Seeking Pauline

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Ona Gritz

I walked up Fifth Avenue on a crisp, sunny morning in late winter, the wind lifting my hair and burning my ears.

My sister’s birth name lay nestled somewhere within two thick volumes in the Millstein Division of The New York Public Library. I paused to gaze up the wide marble steps flanked by those famous stone lions named Patience and Fortitude, the two qualities I most needed to find one name amid all the birth records for New York City in the year of Andrea’s birth.

I recognized the librarian on duty as the man who, a month earlier, carefully explained to me, without once making eye contact, that if I had a copy of my sister’s amended birth certificate, I could match the number with her birth record and learn her name.

Amended birth certificate?” I’d asked, digging in my bag for a notepad and pen.

“The one they make up when an adoption is finalized. It has the adopting family listed as the parents.”

“What happens to the original?”

“It’s locked away.”

The following week I’d gotten lost in a maze of damp side streets in lower Manhattan as I searched for The Department of Vital Statistics on Worth Street. Finally, I found it, just past Leonard Street, a small lane bearing my father’s name. I filled out the necessary forms and, three weeks later, the amended certificate arrived in the mail.

Now I pulled the two thick volumes marked 1956 off the shelf and lugged them to a wooden table. My friend Julia was coming to help me search, so I placed one of the books in front of the empty chair across from mine. On top of that I laid an index card I brought to use as a straight edge, the crucial four digit number—2483—written boldly in black ink

All around, people typed on laptops or flipped through musty smelling tomes. I settled in and studied the layout of the book. Three alphabetical columns with an initial for the borough and the certificate number next to each name. I’d learned from her birth certificate that Andrea was born in Staten Island, known as Richmond, a gift since R’s in the borough column were relatively rare.

I’d made it through six pages when Julia arrived, her silver curls gleaming above a dark blue scarf. She sat down and opened the heavy book before her.

“Exciting!” she mouthed.

Julia and I have been friends for over twenty years. She stayed at my apartment in the first weeks after her marriage ended. When mine followed soon after, she attended my divorce hearing where she pulled an assortment of cookies and a book of inspirational quotes from her purse. She’s an emergency contact on all of my son’s school forms. Recently, when she was taken to the hospital after having a seizure, I stayed with her through the long night.

“Should we call your family?” I’d asked while she sat on a gurney waiting to be brought in for tests.

She shook her head. “You’re family,” she said.

I learned early to find sisters out in the world

•••

After an hour and a half, I was still in the A’s, my back growing stiff, my butt numb. Regardless, I slowed down each time I came across a Staten Island baby, reading and rereading the entry. When I finally reached the B’s, I let myself dwell for a moment on the reams of pages still to go. I started to worry that maybe I had skipped over my sister’s listing, mistaking that crucial R for a Kings County K.

Bronx, Manhattan, Bronx, Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan, Kings. Finally a Richmond.

“I found her!” I heard myself blurt.

Julia came to my side of the table and read over my shoulder as I carefully copied the spelling of my sister’s many-lettered name.

“I am Andrea B—’s sister,” I said aloud once we were out of the quiet library, enjoying the name’s rounded Italian sounds.

Julia grinned at me.

“How thoughtful of her to have an initial at the front of the alphabet,” I chattered on as we threaded through the crowds on Sixth Avenue. “I expected it to take days.”

•••

“I know my sister’s birth name,” I announced to my sixteen-year-old son when he walked in the door later that afternoon.

Ethan dropped his heavy backpack on the floor.

“Cool—what is it?”

“B—.”

He peered at the fat pillows of ravioli I had floating in a pasta pot. “Huh. Is that why we’re having Italian?”

•••

Andrea’s birth family had always been an abstraction to me, a part of her story so out of reach, I felt free to fictionalize. I imagined her mother as a tough, raspy-voiced beauty like Lauren Bacall. But Andrea B—’s mother was, or is, an actual person with a name unusual enough that she could potentially be found.

Late that night, after Ethan had gone to bed, I opened my laptop and looked up the name on whitepages.com. I hadn’t put in a city or state, but the first B— to come up was Pauline in Staten Island. She was eighty-six years old.

•••

“I don’t think it would be fair of you to contact Andrea’s mother,” my cousin Lauren told me on the phone. “She’s an old woman who probably assumes her daughter has had a decent life and is alive and well right now. Is finding her really worth taking that away?”

I saw her point, but now that there was a real chance that I might meet my sister’s mother, I couldn’t let go of it.

“I’ll be very thoughtful,” I promised. “I’ll choose my words carefully.”

“Would you lie to her? Because if you tell her the truth about how Andrea died, she’ll be devastated.”

For one crazed moment I considered pretending to Pauline that I was Andrea, middle aged and thriving.

“Trust me,” I said.

•••

Pauline’s number was unlisted but I had an address, so I composed a letter.

Dear Ms. B—,

We don’t know each other but I believe we may have a relative in common. My adopted sister, Andrea, was born in Staten Island on July 26, 1956. I’ve been doing some research on my family and recently discovered that Andrea’s original last name was B—.

My sister was beautiful, smart, and loving. I’ve always wished to know more about her. If you are related to her and wouldn’t mind contacting me, I would love to hear from you. Andrea meant a great deal to me. The fact that she was part of my family was the greatest gift. If you, by chance, helped to make that so, I am very grateful.

I Googled the address to be sure that I had it right. There, onscreen, I saw that this wasn’t a private house as I’d assumed, but a senior center. I sensed a door swinging open, a welcome mat placed before my feet. My mother had volunteered at a senior center through most of my childhood, one that resembled a hotel with visitors wandering through all the time.

Google also provided a phone number. Heart pounding, I grabbed my cell.

A woman with a wobbly voice answered. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yes. Are there specific visiting hours?”

“No. We live in apartments. But you should make arrangements with the person you’re coming to see, don’t you think?”

“True… Would you happen to have a list of the phone numbers?”

“I do. Are you a relation?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly and gave Pauline’s name.

“Oh, she’s probably sitting in the lobby. Should I go see?”

My sister’s mother was probably there. She liked to sit in the lobby. Of course she did. She was a people-person like her daughter.

•••

When I was a child, it seemed to me my big sister had a magic people-magnet beneath her skin. I certainly couldn’t help following her from room to room, or through the maze of streets in our Queens neighborhood. We’d enter the candy store and the boys would drop their comic books back onto the stand to saunter over. We’d pass the high school and the girls lounging on the steps would call her name.

Always, Andrea roped an arm around my boney shoulder. “This is my kid sister,” she’d announce with pride.

But then a leaving-home magnet began to pull on my sister. She’d run away while I slept across from her in our yellow room, call to make sure my parents hadn’t changed the number or the locks, reappear smelling like a mix of home and the wide outside world, and then disappear again.

Eventually, she wandered three thousand miles away, to San Francisco, and stayed there. In time, she settled down and became someone we could visit and reach by phone.

Then, at twenty-five, she was drawn to the wrong people. Police found her body in a crawlspace, a towel tightly knotted around her neck.

•••

Pauline B— wasn’t in the lobby the day I tried to call her, thirty years after the murder of a girl to whom she might have given birth. The receptionist gave me her number, which I added to the contacts in my cell.

That weekend, I stood before Ethan in carefully chosen clothes.

“Do I look approachable?” I asked him.

“You’re over-thinking this, Mom,” he said.

•••

At the senior center where my mother had volunteered, residents populated the bright lobby throughout the day, talking or gazing out the windows. This was the image I had in my mind of where I’d meet Pauline, somewhere it would be easy to go unnoticed as I scanned the faces for one that struck me as somehow familiar.

But this senior center appeared deserted. I opened the cloudy glass door and entered a vestibule with mailboxes, buzzers, and a second locked door. Peering through to a small, dim lobby, I saw two elderly women, one on a sagging couch, the other in a wheelchair. They were the only people inside.

As I bent to read the names beneath the buzzers, a guy who looked to be a handyman came through, letting me in.

The two women stopped chatting and watched me approach.

“Hi. Could you tell me … is there an office?” My thought was that a receptionist could call Pauline and prepare her for the intrusion.

“It’s closed on Saturdays,” the woman on the couch responded. “Why, what do you need?”

“Well, I’m here to visit someone.” I paused. “Do you know Pauline B—?”

“Pauline was just here,” the other said, more to her friend than to me.

“Yeah, you just missed her. She was down here a minute ago checking her mail.”

“She left?”

“I think she went that way.” The woman pointed away from the door, deeper into the building. “She’s probably upstairs.”

“Is she expecting you?” her friend asked.

“No.”

“Well, then she can be anywhere,” she pointed out.

The hallway on Pauline’s floor smelled like chicken soup and mothballs. I located her door, took a breath, and knocked. After a long few minutes, I pulled out my cell and called her. I heard the phone ring in her apartment, then a mechanized Hello in my ear.

When I returned to the lobby, the two women glanced up.

“Nothing?” asked the one on the couch.

“You should have called first,” her companion said.

“How loud did you knock? She might be napping. You have to knock loud enough to wake her up.”

The idea mortified me. “I don’t want to scare her.”

The woman got up heavily and walked to the door, which she propped open with her foot as she leaned out to reach the bells. A moment later, we heard a sickly buzz. “She’s there. Go back up and give a good, loud knock.”

Upstairs again, I rapped loudly and heard the faint sound of shuffling. The door was opened by a tall, stocky woman with a deeply weathered face.

“Hi…Are you Pauline?”

“Yes.” She looked at me quizzically.

“B—?”

“Yes.”

Where was Andrea? Not in the eyes or the shape of the mouth. Maybe it was silly to expect to recognize a twenty-five-year-old girl in the now ancient face of her mother.

“I came to see you because I believe we may have a relative in common.”

“A what?” she asked loudly.

Raising my voice, I annunciated more slowly. “I think we may share a relative.”

Pauline shook her head. “I still don’t understand what you’re saying, but come in.”

Just inside the door was a kitchen table. I sat down and glanced around. The small apartment was cluttered with heavy furniture, a once large home packed up and squeezed into these few rooms.

Pauline sat beside me and waited.

“I’ve been doing some research on my family. The reason I’m here is that I had a sister who was adopted.”

“Adopted. What a shame.”

“She was born here in Staten Island. Her name was Andrea.” I studied Pauline’s face for a reaction, but she was simply listening. “Andrea B—.”

“B—?” she repeated, pronouncing the name slowly and emphasizing the middle vowel. “Because, you know, that’s not the original spelling. My husband’s people changed it.”

B— was her married name? I wondered why a wife of the 1950s would choose to give her baby away.

“They come from Salerno, his people,” she continued. “If you’re interested in the B—s, you can search their whole history on the computer these days. Salerno, Italy.” She then asked if I’d heard of the Italian ship that shared her family name.

“Yes!” I knew exactly one story about Andrea’s birthmother. “My sister’s mother named her for the sister ship, the Andrea Doria,” I reminded Pauline, watching her carefully. “It sunk the day before Andrea was born.”

This seemed to hold no meaning for her. Finally it came to me that I might have the wrong person. Still, I pressed on. “Can I show you her picture?”

“She was adopted?” she asked, flipping through the small stack of photos I handed her. “Was she a happy child?”

“She was.”

“Everyone is interested in family these days,” Pauline mused. “They call me when they have questions, so I sent away for information. You could do that too, find out about the B—s going all the way back to Salerno.”

“What I’m really interested in is finding out about my sister.”

Pauline squinted at the picture on top of the pile and shook her head. “And she’s where now?”

“She died young.” I braced myself, but Pauline asked nothing further.

“Such a shame,” she said, “adopting away children. In my opinion, adoption should be illegal.”

“Illegal?” I felt so flabbergasted all I could do was echo the word. Had she somehow confused adoption with the politically fraught subject of abortion? But no, she’d asked about my sister’s childhood. She understood that my sister had been born and lived in the world for a time.

Pauline leaned toward me. “Are you a mother?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Can you imagine giving up your child?”

“Well, no. But you know, people have their reasons. Accidents happen.”

“Accidents. Now, you know better than that. My mother taught me that if you don’t want to have a baby, there’s only one activity you need to avoid.”

I stared at her. Pauline wasn’t my sister’s mother. She was that one disapproving aunt or cousin or sister-in-law everyone hid the family secrets from.

•••

“Why’d you start this now, after all these years?” my cousin Lauren wanted to know.

I sighed, pressing the phone to my ear. Of course it was ridiculous. By now, Andrea had been gone for more years than she’d lived.

“Maybe because there’s no one else left in my immediate family,” I ventured.

But the truth was, I missed my sister with an ache I couldn’t allow myself when I was a teenager; when she died so violently I needed to pretend she’d simply run off one last time.

“I think it’s a very good thing Pauline didn’t turn out to be her mother,” Lauren said.

“Probably so.”

Nonetheless, I wrote emails, Facebook messages, and letters to all the B—s I could find. There weren’t many—maybe seventeen people all together—who spelled their name with that swapped vowel at its center. One, a woman named Jacqueline, also lived in Staten Island, but she would have been only eleven when Andrea was born. Pauline was the sole B—of an age to have given birth in 1956.

She was also one of the few B—s with a current address listed correctly online. Soon, my mailbox filled with envelopes stamped with red accusatory fingers and the words address unknown. In the end, that was the closest to a response I received, my own letter boomeranging back to me in multiples.

All that came of my efforts was a lovely Latinate sound that sometimes ran through my head like a snippet of a song.

Andrea B—. With a whole name, my sister became whole to me in a new way. Like every child listed in those volumes on the library shelves, she had the open road of a future before her. Anything had been possible for her the day her name was printed on that page.

I told myself I was looking for answers when I chased after Pauline so determinedly, believing she was Andrea’s mother; I was seeking as complete a picture as possible of the girl who was my first love in this life. But, really, all I wanted was to be in Pauline’s presence. I wanted to hear the voice of the woman who birthed my sister, see an expression cross her face, watch her gesture with her hands as she spoke. I even wanted the smell of her, as if her very existence—her pheromones, anything about her—might, for just a moment, bring my sister home.

•••

ONA GRITZ is the author of five books, including the ebook memoir, On the Whole: a Story of Mothering and Disability (Shebooks, 2014) and the poetry collection, Geode, which was a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. Her essays have appeared in The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, Purple Clover, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay, “It’s Time,” which appears in the Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Ona just ended a twelve-year stint as a columnist for Literary Mama. She is currently at work on a book about her sister.

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There’s Meth-Heads in the Woods

goat
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Heather Wilson

Michelle takes me up the hill to see the goats.

I’m in Arkansas for Thanksgiving and I haven’t seen my sister Michelle for going on seven years: This is our quiet, incomplete reunion. She lives in the sticks with a construction worker husband who built their house. It’s a beautiful place, but you can see the flaws. Most glaringly, the unfinished set of stairs are nailed in crooked, which Sam explains by popping the tab on a Busch beer—“Turns out I was too many in.” The back yard, too, is somewhere between a calendar pic and a junkyard. Right behind the house, there’s a dried up pond and a collection of household artifacts. An ancient ceramic bathtub riddled with bullet holes, a couple monster truck size wheels, scrapyard metal, discarded wood. But beyond that non-pond roll the wooded hills, goats grazing near a tin-roofed house.

Every couple of mornings Michelle goes out to patrol their property borders. It’s maybe a three-mile parameter, fenced in by a wood and electric wire fence. While our brothers Dan and Jon stay at the house to put back Busch beers, Michelle goes on her patrol. This time I join her. I put on my tennis shoes, a flimsy windbreaker. Michelle wears her usual getup: cut-off cargo shorts over long underwear, high rubber boots, and a Columbia jacket. “It’s the goat-herder’s uniform,” she says, sing-song Arkansas twang in her voice. She doesn’t bring her gun (she’s says she’s still afraid of it) but a little can of Mace. “There’s meth heads out in the woods,” she says, “squatters, drifters.”

I can’t imagine encountering a meth head climbing an electric fence without laughing, but she’s serious.

“Plus,” she adds, “I think our little Chinese neighbor was stealing goats.”

“Stealing goats?”

Her suspicion remains unexplained: I add it to the collection of differences, divergences, as startling to me as the closet full of guns, or her Confederate take on race politics. We head up the hill. As we climb, I keep looking at her, sneaking endless unbelieving double takes. My childhood vision of her keeps surfacing, an insistent holograph from the past. After all, I saw her last in the days before I left Arkansas for good. I was only eleven going on twelve when we moved.

•••

As a child, I knew her slightly. When mom regained custody of Dan and me, Jon and Michelle stayed with our foster parents. At fourteen and sixteen, they were old enough to choose, and the foster home was a safe bet: college, financial security. So I didn’t see her much. Instead of an upbringing together, we had visitations. Jon and Michelle would swing by and pick us up from mom’s apartment. Sometimes we’d go to the mall, and I’d follow Michelle around in the chill air, window-shopping. Sometimes we’d go swimming or take a couple hours at the park. They barely seemed like siblings to me: more like older guardian angels, distant aunts and uncles.

When I got old enough to notice such things, Michelle began to represent a world of grownup-ness I had no access to. Femininity, I might have called it, if I’d had the word for it. She took pains with her appearance. She was thin, and had jet black hair that hung in perfect ringlets. She wore skin-clinging Hollister tops and white-washed jeans. Even though she was only five-foor-two or so, she seemed so tall. I never imagined I could look like that, but I admired her. It occurred to me that if I had to turn into something eventually, it would be her.

Perhaps that was because her visits often included an itinerary of instructions on my coming of age. She “fixed” my hair, brushing out the knots and twisting it into a tight, painful knot at the top of my head. She told me to wear deodorant. Sunscreen, she informed me, would not help me get tan. My pale, sunburn-prone skin perturbed her to no end. As did my prematurely hairy legs and my arsenal of “heathen” clothes. Mom never complained about anything I wore, baggy athletic shorts or a shin-length toga-esque dress. But my outfits often elicited a cascade of scorn from Michelle. Some of the distaste targeted Mom—“I can’t believe mom lets you out the door in such rags”—but as I got older, the buck passed to me. I should have a little discretion, after all: I was ten years old.

•••

Halfway up the hill, the goats circle us in curiosity. One grizzled salt-and-pepper goat, ripe with age, nuzzles Michelle’s hip. “This one’s my baby,” she says. “His name is Coco. When he was born he was about this small.” She cups her palms together. “Sam, he promised me he would die. But I fed him by hand for months, and now he’s fatter than all of them.” She laughs. “He follows me everywhere, probably thinks I’m his mom.”

Coco nuzzles her, leaving a trail of white slobber on her cut-offs, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She’s not the sister I knew: pulling every strand of my hair into something presentable, searching my face for smudges. Instead, when she looks at me as I shyly extend my hand to the billy goat, she says my name with wonder: “Pilar,” stretching the r to its limit. For a second, the name catches me off-guard. These days everyone calls me Heather, but as a child my family preferred my more poetic middle name. Hearing it now, southern drawl dragging syllables, the name rings with a phantom. I feel rewound.

I say, “What?”

And Michelle shakes her head. “I can’t believe…,” trailing off. Neither of us can complete the sentence: I can’t believe who you are. I remember that other Michelle too well, and vice versa. We are both a little rewound: I can hear the static of cassette tapes slowly reeling backwards, the click of recognition. She rubs her knuckles in the groove of the Coco’s ears, and I try to make out the discrepancy, past and present kaleidoscopically aligning and departing before me. I can’t help but notice how thin she is—still is.

•••

I remember visiting Michelle and Sam’s place out in the woods when I was a kid. Sam was a big guy who called a plate of six tuna sandwiches a snack. The back of his neck was a swatch of desert, sunburned to boiling, and he wore mud-caked construction boots and worked sun-up to sun-down. When Michelle stood next to him she looked diminutive, a shadow. Sam would tease her for her size, calling her chicken-butt, mocking her strange and increasingly strict dietary habits.

Indeed, every time I saw her, the list of forbidden foods racked up: peanut butter, bread, mayo, egg yolk. Everything was too high calorie, even bread. Especially bread. When she did eat? The portions baffled me: one teacup of fruit salad? A sliver of hamburger? A bite of plain oatmeal? In my mind, you just didn’t eat oatmeal that way—you added maple syrup and apples, downed a whole bowl, and asked for more. I ate the way I dressed: like a heathen, mastering a ferocious chew-swallow system that almost matched Sam’s.

“You want some food with that plate?” Sam teased her.

Though Michelle’s eating habits perturbed me, I didn’t know to worry until I began to hear the rest of the family murmuring. Our mom especially—every time she saw Michelle, she made a fuss over feeding her. Or trying to feed her; these attempts usually met a wall of indignation. No, Michelle would not be joining in on a lunch of leftover hamburger helper. No, she did not want a dill pickle. And no, she certainly did not want a cookie—ever.

Sickness, that’s what mom called it when Michelle wasn’t around: “She’s so obsessed with the way, she looks she won’t eat a damn thing and now it’s killing her.” I began to believe that one day while flipping through an old family album I’d found. About a dozen or so photos had been doctored, some unknown figure cut out, leaving behind a ragged absence. My father, I thought at first. I tried to imagine Mom rampaging against his memory, and I couldn’t. Mom never cared much for revisionist history; she was always in the process of debriefing me on her mistake ridden life. No, it was Michelle cutting herself out of photographs. She didn’t like the way she looked, but she especially didn’t like the way she’d looked as a teenager, ten pounds heavier, the shimmer of baby fat clinging to her face.

The idea struck me hard, the way new knowledge always did. That Michelle, who I idolized, could hate her body enough to attempt its erasure, set in motion inside me a whole series of considerations: of self, of body, of borders. Before then, my body seemed a beatable, bruisable playground thing, vessel for hunger. It fluctuated, grew, needed sleep, got sunburned—but never failed. For Michelle, the body did nothing but fail. She perfected her appearance constantly, to no avail. Standing in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, I examined myself in this new light, thinking about the puff of my cheeks, the divot of my belly, how my gangly limbs intersected my torso like mislaid roads. If Michelle was imperfect, I was even more so. After all, she had put in enough time telling me so.

•••

We trudge up a hill so steep I think each new step will send me flying backwards. Michelle’s used to it but I’m sorely out of shape and probably a little anemic—I gather my breath for each burst of chat. And we talk about nothing—or everything: what we’ve been doing for six years, as if we can summarize our new selves. I tell her I do comedy now, write a lot, still read a lot. She tells me she’s been collecting first editions. She buys them on Amazon and sells them on E-bay for five times the price—“to suckers.” She promises to show me her Hemmingway collection. I promise to send her something I’ve written. We come up against the electric fence, the strip of wire that blends into the fallen foliage of silver, and follow it along the slope. I want to talk about bodies and borders, I want to know if she’s happy, if she’s changed. But I can’t. I don’t know how to breach the subject. “I don’t see any meth heads,” I say, and laugh.

•••

There came a point, right before I left Arkansas, that Michelle knew she had gone too far. She’d lost too much weight, looked sickly even to herself. But she still couldn’t eat. Every spoonful felt like a betrayal of some long-gone ideal, an invasion of substance: teeth resisted chewing, throat resisted swallowing, stomach resisted digestion. By the time things got easier for her, by the time she could eat a bowl of eggs, I had already left Arkansas. I never saw her heal, the slow motion of change.

•••

At the end of our walk together, Michelle and I end up where we started, by the shed. The goats come to slobber at our hands like they didn’t see us an hour ago. “We should probably go clear the table,” Michelle says, and I laugh. This isn’t a turn of phrase. Michelle’s kitchen table is an actual mess, covered with painting supplies: cups filled with color-filthy paintbrushes, bottles of acrylic and water paint, half-done portraits resting on their easel beds.

“We have real work to do,” I say, and we trot down the hill to the unfinished house and the cluttered table and the unmade mashed potatoes.

•••

On the way back from Michelle’s, Jon and I stop at a gas station to pick up a snack and cigs. A stick-thin, all-bones burnout of a woman swimming in her clothes pushes in the glass door to the gas station. “Meth head,” Jon says, “or anorexic—can’t really tell the difference around here.” He laughs. It sounds like some kind of sick game show. “Back when Michelle was anorexic I used to say, Michelle what will the neighbors think?”

I laugh too. But it hurts a little bit. “She’s better now, right?”

“Yeah,” he says, “Much better.”

But that walk along an electric perimeter confirmed what I feared—that I was more likely to imagine Michelle than know her, or know how to know her. Meeting her again, I mapped the life I had lived without her on her, stretched her to fit lines I’d drawn in her absence. I want to believe Jon more than anything, want to be able to see her as she is, but cut-up photographs keep swimming up to meet me, and I see only the girl who tried to erase herself, a girl who is as much me as it is her.

•••

HEATHER WILSON is recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s creative writing program. Her work will be published in Off Assignment, an international online magazine for non-traditional travel literature. In college she performed in an improv and sketch troupe, The False Profits. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

 

D Is for Daughter

flying
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Tamiko Nimura

I am the straight leg of a capital D: leaning towards the curved window and wall of an airplane, insistent, staring at the arc of the horizon. I’m in between deep space and blue sky and white clouds and brown earth. I have to tell myself to stop holding my breath. The sun keeps setting faster as I fly east, towards the hospital where you, my niece, are about to be born. It’s getting darker and darker.

•••

Last week your uncle Josh called me, walking to his bus stop in Seattle after work. He was on his way back to Tacoma, where we live. His voice was uncharacteristically high and tight, and he was slightly out of breath. “My grandpa died,” he said.

“Oh, hon,” I said. Exhaled. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he said, but he hesitated.

I took a deep breath, too. From the first time I met him some twenty years ago, Grandpa Dave greeted me with an exclamation point, every time, every year: “Hey, Tamiko!” he’d say, and give me a big hug.

•••

What it has meant for me to live in this space where death and birth follow each other so closely? It has felt like both parts of a capital D: the straight rigid line, the soft curving out, both lines working together to create an open space. Something like a mouth. Something like the halves of an ancient chapel door. Something sacred.

•••

I’m flying from Washington State, where I live with my family: your uncle Josh, your cousins, who are my daughters. All of us can’t wait to meet you for the first time. I’ve had your first picture, a fuzzy ultrasound, on my desk in our kitchen. I’m flying down the West Coast to the Bay Area, where your mother and father went to school. From there I’ll take a different plane that travels south over Monterey, where your parents were married, then make a left and head farther south and east into Texas. I’ll return to Seattle after that. The round trip looks like a D on the map. D for death? I think and quickly push the thought away.

•••

The day before my flight, I was on a freeway ramp, racing back from a meeting to pick up your cousins from school. I got a series of texts from your mother. She was going to the hospital to be induced, she said, because a number of risk factors indicated the increased possibility of stillbirth. My anxiety skyrocketed. I started to make myself breathe deeply, calling on every single mind-trick that I knew from yoga to calm myself down.

•••

Maternal deaths in childbirth are much less frequent these days, but somehow I can’t help but project into the very worst-case scenario. Your mother and I already lived through some of the worst together, when our father died so many years ago. She was six years old, and I was ten. If I am facing the prospect of your death or your mother’s, it is because your mother and I met death intimately as children. The worst and unthinkable has already happened to us, and so death never feels very far from me.

•••

During the first part of the trip, I can’t think about very much else but you. I don’t know just when you’ll arrive, but I know you’re really on your way now. On the plane ride I sip plastic cups of ginger ale, refuse the snack mixes. I’ve just turned to a chapter in the book I’m reading. Believe it or not, the chapter is called “It’s A Girl!” But as it turns out, the child in the book is stillborn. I breathe out. I close the book, put it in the seat pocket in front of me. D is for daughter.

I don’t want anything like stillbirth hovering close to your arrival. But the word’s been mentioned by doctors often enough that the specter’s there anyway. Until now I haven’t known that kind of haunting, the specific terror that your uncle Josh felt during both of my pregnancies: the terror of something bad happening to mother or child or both. He hid it well. I was too focused inward to notice, towards growing and welcoming life.

•••

On the plane I’m thinking about a character from a TV show that your mama and I both adore: Downton Abbey. In one episode, a much-loved sister dies of complications from her daughter’s birth. In my mind I am watching that episode, watching a loop of that endless minute, watching that character shudder through a violent seizure and die.

•••

Our grandfathers died before your mother and I were born. Adoptive grandfathers were special to us. So Grandpa Dave was one of the only grandpas I knew, even though he was really your uncle Josh’s grandfather. At ninety-two, Grandpa had lived a beautifully long life. He retired some thirty-five years ago, spent most of his retirement at his own house and at his daughter’s house in the very last few years. He lived to see many grandchildren and even several of his great-grandchildren.

Grandpa Dave and I connected very early after we met, most often through food. Cooking food with him and for him—he loved to watch me cook with Josh, together—was one of the greatest pleasures of our trips home. He cured his own olives, grew and harvested his own avocados. His daughters and grandchildren used to call him every Christmas morning to talk about how many raviolis they’d made together at their houses. Grandpa Dave loved trying sukiyaki and egg rolls from our family’s New Year’s gatherings and he loved my family’s recipe for teriyaki sauce. Food was central to his life as it has been in mine, good simple food. He grew up with very little, but savored so much.

•••

Caught one plane, about to catch another, I am still tense. I don’t watch the news on the TV screens. Only later do I find out about the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Instead, I walk miles in the airports so I can walk through some of that tight energy. I am taut like a bow before it’s released the arrow, I am the arrow flying towards you. Are you here yet?

•••

At the end, Grandpa didn’t have any prolonged suffering or hospital stays. He woke up one morning feeling badly. He had difficulty breathing. He just didn’t come back from the emergency room that day. And in the grand scale of deaths, his was as good a death as might be wished.

For the holidays we will go to California to visit our families, as we do every year. But I can’t believe I’m not going to be able to hug Grandpa in his flannel shirt, watch him take off his glasses, see him rub his forehead, hear the exclamation point in his voice.

•••

In storytelling rules, this is where I should probably talk about your mama—my little sister—and how much I love her. I can tell you about her first cries, all the way from the delivery room and in the elevator and into the nursery. I was four years old. I can tell you where I was sitting on the couch in our childhood house when I held her for the first time.

I should tell you more about what and who is at stake if she dies. But I can barely write those last three words. There are not enough words to tell you about my love for my little sister. This is where my words leave me.

•••

I am talking about Grandpa’s death as a “good death,” as if I can manage my grief away by talking about his loss as something good. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m a terrible aunt for mentioning his death in a letter to you. Death and a newborn baby? As if any mention of the two in the same pages, much less the same paragraph or sentence, will tarnish this new life for you. The hard truth is that they’re not so far apart, after all.

•••

Once I had to say goodbye to a yoga teacher, a teacher that I really loved, without her knowing I was saying goodbye. I hadn’t realized just how much I loved those classes until I knew I wouldn’t see her anymore. I knew she was leaving before anyone else in the class. In fact, I don’t even think she knew I knew. But yoga is one of the best places to hold space, and this teacher was so good at creating and holding space for her students to feel deeply. She talked about the strength it takes to let go. So I sat, allowing myself to feel a deep sadness for an hour and a half. Not trying to escape it, not trying to fix it or numb it.

That hour might have been the first time I welcomed grief. Now I can think back to that class, that teacher, that shadowed room with its pale yellow walls, and I am grateful. I wonder how many are able to hold space for the hard questions. How do we say goodbye to a life? How do we welcome a new life? To keep the heart open enough and long enough to do these things with love? I think part of the answer’s in the breath.

•••

It’s early evening and I’ve left the sunset far behind on the West Coast. I’m here at the Austin airport, texting, trying to find out where you and your mother are. I check Facebook, and somehow, there’s a green dot, saying that your mama is online. “Oh,” your mama writes. “You’re here early. Baby’s not here yet.”

•••

These last couple of weeks have felt like living among the raw edges of death and birth. But maybe this is how we all live, so many of us unaware most of the time.

When you choose to feel your emotions, a wise woman has said, you can’t just choose to feel the good ones. You have to feel the good ones and the bad ones. I am learning how to un-numb myself, then, even as I write this sentence to you. Feeling a deep grief at Grandpa Dave’s death, I can feel that kind of deep joy over you. They are all tangled up together, my grief and joy. I wish you could have met him. He would have welcomed you, too.

•••

It’s Saturday morning, the day after I’ve landed in Texas. Several hours in the waiting room, a couple of hundred feet from where you are. Other fathers are coming out from behind double doors, being greeted by family members with balloons and flowers. Your grandmother and I are still waiting, jumping every time those double doors open.

At last, a picture appears on my phone from your daddy. And there you are, little one. You are all soft curves, sleeping. To see your face: the faces of my babies. A few hours later, holding you, I see your mama’s face: my baby sister’s face when she was a baby. How incredible just to watch you breathe.

On your first day, I am finally bending after so many waiting hours of sitting straight. I am curving towards you. We are breathing together and I am whispering to you: this is life, this is life, this is life.

•••

TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer living in Tacoma, Washington. She is a contributing writer for Discover Nikkei, the International Examiner, and the Seattle Star. Recent writing has appeared in HYPHEN, The Rumpus, and Full Grown People. Find more of her writing at tamikonimura.net.

 

Read more FGP essays by Tamiko Nimura.

Swimming with the Sharks

beach chairs
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Linda L. Crowe

2015 should go down in history as the Year of the Shark. The Atlantic was eerily vacant of swimmers last summer because of all the shark attacks—even in North Carolina, where our family has vacationed every year since 1963, the year my little sister, Laura, was born.

“Are we going to swim this year?” I asked Laura in June as we planned for our August week at the beach.

“Linda, we’ve got to!”

In July I told her what my boss said when he called from his vacation at Baldhead Island. “It’s weird.” I imitated his soft southern accent and the way he emphasized certain words. “You look up and down the beach and there is not a soul in the water, as far as the eye can see.” Baldhead is not far from Kure Beach, where we go.

There are always sharks, my sister reminded me. But last year, the predators seemed to be a bit more aggressive. In fact, the number of attacks at North Carolina beaches in 2015 set a state record.

They bit surfers, of course, but ordinary swimmers, too. Even waders. They bit the arms off two teenagers.

And not just in North Carolina. Shark attacks made headlines in Florida, South Carolina, Malibu, Hawaii, Australia, and South Africa. Great whites were sighted off New York beaches. Cape Cod, too—the setting for Jaws, a book I first read on the beach at Kure when I was in high school. A great read, yes, but it did not keep me out of the water. It was fiction, after all.

In the newspaper and on radio and TV, experts cited theories on why the sharks were so bitey:

  • Climate change was making it hotter, so more people were spending more time in the ocean, upping their odds of getting bitten.
  • The sharks’ normal food was in short supply, so they were changing up the menu.
  • Low rainfall was making the near-coastal seawater saltier, which the sharks just loved.

I believed that the sharks were pissed off. That this was their well-coordinated revenge for all the fishermen who caught them, sliced off their fins, and threw them back in the ocean to die. One hundred million sharks a year are killed for their meat and/or fins, according to recent estimates. So many that shark populations are taking a dive. If the same number of people were getting killed each year, America would send in troops or provide air support to rebels.

The conspiracy theory made sense to me because what else can sharks do? They can’t make bombs. They can’t take hostages. If this is the reason, it serves our species right, I said. My sister seemed doubtful.

•••

August rolled around, and Laura and her gang made the annual trek on I-95 from Virginia over to Wilmington and down to the beach. I joined them a day later. By the time I arrived, everyone had been swimming, and no one had been attacked. I raced in, too, and the sharks did not bite me.

We floated, splashed each other, and frolicked in the temperate, briny goodness that is the ocean at Kure. But mostly we waited for just the right wave, then swam like hell to catch it the moment before it crested—our bodies stiff fleshy spears, shooting forward as the water surged landward.

At last we tired and, one by one, each of us rode one final wave back to the beach. Except me. I wasn’t ready to go up yet, so I treaded water alone and gazed out toward the vast horizon. A pelican hovered in the sky above me. I watched as it locked in on a target and folded its wings, then plummeted headfirst into the water and disappeared. Rising to the surface, it pointed its long beak toward heaven and gulped down a luckless fish. Just me, the pelican, and the distant horizon. And all that lurked beneath us.

I was not afraid. Or maybe I was a little, but the odds of a shark attack were miniscule compared to the wonder of bobbing in the ocean, salt on my lips as pelicans and gulls swooped and dived overhead.

Without the exertion of bodysurfing, I was soon covered with goose bumps, so I caught a wave in to shore. I dried off with my beach towel and plopped down in a canvas chair next to my sister. When she asked if it was scary out there all by myself, it occurred to me that she was watching me the whole time—once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard. Not really, I told her. It wasn’t that bad.

Laura was a certified lifeguard—the real deal—and this was how she made money summers during her college years. Even though I only took Junior Lifesaving, I’ve always considered myself to be a lifeguard, too, particularly where she is concerned.

•••

Maybe because my big brother ran out in front of car when he was eleven (he lived to tell about it), or because my little brother got shocked when he stuck his finger in the electrical outlet in the hall (he’s fine too—sort of), but I was always afraid that something dire was going to happen to my beloved sister, the baby of our family. And because a neighborhood kid was profoundly disabled by a hit and run car when their family was on vacation in Florida, I was especially nervous about our annual trips to the beach. How awful would it be for Laura—for the whole family—if she were maimed or killed while we were all enjoying ourselves?

A hard time would seem even harder if it happened on vacation, the same way it was worse if someone died on Christmas day. A tragedy must be avoided at all costs, and in my mind, it fell to me to keep Laura safe.

At age seven, my options were somewhat limited. I attended Sunday school and church, so I prayed that God would preempt any harm that might come to her. But our mother had told us of another neighborhood kid who had been killed when his bike slid under a steamroller, even though his mother had perfect attendance at First Methodist. To me this meant one thing: God might have his eye on the sparrow. He might be all knowing and all-powerful, but he was not to be trusted when it came to little kids.

As luck would have it, I was superstitious. Certain things had to be done each day without fail. Once Laura was big enough, I taught her how to leap onto the mattress from a foot away, so the cannibals who lived beneath our bed could not eat our feet. And how to shut the closet door at night so the man with the axe could not sneak out and chop our heads off.

The dangers of vacation required different strategies that I shared with no one. As the first week in August drew near, I would be especially careful not to step on a crack, drop a mirror, spill salt, or do any of the things that might bring bad luck. For additional protection, I developed a system where each night after I slipped beneath the covers, I’d select a number at random, then I would softly kiss my sleeping sister that many times. If she woke up, I’d have to wait for her to fall back to sleep, then start all over.

All of this, I believed, would weave a cloak of safety around Laura, providing that extra something which, along with my vigilance, would keep her from harm.

Obviously, it worked.

For fifty years, at least. But now sharks were biting people like their lives depended on it, and I needed a new strategy.

•••

It seemed disingenuous to pray for something when I no longer went to church. And I couldn’t very well sneak into my sister and her husband’s bedroom to kiss Laura a random number of times. Even if the thought wasn’t Manson-family creepy, I was too old for such superstitions.

Instead I armed myself with the various ways to avoid shark attacks, according to the experts.

  • Don’t swim after dark when sharks are most likely to feed. We used to sneak out late at night and swim in the ocean, so it was a wonder we’d survived to adulthood.
  • Schools of baitfish or pods of dolphins (which, like sharks, eat the baitfish) could be a sign that sharks are in the area, so stay out of the water if you see them. I wondered if the same were true of fishing pelicans.
  • Don’t swim near fishing piers, or near people who are surf fishing. We’d always obeyed this commonsensical rule, mostly to avoid getting hooked.
  • Stay out of the ocean if you’re bleeding. No duh.

I knew the rules. I also knew that, while extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, there was no way the Lundquist clan was going to stay out of the water.

Once Lifeguard Laura took note that I survived my solo swim, we basked in the sun and relaxed into our read/doze ritual of vacation at the beach.

“I see one!”

Everyone sat up, eyes trained on the area just beyond the breakers. Erin, one of our gang, had spotted a shark. Or so she said.

Are you sure it was a shark? Not a porpoise? Not a dolphin? Erin assured us she knew what they looked like. Other families on nearby beach blankets shaded their eyes with their hands and looked seaward. Some swimmers got out of the water. I glanced toward the lifeguard stand, but the lifeguard had that devil-may-care affect that came with his certification card.

The shark was spotted once more before it vanished into the murky depths. Thankfully, it was late afternoon—time to head to the cottage to help with dinner preparations and line up for showers.

That night, we all walked up the beach to the Kure pier. We purchased ice cream cones and cotton candy and strolled down the weathered planks spotted with fish scales that gleamed under the lights. The air was redolent with saltwater, guts, and the occasional waft of cigarette smoke. We stood at the very end as we always did, and I felt the faint rocking of the pylons from the push and pull of the wind and waves. When we turned back, a crowd was gathered at the rail. We joined them to watch the phosphorescent glow of the breakers below and, just beyond, a large shark patrolled back and forth like a white ghost beneath the water.

We stared, fascinated. It wasn’t that far from where we swim.

“My God,” I said.

“There are always sharks,” my sister reminded me.

The next day, the whole gang headed back to the surf, making sure to arrive just as the tide turned and the waves started rolling in. Here comes the one that sunk the Poseidon! We all stampeded into the water and did the turn/swim-like-hell/catch the wave routine we’ve been perfecting since childhood. An hour later, the crowd thinned out as tired bodies migrated back to the sand. And then it was just the pelicans, Laura, and me.

The years have rolled by like so many summer waves. My sister tied the knot and had three kids a full ten years before I met my husband. As I navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of family life, it’s Laura I turn to for advice. I showed her how to avoid cannibals. She shows me how to be happily married.

While we floated up and down on the lazy swells, we caught up on hometown gossip, dissected our kids’ lives, and enjoyed easy silences.

Until I had to go the bathroom.

I ran up to the cottage. It was cold in the air conditioning, and my bathing suit was wet. I figured I was done with swimming for the day, so I changed into a dry suit before I headed back. It was so wonderful to be out of that damp suit, I could hardly stand it. I ran down the boardwalk to the beach and there was Laura—still in the ocean—looking out to sea all by herself. Just my little sister and the sharks.

I was warm and dry. She was a grown woman in her fifties, for God’s sake. With adult children. She was an excellent swimmer. There was a lifeguard, such as he was. I really didn’t need to look after her anymore. No one expected it. Least of all her.

Still…

I raced through the breakers before the sharks could get her. If nothing else, I could help fend them off. I feigned nonchalance when I finally made it out to her. “I didn’t think you were coming back,” she said, with a sidelong glance.

“Yeah, well…” Oh, what the hell—I might as well just say it. “I’m responsible for you.”

Laura just grinned and turned back toward the horizon. She knew that I knew that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But after a lifetime of my holding her hand when we were out in the world and keeping the man with the axe out of our bedroom, this was nothing new.

Ever since the movie Jaws came out, my sister does this thing where she acts like she’s being attacked by a shark. She doesn’t scream, she just jerks like she’s been hit really hard under water, like in the film. With each lurch backward, her expression transitions from what the … to stunned terror. She does a perfect imitation and it never fails to crack us up. “I hope a shark does bite you,” our mother would say when she was still alive. “Then we’ll see how hard you laugh.”

We talked about doing it now while it was just the two of us, then decided against it. There had been so many actual attacks this year, we might start a mass panic. Not to mention the embarrassment we’d suffer if the lifeguard dashed in after us, as if Mr. Cool would notice. It pained us, but we decided to bag the routine for now. There’s always another summer. And we’ll be back.

•••

Because of their lifelong fascination with the Gordon Lightfoot song, LINDA L. CROWE and her sister have chosen the memorial to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as the destination for their annual sister trip this year. Michigan or bust! Linda lives in Nelson County, Virginia. Her most recent work may be read in Studio Potter magazine; she’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Linda L. Crowe.

 

Scattering the Loss

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Marchant

1.

We are clearing out his apartment, sorting papers and photographs, and bottles upon bottles of medication when my sister, Rebecca, asks for one more favor. The mortuary has called and said her ex-husband’s ashes are ready for pick-up. Can we please go with her? She isn’t up for a solo trip.

It’s two days after her wedding, which was one week after her first husband’s memorial service. The entire family is still reeling from the juxtaposition—it was all we’d talked about before, during, and after the actual wedding celebration. In conversation we’d put air quotes around “celebration.” We used anger and sarcasm to mask our sorrow and confusion.

Rebecca hadn’t known her ex-husband was going to die the week before her wedding when she’d planned it, of course. She’d gotten engaged almost immediately after the divorce had been finalized, while Charles was undergoing chemotherapy; but she was living with her boyfriend already. We all knew a wedding would happen sooner or later. “But why couldn’t it have been later?” our mother had asked me, crying, the day before the wedding. “Much, much later?”

I had no good answer to give her.

Now, two days after living through the wedding, we go out to lunch first before visiting the mortuary to pick up Charles’s ashes. While we eat Rebecca wants to talk about her wedding. What did Mom think? Did it go okay? I take a big bite of fish and chew, ruthlessly leaving my mother to answer.

“That was the most beautiful wedding dress I’ve ever seen,” our mom says tactfully. She always starts with a positive statement unless we’ve really pissed her off. I shove in a bite of mixed vegetables because the critical portion of Mom’s sentence is about to arrive and I want a physical excuse (my mouth is full!) not to intervene.

Focusing on my food helps me not think about Charles. Two weeks after his death I’m still accustoming myself to not thinking about him. While he was sick, then sicker, then dying, he took up so much space in my thoughts. My life was planned around chemo trips, emergency visits to the doctor or the ER or just the grocery store and pharmacy runs. For the last few months, whenever the phone rang, my heart filled with hot liquid and my fingertips would go numb.

It wasn’t just worry for him, dread for the end; I was so damn tired—it was dread that it would never end that seized me. Sometimes I’d worry that I’d never stop feeling guilt for my relief at it ending and anger for my guilt—it was much easier to be angry at my sister. It is much easier to keep eating instead of acknowledging how I feel at all.

They have stopped discussing the wedding dress. It was a beautiful dress, like something a classy lounge singer would wear in the 1940s. If Rebecca and I had figures even remotely similar—she got the butt, I the boobs—I’d steal that dress, dye it black or scarlet and wear it to her next wedding. But the conversation has moved on from the dress. My mother is expressing her displeasure with the ceremony. “It was all Cheshire, all the time.”

Our family wasn’t included in any aspect. The groom’s niece and nephew sang. The groom’s sister (not our eldest sister) was Matron of Honor. The groom’s family composed two-thirds of the guests and as for those speeches… Well, “inappropriate” is too mild a word. Did Rebecca know that the two of her kids who’d come to the wedding (her oldest daughter flat-out refused) wept through the Best Man’s speech when he’d revealed that my sister’s affair with her new husband had been going on for two years longer than anyone had known?

“I didn’t know the kids cried!” my sister says. Here’s the weird thing, though—she isn’t upset that Mom is displeased with her. Normally Rebecca does not take criticism well. Off-hand comments that our other sister or I would shrug off have been known to send her, this new bride, into her closet to indulge in angry weeping. A chance directive from our mother, something about keeping cats as indoor pets, led to my sister not speaking to Mom for two years. Two years of silence for saying, “Keep your cat away from Rachel, she’s allergic.” But bashing the wedding as inappropriate, liquor-soaked, and hurtful? My sister is fine with it. No, it is weirder than that. My sister seems pleased.

Don’t get me wrong—she’s not happy. She defends the liquor consumption. She defends the inappropriate speech by blaming the liquor consumption, and she defends the lack of her family’s inclusion by offering, “Well, everyone is so sad because Charles died—I didn’t think they’d want to be included.”

Choking laughter overtakes me. I cover my mouth with a napkin. My mother slides my water glass closer, and my sister pats my back. I laugh harder. Tears are running from my eyes. They start to laugh, too. Other restaurant patrons are staring.

None of us wanted to be included, I don’t tell Rebecca. None of us wanted to fucking be there at all. Her daughter was the only honest one. We’re all wiping our eyes now and we don’t have to say anything.

We don’t have to say that we are angry that my sister remarried a week after her ex-husband’s funeral because she knows. I don’t have to say that I’m laughing because her reasoning is always so self-centeredly skewed because they both know. She doesn’t say that she’s pleased that Mom is unhappy with her and critical of her wedding and her general behavior these last few years because we know. Rebecca knows that we forgive her and she knows that we forgive her because we know that she is never going to forgive herself.

After a lunch like that, it’s understandable when we get in the car and Rebecca starts it, she has a brief freak-out. “Oh my god! I don’t know where we’re going! I mean, I know where the mortuary is, but not how to get there!” There is a shrill lining of panic around her words, and the air in the car tastes like chewing on aluminum foil.

Our mom pats her shoulder, not knowing what to say, what directions to offer, but recognizing panic. I back-seat-drive to the location. From spending time with Mom when she lived here, as well as Charles, I am more familiar with Hemet than my sister.

It’s an ugly city. The cracked, ill-kempt streets are laid out in a tidy grid, but it seems that if one drives too far in any direction, one hits the same boggy agricultural field. The air is brown and fetid from smog and pesticides trapped in this weird little valley populated mostly by the elderly. Traffic is both slow and erratically dangerous. Sometimes in my dreams, I drive the city’s streets, a sick animal in the backseat that I can’t clearly see or reach to comfort, its whimpers of pain forcing me to wake myself up to avoid crying myself.

When we reach the mortuary, there is an atrium filled with birds. A faux-desert scene houses little pheasants, and tiny roadrunners wander forlornly, glassed in on all four sides. They can never not be on display, but Rebecca is happy to see them. She likes birds. Watching them calms her. We wait in a musty room. I poke around, examining the literature, how the place is decorated, and what is stored in the credenza against the wall (mostly off-brand tissue boxes and religious bookmark looking things I don’t understand). I am writing a novel that is set in a mortuary; I can use this.

A man comes and shows us to a room where a wooden box sits on a table, shrine-like. We all back up. We put our hands behind our backs. No one wants to take it. We engage the man in conversation, admiring the box without actually looking at it. We all three flirt with the man; we are expert flirters. My mother and sister share a flirting style, I see for the first time. They cajole and flatter; there is a tone in their voices not normally heard, like jollying a petulant child out of his mood.

Finally, Mom tries to take the box. She is the brave one. It is too heavy for her. I help the man set it into a red velvet bag and he puts in into my sister’s arms. She does not look comfortable with this. We walk out to the car and I get my mother settled in the front passenger seat, and my sister sets the bag containing the box on my mother’s lap. My mother rhythmically pats it, as if comforting a fussy baby.

Mom agrees to take the box home with her and put it in her closet next to our stepfather. They can hang out. No one mentions that they never really got along while they were alive. At Charles’s sadly empty apartment, where Rebecca drops us off and Mom and I climb into my car, I belt the box into my back seat and start home.

Mom is unusually silent. This is understandable, I think, and a bit of a relief after the tense day. Up in the mountains she says, “You’ve come full circle. You were his ride when he found out he was sick. Now you’re his ride home.”

We are in the highest part of the mountains. We have been climbing the twisting, looping, steep, two-lane road, and then the top opened up to a stunning view—any way we look is stark California mountain. Here, on this flat opening amongst them, we seem higher yet still protected by ranges surrounding us.

I pull over because I can’t see out of my tear-filled eyes and am having trouble getting air. I’m parked on the side of the road, gasping, feeling like I’m about to vomit. My mother is apologizing and I look out the window and realize where I am. This is where I stopped to talk to Rebecca on the phone that horrible day. This is where I talked to Charles after her, reassuring him it wasn’t all a nightmare, the cancer wasn’t a mistake that my sister had the power to make him “take back.” Years before that, this is where I used to stop and vomit when my body was flush with hormones, natural and injected during my decade of infertility treatments. I am beginning to hate this beautiful spot.

“I am ready to go home,” I say. “I am ready to be done.”

 

2.

My sister puts her head through the open passenger side window and says, “My husband was always a pain in the ass. Why should he be any different now that he is dead?” And she gestures to the backseat where the wooden casket containing his ashes has been sitting all this long, hot afternoon, carefully belted in.

This is the fourth stop we’ve made in our search for a decent spot to illegally scatter his ashes. Charles chose this road in a remote part of Riverside County, telling everyone who’d listen he wanted to be “thrown to the wind” here. But he never went into specifics. He never said exactly where, he never said why, and we’re wondering if maybe chemo brain was responsible for his decision because this is a damn-awful place to drift into the wind.

August is the worst of the summer months in Southern California. June and July have sucked any moisture gone, so August is lip-cracking dry and the intense heat casts a yellow glare over the afternoon. It feels like the sun is personally angry at us, driving all over these dusty roads, and has persuaded the wind to join him in tormenting us as it swirls and eddies in mini-dirt devils, flinging gravel at our toes exposed by inappropriate sandals when we dare to leave our vehicles.

The first stop we made was above a house surrounded by dead cars and some very mean looking dogs. The second stop was next to a gun range where armed rednecks were actively shooting. The third stop, we realized was outside of Charles’s specified location and his three grown children got into an argument over whether proximity mattered.

This fourth stop is a dirt fire road clinging precariously to the side of a slippery, dusty mountain, ruts and boulders line the edges. We are caravanning and my sedan doesn’t fit on the road. I am perched half in the two-lane, busy highway. My elderly mother is in the passenger seat. Even with the a/c turned all the way up, she is red and sweaty.

“Are you getting out?” Rebecca asks. I think our mother is about to cry.

“Take the ashes,” I tell my sister, leaning into the backseat to pop the seat belt loose. “I’m taking Mom home.”

“You’re not staying?”

“We’re not?” Mom asks, and she smiles at me in relief. Her back is to my sister, who doesn’t see the smile.

“I can’t drive up that road, Mom can’t walk it, and look at her”—Rebecca does and my mother flips open the visor mirror to see herself. “I think she has heatstroke. She’s seventy-four. She’s too old for this shit.”

My sister laughs while my mother nods seriously. “I am too old for this shit.” She starts to cry and my sister hugs her through the open window and kisses her goodbye.

My sister won’t take the ashes. She calls for her middle child, who calls for her boyfriend to carry the pretty little casket. I loan them my pocket knife. They look confused.

“There is a plastic zip tie on the baggy inside,” I explain. “You’ll have to cut it loose.”

I discovered this at the first stop when everyone except my oldest niece’s husband ran to look over the edge of a cliff rather than deal with the ashes. My nephew-in-law, a sweet boy from Kansas, only shrugged when I snarled, “Why the hell are we the ones dealing with this?”

I was shocked out of my irritation by the contents of the baggy. What had once been Charles was now strangely dry, chalky dust with surprisingly large shards of bone in it. I shifted the sealed bag in my hands, listening to the rustling, slushing noise, examining the end sum of my friend. When I was growing up, Charles was so handsome, he was the standard by which I judged all male beauty. Now that beauty, whittled away by his cancer, is reduced to the contents of this gallon-sized plastic bag.

There was one shard of bone, not quite arrowhead shaped, a littler smaller than my littlest finger. I planned on slipping it into my pocket when no one was looking. I wanted to keep it. I wanted to carry it in my mouth.

But Charles’s children decided to move on—they didn’t like the junk-yard look of this stop and I had to force the ash-baggy back into its covering box, shaking it roughly like a colander of pasta to make it fit. Several family members watched, but no one offered to help.

By the fourth stop, by the side of the road, I am ready to hand over the ashes. I am ready to go home. We call good-byes and love-yous out the window and drive away. “I’m sorry to make you miss it,” our mom says.

“I’m not,” I reply. “I’ve done what I could. I did what I could for him while he was alive. My duty is to the living. You look like hell.”

“Gee, thanks,” she says and points the last air vent at her face. All the air vents now hitting her, she rummages in my purse.

I place the back of my hand on the hot window at my side. “I’ve done what I could,” I say, but to myself.

My mother pulls a red lipstick out of my bag. “How ‘bout I put on some lipstick and you take me out to dinner?”

“All right,” I agree. A cool, dark restaurant would be soothing. My hand is still on the burning glass.

 

3.

We are sitting around Rebecca’s new kitchen table, eating lunch, reading aloud from a book about healthy cholesterol levels, when she expresses how angry she is at her husband. My mother looks up. “Which one?”

I laugh. My sister does not. Her face is tight, but then crumples as I watch.

“Charles never did anything to help himself and then he got sick and his family never did anything to help and never brought his father to see him before he died. And his bitch sister had the audacity to hint to my little girl, at her daddy’s funeral, that we should reimburse Grandpa for the money he paid to the private nurse.” Rebecca is crying so her speech is almost unintelligible, and her “little girl” is twenty-five, but I take her point.

Our mother cries in sympathy. I bring them tissues and make cups of tea and pat them on the back occasionally. I don’t cry. I am tired. I think about the shards of bone in the bag of chalky dust that used to be Charles. I think about my stepfather’s ashes in the pirate chest in my mother’s closet. I remember that my mother has filled in paperwork naming me responsible for her ashes when the time comes. I wonder who will deal with my chalky dust when I am dead.

On the drive home my mother asks if my sister does that often, cries out of anger with her dead husband. I think Rebecca must clean up her emotions when talking to our mother alone.

“She didn’t deal with her anger at the time,” I say, feeling enlightened. “She took off. So she’s gonna have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”

“You’re right,” my mother nods her head, begins to cry once more. “You’re right.”

At that moment I see a Starbucks up ahead. I’m about to offer to pull in, buy a vente pumpkin spice latte (damn whatever the seasonal cut-off date might be) to cheer her up, but then I remember that it’s my mom in the car next to me. My mom hates Starbucks and doesn’t drink much coffee at all. It isn’t her panacea. Now who is confused? Now who is angry? Now who is unenlightened?

Months later, my throat feels choked when I see a Starbucks. I want to go in and order a pumpkin spice latte, but I want my brother-in-law back with me. I want him healthy or at least not actively dying. I want the coffee klatch to be for fun, not a treatment for the chemo shakes and sickness. I want too much, I know.

I have a terrible suspicion that I will never be able to drink coffee again. I am angry about that. I am angry about a lot of things. I am okay with this anger.

•••

SARA MARCHANT received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside/ Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest-Station and Every Writer’s Resource. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband and varying amounts of poultry.

Some names have been changed. —ed.

Not Now, and Maybe Never

bassinet
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Beth Bailey

If my life were a sitcom, or one of those feather-light family dramas paraded out each year with its supposedly new treatment of the same dusty issues, I’d have seen the plot twist coming miles out. My sister’s text message should have said everything. “Are you busy? I have something I need to tell you that I don’t want to text.”

While I typed that I was free, I thought of the plethora of things that could have happened. Had she or her boyfriend had another relapse? Did she lose her cat again? Was she going to ask for money to tide her over for the next month? Had I accidentally divulged one of her numerous secrets to our parents?

I didn’t have time to consider other possibilities because the phone was already ringing.

“Hey, how are you? What’s up?” This was me, anxiously trying to gauge the urgency of the situation.

“Sissy, I’m pregnant.”

When people get news like this, they make a big, sweeping statement, something like, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” I used to think that those types of declarations were overwrought, but suddenly, I could commiserate. My head was reeling. I had to sit down and remind myself to breathe as I underwent a series of indescribable and permanent emotional transmutations.

My five-years-younger sister, a recovering addict with just months left in her several-year course of study in beauty school, was pregnant. The father was working on his own recovery. “He was scared,” my sister admitted when she described her boyfriend’s reaction to finding out he was soon going to be a father. “But then he wrote down this list of things he wanted to do for the baby. It was so cute.”

For the next few minutes, my sister paraded out a very thorough overview of how she came to discover she was pregnant. First, she said, she felt tired. “I didn’t even want to put on my makeup,” she said. The same day, all the other girls at beauty school told her that she looked like shit.

“I knew I was pregnant,” she said. “I told my boyfriend, and he said I was just being silly. He said, ‘You always think you’re pregnant.’ He and I got in a big fight about whether we could afford a pregnancy test. I walked out after the fight and went straight to the store. I spent the last two dollars in my account on some crappy store-brand tests. When I took the first one, there were two lines—faint, but pink. I tried again two days later. They were darker that time. I told Mom, and she said to wait, but I explained to her, you don’t get a false positive. It’s rare. Over the weekend, we went to the free clinic and they said I was definitely pregnant.”

“But … are you happy?” I wondered aloud.

“Yeah. I know it won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but…”

•••

I had been dying to have this very conversation with my friends and family for what seems like forever. I have wanted to have a baby since the day after I married my husband. We will celebrate our two-year anniversary in six months. In times of old, we would already have one baby. Our second would be cooking in my stretch-marked, vertical-lined belly. I would exclaim with fervor about how often I felt my babies kick, and I’d lament to anyone who would listen about my morning sickness, the aches in my back. I would wax poetic about the knowledge that a life was growing inside of me. This was supposed to be my time in the sun.

Instead, my sister was pregnant at twenty-two. My sister who had been kicked off my dad’s car insurance for having too many speeding tickets and at-fault accidents to remain insurable. My sister who has to rely on a healthy—no, corpulent—injection of funds from my parents to make ends meet every month. My sister who has relapsed several times already, and who doesn’t yet have a year of sobriety under her belt. My sister was going to experience the unbridled joy of parenthood, albeit on a shoestring budget.

I went to the refrigerator and wrenched the cap from a bottle of beer. I walked briskly into the next room, leaned over our mahogany wine rack, and grabbed the first bottle of white I saw. Without ceremony, I threw it in the freezer of our new gourmet refrigerator.

•••

My grandmother had her first child nine months to the day after she was married. She’s Catholic, and whenever we talk, she chides me about not going to mass enough. Several weeks ago, I called her to chat. “You can call during the day?” she asked, incredulous. I explained that my new job was something I did from home, and that I was just a volunteer. “I see,” she said in disgust. I told her about how I was starting to ready one of our spare upstairs rooms for a nursery. I could hear her suck in her breath. “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” She spat the last bit like an accusation.

I cringed. At twenty-seven, didn’t I have the right to be pregnant? “No, Grandma. I just wanted to get the space ready for when we are.”

“Good,” she said, clearly relieved. “You’re not ready.”

I reminded her about the proximity of my dad’s birth to her marriage date, but it made no difference. For a reason I’m not privy to, she doesn’t think we should be having kids.

My husband and I own a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom house with over an acre of sprawling lawn and mature woods. My husband works as an electrical engineer and I stay home, spending my time curating a startup Etsy shop, funneling my anger and passion into often half-baked writing endeavors, and cooking in our granite and stainless-steel kitchen. Admittedly, I am a terrible cleaner. My husband does all the vacuuming and the only mopping that actually cleans our oak floors. I tend to just spread around the dog hair and dust.

What about any of that made me an unsuitable candidate for parenthood? I wasn’t sure.

It took me weeks after that conversation to realize all over again that I was prepared for my eventual expedition into parenthood. More than half my planning is already done, for heaven’s sake. I know that I want to breastfeed, and which kind of bathtub insert I want for my children. I know that I want to give birth in a hospital where there are birthing tubs, and that I’d like to forego having an epidural, if I can handle it. I know exactly how many prenatal visits our health insurance will cover, and even when I’d like to conceive so that I’m not heavy with child in the hot summer months. Especially, I know that once I am pregnant, my life will change forever, and in ways even I cannot premeditate.

Immediately I sense that my sister is blithely unaware of the intricacies of what she will be undertaking. My first hint is that she doesn’t understand the three-months rule—that most women don’t tell people they’re pregnant until they’re three months along, as that is considered the point after which a spontaneous miscarriage is least likely.

“I’m twenty-two, though,” she says. “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll probably be fine.”

Just throw another dagger, I want to say. But I don’t. Instead, I play the role of the good older sister. I try my hardest to be supportive of her difficult decision and not to let her see how much I am personally and selfishly hurting.

I also fill the rest of my familial duty by peppering her with questions about things she has yet to consider. Has she thought about the price of child care? What happens if the baby’s father doesn’t stick around? Has she considered adoption? I tell her she really ought to keep it in the back of her mind, just in case.

•••

Even as I mention adoption to my sister, I understand how it must sound. My sister and I are both adopted. We are the most different people you can possibly imagine, and that’s because we have vastly different genetic makeups, which I believe contained the hard-wiring for the people we would become.

When we were growing up, my sister refused to accept our parents as her parents. She felt separate from them, and she wanted desperately to be reunited with her birth mother. She was certain that when she did meet her birth mother, she would have the life she always dreamed of: love and unicorns and rainbow glitter skies. Of course, the rest of us knew it wouldn’t have worked that way, but we all loved my sister too much to explain the meaning of “closed adoption.” By the time she was five, my sister’s adoption became the banner she marched into emotionally-devastating battles; her birthday the scene of many a tragic lamentation and outburst rather than a day of joy.

I never felt the way my sister did. I understood what “closed” meant, and I loved my parents. Still, every good drama needs a plot twist, and mine arrived when I was twenty, when I finally learned that my adoption had always been incredibly different than my sister’s.

When my birth mother released me to my parents, she sent along a short letter, which was to be given to me on my eighteenth birthday. My parents gave me this letter two years late. The paper was blue and white, the words written in a lovely round script. “To the baby girl I gave up for adoption,” it read. “If I loved you a little, I would have kept you for myself. But I love you a lot, so I am giving you up.” According to my birth mother’s letter, on reaching adulthood, I could petition Catholic Charities to find her identity. I was astonished. Growing up thinking that I’d never know my birth parents, I hadn’t considered the whole world of possibilities that I now knew could be waiting for me. The prospect was a lot to take in.

“Your sister can’t know,” my parents reminded me, over and over again. “She would be devastated.”

Years later, as I was preparing to marry and move out of my home state, I finally petitioned Catholic Charities. In a matter of weeks, I was united with both sides of my birth family. From the outset, I was startled and pleasantly overwhelmed by the outpouring of excitement and love from the people whose genes I carry. It was, and still is, a fairy tale. Even in fairy tales, however, there is scar tissue underlying all that sparkling joy.

A great deal of sadness permeates my birth family—children tragically lost, relationships strained by lies and secrets kept—but one of the most poignant and untold stories revolves around my birth mother. At twenty years old and between colleges, she had made a hard decision for herself when she found herself pregnant with me. She knew that she couldn’t be the kind of parent she thought I deserved, and she didn’t want me to spend my life shuffling between various family members while she eked out a living.

In the years that passed after my adoption, though, the separation weighed on her. She listened extra hard when strangers spoke of their adopted children, and she looked closely at passing girls or young women who seemed close to my age. Every year on the birthday that we share, she and her husband would take a drive past the hospital where I was born. I can’t imagine how she handled the seven years between my eighteenth birthday and the year we finally met.

Even my newfound relatives bring up my birth mother’s sadness. As only family can, they paint their speculation and concern with a brush that manages to be both coarse and fine.

The only people who really matter in this are my birth mother and myself, and we have rested on the light assertion that we found each other at just the right time, when we were both finally ready.

“You wouldn’t have liked the person I was before,” I told her once, and I truly meant it. I didn’t even like that person.

•••

There is so much baggage inherently tangled up in adoption that I have misgivings recommending it to my sister. But more than that, I have firsthand knowledge of a slew of things that give me deep concerns about my sister’s soon-to-be motherhood.

When we were growing up, my sister was always the difficult one. The chores I took on at age seven, for instance, were not inherited by my sister at the same age. I saw injustice in this, but it was explained away easily. “It’s too much of a fight to get her to set the table, honey,” my mom would say in her most exasperated voice. “Could you please just do it?” And with that, I would be off doing two children’s worth of chores while my sister screamed and cried and gnashed her teeth about things as simple as turning off the television or copying out a list of twenty spelling words.

As she got older, my sister’s issues only escalated. She was bipolar and dyslexic, with a wicked case of ADHD. She was also a serial perfectionist; if a paper my sister wrote or a homework assignment she finished wasn’t clean and error-free, she wouldn’t hand it in. That was only applicable in the classes she liked. In the others, like math, she simply didn’t pay attention. Not surprisingly, her grades were abysmal.

Other issues kept cropping up with increased frequency. My sister chopped off all her hair á là Britney Spears in one of her bipolar depressions, and shortly thereafter, she threatened suicide. Next, she started to lie about where she was on weekend evenings with friends, and on several occasions, I watched in awe as my younger sister was carted home drunk or high. Once, she ran away from home for almost two weeks. While she was gone, neither of my parents would call the police to report her as a runaway; they were too worried that they might give her a police record.

Meanwhile, from what ought to have been a safe distance away at college, I was slowly going insane. My mouth broke out in stress ulcers from all the phone calls from my parents, who vented their frustrations about my sister to me rather than to one another because they no longer spoke. I acted out in stupid and destructive ways, and I went from having a three-point-something GPA to falling asleep in all my classes and getting my first failing grades.

Most of my antics and issues went unnoticed, though, because things were even worse for my sister. Over the next few years, she turned eighteen and started drinking to incredible excess. That quickly escalated to serious drug use. In her post-high school years, my sister trashed several apartments across the state of Virginia because she was always messed up, and unable to function like a normal young adult. Soon after moving back home from a brief stint at a community college near JMU, my sister got incredibly intoxicated and tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. She called a friend to say goodbye, and instead of accepting my sister’s decision, her friend called 911.

When the ambulance came, my sister was furious. At the hospital, a host of nurses fed my sister whatever you give kids who OD on pills, maybe charcoal. Maybe they pumped her stomach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that somehow, they saved her.

My dad called me the next evening to tell me what had happened. I was in DC for two weeks of work training at the time, and when I got the belated news, I felt like my life was falling apart before my eyes and there was nothing I could do to stop the shattering. My sister and I may not have ever been close, but I did not want to lose her. She was my sister, my partner in many a silly crime. She was the girl who always woke me up on Christmas morning to tell me how she’d gotten around our parents’ elaborate holiday security barriers. Even though I always begged her not to, she never failed to divulge exactly what Santa had brought each of us the night before.

While my sister was recovering at a psychiatric hospital, I called her several times a day. I remember that it was hard to get her to stay on the phone. She was mad and her fuse was short. The nurses, she said, were mean to her.

Because my sister was legally an adult, she was able to check herself out of the psychiatric hospital and come back home. She was determined to stay sober, she said. That determination lasted a few days. After that, the Facebook statuses about trying to hide her binge drinking from my parents started coming fast and furious. My sister had blocked my parents from being able to see her page, but she hadn’t blocked me, and I had no qualms about playing the narc. Every time that I saw another indicator that my sister was back on the path of killing herself, I called each of my parents at their separate homes to rat her out. They seemed to think it was no big deal, that everything was fine. “You’re not here,” they’d say. “You don’t see her every day.” And as usual, they continued to speak to me and not to one another.

A few days later, I got a phone call at seven on a Saturday morning. My sister was on the other end, slurring her speech and telling me how sorry she was for myriad random things she’d done wrong. We had a long conversation, none of which she remembers. Finally, I managed to get her to tell me that she was at my mom’s house, that she’d been drinking and she’d overdosed on a handful of pills for a second time. I tried to call my mom, but my sister, who had broken approximately her fifteenth cell phone, was using my mom’s cell phone, and my mom was nowhere to be found. After watching my sister stumble around the house and howl at an imaginary maid on Face Time, I called my dad. He eventually called an ambulance and followed my sister to the ER. He stayed there by my sister’s side as she told an unfazed nurse about the astounding variety and extent of her drug use. Over the next few hours, my sister’s hallucinations grew worse. She told my dad in vivid detail about the ghosts in the hospital room with them. She heard them as clear as a bell and spoke with them as if they really were there.

My sister’s next stop was the same psychiatric hospital she’d been in weeks earlier. This time, however, a judge ruled that she could not check herself out. The hospital was still just a stop-gap measure, and an expensive one; my family needed to hastily find a long-term rehabilitation facility that would accept their health insurance. Within days, they found a place in Florida where a spot was open, and my sister was sent there by herself on a plane with a layover in Atlanta. We all bit our nails to the bone while she was en route; it was entirely possible that my sister might try to jump ship midway through her travels. We took our own separate breaths of fresh air when the rehab facility confirmed that my sister was in their care.

When her time at rehab ended, my sister got and stayed clean living in a halfway house in Pensacola. After a time, she tried to go back to community college to make my parents happy. By her twenty-first birthday, which stupidly coincided with the week of my husband’s and my open bar wedding, she almost had a year of sobriety. She handled the wedding so well that several months later, my parents convinced her to move back to Virginia.

At home, the stress of being near all her old, bad-influence friends was too much for my sister. Just weeks into the new arrangement, some stupid kid convinced her to have “just one” drink. Many addicts will tell you that there’s no such thing as “just one drink.” “One is too many, and one hundred isn’t enough,” my sister used to say. The last time I heard her say it was just a few days before she fell off the thirteen-month wagon. It was August, and my mother was supposed to come visit for my birthday. She didn’t know what to do about my sister relapsing, so she thought she’d bring her up for the visit, too. I thought about the boxes of good Virginia wine stashed in the basement, the main floor liquor cabinet, our wine rack. Mostly, I thought about the way my sister was when she drank, and I wanted to scream. Instead, I was quiet, mouse-like: my usual self. Luckily, my husband played the hard-ass. He said that if my sister was back on the sauce, she wasn’t allowed in his house. It was the right decision, but not an easy one even to relay. Days later, my sister was headed back to her Florida halfway house to start over again.

Somewhere in there, I am missing something. Although my sister has been back in Florida now for over a year, she still hasn’t hit a year of sobriety. I don’t know when she slipped in Florida, or how, but I know she has. So, with a rusty track record of staying away from substances, she is expecting a child. And she is thrilled about it.

•••

My sister is taking in all my advice and my anxiety-filled diatribes like a champ. “I want to make this happen,” she says. “Everything happens for a reason, and maybe it’s time for me. I did all the stupid stuff most people do in their twenties, and I did it in my teens. It’s out of my system. I’m excited.”

I can’t imagine being so calm about being responsible for a life, especially when there has been so much uncertainty in one’s own current existence. I am flabbergasted, gob smacked. Mostly, though, I am jealous beyond measure at her grace and composure, her certainty, and the fact that she is going to have a baby, and I am not. She must sense it, even over the phone lines that span the thousand-and-change miles between us.

“You’re not mad, are you?” she asks me. “I mean, you were supposed to be the one having kids…”

“No, I’m not mad. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not like you planned this. It’s not like you wanted to get pregnant to spite me. This has nothing to do with me.”

This is what I ought to say in my role as supporter, mediator, life-saver. It’s not exactly a lie. I just have not yet figured out how to verbalize—or contend with—my disjointed alternate worlds of past, present, and possible future. Not now, and maybe never.

•••

BETH BAILEY lives in rural Michigan, where she is a wife and the proud owner of two fantastic and neurotic dogs. While finishing her first novel, Among the Stones, about love and the war in Afghanistan, Beth writes the occasional personal essay and has started working on a collection of essays about veterans of war. Her work has been published by Words After War. You can follow her on Twitter at BWBailey85.

Final Accounting

Courtesy Jane Hammons
Courtesy Jane Hammons

By Jane Hammons

Executor. That word has defined me and followed my signature on documents for over a year. I’m ready to put it to rest.

I’ve balanced the books on Kath’s account—down to the penny. She, the CPA, would be pleased. Or depending on her mood, she might make fun of me, pretend to be amazed that I—the writer, the teacher of writing—could do basic math. She would ignore—deny even—the story that numbers tell. I listen to them all. Months of unpaid invoices from the ambulance service—two to three rescues a week toward the end. Hundreds of dollars for online games. Enormous vet bills for the cat (sent to a shelter by the Sheriff of Santa Cruz County when he found Kath’s body).

The detailed billing from Mehl’s Colonial Chapel tells its own story. Of the many services offered, we choose the simplest: Direct Cremation.

No traditional funeral service. No cremation funeral service. No memorial service.

I have a hard time explaining this to our father’s family, who call from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma—places where the traditional roots of his family are sown. They want to know where to send flowers.

Nowhere.

No flowers?

No service.

A wreath then, offers Uncle Jerry, Dad’s little brother, loudmouth, big spender—someone Kath loved. She maintained close ties with our father’s family after our parents divorced. I did not. And I don’t want to talk about my sister’s death with any of them.

I listen while Uncle Jerry recounts his plan to take Kath on a drive down Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from her home in Santa Cruz to Fountain Valley where his daughter lives near Disneyland. For over twenty years, I’ve heard Kath describe this imagined journey, sometimes as though she had actually taken it.

With this story he wants to claim some part of her, declare a bond. Kath told the story for the same reason: to let me know that she was connected to him—to our father, to that family, those roots—in a way that I never would be, something that has always been clear.

My father’s family is not subtle. Kath was like a baby sister to Dad’s youngest siblings; Uncle Jerry just eight when she was born. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was four, Kath required a lot of attention.

My brother Johnny—two years younger than I—was the first grandson, a sweet, funny boy, a troubled man, and ultimately a disappointment, but male, an heir to the significance they’ve attached to their family name. (My name, too.)

But Kath and Johnny are both dead, so Uncle Jerry spills out his funeral fantasy to me. She liked lilies and roses, he tells me, like it is something I don’t know.

A floating wreath. Put candles on it.

He directs the service.

As the sun sets, walk to the beach near Nancy’s house. (He calls my mother by name; my father refers to her as your mother.)

Sprinkle ashes upon the wreath.

Place it in the waves.

Watch it float out to sea, tiny lights disappearing along the horizon.

He chokes himself up imagining something like the final scene of The Descendants, the last movie Kath saw in a theater. Not that Uncle Jerry would know that. It was our stepfather, Jim, who took Kath to that movie and watched with her as handsome George Clooney and his lovely daughters sprinkled mother-wife ashes into a warm Hawaiian sea.

Here it’s January. The Pacific waters of the Monterey Bay are cold. Waves break hard upon a beach largely abandoned in winter.

Sure, I say, send it to my mother’s house.

No wreath arrives. We fly kites.

It’s something that Kath loved to do, my younger sister Diane reminds those of us who have gathered: me, my youngest sister Libby (my half-sister if you want to get biological, but we don’t in this family), our folks, my children.

We take the kites from Kath’s laundry room to the beach. There is very little wind, but Diane is determined and chugs up and down the beach, churning enough breeze to keep aloft the small yellow triangle with black and white cartoon eyes. We applaud. Cheer. Mom says silly things about Kath looking down upon us. Mostly we pay attention to my niece, Libby’s baby girl. We build a sandcastle. Decorate it with sea gull feathers, tiny shells, and bits of sea glass. Mom and Jim take their young granddaughter by the hand and toddle her to the water’s edge where, delighted, she pounds her tiny feet into the cold sea foam. Around her chubby legs wrap strands of sea kelp, their bulbs sputtering last gasps as they come to rest upon the shore. My two children, young men in their twenties, toss a Frisbee with Libby’s husband. We wish Diane’s family were here, but for work and school, they have stayed in Austin where they live.

The wreath that Uncle Jerry never sent floats, unwelcome, into my awareness that we are avoiding more than memorializing. Kath’s ashes—surprisingly heavy packed into a Tupperware tub by Mehl’s—sit in the garage. For the past few days, with the baby and my two boys here, Mom has been more attentive grandmother to the living than grieving mother of the dead. We don’t mention it for fear it will raise the specter of relief, something we are all feeling but cannot yet admit.

•••

My children and I are the first to depart; then Libby and her family return to Portland. Diane stays a few days longer. From Mom’s carefully cultivated collection, she chooses purple orchids for a car ride down Highway 1. Mom wraps Kath’s Tupperwared remains in a blanket and cradles her oldest child in her arms as Jim drives down the Pacific Coast to Big Sur—not Disneyland—and they have a quiet picnic.

Months later, however, there is still the matter of Kath’s ashes.

I decide to sprinkle some of them around New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, land of our childhood. For the distribution, Mom has purchased several cheap plastic tubes in an array of lollipop colors. When I tell her they look like dildos, she blushes, suddenly prudish as she approaches eighty, this woman who once enlisted the help of her children in decoupaging onto thin pieces of wood pictures of bare-breasted Playboy Bunnies she’d ripped from magazines. We boxed the Bunny plaques up with candy bars and socks and mailed them off to soldiers in Vietnam. My stepfather among them.

I choose the purple one and fill it with Kath. Preparing for our journey, I check airline regulations for rules about transporting ashes but find none. I carry her in my backpack where she rolls along the conveyor belt and is x-rayed—greasy fat, thin skin, tiny shards of bone—along with camera, laptop, cell phone. I go upright skeleton, arms above head, through the body scanner. Can the TSA agent see that I have only one kidney? The other I gave to Kath twenty-five years ago.

•••

I fly into record heat, the entire state of New Mexico in the second year of a terrible drought, pick up a rental car in Albuquerque, put Kath in the shade on the passenger-side floor, and adjust the air-conditioner vents to keep her cool. I don’t want that cheap tube melting in the sun, fusing her forever into a lewd purple conglomeration of plastic and ash. Then we hit the long hot highway, as we have done many times. Trips from Albuquerque, where we both attended the University of New Mexico, to Roswell before we followed Mom’s migration to California. Drives to see Dad and his family—Lawton, Amarillo, Carlsbad, Monroe. Roads stretched out before us then. Any destination possible.

I enter the Village of Capitan along U. S. 380 at one end of the Billy the Kid Trail. Across it hangs a banner reading, “Jesus Christ Lord over Capitan.” I react as though it says “No Sinners Allowed” and hit the brake hard. Kath rolls forward then back and under the seat, hiding. She doesn’t want to be here. And suddenly neither do I.

Capitan, New Mexico: population 1485; twenty churches; 3.2 square miles; home of Smokey Bear. Dad is mayor. The last time I was here with Kath, it was Christmas—the 1970s were about to become the 1980s; we were both getting divorces. We received matching gifts: beige sweaters with suede panels down the front, a big zipper up the middle. Laughing, we put them on under the identical plaid ponchos we got the year before.

Once in the eighties, I persuaded Diane to meet me at Dad’s for a couple of days in the summer—I didn’t want to make the obligatory visit alone.

Once in the nineties, I brought my sons—then five and seven—to meet their grandfather.

It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve visited Dad’s house. He’s never been to mine. In 2008 we all gathered at Kath’s condo in Santa Cruz when we feared she would die, hospitalized in a coma for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me.

I am here because she is not.

After I unload my suitcase and settle into the spare bedroom, I ask Dad and my stepmother, Ellen, if they want to drive over to where Mom’s cabin once stood in Noisy Water Canyon and sprinkle some of Kath’s ashes in the Ruidoso River. They look at me like I’ve shit on their shoes. Jesus Christ lords over Capitan, and, apparently he takes a dim view of cremation. Or perhaps it is the spreading of ashes. No one says a word.

Alone, I drive to the canyon, passing miles and miles of blackened trees and charred earth. The Little Bear Fire, the most destructive in New Mexico’s history, burned for weeks and has been out for little over a month. Ruidoso, once a small, charming village, has bulged into a chaotic mix of ugly pre-fab structures standing right next to the old split log and wooden buildings. It’s summer, so the horses are running at Ruidoso Downs and the traffic is hobbled by gigantic SUVs, RVs, and customized pickup trucks that crowd the narrow two-lane street. I’m happy to leave the center of town and head down into Noisy Water Canyon, sad to see that the wooden plank bridge that once crossed the Ruidoso River has been replaced by a paved over metal culvert. The river is so low that water just creeps around large exposed rocks and boulders.

I drive the short distance to where the cabin, demolished several years ago, once stood, and I park in the dirt driveway. The air is filled with dust and the scent of dangerously dry trees and grasses. The wild raspberries are not growing, the woodpeckers are not pecking, the pine cones on the ground hold no piñones. I had planned to hike along the river and leave some of Kath’s ashes on the big rocks we used to climb on. But I feel trapped in the canyon and panic, thinking about the fire hazard signs along the road as I drove here, Smokey Bear pointing to the red color bar designating extreme conditions. The canyon road is a dead end at the border of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation. So I retrace the path that led me here and return with Kath’s ashes to Dad’s house where he sits watching the Olympics.

Over the next four days I spend a lot of time riding the Billy the Kid Trail in my rental car. From the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino to the historic town of Lincoln for visits to the Tunstall-McSween Store, the Lincoln County Courthouse, the old cemetery. One day I make the trek to my hometown: Roswell, a place I haven’t been since the last time I visited Dad.

I follow familiar streets that lead south of town out into the countryside, but I can barely make my way to the farm where I grew up, so much of the landscape now a hideous agro-industrial parking lot and dumping ground. The house I lived in is almost unidentifiable, the lawn Mom struggled to keep green indistinguishable from the gravel driveway, which blends into parched brown fields.

“Catfish for Sale” reads a sign in the yard. The swimming pool is now a fishpond. My eyes full of tears, I get out to take pictures. The car fills with gigantic sticky horseflies. They land and linger on my face and lips; they snuggle in my hair. I snap a couple of sad shots before driving to the cemetery to sprinkle Kath’s ashes on the grave of the stillborn baby she had her first year in college. Pregnant and unmarried, she dropped out, losing her National Merit Scholarship. Banished from our home on the farm, Kath was sent to live in Carlsbad with Dad and his parents, undeserved punishment I thought even then.

In 1970 it was risky for Type 1 diabetics to have children, the monitoring required extensive, the chances of a healthy birth low. Kath’s doctor went on vacation two weeks before her due date. When she hadn’t felt the baby move for a couple of days, she drove herself to the hospital where the absence of life was confirmed. Labor was induced.

I was in high school then and left classes early one afternoon to attend the baby’s funeral. I joined my parents, stepparents, all of our grandparents, and a great-aunt at the little gravesite where a small spray of mini carnations and baby’s breath stood near a tiny white coffin; both were startling, unseemly in both size and luster. I don’t remember if my younger siblings were there. Kath was not. I didn’t question it at the time when Dad said she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t be present. Only many years later, after giving birth to two sons of my own, could I even begin to imagine how horribly unwell she must have felt. But I remember wondering at the time if she was still in the hospital. Alone while all of us—her family—were at South Park Cemetery out on the highway between our farm and Roswell.

When I arrive at the cemetery with the ashes of Steven Christopher Hammons’ mother kept cool in purple plastic, I go to the office to ask directions to the grave. The secretary, one cigarette in her hand, another burning to ash in a ceramic dish on her desk, filling the air with smoke that makes me nauseated, takes her time finding a map. She draws a slow circle around the exact location with her red pen. When she hands it to me, she says Hammons aloud and takes a long look at me. If this were a movie, we’d figure out who we were. Biology class, cheerleaders, annual staff. But we’re old now, and I haven’t lived in Roswell since I graduated from high school. If my last name rings a bell with her, it’s not a very loud or long one. I hurry out the door.

Driving directly to the baby’s grave, I avoid the others that cry for my attention: my mother’s two sisters and a brother, all dead in infancy; my mother’s mother and father; my great-grandmother and two great aunts, women I adored as a child, their husbands. Somewhere, not too far from where generations of my mother’s family are buried, is the grave of my best friend’s brother. He and Kath had dated in high school. I was dating him when he was murdered at age twenty-three. My brother is not buried here. His daughter keeps his ashes with her in an urn. But he is on my mind. All of them are, these dead people.

I sprinkle Kath’s dense ashes and slivers of bone around the granite marker denoting a life never lived.

Then I take a picture of it with the iPad I bought to document this journey, sending my mother, stepfather, sisters, and children photographs of the places where I’ve left Kath’s ashes as I travel around the state for reasons of my own. Kath did not ask this of me as Executor or sister. Maybe she doesn’t even want to mark the territory of our youth with her remains. I snag the cemetery’s wi-fi and email the photo to Mom. Immediately she replies in all caps, multiple exclamation points screaming:

WHY DON’T I REMEMBER THAT THE BABY WAS GIVEN A NAME!!!!!!

I power down the iPad. This is not a question I can answer.

My sisters, my mother, and I continue to ask each other a lot of questions. We verify chronology, plain facts—marriage, divorce, birth, death, hospitalizations, transplant—with available documents. We accept that about many things our memories conflict, contradict and are most certainly imperfect. We try not to argue about right, wrong, truth, confusion, or mistake.

•••

The Ex Parte Petition for Final Discharge and Order sits beside me on the couch as I write. Kath’s condo sold, gifts gifted, beneficiaries benefitted, my Executor duties near completion.

Ex Parte: legal work done on behalf of only one party, in this case a dead one.

Ex Parte: forms give the appearance of conclusion.

Ex Parte the story I want to tell is not. And this is where it begins.

•••

JANE HAMMONS lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing at UC Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Brain, Child, Columbia Journalism Review, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and the anthologies Hint Fiction: An Anthology of 25 Words or Fewer, The Maternal is Political, and California Prose Directory. Her photography has appeared at Revolution John and in New York Magazine.

Twinogram

twins
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Marietta Brill

When my sister’s doctor recommended that she get a mammogram, Karren called me. “Do you want me to make an appointment for you, too?” she asked, as though scheduling a pedicure. I immediately agreed. She rarely needed medical interventions, and this might be her way of asking for support. And I was way overdue. As busy New Yorkers—Karren, at the time, an advertising creative director and yoga teacher, me a freelance writer and Brooklyn mom of a teen—unpleasant procedures weren’t high on our to-do lists. I also knew that going with Karren might make it seem a little fun.

We arrived together. It was a rainy Thursday. Wearing sweaters and jeans, my sister and I looked more alike than usual. “You ladies,” the doctor said when he looked up from his chart, “you look a lot alike—you could be twins.” Tall, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, Karren and I were often mistaken for twins. I noticed that the doctor could be Matt Damon’s stunt double.

“Thank you!” we replied in unison.

“We’re just sixteen months apart,” Karren said.

Like Borscht belt comedians, we had our routine down over years of telling. I might describe how my husband once confused us. Karren would joke that our mother couldn’t tell us apart on the phone. “That’s because,” my sister, who’d once been an actress, would continue cheerfully, “we have the same voice box.” This expression always baffled me. I imagined tiny, identical gramophones in our throats. But lately I thought it was a great way to explain what made us alike—something indefinable, as intimate as breathing, which our voices expressed.

•••

Looking at the doctor’s immaculate mahogany-grain wood desk reminded me of a similar room at Sloan Kettering Neurology Unit two years earlier where Karren, my husband Peter, and I had waited for a good hour to look at my brain scan. I’d been having seizures that left me temporarily speechless and with auditory hallucinations. On the neurologist’s wall were framed nature prints and an eye chart.

Like many doctor’s offices, it had the fake cozy vibe of a Holiday Inn. Pre-diagnosis, it was a neutral purgatory, the zero-point baseline where nothing was yet decided. We would stay in this innocent safe zone until the doctors arrived—and then with a diagnosis I’d either leap above the line into my treasured normal life or drop into some ring of hell.

We had run out of conversation and our worry hung in the air with the buzz of the fluorescent lights. With a sharp tap on the door, the neurologist burst in with his entourage of five interns. Insanely, I felt like I was in the middle of a Marx Brother’s movie (the neurologist was a little short), and I half expected someone to honk a horn. He did the usual double-take and made a tepid joke about our similarity (“Which one’s the patient?”).

In front of this audience of family and doctors I was asked to perform tests. The doctor read a list of random words for me to keep in the back of my head and repeat later. Then he asked me to walk a straight line. The crowd watched as I minced, heel to toe, along blue paint-tape, like a DUI suspect or a trapeze artist. I was told to count backwards by sevens from one hundred, a task I couldn’t handle reliably in my most sober moments. “What’s the name of the Vice President?” he asked. I couldn’t remember and almost began to cry. When I couldn’t replay the random words from ten minutes ago, through a blur of tears, I saw Karren mouthing the answers. We all practically cheered when my knee jolted from the reflex tap.

Finally, the doctor tacked a film up on a light box and we gathered around the image. It looked like a Google satellite map of two shadowy divided galaxies, with a white dot on the left side, lighting up like a population center. I wanted him to zoom in, to give me the details, to orient me. “It’s an enhancing lesion in your parietal lobe,” he explained. None of us knew what it meant. Karren gasped and reached for my hand. My husband Peter squeezed my shoulders. I thought the word “enhancing” had a soothing, upbeat sound to it. I was wrong (again).

“If it shows up bright on the scan, it’s active.” This was at once not enough and too much information. I couldn’t think of anything to say. The critical, investigative part of me shut down. I looked down at my kitten-heeled Mary Janes. Those Aerosoles were so darling and comfy. They had gotten me through our mother’s funeral a year before, through our father’s funeral the year before that. They were not lucky shoes. But they were the perfect mid-life shoes, cushioning me from the hard bricks of life. Comfort is what I sought more than anything.

The neurologist said that the lesion was pressing up against the speech center in my brain. It explained why I’d suddenly lost my ability to speak and started talking like a caveman a few weeks ago. And the auditory hallucinations. In one type of hallucination, everyone had a French accent. Another expression was the echo of voices and sounds. Once I heard a stroller clanging down a stairwell for close to half an hour, as though the stairs were endless and haunted.

The centimeter-sized dot shining hard in my brain suddenly became the center of my universe. I kept thinking of the palindrome, “rats live on no evil star.” It wasn’t true, I thought; awful things could live anywhere.

The doctors agreed that the lesion was too dangerously close to my speech nerves to biopsy. No surgery. They would watch it with MRIs and give me anti-seizure drugs for the speech and hearing problems. Desperate for any good news, we almost cheered again.

Somehow, we were starving after the appointment and found a coffee shop called, amazingly, The Silver Star. Karren and Peter sat across from me in the booth. I was the focus of their searching, gentle looks. They were waiting to follow my lead. “Well, at least I don’t have to get my head drilled,” I said.

They laughed a little. Peter put his hand on mine.

Karren looked at me, intently and kindly, and said, “I know you are going to be five hundred percent!”—a mantra she would repeat in the months to come. I didn’t want to argue. I wanted to believe that she saw something inside me that I couldn’t, some other force that could outshine and blot out the enhancing dot.

The waiter came. Pete ordered a western omelette. Karren said, “I’ll have two eggs over easy with whole wheat toast, and a slice of tomato.”

I said, “I’ll have exactly the same thing.”

Karren promised she would be with me at every appointment. And she was. We ate a lot of eggs over the next year until the dot faded, and we had no more use for the Silver Star.

•••

Ever since we used to eat TV dinners in front of Patty Duke Show reruns in our suburban split-level house, Karren and I have been charmed by the idea of being twins. Back then we looked nothing alike. She was petite and I was tall; she tanned and I burned. She had big brown eyes, and mine were hazel. But the closeness of our age and our dark hair gave our mother enough reason to push the likeness. She ordered matching haircuts—pixies as toddlers and Beatle cuts as tweens. She duplicated our smocked Peter Pan–collared dresses, mine red and Karren’s yellow.

I did not appreciate my little sister then. I saw her as an interloper. I resented having to watch her in the playground, help with her homework, slow down for her when we were riding bikes. Once, when she was two and I was four, I aimed a rock at her head and surprised myself by hitting her dead on. My satisfaction wilted within minutes. It was my first experience of guilt, and to this day, I can see her lying there in bed with a cold pack inches from her Bambi eyes.

I continued to resent and ignore her until I was about thirteen when I realized that not only was she very sweet and loved me, she was wise and hilarious. As we got older, we got closer and looked more alike. We became the sworn keepers of each other’s secrets, protecting our nervous mother from my pack-a-day habit and her relationship with an older man.

Sometimes our similarity almost got us into trouble. When I was nineteen, I went out with an acquaintance of hers who called me “Karren” all night long, but I was too embarrassed to correct him as he introduced me to his sophisticated friends. He was mad when he finally figured it out. Another time, Peter and I had been on just a few dates before he went on vacation; when he returned, Karren was standing at the top of the steps of our walkup apartment. Pete loves recalling how he saw the red-lipsticked smile and dark hair and thought it was me—but eerily different. He was ready to go with it until I stepped onto the landing beside her. “Hi!” we said, doppelgangers in stereo.

For the next two decades Karren and I moved in lockstep through life, sometimes criss-crossing and sometimes following the same paths, reflections of the other in an imperfect mirror. Karren moved to New York City after college, and I did too. She led me to my first writing job in advertising, and I led Karren to hers. I introduced her to her husband and to yoga. We lived together in a sky-lit Chelsea apartment where we threw great dance parties. More importantly, Karren and I had a strong spiritual curiosity that drew us beyond our Jewish background. Over the years, she inquired into Kabbalah and Kundalini yoga. I was suddenly the tag-along.

•••

Throughout the yearlong ordeal of trying to diagnose and treat my brain tumor, Karren kept her promise. She saw me through seven spinal taps and countless CT scans, brain scans, and MRIs. She was by my side during day-long infusions and anxious waits for lab results. Once, in a panic, I felt my eyes swimming in my head: the dizziness that forewarned of a seizure. Karren held my face in her hands and said, “Look at me, and breathe.” I stared into her sweet brown eyes and followed the slow count of her breathing, inhale and exhale, until I felt that her air was mine and, sufficiently infused, relaxed.

When the panic attacks recurred, I visualized her eyes, tuned my voice and breath to her frequency to guide me back to balance.

In Dr. Matt Damon’s waiting room while Karren was inside, I couldn’t believe how nervous I felt. Praying she would be okay gave me a sense of how she’d felt all of those months when my fate was in question. After it was over the doctor admitted, laughing, that he still wasn’t sure who had which appointment. It didn’t matter. The doctor read the results, giving us both a clean bill of health.

As we went our separate ways, Karren said goodbye one more time and I heard my own voice echoing back, leaving a doctor’s office with one less worry. I realized that I turned to Karren to connect with an essential part of myself that went deeper than illness. Hearing her voice, so similar to my own, had nourished my vitality. She helped keep my brain scan serenely unlit.

•••

MARIETTA BRILL lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and teenaged son. She writes poetry, essays, and articles about books, art, health, food, and parenting. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic.com, Parenting Magazine, and The Daily Forward. She blogs about cooking at swinginginthekitchen.blogspot.com.

Catching Up with Dad

gloves
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.

“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)

“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”

“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”

About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.

•••

On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.

This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.

But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.

His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.

My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.

Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.

Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.

After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.

•••

When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.

But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.

Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.

But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.

It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.

•••

About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.

The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.

“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”

I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.

•••

On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.

Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.

In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.

I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.

•••

LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.

Proxy Sister

prayinghands
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Karrie Higgins

As a gentile living in Salt Lake City, the holy beating heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I probably have no right to meddle in Mormon religious matters, even though the Church meddles in secular ones every day: a prohibition on Powerball tickets, a ban on adoptions by cohabitating couples, arcane liquor laws that turn restaurants and taverns into temperance-era time machines, Proposition 8. I certainly had no right to attempt to claim a place in the standby line for the Priesthood Session of the LDS October 2013 General Conference. Besides being a gentile, I am also a woman: strike two. In the Mormon faith, men get the priesthood and women get motherhood. Men bestow blessings and women birth babies.

Strike three: I am childless.

Strike four: childless by choice.

After four years in Utah, during which I had learned to soften my loudmouth and dodge conversations about family and children, it astonished me when Mormon feminist organization Ordain Women called out the Church on its separate-but-equal lie: Motherhood is not equal to the priesthood. Motherhood is equal to fatherhood. Only priesthood is equal to priesthood.

Until Ordain Women made headlines, I was only dimly aware of Mormon feminism. I had heard of excommunicated feminist scholars and a “wear pants to church” protest, but Ordain Women felt more direct and radical, more relevant.

Ordain Women believes the priesthood should transcend gender and parenthood, just as Joseph Smith intended in 1842 when he envisioned the Nauvoo Female Relief Society as a “Kingdom of Priests.” Without the priesthood, women cannot take the reins of clerical or ritual authority. Men oversee everything they do, even in the all-female Relief Society. When the Church limits women’s roles because of motherhood, it echoes patriarchal justifications for locking women out of everything from the voting booth to education.

Maybe if women held the priesthood keys, I thought, they would spring open doors for me, too. Maybe I could finally claim a place for myself here, a childless gentile in Zion. Do not get me wrong. Everywhere I have lived, I have endured relentless uninvited commentary about my choice not to bear children. I am selfish. I am depriving my parents of grandchildren. I will never know real love. I will never be a true adult. But here in Zion, the commentary cuts deeper: Here, I am denying spirit babies their bodies. Here, I am defying God’s commandment to “be fruitful, multiply”—and risking the salvation of my soul. I am going against God’s plan. The patriarchy of the church trickles down into my life, too. What happens to Mormon women happens to me.

So on October 5, 2013, when Ordain Women attempted to claim places in line for standby tickets to the priesthood session, I joined them although I did not join them as myself. I joined them as a woman I’ll call Sarah, who could not attend and whose name I drew from a stack of proxy cards, similar to the LDS ritual of getting baptized by proxy for a deceased ancestor. I was her proxy sister, and it was my sacred duty to carry her to the door of the Tabernacle.

At least, that was my justification on that day. Now I know I had it backwards: she was the one who carried me.

•••

Hours before walking to City Creek Park where Ordain Women gathered for a prayer and hymn, I realized I did not own a stitch of appropriate attire. Every member of Ordain Women, I was certain, would show up in raiment befitting potential priesthood holders. All I had was a closet full of hippie patchwork dresses, boyfriend jeans, and Chuck Taylor All Stars. On the one hand, patchwork dresses are at least dresses; on the other, you can see the silhouette of my thighs when sunlight hits the diaphanous cotton gauze—not exactly modest attire for Temple Square. Gentile that I am, I still respect the sacred space beyond those fifteen-foot walls. Plus, it was chilly, the first true autumn day. As for the boyfriend jeans: modest but sloppy. Tomboyish.

Too broke to justify new clothes, I was trapped in a double bind: dress like a boy or stay home.

Would my baggy jeans insult these women who yearned for the priesthood so badly they were willing to risk apostasy—or worse, excommunication? Would I attract hecklers? Then I realized that my dilemma represented the secular vs. spiritual tug-of-war I face every day living in Salt Lake City: How do I navigate Zion’s spiritual and cultural expectations of femininity and modesty while staying true to who I am?

had to go.

On my way to City Creek Park, I stopped in Temple Square and listened to Elder D. Todd Christofferson’s voice booming almost God-like over loudspeakers.

A woman’s moral influence is no more or nowhere more powerfully felt, or more beneficially employed, than in the home.

I found myself transported to the first time I heard words thundering over a loudspeaker. It was a union picket, probably 1979 or 1980. I was four or five. A man chanted, “Solidarity Forever,” and picketers sang back, a call-and-response. I never forgot it, the visceral feeling of words at that volume, how they vibrated in my heart and bones. As Elder Christofferson spoke, I watched a pair of little girls, maybe six years old, spinning in frilly white flower-girl dresses by the edge of the reflecting pool, as if rehearsing their future wedding dance. Most sacred is a woman’s role in the creation of life. Were these their first loudspeaker words, the first ones to vibrate inside their hearts?

The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.

Families picnicked on the lawn east of the looming temple spires: men with their suit jackets strewn on the grass, sleeves rolled up, backs of their hands shielding eyes from the afternoon sun; women tossing napkins and sushi trays into Harmon’s grocery store bags, wiping their toddlers’ mouths.

Nobody reacted.

If this were Portland, Oregon, where I lived for nine years before moving here, somebody would have raised a fist and shouted. We have enough patriarchy! We need less theocracy!

I was an ex-pat in my own country. And yet, part of me must have assimilated. Why wasn’t I raising my fist? Why wasn’t I shouting?

As I stood up—

Take particular care that your dress reflects modesty, not vanity, and that your conduct manifests purity, not promiscuity.

—I thought again of the hippie patchwork in my closet and felt good for choosing my comparatively modest jeans.

Then, as if to put me in my place, a young elder walked by, looked me up and down, and scowled. I could almost hear what he was thinking: Tomboy. Dress like a woman.

•••

By the time it was almost my turn to approach the Tabernacle door, I already knew it would not turn out the way that Matthew: 7 booming over the loudspeakers in Temple Square a few hours earlier had promised: knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Not this door, not this time. The guard standing sentry at the bottom of the steps had turned away Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly, and the news trickled down within minutes to the rest of us, along with a message to stay in line: each of us would knock at that metaphorical door, even knowing the answer. We would force the Church to cast us out one by one, not just our gender, but us.

Up until the moment she was turned away, Kate Kelly had believed—really believed—the door would open for her. What for her had been an act of pure hope and faith had for the rest of us transformed into a ritual drama.

Earlier, as we walked two-by-two from City Creek Park to Temple Square, we passed elders holding up signs, the best-dressed beggars I have ever seen in their starched white shirts and black wool suits.

“Need Tickets,” their signs read.

Nobody around me seemed to notice this reversal of the normal order in Zion: men beseeching women. I thought the elders meant it tongue-in-cheek, a jab at Ordain Women for attempting to “steal” their tickets.

Then, after we arrived at Temple Square and stood shivering in the early autumn chill, I noticed an elder clutching a sign to his heart:

“Be an answer to prayer. Need tickets.”

I knew then that the elders on the sidewalk had been sincere, and in fact, their signs were not directed at us at all. Walking past the conference center, we simply happened into their path.

By contrast, Ordain Women rules forbade begging tickets off sympathetic male friends or relatives. This protest was not about getting in. It was about being let in. Still, I wondered why we did not thrust signs into the air and chant. Did the elders milling about on the square know why we were there? Did the frilly princess girls? How could they know our purpose if we did not assert ourselves in some way?

A sister missionary wearing a star-print dress in Wonder Woman blue-and-white and a red corduroy coat passed by, arm hooked in her companion’s. Her nametag bore a United States flag. Her outfit, I realized, made her the embodiment of that flag: a living, breathing Lady Liberty. If this were a protest in Portland, I could safely interpret that dress as a “statement.” Here, though, I am still learning how to read. But my questions cut deeper, too. As a man had asked me just before the group left City Creek Park, “How do you do a religious protest?”

Until Ordain Women, all my protests had been secular.

I once dressed in all black for a theatrical funeral procession through downtown Portland to protest the Carabinieri shooting Carlo Giuliani at the Genoa G8 Summit in 2001. At the front of the march, several “pallbearers” carried a black cardboard coffin aloft, which we planned to lay at the door of the World Trade Center. On our way there, we staged a die-in in front of the Oregonian newspaper offices.

Another time I locked arms with a line of strangers to prevent donors from exiting a parking garage to attend a fundraising dinner for President George W. Bush.

In Seattle, I chanted, “This is what Democracy looks like!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”

In Washington, D.C., I plopped down in resignation on the lawn in front of the World Bank as riot police circled our demonstration.

Locked arms, blocked intersections, costumes, signs, chants, dances, drummers, direct actions, handkerchiefs shielding nose and mouth in case of pepper spray: these signify protest to me. But how do you mount a religious protest, where your target is a higher authority?

And in Zion, is there ever really a difference? In March 2011, I attended a protest in the Capitol Rotunda against a bill that threatened to strike at the heart of Utah’s model public records access law, the Government Records Access and Management Act. Conservatives and liberals joined forces, and for the first time since moving here in 2009, I felt like I could claim a place in this community. As I ascended Capitol Hill on foot that day despite an aching knee and a fever, I realized how hungry I had been to get involved in civic activism again, to carve out a space for myself as a Utah citizen. I moved to Utah kicking and screaming when my husband landed a promotion he could not refuse, and for the first few years, I barricaded local politics out of my life, refusing to learn representative names or follow the issues. As a liberal gentile, I felt like I had no voice, anyway—no hope of being represented. Even most Democrats in this state sound like Republicans to me.

Inside the capitol, I was shocked at the politeness of the protest. Protestors held signs—

Talk About a Freight Train

Sunshine Not Secrecy

GRAMA may be old, but she has a voice

Only Cockroaches are Afraid of the Light

—but they did not, as Portland anarchists would have, lock arms and shut down the capitol. They spoke their minds for the appointed time and dispersed on cue.

What made the protest culture here so polite? Was it just the conservatism of the state in general or something about the Mormon culture? Then, someone said, “You know the Church is behind this bill. If you’re fighting government secrecy, you’re fighting the Church.”

In other words, there is no such thing as a purely secular protest in Zion.

But is there such thing as a purely religious one?

Now, standing in line at the Tabernacle, I clutched my proxy card, worried if I loosened my grip it would float away on a breeze. Back at City Creek Park, when organizers had invited attendees to carry proxy cards, I knew I wanted to do it. I felt the desire viscerally, a physical ache in my lungs. It was so intense I almost reached for my inhaler until I realized this ache was not asthma: it was a testimony, Mormon-speak for burning in the bosom, the fire of truth.

I wondered what it meant to volunteer to get cast out for somebody else—and for somebody else to request it. It was the opposite of a proxy baptism, when living Mormons stand in for the dead, getting dunked in the baptismal font on their behalf, a magical telegraph bouncing from star to star: you are wanted in our fold. My proxy was alive, inhabiting a body, and she had telegraphed me through her Mormon sisters.

What if these women knew about the afternoons I spent circumnavigating their temple during my early days in Salt Lake City, longing to tap into that magical telegraph machine and zap a signal to my dead brothers in the phantom zone? Or the time I wrote my brothers’ names on a slip of paper and carried it to the temple doors, where for just a moment, I considered sticking it into the lock like a pathetic skeleton key?

Was I so desperate to tap into the temple telegraph machine that I was using Sarah to do it?

On the loudspeaker, Elder Christofferson had derided feminists for scorning the “mommy track,” but he was wrong. Back at City Creek Park, I had witnessed an Ordain Women member fielding urgent texts from her daughter about an eleventh-hour homecoming dress catastrophe. All around me in line, women fussed with strollers and tended to toddlers. And just as I had predicted when I scorned my baggy jeans in my bathroom mirror, the Ordain Women members came dressed worthy of the priesthood: most of all Kate Kelly in a mustard yellow, waffle-knit blazer and purple pencil skirt. These women radiated color, a stark contrast to the elders’ black-and-white suits. Even here, I did not fit in, except for this: All my life, people like Elder Christofferson have assumed I thumbed my nose at motherhood, but they never ask why I do not want children, just like they do not ask these women why they want the priesthood.

Ask, and you shall receive.

Suddenly, it felt right for me to carry Sarah to the door of the Tabernacle. Who better than the gentile, the childless-by-choice tomboy in boyfriend jeans, to be cast out on her behalf? For that is what I am, always, as long as I live in Salt Lake City: an outcast. Marked, set apart.

One by one, women ahead of me approached the Tabernacle steps.

One by one, they sought entrance.

One by one, they were told, “Entrance to this event is for men only. Please go to LDS.org.”

The guard meant they could log onto LDS.org to watch the priesthood session live for the first time in history, the perfect Orwellian maneuver: nobody could accuse the Church of sexism if women could live stream the priesthood session at home—at home, there was that phrase again. At home: where I had almost stayed because of a stupid outfit.

When it was my turn to break from the line and approach the Tabernacle alone, I glanced from the crowd of people to the men snapping camera shutters at the front of the line and thought, “Nobody knows I am doing this as a proxy.” Should I announce it? Was it dishonest to let them think I was Mormon? Or could they already tell?

I looked up at the temple. How did I not notice before? Our ritual was playing out in the shadow of the west central tower, the one with the Big Dipper carved into it: the constellation for lost souls. In the basement below lies the baptismal font, where proxies stand in for the dead. If the temple really were a telegraph machine, the tip of that Big Dipper handle would be the wire connecting to the sky, to Polaris, the North Star. From there, any soul can be found, maybe even living ones. Maybe my proxy sister’s. Maybe by standing here, I was transmitting a message to her.

I swallowed hard: dry tonsils, pill-stuck-in-my-throat feeling. “I am seeking entrance for me and”—I thrust out the card instead of speaking her name, as if exorcising her from my body. I needed the guard to see her as separate from me.

To my surprise, he leaned forward and read her name. He did not hurry. As a Mormon, he understood what it meant to be a proxy for someone. He understood I was carrying a burden. In this small act, I had transferred my burden to him.

But I had given myself away all the same: No Mormon in the baptismal font would exorcise her proxy. I was a phony.

The guard looked me in the eye. “Welcome to Temple Square,” he said. “Entrance to this event is for men only.”

For the first time, I felt the full weight and power of the Church bearing down on me, as if for that moment, the temple had been tilted from its foundations just a crack to let me peer inside at the baptismal font, then dropped, Wizard-of-Oz like, crushing me. It did not matter if I thrust out the card. What mattered was my heart. I had become her. I had become a Mormon woman.

I maintained eye contact as I nodded.

I did not cry because I did not know if Sarah would cry.

Finally, I understood: This protest was not a protest at all, but a prayer. We did not need signs because Heavenly Father could read our hearts. We did not need chants or locked arms or sit-ins because in the very submission the Church demanded from us as women, we held the trump card: We had made them tell each and every one of us no. We had made them witness our submission. We had made our burden theirs. It was not a ritual drama; it was real.

As I rejoined the crowd, a brilliant green dump truck loaded with trash bags barricaded us from the door: picnic detritus of the day—paper cups, sticky silverware, empty sushi trays, greasy napkins—the very things the Church’s strict gender divisions define as “women’s work,” were now a literal barrier to entering the Priesthood Session.

The women, however, did not decry their fate. Instead, they broke into a hymn: “I Am a Child of God.”

I was the only one not singing, the only one who did not know the words.

•••

In an intersection on our way back to City Creek Park, a man dressed in a devil costume with a University of Utah Utes hat pointed a pitchfork at us and growled, “It’s just like Hair Club for Men. You can’t have it because it’s for men!”

Was he mounting a secular protest or a religious one? After all, in the Mormon faith, there is such a thing as false testimony, a burning in the bosom inspired by the devil instead of Heavenly Father. And yet, that Utes hat: a cheeky reference to the annual “Holy War” between the BYU and Utah Utes football teams. I got the sense the Dark Lord of the Hair Club for Men was more riled about women’s social roles than any doctrinal dispute.

But then, isn’t that what we had just protested: social roles as doctrine?

Behind me, a man shouted, “Satan is a Utes fan? Oh, come on!”

•••

Later, when we returned our cards so our proxy sisters could keep a tangible memento, I asked if I could contact the woman on my card. I wanted to tell her how it felt and what it meant to me to do that for her. The organizers suggested I write my name and email address on the back of the card, so I did. Even if she never contacts me, we are eternally connected as proxy sisters now, our relationship sealed by that artifact, an unofficial temple ordinance record.

On my way out of the park, I asked one of the women if it might offend my proxy sister to have a gentile carry her name to the Tabernacle.

“Non-LDS men can attend the priesthood session,” she said, shrugging. “Why not you?”

I knew right away what she meant: If non-LDS males who possess no other credentials for the priesthood than their gender can attend the priesthood session, certainly non-LDS women who live under this patriarchy can, too.

But for me, it also meant something more fundamental, something less and something more at the same time: Why not me?

•••

KARRIE HIGGINS lives in Salt Lake City. Her writing has appeared in Black Clock, DIAGRAM, Quarter After Eight, the Los Angeles Review, and the Los Angeles Times. Her essay “The Bottle City of God” won the 2013 Schiff Prize for Prose from the Cincinnati Review and will appear in the 2014 issue. She is at work on a book by the same title.