From a work-in-progress, The Mechanism of Injury.
It was an unusually hot day in San Francisco. A freak heat wave amidst a spring of near constant rainfall. The realization that I had to do manual labor when I went inside was daunting, so I stood in the entryway between the gate and our front door feeling sweat accumulate on the back of my knees.
I was moving out from living with my boyfriend Richard. We’d been doing the on-again, off-again dance for eight years by then and I was anxious for a new beginning. I had visualized this day for months but now that it had arrived, I stood paralyzed, not wanting to leave. I had a quick, panicked feeling, a rush of adrenaline like I’d left the iron on all day. Then I remembered that Jackson, just shy of a year old, was being cared for, and the wave of fear started to fade. Normally I’d be working the daycare co-op and get to be with him, but I had switched to work at the office that morning, so I could move in the afternoon. My life was already a constant juggling act, and here I was about to make it worse.
It was stifling inside, and I took each stair slowly to hold off breaking into a full sweat. Richard had forgotten to open the windows before he left for work. It was likely forgetfulness but he could have been passive-aggressively punishing me for leaving.
There were half-packed boxes all over the floor. I had marked each box clearly, Kitchen, Bathroom, etc., but it turned out that I didn’t have enough belongings to fill up a box for each category. For some reason, that made me feel small, certainly not grown up enough to be moving out and breaking up our family. I grabbed the packing tape and started with the box marked Miscellaneous. It was the remnants box, filled with random possessions – a nativity set from Mexico that Richard’s Mom had given me for Christmas the previous year, an old cigar box filled with mixed tapes from the 80’s, a mini rainstick my friend Pam had given me at a Dead show in Vegas, a framed photograph of my brother Steven from 1968, and a paper flower Richard had made me for our first anniversary. He’d cut out little hearts from magazines and fashioned them into a blooming rose, which was the sweetest thing he ever did for me.
As I finished taping up boxes, I noticed the answering machine light blinking. I contemplated pushing the button because I was afraid he’d left some last minute, panicked, “Don’t leave!” message. This would also not have surprised me, given the fact that when I’d told him six weeks earlier that I wanted to move out, he asked me to marry him. It was the briefest of engagements. After a fancy dinner and a sweet proposal, I said yes, but when I woke up the next morning, I told him I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t marry him because to be the kind of role model my son deserved, I needed to stop being invested in Richard’s potential to love me and to start loving myself. I’d seen an Oprah episode recently where she spoke about how you couldn’t change your life if you didn’t change your mind. Oddly, this gave me the final push I needed. I was moving out and moving on. I decided that if I’d come this far, I was not about to unpack my boxes and give in, so I pressed play on the answering machine.
“Chris, it’s Jeanne. I’m calling to tell you that Dad had a heart attack today. He’s dead.”
My sister said this as if she were reading the ingredients off a can of soup. Years later, I would look back on this moment as her audition for delivering “So and so is dead” news. Our family had a string of deaths before hand and a succession following, so she’s had an opportunity to hone her craft. We joked grimly that we’re like the Kennedys but without the money or power.
I had just spoken to my father the night before, so her message seemed implausible. He had asked the usual string of questions before we got off the phone, “Do you have enough gas in your car?”, “Do you have enough money in your bank account?”, “Do you have a roll of quarters in your pocket?” This last one was from when I was a little girl and he taught me how to fight. My father grew up just outside of Boston and believed that all cities were dangerous cesspools, even San Francisco in 1999. California, to him, was where only ‘crazy people and druggies’ lived. Like there was a beacon coming from the ocean, summoning them from around the world. I assured him that yes, of course, I still kept a roll of quarters with me in the event I had to punch someone’s lights out. And then I said goodbye and hung up.
I stood over the answering machine, staring at it, waiting for it to tell me what to do next. Instead, it continued to blink and beep, relaying other messages that I couldn’t process. I didn’t feel my breath stop or my limbs give way.
When I had a moment of cognizance, I was on the floor with my cheek pressed to the cool wood. It was a comfort from the fever of my tears. I rolled over and stared at the bedroom ceiling. It was the color of pearl, slightly opalescent, with arched corners and a small Victorian crystal light hanging from the center. I had spent countless nights staring at that ceiling, feeling as if I was suffocating. Laying next to Richard, waiting for a moment of weakness and desperation for us to be intimate.
I pulled myself up and called my older sister Kathy who, in essence, raised me. My eight year old brother Steven had died the year before I was born, and my mother was far too busy grieving to be present for an infant. Kathy was 14 at the time and took care of me with a kindness reserved for a child’s favorite doll.
She began to speak but I couldn’t understand her through the sobbing. I hated not knowing what was going on 3,000 miles away and I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. I imagined she’d be the one who could tell me the details about what happened but that turned out to be another lesson in our family’s history of death and ambiguity.
“Hi…this sucks so bad…fuck. He was fine. He was going to garden…”
“Was he in the garden?”
My father had been keeping a small garden for years – mostly tomato plants, cucumbers and peppers. It was the last vestige of his retirement dreams. He’d wanted to move up to some farmland in Canada but when the time came, my mother vetoed the idea.
“No. He went to the hardware store to exchange a sprinkler…got in his car after…leaned over the steering wheel…that’s how they found him. They tried to…”
“How is Mom?” I wondered to myself how she would sleep at night, being alone in her bed after 48 years of marriage. I had been wondering the same thing myself lately. Would I feel free, as I imagined, or terrified and alone?
“How do you think she is?! God, that’s the stupidest question, don’t you think? Everyone asks it, but it’s so fucking stupid. Sorry. Can you come home?”
“I’ve got to check into flights, but I’ll come back tomorrow. When is the funeral?”
We exchanged a few more details before hanging up. I looked at the piles of boxes waiting to be carried to my new home. The box marked Kitchen was closest to the stairwell. I pushed it with the weight of my grief, a low moan escaping my chest as it plummeted down the stairs. It broke open like a watermelon, scattering my spatulas and wooden spoons and new beginning across the floor.
Writer Traveler Human Being