Tag: family

Que Todo Lo Invade

We have spent fourteen days in the new apartment.

During the evenings, my mother stands at the kitchen counter and cuts packing tape with safety scissors. She empties boxes and begins cataloging her belongings according to their worth. She re-opens envelopes holding birthday cards, wedding invitations, notes of congratulation and bereavement, handwritten letters. Sometimes she’ll call me over and read select bits of them out loud. That’s from Pamela, you know, from the company. This is from my old psychiatrist. Billy Kelly from Birmingham. Granduncle in the Canary Islands. Look at how this starts: Dear Carmen, your little girl is beautiful… The names and words bring me the nostalgia of familiar dog days, of lawns and tiles, drives and forests behind apartment complexes. Often they come with soft images and smells rather than concrete memory. Tina’s protruding blue eyes, the carpet around a fireplace, quiet. Sometimes, if the memory is a good one, if the sender is a good one, my mother smiles. She will even tip her head back for a moment, eyes closed, losing the sick tension, for once. Then my mother puts both hands on the paper and tears it in halves, and then in fourths. She offers no explanation, tossing the pieces in the trash as she does the empty cardboard boxes and the sweaters shrunk in our new washing machine. It was hard not to flinch, at first, but I have learned.

We have driven to IKEA twice. The first time I was struck not by the amount of stock or customers, but by the number of babies. Infants held against the breast, the back, in arms, sleeping in strollers as a mother and father debated over sofa cushions. They looked up at the paneled, light-filled ceiling with steady and unthinking devotion. Did they mistake it for the backdrop of the hospital where they were born? Did they return to that sudden and pivotal time of blood, humidity and love? Did they start anew?

On the way back, my mother drove fours hours in the dark. Mi cerebro no reconoce el cansancio de mi cuerpo, she said. My brain doesn’t recognize the tiredness of my body. I craned my neck, looking for her expression in the light of passing automobiles, but that curve of cheek and steady hand could belong to anyone. I stared at her as a young child would, searching for a mark to know her by. Where are you, mother?

The second time, my mother tried to make the same return trip on one fill of gas. As the needle dipped close to empty, my mother called to me. Her voice can give the space around me form and structure wherever I am – even when I am curled up in a car, caught between a dying radio, black mountains and the poisonous nighttime. I took off my safety belt, something I once nearly slapped my brother for doing, and wrapped my arms around the seat immediately in front of me, the seat my father once occupied. Should I stop? she asked me. We are close to empty. I knew that if I told her to stop, she would. Instead, against all proper judgement and reason, I said: go. You can make it. 

My brother has cried once. Don’t believe it, I whispered to him. You know the truth. He allowed himself to be held, but only for a few minutes. When he lifted his head he was calm, but not expressionless. In his face, in that small face, I found the still and unassuming bravery I have needed for so long. I have taught my brother the alphabet, the difference between a diphthong and a hiatus, multiplication of fractions. Now, I try to teach him to survive, I try to teach him the truth, only to find that I am the one who still needs teaching.

We fight, my mother and I. At first it was often, but now it is only occasionally. We argue with one another as angrily as ever, but we do it while sitting at the table, drinking breakfast tea, or while washing the dishes. These healthy, domestic scenes give us a sense of order and responsibility. Sometimes we forget we don’t want to hurt each other, and we fall into the old roles. I am the lithe and disdainful villain, and she the towering specter, baring her teeth. But mostly we are good. As simply as children, we have made peace with one another. Even the bad guys have something to protect.

I think of what I want for us often. I picture us taking the subway to the movie theater, the three of us standing in a circle, shoulders touching, packed in close together by the weight and substance of strangers. We buy stale popcorn and orange soft drinks, we rush up stairways, we arrive a little late but nab perfect seats. Quirky, heroic characters, rolling streets where teenagers meet to construct secret bases, soundtrack that lilts and booms at all the right places, killer lines spoken by poor delivery men and gunslingers against bucolic scenery, deaths in the arms of the schoolboy who swears revenge, absolutely no romance – we see the film that my mother will remember as being “beautiful”. We take a taxi cab home, and my mother is talking and smiling, she is laughing at the bits from the movie my brother reenacts. Every once in a while, she turns to look at us in the backseat, and I can see her clearly, even in the dimness. I recognize my mother, my true mother, half a century old, hands touching her knee, her face, smiling and shaking her head: the best of the scores of women she has been before and will be. When I recognize my mother, my lofty skepticism and system of cruelty leave me, if only for a short while. When I recognize my mother, I am reminded of the worth of this day, of all days. No, I do not live for her. But I do live because of her, in more ways than one.

The moving men and my mother position a bookshelf slightly to the right. Why don’t you put it in the center? I ask, standing in the doorway in my pajamas. I want that space for flowers, she says. I think of the flowers in our old apartment. They died from neglect in no time at all, the wooden flower boxes rotting in the rain. My mother makes a sweeping motion with one hand, gesturing towards the entirety of her home, all the walls and children who have made her their caretaker. I’m going to fill this entire place with flowers.

PLEASE TEACH ME TO BE STRONG

I am slitting city guides with a kitchen knife. I am cutting out pictures of my hometown, Valencia (Latin valentia, meaning strength, courage). The photographs of my selection depict a reality of beauty: beach side restaurants, the inside of a gentleman’s hat store, town square in the summer. They lie in piles on the counter top, bizarrely lifeless beside the rectangular boxes of children’s cereal and bowls of plums. The margins and letterheads of the guide entries (“quaint hole-in-the-wall bookstore”, “Baroque style tapestry”, “portrait of Charles IV of Spain in hotel lobby”) fall away with the flick of the blade, the peelings and pith of a life so beautifully constructed thousands of tourists arrive yearly just to admire it.

Later on, I will fix these photographs to my bedroom wall with adhesive tape. They are not the first to colonize that surface: they will join cut-outs of physics articles (“The Geometric Theory of Everything”), pencil drawings gifted to me by my classmates,  a two-page spread of a cheetah mid-run, the surface of Mars, a sketch of a cell from a mammal’s stomach wall, maps of every continent in the world, the molecular model of a protein, two poems by Pablo Neruda and one by Amichai, snapshots of an ultrasound, the aurora, storybook art from a retelling of “David and Goliath”, the broken stem of a glass flower.

To be honest, there is not much space left. I compulsively cover up all the wall that remains with no real objective in mind – my mother hates it (“this is like the room of a serial killer”), so it is not in the subconscious name of maternal approbation that I do this. If I do this, I do it for myself, for my well-being. It feels nice to enter a room and see all these things, all these things that I love, up on a wall, only for my careful examination. I feel as though I am a naturalist cataloging poisonous insect species in the heart of the jungle. I feel like I have left the fearful explorer’s silver plane behind.

In the middle of the collage is a photograph I adore above all other things. I can describe it perfectly from memory. It was taken before my birth, in Kent in the springtime. In the foreground my parents are sitting in lawn chairs, heads together. They are young and dressed in thick linen, arms pressed to their chests. My mother’s expression is vague but happy, and my father is smiling. Behind them wet green grass extends for miles.

This photograph is the only possession on my wall that serves to remind me. It has never caused me pain, as I imagine it might have caused other children in my same situation. Even before my mother’s relapse in 2009, I had lived with the knowledge that our family had, if not an expiration date, a sort of fade-out quietly date. I hear that divorce sometimes warps offspring, leaving them dazed and psychotic. I too feel as they do. I am no hero. I bitterly survive, but always accompanied with the knowledge that I couldn’t run as fast as our house could fall.

I may seem a little morose but I’m not sad, honest. My beautiful mother’s manic depressive episodes and my father’s miserable degeneration – I’m not a stranger to that feeling of hopelessness that now has become characteristic of their lives. I want to free them from the horror of these days, as quickly and cleanly as I can. I don’t feel the need to be cruel, though I know I could be. Am I growing stronger, more courageous? No, it’s not that. It’s enough: this, what I have had. Even in the dead of night, when I am awake and lost, I can honestly say: I will give it up. I fully accept that I will cry, this day and during the many days that come. But despite what has happened, or perhaps because of it, I have found joy. In philosophy classes, in the northern lights, in novels and poems of great bravery and kindness and in the pit of my own gut (finally, oh finally) I have discovered it – joy.

I own dozens of family albums. A hand in my heart is cutting through the plastic binding now, slicing the protective coverings on the negatives, around pictures of childhood birthday parties, movie outings, afternoons on the lawn. But I will keep these photographs, proof of a life I knew and had, for however short a while, and I will carry them with me forever. When you ask me where I have been, I will take one out and show you, pressing it flat against a table, and, pointing at first the morning greenery, then the faces of these people, these people that I cherish deeply, I will say: I am so proud to have been here.

NEVER BREAK THE CHAIN

In class we read “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun” reads the boy directly across from me. Then he looks up and asks, almost angrily, as though haven bitten into a rotten apple: “how can you dismantle the sun?”

Some time ago I taped up a photograph of my brother on my bedroom wall. The photograph was one of the many copies he’d made for a class project and left all over the floor. I carefully added it to the drawings and print-outs of poems I’d added to my wall over the previous weeks. My mother had mentioned this collage only once, and that was to voice her disapproval. “Tengo ya demasiado para que conviertas tu habitación en un museo,” she’d said. “I have enough already, for you to go and turn your room into a museum.” But on this occasion the photograph of my brother, smiling in a garden rendered unidentifiable by our elderly printer’s manic bursts and stutters, made her pause.

“You really love him, don’t you?”

I looked at her, perplexed. Love was not the reason I’d taped up the photograph. The two things, “love” and “photograph” felt unconnected to me. My mother’s comment, however, brought into my world a sudden and very tenuous link between them, twins separated at birth meeting for coffee. It made me look at the photographs of me, placed around the house in silver frames, in a new light. Flipping the laminated pages of albums became like a trip through a dream. If it unnerved me before, to see past versions of myself in lace dresses, absorbed in paintings, reclining on grassy fields – now I’m horrified by it.

Sometimes my mother holds a photograph of me close to her face, something I’d always interpreted to be more out of poor eyesight than affection. She traces the line of my cheek and says little words of endearment: cariño, amor, sol. Mi sol. My sun. The sun, eight minutes away at light speed, but still nearly 164 years away at 65 miles an hour, which is as fast as my mother is willing to drive. “How can you dismantle the sun?”

There I am, sitting on the night table, eight years old and playing the princess in “Emperor’s New Clothes”. There I am again, on top of the shoe closet, leaning against a wall in my elementary school uniform. And again, next to my mother’s red jewelry box. And again, glued to the computer monitor at her workplace. I need to be rid of these photographs. Sometimes my despair is so great I seriously consider taking the kitchen scissors to them, chopping my body into ribbons of glossy paper. “Love” and “photograph”, this makes as little sense to me as the dismantling of the sun did to my classmate. The sun and its termination shock, the point where solar winds slow down and stop, a point whose location is a mystery even to the most dedicated of scientists. God, all those photographs, framed and hung like letters salvaged from an ancient Countess’s boudoir. I want to grab my mother by the shoulders and scream: This is not how you love someone!

(title taken from “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. It’s also what I was listening to throughout the writing of this sordid, miserable tale)

Childhood

Seven days after my seventeenth birthday, April 11th of this very year, my childhood came to an end.

At the time I would’ve have perhaps have said something as dramatic as “my childhood died”. But please don’t think too badly of me for it. It sure felt like death, then.

My greatest fear is that my feelings are not genuine. I doubt the sincerity of my thoughts and actions at every hour of the day. When I think, are these thoughts true or just what I wish I would think? When I move, are these movements real or do they just take me where I wish I had the guts to go? When I feel, are these feelings born in pulpy mass of my heart, or deep in my prefrontal cortex? I can’t put any sort of faith into the steps I take, nor the sounds of my throat. I don’t part with even small bits of myself wholeheartedly. “Wholeheartedly”? Emotions don’t possess me, and I miss this secret fervor, this fervor that I witness from far away with a wan smile: girls hugging in photographs, a boy crying at the movie theater, a woman begging a medium to let her speak to a deceased child. “Wholeheartedly”? Every single time I’ve said I was moved by something I have lied.

There have been a few moments in my life in which I have known with certainty: ah. Ahh. This is real. These moments occupy a definite place in me, and I could not bear to lose them. Even if I were stricken with amnesia after a freak automobile accident, like the beautiful heroine of a primetime soap, I couldn’t possibly forget: watching a videotape of my baby brother playing with the balloons floating over an air vent, and then looking up to see that same brother, eight years older, brushing away the tears from his eyes.

When classmates ask me what I want to be when I grow up, the answer is different each time. “A biologist in Antarctica”, “a Tibetan monk”, “a missing person” all half-truths! It’s hard to feel something real, or feel for something real.

I have a theory: a person’s childhood ends when they come to understand their parents. I think I gained that knowledge on April 11th. It was knowledge that made me weep like a madwoman for hours. I have a theory: part of a person dies when they spend an entire night crying without anyone noticing.

I’m not going to lie. A lot of this has come about due to my mother’s bipolar disorder. I’ll never forget the summer of ’09. My mother’s illness brought upon me an awakening of sorts. It was in 2009 that I first became terrified that my feelings are not real. But I’m ready now, to accept what has happened, and I’m ready to do what I can to help not only myself feel, but those who surround me. In a way, I’m grateful I have gone through this. I never would have put so much stock into the importance of feeling, otherwise. I never would have decided what my aim in life is, either. It’s not “a biologist in Antarctica” or “a Tibetan monk” anymore. It’s definitely not “a missing person”. I think I have been “a missing person” for many years now, and I’m ready to give that up.

Now, when classmates ask what I want to be when I grow up, the real answer is always “a good person”. I have spent my entire childhood being the Cowardly Lion, letting others step up and put their own brave (impossibly brave!) hearts on the line. I don’t just want my feelings to be real, I want to be proud of them.

My childhood ended because I finally understood my parents. My father became a man, and my mother a woman, both of them flawed, both of them humans who have spent many years of their lives teaching me. Today, I feel like a historian that looks at a set of hieroglyphs for the hundredth time and finally understands what they mean.

I am not a child anymore. As an adult, I won’t ask for anything I can’t give myself. So while I am still here, crossing over, let me make one last plea to the universe: if I have lost something now, please let me gain something else. If my childhood is over, if time has switched eras and changed this place, this way I live, allow me to win for myself something different, something new, something that will make me think ah, this is real! If all goes well, maybe something that will help propel me to my goal, my hope of being “a good person”. It doesn’t have to be now, just sometime, someday, if you’d be willing to oblige me. For once, I can say, genuinely, sincerely, wholeheartedly: this is something I would really love.