(This is a reprise from 2011. I’m reposting it in part because I’ve been involved with several virtual friends, and at one website, about the notion of ‘grace’. Additionally, there are a couple people at Firedoglake that may find the vignette at least somewhat helpful; peace to you.)
She sat on the bed in her sister’s room. Linda had left for college a few weeks before, and she had finally been allowed to move into her large lavender room with the ruffled curtains framing the picture windows that looked out onto East Twin Lake. As she watched, the occasional Sailfish or Sunfish skimmed along the glassy surface, carefree as the white geese that would beat their wings backwards floop, floop while they breezed over the surface of the water, as if hoping for a soft landing. She could see the pond lilies on the near edge of the lake, and remembered once rowing a boat near to them, then carefully diving among the mass of round green pads to harvest some of them for her mother. Once home again, she filled a wide, etched glass bowl with water, floated the lilies on top, and placed them in the center of the dining room table. Was there an unconscious desire that it could act as a shrine to her loving apology to her parents? Perhaps.
Their layers of waxy white petals and enormous golden pollen-encrusted stamens sang to her of China somehow, or Japan; their long roots grabbed at her as she tried to float above and among them to steal their treasures, then clutched their stems in her teeth and behind her ears and swam them back to the little boat. Later in life, she would learn of the Buddhist parable that the more muck and mud these flowers grew through, the larger and more magnificent they were. The parable stayed with her forever.
Even her early life had been filled with irony, such as when the fusspot Marcella Parsons next door had seen them, and just had to tell her mother that it was a crime to pick them, and that she could go to jail, as though she were ready to make the call herself. But then, Mrs. Parsons loathed her for not dating her creepy son, and calling him a football head in seventh grade. She blushed at her past cruelty, but admitted to herself that she still thought he was a football head at sixteen.
A week ago her father had had a third heart attack, and was still in the hospital in Ravenna. The day before, she and her best friend Judy had just smuggled in the Arby’s sandwich and Jamocha shake he had begged her to bring him when they spoke on the phone earlier.
When they’d gone into his hospital room, her heart had broken in two. Her bearish six-foot-three father looked so small in the big white hospital bed, the top half cranked up to a semi-sitting position. Gowned in a flimsy white smock, dark circles under his eyes, his face had a pallor she’d never seen him wear before. Well, except for the other two heart attacks, she then recalled. But somehow this was different.
He’d tried a bit of smile, but it looked almost sheepish, rather than brave, as he’d surely intended. They’d stayed long enough for him to consume the contraband food; she’d hoped it wouldn’t kill him. She and her father made a pact to keep their secret from her mother, pretending it was a joke. They both knew it really wasn’t.
They’d made small talk in that nervous way hospital visits induce; God, she loathed hospitals. How many Christmases and Thanksgivings had her family spent in one hospital or another over the years? Of course she knew it had to have been coincidental that her grandparents would have medical emergencies on so many holidays, but it seemed to stretch the bounds of credulity somehow. She’d even familiarized herself with large hospitals well enough to feel comfortable spooking around them to find the nurseries; they were at least happier places within the halls of sickness, misery, and harsh smells.
As they drove home to Kent, Judy chattered away, but she scarcely heard her. She had suddenly realized that with this heart attack, her father looked worse to her, more fragile, and less guaranteed to live. She could still smell of the fear in the room, both hers and his. It had blended with the antiseptic hospital odors and made her stomach roil; she lit a cigarette to push both the scents and the awareness away.
Safe back at home, she unlocked the awkward combination front door lock, push-in-7-3-4-2- twists, oh, help me, and let herself in. Her mother was gone, but no note was on the kitchen counter.
She hurried down the pale carpeted stairs, flew to her newly purloined room, and sat on the bed, absently feeling the texture of the floral bedspread with her fingers. Not her bed, but Linda’s; her own was in the tiny cave of a room across the hall, with one tiny window on the world: a short stretch of the neighbor’s block foundation and a few white boards. She almost headed for the little womb of a room, but instead sat frozen as memories flooded in, her face burning with shame and injustice, and the familiar sense of being considered…a bad seed, the problem daughter. Still-frames of her mother’s accusing face fairly screaming at her last night filled her mind, her body…and then the feeling of the blood draining from her head into her legs in shock and bewilderment washed over her again in waves.
Her mind kept seeing a close-up of her mother’s deep read lipstick as her lips and teeth spat out accusations that it was all her fault that her daddy’d had this heart attack because she’d been late getting home from a date some night earlier, and that his anger or worry caused his heart to go frazzled…or something. Backlit by the light in the hall where she stood, her short curly hair created a halo of electric hatred and…insanity, although she didn’t know to call it that in her young mind.
The images pulled her back into the familiar hole; its name was Despair, though she didn’t know it then. She could sense, rather than see, its edges and shape; feel the rough texture of its walls as she crouched and waited, her eyes squeezed shut, trying to hide from the many accusing voices in her head.
Glimpses of the past scrolled by: her mother’s car accident injuries; the failure of the doctors to discover any cause for her wild pain; hints that she was conjuring it up for attention. ‘PsychoCybernetics’; they gave her the books. She’d spent nearly a year in bed while her two daughters had kept the house together, cooked, and answered the little bell she rang for help. Doctors had armed her with bottles and bottles of the yellow and blue and red pills she had eventually become addicted to, and supplemented with bourbon highballs. Even later when some specialist had later found some cracked cervical vertebrae and fused them, she couldn’t get better. Her soul and mind and spirit had been damaged too far by then; the pity of it was immeasurable.
In the hole, the vertical cave, the voices would have at her: a chorus of accusers and malign interpreters of her life; cruel demons who had the power to leave her shuddering with guilt and anguish. She had no idea that they were extreme versions of the critical voices who’d made her feel small and weak in her real life; they came to her when her defenses were down.
Memories of listening to her parents from the bottom step of the staircase crowded in. They had no idea it was her personal intercom for discovering what they really thought about things: resentments, fears, money… Ensconced in their throne-chairs near the widow overlooking the lake, sipping cocktails, she would often hear the litany of lies her mother would invent about her, just making up things out of whole cloth, not that she was any angel, but certainly not much worse than a lot of kids her age. She would long to leap up and refute them, but never could summon the energy, or the nerve. Sometimes she’d even wonder if they might be true. Sometimes she’d get off the stair and go outside the downstairs door to her pot stash, have a few tokes, and go back to her room and turn the music up as loud as it was permitted to be. And she’d read. Books were safe harbors, full of other ways people saw and lived in their portions of the world, she bathed herself in the balm of words and authors and titles and ideas and stories and history, and in the music her clock-radio put out.
Deep in the hole on this particular day, gradually she heard one voice become ascendant over the others in the maelstrom of castigating voices swirling about her. It was not as sharp, an almost reasonable, thus seductive, voice that soon reduced the others to murmurs.
It calmly reasoned with her that as she was the source of tension in the family, the Author of Family Pain and Angst, it naturally followed that if she were gone, her family’s problems would be solved. She considered the notion as the voice continued to make the case; it made sense. She saw the logic of it; almost the relief of it.
She found a pen and paper, and wrote out the explanation of the plan and its elegant reasoning for her parents. She folded it neatly, placed it an envelope, went up the stairs and into her parents’ room and propped it against her mother’s jewelry box. A quick stop by the bathroom provided the tools she’d need: some of those vials of pills – red and blue and yellow; Mother’s little helpers.
She floated down the stairs, swung lazily around the end of the banister and once back in her sister’s room, she perched on the edge of the bed. She clutched the small bottles in her sweaty palm more as one might a talisman than a weapon of self-destruction. Calm had infused her once the solution was laid out before her. She gazed out at the still lake with its reflections of the clouds overhead; it was a rare blue sky day, and all the colors she saw were brighter than usual. She fancied that she could almost see the bright gold in the centers of the pond lilies, and a smile played at the corners of her lips.
Suddenly there was a startling change in her perspective, and her focus was forced onto a tree in the yard. Then came another fluctuation, perhaps generated by the power of the talisman she held, and she was suddenly sitting in the tree and looking at herself through the window, sitting on the bed, ready to commit suicide.
She had read of this phenomenon, astral projection, but was too caught up in the experience to remember what it might mean. She gazed at her other self with a bit of off-hand pity, but compassion, too, that her self on the bed clasping the pills was so tied, so chained…to that freedom-less place of unnecessary agony. Didn’t she know of all the other possibilities that lay beyond? Couldn’t she see how self-aggrandizing it was to imagine herself at the center of her messed up family’s hidden pain and anger? That harmless sixteen-year-old, about to kill herself for want of approval withheld by parents who had had approval denied them, too? A wave of pity for them, and for their own hard and unresolved stories, flowed over her. It was all too ludicrous to bear!
The absurdity of it hit both of her selves at once, and they chuckled together; the chuckles became giggles, then laughter, and finally soul-cleansing flat-out, heads-thrown-back… mirth. They laughed until Astral-Self snapped back into her Linda-room self, the two once again united.
She became aware of her left hand, unfurled her fingers, saw the nasty vials, and said ‘Oh’ in surprised recognition. She went up the stairs, tucked them back into the cupboard, retrieved the note to her parents, and went back downstairs to listen to the radio.
Stepping outside…inside?…she was free. Her attempt at ‘leaving home’ had created at least the hope of creating her own home one day…
In my experience, grace has come as a flashing moment in time, one that leads to an instant epiphany, or at least allows us a glimpse of a better way forward, less encumbered by some of the baggage we’ve toted for too long. It’s source will likely be understood different for all of us; for me? I have no earthly idea of the source of those several moments I’ve experienced; I’ve just accepted them…with gratitude. We are the ones who can stop the generational family dysfunctions, and learn to forgive and love ourselves along the way.
(cross-posted at My.fdl.com)
You do have some beautiful pieces of writing, wendye. I love the waterlilies – my admiration for Monet comes from a New Zealand tour a collection of his paintings did – lines at the Auckland gallery to see them – and they were all waterlilies or haystacks, a huge number of them from different owners gathered together maybe for the first time. Such color and such an effect – I was constantly going up close to look and then back to see the colors bounce off one another like a 3D emergence of instant life – you could feel as if you were the painter himself, stepping back to see, forward to dab, back – he must have been constantly dancing.
No print works this way; only the actual paintings.
With the waterlilies, the merging effects of sky and shadow, trees only visible in the water; with the haystacks the same form changing, ever changing with the change of light, sun moving across. In these, the sun is the dancer.
I did hear that as he aged the blues became more intense. It was supposed to be because his eyes were deteriorating. I suspect it was simply a sign that it was harder to dance. Harder, but not impossible.
Lovely piece, wendye.
ooh, what an imagine of him dancing before his paintings, juliania! i love his lilies, too, and got a package of notecards as a gift. the lilies are pink but i checked, and he did paint some white one, and even blues, too. they are remarkable flowers, and i love the buddhist metaphor. not totally unlike the aphorism: ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, in this case ‘larger’. small wonder that lotus designs are used in meditation, eh? i love the splits in the pads, too, and remember an almost rubbery texture.
and i like your theory on why monet’s blues got more vivid. thanks for reading, ww.
Yes, the buddhist metaphor is lovely, reminds me of TSEliot’s first Quartet –
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
I can’t say what all of that exactly means, but it stays with me, just the images it presents, so very like the paintings.
And here’s another Buber paragraph that affects me the same way:
RELATION IS MUTUAL. My Thou affects me, as I affect it. We are moulded by our pupils and built up by our works. The “bad” man, lightly touched by the holy primary word [I-Thou; Buber always puts it in italics], becomes one who reveals. How we are educated by children and by animals! We live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutual life of the universe.
i can’t quite tell, either, juliania, but the reflection *may* be the essece of what buber is saying there. but that passage is a bit less scrutable to me than some of his others you’ve brought.
i also like the bold sexuality of the lilies, as did georgia o’keefe, no? turns out, the pond lilies are only fertile for one day; ain’t that a knockout?