My mother called me on the phone and said, without preamble, “We’ve got to do something. Toni’s leaving Jamie all alone at the fire station.”*
I didn’t know what to say when she added, “Jamie’s only eight,” as if I didn’t know that. “Too young to be left alone,” she continued, as if I didn’t know that, as well.
“And Toni’s out for hours on calls with those firefighters.”
I hadn’t known that. I wasn’t sure I could bear knowing it: how much pain my sister and my nephew must be in: old pain, new pain. I didn’t know what to say—Fuck, I thought—but the words that came out of my mouth were: “Focus on the positive.”
A few months earlier, my older sister, Toni, had been burning trash in a barrel outside her house. The grass caught on fire, and she called the local fire station. The lawn ended up as toast, but the firemen saved the house, and they rescued Toni, as well. She didn’t say that last part, but I surmised it from how often she repeated the story.
The firemen arrived wearing their big boots, and they unspooled their long hoses from the tanker truck, but it was their good-natured mockery and filthy language that provided the lifeline she needed.
Toni had just divorced her husband, Michael, because his post-car-crash, brain-damaged self was most emphatically not the person she had married. Michael had disappeared after the divorce—no trace—although someone said he might be in Texas. Their tobacco fields stood empty but for thistles and pokeweed, and Jamie, their son, sat alone on the seat of their tractor every day, where he used to feel the warmth of the engine beneath him and the pulse of his father’s heart behind him.
When you have to deal with all that, and then you set your own yard on fire, I bet it’s virtually impossible to trust anyone who does not use the word “fuck” liberally.
My mother called me the next day and said, “She did it again. She left Jamie last night, and he called me. He called me from the firehouse and said, ‘Grandma, I’m scared.’”
I covered my mouth with my hand and closed my eyes.
“What am we going to do?” my mother said.
I thought: Why are you asking me this? You’re the social worker.
My parents had divorced in the mid-seventies when I was in sixth grade. My mother’s salary as a secretary didn’t cover the basic bills, so she went back to school to complete her college degree and then got a Master’s in Social Work.
I wasn’t that far out of college when she called about my sister. I had majored in English. What did I know? Stories, that’s all. Not how to save a family. It didn’t occur to me, then, that stories—the right stories—might be the only way to save a family. I didn’t know, either, that the wrong story could destroy a family.
I also never considered suggesting that my mother turn to her well-trained colleagues for assistance. Back in the early days, my mother had asked me to chip in when finances were tight, and I had dutifully handed over the quarters and dollars I earned babysitting. I tried to give my mother everything she asked for. Her burdens were many, she frequently explained, and I didn’t want to add to them. I was a good girl.
My sister Toni hadn’t always been that. My mother had sent her to live with our father when she was fifteen—something about a boy in her room. I made up for my lost time with Toni by attending the same college. For two years, at least, she and I lived together in the same house on campus.
Did my mother call me because she expected me to know something about Toni that she didn’t? She, the doting grandmother, lived nearby and saw them all the time. I had moved away from the DC area by then. The only context I had was my memory.
I thought of Toni, so tired the day her son Jamie was born, her face softer than I had ever seen it. I remembered my brother-in-law, Michael, so proud and jacked up on adrenaline that day. If we had been surprised—and we weren’t—that my white sister had married a black man who hadn’t made it to high school and earned a living driving a bread truck and growing tobacco, then Michael was even more surprised to find himself in the birthing room with her while she labored to deliver their son into his enormous and, by his own admission, trembling hands. He had been so wired that, afterwards, while he and I squatted in the hallway outside the delivery room, grinning like idiots and leaning against the wall, he ate two cigarettes—he smoked them, but it happened so fast, he might well have eaten them—and all he could say was, “Toni worked, you know? I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as that.”
My mother pressed against those thoughts: “What should I do? What should I tell Toni?”
And I thought about how Jamie used to ride the tractor with Michael, falling asleep on his lap as they pulled the disc between the rows of tobacco, and I remembered thinking that only death would separate Michael from his son, his love for that boy was so fierce, but I hadn’t known then, none of us did, about brain damage.
I thought about my sister, who had been strong, so strong, when other people—when I—would have crumpled. I thought about my sister, who had found refuge with the same sort of men who had pulled Michael from the twisted wreck of metal and glass that had been his car, with the kind of men who had saved Michael’s life but could not save the Michael that we all knew, the Michael that we all loved.
I thought about what it would mean for my sister and her son to lose each other after they had already lost too much. Maybe I also thought about myself. Maybe I was being selfish, not wanting to be the one to tell the hard truth, to judge, to be responsible for whatever would come next.
What did my mother want me to say?
As a social worker, she had developed a gift for connecting with struggling teenaged black boys. Her devotion to her clients was unending. Any of them could call her anytime, and they often did, even after they were no longer officially hers to counsel. All of her clients kept in touch with her until they died.
Every last one of them died before they made it to twenty.
Some were shot. Some overdosed. One was hit by a train. All of them had been taken from their families for reasons my mother found unpersuasive. She believed in family preservation. When the boys got into trouble in their placements—foster families and group homes—my mother would step in to help. She would coach them on how to manage a job interview, or she would play Connect Four a hundred times while she waited for them to say what they needed to say. My mother bound herself to her boys with the promise that she would always be there for them.
I was beginning to suspect that, at home, her love was conditional, but even so, I admired her dedication to her clients.
When she wavered, I reminded her: “Focus on the positive. Be there. Let Toni know you are there for her.”
But my mother called, again and again and again, and it wasn’t good—the news. “I don’t know if I can support Toni in this. She’s at the fire station all the time,” she said.
And I said, “Then be there for Jamie.”
“Focus on the good,” I said, the next time. “Start there and build.”
“Focus on the good,” I said, the next time and the next. “You can do this, Mom. This is what you’re trained for. This is what you’re good at.” I said these things as if I knew something, as if I knew anything, as if my conviction would make them true.
Once, I panicked.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Jamie wasn’t safe. I couldn’t see them with my own eyes. I wasn’t there. So I said to my mother, just once, “I don’t know. Maybe you should get Jamie out. Maybe you should call social services.”
But after I had slept on it, or, after a night of not sleeping had passed, I called my mother back and said, “No, just build on the positive. Keep on being there. That will be enough.”
And my mother was there, and it was enough. It may not have been everything, but it was enough.
The day after my brother-in-law woke from his coma, Toni brought the ICU nurses a watermelon from her garden. The woman at the front desk immediately waved Toni through the double doors into the white-walled part of the hospital. Jamie, who was five years old then, had already staked out chairs in the ICU waiting room. We never watched Toni disappear down that sterile hallway. Jamie would sling his backpack onto the green and orange carpet, dig out the box of cards, and pass them over to me. I always shuffled the deck. His hands were still too small, with dimples instead of knuckles, still soft with the knowledge that his father was capable of anything, including surviving a head-on car crash.
I had once seen Michael lift a ride-on lawnmower into the back of his pickup truck. While I knew that his jaw-dropping strength had been built when he was a boy laboring with his twelve siblings in his father’s tobacco fields, I understood that it was more than sheer muscle that had overcome the power of gravity. It was will.
Just as it was will that helped him rise at three in the morning to deliver Sunbeam bread to the grocery stores and fast food joints in downtown Washington, DC. He met my sister while making a delivery to the restaurant where she worked summers during college. After the day’s deliveries were made, he went to a construction job.
He had been surviving on about four hours of sleep—until he nodded off at the wheel. His car drifted across the centerline and collided with another vehicle. The other driver broke his leg. My brother-in-law’s head smashed into the dashboard. He had been alive but comatose when the ambulance brought him in.
On our first day of vigil at the hospital, I shuffled the deck and gave Jamie half, and we doled out the cards, all of them, face down in neat rows across the seats of our two chairs. I thought I had thrown the first game or two on purpose, but Jamie beat me every time thereafter, so I can’t be sure. He would raise his eyebrows when he won, but I made a point of suffering my losses with an excess of drama, distraction being the other name of the game.
On the second day, I made more effort to win. And still, I lost. Jamie found the two bananas when I knew—I was sure I knew!—where they were.
On the fourth day, Michael squeezed Toni’s finger, and I still lost. The diamond ring. The bear in a car. The location of their mates was always somewhere on the periphery of my memory, just out of my grasp, and when I turned over the monkey instead, Jamie would grin, knowing, of course, where the other monkey was waiting.
Jamie and I continued to play Memory every day, all day, without a break except when one of us needed to pee. We’d both go at the same time, just to keep the other one honest.
Then my sister’s husband woke up, and he was a different man, saying and doing things that would have embarrassed his old self. I had thought my brother-in-law’s waking was the goal, but it wasn’t.
I had to go back home then, back to Charlottesville to work for a few days.
My mother had called, the day of the accident, and she had said, “Toni needs you. We need you. Can you come? Michael can’t die. He just can’t die.”
I heard, “Save him. Save her. Save us.”
But all I could do was lose at Memory. Lose, over and over and over.
I made a habit of coming up on my days off. I stopped asking my sister if she needed me because it seemed to embarrass her to say yes, so I just showed up. We—I—still had a lot to learn about traumatic brain injury and about the limits of one’s ability to save oneself let alone anyone else, but I couldn’t imagine my sister having to go through those days alone. Not that she was weak—far from it—but it was in my power to be there, so that is what I did.
We ran errands together, shopping for groceries and stopping by the local elementary school to register Jamie for kindergarten. I folded her laundry and swept her floors. We managed to crack a few jokes. She never broke down. I did, but only when I called my boyfriend each evening to tell him what had changed, or, more often, what hadn’t. I drove my sister to the various hospitals as her husband was moved around. Eventually, I took to leaving her my Toyota Tercel during the week, and I drove their F350 pickup—sans lawnmower—when I went back home to Charlottesville so she wouldn’t have to use a month’s worth of rent on gas, driving back and forth to the hospital while I was gone.
I continued to play Memory with Jamie when I was there, and I continued to lose.
One day, after we were back from the hospital and Toni was making dinner, I saw Jamie outside, pushing around an old red two-wheeled bike.
“Jamie!” I shouted. “What are you doing? Why don’t you ride that thing?”
“I don’t know how,” he said back.
I put my shoes on and spent the rest of the evening in that awkward running-while-bent-over-sideways-to-hold-the-back-of-the-seat-while-the-kid-pedals-like-a-madman position. And he got it, as kids always do, even though the bike had no brakes and he had to fall over to stop. When Jamie pedaled away from me the first time, I made a fool of myself, shouting and clapping and pumping my fist. It was a miracle of achievement and freedom, and after a few more solo rides, it was as mundane as the dirt under his tires, the way learning to ride a two-wheeler always is.
But when we both banged in through the door and Jamie told Toni that he’d learned to ride his bike all by himself, she looked at me over his shoulder while she was hugging him to her, and I thought I might have overstepped my bounds.
Toni didn’t talk about how she felt. I didn’t ask.
Back when our parents were divorcing—I had been eleven; Toni, thirteen; our other sister, Catherine, nine—my mother insisted that we all “share our feelings.” Meaning: talk about how much we hated our father for leaving. I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt, but I knew it wasn’t how my mother wanted me to feel. My ambivalence—or it might have been an affinity for nuance—did not mesh with her stark world of black or white, good or bad. It would have been risky to admit that my experience was different from hers, and besides, all she did was sob continuously and play the same Barbra Streisand record over and over. I couldn’t see how that helped, so I took on, somewhat defensively, the notion that people would share their feelings when they damn well pleased, and, until then, I wasn’t going to press.
I loved my family. All of them. Even though I couldn’t say so directly, I always thought my presence, my actions, would communicate my feelings more effectively than words ever could.
Months after Michael’s accident, Toni did thank me over the phone. “Thank you,” she said. “For—you know.”
“Oh,” I said, trying not to embarrass her or myself by crying, “It was no big deal. I was happy to. Well, not happy. You know what I mean.”
“I’ll never be able to repay you,” she said, and that struck me as odd, that there might be some sort of ledger.
“Well,” I stammered. “I hope you won’t ever have to.”
Years later, after Toni had officially become a firefighter and Jamie was almost in high school, I was back in DC for a family visit, and I made some mention of all those games of Memory. I was boasting mostly, as a proud aunt will, about how smart Jamie was, about how he had outplayed me.
I was the only one who had moved away, to New England and then to the West, a choice that my mother took as a rejection of her, personally, and of the diverse population of DC, generally. I hungered for wilderness and solitude—unfathomable to my mother—but I also missed those times when we were all together. Part of what I was saying was: I had been there, too. I had been needed.
My younger sister Catherine interrupted me and said, “I played Memory with Jamie. That was me.”
I didn’t doubt that she had. Memory had been Jamie’s favorite game at the time, and there was a good chance that she—or anyone—would have played with him when they were visiting, which we all did as often as we could that summer.
“Yes,” I said, “but I don’t think anyone could have played as many games as we did those first few weeks,” and I looked to Jamie to confirm this.
“That was Catherine,” he said. His adolescent hands weren’t dimpled anymore, but his face still held a gentleness that would forever draw people to him, especially children.
It had been a traumatic time, and he had only been five years old then. It would be easy to forget, to conflate my younger sister and me. So why did I feel a flighty rush behind my breastbone?
I caught my mother’s eye then. Or, more accurately, I was caught by it—pinned by the look on her face. There is nothing physically sharp about her, but her expression was piercing and triumphant, as if she were a hawk whose prey had just flushed, and she was relishing what would follow—not just the meal, but the kill. Was I being punished? What had I done?
I should have just left it there, but I felt a kind of panic, a need to stake a claim—I had been there; my then-boyfriend-now-husband had been, too, and he remembered—so I pressed. “Well, I taught Jamie how to ride his bike,” I said.
And again, my younger sister said, “No. I did that. I taught him.”
Recently, I was sitting in my living room in New Hampshire, and I felt a deep shaking roar in my body. I assumed that my seventeen-year-old son had put his big stinky sneakers in the washer and the machine had gotten off balance and was lurching across the basement, but then I felt the rumble right under my feet, and the sound was deeper, so much deeper than I first thought. It sheared off toward the back porch, rising in pitch, and then stopped.
My mind sought a familiar explanation. Had a big truck just driven up the hill by our house? Had a jet flown overhead?
My husband came into the room. “Was that an earthquake?” he asked, and once I heard the word, I knew that it could only have been an earthquake.
I felt a thrill of wonder as concept and experience converged.
Another time, my husband and I were walking our dog in the woods, and there was a pause, as if the earth had stopped breathing. In that suspended moment, I checked over my shoulder to see where he and the dog were at the same time that I had an urge to brace myself for… I didn’t know what. I only knew something was coming. I would have said a wave, but we were nowhere near the ocean. And then we heard it: a crashing rumble.
Again, we turned to mundane explanations and settled on a plow truck dropping its blade and pushing it up the road. But while there had been a dusting of snow that morning, there hadn’t been enough accumulation to warrant a plowing. It didn’t make sense, but we accepted it until the news reported the earthquake—ah, of course.
It’s just not in our nature to go there first—that the earth upon which we stand, the earth that we have relied on to be there for us, can shift in ways that are hard for our minds to grasp. But sometimes what has been still judders into motion. Just because it hasn’t moved doesn’t mean it can’t. Outlines can blur, and reality can shift. Who is to say what is real when there are conflicting stories? When memory collides instead of converges with experience?
Does it matter?
“No,” I had said, back then with my family in DC. “I was there. I taught Jamie to ride. It was me and him. I remember.”
My heart raced as I spoke, as I saw myself running and running, holding that seat and then letting it go. I saw Jamie’s face when he fell, and I remembered my determination that we would keep at it, that we wouldn’t end on a note of defeat or despair.
The world spun, or maybe it was just me.
My mother’s eyes flashed, cold blue. Voracious. I wasn’t quite sure what she was hungry for.
“Catherine is the biker in the family,” my mother said, which was true—Catherine had cycled across the country with her boyfriend one summer during college—but how was that relevant?
Did it really matter who taught Jamie to ride? The goal had been achieved. From that day forward, he had zoomed all over as if he had been born riding a bike. For me to argue seemed pointless and selfish.
This is the story I settled on: Jamie learned to ride his bike. It wasn’t about me. It didn’t matter if my part had been written out of the story, although I never doubted my memory of that day. I still don’t.
But I didn’t understand, then, how important memory is, for how do we know who we are without memory? How does anyone else know who we are, but for their memories of us?
There is a story—I don’t know if it’s true… But wait, of course it is. Any story speaks some kind of truth, even if it is only that the particular words coming out of someone’s mouth reveal something of the teller. The story begins like this:
There was a tribe in Africa where each pregnant woman sang to her baby as it grew in her belly. The pregnant mother sang a new song for each baby, a song that she listened for in her dreams, when she was working in the fields, when she was walking the path to the river. Once she knew the song well, the pregnant woman taught the song to the rest of the village. When she was laboring to give birth, the midwives and her mother and sisters would gather about her and sing the song to welcome the child into the world: This is who you are. This is where you belong.
Can you imagine? But there’s more:
If, at any time during the child’s life, he lost his way—had some crisis—the tribe’s solution was to gather about him and sing to him his own song, the one that reminded him: This is who you are. This is where you belong.
There is, potentially, a dark side to this story. What if the mother gets it wrong? What if she forgets the song? What if the song she sings reflects her own heart more than that of the child?
A year ago, I called my mother.
I said, “Remember when Toni was having a hard time with Jamie and you called me for help?”
“Did you tell her?” I asked. “It’s not a big deal. I just need to know.”
I had never spoken to Toni about that time. Not during it. Not after it. I had always assumed that my mother hadn’t told her about our conversations, but a gulf had grown between my sister and me. It seemed more than geographical.
“Did you tell her that you talked to me?” I asked my mother. That would explain a lot.
The silence on the phone continued.
It was quite possible that my mother wouldn’t remember.
Finally, my mother spoke. “Well,” she said, and I could hear her intake of breath, the one where her nostrils pinched and her lip curled, the one she took whenever I stepped out of acceptable bounds, whenever my experience did not fit into her desired narrative. Whenever she was disgusted with me. “Well,” she spat. “You said we should take Jamie out of the home.”
There could be no argument, no defense. It was, in a literal sense, true. I had said that.
Sure, she had left out a significant portion of the truth, but in doing so, she had revealed another. That was the one memory my mother cleaved to. That was the song she chose to sing of me. I was still losing at memory.
I held the cell phone out from my ear and looked at it.
“I don’t even know what to say,” I said, which was also true. There was, in fact, nothing more to say.
I believe in focusing on the positive. I believe in family preservation, but I believe, as well, in self-preservation. I no longer listen for my mother’s song because I’ve finally realized it is not about me.
I have my own song now. I hear it in my husband’s voice, and in my children’s, too. And if I forget, if I become lost or confused, all I need to do is listen to them, and I will hear all of the love that I have for my family reflected back to me. Here, they say. You belong here.
Names have been changed.