Monday October 10
I’m in Pennsylvania at a writing residency called Soaring Gardens. I brought my sister’s ashes with me, I’m not sure why, except that it felt like the thing to do. Most of her ashes were buried in an urn, as is required in the Catholic Church, but the people from the funeral home asked my parents and me if we would like to keep some of her ashes for ourselves.
I said yes immediately, my head filled with ideas about spreading her ashes around somewhere meaningful, getting some kind of closure, letting go. I imagined that at some far away date in the future, my mother and father and I, and maybe one of Alexis’ good friends, would go to Paris or the beach or who the hell knew where and we’d say goodbye and somehow feel like we’d moved on.
I can see now how foolish that idea was. There would be no moving on. There would only be moving with. With the sadness, with the guilt, with all of the swirling emotions that opened inside of me when my father called to tell me that she was dead.
On the morning of the service, the funeral director gave us two small plastic canisters that had screw on lids—the kind of container that film used to come in, only larger. Inside was all that remained of my sister. I found myself on occasion unscrewing the lid and touching the ashes and telling myself, this is your sister.
Every time I did this I felt split in two. My brain said, yes, yes, I know. My heart said, no fucking way. My brain said, she is dead. My heart said, she is dead but not forever.
When I’m home in Maryland, I keep the canister on the windowsill next to my bed. Every night before I go to sleep, I kiss my fingers and touch the top of it. This feels like a foolish thing to do and I’ve found myself hiding this ritual from my wife, Lindsay. I’ll do it when she’s in the bathroom washing her face or while she zones out on a game of Candy Crush.
I hide it because it feels hypocritical. When my sister was alive I couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone to call her, so why now do I find myself kissing her ashes goodnight?
Lindsay would never judge me this way—she is all kindness and understanding around what my relationship with my sister was, but still I feel silly and simple each night when I kiss my fingers and touch the container. Why do I do it? Is it my way of asking for forgiveness? Is it because I feel compelled to remember her in some visible way? Is it some sort of superstition? Maybe it’s a little bit of all of these things.
So anyway, she is here with me in Pennsylvania and I was struck with the idea of decorating her canister with some kind of collage. Alexis was never a plain girl; she always had some flair, whether it was a stripe of red in her hair or a fur lined collar on a coat or a rhinestone barrette shimmering in her hair. She’d want something beautiful on the outside of the thing that now holds all that is left of her in this world.
There’s a mouse running around upstairs in the studio space, or at least I hope to God it’s a mouse. I’m calling him Ricardo, although I suppose I don’t actually know whether it’s a he or she. Anyway, Ricardo startled me last night while I was in bed reading. The quiet of this old church where I am staying was interrupted by the staccato rhythm of Ricardo’s feet moving across the floor. This was followed by a scratching sound and then fast patter.
I had already been on high alert because when I first got here I’d found not one, but two spiders crawling on my bed. And yes, for the record they were the sinister Jack Nicholson looking kind. After last years residency (see Art Farm Musings) I thought that I’d be immune to living with insect life for a couple of weeks, but for some reason I’ve found myself being a much bigger baby this year than I was last year.
I have two possible theories as to why this might be. One has to do with the fact that I am in this house alone, whereas last year I shared a house with three other women and I’d felt some sort of safety in numbers. The other theory has to do with the fact that the insects in Nebraska were sort of paralyzed by the cold and thus didn’t move a whole lot, unlike the sinister spiders here that move at Mach speed.
I’ve been reverting back to some of the obsessive- compulsive behaviors l had as a kid, like shaking out my blankets before bed and tapping my shoes by the heel before I put my foot inside them, just in case a spider has crawled inside. Oh yeah, I’m also shaking out my clothes and scanning the walls incessantly. So thus far, my stay has been very peaceful: Shake, tap, shake, scan, shake, shake, tap. The first couple of days my shoulders felt like someone had taken all of the muscles and had tried to weave a cross-stitch.
So as if I wasn’t already worked up enough over the sinister spiders, Ricardo came into my life. Last night after hearing Ricardo skittering around, I managed to close my eyes and try to sleep, but wouldn’t you know I had one of those dream/nightmare things where you wake yourself up. In it, someone was trying to make me touch a sinister spider, which I have actually been considering as a way to face down my fears. When I got close to the spider in my dream, my whole body jerked and I startled myself awake, in the same way that my dogs sometimes do when they fart loudly.
When I talked to Lindsay about the noises I heard, she said, “Oh it’s probably just a field mouse. You are out on farm land and it’s starting to get cold.” As soon as she said this I felt both relieved and foolish for my stress, for my knotted shoulders, for the way my body lurched in fear anytime I caught something in the corner of my eye. Yeah, I thought, just a field mouse trying to get in from the cold. A vision of Ricardo popped into my head and in it he looked just like Ralph the Mouse, the hero of my favorite childhood books. I imagined him up there riding around on a motorcycle, just like Ralph used to do.
I’m holding onto that image for as long as I can because at least for the time being one of my fears is being held at arms length.
The dog’s bark reminds her of who she is here: visitor, or perhaps from the dog’s view, intruder. A blur of black fur, a creature in front of her, his tail wagging while he growls at her. The embodiment of uncertainty, yet to decide which version of himself to present.
And who shall she be to him? In another setting she imagines bending down, tussling his shaggy coat, running both hands gently over the crown of his head, kissing the bony protrusion, but here surrounded by farmlands and mountains that stretch to eternity, she stands poised to fend off a lunge; ever aware that this is no way to act when you are a guest on someone else’s land, as she is here.
The dog snarls, steps closer, lips curled, tail wagging back and forth, back and forth like a vacillating question mark asking friend or foe, friend or foe?
She retreats a step, calls out, No! in her sternest voice. Who is she talking to? The dog? Herself? His eyes are soft brown set in midnight fur. They study her.
What would it take for her to extend her hand, extend herself? To let him be the one to decide, once and for all, who she is, bad or good, but a memory spins round and round in her mind like a record—a friend’s face stitched up after an attack—the sharp needle of fear stuck deep in a groove circling endlessly, hoping that something will come along and change its course.
My sister used to call me the Tin Man. She said it was because I had no heart.
When we were kids, she called me “Beaker” because my nose was (still is) pointy like a bird’s beak.
“Shutup,” I’d scream at her.
“Oh, okay I’ll shutup, Beaker. Sorry about that, Beaker.”
When my parents brought me home from the hospital, she begged them to name me Bobby after the youngest brother on The Brady Bunch, but my parents named me after my mother’s dead brother Danny.
Once she told me I was a good sister because I’d taken her to Starbucks and bought her a coffee before dropping her off at the hospital to see our cousin who was in the ICU on life support. “You’re a good sister, Dani,” she’d said as she got out of my car. I’d sighed, “Sometimes.”
Little bitch was what she’d called me one Thanksgiving after she’d cut her wrist and woken me up to show me what she’d done, and I’d suggested, no urged, my parents to call 911. “Bitch,” she’d screamed, her eyes on fire. “You’re a little bitch.”
For a long time, Alexis was the only person who called me Dani instead of Danielle. I can’t remember when she started this, but I remember that it made me feel special. When I went to her with a problem she would hug me and say, “It’ll be okay Dani.” Then she’d briskly rub my head and mess up my hair. In her suicide note she’d written, “Tell Dani I love her.” That was the last thing she called me.
Because I know how people on the internet like pictures, and tend to stop reading things if they are too long, I am including a few here just to give you a break:
Already she knows just what to expect when she starts out on her run: the small country road, the trailer parked under a large portico, the little blue house across from the pond where the geese call out each day. She knows which dogs are leashed and which are not; that the yellow lab with the big yard can only come so far before the shock from the electric fence runs through its lumbering body. She knows to look for the cats in the fields near the house with the old windows and clapboard siding, the pumpkin resting on the slanting steps. How quickly familiarity settles upon the shoulders, drapes itself like a blanket pulled tightly around the body at daybreak, when the light works its backwards magic, making what it touches colder. How quickly we come to shine this old beam of light on all that we see. How else to recognize change?
Spindly spider writhes on the bathroom floor.
Do insects feel pain?
Wispy legs braid themselves together.
Me, wondering whether it would be kindness or cruelty to lend this creature the full weight of my body.
End of life contortions, a somersaulting skeleton.
She cannot name the thing that makes suffering worth bearing.
A Solitary Life
Whenever I come back to the church after going out for a bit, I yell “Ricardo, I’m home. Spideys, I’m home.” Thankfully they have yet to answer back. Tonight, however, after some wonderful dinner conversation yet again with myself, I sat down on the couch to do some work and Ricardo ventured downstairs. I didn’t see him, but I kept hearing little noises over by the kitchen and bathroom. Finally, I told him that he was in violation of our roommate agreement and eventually he made himself scarce. I haven’t heard him since.
The goats and I have become pretty close, although sometimes they still like to pretend that they don’t see me standing by the fence desperately waving at them to come over. When they do meander my way, I feed them from my unlimited reserve of leaves, which they seem to really love. Their lips make the cutest sound as they take the leaves into their mouths and their tongues dart out erratically. Overall I’ve become much more comfortable with them, but I’m still not totally at ease, as was demonstrated tonight when one of them coughed and it startled me which then in turn startled them and sent them all running away at a fast clip. It was rather sad, because I’d just gotten around to asking them rather personal questions like whether the goat with the extended abdomen was with child or whether she was just really fat and whether they liked Big Daddy, the bearded billygoat that strutted around their pen letting out a steady stream of mews, brays, and honks that were meant to remind everybody that he was the boss.
She’d never been one for long goodbyes. Who ever really knew if you’d see one another again?
Just last night, she wrote in her journal about how people fell so quickly into a routine. She thought of people at a rock concert, the way they began clapping in time to a song even before they knew what song it was.
We want so badly to know what’s coming next, she thought. But the future couldn’t be predicted by looking at the past. The past could be studied, learned from, but it could not tell you what was to come. Even when the days lined up in such a way that they looked exactly the same, one after the next, with the same thing happening each day.
What came next, she knew, could knock you off your feet.
So no, no goodbyes for her, only “take cares” and “safe journeys” and ,once in a while, wishes for the one departing to “rest easy.”
October 10, 2019
I’m back at Soaring Gardens, in the church again. I already saw my first spider and I’m on edge. Why is it so hard, this aloneness? What am I so afraid of? Back home life is busy and I crave solitude, but now that I have it I want to run. I spent the better part of today doing busy work, avoiding what I came here to do. Now I have nothing to do except settle in and let the fear fill me up, overflow and live with it. This is what I came to do. To face all of this and to finish this book that I really started in earnest three years ago when I first came here. It’s almost done, but maybe I saved the hardest parts for last. I am so afraid.
I miss Cooper so much. He is my greatest joy. His voice, his laugh, the funny things he says. Just this morning he said, “Mom go away.” It’s a command I’ve gotten used to hearing, one that I try to shrug off, sometimes more successfully than others. I pretended to cry, which he thought was very funny and that giggle just filled the room. I took him to get a donut on the way to school and we sat side by side and he leaned into me and he kept saying, Mom, and I just thought of how big my love for him is. How I never knew what this would/could feel like.
Last time while I was here, Lindsay and I found out she was pregnant and now we have a son who is two and I am such a different person. Lucky, grateful and afraid.