The Baseline of Loss

September 19 It was 10:30 at night. I was crouched on the bathroom floor, with my hand in the toilet, the lid sitting on the top of my wrist. This was how I attempted to hide my smoking in the house from my parents. My mother was asleep at the opposite end of the trailer. My sisters were slumbering in their rooms on the other side of the wall behind the toilet. My dad was out, taking his friend home after a weekend of fishing in the Gulf. He’d been gone for several hours and I expected his arrival home to happen soon. I was hyper-aware of sounds; I hoped to be able to finish my cigarette before his return. I was getting close. I had to be careful not to hotbox the cigarette, so I could only smoke so fast.

I was thinking about the school I was attending at the time and about how I could possibly get my parents to allow me to return to public school the following semester. The school I was attending was a private, Southern Baptist Academy and I did not enjoy being there. I was unable to follow their very stringent rules–that were supposed to be followed outside of school, as well. The principal gave me an uncomfortable feeling, like I should never be alone with him. I had no evidence to support this instinct, but it didn’t make the feeling any less real (I later found out that he had, in fact, been molesting one of the other teenage girls that went to that school with me. It took me a long time to realize that my instincts were usually very spot on). I was running through possible manipulation tactics when I heard a car approaching my driveway. I sat very still, ready to jump up and run to my room. I waited a few seconds and heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway, accompanied by the sound of an engine. I dropped the cigarette and quickly jumped up, flushing the toilet at the same time. I flew out of the bathroom and went straight to my room, literally jumping in my bed. I closed my eyes, heart racing for fear of being caught, and feigned sleep. I heard the front gate on the porch creak as my dad stepped onto the porch. I listened to his footsteps cross the porch, which was situated along the side of the trailer, running half the length, which included by my bedroom window. When he reached the doorway, I heard the screen door open, and he knocked. Wait. He knocked, he lives here. “He must be too tired to find the key on his keynchain,” I thought. I sigh and get out of bed, trying my hardest to look like I’d been woken up by his knock. I walked out of my room, cleared the hallway, and turned the corner into the living room and approached the front door. As I do, there’s another knock and I get annoyed that he’s being impatient. I roll my eyes and open the door.

There are two policemen standing before me.

“Yes?” I ask.

I can see my neighbors standing at the other end of the porch, near the front gate. My confusion and fear are mounting.

“Is your mom home?’

“Yes, she is asleep.”

“Do you have any siblings? Where are they?”

I point to the end of the trailer by the smoking bathroom and say “down there.”

“Will you please go wake your mother?”

“Why?”

“We’d rather discuss this with her, please go get her.”

Feeling scared and agitated by their lack of response, away I went. I went to the other end of the trailer, to my parents’ room. I gently shook her shoulder and said “Mom, Mom, wake up. The police are here.” She jumped up and ran to her door, then turned and asked me why they were in the house. I told her I didn’t know, I didn’t ask them in.

I’m fairly certain that at this point, and until they told her what had happened, that she thought my father had been arrested. I didn’t know my father had a drug problem, so the only option to me was that he had gotten into an accident. What really happened never crossed my mind as an option–it never does until it happens, I suppose. As we were walking through the kitchen, my neighbors came in, as well. My mother told me to go to my room. I did it, without question. I had no idea what was going on but I was extremely frightened. My fight or flight doesn’t activate every time I get scared, often I am calm and reasonable. This was one of those times. The two sisters that were part of the neighbor’s family came with me, they were my childhood friends. As we were walking into my room, it almost clicked in my head what had happened–but denial was keeping it from all the way coming through. As I sat on my bed, I noticed that my friends were crying. Still, an accident seemed reasonable. I was scared to ask how bad it was. Just as I was about to muster the courage to ask, my mother’s shriek came from the living room.

“NO, THIS CANNOT BE REAL!”

I looked at my friends and they looked back at me. We sat there looking at each other for what seemed like forever but was probably mere moments. One of them nodded.

I don’t remember how long we sat there crying. In fact, most of that night is a blur. It could have been several hours; it could have been one. There are a couple things I remember. I remember those girls stayed with me, my mom’s grief was too much for me to handle and they stayed. My strength in the face of tragedy came from that night; my feeling of always needing to be the strong one did, too. I do remember how the crying stopped–with comedy. I still do that, to this day. To stop my pain, I make jokes. It was unintentional that night and still is, in most cases. It’s something I do subconsciously. When I blow my nose, I sound very much like a foghorn. That’s what ended our tears that night and brought us to sharing humorous stories of my dad.

We ended up on the trampoline that night, still talking about him. I looked over at the fence and realized that around the time he died, I had been jumping on the trampoline and had seen some new blossoms on the flowers growing on that fence. Those girls were there for me during the one of the most painful experiences of my life, and I barely talk to them today. That is also a common thread throughout my life from that point forward–distancing myself from someone that had seen too much of me.

The following day, we didn’t have to go to school. Unfortunately, I am too self-centered to remember how the news affected my younger sister. I do know that as the oldest, I had more time with him, and I frequently had been able to spend quality time alone with him. I remember all of those times fondly. We used to drive around Houston and he would show me his old stomping grounds and tell me stories about when he was a kid. He would let me work for him and he would take me fishing. He would cuddle on the couch with me and watch Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and The X-Files. He’s also the person that taught me that the way to deal with arguments and anger was to yell–which I later found out was not the best way to handle those situations. Listening to him and my mother fight was when I first experienced that heavy feeling of lack of power, the same one that I later felt when a man would break up with me or I would get caught doing something I ought not be doing.

Reflecting on that night, I’ve highlighted the things that I learned from remembering this. These things are a common, corroding thread in my relationships through the years-almost like a baseline of my behavior. I’m a thinker, I’m self-aware, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve discovered that I don’t have to be that girl I was that night. This tragic experience doesn’t have to color every feeling and action I take. People will abandon me, either by death or by choice, but I don’t have to let it define how I will treat the people that will stay.

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