and a half minutes, my only responsibility was to hold still while voices sang something wonderful and asked Are you okay? My mother protected me. I protected my daughter. Then the machine shut off, and the world started up again, the world where my daughter will leave, as children do.
JILL MARGARET SHULMAN is a freelance writer, parent of teenagers, college essay coach, and works seasonally in college admissions. Some of her recent essays have appeared in The New York Times, Family Fun, Good Housekeeping, Parents.com and O the Oprah Magazine. Visit her website at http://www.otherwords.us/ for college essay coaching inquiries and links to more of her writing.
I sat at the table nervously clutching my purse, hoping I didn’t have lipstick on my teeth. And then I saw them. A handsome couple in their mid-forties. The husband, with strands of silver in his hair. Her, in a perfectly pressed blue blouse and manicured nails. Normal, I thought. But nothing is really normal about meeting the soon-to-be-parents of your egg.
They walked over to the table clasping hands—I stumbled a bit as I stood up. We hugged. She reached up, tucked a strand of loose her hair behind her ear, and sat down.
The next two hours turned into a peculiar exchange: a tender disclosure of precious information reserved usually for the most intimate of relationships. I learned that they had met later in life after two failed marriages. Soulmates, they called each other. And I believed them by the furtive glances they exchanged and the ease in which they unfolded their story. After years of searching for the right person, they were devastated to learn that they could not conceive a child together—a tangible expression of their love and commitment. They had tried for three years. There was nothing left.
And there I was, sitting across from them, fresh-faced from college, fertile, and in need of some cash. Making ends meet outside the gates of the ivory tower was not an intellectual exercise. I was sleeping on a bunk bed and barely earning minimum wage working a full-time job. My dream of going to law school was quickly slipping away. I wandered into the egg donation world on a whim—never expecting to meet two souls to whom I would connect so intensely.
The waitress leaned over and sat down a plate of pasta in front of me. I grinned at the thought of free food. I rattled off my personal stats: above average height, 3.43 GPA, Ivy-League degree, excellent health, no injures or prior hospitalizations, and a clean psychological evaluation. I was acutely aware that I was everything they wanted—not by anything I had done, but by sheer circumstance. I slid my baby photos across the table and saw his eyes linger on one. He picked it up and glanced over at his wife. “She looks like you did as a child,” he smiled.
They offered to give me time to think about my decision as they walked me to my car. But there was nothing for me that think about. This wasn’t some mediocre date spent listening to a man-child trying to impress me with his entry-level tech job. I wanted to be part of them in some way. My desire, perhaps, came from the little girl in me that yearned to have been born in such a stable and loving home.
“You can have my eggs, ” I said.
The wife, who had sat with her mouth pursed during our time, came close to me. Tears streamed down her face. “Thank you,” she whispered into my ear. I hugged them both, got into my Hyundai, and we went our separate ways.
I embarked on the egg preparation and retrieval process with the doggedness usually reserved for finding a closet to turn into a bedroom in NYC. I wasn’t giving my eggs to a faceless void —but to a couple who were in love—and my egg would be loved.
I have to be honest: The egg donation process isn’t for the faint of heart. I injected myself daily with hormones, visited the doctor twice a week to have a giant alien dildo shoved into me. I was poked, prodded, and stuck by nurses who often missed my veins and drew air. But after three weeks, I was ready and brimming with fresh follicles. I was so proud of my ovaries.
I enlisted my mother to care for me on the day of retrieval. “You’re selling my first grandchild,” she joked. But I felt no attachment to my eggs. I had spent twenty-three years trying not to get pregnant. Twenty-three years guarding my vagina like the United States Mint. Twenty-three years trying not to become a teenage mother like she had been.
I forced myself into the thin blue paper gown, shuffled onto the table, and opened my legs. The procedure was over before it even began. When I woke and dressed, the nurse handed me a gift bag. Inside was a hand written note from the couple, a lavender-scented Bath and Body gift set, and a check for $7,000. I read the note and cried.
You always wish that you had paid more attention to the list of “201 things that could go wrong” when of course, shit goes wrong. A week after the retrieval, I woke with a swollen stomach and could barely breathe. “Oh no, they got the wrong one pregnant!” I laughed.
I wasn’t pregnant, but I did have number three on the “201 things that could go wrong list” list: Ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome. An excess of hormone had flooded my system, causing my abdominal cavity to swell. Luckily, it resolved on its own with rest and lots of fluids. And even though it was scary and uncomfortable, I did not regret my decision.
I went to law school with the money they gave me. Our contract stipulated no contact after the egg retrieval, and I never heard from them again.
Time has passed with fierceness. After a career change and with the feeling of my own mortality creeping in the back room, I think back to our brief interlude. I am thirty-five years old now and childfree. My once fertile, blushing and bouncing eggs are committing suicide, jumping off the shelf one by one. Apoptosis they call it—spontaneous cell death. I guess I should be in a panic about the cliff-like decline in my fertility, but I am not. I do have a sudden aversion to omelets, though.
At twenty-three, I didn’t realize that my life would involve no children of my own. I naturally thought that I would marry, have 2.5 gluten-free kids, a modern husband, and live in an overpriced commuter condominium. But that’s not my reality. I’ve had a colorful and interesting life, stockpiling degrees like weapons, moving across the country, falling in and out love, and coming closer to my dream job. I’ve lived big and without restraint on purpose.
Dinner with most of my high school and college friends usually involves booster seats and sliced finger foods. “Don’t you want to experience unconditional love?” they chide. “Life is so much more meaningful with kids.”
I smile, each time, politely. (And then I want to hurl a chicken nugget across the table.) I appreciate their concern for my well-being and happiness. However, they know, and I know, that there are privileges I have as a child-free adult that they don’t. It’s an even trade.
I was never prepared to give birth to a child. My life was always coming together and falling apart in sweeping change. And for this very reason, I am eternally thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to play a part in bringing life into this world without possessing it. I could have never realized how meaningful the decision I made thirteen years ago would become. How three strangers with different needs could come together for a brief moment, change the course of each others’ lives, and never meet again.
I’ve read the note they left for me from time to time. And now, more than ever, after the passing of my mother. Sometimes I think about my egg, now a pre-teenager, and I wonder what (s)he has become. I wonder if (s)he is living their life with the certainty that (s)he can be their truest self and be accepted. I wonder if (s)he feels expansive. I wonder if (s)he is good and kind. I wonder if (s)he is as thankful his or her life as I am for it now.
SAKEENAH EL-AMIN is a passionate social justice advocate. She manages a law education program for young adults in the juvenile justice system and is in the process of starting a progressive, social-justice oriented school for low-income girls of color. This is her first published piece.
I’m stopped at a busy intersection when it happens: My eyes close, then open, and for a few long, blank seconds, I can’t fathom how I got here. I can see the red traffic light swaying above me, the plastic flags fluttering brightly over the used car lot. But everything feels remote. I could close my eyes again, I think, and the world might disappear. I’m tempted to let it.
Fatigue presses on me like a weighted blanket. From beneath it, a thought emerges: No. I am on a four-lane street, at the wheel of a one-and-a-half ton vehicle. Soon the light will change. I need to wake up.
“Stop,” I say aloud, suddenly afraid. “Just stop this.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But at the sound of my voice, the unreality recedes infinitesimally.
I switch off the radio, stilling the soothing saxophone music. The light changes. “Turn right,” I instruct myself, clutching the wheel like a terrified old lady. “There’s the Safeway, keep driving.” I narrate myself home like this, the sound of my voice tethering me to the car, the road, the world. When I get inside, I climb into my son’s bunk bed and close his blackout curtains, but I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s the problem.
“Are you anxious about anything?” asks my doctor, not for the first time. She’s a bit younger than me, a mother; I like her. What I don’t like is this focus on my anxiety. I am untroubled by anything except my inability to sleep. Admittedly, it’s making me crazy.
“Nothing going on at home?” she presses.
My beloved grandmother died. I endured my parents’ bitter, protracted divorce. My Peace Corps journal was stolen, along with my backpack, en route from Casablanca to Dakar. A man I loved didn’t love me back. I had a terrible time breastfeeding. That’s it. Those are the worst things that have happened to me. My litany of woe is minor. My life, relatively speaking, has been a cakewalk.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “I’m a very lucky woman.”
But ten days ago, three hours after I went to sleep, I felt myself swimming unexpectedly up to consciousness. Beside me, my husband slept on. Out in the backyard, the wind stirred the heavy dark branches of the fir tree. Any moment now, I thought, I would dive down, back into sleep. Instead, I lay stranded on the surface.
We all have our strategies for this. Mine is reciting “Kubla Khan” in my head. Invariably, I’m asleep long before I get to the damsel with the dulcimer. This time, depressingly, I made it all the way to the end. There was Coleridge, ecstatically drinking the milk of paradise, while I watched the red numerals of the digital clock progress inexorably from two to three to four to five. Wakefulness felt like a door jammed open, and I couldn’t shut it.
It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.
For years now, whenever my friends and I kvetch about our kids, someone always puts things in perspective: “Yeah, but at least they sleep through the night.” There’s a collective shudder. Like our memories of labor, the subsequent sleep deprivation is still disturbingly vivid. But that was a decade and a half ago. I was too old for this. By the fourth morning, I was queasy, snappish, fumbling for familiar words like a stroke victim. After ten days, during which I averaged three hours of sleep a night, I went to the doctor.
And really, I assure her now, nothing is troubling me. I explain about my loving husband, my healthy children, the work I enjoy, our generous health benefits. Even in my present affliction, I am fortunate: I work from home, so neither my freelance clients nor my bosses at the literary magazine can see me, haggard in my pajamas every afternoon, laboriously improving sentence flow.
My doctor prescribes a sedative and tells me to take it for a week, in the hope that this will re-set my system. At home, I shake one of the tiny white pills into my palm. It looks harmless, but I regard it with trepidation. I enjoy a glass of wine, but except for that one time with the marijuana cookies—all right, and that other time with the mushrooms—I have avoided mind-altering substances my entire life. Not out of moral qualms, but because they make me uneasy. This little pill is going to do something to my brain, something I can’t predict, and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of not sleeping. But I’m desperate. That night, I take the pill and go to bed. As always, my husband falls asleep in three minutes. I wait in the dark, listening to him breathe. Fifteen minutes later, I feel an unclenching in my body. A heaviness steals into my mind. Then it’s morning.
A week later, well-rested, I go to bed without taking the little pill. “You’ll be fine,” says my husband. Three minutes later, he is asleep. Three hours later, I am not. I try again the next night. But nothing has been re-set. Like a record with a skip, my brain wakes up at one a.m. each night, and nothing I try moves the needle back into the groove.
“This medication can be addictive,” my doctor emails, when I report back to her. She tells me I can take up to three doses per week, and we arrange a follow-up two weeks from now.
“So that’s it. I’ll only sleep three nights out of seven,” I tell my husband.
“You don’t know that for sure,” he says.
I am too disheartened to believe him. But I pull myself together and try to think strategically. Which nights to take the medication? Sunday, for sure, so I can drive my son to cello on Mondays without killing anyone. Friday and Saturday, for a good weekend with my family? Or midweek, so I can work a few days with a clear head?
“It’s the Sophie’s Choice of insomnia,” I wail.
Immediately I feel guilty. Somewhere in Syria, a woman like me lies sleepless, wondering if the bombs will fall on her house tomorrow. I should think about her. But the insomnia has demoralized me with unnerving swiftness, shrinking my focus to my own exhaustion, and little else. If the universe is testing me, I am failing.
A few days later, driving home from the grocery, I nearly hit a biker in an intersection. Appalled, I register his shocked face through the windshield. After that, I stop driving. My husband drives me to book group and picks me up. He arranges to take a morning off work for my next doctor’s appointment. One evening, I overhear him telling the kids to be extra patient and not argue so much, Mama’s having a hard time. I should be grateful. I am grateful. But I’m sick of feeling so damn pathetic.
I dread going to bed now, knowing that three hours is all my brain will allow me to rest. The moment of waking is the worst, the defeated awareness that it’s happened again; and then the despair as the dark hours pass, and the sky lightens, and the birds start up. If I could just make it to two a.m., I think, instead of one. But I never do.
I get used to moving sluggishly through the days, dazed and bewildered most of the time, yet performing basic functions all the same. I make school lunches, cook dinner. I don’t feel hungry myself, though. On a hunch, I try on a dress that’s been too snug for a while, and it zips up effortlessly. I stare at myself in the mirror, at my hips and breasts, outlined by the thin green fabric. Despite my pallor and unwashed hair, and the thick, smeary glass through which my brain seems to perceive everything these days, I look hot. I’m too tired to decide whether this is hopeful or disturbing.
One night, after lying sleepless for three hours, I sit up and begin to cry with exhaustion. My husband wakes up and puts his arms around me. “Fucking Dick Cheney,” I sob. “He’s sleeping through the night. Why can’t I?”
At our house, when anyone is stricken by mysterious, troubling ailments, it is the custom to bitterly invoke the architects of America’s middle eastern wars. It began years ago, when my husband threw out his back while reaching innocently for a sock under the bed. “George Bush is killing thousands of Iraqis every day,” he railed then. “Why isn’t he immobilized on the floor with an ice pack?”
I nodded in commiseration. W. was undoubtedly enjoying robust health, the bastard.
Now, my husband reaches over and turns on the light. “Let me make you some warm milk,” he says.
“I tried that last week. It won’t do anything. Just go back to sleep, one of us has to feel normal around here.”
“Nope,” he says, undeterred by my grumpiness. “You’re my partner. If you’re awake, I’m awake. I’m going downstairs, and you can’t stop me.”
Five minutes later, he returns with a mug of milk. It is sweet with honey, and I tear up again, grateful to be married to such a mensch. Then I lie awake the rest of the night.
Who pays thirteen dollars at the hippie mart for a tiny bottle of organic passionflower extract? People like me, that’s who, desperate people who’ve heard that this elixir will make them sleep. Dutifully, I dispense forty drops of the amber liquid into two ounces of water and down the mixture at bedtime. It tastes grassy and unpleasant, but that, I tell myself, is a small price to pay if it works. It does not work. Neither do calcium and magnesium, melatonin, multivitamins, sleeping in a different room, napping during the day, hot baths, or staying off the computer before bedtime.
“Maybe you need to relax,” says my husband. “Come on, let me just…”
That doesn’t work, either.
One morning, after my usual three hours of shut-eye, I pause in the doorway of my twelve-year-old’s room. He’s reclining on his beanbag chair reading Origami Yoda, his floor littered with dirty socks, old Spanish worksheets, a couple of remote controls, a hot glue gun, and innumerable bits of other detritus. A surge of annoyance slices through my fatigue. “For the love of God, clean up this damn mess,” I snap.
The insomnia has produced two regrettable side effects: Everything irritates me, my children most of all. And while those children have long been forbidden to utter even the words “crap” and “suck,” in my presence, much less their saltier four-letter brethren, I myself now curse like a motherfucker. At first, the boys are impressed by the impact of sleeplessness on my formerly prim vocabulary. But soon enough they become amused, and then—to my aggravation—patronizing.
Now, my son looks up at me pityingly. “Did you forget to take your pill last night? Jeez, you need to chillax.”
If anything is more infuriating than intractable insomnia, it’s being told to chillax by a sixth grader.
“Don’t you say that to me!” It’s the wrong battle to pick, but I can’t stop myself. “Chillax? That’s not even a real word. Goddammit, I’m an English major! We have standards around here.” (I actually say these words.)
My son waggles a reproving finger at me. “Don’t be a swear bear,” he says sweetly.
A what kind of fucking bear? I am way too tired for this, but getting mad at him makes me feel less catatonic. “Clean up your room,” I shriek. “Now!”
He regards me solemnly. “Anger and hatred to the dark side only lead.”
Because I know exactly how suggestible I am, I do not seek advice from the Internet about my insomnia. Until the day, a couple of months into it, when I do. And there, buried deep on the fourth or fifth page of results, I find it: proof that this was indeed a terrible idea. It’s a reference to a New Yorker article I read fourteen years ago but have forgotten until this moment, the story of an old Italian family, some of whose members lose the ability to sleep in middle age. For generations, no one has been able to predict who will be stricken by the rare condition, and there is no cure. After several excruciating years of sleeplessness, each victim dies.
I try hard not to dwell on this horrible story. It’s a very unusual condition, I remind myself. Also, I am not Italian. Although I am middle aged. And sleepless. When I tell my husband about the Italians, a look of mingled alarm and unease appears on his face, an expression whose specificity, after eighteen years of marriage, I have no trouble interpreting: He thinks I am losing it. I need to get a grip.
I tell my doctor that I’m depressed. She perks up. “Oh? And was this a problem before the insomnia?”
Patiently, I explain that I am depressed because I can’t sleep.
“We could think about an anti-depressant. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether insomnia is a symptom, or the main issue.”
Do I really have to explain my perfect life? Again? I take a breath. She’s trying to help, she wants a fix for me, and I want one, too. But depression didn’t make me stop sleeping.
Maybe I’m cursed.
My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.
“That’s great,” says my husband, when I tell him about the psychiatrist. “You’re in the big leagues, now!”
“How can you be so damn cheerful all the time?”
“I’m sorry, did you want gloomy? Let me try again: A psychiatrist. Whoa. There is definitely something wrong with your brain.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I see that smile.”
At four in the morning, three weeks before my appointment, it occurs to me that this hopeless, unrelenting misery is what people contemplating suicide must experience. Suddenly, I cannot bear lying awake in the dark any longer. I get out of bed and email my doctor: “Three nights of sleep a week is unendurable. When I don’t take the pill, I lie awake all night in despair. I can’t work. I can’t write. I nearly hit a biker with my car.” (The biker was weeks ago, but what the hell.) “I cannot go on like this.”
My email must have struck the correct note of desperation. Four hours later my doctor writes back, instructing me to just take the pill every night until I check in with the psychiatrist.
At my HMO, doctors work out of small gray rooms with florescent lighting, the only décor a queasily pinkish illustrated chart of the human body. Despite this, I cannot help picturing Dr. Sleep—as he is quickly dubbed in our house—behind an imposing mahogany desk. I’ve never even been to therapy, let alone a psychiatrist. If the pop culture of my formative years is to be believed, Dr. Sleep (aka Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People) will want to unearth some long-buried trauma that wakes me at one a.m. every night. Or he’ll want to put me on drugs. Neither prospect is appealing.
As it turns out, Dr. Sleep operates out of a windowless gray room, just like everyone else at Kaiser. He has sandy hair and an air of mild-mannered bemusement, reminding me forcibly of the hapless Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Dr. Sleep evinces little surprise as he takes my history. “And tell me about your mental state when you go to bed,” he says, tapping at his keyboard.
It’s been over three months since I have slept soundly without pharmaceutical assistance. Surely a bit of drama is permissible. “I feel like the Titanic heading into that final night,” I tell him. “Doomed.”
Dr. Sleep looks up from his keyboard, taken aback. “Oh, dear. That’s not good.”
I wonder what he expected me to say. His other patients must desperate, too. Or am I an extreme outlier? I renew my resolve not to mention the Italians.
Dr. Sleep scoots his rolling stool over to face me. I prepare for an inquiry into my murky past, or perhaps an evaluation of drug options. Dr. Sleep pursues neither of these avenues. “Do you bake bread?” he asks benignly.
I stare at him. As a matter of fact, I bake bread every Friday. But what can that have to do with anything?
“Think of your sleep as a ball of dough,” Dr. Sleep says, cupping his hands as if he’s holding one himself.
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. I imagine my challah dough: warm, heavy, eggy. Is this some visualization mind trick?
“You want your sleep to be compact, like a ball of dough,” says Dr. Sleep. “You want it to be compressed into just eight hours.” He moves his hands, as if firmly shaping the dough into an eight-hour ball. “When you stretch it out”—he moves his hands apart—”going to bed early, sleeping late, it’s like stretching the dough too far. It gets thin, full of holes, loses its integrity. That’s what you’ve been doing.”
Dr. Sleep is going to put me on a behavioral plan to compress my sleep, he tells me. That will fix everything.
“But I barely have any sleep to compress,” I protest.
He waves this away and explains the plan. Its main point involves breaking my mental association between wakefulness and being in bed. I am to stay away from my bedroom, except between the hours of eleven p.m. and six-forty-five a.m. At night, I am not to lie awake longer than twenty minutes at a time. After that, I must get up, go to another room, and engage in a “non-stimulating activity” until I feel sleepy. Then I can return to bed again. I am to repeat this as many times during the night as necessary. Also, I will cut my medication dose in half. The plan sounds implausible and exhausting, but I nod as if Dr. Sleep is handing me into a life raft, because maybe he is.
“You can read during your waking periods,” he tells me. “But nothing engaging. Do you have any boring books?”
I picture my biologist husband’s shelf of science texts. Yes, I tell Dr. Sleep, I certainly do.
That is how I find myself in my office at one-twenty a.m., headlamp shining on Mammals of the Pacific States by Lloyd G. Ingles. The first section of this heavy tome is devoted to teeth. I read about the tribophenic theory, which posits that our ancestral reptiles had molar cusps that migrated somewhere else in the jaw. I wait to feel sleepy, but even though this is possibly the most boring material I have ever read, I am wide awake. Eventually I yawn and go back to bed. I lie awake for another twenty minutes, then return to the office, and Ingles, and his damn teeth. This goes on for the rest of the night. By dawn I have gotten up and down a total of six times and advanced to the marsupials.
That morning, I fill in the chart Dr. Sleep gave me to track my progress: time in bed, number of times awake at night, final morning wake time, and so on. “This is the one you want to watch,” he told me, pointing to the space on the chart marked: TOTAL minutes/hours awake during the night. I pencil in four hours, forty-five minutes. In the box for notes, I scrawl: depressing and pointless.
But what else do I have? Half the medication is not enough to knock me out, so every night I follow Dr. Sleep’s plan, waking at 1, reading about mammals (Pacific shrew, vagrant shrew, dusky shrew, water shrew, marsh shrew, Inyo shrew, masked shrew, ornate shrew, pigmy shrew, gray shrew), not allowing myself to lie awake more than twenty minutes, scribbling my notes in the morning.
That first week, I run into an acquaintance in the park. We don’t know each other well, but I find myself telling her about the sleep plan. “More like the Guantanamo plan,” I grouse, demonstrating yet again the effect of sleep deprivation on my sense of perspective.
To my surprise, she confides that she, too, was prescribed this technique for insomnia. “It took a while, but it absolutely worked,” she says. “You have to hang in there.”
For the first time, it occurs to me that the plan is not some quixotic regime cooked up by Dr. Sleep, but an actual thing. A thing that might work.
On the sixth morning, I record something startling: although I got up to read four times, my total time awake was only two and a half hours. Even with half the medication, I got an astonishing five hours of sleep. By the end of the second week, my time awake has shrunk to one and a half hours.
My acquaintance was right. Dr. Sleep was right. Over the next month and a half, my sleep steadily improves. I go down to a quarter of a pill, then to no medication at all. By the end of June, nearly six months after the insomnia struck, it has vanished. The sleep plan was a life raft, after all, and now, incredibly, I am back on the mainland, with its rested, cheerful inhabitants, the weight of exhaustion lifted at last. This outcome is the result of science, I realize, in the form of a proven behavioral therapy. But it feels like something else.
It feels like luck: as random and inexplicable as the sleeplessness was.
I will never know why I suddenly stopped sleeping, just like I’ll never know why cancer struck my grandmother, or my parents’ marriage ended the way it did, or why my first baby wouldn’t gain weight, no matter how much I nursed him. Possessions are lost, and love is sometimes unrequited, and we don’t always get to know why. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, not in the cosmic sense, anyway. If I did, I might conclude that insomnia was supposed to teach me something. Or maybe I would be less troubled by my knowledge that the Syrian woman is still lying awake.
I think about her now. I think about her every day. I think, too, about all the people who manage to meet hardship with dignity and grace and courage. Maybe the Syrian woman is one of them. Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s more like me. Because when it came right down to it, I wasn’t one of those people. Confronted with adversity, I was irritable, profane, despairing, and self-absorbed. In a real Guantanamo scenario, I would never be the gutsy captive, steadfastly refusing to betray her comrades. Deprive me of sleep, and you can have the plans to the Death Star.
But then, no one expected me to be a hero, least of all myself. I’ve stood on the other side of that line. I’ve been the one to hold it together, to carry more than my share of the weight. This time, someone did those things for me. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s facing, awake or asleep, I’m wishing the Syrian woman the same luck.
KATE HAAS is a senior editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have most recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, and the Washington Post. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.
David arrived at our house in an oversized raincoat. He’d brought a magazine for assistance; it was somewhere in the folds of that big coat. My partner Karen handed him a jelly jar, and we agreed that when he was finished he would put a candle, unlit, in the front window. Karen and I left him to his magazine and walked down the block. The day was pleasant for a Halloween in Seattle. We kicked at dry leaves heaped along the sidewalk and laughed at the strangeness of the situation, how we were waiting for David but trying not to imagine what he was doing, how none of the residents of the neighborhood could have guessed what we were waiting for.
After about fifteen minutes, the candle was in the window. As we went up the walk, I sang that Rocky Horror Picture Show song about a light in the darkness. Karen and I smiled giddily at each other, then stopped smiling so as not to spook David. I tried to act normal as we entered, not avoiding his eyes but not staring either. He was already wearing his coat. From its depths he pulled out the jar, wrapped in a washcloth to keep it warm. We thanked him. He raised his eyebrows and went out the door.
Karen and I had been together twelve years when I finally agreed to have a child. We had been moving around the country for jobs and graduate school since we met in 1985, and finally we had settled back in Seattle, my hometown, with solid jobs, mine at a community college, hers at the public health department. We bought a house. I could think of no more reasons to wait.
I’d never felt an urge to have children, but Karen always had. Still, when I agreed to try, I also agreed to carry the child because of Karen’s health complications. If anything, pregnancy and birth sounded cool to me; dealing with a toddler didn’t. I put one big condition on my agreement: I wanted a known sperm donor, not an anonymous one. He didn’t have to be actively involved in the child’s life, but I wanted to be able to show the child a picture and say, “This is your father.” I was squeamish about putting a stranger’s semen in my body, not for fear of disease—the latest testing procedures seemed reliable—but because I needed to know who I was communing with on a cellular level. I needed to know what he looked like and how he talked, what he cared about and how he treated people.
After spreading the word to our friends, Karen and I found our donor in a writer I’m calling David. He had gone to graduate school with a good friend of mine, Wendy, and wasn’t attached romantically. He was interested in helping us because neither he nor his brother had had children, and they probably never would. Although he didn’t want to parent himself, he liked the idea of his family’s genes continuing on. The situation was complicated by the fact that he was living in California now, not Seattle, but we were willing to pay for his flights up, and he liked the idea of free visits to a city he loved.
David was funny and self-deprecating, which suggested a sweet vulnerability underneath. I liked him immediately and grew to feel a brotherly fondness for him. Although we didn’t have a relationship that allowed for this, I often felt the urge to lay my head on his shoulder and nestle into him.
After discussing expectations, drawing up contracts with lawyers, having medical evaluations, and charting my ovulations for a number of months, we were ready in late-1997 for the first insemination.
David left that Halloween afternoon, and Karen and I sighed, glad to be alone. In the bedroom, I shimmied out of my pants and lay down, feet up on the wall. My doctor had given us a catheter syringe and tubing, and Karen put the syringe in the jar to suck up the semen. We both squinted at the jelly jar. It had been a long time since either of us had seen that liquid. It was oddly translucent, not milky, and there didn’t seem to be much. Karen wrinkled her nose, but I was fascinated. So much intrigue surrounding such a modest substance.
Karen was having trouble getting the semen into the syringe. “Maybe a smaller jar would be better,” she said.
Finally, she got what she could into the syringe, inserted it into the tubing, and pushed the plunger. I felt nothing, not even an ooze. And now I was supposed to wait, feet on the wall, for twenty minutes. Karen sat on the edge of the bed, keeping me company. It was exciting; it was nice. I felt engaged in something purposeful and good.
The next morning I was a wreck.
At the same time that Karen and I were trying to have a baby, I was casting around for a new writing topic and was drawn to the story of my great-great aunt, Ruby Jane Hall Thompson, a woman long dead. She was very large, which had earned her a nickname derived from the town in Idaho where she lived: “Lewiston,” as in “Here comes Lewiston.” It wasn’t a nickname she knew she had; my father told me his uncle used to call her that.
Ruby Jane was a Christian Science practitioner. At first I didn’t know what that meant, but I learned that a practitioner was a kind of faith healer. Christian Scientists, as I understand it, don’t believe that matter exists; our true reality is the spiritual. Believing in God means recognizing the false nature of the material world, including sickness and disease. Practitioners help Christian Scientists pray through their self-induced periods of sickness and back into right alignment with God.
What drew me to Ruby Jane was the idea of being related to a larger-than-life mystic, a western Idaho healer. I imagined Lewiston in the early twentieth century as a desolate, wind-swept town, and I imagined Ruby Jane there exerting her power in one of the few but classic ways available to women: as a kind of witch. My novel would be gothic, magical realist. I began to research Christian Science.
Mary Baker Eddy, it turned out, is the only American woman to have founded an influential religion. Born in 1821, she had health problems throughout her life, and in her ongoing quest for relief, she finally hit on the principles that would inform her famous book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy must have had tremendous determination, skill, and charisma to self-publish this book, teach a growing legion of followers its principles, and start the church in 1879. By 1894 she had erected the church’s first building. By 1908, when she was eighty-seven, she had started the Christian Science Monitor. Thousands of people still attend her church. On Wednesday nights, they gather to tell stories of miraculous healing.
That the church was started by a woman, and that it is peculiarly American, with its focus on optimism and boot-strapping, made it all the more fascinating. My great-great aunt Ruby Jane was born while Eddy was still alive, and the founding mother must have been a thrilling model of what a woman could be. Indeed, the church is quite female-centric; the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father-Mother.” I imagined Ruby Jane as an ancestress of power and wisdom. I would go in search of her.
When the inseminations began, I had been on Prozac for a year. After a decade of attempting to manage my many bouts of anxiety with meditation, hypnosis, exercise, and therapy, I had given in: Give me the drug. It worked, to some extent. Going on Prozac felt like finally taking an aspirin after a life-long headache; suddenly I could see more clearly and function more smoothly. As Karen and I began talking about having a baby, I researched the influence of Prozac on fetuses. Although there was a small risk of damage, many researchers said that the risk of depression was equally bad if not worse, so it was hard to say whether a woman should stop taking the drug. I decided not. Still, sometimes it didn’t seem to be helping.
The morning after insemination, I felt as if I’d mainlined fear and shame. What if the donor is infertile? What if he has HIV after all? What if I get pregnant and it feels like an alien sucking at my insides? Why do Karen and I have to share such an intimate act with a stranger? Why do I have to hold such a humiliating position against the wall? What is this body that used to be mine?
I did everything I knew to reduce the anxiety: writing down my fears, giving myself pep talks, going to yoga, working out. As usual, the tension would take days to dissipate.
Nine days later, I got my period. Maybe we mistimed my ovulation or maybe my cycle was weirdly short that month, but we were using an ovulation predictor kit and monitoring my cervical fluid, although it was often hard to read. One of the challenges of the process was predicting ovulation with enough accuracy to get David on a flight in time to be at our house during the fertility window. He hated to fly, and as the months went by and I didn’t get pregnant, his fear ballooned. He came off the plane each time sweaty and weak, which couldn’t have helped his sperm count.
In December, I made a chart of the logistics: David was arriving on Thursday. Whether the ovulation kit was positive or not, we would have to inseminate. If the kit was positive on Friday, then pregnancy was still possible. If it wasn’t yet positive Saturday, then we had wasted the month. What were we doing? Had my demand that we have a known donor doomed us to fail? Did I really want a child?
One of the terms from Christian Science that captivated me was “malicious animal magnetism.” The idea of “animal magnetism” was around in the nineteenth century, and Eddy added the word “malicious” to the phrase. It’s a way of describing evil, and in Eddy’s theology, evil always comes in the form of bad thoughts, that is, thoughts that contradict or undermine God. Therefore, people’s thoughts can be corrupted by malicious animal magnetism. In her memoir about growing up Christian Scientist, Blue Windows, Barbara Wilson calls malicious animal magnetism the “repressed madness” inevitably created by a church that focuses so relentlessly on the positive. She says Eddy was paranoid about competing healers and used the phrase to refer to their attacks on her.
The idea of evil as something tempting and animalistic somehow makes it less frightening to me; it’s not deliberate but subconscious, a feeling that sweeps one up and makes one do things. It’s the evil wrought by a scared cat, lashing and hissing from a corner. When the fear passes, the cat retracts its claws.
My anxieties seemed like a form of malicious animal magnetism. And like the Eddy cure—which was thinking right thoughts—various authors, doctors, and therapists had suggested that I write down my thoughts when I felt anxious and analyze them. So I did: It was obvious that I was afraid of having a child. But I was also afraid of not having one. And I was afraid that my anxieties about having or not having a child would hound me throughout the entire insemination process. In other words, I was anxious about anxiety. This was ridiculous. Surely it was normal for a woman embarking on a pregnancy to be afraid. I needed to accept the uncertainty of the situation and relax, let the cat retract its claws. Of course, relaxation was easier said than done. Maybe what I needed was a practitioner.
The following June, I skipped insemination to go to Boston on a Christian Science pilgrimage. I saw the Eddy monument in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I listened to a tour guide at the Mother Church talk about why she wore glasses; she wasn’t spiritually advanced enough yet not to use them. I walked through the Mapparium, the stunning, three-story, stained-glass globe made in the 1930s of over six hundred glass panels. I wondered if Ruby Jane had ever seen it.
One afternoon I sat on the outdoor patio of Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square, reading the copy of Science and Health I had picked up in a used bookstore. Men played chess nearby, and pigeons strutted beneath the table. According to Eddy, prayer should be silent; loud prayer excites the emotions. Prayer as it is often practiced is not that useful; it tends to make us hypocrites, as we promise God things we can’t or won’t deliver. In any case, God knows our thoughts already.
This conception of prayer sounded sensible. Prayer should be silent, like the silence I was trying to coax out of my body through yoga and meditation. I shouldn’t make promises to be less anxious, just strive to be. One of my yoga teachers said, “You don’t breathe; the world breathes you.” Replace “the world” with “God” and the phrase would mesh with Eddy’s philosophy.
Indeed, it was striking how Eddy’s ideas dovetailed with so many of those made by the books and therapists who had tried to soothe me over the years. In a book on meditation, for example, the author said that he noticed a small lump on his neck and started to worry. The lump had been there for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed it that he became afraid. In other words, his mind made him afraid, not the lump. Eddy would have concurred. She would have gone further and said the lump didn’t exist. Still, Eddy and this author shared a common solution: Stop thinking about it; think of something else.
I drank my coffee, listening to the chess players smack their timers. Maybe Ruby Jane could help me. Maybe I could conjure her when the fears threatened to overwhelm. Or when I was lying there, feet on the wall, willing the sperm to dance on up to the egg and get introduced. I didn’t have to become a Christian Scientist to recognize the value of positive thinking. Or to mentally rely on my ancestress, the faith healer.
In July, we seemed to have timed the insemination just right. My mucous was stretchy; the ovulation predictor turned a positive shade of blue; David was punctual. But I didn’t get pregnant.
In August we agreed to try one last time. By now we weren’t awkward with each other, even as Karen and I returned from our walk. David could get his part of the job done in nine minutes. We opened the front door, and I joked, “My man!” He passed over the jar.
This time, we all knew that I probably wouldn’t get pregnant with David’s sperm. We smiled tenderly at each other, hugged. We said goodbye. Karen and I went into the bedroom, and I put my heels on the wall. All weekend afterward I cried and moped. It felt as if someone had died. I was sad for us, sad for David, sad for what could have been.
On Wednesday, I got in the car and drove the five hours from Seattle to Lewiston, Idaho. The trip took me through an area of southeastern Washington called the Palouse, a surreal landscape of undulating brown hills that rippled to the horizon. Driving through them was like winding through a maze with no obvious exit. Once I had emerged from them, I confronted the Lewiston Grade.
Lewiston is at the bottom of an abrupt two thousand foot drop from the plateau of eastern Washington to a valley where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers converge. The highway built in the 1970s smoothly descends to the city, but the old highway, called the Lewiston Grade, sweeps back and forth in sixty-four curves, an engineering marvel of its time. Both my parents, who grew up in the region, remember sickening ascents and descents of the old highway, so of course I had to drive into Lewiston that way. The disconcerting series of switchbacks, a trip Ruby Jane must have taken many times, made for an atmospheric entrance to Lewiston.
After checking into my motel, I went to the public library and found Ruby Jane listed as a practitioner in a 1941 phone directory. It gave me her address, and I drove to her house, a modest, two-story structure near the cemetery. The church she attended had been abandoned for a new one in 1965, so I couldn’t see it, but I still wanted to attend a Christian Science service in Lewiston.
I entered the church that evening hesitantly, wearing a dress purchased for the occasion—I didn’t otherwise own one—and hoping not to attract too much attention. A dozen people, mostly women, were sitting in blonde pews. I took a spot in the back. The early evening sun saturated the colors in the glass panes: red, purple, and an earthy, 1960s orange-brown. On the wall hung two quotes, one from Eddy—”Divine love always has met and always will meet all human needs”—and the familiar “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
I had timed my trip to be here for the Wednesday night service, traditionally devoted to testimonies of healing. I wasn’t prepared for the coincidence of the evening’s topic: reproduction. A man sat at a card table in front of the pews and read passages from the Bible and Science and Health, passages which I later learned are chosen by the Mother Church and read at every service on that day throughout the Christian Science world.
One reading expressed the idea that children are not created from matter but from idea/mind. I listened, looking down at the place where my belly would swell if I were pregnant. If Ruby Jane were still alive, and if I had the courage to explain the inseminations to her, she would probably have said that my failures until now had been my fault, that I hadn’t believed enough. It was true that I had trouble believing I would get pregnant; it seemed fantastical that a child could coalesce out of cells swarming in my fallopian tubes. But hadn’t I done all I could, given the circumstances?
The reading went on, contending that parents must take as much or more care planning their children as they would propagating crops or breeding livestock. This language was straight out of the eugenics movement, a popular effort in the early twentieth century to “purify” the human race; it used the cover of science to mask its racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant intentions. If I had needed some prompt to help me better imagine my great-great aunt’s time, this was it. Ruby Jane had probably believed in eugenics, and she would have been horrified by my request for help with my fertility. Not only was I a lesbian, but the father-to-be was the son of immigrants. Better, she might have said, to let this opportunity pass.
I listened with growing skepticism to the testimonials that followed the readings. One woman got over a headache by reading the Statement of Being. Another said she had been praying about the recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. She didn’t like Muslims—Hindus were okay—but she was trying to love universally.
A third woman said her child had felt fine during the week but something strange had appeared on her face. The girl didn’t understand why she couldn’t go outside to play. The mother put her in front of the mirror and said, “Do you want people to see you like that? No? Then you will stay inside until you look the way you want people to see you.” Surely the girl had chicken pox. And surely the mother knew she was contagious but couldn’t admit it. What a twisted way to deny disease.
My romantic obsession with my great-great aunt ended right there. Ruby Jane was probably only as wise as her time and place allowed; we probably wouldn’t have liked each other. At least, we wouldn’t have agreed on much. I had come to Lewiston to learn the truth, and the truth had set me free.
My period arrived that month as usual; I would never get pregnant. I continued to work on a novel inspired by Christian Science, but it would go nowhere, even when I ran across the story of a woman, a contemporary of Eddy’s, who got pregnant when her husband was out of town and claimed Eddy was the father. A lovely twist on lesbian insemination.
Karen and I broke up a year later, for reasons unrelated to the pregnancy attempt. As I tried to understand why I had gone through insemination despite a lack of maternal urges, I came to understand that having a child with David, friend of Wendy, was a way to create an extended family, whether the members of that family were genetically related to me or not; I wanted us bound to each other, loving unconditionally, the way families are supposed to be.
When I considered the pleasures of childrearing, they weren’t what most mothers probably think of first: the cuddling, the joyful giggling, the birthday glee. Rather, I was thinking of a community of relatives and friends joined by the connections among our children. I imagined sharing coffee with other parents while our children ran in and out; imagined barbecues and croquet games and badminton; imagined roving holiday feasts. What I was remembering was the community my parents had made at a midwestern university when my father was on tenure track there. The most fun I ever had was darting through the parties of drunken academics, like the summer party where the associate dean roasted a sheep in his backyard or the winter party where the anthropologist taught me to fold wonton skins. That is, it wasn’t a child I wanted but a community, and my insistence on a known donor was related to that desire.
My obsession with Ruby Jane was related, too, to a desire for connection, one that stretched back through time and ancestry. She represented a visionary woman, someone on whom I could call for strength and clarity. But ultimately, I realized that whatever genetics we had in common, we probably didn’t have much else.
Some years after my last insemination attempt, Wendy called one June afternoon to say the baby had almost arrived. I raced to the hospital and ran into the room just a few minutes before Eva’s little head and gangly body emerged. The midwife handed Eva to Wendy’s husband, and we all smiled, breathless and awestruck. Every year thereafter, I have been invited to Eva’s birthday party. And the children run in and out, and the adults drink wine, and the party goes on well into the evening.
ALLISON GREEN is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan), and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Calyx, The Common, and other publications. Web site: allisongreen.org.