My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.
My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.
My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”
My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.
My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.
My dad’s death certificate reads
(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(b) Debility and Decline
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(d) Dementia, Vascular”
My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.
Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.
This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.
I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.
My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.
My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.
My body’s immersed in the warm bath water. But instead of feeling relaxed, I’m in pain. The pain throbs across my body, eats up my mind, but mostly, pierces through my heart.
I replay the images from last night in my mind—flashes I desperately want to forget.
The rage in his eyes, so unfamiliar. As if I were staring into the eyes of a stranger and not the eyes of my brother. My brother—a pastor, my role model, the spiritual leader of an entire congregation. My brother who has known me and, although imperfect, has loved me my whole life.
Lips curled in fury, his face unrecognizable. And then the chokehold. Flying across the room. Hitting the wall. Feeling my body land in an unnaturally distorted position.
Looking up from down below, everything was out of focus. Upside down.
When he came to me while I was still on the ground, I knew right then and there that nothing would ever be the same again.
I was right. Things have never been the same.
In Korean, “Oppa” means “older brother” from a girl’s perspective. The perspective of a little sister.
These days, “Oppa” is commonly used as a flirtatious term popularized by k-pop and Korean dramas.
But when I was growing up, “Oppa” was a serious term of respect. I was never allowed to call my brother by his given name.
Oppa and I learned to grow up fast as children of first-generation Korean store-owner immigrants. After a successful stint as convenience store owners, my parents would often leave us at night to go work at their clothing factory—a new business venture they were exploring. Oppa would go through my bedtime routine, put me to sleep. He would guard the phone at home. Three rings, a pause, another ring. That was the code my mother taught us so that we would know when to pick up the phone.
Left at home, too often by ourselves, we had a love-hate relationship; we fought viciously, made up, fought again and made up.
We couldn’t live with one another but couldn’t live without each other.
My childhood memories are entangled with images of his face, his expressions, his mannerisms, his lectures, his embraces.
Growing up, he was the closest person to me in my life.
There were signs, of course.
His flashes of rage. The holes in the wall from his punches. We placed calendars over each hole and excused every outburst as teenage angst.
When Oppa went to high school, he struggled with his weight and consequently, his self-confidence.
Although I had my own personal angst, something about him, his vulnerability, his sensitivity made me feel protective.
Likewise, Oppa personified all the tell-tale behaviors of an over-protective older brother.
There were years of miscommunication and distance.
By the time Oppa went to college, we had re-kindled our friendship. By the time I went to college, we were so close that he gave me The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and told me that he would always be there for me.
He was the one I turned to over and over again with each dramatic incident of my teenage years, for each critical decision I made in my years as a young adult.
He was truly my Giving Tree, and the most influential person in my life.
In the summer of 2007, I was visiting California to meet my boyfriend’s parents. We were planning to get married.
I had been visiting California since Oppa attended Fuller Theological Seminary. Oppa was now the Pastor of an English-speaking ministry at a local Korean American Church. My boyfriend attended that same church.
That morning, Oppa and I had a big fight. He was complaining I wasn’t spending enough time with him, that I was spending too much time with my boyfriend.
He’d become so angry, hurtful, since I had started dating my boyfriend.
I came home early that evening. I was staying with Oppa and my sister-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment. The fight from the morning seemed inconsequential. I was ready to make up.
But that night, something snapped.
I saw true rage in Oppa’s eyes. Was it really because of my boyfriend and Oppa’s over-protective stance as an older brother? Was it because I was about to launch my legal career and Oppa had always wanted to go into law but hadn’t? Was it because my parents already loved my boyfriend and were considering him as their son when Oppa had always struggled with self-acceptance as the eldest son of a traditional Korean family?
Is there ever a reason or justification?
This time, there is no making up.
I’ve always prided myself on being an advocate. I consider myself a woman of action. I protest. I march. I fight.
I’ve always loved arguing, the heat of debate. In law school, I specialized in criminal litigation and international human rights—always one of the few Asians in my classes.
I’ve always been told how “non-Asian” I am; how I break the stereotype of a submissive, quiet, well-mannered Asian woman. I am loud. Confident.
Never would I have imagined myself to be so submissive…so Korean…so silenced.
I’ll never forget the panicked look of my sister-in-law as she forced the phone out of my hand when I was trying to call the police. I’ll never forget the sound of my weeping parents begging me not to call the police. Instead they told me to roll an egg on my bruises to make them go away faster.
I underestimated the power of my subconscious need to obey, to comply, to help my parents in sweeping this messy incident under the rug. The driving force to save our family’s reputation was also clouded by my internal voices of justification. This was my brother, after all. He loved me; I loved him. Surely this was not something I could send him to jail for, ruin his entire career, ruin our entire family. I felt forced to do nothing.
Me, an English-speaking lawyer-to-be with a background in advocacy and activism.
I’ll never forget the self-loathing and shame I felt as I retreated within myself, my voice silenced. Oh, the hypocrisy. And I called myself a lawyer? An advocate?
To this day, my father claims that what happened that night was not a big deal. So an Oppa hit his dongsaeng, little sister. He’s always wondering why I’m being over-dramatic. We were family. We loved one another. Why couldn’t I just get over it and move on?
So, I did nothing. I moved on.
That night, my boyfriend picked me up and took me to a nearby hotel. He held me as I sobbed. He gently placed ice packs and eggs on my bruises.
He also went, the very next day, to hear my brother preach.
He, too, is Korean.
I did nothing. In 2007 nor in all the following years.
But there were moments of clarity, of progress.
When I found out I was giving birth to a little boy, I cried. I was anguished that I should give birth to a little boy that could become a man who could potentially hit another woman. But I found strength in my husband, a good man, in knowing that we could raise our son differently.
Within a year after my son was born, I joined the Board of Directors for a specialized clinic for women experiencing violence. In my application to join the board, I shared, for the first time, openly about what my brother had done to me.
It was cathartic. Empowering.
I now have a daughter. And with the dismal statistics of women experiencing domestic violence in North America today, I want her to know that she can have a voice. She needs to have a voice. I need to raise her so that she, unlike me, will not be silenced.
I get out of the bath water, unsure of what to do next.
I look in the mirror. I don’t even recognize her—such uncertainty in her eyes. That can’t be me.
When I look up close, at the bruises, she’s even more unrecognizable. I take out my makeup bag. I cover up my bruises. I put a smile on my face. I meet my boyfriend’s parents.
A year later, we get married.
I won’t go into the details of my depression and journey of spiritual healing and revival after the summer of 2007.
I won’t go into the decade-old disappointment towards my brother and my beloved well-intentioned parents who have never acknowledged the criminality of what Oppa did to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I finally found the strength to publicly share my story.
Surprisingly, this strength came in the form of an unexpected phone call from a police investigator conducting a background check for my brother who had applied, of all things, to become a police officer.
As I shared my story, ten years later, to this random police officer, I did feel a refreshing sense of vindication. Oppa should have never become an ordained pastor, an American citizen, a Navy Chaplain. He should have received court-mandated counseling. I should have received a restraining order.
Then he wouldn’t have dared to threaten me again. Which he did, five years later, causing me to cut him off completely.
And my parents, first-generation immigrants. To this day, condoning my brother, asking me to be the bigger person, to think of the family’s reputation. To this day, asking me how they can choose between Oppa and me.
They don’t realize that by choosing to protect my brother, they gave up their daughter. The broken trust and abandonment I felt in my deepest moments of pain have never left me.
I know what I experienced is nothing compared to the unspoken tragedies of domestic and family violence in too many households across North America. But that’s why I need to tell my story. This story.
I loved my Oppa. I love my parents. But Oppa hit me.
SYLVIA KIM is a lawyer and human rights advocate currently residing in Southern California. Although it took her much too long to publicly share this story, she hopes this will encourage other women, particularly from cultures where domestic and family violence is highly stigmatized, to share their stories as well. Sylvia is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and usually writes on international human rights issues, racial justice, and politics.
When my mother found out she had cancer, she said she wanted to do two things when she got better: learn to play the piano and get a bird.
“A bird? Why?” I asked, remembering the nasty parakeets I’d had as a child who kicked feathers and birdseed shells into my underwear drawer.
“Well, I have a friend who has this really beautiful bird, and I’d like to have a bird like that.”
I rolled my eyes, a childish act, that, at twenty-seven, I was probably too old to still be doing. It was so typical of my mother to want something simply because it was beautiful: bird as objet d’art. Her desire—requirement, really—for things to be aesthetically pleasing was not a trait we shared.
In the emotionally chaotic days after her cancer diagnosis, it still seemed reasonable to make plans for the future. My mother would stagger her chemotherapy treatments with her schedule at work. We located the city’s best wig store. She ordered shelving for her new apartment. And she was going to break up with her boyfriend, Steven, because, although he was nice, she said, “Nice is not enough.” She would stop postponing joy and make the time for things she always seemed to be putting off. So if a bird was part of the life she imagined for herself in her post-cancer future, who was I to argue?
Can we ever think of our mothers as unfinished? When we are children, they are whole and entire. Everything that was meant to be for them has come to pass because it has brought them to us. But in time, we come to see our mothers as women with paths not taken, connections not made, choices left somewhere in the dust of the past. After my mother’s death, I often imagined the turns her life might have taken had she lived: a new man, maybe not so nice but right; weekly piano lessons in her apartment surrounded by her lovely things; a beautiful bird inspiring her. It was all so close, and yet beyond her reach.
I walked into the garage to grab a box of waffles from the freezer. The birds—barn swallows, we’d learned from Google images—were flying in and out, tending to the nest they built in our garage each spring. My children and I loved to watch their life cycle play out, while my husband, Ken, was less tolerant of the feathers and the mess. Every morning he ran out in his suit and tie with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towel tucked under his arm to clean the poop off his car. But he softened eventually, as he did with most things involving his family.
On this particular morning, the baby birds were chirping frantically, opening their tiny beaks so wide the nest looked like one big mouth. There were five babies this time, the most we’d ever had, and the parents seemed more agitated than usual, if such a feeling could be ascribed to barn swallows. Every time I walked through the garage, they swooped down at me, coming so close I was afraid of an Alfred Hitchcock-like encounter.
I stepped over a pile of desiccated dragonflies and saw that one of the baby birds was lying on the ground. I was surprised to see it there, like I’d somehow forgotten that these birds weren’t here for my family’s amusement alone; this was the circle of life, the universal struggle for survival writ small, the real deal. The bird looked dead, so I grabbed a shovel to scoop it up. But as soon as I touched it, it scooted away. Fuck, I thought. A sick or injured bird seemed far worse to me than a dead one. If it were dead, I could toss it into a bush. But a bird in crisis: That shit needed to be dealt with.
I went inside and Googled, “how to get bird back in nest.” I read that birds don’t always fly straight from the nest. Sometimes they need to hop around for a few days on the ground or on low branches while getting acclimated to flight. Since the parents were still around and the bird was fully feathered, I should just leave it alone. Leaving things alone and letting them sort themselves out—that I could do.
When I returned to the garage, the bird was still on the ground. I looked up at the nest and saw the four tiny faces of its siblings poking over the edge, the tips of their beaks joined together in a line of collective worry.
My mother learned she had cancer on a Monday. A colonoscopy she’d had the week before had revealed a large mass in her colon, and she was scheduled for surgery that Friday, the day before Memorial Day weekend. Looking back, the speed with which her surgery was scheduled, plus the fact that it was happening in a New York hospital the day before a holiday weekend, should have clued me in to the urgency of the situation. But, like most things involving my mother’s illness and death, I only made sense of things later, when everything was over.
My mother spent the week before her operation organizing and making plans as if she were getting ready to go on a trip instead of to the hospital for a bowel resection. I stopped by every night, bringing Chinese food, which only I ate, and searching endless iterations of “stage three colon cancer” on her computer while she sat on the couch with our cat, Firecracker. What I read scared me: The five-year survival rate for my mother’s disease was low, less than fifty percent, depending on how many lymph nodes were involved, which we still didn’t know. But if my mother was concerned, she kept it to herself, placing the bulk of her worry on the cat instead. He was lethargic, not eating that much. She brushed him over and over until the wire bristles were matted with thick tufts of silvery grey hair. Then she would throw the wad in the trash and start again.
I had burst into tears when my mother first told me, over the phone, that she had cancer. I could tell my reaction had frightened her—such an outward display of emotion was uncommon in my family—so I pulled myself together and tried to ask clear-headed questions about next steps. I decided to act as though everything was going to be fine and that this was just a temporary inconvenience, something to get through. My mother acted the same way, as did the rest of our small nuclear family: my father—from whom she was separated but still close—my younger brother, my mother’s sister, Marianne. If privately we were frightened, we kept it to ourselves. We worried about the cat.
One night, as I walked to my mother’s apartment, I saw a dead pigeon lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It was in a fetal position, although I wasn’t sure that term could be applied to pigeons. What did they look like as fetuses anyway? All I knew was that in all my years living in New York, I had never seen a dead pigeon. I thought immediately of the bird my mother had just spoken about. I didn’t believe in omens, but I was convinced this was one. I looked at the bird for a few moments and then continued down the block. I didn’t tell my mother about what I had seen.
An hour after I found the first baby bird, all five were on the ground, huddled together near the freezer. I called Ken.
“Can you get them back in the nest?” he asked. I could hear street sounds in the background placing him in the city, far away from the life-and-death struggle taking place in our garage.
“Are you kidding?” The nest was a good ten feet off the ground. “I’ll kill myself getting up there. Besides, they’re fully feathered. They’re supposed to be flying.”
After my mother’s death, I became extremely sensitive to birds. If I saw a dead one lying in the road, I would become certain that something terrible was going to happen. Ken would have to grab me and say, “It’s just a bird, Daisy. It doesn’t always mean anything.” And after a while, I convinced myself he was right: It was just a bird. And yet, standing here with broken birds at my feet, that feeling of doom flooded over me again. Perhaps Ken sensed my old worries surfacing and was trying to calm me down.
But there was also a part of me that was annoyed by the entire scene. I wanted the birds to do what they were supposed to do, without my help. They were supposed to jump out of the nest and fly, not cower pathetically on my garage floor.
“Well, what do you think we should do?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should do anything. If they can’t even make it out of the nest, they have no chance in the wild. There’s nothing I can do.”
When I was nine years old, I found out that my mother had been engaged to someone before she’d met my father. His name was Leif, and he was Swedish, like her. “If you had married Leif,” I said to her, “I’d be Swedish!” This felt like magic. If only I could be Swedish like her, I’d know how to knit and crochet and speak Swedish, that secret language she spoke only with my aunt or with the au pairs who lived in the room off our kitchen. If my mother had married Leif, I would finally have access to the part of her that had always been a mystery to me: the her that existed before I did.
“If I had married Leif,” she said, bringing her long, thin cigarette to her lips, “you wouldn’t exist.”
After ten days in the hospital, my mother came home. The surgery was grueling, but she didn’t have to wear a colostomy bag, which pleased her. She wasn’t well enough to return to work or to begin chemotherapy. She didn’t talk about getting the bird anymore, and Steven—poor guy—was still around.
We were taking things day by day, absorbing one bit of bad news at a time, nibbling on it like a dry biscuit, and then opening our mouths for the next bite. The mood in her apartment was somber. My fifty-six-year-old mother, who a few months earlier had celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends in St. Barth’s, needed help getting in and out of the bathtub.
“You have to get her over to Sloan-Kettering,” her friends told me, certain that the right doctors would be able to help her. They didn’t understand how sick she was, I said. She didn’t have the time or strength to doctor-shop. The ways things were going, it didn’t seem like anyone could make it better, maybe just different versions of bad. I was tired of listening to these pushy New Yorkers who thought they could control everything, that I could control everything. I didn’t want control, not over this. I wanted someone to tell me what to do. So I focused on managing her pain medications and sticking to the doctors’ instructions. Try this, then that, they said, and I did. I was always good at following the rules.
One night, while Marianne was visiting, Firecracker, the cat, collapsed.
“Do something!” my mother shouted, so Marianne shoved him into his cat carrier and raced across town in a taxi to the emergency vet. He was dead by the time she got there. Marianne, always so fragile, was traumatized, weeping as she told us how she had looked into the carrier and seen Firecracker lying on his side, his eyes bulging, tongue protruding from his mouth. I wanted to kill her.
“I think he died instead of me,” my mother told me the next day, a shadow of hope passing across her face. Her high cheekbones were as hard as rails beneath her pale skin. I was surprised to hear her speak so magically, surprised also to hear her mention the possibility of her own death. But maybe she was right. Maybe Firecracker and the dead bird hadn’t been bad omens but offerings. This made perfect sense.
After school, I took Ellie and Sam to the garage to see the baby birds. They were still on the floor, tucked beneath the curve of my car’s tires. I could tell, although the kids couldn’t, that two of the birds had died. The once-charming experiment was no longer so charming.
“Why won’t they fly?” Ellie asked, her eyes wide with concern.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But they have to. If they don’t, they’ll die.”
When Ellie and Sam went back inside, I tossed the dead birds into a bush. I wasn’t sure what to do with the other three. If I left the garage door open over night, the parents could tend to them, but I was worried about predators. I decided to close the door and hope for the best. Would they really starve in one night? I brought out an aluminum tray of water, although I wasn’t sure if they needed it or if they could even reach over the lip of the tray. I watched them as they sat there, not even moving toward the water, and I decided I didn’t like them anymore. I wished in equal measure that they would leave or die, anything so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. I just wanted it to be over.
By July, my mother was back in the hospital. After several tests to determine why she wasn’t getting better, the doctors discovered that the diagnosis of colon cancer had been wrong. She had neuroendocrine tumor, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that had spread throughout the lining of her abdomen, including into her colon. We had lost precious time fighting the wrong cancer.
During this time, Ken and I left my mother in the hospital to go to a Yankees game. My mother was on the phone with J. Crew ordering a birthday present for Steven, and I lingered in the doorway listening to her chat pleasantly with the woman taking her order. I doubted she had any idea my mother was calling from a hospital room or that she would die so soon after the clothing arrived that Steven would be too shaken up to ever wear it. I worried for a moment about leaving, but my mother waved me off. “Go,” she said, the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. “I’m fine.”
Ken and I took the train up to the Bronx and, as we walked down from the subway platform, we saw a pigeon lying on the stairs with its wings spread open like a book. The crowds of people on their way to the stadium stepped carefully around it.
I stopped walking as soon as I saw the bird, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Oh, Jesus,” I said to Ken. I doubled over, suddenly out of breath. “What the fuck is that?”
He calmed me down, and we stayed for part of the game. But when we walked back a couple of hours later, the bird was still there, still breathing, its tiny chest rising and falling with great difficulty. Someone had propped a piece of newspaper around it, a tiny version of a hospital curtain. I wanted to smash my foot down on its ribcage. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.
We went straight back to the hospital and found my mother talking to one of her doctors, the only one who had known her before she got sick. The steady drip of pain medication had improved her mood, and she seemed closer to her usual, upbeat self. On his way out, the doctor pulled me into the hallway.
“Do you know how serious this is?” he asked, and I think I kind of nodded, although I really have no idea. And then he apologized to me, either for what had already happened or for what was still to come; I think he had tears in his eyes. But he didn’t go any further. Perhaps he could tell that I couldn’t grasp what he was saying, that his words had barely touched the protective net of my consciousness. Everything I came to understand about that conversation, I filled in later.
The next morning, I walked into the garage brandishing a snow shovel. I tapped the ground next to the birds and shouted, “Let’s go!” It was a beautiful, sunny spring day, and I had decided it was time for them to fly.
With me and my shovel behind them, the three birds hopped out of the garage, across the driveway and onto the grass. Just seeing them against the backdrop of green, with a little sun on their faces, made them look better. One of the birds kept moving away from me, picking up speed until it was off the ground and flying. Not very high, and not very strong, but flying. I watched it cut a jagged line across the lawn and out of my view.
I crouched down next to the other birds. They looked terrified, shocked, their spindly feet as delicate as toothpicks, their coats more fluff than feather, and I realized I wasn’t scared of them anymore. They weren’t a bad omen or a harbinger of death at all. If they represented anything— and I wasn’t sure they did—it was the future my mother had planned for, the one in which she got an exotic bird and redid her kitchen and lived to see her grandchildren. It’s just what we do, plan for a future we know is not guaranteed because we can’t live any other way. And look how fucking fragile it is.
Shelley was the astrologer for British Vogue and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. When she came to New York, my mother sometimes went to her for a reading. A couple of months after she died, Shelley offered to read my chart, gratis. I asked her if she had been able to see my mother’s death on her chart during her final reading. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what Shelley would say.
“Not exactly,” she said. “We might be able to see that there will be a transition, but we can’t tell if that transition will be death or not because in astrological terms, everything is continuous.”
Despite everything, my mother’s death, when it finally came, surprised us all. Just the day before, her oncologist had ordered a course of chemotherapy. A young resident had come by earlier that week to refill a prescription for the eye drops she used to control her glaucoma. Now they were telling us there was nothing else they could do.
It was evening, about eight o’clock. The hospital air-conditioning was on full blast, and I was freezing. My mother lay in bed, unconscious, surrounded by photographs I had taped to the wall behind her, proof to everyone who cared for her that she really had once been a person. One of the pictures had been taken on New Year’s Eve. In it, my mother stood with one foot crossed in front of the other like an actress posing on the red carpet. Her painted toenails peeked out of her pink, sequined slide.
My mother was really gone by then, her breathing labored, the smells appalling and vile. We had already sat in another room with her doctors and hospital administrators who had reviewed her DNR orders. I was the only one who spoke. I signed whatever it was we were supposed to sign. My father seemed folded in on himself, my younger brother shocked into silence.
We went back into her room. Steven and Marianne were there; Ken, too. There weren’t enough places for all of us to sit so I leaned awkwardly against the side of the bed, stroking my mother’s hand. I wondered if I was supposed to stay there until she died. I became acutely aware of the woman she was sharing a room with and thought how terrible it must be to room with someone so close to dying. Then I was annoyed with myself for worrying about her when I should have been thinking about my mother. The thought of staying in that room until my mother died became unbearable. My teeth were chattering, and all I wanted to do was lie down. So I kissed my mother goodbye and walked out into the hot, humid July evening. I planned to come back in the morning, although by then she was dead.
The birds didn’t seem in any rush to go anywhere, so I sat there, letting the weak spring sun warm my back. I thought about how tenuous our hold on life is, how easily the thread is snapped, despite everything we think holds us here. We fall from the nest, unable to fly, powerless to fight the gravity that pulls us down; if we’re lucky, our parents stick around to feed us dead insects. Perhaps there are no omens, nothing to let us know that bad luck—or worse—is around the bend. Nothing had prepared me for my mother’s death; the only signs were the ones I had chosen to ignore.
Then I stood up and walked away, leaving the birds on the grass. I needed them to do what they were supposed to do, without me, just as I had needed my mother to complete her journey so that I could continue mine. She never got the bird she planned for, but I got five of them, birds that grew in the cradle of my garage. Some died early, others clung to the earth beneath their feet. But one flew.
DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is a writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Halfway Down the Stairs and Brain, Child, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her family. Read more at www.daisyflorin.com.
We’re waiting in front of the building, under the canopy and protected from the rain, when the town car pulls up. It’s a chilly early morning. I’m going to the airport and should be in Seattle by the afternoon. My wife’s friend, Sarah, who has been staying with us, is heading home to Maine, and we’re sharing the ride to JFK.
Our driver is an elderly Korean man. All the drivers from this car service are Korean. “You can take Atlantic or Linden. Whatever way you think is faster,” I tell him.
He drives slowly. His hands, gripping the wheel, are trembling, and every few seconds he lifts up his right hand and glances at it before smacking it down on the wheel.
The old man heads down Coney Island Avenue and passes Caton. When I let him know he’s missed the turn, he points to the GPS. “You’re going the wrong way. Turn around,” I say. Again, he points to the GPS and drives straight ahead.
It’s out of our way, but we’re going out to take the Belt and ride alongside the shoreline. It’s the scenic route. There’s almost no traffic on the parkway. We can see glimpses of marsh adjacent to the water. Cordgrass and common reeds, the ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. In the sky, flocks of birds are flying in formation. At this hour, with the rain coming down, it’s possible to imagine the New York Island in its natural state before the salt marshlands were drained and filled in with buildings, highways, and airports. In my still-drowsy state, these intimations of a physical world untouched by human activity strike me as startlingly beautiful, an impression punctuated by our driver’s periodic and emphatic slaps on his steering wheel.
We drop Sarah off at the Jet Blue Terminal. She says something about how lucky we are to have missed the storm, although, even if it hits, it’s not going to reach New York until late the following day. We’ll see. Weather forecasters are always hyping storms that usually end up veering off course and being less than advertised.
The plane lands in Seattle on time. I’m there to attend a conference on interactive media. There will be panels on social media, advertising, online commerce, and digital storytelling. Representatives from Facebook, AOL, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of smaller digital media outfits are attending.
The Japanese newspaper where I work has about ten million print subscribers, and its leaders are suspicious of the digital onslaught and new media carnival barkers. For fifteen years, I’ve been taking around colleagues, who are visiting from Japan, to American digital media companies claiming to have discovered the secret to a bright electronic future. Many of those businesses no longer exist. For over a decade, as American newspapers were blithely putting their publications on the Internet for free, their Japanese counterparts always insisted that anyone reading their stories online pay the same price as a print subscriber. Bolstered by a network of zealous sales agents and a reliable home delivery system, newspapers in Japan remain a staple of daily life. But since the 2008 Great Recession, Japanese newspapers have been facing the same afflictions battering print news publications in the United States. The Japanese, like Americans, are glued to their phones, and the handwriting on the wall says that before long, most of them will be reading the news on a digital device. So I have come to Seattle to attend panels and meet with whoever will talk to me, and I hope I’ll learn something that I can report back to Tokyo.
The next morning, as I’m heading out of the hotel lobby for the Convention Center, the rain is coming down hard. A smiling concierge is distributing sturdy extra-large umbrellas to guests. When I ask him if he wants my room number, he tells me it isn’t necessary. “We trust you,” he says. For some reason, I find this unsettling. An umbrella is something you buy on a misty street corner for three dollars from a Senegalese street vendor, or from a South Asian immigrant at a newsstand, or at a shoe repair store from a Russian guy who doesn’t speak English. This thing I’ve been handed is a piece of furniture. It seems so durable that I’d feel guilty about losing it.
Across the street from the hotel, there’s a cafe. I’m running late, but figure I can get a cup to go. At this place there’s a ritual around ordering coffee that I don’t understand and an elaborate art to making it. After answering series of questions from an extremely friendly barista, I wait and wait. It’s not yet nine in the morning and Seattle already has me rattled.
This is some of what I write in my notebook on my first day attending the 2012 Seattle Interactive conference.
News is getting faster and smaller. It travels at the speed of light. There is more news. There are more sources.
The story is reported before the media gets there. Cameras are everywhere. Everyone is covering the news. We get our information in different contexts. How do we know if something is true?
What does it mean to tell a story? Trust your community. Connect. Embrace the share. Storytelling is a narrative to which people surrender.
Interactive is nonlinear. Multiplatform deployments. Epic mix.
Amygdala hijack leads to an immediate overwhelming reaction, disproportionate to the stimulus, triggering a deep emotional reaction. Storytelling is an interaction. A single story builds on emotional connection and triggers long-term memory.
Forces of nature are reshaping the world. Waves of technology are eroding our foundation. This transformation is happening and we must adapt to survive.
When I get back to my hotel room that evening and turn on the computer, I see that just a couple of hours earlier, the big storm that had been approaching the east coast the day before has struck New York City. This one did not veer off course. Hurricane Sandy has made landfall. There has been flooding and an explosion at a Con Edison substation, and the southern part of the island of Manhattan has gone dark.
On YouTube, I see a video of cars floating down Avenue C, just two blocks over from the Lower East Side building where my parents live. It immediately occurs to me that they are prisoners in their tenth floor apartment. My father is eighty-seven years old and has Parkinson’s disease. In recent years, he’s had a series of falls, and every step he takes has become an adventure. There’s no way he’s going to make it up and down ten flights of stairs. It’s too late to call New York. In anticipation of the storm, my wife’s company had given everyone the day off. We live in Brooklyn on higher ground, so I guess that things aren’t too bad for her. I’ll check in with everyone tomorrow.
The next morning my eighty-year-old mother assures me that despite the lack of power and water, everything is fine. Neighbors are checking on them, she tells me. Later on she’s going to take the stairs and try to buy batteries from the hardware store.
The second day of the Seattle Interactive Conference is a lot like the day before. A chorus of warning from casually dressed marketing mavens to the survivors of a news industry decimated by the digital revolution. “Change or die” is their message. The electronic acolytes are exultant. There is a universe of possibility. The neophyte presenters have their beady eyes on the future. There are no elegies here for all that has been washed away.
I have lunch at a Vietnamese place with my friend Claire who has attended a morning presentation by someone named Shingy who works for AOL and has the job title Digital Prophet. She tells me Shingy’s got a space alien look with big electrified hair and that he’s very fond of certain words—mobile, leverage, social, branding. He’s a showman. Evangelical, but in a wink-wink way. A hustle here, a hustle there. She’s charmed by his audacity.
“I thought that all the digital prophets had left AOL and migrated to a different platform long ago,” I tell her.
“Not all of them. He’s a minor prophet,” she explains.
“Did he say anything about the flood in New York?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. But he’s only a minor prophet.”
I call home that afternoon. My wife Joanne says if the power stays down she’ll drive into Manhattan and pick up my parents. They can stay with us until they get electricity back. But the car needs gas, so she’s going to have to deal with long lines of panicked drivers at gas stations. I’m not sure my dad will be able to make it down the stairs, but if they go very slowly maybe it can be done.
Later on, I speak again to my parents. “Any looting going on yet?” I ask, remembering the 1977 blackout when local kids broke into stores on Avenue B and on Delancey Street. The Sneaker King was especially popular on that night.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother tells me. She is English, from the town of Banbury in Oxfordshire, and moved to New York in the 1950s. “Everyone is being very friendly. Hassan, the super, knocked on our door to see if we were all right. When I went outside, it reminded me of the war. The long lines. All the blackout periods we had. We could be fined if even the glimmer of a light escaped our home because it might aid the German war planes.”
I tell her that Joanne will pick them up tomorrow if the lights are still out. “Really, that isn’t necessary—we’re fine,” she says.
After the second day’s final panel, I go back at my hotel room and look at the New York Times web site and catch up on what has been happening. Subway stations and the tunnels under the East River are flooded. The South Ferry stop is covered track to ceiling with sewage. More than one hundred houses burned to the ground in Breezy Point. Two hundred fifteen patients were evacuated from NYU Hospital after the backup generators failed. There are photographs of garbage and debris in the streets, sandbags surrounding the Goldman Sachs building, a flooded plaza on Water Street, a parking lot with hundreds of partially submerged yellow cabs, and free pizza being handed out on Avenue B.
I read a story about some of the dead. A twenty-three-year old makeup artist in Queens electrocuted by a severed power line. An old man swept away from his house by flooding waters. A young couple in Brooklyn walking their dog, crushed by a falling tree. A father and his thirteen-year-old daughter drowning in their Staten Island home.
I talk with our newspaper’s New York Bureau Chief Yuji Yoshikata. He lives on the twenty-sixth floor of an apartment on East 39th Street that has lost power, and over the past twelve hours he has rushed up and down the stairs several times. There are interviews to be done and photos to be taken. Japanese daily newspapers have both morning and evening editions. So there are facts that need to be gathered, and context and history that must be provided. Deadlines must be met. For the Japanese, the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed over 15,000 and left hundreds of thousands without homes will be the lens for understanding what is happening in New York. And for Yoshikata, who spent ten days in Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake there, the events in New York, will be filtered through his own recent memories.
There’s an email from a friend who has just gotten back from a Brooklyn bike ride through the destruction. He’s checked up on another friend who lives on a barge docked on a pier and writes about seeing fish onshore where the water has receded and cars that have been moved several hundred feet. People with gas-powered pumps are draining their basements.
I speak again to Joanne. She tells me they’ve set up shelters for displaced people at the big Armory by our house and a nearby high school. She’s been trying to contact our friends in Red Hook. They have lived for twenty-five years on Van Brunt Street in a house that, over many years, they renovated themselves. There are photographs online of terrible flooding on that block. “If they need a place to sleep, they should stay with us,” I tell her. She tells me she’s going to drive over the bridge and see my parents in the morning.
The two-day conference is over, but I have another day and night in Seattle. In the afternoon, I’m supposed to talk to some people at Amazon about putting newspapers on the Kindle. I call my airline to see about an earlier flight back to New York, but I give up after spending time on hold listening to recorded music. At 3:00 am, I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Lying in bed, insipid platitudes that I’ve heard over the last two days keep running through my mind. Paradigm shift. Game changer. Ride the wave. I pick up my phone and open up the laptop on the bedside table and check Twitter and Facebook. A flooded basement in the Rockaways. Scroll down. Houses in flames. Swipe. An outdoor Staten Island Red Cross station. Tap. People on cots in a makeshift shelter at the Armory. Click. The digitization of catastrophe recorded in real time on my news feed.
After my meeting with the Amazonians, I call home. Joanne’s upset. After waiting for two hours on a gas station line that hardly moved, she gave up and went home. She feels bad about my parents. “You did your best. They’ll be okay,” I tell her.
Later I speak to my mother who tells me that tomorrow, if they can make it down the stairs and manage to flag down a cab, they are going to stay with their friends George and Peggy in Hell’s Kitchen, where electricity was never lost and life has returned to something close to normal. “Peggy said your father can sleep on their massage table and I am going to be on something called a futon,” she says brightly. I’m sitting outside along the waterfront near the ferry terminal as we talk. It’s October 31st. Halloween. On the street there are people walking around in costume. Witches, superheroes, Mitt Romney, oompa loompas, Elton John. In New York the big parade has been cancelled.
Fortunately, my flight back to New York the next day takes off on schedule. My car service driver meets me at the baggage claim area, and I’m surprised to see it’s the same old man who drove me out to JFK five days earlier. This time we take Atlantic Avenue, and about half way home everything comes to a complete stop. The westbound traffic has somehow gotten tangled up with a long line of cars waiting to use a Shell station. “Very hard to get gas today,” the driver says. I tell him I wasn’t sure there’d be anyone to meet me at the airport. “Very hard,” he says. “Everything going up. Gasoline, insurance, taxes. And less work, much less work. Very bad since Lee Min Shok. I very angry at Lee Min Shok.”
I wonder if he’s talking about a new owner of Green Light Limo, or perhaps a dispatcher who’s giving him a hard time. After sitting in traffic for about twenty minutes, I realize he’s talking about the cascade of cataclysmic events connected to the day four years earlier when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. In East Asia and, especially in Japan, these misfortunes are often referred to as Lehman Shock. It’s no wonder this poor guy keeps smacking the steering wheel. Some disasters are natural and others are manmade. Eventually the traffic clears and we make it onto Eastern Parkway, then up Prospect West, and finally, as night falls, home.
I speak to my parents. They successfully navigated the stairs, got a taxi, made it uptown to their friends’ apartment, and spent the night there. “The futon was very comfortable,” my mom says. My dad, who is on the other line says, “Don’t believe your mother. She’s just being nice Sleeping on the massage table wasn’t so great either.”
There’s still no train service into Manhattan. I tell my parents I am going to take a bus into Manhattan and walk around the old neighborhood. I’ll let them know what I see.
Later that day after waiting in a long queue, I catch the bus on Atlantic Avenue by the new arena. It travels over the Manhattan Bridge. I get off on the Bowery south of Houston Street and start walking. Just north of Houston, two kids with cans of spray paint are tagging a solid metal bar grate covering a storefront. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone doing that since I was in high school. On St. Marks between 2nd and 3rd, which is usually packed, there are fewer than a dozen people the entire length of the block.
I head over to Avenue B. Nearly all the boutiques and restaurants are closed. For this one week at least, the Avenue has been reclaimed by poor people. Many of them are black or brown. There are elderly people pushing shopping carts and bohemian types who would not have seemed out of place in grittier times. The streets are a ghost land of times past. I find I’m sliding into a 1970s reverie, looking at strangers and exchanging with them the head nod of recognition, which involves the slightest tilt of the chin upward. The Lower East Side head nod is a vestige of yesteryear. Its unspoken message was, “You know I belong here and I know you belong here, so we’re okay, right?” If accentuated with a tilt in a particular direction, it was also understood to mean, “Can you believe this shit?” The shit in question being the existential condition at that moment, which might have been expressed by the sound of a siren from a fire truck clambering along the avenue or a warning about those troublemakers down the block. So much communicated in a tilt of the head.
But now it’s November 2, 2012, and this head nod is acknowledging that there have been four full days without electricity, which is triggering in those of us who are old enough to remember some kind of supernatural time travel, or maybe just a new hyper awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything. And walking here, after the flood of instantaneous digital images and audio from these same streets that I absorbed just days ago from three thousand miles away, there is a deeper conjuring up of emotion and associations. What does it mean to tell a story? How do you know if it’s true?
Hooking back to Avenue A, I pass shuttered storefronts that once were Ukrainian coffee shops. Pirogi reveries. On the corner of 7th Street, long-gone Leshkos, where a girlfriend once threw a glass of water in my face and stormed out, leaving a plate of food that I finished because I was hungry. Sour cream memories.
One more block west at 1st and 7th Street there is a collection of bedraggled fair-skinned young adults huddled together. The hardware store on the corner is open, lit by candles, and as I get closer I see those gathered under the chilly gray sky are taking advantage of a portable generator to charge their phones. Looking to connect and share. They remind me of junkies, who forty years earlier, lined up on nearby street corners waiting impatiently, desperate to make a different kind of connection. Then and now, searching for a rainbow and an escape from being alone.
Up to 14th Street and then east and back to Avenue B. On the corner of 11th Street a large congregation of young people has come together in front of Congresswoman Velazquez’s District Office. They are loading cases of bottled water, blankets, and canned food into vans. A woman with a clipboard is asking if anyone speaks Mandarin or Spanish. “How’d you hear about this?” I overhear one of the volunteers, a young man, asking a woman.
“Facebook,” she says, making it sound like more of a question than a statement.
They’re being dispatched to deliver aid to the elderly and infirm trapped in their apartments. From this catastrophe, something unusual is happening. A communion between these fortunate good Samaritans and their often invisible neighbors, the tens of thousands cordoned off in the neighborhood’s flood zone, the brown brick shadow city of public housing developments running south and west along the FDR Drive. Each project has its distinct history and character. Wald, Riis, Baruch, Smith, LaGuardia, Rutgers, Gompers, Campos Plaza. The long narrow strip is the last bastion for the Lower East Side’s destitute and working class.
Gathered on this corner, the volunteers appear calm, resolute, and cheerful. While I’m aimlessly walking the streets, these kids, unburdened by the curse of memory, are actually helping people. These streets belong to them now. They have the run of the place. They’re the ones who will have the challenge of living on the island as tides are rising. Maybe someone among them will help figure something out. Wind, solar, fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon. Science could be our salvation. Or maybe the deluge swallows everything. These kids though, they are all right. They’ve set up a makeshift assembly line and are passing along pallets of bottled liquid from one person to another to another. Up close, I read the labels. Poland Spring. “People are thirsty and need water,” someone says.
JACOB MARGOLIES works in the New York Bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. In addition to his work as a journalist, his writing has recently appeared in Project Syndicate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Summerset Review.
I wear my tall brown boots and short white dress and walk with you like we haven’t been married over a decade and don’t have three children. They are at your parents’ house, baking ginger cookies and picking daffodils and dandelions, for me, because they’re sweet.
We will not talk about the kids tonight, not because we do not love them, but precisely because we love them.
“Just imagine, in four years,” you say, “we could tell Lydia we’ll be back in a few hours and just… leave.” I try to imagine it and can’t.
We talk about anything except upcoming coach-pitch practice, Cub Scouts, and gymnastics. We order two sides and a couple of drinks at The Lockview. It’s our kind of crowd, our kind of bar, hipster, and you secretly love hipster-ish things.
“I can’t pull off hipster,” you say.
“Yeah, skinny jeans don’t work for you,” I say.
“No way, but if big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans were popular, I’d be in.”
“We could market that,” I say, “It has a nice ring to it.” We drink and people-watch. That guy diagonal from us, he could be my grandpa’s cousin. “Maybe he is my grandpa’s cousin,” I say.
Grandpa’s been dead for over seven years. Our middle son, Elvis, was four months old when I sat alone next to Grandpa’s hospice bed and prayed for him to give up his spirit while Mom and Grandma rested, my skin prickling as he sighed one last time and I half-spoke and whispered, “Brandon? I think he’s gone.” You came in quick with Elvis in your arms, our tiny cranky infant who nearly died just four months earlier because he couldn’t breathe as he exited my interior, capillaries sticky and stubborn.
But we’re not talking about them now, because the sun is shining and it’s just us this evening, just us and your Old Fashioned, my Lemon Ice martini. I am determined to take as many selfies with you as you do with the guys when you’re on the road for work. I tag it on Facebook, “Bold and the Beautiful?” and you say, “You mean baold and the beautiful,” because it’s been almost twelve years since we married and you feel bald and old, though you are neither. It doesn’t matter because you feel it, my Mr. Smooth who walks slow sometimes, suave through his back pain, knee pain, elbow pain. Mr. Smooth’s hairline is receding but come on, husband, I don’t notice. You grew out your goatee again, and I love you with a goatee, its bristles against my chin when we kiss.
This is the second time we’re seeing Lyle Lovett and the third for John Hiatt. You raise your drink and toast, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” these tickets a gift from me to you. One Valentine’s Day, we saw a Christian rock group and the next we spent in the hospital for a follow-up miscarriage procedure. It’s April 26 and the second time we’ve been out together this month, with so many road trips and conferences, gymnastics and softball practices.
I have my hand on your thigh and your hand covers mine. Our knees are touching in orchestra row J, seats three and four, and we are keeping time to the beat with our touching knees. John Hiatt finishes singing, “Marlene, Marlene, my love for you’s obscene,” and Lyle Lovett says something to John Hiatt about his songwriting, how he knows Mrs. Hiatt and Mrs. Hiatt’s name isn’t Marlene. Hiatt has been married twenty-nine years, and I squeeze Brandon’s hand. I try to imagine life in another seventeen years.
The guy in front of us is passed out and hasn’t moved for at least an hour. You lean in close and whisper-yell how that happened to you once at a Merle Haggard concert, back when you were dating Devin, maybe? We call that “BS,” before Sarah. The guy in front of us will have a crick in his neck when he wakes up. He still isn’t waking up, even as Lyle Lovett sings, “Some things, my baby don’t tolerate from me.”
Twenty-four hours ago, you asked, “Do you mind if I go play golf with Jerry?”
I stuffed one sock inside the other as I folded laundry and said, “No problem. Do you know when you’ll be back?”
You smiled with your golf gear in your arms and said, “I don’t know.” I grabbed a shirt and folded it the way my mom taught me.
“Well, are you going to play nine holes or eighteen, are you going to eat dinner together? Do you think you’ll go to sing karaoke after?” I replied, the way my mom never replied, and you laughed, “I just don’t know, okay?”
I dropped a pair of Henry’s underwear into the stack of minion-printed briefs, the way you prefer because it’s stupid to fold boys’ underwear. It’s underwear, you say.
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s only fair to give some clue as to when you will be home—it’s not that I care, I don’t,” I lied, trying to negotiate the same space as usual, quality time and childcare and your priorities and my neediness. “I just want to know so I know whether to be excited you’ll be home soon at eight or to settle into an evening of reading, knowing you’ll be back after I’m in bed. Either way is fine. I just want to know.”
“I don’t like these kinds of restraints,” you said, and I started to say, “Then maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.”
As the words fell out, I remembered our confessions just a week earlier, my blubbering, “Why can’t you just say you think I’m pretty?” at the most intimate moment, when things weren’t working in harmony, in that fragile space. You rolled off of me and sobbed, “You make me feel like such a failure!” How we held each other, how we apologized, how we touched each other’s faces and whispered all our truths into old wounds.
I remember this as the words drip, maybe you shouldn’t have gotten married.
When we hit an impasse, you angry and calling off your golfing, me angry and finishing folding laundry, I carried our daughter’s clothes back to her bedroom to find her with her friend tucked behind the door. “What are you doing?” I asked, reading their guilt.
“Nothing,” they said, “You can leave those on my bed, I’ll put them away,” Lydia said and left. I wondered what she overheard, what she was listening for in between our living room remarks. I thought back to my own ear against the door eavesdropping on my parents as my dad yelled his frustration in the dark of night. “You never…” he said, my ears too young to hear or know what she never did but old enough to know my mom was crying and lying in bed, my dad standing somewhere in the dark bedroom. I wondered if they might divorce, maybe even cried into my pillow and prayed before drifting off to sleep.
“She said they weren’t listening to us,” you told me when I returned to the living room, “‘We didn’t hear one word you said,’ she said.” We rolled our eyes and smiled thin lines. You went out to the front of the house and I went out to the back of the house. Later, we would lean close into each other in our bedroom and forget, but until then, you shot hoops and I cut shrubs all afternoon, one of each of our children by our sides, separate.
But we’re not talking about them now, or that. Like love keeps no record of wrongs, it took me a long time to remember exactly what it was Lydia and her friend might have overheard, and now that I have I’ve remembered, too, a long list of other wrongs dealt and received. I flinch a little because now John Hiatt is singing, “I’ve been loving you for such a long time, girl, expecting nothing in return, just for you to have a little faith in me,” and your fingers are interlaced with mine. This is the song you burned onto that CD you made me a month after we met, along with a dozen others I remember.
I remember it all again in a moment, it’s all here, Grandpa and my parents and your parents and our exes, our vices, our joys, John Hiatt singing, “Have a little faith in me,” all of it is here between us now, held in between our interlaced fingers.
Okay, so our love keeps record of wrongs, but also mercies. After all, we are here. We hold our wrongs and mercies together in careful intimacy. I run my fingernails across the grooves in your big-ass-baggy-short-white-guy jeans and you put your hand on my knee, just below my dress’s white hemline.
At any moment, I think John Hiatt’s voice might splinter and that’ll be it, but he just keeps hanging on to those notes, he just keeps singing, Won’t you have a little bit a, a little bit a, please! Please! Please, now baby! Ohh, won’t you have a little faith in me? By the time the concert is over, the drunk man in front of us is up and clapping. It’s only 9:16—you guessed 9:15 and I guessed 9:30, so you win. We want them to play more, longer, but they are finished.
We slip out the side exit, your fingers grazing the small of my back as we walk through the sheep-shuffle concertgoers. “Want to get a drink and a bite in the Valley?” you ask, even though it’s Sunday and I have to get up for work tomorrow, you have to take our children to school. We are not tired, and our children might not even be asleep yet.
Let’s stay away a little while longer, darling.
SARAH M. WELLS is the author of a nonfiction e-book, The Valley of Achor, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes,and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, and 2014. She recently completed a memoir-in-essay collection about love and attention, marriage, parenting, and desire titled American Honey. Sarah serves as the Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and as Associate Editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
It was 2:12 a.m. I woke up to what sounded like a stick being ripped across a wooden fence over and over again. My muscles tensed but soon settled when the familiar sound sunk in. I looked over at Mike sleeping next to me. My brother’s croaking hadn’t woken him yet.
Ghandy was wide awake, and the cacophony emanating from him proved it: his open palm driving his bottom row of teeth to collide with the top, his teeth clicking in rapid succession, his knee slamming against the hollow wood floor. All these tics had the paradoxical quality of making him feel comfortable in a new setting.
My mom and brother slept on an air mattress in the living room ten feet away from our bedroom. My dad was on the couch. In my hundred-year-old apartment with no proper doors to separate the two rooms, a typical scene played out between my parents. Since Ghandy was born with brain damage twenty-seven years ago, they have always argued about how to take care of him.
“Don’t force him to go back to sleep,” my mom said. “Just leave him alone.”
“He was too hot,” my dad said. “You should have taken off his long-sleeve shirt before he went to sleep.”
“He’s awake because he had a wet diaper. You gave him too much water before bed.”
My family was in town visiting. And like a good Vietnamese daughter, I invited them to stay at the apartment I shared with my boyfriend.
The noises didn’t bother me. I had learned to sleep through them a long time ago. But a pulsating feeling filled my stomach, like my heart had slid out of its proper place to a spot right behind my belly button. Even though I was in my bed in my own home, I had the feeling that my family and I were being stared at and judged. Ghandy waking up in the middle of the night was nothing new for my family, but having Mike there caused a tension that I didn’t know how to quell. When it comes to Ghandy, my parents’ attitude is that Ghandy comes first, and everyone else can adjust. I felt like my family had just become a huge imposition on not only Mike, but our upstairs neighbor, who I was convinced could hear all the commotion as well as we could.
This made me feel like a helpless little girl again. When people used to ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I replied with what I thought they wanted to hear. “I want to be a doctor or a lawyer.” But what I really wanted to say was, “I want to be normal.” Growing up, my family was different. We were the only immigrant family on our street. We were also the family with the retarded brother. People looked at Ghandy like he was an animal.
Ghandy’s noises grew louder. Mike was now awake. He wrapped a pillow around his head, though it was useless.
“What’s wrong with your brother, Maggie? Can we do anything?”
“He just woke up. I don’t think he’s going back to sleep.”
“I didn’t realize how loud he could be.”
“I just feel bad for our neighbor upstairs.”
I didn’t reply, just turned my back to him and pulled my knees up to my chest. In that moment, what I had feared for the entirety of my adult life was impossible to ignore. My parents will pass away one day, and Ghandy will need someone to take care of him. As the oldest, I knew this responsibility would most likely be my inheritance. I had promised my parents that Ghandy would never end up in an institution or a home. But it was scary to think about what this responsibility would hold me back from. Would it keep me from traveling? From having my own family? Would Mike be willing to take on this burden with me? Would anyone?
My brother was named after Mahatma Gandhi. Just like mine and my sister’s before him, Ghandy’s namesake was a world leader whom my father admired. I was named after Margaret Thatcher and my sister after Golda Meir. Ghandy is a name that my brother has never been able to say himself, a name that holds significance he will never understand. Throughout my childhood, my parents referred to Ghandy as sick. I only came to the term “cerebral palsy” after accompanying my parents to numerous doctor appointments.
As the oldest sibling, my instinct to protect Ghandy was especially strong. My dad took us to the doctor once, and records showed that Ghandy and I needed some vaccinations. I wanted to be brave and go first. Still, I was scared. I had the urge to pull up my legs, which hung lifelessly a foot above the ground, and make myself into a tight ball. The nurse lowered the needle to the taut flesh pinched between her fingers. My breathing quickened, and I had to look away as the needle punctured my skin.
“See, that wasn’t so bad.”
“That kinda hurt,” I said. “I think my brother’s gonna cry a lot.”
I looked at Ghandy, took his hand and caressed it. He had the cutest hands—soft skin, portly fingers, chubby palms; the only blemish was a wart by the knuckle above his left-hand middle finger. The wart bothered me. I picked at it, hoping it would fall off. Ghandy reacted as he usually did, looking around the room like voices from different directions were calling his name. I stopped obsessing about the wart and started to sing his favorite Vietnamese nursery rhyme. He smiled and laughed.
“There. All done,” the nurse said.
I learned something in that moment. What worries me doesn’t matter to Ghandy. The beautiful thing about him is that he doesn’t know fear. He only knows what it is to be loved. Since he was born, he has been the center of my family. It is an unspoken truth that my brother will always be taken care of.
This truth has been too heavy to bear at times. It feels like an impending sentence, ominously lurking somewhere in my future. I never know when it will happen, only that it will. To soothe this anxiety, the only remedy that I’ve come up with is to avoid what is inevitable. But as I get older, I know I can’t keep putting off this reality. Ultimately, this is the thing I’m scared to face: that when I become Ghandy’s sole caretaker, his life will eclipse mine, and whatever I have done or accomplished in my life will mean nothing.
I want to be a wife. I want to be a mother. I want to be a writer. I want my own life. Having a brother like mine, does wanting these things make me selfish?
This was the question that circled my brain since Ghandy woke up. As morning approached, Ghandy’s croaking turned into cooing. Still, it was enough to keep Mike up. Around five a.m., Mike got out of bed, put on some headphones, and did some work. I didn’t know if he was mad or not. I was afraid to ask.
My brother was able to sleep well for the rest of the trip, although that first night had planted a seed of dread that grew for the remainder of my family’s visit. After they left, I knew I had to talk to Mike.
“Mike, can I tell you something?”
“Yeah. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but I know I’m probably going to have to take care of Ghandy one day. I’m really scared because I don’t know if I can do it alone.”
My eyes fell to the ground. There was a possibility Mike would give me the look that said, This is a big responsibility. This is asking a lot. I wanted to avoid that look if possible. I didn’t expect the next thing to come out of his mouth.
“Maggie, you’re not going to have to do it alone. Me, you, your sister, and her husband—between the four of us, we’ll figure it out.”
After all that time wondering what would happen if Ghandy were to hijack my life, this was all Mike needed to say to make me feel that this fear was conquerable, that he would help me find a way to make it work. That I wouldn’t be alone.
On a typical Wednesday morning, Mike and I woke up the way we always did. I was barely cognizant of his alarm going off. He threaded his arms through mine and buried his face into my neck. We always say how this is our favorite time of the day. We’re not watching TV, or eating, or doing something else. We’re just together. I told him everything that had been on my mind that I was too exhausted to tell him the night before.
“There was this article I read yesterday about how little women know about their fertility,” I said, half-awake. “At thirty, your fertility is affected. At thirty-two, it goes down significantly and then at forty, it can be pretty hard to get pregnant. I mean, I have a couple years, but it’s just a lot of pressure.”
“Then let’s get married soon.”
“Okay. Sounds good.”
“No, really. Will you marry me?”
“Yeah, of course,” I reflexively mumbled. I forced my eyes open when I realized what he was actually asking. I turned around to look at him. “Wait, seriously. Are you proposing to me right now?”
“Yeah. I don’t have a ring or anything, but, yes, will you marry me?”
“Yes. I would marry you a thousand times.”
After we kissed, I pressed my face into his chest and took a deep breath. I was overwhelmed. He rested his chin on my head and held me while I cried.
Since then, some people have asked me about his proposal, anticipating some kind of get-down-on-one-knee, ring-hidden-in-a-fancy-meal story. Sometimes I feel bad that I can’t deliver the story they want. When you get engaged, you feel there are certain expectations you need to meet. I’ve learned things don’t always go as expected, though. The life I will eventually have won’t be what I envisioned when I was younger, but acknowledging all the obstacles that might lie ahead makes them easier to face.
When I go home, I am in awe of how my aging parents take care of Ghandy. They change his diapers, apply lotion on his face, feed him every meal. And yet they never complain. My dad hauls Ghandy in and out of the shower and shaves the small patch of hair on the left side of his chin. My mom pats Ghandy’s back before he goes to sleep and gets him ready for school in the morning. This is the easy stuff.
What’s harder for me to deal with are the stares that Ghandy attracts in public. The same protective instinct that drummed through me as a little girl is still as strong today. This sets off a perpetual preoccupied state of mind. I get angry, I get defensive, I feel shame. And then I just want to disappear. I can’t be in the moment because these feelings are cycling through my head. But Mike often reminds me that this is family, and you can’t change your family; you can only accept it.
I know taking care of Ghandy will feel like a burden at times. I might revert to that self-pitying mindset that engulfed me when I was younger: looking at people who I think have perfect lives and wondering why I was given the heavy load. But just as my parents have had each other to lean on in caring for my brother, I, too, will have someone to help carry the load when it seems insurmountable. Mike has lifted that looming dread that has afflicted me for so long. In its place has come acceptance and the reassuring knowledge that Mike will be there to help me, no matter what our future holds.
MAGGIE THACH is a writing and literature teacher living in San Diego. Before she received an MFA in creative nonfiction from the low-residency program at UC Riverside Palm Desert, she was an award-winning sports journalist at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was recently selected as a 2015 Peace Writer for the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. In this position, she will be paired with a female human rights advocate from around the world and document the advocate’s story of living in conflict and building peace in her community and nation.
The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.
The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.
“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.
There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.
Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.
A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.
An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.
One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”
He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.
He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.
We had nothing in common.
We fell in love.
I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.
Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.
It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.
St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.
I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.
But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.
The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.
Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.
Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.
I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.
“Daddy made this for you.”
Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.
Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.
Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.
I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.
We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.
One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.
Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.
My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.
“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.
By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.
Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.
“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.
It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.
My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.
Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.
I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.
An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.
I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.
Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.
I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.
“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.
Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”
Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.
It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.
In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.
And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.
I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.
I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.
We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.
Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.
I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.
New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.
In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.
He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.
DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.
In the early stages of my parents’ divorce, we started talking a lot about boundaries. Growing up we had none. My parents had been young when they had kids: twenty-four, then twenty-five, twenty-seven. At that age, I was still learning about the proper nurturing of hangovers. (A tablespoon of honey before bed, Advil and water in the middle of the night.) But my parents spent their mid-twenties raising babies. By the time my brother, sister, and I made it through college, my parents seemed relieved that we were all finally adults; now we could all hang out.
Even before the divorce, I knew more about my parents’ sex life than I did about most of my close friends’. At some point during my sister’s stint in therapy (all three of us had them), she started talking about boundaries, and it became a thing we’d sigh and roll our eyes about, comparing stories we never should have heard. It was nice to have a name for the thing we’d lacked. But we laughed about it too, treating missing boundaries like an annoying but fundamental aspect of our family, like our deep reverence for our Christmas traditions.
During the divorce, it stopped being funny. When my dad’s anger—at my mother, my brother, my sister—overtook him and had nowhere to go but into my ears, into my heart, I started thinking about walls and fences. About the differences between them.
“I can’t take this anymore,” I said to him during one conversation that had started with a list of ground rules that I attempted to present to him for our talks and ended with him screaming at me.
“Oh, you can,” he said. “You’re strong. You’re not going to die tomorrow.”
There was a small and fucked-up part of me that took that as a compliment.
But then I remembered that I was tired of being strong; I wanted to be protected.
In some ways walls are easier. You can build them by yourself. Gather the stones: roundish but flatish, their shades of gray and their heft a reflection of your heart. Stack them carefully and pour cement between the cracks. You will sweat and you will curse, but eventually the person on the other side of your wall will disappear from view.
I thought about building a wall against my father. My father, who could not contain his anger or respect my ground rules. But he was also my father who flew across the country and stayed for three weeks when my daughter arrived a month early and my husband and I were barely holding our young family together; my father who would rock my fierce and jaundiced baby from eight until ten every night while my husband and I slept, steeling ourselves for the night ahead; who mounted shelves in our mudroom—anchored, he showed me, those suckers never coming out—even after he loaded them with mason jars, dinners that would last us for months. I thought about boundaries and pictured the wall I could build, and then I heard my son asking to call Grampa, to Skype with Grampa, to go and visit Grampa and maybe this time go fishing and the wall in my mind crumbled, an impossibility.
It would have to be a fence. Forget about white picket. We were long past that. I pictured split rail instead, the wood rough and splintery, already bleaching in the sun. Not a week after I erected it in my mind, my father simply climbed right over.
“Listen, I need you to ask your mother something for me. If you’re comfortable doing it. It’s a simple yes or no question.”
My mother has a wall: a new address and phone number that my father doesn’t know and filters on her email to keep his messages from ever touching her eyes. Her wall is guarded by lawyers, but not against me. Of course my father knew this.
“Okay,” I answered hesitantly. I was standing in a corner of a crowded Hertz office at the San Francisco airport, surrounded by a pile of bags and car seats. As my children ran in circles around me, pausing occasionally to eat trail mix off the carpet, and my husband stood behind seventy-five other people in line to get our car, I cursed myself for returning my dad’s call. But I’d wanted to get it over with, whatever he wanted.
“I need you to just ask her if she is willing to start paying me for half the mortgage. Just yes or no. I need to know right away for the bank.”
“That seems like a question for the lawyers,” I answered.
He launched into a much longer explanation that I didn’t follow then and still don’t understand now, the point being that it was a simple thing really. He’d been prepared to pay her for half, and now she would just be paying him. Simple.
The question of what to do with the mortgage and who gets to keep the house is, of course, one of the central questions of the divorce, hanging in the air until a judge decides how to divide up thirty-nine years of my parents’ lives. My dad talked fast, and the noise from the rental office was deafening. My children screamed and jumped around and my daughter started licking my thigh, passing her tongue fully up and down over my jeans until they began to soak through, and I really had no idea what he was asking. I briefly imagined a world in which divorces were settled via messages passed through middle children. I refused to ask her. For a moment, I thought my fence might hold.
It didn’t hold. After I called my mother and fumblingly asked her a question that I didn’t fully understand but still knew was ridiculous, I felt like a failure. I wondered if I would spend the rest of my life caving in to other people’s demands of me, bullied and unprotected.
Metaphors can explain, and they can also absolve. Imagining that split rail fence—the awkward weight of the wood in my hands, difficult to hold, nearly impossible to nail into place by myself—made the setback easier to take. I hadn’t failed; I just really didn’t know how to build a fence.
What seems to have saved my father and me were conversations that didn’t require fences. Conversations important enough to drown out the divorce: my disappointing news from the mortgage lenders first, then the drastic and inexplicable degeneration of his vision, the subsequent eye exams, diabetes tests, MRIs. I live across the country from my father but I was his emergency contact, the only family member at the time without a wall. His MRI was scheduled for eight in the morning, East Coast time. “I know it will be early for you,” he told me, “but can you leave your phone on, just in case?” I left my phone on and tried to imagine what a tumor in my father’s brain would do to my fence.
He doesn’t have a brain tumor. After a barrage of tests, his doctors could find no explanation for his loss of vision. He saw a new ophthalmologist, a better one, who gave him a new prescription and told him to come back in a couple months for another check. Wait and see. During the weeks that this unfolded, the pressure I felt from my father—to absorb his anger or deliver his messages—subsided. Maybe he came to understand the boundary I needed, or maybe my mother simply faded from his view as he was forced to navigate his first health crisis without her. Either way, he has left me alone since then, just me and my fence.
I don’t know any more of the details of the divorce—the date of the hearing or who is asking for what, who is stalling or refusing to compromise. I don’t know how my parents spend their evenings, my father in the house I grew up in, my mother in her apartment; don’t know what my father eats for dinner, if he eats it at all; don’t know any longer the shape of his anger, of my mother’s sadness.
While ignorance has turned out to be an important rail in my fence, it’s a difficult one for me to maintain. In the vernacular of my family, “keep me posted” means I love you. We amass each other’s disappointments and anxieties as a way to show we care, and then we trade them, like currency. A middle child, I was always rich in other people’s problems. I am trying to equate ignorance with freedom, but right now it just feels like poverty. I built the fence, though, and now I have to stay behind it. It’s lonely here, but I tell myself that I will get used to the terrain.
MELISSA DUCLOS received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and now works as a freelance writer and editor, and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to BookTrib, Bustle, and Mommyish, and the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring for writers at various stages in their careers. Her fiction has appeared in Pound of Flash,Blue Skirt Productions,Scéal, and Bodega Magazine (forthcoming) and her non-fiction in Salon, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, Fiction Advocate, and English Kills Review. Her first novel, Besotted, is a work of literary fiction set in Shanghai, for which she is seeking representation. She tweets at @MelissaDuclos.
I am parked out front of a Cape on Chesterford Road. I don’t know whose house this is, only that my grandparents lived here when my mother was born in the 1940s.
Occasionally, a wistfulness will settle over me, a haze that suspends clock-time, and I’ll turn left at the Hess Station instead of heading home, to the next town over, where I now raise my own children. From the opposite side of the street, I stare at the front steps, imagining my grandmother on the top stair, her ankles crossed and tucked to the side, holding her auburn-haired daughter. Above the stairs is the window in front of which my mother’s crib once sat. I picture my mother climbing the wooden rails to look out onto Winter Pond and the world beyond her windowpanes, decades before a place in her went vacant.
There are children-of-divorce, and there are children-who-follow-divorce, who have their own experience of its aftermath.
Children-of-divorce and children-who-follow-a-divorce often live together in blended families, where they are introduced as his, hers, and ours. There can be whole-, step-, and half-siblings all under one roof, and depending on parental visitation, different combinations of siblings at any given time. I am a child-who-followed-divorce. I have five half-siblings, but I have always disliked the qualifier: half, as in less than whole, so I often would drop it when describing them. But this, too, would feel inauthentic because, when I was little, they weren’t always around or, when they were, they weren’t always accessible: they had other families and homes—homes I only ever drove past. I spent my childhood guessing what went on inside of them.
In fact, as a child, I was driven past a lot of homes.
Even blended families come to share habits, although their origins are harder to trace. The custom in mine is that if you are near a place where you, or some family member, once lived, you ride by it. This doesn’t mean chatting with the current occupants or even stopping to get out of the car. A nod can suffice. A snap-inventory of changes in structure or color, a sizing-up of tree growth, but almost always, one last glance before pulling away, in case what we’ve come in search of may, finally, burst through the front door and chase us down the road, waving at us to turn the car around.
When my father’s mother passes, he organizes the family into a long caravan to drive by the places that he knew as a child.
His father was a builder. They lived in the houses his father built until it was time to sell.
The afternoon after the memorial service, my father drives with his window rolled down, us following behind, and when we near one of his former homes, he slows the car, reaching out the window to point at the one that matters.
I’m not in the car with him so I can’t hear what stories he would have told, but I’ve heard them before. He’s taken me on this tour once, maybe twice, when I was a child and we happened to be passing through Rhode Island. I recognize the white house with the grill over the front door as the one he lived in when he was seventeen and his father died in the den.
Eight years after the memorial service, when my father turns seventy, I ask him if he’d like to take a road trip to see the factory where he had made polystyrene before I was born. I had always wanted to see the old Union Carbide plant, to see where he spent a decade of his life. Before I was born, around the time of his divorce, he left plastics for a career in public service. He had changed religions, too, but he rarely speaks about how he rebuilt his life.
After a false start of my own, I became a sociologist who studies environmental legacy—everlasting things like plastic or pollutants that pose a burden passed between generations. I’ve been trying to understand how I came into my strange fixation with abandoned factories and polluted places. Only now do I see some continuity. I’ve broadened the family habit to include driving by other kinds of places that harbor past hurts inherited by subsequent generations.
It was my father who suggested we add old homes to our itinerary.
So en route from Boston, we pull off the Parkway to see the north Jersey house where I spent my childhood. The maple out front, the one I remember my brother leaping over, now blocks the front window out of which, as a toddler, I waved to my father as he left for his job at Town Hall.
As a child, living in this house, my five siblings are teens. I sometimes ride in the backseat of our station wagon when my father picks up his three kids for the weekend. They live in homes I never see inside, although once, my sister sneaks me in to use the bathroom in her mother’s house.
Mostly, I am alone riding out the tide of my siblings’ ebb and flow from the household. By the time I reach grade school, they have stopped visiting or moved out, two sisters to college, one brother to boarding school, another to mechanic school, and my oldest sister following a boyfriend to Wisconsin. We never get to know the interior of each others’ lives.
When my father steers the car down Webb Court, I feel a pang of familiarity. It is the arc of that curve, that way my body senses the shift in direction as I ride in the passenger seat next to him, rather than the sight of the actual house, which to my surprise, doesn’t induce nostalgia at all.
We drive by, turn around on the cul-de-sac, one more rolling pass and that is it. We don’t stop. I don’t look over my shoulder. There is no need.
The next morning, my father takes me by his first central New Jersey apartment, a slouch-roofed ranch at the back of another home’s property. I try to picture him, a newlywed with his high school sweetheart, riding his bicycle past the junkyard to make polystyrene for the plant down the road.
My father and his first wife don’t stay long then. Neither do we. Before the features of the place can develop into memory, Dad pulls away, heading to the next town to see the duplex, where after a miscarriage, my oldest sister is born.
From there, we press on to Leland Gardens, a complex of red-brick garden apartments nearby. Once inside, he quickly turns around, disoriented by the labyrinth of similar structures that look much as they did in the sixties. He stumbles on the apartment, as if some visceral homing device steers the car to the place where my second sister is born.
Next we pass the Randolf Road house, my brother’s place of birth, where it occurs to me I’ve never seen a baby picture of him.
My father drives on, effortlessly navigating the grid of streets and storefronts.
But as we approach the turn for the next house, I see him slide his foot off the accelerator. Only momentum carries us forward. I look over at him from the passenger seat. He stares straight ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other covering his mouth. This is where I lost them, he says.
He inhales and exhales deliberately, through pressed lips, before swinging the car down Dixie Lane. He ducks to see out the passenger window as we creep along. And when we are finally out front, he pulls over. The tires squeak against the curb.
The conversation stops, but I sense an opening, and I begin to feel my way around it.
The white house hugs the road, its porch covered with a canopy of foliage. A steep flight of stairs climbs from the sidewalk to the front porch. I imagine his feet clambering up them, moving in his family box by box, and within a short time, carrying what few belongings he has back out.
Do my siblings watch his last descent? There are questions I have never asked, and until only recently, probably couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t bear to know the extent of their suffering upon which the very possibility of my life has been contingent.
I inquire about custody. My father’s voice cracks. It was the early seventies, he says. Mothers got custody, without question. It’s raining, and the windshield wipers strain to keep up. I have asked him too much.
Something unresolved still resides in this house. I wonder if its current family can sense its distress the way I do sitting at its curbside.
Two more houses complete my mother’s side of the story. I’d been driven by them before.
On this trip, we don’t drive past the Kempshall Terrace house, the house into which my sister and brother were born. Even without seeing it again, I can picture it. My mother tells me often how on the day she first walks through this house, the owner, a widow, has a pot of baked beans in the oven. It is the homey smell that sells her—the scent of a life she longs to lead within those walls.
The house we do drive by was a trim Colonial on Graymill Drive, where my mother and her first husband move to make room for their growing family and which holds the possibility for a third child. She turns thirty in this house. Her husband has thrown her a surprise party to celebrate, and then the next morning, moves out with the woman from two doors down.
After he has closed the door behind him, I imagine my mother collapsed, fallen to her knees, her hand pressed to the window that she won’t look out to watch him leave. But she can’t wallow. My brother and sister are little and will need her soon. She lives there for a while longer as a single mother on Valium.
My father stops the car to comment, of all things, on the chimney.
When he married my mother and moved into Graymill Drive, the brick chimney had started to split away from the house. They lashed it to the side, cheaper than rebuilding from its foundation. The braces remained more than three decades later. Look at that, he says, it’s still holding on. This is symbolic of my parents, who married into each others’ heartbreak, and remain married, defying expectations, possibly even their own.
I am conceived in this house. It strikes me then that conception is cellular union followed by cleaving, again and again, splitting apart to carry on, until, at last, something whole and unbroken comes into the world. But I am a half-sibling, conceived only after the split and merging of two other families, and born from the fact of their devastation. Sitting in front of this house I realized how much my identity has been shaped by things that I imagined to have happened inside its walls.
Sometimes I would wonder whether some part of my parents still lived in those houses where their first attempt at family fell apart, especially my mother, who still talks about her first husband, their divorce, and the house she left behind, though he died in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the stories she tells read like scripts. She repeats them often, always with the same phrasing. Sometimes, she’ll launch into a memory, and though I’m sitting beside her, I long for who she might have been had she not been left behind.
Which is why, a year after the road trip with my father, I’ve come back to her childhood home.
From my car parked across the street, I see two teenage girls shuffle out in flip-flops and climb into the Jeep parked in the driveway. They glance at me and are gone. I hear the bass-line from their stereo fade into the distance. A scruffy Labradoodle wanders to the curb, its gaze fixed on me in anticipation. And I realize it’s time to move on.
REBECCA ALTMAN serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and has taught seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. She is working on her first book with Vanderbilt University Press. Other creative non-fiction has appeared in Brain, Child, Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She occasionally blogs at tothescratch.blogspot.com.
I moved when the birds flew away, when the squirrels had planted their meals in the dirt, and the trees shook off their skins. It was the beginning of my twenty-third winter. I packed unwashed clothes into a suitcase while my parents were at work. Suddenly I lived in Delaware, with my girlfriend Jen and her dog, Tubby.
Tubby did not belong to me at first. He was only my girlfriend’s dog. He was just a shedding thing who interrupted our kisses. I watched her play with him, jumping up and down, both smiling, as the floor squeaked and his mouth gummed her arms and his orange fur fell into the air and her long curls flew around her shoulders. I loved her.
One morning, Jen tried to put drops in Tubby’s ears. She coaxed him sweetly, petting him. His ears went back and his eyes closed in happiness. She grabbed the drops and stepped towards him, still speaking carefully. He saw the bottle and hid behind me. Tubby looked at me, and his eyes, a deep, sad, amber-brown, asked me to protect him. I stood still, not allowing Jen near his quivering body; his trust came so suddenly.
I started to walk him in the morning after she went to work, the ground freezing with winter. We walked across dark asphalt and around traffic, far from the apartment, to find a spot with grass and gnarled plants. Waddling from arthritis, he spent most of his time sniffing the ground, making no noises, except the occasional sneeze. I began to talk to him. Mostly about nothing. Then I spoke about my morning, my worries. I asked him if Jen would be safe and come home to us. I told him that I was scared I would not find a job, or even worse, that I would.
The weather darkened the mornings, and my fingers became red and numb in the chill. I searched out two pairs of gloves and wore both sets at the same time. He watched me as I layered my clothes before we ventured out. If we managed to leave at an early enough hour, I would sing to Tubby, knowing no one else would cross our paths. I couldn’t tell if he noticed my song.
Inside the apartment, I sat on the couch with my computer, my legs folded beneath me. He watched me. I didn’t have food, yet he came near me to be touched. He fell asleep with his head on my slipper. If I got up to wash dishes or to make lunch, his amber eyes watched me go, and his ears stood alert for my return.
One night, the sun was setting early and it was dark at seven. I stared at the ground, as I always did when we walked. The grass crunched under my boots. Suddenly I stopped. There was a form before me—a squirrel, dead in the brown grass. The night made its fur glint black and its eyes glow. Everything turned still. I shivered and pulled Tubby out of its path. He was uninterested. Streets and fences and the grass darkened, the world black except for the eyes of the corpse. I wanted someone to run to. I didn’t want to tell Jen. I wanted to seem strong. I was alone in my fear.
Snow started to fall too often, covering Tubby’s grass. His paws gathered ice when we walked. I wore layers that made me round and genderless. With every footfall, I wondered what would happen if my booted foot stepped on the squirrel, buried under six to eight inches of hardened snow. On the way back, I followed my old frozen footprints because they were safe. Tubby sniffed the fences and made new prints.
One week, the snow stopped falling and everything began to drip. I saw the squirrel, dead and asleep, gnawed and frozen. I made a note of its place in my path—past the first tree but before the bend in the fence. I walked every day with Tubby, avoiding the squirrel, sucking in my breath as we came near it, breathing out hot air when we passed. Tubby walked back to the apartment slowly—he pretended he was old and sick. I knew better. I had seen him run, towards the hidden grass, beyond the buried squirrel, towards the fresh air. He did not notice death. He was never afraid.
Jen left our bed every day at seven a.m. to go to work. It was hard to let her go. I woke up wrapped in our pink sheets, her smell lingering next to me. It escaped as soon as I tried to breathe it in. I fell back into dreams, listening to the sound of hot rain pelting the white tub. She kissed me awake. I felt her breasts against my skin as she bent over, pale and soft and warm and dewed. Her hair flew around her shoulders, and I could smell the sweet shampoo. I pulled her close. One more kiss and she had to leave, to dress herself and drive through the cold to a tall building full of things to do. Some days I cried. I needed her and was left in an empty apartment. I was left to look for jobs online. Left to write. Left to take care of the dog. Some days I begged her to stay home. I knew we needed money, but some days, I did not care.
In my first grown-up winter, I did not think I would get used to solitude. The sounds of the apartment scared me, the banging of the heat adjusting, the ticking slats of the blinds nudging each other, the refrigerator making ice cubes. I tried to fill the place with television sounds, familiar voices booming from another place. I got lost staring at the white popcorn ceiling. I saw lopsided faces and dancing ghosts.
Nine months ago, my life was filled with tons of faces, buzzing, caring, laughing, and yelling. There was always noise. I could hear my college roommates baking bread and stacking dishes. There was always music playing in the apartments next door. I spent my parents’ money on beer and mac and cheese. There were always assignments, parties, meetings—always things to be done and I was happy never to have time to be alone. Time in my own company was spent in the shower or behind my eyelids in a dream.
When classes finished, we waited for the day when we would put on cheap robes and end our college days in front of hundreds of satisfied eyes. I stared out of my bedroom window, watching summer burn the grass, and ran outside in a bathing suit to sit on towels with my friends.
Soon, I would be standing in the snow alone, helping my dog find the grass. When I found my way back to the apartment I shared with Jen, I took off my coat, my hat, my two layers of gloves, my socks, and my boots. I looked at my matted hair and red cheeks in the hall mirror. Tubby sloppily licked the ice off of his paws. I wanted to show Jen my snow-covered boots and my red cheeks. I wanted to hear her praise. She did not come back from work until the sun set.
It kept snowing. The sky was always grey and the ground was always white. I thought the snow looked like freshly grated parmesan cheese. I wondered if I should give a more flattering name to this celestial gift. I eyed the frozen cars and slippery roads from under my blue hood. I felt my skin flush in the nineteen-degree air, through which thirteen-mile-an-hour winds jerked at me and the dog at 8:30 in the morning. I walked home on cheese-covered roads.
Most nights, I sat nuzzling in my girlfriend’s lap, my head resting on her chest. Those types of evenings kept me standing. I longed for days where we sat around in oversized sweatpants and forgot about our empty bank accounts and frozen grass and the car with the broken headlight, and we simply lounged in one another’s warmth, sleeping in our smiles. One Wednesday, she was home from work because of snow. The weekend winked at us. Jen’s phone buzzed, jumping on the wooden end table. She picked it up, and her soft face tightened. Her uncle Brian was in the ICU. He had fallen and hit his head. He was unconscious and not breathing on his own.
Jen comes from a giant family with many uncles. I couldn’t keep their names or stories straight. I thought about my own uncles. I hardly ever saw them. My love for them was through blood. Jen was different; she loved her family, but more importantly, she knew them. She carried great empathy for anyone, a cloak of understanding that she could wrap strangers in, strangers on television or in line at the grocery store or standing near the highway in the cold. She was upset, but in a redundant way, as if these feelings were so familiar they were stale. She was used to pain. “He…” she said, “he has never been the healthiest person.”
I held her hand and kissed her and talked softly as she lied and said she was fine. She swallowed her fear and let it stick to her ribs. The day continued. I was happy to sink back into our relaxation. She liked to take her pants off at the end of the day and walk around in a baggy sweatshirt that barely covered her. She teased me as she walked. Her legs were long and pale and it was hard not to stare. I wanted to drink her and hold her at the same time.
As I walked our dog in the light that bounced off the sleeping snow, I worried about Jen. She silently let the hours pass after the phone call, without mentioning her own fears. I wanted to talk to her more after the walk. When I returned, my cheeks were red, and I smelled of frozen sweat.
As I took off my coat, my phone vibrated and blared my ringtone, a song by Young the Giant. Life’s too short to even care at all… It was my godmother, who only called when there was bad news. Two years prior, the morning that my grandfather died, it was her booming, tearless voice that told me. She spoke purposefully. She spoke as if from a podium. Now she told me my father was taken from work in an ambulance. He was throwing up uncontrollably. He couldn’t walk. He was sweating through his clothes. I felt very far away as I heard her explain: a CAT scan, an EKG, waiting on an MRI. They were admitting him. She would call me when they knew more.
She asked me if I was okay, if Jen was with me. I looked at the yellow walls of the kitchen that were marked and stained. Muddy snow melted from my boots onto the mosaic linoleum. My dad was sick. Tears flung themselves down my face. They felt unusually warm. Jen’s strong hand was on my back.
She pulled me to the sofa in the living room and held me. I did not say anything. I tried not to cry. I hardened. A selfish thought was bobbing among my fears. If Daddy dies, I’ll have to move back home. I hated myself. It was my dad, my dad. He was not supposed to get sick. He was not supposed to die. I looked at Jen, her galaxy eyes bright with sympathy. I told her I was sorry about her uncle.
I sat lying against her while Mame flashed on the television. I watched Mame over and over when I was a child. I knew Jen was only watching it with me because of my dad, but I took advantage. I watched Lucille Ball dance around and sing, and I breathed easier, and I waited. Mame was broke and trying to play “the moon-lady,” missing her cue and freezing on stage in a frilly white costume, when my phone rang. Life’s too short to even care at all…I’m losing my mind, losing my mind, losing control…
It was my mother this time. Her voice was soft and tired but filled with sympathy. The MRI was clean. My dad had stopped throwing up. They were still keeping him overnight, but they thought he was going to be fine. I breathed and crawled back to Jen. There was no reason for me to cry anymore. A smog of images started to dissipate…of my dead father, frozen like the squirrel, pale and cold beneath his grey mustache, my small arms trying to reach around my mother bent over in despair, searching for a black dress. I looked down at the dingy tan carpet…at the blue recliner with the broken handle…at my bare feet. “You can still be upset,” Jen said, softly, stroking my neck.
The following morning, I stepped out of the lonely bed and walked Tubby before my eyes were completely open. I stumbled along the half-snowed sidewalk, holding the leash with gloved hands and a scowl. I passed children waiting for the sight of their orange bus. Their mothers had bundled them tightly, and they kicked twisted stop signs and teased each other. I passed a woman warming up her car. I passed a man hunched over carrying a yellow plastic grocery bag.
I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I wondered if they glanced or if they stared. Did they think I was a boy? My coat was zipped up beyond my mouth and my black hat covered my hair and forehead and the tops of my eyebrows. I wandered, formless. Only eyes peeked out of my clothes. I wondered if people were scared. Did they see the fat mess of a crumbling dog who could barely smell the weeds sticking into his nose? Or did they only see a Chow Chow, with its aggressive reputation and fierce disposition?
I moved branches out of my way instead of ducking underneath them. The dog walked me. I stood and stepped with his ignorant permission. I followed his footfalls…one/two…three…four. Slow, arthritic, half mad. I had to keep my voice positive, “Come on, BUD! Good BOY…” I had to stop him from running into the street where cars would run him down without looking back. I watched his back leg shake. And I drowned in guilt. No, we couldn’t go that way. No. Even though you stood old and tired and did not have enough grass I could not let you go where you needed.
I tried to balance this dog on the edge of my finger like a glass figurine. My parents used to hold me up like this. They tried to keep me from looking at the ground where eventually we all crumble into fragments. I could see the ground now. Tubby teetered in my hands and I tried to be sturdy for him.
Some mornings, life was perfect. I was in her arms and we were laughing at nonsense, and we forgot about our empty bank accounts and our brittle loved-ones.
My life was blissful and it also wasn’t, and that was exactly like walking the dog. It was my choice to walk him, though I had no choice at all. I could feel the guilt and anger, or I could breathe in the sweet air of the trees.
When I moved in with Jen, my mother asked to see me at least once a month. She made Jen and me promise to visit on my godmother’s birthday. This was the day before the Super Bowl, only a few days after my father was hospitalized with a fleeting storm of sickness, and my grandmother was just recovering from open-heart surgery. My godmother, Bobby, turned fifty-nine. I watched them all teeter in the air with my new, grown-up, eyes.
We turned into my parents’ twisted driveway. We sat in the car, sweating in our coats, filling out birthday cards and tearing price tags off of a chocolate mousse cupcake. I looked at my parents’ house. I felt older as I said those words. “Parents’ house.” Not my house. No longer my driveway, no longer my broken double door with painted gold handles, no longer my wooden spiral staircase. My parents had slowly stopped asking me to come “home,” but instead to “visit.” Whatever words she used, my mother still cried.
We walked inside and our boots squeaked on the marble floor. We gave presents and smiles and hugs. There was a new clock on the mantel of the living room. It was made of light stained wood. It was too simple—no numbers. Only a pattern of light and dark wooden dots told the time.
We sat on one of the giant corduroy couches, and our first official visit began. I sat next to Jen. Her coat covered her lap, and I leaned against her as we all talked. Bobby leaned back on the blue couch, her short white hair brushed high, her strong legs sheathed in jeans, her feet covered in thick woolen socks. Her eyes were quick behind her round glasses, and I saw as she tried to smile and laugh, even though she dreaded her birthday. We did not talk about it. My mother sat on the other end of the couch, her legs turned underneath her, wearing one of her unremarkable solid colored cotton shirts. My dad twitched in his chair; the springs had sunken in from his presence. He pulled at his grey mustache.
They talked, about the week, about the snow, stories that were mostly forgotten, movies mostly remembered. I listened as if I did not belong there and I did not know them. I drifted out and saw the wrinkles in their faces and their words. They seemed different. Or maybe I was different. My mother paused halfway through her sentences while we waited in patient politeness. She cocked her head and asked me to repeat my words. Bobby talked deliberately, but became confused with names and stories. My father talked about his health. Bobby teased him, yelling at him from three feet away, “You are getting into the territory of old people! All you are talking about is your health!” My brother was still asleep in his bed, and it was almost two in the afternoon. My father stuttered in his defense.
I was twenty-three. I was living with my girlfriend. I had a credit card in my wallet with my name embossed in silver and could use phrases like “our apartment” and “our car” and “our bills” and “what should I make for dinner?” It happened all at once. I stood up straight, because all sixty-three inches of my bones were suddenly walking around alone. My parents were now made of porcelain and reading numberless clocks, and I belonged to a new family.
Somehow this was true. But it was also true that a few weeks before, I visited an urgent care center to be treated for bronchitis. I filled out the paperwork and signed my name and was just another coughing person. Unremarkable, just as I wished. A faceless voice called me behind tall double doors and I found myself in an expediting room. A man and a woman bounced around. The woman took my blood pressure and my heart pumped while the man asked how many drinks I had a week and if I smoked and what medications I was on.
The woman looked at me, braless under my sweatshirt, my hair short, sitting pale and patient, and asked me to verify my birth date. She apologized, saying she thought I was under eighteen. I was small again. I slumped down into my shoulders. Every day I took care of my family: my dog, my girlfriend. I walked through snow and tried to keep everything from crashing to the ground. But that nurse could not see that.
My mother crossed the living room to hug me. She began to cry. I asked her what was wrong.
“I just am having trouble understanding,” she said behind the giant teardrops.
“Is it Grandma? Daddy?”
She shook her head and poked her small finger into my stomach. I realized she still missed me. She missed me like a mother who sends her child off to summer camp for the first time. She wanted me home. And I knew she wouldn’t stop crying when I left.
She nodded and cried harder. I held her close and patted her back. I was twenty-three, I was living away from home, but I was also an underweight baby, ignorant, sad, and waiting for the world. I tried to be like the wooden clock on the mantel. I tried to be without numbers.
Two days later, I started early. I ate a breakfast of Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal. I ate right out of the box, dropping some on my lap, my hand blindly searching for the sweet white bites of sugar. I made a mess, and no one could tell me not to.
I walked the dog before eight and we met no one on the road. Back home, the kitchen was still clean from the night before. I could not stop singing. The walls were thin and the apartment next to us was attached, but I felt alone. I sang “Danny Boy” and Cole Porter’s “So in Love.” I liked to sing songs where I could not quite hit the high notes. I sang in the bathroom to hear the echoes applauding me. I stood on the stairs. I walked slowly, feeling each carpeted step beneath my feet and breathing in my privacy. I peered over the banister, only to see Tubby staring up at me, brown eyes bright, wagging his tail as I sang “Danny Boy.” He could not hear well. He could not walk up the stairs any longer. But he heard my singing and he looked up at me and I swear he smiled. But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, if I am dead, as dead I well may be, ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying, and kneel and say an “Ave” there for me… I sang as if it was a happy song. I sang as if I was both alone and in company. In each kind of singing, there were sweet notes of contentment.
As the weeks went by, whispers of warm air floated through Delaware. Vultures started to sunbathe in the mornings. The vultures were tall, black, bony women, wrapped in night-colored cloth, peering at me with apathy. I walked by them with Tubby, and they became familiar and comforting. One morning, Tubby and I passed two vultures that were sitting on the edge of a giant blue dumpster. I walked closer and closer, wondering if they would fly away, or if they felt safe in their flock. I soon found myself only three feet from being able to reach out and touch a black wing. I stared. They were beautiful. Their only movement was a slight turn of their heads. They looked near me, never at me. I stood in the world with my dog’s head buried in grass and smiled at the undertakers. Their eyes were deep, their heads only shriveled grey skin, but sleek and strong. “Hello,” I said. I kept walking, turning to look back at them. In that moment, I was nothing to them. I was too alive.
I grew up in my twenty-third winter. I stood alone and sang alone and remembered the true color of grass. Spring came as always. I watched the blades twitch in friendly warm winds. It was both a numberless spring and something new. Shadows melted away as the sun climbed.
ELIZABETH KAVITSKY is a twenty-three-year-old student pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing from Carlow University.