It was late in the year of the fog, first spring after 9/11, those days of ER visits, of endless Xanax and chain-smoking. The unemployed era, when I stared at a blinking cursor, hour after hour, blank-brained and absent, incapable of doing much of anything. “Severe acute anxiety disorder,” one of the on-call shrinks said before handing me more drugs, no follow-up scheduled- there’s no profit in the uninsured. I ignored days – too many people – and instead lived nights, searching the silence, wandering through Brighton and Cambridge, or downtown in the Common and Public Garden. I had friends I avoided, one or two who tolerated me, who carted me around, who settled for my brand of crazy. And then one day I decided to leave, to head off to the Rockies, where I’d search for whatever was missing. I was packing boxes when the phone rang, hello brother, he said, a familiar voice from a former life, this is hard, I don’t even know what to say, but he’s dead and we’re all meeting in Columbus day after next.
Hauling ass cross country, a wasted life boxed and rattling in the back of a U-Haul, another Xanax refill, trying to remember how to feel, chasing nostalgia through a battleground of misfired neurotransmitters. An old roommate dead, this guy who drank whiskey with a smirk and danced as if on fire, ladies man, too, always cozied up with one girl or another. I was too young to say goodbye to college friends, to anyone at all, but too fucked to remember where it all went wrong.
There were hugs, all heart no ego, and shots and joints, too many, and meals and bouts of laughter and endless memories and then there was a clutched coffin handle and teetering knees. And then, later, after the dirt was thrown, an old friend, one of the good ones, he clutched me, this bear of a man, knocked me right back into life, saying over and over, “That’s our boy in there.”
I was a boy, six or seven maybe, and it must’ve been deep summer because Dad was running the box air conditioner, oh how this thing rattled our humble home. So muggy that time of year, our house near Lake Erie. Felt as if someone overhead was squeezing a hot sponge. Mosquitoes formed armies, thunderstorms rolled in no warning and jolted us into hiding. Our house was on a corner, my bed against the window, street side, and I heard scratching and scraping on the outside, banging and crashing. This was no air conditioner, no thunderstorm. Blanket over my head, gang of stuffed animals flanking me on all sides, together listening for Dad’s footsteps, for any sound other than those penetrating the wall. Stomach dropping in that way it does on a rollercoaster, or when Dad speeds up over a hill, but it’s different, first time it stuck around, that feeling, and maybe right then I learned about fear. How it felt, what it was, how it left you stuck in place, as if you’d just gone and forgotten everything you’d ever known about anything. That place where you go when you don’t know where to go, I knew it then, at that moment. And once you know it you always anticipate it.
And it made me ready for the next time, for when something, an event or thing, rattled those walls.
Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe instead it softened the edges.
I spent the rest of that night awake, wide-eyed, thinking whatever a six or seven year-old thinks about when the world’s lost its boundaries. Turned out nobody else heard, not my sleep-with-one-eye-open Mom or my snore-through-anything Dad, not that lazy old Golden Retriever or my older sister, but it was indeed something, the whole side of our house graffiti’ed with words I didn’t understand- though after first view Mom kept us away until Dad finished with a fresh coat of paint.
Thirty years later and I still don’t know what it said. Not that it matters, because instead I know how it felt, how it sounded, what it smelled like, and that’s a damage words can’t cause.
And yet, there were vacations to Myrtle Beach, where Dad and I, belly down on boogie boards, rode those crashing waves to shore and then back out again. How we all together roamed the beach at night collecting shells, one time hovering with a big group around a man who’d caught a baby shark, watching as he untangled the poor fella and tossed him by the dorsal fin back into the darkness. Cross-country drives, Dad swerving across lane lines, old Herb Score giving us the play-by-play of yet another Indian’s loss. And those games, too, crumbling Muni Stadium a concrete palace for us kids, so empty so often and yet inviting in every possible way.
These moments, how they blend together in memory as if taped together on a collage.
Catch with Dad at the park, glove down, he’d say as I let another groundhugger slip through my legs, or pickup football games with neighborhood kids in the middle of the street, stopping mid-play whenever a car drove across the field, the driver waving each and every time, us kids grumbling at the infraction.
Then, years later, that car ride with Mom, Dad, sister, and grandfather, my small life locked away in the trunk, swerving down 70 to Columbus, toward the end of childhood. I passed Mom disc after disc and I sang every lyric to every song, whether I knew them or not, a future fiction writer practicing his craft.
They let me sing on.
That summer, 2002, at a prestigious camp in the Rockies, teaching playwriting and storytelling to gifted kids far more talented and dedicated than I was then, than I am now. Summer of fire, we were surrounded on all sides, the dense smoke clouds just about the only we’d see in those months of perpetual drought.
But those sunsets, the type that’d drag you out from wherever you were, everyone nearby looking up, pointing. The way those mountains held you in place, rolling hills in all directions, how I’d stare at snow-peaks off in the distance even as I lifted my shirt to wipe sweat away. Fire and ice at play. Late night hikes, stoned, drunk, all of us humming away the bears we knew were out there, hunting or skulking.
One day, mid-summer, the panic returned.
On the Colorado, dried out, I was guiding a raft full of kids best I could downstream when the first, and only, storm of the summer hit us, and hit us hard. Lightning strikes targeting trees up on the canyon cliffs, thunder like you’ve never heard, and these kids were losing it, they were screaming. Looking at me, begging for help, as I looked at them in the very same way.
Next day, back at camp, a tap on the shoulder and a girl guiding me to the office, to a phone, to a voice I knew well, to words I’d never heard used together in a sentence I’d never forget, that I’d try so fucking hard to forget, that’d spin back into that hole, to that place where rattled walls spelled out, “Your Mother has cancer.”
My mother with cancer took tests at the Cleveland Clinic, and then underwent surgeries while her son paced hospital parking lots, cancer in hand, smoking one after another. Hair dyed platinum blonde, anticipating anxiety and then popping a Xanax. I slept in my old room in the house we’d moved to after my freshman year in high school. I blew pot smoke through old dryer sheet tubes and out the window, a kid again. I made mixes with songs from the saddest artists I knew, Red House Painters and Damien Jurado, Mojave 3 and Elliot Smith, Sparklehorse and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
I, too, saw a darkness.
I lived in it again, driving through old neighborhoods, past parks where I’d played ball, or down streets where old girlfriends once lived. One night, I climbed the fence behind my high school and jogged the track, hoping to lose whatever invisible thing was following me.
It was the silent time, after Mom’s cancer had been removed but before the treatments began, and I felt better, even made plans for a move to New York City, where I’d lined up a writing job. I’d go back to school, too, get my MFA just as soon as the New School pulled me off their waiting list. But before I could get that truck out of the driveway, the writing job lost funding and the school cleared its waiting list.
So instead I went the other direction, to Chicago, a city I’d never seen, but where I could start this whole life over again. Be anonymous and carve myself a new direction.
And yet that’s where, two weeks later, I met the free spirit who would become my wife. In this town I wasn’t supposed to know, in this life I hadn’t planned, at this intersection where disappointment meets promise. Life, it does this, has a way of dragging you away, sometimes off a cliff but others into someone else’s world, a place you instantly belong and know you’ll never leave.
Mom fought for seven years, strongest woman on Earth, holding all of us above her head and spinning our axis, and then one day, a few weeks after more bad news, and unknown to anyone in her life, she started a knitting project. At nights, we think, after Dad went to bed, with the cat snuggled up beside her and Letterman telling jokes in the television, she’d go to work, perhaps stopping only when she dozed off, needle in hand.
This went on until, day after Christmas, the only one in my life I didn’t spend at home, she started to feel short of breath, couldn’t walk up a flight of steps without gasping. Week later, she’s in a bed strapped to an oxygen machine, doctors confused, tests inconclusive, family telling me, no, it’ll be fine, don’t come home, and me, inexplicably optimistic, agreeing with them. Yes yes, it’ll be fine. I’ll go home once she’s better, I’ll stay there for weeks, take care of her the way she took care of me.
But then the phone rang, again, and that same voice as last time spoke words I’d heard before, different context, and I knew that place, could feel the callouses forming on my fingers, my knees weakening, shoulders squeezed, ears filled with whispers and memories, encouragement, too, everyone with a master plan for how a son maneuvers through a motherless world.
And yet life just continues on, forges the way for you even if you’ve stopped moving. As I mourned, and as family history unraveled, these untold truths and unfinished lies I still, three years later, don’t quite understand, I walked towards my own fear, stared down nostalgia, embraced this idea that in grief one finds comfort in the most random of places.
In a bull elk on a running trail, or in a photo I’d found of my Mom, very young, sitting upright, perfect posture, at a typewriter. A happy, simple moment captured and taped at the corners to a poster-board collage of her life, a photo I peeled off, pocketed, and carried with me for months.
Or, in that unexpected moment in a new apartment in Boulder, CO, just a few weeks after the funeral, when my wife and I learn she’s pregnant, that, even through the shock, and the unbound fear such news brings to an unprepared couple, there is comfort in those goose-bumps when we learn the due date: November 6th, my Mother’s birthday. Or, later still, when I learn of the hand knit baby blanket.
Mom just knew, always knew.
I’ve seen so many things, lived in so many places, from Boston to San Francisco, a life lived in all four time zones. I run through Redwood forests, hike mountain trails, hold my son’s hand as we walk barefoot together down beaches, kneeling as I point out to him the endlessness of the Pacific and tell him, even though he doesn’t understand, that one day soon we, too, will boogie board those waves, that I’ll remind him for a thousandth time to hug the glove against those groundballs.
That’s my boy out there, exploring his new world, dancing with imagination.
And, at night, when I’m particularly reflective, or in those moments when I miss my Mom, or my old friends, my childhood, all of which happen often and in varying degrees of intensity, I’ll always have this yellow blanket. To sniff, or to hug against my skin, a reminder that there’s always a way to snuff out the fear.