I was five years old when my mother left the first time.
Five is an interesting age. They say 90% of brain development happens before the age of 5. I don’t know. I don’t remember much, and what I do remember, I wished I could forget.
Five was a pivotal age, an age where everything changed. I was a happy baby. Everyone said so. I crawled, walked, clapped, dance, and sang with a smile on my face. Such a contrast to my mother. She barely ever smiled.
My father rarely smiled too in those early days. My mother had four kids and two miscarriages all in the first six years of their marriage. It wasn’t the plan – having kids. Both my parents were supposed to finish university. My oldest sister came along within the first nine months, and my mother never went back.
My father struggled to make ends meet with a dying business left to him by my mothers parents before him. He stayed because of family obligation. He worked long hard hours and we rarely saw him. My mother was stuck at home with four little ones under the age of five. She was exhausted and overwhelmed – a new bride, a new mom. No real support. My mother’s parents were in the Old Country and my father’s parents were traveling the world when he married my mother. I can imagine what drove her to the bottle. She did whatever she could to cope, but it cost her dearly.
She forgot appointments. She forgot dinners in the oven. She forgot keys in ignitions. My father, after working eighteen hour shifts, would bundle us up into the car, and often rush us to the store before it closed at nine o’clock, grabbing whatever leftover foods were available at the deli counter. She drank to relax, but mostly she drank to forget – to forget who she was and the life she had wanted but never got. She forgot the things that mattered most – like keeping a close eye on her children.
I remember the late night screaming matches. I remember my mother locking us out of the only bathroom we had in the house so she could sit in the bathtub and sip away her sorrows. I remember the constant nagging pangs of hunger because we only had cereal, a few ends of bread, a tub of margarine, and a jar of pickles in the house. I remember getting angry at my brother for using pickle spears once for his army battles. “That was our lunch!” I screamed at him. It’s ironic how even after all the heartache I still love bread, butter, and pickle sandwiches to this day.
She went away for thirteen months. My father said she was getting help. He took a partner, and dropped his hours to part-time so he could be home more. He relied on neighbors and friends to feed us, care for us, bathe us, and get us to school and appointments. It was a hard year.
When she came back, she said she was better. She tried to laugh when my brother would do one of his crazy “look-at-me” antics, or when my middle sister would make her silly faces, but the smile never reached my mother’s eyes. She was lying to herself and to everyone if she thought she was better.
I was seven when my mother left for the second time. I remember angry voices, a woman screaming, a man crying, and objects hurled around the room. It wasn’t until many years later that my father told me he had found my middle sister sipping on a beer bottle she had discovered accidentally when crawling around underneath the kitchen sink. My mother had put it there to hide it from my father that she had been drinking again. In the midst of their angry argument, my parents had forgotten to pick up the shattered fragments of the poison on the second floor stairwell landing.
Curiosity is a dangerous trait for a child. He went for the shiny smithereens, probably thinking the jagged pieces were tasty candy or glittering gems. It’s funny how desperately we want the things that hurt us the most. I tried to stop him. I’m his older sister. Protect. It’s what I do. It’s my job.
I don’t remember much, mostly fleeting images, glimpses of color and light, the scent of a foul liquid in an amber bottle, the sound of breaking glass, the sensation of spiraling, the taste of the scraggly carpet fibers in my mouth.
I remember the frightened screams of my father. I remember the wailing cries of my mother. I remember the screeching of the sirens as I lay still in a white van speeding toward the hospital with strange men I’d never seen before. I wished they would turn it off. If they would only turn it off. My ears were ringing long after I left the van. I remember the blood. I remember strangers looking at me with that grave adult look on their faces, hushed tones as they spoke to one another. I remember the darkness. It was so exhausting to try and piece together the puzzle. Oh what a relief the darkness was!
I nearly died. My father sat my siblings and I down and told us. He said to ask all the questions we wanted because he would only tell us once and then we’d never speak of it again. I didn’t need to ask questions. My younger brother was curious because of course, he doesn’t remember it. He only knew the aftermath. But I remember bits of the before… and bits of the aftermath… bits I wished I could forget.
I remember coming home from the hospital. There was a summer storm that night. The air was thick with the Pennsylvania humidity, so thick you could slice it with a carving knife like a turkey dinner and it still wouldn’t budge. My baby brother was sitting in the middle of the hallway playing with a toy truck, and my tween sister was asleep on the porch swing, and my teen sister was curled up on the couch with a book draped across her lap. The house was quiet, except for the occasional reverberation of distant thunder rolls. The room was illuminated only with the intermittent shock of lightning flashes. But the rains hadn’t come yet.
I sat in the chair in the living room and rocked back and forth… back and forth… back and forth. I knew my parents were upstairs talking, but their voices were unusually low so I couldn’t hear anything they said. I tensely dug my nails into the arms of that rocking chair, bracing myself for the flurry of angry words that would be flung about any minute now. But they never came.
I saw the flash of lights on the wall – the iconic red and blue. I knew they’d come. I knew they’d come for her. The screen door creaked open. A man in uniform stepped through the door, removed his hat, and knelt down next to my brother. He had fallen asleep playing with his toy. He scooped him up in his enormous arms and carried her to the couch, laying her next to my already sleeping sister. He turned and glanced at me.
“Where’s your mama?” he asked in a hushed tone.
My eyes rolled toward the ceiling. It was a simple movement. I betrayed my mother with my eyes. He nodded and took a step backwards. Before he left, he asked me if I wanted to go to my room.
“You don’t need to see this,” he said softly.
I replied with two little words: “I’m fine.”
For years, I felt like I had done a horrible thing, but the bitterness sunk in, deep in my belly, in a dark place, wrapped with a layer of anger, and coated with frustration. Only in the quietest of places, in my deepest of secret rooms within my soul did the pain reside. I wouldn’t let it out. I couldn’t let it out. I had to be strong.
When he returned, she was with him. My father too. He wasn’t crying, but there was an unspeakable sadness on his face – the kind of grief you never want to see or experience for yourself. I looked away. The screen door opened and closed. My father followed them out. I rocked in that chair for what felt like eternity. But then I could hear the tires driving away on the gravel. The lights faded. And the rains came. At first, tiny little plinks on the tin can my brother had left in the driveway to catch drops, and then torrential gushing like the every cloud was emptying to the last sheet of liquid.
My father finally came inside. He carried my siblings to bed one at a time. I sat in my chair and rocked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. He came for me and I shook my head.
He walked away noiselessly. He understood. I saw him climb the stairs.
I walked out on the porch that night, down the steps, and into the deluge. The water felt good on my weary, aching body. As I looked up into the night sky, squinting as droplets hit my face, I lifted my arms heavenward. I felt a feeling I had thought I’d never feel again. A feeling lone since forgotten.