My mother called at four in the morning. The lightness usually present when she threatened to kill my father was gone. In my half sleep state, I could see that her pale blue eyes had calcified to a near-inky indigo. Her lips were set in a tight line, deepening the ridges in the soft skin around her mouth.
“That asshole has gone off the deep end.”
I sighed, not interested in her rant, about to tell her that Josh had woken me only twenty minutes earlier coming to bed after a late session, and that I would need to wake the twins for school soon.
“Rachael,” a tremor pulsed through my name, “he tried to push me down the stairs.”
Fuck, he has gone mad. “Mom, are you okay?”
“I still got some fight in me.”
Josh stirred beside me, reaching out in his sleep to rub my arm when I sat up. I tucked his arm across his belly and ran my fingers through his messy hair to keep him from waking. I unplugged my phone and took the conversation into the bathroom.
“Just a sec, ma.”
I closed the bathroom door and slid down the wall onto our plush pink bathmat. My mind was busy calculating the plausibility of every solution.
“Where is he now?” I asked to buy time.
“Eating eggs in front of the morning news. The sight of that new girl keeps him happy.”
“What about Erin and Ryan?”
“You know they can’t handle him.”
“Did you call Erin this morning?”
Mom’s voice got quiet, almost a choked whisper. “She can’t take the day off work.”
Fuck. “Okay, so call the home and ask Gerry to come over to help you pack and take you guys over.”
“I told the home to give away his spot three weeks ago. He seemed better then.”
“Ma, what am I supposed to do? I’m in Vancouver now.”
“I know,” she said, the defeat in her voice overpowering the resentment.
“Call Gerry. You need someone with you right now.”
“Rachael, I can’t handle him anymore and your sister never could. You’re the only one left.”
“You know what he did to me.”
“Yes.” It was a ‘yes, but’.
Suddenly, I heard myself in her voice. A younger self who was fleeing an abusive relationship. I understood that this was her way of leaving him.
“Okay, ma, let me figure something out.”
I pressed my thumb hard against the end prompt on the screen, wishing for a minute that I could crush a hole through the shatter-resistant plastic. I tossed it away from me and put my face in my hands. Memories and sensations that I had long ago released came back strong. I breathed in deeply, focusing on my belly as it expanded, and then on the whoosh of release.
With one part of my mind, I saw that these memories were about to become relentless again, while a louder part of my mind grumbled at the injustice of my mother’s need, and with another part of my mind, I was thrown into the memories of hands around my throat, the finger tips digging into my temporomandibular joints, the threats of being tied up in a sack and drowned in a river.
With a different part of my mind, I recited affirmations. I am safe. I am deserving of love. My father will never follow through on his threats.
I wanted to weep, to release the grief that quickly built pressure against my collar bone, but I was stuck. In an instant, years of work dissolved and I became a younger version of myself, unable to cry because I felt my father’s fingers in my jaw as he hissed at me to stop crying.
Preparing for the worst to overtake me, I stepped into the empty tub, steeling myself with the hard-earned knowledge that I wouldn’t get beyond the flashbacks until I let go and allowed the intrusive past to walk through me. Every muscle in my body protested, curling me like a fist.
I whispered, “Let’s do this, fucker,” and then focused on releasing my reluctance.
Judi found me in the tub a few hours later. I had lost track of time.
“Hey mom,” she began as she entered the en suite. She shifted her approach when she saw me lying in the empty tub with my eyes closed and my arms limp at my sides. She knelt down and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey Jude,” I responded, eyes still closed.
Judi was only twelve, but she’d seen me like this before back when it was just me and her, back when the memories had begun their relentless surfacing when she was only five and there was no way for her to understand what I was going through and no way for me to explain beyond, “Mommy’s sick today, love, I’m sorry”.
She was no longer afraid of my ‘spells’, and though she hadn’t had to face one in years, she knew what to do. My not-quite-thirteen-year-old daughter wet a cloth in the sink with cold water, wrung it out, and then placed it on my forehead over my closed eyes, talking to me the whole time, describing what she was doing and how she was about to touch me.
She could tell by the way I had responded to her first touch that I had made it beyond the unbearable intensity of the physical sensations, the claustrophobia of being pinned down.
“Should I wake Dad?”
“No,” I swatted away the suggestion. “He was up late last night. I’ll be back to myself in a few minutes.”
“Can I hold your hand?”
Judi’s almost-woman hands rubbed my forearm. She used her strong finger tips to gently undo my fist and then she tangled her slender, longish fingers between mine, rubbing her thumb against the base of my palm.
She talked about sunshine and birds in a sweet and lively voice, gently guiding me back to my proper time. My daughter had learned how to bring me back into my body by watching my husband take care of me on the rare occasion since our marriage that the trauma of my past had overwhelmed me.
On this day, it was suffocating guilt that brought me back into my body and then quickly threatened to eject me back into the low sky. Guilt that my daughter had been forced to reverse the order of nature. And then a wave of anger woke me up, bolted me upright in the tub, braced my wobbly legs and my rapidly disintegrating spine, acting like a lead weight that kept me firmly in my body. Anger that my father had created a never ending, seemingly impossible wound inside of me. A wound like a festering volcano that would spontaneously erupt and smother me and my family in the sticky tar of cooling lava. Anger that no matter how much heavy lifting I had done to walk through my own demons, the bubbling hot tar could come rushing at any trigger.
I stood in the tub, slightly off balance, regaining ground as I steadied my breath to anchor myself in peace instead of anger. I silently made a gratitude list, ending it out loud by looking at Judi and saying, “You”.
After Judi had helped me get the twins ready for their third day of junior kindergarten and I had dropped everyone off at school, I bought a red Bic lighter and a pack of smokes and headed for the closest mall. I worked at a mall as a teenager and knew I could smoke in the back undisturbed. I found a deserted picnic bench and fumbled with the cigarette wrapper. The packaging had changed dramatically since I had last smoked. It was no longer a simple push from the bottom to free the grief suppressants from the cardboard.
There seemed to be a trick that I couldn’t figure out to the spot that claimed ‘push here’, and all I accomplished was almost buckling the impenetrable box. I was frustrated and way too old to give a shit about keeping emblems of cool intact. I ripped into the pack from the top, half shook and half pinched a smoke from the mangled box, and then closed my eyes to fully take in the relief of stemming a sitting sorrow that I had unsuccessfully tried to submit to earlier. I pulled in the dirty, chemical-laden smoke into the deepest fingers of my lungs without coughing.
I had been completely unprepared for my mother’s phone call, immersed as I was in the absolute joy of a summer spent watching my twin boys leap into the air and then karate chop their way back down, competing with each other for the best super hero pose to see who would have the most friends at school. Watching them both so filled with energy and young, easy love for each other always brought me happiness.
I winced as a sharp pain in my left shoulder blade became unbearable. I recognized it as the grief that had been passed down through generations of my family. For an instant, resentment heated the fluid around my heart.
I pinched the heater of my cigarette away from the filter and tucked the butt back into the pack. I needed another before I was able to call my sister.
She answered in her professional voice, but sighed when she heard me.
“They’re at it again,” Erin said.
“Sweetie, this is serious.”
“Oh Jesus, don’t talk to me that way. I hate it when you call me sweetie like you’re my mom or something. You never talked like that until you got all spiritual.”
She said ‘spiritual’ like it was a cult, like I was afflicted with the incurable disease of following a shady crowd. She spoke this disgust into her corporate issued phone from her corporate cubicle.
I bit back the urge to defend my beliefs. I am deeply centred, I affirmed, pulling my feminine energy into my belly.
“What did Mom tell you about Dad?”
“He needs to go to a home. I couldn’t take the day off. I have three meetings. What’s the big deal?”
“Did she tell you that our father tried to push her down the stairs?”
“No.” She swallowed the word.
“Mom needs your help, Erin. She gave up his spot at the home.”
“Why don’t you fly home to help her?”
“You know what he did to me.”
“Still on that bullshit? Come on, Rachael.”
I lit another cigarette instead of responding. I knew why she didn’t believe me. I worried what would come through when our father died.
“Erin, Mom cannot handle him anymore. She’s not safe alone with him. It’s up to us to get him into a home as soon as possible.”
“You mean it’s up to me.”
“I can help you call places from here. We’ll split the list in half.”
“I don’t know, Rachael, Ryan is working eighty hours a week and I have a big project to finish. Plus, the kids have soccer and hockey.”
“So you’re saying you’ll do nothing to help me.”
“I’m saying I can’t.”
After politely ending the conversation, I whipped my phone against the back brick wall of an over priced electronics superstore, screaming, “Asshole!”
When I got home, Josh was eating brunch on the deck. I took a big swallow of amber ale from his beer bottle, thought, fuck it, and then got my own. I sat beside him, pulled both knees into my chest, and then opened my crushed smoke pack.
He let me finish the cigarette before he spoke. “Come sit on my lap, momma, let me hold you.”
I climbed onto my husband’s lap, tucked my face against his neck, and settled into his arms. As I let him comfort me, my anger began to melt. Without relaying any of the events of my morning, I said, “I need to cry but I can’t.”
Josh stroked my hair and kissed me on my crown. “Yes you can,” his lips moved against my scalp, reverberating his words throughout my head. “Let it out, momma, I got you. You’re safe.”
And with these words, ones that Josh had spoken to me over and over throughout our relationship, the solid rock of black tar grief that had been pushing through my shoulder blade became a liquid with the velocity of quark-gluon plasma. And the pent up sorrow flowed from the minute fibres of my lungs to my tears ducts.
He held me tight as I let it out, whispering, “I got you momma” like a mantra. He let me turn his favourite t-shirt into a mess. And when the sobs subsided, he turned my body toward his, took my face in his hands, wiped the tear streaks with his thumbs and then firmly but tenderly kissed my lips.
“Thank you, love,” I said, “it’s always easier to submit to the grief when I’m in your lap.”
I lit another smoke and finished my beer. “Oh, I need a new phone.”
“Okay, what happened?”
After I told him the whole story, he offered to split the list of homes in Toronto with me. It was a quick job. Every home with the level of care that my father needed was full and had a long wait list.
“Fuck,” I said to Josh.
“Well,” he said with his eyes peeking from behind downcast lids, not quite successful in hiding his infamous sparkle, “there’s a spot where Stu put his mom.”
I screamed at the top of my lungs and slammed my open palms against the table on our deck. Josh took me into his arms and rocked me a bit. He whispered, “It’ll turn out. It always does.”
He then looked at me with his mischievous smile and started our private joke. “That’s what the cynical would call irony.”
I finished through gritted teeth, “And what the open-hearted would call opportunity.”
I’d made up that joke when I was pitching violently between resentment and acceptance.
I rolled my eyes. “I hate when stuff happens that I’m not ready to face.”
“I got you,” he said. “You can handle whatever happens.”
When we first got together, Josh used to tell me every day, “Life is crazy, and if you don’t find the humour in the worst of it, you’ll go crazy.”
When I first saw my father in Vancouver I was unnerved by how much he’d come to resemble my grandfather. My grandfather had a different relationship with authority than his son, and that had been at the root of their disconnect.
My father approached violence the way others embraced passionate lovers. He took great pleasure in closely watching the pain and panic conjured with his hands, even though my four year old self would have complied without his forearm pinning my throat to the bed. After working with counselors to peel the scales from my eyes that were masterfully placed by his manipulation, I’d come to understand that Keith knew that total control came not with physical oppression, but with psychological oppression.
I carefully checked his eyes to gauge his current capacity for mind-fucking. He was in a wheelchair, so I had to kneel down in front of him and wait patiently for him to look at me. To an outsider, we would have looked like two loving people reuniting. The stubborn man stared at a plaid blanket that covered his lap.
I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.
When I placed my hands on his knees to steady myself, his eyes flicked up to meet my inquisitive stare. It was just enough time to recognize the glint of cruelty and to realize that he still had lucid moments. Hello Keith.
Shuddering as I reeled back and then stood up to make myself physically bigger, I shook out my arms to soothe my nerves and to remain in my body. I stepped behind his chair to greet Gerry and then gripped the smooth, hard plastic handles of the airport issued mobility aid.
My heart protested in my chest, pumping at a rate that would cause a woman less practiced at facing panic to faint. As adrenaline and cortisol flooded my brain and my body, I had a crazy vision of pushing my father over the edge of my favourite mountain and escaping his cruelty forever. Instead, I did what I had always done. I put one foot in front of the other. My legs were heavy, so heavy, in a way that my brain had never before allowed them to be when forced to face this man. I took that as a good sign, proof that I had made progress in my healing. I focused all of my attention on moving my legs and worked up to a brisk pace that would help override the automatic panic response.
At Pine Haven, I made sure that Keith was within earshot when I told the case worker that the patient had a history of violence both before and since his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. For most families, the diagnosis brought grief. In my family, it brought fear that a controlling man would still have lucid moments while losing the ability to control his rage. I didn’t mention my personal experiences, but I did tell her about Keith’s attempt to push my mother down the stairs.
The case worker assured me that staff would be able to handle the old man’s violent outbursts. When my facial expression showed that I was not convinced, she told me about the effective and fast-acting drugs. But it wasn’t until she placed her hand over my clenched fist and looked into my eyes that I sensed this woman had a read on the situation. I allowed both her sympathetic smile and the twinkle of awareness in her eyes to finally reassure me.
My shoulders and hips were tight by the time I blinked against the brilliant afternoon sunshine. The warm air sent more goosebumps across my chilled, clammy skin. I thought way back to the first time I had met with one of my trauma counselors. She had recommended wearing heavy, soft sweaters to create the sense of physical comfort that was withheld from me as a child.
Josh was waiting for Gerry and I in the parking lot holding his softest cardigan.
“I did it!” I celebrated with a small leap into the air.
My husband helped me into the cardigan and then wrapped his arms around me and kissed my crown. “I knew you could,” he spoke against my scalp.
I tipped my face up to his to kiss him on the lips. “Thank you for staying here in the parking lot in case I needed you.”
I fumbled with the mangled smoke pack until I was able to extract a cigarette and then I lit it between my teeth like I used to as a teen.
“Gerry,” I said, “Mom needs to get into counseling. The women at Esther’s Home really helped me. I’m not sure if the same women are there, but I’m sure whoever is there can help her.”
Gerry put her arm around me. “She’ll be ready in her own time, hon. She was with your father for almost fifty years. I’ll be there keeping an eye on her.”
“I love you, Gerry,” I said.
“I love you too, hon,” she said. “Everything will work out, you’ll see. Don’t worry about your mom. She’s safe.”
Josh clapped his hands together. “I have a feast to prepare at home. Let’s get out of here.”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close as we walked toward the passenger side door of our car. My hands shook buckling my belt. Josh leaned in to help me and said, “I’m going to draw you a nice hot bubble bath before I start cooking.”
Tears of gratitude spilled onto my cheeks.
For two weeks, I let the nurses handle my father while I tried to keep myself sane and healthy. Nearly every morning, Josh had found me half awake in the tub. Having that man in such close proximity was a big adjustment. I knew my mom would understand what I meant by that, but we never spoke about it. It was one of many things expected to remain secret. I kept our conversations brief, resisting the urge to mention Esther’s Home. There was a weight removed from her voice that I was both grateful for and envious of. Vacuums do not exist in nature. That weight had landed right onto me.
Late one evening, I found Josh sitting on the floor in front of the fridge icing his knuckles. I knelt down to check his eyes and I cradled his chin with my right hand.
“You want to talk about it?”
He shook his head. I knew what angered him, but I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. I capped the whiskey bottle on the the floor next to him and I stood to place it on the counter. Josh got on his knees and lunged toward me, leaning his face into my belly, holding on tightly. I ran my fingers through his hair. I kissed his crown and whispered, “It’ll be okay”. I felt his body shake and I held him closer.
Josh made animal noises into my belly between pleas for forgiveness. I’d never seen him like this. His inconsolable apologies almost scared me more than the intensity of his grip around my waist. I tried to match his intensity with my own arms, but he’s a strong man. We stayed this way until my belly was wet, my back ached and my legs were numb. He collapsed onto the floor when he ran out of steam. I gingerly took a seat next to him. Not knowing what to say, I waited for him to speak as I rubbed my thumb around his shoulder.
He kept his eyes focused on the simple pattern of our kitchen tiles as he very quietly said, “I’ve failed you.”
“No,” I insisted, grasping his chin and pulling his face toward mine. “My father failed me. You can’t fix the hurts, Josh.”
“You don’t understand.” He clenched and unclenched his hand, swinging the base of his fist toward the cupboard before recovering and halting mid air. “I didn’t know he would still affect you like this. I should have kept him far away from you”
I was quiet for a minute. The words tugged on the root of my heart. My eyes began to fill with tears as I realized that my husband had overestimated me. A terrible knot of dread grew in my belly.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I thought I could handle him, too.”
“Oh God, baby, I didn’t mean that.” Josh pulled my face into his chest as I started to cry. “It’s not your fault.”
I let his arms and the heat of his torso comfort me.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Something in me let go. I didn’t know how much tension I’d been holding since my mom’s phone call until it came undone all at once. The horizontal cord that had bound my chest broke open and I wept in Josh’s arms like an infant.
When the grief and fear was spent, I felt exhausted, but I also felt stronger.
“I think I’ll get through this,” I said.
“I know you will.”
We moved to the tub where Josh massaged my shoulders as I sat between his legs. The steam loosened my muscles and raced my pulse.
“Tell me again how you forgave those monsters.”
“Well,” I said, “when I first started recovering from the flashbacks, I saw a mint green baby butterfly on the sidewalk. The inner edges of her wings were dusted with a muddy brown. She fluttered as I came closer, but she couldn’t get any lift, so she stood very still, hoping I wouldn’t see her as lunch.”
“My mother is that butterfly. Crawled out of her cocoon when she was already married to my father. You know she did some cruel things to me over the years, but in my recovery, it became clear that she was just a scared child.”
“But that puts you in a position of constantly having to block her attempts to destroy you.”
“I was her once, stuck in the centre of an abuse that I couldn’t see, and the loneliness was unbearable. I felt unworthy of love because not one person reached through in a way I could feel, and when you’re hurting, you hurt,” I said. “I could never do to her what she did to me.”
“And your father?”
“Though he is a more vicious creature, he is also that butterfly on some level. Or he was once before he became something else. Nobody chooses to suffer unless they believe it’s necessary.”
“You’re pretty special, momma.”
“Love,” I corrected. “Love is pretty special.”
That night I had a dream that showed me Keith’s life had come full circle from a helpless child being raised in a violent home to a helpless adult in a gentle one, and that morning I set to work writing him a story.
The next day I sat by his bed with a spiral-bound notebook in my hands. Over the course of Keith’s stay at the home, he’d been medicated three times for violent outbursts against staff and other patients. The policy was to keep patients heavily drugged at all times after three incidents.
He was lying quietly in bed. I checked his eyes for capacity and intent. His dark hazel green eyes were watery and glazed, but I knew he had a high tolerance because of drug addiction in his teens and early twenties. I tried to remain alert without becoming edgy. It was a fine balance.
Without saying hello, I sat down and started reading. The narrative submitted a theory that this father had made himself into such a frightening and cruel character because it was the first defense he’d tried in his young years and it had given him a feeling of invincibility in what he believed to be a relentlessly cruel world.
Keith became responsive. A low whinny spilled through his phlegm-choked throat. His square, yellow nails slid against the hard plastic of his bed rail, curling toward his palm and then splaying back to the farthest span of his fingers’ reach.
I tossed the notebook aside, placed my feet flat on the floor and started doing tonglen. I breathed in all the restlessness and all the anxiety in the room through all of my pores. With my out breath, I radiated serenity and love.
For a split second, I caught a golden glow above Keith’s head. And then, in what can only be described as a timeless moment, I saw a movie of the best version of my dad. He was young, probably mid-twenties, and confidently radiating peace, awareness and love. It was a version of my dad that I had only ever seen in my dreams between the nightmares. It was the man I’d always hoped to help him become.
My heart swelled, straining the very seams I had boldly stitched together with translucent, elastic thread years before.
I picked up the notebook and read the end of my story, words that suddenly made perfect sense.
“She spoke her last heartfelt words to him. ‘The truth is, it was trying to love and be loved by a man too afraid to be vulnerable even within the safe company of a young girl, that caused the damage I still carry with me. It devastated me to learn that genuine, agape love from an outside source simply isn’t enough of a catalyst for a deeply wounded man to feel that he is deserving of love.’
“The old man looked up with a glimmer of who he once was threaded throughout his irises. He was again the man that he had been in her teens and twenties before the memories surfaced, half-heartedly seeking redemption for crimes that he refused to admit.
“He spoke with a hint of bemusement in his meticulously steadied voice. ‘So love is the way to achieve your goals? Love turns the bad guys into rainbows and jujubes? Pretty cliché, don’t you think?’
“She hesitated, fearing the jarring sound of his cruel laughter. ‘Love is as real as cynicism.’
“’Tell me this then,’ he said, building up to a crescendo, ‘how do you know that love is real?’
“She leaned forward in her chair and spoke with hushed sincerity. ‘I was born love, Dad, and somehow my heart never forgot. I spent the first thirty years of my life seeing only your higher self. You could have been a better man.’
“He changed tactics after hearing her answer. ‘You took a beating, kiddo.’
“’Yes, and that’s the miracle. I took a brutal, relentless beating, and I found a way through it intact. Not held together with threats and walls, but brilliantly alive to the joys and hurts and resilient to the ups and downs of life.’
“The old man sighed a great, heaving breath. He pointed his face toward his lap, shaking his head slightly, and then looked up at his daughter as if genuinely interested in seeing her for the first time. ‘If you’re right, then I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.’
“She was silent, waiting, because she recognized his pause as one intended to create effect, to give his words a chance to sink in before cutting into his final point.
“His expression was unreadable. ‘We’re two different people, kiddo. What worked for you won’t work for me.’
“She shook her head, finally understanding that he would never see her forgiveness as enough because she had never turned to violence. Only a changed violent man would have any impact on him. And the irony in the fact that a man who went to great lengths to control those around him needed someone to lead him into salvation made her laugh sadly.”
When I finished reading my story, I searched Keith’s face for clues, but he kept his eyes shut and his facial muscles slack.
A hard ball of anger formed in the centre of my chest. I wanted to whip the notebook in his unaffected face. My hands began to shake with fear and my anger grew to compensate. I felt humiliated. This man had always seen me as a joke, even when I was his little girl. He’d exploited every insight that I shared about human nature in my naive belief that he wanted help to become a gentler man. The guilt of my part in making him a better manipulator, in helping him hone his skills, made me sick. Desperation took over.
“Open your heart, you jaded mother fucker.”
That broke his stand-off. He chuckled. It was a booming laugh straight from his belly. He looked up with violence glimmering in his eyes. It brought me back to a night when I was twelve and had come home crying after being raped in the bathroom at a school dance. My mother had callously spit out, “What’s with the tears?” and I responded by shouting that I had been raped. She immediately started to cry and suffocated me in her arms. In front of mom, Keith had acted sympathetic, but later that night he came into my room to tell me for the first time that I disgusted him. He looked at me like he wanted to kill me. He never hugged me again.
The memory made my legs weak. I sat down in the chair beside Keith’s bed and put my head between my knees. I never wanted to believe in evil. I wanted to believe that there was good in everyone, even if it had been stuffed deep down, and that the simple yet difficult act of never giving up on a person was enough to keep the good intact. But in that moment, I saw that it had been my fear of giving my father justification for violence that kept me from giving up my hope that I could keep his submerged good alive.
Keith was silent as I sat there visibly shaken, but I wasn’t stupid enough to mistake it for kindness. I decided to look at him closely so I’d never forget exactly who he was and get sucked into his games again. His eyes were closed. I looked at the age spots on his forehead, his thin, greasy white hair and the deep line in his left check that ran from his nose to the corner of his thin, dry lips. The nurses had shaved his beard but hadn’t given him a close shave in a few days. There were bulging bags beneath his eyes and a pea green stain on his chin and his shirt. A sci-fi paperback that he would have once found too easy lay open on his blanket. It looked like he was stuck on the first chapter and there were no other books in his room. There were no pictures on his table, not even an unframed photo of mom. He was bedridden, not because he couldn’t walk well enough to get around, but because his violent outbursts weren’t tolerated.
My father was a man who needed violence as a security blanket, and he clung to it desperately even when it was clear that it had left him with nothing. Who was I to take away his only comfort now that he could no longer hurt anyone?
He started to snore softly.
“I hope you find peace, Dad.” I put my hand on his forearm. “Goodbye.”
Josh came home that night a few hours after I’d snuggled with our twins and sung them to sleep. Judi was upstairs doing homework.
Josh took my hand and lead me onto our deck, grabbing two bottles of beer on the way. I climbed into his lap. Before taking a sip from my opened bottle, I closed my eyes and concentrated on the tender kiss of the cool night air. I tasted salt on the wind. I felt Josh’s solid thighs beneath my legs and his strong right hand on my left hip.
He was silent as I struggled with another mangled smoke pack. I was far away, feeling the tender shoot of a new grief at the centre of my heart.
Josh whispered, “Come with me.”
He carried me down our deck steps and onto the sandy beach. The first thing I saw was a half-eaten dead seagull. In the light of the near-full moon, we could both see that the bird’s stomach was packed with silver and fluorescent garbage. My hand covered my throat to ease the choking swell inside. Part of me wanted to rage while a louder part of me held back. Still a greater part of me watched and waited. I reached out to my husband.
Josh pulled me flush against his torso. He pointed up to the sky. “Look at how many seagulls are up there.”
I closed my eyes as piercing gull cries rang out through the night sky, but the one bird haunted me.
“I feel guilty even though I don’t litter,” I said. “I’m so angry at the selfish people who leave their shit on the beach.”
Josh shrugged. “There’s a disconnect. Most people don’t know that it kills the birds.”
“You can’t live here without knowing the impact garbage has on wildlife.”
“What about teens who really don’t understand? And most people don’t see a seagull with a stomach full of their wrappers. They can’t be aware until they see the impact.”
“Right in our backyard.”
“You can’t pick up every piece of trash.”
We started walking and Josh promised to bury the remains the next morning.
“What if people were forced to watch the impact every single day but were helpless to clean up so much garbage and couldn’t think of a way to convince the birds that what they saw as food was poison?”
Josh kissed me on the crown and didn’t speak as we walked.
“Will you help me face my guilt for leaving him to rot in that home?”
“There are different levels of sin, Rach. The things you perceive as your sins are the gentlest and most innocent possible.”
“Not yet, love, let me feel through the guilt first.”
“I’m proud of you.”
I took his hand from around my shoulder and kissed his knuckles with my soft, wind chapped lips. “I love you.”