All posts by bethwindler

Barb

I lose Barb when she is in her seventies. We are not family, and I have only known her for a few years. I see her once a week, on Fridays, when we volunteer at a Catholic Charities shelter, and we spend about three hours together. I’ve never lived close to a grandparent, and I immediately fall in love with her. She is my surrogate grandmother, the one who wants to know everything I’m doing, and thinks every last detail is interesting.

“Honey, you look tired, are you sleeping enough?”

“Barb, me and the dog saw five deer on our walk this morning.”

“Honey, there’s just enough potato salad left over for one serving, you go and eat that now.”

“Barb, I brought you an article from Minnesota Monthly—weren’t you telling me about this store?”

“Honey, tell me where you’re going to dinner tonight with your husband.”

“Barb, I painted my nails in Christmas colors.”

I grieve longer for her than I do for my beloved grandfather who died four years before. I think about her every Friday like clockwork, when I sign into the shelter log and see…well, not her name. There are times at the shelter when I’m assembling grilled cheese sandwiches and her absence is so heavy, there across the stainless steel prep counter that I feel it like August in Minnesota, thick and damp in the air. I bump into it when I turn; its weight presses down on my arm as I reach for a piece of processed cheese.

What surprises me about grief is that it matters how someone dies. Maybe this is why my grandfather’s death is less difficult to overcome; he died after a long bout with pneumonia, having survived many previous illnesses. When he died, the whole family agreed, he was tired. He was done. If Barb, a two time cancer survivor, had passed from a third round of cancer, I doubt the loss of her would be so intense. If she had lost her spark, if her walk had become stooped and burdened, perhaps I wouldn’t think about her so often. Does this mean I don’t miss her as much as I feel I do? I’m not sure. People should be what they were in life, regardless of how they leave it. And yet the way she dies means everything to me.

When she is alive, Barb and I rarely speak of our faith together. Perhaps we have an uneasy alliance. She is a devout Catholic, a former missionary, very conservative. I was raised a Baptist, not currently attending a church, very liberal. She knows this about me and sometimes seems interested in what has led me to Catholic Charities. I don’t know what to tell her, and mostly I don’t say anything, except that I love God and I believe the easiest way to find him is in serving others. Whether this makes me efficient or lazy, neither of us have decided.

When the Costa Concordia crashes off the eastern coast of Italy, it is mid-January. I have a hand-sewn apron in my car, a late Christmas gift for Barb who I haven’t seen since the holiday. At the time, I’m in Boise, Idaho on business. The website I write for is celebrating a milestone–1 million views in a month. Truthfully, the business takes a back seat to the celebrating—casual lunches, decadent dinners, a glittering party, walking around town, champagne cocktails and my high heels clicking on pavement.

I see the crash on CNN, blaring from the hotel television, and think nothing of it. I hear about it again in the airport on the way back to the Twin Cities. None of it registers until I get an email from JoAnne, the kitchen coordinator at the shelter–“By now I’m sure you’ve heard about it on the news…I can’t believe it…I am praying for Barb’s family.” I Google Barb’s name immediately, frantically, and there it is—a Minnesota couple is among the missing cruisers. It is not like anything I know, the sight of her picture on CNN, The Huffington Post, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press. The list of her good deeds: the two shelters she serves, the daily visits to church, the cookies she bakes for Bible study groups. Newscasters speak her name and I want to take the syllables out of their mouths. Her name doesn’t belong there, next to basketball scores and a tally of the night’s robberies.

“I’m so afraid something will happen.” Barb’s daughter has been ill, cancer of some kind. “Gerry and I aren’t sure we should still go on the trip…what if something happens to Sarah while we’re gone?” She holds her hands in front of her, rubbing her fingers together.

“Is it likely that her condition will change while you’re gone? Or are you just worrying because you’re a worrier?”

We have that it in common. We look for things to worry about.

Barb smiles at me. “I don’t know, honey. I’m just worried.”

“I know. I know you are. Everything will be okay.” I rub her back. I mean what I say.

Four days after the crash, my boss observes me teaching in my classroom. I cannot string a sentence together with two hands. I tell a student he is correct when he is wrong. I stare at my students’ handwriting on the white board and wonder what I should say next as they gaze at me expectantly. Barb’s specter floats around my head.

The days pass. At night I dream of Barb and her husband. They are floating in a black ocean. They are holding hands. They are flat, two-dimensional, like cardboard cut-outs of themselves…which I guess is an accurate depiction of someone’s body once the life has left them. I’ve seen death before—a childhood friend died of a heart condition and when I saw her in her coffin at the age of eight, I was shocked. Another friend drowned when we were 20, the parents of friends have passed, and it’s always been the same. If you’ve seen a dead body, up close, you see it is nothing like a person, that all the height and width and length in the world will not make them the multi-dimensional person they once were. I wake from the dreams in the middle of the night, sweating and desperate, then spend the next hour staring at the ceiling, wondering if Barb can see me, if she loves me in death, if she knows how much I still love her. I remember them in all their darkness when I wake again in the morning.

I keep the apron I’ve sewn for Barb in my car. It is wrapped in silver tissue paper, tied with white string. I keep it in the passenger seat, and sometimes I talk to it while I drive. The words are the same, a prayer of repetition.

“I miss you Barb…I miss you…I miss you.”

In the sketchy days after the crash, when they don’t yet know the final body count in all the confusion, I call my sister and ask her, do you think there’s a chance she’s alive? No, Katharine tells me, and I’m so sorry. My sleep remains feverish, wracked. In a conversation with a friend, we talk about the nuances of grief, of surprise. I interrupt, and ask her, do you think there’s a chance she’s alive? No, she tells me, and I’m so sorry.

Although I think about quitting, I come back to the shelter after Barb goes missing. I think of her every single week. It is still the way she died that sneaks up on me, makes me wonder about her last moments. Before they found her body and that of her husband, I prayed they’d be discovered in one of the rooms in the ship. I thought about that scene from Titanic, where the elderly couple lies in bed, spooning each other, holding hands in resignation as the water rises around them. Please let that be their end.

The ending is not the measure of the experience, is what I tell myself. There was a whole life—children and grandchildren and service and work. And that must count for more than the ending of that life.

In Christianity, Jesus is most remembered for his death on the cross. He died for our sins, the sins we commit because we are inherently prone to messing up. It is not exactly an affirming premise, which may be why so many disdain organized religion. But his death is not what counts. Jesus was above all else, kind, giving, forgiving, wise, and even flawed.

This is the reason I find comfort in volunteering at the shelter that led me to Barb. Though some residents have been brought to homelessness through limited resources and bad luck, others have made mistakes along the way. They tell me how many days sober they are; they first arrive with sores on their face from scratching while they were coming down from using meth; they have their children taken away from them; they have warrants out for their arrest. I sin, too. I judge them when their kids are wearing dirty pajamas at noon. I wonder how they can be homeless but morbidly obese. I’m incredulous and smug when they ask for something we don’t have at the moment—sour cream, Ranch dressing—and wonder what gives them the right to make demands when they get this food for free. As though food weren’t a human right, a basic need that everyone should have fulfilled without judgment. I make mistakes; I feel ashamed. For us all, there is time to start again. There is help at the shelter for everyone.

It’s important that the story of Christ is one of redemption. But giving more weight to his death than his life is a mistake. I need a model for living outside the concerns of my small life, which is often so wrapped up in anger that my Internet service is slow, frustration that I still haven’t lost those ten meaningless pounds, impatience with my husband’s inability to properly wipe up a spill on the kitchen counter. The shelter is my reminder that the world is made bigger and better by serving others—a model that Christ lived. It is, of course, comforting to think that if we fuck it up along the way, well, Jesus took care of that at the end. Still, the moments of Jesus’ life must be at least as important as his death.

In the first spring after her death, I am still Googling Barb’s name to find the latest news. And there it is. They finally found her body. Pinned between the hull of the ship and the sea floor. It is as bad as I dreaded. What does it mean? I ask my sister. Why was she outside the boat? Maybe she let other people get in the lifeboats, she says. Maybe it was a sacrifice.

It has been a year and a half. I’ve let go of the dreams—Barb floating in that black sea, her thin hair waving with the tides. When the surprise of her absence hits me, it’s usually because I can’t tell her I got a second dog, I fell on the ice, I made a cake she has to have the recipe for. Her end is fading away, and the rest is what I hope I always remember. Maybe when I’m Barb’s age I won’t recall that someone I loved died on her dream vacation. Maybe all I’ll know is that once I had someone in my life who loved me for the way I arranged brownies on a tray, who told me my hair was beautiful, who touched my face when she spoke to me. The end doesn’t have to define the experience. The end can just be the end.

The first day I work at the shelter, the cook has me slicing apples. I work in silence, cutting off each mellow-green side along the rough core. I pile the anemic slices in a large plastic container that will later be placed on the cold line. My hands go cold as I make my way through the chilled mound of imperfect apples with their dents and bruises and going-soft flesh. It’s quiet in the back where I work, only the sound of a ventilation system blowing through the small, industrial kitchen. Suddenly I feel two small hands pressing on either side of my arms.

“How’s it going?” Barb’s lined face peers up at me from my left side. She wears a gray brimmed hat that seems to be part baseball cap/part newsboy cap/part fishing hat. Little tufts of silver and white hair stick out from underneath.

I smile at her. “It’s fine, making progress.” I gesture to the container that is almost filled up with apple slices.

“I see that,” she smiles back, the skin around her eyes crinkling.  It’s quiet for a moment and then she says, so joyfully she’s almost laughing, “I’m so glad you’re here.”  She walks away.  My arms still feel warm from where she touched them.

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Elizabeth and Zacharias

Brave

During a Christmas Eve service at a church where my husband and I didn’t know anybody, I half-listened to the pastor’s sermon. Christmas Eve services tend not to be an accurate barometer of a church’s culture or a preacher’s ability to connect. Besides Easter, there is no bigger day, no more intense anticipation. How many ways can we talk about the birth of Christ? It’s important–critical–in Christianity, of course, but it’s also hard to meet expectations. So as the pastor spoke, I mainly enjoyed the candles and Christmas lights adorning the sanctuary, wondered how much snow would be piled up on the car by the time we got out, and tuned in once in awhile to hear the usual words–Joseph, inn, virgin.

Then the pastor began to talk about Elizabeth, who was barren and wished for a child. The angel Gabriel came to her husband first, before Mary, and told him that Elizabeth would have a child, after years of being infertile. Zacharias was doubtful, so Gabriel told him he wouldn’t have use of his voice until the prophecy was realized. Elizabeth was made pregnant and gave birth to a baby around the same time that Mary had Jesus.

I knew Elizabeth was a figure in the New Testament. After all, she has my name–or I have hers. But I never paid attention to her story, a woman who became pregnant with a boy she never thought she’d have, until the moment I sat in that pew, pregnant with a boy I never thought I’d have. There is not much else said about Elizabeth during her pregnancy. Was she scared? Being her age and expecting a child? Was she hopeful? Was she optimistic–she did have the word of an angel, after all, that she would become a mother. I imagine she was all of these things. Yet I am more drawn to her husband, Zacharias because he admitted doubt and was then silenced. Zacharias was afraid, pessimistic, unable to believe that he could get what he’d been hoping for, and the punishment was the loss of his voice.

Before I became pregnant, I never knew that pregnancy could be a fearful time. A time when many women obsess about what they eat and whether they’re exposed to harmful chemicals. We are doubtful of our ability to grow and carry life, and instead of talking about how pregnancy can be complex in both its joy and its terror, we lose our voice.  Who will want to hear about what we fear when we have been given such a gift? Who will be sympathetic to the vast responsibility of creating a person when it’s (often) something we’ve chosen? Here it is, what you’ve always wanted, now be happy and thankful and strong.

With no offense intended at Gabriel, bearer of good news and silencer of doubtful husbands, I’m trying to reclaim that voice, in small measures. It seems to be a two steps forward, one step back process. For instance, even writing this post has been…fraught. What to say, and how much to say, and whether it will all come back (in a magical thinking type of way) to bite me in the ass. All I want to do is open up a conversation, even if it’s just between me and the ether, about what it means to do something so big, and to admit that it’s scary. To acknowledge that it would be irresponsible, even, not to have fear, because fear is a sign that you know how big the stakes are. Fear during pregnancy is what prevents you from guzzling martinis and getting into hot tubs and going skydiving. Fear can exist next to our joy and anticipation, and it doesn’t make us less strong or less grateful.

In these last few months of my pregnancy, I’m reminding myself that I can be an Elizabeth-Zacharias hybrid. The woman who had almost given up hope; the husband who dared to voice doubt; the couple who were overwhelmed at the generosity of God’s gift. If it’s okay with Gabriel, I’m going to keep speaking through my uncertainty. And hope that it gives comfort to those who also doubt.

Lifelines

HoldingHands

I read this post recently from Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy about being a lifeline to someone who may not know how to ask for help, and conversely, getting a lifeline when you may not be able to ask for it. It tied in with something I’ve been thinking about lately, about where I’ve been in the past year. And this is not as much an existential “where” as a literal “where.” I’ve been MIA.

When I called Sarah, my closest friend from college, to tell her I was pregnant, finally (she knew I’d been trying for years), I gave her the whole shpiel–IVF treatments in the winter, pregnancy and then miscarriage in the spring, recovery in the early summer, back at the IVF by July, finishing my first trimester in September. As I finished my recitation, I realized, I had barely talked to her this year. I hadn’t mentioned any of this in the few phone calls (at her initiation) we’d shared. And suddenly, I felt self-conscious.

“So, um…so that’s why I guess I’ve been quiet,” I said. It sounded so lame. “I mean, I know I’ve been sort of underground this year. I just felt like I couldn’t talk about what was happening.”

There was a pause. Sarah’s not much of a bullshitter. But she let me have my excuse and said, “I’m glad you told me why. I’ve been wondering. But now I know.”

After our phone call, I realized how much regret I felt at not having included her in what I was going through. I don’t think it’s self-absorbed to say…people want to be involved in your misery. Seriously. If they love you, they want to know. The previous six months I’d been operating under the illusion that I was saving people from my sadness, preventing them from having to deal with my loss when everyone has enough loss of their own. But really I denied Sarah, and everyone else I avoided, the opportunity to be a lifeline. The opportunity to share this with me, and come to understand me better, and come to find new strength in our friendship. I denied myself the opportunity to pay it back to her later. And I lost a year of knowing what was going on in her life.

I think about this last year and the fog I’ve been walking through. I think about my sister’s wedding, which took place in the middle of all of it, right before the 4th of July, how I felt unmoored during what should have been a happy time. I spent her wedding week and weekend on Cape Cod, mainly crying. I cried when I saw my family gathered at a restaurant for lunch and my cousins gathered around me, bewildered and trying to play it off with jokes. I sobbed through the end of the rehearsal dinner when my sister gave me my maid of honor gift. I wept the entire day of her wedding. When I woke up on our last morning in Massachusetts my eyelids were swollen and chapped from the salt of my tears. They peeled and flaked for 7 days after.

Certainly, some of this was from my joy at my sister’s happiness, but I believe most of it was my reaction to being simply lost, to having experienced something deep and shattering, and having tried to hide it away. I’ve spent a lot of time fearing vulnerability and the messiness of disclosure. What I failed to recognize is that life is messy, always, and it comes out one way or another. Instead of being a mess to friends after I lost my pregnancy, I became a mess during my family’s reunion. We can’t avoid the defining characteristics of human experience–loss, for one. The best we can hope for is that those around us will comfort us, and that we will in turn comfort those around us. But we have to be given those opportunities. We have to be, and accept, lifelines.

Inspiration for the Fearful

As a difficult year, personally for me, comes to a close, I think about what 2014 will bring. How at times it surely will be miserable, challenging, and uncertain. It can be hard to move forward with optimism when you become more fully aware of life’s painful possibilities. As always, I am trying to reach beyond my fear to see this as part of life’s richness. That suffering is simply the partner to contentment. The more you hope, the more you love, the more you care, the more there is to be hurt by. It is both the guardian of your happiness and the guarantor of your pain.

With that in mind, I’ve curated a couple videos and anecdotes that I hope will fill my tank with the courage to face whatever the new year brings.

From Brain Pickings, a write-up on software pioneer Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, who escaped the Nazis as a child, triumphed over sexism as a young woman, and still views the world with curiosity and interest:

From writer Kelly Barnhillthis story of how her dog Harper came to be, well, her dog. Normally I’m too tender-hearted to hear anything about neglected, abused, ailing dogs, but if this isn’t a story of resilience, I don’t know what is. I also love this update about Harper, and the line: “Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.” Yes, yes, yes.

From the Today Show, the exceptionally brave Valerie Harper.

ValerieHarperThis woman could drop dead at any moment from brain cancer. Literally. That is probably what will happen, one day she’ll just keel over. Does that stop her from having fun and pursuing new adventures? No. Something to think about as I uselessly worry day-to-day about going into preterm labor.

From CNN, an article about Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old who was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to be both a girl and a student. She almost died and is still standing up for the right of girls and women to be educated everywhere. When I was her age I couldn’t stand up to the Mean Girls in my grade, and they weren’t packing heat..

From Moonstruck, one of my favorite movies:

I think if Cher slapped me and told me to snap out of it…I probably would. You can’t not listen to Cher. She’d kick your ass.

From blog The Militant Baker, guest blogger Melissa Blake who has Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome which affects bone and muscle structure. She writes a post titled “A Memo to Men: On Dating and Disability Misconceptions.” My favorite line:

Some of my favorite things include, but are not limited to: Columnist, journalist/writer, blogger, Looking for Mr. Right (or his cute twin), collecting Chiquita banana stickers, breaking loose on the dance floor (and oh yes, it can be done from my wheelchair), glossy magazines, keen observer, sassy, sarcasm, oogling the CW’s Supernatural boys, obsessively reciting Frasier quotes, alphabetizing my CD collection, sipping a sweet soda pop, swimming, laughing, dreaming of life in the big city, leaving a hint of mystery behind me, being an absolute dork, perfecting my British accent, dreaming of my own reality show, daydreaming, smiling, being fierce.

Talk about fearless.

To end, two words: Nelson Mandela. There are few who don’t know about his life, persecution, imprisonment and abuse, and ultimate redemption as a leader of South Africa and an inspiration to millions around the globe. So I’ll just say that recent recognition of his remarkable existence has been one more important reminder that life offers us many opportunities to find peace and to heal.

Trying to Find the Sun

SunHound

Bennie, my old, wrinkled, beloved basset hound, lays on the floor of my dining room, facing the corner like he’s being given a time out. I watch him and realize he has found the only shards of light let in by the semi-closed vertical blinds of the big picture window on the opposite wall. They are shining in their fragmented pieces on part of his head and back.

“Bennie, are you trying to find the sun? Mama will help you,” I talk to him and my other hound, Huey, in this way always. Third person, with “Mama” being me. A more reasonable person might find this embarrassing but I am typically unreasonable when it comes to my affection for my dogs.

I walk over to the window and push the blinds to the side, and the corner of the room floods. Bennie lifts his head up, letting the rays absorb into the back of it, sniffing the air as if sunlight had a scent. Maybe it does.

Bennie lost one eye to a congenital eye condition a couple years ago. The other one is quickly on its way out. It is a milky blue and black. Sometimes he runs into our closet door when leaving our bedroom in the middle of the night. He can no longer catch in his mouth the stuffed toys I throw at him. When I drop food while cooking, it is usually found by Huey first, who still has both eyes in working order. But Bennie always finds the sun. No matter the season or temperature outside, he finds his way to the patch of sunlight on the linoleum or carpet, and that’s where he rests his head.

Bennie

The sun moves eventually. Bennie moves with it, into the kitchen, up onto the couch, draped over the arm, halfway under the glass coffee table, onto the area rug. He moves his way around the first floor like a hound sun dial. I watch him and think about how his bones creak when he first gets up from sleeping, arthritis that set in too early. I think about how he didn’t entirely trust us when he first came to us as a rescue, and now he rolls over on his back for a tummy rub and lets us touch his paws…usually. When I rub my face against his, angling to kiss his great wet nose, he is quiet and still, and this is love.

What would it mean to live this way, to seek out the sun every day, to move with it, to be flexible to its whims and thankful for such a small thing as warmth? What would it mean to make the best of where I am and linger in the small graces I find each day? I am not the first person to note that dogs can show us our humanity if only we watch them carefully enough.

When I sit back down at the dining room table from adjusting the blinds, I find that my seat is now warmed, too, a streak of sunlight bearing down where it once was dark.

Gimme Shelter

When I stay away from the shelter for too long, I forget why I need it. I forget what hooked me in the first place, what has made me return week after week, through bad weather and bad moods. I forget that it found me when I was without purpose and had trouble leaving the house. That it pulled me from the dark place where I’d been hibernating. I forget that I need the shelter more than it needs me.

After a three week hiatus from preparing lunch, serving it, and cleaning up on Fridays, I return, grumpy and unmotivated, to the cramped kitchen. To the dreadlocked cook and the quirky kitchen coordinator. To the 65 residents who live there for a month or two at a time before transitioning out to make room for other people in crisis. To the lunches made with donated hot dog buns and subsidized milk.

At 12pm we open the doors and a small trickle of people file in. The woman who is fifth in line is unremarkable by the shelter’s standards. She is small-boned with curly hair that is loose and wild around her head. Her gait is interrupted by a limp. She wears a black t-shirt that’s too small. It shows an inch of skin above the waistband of her sweatpants. Her glasses were either provided by the shelter when she arrived, or she bought them during better times. She stands at the hot line and asks the cook about the lunch options. She’s told that we’re having chicken sausage or pork sausage sandwiches with hot marinara and melted cheese. She picks the chicken sausage and gets a large helping of french fries to accompany it. When she moves down to the cold line, several feet from the hot, I ask her what she’d like. Just milk, she says, and I pour her a tall glass.

She sits down alone at a round table and the next ten minutes pass. I dole out applesauce and mixed fruit cocktail, potato salad and raw carrots with ranch dressing. I tell the kids to be careful when they carry their trays back to their tables. We run out of ketchup and I scoot back to the storage closet to get another couple bottles.

The woman with curly hair and glasses comes back up to the hot line. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but can I try the other sandwich?” She gestures at her barely-touched chicken sausage. “This just tastes…weird. I’m pregnant, so it’s just me, but I don’t think I can eat it.” She gives a small smile.

“Sure, no problem,” the cook places a pork sausage sandwich on her tray. I watch her walk away and now see the full, rounded stomach, obscured a little by the rest of her body, which is also full and rounded. I guess she is about six months along, a month ahead of me.

A few people come up for seconds. Most begin to clean up their tables, deliver their empty trays to the slot in the kitchen wall near the industrial sink. The cook goes to his desk and makes notes about the meal–this many sausage patties consumed, this many cans of applesauce opened. I stand between the hot and cold lines, waiting for last minute stragglers.

The pregnant woman comes up again. She points to an empty spot on her tray and says, “More French fries please?”

“Sure,” I say. I fill the space. “Would you like anything else?”

“No, just fries. I have a craving.”

I smile at her, consider leaving it there, but then… “Did I hear you say you’re pregnant?”

“Yes,” she gives another hesitant smile. “I tried to eat the sandwich, but all I want is milk and fries.”

“I’m pregnant, too. It can be hard to eat normally,” I say. Her face opens up, and this time she gives me a huge smile.

She leans in, “What are you craving?”

I tell her I have aversions to everything I used to love–garlic, onions, beef, vegetables of all kinds–and I want to live on bread and fruit and yogurt. I tell her that when I came in this morning, I smelled something so awful in a corner of the kitchen I could barely breathe and I made the kitchen coordinator and cook help me look for the source for fifteen minutes. She lingers over the hot line, and I feel her absorbing my commiseration like a parched and cracking sponge. I feel her gladness, that there is someone else here who knows. I feel her fear, at being here at the shelter while pregnant, at having so few resources while having so much responsibility. I feel my own fear at growing this person, my doubt at whether my body can do it, at what kind of mother I’ll be. It is the ultimate power, the ultimate gift, and yet we are ultimately alone in this endeavor. And I feel how the terror is alleviated for both of us if only in this moment, because we can talk about something as simple as the smell of garlic and the taste of chicken sausage.

While she is finishing her meal and I am washing dishes, we watch each other. When she brings her tray up to the sink, she tells me she wishes I didn’t have to be on my feet, my hands wrist-deep in other people’s messes. It is this kindness that carries me through the rest of my day. It is this kindness that is like coming home, because I recognize it from so many other gifts the shelter has given me.

It is the shelter that saves me, again and again.

Crazy Still Happens

JeanJackets

I spend my childhood in a suburb of Milwaukee. We live one block away from the elementary school, two blocks away from the high school, and eight blocks away from the middle school. The public library, swimming pool, ice cream shop, and a vast tree-dense parkway with a series of hiking trails, baseball diamonds, and picnic tables, are all within walking distance. Our house is a red brick colonial, with a huge, dying pine tree in the front. My little sister Katharine and I crawl through a small opening in the tent of its branches, and place several rusting lawn chairs next to the trunk. We spend hours enclosed in this hideaway, pretending to be destitute orphan children who must seek whatever shelter they can.

Dad plants apple and pear trees on the sloping front lawn beneath the dying pine, snapdragons and geraniums and lily of the valley along the walkway up to the front door. The apple trees yield mealy fruit that I am reluctant to admit tastes terrible, charmed as I am by the thought of fruit coming directly from our yard. The snapdragons smell like lemonade when cut. Sometimes I come home to find a tiny water-filled vase with a single, brightly blossoming flower, sitting on the desk in my room.

Some weekends I hole up in my room and don’t feel like leaving. I listen to music on my tape deck and re-read the same books—Ramona and Beatrice, The Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew—over and over again. I stop every couple chapters and curl up to fall asleep. When I wake up an hour later, I restart the tape, pick up the book and keep reading. I know my favorite parts, strings of words that seem especially interesting to me, or plot points I love. It feels safe to experience the emotions of characters in this known way, so unlike what I encounter outside of the sanctuary of my room and the pages of these tattered and loved books. My energy leaks out of me as these days pass, seeping into the bedspread that claims my body for too much sleep, into the books that no longer challenge me. I know I should get up and do something, but the longer I lay there, the heavier the feeling—what it is exactly I can’t say—that prevents me from taking interest in anything outside my room.

ChristmasCard

At the end of one summer (I’m eight or nine), my parents take me to Toys R’ Us. I’ve completed my summer challenge of learning how to touch type, and I get to pick out a small toy as a reward. I choose a baby doll, with wispy blond hair, huge blue eyes that blink, and a soft, chubby body. When we get home, I dress the baby and undress it, make it walk around my room, hold it and talk to it and cuddle it. After several hours, I stop what I’m doing and stare at the doll, take in its plastic head and unchanging features. I think about how someday I won’t want this doll anymore, how someday it won’t be important to me anymore. I look around the room and see other toys, books, my bed with the fraying comforter. It all seems very…temporary. Meaningless. Empty.

“Mom?” I say, walking into her room. She’s reading under the covers.

“Mmm?” she says. Her eyes are still on the page.

“I like the doll you got me…but did you ever think about how things are just…things?”

Mom turns to look at me. “What do you mean?”

“A doll is just a doll…” I frown. Search my mind for the right words, for something that will make sense to her, to me even. “This is just a thing…and it’s just a toy. It’s not forever…like if I died, I couldn’t take it with me.” It’s not exactly what’s bothering me, but it’s sort of close.

“You’re right. You can’t take things with you when you die. But you’re not going to die for a very, very, very long time. And in the meantime, why don’t you enjoy your doll?” Mom rubs my arm. She looks at me closely, that way she does when I know she’s thinking about something besides what she’s saying. “You earned it.”

I take the doll back to my room and put it on a shelf, where it stays for a long time.

My mother leaves planting and dirt and insects to my sister, father, and me. Her purview is the queen-sized bed she shares with my father, where she stretches out her long legs under a fuzzy blue electric blanket nine months out of the year reading books or watching Murphy Brown. Sometimes Katharine and I join her, grabbing a pile of bobby pins and hair clips to style Mom’s hair. Our favorite is the whale, so-named because her brown, medium-length hair, divided into many tiny ponytails that stand straight up all over her head, ends up looking like the spouts of water from the blowhole of a whale. We tell her she can’t look in the mirror until we’re done. No matter how many times we coax her hair into ridiculous styles, she bursts into giggles at seeing the end result.

“Hmmm…this is kind of strange, girlies,” she says, laughing again.

Card

Many evenings my mother sits on the nubby, dull-brown couch in the living room with a glass of white wine. My father brings in a cup of decaf in his favorite black mug and selects a book from the white built-in shelves. I fill a small plastic cup with orange juice and attach a sippy lid, even though I’m far too old (at seven, eight, nine) for it. We settle ourselves—Dad, Katharine and Mom on the couches, me on the floor—and Dad reads to the whole family, a chapter or two at a time: the entire Little House on the Prairie series; all of the Oz books. I imagine pouring maple syrup on snow, instead of having ice cream on my birthday. I picture the princess who had a collection of heads, each with a different personality, and every morning she decided which head to be, and then affixed it to her body. Mom sips her wine and Katharine curls up on the couch and Dad does all the voices of the characters and I lay on the fading carpet, its fibers forever mussed by the dog’s dusty paws and the cats’ fine hair and Katharine’s soccer cleats and dinner party guests who forgot to wipe their feet and the dingy bottoms of suitcases laid out after vacations. By water that dripped from Katharine and my heads when we warmed ourselves by the fireplace in the winter after an evening bath, our mother combing back the wet strands. By green plastic grass from hidden Easter baskets and bare feet damp from dew and bug spray. I let the juice drain in a slow, steady drip down my throat, and know I am safe, right here, right in this moment.

There are a million reasons, maybe more, for me to have turned out differently. For me to have bypassed the depression that would take off in middle school, the anxiety that I seem to have been born with, and the OCD that would knock me off my feet in my twenties. For me to have viewed the world as a place full of possibilities, a place to be explored and coveted and loved, instead of a place to be feared. What the X factor was, I’ll never know, but I believe I could have been different.

My father once said to me “You know, I’ve always thought people who were depressed didn’t have more problems than other people.”

“Yes, Dad, I know,” I said. It is this precise point. There is nothing to be sad about, anxious about, afraid of. No cause for crazy. Crazy still happens.