As a kid, fall was my favorite time of year. While I wasn’t a huge fan of workbooks, #2 pencils, or dusty chalkboards with their meticulously printed assignments in cursive greeting me each day, I enjoyed the return of routine and peers. It meant that I got to see my best friend–her unruly head of red hair and wild sense of humor–each day. Our moms had made sure we were assigned to the same classroom every school year after we had become inseparable. It was the kind of attachment girls made when their weirdness aligned perfectly, allowing them to navigate together the confusing and often brutal lands of adolescence and hallways.
While I don’t recall asking my mother to have the school make special accommodations, I suppose she quietly understood what I needed without me having to say. She, too, was a girl once, trying to understand her own creativity within a strict Catholic school of rules and formalities she struggled to break through from beneath her mother’s hand-stitched dresses and expectations. My mother recognized my depth, the passion we shared which she knew I would struggle to contain. She would often tell me that I would grow up to do great things, but whenever I failed, she always seemed to love me just the same.
There are glimpses of time I spent with my mother, but they are mostly crammed into short spurts of memory and the passage of time. My earliest formed memory contains no defined lines, just the feeling and the sound of her chest rising and falling beneath the weight of my infant head, the sound of her heartbeat comforting after she returned home from work late in the evenings. There are other memories, some far too expansive and brilliant in Polaroid-color to capture in the few words this blog post can adequately contain.
There were six children total in our family, all staggered in development and age. While my older brother was moving out for college at the age of 18, the baby of our family, Zach, was crying in the front yard, barely two and inconsolable as his biggest hero pulled out of the driveway. My sister and I are stuck in between the two living boys, three years apart from each other to the very day.
There were two more babies, our brothers, Ronald and Brandon, both with the middle name Wayne. My mother had carried both of them to full-term. They were healthy, fully developed babies with thick heads of dark, black hair, yet beneath their perfectly soft, delicate skin were lungs that had not developed to survive more than a few hours that day. My mother had no idea until they came into the world the ways in which her life would never be the same. There are faint pieces of the story she told of these days with so much incomprehensible pain.
“They didn’t sound like babies when they cried,” she would say. “It had sounded like a little bird was chirping in the room.”
As a grown woman approaching my 40’s, I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. Not to be transformed only once by the loss of an infant, but to turn around and experience it all over again, a nightmare threatening you for a lifetime as it crumbles every inch of your heart with weathered gravestones bearing haunting inscriptions of names you expected to see at the top of school papers, artwork, and carved into desks and on the trunks of trees. I never once heard my father mention the babies, but you could tell that he wore them in a place deep within his soul where he had closed them up and thrown away the key. Over time, it would breed a sense of fear and anxiety, a depression enveloping him in dreams that he couldn’t bear not to dream.
“Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?”
“Yes, all of the time.”
“…so here I am going in labor and your sister asks, ‘Where are my party hats?'”
It was my older sister’s luck that I was born on her third birthday, an age when party hats are more instrumental to God’s divine plan than the birth of a human child. To my mother’s recollection, I had a head of dark hair, and, next to my older brother, Jim, I was the prettiest baby she had ever seen. My mother always remarked how Jim was pretty enough to be a girl, and she was right. Decades later, Jim has his own little girl, she is beautiful, and they look exactly the same.
My mother will turn 70-years-old this fall. My father will have been buried only a little over nine years ago. No longer am I the little girl needing the companionship of my best friend to roam treacherous hallways; I have grown to navigate the world alone, somehow gaining the confidence to know where I’m going while understanding the purpose of where I have already been.
The stories we have told–our experiences as a family–are starting to make their way up to the surface again. They always come exactly the same, first in gentle waves which slowly start to build until I feel the urge search again. I dig my toes deeply into the earth, bringing the memories out of where I had buried them in the sand. They are kept in a misshapen little box I constructed so long ago, which always looks a little beaten and older than the time I visited it before. Some of the memories I will remove, finding the kind of strength and deep-rooted love it takes to write them all down. Others I will set to sail in the breeze, letting them land amongst the thistles to rest for eternity like the ghosts of old friends.
Still, other stories, I will keep for myself, turning them over to examine their curious features once again, deciding that I’m not ready to make sense of them before placing them safely back into their box and burying them back into the sand. But, I have a ways to go before then. I’m just getting started. I can see the wave coming, perhaps the biggest one yet, and as it starts to rise, darkening my skin in the shadow of its wake, I’ll hold on tightly to my memories, hoping that if it threatens to take me down, like always, I will remain.