July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
When she was 49, my brother’s first wife—a blonde-haired, green-eyed, freckled beauty—drove her car off a Los Angeles cliff. When she was young, her father Jack was the one to find his wife, her mother, who had also killed herself, and during the years I knew Carmen she more than once wondered aloud if that would be her own fate.
I have held onto a few things that help me remember the kind of person she was: a cookbook with a bright pink cover, which had been one of her favorites, and two papier-mâché containers decorated with a jungle theme, where I keep paper clips and push pins.
Sometimes when I am sitting very still, I find myself thinking about Carmen’s last moments, right when her car went over the edge and there would have been no turning back. I try to imagine myself flying through the air with her just long enough to be assured that she did not suffer. But I am never able to stay in the front seat with her for more than a few seconds before my psyche recoils.
My gentle niece, who was young herself when her mother took her own life, has been left to imagine and grieve that terrible death for the rest of her days, and I cannot think that anything would diminish the pain of her loss, not even time or love.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
from Words under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye
It is as if you had arrived in a brown basket on a porch near St. Paul, a piece of bonnet poking out the one side and a wintry mix coming down. You couldn’t help but look up, mouth an O, but all you could see were four sets of dark eyes staring back down, blinking. Or more like a great tumbledown from a brilliant sun to a duller one, the fall through space across a frigid crosshatching of having-all-but-given-up-on-yourself and for what: a guest room with a busted lock and a Princess phone?
Shook elms lining the sloped
edges of a pitted road drop
their dying leaves while
Simon with Sam heave-ho
the grounded ones then
threaten each other with
pellets and rope.
Somewhere above the
one songbird calls to
a white-winged friend:
and feeds her slick babies
black beetles and yarn.
What was once
dark was gray
after became hope
wanting to wind
its way down
to the ankles of
and lap at the feet
of the widow who
longed for that fat
girl Sanne to return
home and lie about.
I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was 20. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.
Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.
Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.
I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.
Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:
1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.
2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.
3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.
Just now I was rereading a beautifully written short essay from one of my more bashful students. In it, he writes of his connection to the Chesapeake Bay—a mighty body of water that ebbs and flows across six states, including Virginia and Maryland—and then goes on to use the image of ebbing and flowing as a way of describing his inner state.
While reading the essay, I saw before me an image of a man I had known only from a photograph. I cannot say why he appeared, since I had not thought about him for many years, and I cannot tell you the reason he was sent. I can say, though, that he had been the handsome amante of my friend Mary and that he had died one night of cirrhosis.
At first, she did not know of his alcoholism because he had been able to stop drinking for a while and because they lived countries apart—he in Mexico and she in the United States. An intellectual who frequented a university where she had gone to study Spanish and Mexican literature, he saw her one day in the school’s cafeteria and, no doubt because of her beauty, made a beeline and struck up a sexy conversation. Soon after, they fell in love and carried on their long-distance romance until his sudden and tragic death.
For reasons I do not understand entirely, her romance with him and with Mexico marked the beginning of my love affair with Mexico, in particular, and with Latin America, in general. My second husband, now an ex-husband, is from Bolivia and, like Mary’s departed lover, is an intellectual (or somewhat so) and an alcoholic—this last a fact I discovered only after we were married. Perhaps somewhere within and down low, though, I knew from the start that he was in trouble.
Alcoholism, or at the least heavy drinking, has flowed through my family for generations: grandfather, mother, father, brother. So embedded in my sense memory is the boozy stink of my lost mother and the liquored-up reek of my lost husband that I, myself, cannot even bear to smell hard liquor, especially scotch, much less drink it. Sometimes, however, I will drink a glass of Pinot Grigio or Prosecco and usually will enjoy it well enough. Also, Mary and I are no longer friends.