Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death. He died at the age of 38 which means he has been dead as long as he was alive. A whole lifetime has gone by and yet somehow it seems like yesterday.
That’s grief for you though—it refuses to obey the dictates of time. Here’s a piece I wrote recently on my 8-year old response to his death.
We commit crimes when we are children. We don’t mean to but we do. Our childhood certainties become suddenly uncertain and we panic. React. Do something we don’t understand and therefore cannot undo.
We then bury these crimes inside of us and forget about them until time, with its constant cascade of loss, erodes the dusty soil of our hearts and exposes the edges of our shame.
Time to face the facts: I am a criminal. Here is my crime.
Suspect: 8-Year Old Girl
With the exception of my mother, who teaches kindergarten in the large, bright classroom near the foyer, my teacher, Madame Lise, is the youngest, most beautiful, and also the kindest of all the teachers at the school. We are in a Grade One/Two split class. When Madame Lise needs to test us, she takes us out of our regular classroom away from the Grade Ones, and into another, smaller one around the corner. Today is a dictée day. We are in the small classroom writing down random words Madame Lise pronounces slowly and clearly. Bibliothèque. Armoire. Pommier. I know all the words. I am pleased with myself.
She finishes quizzing us. We are to follow her back into the regular classroom, where the babies are waiting. I am in Grade Two.
We turn the corner and immediately know something’s wrong. The teachers are outside their classes, leaning against the walls like broken ladders. Their heads are buried in their hands. They are crying.
This shocks me. Adults are not supposed to cry.
Mme Lise shuffles us into the class and rushes to investigate. A few minutes later she reappears at the door and beckons me. I feel special to have been singled out and follow her. I am curious. That is all. It does not occur to me to be nervous. I am a good girl. Top of my class. I never hit when I’m angry or steal someone’s cookie. I am even nice to Maurice, who picks his nose and eats his boogers.
Nothing bad can happen to me because I follow the rules.
I get up from my desk and act like it’s no big deal. My friend Jody is watching me. I feel important.
In the hall, we first pass Mme Simpson, my First Grade teacher from last year. She had no patience for my shyness and would not let me go to the bathroom without asking in French. I could not ask. Every day that year I ran home after school, my bladder heaving like a dam after the storm. Often the dam overflowed and I arrived at my doorstep, cheeks and underpants wet.
She peeks her bulldog face through her thick, slug-like fingers and spots me. Her face contorts and a sob belches from her. I look away, embarrassed.
Why is such a mean woman crying? Mean people can’t cry. Adults don’t cry!
Except in this bad dream they do. All the teachers. I concentrate on the scene at the end of the hallway. There’s a man in his fancy dress uniform talking to my mother. They are backlit by the glass doors, the late morning April sun spotlighting them.
My mother’s hands also cover her face. Her body shakes. The man in the uniform is straight and stiff as a ruler. His arm rests on my mother’s hunched shoulders. I can see the doors between their bodies.
The hallway stretches out like a bad Alice dream. The clack clack clack of my teacher’s heels echo off the linoleum floor.
Panic flutters in my chest, the way it does when things do not make sense.
My teacher leads me towards my mother. Her grip on my hand is a little too tight. She keeps making these little sounds like she’s trying not to cry. She is scaring me. They are all scaring me. I wish they would stop it.
Mme Lise brings me directly to my mom, lays a hand on her shoulder to let her know I’m there, then abruptly turns away and moves down the hall to huddle with the other crying teachers.
I face my mother and the uniform man. They’re outside my mother’s classroom. She is popular, my mother. In March she shows her students how to make tire by pouring hot syrup on the snow. I wish I could have been in her class.
My mother lowers her hands. Her face is not her face. It is the face of a pain I do not recognize, something deeper and untouchable than the hurt of all the scratched knee caps, bee stings, best friend fights, sisters breaking your favourite Sean Cassidy record, mean boys hitting you, combined.
This pain is a chasm and my mother has been swallowed. She is not my mother but something else now.
Her words are pebbles down a well; they land like a faint echo. Ton père…avion…accident…mort.
I see it now. How the me that was before jolted out of my body, a faint ghost hovering like an echo behind me. The inner wooshing sound as I pulled her back into me and locked her up, that stupid girl who felt safe and confident that she belonged.
I hated that girl instantly for being so naïve, so sure of herself. I hated her for not knowing the world could turn on you at any moment. That your parents could one day cease to be your parents and what you thought was real and solid was actually just a big, nasty pretend game.
She had to go.
So I shoved her away, locked her up in a remote region of my heart and left her there to rot.
I told myself it was self-defence. She was too dangerous. Deliberately ignored the banging on the walls, the pleas to open the door. I tried very hard to forget her, tried to convince myself that the chasm left by her absence had always been there, that I was simply born this way. Some people have dark hair. Some people are psychopaths. Some people are simply missing the piece that makes them worthy of love, that allows them to trust. I could almost believe it was not my fault, not something I did to myself.
But I did. And I have spent a lifetime paying for it.
The sentence for forcible confinement of yourself is simple: hard labour.
Work. Work your ass off and then work some more, bitch.
Oh, you can do your time but you’ll never really make up for it. You are a criminelle. A monstre. Your crime is perpetual therefore so is your punishment.
First: Arrêtes de rêver. Don’t fucking dare dream. Who the hell gave you permission to have those anyways? You locked them up, stifled them with your stinking fear and putrid shame. Your dreams are now a heaping pile of fertilizer. Might as well use it to grow other people’s dreams, because you ruined any chance of your own.
Second: Love. There will be people who think they can fix the trou inside you. They will think they can love you. The only way you can keep them around, pretend for a moment that you might deserve love (you don’t) is by working harder than everybody else.
You have to earn the air you breathe, the ground you stand on, every bite of food you stuff into your monster mouth. You must earn love and earn it constantly.
If the people you love with that amputee heart of yours are not happy, it’s your fault. If you don’t work your ass off to meet their every need, they will find out your dirty little secret, your gaping hole instead of a soul. Is that what you want? Is it?
If the person consents to marry you, feel grateful, bitch. They don’t realize yet you’re unlovable. Joke’s on them. Hide your trou through work and then more work. Make sure you do not need anything ever.
Ever. Tu m’écoutes?
Third: Time. It’s not yours. It’s for other people.
When kids arrive, make sure your spouse does not feel overwhelmed. Small kids are hard. They’ll take a toll on those who are whole. But for you, avec un trou, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need time to yourself. You have no self worthy of time. Do not take time away ever. How many times do I have to tell you this? Stop wanting more than you can have. You made your choice. Live with the consequences.
So you’re unhappy. So you’re angry. Who cares? Bury it. You’re not allowed to feel these things. Who the hell said you could feel anything but grovelling gratitude?
Try harder, damn it. Get up at five am. Go running. Lose the weight. If you’re going to mimic worthy, at least look the part, fat ass.
Always be willing to have sex even though you’re dead tired. Do not think of the alarm clock or how near 5 a.m. is looming. You’re lucky he even wants to have sex with you. Don’t blow it.
Work hard and then harder to prove yourself in your new career. Keep your kids happy and thriving. You’re lucky to have them (you don’t deserve them).
Try to find time to write. Because even though you broke rule number one of your sentence, the dream still gasps out of you like the need to breathe. But this comes last do you hear me? Last. Dishes come before dreams. Everything comes before your dreams. Do I have to make you write lines to get it through your thick head?
Turn yourself inside out to keep everyone happy. Bury your unhappiness. Clench your jaw when the anger surges. Do not feel sad or lonely. What the hell is that? This is what you chose, this is what you wanted.
Don’t make a mistake ever. You can’t afford it. The people will find your trou and they will leave you like you deserve.
You buried me inside you, the part that was allowed to want more. You have done this to yourself.
You are a criminal. This is your sentence.
Time Served: 36 years
It was all for nothing.
All those decades of frenetic activity, of a prison routine devoid of compassion or space. Of clenching my jaw and then swallowing my hurt and disappointment as if it were bitter but necessary medicine to cure me from myself.
He discovered the trou and he left.
His leaving did not happen over night. The erosion began a long time ago. The walls around my trou were showing signs of age and I did not have the energy to repair them. He caught a glimpse and told me it was too much. I was a burden he could not carry anymore. How could he love me when I was so broken?
So he left and the walls crumbled to dust. No more illusions of being the good, supportive wife. No more pretending that I do not have a hole instead of a heart. No more walls, no more flesh, no more hiding. This is me.
I am so tired.
I might just sit a moment. Enjoy the view that opened up when the walls went down. A large plain stretches out to an old cabin on the horizon. It is vaguely familiar. If I’m quiet, I can hear the howling escaping the cracks of its clapboard sides.
She is still alive. Still screaming. My own tornado of rage. She would tear down the world to be heard, this creature I kept locked up in me for so long, this feral, closet girl. She will scream until I come and get her.
I took a trip inside my heart the other day, to the unknown places I had neglected for so long. There was a ruin of a house, a ramshackle, once beautiful thing in the midst of an overgrown garden.
First, I had to find the key. I got my hands dirty sifting through the mud around the door, through the overgrown weeds.
Luckily it is my own heart; if I take the time to look, the lost objects inside it will take the time to be found.
There it was, canopied under some rogue fireweed, a worm slithering across its rusted metal surface.
I grabbed it and wiped the dirt from its grooves.
A skeleton key.
My heart has a sense of humour.
The house and the garden contracted with every beat. As I got closer, it beat louder and faster. My heart was nervous. Fluttering. I took a moment to stand still and let it flutter, coaxing it into calmness the way I do with my daughters when they are sick with flu or heartbreak.
I climbed up the stairs to the porch. The third stair was rotten through and required stepping over. At the door, I hesitated. Took a nervous breath and gathered my small courage.
This is it. I am doing this.
I fit the key into the lock. Even after all these years it turned easily. It’s like it wanted to be unlocked, like it was waiting for me.
I let the door swing open. The morning light shone through the dirty windows. It was only one large room, a rustic cabin that could be beautiful if I had tried.
If I try.
I squinted in the half darkness and searched the corners. There she was, exactly where I left her. The fierce, eight-year old me. Knees squeezed close to her chest, her dark, angry eyes staring at me. Her hair had grown long and her clothes ragged. She looked like she could use a sandwich.
I took a few steps towards her. She shrunk into herself.
I’m sorry, I said.
A heartbeat pause.
She opened her mouth and a scream cycloned out. It ripped the roof off the house and toppled the walls.
She will be screaming for a long time, I think.
That’s ok. It is a start.
I’ll wait with a cup of hot chocolate and a package of cookies. Keep on saying sorry until she stops.
6 thoughts on “On the 38th Anniversary of my Father’s Death”
My heart goes out to you, la petite fille de huit ans, la femme d’aujourd’hui, la mère, l’écrivaine. Et tellement davantage. Much love.
I read this twice – once to my sister over coffee this morning. I wanted you to know what an incredible and important thing you have done. Besides your skill as a writer, what you express changes lives and worlds. Thank you. Karen & Annemarie (she asked me to tell you too!)
Thanks so much for those kind words Karen & Annemarie and for taking the time to reach out. I can’t tell you how much it means to me!
Wow! What a powerful piece of writing. A beautiful metaphor.
Your writing is beautiful Lina. Your pain comes through in spades. Keep writing. Don’t stop.
Thanks Leslie- that is lovely to hear and also lovely to hear from you!