I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
-from Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
There are moments in one’s life that feel so very unique and singular, so devastatingly heartbreaking and absurd, that it seems as though no one else has ever gone through something quite like this. Addiction, madness, death, divorce, cancer, terminal illness. Any one of these is so much bigger and crueler and corrosive than the small cluster of letters that constitutes its name can possibly convey. In the midst of any of these (and so many other of life’s tragedies) it is easy to feel alone. The only one to know this pain.
Sure, everyone’s particular experience of anything is singular and unique, but the truth that has hit me over and over in the last five or so years is that everyone you know has waded through the deep deep emotional wasteland of at least one of these – probably more than one – and felt every piercing layer of it. Over and over, house after house, person after person after person. Making their way through days that feel unbelievable and wearing, shocking and numbing all at once, the kind of days you never imagined in your own life. Hard. Hard, hard, hard.
When we hear that so-and-so’s mother is dying or your coworker’s son has gone into rehab or your neighbor is battling mental illness, we hear it, we do – we feel bad and if we are close to them, we hurt for them, too. What we feel, though, when we hear that stuff is like a small pebble in our shoe compared to the compressed pain and surviving that those living these things endure. We can imagine the depth of the pain, of the uncertainty, of the sadness. But we can never, ever get close to the actual smothering feeling of waking up and walking through a day that feels utterly impossible, through doubts and fears that soak into every pore, every waking moment, through the reality of these so very common things that threaten, each time and with each person, to hobble you, to change you for the worse, to break who it is you think you are. There is both comfort and tragedy in the common-ness of these pains. I am not alone. Oh, world – why am I not alone in this?
This idea was floating in my head while making my way through the process of cleaning the murder aftermath out of my childhood home that was abandoned to strangers by the woman who birthed me, by the woman who allowed these people in, by the woman so soaked in delusion that normal becomes a snow-globe world where people and things are afloat, constantly, spun and spun and drifting, settling momentarily just to be turned, abruptly or slightly, and so sent swirling again. Small bits of trash and plaster and blood and sweat and stuff circling around the fixed position of home, of this plot of land that is so familiar. As I’ve waded through this process – physically, emotionally, psychologically – I have been aware that I am in one of those situations that is as close to singular as you can get. So particular. So bizarre. So rife with situations you can’t possible be prepared for. So alone.
Even though all of us in the family were dealing with this, it often seemed as though each of us were orbiting around the situation. Brushing up against each other, but each in our own world, our own reality. The way it touched each of us, the way it shifted or pushed each of us, the way it felt to any one of us in any given moment – singular, particular, personal. We were there for each other at every step, in whatever ways we could be, in whatever ways were needed. What we needed, though, was mostly unspoken, not understood even by ourselves, completely buried under the movements required to finish the task at hand. I knew I could call my Dad, could talk with my sister, could go to my brother for anything – but knowing what that anything was, that was the tricky part. What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What am I doing beyond moving limb by limb to clear this space that I have known so deeply and so personally?
What I do know so far is very little, really, for how much time has already passed since those few long weeks this spring. I am still discovering ways that my life has been affected by my time inside. I know that I wrecked some things in my life that would have fallen apart anyway – but I did it in ways that I would never have done before, I did it in careless and lazy ways that felt anything but in the middle of them. It’s true that my mother’s madness, overall, has had that effect several times in my life – turned me into a rote machine at the same time that I am a fistful of raw nerves swung at the air, each tingle and molecule a sharp pain that I refuse to feel too deeply, as though I can let the pain roll right over those electrically charged receptors that are shouting, shouting, shouting into my cotton-filled ears.
The build up to the clean-up – my upturned life, my state of dispossession, my impending move, on top of the constant churn of our family turmoil and its weeble-wobble effect on my equilibrium – certainly contributed to the intensity of my time in that house. It wasn’t just the dirt and the dust and the spots marked for blood and the random odd nakedness of the house that did me in. It was everything. All at once. Piling in on me like the dank foam ‘mattress’ that leaned over and covered my head as I tried to shift it out of the way in what was once my sister’s childhood room. That sticky, crumbly yellow foam that some stranger had brought into the house that was now mine to touch, to raise, to slide and shift out of that room, whether I wanted to put my hands on it or not.
It was the image of my mother trapped, by her own will, in a hotel room miles and miles away from this house while we, the children, the ones left to piece it all back together, while we muddle through, minute by minute, hour by hour, dusty tear by heavy sigh. It was having given up everything I had come to know as home and then finding myself nearly drowning in a Bizarro version of the place I think of as home. It was my body having railed against me, my mind having spun itself in too many directions to find north, my heart having been split for far too long in trying to love someone I hoped I could, and for a good while, did, while trying not to love someone I just couldn’t quit loving no matter how hard I railed against it. I was unmoored before ever walking into that house and there I was: trying to swim when even treading was more than my limp, muscle-eaten legs could pull off with any great success.
Even in the middle of the clean-up, though, I knew that this is what I needed to be doing. Every bit of grime. Every unexpectedly jarring image. Every accidental photo of a stranger that felt way too personal for my eyes. Every dirty piece of clothing. Every stinky corner full of broken things. These were mine to deal with. To process. To see. To make new or throw away. To box up or push aside. To put my hands on and feel what it is my family had become. What my childhood had grown up to be. Whatever the cost. Whatever ended up broken in my own life. Mine. Not just my mother’s. Not just those people she surrounded herself with. Mine. This. All of it.
Even as we met with one of the women who had been in the house, a walking, talking representation of the mess that built the chaos we found. Even as I lost the control I had hoped to keep, even as my heart raced with my own failure to stay calm, collected, even if only for my family. Even as I obsessed over my own big mouth and worried it would, finally, bring real harm to my family by way of an angry, violent friend or son defending his mother. Even then, I believed we were doing what had to be done, what we shouldn’t have anyone else do. We were making something new out of what was there. We were getting our hands dirty, in even the most literal sense, and we were doing it as a family – a shell-shocked, heart-broken, life-weary family. We were dealing with it, for better or for worse.
Early on in the process, my brother expressed that he wanted his family to move into the house. My first reaction – as my ruptured ear drum rang and my feverish brain spun against the news of the murder – was relief. Strangers would not be living in our house. And then, coming quickly and building slowly, were the reservations. Could that house ever be happy again? Could it ever again feel like a home? Did I want my nephews, those bundles of energy and smiles that I love more than anything else – did I want them in that house? Could we gather for dinners and barbecues and cakes and tamales and not see the ghost of what had happened there? Could my dad spend time in that house ever again after so much of his life that had been formed and created in that house had broken, fallen apart, been erased? My brother’s house had become the central hub of the family for all holidays and visits not only since those three boys exploded into our lives, but also since the disintegration of my parent’s marriage. Could we transplant the new center into the very one we all missed without constantly seeing the ghost of what had happened there – in the house, but also to our family? Without always remembering the sadness, the violence, the destruction?
I deferred much of that to my father. I could learn to live with a lot. My mother, however hapless and difficult and lost she may be at any given point, will always be my mother. I will always love her as madly as I will mourn her. I will see the ghost of who she was to me in my oldest nephew’s smile in the most unexpected of moments and will see her face stare back at me in the mirror in some of my sleepiest glances. I can, however long it might take and however many new memories must be made and old memories remembered, make that house bearable even if not happy.
But my father. That house was not his childhood. It was his children. It was his wife, who decorated every square inch of that house too many times to count. Who had to have that house. Who moved furniture and scraped wallpaper and loved him for years before literally trying to kill him within those same walls during one of her darkest manic moments. It was his marriage. His whole life. His future. Everything he had made of his life, by choice – not because he was born into it or moved there as a child, but because he was with a woman he loved and who he believed would always be able to love him back.
I worried, beyond worry, that coming to that house time after time, no matter how melodic a nephew’s laugh, no matter how gut-wrenchingly beautiful a smile, how elating a run through the hall by all three boys would be – it would always be to him the life that he lost, not for lack of trying, but for lack of sanity in the world, for lack of any kind of fairness in this gorgeous and fucked up world we all live in. Against every ounce of his instinct and every ounce of his heart, he had to walk away from that life after trying beyond any reasonable point to save it, to save her, to stand by her despite her swinging arms and venomous mouth. I worried. And worried.
But we all talked. Through the process. The pros. The cons. Emotional, but also clear, concise and to the point. Can we all do this? Do we want to? Can we get past all of these fears? And the answer was yes. Ultimately, for my dad, I think it was just easier. He was tired. Of this, of it all being another thing to deal with, to contend with. But he was also stressed to the limit in other areas and so, I think, it seemed too steep a mountain to think of the alternatives: try to sell (with such a recent and publicized murder), try to rent (invest in fixing it up so another stranger could live there), leave it alone (for vandals and to cost him more money, every day, as it sits there empty, as it weighs heavier and heavier on our minds). It was worth it to him to get past all of the darkness and reclaim that house as our own, even if only because to not try was too exhausting a prospect.
So yes. They would move in. As soon as it was clean. As soon as the barest of repairs could be made and it was safe for them. Through my anxiety about it all, it helped to be cleaning and sorting and pushing through so that my brother and his family could live there. It felt right even as I reluctantly changed glove after filthy glove. As I literally shoveled up what was covering the laundry room floor and tossed it into the trash. As I refused to wipe the sweat from my brow because everything, everything, was dirty. As I showered after every clean-up shift before falling onto the couch, wiped, at only four or five in the evening. It was for them.
When I left Fresno to return to the bay and the things that still needed to be done up there, the house was still dirty. We had returned the unknown stuff to one designated representative of all those unknown people. We had boxed up what we knew was my mother’s – two sad, small rows of boxes that took up less than one half of a garage stall. We had filtered and pilfered and tossed and boxed and sorted. And we were done, my sister and I. Now it was for others to clean, to paint, to repair drywall and moldings and doors, to decide what of the few pieces of furniture were salvageable, to take the clear space we had made and try to rebuild at least a semblance of a home. Others. Not me. A relief, but also a return to vagueness and uncertainty. What will it be like when I return to it? How will I feel? What will I see?
I came back only weeks later for my youngest nephew’s first birthday. It would be at the house. My brother’s whole family had ambitiously moved in a few days before the party and had pieced together what was vital on the inside so that the party could happen on the outside. I was excited to be able to be at the party – I realized on my drive down to Fresno that morning that this was the first first-birthday party I had been able to attend (another reminder of why I made the move I did, why I left so much else that I love behind). I was excited to give my nephew his present and see him in the shirt I made him at the request of his mother. I couldn’t wait to see and hear the two oldest boys run up to me and squeal and then throw their arms around me before disappearing into the much more alluring, much more exciting cluster of small children to play with. Throughout the drive, just below all of that excitement was the unsettled feeling of returning to that house, that place, after all I’d seen and touched in what was really only a short string of days before.
As I pulled into the driveway, I took in the green of the front yard. It has always been true that the house has beautiful yards. That was still true even when the inside was in disarray. You pull into the driveway and see the park-like front yard, shielded from the road by thick shrubs. You follow the drive to the back and pass the pool and trees and the carriage-house feel of the garage to see the back yard, where I ran with my siblings, where I ran out late at night to meet friends, where I sat as a young adult before leaving to a whole other state and a whole new life. It’s green and lush and open and wide.
As I walked into the house, entering just like always through the laundry room door that leads into the kitchen, this time beautifully whole and unbroken, I could smell only food. Delicious, warm food. My brother’s wife was cooking Wanda Beans, one of my grandmother’s old recipes, and preparing rice pilaf, a recipe my mother handed down to us all. The kitchen was clean and painted and repaired and smelled nothing like the broken-down thing it was or even the fixing of that. It smelled like home – aromatic, edible home. I could feel my shoulders roll back and my breath slowly release. The change was incredible. So much the same as I remembered it, from before. So much of the last couple of months gone, wiped away, sheet-rocked over, painted and then inhabited, lived in, however briefly, by people I love.
There were still signs to be found. The living room entry was covered in a sheet of plastic, waiting to be finished. The basement door was closed and blocked and I didn’t even peek to see how far that room had come. Will I ever return to that room? I thought, almost certain the answer was no. I don’t want to and I won’t need to. I have seen enough of that room to last a lifetime, I thought. But despite the unfinished stuff and the empty shelves not yet filled with what was in boxes in the house – it felt right. In a way I was not prepared for, in a way I didn’t think was possible so soon after.
My pre-party task was to watch the birthday boy so my brother and his wife could get ready for the party – definitely the best of chores I could have been assigned. At one point, the three boys and I ended up in the sun room toward the back of the house. I held my youngest nephew while the other two played a cacophonous improvised song on the player piano that appeared sometime during my mother’s mad reign of the house. They pretended to read sheet music and hammered away at the keys while the little one arched up and over, trying to get away from me to play along with them and so I set him on the bench, the three of them playing what sounded like everything that had happened in that house up until then. The song was loud and full of wrong notes and jumbled up, make-believe chords.
And yet it also sounded like a promise of what could be made of it all: three tiny humans who can’t possibly understand what that house has been, is and will be to the rest of us, are making messy, messy music of what they’ve been given by all of us. I wanted to cry for the noise they made and the way that I could stand in that room that had nearly brought me to tears so few days before as I had looked at the last of the what in the hell do I do with this stuff, wanted to cry for the simple fact that I could stand in there with them and feel content, at home, lucky. I touched each of their backs and kissed each of their heads and was happy that they would know that house as I did, in all of the intimate ways we know that place we grow up in.
Hours later, the party started. More and more family filtered into the yard, into the kitchen, into my arms as we hugged hello. My sister-in-law’s family arrived and we all chipped in to make a Dr. Seuss fruit skewer display and prepare the meat for the barbecue and finish the pilaf and place the cake, just so, on the table outside. We all watched the rambunctious bulldog so that he didn’t topple the artfully imbalanced cake and pulled drinks from the ice chest as small groups of children ran by, back and forth, across the giant yard. I watched my nephew take in his first birthday song and reach into his first birthday cake and saw the smile on my brother’s face as he watched him, I heard his mother’s laugh as he made a face – my little old man with perfect hair and a bewitching grin.
I stayed until dusk, watching the boys, catching up with family. And then I drove home. It was a long day. It was rough for a variety of other reasons having to do with still trying to settle my life in California, still trying to navigate keeping one half of my heart in Oregon, but I felt calm, calmer than I had in weeks. We were on the other side of it. We were making it. We were surviving. On the drive home, I held this image in my head: my littlest man, in his black tee with a red and white Dr. Seuss applique and his too-adorable shrunken grown-up jeans and his black converse looking up at me from the wood floor and reaching his arms up and out, coaxing me to hold him, smiling his old man grin – so full of knowledge, definitely hiding a man who knows so much more than we think he does. His furrowed brow smirk that bursts open in a grin wide enough to hold my entire broken heart should I need it to keep me afloat.
I couldn’t know then, as I relived the ritual of the little one’s birthday, as I made the already again-familiar drive between my two California places, that I would return a couple of weeks later and walk into the basement where my oldest nephew, who had just been hit in the eye with a bat while playing baseball in the front yard, was nursing his injury in front of the big screen TV my brother had moved down there since my last visit. I couldn’t know that after dinner and dessert I would hesitantly cross that threshold to go down the stairs, wishing my nephew had stayed upstairs so I could continue to avoid that room even when no one else seemed to need to – I went down each step and turned the corner to see his sleepy, hurting, crest-fallen face as he said, don’t say you have to go.
I couldn’t possibly know yet that in that moment he would steal that room back from everything bad, from everything it had turned into in my mind. I will always remember what happened there. I will always be affected by it, changed in ways I am still figuring out by what culminated from the storm my mother had allowed inside. That will never leave me – but neither will the way I melted when he said that to me, the way his hair smelled (like boy sweat and tears) as I kissed the top of his head and then his eye, so tenderly, and then his cheeks. He will never really know that most simple of ways that he put me at ease, that he changed – in the time it takes to look at me that way,
with that love – everything within those four subterranean walls.
I couldn’t possibly see ahead two months when I would celebrate my birthday in that house, by that pool, in that sun. When I would teach my nephews how to make cupcakes from scratch even though they are too young to remember all of the lessons. I could have no idea how content I will be watching my blonde-haired nephew smirk and grin as he pushes his hands into a bowl of sugar and lemon zest, the joy of having his hands coated in that fragrant, sticky mess. Or the attentiveness the oldest boy would give to my explanations of why you sift or how to level a measuring cup of flour. By that time, so few months later really, I will feel so at home in that place, so distracted from its past by those boys and their parents and the rest of the family to even remember, in any physical way, the difficulty of this last spring. I will hardly recall, while in the house, while in each moment, how tentative I was during that first visit, how unsure I was about our capacity for re-envisioning, reclaiming, recreating.
When I think of the fear I had before that first birthday visit, the snapshot in my mind is this: I see all three brothers at that piano, me standing behind them, trying to reach through them and recall something, anything, that I learned in those nine short months that I took lessons. I tried to play part of Yesterday by the Beatles, the only song I ever taught myself, and I failed to remember even five consecutive notes. I didn’t care, though, and neither did they. We were trapped in a moment in a room in a house that I had spent so much of my life in and had worried was lost now to memories not fully mine and tragically blood-stained.
But there we were. In a perfectly mundane and lovely moment.
We were simply four people who are bound to each other and love each other and who were trying to make music with the only tool we had. And it sounded loud and decidedly non-melodic and would never be a song you would request, but it was ours, that day, as the sun filtered in through all of those french doors, creating a hazy kind of afternoon light against their backs. Our song. Ours. And there was nowhere else I wanted to be except in that room, hovering with them in that most perfect of moments, so unique and yet so gloriously common.