Oh boy, this one’s not going to be easy to write. Already Buffalo Gal is at my shoulder, huffing a little and warning me to be careful… be so, so careful. I know there is danger here, I can smell it in D. Little T.’s hair, as if an evil orange wind has blown through the tangled mess of her stick straight dark mop. If there is going to be a crisis during the course of this memoir, this might well be it. It’s got to be done, though. I have the words if I can find the will to write them out. I feel as if I’m unraveling, winding myself away from the strangle hold of my own skin. I’m hanging on to the fact that a butterfly’s wings can only fully unfurl themselves once its cocoon has come undone.
This week I got word through the family grapevine that a cousin of mine had died. He was older than me by quite a few years and I didn’t know him well. He isn’t part of my every- day growing up memories, showing up only on special occasions and mostly in my teen years. He was the youngest son of my Aunt Vera and Uncle Rob, and now he’s lost, the last of that original family, to Congenital Heart Failure.
William, called Bill, held a certain mystic for me and my young cousins. He and a few friends had started up a boy band and found limited fame around the Western United States. They wrote and sang folk songs and were really very good at what they did. I heard him in concert several times and was always star-struck and kind of conceited about the family ties that bound me to him. I was proud of our connection, but I never became brave enough to actually speak to him, even though I had the opportunity a number of times. Long after those early days, I was with him at family events where Bill would entertain us around a campfire, no back-up buddies needed. Even as an adult I continued to shy away from him, although I was drawn in by his charisma and larger-than-life persona. I can’t imagine now what I ever would have said to him.
One afternoon, several months into my first year of discovery and therapy, I was with my mom in the basement of her home. We were having one of our Sip and Sew Sessions, the two of us settled in for an afternoon of quilting in the quiet coolness of the big downstairs family room, comfortable with a supersized Diet Coke at our elbows. I loved these times with my mother. I lived closer to her than my other siblings did (just 5 miles or so north of she and dad) and so had more opportunities to share one-on-one time with her. We laughed and talked and shared bits of family information. I was never closer to my mom than when we spent those sweet hours together.
On this particular day, she mentioned that Bill had been hospitalized again. He had gone through several serious bouts with depression in the last few years and was nearly unrecognizable to us now, looking and acting nothing like his consummate self of years past. He had been divorced from his wife and his children were grown and gone and he was ultimately alone. Mom told me Bill had been discovered sick at home and rushed to the hospital by one of his adult kids. He had locked himself in his bathroom, surrounded himself with Twinkies and bottles of orange soda, climbed into a full bathtub of water and there he had stayed, incoherent and binge eating, maybe waiting for the strength to drown himself. He had been there for who knows how long? Several days, at least.
I couldn’t speak to respond to her. My throat felt tight and my stomach churned and threatened to spill out the Diet Coke I had downed during the course of the afternoon. Tiny blue lights seemed to blink and swim just off the side of my peripheral vision. I stood, stumbling like I was drunk, and hurried to the bathroom, barely making it before my stomach turned inside out, churning brown liquid out so fast it spilled over the side of the toilet and onto the tiled floor. I was shocked at my reaction, not certain it was a reaction. Maybe I was sick, maybe it had been coming on all day. I convinced myself I had felt a little off since morning. I made excuses to my mom, and left. She seemed a little perplexed and I wasn’t much comfort to her, not knowing what to say…not understanding what it was I was feeling. A hideous image of bottled orange sodas being opened and poured into bathwater kept playing through my brain in a furious string. Bottle after bottle opened themselves and dumped their flame-colored contents into churning water, turning into overly-bright, crimson blood as the stickiness splashed into the troubled depths of the tub.
Eventually the images faded and I slept. For days and days all I wanted to do was sleep. I would curl myself onto the couch and Davy would snuggle into the nest my legs made, with his back against the couch and his arms folded on my knees as if they were his desk. He’d watch TV and play with toys for hours this way. I’d rouse myself once in a while to find him food; a sandwich or crackers and a cheese stick, and then we’d resume our assigned positions. I missed a session with Sheryl and was hardly aware of it. Days passed in a haze, my head heavy and hard to manage when I was awake.
My husband, Andy, didn’t know how to help. I told him I didn’t feel good and he let it go at that, day after day. He was incredibly good with the boys during this time of schism and confusion. He seemed to understand I couldn’t help it or change what was happening with me. He knew I was seeing a therapist, but he didn’t have the details any more than I did. I couldn’t share with him what I didn’t have myself. We went our different ways about 12 years ago, divorcing when David was almost 8 years old and Jason 13, but I will always love him for his support during my struggle. Andy’s genuinely a good guy and deserved so much better than what he got when he bargained for me.
It was ultimately my sisters who recognized my need and helped me over the crest of the crisis. For my April birthday Leesha and Lark planned a sister time, an overnight that we could share together as if we were 10 years old again. I hadn’t told them yet about my therapy and I thought maybe, if things felt right, I’d tell them while we were together.
It’s the strangest thing when it comes to unraveling…once it starts it seems to take on a life of its own. I didn’t bring up the therapy…Leesha did, not even knowing she was doing it. We got talking, as sisters do, and found ourselves talking about Bill’s sad situation.I came close to telling them about my reaction to it all, but fear kept forcing me backward. Tears were building behind my eyelids, fighting to boil out and over. I had lost track of what my sisters were saying, but then I became acutely aware that Leesha was talking about something mom had confided in her. I sat listening, not able to move a muscle, even to release the tears from their hold.
She told Lark and me how Uncle Rob had caused family drama resulting in actual physical violence when it became known he had sexually assaulted both of my aunts, my mother’s sister’s, when they were little girls. Rob had married their oldest sister, Vera, who often brought her younger sisters into her home and mothered them as best she could. Grandma Sally had died when my mom was two years old, leaving a young family of three little girls, their two older brothers, and the first born, their sister, Vera, now a young woman. Vera had married Rob just before grandma died, and so it seemed natural for her to step in and help her siblings through the worst of times.
Both of my mother’s sisters were grown and married with children before this putrid bit of family history came to light. One of my uncles confronted Rob after learning about it for the first time, and nearly killed him. The family was divided from that time on, with parties and picnics lopsided with missing family members. Aunt Vera continued to have a relationship with her sisters, although I imagine it was stilted and formal for a while. My mom adored her oldest sister. She told Leesha she couldn’t hold a grudge against Uncle Rob because he had never laid a finger on her. I was floored. I’m not sure mom ever really believed it had been as bad as her sisters later divulged. I was silently angry at her for a long time about this, but after a while I came to realize my mother simply had no way to make it work and so she didn’t. I never spoke to her about her dark secrets. Later I came to understand that she couldn’t tell me, her fear for me real and living in her belly, made it impossible for her to say something that might create a distance between us. I think she knew, instinctively, that something had happened to me while I was in Aunt Vera’s care and could not make herself look at it. It was too big, too fearsome and too threatening.
I remember sitting on Leesha’s couch with my knees pulled into myself, rocking slightly with my hands over my face. My thoughts were quick and jagged, my heart racing. Over and over I thought of my mom, how close we had grown in the last few years, how I felt as if I knew her better now than I ever had…she hadn’t told me what Leesha was now telling me. Lark said mom had told her the same story and I felt as if a fist had slammed into the side of my head; I was devastated. My mother hadn’t said anything to me…not word one in all the time we had spent together. She had remained closed off and quiet rather than sharing this extraordinarily important, comprehensively relevant and annihilating family skeleton with me. This precise moment is when I came completely undone.
I was inconsolable, my sisters startled and at a loss as to what was happening with me. After a while I was able to put a few thoughts into cohesive words. Once I started talking I couldn’t stop and soon the story stood there in front of us, stark and razor sharp in its truth and terrible ugliness. A few of the skeletal bones raining down on us belonged to Lark and she acknowledged it. She told me she believed, whatever her part in all of this had been, that she had managed to work through it years ago. As we talked into the night I had to agree with her. Our shared dream as young girls suddenly made sense. The ties that bound us bind us still, even beyond the grave, and were forged in hurt and horror; they were loosed by the extraordinary love we held and hold for each other. Our relationship became less a relationship and more a union, our spirits one in triumph and hope unbroken.
That long ago weekend was the beginning of placing puzzle pieces where they belonged. I had a name now, Rob, and a terrible face began to emerge from behind the blue lights. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to claim all of the pieces of the picture and maybe now it doesn’t matter. I don’t know how Bill plays into the puzzle and maybe he isn’t in mine at all, but rather holds pieces of his own puzzle at the hands of the same monster. He will never know how our stories have merged and collided down the years, how his suffering and illness brought the beginning of healing to me. What a terrible and lovely thing unraveling can be.
And so I am undone. I have escaped the confines of the cocoon, but my wings are far from robust. I am a delicate little thing, but I’ve made it this far, and by Heaven or Hell I am going to put myself back together in a way that allows me to fly above the pain and fear of my past.
Today’s word, fitting beyond coincidence, is crisis: