A Recent History of Fear in North America: A Memoir
So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER has travelled from Ottawa to spell off her daughter, cooking, cleaning, looking after me and my brother. I am three weeks old.
This visit is the last time my mother will see her mother alive. In six months, Nana will die from septic shock after a botched gall bladder operation. Though my family makes the hard winter drive to say last goodbyes, my aunt, fearful Nana will guess the gravity of her illness, bars my mother from her bedside. Instead, my mother waits in the hallway, all the while rocking me in an old chair, an heirloom from her own grandmother. She will rock and weep until Nana dies.
I nap while my mother rests upstairs. Nana checks on me. The left side of my body has gone strangely blue. I do not stir. She shouts for my mother, lifting me out of a deep womb of slumber. My grandmother shakes me until my eyes open. She swings me in long, swooping arcs, calling my name loudly until I begin to wail.
Of course, this memory does not belong to me.
Saturday morning, October 27, my brothers and I are playing inside our garage next to the church our father pastors. A splintery ladder
leads up the inside wall to the attic, where my brothers have made a fort. I am not allowed to climb the ladder, so I hand things up to them from the bottom rung: pillows, a broken stool, some of my play kitchen plates, knives and spoons. They have already taken up comic books I am forbidden to read because they might frighten me.
Before noon, the air-raid siren at the fire station begins its wavering ascent to a full-blown howl. My older brother calls down from the attic, telling me to hide under our father’s green Chevrolet two-ten. Duck and cover like we do in school, he says. Wait until it’s safe to come out. I lie face down on the cement floor, arms crossed over my head, wondering if this is the end of the world my father preaches. I taste oil and dust.
In school we are sent to the gym whenever the air raid sounds. Teachers lead us in single files, winding line after line of children in tight circles, filling the whole room like a giant coiled snake. We stand quietly until they give the all-clear.
Here, in the sudden strangeness of my father’s garage, there is no adult who can tell me when it’s safe. When I call out, my brothers do not answer.
I wait under the car, the siren repeating its sinuous crescendo and descent. Somewhere in the Caribbean, Soviet commander Vasili Arkhipov overrides an order to launch a ten-kiloton nuclear torpedo from his B-59 submarine, and saves the world. An hour later, when she finds me, my mother does not mention this, nor does she comment on my hiding place. In the days that follow, I will never see Commander Arkhipov on TV or read about him in the news.
On a wooded path where for years I have walked safely from the valley to our house, I encounter a snake. Rattlers and water moccasins are not uncommon here, but they stay closer to the river. This is a black racer, long, muscular, and famously swift. Its dark body rises like an old rope come to life from under wet leaves layered across the forest floor. I run; the snake pursues. When we reach the dusty road at the top of the hill, the racer halts and slides back into the damp shadows that keep its secret.
I wonder whether it is my terror or the snake’s that is crisp on my tongue.
My father, neither a sportsman nor an athlete, takes up walking as his hobby in retirement. Twisted briarwood cane in hand, he covers miles in an afternoon. He wields his cane like the staff of Asclepius, fending off dogs, keeping his balance on rough paths. His long walks are a source of distress for my mother, who worries that her husband, a diabetic, might suffer an insulin reaction when he is alone in the middle of the woods.
During his experiences of low sugar or excess insulin, my father’s inhibitions completely vanish. A teetotaler all his life, he behaves like a drunk, singing tunes from the ’40s or belting out old hymns, mostly Gospel. He quotes the Virgin Mary. My soul magnifies the Lord! he declaims with melodramatic seriousness, and laughs at his own clowning.
I have never seen my father happier than when he returns from a long walk, or when he is about to tip into a diabetic coma. I have never seen my mother more afraid.
At seventy-two, my father dies, not alone, not in the woods, and not from an insulin reaction, but from a heart attack that happens on the examining table during his annual physical the week before Halloween. The day he dies, hooked to a respirator, silenced by tubes snaking into his throat and lungs to force the breath his heart cannot support, he scrawls a note and presses it into my palm as I wait beside his hospital bed:
I am not afraid.
Through November and December, I make the four-hour drive to spend weekends with my widowed mother. It is dark when I reach the last stretch of two-lane highway between Route 401 and home on Sunday nights. The aurora flickers overhead like a lamp shorting out. His cane guiding him over snow-flecked fields that spill away from the roadside, my father follows me under the pulsing sky, silent as a shadow.
Though still married, we no longer sleep together. I sleep in his grandmother’s old oak bed in the spare room. Tonight his voice from down the hall wakes me. When I enter his room, he is lying in bed, staring at the spackled ceiling and carrying on an agitated conversation with an unseen partner. I know enough not to touch
him, not to startle him. From the doorway, I invite him to join me in the kitchen.
He sits at the table while I heat milk in a dented aluminum pan. I make small talk, ask about the new guy at work, his parents’ trip, the book he is reading. He answers in clipped sentences.
Turning to hand him a cup of chocolate, I see him standing in front of the cutlery drawer. He has removed the Henckel knife my cousin gave us for a wedding present, the best butcher knife we own. Our grandmother told her years ago that the most useful gift she ever received was a quality knife that could be reliably sharpened.
He stares at the knife as though he can’t make out what it is, turns it over twice, and dully remarks, Sometimes I hate you.
It is a mild afternoon in late September, early in my second marriage. My husband is at work, the elderly widow next door is napping, the neighbourhood children still in school. I have finally rocked my infant daughter to sleep and escaped to work in the garden beneath her open bedroom window. I won’t get much done during the scant hour before she wakes.
Backlit by the sun, a figure on a bicycle turns down our empty street. As he approaches, the shade of the maples shows him to be a tall man, clean cut, trim in his cycling gear. The click of the bike’s freewheel slows as he pedals past me in the garden, wheels around and coasts to a stop in the driveway.
He introduces himself and explains that he has recently immigrated from the States, is ex-Navy, and is waiting for his papers before he can look for a job. He has some experience with landscaping. Do I need any help outside? He is well-spoken, courteous and does not press me.
I think of the tall sugar maple that needs trimming before its branches damage our roof. My husband has no time to do yard work, and I can’t reach the limbs, even with a telescoping pruner. All right, I say. You can do the tree out front. I show him the tools in the garage and go back to my gardening. For the next forty minutes, he expertly lops off twigs and branches close to the roof, and then on the south side of the tree, balancing his work near the house.
Is there anything else you need done? he asks. I think of the garden out back that has gone to seed, the stinging nettle and climbing
nightshade that strangle my perennials, the dandelions and purslane between the pavers on the patio. At least two solid days of work. I hesitate.
Then he takes my wrist, turning my hand over and holding it lightly. His grandmother, he says, was a gardener. She could read palms. She used to read his, and she was always right.
He studies my skin stained green from weeding, creases mapped in dirt, and with one finger traces a curve from just below my index finger to the outside of my wrist below the thumb. Your lifeline is unbroken, he says. You will live past ninety. A good life. My grandmother, he says, lived to ninety-five.
This sudden shift in our commerce confuses me. I think of my husband, who will not be home for another two hours. The kids on the street aren’t back from school; the widow is deaf. My infant daughter, whom I have not mentioned, will soon awaken. I withdraw my hand from the stranger’s soothing grip.
I tell him I have no more work. I ask him to come back in the evening, when my husband will pay him with cash. I thank him and walk directly to the side door, which I lock behind me. I close and lock the bedroom window, and lift my daughter from her crib. I realize then that I am crying.
I am waiting in a windowless hallway in the surgical wing of the hospital. The radiologist has just finished pinning four stainless steel needles into my left breast so the x-ray machine can tell my future, see where death waits deep in my chest. He has applied a topical anesthetic, but nothing else for pain. A nurse hurrying past sees my distress and stops to ask what’s wrong. She frowns, needlessly commands, Stay here, and heads off to see about medication.
Abandoned in this chill, subterranean passage, I clutch my faded blue hospital gown closer. I inspect the plastic ID band fastened around my left wrist. My name has been misspelled. Even worse than unmedicated pain is this slow stripping: my clothing and shoes, my wallet and purse, my wedding ring. My hair has vanished under a shapeless plastic cap. Now I am a set of quadrants identified by invisible rays for a scalpel to target.
So do I begin the descent into oblivion and darkness that alternately frightens and angers me. After weeks of dreading this
surgery, I am surprised by anger. What good are fear or anger, flight or fight? The knife requires surrender before it can heal.
I look at my right hand, scrubbed clean, without blemish or scar, and carefully trace the unbroken life line curving just below my index finger to the outside of my wrist below the thumb where the anesthetist will fasten the fine silver tongue of his IV.
I pull into the conservation area around three, just enough time for a short hike before the winter light completely abandons this dull afternoon. A mud-spattered black Ford pickup, back bumper wired on, front fender rusted the colour of dried blood, is the only other vehicle in the lot. In the truck’s cargo bed, a dented washing machine leans against the tailgate like a toppled white headstone. A skiff of snow covers the ground. I can make out one set of footprints leading into the forest.
It is Saturday, January 21. Over three million people, most of them women, are marching in 673 cities and towns all over the world.
I throw my backpack in the trunk, lock the car doors and pocket my keys. The light in the grey sky holds. I walk toward the shadowy woods.