Ephemera

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Ephemera

1. In the village of Gua in Papua New Guinea, the Yupno people use gestures to refer to the continuum of time. The past is downhill and the future is uphill, toward the source of a nearby river. It could be said then that for these people time flows uphill, but I see it differently. If uphill is beyond a line of sight, whatever lies in that direction is unknowable. Time then flows not uphill and downhill; it flows from unknowable to known.

2. When I was young, we went camping. My brother and I sat between our parents in the middle of long canoe. We wore orange life jackets and hats to block the sun from our delicate child faces. We had not yet learned to swim. We had not yet learned the two of us centered in that canoe were the only threads holding our parents together—my mother’s end of the rope soaked in liquor, my father’s end holding matches and lighting them one by one. We portaged the canoe along a rocky bank that led to our camp. My parents hauled gear and my brother up the hill and I stayed by the river. Through the clear water, I could see the rocks and make out their smooth shapes with the soles of my feet. The fabric of my shorts grew heavy as the seams dipped into the cool rush, but I kept walking into the water, and the river must have wanted me as much as I wanted it because it took hold of my legs. My body fell back and I remember this slowly as if I might have had time to ask a question like, do you love me? My fall backward was interrupted by my father’s hands gathered in the cotton of my sleeve and foam of my life jacket. He must have said something but I recall only silence against the murmur of water and no answers to questions.

3. I see it on a shelf in my bedroom, the book I had with me in my father’s hospice room: The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The sticker still affixed to the back notes the category as Fiction/Literature, though the description printed on the back cover calls the work speeches, essays, and poetry and categorizes them as Philosophy/Literature. The incongruent nature of the labeling now seems to me evidence of the complexity of truth. Also, our fixation with labels, with having concrete means of knowing a thing, and our distaste for the abstract. Though everything seems to begin as an abstraction, a manifestation of chaos that only our thinking through can make clearer.

4. I can feel like the loneliest person alive until I find my feelings on the faces of others and hear my own thoughts escape from their mouths.

5. My dad once brought home a wild baby bunny whose mother and brothers and sisters were hit by a car on our road and killed. I was seven or so and Dad had explained this to me. We kept the gray little thing in a small fenced area we made by a tree in the backyard. I sat next to it all afternoon and tried to feed it lettuce. My dad tried to feed some milky substance through a syringe into its small, toothy mouth. I would pet the soft spot between its ears on the top of its head. I believe I called it by a name. It died the next day. I thought we’d saved it, done all the right things, made it feel safe and happy, surrounded by lettuce and a child’s love. But saving isn’t permanent and love isn’t enough, and neither are always possible.

6. The other night I lie in bed facing the window and tears ran straight across the bridge of my nose, tickling slowly before finding their way down along the other side of my face into the pillowcase.

7. My brother was quiet in school, quiet in the house. He kept to himself even at his own birthday parties, and he spent more time in his bedroom with the door closed than out. I’d cup my ear against his door, listen as he made voices for action figures, creating in his mind whole worlds I could not know. When I was permitted to enter we’d play Tomb Raider and he’d let me in on the secrets he’d discovered for survival. We didn’t talk about real things. We didn’t need to. We were being kids. When I think of those hours, the video games and action figures and Legos that entwined our imaginations like the inosculated branches of two trees planted side by side, I see how we made a universe of our own, protected each other inside of it.

8. My mother had a white Singer sewing machine. She made me Halloween costumes from the time I was four until maybe age eight. One year I was Rainbow Brite, star of my favorite cartoon and the most colorful girl in the world. My mother made me an indigo dress with a rainbow-colored belt and matching sleeves. The next year, I was Rainbow Brite’s horse in a cozy white jumpsuit with brown felt cuffs for hooves and a mane and tail made of multi-colored strands of yarn. She drew a yellow star on my forehead. Dance classes were another occasion for costumes. I was the smallest girl in my class, so my mother tailored the costumes to fit me. One costume was canary yellow with a metallic sheen. It had fuchsia and sapphire feathers around the waistline and over one shoulder strap. There was a matching feathered headpiece that she pinned in my hair for a recital. My mother never wore makeup, but for recitals she coated my lips red and brushed colored powders on my eyelids and cheekbones.

9. While she was out of work, my mother was supposed to pick me up from school. Usually she was late, having gotten too drunk or stoned. One time I thought she’d forgotten about me entirely. An hour after the bell had rung, I was sitting on a bench by a window at the entrance staring in the direction from which her car should come. Teachers and staff walked by and asked whom I was waiting for. One woman asked me to call my mother from the office. I called our house. No answer. The parking lot was nearly empty when my mother’s car pulled up to the curb. I opened the car door and slid in the backseat. Sunken down in the driver’s seat, wearing sunglasses and smacking gum, she muttered something without glancing back.

10. When I was young and my dad was late coming home, I assumed each time that he was dead. At five minutes late, I’d sit by the window watching for headlights. At ten minutes, I would start imagining the accident, how he must look trapped inside the truck, the sound of blood dribbling like soft rain onto the floor, his abdomen a spiral of wet red against the wheel, his face an expression of neither disbelief nor calm but awe, his voice wanting to cry out for me, tell me what had happened, how he’d been trying to get home to me. I flipped through the thin, inky pages of the phonebook to find the hospitals near our home. One by one, I called the hospitals, asked if they had a patient by my father’s name. Eventually he would come home, ask why I was so often scared.

11. After I got my first job in high school, Dad would borrow money from me to pay bills. He always paid me back. Even so, our gas and electricity would be cut off every few months. Some nights we screamed at each other because we desperately wanted someone to hear the pain inside of us speak. We were screaming for each other, not against each other. One afternoon, my dad picked me up from work and we were pulled over and my dad arrested for fake car registration tabs. He was in handcuffs in the hard plastic backseat of the police car. I sat next to him and told him it was okay. I meant it. No, he said to me with little breath. It’s not.

12. Of all the physical places, my bed seems the most mine. I cannot recall other belongings as easily as I can all the beds in which my body has slept. The bed of my toddlerhood was surrounded by tall vertical beams. I can see myself seeing through them. After that my brother and I shared a bunk bed. I was nine when we sold the red rambler I was born into and moved into a cheap apartment where my brother and I shared a double bed for a summer in a neighborhood we weren’t allowed to go out into. The apartment after that was better, and we got our bunk beds back. I played the cassette tape of TLC’s CrazySexyCool in the room we shared. My brother didn’t talk very much. Our parents screamed on the other side of our bedroom door. In the duplex after that, I had the first room of my own and a new mattress on an antique frame borrowed from a friend of my mother’s. When my mother left that year, I kept the bedframe. It was solid wood, dark with rounded edges. I kept it through four more houses and eventually gave it to my father in exchange for a smaller one. Dad kept that bed, slept in that bed, dreamt in that bed, and he would weep in that bed the night before he died.

13. The day my dad was released from the hospital into home hospice care, he turned away the nurse who came to his home. He sat in a chair at the kitchen table, my brother sat next to him, and I sat across. His face reddened and his desperation swelled into the heaviest tears. I don’t want them, Dad said of the hospital staff, waving his hand as if dismissing them from the air. Not today. Not right now. His body struggled harder for air. All I want is my kids, he said as he looked at us through eyes ablaze with raw misery. And all we wanted was him. We reached for each other as our hearts left our bodies through our mouths and dissolved into the air around us, blanketing the room in the pulse of being alive and the promise of ending us. Though by that time it felt like we were already dead.

14. My dad died on a Saturday night in February 2011. He lay tucked beneath layers of sheets and a thick throw he had since before I was born. Printed on the oversized indigo blanket were three geese flying toward a tangerine sun. I had been sitting at his bedside for several hours, talking to him as he slept and holding his hand as tears drenched my face and neck, reading and writing in a notebook. As I moved my pen across the page, I listened for each deep breath in and out, lifting my gaze to see his chest rise and fall until in time it stopped and a final breath escaped from between his lips and I was alone.

15. I ask my brother what he misses most. Just talking to him, Danny says. He swallows hard and I can see in his face this hurts and I feel it too. I bet we feel it in the same spots. I nod and wait because my brother looks like he’s going to say more and he usually doesn’t. And, oddly enough, his smell, he says. I smile, recalling the smell exactly. I have his sport coat, Danny continues. You know, that one he wore to weddings? I’ve put it on a few times and the sleeves come up to about here. He shows me where—the middle of his forearm. It used to smell like him, but not anymore. Except near the armpits. I know this piece of clothing well. It’s heavy wool and gray with a soft lining and I can see my brother in his closet at home, holding it delicately in his hands and pulling it to his face, searching it for his father, wanting him back just for a few seconds, reclaiming his existence in the dark armpit parts of a coat.

16. In our humanness we share so much. And, yet, we are silent about it. Let us be loud and wild together. Tell me your fears and loves and questions and I will tell you mine and we will both feel an invisible glow.

17. I spend an unusual amount of time in a public garden near where I grew up. There are hundreds of different varieties of flora and huge trees and the lake breeze moves through all of them. If you sit and listen, the world hums and whistles at you.

18. Whenever I think I am not enough, I remind myself I am everything I have the capacity to know.

19. I’m drawn to people who are haunted by something, who have some obsession that persists inside of them. I can feel it when we first meet and sometimes it shows up on our words right away. Other times it takes a building of not trust—which was my first impulse—but a building of abandon that gives way to hard and full honesty, the likes of which most people share only with their dearest loves. When you hand someone a weird truth about yourself over coffee and they are a person like you who lives for these kinds of exchanges, it’s as if the universe crackles in applause. This is what living is: putting truth into the air, turning it over and around until it becomes part of a collective consciousness.

20. A friend told me about a woman he knew who changed her life after a brightening realization. She had been living according to what she thought she wanted to do—and not according to how she wanted to feel.

21. I want to feel my soul in motion like a body of water, calling out in ripples for others in need of a soft reminder that we are alive, reaching relentlessly to kiss the shores of different lands, brilliantly blued by the sky on a clear day until my own power breaks over itself in a rush, moving in waves which are really surges of circular energy, my own depths unknowable even to me, making me think I am infinite.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Casie Cook earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Hamline University and a BA in journalism from the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in LUMINA and poemmemoirstory. She is currently working on a collection of essays exploring the textures and edges of perception.

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