A Re­cent His­tory of Fear in North Amer­ica: A Mem­oir

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - SUZANNE NUSSEY

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

1952

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.

1962

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.

1969

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.

1985

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.

1991

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 fol­lows.

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.

1994

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.

2006

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.

2017

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.

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