Blogger’s note: I posted this yesterday and then worried about it and took it down; however several people have been looking for it. Reposting it will be a good distress tolerance exercise for me regarding making myself vulnerable. As in slathering myself with Wesson Oil and lying out under noonday sun at high altitude. xj
Terrible absence afflicts a broken child.
She is two years old, standing in the living room, in a blank and black aloneness.
She craves the arms of her mother.
Her mother sits at an easel in the dining room with her back to the child. Desert light and dust filter through faded curtains of the rental adobe.
The mother is drawing the figure of a woman in charcoal. Then she bursts into tears, rips the paper from the easel, and tears it up.
The child runs into the coat closet and hides behind the coats so heavy it seems as though there are people in them; she is comforted by them.
The mother gives up on herself, her art and her child for the day; in the kitchen she makes herself a drink of scotch and water, tossing it down, and then another.
She comes back out then, into the living room.
Where are you, she calls.
The child obediently emerges from the closet.
What are you doing in there? Do you want to play with your toys in your room. There’s a good idea. Let’s go to your room.
She takes her into the pale yellow room, where there is too much light, showing too many hard things: a worn bear, a doll without hair, picture books with broken spines.
She goes away.
The child takes her bear and crawls under the bed, up against the wall, pretending it is Someone.
One day the mother falls apart altogether and while the child watches, she is carried away to a hospital.
The child is left with her father, who breaks, so that she must succor him..
No one, not even she, understands that she needs a mother. She lies in her bed at night sucking her thumb, curling around her pillows.
She becomes the caretaker, a small version of her mother in an apron with a lump in her throat. Her mother gets well and comes home briefly enough to have another child; a brother arrives.
As her mother is herself a child and her fears are so great she is put away again, off in a hospital on the desert.
The child is still a child but also a mother now, growing crookedly, often looking down at her shadow as she plays outside when the baby that has become hers is sleeping.
She tries to feel safe in Catholic girls school, and cannot. At the first reprimand from a nun she flees to the familiar.
She goes to public school and excels. At night she sucks her thumb and listens to music and looks out the window at the stars. She reads and rereads a book about far away places, imagining a different life.
The family sets out for Colorado; against the storm of her mother’s hysteria the child shows up for junior high school, in the blinding light of morning, in a hand me down dress. She feels that she is looking through glass at everyone else, hearing the teacher’s voice from a distance.
On the eve of puberty she begins to imagine lovers, arms, kisses. She assuages herself in the dark, a stack of symphonies on the record player.
The largest baby in the family, the mother, creates a vortex of attention around her. Everyone must be on duty to her, unless she is away in a hospital. Then the girl can fill the house up with herself, explore who she is.
It is safe to be, to exist, in small periods of time, under controlled conditions: the house, the familiarity of the old furniture brought from New Mexico, the paintings of small cabins in winter trees where she imagines she lives with a family that is not broken.
She becomes a young writer. She edits the paper in high school. She comes home each day to chaos. Her father sickens. Her brother disappears into the mountains. Her mother worsens.
She begins college, moving into the dormitory. She cannot sleep; she cannot feel safe. She always feels vulnerable. She pushes her bed against the wall. She tries to talk to her roommates.
She steps into one pair of arms and then another and another. She attaches herself, so that she may be nurtured. When she is repudiated she wants to die.
She tries to fix and save her family. She tries to make a family in the mountains, and it falls away. She moves to Minnesota and tries to make a family again. It falls apart.
She writes a poem called “In Pursuit of the Family.” This poem is published, and read on NPR as “an archetypal Midwestern poem.” It is about those one loves being taken away.
She tries to live alone in a city apartment. She cannot feel safe. When she lies on her back in the dark listening to the hum of the city, she is drenched with panic.
She runs to those she has met, who have families. She wishes they would let her move in. They all drink together and she buys their love with funny stories.
She buys admiration and a job and the intensity of her poems, her laments, gets her published..
She travels back and forth across the midwest and the West to see her family; nothing ever changes and it isn’t home anymore.
She flees again, back to Minnesota; by then she feels safe only in bars, where her anguish is tamped down by alcohol and her loneliness reduced for an hour here and there by bringing home the men that she meets and takes back to her apartment.
She goes to Europe, meets someone and is welcomed into his family but she doesn’t understand that she should stay. She is afraid to trust this chance.
She is unable to feel safe anywhere and yet she is brave, taking one risk after the other to find love, to drop anchor.
She meets someone in Minnesota and they set up a household and then he tells her she must leave. She is so desolate that she hurts herself.
Then everyone flocks to her side to assure her that she is loved, helps her return to school to finish her degree.
By now her father has died and her mother is in a nursing home because she will never get well, says the doctor.
She visits her mother and takes over the house, sharing it first with someone she met.
She hits bottom and tries to connect to a support system; her needs are too great, and she is rejected. She cannot feel safe in those rooms. She flees.
She drives back and forth from her old house and her old life to where someone says she is welcome and because she cannot attach, she cannot be comforted and she does not know how to comfort herself.
In all of these ways, over all of these years, she has eternally sought a family: a nest with people and animals in it, a source of love.
She has traveled to the ends of the earth looking for where she belongs.
Decades have passed and she has done many things as a matter of transcendence. She has published books, received grants.
She tries to live as an adult but within her is the abandoned child who lost her family.
This child is grieving. Every day she comes to her mother, the adult woman, tapping at her shoulder, craving attention, needing to be held, played with, taken out into the day.
Her “mother” is writing. Her mother does not want to have a broken little girl inside her.
Her mother wants to hide the child from herself, and so it is that the child hides, blotting out the day.
She is attached to someone who was her lover. The years have changed many things but where they lived feels more like home and a family than anything ever has to the child.
Every day the child insists that they get in the car and go out to be there, where dust and light filter from the west through faded curtains, where most of her pets are, where someone who looks a good deal like her father nurtures her at arms’ length, and she nurtures him.
They sit together talking for hours. But then it is time to go, they are only a family for part of the time, the rest of the time, they have determined, they must each do for themselves to be strong, to grow, to be independent.
We come home to our apartment. We have been loved by our animals and soothed by our companion. This keeps us going for awhile. We rest, and clean and write, and begin a story.
The story is of a woman who is not a child, who can live in the world and make a family with someone. We thought it would heal us to write such a thing.
We would be writing this now if she had stopped interrupting me, intruding her sad story on my story, and amused herself in her room.
She understands now why she lives next to the nursing home where her mother was and where she herself felt safe for awhile when she had a broken leg. She is still mourning her family.
Her apartment is a coat closet, a nest high in the canopy from which she can assess whether it is safe or not to go out into the day.
Now that I have told her story perhaps she will leave me alone so that I can write my novel. Perhaps I should invite her to help me; it is the story of all of our dreams coming true.