Like many artists, I paint to put some order into a chaotic world. To reach into the turmoil and bring my hand back torn and bloody, dripping with the entrails of the human experience. I paint to climb a little higher on the shoulders of those who went before me, the colorful giants whose voices are silenced by death. The greater balance of time and love that teeters beneath us, swaying under every thought, every voice. "Don't play small," they would say if their lips could speak. "Don't waste time," they would say. I paint to honor the quiet whispers from below, the timeless urgings that rumble beneath the surface of my own skin.
When I was young, my life was like a
river, straight and true, like water running over stones, each one touching the
other, each one big or small, smooth or rough, each one worn down by time. But
now the river is dry. The stones are covered in dust. They’ve lost their
luster. My memory fades.
On any other day, the images torment me. I have to push them away like an insect, they’re too quick to kill but too irritating to ignore. So I brush them to the fringe where they can’t touch me.
Yet now, as I search for them, they escape. Hidden away under years of earth nudged over by my own hand, a shallow but unmarked grave where I scramble to find them, bleeding from my fingertips, desperate to close this chapter of my life.
Learning to forgive.
Here at my table in my home at night,
I grope my hands around in the black, hoping to find one – just one. And it evades
I lean forward to hold my head in my
hands, wondering how I will be able to move on after such a loss.
And there it is.
The elusive stone uncovered.
Clearly now, I turn the stone over in my hands and see where my story begins.
I journey back to the winter of 1916.
Wilson had just been re-elected. Women marched in the streets protesting the election from which they were excluded. They were yelled at, spit on, beaten, arrested. All so that they could have the right to vote. So that I could have it too.
Countries outside of the United States were rocking on the edge of a precipice, this one assassinating that one, this one invading the other. Girls just like me in other places, raped, bleeding, dying, dead. Every day, I was reminded how lucky I was to live in this country, where I could worship every Sunday in whatever manner I chose.
The military had designed boats that didn’t float on the top of the water but swam underneath the surface like a snake, circling in the darkness, attacking boats with the bite of their torpedoes. Something called a U-boat. But back then, I thought it was spelled You-boat, that somehow, the boats belonged to all of us. The Sussex had been attacked in this manner earlier that year leaving a hole in the bridge large enough to pull the life out of all the passengers, their bodies bobbing up and down in the waves like corks.
Mexico was engaged in some kind of revolution. But Mexico always seemed to be in one war or another. I kept hearing about Zapata which I thought was the Mexican word for shoes but was really the name of a man, a peasant revolutionary.
Europe was a bubbling sea of hate. Stories came every day of people killed, towns ransacked. The Battle of the Somme left more than a million men dead. I couldn’t even conceive of a number that large. France, Russia, England, Italy. What made all these countries hate one another so much that they should leave the blood of a million men coloring the ground.
And my life had changed forever on that November night. Behind me was my home. And ahead was a vast wilderness of the unknown, a desert, a stone on which to expose my neck. Ahead of me was something I couldn’t picture, a shadowy beast, maybe waiting to pull me into its folds. The icy jaws opening to ensnare me. The pit. I floated there, pulled on waves I couldn’t control or understand, no longer sure if I was alive.
Night had fallen when we drove the
long road from the train station to the asylum. A night so black I might have
been travelling through the underside of the earth. Papa was next to me on the
seat but his head was turned, looking out his window trying to see outside.
The driver whistled a song out of tune, repeating verses, stopping and starting until I wanted to smack his head to improve his performance. It was called “My Melancholy Baby.” Years later, while chaperoning a dance for youth in a church basement, I heard it again. It played over the radio. And I felt like I was being led to the pit of the brute once more. I had to leave the basement and go outside. Of course the other chaperones followed me, trying to comfort me, offering me water. They reached out their arms, concerned but I pushed them away. Too many people, too many hands, too many good intentions pulling me under until I felt like I would drown.
I walked by myself for some time before my breath slowed, before I believed I would not be taken to the end place. The place where people go when they have nothing left. The last stop.
“Sit still.” said Papa slapping his hand on the seat of the motor-car. These were the only two words he had spoken to me since we began our journey.
The world on the other side of the cracked windshield passed me by in shadows. From where I was sitting, there were only vague, grey shapes sitting on a sea of black. A gravestone? A dead body? And my breath froze onto the inside surface of the glass. even when I rubbed it away with my sleeve, the frost soon covered over the clean spot.
“Billy. How much further is it?” Papa leaned his body forward towards the driver. When his knee touched mine, he pulled it back.
“Oh, it’s a ways.”
“But how much longer exactly?”
Oh, a good while.”
Papa sat back and looked out his window at the nothing again.
“So, how do you feel about having a democrat for another four years?” Billy looked over his shoulder. He had pale hair, thin, the color of straw. And those eyes. One always pointing in a different direction than the other. But they were serene blue eyes, the same blue as the shallows. Like the edge of the sky before dawn.
Papa didn’t answer him but Billy didn’t worry himself about it. Instead, he talked to me.
“Almost there.” He reached his hand back and patted me on the leg. “It’s a real nice place Miss. We got most of the last floor cleaned up. It don’t even smell musty anymore.” He smiled. “Mice have been burrowing into the spare mattresses but not to worry, we’ll find somewhere to tuck you in.”
The engine whined as we came to a crest and there it was. Easily the largest building I had ever seen. All around was a glow of light. Rows upon rows of windows, beside one another, on top of one another, lining up stretching out to each side seemingly forever. This was the place, the coral where inconvenient people were housed. The final stopping ground for the insane. The home of the forgotten.
“Papa,” I said but he didn’t turn his head. He didn’t look at me.
“Papa.” I touched his arm and leaned towards him.
He brushed my hand away.
Billy brought the motor-car to a full stop at the front of the asylum. A row of stairs led up to the wooden doors sitting back from the edge of the porch.
“Here we are.” Billy nodded his head. “Home sweet home.”
I tugged my wool hat down over my ears and stepped out into the night.
Shivering, I pulled my shawl over my shoulders. Brisk air burned in my nostrils as I looked up at the endless windows above me. Were there people inside looking back? Could anyone see me from the windows?
At the bottom of those stairs, my
mind began wandering through all the possibilities, dreading what I might find
Papa got my case out of the back and
closed the door. The sound of metal striking metal was crisp on the night air.
I couldn’t help but think that if the door had stayed open, that if he hadn’t
slammed it shut none of this would be real. The sound of the door closing made
He placed my case on the ground and I
caught his eye for a moment. Only for a moment. Then he turned away. I think it
was the last time he ever looked at me.
Loose tangles of my hair blew around my face. I tucked them back under my wool hat, fingertips cold against my cheek. Blowing air onto my hands to warm them.
The wind smelled of pine, there in
the land of the forgotten. Trees stood all around, an entire circle of them
holding us in, trapping the living creatures at the center. They stretched up
towards the coldness of the stars, rubbing on one another, creaking in the
dark, so tall I could have disappeared under their wings, so scornful I could
“You know Papa, It wasn’t my…” My teeth were chattering. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
Somehow I still thought I could change his mind. Maybe none of it was real. Tomorrow morning I would wake up in my snug little bed in Idaho as if from a dream.
“Lovetta, these people are going to help you.”
I only saw the side of his face. He dug his hands into his pockets and stepped away. Just one step. Just one. And in the space of that one step, was a rift great enough to separate us forever. That one step was large enough to remove me from his life.
“Impressive isn’t it?” Billy picked up my case. He pushed me up all seventeen stairs to the large wooden doors at the top, his hand pressing on my back, his shoulder nuzzled into mine from behind. Papa stayed by the motor-car, his back turned. Already I was invisible to him.
“We got lots of things for pretty girls like yourself to do here. Like work in the kitchen or the laundry. And they’re all pretty safe. Hardly any injuries. Last year, only one girl lost a finger. Best record in the state.” He rested his hand on my lower back, turned his head to look down at my father, then back to me. “We do everything we can to make you girls comfortable. It’s going to be all right.”
His face was close to mine. It was a round face, pale, glowing like the moon in the dark, a healthy face, a beacon. A face that drew forth trust.
Just in front of us was a large set of double doors. Each one had a glass window that was covered in a spider web of frost. Light glowed from the inside like a lantern. On the left door was a brass sign that said “St. Isadora’s Asylum for the Deficient and Insane, State of Washington, Est. 1882.”
Zoo of Human Frailties is a study of family disintegration after the loss of one of its members as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The book opens as Lovetta’s father abandons her at an insane asylum in the years immediately preceding World War I. As we flashback to her experiences growing up on the farm, we learn what occurred in the family to cause her to be disposable. All of the things she lives through, abuse, archaic medication, primitive surgery, neglect, hunger, Spanish flu, all cause her to find the strength to escape and go to the only family she has left
I knew instantly he was my son though I hadn’t seen him since he was a child, running away from me as I chased him with a diaper, his feet padding on the floor like dinner rolls, his laughter skipping across the air like dragonflies. Even as a child, there was a whisper of the man he would become. A solid, bull of a child who could climb before he could walk.
He had grown into a beast, larger across the shoulders than the length of my arm. Solid. Strong. All of the were, really. All of the soldiers standing together. That one in the corner, I called Hercules. That one Goliath. The one on the left, Titan. But my son, my own baby was over to the side, just as large and just as intimidating but wearing the skin I gave him and smiling his father’s smile.
A jittery feeling fluttered in my chest like the wings of a butterfly. I glanced down at the ground and then back up again. And they had all stopped in those few seconds as if on cue. Silence settled over the room like a pall. A hush that was initiated by no one and everyone. All eyes fixed on me. Staring. Curious.
When I first walked up to the barracks, the noise inside was deafening. A storm of sound. A squall of animals. The guttural shouts of men egging each other on. A large group of them stood in a circle, cots pushed out of the way as they pummelled the men in the center with their noise. Fists pumped the air. Goliath jumped up and down in his excitement.
A push up contest. Two men in the center of the circle, bodies hard as planks, arms thick and ropy pushing up and up as the others added weight to their back. A mason block. A chair. Shouting out the number of push ups and clapping as the combatants pushed their bodies up, over and over, arms quivering, faces red.
Most of the soldiers stood in the shouting group, but I saw that some of them were on the fringes. These were the lost ones, the ones who had nothing to grasp hold of in this ocean of men. The discards.
One soldier sat quietly, tracing a picture on his arm in ink, small, blue streaks shaped like commas, each one pointing away from the center as if he were tracing the way the stars moved in the night time sky. One soldier stood in a corner, muttering into his hand and moving his arm around in front of him in a sideways figure eight, the symbol of infinity. The never-ending number. Another sat on his cot with his head in his hands, a man sculpted out of marble, perfect, grey as the floor under his feet. Rigid as stone.
And here, I found my son, in a sea of men all wearing camouflage cargo pants and black tank tops. Each one a copy of the others. The same, but different.
I didn’t think I’d recognize his face.
And yet I knew him.
If not for the mass of flesh bulging on his frame I might have been looking into his father’s face. Even the odd way he held one shoulder higher than the other. The pillows of his earlobes, his widows peak pointing down the length of his nose. The brick of his jaw, the small channel dividing his chin. The scar on his forehead where he bumped it on my kitchen counter so many years ago leaving a strawberry shaped smear of blood on the edge of the wood. The blood was wiped away but the scar was still there. Did he remember where it came from? Did anyone ask him?
He looked over to me. And I saw the color of my own eyes staring back. Strange to see my eyes in the face of someone so familiar and so distant. I could read no emotion on his face. No expression. Maybe it’s true what they said, that they wouldn’t feel things the way we did. And maybe that was one of the lies we were told to atone for making them less than human. When you poke a stick at a dog over and over, it will finally bite. And we blame the dog for biting but is it not the fault of the tormenter?
I rubbed my hands down the front of my rumpled shirt, smoothing out the lines I didn’t have a chance to iron. We didn’t have any electricity in our flat again, an occurrence that was happening more and more frequently. Over the hip of my pants, a strand of thread floated away from its seam and left an opening almost the length of my hand. I hoped he wouldn’t see it. Holes gaped open on the sides of my shoes where the leather had come away from the soles. But I hadn’t had new shoes in three years and the constant plodding around the Republic’s walled streets had left them impoverished. The shoes of a pauper. The footsteps of destitution.
Damn, he looked like his father. Solid like a cinderblock. But so were all of the soldiers. I had never seen them close like this. They sometimes had parades at the stadium but I was always up in the stands wondering which one was Sam as they swayed in and out of formations on the field. Immense dancers moving in time, holding graveyards of the dead on their soiled hands in a place where no one’s hands are clean. Shouts of anger. Roars of weapons. Fireworks. Everyone loved the tattoos.
I had never seen them up close, these guardians of the Republic. From the Stadium stands they looked like toys, like a line of ants on a log. Mechanical gears in a machine. Miniscule men encapsulating all our hopes. Fearless formations.
But in that room, almost face to face, I could see how immense they were, almost unhuman in their stature. Mammoths. Bodies so large, their heads looked almost comically meager in comparison. All of them stood a foot taller than me, maybe two.
As if on cue, all the other soldiers, one by one, stood up. An unnatural quiet fell over them like the sound of the wind in the distance, the longest pause before the thunder, like an exhale. They turned their heads on thick necks and looked at me. But I couldn’t make myself meet their gaze. I closed my eyes for a moment and rubbed the side of my head where it was aching and tried not to remember the tap, tap, tapping of his small feet on my kitchen floor in the dim recesses of my memory.
I had gone to the placement offices of the Republic to find him but no one was interested in helping me. They gave me paperwork to fill out but when I handed it in, they said it was the wrong paperwork. I said it was the paperwork I was given. They said no one would ever give me that paperwork at the office. So, I was passed on. I went to another office but there was a sign on the door that said they were all out sick. When they finally opened up again, they didn’t know the proper paperwork, said no one had ever asked before. I was sent to another location where I sat for two hours just to make an appointment and then came back at the agreed upon date only to be told they no longer assisted with requests of that nature.
I finally went to the office where Russel and I originally made our donation. We were so excited to go through the doors, holding hands, our dreams coming true, our hearts ready to accept a child even if only for a few years. I was surprised to see the same woman in the office who had been there so many years ago. Her hair was covered over in a wig like so many of the older women. And such an odd shade of yellow like watered down bile. Most people had wigs of brilliant colors that could be seen from a distance. Like the beacons on the walls of the city. Acid greens and oranges. But hers was dull yellow, almost the color of dirty teeth, the dim shade of lost hope, the drug addict’s smile.
She remembered me. Or so she said. She took my hand into hers and I could feel the dryness of her transparent skin, blue veins running crookedly just under the surface.
“You’ve been looking a long time haven’t you?” She stroked the back of my hand.
I nodded, crawling into the softness of her voice.
“It will not be easy. Many people will want you to forget that part of our history. As if when we look away, we can make it disappear.”
I was spellbound by her low tones, the slowness of her words, the way her lips moved smoothly from a smile to a kiss. She took one hand and waved it in front of her, directing her sounds like the base notes of an orchestra.
“But don’t let them turn you away.” She waved a finger in front of me. A mother admonishing a child. Point, point, point.
She had a large ring on her finger. A diamond. A real diamond I think, not like the fakes we see so often, scratches on the surface of the glass, pink or green coloration. She had a real diamond, clear and bottomless. A ring that was stolen from the fingers of the dead and smuggled into the walls of the Republic. Probably the most luxurious thing she owned. Something she might be killed for.
She knew where to get my answers. And she slipped a piece of paper into my hands with an address. I thanked her, walking away, rolling the paper over and over until it was a pulpy wad sitting in the basin of my hand. After spreading it out on the surface of my counter at home, I could just make out the street number. It was so close by. Right around the corner.
The office was unmarked, of course. Maybe people like me weren’t supposed to find it. I walked up to the desk and was told to take a seat in the waiting room where the carpets were worn through showing brown wood underneath in various places, near the door, in front of the desk, under my feet. The stale smell of cigarettes. The lonely color of despair.
The letters on her name tag spelled-ARGE although I suspect it was Marge but the “M” had long since rubbed off. She was wider than she was tall. Her billowy hair, perched on her head like a tombstone, its half round shape sprayed stiff and falling down in a cascade of artificial curls over her shoulders, like palm leaves unfolding. Each strand rigid and sinewy, colored red like blood.
“You shouldn’t, you know.” She wiped the end of her nose with her hand and then cleaned it off on the hip of her flowered dress. “It’s better to just leave them be.” Over the fabric of her dress, the large daisies had discolored with too many launderings. Fabric thin, a button missing near her navel where her flesh pillowed out. I imagined that she no longer had hair under her wig, picturing in my mind the surface of her scalp with just a few strands sticking up stiffly like the surface of a coconut. Thick glasses covered over her pink rimmed eyes almost hidden under bulging puffs of flesh from her eyelids. And none of that stopped her from liberally applying blue eye shadow spreading it all the way up to her eyebrows and stopping abruptly.
“That’s what everyone says. I just, you know. I can’t. I can’t leave it.”
“Whatever.” She cracked her neck to one side like a knuckle rapping on wood, hard as a question mark. Short. Punctuated.
She pushed the form over for me to sign. “You got any Anodyne?”
“No.” I took the paper and signed my name and gave it back to her. “I don’t use that stuff.” But I could see the Anodyne on her body. She wore it in the dry skin of her forearms. And in the wateriness of her lips, saliva smudging her lipstick like she was fresh from the kill. An animal deep into a carcass and coming up for air.
She sniffed and wiped her nose again. “That’s too bad. I guess it’ll be 20,000 rand for the search then.”
“So much?” 20,000 rand was all I had. I took it out of my wallet, the paper, fragile like an onion skin, the edges nibbled away. I pushed the soft, rustle of bills over to her and watched all the meals I’d eat for the next month slowly fade into nothing.
“Be a couple of weeks.” She wandered away from the desk with the money, the soft fat of her hips rolling like ocean waves as she moved. I imagined she had a child or two of her own. Maybe one of the last ones. I imagined the money would find a way to line her pockets.
And for a wonder, she was right about the time. Two weeks later I stood in my flat holding the small postcard in my hand with his name and address written on the back. The front of the postcard showed a family at the ocean. A clean ocean, no plastic, no oil spills. A clean beach, none of the grey animals pecked apart by birds, no marks of imminent death. The picture was a throwback to a time when visits to the beach were normal. A piece of fiction in our city where no ocean existed and precious few families.
We all wanted that vacation and none of us got it. I imagined for a minute that the mother and the child in the picture were me and my son, gaily traipsing along the sand, smiling and feeling the cold salt water on our toes. But I hadn’t seen him since he turned 5 and we turned him over to the Third Generation for the good of the Republic. I thought I’d never see him again. I thought I’d done my duty, a black promise made in the depths of my ignorance. My undoing. My downward spiral.
But I found him, here, in this room.
And he knew who I was.
The eyes of the soldiers were on me. Large men bred for aggression and strength to defend the Republic in a war that never happened. I wanted to run my cowardly little heart away from them and continue hiding my head under my wing, continue telling myself the lies they fed me on the day he was born. But I came all this way. And this might be my last chance to speak.
“Hi Sam.” I stepped forward. My voice cracked and I cleared my throat.
He looked at the soldiers and then back at me. “Women aren’t allowed here.” He said.
So, I stepped back into the hall and waited for him to cross the room.
The others half heartedly went back to their activities, sneaking peaks at us over their shoulders, whispering amongst themselves and then looking back at me. Inspecting me. Furtive. Unsure if I were the enemy or not. Little did they know, we were all the enemy.
“I don’t know why you came?” He walked up to me and spoke these words out of my husband’s strong jaw, looking down at me from a height of six foot eight at least. These were gladiator men, men of brawniness. Made of steel. Manufactured for war.
“I wanted to see you.” I said, fanning my eyelids like a moth, not wanting my tears to fall.
“None of the other donors came.” He said.
I looked around when the talking had ceased again. Earnest eyes were trained on us from the far side of the room. As I met their gaze, they quickly returned to their push-ups, more quietly this time, and the whispering started again.
“I didn’t come here to embarrass you. I just wanted to see you. I don’t think I can explain.”
“So, how’s dear old Dad?”
“He…he…” I stumbled. “What did they tell you Sam?”
“My name isn’t Sam, it’s J55057.”
“That’s not the name we gave you.”
He stood silently looking down for a moment. “They call me Scout. I have the best eyesight so they send me out front to look for Out-liers.” He looked back at the other soldiers who looked away again. “Although, we haven’t done that in a long time.” He shrugged.
“OK, Scout it is.” I said quietly. “Any idea what you’re going to do when the army dissolves?” I’m not sure how much he knew about the Generations of soldiers who went before him. The grey ones with missing arms and legs. The eyeless, the burned. the scarred, the paralyzed. I don’t know if he understands what happened to those people when they were no longer convenient. They used to beg on the streets, living in a shanty town on the outskirts of the Republic. And then they just disappeared one by one. I haven’t seen any in five years or more. Rumors abounded about a place of conclusions where they incinerated the remains of the soldiers put down to avoid their misery. Their misery or ours, I was never sure which.
“Actually, I don’t think we’re going to disband.” He drew his mouth into a half smile, and he lit up like a lantern from the inside, like the last hope of the condemned.
His childishness saddened me. “I’ve been hearing rumors though.” I looked at my massive son in front of me. His sturdy neck thick as a tree, head squared off with a buzz cut sitting close to his scalp, soft and hard at the same time. “They can’t keep you on the payroll forever you know.”
“They’re building that new facility on the Southern part of the city. You probably saw it.”
“I heard it was a hospital.” I wanted to reach out and touch his face. Clean shaven, it would have been soft as a calf’s skin. Soft like it used to be when he was still young enough to think I meant him no harm, his small face smiling up at me from the length of his arm. The warm red color of his love.
“It’s for a new program.” He nearly smiled and I caught a glimpse of the dimple that I didn’t even remember he had. Years ago, as I handed him over to a nurse and watched him walk away, he turned and smiled at me and that same dimple appeared. He reached his hand around and licked at a lollipop they had given him to bribe him away. He waved his baby hand at me. I didn’t want him to be scared so I forced a smile and waved back, waiting until his back was gone to wipe away the tears. And I fell on the ground, Russel rubbing my back. “Come on home honey. Come on home.” But there was no home left without him. And I would spend the balance of my life punishing myself for the poison words I fed to him on that day.
“You mean, they’re making a fourth generation?” I took a deep breath and put my hand on my chest.
“It’s going to be different this time.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Well, it looks like they’ll need some of us to police it and I’m on the short list.”
I nodded my head, not sure if it was true but not wanting to be the one who told him what his fate would be if it wasn’t.
I took a deep breath. “Your father died.” The words came out awkwardly, much louder than I meant for them to be. Two of the soldiers looked up as I spoke.
“Yeah, I figured.” He looked down at his shiny, leather boots, their thick soles, the perfectly symmetrical bows at the top, tongue lolling out and pointing at his toes. His hands sat on his slim hips. Strong hands, callused and lined with veins. “I don’t really remember him.” Scars covered his forearms, scars like the end of a cigarette dragged over his skin. Two of his fingernails were broken and blood clotted like a tiny string of beads seeping through the crack.
“He always wanted to see you.”
“I wasn’t hiding you know. I’ve been in this shit pit for years.”
“You’re right. We should have come to visit. They seem to discourage it for some reason.” My hands were held out, two begging bowls waiting for the alms of his mercy. “When you’re donating, they don’t explain how it will affect everyone.”
“But you could have asked. You could have. You’re a grown woman who gave her son away to be raised by strangers. The injections were the least painful of the things they did to us.”
“I was young. I didn’t know how it would be.” I placed my hands on my temples, berating myself for believing them. “We needed the money and they paid well. We really couldn’t picture a baby until after we had you but by then we already signed the papers.”
“You didn’t know how it would be? You knew they were engineering an army. You knew they’d mold us into killers.” He leaned forward. “They shut us in water tanks and timed how long it took for us to drown so they knew how long we could last without air. And then, they put us in that water tank once a week to train us to stay alive. They shot us in both legs and made us run so they could see which were the strongest. And then we had to follow the scent of the injured soldier’s blood and find him and kill him with our bare hands so we could learn how to hunt like animals.”
I took a deep breath. “We didn’t think.”
“Damn right you didn’t think. That’s why I’m here.” He pointed the meatiness of his blame into my face, red with anger. “Because you didn’t think.”
His voice became quiet and he leaned towards me, close enough to blot out the light. “Do you know what happens to little boys when there’s no one to defend them?” His voice quiet and shaking, subdued by an aria of pain. A chained memory released for one moment.
I pressed the back of my hand to my mouth and couldn’t breathe. “Oh God.” I whispered. “They said that you wouldn’t feel things like the others, that you would be engineered to feel nothing.”
“They lied.” He stepped backwards into the room. “Look, this is over and I can’t leave so you’re just going to have to see yourself out.” He waved his hand and stepped sideways, his eyes looking away.
“Can I come back and see you?”
He said nothing. And I didn’t know what to say either. I didn’t want to leave him. I finally said “You look just like your father,” and I turned and walked away.
I wiped my hands down the front of my shirt, angry at the creases in the fabric, the stitches that pulled away from the seams, the holes worn through. Angry that the men saw me in my poverty, draped with shades of despair and loss.
The hallway was silent as I walked out. Were they talking about me? Were they condemning me? I tried to walk quietly but the only sounds were my feet falling on the stone floor. I listened to the sound swelling in my sinful ears.
Everything in this place was grey, the walls, the blankets, the cots, the floors. The color of a secret. The color of a sigh. The coldness of a puff of air on a winter morning. The silent farewell.
And my feet, tack, tack, tacking along the ground like Morse code rapping out the supplication I was too afraid to speak.
My mother was a hoarder. I couldn’t ignore that fact anymore. And I don’t think she meant to be, but that’s what she became all the same. So when she decided she was too incapable of caring for her home, I went to help her pack up her belongings. What I found was a tsunami of her life spilling out of every corner. After pulling box after disintegrating box out of her closets, I realized it was worse than I thought. But we had to start somewhere so I brought the boxes to her so she could make her decisions.
We started by making stacks. This stack was things to keep, this one was things to give away, this one was things to throw away. But the number of piles grew larger and larger. This pile was for the senior’s center in Morinville. This pile was for her friend Cheryl who sews. This pile was for the art society. She knew all kinds of people who might use fabric or bees wax or magazines or dried flowers or puzzles. I don’t know how many lists I was given with instructions where to drop them off. I finally gave up and started hauling everything to the dump. Only she thinks I delivered them faithfully.
Then there were the more personal items, mainly photos of each of us kids over the years. School photos where we smiled artificial smiles into cameras with other students. I was never so uncomfortable as on picture day. My clothes were not as pretty as all the other girls clothes. I didn’t like the way I looked while the others proudly combed their hair and smiled through their braces, simulated curls bouncing around their heads.
Mum made stacks and stacks of photos. Photos that I didn’t even know had been taken. Pictures of me with my chipped front tooth. Pictures of me with an uneven haircut. Pictures of me taken with my eyes half closed. Pictures of me taken while I was competitive swimming, almost like she was proud of me. These were all from a time when we had to load film into a camera and take the film in for developing, waiting a week or more for the finished product. Then we threw half of them away because they were out of focus or had a thumb covering part of the lens or caught a funny expression. It’s not like today when we can do 25 selfies in a row and discard the ones that are not flattering into the nothing that is the digital garbage. The pool of emptiness where all energy goes to die.
Mum made stacks for me and my brother and my sister. Our own personal photo history. Each of us possessing a unique brand of awkwardness. School photos, class photos, baby photos, photo albums started but never finished. Photos in cheap plastic frames.
I picked up one of my school photos from grade 5. There was the much younger me, off to the side with my burnt orange sateen shirt, bowl haircut freshly washed, smiling as I was told to, standing as though I were uncomfortable in my own body. They always put me on the left side of the class. I don’t know why. There, in the middle, was the boy who shared my first name. He was in every one of my classes from kindergarten to grade 9. It led to me being called Dale-Ann for the first ten years of my life.
“Look Mum. There’s Jeff Gruber.” I pointed him out. She adjusted her glasses and leaned into the light, squinted.
“Which one is he?”
“He was the one who always won the intramurals for soccer. And there’s Karla Kovak and Sandra Lopez and Dean Popescu.” I pointed to each one in turn.
“How can you remember them all?” My mother asked. I felt a tiny boost of esteem that I had impressed her with my recall.
“I guess because I was in the same class with them for so many years.”
I looked at my face in the photo and thought the girl smiling back looked happy, well adjusted. I would never have thought she was awkward, shy, self-loathing. She looked like a nice kid. But because I had spent so much time inside of her, I knew differently.
I remember those school days. We were poor so we had to wait for the first day of school to buy supplies. My mother took the list of school supplies to the welfare office where they gave her a check to cover the cost. She purchased the cheapest items to be stretched over four kids. So I sat there with nothing for the first two or three days of classes while everyone else looked over at the empty space on my desk. They wrinkled up their noses as if they were smelling something bad. What they were smelling was my poverty. I reeked of it. The rich kids came equipped with all the supplies they’d ever need right there on the first day when I had nothing. Binders with zippers and pockets and dividers, reams of paper, scented pencils, felt pens, highlighters, stickers. They weren’t rich really, maybe upper middle class but they seemed to have everything that I never had. They seemed to be rich from my position in the mud.
One girl in particular, always brought an apple for the teacher on the first day so she became one of the favorites. That was Carla. Not Karla Kovak, Carla Anders. Carla must have been a popular name the year they were born because there were two more Carlas in my class making four total. Carla Anders’s house was just a ranch style home facing the school field but to me, it seemed like a rich person’s house. I’ve driven past it a number of times as an adult and I see its banality, just a square home almost exactly the same as the homes on either side of it. It wasn’t a rich home at all but the home of a middle class, hard working couple trying to give their little girl a good start in life.
Carla was in every class of mine since kindergarten but we weren’t friends. I remember going on a skiing trip with the class in grade six and she had a perfectly fitted, matching ski outfit in two shades of pink. How could I have been her friend with my large brown snow pants and grubby, blue/green jacket with faux fur around the hood that was shedding. I mean how does faux fur shed anyway? I saw her lavish clothing and looked down at my own, the rip that had started on the right knee, threads of polyester floating around like spider silk. I saw my clothing and realized how far beneath her I was. How money means everything to the people who don’t have it.
She had all the pretty girls as friends. There was a trio of them Madeline and Carla and Stephanie and the other girls circulated around them like planets around a star. They were the center of attention and happy to receive it. They were the source of warmth and light only-they really weren’t. It’s funny how that happens, how we accept the idea that other people are better just because they think so, not because they are. Imagine being a frumpy girl named Dale around pretty girls like Madeline or Carla, girls who wore nail polish every day, sometimes with glitter. They had their ears pierced and wore jewelry with half hearts, the other half given to a sister or best friend. Madeline and Carla wore half hearts like that, each one enchanted with the other and not afraid to let the whole world know. I couldn’t compete with them in any area except one.
The only way I excelled was creatively. I was the class leader in drawing and writing in every grade. For a couple of weeks in grade five, the boys were drawing pictures of cars and putting them on the wall near the back, above where the pencil sharpener was fixed to the wall, back by the coatroom and the cubbies. The girls didn’t put any pictures there. The girls didn’t really care. But I saw the pictures and knew I could do better. The boys gathered around the pictures and talked about them, about the different types of cars and the styles of the rear wings or the hood. That’s something that started early, boys discussing things with other boys. And even though they didn’t really know what they were talking about, they sounded like they did, nodding their heads, companionably in the style of boys from the beginning of time.
I wasn’t part of the group of boys, of course, but I knew I could draw a car. So I drew one in secret one day. And as I suspected, my drawing was far superior to the others. Mine was in proper perspective and had flames down the side and an engine that sat on the front hood of the car. I went to the back of the room to sharpen my pencil and looked around. Everyone’s heads were bent over their work, no one paid attention to me. So I pinned my picture to the wall by the others and nobody saw me do it. For some reason, I signed it “Barracuda.” I’m not sure why. But it was fun to watch them talking about who had drawn the red car with the flames. “I don’t know. I thought it was you.” they spoke in low voices, not wanting to sound too impressed. But I heard them and smiled to myself. Someone, I suspect Carla, suggested that I drew it which was met with disbelief. It had to be a boy who drew the car, never a girl. But it was easy. Easy for me at least. I could always draw anything.
Only one boy was not included in the group of males. His name escapes me. Poor fellow, it probably escaped everyone. He was fat and pale, like ghostly bread dough filling his pants to overflowing. His expressions were dull, occasionally he drooled and as far as I knew, he never spoke. One day he threw a temper tantrum and started crying. Nobody could figure out why. He rocked himself under his desk while Mrs. Collins crouched down on the floor beside him trying to talk him into some form of sanity. I don’t think she had any clue what to do with him. I remember feeling supremely embarrassed about the incident. And now, after many years of living, I only feel empathy for the poor boy who had no social skills and probably wanted someone as a friend but had no one. He wasn’t very good at school work either, or art. As far as I could see, he wasn’t very good at anything. But in the classroom, you can keep your head down and be part of the crowd. In the classroom, you don’t have to feel singled out. You can lay low and say nothing and be ignored. And that was my goal in school, to not be noticed. I think invisibility was the goal of most of the students.
Gym class was the worst. We were always judged by our physical capabilities of course. Sports were difficult for me because I was easy to intimidate. But I was athletic in a way. I was an excellent swimmer. I’d been swimming so long that I couldn’t remember not being able to swim. I could dive into the pool on one side and swim underwater for the entire length and come out on the other side. But land sports were a different thing. In competitive swimming, you don’t have to face your opponent, you swim side by side. With sports, when people ran towards me, I was cowed by their confidence, avoiding the confrontation that their approach implied. But if I were given some space, I could excel. One time, during a particular soccer game, a ball came towards me. No one else was there so I kicked it high over the heads of the other players and back onto the offenders side. I heard Dean Popescu say “Whoa,” and his head followed the track of the ball as it went to the other side of the field. I felt the subtle compliment he implied.
We weren’t allowed to participate if we wore a skirt either. So this rule only applied to girls. My mother said it was ridiculous because she went to a school that had a uniform and wore a skirt every day and played all kinds of sports. She didn’t make it a priority to make sure I had pants. But sometimes I didn’t have a choice. I only had so many clothes. And if the mountain of dirty laundry in the basement was still piled high, I could only wear the clean ones. Sometimes I had to dig into the pile to find the clothes that were marginally clean. And sometimes I had to wear the skirt because it was the only thing left. Mrs. Collins made me sit at the edge of the field in my skirt to watch everyone. In retrospect, I should have worn a skirt every gym day. Then I would never have had to participate. But I didn’t think of that at the time, I wanted to be good, to have everyone like me, including Mrs. Collins.
Every sporting event started with picking teams. We all took turns being the team captain. Mrs. Collins picked two students as captains and she rotated us so everyone had a chance. The team selection always seemed to be an adult approved form of humiliation. No matter who got to be captain, the same kids always got picked first and the same kids always got picked last. Sometimes players were picked because of their popularity. The girls would pick Carla or Madeline. If I picked them first, maybe they’d let me hang on to the exterior of their world, like a pet. Or they’d pick the most athletically gifted first. A much better strategy of course. Pick the athletic kids to win an athletic game. If there were a game where we competed in the arts they would have picked me first because I would have won. But it was a game with physical prowess being the deciding factor so they picked the tall ones with broad shoulders. The quick ones who might be a little leaner. But there was a group, maybe about 8 or 10 kids who always got picked last. They had to play because everyone had to, but no one really wanted them. When we got to the last 8 kids, the captains looked them over, rolling their eyes and deciding which was the least inept. I was one of the ones picked in the middle. But some were always picked last and I felt so bad for them looking uncomfortably aware of their low place in our lives.
I wanted them, for one time, just one time, to be picked first. I was sick of the way we selected players. So sick of the whole demeaning process that made some kids feel shamed, and always the same ones. So I developed a plan. I knew I’d be captain soon. I’d be captain and I’d be in charge. I’d be the boss. And I’d do something different. I was going to pick the worst kids first. I was going to let them hear their names picked first. Just one time, I wanted them to hear their names first. I thought maybe they’d have a boost of confidence. Maybe they’d rise to the occasion and show everyone up.
So Dean Popescu and I were captains. All the other kids lined up facing our way, looking expectantly to see who we’d pick. The kids who often got picked first seemed unconcerned, knowing they’d get chosen. This was their arena. Dean Popescu picked first and he picked Jeff Gruber, the tall guy with the large lower jaw, the one with the straight back, the one I had a crush on my entire childhood. Jeff walked over to the opposite side and all eyes turned to me. Usually, this is where the captains got competitive. We’d battle for the best and the fastest. Because picking the best meant winning and nothing was as important as winning.
“Craig,” I said.
Dean Popescu looked surprised because Craig was a skinny kid with coke bottle glasses and he usually got picked last.
“Fatima,” he said and the slender hipped Lebanese girl, the fastest runner, did a slow jog over to Dean’s team.
“David,” I said, picking the pale boy with the badly repaired cleft lip.
Dean must have thought I was incredibly stupid. He seemed to realize I was going to pick the worst of the worst and he couldn’t believe his luck. Starting with the ones at the bottom, I moved my way up. He started at the top and moved his way down. We met in the middle.
So his team was made of the finest players, mine the worst. And my hope was they’d be bouyed by the novelty of being picked first and play like animals, like predators who finally found their teeth.
But that’s not what happened.
We were slaughtered. No goals at all. And a goalie with coke bottle glasses who was afraid of being hit by the ball. Offensive players who were consistently outrun. Defensive players who bent down to pick dandelions during the game. It was carnage. And I spent the entire game, disheartened because I wanted to prove to everyone that we could do better. But we didn’t. We only lived up to our reputations. I wanted them to feel wanted, to feel like somebody cared. I thought it would make them rise. But the truth is they were comfortable in their position on the lowest rung. It was the thing that was most familiar to them. They were used to their place and moving out of it distressed them until they performed even worse. I felt hopeless because when I saw they were unable to be better, I knew I could never be better myself. It made me feel like no one could ever surmount their circumstances. So I gave up trying. I accepted my place in the realm of the ignored, the ones who live on the fringes. I was just one of them and I had come to realize my place and know that I would never be anything else.
As an adult, looking back at the photo of all those innocent faces, I wondered what happened to them. I wondered if they remembered those days fondly or if they, like me, looked back, unsure how to feel. If they looked back to those days when we were small and had to find our way in a sometimes unkind world. I stood in my mother’s chaos and knew that she didn’t comprehend anything of my journey as a child. She was too preoccupied with the weight of four children who needed food and a home and clothes and doctors visits, forget about our need for love.
I look back and I wonder what has become of those faces in the photo. Some may be dead, some married, some successful, some not so. I wish I could still see what they’re up to in my quiet way, sitting back, hiding around a corner, listening to segments of conversations. I could watch them and hope they found happiness of a sort. And maybe they’re standing somewhere on the surface of our planet looking at the same photo and wondering what became of me.
I hope they’re all happy in their lives because so few are. We hold it apart from ourselves, happiness. We keep it at arms length, scared to let it graze against us. We worry about money, about faithfulness, about our weight, our prosperity, our place in the world. Worry about all these things keeps happiness distant. It shines on the horizon but rarely comes close enough to brush us with its colors. I hope they find it. I hope everyone does, Dean and Jeff and Fatima and all four Carlas. It’s never too late to open our arms and embrace it. Lets hope we all have the wisdom to do so.
I found my husband’s body on September 3rd, 2016. He was 47 years old when he died. And like anyone who has lost someone, I’ll never forget the particular circumstances surrounding the death.
There’s no nice way of saying it, but he was living in our basement so he didn’t have to be around me. Life was difficult it for me during those last years and I know I was hard to live with. He was unemployed, his memory was going, and he withdrew because he knew how rapidly I could turn from smiling to screaming.
A variety of things killed him. He was on a lot of medication, many of which I would find not taken at the end of the day. “I’m pretty sure I took them.” He’d say. But I knew how many pills he had and how many were taken and the math never added up. Other things contributed as well. His parents had both died. I crumpled him. I broke him. We shouldn’t have been together but he couldn’t take care of himself. We shouldn’t have been together but he had no where else to go. We shouldn’t have been together but I couldn’t send him away when I remembered the way he smiled at me. And I could never live with myself if he died alone.
I was walking down the stairs to the basement that last morning and I knew something was wrong. The theme song to the TV show Vikings was playing on a short loop as if it were left on the menu. And he wouldn’t have left it that way. So I knew before I opened the door that he was gone.
And then I opened it.
His pale feet stuck out from his recliner chair, the one he slept in. His head was cocked to the side, his eyes were open, and his skin was cold. I touched his wrist knowing that I wouldn’t find a pulse. Walking from one end of the room to the other, I wrung my hands and cried out loud. “Oh Dennis. Oh Dennis.” Over and over.
Even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my mother over the years, she was the first person I called, crying uncontrollably, hardly able to get the words out. She told me to call the police and wait. She told me the name of a funeral home to call the next day. She told me it would be OK.
I called work and told them I had found my husband dead and couldn’t come in for my scheduled shift. I still remember the poor girl who took that call. I tried to tell them the name of the nurse who often replaces me but I couldn’t, for some reason, remember her name even though we’d worked together for about 10 years.
After I called the police, I had to do the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I had to tell my youngest son who was playing video games innocently in his room, that his father had died.
We went down the stairs together. I was crying and he wasn’t. I ran my fingers through my husband’s hair which used to be so thick and curly. Lately, he had developed a love of yogurt and there it was, sitting on his lap, the last thing he ever ate. And I know his death was painless and quick because he was still sitting in his chair the way he always sat with his ankles crossed over each other. Death had crept over him so swiftly and silently that he didn’t have time to uncross his ankles.
My brother and sister who had considered him part of the family for 23 years, came to sit with me until the body was taken away. The police car and the ambulance sat out front of the house. The doors of the neighbors kept opening and closing. After the coroner told us the tests they wanted to run on his body, they took him away from me.
I called my son in Toronto and knew he’d have to bear the sorrow alone. Without any of the family to hold his hand or rub his back or hand him a tissue.
And for the next two days I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I had the strange sensation of being small and transparent, like I was a wraith. Like I didn’t exist.
Dennis’s brother wanted a Catholic funeral which was laughable because Dennis never went to church during our marriage. I knew he wouldn’t care for a religious service. But I couldn’t imagine what type of funeral to have. Whenever I thought of funerals I pictured the church, the mourners in black, women with veils, people weeping.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t throw your Dad one more birthday party.” I told my youngest son.
“Why can’t we?” He said.
And we looked at one another and smiled. Because we could throw him a party. We could throw him one last birthday celebration. And that’s what we did.
So I sent out invitations for Dennis’s last birthday party, to be held on the day that would have been his 48th birthday. A birthday party with a rock and roll theme. His funeral would be fun and why not? We served pizza, soda, and a guitar shaped cake. The invitations were backstage passes. We made bowls out of records to hold the snacks. We asked everyone to come in their favorite rock and roll t shirt. And we made a slide show consisting of photos of his life with rock music playing in the background.
And I had to say the eulogy. I had never said one before. I’d never done any public speaking before. I wrote it and scribbled it out and wrote it again and erased and wrote in the margins. I had to have it perfect because I did really love him. Even if our love had taken a back seat to our bickering and our differences, I did love him. And I wanted people to know at the very last, the things I remembered about him throughout our marriage. The reasons I had to stay with him and the reasons I had to leave. I was so nervous about speaking. I read the eulogy out at work to the nurses. They listened and dabbed at their eyes with tissues so I knew it was right.
On the day that was his last birthday, I stood up under the strobe lights and disco balls. And I spoke out loud, looking at the crowd fearlessly because even if I failed him in life, I wasn’t going to fail him in death.
These are the words I spoke.
“I’d like to thank everyone for coming to Dennis’s 48th birthday. Dennis, as I’m sure you all know was born on December 3rd, 1969, the youngest of four children. He moved to Athabasca from Southern California when his father, Archie retired.
That’s the part of Dennis’s history that you know. But I’m going to share with you some things that you don’t know. In March of this year, Dennis had his first heart attack. I think he knew he didn’t have much time left because he started talking about making a will and funeral arrangements. Specifically, he said he didn’t want anyone to mourn his passing but to celebrate his life. I think he wanted a party. And anyone who knew Dennis knows that he would have chosen laughter over tears any day. So thank you all for coming together to celebrate this wonderful man we all knew.
Dennis was a man who knew how to live. He loved good food, good music, travel. I never saw a man more comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and almost immediately finding a best friend. He loved concerts, especially the small venues he could wander around with a beer in his hand. If any of you ever went with him, you would have seen him walk a few steps this way and then stop. Walk a few steps that way and then stop again. He did this over and over until he found the auditory sweet spot, the place where the music was the most beautiful. Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.
When I met Dennis, he was living in an apartment on Bellamy Hill with his childhood friend, Roger. It was the stereotypical bachelor’s apartment. They had every sauce imaginable in the fridge but no actual food. They had five pizza cutters but no cutlery. They had milk crates to sit on but no chairs. And of course, the bubble gum machine full of condoms.
Dennis and I met in July of 1993 and in August of 1993 we were married after an engagement of twenty four hours on Salt Spring Island. This led to the ongoing joke in our marriage “I don’t usually go this far on a first date.” We didn’t have much time to plan the wedding of course and when it came time to pick the music, we had one CD, U2-The Joshua Tree. I realized as I was saying my vows, that the music playing in the background was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
We never wore wedding rings. With an engagement of twenty four hours, we didn’t have much time to shop for rings, so we picked them up at a second hand store for a very low price and before our first anniversary, they both broke. And we just never replaced them.
People get married for all kinds of reasons. I asked Dennis once why he married me and he said “You’re the only girl I ever knew who could sing all the words to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Because for Dennis, it was all about the music.
The first 8 months of our marriage, Dennis and I were separated because I was in my last year of art school in Vancouver. I spent a lot of time at the library and one day I picked up a random book of poetry and opened it to a random page and found one of the loveliest poems I’ve ever read. I sent a copy of it to Dennis and he loved it as well. He decided it was our poem. It’s called “At a Window,” by Carl Sandburg.
This is that poem:
Give me hunger
Oh you Gods that sit and give the world its orders
Give me hunger, pain and want
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame
Give me you shabbiest, weariest hunger
But leave me a little love
A voice to speak to me in the day end
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset
One little, wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow
Let me go to the window
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love
Years later, after visiting North Carolina, we inadvertently discovered Carl Sandburg’s historic home which was a nice connection.
Dennis always remembered our anniversary and I didn’t. Even the first anniversary, he called me from work apologizing because he had forgotten to say Happy Anniversary. I was a little confused, not knowing what anniversary he was talking about and, after he hung up, I realized he was talking about the anniversary of our wedding. We went into an insurance company a few years later and the agent asked us when our anniversary was. He was shocked when I couldn’t remember but Dennis could. He told us he always asks that question because he likes to watch the guy catch hell from his wife because he can’t remember. For the first time in his 17 year career, the woman couldn’t remember a wedding anniversary but the man could.
Over the years I’ve narrowed the date down to somewhere near the end of August but I still don’t remember the exact date. In August of this year, only a few days before he died, he called me at work again to wish me a happy anniversary because, once again, I had forgotten.
One thing that you might not know about Dennis is that he was an amateur midwife. Our second son Theo was born in our home with no midwife to attend the birth. And, though I like to take credit for the actual delivery, Dennis was my attendant. As soon as Theo was born, he cut the cord, and he and little Archie took the baby and climbed into the tub to wash him off. And so ended his career as a midwife.
We drove to Alberta a few times while we lived in the South. On one such trip, we stopped over in Wisconsin just in time for the Alien festival. Dennis asked a local woman what people do at an alien festival and she said “Oh, mostly drink.” And Dennis probably would have attended except there was no good music there. We continued on to Alberta the next day, a drive which took us 17 hours. And Dennis wanted to listen to Phish the entire way. I don’t think any jury would have convicted me of the murder I wanted to commit at the end of that trip. Dennis was as happy as a clam because for him, it was all about the music, but not so much for me.
This past summer, I spent some time cleaning out the boxes Dennis brought from Grampa Archie’s house. I had been meaning for some time to buy a new coffee maker but it kept slipping my mind. One day, I found a box from Grandpa Archie’s house that had a brand new, still packaged, never used coffee maker. I brought it to Dennis and demanded to know why he didn’t tell me it was there. Seeing my annoyance, he smiled and said “But Dale, I put the song Fat Bottomed Girls on your Christmas album.” And when this lighthearted joke at my expense didn’t work, he back peddled. “Um, um, um,” he said. “Um-Happy Anniversary.” And I had to admit defeat at this point because I couldn’t remember when our anniversary was.
I’m 46 years old now. And for half my life, I was married to Dennis. But how long is that really? How do we measure time? Do we measure it in days? If so, I was married to Dennis for 23 years and 57 days with 5.75 days added for leap years. I calculated I knew him for 8466 days. And that doesn’t sound like much, especially when you consider we spend 8 hours out of every day asleep.
But I think we measure our time differently. I think we measure it in moments. In those 8466 paltry days, Dennis and I lived in two countries, we lived on both sides of the continent of North America, we had two beautiful boys, we broke up, we got back together, we shared anger, compassion, joy. We lived as fully as we knew how, for every moment. So I asked myself if 8466 days is enough to make a life with someone and the answer is, of course, yes. It’s enough to learn the sometimes difficult lesson of choosing laughter over tears.
All the events in our life together can be traced backwards like a trail of stones. The bigger ones, the birth of a child, marriage, graduation, the death of a loved one, all cast shadows on the others. But the smaller ones are no less significant. Doing a crossword together, sipping a cup of coffee next to one another. Simple moments we all share with those we love.
Although we knew Dennis was a man who knew how to live, what none of us knew, is that Dennis was also a man who knew how to die. He died quickly, quietly, peacefully in his home, on his comfy easy chair, watching a movie, with a snack in his hand. Dennis died the way we all should die.
On September third of this year, Dennis had a date with eternity. He was called to attend a concert that will be held until the end of time. A concert where he will always have the best seat in the house, directly in the auditory sweet spot where the music is most beautiful.
As most people do after losing someone, I found myself in shock. As if, without my consent, I was tossed into a shallow pit. And I had to decide if I should stay in the safety of the shadows or ascend into the sun. If I were to stay, the fear was, I would have a shovel thrown down for me to dig my way out. And I’d try. I’d try only to discover I was making my prison deeper and deeper until the thin rays of the sun could no longer reach me. I would forget the loving embrace of its warmth and grow pale, like a ghost, spending the rest of my days concealed in stillness, neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, only silence, billowy and soft cradling my body, engulfing me in tranquility. It doesn’t help to sit at the bottom of a pit hiding from the sun. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t alter the course of a life, but I did it all the same, hoping to stay the hand that moves the world along.
I clung for many days to the last remaining link to my marriage before life turned me in a different direction. The tenuous silver thread binding my body to his like a kite, tethering me to his ground.
I can make the choice to stay at the bottom of the pit without protest, to feel miserable every day, to spend the rest of my life under the blanket of joyless existence. It would be a dismal choice, dismal but easier than ascending.
Or I could rise.
But how can anyone continue from a depth of such emptiness. I realized that I can ascend because life is made of moments.
My last memory of Dennis was the morning of his death. A simple moment. A hug. A very nice hug. He kissed me and he told me he loved me. And later that day I found his breathless body.
Maybe everyone has a moment when they realize that we’re only in this life for a brief time before we blink into the next. I had my moment when I found him and under my fingers, his skin was cold, his face was blank, there was no sunshine in the hazel of his eyes. It was little consolation when I discovered that I no longer had to carry the onus of his pain and he no longer had to carry the onus of mine.
Imagine life at the bottom of that pit, when even in absolute darkness there is solace. But if someone brings a light, a small light, an affectionate light and then they leave. The darkness after they’re gone is an ocean of desolation. Dennis was my temporary light and his absence left me in despair. I didn’t know when I met him about the dry wilderness I would have to wander once he disappeared over the horizon.
I always thought the end of a life would arrive like a door slammed shut, the abrupt closing of one story before the opening of another. At once there would be life and then, in a sound as short as a clap, there would be nothing. But, though a heart may stop beating, it takes years for people to let go of the dead. Nothing ends in haste but we sigh out of this world in the longest of exhales. Once our bodies have gone over the edge, the people left behind cling to the cliffside looking for the fallen and forgetting, perhaps for years, that the living have to eat.
For as long as there have been people there have been debates over the concept of life after death. But these thoughts don’t interest me. Forget the great scales of right and wrong, of good and evil, of heaven or hell, forget it all, I only know that I want him back and I can’t have him. But the worst events in our lives, the ones that cause us the most pain can never be extinguished, they must be endured.
What could I have said to Dennis to put an end to my fury of sorrow? This affliction that harnesses me to the past? What words could I have uttered that would give me the freedom to move on without this great weight? Remembering that I’m the one who has to wake up every day, wearing my sadness, and wandering the world alone.
I would say three things to him:
took pleasure in the sound of your voice and the smell of your skin.
lived every day hoping you would smile my way.
My greatest regret in my marriage is that we clung to our bitterness when we could have severed the noose. I didn’t approach him in life so he could understand the soothing balm of my forgiveness or so I could understand his.
I’m so very happy that my last moment with him was not filled with bitterness or anger. It could just as easily have been an argument over whose turn it was to clean the kitty litter. For the record, it was his turn. But my last memory of him was sweet. And in clinging to the sweetness of that last moment, I was able to climb out of the pit.
Dennis died the way we all should die when we embark on our own final journey, the last adventure we will ever attend, our own date with eternity, when the troubles of living overcome the troubles of dying and we welcome the cold fingers of eternal sleep. But today we can ask ourselves some questions. Not about death but about life. Have we enjoyed good food, good music, travel? Have we chosen laughter over tears? I say with full confidence that Dennis would have wanted that for all of us.”
Those were the last words I spoke for my husband save these. Good bye my love. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the wife you needed.
Imagine being fast asleep and abruptly pulled out of bed by an angry woman who is crying and shouting. “I’m sick of this. I’m sick of this.”
She smacks your rear and pushes you to the ground. “Now clean it up.” She shouts through tears.
Imagine being the reason your mother hates her life.
This didn’t happen often but often enough that my brother and sisters gave the episodes a name. We called them the midnight raids. And I don’t know why they happened at night but they did. Hateful and vindictive, my mother became another person, a predator who waited until we were at our most vulnerable to strike.
Our house was squeezed into a row of homes all connected by thin walls. A village built of desperation, a small fortress of despair. She tried to make our home more appealing, pretending for a short time that we didn’t live on government money. She planted sweet peas one summer and they grew along strings she tied up the side of the house. She played gospel music and sang along in her falsetto voice. She baked bread, sewed clothes for us, cut our hair into uneven bowl shapes, and she made jokes. If I called for her, she’d shout back. “I can’t come right now, I have a bone in my leg.” Or they way she told us she was 99 years old whenever we asked. She’d poke her finger into my arm and when I protested she’d say “I’m not poking you, I’m just resting my finger.” And that time we cut open a pineapple but it smelled like wine and tasted like syrup. It made us a little tipsy but she let us eat it anyway until we were giggling clowns. We had food three times a day and presents every Christmas. Poverty in Canada is different than other countries but it’s still poverty. We still felt the sting of what others had and what we didn’t. We felt the wall between us and all that we wanted as a barrier too high to surmount.
I think most times, my mother was neutral about her life. Most times she did what she had to for our care. But rarely, maybe once every couple of months, our destitution became too much for her and she burst like a blood clot dislodged and malignant searching for a place to burrow.
As children, small and lacking in understanding, we did what we could during the midnight raids. We crawled around on the floor gathering toys, avoiding eye contact, not really sure what she wanted. Not really sure what we could do to make her happy. Just certain that we were the center of all her regrets, the very reason she gave up happiness the day we slipped into the world. Silently, we crawled around picking up broken toys and clothing to show that we were doing something but we didn’t really know what she wanted. Sorry for causing such pain but not knowing how to help. We crawled aimlessly on the floor until her door slammed shut and we heard her weeping from her room.
And the next morning, it was like nothing happened.
As adults, my siblings refuse to acknowledge the presence of the midnight raids in our childhood. Only one sister talks about them and she usually shouts the information to my elderly mother over the phone at two in the morning, swear words mixed with accusations. She makes midnight raids of her own, violations designed to attack when our mother is at her most vulnerable. I understand her desire to make my mother responsible for what she did. But three decades has passed since we suffered and how long can she wait to forgive a desperate woman who found herself lacking?
There are four of us. My older brother who never had a long term relationship with any woman. He suffers from depression and anxiety and anger issues and has to be medicated. There’s me who stayed in an unhappy marriage for 23 years even when I should have left, desperate to prove to the world that I’m loved by someone. Then my sister, sickly all her life and still is. During her illness, she had her only positive attention from our mother so she got sick-a lot. Then there’s the baby. My youngest sister who says she doesn’t remember the midnight raids although she was part of them. I can picture her crawling over the floor in silent bewilderment just like I did. But she’s also 200 pounds overweight. She turned to food, eating her unhappiness, eating her own self destruction. Part of her must be a remnant of those frightening nights where we were made to feel like the culprits for everything, the broad end of my mother’s dissatisfaction, the sharp side of her resentment.
I remember those nights even if I hated her for them at the time. How angry can I stay at a woman who is kind to my own children though she wasn’t kind to me?
She’s older now, my mother, and she smiles all the time. Age has given her happiness that she never had as a young woman. She still lives in her deluded world, the world where she’s right all the time and everyone else is wrong. Where she’s better than everyone else even if she had bastard children raised on welfare and couldn’t live with the man she loved without violence.
When I look at her now, I see a woman crippled in body as much as she was crippled in spirit. As if she became the physical equivalent of her own unfulfilled desires. And though I understand her angry moments, I vowed never to become her. But with a flourish of poetic irony, I did just that. I became my mother and I see now how it happened. I see the years of worry and hard living and being unappreciated and forgotten. I see how it happened with the arms pulling on me, the love gone awry, the husband with a bottle, the smell of vomit and the taste of time gone bad. Aspirations rotting in the sun, underbellies exposed to the ravages of time.
This is the reality of who we are. Each day slipping away from us like beads off a string and falling away into nothing. We try and hold on so we can find the truth of the truth and the why of the why. We carry baggage that should be left behind. We storm when we should float. We push away when we should embrace. And we hold onto things that hurt only ourselves. Why do we spend so much of our precious time with our arms wrapped so tightly around dissatisfaction? And why is it that children wear the skin of their parents unhappiness?
The story opens with a little girl about 9 years old running out of her house to play hide and seek. The little girl was me, of course. Of all the memories I have in my collection, I keep the cherished ones in a jewel encrusted, hand carved wooden box that sits just up and to the left of my heart. My children’s birth, my marriage, my Father’s death. All of these are contained within that small box. I only open it on special occasions to shake off layers of dust and admire again, the brightness of remembered love.
This is one of those memories.
Playing hide and seek may sound a little mundane but it wasn’t. All together, there were about 50 kids who ran around the subsidized housing complex that summer. And we all played the game. During the day we kept to our own small group of friends. But when night fell, we returned to our roots, crawling out of the primordial soup on wobbly legs, learning to walk, splitting into species, gaining the power of thought, dancing raucously around a fire, eating roast beast, painting our bodies, and running around naked under the stars. Well, maybe not that so much, but we did play hide and seek.
It was curious that we all played together at night when we didn’t during the day. After nightfall, any child was welcome to the game. The big kids, big enough to smoke cigarettes and steal from their parent’s liquor cabinet. And young kids, young enough to need someone to hold their hands when they crossed the street. A truce fell over the legions of the young on those nights. Youthful energy came together in a frenzy when darkness wrapped its wings over the sky.
And I was a master of the game. Somehow, I knew instinctively that if I turned my eyes away from my captor, they wouldn’t see me. I knew that looking at them would draw their eyes to me so I kept my eyes trained at the ground and froze my body like I was fixed in death. Stillness came to me out of some glimmer of innate knowledge that I didn’t understand. Most nights, I was the last one hiding. The big kids didn’t know my name but they called me “that girl.” As in “Did you see where that girl went?” And I might be only a few feet away from them but they couldn’t find me. I was a ninja in a child’s game, a game that did nothing to further the cause of humanity but brought us all together under the stars.
One memorable night, a night that I keep in that little wooden box next to my heart, I saw those glorious northern lights. I was crouched beside a wooden fence, the one that separated Mrs. Lee’s house from the strip mall parking lot. And I happened to look up and notice the lights. Anyone who has ever seen them will never will never forget their splendor. Looking up, sky black as coal, colors streaming across the heavens like the fine silk hair of a Goddess draped over the cosmos and crackling like twigs on a fire.
I sat by the fence and noticed that the shouting of the game had stopped.
Around the side of the house, I saw everyone abandoning their hiding places. We stood in the street with our heads held back, looking up at the sky. We watched the lights streak across the stars. The hide and seek game was finished for the night and we all knew it, and none of us cared.
“Mum. Mum. Come see the lights.” I shouted to her when the northern lights were so brilliant that even the most boorish of the bullies had to stop and admire them.
“I’ve seen northern lights before.” Her voice tired, annoyed. But we’re from the Yukon so I imagine that was true. I had probably seen them as well though I didn’t remember.
“No Mum, come see.” I insisted.
She came to the door, warm light glowing from the inside like a lantern. She walked outside without looking down, her eyes trained on the sky like mine. She let go of the door absently and it squealed shut. And I saw the look of astonishment on her face and I smiled. She wasn’t a cheerful woman when we were young, often tired, often angry, often bitter. But on that night she shared something with me that was only communicated with a look. We smiled at each other and I felt like I gave her the most precious of gifts. Like I had magicked up the lights just for her, just to give her a break in her narrow life.
I remember thinking it was odd on those summer nights that my mother let us play so late into the night. And I’m surprised to realize, with adult clarity, that it was a moment of kindness. I can imagine the ghost of my mother wandering to the door to call us in on a warm July night. But when she saw us playing with all the kids in the neighborhood, she let us continue. Sometimes the games went on until past midnight. And she was happy to let us play. I wasn’t grateful then, but I look back now and see that I should have been.
I took this memory of my youth and many others and slipped them into that box near my heart as if I knew, even as a child, that I would need them. I collected them as people collect salt and pepper shakers or commemorative spoons. I carry my collection inside of me because one day I will no longer be here. And I don’t want to feel like my journey will disappear into the air like smoke although that’s exactly what will happen.
That night with the lights, I belonged to everyone else as much as they belonged to me. All of us, tiny dots on the surface of a rock flying through the chasm of space, an almost invisible streak over the black that means nothing to any force in the universe save us. At that moment, we were one. We were happy to be insignificant, to be the small ants on an anthill together. All the tiny ways we try to best one another, try to exert our independence, argue, bicker, fighting our way to the top to some unknown end. This all disappeared under the lights. We weren’t adversaries anymore. We were all just creatures standing together and it lasted as long as the lights glowed. And it lasted the span of my life. The next day the bullies would be bullies again, the fraidy-cats would be fraidy-cats. We would all resume our place on the totem pole of child seniority. My mother would once again be a tired, angry woman with four ungrateful children. But on that summer night, we each wore one another’s skin and felt the warm trickle of companionship that takes away our differences.
My earliest memory is of my father. But I’m not sure the event is genuine or if it was manufactured in the lonely mind of a girl who wishes she could remember him.
The memory is both simple and complex. I remember being a fat baby and sitting on the floor of our subsidized home in Dickensfield. The close quartered row housing with the thin walls. The home of our poverty, the home of our grief, of loss, of loneliness, the home in which we became wards of the state, dependent on hand outs, sitting at the bottom, filtered to the lowest level, waiting for life to begin or end. This is a simple beginning but it becomes more complex when I realize that it might not have occurred that way. I don’t doubt that it happened but I recognize now that I wasn’t a baby in that house. I was three years old when we lived there. So maybe the memory I have is manufactured from the limited knowledge of my own life and the desire to have a memory of him. The thought of not having that memory is akin to being a bad daughter.
I am sitting on the floor of this home and I look up to see a person walk to the door. This person has no face. He is standing with his back to the sun, a sun that shines so brightly that it washes out all his features and blurs his outline. This, I’m sure, is an erasure of time but not of intention. I’ve lived this moment over so many times that the reliving has knocked off the edges of all the images and deleted essential elements. Because how would I know it was my father standing there unless I recognized his face at one time, even if I don’t see it now?
I have the distinct feeling of joy as I look up and see that it’s him. I reach my arms up. He opens the screen door and embraces me. And that’s my only recollection of him. That one small moment when I felt perfectly safe and wanted to be no where else. Part of me says this didn’t happen because he was never at that house. My mother left him and took us to our new life in Edmonton, leaving him alone in Whitehorse. And we never saw him again. And he never walked through the door of that house. Another part of me says that the details are unimportant, that I filled them in with things that I knew. Like taking a piece of a puzzle and putting it in the earliest house of my memory where it almost fits but not quite. I need to believe in its truth because, other than half a dozen photos, I have nothing left of him, only my reflection in the mirror, the olive skin on my face and the shape of my eyebrows.
I don’t even remember being told that he died. I just remember always knowing. One time, my older brother asked my mother “Dad’s dead right?” and my mother answers yes. “He was hit by a car right?” and she nods. “Didn’t he see the car coming?” and she says “I guess not.” I perked up when I heard this confirmation of something we already knew. We just accepted it as part of our lives. She must have told us what happened but this piece of the puzzle has been lost to time.
Funny, he died two weeks before my little sister was born and I remember that event. I remember being brought to our Godparents house because Mum was having the baby. My creepy Godfather always called me his girlfriend when I was only three years old. I squirmed to get away from him while he held me firmly on his lap and everyone seemed to think it was a great joke that I was his prisoner. But I don’t remember my father dying even though I remember all of this.
As an adult I think how difficult it must have been for my mother, who just lost her husband, to explain death to us, even if her marriage was colored with discord and I feel certain it was. How hard it must have been to speak to her fatherless children who had to learn of death in the most unerring way possible.
Years later, I contacted my father’s brother, my Uncle David, and I learned the truth. He told me how sad my father been, how lost he’d been without us, how much he wanted us back, all the things I wanted to be true. And they were true. He confirmed the suicide I had suspected. In Prince George, there was an old highway where people used to go to kill themselves. The road came around a sharp bend and pointed downhill. So on a dark night, a tired driver might hit a person who threw themselves in front of the vehicle. And if the vehicle were large enough, the human remains would not be salvageable. There were many deaths along this stretch of road. It was called “Suicide Corner.” And that’s where he went when he was too sad to deal with losing us, when he knew he didn’t want to live without us. Was it a truck? A car? A semi? I would have chosen a semi. Did he live long enough to regret his decision or was he killed instantly? I want to know the answers to these questions even if it gives me pain. Because there is also pain in not knowing.
My mother might know the answers to some of these questions but I can’t bring myself to torture a 77 year old woman with that recall. And I have come to understand that there are more questions than answers in this life. What I need to do, is take this memory and bed it down, and cover it over with soil so I can make room for some new experiences that don’t include the sad end of his life. It’s become too convenient to hide behind it, blindly clinging to the darkness of his image. I need to do what he could not do. I need to find the courage to stop living in the shadows and put my face in the sun.