Authors’ note: This essay began after a conversation about writing and our shared interest in documenting the origin and evolution of our identities as writers. We build all our collaborative essays by responding to one another’s sections until a natural endpoint occurs. In this case, Julie wrote the first section, or “draft,” reflecting on her earliest memories of writing, alternating with Brenda’s, until our recollections and ruminations were fully woven; Brenda wrote the final section, which brought the essay closer to present day and became the eighth in our sequence of “drafts.” The content—as it often does in these collaborations—traveled far beyond the initial prompt, surprising us both. We chose not to label the speaker in each section so that our individual voices could surrender into a more collective, and communal, authorship.
I remember my mother clearing the table, just as she always did. I remember my father opening the newspaper, which was long as a dress back then. Soon, his face and lap disappeared behind it. When my mother returned, she always had a project in hand: perhaps a needle and thread to sew a button back on an impish shirt, or perhaps her hot glue gun (careful! don’t touch!), poised like a trigger over any chip or crack. In our house, nothing stayed broken or disheveled for long.
My dessert of familiar things: a pad of white pages with a coiled seam and a two-story box of crayons. How I loved opening and closing that box along its cardboard hinge, the revelation each time of a stunning chorus of colors. “Go ahead now—draw something,” my mother said. She was a teacher, so she knew what children did.
That night—spring or summer, I think, because sunlight was still gushing through the picture window—I broke the ritual. I asked for a pencil instead.
“What do you need a pencil for?” my mother inquires. There are her deep-set eyes, blue as the digits on the microwave clock, flickering now with surprise.
My father shifts on his wicker chair; the seams of his paper crinkle. The kitchen smells of meaty leftovers and a floral spray meant to disguise them. It doesn’t. This is the first time I can see myself clearly in a memory: I’m four or five, so tall for my age that my feet already scrape the floor when seated. I’m an “early reader” because my mother has taught me what the twenty-six glorious symbols mean, the sounds they make and the ways they play together.
I can even see her desk in the corner, complete with a seashell box from which at least a dozen pencils protrude. All she has to do is reach behind her and hand me one or grant me permission to rise. This is the first time I have said it aloud: “I want to write something, Mom.”
My mom has beautiful handwriting, a flow of lines that echoes the delicacy of her fingers: small knuckles, slender groomed nails. You just need to take your time, she says, coolly, as if that’s all it takes to be elegant. Even now, at age eighty-four, her script remains the same, betraying no infirmity of age.
My own handwriting is slipshod, a jerky amalgamation of printing and cursive, hardly intelligible even to my own eye. My father and I shared this affliction. When he was in the nursing home at the end, I found a slip of paper on which he ’d practiced writing his own name, over and over, trying to get it right. I wish I ’d kept it: those earnest marks he left in his wake.
But years before that—when my parents are immortal—I sit in my bedroom, the door closed tight against the rest of the house. I don’t yet understand the concept of family—how fragile it can be, how rare to be safely ensconced. Instead, I sit at my pink desk, stubbornly setting myself apart. I listen to the sprinklers doing their appointed rounds on the back lawn, over and over, a rhythm that ticks you are here, you will always be here, in Morse code. I’m writing in my diary, a little book with lined pages and a tin lock, but I don’t really have anything to say. All language seems a code I cannot break.
So I write—in large letters that refuse to stay aligned—all the annoyances I don’t dare say aloud. I write, indignantly, that my father sucks his teeth too loudly after dinner. I write how unfair it is that I have to clear the table when my brothers get away scot free. I write about my brothers: how uncouth they are, how they smell. All my lines are about feelings, feelings that make my skin itch and have nowhere else to go. Feelings that are unacceptable.
And this venting really doesn’t help. I look out my window, see the way heat rises in waves across the concrete, how water evaporates before it fully hits ground. I close the little book and pretend to lock it with the ineffectual key.
I have a red diary with a tiny gold key. I have a huge pink snail called a Keyper—misspelled on purpose!—because the shell is opened with a huge pink key. Sometimes I wear this key on a ribbon around my neck or tuck it inside the zippered pocket of my pillow. I want to have something worthy of a Keyper, a secret important enough to stow away, to keep “under lock and key.” And that’s when I realize a crucial truth: language is—has always been—my secret.
Some kids collect bottle caps or baseball cards or caterpillars in jam jars with holes poked through the top for air. Some collect more unusual things, like my friend who pilfers different colored rubber bands, then sorts them all by hue. Someday she hopes to have enough for a full elastic rainbow. What I collect are words, invisible to everyone but me. But what if I got a concussion, say, or that amnesia so prevalent on daytime tv? My words would be lost without a breadcrumb trail. No one would even know that they were missing.
So I take a piece of notebook paper and begin to inventory what is most important to me. First the word itself, in the left-hand margin, printed small enough so it barely touches the long red line; then, various meanings of the word, as I have encountered them, strung together with semicolons that dangle below the lines like Christmas lights.
Sometimes I use a word in a sentence, placing it between two parentheses. That’s when I smile to myself and underline the parent—another part of my collection, these words within words—which lead by ellipses toward metaphors . . . how I, an only child, find myself perched between my parents on the sofa, parented, parenthetical, set apart inside the brackets of their bodies but also aside, like something you say in a whisper, not meant for everyone to hear. I am my parents’ whisper.
I go on like this: each word or symbol—which can also be spelled out as a word—opening into another and spiraling down, like the secret staircase behind bookshelves in old and haunted houses. I might, for instance, try the word key. Only three letters, but also three parts of speech. There are noun-keys, cut by a locksmith, made for opening locks on doors (or books, or snails). There are also map keys, which are nouns, too, and sometimes referred to as a legend, a word that unfolds into its own treasure trove of meanings. But the key is made to help decode, another kind of opening. And haven’t I read in a book somewhere that key is a different name for island, or a kind of island in tropical places where coconuts bob along the waves?
An adjective-key could be a “key decision,” something essential, like me making this list to fold and stow in my Keyper. Verb-keys are all around us, too: the way my father “keys data” at work, punching numbers into a keyboard, which also has key in its name. And once my mother came home crying because someone had “keyed” her station wagon in the Safeway parking lot. Evidence of that “keying” is with us for many years, a light scar on the dark paint, as if a surgeon had made an incision . . .
No surgeon, no incisions—just my friend laboring in the little round shack on the hill. No plumbing, no anesthesia—we’re breathing together as she bears down and down. All the glass jars labeled and aligned on her handmade shelves. Wood floor mopped, counters scrubbed. Wavy glass paning the windows, barely holding back the night. Rug covered with a sheet. Her body seems all belly now, ready to burst. The midwife says, Any time now, you can push. Her husband hovers behind her, and she leans into him, though she has just discovered his infidelity, his secret rendezvous in the city. But that will be for later, all of it for later: the crabs that infiltrate the birthing bed, the dissolution of a marriage, and the exigencies of solo life with baby—endless laundry runs into town, nights walking baby in a stroller across the bridge, over and over, until he falls asleep.
For now she still has to rely on her husband, and on me, the two of us propping her up, the two of us woefully inadequate to the task. We’re only human, and this endeavor seems to require a power that is more than human. We’ve entered the realm of exhaustion that, paradoxically, feels amphetaminic, dawn appearing in the canopy just as the baby crowns. She screams, and he slithers out of her, trailing the umbilical cord.
I hold him just a few minutes later, his eyes open but still in the other world. He smells of blood and the sea. A thick warmth blurs his face, which, every second, becomes more human. I think, No—a hollow echo—stay unformed, not ours, for a just a little longer.
When I try to write about this moment weeks later, I hear my pen scratch across the page as I cross out, and cross out. Language—even with all its nuance—does not seem up to this particular command. Each stroke is a nick, an abrasion, trying to scrape off the layers of the already known, but I can’t get below the epidermal layer. I’m covered in scratches, small flesh wounds that will take forever to heal.
The doctor says once, then repeats slowly: “Remember that healing is a process, not a deadline.” I sit propped in an L-shape on the table, my broken leg freed from its cast only to be confined anew inside a knee-high walking boot.
“You know, as a child I wasn’t allowed to have shoes with Velcro,” I tell him, fingering the six places where I’ll cinch the boot tight, secure it in place with the fuzzy fasteners. “It’s ironic that something like this had to happen before I ever gave up my laces.”
Dr. Knight is my junior by a couple of years and resembles the kind of unobjectionably good-looking man my mother hoped I would marry someday: square jaw, clean-shaven cheeks, broad shoulders that strain slightly against his white coat. His eyes widen whenever I speak, as if trying to understand why I tell him things that aren’t germane to my medical history.
“Are you experiencing any pain?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Nothing physical. It pains me, though, that I can’t run or spin or even trust myself to take the stairs on crutches.”
“All in good time,” he says, scribbling something in his notes, then closing the metal cover of his clipboard.
“I really like your notepad there,” I gesture. “Good waterproofing. Do you have to be a doctor to get one of those?”
Dr. Knight cocks his head, regards me with a look I’ve seen before—the Are you for real? Is that a serious question? expression. “Honestly, I don’t remember where this came from. It’s just what I’ve always used.” He shakes my hand and heads for the door.
Soon, a young nurse arrives, nodding shyly as she tucks thin sprigs of white-blond hair behind her ears. Her task is to show me how to wash my post-surgery wounds. “Be friends with the sterile gauzes,” she says, and since English is not her first language, I lean in, listen more closely. “Gently, with peroxide, spraying both sides. See how the scar-shape is like interrupted smile. Go the whole way. Spray the whole smile.”
I reach now for the steno book in my bag. Nadia thinks I’m taking notes on wound care, but that’s only half true. You see, I want to write about what has happened: the way sudden immobility alters our relationship to space, and more than space: to our own bodies, to our lovers’ bodies, to our most basic kinds of mastery and our deepest, mortal fears. But how will I find the words to explain what I’m learning, and then push further—to conjure that experience for someone who has never stood one moment and collapsed the next, skidding on slick tile over a ledge of concrete, two bones severed the second they hit the ground?
Nadia touches my wrist with her cool, thin hand. “Funny, no? They call it walking boot, but you will not be walking.”
I laugh and nod, delighted to see she understands the conundrum. Language is funny, is imprecise no matter how long you speak it, how long you study, no matter how much practice you have at writing it down.
“No weight to bear,” she says, as she begins to wrap my foot with gauze. “But it is heavy, too, lugging the leg. We say no weight-bear, but we mean not pushing down. I’m sorry to say, it is a lot to carry after all.”
We are not the ones to carry my father’s casket. Most of the weight, anyway, would not be him, not his body, which has already been lightened into dust by the coma in the end. The casket arrives before us, sitting on its casters above the open ground. Two navy officers stand at attention—stationed head and foot—throughout the service, backs straight, unmoving.
My brother’s written a eulogy that makes everyone laugh. I sing a song, even hand out copies of the music, like the teacher I am. I think I’m on key, gesturing to the others to join me. They do, the words May eternal light surround you warbling toward the grave. But I’m more concerned about getting it right—the notes, the words, the intervals—so I’m not sure I’m even really singing to my father, or to what is left of him. A seven-gun salute happens somewhere in between the rabbi’s sermon and the lowering of the coffin.
I help my mother shovel the first scoop of dirt, then we all follow suit, wet earth landing with thumps on the lid. A flock of crows whirls up in the far trees, cawing harsh yells for attention. We want to take it as a sign of something, but their language remains inscrutable. One of my friends eschews the shovel and tosses in the earth with her bare hands, and some of us follow suit; the dirt unexpectedly sticks to our palms and we don’t know how to clean them off, since we are wearing our nice clothes for the occasion.
At some point I say to whoever is near me, That was fun! I don’t know what I mean. My sister-in-law says she wouldn’t use that word exactly, and I understand I’ve committed a faux pas, but I can’t take it back, now that the inappropriate word has detonated in the graveyard. My friends are here, some colleagues I didn’t expect; my brothers and their children have somehow been able to make it in time; my father died just two days ago. Even the receptionist from the nursing home has come to see my father off. I’m a little giddy.
But now my hands are dirty; I’ve tossed mud on my father, and I’ve called his funeral fun.
For years afterward, I’ll keep recalling this moment: trying to see it clearly, though the scene blurs as if taking place behind a vaselined lens. I’ll see snippets of black cloth, hear a single crow, feel the wet earth grinding into my palms. A white tent, rifle shots reverberating across the cemetery, the dog jumping out of my mother’s arms. I’ll want to revise it all—rewind, start another draft—but instead this version writes itself in stone.
I always wanted to write something in wet cement—something that couldn’t be revised—then perch on the curb or the playground fence, watching my bold inscription dry. But what would I write? Which combination of words should I choose to immortalize?
“Stop overthinking it!” all the kids jeered. “Just grab a stick and print Julie was here.”
We wrote our names in sand so often, sometimes encased in hearts or balloons, then waited for the tide to erase them. I liked that it was temporary, each day’s blemished dune, how soon the smooth face of perpetual nothing reappeared along the shore.
“Parents leave their mark on you when they give you a name, but I want to leave a mark that’s all my own.”
“So have a baby!” April laughed. She was crimping her hair. She was cavalier. She might as well have suggested a milkshake or a trip to the mall. “You can put something really awesome on the birth certificate, like “Baby Slurpee Jesus” or “Seymour Butts.”
Years in the future, contentedly childless, I write and deliver a eulogy for a different friend. Bob collaborates with me until the week before his death, when the cancer climbs his throat, renders him fully mute. “Read your poem, too,” he made me promise—“the one with the Goddamn in it. I want these Catholic fools to know I went to my grave an atheist.”
He scribbled his epitaph on a legal pad: I meant what I said. Then, he remembered and threw up his hands: “They don’t give you a stone if you’re getting burned up, do they?”
Once, I wrote two sets of wedding vows, the first to the man I didn’t marry, the second to the woman I did. They float in memory now like long-tailed kites—one small diamond of misplaced devotion caught in a tree, fodder for nesting birds; another bright and box-shaped, aswirl with rainbows, stretching skyward above the raucous surf.
Once, I worked in an office with these words carved in the wall: This sentence is not true. I traced them with my finger every day for years, never venturing to contradict or concur.
Once, I saw a giant stone rising out of the waves in Maine. The engraving, preposterously large, proclaimed: not art. How could I argue or agree?
Now, on South Beach, an artist has commissioned a Poetry Rail, twelve poems permanently etched in metal using water jets. I am asked to contribute something. “Even when we’re all under water,” a new friend chirps, “your poem will be preserved forever!” No pressure, no pressure at all.
I reach back to everything I know about my life, griefs as inexpressible as joys, language necessary and futile at once, and then to those first words nested inside each other. I submit:
Here, on the Atlantic, sunrise
the reversed syntax of my Seattle youth:
I marvel, still young, at what
it means to have been younger;
to see at last the parent
to read—for the first time—
whole chapters of my life
as an aside.
Put them aside, for now: whole chapters you want to re-read now that you know how the story ends. You used to do that all the time: close a book, hold it to your chest, then open to the title page, the table of contents, even the blank sheet that told you to pause a moment before embarking. You ran your hand across the type, knowledge crackling in your fingertips. A book read seems heavier than a book unread—as if your gaze, your attention, could be measured in ounces.
Once, for Father’s Day, I sewed my father a tie. I didn’t know how to sew; he didn’t need a tie. I chose a silky navy blue that was difficult to work through the machine. I was twelve years old. My body had become something not ugly, exactly, but ungainly—all arm and leg and sharp pelvic bone. I folded and tacked and sewed uneven seams, wrapped the whole thing in tissue paper. I can’t remember now his face when he opened it, or if he even pretended to put it on. I remember only the sewing, the effort, the needle so close to my fingertips, each wrong stitch begetting another.
Before his last gurgled breath; before the hospice nurse said, There’s no radial pulse; before the shutting down and shutting off; before all his body heat compressed in his heart; before I cupped my hand there and said, Your family loves you; before the inhale without an exhale—my mother and I watched him, hypnotized, the way one might watch a baby sleep. The room was too cold, and we huddled together under a blanket, not knowing we could ask for the heat to be turned up. We accepted whatever was offered us.
He died at 3:45 am. The night crackled around us as we waited for the mortician to arrive; we sat in the family room at the hospice house, and I began to write his obituary. I tried to get beyond mere fact, to distill into the narrow column what can be known about a life. But I kept thinking about an early memory—one that won’t be recorded—of flying a kite on the cul-de-sac of my childhood home.
Or maybe this isn’t my memory at all, but the one the video-cam remembers. My dad behind the lens, always. My dad always coaxing me to smile. If you look closely you can see him there, the heavy camera on his shoulder, one eye shut, lips parted as he concentrates on his daughter, his sullen daughter. It’s a cloudy day, and I’m wearing a coat that makes it difficult for me to move.
That girl, she wants to be lighthearted—for him. She wants to enjoy the tug of a kite as it grapples with the air. Her father says, Start running, it will lift! But she doesn’t want this responsibility; to be a tether for something that insists on flying away. She freezes on the spot and refuses to meet her father’s gaze, scowls while the string goes limp in her hand. And it will be written like this forever: afraid of holding on, afraid of letting go.