My niece has a friend in school that’s more of an enemy, but this friend always gets invited, anyway, in spite of the fact that she is a difficult friend for my niece, and a difficult house guest for grown ups. The grown-ups in this house refer to her as Loraina-the-Worst, and while I haven’t met Loraina, I do like a descriptive nickname, and have followed along. My niece, Saffy, insists on her friend remaining her friend, even when the dinner conversation goes like this–
Saffy: “Today at school, Loraina–“
Everyone: “Ohhh noooo! Loraina-the-Worst!”
Saffy: “But Loraina, she–“
Everyone: “What did Loraina-the-Worst do this time?”
And then Saffy will tell us what Loraina-the-Worst did, which is usually something relatively harmless, but under mob rule transforms to something more befitting to maintain Loraina’s -the-Worst title.
Two weeks ago, Saffy came home from school, a little quiet, and spent the afternoon doing homework. When her mother came home, she came downstairs and greeted her, helped her carry groceries, then didn’t complain when asked to unload the dishwasher. Then, when her mother had a stiff drink in front of her and was sitting down, Saffy said,
“Hey, Mom? You know Loraina?”
“Loraina-the-Worst?” my sister and I said in unison.
Saffy nodded and then took a deep, focused breath and said,
“Yes, well, Loraina, remember how a while ago, she was maybe not nice? And remember how she stabbed me with a pencil and it really hurt and I was bleeding, but then she got taken away, and remember she came back and how since then it’s okay now because I said it was okay with her when we were riding on the bus? Remember?”
My sister looked at Saffy, a little surprised, “Um, is it okay now?”
“Yes,” Saffy continued, very assured in her 8-year-old logic, “And because she probably won’t stab me with a pencil again, I was talking to her and she said that she was having a birthday party and that I was invited, and I think that it’s okay that I want to go now, and I was wondering if I can go.”
There was a shocked silence, then my sister said diplomatically, “Have Loraina-the-Worst’s mom call me.”
Loraina-the-Worst’s mom did not call. Everyone was relieved.
I’ve been severed from my parents now for over a year and a half; but as I’m walking my new life of healing, I’ve discovered tributaries of dissent sprouting from the origin of hurt– tributaries that became rivers that dammed in one intersecting moment two July’s ago. One of those tributaries is traced back four years ago. It was our second year in the camper, and I sat in the pull off of an Adirondack town on the shore of Lake George. The view from our spot wasn’t spectacular, but it was free, and caught me in the place of my memory that the enveloping woods of Western Pennsylvania do– deep, melancholy, and comfortable. It was a time of missing every toy I’ve ever owned, as Regina Spektor puts it, and often rewriting the characters of my past in order to create a more peaceful, sensible present.
I spent an hour writing my father a handwritten letter. It was a dumb move, not having a copy, and a dumb move believing that it would stir him in the way it stirred me as I wrote it. I cried until I wept, then pressed it into an envelope. The stand outs, now, are something of–
Sometimes, out here, I am still woken in the night with the fear that someone will smash into the camper while I sleep. I’m not sure I ever will get used to it, but I am doing what I love. It’s what I knew I was supposed to do. Do you think so? Do you ever think of me out here, caught in my transient way? Did you think I would end up like this? Are you proud of me?
What will it take to be your daughter again? I want to have a relationship with you. I want you to call me. I want to know that you are proud and I am loved.
A real gutted vibe, for sure. I waited more than a month, finding out that my timing, as usual, was less than ideal. I’d dropped the letter in a mailbox in Vermont the next day; and he hopped a plane to Haiti to do mission work two days after. He was gone for three weeks. When he returned, I lost my appetite with the waiting. I imagined my letter tucked under heavy machinery catalogs and bids for jobs. I was cross with my Someone. I drank too much. I ate baked beans in bed right out of the pot, hungover and sleeping in a north Boston driveway when the call came in.
“Dad!” I said, brightly to compensate for the feeling of the beans pushing back up.
“Mallory,” he said slowly.
“Yes.” There was a pause. Maybe he hadn’t read it. Maybe Goddess decided instead to lose the letter and deliver results, anyway.
“Ummm, did you get my, um, letter?” I asked. This tipped the conversation to the familiar.
“Yeah, I got it all right– what is this shit?”
I stammered. I tried to repeat my intentions. I tried to recall what it is I wanted. I felt unprepared. I felt like an idiot.
“Yeah, well,” he interrupted, “If I’m going to call you, you better damn answer from now on. All I get is your damn voicemail.”
“But I work late at night and you work early in the morning, we have to–“
“Don’t give me any excuses, and don’t send me this shit, anymore.”
Surprisingly, the rest of the conversation was relatively pleasant. But of course it was. That’s always the way. I became small and inquisitive, asking questions about what he’d done in Haiti, questions that would inevitably let him respond as a hero. I meekly told him where I was parked, feeling ashamed of the kindness of strangers. I agreed again to stop writing stupid letters, and he agreed to try and call me once or twice a year, as I backed my demands down to the minimum.
“Really, it couldn’t have gone better,” I told Bryan later, recounting the good news. “I mean, it could’ve been a lot worse.”
Bryan didn’t say much, only repeating, couldn’t have gone better gently.
“No, but, you don’t understand– that’s just kind of the way he is,” I backed up.
“Mmm-hmm,” Bryan said, not without kindness. “Maybe it’s progress.”
It was the gentleness, that mutual willing suspension of disbelief, that got me wobbly. It was the gentleness that spread itself like a balm on the wound I’d opened as I wrote the letter. It was the gentleness I’d dreamed of– the alternative ending– as I dropped the letter into the mailbox and waited those five weeks. It was a gentleness that made the vulnerability worth it.
When the Big One happened two July’s ago, and I was crying in front of my father, begging him to call me, begging him to see me, to love me, it was not this memory of the letter writing that came to mind. That had already been washed away. It’s the nature of that water to disorient, wash out, make me believe I haven’t tried this route already. I could not remember the many tributaries that surmounted to the breaking of the dam. But as my Someone and I drove over the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, maybe away for the last time from my childhood home, I called Bryan. While I could not remember the tributary, the gentleness of the hand that pulled me from it was imprinted. And the imprint said, “There can be another way.”
There is. It takes stepping away from the deep ruts that have been made, pulling myself out– or being pulled out– of the water that keeps rushing me toward the same dam thing.
This week on our afternoon walk, we found a mouse stuck to a glue trap in the gutter of the street. We stared in disbelief at the small creature, fighting against the cruel, slow death.
“Help!” I cried out, feeling my arms grow thick and slow. “Help!” I said again, unable to process a sentence. My Someone reaching down with a leaf to try and unstick it, but couldn’t. I tried a plastic dog bag and got stuck. Then, we picked up the trap and began walking back to my sister’s house. My brain was not its thinking self, and I felt a wash of response pour out of my mouth–
“We have to put it out of its misery!” I said, gauging the loss of my day, the loss of time, the loss of our second walk against the a small, miserable creature. I was thinking of the blood that was coming from its mouth, the innards falling from its tiny butt. My Someone looked at me, gently.
“But its not completely stuck,” he said.
I was wrenched from my tributary, took a deep breath, and looked. He was right, the creature was only stuck with its feet. The blood I saw was spotty and coming from its chin where its hair had been ripped from the glue. What I thought were innards were just its nubby tail. This creature could make it. When we returned to the house, my Someone took to unsticking it, while I wandered the yard to make a terrarium. It was an act of making a new way, even as I believed this mouse would die.
I returned to the garage to help unstick its little feet, washed as much glue as I could, then placed it in its temporary stead. Then, I felt ashamed– a deep, unfathomable shame that I am not the person I believe I am. What sort of compassionate person suggests first to kill a creature only stuck in its way?
The kind of compassionate person who has been told again and again to put her compassion away, and to do the “right” thing. The kind of compassionate person who, when confronted with a wounded animal was told over and over again to put it out of its misery– to check her emotions and quit being so sentimental. The kind of compassionate person who was told that to be kind, you must be cruel. The kind of compassionate person who has been told there is only one right way.
For the next 24 hours, we monitored our little rescue. We sent out texts and calls and photos to ask for help. We found out that our mouse was not going to make it, because she was not a mouse– she is a hamster. Five days later, and she is our hamster, sitting snugly in a hamster cage, surrounded with seeds and kale she likes to eat, and a hay ball she likes to climb, and bedding she likes to burrow in. She went today to run errands with us in a hamster pouch I bought so that she can travel with more ease when we hit the road again.
There is proof that there is always another way. And when I divert from that way– when I crawl up out of the tributary or the glue trap I was caught in– there is where the living happens. There is living proof. Her name is Goo.
Saffy is collecting boyfriends this Valentine’s Day. She’s got a next door neighbor boy who gave her fake flowers for real love, and another one on the line at school who wants to play lots of games.
“Nobody really likes him all that much, he’s kind of, I don’t know, annoying?” she said.
“Oh, I see,” her mother said, “And what do your friends think?”
“They all think he has a crush on me, but they don’t really like him. Except for Loraina. She really likes him like a crush.”
At this, we tense. Our collective conscience says farewell to my dear niece’s short 8-year-old life to the hands of Stabby McStabberson Loraina-the-Worst in this heartsick triangle.
“And what did Loraina-the-Worst say?” my sister ventured.
“Oh,” Saffy said, unruffled, “She said that’s fine and asked if I wanted to play.”
We all began breathing again. Sometimes, against all odds, there can be another way.