Sailfish

“If we tip over, make sure you stay underwater and swim away from the boat.” 

My mom emphasized away with her left hand as she unconsciously maneuvered the rudder of our old SailFish with her right. I looked up nervously at the twelve-foot high sail, pulled tight and bowed to the breeze. I held onto a piece of rope she handed me at the beginning of our little excursion.

“Don’t let this go, alright? If I ask for some slack, give me some slack.” I nodded. 

 It was my first sailing lesson with her, and the most time I’d gotten with her that summer of 2002. She was a busy, up-and-coming real estate agent and most days were spent at Nan and Pop’s house by myself or with my brother until she got back from the office. When she asked if I wanted to learn how to sail I jumped to the occasion. It wasn’t more of a question, but rather, “Get in the boat or don’t but I’m leaving the shore either way.”

“If you do come up too close to the boat,” she continued, “you can get stuck under the sails and you’ll suffocate and drown because you’ll be panicking the whole time. Try not to panic, okay?”

I nodded cautiously as she squinted at the reflection of the sun as it bounced off the creek. I absorbed every warning she gave me – she did know best – and spent the rest of our sailing lesson in fear of the sails that could very well kill me. She gestured at me to move to the far side of the eighteen-foot boat and her hand relaxed on the ropes. Wind caught in the sails and all at once we pitched to one side. I braced my feet in the middle of the boat and held my breath. My mom sat in the back and effortlessly guided us through the strait of the creek, wind blowing her box-dye hair and messing up her usually tamed hairspray bangs. She had no fear in her eyes. In fact, they were closed. She had sailed the creek for thirty years before I joined her that day, so she didn’t need to see where she was going. She was the creek. She tilted her head up towards the sky and I watched her open up to the world and be in love with the moment. I felt myself ease my grip from the side of the boat. As the wind let up the boat slowed down, she looked at me and smiled, refreshed and new.

The creek was supposed to heal us. I believed it was magic for so many years because any time there was something wrong, the remedy was to simply go swim in the water. If there was too much sand on our feet, we’d dip them in and shake our legs around until it dusted off and floated gently home to the bottom of the creek. If our feet were scuffed up and calloused, we soaked them silently and patiently, and waited until tiny fish came up and ate the dead skin from between our toes. If we were injured while playing around the neighborhood, or if we stepped on a broken clamshell – or if we got splinters the size of posts stuck in our hands – Nan would send us away to the water’s edge.

“Go sit in the drink,” she said. “Go soak in the salt water. Salt water will clean it out.”

I took my cut up foot, or my splintered hand, and waded out into the brown-green drink, the drink that made the pain go away after a salty sting first met the wounds. And Nan was right – first the salt water would burn and then it would soothe. The cuts would turn white and after a few minutes of soaking I would study the depth of them and bake on the dock until my skin pulled tightly around me in a hug.

The water was iridescent on top and impossible to see beneath at a depth greater than a few inches. Sometimes I would cannonball off the float at the end of the dock, or off the back of the boat, and let all the air out of my body once I was submerged. I tried to remain tight and balled up, suspended in the black and the silence – away from everything except my thoughts and the fish below me. Then I’d pop back up eventually and break the surface, and stretch out on my back and float along the creek. I listened to what the water had to say, muffled and slow in my ears. I took in the drink. Calm and heavy from the salty thick water I paddled my way back to the dock and dried my skin again until it was too hot to sit still.

The adults floated in the drink, in different ways. Nan was self conscious so she would dip her toes into the water; I only saw her swim in a bathing suit a handful of times before she died. She had breast cancer and lost her left breast to a mastectomy. She stuffed the left cup of her bra with tissues or padding if she had to venture out into the world, or go to Bingo Tuesday, or go to church. The mastectomy scar was never visible in her bathing suit, but her radiation scars were tendrils that crawled out from underneath her straps and made themselves a part of her bold floral swimwear. When she did go take a dip in the drink she would go alone at sunset, as if she had a pre-arranged date with the water. Her intimate encounter left us kids as well as Pop in the house or on the deck so she could enjoy the solitude of the brine and converse with nature or the sun or God. She dipped under once or twice, a baptism. Pop didn’t mind sharing her with the creek – “My girl,” he always called her. He and Nan had been together since 1936, or 37 or 38, so he knew he’d never lose her to another.

Pop was unashamed of his body. His back was covered in broad white zig-zag scars from World War Two, and his belly was old but not fat, also folded over with many large scars that met at his belly button and went up and across, down and to the side, all from surgeries he had since he got home from Germany in 1945. He frequented his opened button-down shirt – or would forgo the shirt altogether – and place himself in front of an ancient oscillating fan. He sat quietly and patiently, his specialty. If he could no longer take the heat, he’d walk out to the dock until he reached the end like someone walking up the aisle of a church, and he’d submerge himself into the water – one dip – and dry off and come back inside. 

The adults took in a different kind of drink as well, and often. One of the first words I learned to read was Scotch, another Whiskey, another Bacardi, and another Glenfiddish, which I frequently mispronounced as Glen-fish and Glen-finch. It smelled awful to me, but Nan and Pop drank it everyday after dinner. A couple of ice cubes in a fancy crystal tumbler – it wasn’t a glass, it was a tumbler, I was told. Nan would mix hers with water and it reminded me of pee. Pop would sometimes mix his with water, or just sip it straight. They sat with matching drinks, in matching chairs, with matching coasters that were plastic and had green felt circles in the middle. The fan whirred between them, the tumblers sweating together. I never knew what time they went to bed even when my brother and I slept there; they were always frozen in those chairs, in my eyes. Relaxed, sailing along in the evening, healed. 

My dad rarely drank the liquor in Nan and Pop’s house. He was more of a beer person, with tastes varying from German to American, light or not. My mom, known for her room temperature glasses of blush-colored boxed Franzia wine, fancy in its long-stemmed glass and always accompanied by a cigarette, traded her pinks for a tall glass of Bacardi rum and Diet Coke. I was not fond of the smell of Bacardi either, and I didn’t entirely favor the taste of Diet Coke – but she drank from the moment she greeted my grandparents until my brother and I put our shoes on to go back home for the evening.

I noticed those nights, she looked different in her drink. We were mostly only at Nan and Pop’s house on Sunday night for dinner – maybe two or three more days a week during the summertime – but her eyes were not the same on those days. She didn’t have the slow, relaxed, cat-like glances with her shimmery green eyes peering the reflective black creek water. Instead she was foggy, frosted glass and tension. The wind was often either out of her sails, or too much in them and she would return home with us just to fall asleep curled on the couch, or become combative with my dad. I didn’t know this is what being drunk was, or that my mom often was drunk around me.

The adults were able to imbibe as often as they wished on the spicy-smelling drinks. Always with or after dinner – maybe it was for digestion, or maybe as a grown-up I would want a drink instead of ice cream. All I wanted to get my hands on was a glass or two of Coca Cola or off-brand Root Beer from the sale aisle, and I often had to wait for Sunday dinner to do so. For Sunday brunch, though, I watched with equal parts repulsion and intrigue as my aunt mixed together vodka – “Shhhmirnoff,” she joked – with tomato juice, horseradish, ice cubes…celery? Each pour was calculated, almost scientific. She stirred with the celery, licked the end and then took a large bite before placing the stalk back into the tall crystal glass. 

“What is that?” I cringed and looked at her as she took a deep drink of her beverage. I hated pulp in my orange juice, I thought as I watched her down tomato and vodka with horseradish. Horseradish pulp, I thought. I cringed some more. Horseradish was good with ketchup for cocktail shrimp. It wasn’t a drink.

“It’s a Bloody Mary,” she replied. She pursed her lips and then smacked them together as if the drink was not good but also necessary to her, like medicine. 

“D’you mean like Mary, Mother of God?” I was learning about these people in my Catechism class and Sunday school; we were Roman Catholics and it was generally taken very seriously. 

“Yeah, but Bloody because it’s alcohol.”

“So it’s a sin?”

“No, it’s vodka,” she said.

I thought about the Blood of Christ, wine we had to drink at Sunday mass (I wasn’t allowed to drink it, though), and wondered if a Bloody Mary was the home version of that. I then decided to stop asking so many questions and go drink my pulp-free orange juice and wait for things that were good, like bacon and Pop’s scrambled eggs. If we stayed long enough, my brother and I may have gotten in a glass of soda,  or an Oreo if Nan felt generous with her personal stash of cookies. On these mornings, my mom drank only coffee with sugar and milk. She told me she also thought Bloody Mary’s were gross. She also waited until a certain time to partake in things that were indulgent.

Sinner Excuses

Religious paraphernalia snaked throughout Nan and Pop’s house as well as my own. There were wooden crosses of varied sizes and patterns in the doorways; my grandma – Dad’s mom – hung a rosary over my bed because she told me she felt an evil presence sit on her chest in the middle of the night. I was in elementary school, maybe eight or nine years old. I sat in horror at the thought of a demon existing in my bedroom. How long was it there? Was it a he or a she? My grandma just assured me the rosary would keep it away but “there’s… something… in that room.” My mom only exhaled from her cigarette and nodded her head in agreement. She knew this whole time too? I felt betrayed. 

Nan and Pop’s house had prayers written out on plaques and placed around the creek house. There was a framed photo of the Pope addressed to them for their fiftieth or sixtieth wedding anniversary in the living room, flanked by a painting of the woods that Nan retouched, and a horrifying painting of a clown that she did herself. In their bedroom was a large, gothic-looking painting of the J-man himself. Jesus sat high in the room, with its cathedral ceiling, and watched over their bed. His hand was positioned in the typical forefinger and middle finger fashion, thumb out – the human and the divine. That painting scared me more than the clown. 

Nan was superstitious as well as a devout Roman Catholic who wouldn’t let me take the lord’s name in vain but also told me it was awful luck to put shoes on a table, open an umbrella indoors, cross paths with a black cat, step through a ladder; most importantly if salt was spilled it had to be thrown over your left shoulder in order to blind the evil. If you sneezed – or heard someone else sneeze – you had to say “God bless you” to help keep their soul inside of their body. But we had to be cautious of sinning, because we always sinned but were forgiven for it. We were told we couldn’t help but sin because that’s just what people did, but we should feel bad about it on some level – but as long as we apologized to God or to the priest in confession, it was okay. The sinners sinned deep, but they were sorry for them all.  

Catechism was where all the Catholic children in my class spent one day a week after school in the church basement up the road to learn about how Jesus died for our sins. I lacked patience for church. I owned a black cat named Fuzzy who brought me dead mice and sat in my lap. She couldn’t have been bad luck – I found her as a kitten behind our barn and hand fed her when I was four years old. She was a helpless baby black cat, and even if she grew up to be bad luck, at least I was on her good side. 

I wasn’t good at understanding the ins and outs of religion but I was decent at memorizing prayers and hymns and being harmless-looking in class. A small, round, olive-skinned child with big dark curls and a slightly fidgety nature was no threat to the nuns who spent their days rooting around for sinner and misbehaving youth. During mass, my brother and I often sang the wrong lyrics to things like, “Lamb of God, you take away the skins of the squirrels,” as opposed to “sins of the world,” and our mom glared down and ground her teeth at us because she knew she couldn’t crack us in the heads in a church pue. In Catechism though, I sat in the front; I knew the words to everything and didn’t dare try to change the lyrics. I wanted to act out and be a goofball but I felt that if I did it in front of a nun I would either be smacked or I’d get an express ticket to Hell.  

I didn’t understand how one large being was able to create everything around me, and see everything I did, and judge me. If he was nature and he made the birds and made the creek why did he let things be killed? I wanted to know why people hurt each other. I didn’t understand why his son had to be murdered for something other people did, but I knew I felt guilty for it. The whole concept seemed fishy to me. Nan and Pop were still alive and well though, and they were good and didn’t sin. To rationalize religion seemed impossible and to not go to Sunday mass was unthinkable. I simply grew accustomed to ten o’clock services with a trip to the local diner afterwards. 

My motivation was the food. Eating the body of Christ was not enough to sustain a child in a morning weekend mass, and it didn’t matter what time of year it was – either summer vacation, or the only days to sleep in during the school year – Sunday mornings were inconvenient. The saving grace, though, was the promise of chocolate milk and silver dollar pancakes at eleven when the doors finally opened and I was forgiven and saved for another week. It was always pancakes and chocolate milk; My parents grew critical of pancakes and chocolate milk. 

Coke on the Sink

My grandparents were less proud of their property and more pleased with being able to afford a small home on the water for my family to enjoy. The farmhouse was where I lived but we didn’t own it. We rented it from the neighbor next door who knew about the lightning tree. My parents lived in a condo until I was about a year old and then they decided they wanted to raise us closer to Nan and Pop and in a better school district. I remembered the moving truck that took us east, and I recalled helping my mom paint the interior of the coat closet before we left.

“Like this,” she said, as she moved her wrist up and down in gentle, dramatic sweeping motions. 

I took my little paint brush she gave me and tried but ended with swirling the brush in haphazard, rough circles all over the place. She took the paint brush back and told me to go play and that I could try some other time. I was awful at interior painting, but I couldn’t have been more than two at the time.

The farmhouse had small bathrooms. Tile ran halfway up the wall and was pink, then black tile separated the pink from the wallpaper. I couldn’t reach much, but everything was aligned on the sink – Dad’s razor, Mom’s reusable toothpick, the toothbrushes, her hair brushes – everything was on the sink. I was fascinated with her toothpick. It was metal and had a rubber pointed end and it looked like something far too important to be used for getting things out of teeth. It should have been a magic wand, I thought, or something of importance. She found me with it more than once and scolded me the same each time.

“That isn’t yours,” she said, and tore the metal pick from my grip. My magic was gone again, until I went back into the bathroom and stole it from the sink.

Nan and Pop didn’t have golden-colored magic wands in their bathroom. They had large, heavy brass ducks all over the house, and Nan had a large collection of colored glass jars and bowls and vases. 

“Cranberry glass is my favorite,” she said. When she babysat my brother and me she took us to the church-run thrift stores in search of her treasured glass. She could tell the difference between cranberry glass and a fake, but anything red and glass I found I brought to her anyway just to be sure. 

I was less interested in the glass and more interested in the metals. The brass ducks were barely movable but they were shiny and solid, strong and smooth. I ran my hands over the heads and bodies and tried to figure out how they were made. I speculated that the ducks just came that way, duck-shaped, and Nan found them in her journeys like the cranberry glassware. 

My dad kept his razor on the sink. It was heavy and metal, and I spent many mornings watching him shave his face in the mirror before work. He filled the sink halfway with hot water and carefully released a palm-sized amount of foam from a can. With his left hand, he dabbed white all over his face and then used his pointer finger to scrape the remainder into the sink where it floated on the warm, murky surface like the foam on the creek. Effortlessly, he dragged his razor along his face, removing the white and leaving smooth olive skin. I loved the scraping sound the razor made. He left a little bit of hair around his mouth and under his nose, to cover a scar above his lip. I asked where he got it and he told me Mom was giving him a piggyback ride and Nan sprayed them with a hose on the walkway. He slipped on the slate and landed on his face. 

When he finished shaving, he released the drain plug with a loud gulping sound and the foam and cloudy water disappeared with it. He replaced the razor back on the side of the sink and finished getting ready for work. I stayed for a moment to marvel at the razor. 

I couldn’t get the vision of the razor out of my mind and returned to it that evening once my dad was home from work and he and my mom were watching television in the living room. I went into the hall bathroom, just off from the kitchen and turned on the light. The razor waited for me. I couldn’t reach the can of foam, or the faucet to get the hot water to fill the sink, but I thought my dad would be impressed with me nonetheless for showing him I could also shave my face. I figured out the proper way to hold the razor – it only took a couple of moments since I saw my dad do it so many times – and brought the blade to my skin. A sharp pain hit my chin. The blade dug into the flesh just between my bottom lip and the top of my chin bone. I looked down and saw no white foam in murky water, only hands covered in warm red. Warm red on the blade and on the smooth white sink. I screamed and ran to the living room, razor still gripped tight in my palm and my parents both jumped up at the sight of my face. 

Pop hid his razor from me, or at least I decided he was intentionally keeping his razor from my grasp. He stored it high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach so I wouldn’t try to shave my chin again and instead shave off a piece of it. When my brother and I went for a sleepover, the sink in their bathroom was cleared off. Nan made sure we thoroughly brushed our teeth and then tucked us into the old bed in the spare room adjacent to hers. 

“Goodnight. I love you,” she said, and kissed us both on the forehead. “And if you get thirsty in the middle of the night, I left a glass of Coke for you on the bathroom sink.”

Nan was no stranger to the sweets. I woke up the next morning to see the Coke untouched, since both my brother and I slept through the night. I went to the bathroom and took a couple of deep, cool swigs of flat soda and made my way to the kitchen where Nan and Pop were already seated. The smell of instant coffee – very distinct from a drip coffee –  filled my nose. It was mixed with the scent of hot bacon and scrambled eggs. Pop made scrambled eggs in such a way that I only dreamed to duplicate for myself. 

Nan and Pop rotated their breakfast. Every other day they had bacon and eggs, and the days in between were filled with cold cereal or oatmeal. Regardless of Nan’s main course, though, she finished strong with two cookies. Always two. Mallomars or Oreos, neatly placed on a folded napkin on the upper right corner of her plate or bowl, waited for her to put down her utensils and dunk them for a sweet ending to a nice meal. 

I followed suit more times than not. She tried to enforce good eating habits when we were there, especially when my brother and I spent a couple of summers gaining an unbelievable amount of weight (our babysitter at the time took us to McDonald’s anywhere from three to five days a week for lunch. She was fired). One afternoon Nan replaced what would have been my normal lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup, her specialty – with a small dish of creamed spinach.

“You kids have to start eating healthier,” she warned. 

How could I possibly want to eat healthier when the second drawer down to the left of the sink was filled with ginger snap cookies and Oreos and Mallomars and graham crackers? How could I stray from a cookie with breakfast? How could I avoid the giant dish of Hershey kisses, placed obtrusively on a table between the kitchen and the main hallway? She asked the impossible of me, surely.

The sweets were my drug. Ice cream floats and warm backyards were perfect for each other, and Nan couldn’t tell me otherwise. Nighttime Coke on the sink was expected, not anticipated. I looked forward to maybe having to get up and relieve myself in the middle of the night for the promise of sweet, flat soda in the bathroom after I washed my hands. The lackadaisical observation of my movements by my two favorite senior citizens; it freed me up to grab a cookie or two, or three on my way out the door. I was outside all day, I justified. Two cheeseburgers were not uncommon for a child who spent all day kayaking against the currents. Root beer was in the fridge because it was on sale, not because it was healthy, and my two Depression era companions never said no. They said, “I love you,” and sent me outside to play some more.

I baked in the sun until my shoulders turned purple and I felt myself shrink and shrivel up. The salt air made its way into my mouth and left me with a desert thirst all over as my skin tightened and stretched on my bones. I crawled onto the boat to jump off of the bow into the water. The creek was like a bath and I disappeared under the cloudy top and hung for a moment, suspended where she held me. 

I ran back across the dock planks to the float so I could repeat my dive. I placed my foot on the bow of the boat once more and it shifted away from where my other foot was planted. I slid forward into a split until I couldn’t hold on any longer and plunged between the boat and the dock. I felt a sharp burn as my back scraped against a rusty nail. My head went under for a moment only to see the side of the boat come back towards the dock. I scrambled out of the water and ran into the house, screaming for Nan. 

She took me into the bathroom and pushed aside the empty plastic cup that once had Coke in it, and replaced it with a bottle of clear liquid. 

“Hold still this will clean it out.” 

I turned my back to her, the space between my shoulder blades pulsating. Then came a cold touch of the liquid followed by an immediate burn, as if she went outside, found the rusty nail, and put it into my back. I screamed and ripped the curtains off the bathroom window.

“What is that?” I began to cry.

“Rubbing alcohol,” she said, panicked at my reaction.  

I sniffled and dried off, unable to see the damage she had done but certain the wound on my back was massive. My grandpa came into the house and sat down, his old man belly proud and shirtless, his knees sticking out from under khaki shorts and his feet decorated in white calf-high socks and loafers. 

“What’s the matta!” He put his arms out to me and gave me a hug. 

“I cut my back on a nail and Nan put rubbing alcohol on it and it hurts!” I was a pathetic mound in his arms. 

Pop shuffled me off his lap and stood up. “Oh wow! Is it like my back?” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and turned around to show me his back. Although old and faded, I could see the deep white, jagged lines – scars. My injury was nowhere near as bad as his. 

“How did you do that?” 

“I had to jump out of a plane in the war. I was in a B-17. Do you know what a B-17 is? It’s a big plane. And I jumped out because it was going down and I got injured by shrapnel. Do you know what shrapnel is? It’s big pieces of metal. And then I landed in a tree in Germany. And then the Germans found me.” 

My story seemed much less interesting. I listened to Pop tell me about the plane crash for a while longer, then found Nan and apologized to her for making such a scene. She forgave me, of course, as she always did. 

“Here,” she said, and handed me a hard butterscotch candy.

Dirty Secrets

The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it. 

It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.

Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka. 

I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.

It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.

The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.

“That’s shit.”

“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.

“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”

“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual. 

“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.” 

Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.

“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested. 

My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo. 

It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell. 

“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying. 

“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka. 

“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.

The Ferryman

When I moved back into my apartment for my senior year of college, I noticed a large black spot on the ceiling. I called my mom to tell her and ask what she thought I should do about it, but she didn’t answer. When she finally did, she was angry at me, told me, “Figure it out,” and hung up. My move back to school was a couple of weeks ahead of the rest of the population because I worked for the campus. Patricia sat on the kitchen chair, her legs elevated, cigarette limp in her hand. It curled and whined upwards. She looked tired.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together this summer.”

“It’s alright. I was away anyway. I’ll be home for your birthday in October.” I looked at the clock, “I better leave. I love you, Mom.” 

“I love you too.” 

We hugged and I made my way for the ferry. Something felt off. I already decided in my head to come home earlier than her birthday – earlier than October 8th. And as I called her – and she didn’t answer – something felt even worse. She used to make me call her everyday the other three years, so what changed? 

I decided to report the black spot to maintenance, and they sent a crew of guys to come rip out a 2×3 foot chunk of my ceiling to address the black mold. It turned out to be a leak in the emergency sprinkler system, slowly releasing warm water for the entire summer.

“Good thing you caught this in time,” one man said to me. 

My mom still wasn’t answering her phone. Then, one night, my dad called me. 

“Don’t call your mother anymore right now.” He sounded frustrated with me, like I was inconveniencing my family’s life. I asked why the hell not. 

“Just don’t, alright?”

“What’s wrong? Is she sick? Should I come home? Is she mad at me?”

“No, she’s fine. Just call me if you need something from now on.”

I felt powerless and small. Clearly, something wasn’t right and I was purposely kept in the dark. It took only two days for my dad to call me again and tell me I needed to come home. He said she was sick; he didn’t say with what. He said to just come home; she was in the hospital. I knew Patricia and hospital didn’t mix well. My mother almost proudly toted the fact that she had not seen a doctor since I was born in 1990. Once I got off the phone, I collapsed to the floor. My gut – my deepest parts – knew she wasn’t coming home. 

I couldn’t sleep the whole night and by the time I got to the ferry, the sun had barely peaked up over the horizon. It was a chilly September morning, my first week of my senior year of college. I bathed in salt air and drank cheap ferry coffee. It was nearly impossible to sit still, as if I thought somewhere inside of me that I would have been able to swim to Long Island faster. I wanted to yell at the captain and tell him to hurry the fuck up.

From the moment I touched down on the island, every basic human instinct stripped itself away. It’s amazing what the human body does when sent into a literal crisis – a life or death situation. My senses went insane; I kept catching myself biting my fingers, crying silently, shaking my knees around. My dad hugged me – then my grandpa. I remember everything like it was on a hyperrealistic recording in my head. The flowers were still in bloom in my grandpa’s backyard; Nana’s geraniums still lined the driveway. The half hour drive to the hospital took longer than the ferry home. Everything around me pulled like taffy and mentally I couldn’t keep up. I just needed to see Patricia. I needed to see my mommy. 

It was so horrifying and real. It smelled. It was dry and asphyxiated me as I entered the ICU. Uncertainty. How could any of this be happening? I saw her there, yellow. Simpsons yellow. Egg yolk yellow. Yellow eyes. Yellow everything. Stringy, limp, matted hair. No makeup. She always wore makeup. No cigarette. Impossible. It couldn’t be her. I needed to snap back into reality. It spoke.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Oh God, it was Patricia. I let out a forced laugh, more so of disbelief than anything, that my own mother was so worse for wear. The conversation was minimal as I described her view outside the window. There was a 7-Eleven, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

“I want vanilla ice cream and a fountain Coke.” 

She said her mouth was dry, which I found difficult to believe especially with the insane amount of swelling in her legs and abdomen. She looked like someone who was nine months pregnant with the calves of an Olympic cyclist. I kept looking at the wall. The woman before me, demanding Haagen Dazs and fast food soda, was impossible to place in the same category as the woman who viciously dragged my hair every morning, who took care of all the kids in the neighborhood – who cursed out my principal. She was laying there, unable to move, shitting in a diaper. The person in front of me was the foil of Patricia.   

I quickly noticed that the room she was in had no clocks and it felt appropriate. Time didn’t exist in a place like that. We sat in the room, stale and stagnant; it smelled like chemicals and had a metallic, sticky taste of pending death. There, in the space of crossing over, I watched my mom slowly drift in and out of toxic hallucinations and call out for our family dog, Duffy, who sat home, unsure where she’d gone. By the time I reached the boat at the end of that weekend and gave my ticket to the ferryman I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned. Everyone gave promising, half-smile reassurance on her condition, but I knew – Patricia had burnt out. 

I was right. It was only four days before I decided to get on the ferry again and see her in the hospital. She deteriorated quickly, and it was clear she wasn’t well because instead of insulting me when I walked into the ICU she told me my hair looked nice. I leaned in to kiss her forehead, bangs matted down to her yellow shell. My dad, brother, and his girlfriend had been there most of the day. They were all puffy and swollen from crying. It was 8:20 PM, and suddenly, time mattered, because the ICU nurse told me I had to leave.

“Can you stay with me tonight, just in case?” She rolled her eyes at me to lighten the overtone that “just in case” meant, “if I die tonight, I don’t want to die by myself.” 

I crumbled in front of her, saying I wasn’t allowed but I loved her, and walked away as her lip quivered and she called out for the dog. 

When they called to say she fell into a coma that evening I felt a bizarre combination of relief and panic. I didn’t have to rush to the hospital, but I felt an obligation to do so. She lay in the same bed, eyes closed, writhing around in pain and I sat next to her and just put my hand on her arm. I told her I wasn’t going anywhere and she moaned and turned her head to the sound of my voice. We were met with a doctor who told us she had a ballpark 12 hours left to live. The finality of that – the time put on life – sent me into a spiral and I had to walk out of the room. What the fuck was happening? Why was this happening to me?

I wrote her eulogy, my head splitting open in a way that I never imagined possible. I thought I was dying too. I hadn’t showered in days, I saw people coming in and out that I barely recognized; my own family seemed like shadows. Someone brought brownies, another sodas, another baby wipes – I was in an alien environment and suddenly needed to be taken care of by everyone around me. I lost function. I became sub-human. There was a point where the only thing I could perform was the writing of Patricia’s eulogy. Talking about who she was made it easier to forget that she was technically no longer there.

We tried to swap funny stories and reminisce of her self-proclaimed title of “real estate slut” as opposed to being a broker. She rarely cried. She had a sick, dark, wonderful sense of humor. She fed everyone. She loved our family dog more than us – I was relatively confident of that. She didn’t deserve to die the way she was. 

A somber tone hit the group at once. There were about ten or so of us sardine-canned into the hospital room, some seated in the window will, a couple tossed onto chairs like old clothes, the rest of us stood, myself included. We looked around uncomfortably, mostly avoiding eye contact although the stench of sadness hung over all of us like a fog. Miraculously, Patricia began to move in her bed. Everyone jumped at the sight of a comatose, technically brain-dead woman rolling around and we all began to collectively panic. We realized quickly that someone, in their awkward, depressed shifting around, leaned on the bed controls and pressed down on a lateral lift, causing my mother’s body to pitch hard to starboard while we all looked on helplessly, trying to figure out which button made it stop.

“Oh my god! Oh my god,” my mom’s friend shouted out as my father threw himself onto her body to prevent her from rolling onto the floor. Hands went over mouths and people began to gasp until one of our family friends, an EMT, stopped the roll and lowered her back to a stable, flat position. It took all of five seconds for me to burst out into laughter after witnessing the dumpster fire that was my family. 

“She would have laughed at that.”

Her death was far less climatic than her accidental resurrection. I actually woke up to a phone call from my best friend asking me how she was coming along. When I rolled over, she took her last two breaths. There weren’t angels to come take her soul away; no soft sound of harps and horns. There was only the buzzing fluorescent tubes above us and the hiss of an oxygen machine. She and I were alone together. It was 12 days before her 52nd birthday. 

Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

I Dream of Anxiety

There is an indescribable feeling I encounter from time to time, where I feel engulfed in emotion and it comes in the idea of a drowning of colors that I cannot see beyond. I am unable to put into words the feeling – the over-stimulation of senses that are only agitated further by excess company or outside stresses. Sometimes I wish to curl in a ball and cocoon myself in hopes of coming out from under it refreshed. I know, however, this method doesn’t work for me, and as an alternative I force myself into the world in order to fight a wave with another wave of social activity. When I’m like this, I feel alone, regardless of the company around me. I feel vulnerable and although I am completely aware I’m not the only one who experiences this type of anxiety, I still feel as if someone who peered inside of me would run from the chaos. I try to use my words and find no solace in vocalizing something that I can’t even put an idea to. Rather, I try to identify what made me feel this way and tackle it, and regain control over what is mine.

Lately, this force has been running through my being in a way that I can’t describe. A darkness where I am sometimes afraid to reflect inward, unsure of what I will see. Anxiety comes in many forms. And this is mine.

This evening I dreamed. I was wandering amongst winding brick buildings, windows shattered, leaning from side to side, courtyards that I could only imagine were once beautiful and full of life now barren save piles of rust and junk and death. This maze was intimidating and at the same time, I walked as if being led by natural instinct; as if I already knew where I was. I knew that once the sun went down I had to leave, because the dangers in this dark place were ones I was certain I did not want to encounter. I made my way through this lonely space, gazing up at the building that gave up and were given up on. The sun began to disappear.

My heart rate increased as I turned on my heels and attempted to make my way past the weaving piles of discarded, unwanted items that once served purpose in lives of those who were no longer around. The silence was only interrupted by the sound of my own heart in my ears and the occasional tipping of trash as I stumbled and stumbled and then became completely engulfed in the darkness.

Seeming to give up on myself in the current predicament, I stopped running. I now carefully treaded as I made my way to the exit that I seemed to already know, when a dark figure stepped in my path. Tall, thin, and imposing, it reached out and wrapped its arms around me and pulled me with it up against a brick wall. I felt my face press into this black shadowed figure and thought of all the other times I was haunted by beings similar to this. I tried to reason with it, to convince it to let me go. I said I both knew what we were capable of, and that if it let go of my body we would both run, and no one would be hurt. It released me. I didn’t stop to look back, and didn’t have to, because I could hear this thing running at me with a gait twice the size of mine, so I pushed twice as fast to escape it and get out of this maze of darkness and death before it caught up to me.

I ran into a lit hallway and took shelter in an alcove and waited. The being, now exposed to the light, made me embarrassed and sad. It was yellow. It was completely yellow, non-threatening, and I now thought that it was embracing me not for malicious intent. Rather than face it, I blended into a crowd and continued on.

****

I woke up and concluded that the maze and the darkness was my anxiety, and I maneuvered it so well, because it is something I have stood up against over and over throughout the years of my life where all of these colors and emotions would swallow me into a black nothingness, and I’d have to find my way out. The yellow figure was hope. It was positivity. It was a shred of myself that came into the darkness to embrace me and protect me and I ran to escape it, because I couldn’t see it head-on for what it was. In life, I can’t always see head-on the things that will protect me in my darkness. In life, if I embraced that darkness, rather than try to escape it, and calmly step through what is seemingly ruins, I might be encountered by the things that will save me.

Hair, There…

I stopped brushing my hair completely in 2013 after years of systematically running through it with a wide brush and then styling it into a fluffy mess and ultimately praying for the best. Since I ended this, my hair has become incredibly healthy; it grows out fast, it’s shiny, and by simply and gently finger-combing my hair in the shower with conditioner, I have almost zero tangles. I find it funny that although I was constantly combing through and separating my curls, I was coming out the other end with dread locks and rat’s nests and dull, crazy hair. This is what I was used to, though, for my entire life. My mother, with her straight, blonde hair, would rake my head every morning until I was old enough to rake my head on my own. She would pull and tease and get a round brush stuck in it one time (where we learned together and after a haircut that round brushes were no longer to be used). I would cry and moan and fidget hoping she would just get sick of my knots and give up, until I became the one to accept that this hair abuse was just how it had to be. No matter how it hurt, no matter how many tangles, I had to brush it out. Every single day.

I began to apply this process to my life: Hair being the situations, the brush being overthinking, conditioner being rationalization, and my fingers representing normal thought. Each coil on my head is something I cannot control. It is something that happens to me, that has always happened to me, and that will continue to happen to me.  For years, I would obsessively pick apart each curl, each occurrence. I would separate, strand by strand, trying to pull everything away to see if I could see it better. What I was left with, each time, was a mess. This mess would fly around, unmanageable and insane-looking and I would hide the mad scientist under a hat or pull it all into a bun behind me so I didn’t have to look at it anymore. And although each day, I would have the same outcome, I would still wake up the next morning and comb through the same dead hair, knowing it would be futile, all for that brief moment in my day when everything looked momentarily managed.

Every time something happened in my life that I couldn’t control, I would dig it apart trying to understand why I couldn’t control it, rather than learning how to control myself. Instead of nurturing the situation, letting it run its course, and allowing it to exist, I would cause myself a lifetime of grief trying to alter what occurred naturally. I don’t know exactly where it clicked in my head that this was a bad idea – being insane and constantly picking apart my life – but part of me thinks I was simply sick and tired of the constant stress and disappointment of things I couldn’t control. After almost 23 years of disappointment with the outside forces and I just gave up. I gave up on trying to understand what was around me before understanding me. 

Unfortunately, it only took me long enough to realize that I wasn’t the only one in the world with wild, curly hair. I wasn’t the only one in the world with problems. I also wasn’t the only one who constantly tried to pull apart things I couldn’t control. It didn’t make me a bad person or wrong for learning to obsess over things, but it was beneficial to learn how to live in harmony with these things – to let it exist with minimal interference and, when necessary, to cut dead ends for growth.

What’s in your Glass?

I think the phrase “Glass half empty” or “half full” is outdated. I think that no matter what way a person looks at that glass, sitting there, whether or not they believe it is half of either, will eventually be left with an empty glass. Why? Because that’s life. Life has a tendency of draining us when we least expect it. It has a control that we can’t shake no matter how hard we try, because we are free standing blobs of energy existing in a environment that is in a constant entropic state, moving around pieces and creating reactions regardless of whether or not we’re ready for them. When I look at a person, and want to know their optimism, I do not want to know how they view the glass on the table. Rather, I want to know what is within them that will allow them to refill their glass when it inevitably becomes empty.

Even if a person does everything they can to not drink from that glass, it will slowly evaporate if it isn’t consistently replenished. Sometimes, the glass looks fine, sitting there on the table, and then someone or something hits into that table and the glass tips over and spills completely, unable to be salvaged. When these things happen, when our optimism, our control, our happiness – whatever we have placed in that glass – is gone, what are we going to do to refill that glass from ourselves and, more importantly, for ourselves? Do we sit there thirsty, staring through an empty piece of dishware, hoping someone will come along and notice our thirst and just simply refill us like a bus boy at a restaurant? What if that person never comes? How do we rebuild?

In order to refill that glass, cup, coffee mug, whatever – we need to be full ourselves. Internally, we need to be whole, pouring over and ready to replenish ourselves in times of uncontrollable mess when the universe tips something over or we become so thirsty for answers we drink up our optimism and are left with nothing. The glass is the world but what we put in that glass is entirely up to our own choosing. That’s why I feel the glass is merely what it is. We cannot control what the universe throws out us; we will never be able to predict its curves. However, we can be prepared, and full enough in our own state of being to allow the universe to operate without us pushing against it constantly, destabilizing our happiness.

When I was younger – up until 22 or 23 – I believed that, in my current state of being, I was owed. I was owed happiness, I was owed a break, I deserved to have some good come into my life. However, at the same time I blamed everything around me for making me miserable. I blamed the glass for being empty, instead of taking responsibility for not having the means to refill it. The hardest pill I ever had to swallow was looking at everything going wrong in my life and realizing that I was the one who was keeping it that way. I was the one who was broken. I had the means to fix myself and I was more afraid of messing it up that I decided to push responsibility onto something I couldn’t see nor control. I felt like Murphy’s Law followed my every turn, pushing things out of place and purposely disheveling my surroundings in order to make me miserable. Me. The common mindset where I was literally the only one in my universe, and the universe was out for blood.

Funny story: no one’s glass is consistently half full. Their mindset might be half full, but the glass itself is varying in degrees of content. That is why the glass is just a glass, and the person viewing it is the one responsible for determining whether or not that glass will remain on the low side, or if they will continue to replenish what is lost when happenstance comes through and throws things around.

When Death Feels Generous

I always imagined an embargo with Death. As people prepare to take off with him in the form of souls, he grabs their wrist and leads them to a door, but they stand there in the nothingness a moment longer. He feels them pull back ever so slightly — enough to feel the tension — and turns around to face them. The soul is not looking at Death. The soul is looking back through the veil, back into the realm of fleeting love, of abandoned family, seeing it as close as they will for what may be eternity. In that moment, I imagine Death wearing a tailored suit to fit a long torso and long, slender legs. His scythe is not a scythe, but a pocket watch on a chain. His feet are adorned with the finest wingtip Oxford shoes that click as he walks, echoing into forever. The soul looks down, staring into the blackest black, suspended and at the same time feeling impossibly heavy. The only light is the window back into the existence, getting smaller and smaller with each passing second. Or is it hour?

 

Please.

 

The word feels small and impossible. It seems to be absorbed by the surrounding blackness. Death turns his head back around once more; he knows what the soul will ask before they can release another imploring whisper into the air. He releases his grasp on their delicate wrist, and places his open palm onto their forehead. A cold rush is pushed through the soul, as a piece of them drifts back into the closing plane of life, to remain with the mortal. The piece of soul — that energy — is then imprinted into and intertwined with one of the living, allowing a slice of the deceased to communicate and visit the loved one while they sleep.

 

When I fall asleep, and she’s there, I find myself unable to ask the questions I longed to ask for years and years. I lose my words from over-excitement of smelling her perfume or feeling her hair on my neck when she hugs me. Even when the dreams fall incoherent, and I lose control, and they begin to spiral into a disarray of images and colors and I can no longer tell what way is forward, I still smell her perfume. I imagine Death watching over from some distant place, calling the shots as to when the dream will end, controlling the time we spend together. Not too much, as he twists his hand and pulls her out of my head. He takes his pocket watch out of his suit jacket and double checks that he’s still running time, and he studies my lost, subconscious soul and smirks to know he can decide how long I get with her. And he knows I won’t complain, because any second longer I have with my mother is more than I could imagine after watching her die that day. After watching her breath escape her, and she was led off into the darkness only to pull back, and look through back to the living, and back to life. Please. She watched my eyes scan her body for any type of movement while the rest of me remained as still as her. In that moment Death let go of her wrist, and pushed a piece of her into me, only to visit in dreams.