Life at home was like any kid’s life — safe, numb, warm, days stretching out forever, no sense at all of the passage of time besides the markers of our heights, penciled next to the basement door, until she got sick. My mother, wild and warm as a spare sunbeam, a human presence of such comfort and attachment I’m not sure I ever really learned to conceive of her as a corporeal being. She was sweet and funny and gave ceaselessly, and then one day she had a headache. Something had grown in her brain, boring its way furiously but quietly into the tissues, killing her slowly and then quickly. She complained of terrible pain, and then she went to the hospital, and very suddenly the adults around me became both urgent and quiet. My father visibly, audibly trembled. He took us in to see her. I saw the docile body lying on a gurney, tubes and wires, and a white head wrapping that covered her eyes which, brain dead as she was, must have stared into the empty horizon forever. I squeezed her hand and thought to myself, that’s not my mother, and in the room surrounded by everyone I knew and loved, I felt alone. I knew right away, but then when my father came home from the hospital to tell us a couple days later, I still felt a dull, dumb, numbing shock, right in my abdomen, like someone had jammed a syringe of novocaine right into my guts. I went and sat in the middle of the stairs, neither up or down, as if I could hide in that place between places forever.
In the years to come I would learn to clutch, hard, to my father. Gentle, wise, and alcoholic, his sweet cracking voice would wake me up in the morning, would tell me smart things as he tied my shoes every day until I reached the 7th grade. Big old belly to grab, knee to sit on, old artist’s hands. Dedicated to freedom, he taught me how to do everything but the little things I needed most at school, never telling me to wash my hair or brush my teeth, which was the worst and the best thing for me. In time, that freedom became my most reliable and terrible teacher, as our broken blended family succumbed to its internal dysfunction as surely as his body broke down from the liver cancer. It took him years to die. I look back at pictures from the last couple of years, and his jaundice looks shocking, but somehow I never noticed at the time, I never knew. They sent him and my younger brother and our stepfamily to Los Angeles. My older brother and I, teenagers, hid out in our home in Connecticut, alone, waiting for the inevitable.
He came back for a visit, just a long weekend. He was weak; I felt fear as he struggled to control the car. One night as I walked past his room to mine on the floor above, I thought I heard something, but let it go. Coming back downstairs, two hours later, I heard it again; he had fallen out of bed and had been unable to get back up. He must have laid there for those two entire hours, calling out for me in his rasping, broken voice, as I sat unaware up above. A man of impregnable self-belief, vast and proud, he had to be picked up by his 15 year old son, like a baby, and placed back into his bed, cancer-ridden and weak.
In Cedars Sinai, near the end, I went to visit him. He was hooked up to more tubes and dials than I could believe. I will go to my grave remembering the exact shade of purple that his skin had turned where wires had been inserted into his neck. For years he had struggled with a debilitating and mysterious skin illness, and in his hospital bed he was draped with a clear plastic hypoallergenic blanket, and when he saw me approach, dim and confused from drugs and weakness, he tried to cover himself, to protect his modesty in his hospital gown, in front of his teenaged son. I squeezed his hand and told him I had to fly back to Connecticut, to keep going in my high school life, and in front of me and my stepmother and a team of doctors and nurses, he cried. That was the last time I ever saw him.
They had gotten married a couple years before, though they had been dating for longer. I have spent more than a decade not thinking about her, and I have no desire to break that habit now. I wish, in the early days, that I had tried harder, for him. But in the end it was clear that we had no future together. She turned on my older brother first, telling him he couldn’t come home. And then the long, wearying, debilitating, confusing, crushing split, the rending of a blended family that had lost the person who it had blended for. Life became unknowable, a series of decisions made about your life, in secret, by people who did not know you and would not represent your interests if they did. The whole world is a conspiracy, a series of whispered agreements and meetings you weren’t invited to. Whose money was that, and where had it gone, and who got the house, anyway? It took years, years, for the last trappings of connection to rot and fall away. I had taken his leather jacket, and hung it in my closet with pride and love, and the one day I came home and it was gone. She had given it to her brother. My fucking father’s fucking leather jacket.
And, in time, year by grasping year, the four of us have endured, and we are building something, I suppose, like we were a decade and a half ago, and we advance for forever, all of this prologue to our inevitable triumphant rise.
Understand: I have never experienced trauma, according to the theories of the time. Not in the way that politics recognizes. Not in a way that they regard as legitimate. Because the deal now is that you will receive deference, and the right to speak with command, and the greatest laurel progressive culture now gives, the right to declare offense. But first, you have to play by their rules. You have to take that trauma and render it in the dullest, most cynical, most motivated language, a language of opportunism, subtlety-killing, particularity-killing. You have to submit. You have to take that part of you and make it into just another vehicle for someone else’s political pretense. Then, they’ll bless you with the right to trauma. They’ll let you take communion, but first you have to pray the rosary. The only thing that’s required is that you take the one thing that is most yours and give it to them, a human sacrifice, submission to their enlightened, benevolent, paternalistic authority.
So it’s true: I’ve never experienced trauma. I will go on owning every sad step of this sad journey, I will preserve a space within myself that is known by no one but me, and is for no one but me, and I will have the courage to be human though everyone and everything around me tempts me to be otherwise, and I will keep my own counsel on the meaning of suffering, and I will not serve.