“So, Dad,” I sit down at the kitchen table, face him, and speak loudly so he can understand me. “I think it’s time to go through Mom’s clothes. What do you say?”
My eighty-nine-year-old father puts down his cup of instant Maxwell House coffee laced with Sweet ’n’ Low and stares at me. “What?” he asks.
I give him a look. We both know that despite his hearing loss, he knows what I just said. It’s been four years since my mother left us for what she called the great Sak’s Fifth Avenue in the Sky and I ask my father this question every time I visit. And each time I ask, my father answers: “Not yet,” in the tone of voice he used throughout my childhood, which always signaled the end of discussion.
I repeat my question even louder, and my father surprises me by not offering his usual response. Instead, he says nothing for minute. And nothing for a minute longer. And then he lets out a huge sigh as if he’s finally admitting that my mother is never coming back. “I suppose,” he sighs again, “it’s time.”
While my dad turns on the TV and settles down in front of a blaring Yankees game with a can of salted peanuts and a glass of diet Coke, I trudge up to my parents’ bedroom. Off to the side is my mother’s “boudoir” which contains a makeup table, a fainting couch, and two enormous closets, each one bigger than the sixth-floor walk-up I rented in Manhattan four decades ago when I first graduated from college.
Where to begin? I had tried over the years to get my mother to at least start cleaning out her clothes but she wouldn’t let me touch a thing. “If it can’t hurt you and you don’t have to feed it,” she’d say, shaking a sharp red fingernail at me, “just leave it alone.”
I enter the closet on the right, lined with double racks on either side, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by blouses, skirts, sweaters, slacks, dresses, hats, belts, scarfs, gloves, stockings, slips, and shoes. I gaze in wonder at stripes, polka dots, plaids, paisleys, sparkles, sequins, lace, and leopard print. I run my hands along silk, velvet, velour, wool, cotton, leather, suede, and satin. I take a deep breath and inhale my mother’s unique scent: a combination of Chesterfield Kings, Arid Extra Dry, Chanel No. Five, and Aqua Net. Suddenly, I understand my father’s reluctance to let any of this go. Everything in this closet contains my mother’s DNA. Every blouse at one time was filled with my mother’s pale, plump arms. Every skirt swished around her short, shapely legs. Every pair of pants cradled her zaftig belly and hips. Standing here, I can almost pretend my mother is downstairs with my father, screaming at him to turn down the damn TV. Getting rid of all this is like saying goodbye to her all over again.
But as my father said, it’s time.
I head to the back of the closet where I come face to face with six hanging shoe bags, each one with sixteen pockets, which according to my quick calculation, adds up to ninety-six pairs of shoes. My mother’s love affair with footwear started long ago when she was a young bride working in the shoe department of Orbach’s. All day long, squatting on her heels, she measured feet and fit them into fancy footwear she couldn’t afford. Plus, she and my father lived in a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn. “The windows were above my head,” my mother told me. “I looked out at the street day after day and all I saw were shoes.” At the time, my father was a law student at NYU and, as he has told me numerous times, my parents were so poor they “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” My father promised my mother that when he became an attorney, he would buy her anything she wanted. And clearly what she wanted was an Imelda Marcos-size collection of shoes.
So many shoes! One shoe, two shoes, red shoes, blue shoes, black shoes, white shoes, left shoes, right shoes. I feel like a character in a Dr. Seuss children’s book. Or like the child I was once, clomping around in my mother’s high heels with one of her beaded evening bags slung over my shoulder. How I wish my mother were here to tell me the story of all these shoes. For surely each pair has a story to tell. Here are the pink satin pumps dyed to match the gown my mother wore to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in 1966. Here are the gold lamé tassled flip flops she always wore to the “beauty parlor” when she went to get her monthly pedicure. Here is a pair of red stiletto sky-high heels that showed off her stunning calves (it’s not for nothing she was known as “Legs Levin” during her salad days). And here are the most heart-breaking shoes of all: the flat navy blue sneakers she wore when the cancer made her feet so swollen, she couldn’t squeeze them into anything else.
Just for kicks, I take down a pair of black patent leather three-inch heels with a bow across the toe, and, feeling like one of Cinderella’s ungainly step-sisters, try to stick my feet inside. I know they won’t fit. Unlike me, my mother had lovely feet. Size six and a half. Baryshnikov-worthy arches. Alabaster skin. Delicate toes. Toenails expertly trimmed and buffed and polished candy apple red. I have no idea where my mother got her gorgeous feet.
Her mother’s feet were a sight to behold. Squat, flat, wide. Flaky, crusted skin. Gnarly prehistoric toes. Thick yellowed nails. Great big bunions. Still, like my mother, my grandmother loved shoes. When she moved into a nursing home at the age of ninety-nine, she marched in on white open-toed, high heeled T-strap sandals. The nurse took one look and told me to bring her some flats. “The last thing she needs is to fall,” she said. Since my grandmother didn’t own a pair of flats, I returned the next day with a pair of my own. My grandmother slipped on the moccasins, took two steps, and promptly fell down. “Please mameleh, can I have my heels back now?” she begged. I returned them and my grandmother wore them till the day she died.
How I wish I had my mother’s dainty feet! “Mom,” I say aloud, “I could wear your shoes as earrings.” Standing in her closet, my mind wanders back to the last day of my mother’s last hospital visit. She was lying in her hospital bed on top of the blankets in a sweat. “You have such beautiful feet,” I said to her, for even at that point, her pedicure was perfect. “I wish I’d inherited them,” I went on. “I have your mother’s feet.”
“And her face,” my mother said, gazing at me with love for the last time. “You have my mother’s beautiful, beautiful face.” And then she shut her eyes. And now I wipe at mine.
No wonder my dad didn’t want to go near my mother’s closet. Though we buried my mother four years ago, this feels like a burial all over again.
“You can do this,” I tell myself. I step out of the closet to fetch a cardboard box big enough to sit in and start chucking my mother’s shoes into it. Each one makes a dull thud that reminds me of the sound made by the clumps of dirt we dumped onto my mother’s coffin on that blistering August afternoon long ago. That was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. Until now. “I can’t,” I say aloud. My mother’s voice appears in my head. “One step at a time,” she says, as she reminded me so many times when she was alive. “Brooklyn wasn’t built in a day. You can do anything you set your mind to.” And she was always right.
Somehow the afternoon turns into evening, and by the time my father comes upstairs to tell me that the Yankees have lost, I have seven huge boxes of shoes and pocketbooks, fifty enormous plastic bags of clothing, and two empty closets. I am exhausted. My dad is amazed.
Since we scheduled my mother’s clothes to be picked up the next morning between seven a.m. and noon, I set my alarm for six. When it jars me awake, I leap out of bed, pull on some clothes, and lug everything out to the driveway. Then I drag myself back inside, crawl between the covers, and try to go back to asleep. But a minute later, I throw off the blankets and creep outside again. I can’t leave my mother’s clothes out there by the curb waiting to be picked up like trash. Soon I hear the front door open and see my father coming towards me. We stand side by side, each of us with one hand raised to shield our eyes from the glare of the morning sun, as if we are saluting my mother’s wardrobe. Neither of us says anything, for what is there to say? My head tells me that these are only things, but my heart disagrees: these are my mother’s things. There’s a big difference.
An hour passes and my father goes inside to get ready for work—though he is about to turn ninety, he’s still practicing law. I stand guard over my mother’s clothes until ten a.m. when a big yellow truck pulls up to our driveway. “Thank you for choosing Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” says the driver as he tosses bag after bag into the back of the truck. It takes him all of five minutes, and then he is gone.
And so is she.
LESLÉA NEWMAN’s seventy books include the poetry collection, I Carry My Mother which explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. From 2008-2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, Lovely will be published in January 2018 by Headmistress Press. More information here: http://www.lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm
“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.
“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”
She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”
A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.
“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.
“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.
“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.
“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.
“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”
I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.
“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.
“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”
“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”
“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.
My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.
“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.
I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”
“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.
“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”
“What about chicken?” Doug asked.
“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.
I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.
Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.
“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.
“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.
“What about my puffs?”
“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”
“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.
“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.
“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.
After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.
Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.
It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.
After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.
“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.
“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.
“Want to go to Midland?”
“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”
“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.
“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.
“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.
June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.
“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.
The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.
“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.
Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.
When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.
“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.
“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.
“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”
“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.
A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.
“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.
Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”
“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.
“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.
“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”
“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.
“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.
“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.
“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”
“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”
Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.
I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.
I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.
As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.
“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.
“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.
After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.
We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”
I blinked hard. What?
“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”
I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.
“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.
“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.
When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.
As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.
“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.
“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.
I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.
Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.
“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”
“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.
When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.
“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”
“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.
I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.
At some point during the night, Granny came awake.
“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”
I pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.
“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”
“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.
“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.
“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”
“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.
I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.
“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”
It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.
“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.
She shook her head and finished her waffle.
We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.
“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.
“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.
“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”
“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”
“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”
“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.
“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.
“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.
Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.
“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.
We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.
“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.
“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.
Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.
After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.
Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.
I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?
When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.
“Absolutely not,” I answered.
I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?
In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?
Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.
“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.
“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”
Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.
Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.
KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.
Last winter, my friend Pete gave me a pair of Vic Firth 5A drumsticks. They were beginner’s sticks, but this would be my first drum lesson: he the teacher, me the novice. I was ready: I’d diligently watched You Tube videos demonstrating Ringo Starr’s and Stevie Wonder’s drumming and listened closely to the drum parts on my favorite CDs. The sticks were surprisingly light, awkward to hold, and pleasantly dinged up. They made me nervous.
I’d agreed to spend a weekend participating in a rock camp for women, a fundraiser for national group empowering teen girls through playing music. I’ve always been a music lover: my very first concert was The Beatles at Shea, even though I was five and the frustratingly sonically obscured objects of my adoration sang from my parents’ portable black and white Zenith television. My younger sister Susie and I listened to our recording of “Peter and The Wolf” on the turntable and acted out the roles. At six, I was the bassoon grandfather, and she, not quite two years younger, the clarinet cat. As I grew, I learned to lose myself in vocals; first John and Paul’s tricky harmonies and later, Mick Jagger’s sneering whine.
My youngest sister Sarah played Satie gymnopedies and Bach for four hands on the piano with Mom. Dad bellowed Dylan as he drove. As a teen, I played guitar reasonably well, piano terribly. I learned all the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” In my thirties, I auditioned once as a singer for a local band; I wiped out not because I couldn’t sing, but because I can’t read music.
And all along, I secretly banged on things. Hard. Usually myself. In elementary school, I beat my head on my bedroom floor until I was dizzy. I tore out handfuls of my hair to distract myself from the way my skin felt, rippling in anger. Enraged and inconsolable in my teens, I punched plaster walls and slammed car doors. In high school, I quietly broke my own finger in an effort to suppress boiling rage and brokenhearted sorrow. And no one ever knew.
My sisters were dying and then dead; first Susie, at eight from leukemia, and then, Sarah twenty-three years later, from an illness related to the rare blood disorder she’d been born with. Our father muted his sorrow with anger, drugs, and alcohol before he left for a job in another country and then a new life. Mom remained determined, loving, and honestly joyful about the best moments of our lives.
When I checked the box beside “drums” on the camp registration form, forty-four years had passed since Susie died, and twenty-two since Sarah’s death. Dad died in 2002, and Mom two years ago. That frantic and sudden need for a physical outlet for my pain and sorrow still lurked close to my surface. I know that self-harm, like hitting or, for others, cutting, is an attempt to seek relief for emotional pain: simple reading tells me that, but I sensed as much when I was ten. Now that I’m grown, reasonably competent, and happily married, my hitting myself until I bruised, or once, driving so fast that I pinned the red on my Honda’s speedometer, freaked my husband out. I didn’t blame him. My periods of desolation were awful for me to live with, too. But banging on drums in a band scared me almost as much. I worried about what I might unleash.
Mickey and I met and fell in love shortly after my sister Sarah died. I was working as a production manager for television programs, and he wrote and produced promos. We didn’t work together, so he only heard from me about the time I blew up and threw a stapler at an assistant. (I missed, thank heavens.) He already knew my reputation on the job as a screamer and a yeller. With him, I was never those things. He calmed me and made me feel safe and loved enough. Music mattered to him, too, even though he never remembered lyrics.
The camp took place over three days on a Valentine’s weekend. The schedule would be full, leaving no time for flowers or chocolates (neither of which I wanted) or a good dinner out (which I did.) My husband and I like Valentine’s Day, and I felt that I’d cheated us a little by the commitment I’d made to occupy myself without him that weekend.
In an empty middle school classroom, five other grown women and I met our loaner drum kits; bass drum and kick pedal, high-hats, snares, floor tom and rack toms, and our own sets of sticks. After running us through the basics of our grips, keeping time on pancake-sized practice pads, the instructor—a rock drummer with indie cred—put on a recording of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” We had to follow along in four/four time. The first two beats came from the bass drum. I stepped on the kick pedal, and the drum responded timidly. This irritated me, too, and the child who flailed in anger and sorrow rose up in me. With her foot, I stepped down hard twice, making two deep, satisfying thuds. With her hands, I snapped my right-hand stick onto the rack tom.
Some rhythms are as simple as breathing, but others require perception far beyond the usual. Children dying before their parents is a peculiar rhythm called reverse order of death. The terror and grief of the surviving sibling was rarely addressed when I was a child. As an adult, behind my first drum kit, I created a basic, steady pulse. Hitting the toms, the snare, stepping on the kick pedal, I pounded out a steady groove. I heard no sorrow; just myself, playing in time.
Camp ended with a raucous showcase at a neighborhood coffee house. While bands played, I slipped my arm through Mickey’s, and we drank our beer and bobbed along to the music. When the time came for my makeshift band to take the stage, I kissed my husband and clutched my drumsticks, fighting the urge to careen alone into the night. I’m ridiculous, I thought. I can’t really channel my thumping anger outward, make music with it, or learn to maintain an even pace on which I can rely. But I took the stage with my bandmates, and in the blinding candy-yellow of the spotlight, held my loaner sticks over my head and counted us in. The bass player responded in time, then the singer, then the two guitarists, just as we’d rehearsed. For about two and a half minutes, I hit and I kicked objects built for striking, and as terrible as I’m sure I sounded, I didn’t feel the way I usually did at a moment of impact. I didn’t feel like weeping. I wanted, instead, to shout with glee.
When we finished, the applause was loud and not unexpected—everyone there was friends or family with someone in a band—and from behind the drum kit, I searched the audience for Mickey. He was at the lip of the stage, his hands raised in victory.
Six months have gone by, with me occasionally practicing to videos, my loaner drum sticks beating couch cushions. This year, I turn fifty-five, and I’ve promised myself to keep my hands and heart away from my own skin during my dissonant outbursts of grief. Mickey bought me a birthday present. I’m starting drum lessons. With Pete, who says it’s time for me to keep those drumsticks he loaned me last winter.
JESSICA HANDLER is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss (St. Martins Press, December 2013.) Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) was named by the Georgia Center for the Book one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read.” Atlanta Magazine called it the “Best Memoir of 2009.” Her nonfiction has appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Brevity.com, Newsweek, The Washington Post,More Magazine, and elsewhere. Honors include a 2011 and 2012 residency at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, a 2010 Emerging Writer Fellowship from The Writers Center, the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. www.jessicahandler.com.
The 16th of November was eerily warm, and neighbors were out in full force with their leaf blowers, trying to clear their yards before the weather turned. My husband was raking enormous piles of leaves onto the blue plastic tarp and then dragging them to the corner of the yard. We live on the banks of the Red Cedar River in a subdivision adjoining several natural areas, and the deer cross through our yard every day and bed down in the leaves for an hour or so before moving on. We hadn’t seen any for days since hunting season had opened.
In the previous week, we stumbled upon deer bones at Sander Farms, a natural area near the busy Dobie Road, a death trap for deer. Most days we take our dogs, Quin and Omar, to Sander Farms where they run off leash. A person I’ve never seen mows a trail through the tall grasses. Omar found the first bone—what looked like a leg—on the side of the trail at the entrance. Each day we found another piece of the deer, another leg with the fur still on, a rib cage, the pieces scattered through the fields as if one animal after another had taken him up and then put him down.
On this day, only Omar was with Richard in the side yard. I hunted inside the house for Quin and found him lying at the foot of the bed on the carpet breathing hard. His chest was rising and falling. Earlier that morning, I had stopped to talk to him when he was lying on the stairs’ landing. He didn’t lift his head in greeting or wag his tail. He didn’t give any indication that it mattered to him that I was sitting on the step caressing his beautiful face that had in the last year become shot through with white hair.
He was the dog who came from wherever he was to greet me at the door when I came home and made sounds that welled up inside him like a moaning, but they were not caused by pain or discomfort—they were caused by relief and happiness that I had come back to him.
Lately on our walks, Quin would stop and then after a few minutes be ready to continue. Last summer after leaving the fields, he’d lie down in the shade of a yard before continuing home. He had grown slower, bringing up the far rear, so far that it often felt as if Quin and I were on our own separate walk from Richard and Omar. Sometimes he stopped right at the edge of the driveway as we were entering the street before we had even started.
He struck me as far away, sunk into himself as if he was in pain and was conserving himself. I suspected that despite the pain medicine, he hurt. Still I thought his difficulties had to do with arthritis and joint deterioration. I didn’t think anything else was going on. He always had a good appetite.
But he stopped wanting to sleep on the bed, preferring the floor in his own space. Then he developed a cough, the telltale cough, it turns out. A dry, hacking cough. He wasn’t coughing all the time. Some days it didn’t seem as if he coughed at all, and we forgot about it. Richard said Friday that he thought we should take him to the vet on Monday. It was time to do something but still not urgent. Saturday morning he didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t go out into the leaves, sat unresponsive on the steps, and I Googled coughs in dogs and found they could be a sign of illnesses like congestive heart failure and cancer.
I wonder now why I didn’t Google the cough before. Hadn’t I been paying enough attention or hadn’t I wanted to see what was going on because I knew that seeing it, really seeing it, would be the first step down an unhappy road? And so I put those steps off. Now I looked at his breathing and I knew we couldn’t wait until Monday. Our vet doesn’t work on the weekends and I took Quin to the Emergency Clinic at the Michigan State University Veterinary Center.
I arrived at one-thirty and things went very fast even though I was sitting for hours in the waiting room. Someone came to the front desk right away and took Quin to the back of the clinic and I never saw Quin again. He jumped up on me in his anxiety. And I hugged him and lowered him to the floor, resting my head on his cheek as was my custom. And then he allowed himself to be led away. I’ve gone back over this part a hundred times; at that moment I believed he would be returned to me and that this was not our goodbye.
After the first hour, an assistant returned to update me about the primary vet’s concerns on the basis of the preliminary examination. They put him on an I.V. to give him some liquids. His gums were pale, his breathing and heart rate advanced. They were going to do more investigation and be back. The assistant hung back a bit and said I might have to make a decision today. He was kneeling down, in a kind of crouch, and he looked up at me when he said that, as if it pained him to sound so ominous.
I called Richard and said, “This is not good.” And then I waited. But I knew.
When I decided to take Quin to the clinic, when I helped him into the back seat, I didn’t know I’d have to make the decision, that we had arrived at that awful place, a place I had been before.
I noticed boxes of Kleenex scattered everywhere. I was not alone in requiring them. While waiting I had watched a woman carry in a puppy near death and then walk out an hour later alone. She arrived sobbing so loudly that they could hardly understand her at the front desk. She left in silence.
The young vet appeared, and we went into one of the small examination rooms and he told me what he feared but couldn’t yet confirm. He wanted to do a chest x-ray. Cancer. He thought the cancer started in the spleen perhaps and had moved to the lungs. The chest x-ray might show us something. And then he was gone. Primary lung cancer is very rare in dogs—they don’t smoke. If you find cancer in a dog’s lungs there is a ninety-nine percent chance the cancer originated elsewhere and is inoperable.
I called Richard again. This time he was riding his bike to the clinic and the noise from the wind and traffic was terrible—but he was on his way.
Then I saw Richard ride by on his bike and a few minutes later he walked in—his clothes filthy from raking leaves for hours, his hair plastered away from his face by the wind. Another hour passed and still it felt like time was flying. I wanted to hold it in my hands and quiet its pace. Employees kept apologizing for the delay—I wanted to say don’t apologize, don’t speed things along. I want a lifetime of delays.
Then the young vet appeared again, Dr. Carver. This time I caught his name. Without his having said a word, I could see in his face the news he was about to deliver. I’ve seen this look before—the look that says your dog is dying, we can’t do anything, and you are going to have to put him down. The look that says this news will devastate you, how shall I tell you?
We stepped back into examination room # 5—this time I noted the number as I noted the vet’s name—and he said “I’m sorry.” The x-ray shows that Quin has cancer in his lungs, and there is nothing we can do about it. Did we want to see the x-ray?
No, we did not. I’m not sure why we didn’t want to see it. I’m not exactly sure why in this moment and the moments that followed that I wanted to shield myself from seeing. I didn’t care to have the images of his ruined lungs. I didn’t want further tests to nail down whether there was a tumor on his spleen or liver or abdomen or all three. What did it matter? In a matter of minutes I knew I would decide as I must to let him go. We would never have a complete narrative of his decline.
If Quin were a person, he would have come home and had hospice care for the remaining time. But we don’t do that with dogs. None of my animals have had a natural death at home. They have all had a precipitous decline and I’ve taken them to a vet where it has been determined that they are dying, that nothing can be done, and then I have had the dog or cat put to sleep.
My daughter and I carried Irene, our first dog, into the vet. We lay her down on a blanket in the exam room and held her as the drug was administered that would stop her heart. It happened in a second and was utterly quiet. And then we left, walked to the car, and drove home. We left Irene there to be picked up for cremation.
The death of Larry, our second dog, was not so smooth, if that’s what you could call it. He had a tumor on his spleen that I knew could rupture at any time. Still I had some months with him, watching him every day for signs, saying goodbye every time I left the house as if it might be our last. His spleen did rupture. By the time I realized what was happening, he was very weak and I could barely get him into the car to drive him to the vet. Twenty minutes later, he was too weak to get out of the car. Several of us had to carry him into the exam room where he lay on the cold floor. With the greatest difficulty I had him put to sleep. His head was in my lap, he looked at me as he died.
And I will never be able to do that again.
Now when I see Larry I see him on the blue speckled floor, I see his eyes looking at me for assurance, to somehow make it all right as I had done for ten and a half years. But there was no making it right, no reassurance. The vet kept saying he’s looking to you to let him go. Was he?
I didn’t want that power. Eventually I let him go and he died. We walked out of the room and got back into our car and left my great boy behind. That’s what you do. Some people bury their dogs in the yard as in days of old but Larry was a ninety-pound field golden retriever and our yard was exceedingly small, postage stamp size. And we knew we weren’t going to stay in that house forever. I couldn’t imagine leaving my buried dog behind. There was no burying him. There was only cremation and picking up his ashes and keeping them near me.
I wasn’t in attendance when my mother and father died. They died in Pennsylvania and I lived in Michigan. They were not young and they weren’t in good health; nevertheless their deaths, when they came, were sudden. My mother woke up complaining of a headache. After lunch she said the pain was unbearable and my father called an ambulance. She was dead by nine-thirty that night—she had sustained a massive cerebral hemorrhage. My father returned to his apartment after a week’s trip in Florida and had a massive heart attack. He died before he reached the hospital. Never stood by their hospital beds, never saw their bodies slip into death, their faces in death. Never saw their bodies wheeled away and stored in a refrigerator with a bunch of other dead bodies until the funeral home could pick them up. My parents’ deaths were managed, and their bodies were managed without me. When a person or a dog dies, we relinquish them to someone—to coyotes, to medical experts, to funeral managers, and to the people who work the crematoriums.
I have seen two of my dogs die. I thought I should be with them, touching their faces, looking at them, saying goodbye. I should be there. And I was. With my parents, I felt pained by my absence. It wasn’t something I decided. My sisters stood by my mother’s hospital bed as she died; they touched her hands and spoke to her. They both arrived at the hospital after my father had died in the ambulance, too late to say goodbye. But they saw him in his death. I feel that I let my parents down and at the same time I feel grateful that I did not see their faces rearranged by death.
Dr. Carver asked, “Do you want to say goodbye to Quin? Do you want to be with him for his final moments?” I put my head in my hands and sobbed. Give me a minute, I asked. I have to think. But I knew I couldn’t see Quin die. I didn’t want that to be the last image of him I had. I wanted to remember him as he emerged from Lake Michigan after an afternoon of swimming or pulling an enormous fallen branch through the snow. I wanted to see him alive, unfinished. I am not a novice in this dying business.
Now I know that the last image will be the one I carry with me forever—it will write over all the others. Selfish is what I am. I chose not to be the angel of death. I did not give my Quin the sign that he could go. Richard said goodbye. I didn’t even want to hear about it, didn’t want to know how Quin looked, what the room was like, was the lighting bright, was it low, what color was the floor, was he on a table, who else was in the room, did he lift his head, did he know? I didn’t want to know.
Did I fail him as I hadn’t failed the others? After nine years of never failing Quin, did I fail him in the end? Was I unable to summon up that last bit of strength to serve him? It was so fast. I would be undone forever to see him die. My refusal wasn’t about the insufficiency of love.
And then like all the other deaths, we waited for the assistant to retrieve his leash and collar and walked out the doors of the clinic and got into our car and drove the long ride home. It was dark now and it would begin to rain shortly.
When we came home without Quin, Omar looked confused and anxious. He lay by the door, facing it, ready for Quin to walk through it. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. At some point, Richard asked if I wanted to take Omar to the fields. Yes and no was my answer. But we went because we still had a dog and he needed exercise and some sense of normalcy. We passed a couple we knew who walked their two dogs every night. When they saw that Quin wasn’t with us, that it was just Omar, the woman started to ask where and stopped. Something about our faces, our forlorn figures told her that Quin had died. We got to the fields relieved we hadn’t run into any other people who would inquire where Quin was and realized we had days and days of being asked the dread question ahead of us. We let Omar off leash but he didn’t take off. We walked the trail and he stayed right by us. On the slight slope uphill he found the deer’s skull not far off the path, the last part of the deer to emerge. I don’t know if a more perfect thing exists. So delicate and small, as white as can be, lying in the grasses and mud as if it belonged there. And perhaps it did belong there. Where else should it have been?
The next day was a terrible day. Dark, foreboding, with winds up to sixty miles an hour, and intermittent torrential down pours. By evening, we lost power and huddled in the bedroom listening to tree limbs being ripped from trees and flying against the windows. And it went on like this for most of the night, and I thought yes, this is how it should be, the world should come unhinged, it should flail and bang because something great has left it. Of course, it was me who was unhinged. It was my grief that I saw in the storm.
And the next day came as it does and the storm was over, power was restored, and the temperature plummeted. It was winter now. The leaves had been stripped from the trees, what had remained by mid-November. Some roads were blocked because trees had fallen across their way. I heard saws buzzing nearby.
I pulled out a photo of Quin at Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2005 when he was young. He’s just emerged from the lake, no doubt fetching sticks we were throwing. He’s running towards the camera, sand and foam coats his face, his fur is wet and deep red, and he looks right at me. I take the photo. Our eyes are locked. This was the face I wanted to remember. Not because I am deluding myself in thinking someday I’ll return home from work and find Quin waiting at the door for me, or that it will be Quin sitting on his perch on the landing overseeing our world, or Quin emerging from the dry brush of the fields and running towards me, but because I know he won’t.
One week to the day after Quin died, his ashes arrived in the mail. They arrived in a small metal container about three inches tall, blue larkspur sprays on the beige background.
Thanksgiving morning, Richard and I bundled up against the cold and, with Omar, walked through the falling snow to the fields. No one was on the streets and the fields were empty. At the place where we enter the fields, we unleashed Omar, as we had always unleashed both dogs. They’d bound into the fields and then abruptly stop to smell whatever they smelled before hurrying on into the open area. Here I pulled out my little baggie, dipped my bare hand in and gathered some of Quin in my fingers and scattered it. The first fingers of ash were smooth, like sand, and they blew in the wind and carried a little ways off the trail to coat the dry stalks. “To Quin,” I said, “your final pasture.”
But the pain of losing never is finished. A friend writes about how she dreamed she found her lost dog sitting on a shelf in a second-hand shop on sale for nine dollars. “I picked her up and she smelled exactly the same, and she started licking me. It was as if she’d been waiting for me for ten years. Then I woke up, but for a moment there, life seemed healed.”
Back when I was still shell-shocked from having separated from my husband of nearly seven years, when we still had a massive amount of financial untangling to do before we could truly own our own lives, when I was still kept awake at night by waves of panic about not having enough money to support myself, a friend told me, rather matter-of-factly, that I had a pile of shit in front of me that I had to eat. Not only that, but all I could use to do so was a tiny spoon. The good news, she said, was that one day I would reach the end of the pile, and then much lovelier things would be placed before me.
Her prediction turned out to be correct. I met Sam just as my divorce finalized. I like to say that he was my prize at the end of all of that shit, like the toy buried at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks—except of course, that’s not fair to the Cracker Jacks or to Sam.
When Sam and I first started dating, I was subletting a small carriage house in my native Atlanta. The carriage house was built in the 1920s, had hardwood floors and French doors, and the walls were painted a cheerful yellow. Sam lived about a mile away, and since we both worked from home, sometimes I would fix pimento cheese sandwiches and invite him over for lunch. He would bring sweet tea. After we ate, we would take a walk around the neighborhood before we both returned to the more practical details of our day. One sunny spring afternoon, after our walk, Sam and I tumbled into bed—work be damned.
We were thirty-six and forty-one years old, and we were in bed together on a Wednesday afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds and making stripes on the quilt. It was hard not to feel as if we were getting away with something. This was not what most of my friends—in the middle of marriages, careers, and parenthood—were doing. Yet Sam and I were not cheating on anyone, were not making up excuses to our bosses, were not neglecting our children. Both divorced without kids—his divorce more graceful than mine—we had each eaten our fair share of shit to get to where we were, in the giddy stages of early love. It was heaven.
After dating for nearly a year, Sam and I took a trip to Panama, snorkeled over undulating jellyfish, kayaked in the middle of the blue, blue ocean, gripped each other’s hand as our cab driver weaved recklessly in and out of Panama City traffic. Back in Atlanta we celebrated our one-year anniversary by having spaetzle at the same Alsatian restaurant where we had our first date, and it was there that Sam proposed.
By the time we married in a tiny ceremony in our home with a homemade cake and a bouquet picked from my friend’s garden, I was thirty-seven, Sam forty-two, and we wanted to have a child. Given our ages and our level of commitment to each other, it was tempting to start trying on our honeymoon, but I had a novel coming out the next month, and a tour to go on, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the “am I/ am I not” game one inevitably plays while trying to conceive. And so Sam and I waited until my book tour was over in July. At the end of that same month, seven days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and was rewarded with a faint blue plus sign.
I felt incredulous that this—pregnancy—was happening to me. I had always felt on the outside of things, a consummate observer. For a long time, this was my preferred mode of being—it gave me an illusion of control that I desperately needed. Agonizing over choices was infinitely preferable to actually making them. Which is why I spent much of my first marriage trying to figure out whether or not to have a child. It was far easier to wrestle with that question than to face the truth of my situation: that I was in a marriage that no amount of therapy would fix, and that I had willingly put myself into this untenable position in order to avoid fully committing to life, with all of its vulnerabilities and uncertainties.
I am now nearly nine months pregnant, my belly big and tight, my energy low, my body taking on a life of its own, and subsequently doing all sorts of embarrassing things. When I sneeze, I pee! When I walk ten feet, I get winded! If I don’t eat a bowl of prunes every morning, I’m constipated! Despite the all too earthy side effects, I love being pregnant, love that I get to experience the bizarre and amazing process of reproduction. I love feeling our son roll and kick inside me. The sheer physicality of the late stages of pregnancy makes what began as something abstract (revealed only by mild nausea and a plus sign on a pee stick) into something much more real. And the realness of the pregnancy has brought me closer to the astounding prospect that we will soon have an infant to care for. That once I deliver the baby he will be in our charge, and I will somehow learn to breastfeed, and get by on little sleep, and grow more patient as small tasks become mighty endeavors. Soon there will be a human manifestation of our love—living, crying, and pooping among us—and we will love him in a way we have never loved before and will consequently be more vulnerable than ever.
Still, I am not yet a mother. I am intellectually aware that a mighty and miraculous wrecking ball is about to smash up the life we know, but I do not understand this on an emotional level. How could I before our son arrives? And so I find myself suspended between the life I knew and the life I am entering, much as I was when I boarded the airplane that took me away from my first husband and our home together and into a future yet known.
This means I am acutely aware of what I am losing: right now Sam and I are still a two-person unit with a host of inside jokes and allusions. We are newlyweds and we are playful. Hopefully we will remain playful as parents, but there is a weight that will come with our new responsibility that we cannot ignore. Post-baby, we probably won’t spend many Sunday afternoons playing Ping-Pong at the local sandwich place. Most likely I won’t cook as elaborately as I do now. Cheese soufflé will no longer be on the rotating menu, nor will I make homemade soda syrups and granola bars. We will have to watch ourselves and not act horribly toward one another when sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the stresses of new parenthood. Chances are, we will not always succeed at doing so, and our own warts and shortcomings will be more fully revealed.
We are trading one reality for a more intense, harder one—one that for us will be richer, and deeper as well—and we are both ready and excited for the change. And yet the other day, I found myself weeping over what we are losing, our sweet courtship of pimento cheese sandwiches and afternoons in bed. I found this unsettling: it felt like my old, non-committal self coming back into play, the woman terrified of getting herself into something she couldn’t get out of. My tears also felt disloyal toward my unborn son, whom I already love with a startling ferocity. But then I tried to be gentle with myself, the way a mother might be, to allow myself to be sad about the ending of this time when we know each other only as a couple, this time of burgeoning love among people who are not new to life, who weathered some hard things before meeting (and who will surely continue to weather hard things as life goes on). I imagine that twenty years from now, I will think of our early, heady days as a couple with sweet nostalgia. And probably also with a touch of condescension, as in: We thought we were close back then, but look at what we’ve been through now, look at how the roots of our lives have entwined.
It seems that in life there is no gain that comes without loss. Surely one day I will think back on our son’s infanthood with nostalgia, as well as his days as a young child, a boy, and then a young man. To live fully is to commit to things we are terrified to lose, all while knowing loss will come. It occurs to me that life is a series of deaths we must endure, and even somehow embrace, in order to let new life in. Maybe the same is true of our corporeal death, when our bodies will grow cold and lifeless. Maybe instead of fearing that day, I will try to take comfort in the model life has presented so far: New life sprouts in the spaces made by the losses we learn to endure.
SUSAN REBECCA WHITE is the author of three novels: A Place at the Table, A Soft Place to Land, and Bound South. A Place at the Table was recently released in paperback. It is a Target “club pick” and a finalist for the Townsend Prize, Georgia’s oldest literary award. White has also published several essays in places such as Salon, Tin House, TheHuffington Post and The Bitter Southerner. She lives in Atlanta with her husband Sam Reid and their (very) soon-to-be-born son.
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been dumped before. Or ended my share of relationships that had disaster written all over them. But this particular break-up hit me harder than most, even though, technically, I wasn’t the one being dumped.
It happened at my eight-year-old’s school on her first day of second grade, the hottest day of the summer. Seeking shade while I waited for the screech of the bell to release her, I headed for the courtyard with the big oak—the one the kids called The Barney Tree—by her classroom. The mother of Sadie’s closest friend was already sitting on the wide, tile-studded concrete planter that surrounded Barney. I smiled and sat down beside her.
I liked Janet. I considered her my friend. We made small talk—about the weather, our husbands’ annoying habits—as we had so many times before while we waited for our girls.
That summer, they’d spent hours bouncing on the trampoline in my backyard, dissolving in peals of laughter as they played a game they called “Butt War.” They dressed up like Hannah Montana and danced around my living room belting out “The Best of Both Worlds.” They went to day camp together and called each other B.F.F.
Just before the bell rang, Janet turned to me and sighed. “I need to let you know what’s been going on,” she said.
My stomach clenched. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.
She told me that during their last playdate, Sadie kept punching and pinching her daughter, Amy. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, Janet confided. Sadie had even kicked her in a fit of anger.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, her eyes wide.
I stared at the tawny oak leaves scattered on the asphalt and pushed them around with my foot.
Sadie was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder when she was five. Frequent mood swings—including extreme irritability that can be triggered by something as innocent as a playmate saying “hi” to someone else—are symptoms of the illness.
Usually, she saves her explosions for home. It’s where she feels safe to lose control. Maybe all the time she’d spent with Janet and Amy made her comfortable enough to reveal her ugly side to them, too.
When the girls first became friends, I expected each playdate to be their last. Although she’d never physically attacked another child before, Sadie’s explosions had pushed most of her few other companions away. But as the months rolled by and their get togethers continued, I made myself believe everything was okay. I was desperate for my daughter to hold on to her one good friend. And Janet never mentioned any problems.
I’d told her about Sadie’s condition, although I’m not sure if she understood it. And I get that. It’s easy to see my little girl’s outbursts of rage as bad behavior. Or the product of poor parenting.
I wouldn’t want Sadie to play with someone who hurt her, either. But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when, as the classrooms’ turquoise doors swung open and chattering kids flooded the courtyard, Janet said she thought our girls should “take a break.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: I knew their friendship was over. And so was ours.
I broke the news to Sadie as gently as possible on the drive home. She kicked the back of my seat and pummeled it with her fists. She shrieked that she hated Amy. But by the time I pulled into the driveway, she was sobbing as the realization of what her behavior had cost her began to sink in. Inside the house, she grabbed paper and crayons from a kitchen drawer to make a card.
“I’m so, so, so sorry!” she scrawled beside a giant purple heart with a sad face and a jagged line severing it in half.
I squeezed her tight and told her I was proud of her for taking responsibility for her actions. But I warned that the card wouldn’t magically fix everything. She said she wanted to give it to Amy anyway.
I wish I could say that I handled the situation with as much grace. I didn’t. I’d expected my child to be destroyed by the break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how devastated it left me. I missed talking to Janet, who, like me, was an older mom with one child. I missed our occasional outings to the beach, barbeques, and dinners at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor.
Like a scorned lover, I obsessed over every conversation I’d had with my former friend; I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our relationship had soured. Was it the afternoon when she’d called me a soft touch when it came to discipline? Or the evening I showed up at her house to pick up Sadie and she’d hesitated a second too long before answering when I asked how the playdate had gone?
“Great!” she’d said with a strained smile, peering over my head into the dusk. “Everything went just great!”
The more I kept hitting the rewind button on our relationship, the more bitter I became. I went out of my way to avoid Janet at school. One day at pick-up time, I saw her walking toward me as I sat in the car line waiting for Sadie. She was holding hands with Amy and another girl I recognized—a docile creature, who, I was sure, never lost her temper or hit anyone. As I slouched in my car and watched the happy trio cross the parking lot, a wave of envy and anger crashed over me. How could they move on so easily with their lives after leaving such a gaping hole in ours?
I hit rock bottom a few weeks later. I was walking my dog in our neighborhood when a blue minivan chugged by. The driver lightly beeped the horn to say hello. I recognized docile girl’s mother behind the wheel. I gripped Max’s leash tighter, wondering if this woman lingered in Janet’s living room to chat after playdates the way I once had.
From the back seat, Sadie’s ex-bestie and her new sidekick turned to grin and wave at me. I feebly wagged a few fingers in return. What I really wanted to do was flip them off. Because I so wished that my daughter was crammed in the back of that van with them. I ached for her to have a normal childhood, for me to be a normal mom. As the van disappeared around a bend in the road, it felt as if the life we were supposed to have was vanishing with it.
I yanked Max’s leash and turned for home, ashamed of the jealousy and self-pity churning inside me. Janet had every right to protect her child. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that Sadie is the way she is. It wasn’t my fault, either. A gray river of fog tumbled through the valley below the street where I was walking. I imagined it washing away the anger and pain I’d been lugging around since the break-up.
That night, I clicked on the website of a local support group for parents of kids with special needs. I’d thought many times about going to one of the group’s monthly coffees but always found an excuse not to when the day came around.
The following Friday, I printed out directions to that morning’s coffee and drove to the house. With a trembling hand, I pressed the doorbell. A woman with long black hair and a kind face opened the door and welcomed me. She led me into her living room where a dozen or so other women sat on a cream sofa and dining chairs, nibbling blueberry scones and talking. No one looked shocked when, after introducing myself, I told the story about Sadie hurting her playmate. They just nodded or flashed sympathetic smiles.
The next time I saw Janet heading across the school courtyard in my direction, I didn’t look away. I said, “Hi,” and asked how it was going as we passed each other. It still stung to know that she and Amy weren’t part of our lives anymore. But I was finally ready to start moving on with mine.
DOROTHY O’DONNELL is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Her stories and essays have been featured on greatschools.org, brainchildmag.com, mothering.com and NPR. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with early-onset bipolar disorder. You can find more of her writing at dorothyodonnell.com.
A word association game: Pick up the robocall, and hear the name “John Smith.*”
John Smith means a prince of a man—a beloved elementary-school teacher who your fifteen-year-old son adores. Gifted and popular. Merry eyes, short, kind of a goofball.
“A sad acknowledgement.”
Oh, no. Did he die? He’s married with two daughters—sweet, smart kids, one in your son’s grade, one in your best friend’s daughter’s grade.
“…arrested yesterday on charges related to child pornography.”
I’d last seen Mr. Smith a few weekends before. Our kids had arrived at the age when they had many commitments, both social and academic, and no driver’s license. It had been the third weekend in a row where my husband, Brandon, and I had listened to another of their musical performances.
Brandon and I waited in the lobby with the rest of the parents while the kids took off their uniforms and packed up their instruments. We chitchatted with the parents of our son’s closest friends, but it’s a small community—just one high school for the whole city—and we were familiar with many other parents. I called the other parents by their first names, but Mr. Smith would always be Mr. Smith to me; I’d already mentally filed him away as “teacher,” an identity that requires a certain amount of respect.
He was standing near the door. “Hey, there,” I said to him, smiling.
He smiled back. “Hi,” he might have said. “How’s it going?” maybe. I actually don’t remember. He wasn’t clean-shaven, but it was a weekend after all; I looked kind of schlubby myself. He was just Mr. Smith, a known quantity. He was friendly with the other parents, joked with the kids, and carried that particular kind of teacher celebrity—the teacher who every parent wants their child to get—with grace.
When his mug shot was posted on every news outlet in our small city, I could see that, to a lot of people, he would look like a perv. No crinkly eyes, no smile. Just a bald, white man with a grimly set mouth. He was charged with two counts of possession of child pornography and one count of using a communications device to solicit child pornography. I Googled those words as if they could mean something other than what they mean. They don’t.
I don’t know what kind of story this is yet. Is it about sympathy for the devil? Is it about confronting a monster? Is it about a decent man with a terrible fetish? Is it about my own stupidity?
It should go without saying, but without children, there would be no child pornography. Every child porn video or image out there shows a kid experiencing abuse at best, rape at worst, on film.
It’s tough to find numbers on the victims. In December 2012, a Congressional report on child pornography was released. It’s book-length and covers everything from sentencing suggestions to behaviors of users of child pornographer to data on the victims themselves. “It is unknown how many victims of child pornography exist worldwide,” the chapter on the victims begins. A Canadian governmental report estimates that there are more than five million unique images of child porn on the internet.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a special task force that looks closely at child pornography. In fact, the Congressional report, as well as federal law enforcement, relies on the Center’s work. “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (‘NCMEC’) has reviewed over 57 million images and videos of child pornography (many of them duplicates)” according to the report, “and has assisted law enforcement in the identification over 4,103 individual victims.”
(Two things to note: First, those 4,103 kids are just a small fraction of the whole. Also, Reviewer for NCMEC has just shot to the top of my list of Worst Jobs Ever.)
Some numbers, from NCMEC’s own intake program, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the makeup of child pornography as a whole:
• Girls make up 57% of the victims; boys make up the other 43%.
• Twenty-four percent of the children are pubescent. Seventy-six percent are pre-pubescent; of those kids, 10% are infants or toddlers.
• Most of the victims are abused by someone close to them. It’s a fairly rare occurrence for the children (or the adults they become) to speak out.
But when they do, this is some of what they say:
From “Amy,” as reported by the NCMEC, at a judicial proceeding against her uncle: “I am still discovering all the ways that the abuse and exploitation I suffer has hurt me, has set my life on the wrong course, and destroyed the normal childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood that everyone deserves.”
From Masha Allen, on Nancy Grace, who was adopted from a Russian orphanage by an American man: “My pictures that are on the Internet disturb me more than what Matthew did because I know that the abuse stopped but those pictures are still on the Internet.”
From an anonymous male victim originally from Kentucky, in the Tampa Bay Times: “It’s taken my happiness, my peace of mind. It’s taken everything. I can’t get it back. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
According to the Congressional report, both the Supreme Court and Congress have acknowledged that the children abused in pornography experience a unique form of victimization since the record of their abuse lives on and provides fodder for yet another someone to get his rocks off. If that’s not enough, some victims have reported that it haunts them that the images of them could be used to “groom” new victims. Worse yet, some victims become revictimized when porn users stalk them, online, at school, or, in one documented case, at a softball game.
Mr. Smith was being held at the jail without bond. The judge said that he would reconsider if Mr. Smith’s attorney and wife could prove that he had no access to the internet or smart phones.
We, the community, still had no idea what he’d been looking at. Somehow, it would make a difference, we thought. “Barely legal” or something.
It’s a rare scandal that doesn’t start with a secret. Ask Bill “That Woman” Clinton. Ask Larry “Wide Stance” Craig. Ask John “You’re So Hot” Edwards. Ask Mark “Hiking Trip” Sanford.
Like a lot of reasonable people, I believe that people can be extremely gifted in their work and still screw up royally in their personal lives. I know a guy who’s super-smart and creative with tech stuff, yet he has fucked over his family in a major way. I recently read of a wonderful actor with a terrific family who died of a heroin overdose. If I can believe what I hear, I’m a damn good editor, but I know that I’m also a terrible custodian of my own health.
I believe that people can compartmentalize, that the good and the ugly can stay separate and sometimes even work in tandem to make a better, stronger person. When I think of Mr. Smith, my first impulse is good guy, quickly followed by or maybe not.
Can a person have a terrible secret but still be a decent human being? This isn’t so much a question as a desperately wished-for hope. (So desperately wished-for, in fact, that my own online search history has become riddled with the phrase “child pornography.”)
The research shows that there isn’t a definite link between pedophilia and child pornography. “[N]ot all child pornography offenders are pedophiles, and not all child pornography offenders engage in other sex offending,” that 2012 Congressional report states. “While there is overlap in these categories, each is separate and none is a predicate to any other.”
In some ways, this is exactly what I wanted to know: that it’s possible for a person to harbor a horrible sexual fantasy and still keep it in the fantasy realm. This is the best-case scenario, other than Mr. Smith’s arrest being a case of mistaken identity. This is the scenario that lets a parent feel okay about her child having been under Mr. Smith’s care.
In other ways, it doesn’t help at all. In the chapter on child pornography offender behavior, the Congressional report slices and dices all the studies that have been conducted on child pornography offenders. There is a correlation—although not causation—between someone owning child pornography and committing sexual contact with minors. Most child pornography offenders have a certain type of image that they like—a certain gender, certain age of child. Other times, though, some of the data contradicts other data. Some of the data introduced me to a world I had no idea even existed, like online communities where “collectors” trade images and form social bonds with each other. And it occurred to me that all of it is based on the offenders who got caught, which skews the sample.
None of it, really, though, helps me understand what Mr. Smith allegedly did when he thought no one was looking.
Mr. Smith was denied bond at his hearing until, the judge said, a forensic psychologist could determine that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others.
According to local media, some details emerged about what Mr. Smith allegedly did. The defense attorney said that Mr. Smith had had some explicit sexual contact with a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia, albeit via web cam. The prosecutor insisted that the judge needed to look at the images and the chats and the hundred-plus pages that would show that Mr. Smith had done this sort of thing with other girls in the past two years. It was implied that this was some raw stuff.
Mr. Smith had also submitted to a lie detector test. He admitted to “the essence” of the allegations, but insisted that he has never, ever had physical contact.
When the first judge denied bond, Mr. Smith’s attorney immediately appealed, leading to a second hearing in one day. The second judge also said that Mr. Smith could only be released before trial after a meeting with a forensic psychologist and with the caveat that he could have no internet or smart phone access.
The media also reported that Mr. Smith’s supporters were in force at the hearings. This, in spite of everything, made me happy.
Fifteen years old. For some people, that detail will exhonerate the alleged crime, maybe just a little, especially in this culture that equates youth with sexiness. If she can bleed, she can breed, I heard a friend’s brother say once when I was younger. At the time, this didn’t chill me; I grew up in boy culture, all football and heavy metal and talk dirty to me. Girls were ornaments: the cheerleaders, the trophies, the afterthought.
Back when the internet and smart phones didn’t exist, I was a fifteen-year-old girl living in Northern Virginia.
I was researching something for school at the library connected to the community center when a tall guy with curly, dark hair started flirting with me. Italian looking and muscular, he’d been playing basketball in the courts in the building. We struck up a conversation. His name was Mike. He was twenty years old.
We went on a date that I cleared with my mother by pointing out that I was mature for my age and he was immature for his. Which was true enough, I suppose. (By the time I was twenty, I’d be in college, living with Brandon, and would have been seriously creeped out by any of my contemporaries dating a high schooler.)
At an ice cream shop, Mike bought us sundaes. All I can remember of our conversation is that he pointed out that our waitress looked like Broom Hilda, the comic strip character. Afterwards, we made out in his car.
We went on a couple more ice cream/ make out dates. I think I liked the idea of him more than I actually liked him. It was probably mutual. I was an honor roll student; I never asked him what he did for a living but suspected it was something sketchy, involving a cousin of his whom I’d met once. I never had sex with Mike, and I think he finally figured out that I never would. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone, when he arranged another date.
He stood me up.
I got dressed and waited for him to pick me up. I waited longer. My mother looked at me sympathetically, but she wisely didn’t say a word, not calling attention the fool that I was being made. By the time I conceded that he wasn’t coming and I took off my makeup and jewelry, I was seething. I hatched a plan.
In the next month or so, I got a friend who had a driver’s license to drive me to the grocery store. They sold raw chicken livers in plastic vats filled with chicken blood. I wanted the blood.
We drove to Mike’s neighborhood and found his car.
I poured the blood all over the car. I hoped it would ruin the paint job. I realize now that it probably seeped into the vents and created the ungodliest of stenches.
So, an exhibit: the emotional maturity of one fifteen-year-old.
In December 2013, a Congressional aide named Jesse Ryan Loskarn was charged on counts of possession and distribution of child pornography. Thirty-five years old, Loskarn was allowed to post bond and stay at home until his trial. He hanged himself on January 23.
The first time I saw child pornography was during a search for music on a peer-to-peer network. I wasn’t seeking it but I didn’t turn away when I saw it. Until that moment, the only place I’d seen these sorts of images was in my mind.
I found myself drawn to videos that matched my own childhood abuse. It’s painful and humiliating to admit to myself, let alone the whole world, but I pictured myself as a child in the image or video. The more an image mirrored some element of my memories and took me back, the more I felt a connection.
This is my deepest, darkest secret.
How to make sense of Mr. Smith’s deepest, darkest secret? It’s a lot to ask of anyone, to open your heart and your mind to encompass this big, gray mess: that Mr. Smith has done an amazing amount of good in his teaching career and that Mr. Smith might have victimized minors. It’s an almost impossible thing to ask of his nine-year-old students.
When my son was a year older than them, he joined Google Groups (the precursor to Google Plus). I was nervous about his foray online, and I monitored his account. I noticed an unfamiliar name following—and attempting to interact with—him and many of his fifth-grade friends. Through some sleuthing, I found that this person was an adult man who lived in an Atlanta suburb with his parents. I notified the other parents. I notified the guidance counselors at the upper elementary school. I notified the local police’s task force on internet crimes, who asked if my son would let them take over his online identity. (My son declined.) In the end, the kids kind of took care of it themselves, calling the guy out as a “creeper” and blocking him.
I think now that this is a story about loss. Children have lost a certain kind of innocence: the victim in obvious ways, those who knew Mr. Smith as an educator in subtler ways. The city has lost a teacher who makes kids excited about learning. Mr. Smith has, at the very least, lost his reputation and almost certainly his career, no matter what the result of his trial. His family has lost so much, on so many heart-breaking levels.
I’ve lost a little bit of faith in my own moral compass. I wish I could go back to being able to categorize people as creepers or not, worthy of blood on their cars or not. I can’t.
* John Smith isn’t the teacher’s real name. There’s plenty of media coverage of the story, and out of concern for his family, I elected not to go there.