Sever All Ties

“Kayla, wake up! Kayla! Kayla!!” I feel a hand on my shoulder and my whole body shaking before I hear the sound of my own voice screaming, screaming louder than I knew I was capable. Brandon pulls me to him and I collapse, sobbing in his arms. It’s nearly 3am and I just had the dream. It’s the same one I’ve been having for almost a year, where I find myself in a graveyard surrounded by all my siblings, my Mom standing off to the distance smiling at us, we’re reunited, I’m hugging Josiah. My stepdad and his new wife appear and they’re ripping my brother from my arms. Josiah’s big green eyes filling with tears flood my vision. I scream at them until my lungs give out, until all my siblings disappear, until I wake up. Brandon doesn’t even have to ask. He just holds me until I cry myself back to sleep.

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One Year Earlier

“I just don’t think it’s healthy for you to force them to call her Mom,” it was my last attempt at pleading with him to reconsider. “They’ve only known her a couple of months and Mom has not been gone that long. This will confuse them.”

“That’s not your call to make, Kayla.” He spoke in his usual authoritative tone. Even over the phone I could hear the smirk on his face. I heard an unfamiliar voice distantly on the line, then Bill again, “Becky is the only Mom they need to know.”

Just then my heart shattered into a million pieces. I couldn’t imagine how Mom would feel if she were here to hear this. I silently admitted defeat. “Will you put Hope on?”

“She’s, umm, not here right now.”

“Bill, I just heard her talking in the background.”

“No, she’s not here. You must’ve heard Hannah. Do you want to talk to her again?”

“Why aren’t you letting me talk to Hope?” I was exhausted of his lies. He wasn’t letting me talk to my sister, but would not admit it or tell me why. I had been in Jacksonville for 5 months. When I first moved down, I talked to the kids regularly, at least once a week. They would send me colorful notes, school projects, and drawings. Hannah sent one of us together, holding hands, me in a purple dress and her in a pink one with a thought bubble over her head that said, “I miss you Sister.”  Ever since Becky entered their home, the conversations were less and less frequent and the surprise mail was no more. The last box I got contained nothing but a vase of fake roses that had belonged to my Mother. I was happy to embrace it, to run my fingers over the curves of the ivory and magenta glass she once touched, but I also knew it meant he was ridding the house of her, eradicating her from their memories.

“I’m not keeping you from talking to her. She’s not here.” This was the same story he kept repeating. There was no point in arguing with him about it for a 10th time. When I hung up the phone I let out a long sigh and my eyes stung from the dammed-up tears.

Over the next few weeks, Brandon and I reconnected. We split amicably before I moved south but recently made contact again. The hope of finding friends and a fresh start in Jacksonville had quietly faded. The one friend I knew wouldn’t make time for me and the other was in the Navy and recently sent away. I was alone, and not the good kind of alone, I was depressingly lonely. Brandon comforted me as best he could over the phone, but that harrowing isolation and my concern for the kids sent me right back to Ohio. There just wasn’t anything in Florida worth staying for; and I’d never forgive myself for not being there for them during all these life transformations. So I packed my things into my car and drove straight up I95.

The first month I was back in Ohio I spent frantically applying to every job posting I could. My aunt and uncle were generous enough to let me stay with them until I could find a job and an apartment. On a particularly cold and snowy January day, I was excited to be heading out for my first interview when I met the mailman at their front door. He was carrying two letters from my Stepdad and his new wife, one addressed to me and one to my aunt & uncle. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach, the way it does when your body knows before your head something awful is about to happen. Bill had been skillfully evading me since I moved back, not answering my calls or letting me see or speak to not only Hope, but now also Hannah and Josiah. I ripped open the envelope and a few sentences in, I saw my whole world crumbling before me.

“At this time, we now want to sever all ties and communications between you and your siblings for this season in our lives. When we deem that this season is over, we will let you know at that time. However, at this time, we no longer want you to contact Hope, Hannah, or Josiah, buy them gifts, or in any way be a part of their lives. (This includes contacting them in any possible way, via phone, internet, cards, at church, school events, etc.)”

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. I lost it, sobbing uncontrollably, gripping my stomach in agony and gasping, fighting hard for each breath. I’d already lost my mom, now I’d also lost my siblings. I had no doubts the envelope waiting for my aunt and uncle contained the same carefully crafted message. In my letter they cited the reason for this decision as the time I told Bill the kids shouldn’t have to call her Mom. They depicted it as if I had some kind of mental breakdown, called it an outburst and said I did not respect them as the children’s parents and so they had no choice but to cease contact with me.  “We have sought God for the last month regarding this situation and this is what we feel He is telling us to do. We feel comfortable with this and our spirits and our Christian mentors and friends are aware and comfortable with our decision.”

How could they possibly be comfortable with this? Why would anyone think this is okay? I’ve been in their lives since day one. We are their family! It’s not as if we are drug addicts or murderers. We’ve never endangered the children or put them in any kind of unsafe environment. They’ve known this woman for mere months and somehow she’s more family than me? The reel in my head wouldn’t give. It just didn’t make any sense. And yet, somehow, I had felt this coming. He leaned on us hard after Mom died, to help take care of them, to buy their school supplies, to keep them clothed, to make sure they had a present to open on their birthdays. But ever since Becky waltzed into his life a few months prior, everything had changed. He was pushing us away slowly over those months, culminating in this final, nearly fatal blow.

“We want to reiterate that this decision of how we want to proceed in the raising of our children is nonnegotiable and it is not open for discussion.” I was confounded, infuriated, and breathless. My mind was going a million miles a minute. Our children, OUR children?! Please! I changed their diapers. I sang them to sleep. I wiped their baby tears when they fell. I’ve been loving them since before they were born. Who the hell does she think she is?! My thoughts were a jumbled mess. I cried out loud to my mother, willing her to reappear. I had long since given up faith of her coming back, but still in desperation, begged her to return. “If there was ever a time for you to rise from the dead, this is it Mom,” I howled, before experiencing the embarrassment of my pathetic request and letting out a violent cry, my body folding into itself.  My fingers were tangled in my hair, forcefully pressing, my nails digging deeper into my scalp. I could feel anguish and anger intertwining, taking up root in my core, eating through my will to live.

Finally, I steadied my breath. My hands lingered on the soft leathery couch before I pushed myself up into an unsteady standing position. My legs shook beneath the new weight I was carrying. Five minutes ago I was dressed and ready for this interview. Now my shirt was covered in snot, my face was wet and red, and my eyes were black, smeared with makeup. I crumpled the letter into my pocket and composed myself as best I could before forcing myself into my car. I was 15 minutes early to my interview. After I parked, the tears poured out again. I called Krystal. I told her about the letter and I lost control all over again. She hadn’t received one… yet. I’m so glad hers came later because I needed her in that moment. I needed her to be okay enough to tell me to wipe my face and walk into that interview. I wept to her, “how can I? how can I go in there and pretend this isn’t happening, that I haven’t just lost everything?” She replied sympathetically, “because you have to, Kayla.”

She was right. I had easily applied for 50 jobs and this was the only one I’d heard from in a month. I had no money left in my bank account. I didn’t have the luxury of falling apart, of passing this opportunity up. I used a scratchy napkin from my glove box to wipe away the excess makeup and gook that had accumulated around my eyes. I blew my nose into it which exemplified the pounding in my head. I looked at my puffy red face in the rearview mirror and said, “you cannot afford to mess this up.”

Somehow, I shoved everything aside and survived that interview. I don’t remember anything about it. I cannot picture the room I was in, cannot remember the scents or sounds, do not remember a single word I uttered, but I made it through. Afterwards, I crumbled into the front seat of my car and wailed in pain. I couldn’t drive myself home. I called Brandon to pick me up. The man who conducted my interview called me not even 2 hours after I walked out. I got the job.

 

The Resurrection Ceremony

With all my heart I wish the title of this post was a metaphor.

“Lana Lee Boles, 38, of Richwood died Friday, January 19, 2007 at East Cooper Regional Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina.  She was born September 20, 1968 in Chicago, Indiana to David Lee and Barbara Lee (Goodwin) Pierotti, who both survive in Elizabeth, West Virginia.

“Miracles happen and they happen to me.” These true words were written by Lana herself, an excerpt from her own diary. She is a believing, faithful, and righteous individual that has walked her life right alongside the Lord, Jesus Christ. Seeing many blessings and miracles in her life, God has never given her reason to doubt his word. “We are alive to invade the realm of impossibility,” she wrote. “Nothing is impossible for those who believe. Powerlessness is unacceptable. The power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in me. That is my now…”

In addition to her parents, she is survived by her husband, William David Boles, Richwood; 4 daughters, Krystal R. (Michael J.) Lee; Kayla D. Ashby; Hope L. Boles; Hannah E. Boles; son William Josiah-David Boles, all of Richwood; 2 brothers, Davie (Jodie) Pierotti, Parkersburg, West Virginia; Craig Pierotti, Louisiana; 3 sisters, Ruth (Shan) Swank, Richwood; Kim (Gary) Motoska, Canada; and Sherrie Cruz, Richwood.

Funeral Services will be held Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 1:00 P.M. in the Ballinger Funeral Home, Richwood.  Burial will follow in Claibourne Cemetery.  Visitation will be held 1 hour prior to the service beginning at 12 noon.

Memorial contributions may be made to Exodus House Ministries (www.exodushouseministries.org).”

I wrote that… her obituary. I’m so embarrassed of it. The words fill me with a unique self-loathing. Reading it reminds me of who I once was, what I once put my confidence in. I don’t like thinking of myself as that weak and stupid, but here is the truth: When she was sick, I wholeheartedly believed she would be healed; and when she died, I placed all my confidence in my faith, in my leader, and in Jesus to raise her from the dead. What I deeply wish to clearly convey is that this was not just an act of denial because we couldn’t face the loss, it was pure, complete, and unadulterated faith.

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We were all huddled in the center of the living room in The Exodus House. Bill was receiving another word from God, “DO NOT WAVER in your faith, thus sayeth the Lord. I have spoken. My word is life. I will breathe life into the lungs of the dead. I give you my word and I am the Lord.”

Those were the last words spoken until we arrived at the Ballinger Funeral Home. Songs of worship were playing loudly over the speakers. Before we could sit, Bill waved us up to the to where he stood. Slowly, the chairs filled with our family, a few distant relatives, a handful of members of past churches we attended, a select few people from around town to whom we had witnessed. At the front of the room stood each member of The Exodus House. In place of suits and black dresses, we were dressed casually wearing jeans, bright colors, and hooded sweatshirts.

Bill was pacing back and forth with his bald head thrown back and his large arms stretched out towards the ceiling, singing in tongues. He motioned for us to follow his lead. We did, every one of us, the children included. Mom’s casket stood open on the far right side of the room. Each time I paced to that side I cut the stride short, stopping just before I could see inside. I’d obeyed Bill’s and God’s orders the last 5 days, I hadn’t cried, but being near her body, I felt the trembles forming at my center and working their way out towards my limbs and up towards my eyes. My hands started quivering. Hannah neared the casket, inquisitively, and I grabbed her small hand, pulling her away and steadying myself.

Gradually the chairs filled up. At 1:00pm, the volume of the music dropped until it was just low in the background. Bill gathered the group in a circle and ordered us to keep praying while he addressed the room.

“Thank You all for coming today, though it was unnecessary,” he smirked. “I know you’re all here to say goodbye to Lana but you don’t need to. This is not a funeral service.” He paused and looked out at the befuddled faces, amused. “God has spoken to me. He’s ready to rock the world. He’s going to wake everyone up by raising Lana from the dead!”

Looking out at the tear stained faces of our family and friends, I saw disbelief. I saw anger. I saw confusion. I saw pity. Their eyes shifted from Bill to us, to her kids. I jerked my eyes closed and quieted my prayers to a hum. Bill was still speaking, even laughing at times, encouraging everyone in the room to believe, to believe in God, to believe Jesus Christ is the Lord, and to believe in this miracle he was about to perform.

My dad sat in the front row. His head was down, looking at the ground, his hands clasped, the tension evident by the constant movement of his fingers, pushing and pulling, veins protruding.

Bill continued, reading various Bible verses about faith and Lazarus before drawing his message to a close. “Look, I know some of you will have a hard time with this and do not believe, but I have a word from God to command my wife to rise and I’m going to do that. I will not allow the devil and his doubts to be in the vicinity while I’m doing this, so if you came here to mourn I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” Bible in hand, he pointed towards the door.  The crowd was dumbfounded. There was an audible gasp followed by shifting eyes and a deafening silence. “I won’t have any crying, no tears of doubt here.”

My dad looked up at him, his face red. He sucked up his nose, pulled up his chest, and leaned up tall, back into his seat. No one else budged. Definite sobs erupted several rows back.

Bill stood firm on his decision, his patience dwindling, he demanded once more everyone either stop crying or leave. “You’re either with us believing in this miracle or you’re not. If you’re not, you need to go.”

One at a time, mourning people made their exit from the room. Not counting those of us standing up front, there were maybe a dozen who remained. My dad was among them. He sat like a stone-cold statue. I thought, oh my gosh, he believes! He is finally going to be saved! I sincerely thought he was there in solidarity with us, ready to witness this miracle. I had never been more proud of him.

We paced and prayed and sang and shouted, relentlessly commanding her back to life. The music had been turned back up, way up. It was a compilation of carefully selected songs about miracles and certainty in Christ. When the first few notes came on to the next song, Bill waved us all over to the Mom’s casket. This was it. I inhaled deeper than I’d ever inhaled and opened my eyes to see her lying there. She didn’t look like her. Her makeup was a mess. Her lips were turned down. Her hair was nearly matted her to head the opposite of the sky high way she wore it every day. I pushed away all those thoughts and focused on the matter at hand. The music was blaring again.

Everybody’s watching you know. Everybody waits for you now. What happens next? What happens next? I Dare You To Move. I Dare You To Move. I dare you to lift yourself up off the floor.

I intently scrutinized each of her body parts, her nose, her mouth, her forehead, the lids of her eyes. Is there any movement? I waited for it, willed it to happen, screamed out loud at her, “MOOOOOOVE. LIIIFE!!” We all stood crowded around her lifeless body, hands laid on her. I took her cold hand in mine. It still looked like hers, delicate and freckled; it still felt like her. I squeezed hard. We all danced and sang out at the chorus, I DARE YOU TO MOVE. I DARE YOU TO MOVE.

I pulled away to let Hope in. She took hold of Mom’s hand as I let go. Her brown M&M eyeballs wide and perceiving. I turned back to see my dad still sitting there in the front row.

Maybe redemption has stories to tell. Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell. Where can you go to escape from yourself? Where you gonna go? Where you gonna go? Salvation is here.

For nearly 3 hours we kept this up, repeating our entire soundtrack three times until eventually, the funeral director told us we had to go. He had been politely but unsuccessfully trying to persuade us to stop for over an hour, but Bill resisted, steadfast. I went back over to Mom, grabbing her hand. “It’s Warm!” I announced to the room. Bill nodded knowingly, smiling, his tongue still rolling in the language of the Holy Ghost. Krystal came over to feel it for herself. I imagined her body warming up limb by limb as the holy spirit moves through it breathing life. Then I thought for a second, maybe it’s warmed up because we’ve been holding it, but I quickly dismissed the devil from my thoughts.

We finally agreed to leave the funeral home and head to the burial site. Many of the people who had been kicked out were waiting in the parking lot to follow us to Claiborne Cemetery. I wondered if Bill would even let them come with us. On the car ride, we continued our prayers and speaking in tongues, not letting up for a moment. We arrived to the site and suddenly it became unbearable to think of her lying in there, under the dirt. My mind raced trying to conceive how God was going to pull this off. What if she comes back to life but not until after we’ve buried her? Will God dig up the dirt himself, or just command it to disappear? Will Mom just appear somewhere else and the ground will remain untouched? I bet people will come dig it up anyway trying to prove somehow it’s not her. Imagine their faces when they find her grave empty.

They unloaded the pathetic flimsy blue casket from the back of the hearse and placed it next to the giant hole in the muddy ground under a white tent. The sky was gray and drab and rain drizzled down, each drop stinging the exposed skin on my face. Once more, Bill huddled the group and gave us encouragement. He told us it was just another hurdle, that being moved from the funeral home to the cemetery did not mean we should give up, it was merely another test of faith. Again, I refocused my energy on the moment. I searched my heart for any remaining doubt and forced it away. If I let go of my faith and she doesn’t come back, it’s my fault. No.

Hesitantly, the funeral director asked Bill if he’d like to say a few words. “God does the impossible every day. Six feet of dirt is nothing to him, he created the dirt!” He chuckled. “Join me. Allow God to work through you today.”  He went back to praying over her, laying his hands on the closed coffin.

The rest of our loved ones stood back at a distance looking on. We thrust their judging and pitying glances out of our minds and mimicked Bill’s movements. Each of us individually, from Krystal down to six-year-old Josiah, commanded her once more to rise.

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After the ceremony, we remained rigid in our belief. We separated ourselves from the outside world entirely for many months. Bill shut down all contact with anyone who wasn’t standing in faith with us, which meant everyone. Aunt Ruth who had been a leader of the house we saw every day was cut out. My dad, who it turns out did not suddenly find salvation but rather stood stubbornly there refusing to leave his daughters during the tragic event, our grandparents, people we use to go to church with, no one was exempt. We were not allowed to see them, talk to them, call them, email them.  If anyone in the group cried because they missed mom, even the kids, we had to have an emergency meeting where Bill would berate us about doubt and then inspire us to believe again. I still have the unimaginable notes from these services. We prayed over the house, picturing a bubble of security around it, filled with light inside so long as we held tight. We stayed inside and all the evil and disbelief had to stay out.

One by one members of The Exodus House left. Per Bill, they let doubt win. Once these signs were evident, if they wouldn’t go willingly, they were forced to. This happened until all that was left was Bill and us kids. After many months, Krystal and I had to come to grips with it and leave as well, with no other choice than to abandon our younger siblings in there, in that unfathomable mess. It has riddled me with guilt every day since.

In retrospect, most of us now agree it was good that Mom died. Her death ultimately brought about the death of The Exodus House. I only wish there had been another way.

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One Year Later

As I was clocking out I  glanced at my phone and saw four missed calls from Krystal. After making the long trek from the store to the parking lot and getting settled in my car, I punched her name into my phone and let it ring.

“Bill is marrying Christy,” she answered.

“What?!” I yelled, dismayed.

“God told Bill to ask Christy to marry him.”

I sat silently, flabbergasted, heat rising in my body.

“Kayla… I think it’s a good thing. The kids need someone other than him”

I couldn’t respond. My mind was running a million miles a minute. Bill hadn’t even let me see the kids since finding out about Brandon so I hadn’t been speaking to him much. I knew he was kind-of-sort-of talking to the divorced skirt-wearing Pentecostal neighbor lady who had kids that our siblings liked to play with, but I thought it was just for company. The image of mom lying in her hospital bed at James Cancer Center, sobbing, saying “I don’t want him to fall in love with anyone else,” played on repeat in my head.

“Do they know?”

“Not yet, he’s telling them tonight.” She said, missing my question entirely.

“No!” I raise my voice, “Do they know Mom isn’t coming back?! Did he tell them yet?”

Now she’s the one who’s silent. “No. I don’t know. I doubt it.”

“Does he still think she is? If he does why would he get married? This doesn’t make any sense. Mom’s only been gone a year! and the last time I talked to him, he was still believing God was going to raise her from the dead.”

“I don’t know, Kayla. I just know Bill says God told him he was supposed to marry Christy.”

When we got off the phone I sat staring out at the parking lot in front me, stunned.

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Bill never did marry Christy. After a month or so of engagement she claimed to have received dreams from the Holy Ghost, warnings about him, and she backed out. I suppose one good thing came of all that, the kids finally started to realize that maybe Mom wasn’t coming back. The first year after her funeral, it’s all they talked about. Even after Krystal and I left The Exodus House, Bill continued to push them to keep faith. He told them repeatedly and daily that God would resurrect her. He never admitted he was wrong for doing that. In fact, today he still believes it’s what God wanted him to do. Even after years, he never actually spoke aloud to us or to the kids she wasn’t coming back. Obviously, Krystal and I figured it out on our own but Hope, Hannah, & Josiah were too young.  He just let them believe that until one day they began putting the pieces together and at last realized.

We never discussed this together, as siblings, as a family. We just didn’t talk about it at all. We all had to come to our own conclusions in our own time. It made for almost two years of intense and awkward division between us all. We had to individually realize the permanence of her death and then deal with it completely alienated from one another. We didn’t get a funeral. We didn’t get a memorial service. We never got the chance to mourn her, miss her, hear stories about her from friends and family. We didn’t get to say goodbye to her when she was alive and dying and we were robbed of the goodbye afterward. I’m certain this is part of the reason it still feels so raw to most of us. We want to go back and do it right, we want to grieve and let go, but after ten years, we don’t even know where to start. I suppose that is what all this writing is about, a desperate attempt to understand who I am and why, a way to force myself to dig up the dark and devastating things I’ve buried, a chance to unburden myself of this agony and finally, once and for all, say goodbye.

A Beautiful Mess

January 19, 2017
7:00am

Me: Can you believe that 10 years ago at this time I was on my knees in the living room of the Exodus House praying and commanding Mom to come back to life? All of us were – forcing ourselves not to cry and instead praying. Can you believe me, the person I am now, the one lying next to you, was so dumb?

Brandon: Dear.

Me: Do you think her body is all eaten up by bugs by now?

Brandon: Nah, probably not.

Me: Her casket was cardboard.

Brandon: Oh… Then Yes.

Me: You know, we were really poor and since we were like SHE’s NOT DEAD, ONLY SLEEPING, we didn’t see the point in a proper casket.

Do you believe she’s just gone, vanished? Like do you believe people don’t have souls and once they die, they die?

Brandon: I’m not sure. We can’t really know.

Me: Because people talk about feeling their past loved ones all the time, like around them. I never feel her, never.

Brandon: Maybe they’re limited to a certain amount of time to visit like that.

Me: But I never did, not even then. Then again, we didn’t even believe she was dead so maybe she tried but we were too dumb to notice.

I really hope she still exists somewhere, just so she can look down on us and feel like a piece of shit for doing this to all of us.

She knew she was going to die, she could’ve told us. She knew Bill would go crazy and not let her go, she said those very words to his brother. She could’ve worked to get the kids put in someone else’s care, or at least give us or Ruth some sort of custody over them. She knew it would be bad once she died and she did exactly nothing. She could’ve prevented most of the pain and suffering all of us went through the last 10 years. We would’ve had to deal with the loss of her, but people deal with loss every day, we could’ve handled just that, but she could’ve prevented the rest of it.

She could’ve said goodbye.

HAHAHAHA, I just said I hope my Mom still exists just so she feels like a piece of shit.

Brandon: Oh dear.

Me: I’ve got to go write.

 

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My mother was a real beauty. She had long dark hair, deep green eyes, and the softest freckled olive skin. She was admired by strangers every time we went out in public; I don’t even think she was aware. When I was little I wanted to look exactly like her. She laughed fully, loud and committed. It still rings in my ears as if an echo of something I heard only seconds ago. She instinctively knew whenever I needed her touch. She would hold my hand or wipe the hair from my face, even while in conversation with someone else.

She was an excellent cook, not just because it was “mom’s cooking,” but she taught herself the proper way to do things. Everyone in the family, everyone at church, basically everyone we met ended up talking about “Lana’s cooking.” In one of our churches, she ran a little café off the sanctuary where people would sit after service and have a cup of coffee and a slice of her famous coffee cake. I suppose my love of cooking came from her. The year before she died, I made homemade raviolis for the very first time. When Mom tried them she said, “You may surpass me in the kitchen, Kayla.” I was so honored and proud.

I adored my mom, worshipped her really. I thought she was perfect. When she first left us with my dad, I thought I’d never forgive her. I did, though; I needed her too much not to. She betrayed me, and she betrayed my dad several times, once by sleeping with his best friend. She got pregnant by another man. She disrupted our entire lives by hanging around people who could not be trusted and they came around the house saying threatening things. She left me and Krystal with our dad who at the time felt like a stranger to me. I believed the awful things she said about him. I believed her exaggerated stories of him controlling her. Somehow, after all of that, I ended up on her side.

The years that followed that upheaval weren’t any better. She uprooted us time and time again, jerking us in and out of homes and schools. In my fourth-grade year, I attended 4 different schools. It became normal to us. We didn’t even blink when we found out it was time to pack and move all our belongings again. I’ll never forget when Hope was 5 or 6 and we had lived in the same house for almost a full year, she said, “isn’t it time for a new house now?” We did move, just a few months later. Mom was chasing the church and running away from herself. When she married Bill, they kept running. They justified every move by saying it was God’s will. I didn’t realize until I was older what awful parenting this was. Krystal and I are so very lucky we were gifted students and managed to keep up between all the schools and with all that instability. Now I wonder if Mom ever even considered how it affected us. If our grades had suffered, would it have been a wakeup call to her? Would she have put us first and reconsidered? Unfortunately, I don’t believe she would have.

Recently I asked my siblings to describe their favorite or strongest memory of Mom. Two of them said the same thing I was thinking, “the strongest ones aren’t very positive memories anymore.” But there are still a few good ones.

Krystal described a time when Mom was still single and trying to raise four kids. We were broker than broke. She borrowed Bill’s tiny, duct taped Chevette (he was our neighbor, not our step-father at the time), and all of us piled in it and drove to Dairy Queen. With our very last $3 Mom bought two peanut buster parfaits and all four of us plus mom shared them in the car. We were so happy and laughing. Mom was very aware of how much we missed out on and was constantly scraping up pennies to try and make us feel special or give us treats.

She also reminded me of the very last Christmas season with Mom. She was very sick at the time but was determined to go out Christmas shopping. She loved picking out gifts for people, even if we couldn’t really afford them. We went to Big Lots and Dollar Tree. We took turns pushing her in the wheel chair. She was so embarrassed of being sick, of feeling sick, of looking sick, but we lightened the mood by talking about how fun it would be to ride around in the electric scooter at Walmart. I remember looking at her when she was in the toy aisle trying to find the perfect Littlest Pet Shop animal for Hannah. Her face and her whole being were completely lit up. She shined when she was thinking of others. In that moment, you couldn’t even tell she was unwell.

Josiah was so young when she died and then afterwards was not allowed to talk about her or look at pictures of her at all, so he has almost completely forgotten her. When I asked him about his memories, he said, “Food. I remember all the food.” He does have one memory he’s held onto, a time towards the end of her life. When she was sick and we were believing in faith for God to heal her, we started buying special foods that were just for her, antioxidant rich foods or anything we’d read about helping to prevent or reverse cancer: blueberries, olives, acai berry juice, etc. All these things were way out of our oatmeal and rice budget range, so we only bought enough for Mom. No one else in the house was allowed to eat them. Josiah remembers Mom often sneaking him some of her special snacks when no one else was around. She was a giver, giving even when she shouldn’t, giving until she had nothing left.

Hope remembers when they got the kitties. One minute Bill was dead set against it and told the kids they were not having pets, then Mom whispered something to him and they ended up coming home with Steele and Ebony that same day. She was always able to do that. Hope reminded me of the running joke that came out of that day, “Mom could persuade him to get an elephant if she wanted to.” We were not allowed to ask one parent and then ask the other if we didn’t like the first answer; we got in trouble for that. The lesson she learned that day was to always ask Mom.

She also recalls when Mom was sick and we weren’t really allowed in the room with her in case we let doubt in. Somehow Hope managed to get some alone time with her. She sat in front of Mom while Mom braided her hair and Hope talked about Dragon Rider, the book she was reading at the time. The moment is so special to her because she had Mom’s full attention, and in a house with 12 people, that was a rare luxury. “She really listened. She took me seriously. She told people not to treat me like a baby.” Mom knew what Hope needed when no one else did.

So many people tell me it gets easier with every year, it’s been ten. The pain of missing her is ceaselessly there, sitting just below the surface waiting to be prodded into eruption. Maybe that’s only because we never properly grieved her. Maybe it will be easier someday, although I can’t imagine it. Today, it simply hurts.

I’ve chronicled a lot of my own memories here through my writing. The most difficult part of processing them over the years has been learning to see her for who she really was, learning to see through the eyes of a person and not only the eyes of a daughter. Many of the decisions she made that seemed okay to me at the time are now shown to have been terrible ones, for herself and for us. Considering the past as an adult is like holding a light over the memories I held most dear and seeing the dark shadows surrounding them. I wish she was here so I could tell her how angry I am with her. I wish I could tell her I forgive her. I wish I could tell her I see her now. I wish someone would’ve seen her when she was alive. I wish she’d sought help in the right places. I wish she had been stronger.

My mother was far from perfect. She was complex. She was human. She was smarter than she ever knew, a self-taught cook, an unfailing giver, an unwavering friend, a careless lover, a striver for perfection. She was a humble human being who constantly doubted herself. She was a mom before she had the chance to be a person. She was undeniably lost, and an utterly beautiful mess.

Exclusion

Krystal stood in the kitchen, hands clasped together in a prayer-like pose, “Please, Mom, Pleeaaseee?”

“Okay, but only for one hour.” Krystal took off towards the back door and I followed.

“Krystal! That means you and Kayla need to be home by five o’clock.”

Before reaching the door she came to a halt and turned around with a look of pure disappointment.  “What? Kayla? No. Mom, please don’t make me take her. Clarissa and I want to play alone.” We made our way back into the kitchen where Mom was sprinkling some seasoning into a pot on the stove.

“Krystal, honey, she wants to play too.”

I searched Krystal’s face for even a hint of remorse but there was none. She pleaded again… and won.

“Kayla, do you want to help me make dinner?” Mom gazed down at me with fake enthusiasm.

Once more, I searched Krystal’s face but there was no change.

“Okay.” I muttered. And without pause Krystal bolted out of the room.

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Mom and Dad’s best friends, Mike and Danette, were at the house for the evening. It was really exciting because we didn’t get to see them as often since we moved from England. There, we lived close to each other but after the move we were in different states. Krystal and I loved it when they were around because they paid us lots of attention and brought us gifts and goodies. Mike always played games with us and with Danette we always did crafts or colored.

After dinner, everyone else decided to play a game while Mom cleaned up the kitchen. They brought a new one we hadn’t played before, “Yahtzee.” The box was small and red and had a picture of a blue cup with dice pouring out of it. I went to the bathroom and when I came back Krystal and Mike had already opened the box and he was reading through the rulebook. I sat down next to Krystal and she whispered, “No Kayla,” and shoved me back with her elbow. She pursed her lips and pointed to the bottom right corner of the box. “You’re too little. Eight and UP.”

“I’m seven, though. That’s almost eight.”

“No. Eight and Up. You can’t play.” She turned her back to me and squeezed closer toward the game so I could no longer see it.

I knew there was nothing an eight-year-old could do that I couldn’t. I felt the tears welling up in my eyes and I ran to my bedroom and cried into my mountain of stuffed animals. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The house was quiet except for random laughing outbursts coming from the boys’ bedroom. I didn’t remember falling asleep but I woke up with an imprint of the spiral of my notebook on my left cheek. Walking down the hall towards to the kitchen, I heard Krystal’s voice and some faint background music from behind the boys’ bedroom door. In the living room, Debra sat on the couch, legs crossed, with a book in her hand. It had a picture of a man with long hair and white shirt split open in the middle embracing a tiny woman with dark disheveled hair, their lips almost touching. On the table in front of her was a napkin with a small pile of chips and a glass of iced tea. She didn’t even look up when I entered the room.

After satisfying my thirst I headed back down the hall. I stood in front of the boys’ door for a moment before deciding to give it a try. I cracked the door just slightly enough to see Kyle sitting on the floor sorting his Pogs. I could see half the TV and as I suspected, they were playing video games. “Can I come in?” I asked. Kyle looked up at me and caught my eye just as the door slammed in my face. They didn’t say anything but bursted with laughter behind it. I don’t know if it was Joe or Krystal who slammed the door but the message was clear, WE DON’T WANT YOU.

I considered telling Debra they wouldn’t let me in but based on past efforts, I knew it would be fruitless. She had never before taken my side. I somberly went to my bedroom and picked up where I left off in my journal entry.

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It was one of our first nights at Jubilee Worship Center. After Praise and Worship when they called for all the children to go to children’s church and the teens to go to youth group, I looked at Mom not sure what I should do. I decided to follow Krystal. When we got to the back of the sanctuary, Krystal realized I was behind her and stopped and matter-of-factly said, “Kayla, youth group is for teens only. You’re not old enough.” I went back and sat with Mom for the remainder of service. I was too old for memory verses and making fish and bread out of construction paper. I was too young for whatever it was they did in youth group.

I ended up spending most of my time there in the nursery consoling my baby sisters who would scream when we left them in there. Eventually, the church formed a pre-teens group that consisted of me, my cousin Shaina, and 2 other kids in the church who were 11 and 12. Our meeting place was in a hallway because there was no proper room left for us.

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It was my first day at this new Junior High school and a girl named Brittany was nice enough to explain to me how the lunchroom worked. “That table is for prep girls only, basically only cheerleaders. The boy preps sit at the table next to them, football players and some other sports. That’s where the band sits. Those are nerds. The trouble-makers sit over there. And I guess you should sit at that table.” She pointed to one in the back corner of the cafeteria with only one other person sitting there, then she hopped off to join her own table with the rest of the band. I had been the new person more times than I cared to count, but I had never experienced such extreme separation of cliques in any of the elementary schools I attended before this.

Lunch tray in hand I took in all different groups. Each one was filled with a bunch of people who looked, dressed, and acted the same as everyone else sitting at their table, none of which mirrored me. I took Brittany’s suggestion and headed to the table in the back, sitting on the opposite side as the one other person sitting there. I made eye contact with no one.

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I have countless stories like these. Exclusion has been a repetitive theme in my life, in my family, at school, at work.  I was either always excluded internally by feeling different than those around me, or I was intentionally pushed away or left out. I was rejected time and time again. I still feel it today, when I walk into a room and everyone stops laughing, when I find out about a bunch of people getting together but I was never invited. I have never been able to find my place in this world.

If it were no longer happening, I think I could chalk it up to being the younger child the first 7 years and then being the middle child. It seems like text-book psychology, but it STILL happens today. Very recently one member of my family, whom I believed I was somewhat connected to, got mad at me when we disagreed on something and said, “This is why no one ever wants you around. You ruin everything.” I honestly have no idea what I did to inspire that comment. The words speared into me and touched a very old, very deep wound. Hearing them said aloud, the words I always believed to be true but hoped were only in my head, messed me up. That singular event sent me into a downward spiral and I’ve been trying to think and write my way out of it ever since.

It is true I often think differently than those around me. I frequently oppose the opinions and actions of those with whom I’ve found myself near to in life. Unless prompted, though, I rarely share my disagreement out loud. It has been this way for as long as I can remember, but is that alone enough to make them repel me?

Why is this a repetitive theme in my life? What am I to learn or glean from it? Is there some aspect of my personality that repulses people that I am still wholly unaware of? With as habitually as I seek understanding and self-awareness, is that even possible? How do I change it? Or am I meant to never understand and just accept that I’m unwanted?

Perhaps the purpose of it all is to send me deeper inside of myself. Maybe it is intended that I separate myself from others and this was the universe’s way of ensuring I do so.

If I had the answers, I wouldn’t be writing this. I must, however, find a way to stop this unique exclusion from hurting me, and I must do so without numbing myself, without giving up my most powerful asset, my ability to feel so deeply. That is the immense obstacle in front of me.

Created to be Who’s What?!

“God gave Adam the most precious gift a man will ever receive – a woman. … If you are a wife, you were created to fill a need, and in that capacity you are “a good thing,” a helper suited to the needs of a man. This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job, and no man is complete without his wife. You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.”

I closed the book, my right forefinger still resting on the page I just read. I dwelled on it and then reopened it and read it again, aloud. “You were created to make him complete.” I shut my eyes to keep my cheeks free from stain. It was the first time I fully perceived my destined inadequacy, because I was a woman. I was heartbroken. It was the realization that the inner strength I’d always been so secretly proud of was an error, was a power never to be wielded. I had been chasing a life of purpose my whole existence. I believed I could change the world, be a history-maker, and I just discovered I would never do those things but rather, assist someone else in doing them. The revelation struck me in the gut like a blade. My entire envisioned future unraveled before my eyes.

In the Exodus House whenever we felt pain or confusion, feelings of the devil, we were required to report it to our leaders immediately so they could help us find the light again; so, I climbed down the stairs to find my mother.

Mom had just started leading this new class for the women in our group. It was a rigorous study of what it means to be a woman and a good wife. Our textbook for the class was Debi Pearl’s, “Created to be His Helpmeet.” We’d have homework of reading certain chapters as part of our daily devotionals, and then we’d all assemble to study and discuss them. No one said it aloud but I knew the class was aimed specifically at me because of my impending voyage across the Atlantic to marry a Kenyan man of God. There were other women in the house who needed it as well, but we ordered the books for the class as soon as my departure had been confirmed. I had only a few short months to learn how to become the perfect helpmeet.

She was sitting in the living room with a deep purple crocheted blanket across her lap and her KJV Bible firmly planted in her right hand, the front cover of which was folder over. Her feet were spread wide and she was leaned over into the book as if she yearned to jump in. She held a yellow highlighter crayon in the other hand and signaled me to wait before interrupting her. When she finished the verse, she sat for a moment in the stillness before putting her Bible on the table next to her and looking up at me.

“I don’t understand, Mom. So, because I’m a woman, I’m not as important.” It was half question, half statement.

Her eyes glanced at the book in my hand and the corners of her mouth turned up in a knowing smile. “No Kayla, you are just as important,” she began, “Man is God’s helper and you are man’s helper. You are an important piece in man achieving God’s plan for him. You have a role, the same way your husband will, it’s just a different one.”

“It says I was created to make him complete… that’s my whole purpose.”

Mom directed me to take a seat and called an impromptu women’s meeting. My house sisters came in from the adjacent room and Mom beseeched our leader, my step-father Bill, to speak to us. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who was having qualms with this concept, this idea of being less than. The other ladies started speaking up and sharing their frustrations as well, even my ten-year-old sister contended. She was not an official part of the class but, at that age, Hope could not keep her hands off a book that was in her proximity. She thrust herself into the dialogue and discourse of the group. “We know we’re all just little peons in God’s plan, except we aren’t even good enough to be peons because we’re girls,” she added.

Bill scolded Mom with a glare for allowing Hope to be part of the discussion this time, as if he only noticed her presence at that moment when she challenged him. Mom pushed back a little but with a motherly softness, and he relented in their silent debate.

They spent nearly four hours educating us all on the difference between being subordinate and inferior. They did not stop until we demonstrated, honestly or not, our content and understanding of our helpmeet statuses.

The next week we learned about the three different types of men and how God created them strongly as themselves, to be planted in their type. Women, however, were made to be flexible, to adapt to be the best helper to whatever type God gave them as a husband.

For an example on this from our reading, “A Command Man,” one of the three types, “who has gone bad is likely to be abusive. It is important to remember that much of how a Command Man reacts depends on his wife’s reverence toward him. When a Command Man (lost or saved) is treated with honor and reverence, a good help meet will find that her man will be wonderfully protective and supportive. In most marriages, the strife is not because the man is cruel or evil; it is because he expects obedience, honor, and reverence, and is not getting it. Thus, he reacts badly. When a wife plays her part as a help meet, the Command Men will respond differently.”

In that lesson, we were taught that a man’s actions are the responsibility of the wife. (Present Day Kayla says – ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! VICTIM BLAMING MUCH?!)

Mom used anecdotes from her own life and marriage to help us understand. She believed God gave her a “Command Man” husband, so when she married him and learned his ways, she learned how to adapt her own habits and reactions and underwent adoring and worshipping him. This made him his best and therefore brought them both closer to each other and to God.

It was a lot to sort out. In just a few months I was going to be married and have this same weight of responsibility, for a man I’d never even met. I didn’t know which of the three types he was, so I studied each of them thoroughly and mentally practiced and prepared to be the perfect helpmeet to all three. I remember reading how it’s the wife’s responsibility to pray for her husband daily. The author told us about her way of remembering to keep him in her constant prayers. She said every time she sees a red light, she prays for her husband. For many years and in many churches and youth groups, as young as twelve years old, I’d been encouraged to start praying for my future husband, despite not knowing who he would be; I had never made it a regular part of my day though. Since I couldn’t drive yet, I decided to start praying for Jerry, my future husband, every time I brushed my teeth. I figured twice a day was a good place to start.

Staring at my blank face in the somewhat blurred and speckled mirror, I implored with my mind to think positive thoughts about him, but all I could hear was the sound of the water pouring from the faucet. I clutched my green toothbrush tighter and tried again. The thudding in my chest intensified as I raised my head towards the ceiling and cried out to God, “God, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.” The fear leaked out of the corner of my eyes and down the length of my nose as I dropped my head towards the sink. “I don’t know him or what he needs, but I guess you do so, please, give him that.” It felt forced; I felt insincere.

Though I considered it several times more, I never prayed for him while brushing my teeth again. I did, however, pray that I would be a good wife when the time came. When trepidation tiptoed into the darkest corners of my mind late at night, I’d lie in bed and plead with God to change me, to turn me inside out, upside down, to make me malleable and brand new in his image. I asked him to turn me into the woman I needed to be, whomever that was, the woman who could be this stranger’s perfect wife.

Becoming Me

We were clanking down the road in our loud, dated, muffler-dragging, duct-taped, ugly vehicle as we had done so many mornings before. I was squished between two car seats in the backseat with my left hand draped over Hannah’s side and her little fist curled around my thumb. Up front, Krystal was fidgety. The car thickened with panic just before Krystal turned to Mom about two blocks before we reached the school and asked her to stop.

“What?” Mom kept driving, confused.

“Just Stop, PLEASE.” she begged.

“Krystal, we’re almost there.”

With desperation and near tears, she pleaded, “I’m sick of them seeing me in this car, Mom. It’s embarrassing!”

We slowed to a crawl and finally, mom stopped the car. She leaned towards her oldest daughter to kiss her goodbye but Krystal was already halfway out the door.

“Mom. No.” She said as she shut the door and took off at a lightning pace in the direction of her Junior High School.

Mom watched Krystal growing smaller and smaller putting distance between them with each step she took. I watched Mom. Her emerald eyes flooded and she pressed her face into her hands. From the backseat, I reached for her shoulder and rubbed it gently. When Mom hurt, I hurt too.

“Why did she do that? Why was she so mean to you?”

She wiped her stained cheeks and found my eyes in the rearview mirror. “You will do the same thing one day when you’re older, Kayla.” and her head fell again. How dare she, I thought. How dare she think I could so easily disregard her feelings. That’s not me.

I moved up to the front seat and put her hand in mine, leaning my head on her shoulder. The heat rose to my cheeks as I stared out the window towards the space Krystal had occupied on the sidewalk moments before. I felt the anger flinch in my jaw. With a certainty, too fierce for such a young girl, I proclaimed, “I will never do that, Mommy, never. You can hug and kiss me in front of anyone, forever, I promise.” Her hands cupped my cheeks and she pulled my face to hers. She didn’t believe me. She appreciated I said it, but she didn’t believe me. Her lips touched my forehead before she straightened out her breath and started driving again.

Her disbelief only solidified my adamancy to keep my promise.

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I have always been an observer. It is not out of curiosity alone, or simply to discover, but to make sound and definite decisions regarding my own future and who I want to be. Cautiously, but intently, I’ve watched the behaviors of others and waited for the consequences to be unveiled. Seeing the back and forth between people fascinated me. Everything is about cause and effect. There was and is an ever-evolving pro-con list in my head, and I have never acted on a decision without consulting it. Instances just like this one, are how the list has been shaped.

The ripple effect of one person’s actions has always been crystal clear to me. As a child, this caused me great anguish. I couldn’t fathom how people could do the things they did, knowing the outcome they’d have on others. I was unaware that many people don’t recognize this, they simply act and react out of emotion without ever considering what may happen to the world around them. I admit it is still a difficult pill for me to swallow, accepting this nature in others. As someone who analyzes every move before making it, to watch others haphazardly fly through life, acting on impulses, incites great stress in me. I judge them, then I beat myself up for being so judgmental. I’m sure I’ve missed out on certain fun or thrills because of my constant consideration. I’ve often envied the ability to “let go,” that “stop thinking and just do” kind of attitude has a certain life allure. I work hard to understand their satisfaction of acting in the moment, then, I watch them unintentionally but repeatedly cause harm to others through their lack of emotional control, and I’m back to square one. But this isn’t a story of judgement, it’s a story of self-discovery, of becoming.

Looking at my life, it is obvious to me how I’ve created the precise person I am and the world I have now. I can look back in time and pinpoint the exact moments I decided I was or was not going to do or be something. I stood by those promises I made myself.

I am proud to say I never once pulled away from my mother when she leaned in for a hug or a hundred tiny kisses, no matter the audience. The joy it gave her, and the satisfaction it gave me of being true to my word, were worth any embarrassment I may have encountered. This memory is a defining one for me. In a way, sitting in our clunker that day, I was already observing and teaching myself the laws of physics, of energy, of give and take. I was discovering my empathy. I was carefully and intentionally crafting myself into a person I could love and respect.

Peanut Butter Perceptions

Dad walked through the front door, nodded to Mom who was poring over the stove preparing dinner and set his cumbersome work bag down on the other side of the kitchen wall. Mom and I had finished cleaning up our mess from playing in the living room just in time for him to get home. I watched him from the tan couch covered in a hideous floral print attempting to decipher his mood. Was he going to be angry with me again? Was he going to take off his belt and spank me right away? Or would he cuddle me close and shower me with affection? I was hopeful for the latter. He looked in my direction as he settled down into the velvety brown rocker chair in the corner of the living room and his gray eyes grinned with pleasure at the sight of me. His right hand reached up to pull the hat off his head. He tossed it on the side table and rubbed his hand back through his sandy-blonde hair, ruffling it up in attempt to undo the linear indent left by the hat. I giggled, jumped off the couch, and ran towards him, awaiting embrace. His camouflage covered arms were stiff as they wrapped around my tiny body and squeezed. The overwhelming scent of sweat, old paper, petroleum, and shoe polish filled my nostrils, the scent of Dad.

“Do you want to take Daddy’s boots off?” he asked, planting a firm kiss on my pliable right cheek.

I squirmed my way out of his arms to the foot of the chair. Mom and Dad talked through the small cutout window in the wall between the kitchen and living room and I tuned them out completely as I set about my task of taking off Daddy’s big boots. First, I shoved his starchy pant legs up to the middle of his shin. Secondly, I had to undo the laces from each little eye hole one by one until only the first 4 holes were filled up with the lace. Then I slid my hands down inside the top of the boot and stretched them outwards before pulling with all my might to get the boot off. Next, I moved to the other foot. Lastly, and my very favorite part, I pulled his pant legs back down and unrolled them from the inside revealing the tiny little green band that fell around his ankle like a bracelet. There were two little metal hooks keeping it together that I always struggled to undo. He usually let me fumble a bit before leaning over to undo them. It seemed something he and Momma were talking about upset him because he didn’t wait before leaning over with agitation and moving my hands out of the way so he could take care of it himself.

I loved those little green bands. They were like my Daddy’s tiny secret that he was carrying around all day but no one else could see. I used to try to run off and play with them but I got in trouble after losing them once. Dad yelled at me and spanked my bottom. Later he told me they helped keep his pants from touching the ground because he would get in trouble if they did, and they helped keep bugs from getting inside his pants and boots and biting him all up.

“How long until dinner?” he asked through the window.

Mom looked back at the stove before responding “about half an hour.”

Mom watched Dad’s face as it turned disgruntled. She hollered to me from the other room, “Kayla, come in here, please.”

In the kitchen, Momma handed me the peanut butter jar with the green & red label and a spoon. I raced back to Dad’s lap excitedly and he unscrewed the cap and let me dip the spoon in for the first bite. Instead of taking it myself, I gestured for him to open wide and shoved the spoon right in his mouth.

“Mmmm, Thank You, Kayla,” he indulged me with exaggeration.

We ate. We licked the spoon. He smelled my peanut butter breath. We giggled. I pointed out the food caught in his mustache. He spun around in the chair, holding me tight to his chest. I had his undivided attention. It’s my earliest memory and one of my very happiest.

I’m sure we only sat there eating  from the jar for a couple of moments but it is such a distinct reflection of mine. Mom, just out of reach on the other side of the wall, visible only when she wanted to be seen through the littlest frame of a window, me completely content just to be in my dad’s arms as long as mom was very nearby, sheltered by the enormity of his figure compared to mine. Standing alone, apart from everything else I felt about both of my parents throughout life, this particular and minuscule stretch of time on one singular evening from my childhood foreshadowed a time I’d live through many years later, a time when my Mom’s person and motives would become fuzzy after her death but my dad would be right there resting on the swivel-y and rocky brown chair of life, earnestly trying his absolute hardest, with or without my awareness, to keep me firmly planted on himself, on solid ground.