I’ve never been the sort who closes doors on the past. Or, no, that’s not true. I close doors all the time–I just don’t keep them locked. My lifeworn family, ancient friends, antediluvian lovers–even the most distant and/or catastrophic of these relationships is like a bank account I still keep a little money in. (The minimum balance, sometimes: barely enough to warrant the paperwork.) And now and then—to my own surprise, usually—I’ll make a small deposit, or even, rarely, a withdrawal. I’ll look up a friend I haven’t talked to in many years and renew the correspondence for a little while before eventually, inevitably, I let it lapse again.
Late last summer I drove my daughter Becky to her freshman year at Eden College (as they might as well call it): a liberal-arts utopia blooming with marigolds, nasturtiums, and a left-wing agenda so unabashedly radical that it left me nostalgic for a world I’d thought had been eroded away–by time, by parody–years ago. To me the campus seemed a bubble, an oasis. At the very least, it was a clever and durable mirage, thriving, as it seemed, in the midst of a ramshackle, foreclosure-mottled Illinois town that had dried up when the Maytag plant closed–moved operations to Mexico–in 2004. Living as I did (and do) in a similarly dried-up Montana town (copper mine, Chile, 1983), I’d developed a bedouin’s gratitude for oases, not to mention a knack for finding them everywhere, whether they existed or not.
I was driving home from Eden now. For the first hour I cried and cried, because Becky is my beloved, my only child, and this would be my first year living far from her. Then for the ten or twelve hours of driving that followed the first, I listened to an audiobook of Lolita, as read–as insinuated–by Jeremy Irons, which slowly, inexorably, made me feel better.
I-90 took me through the heart of South Dakota, and, feeling so suddenly on the brim of a new life (it was too soon to tell, but already I felt myself tingling with my own genesis), I acted on an idea that had been simmering in my mind for a while—ever since I’d realized the college trip would take me through that part of the country. From my hotel in Rapid City I called up a boyfriend—a fiancé, to be more precise than need be, and my first real love—from thirty years ago.
We’d ended badly. No need to go into the how and why. I’m not even sure I need acknowledge that our break-up was entirely my fault–though it was, it was. Still, even without having seen him in all this time, that old bank account (to renew that yawnful metaphor) still felt open to me. I’d discovered his whereabouts and phone number via the internet, of course, though they’d been tougher than usual to find because his first and last name are both very common. But I’d always figured he’d eventually moved back to South Dakota, where his roots were. And so, it turned out, he had. I found him–the man I knew for sure was him–via a record of his $650 contribution to a (doomed) South Dakota senatorial campaign back in 2010.
So I called him–why not–and we ended up meeting for lunch the next day at the hotel/casino where he works as some sort of business manager. And it went fine—a bit lackluster, of course, since it’s almost always true that people I haven’t seen since we were younger turn out to have mellowed so much more than I have. Or maybe they’ve simply learned that useful skill of emotional caution that I’ve never been able—or, I guess, willing—to develop in myself. They see the past as having happened long ago, I think, whereas I seem, especially in contrast, to still be living it. It’s surely very easy for people to get the idea that I’ve never stopped thinking of them, even maybe that I’m obsessed, I don’t know. They must sense my yearning to re-engage them in moments we once shared—inside jokes, surprises, conflicts, turning points, endings.
I’m always on the threshold of asking—and sometimes I actually do ask: Remember that time when you said that thing? What did you mean when you said that? And how did you feel when I didn’t answer you right away, or later when I made a joke of it? Or how about that Thanksgiving at my house—remember how when you met my dad you were wearing your “Fuck Authority” (or something facsimilar) t-shirt? What was your impression of how that meeting went? And then, that night maybe a year later when–in the argument that ended us–I told you that I’d been sleeping with your best friend [trite but true], and you told me later that if you’d had a gun you would have killed yourself, did you mean that? Oh, honey, did you mean it literally, I mean, and does that distinction even matter, really? And how did you finally get past it all—by repression, forgetting, surrender? Or is there some other way I haven’t managed to learn yet?
Moreover (I want to ask but don’t, quite, which is why I’m asking now, I suppose), did you know that I spent a whole year mourning the end of us? That I would do my work, endure my social obligations, and then any time I had even a half-hour just to myself, I’d take that time to cry and cry? A whole year of that, almost to the day. You, in fact, were the impetus for my learning how to cry without making any noise. I was living with those people then, you may remember, and so I came to learn that skill, because of you. And it’s come in very handy in all the time that’s come and gone since, and I’m sincere when I say “thank you” for it.
I was twenty-one at the time. You were the first real loss I’d ever known, and you taught me how to be overwhelmed by grief and yet not—not what? Not die, for sure—but more important, not fold, not dry up: you taught me the art of going through life’s motions even when they feel completely meaningless. It was my first lesson—and there’ve been so many others along the way since, and surely many more on the road ahead—you taught me my first lesson in giving up while still going on, in surrendering without dying. You also taught me how time works—the ways it heals you, the scars it leaves. These were teachings that would come in so very handy in the thirty years that followed you, even to the point where I no longer need to tell you, or anyone, exactly when and how.
And here you are, sitting across from me now in your suit and tie, but your hair—which was graying even back then, I think—is still as bushy, as on the very brink of revolt, as ever. No beard, though. I miss the beard—you look a little empty without it. But of course you’re not empty. I saw your photographs on-line. I’d totally forgotten– or did I ever know?– how you loved photography, and also how in tune you were with nature, with all things wild, rustic, weathered, overgrown. (How did we end up together, honey, when I’m so obviously an “indoor” girl?) It turns out you’re in love with the way the mountains look at sunrise—and I suppose if I were to allow myself one resentment, it would be of the way you always let me sleep so late in the mornings. I wish you’d led the way more often. I wish I’d let you lead the way. But I know that whenever you tried to lead, I dragged my feet. So, no, that’s not your fault either, now that I think it through. And your political views are still so radical (this part of you remains as untamable as your hair)—that much is obvious just from your Facebook links. Still, for all that, my dad seemed to really like you—and I’m not sure whether that suggests something I never knew about him, or will never know about you, or, most likely, both never-knowings at once.
So here I am with you—with this guy, really, this middle-aged man whom I’d had to struggle to recognize through the bars of the cashier’s cage in the casino lobby, and who’d probably had to contain a certain visceral shock when he glanced out to find me there, the frowzy old me I’ve become, I mean. And it turns out, during the brief moments in our lunch-talk that aren’t, more or less, awkward, or, worse, pedestrian, that you’ve spent your life-since-me learning your own, completely separate lessons.
You talk, too briefly, about your own father, how it took you years to realize how rotten he’d been. And of course my first thought is to feel bad that I hadn’t seen this myself in those old days, that I couldn’t have studied the situation, then told you how things really were–not to brag, but I’m actually quite good at disillusioning people about their parents, just ask my husband—so you could get on sooner with the hard-labor process of letting him go. I never met your father, of course, and I don’t remember that you talked about him much back then. But still I must somehow have glimpsed him. I know this because when I think of him, and even when I think his name, “Emmett,” he appears (as if by lightning flash) as a tall slab of gray-black stone jutting upright out of dull mountain fog. He and Faulkner’s Abner Snopes are stored in the very same English-major memory cell; they share the same trope, form the same unyielding monolith in my mind, every time I remember them.
So he was why you finally got your law degree, and he was why you didn’t, even more finally, remain a lawyer. He was the reason you took all that time off from school to work for the railroad and the highway crew, two jobs that get mixed up in my mind, as if they were one single job, and all I really know about them is that you came home every night coated with tar. I’m sorry about that too—about not knowing more than that, I mean. I should have been paying attention, should have asked you why you took those jobs, and not only that, why they seemed to center you, make you feel worthy, make you feel at home, in ways that neither law school nor I myself ever could.
While I’m on a roll: I shouldn’t have felt so perpetually shamed by your general lack of shame, or by the way you never had money or a working car. I should have honored the way you kept trying to define yourself as yourself, and not merely as the opposite of someone else, which was the only way I myself knew how to do that sort of thing at the time. That frankness of yours—that grin you flashed as you watched me undress. The thin lines of asphalt that came to seem permanent, like tiny, curved tattoos beneath your fingernails. Instead I was embarrassed by your earthiness, embarrassed by you. How often I must have reddened, sighed, nagged, clenched my teeth, blurted it all out. I found you vulgar at a time when I was working hard–via the taintless, scentless breeze of “art”—to transcend my own inborn vulgarity. Still, however much I pretended otherwise, I’d come from the same hard world you did, which is probably why, from our very first conversation (on the landing between the second and third floors of our dormitory, and me very drunk on my twentieth birthday) you seemed so utterly familiar to me, so like home—and which, come to think of it, may be one among several remarkable reasons that my dad (who hardly ever liked anyone, by the way) liked you so very much.
And all this is occurring to me for the first time right now, honey, as I’m telling it to you.
acceptance, autism, black swan, both, compassion, death, empathy, grace, Hannah, happiness, illusion, imbalance, letting go, loss, motherhood, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, play, quotation, randomness, surrender, transience, tweet, union, yin yang, zen
“Love without sacrifice is like theft.” —Nassim Nicholas Taleb
How It Was
If I’d thrown her through the window that night, no one would have known I’d done it. After all, how many windows had she broken already? How many walls had been cratered by the smash of her head? (We even had a standard, bleak joke about it—that we could measure Hannah’s growth by the height of the holes in the plaster.) I could have gone into her room right then, and under cover of dark I could have dragged her to her feet and flung her hard against the one broad pane we hadn’t yet replaced with plexiglas. There’d be no obstructions on the way down, and only hard sidewalk below.
But what if the window didn’t break? Or if it didn’t break enough, if it left her halfway in the room, and only bleeding? The thing was, of course, that Hannah never seemed to bleed, or to damage herself at all, in her plunges through glass. She was amazing that way. She seemed unscathable in the direst of circumstances, and by now we’d gotten so used to her invulnerability that, if I’d thought about it, I’d probably have believed that she could walk through fire without getting burned, get hit by a car without breaking a bone, drink poison and feel only happy effects.
Not that I ever thought of burning her, breaking her bones, feeding her poison. Understand, if you possibly can, that I’d have been the one dashing into the fire to save her, yanking her out of the line of traffic, forcing the ipecac down. It was hardly ever that I seriously considered throwing her out a window.
And even now I was giving up the idea, because I realized that the window probably wouldn’t break completely, so she wouldn’t fall all the way through. I’d have to shove her out the rest of the way, and I knew that was far beyond anything I could ever do. Which meant that Hannah, impervious or not, would surely end up wounded, bleeding, hurt—and not dead—and I couldn’t have borne that. The last thing in the world I wanted was to make her feel even worse than she did already.
My firstborn daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. At first the experts we took her to considered hers a “mild” case, and I clung—by talon, by tooth—to that word, “mild,” for several years past the point when everyone else, even the experts themselves, could see that the experts had been wrong. In her seventeen years of life, Hannah never learned to speak her own name, much less to communicate her thoughts, needs, and feelings in any way those of us who loved her could readily understand. And for a long time this seemed a terrible, terrible tragedy to me—this growing realization that she would probably never be able to learn much about the world at large, or follow the plot of a simple story, or play a real game, or make a friend, or fall in love, or live on her own. But it’s amazing what you can come to accept, if you have to, and eventually I reached the point where absolutely none of that mattered to me anymore, and the only thing I really wanted was for Hannah to be “happy,” in whatever form that might take for her, and for however long it could last.
Her “rages,” as I came to call them, began around the time she turned six, and accelerated as she reached puberty (which often comes early to autistic children: Hannah had her first menstrual period at the age of nine). For an hour at a time, sometimes even for half a day, she could, indeed, be very happy—rocking in her dilapidated La-Z-Boy, swinging as if to touch the sky, laughing and swaying as she stood surveying the world from atop the highest banister or playground slide or jungle gym she could find. But in a single, breathtaking instant, all that could change, and Hannah would suddenly let out a shriek and start pounding her head as hard as she could, over and over, against the hardest nearby surface. Sometimes these bouts of pain and fury would last for just a few minutes, but sometimes, and increasingly, they went on for hours.
For the first several years of her rages, she was still small enough to hold down. If you were quick enough you could get to her before she could hurt herself much, and you got to be pretty adept at slipping over her head the special, cushioned helmet the doctor had prescribed. You learned to hug her tightly from behind, to hold her arms close against her chest, and to lean your head backwards and away so that she wouldn’t be able to ram the back of her own head against it.
But somewhere around the time she was twelve or thirteen, she got too big for all that, and it took a team to stop her from hurting herself or other people. The teachers in her special ed classroom would often have to “call a code” over the school loudspeaker, which meant that the burly male gym teacher down the hall would drop everything and rush over to help. At home, of course, we didn’t have such an option, and if I was alone with Hannah when the raging began, and I’d tried everything on my list of strategies to calm her down—music, videotapes, food, play-doh, stress balls, fuzzy pipe cleaners, weighted blankets, holding her, singing to her, providing her with silence and space—I’d often have to give up. My other daughter, Becky, five years younger than her sister, would already have hidden herself in the basement. I myself would try to stay in the same room with Hannah for as long as I could, but over time this became harder and harder to do. Her rages had begun to take the form of attacks on the people around her, and she was dangerously strong. I’d been pinched, clawed and bitten many times, had had my fingers pushed backward to the threshold of breaking, had been nearly knocked out by the crash of her head against mine.
The state-sponsored social services agency for Butte, Montana, is called Family Outreach. Our case worker, Elizabeth, had been coming to the house two or three times a month ever since Hannah’s diagnosis, but though she’d been helpful all along the way—providing us with respite care, at-home trainers, books, therapeutic toys, funding for me to attend autism conferences, a Medicaid waiver to help cover Hannah’s medical bills—she was beyond her depth, as we all were, in trying to deal with Hannah’s violent outbursts. Meanwhile, my own mental health was disintegrating, as was my marriage, and in our family’s last-ditch effort to ease the burden we bought a second home, a cheap little place just a few blocks down the road from where we lived. We called it our “respite house,” and for a while my husband lived there full time. Then for a while, as I continued on the path to falling apart, he and I took turns staying there every night, and sometimes Becky and I would stay there together.
In the summer of 2002, Hannah turned fourteen. Around that same time, Family Outreach decided—I’m not sure just why—to reassign Elizabeth and to provide us with a new case worker. Her name was Maggie, and she seemed young and inexperienced—flustered by the paperwork, all the notes she was supposed to take, the charts to fill out, the various forms we both had to sign every time we met. But somehow she saw immediately what other people in Hannah’s life—doctors, teachers, therapists, case workers, and even (especially?) I myself—had never quite realized: namely, that ours was a family in complete crisis, and that unless a fundamental change took place very soon, we wouldn’t survive.
The first option Maggie came up with was straightforward: we could surrender our parental rights to Hannah, in which case the state would take her from us and set her up in some sort of foster care. My husband and I actually talked this over for a day or two—this business of simply handing Hannah over to the authorities—although I think both of us knew all along that we could never actually do it. So then Maggie came up with her second plan—the plan that saved our lives. We would move Hannah to the respite house, make the place safe and comfortable for her there, and take turns staying there with her each night. Meanwhile, Maggie arranged for an army of caretakers—some of them had been already working for us, but many were new—to work in shifts to take care of Hannah after school and on weekends.
Hannah made the transition amazingly well, and in fact within a week of moving to the other house, she seemed clearly to prefer it to living at home. At first the caretakers came to the house one at a time, but over the next couple of years, as Hannah grew more and more dangerous, it was decided that they needed to work in pairs. Sometimes, especially toward the end, there were three or even four caretakers at the house at once: one woman’s job was just to come in each night at 5:00, cook the evening meal, and give Hannah her nightly shower. Another woman—a specialist in an autistic therapy similar to Applied Behavior Analysis—drove from Helena to Butte every weekend to teach that training method to Hannah’s everyday caretakers. A video-recorder was installed in the kitchen of the second house, so that Hannah’s therapeutic progress could be monitored and the training methods adjusted.
Meanwhile, around the time she turned sixteen, Family Outreach started applying, on our behalf, for a residential group home placement for Hannah. Ironically, though, the very thing that made such placement so urgent—Hannah’s rages—was also the reason she was continually turned down. (After a while, every time a group-home position opened up, we faced an impossible dilemma: if we emphasized how hard Hannah was to handle, she was rejected as inappropriate, but if we played down her violent behavior, then the state saw no urgency in our situation, no reason why a sixteen-year-old girl shouldn’t wait a couple more years before placement.) Still, we kept hoping and applying, because we’d been told that the unprecedentedly high amount of state funding we were receiving to maintain what was essentially Hannah’s one-person group-home set-up might suddenly be withdrawn once she turned eighteen.
If Hannah had lived, she’d be twenty-three years old by now, and I don’t know—I can’t even guess—where and how and with whom she’d be living. But life goes whichever way it wants to, so instead Hannah died, a week beyond her seventeenth birthday, of an epileptic seizure in her sleep. Some people—good people, friends and family, many of whom have shown a notable capacity for making sense on other occasions—have declared her death a “blessing.” I marvel not only at the certainty of such people, but at the sweet relief they seem to find in being so certain. Meanwhile, some six years after Hannah’s death, I myself still don’t know what to think, and I don’t suppose I ever will.
… I’ve noticed that Tara [my friend; also, my beleaguered housekeeper] maintains a fifteen-minute window on either side of her arrival. Right now the time is 3:40. In five minutes I must begin to be on the lookout for her. And so it seems these days with death too—I feel so often lately the anxiety before the anxiety. How dare I say I live forever, when I’m so terrified of dying? I’m afraud …
[Apologies to Tara for comparing her to death. (She is, in fact, the opposite.)]