The only memories I am tempted to keep are the beauty of the big sky of my childhood and the thrill of swinging as high as I can. But then I am reminded that the sky is still up there being blue or gray, smooth or rippled or frothy or dense, or star-struck black or flamingly or tenderly orange, pink, lavender, scarlet. No need to hang on to that. So I’ll remember the sweet sensation of swinging, the delicious fear at the moment of weightlessness when everything in my body realigns and then plummets down and improbably flies up again. I won’t have that again, not at my age, so that’s what I’ll keep.
And I can’t forget the feeling of falling from a speeding car, that story, so often told: my brother’s warning disregarded, the suicide doors that opened the wrong way into the rush of oncoming air, a spotty recollection of the shaky old town doctor’s face. My mother horrified to find one hank of my hair sheared off by the tires an inch from my head. But it grew back. All that is left now are the small scars in the fullest arch of my eyebrows where gravel was embedded and then removed, oddly symmetrical. All that matters now is the whoosh into blackness, sound and sensation at once, which I half expect to feel again at the hour of my death, if I am there at all to feel anything.
When I woke up today, having lost any use for my childhood, I wondered at first if I’d had a stroke or some other treacherous physical event, but I felt just as strong as yesterday, both sides working, check, could name the president, poor fellow, with some confidence when I quizzed myself. I know what year it is and the month, though I’m not clear on whether it is Saturday or Sunday, April 14 or 15. I know it is day 72, so I could figure it out if I needed to. Sacramento, California, in my own tangled bed with my lazy cat Bones sleeping like a doorstop next to my shins. Zip code, check. So not what my mother and her cronies at the senior residence used to call “losing it,” always pronounced with a sidelong prissy face, wide-eyed, aghast, emphasizing the euphemistic use of the term, so that the listener is fully aware in imagination of the shameful drooling, shitty diapers, stinking clothes, incoherent muttering, incompetence, helplessness, cries in the night, and constant fear lurking behind the phrase. I hadn’t “lost it” in the night. I had just set something aside and woke up relieved and unburdened.
Of course my father and mother died. They would be well over a hundred and ten if they were alive today, which would be the real tragedy. Some others have fallen away, too, disappeared, no longer available for a quick chat or a long evening of shared comfort. What else could we have expected? Only childhood lasts forever, while it lasts. Everything else is fleeting. Nice word, fleeting. Reminds me of startled deer, no matter where I was when I saw them or how old, no matter who was with me or what feeling I was treasuring at the time. It’s how deer are all the time. Like the deer that filed into the cemetery at dusk, out of the dark forest, seeming to spring up from the ground between the gravestones as our eyes discerned more and more of them, then another, until a boy or a dog ran at them and they flickered away, and some stopped, looking back, and waited for the adrenaline to subside, then lowered their heads to munch again from the grass that grows over the dead.
I wondered what I would do with my newfound insouciance, this born-again day that now belonged to the present, or at least recent, me without the background hum and chatter of my same old story. A new day! I fumbled around for my glasses and looked at the bedside clock, half hidden behind the book you left there, and then I left there where you had set it, and saw that it was almost 10 o’clock. I started to feel dismay— my new day and I had wasted two hours when I would or should or could have been awake doing something, but what? What duty did I owe? What obligation did I have? Who needed me to manage? Who was keeping score at this point, ready to praise or scorn? Judge, jury, prosecutor, defender, witnesses, all gone.
Ten o’clock and I wanted my coffee. I made it for myself. Such a happy thing to know what one wants and have it so easily and pleasantly achieved. How simple to do one thing.
After I’d sipped and reheated and re-sipped from my favorite cup, the blue one you gave me, our neighbor Bob rang the doorbell. He always used to ask for you, and you would go out onto the porch and listen to his story, and then I would go out and listen to a recap, which moved things along because I was better at saying yes or no. Bob borrows things, and when he returns them, he repays the favor with tickets to events I would never choose to attend—the Home Show at the fairgrounds, a junior high school jazz ensemble concert, a Lions Club pancake breakfast—or coupons for food items I don’t buy. Discounts on water purifying systems or full-body wax treatments. Thanks, Bob, I would always say. Fifty percent off!
I hadn’t seen much of him since several weeks ago, on day ten, when he popped his head over the fence and said, “Condolences, if there’s anything I can do.” And then he was gone and I went into my empty house. This morning, day seventy-two, the 14th or 15th of April, he wanted to borrow my laundry basket. He had left his at the laundromat, he explained apologetically, and then there was a long story about his washer or dryer or both being on the fritz and sealing rings and the trunk latch on his SUV and some other stuff that happened that he seemed compelled to relate, as though you were standing on the porch with us, your head cocked to one side, nodding.
“No,” I said. “No can do.” I interrupted him, and he was more disconcerted by not getting to finish his story than by my refusal. I wondered if someday I might break away from the need for narrative entirely. Events would float free instead of being linked together and annotated in my brain, moored to experience. Cause and effect could operate without my participation. If that’s really how everything works, it doesn’t need me.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Bob said. “I shouldn’t have asked.” His earnest half-apologetic face was fascinating. I felt an impulse to put my arms around him, not to comfort him, not even to comfort myself, just to see what it would feel like, if the thickness of his chest would be nice to squeeze, if he would seem more real that way, but I didn’t do it. I hadn’t lost my mind, just my childhood.
“I know I ask too much,” he said. “That’s probably why I’m not married anymore! Story of my life!” he said, but he didn’t leave. He just stood there with his doggy brown eyes all sad and his shoulders drooping to signify defeat and invite either abuse or compassion, or possibly some combination. I couldn’t offer either one. But this day, day 72, I found him strangely interesting, as though I had not had a similar conversation with him at least once a month for about ten years, which if you do the arithmetic, comes out to 120 iterations of the same sort of transaction. Plus another 120 when he came around to repay the favor with the unwanted ticket or coupon, like showing up at the bank with Monopoly money expecting to make a deposit. And here he was on my doorstep again, evidently wanting to tell me the story of his life on the same day I had started walking away from my own.
I was tempted to ask him in, sit him down, and get the details. What happened first? How often was she drunk? How did you know? Did she make you Halloween costumes? Did she fix your lunch every day or only on the good days? How old were you when you quit believing him? What was the first lie you recognized? How much did it hurt? What did they give you? What did you want? What did you take? What kind of car? Why her? Why her and not her friend? What song was on the radio? What were you scared of? What next? And then? What then?
Instead, I closed the door.
Later, I made two small pound cakes and took one over to Bob, something I had never done before. It was something to do. He was on the phone when he answered the door, so I just pushed the plate into his free hand and left, ignoring his efforts to telegraph whatever he had to say—thanks, no thanks, what’s the story here, be right with you—with looks and gestures while continuing his conversation.
Bob seemed to be the only person in my life on day 72. But the day was fairly young—noonish, I supposed, though I didn’t care enough to check. To an outside observer, it might have looked like a typical day for a somewhat erratic old woman. It was exciting to realize that there was no outside observer, no notetaker, no clip-boarded evaluation, no one to decide what it meant if I ran my hand over Bob’s nicely furred forearm, or spat in his eye, for that matter, though he would have had an opinion about it, no doubt. I’m not crazy.
As I sat out on my deck then, feet up on the railing, enjoying my slice of pound cake still warm from the oven, and my second or third cup of coffee, I started thinking; it was almost frightening the amount of thinking that could happen in a split second. Everything was up for grabs. I thought maybe I should have a plan. Maybe I should learn to dance, but not ballroom dance because I don’t have a partner. But even when you were alive, you wouldn’t, couldn’t dance, so not having a partner would be the same as then, and I am having a new day. Maybe I should dance in my living room to whatever the radio is playing. Maybe I don’t have favorite songs anymore. I thought about the sunlight coming through the red flowers in my other neighbor’s yard, an accidental gift to me at this time of day, only at this time of year, and it quieted the squawking in my head. I wiggled my feet back and forth, making a kind of Charleston against the railing, feeling my ankles creak and bend. I wanted to cry, then I didn’t want to cry. I wished I had a pencil and paper. I granted my own wish by bringing out a tablet and a pen along with a refill on the coffee, which by this time had induced a pretty intense buzz. I drew a rose on the page, a full-blown rose like the ones blooming in the yard. I couldn’t think of any sentences to write on the paper, so I wrote words like bird, sky, red, salty, listing things that made me happy.
Then I napped right there in my deck chair in spite of the caffeine, and woke up some time later needing to stretch the stiffness out of my legs and my back. I might have dreamed something, but I couldn’t remember and didn’t care. I’d probably dream it again if it was important. The rest of the day I was less giddy and more purposeful, as though I had been making a master list of everything instead of doodling. Everyday things. Things I ordinarily thought of as taking too long or being too weird or needing to be talked over with someone else.
I wandered around my little house for a while, peering with interest at all the pictures we had put on the walls, looking for a theme, which I failed to find. Birds in the desert, portrait of a seashell, Japanese trees, cowboys, cityscape, squares, map of an island, a house. All of these so carefully selected over a lifetime, curated, moved from our apartment downtown to our house on Mapes Street to this house and arranged with much discussion, and this is what it comes to. I took down the oil painting by my Aunt Lydia, a mountain evidently being destroyed by slashes of angry paint. I had never much liked the look of it, though I adored Aunt Lydia for being a painter. I stuck it behind the piano. I liked the wall better with only the faintest difference in color to show where the painting had been, its shape rather than its substance now the thing that mattered, though it didn’t matter much. Then I pulled it back out from behind the piano and took it out to the trash, stepping over Bones on the sunny porch. I might need the space behind the piano for something else.
It was a day like no other, periods of frenetic activity punctuated with long blank silent spells spent watching Bones sleep in the sun, studying the sky through a window, or looking at nothing. It was as though I had nothing left to measure with; good and bad ideas seemed interchangeable. I could sweep through this day on the wind of whatever was blowing—whim, vision, desire, chance—because the pull and push of longing, the stark, hopeless longing of childhood, had died away. The blankness where it had been was such a relief, I could almost lean on it.
I wonder what will be next to release its grip on me, now that childhood is gone. Next I might let my youth float away, all the strange events that shook or shaped or splintered me, all the efforts to deserve adulthood, the rebellions, the covert summoning and hoarding of self-esteem. The sexual confusions and ambitions and competitions. The candles, the lipstick, the lies, the formless sorrows of the child dragged forward into time. With all of that out of the way, it will be time to loosen my grip on my children’s childhoods, my uneasy mothering, my loss of me, my loss of them, one event after another set in the invisible matrix of the ordinary, phases of the moon that do not repeat, not in this lifetime.
All that will be left then is the story of us, as finished as any story in the world. Perhaps when I wake up tomorrow or in a week or two or in a year, I will find that our story no longer matters. But not today. Not on day seventy-two.