Hippocampus Magazine has published my nonfiction piece, “A Moon Story,” a piece about losing life, giving birth, and surviving in nature.
There are things that we all do (eat, sleep, shower) , things that we have to do (grade, write, read), things that we do out of habit (facebook, text, drink coffee), and things that we do when given an hour or two with no other options. I would like to say that’s when I write, but it isn’t always.
My husband says I can’t ever be alone. And I say, Not true. Because sometimes I have to be alone to do work. But I remember being alone a lot of my childhood. And a lot of my adolescence. But my husband’s right. Tonight, my father-in-law picked up the boys so I could do some work before the Writer’s Forum reading, and I have been cramming so much work in lately, that I’ve burned out. And the house was too quiet. I called my parents to see if they’d want to have a meal with me. They were out at a (fancy?) new bar at the mall in the most urban of suburbs in western NY, Greece.
So I ate five Brown N Serve sausages, alone, and sat down with my computer, thinking I might write.
Instead, my mind wandered. There are people I think of every day (my family, close friends, some students), people I think of on occasion (friends I had a falling out with, former teachers, former students), people I don’t even know, really, that I wonder about when I’m not busy with the people who need my attention and whose attention I need.
Today, my mind went to a professor at the college.
He was old enough that it was surprising he still taught. When he walked into Hartwell Cafe, my mother smiled. He and I were the only two in the cafe before it opened on a regular basis. If my grandfather had lived closer, and lived as long, I imagine they’d be similar in manner and voice. Though, this professor’s eyes were cinched in a perma-smile. A life spent laughing. He wore Christmas sweaters that my cool friends only wore to “Ugly Sweater Parties,” but he wore them in a serious way. I’d heard he was a great professor. He taught business. I wish more business-owners were as gentle.
One day last semester, I asked my mother where he went. She said his children had come in to clear his things from his office. I said, “Retirement, finally?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,” she said with her chin turned down, counting singles, and glanced up at me (meaning something happened to him).
Maybe she was thinking of the wrong person. She sometimes confused one person with another. No, she often confused one person with another. And she had cataracts.
Maybe he fell and was recovering.
He would always approach my mother with the smallest cup (a size I never thought anyone actually purchased), and said, “Today’s my freebie, right?”
And it always was.
And then, because the people I think of on a daily basis called, I bought my coffee and went off to teach.
Tonight, I don’t know what made me think of him. There’s this rule in fiction that the reader always wants to know “Why this story, why right now?” and for this story, I don’t know why, or why right now.
But tonight, I Googled him the way I Google tragic events, obsessively, hungrily, sadly, curiously, and all of these things at once. My hands cold from the keyboard, my jaw tight in worry, because suddenly, I would find out where he went.
I have a ritual. I check the Facebook pages of a family that lost a child last summer. It’s shameful, but it’s my way of knowing that life does go on. And how.
The Professor’s name came up in an obituary: Donald Borbee. I have always known his name on our small campus, but it was solidified by a simple morning routine. I felt sad that he died in February, and now it was November, and I had just now taken the time to let my curiosity find him. He didn’t know me, and he probably only recognized the features I share with my mother when he saw me in the hallway, but don’t we all want to know that when we are gone, someone we never knew, would look for us?
I start this letter on your birthday.
When you were younger, you lost a sister to a milk truck. I know nothing of her. I tried to look it up in the news archives and I couldn’t find it. Her name is Bernice, and her short life becomes a thread now, a dwindling string from a threadbare shirt that you wore and washed and took off and put on and grew tired of and passed on. I can’t find the article in any newspaper, though I watched her name disappear from the census records. I know her name because it is your middle name. I wrote a story loosely based on that pain. You were smoking cigarettes on a porch with a husband who loved you like Grandpa did, with the kind of love that left him whimpering, in a way that he didn’t even realize he was doing, after you passed. In the story, you and I are one. You moved a lot Grandma, but I hate moving. Your character cries hard for the death of her sister every day, and I am there, in you, crying over losing a house. The silly things that matter to me.
Had I cared enough at all about these things while you were still breathing, I would have asked you about Bernice during that round of Apples to Apples–the first and only I would ever play with you–but, instead, we talked in code about Hilary Clinton, who, you lamented, shared your first daughter’s name.
I find in this way that I love people much more after they’re dead, and that’s just not fair of me to do. Last night, Grandma, I spent two hours on the “Find A Grave” website, trying to corroborate a mother and child’s graves with a news article from January of 1861. The mother was murdered by her husband when she was very pregnant. The story disappeared after that, and in the following issues of The Brockport Republic, I can’t find a single article that discusses identity, tells who this poor woman and her forgotten child is. I tried to look them up by death date, but then I wondered: About the baby, can it have a death date if it was never born? Can I call it a “forgotten” child if it was never known?
I know you went to college for biology. You starred in plays. You had a director’s chair with your name–Jody–on it that has been lost in piles of bankers lamps, and old paintings and crackled glass. You died on New Year’s Eve. My father jokes that he cried harder when he lost Buddy, his first golden retriever, but that was a one-time cry, Grandma. He cries for you every time he breathes whether he knows it or not.
I found out I was pregnant with my first son, John (named after your second son), two months after you died. I debated telling anyone I was pregnant at first because it was my sister’s birthday, and she already shares her birthday with her son, so I didn’t want to steal it away from her. But, Grandma, what I wish I could have talked to you about, was this hard thing called motherhood, that pregnancy comes with this guilt that any thing you do for yourself is somehow not good for your children. I am getting my MFA and spend a lot of time writing. I spend a lot of time in stories set in tumultuous times when women hid their bodies away from public while they were pregnant. Back in the day, you didn’t have Ted Talks to tell you how to interpret the responsibility of bearing life. You did have a bible, but Grandma, how do you know the right answers to a text that has as many interpretations as words? Is that why you majored in biology, Grandma? I hate science.
So, I guess what I want to say is this. This space of being a woman. For having odds of 1 in 2 to be a woman, why do I still feel like being a woman is something strange? Something that needs to be managed? Handled with birth control and anti-depressants and coffee and credit cards? No matter how far you came Grandma, and you saw so much of it, women still have work to do–mostly amongst themselves. My mother is the only woman I don’t have an inherent competition with, the only woman I have unbridled admiration of, the only woman who I know, without one doubt in my mind, feels the same way about me. Mothers are special things.
Women don’t love each other the way they should. There are fights between sisters and friends and mother-in-laws and what happens is that we’re left in this lonely place. I am as guilty of this as anyone. I wish I would have asked you these things sooner. I know you fought long and hard with your sister. We hear from her less now. We are afraid to visit her because we all wonder if she wants to be left alone, or if her house is dirty, or if she’s become a werewolf. I should be asking her things that I will regret not asking her later. I am writing to you, instead.
I want a daughter, Grandma. I feel so guilty typing that, so I backspace it, or I add this in front: “I love my sons, but…” I took that part out because that should go without saying. Who would ever think a mother would not love her sons with every part of her? We all worry about this, though. We all struggle to show how much we love.
I look at your pictures and see my eye color there, and something else too, but I can’t be sure because I never knew to ask.
When I had my sons baptized, Aunt Hilary and Aunt Jill gave me an old bible of yours. The Mother’s Prayer had fallen out and was so worn that I could hold it to my face like cotton. I did. You had taped it in the middle. You used it often, and I wonder if it was the act of looking at it that gave you peace or actually reading what it said? I am a pro at analyzing texts, but I need your help. I love that where the prayer says: “teach them to love God alone,” you have covered the word ‘alone’ with a thick line of lead. This, Grandma, tells me more than the prayer itself.
Every night, I cover Sammy, who was born the day after Grandpa died, with an angel quilt that Aunt Hilary made for the boys out of your shirts.
Grandma, now it’s two days after your birthday, and I am many years too late asking these questions.