And wouldn’t that be nice?

When my father died at fifty-one from the second of his two heart attacks, I was not prepared to cope with the crushing grief I would experience in the months that followed. It is true that I had had an extremely difficult home life and that certainly I had had more than just a taste of grief when I was small, but I simply was not equipped to face the finality of such an immense loss.

Although I had a few friends whose love I could count on during this time, for the most part I was left to sink alone in the heartbreak because, by and large, I was invisible to members of my family and only came into their line of sight when they believed I could be of use to them. Whether my mother, stepmother, brother, and sister-in-law understood how much trouble I was in remains an open question. In my chillier moments, though, when I am painting three of these four with a wide, dark brush, I think theirs was a self-centered indifference brought into even starker relief because of my largely successful attempt to make myself invisible to them.

But it is impossible for me to recall my brother Robert without seeing in him a rot that began to spread unchecked the day he touched down on the planet. Although it revealed itself in myriad ways until we stopped speaking to each other more than a decade ago, when I was a child it was his malignant, inexplicable contempt for me that drove his relentless physical and emotional abuse and that crippled me irreparably.

Still, I managed to grow up and to marry twice: The first time, in my late twenties, it was a secret elopement to Carson City, Nevada, with a man I would divorce not long after giving birth to our daughter. When my brother later learned of the nuptials, he decided, oddly, to throw me a lavish party in Los Angeles, which I remember thus: a feverish Fellini film starring Rita, my mentally ill mother, in the role of dying starlet, lamenting.

At some point during the evening I approached my brother and thanked him for his efforts. To this day, I do not know what he meant when he replied, “I didn’t do it for you. I did it for Dad.” I never asked for an explanation, though, certain as I was, and am, that his response would have been even more cruel than the original remark. Yet that is how it was with the lot of us. Such terrible, gouging things would be said, things that no one could take back. Then eventually, maybe years later, someone, almost always me, would do a belly crawl to the other with an apology, whether or not it was deserved. And after a while the other one, satisfied and smug, would open the front door and pretend to forget — or would stand there and actually forget. While the words themselves surely went off to live in us somewhere.

It should not be hard, then, to understand why I did not know how I would live after my father died. He had been my only hope, the only one in a family of impostors and scoundrels to have loved me, however imperfectly. I have very few happy memories of my childhood but for the delight I felt when he was nearby. And, on the day of his funeral, as I watched him being lowered into the ground, I would have thrown myself onto the coffin if there had been assurance I could have followed him into the afterlife.

To survive, I gradually walled off the part of me that loved him so and instead distanced myself from any memories that summoned my terrible grief. This year, though, in the week leading up to Father’s Day, I found myself looking with much tenderness at a photo taken of him shortly before he left his parents’ home in Brooklyn and enlisted in the Army. One evening I heard myself say to him, “Maybe when I die, Daddy, I will see you again.” Then added, “And wouldn’t that be nice?” 

location, location, location

Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.

To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.

I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.

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The girl she left behind

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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.

Photo/Suzanne Britton

The designated survivor

 

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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?

October

robin egg

I will tell you about the naked oak in our yard and about

my dead robin, June, who couldn’t fly south for winter

and about the Cooper’s hawk that swooped down to eat

the poor thing, pecking first at a dull eye, while close by

two cracked eggs, each the size of a large jelly bean,

lay oozing yolk and about the cold sky pulled thin and

plumed across my low horizon and about Hyena, with

his pail full of silver buckshot, who shouted from across

the avenue, “Wanna lick my lollipop, pancake tits?”

while behind him two fat boys cackled, with Br’er

Rabbit, the older by some years, in Daddy’s pink shirt

and about mother leaving for the City, her thin

lips painted plump, and about my gray lunch

congealing in a tin pan that sat on the top rack of a

cold oven and about the canned peaches she dumped

into a tea cup and placed on a shelf in her

refrigerator. But not yet and not here

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