Thursday, January 24, 2008

Evocative Memory

I've been digging again. Not on purpose (at least, not my purpose).

Last summer, I asked Father God to bring me fully alive. He is.

It hurts.

Over the next few posts, I'll take account of all that I've been discovering--all that I've been remembering.

To begin, here's a piece I wrote in graduate school. The assignment was to write an autobiographical piece in the style of one of the writers we had read. I chose Virginia Woolf.

Photographs and Sparrows
(from 1996)

It is in those silent hours between late night and early morning, those hours that seem the darkest, those hours that belong to the dead, that my house is most alive. The radiator by the window hisses and squeals, churning its way towards heat. The clock on the wall ticks---ticks---ticks the time, with silence, instead of tocks, in between. The elevated train rattles its way to the north end of the city while the kitchen faucet drips---drips---drips into a glass filled with watery milk residue. In this dark, dead hour, my house is alive with sound.

I am awake. An hour before dawn, I am awake, my body aching and exhausted, my mind churning with thoughts. Some memories, some fantasies, all wearisome, keeping my synapses firing. My body needs rest, but my mind is too loud – louder than the clock and the faucet. I am trying to write an end to the story. I keep imagining different scenarios, but none quite ring true. So how do I finish it?

Finish? How do I begin? How can I recount what actually happened and make someone else understand the hell, the hopelessness, and the helplessness with which I still wrestle? How do I accurately tell a story that has not ended, maybe that never will? How do I do that?

I am grappling with becoming an “only child.” It is a difficult adjustment, as I did not grow up this way. I had a sister. I say “had.” I suppose I still have a sister. Only now, we are strangers. My need to express this void that her absence perpetuates in my life brings me to the pen and paper. My need to sort through the pain, to make sense of what happened and why, brings me to the loud and sleepless nights. The difficulty comes in trying to verbalize emotions that run so deep, even I cannot fathom them. As for the “why”---if I knew the “why,” I would not have to write. I have not attempted writing before because plunging into the pain is both frightening and exhausting. My life does not stop; it continues even as I try to come to terms with these circumstances. But I must begin to heal, and I must begin somewhere. Here is as good a beginning as any.

It is one complicated messy dilemma, this family situation of mine. No clear answers, nothing cut-and-dried, no place for total blame. That is remarkably agonizing for someone like me who prefers black-and-white cubbyholes, a place for everything and everything in its place. I thought I wanted answers, that I wanted to understand how my sister feels, that I wanted to help her. Now, I simply want to know why. Why is it necessary for her to reject me absolutely in order to embrace him completely? Why can’t she see how much he is hurting her? Why has God allowed this to happen to my family? I want to know why, and I want to know how to move on from here.

My family was a complete family. Not rich, but intimate, there were four of us--Dad, Mom, my sister, and me. From my early childhood, I was taught the meaning of “family”: family is honesty; family is fidelity; family is constancy; family is faithfulness. In my adult years, I have come to understand that “family” and “related” are not synonyms at all. Being born of the same parents does not insure loyalty for life. Siblings are not always spontaneous friends.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact time when I began to lose my sister. If I could find the precise moment, perhaps I could discover what went wrong, determine why she is absent now. Gone without being gone. It is as if she is haunting me. I cannot wish her a permanent farewell. I cannot abandon her. I cannot complete my grieving process for her because she is not dead. And so I live on, in perpetual misery and regret, trying to make peace with a silent, absent stranger.

It would be easy to declare, “It all began when she met him.” That would be simple and easy. If I labeled him the criminal, the family thief, I would have a place to pin the blame, a direction in which to funnel my soul-consuming anger. But condemning him will not explain everything. Although I believe he was the ringleader in the crimes against my family, the initial instigator of my sister’s pain, some responsibility for its continuance rests with her. My sleepless nights originate with her vacancy from our lives; whether by force or by choice, she is absent now, and I am left mourning and empty.

The sorrow assails me at the most unexpected times. Almost every time, pictures, either actual or imaginary, accompany the grief. The last time, it was a January afternoon and the snowflakes were big and wet. I stood waiting on the platform for the southbound El, my breath forming little mist-clouds in front of my face. As I stared up the tracks, anticipating the train’s arrival, the memory of a photograph became crystal and lucid in my mind. My sister and I were much younger, and we were playing in the waves of the turquoise crystal Gulf of Mexico. I most vividly remembered the bathing suits we wore; my mother had made them. They were the latest style for the 70’s, the time when we were caught in that painful place called puberty, caught between no longer children but not quite adults. Each swimsuit was the same pattern: a midriff-long halter top with accompanying panty bloomers. Hers was bright orange with little yellow flowers; mine was muted blue with small pink flowers. No dialogue in the memory, just a photo, a snapshot of sisterness and friendship.

As the snowflakes swirled into the covered place where I was standing, I began to sob. “Oh, God,” I prayed, “please tell her how much I miss her!” And my logical part, the part I had been training to effectively combat my sadness and hurt, joined my sentimental part and recited the truths I was desperately trying to embrace. “The sister you miss does not exist anymore. Playing with her will only be a memory now. A relationship with the current sister will not be like anything you want. She isn’t the one you miss. Remember that.”

The mental pinch brought me back from my dream just as the train arrived. I watched the lights through my fogged-up glasses, fighting to control my tears. Although she has been absent from my life for years, it is as if she is more real to me now than ever. Yet even that statement is not accurate, for in trying to describe who she was to me, in trying to articulate the essence of her former personality to those who did not know her then, I find myself at a bewildering loss for effective, accurate words. I sometimes wonder if I ever really knew her at all. It seems I remember her most clearly through memories.

The earliest pictures I have of my sister include me in their view. There we are, lying together on the quilt Granny made for my sister’s arrival. The white cotton background gives the quilted butterflies plenty of soft, cool room to flex their flowered wings and quiver their embroidered antennae. We lay there, side by side, face to face, my left arm draped over her tiny tummy. She is so small. I must have felt so proud, so responsible, a big sister to this frail little one. I actually remember standing on my tiptoes to see her through the hospital nursery window the night she was born. Daddy had to point out which baby she was, but when the nurse held her up to the window, I saw her blue eyes. I was wearing my red tennis shoes.

In another picture, Mom is showing me how to support my sister’s tiny head with my hand. My dad told me about my bedtime prayers the night she was born: “You went through your usual list. . .God bless Mommy and Daddy, Mimi and Pawpaw. . . and your normal catch-all clincher. . .and God bless everybody in the world. Amen. And then you said, Oops! And God bless my baby sister.” In my quilted coat and pony tails, in her little white stocking cap, we rode the plastic rocking horse with the metal frame in the front yard of the house on Beach Street. We had many adventures in that yard full of oak trees and scruffy grass. We concocted mud pies on the concrete driveway---even then, I dirtied an incredible amount of dishes when I cooked! In the photograph, the butter bowls and metal cans, plastic bottles and stick-spoons surround us as we create our muddy masterpieces.

We fancied playing dress-up. My favorite play outfit was a smooth rose taffeta dress, with matching pumps with heels so high, my stubby toes slid down into the shoe's front end. When I sat down in the grass, the skirt spread out to make an almost perfect circle under which my six-year-old legs were completely hidden. It was a magical dress. In my adult years, I rediscovered that dress and all her sisters on the bridesmaids in my parents’ wedding photos. My sister had a more vivid imagination than I: to make herself look grown-up, she matched an oversized white shirt of Dad’s with her doll-blanket skirt. Easter was the best holiday because we were presented with new dresses (usually Mom had made them for us). My sister enjoyed wearing hats with her dresses. You could do that on Easter Sunday.

We were intimate sisters. Less than three years apart in age, we shared clothes and earrings, secrets and fears, dreams and friends. As adult siblings, we shared an apartment--our first away from Mom and Dad. We took care of each other and looked out for one another. When I needed money to see the doctor about a burst eardrum, my sister drove me to the pawnshop to hock my camera. When she thought she might be pregnant, I went with her to the doctor and held her hand while she cried. When they had to put my dog to sleep, my sister went with me to cry and say good-by. She was pregnant with his baby, but she was still my sister. When she was in labor for thirty-four hours, she answered my questions about how much it hurt and was she scared and she let me hold her hand through each contraction. The 24-hour vigil in the hospital waiting room was occupied with odd smells, overnight news shows, and anguish over my sister. I had no idea having a baby would take so long! That is the only time I have ever spent twenty-four consecutive hours in a hospital waiting room. That is the last memory I have of my sister.

She began changing after that. She married him and became a stranger to me. It happened slowly and imperceptibly, the infection of unfamiliarity stealing between us like a slinking rat, and as I now write, she is gone from me. The childhood pictures of growing up and the treasured memories of intimacy contrast sharply with the last time I saw her face to face. Her husband was in jail for stomping their 22-month-old son to death. Their four other children were in foster homes, and she was not permitted to see them. She was cold and distant and resigned; she only saw me to tell me to go home.

The apartment was deathly quiet, too quiet to be the home of five children. The white walls and old furniture listened as she said she did not need my help; the quiet white walls heard her declare that she knew I had come to take her children away from her. She wore the outfit of a grieving Muslim woman, a khaki brown knee-length shirt covering her jeans and a black shawl enshrouding her head. Only the oval of her face was familiar to me, only the crooked shape of her nose--my great-grandmother’s Cherokee nose. Her wrists were lean and gaunt--had he been starving her? Her entire body was covered with clothing, save her feet, hands, and face--did the garments also cover bruises? She spoke with a pronounced Arabic accent and fumbled for the correct English words to express herself. She was cold and stony when I hugged her.

She defended her husband. Her paranoia dominated our conversation. The authorities had made up the stories, she claimed; he did not hurt their little boy, she said; everyone was against them, and she had to educate herself so they could defend themselves in court. I was trying to reason with a stranger. As she calmly related the events of the night the baby died, there was no feeling, no sorrow, no emotion. The baby had simply died, and the police investigation was a vendetta against her and her husband because they were Muslim. As I listened incredulously, I realized my sister was lost to me, maybe for forever.

I remember when I was a little girl, the neighborhood children were playing hide-and-go-seek in my yard. I intended to hide behind the bulky bush in the front of the house. As I crawled between the bush and the house, I heard a cheeping, a peeping that was tiny and frail. Caught in the base of the bush was a baby sparrow, its wing misshapen and limp. I went running for Mom’s help, and together we rescued the chick from any potential felines on the prowl. We fed it with an eye dropper, and for two weeks, the fluffy brown baby sparrow survived on water and moistened bread. It was always cheeping, twitching its head, needy and scared and alone. The time came to return the bird to its nest in the pine tree by the window. As I watched my uncle climb the ladder and place the chick carefully in the nest, I wondered if the other sparrows would push it out of the nest because we had touched it with our hands. I never knew what happened to the baby sparrow, but I thought of it often, wondering if it survived, if it was safe, and warm.

I wonder if she is safe. I think somehow, the sister I once knew is hiding somewhere, hiding and waiting, waiting until it is safe to come out again. The real person, the sister I knew and loved, seems more alive in my memory than in real life. In actual existence, she has disappeared, replaced by a stranger I do not understand, an outsider who chooses not to be a part of my everyday existence or experience. Yet she is always here, always alive in that dark, dead hour when I am awake.

1 comment:

Brittany said...

I'm always checking your blog to see if you've written yet. I hope you write and post more. I read this last night. I was left at a loss for words, and I still am. But I wanted to encourage you, that I read all of it-every word. I was captivated by it. I stopped everything I was doing. It's not just your style of writing, but the genuine, passionate heart behind t and these powerful memories that are a part of who you are. I appreciate your way of speaking truthfully about how these memories stayed with you sometimes as a blessing and a curse. I think you're the strongest woman I know-don't argue with me. :) I love you very much. Know that I wish I could be there with you and that I thank God for you.