Below is my draft for this week's writing assignment. The theme is loss. I have filtered some people off my Facebook post who maybe aren't as familiar or comfortable with owning and naming dysfunction as I am. Or even just life. I've left my brave, strong and beautiful niece Cassie who is always open, curious and honest. I love you for that, Cassie.
I also left my mom on. To her credit, my mom has never said to me, "Don't write about this! Or that!" And there is a lot of shit that could be forbidden. Thank you bertinator for always being my cheerleader.
I did take feedback from my instructor this week - starting from writing about a feeling and not an event.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
The coiled blue phone cord snakes from the kitchen into dad’s “office”, the door shut on it. I strain to make out the words that mom is saying into the phone, behind the door, but can only hear her voice low and muffled.
Most of mom’s telephone calls take place with her seated at the kitchen table, just outside of dad’s office, her conversations punctuated by the loud, rat-a-tat of her laugh and an exhalation of smoke after a drag on her long, thin, brown More cigarette. I could only imagine how many cigarettes she’d smoked as this call stretched on. “Who was that?” I ask when she finally emerges. I feel the familiar knot of anxiety taking shape in my stomach.
“None of your business.” Her voice stern and uncharacteristically dismissive.
I give her my best teenage girl hard stare. She is impenetrable. I give up and retreat to my bedroom with a book. I soon hear dad’s AMC Concord ease into the driveway. Before my foot hits the last step in our rented split level, mom has secreted dad into his office and shut the door. The knot in my stomach grows. Something is wrong.
Dad’s job on the railroad doesn’t warrant an office, at home or at work, and the room off the kitchen is a poor representation of an office. Towering particle board bookcases line the wall to the left of the door as you enter the room and a folding table that dad uses as a desk faces the door. I suppose dad reads in this room or pays bills at the folding table but mostly he sits in an easy chair and drinks can after can from the cheapest 24-pack of beer that he can pick up on his way home from work.
I silently glide across the linoleumed kitchen floor in sock covered feet and attempt to make out what mom and dad are discussing. This must have something to do with mom’s earlier call. But what?
I give up and return to my room. No one calls me to supper that night which is fine with me. The knot in my stomach has pushed any hunger aside.
I awake with a start. The light is all wrong, telling me that it’s late. Why hadn’t anyone awoken me for school? I open the door to my room and peer into my parent’s room. Empty. The house is silent and still.
I walk down the steps and into the living room. Mom and dad are seated beside one another looking at the stairs with grim faces as if awaiting my arrival.
“What’s wrong?” I demand.
“Maggie. Sit down.” Dad commands in a slow, shaky voice, not looking at me. Ordinarily, he’s a man of few words and most are lighthearted. He skims the surface with pleasantries.
“No. Tell me now.”
A long pause. Finally, I can no longer stand the uncomfortable silence and burst out, “WHAT?!”
“Cathie passed away.” Dad says, referring to my half-sister, 26-years old, 11 years my senior.
“What?! How?!” I demand, disbelieving.
Dad shifts in his chair. I look to mom. She’s looking at her hands, clasped in her lap.
“She committed suicide.” Dad can barely get the words out.
“What?! How?!” I ask once more, as if it matters. “When?!” I’m rooted to the spot in the living room, waiting for someone to make sense of this for me. Of my half siblings, Cathie was my favorite. The one I’d miss the most between the routinely scheduled visits when I was younger.
My mom explains that it was my other half-sister, Sharon, whom she had been on the phone with the day before.
“…the police had come to the home. They initially suspected foul play.” I hear mom saying.
“Foul play?” Absurdly, I think of Murder She Wrote, which mom watches weekly. I believe the protagonist, Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer and an amateur detective to be a know-it-all.
“Why would the police suspect foul play?” It is then that I am told that Cathie had pulled her car onto the center median and set it on fire. I cannot imagine staying in a car, that’s on fire, and waiting for the fire to take you. Apparently, the police couldn’t either. I go to my room and stay there the remainder of the day. Dad stays in his office. I miss the next day of school too. On Saturday, we go to the funeral. My half-sister Sharon is not in attendance, she’s pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy that makes traveling from New Mexico to Illinois out of the question. My half-brother Larry is there. Mom, dad, Larry and I sit in the front row of chairs reserved for family.
The man leading the service keeps referring to Cathie by her given name of Catherine. I want to stand up and scream at him, “IT’S CATHIE! Call her Cathie.” I say nothing and glare at the man. Is this the best we can do? Where did we get this guy? My anger keeps me from crying. No one in our row cries.
After the funeral, we go to the home that my dad once lived in with his first wife Jackie, and Sharon, Larry and Cathie until he and Jackie divorced. Sharon had married at the home years earlier, a wedding that my parents and I hadn’t been invited to, then moved to New Mexico with her new husband, Lee, a kind fireman with a gentle voice that reminded me a bit of Mr. Rogers. Jackie was diagnosed with breast cancer that spread until she could no longer manage to work. Cathie became her caregiver. Then Jackie died. Following Cathie’s funeral, people murmured their condolences and a few suggested that maybe Cathie didn’t have a reason to live anymore without Jackie to care for?
We enter Cathie’s room and I scan it for clues the way I imagine Jessica Fletcher would. I’m looking for a better explanation for why this has happened than the one that people have tried to pass off on me that day. I look for a diary. A note. Then I remember the police have already been in here. The knot in my stomach quivers.
Cathie’s friend Laura won’t stop talking about Cathie. Laura tells me how much Cathie loved me and how she always talked about me. I smile but I’m thinking about the time, years earlier, that I was at Funway Roller Rink with a friend and I saw Cathie on the bumper cars there. As she exited, with a girl a bit younger than I, I had called out to her. She had introduced me to her “little sister”. I had wanted to say, “I’m your little sister.” Instead, I’d smiled and swallowed the lump in my throat. I’d felt betrayed that Cathie has chosen this little sister over her me. I don’t mention seeing Cathie at Funway to either of my parents.
When we finally leave the home, occupied by just Larry now, I clutch a silver jewelry box to my chest. It was Cathie’s and someone, presumably Larry, insisted I take it.
I return to school after the weekend and say nothing about where I’ve been. Friends assume I was sick, and I don’t correct them. I’m not sure if it’s okay to talk to people outside my house about what’s happened. In the weeks following Cathie’s passing, dad doesn’t return to work. He calls out sick so often that a new worry emerges from within me – will he lose his job? Dad never calls out sick – even with his nightly beer routine. He spends day and night in his office. Mom tells me of Cathie’s prior suicide attempts and the attempts to get her help. To help dad, and maybe to try and save his job, mom calls a longtime friend and co-worker of his and tells the truth: “Smitty’s daughter Cathie committed suicide.” The friend visits dad. Somehow, mom convinces dad to talk to someone at our church about Cathie. Eventually, finally, dad returns to work. Mom, dad and I attend church regularly and I think I recall hearing that you go to hell if you commit suicide but I’m not sure. I scan my Bible but can’t find anything concrete. I know better than to ask my parents if Cathie’s in hell. One day, the jewelry box glints as if it’s winking at me from my closet shelf where I’d put it, so I didn’t have to look at it or think about Cathie or what has happened. I pull the box down and open it. A small, gold cross sits in the bottom of the jewelry box, cushioned by maroon velvet. The knot in my stomach loosens a little. Maybe this was the clue I was in search of – a clue that Cathie isn’t in hell after all.