by: Chris Thompson
A letter, addressed to a stranger, suggests the journey to be loved often begins with pain…
December 18th, 1986 – Brooklyn, NY
To the finder of this letter,
I do not know who you are or at what stage of life’s journey you are at. I will never know if you have ever loved or been loved by someone else before. But what I do know is that your life is your own no matter what anyone tries to tell you. No matter how many people may try and take that truth away from you. This is a story about my life, about the journey I had to take to find its redemption, and the words contained herein are my heartfelt gift to you.
I killed my mother on the day that I was born. At least that’s what my father would have me believe. She gave birth to me – delivered a kicking, screaming, doe-eyed baby girl into this wild, chaotic world – and I in turn hastened her demise. Our two souls entwined, we were mother flecked with daughter, parent mixed with child. Two fractions of a whole rushing steadfast to opposing realms, familiarity and uncertainty flowing between us like current through a filament of wire. One was an empty vessel, all buoyant and fresh and smooth, heading steadfast towards the quivering light. And the other was a rough and uneven stone, gone leaden and sinking fast, resisting the pull of darkness with all its remaining might.
My emergence into this world was supposed to be a time for excitement and rejoice. A celebration of a new life begun. But my arrival only served to smother the fires of bliss. I was joyous news delivered on broken wings. A healthy offering of baby girl served with a catch. For the winds of fortune had shifted that snowy winter night, and in the excitement no one had noticed their change. Gone was the promise of family. Gone was the notion of stability and a future filled bright. Good fortune had been replaced by the indiscriminate winds of Death and out from the delivery room they blew, my mothers last breath alight upon its determined currents. Its cold and steady breeze ushering her swiftly across the threshold, to that final darkness we all must face.
And in that silence, in that infinite moment after her death, when time stood still and the crushing weight of reality pressed in, and anguish and fear and disbelief threatened to suffocate all that it touched. In that moment my father first heard my cries. He rose shakily on weakened legs and drifted numbly across the delivery room floor, stopping before the trembling nurse who refused to meet his stare. Who resisted looking up into his eyes lest she witness the vigor for his life quickly fade away and die.
I had been wrapped loosely in a cocoon of gauze and linen, and my father reached out for me stiffly with rigid and mechanical arms. He grasped me weakly to his chest as if I was a glowing ember too hot to hold, watching out of the corner of his eye as the white-suited orderly pulled a blood-stained sheet up and over my mothers face. And in that moment, when all the eyes of the room were upon him, and the silence was a thick blanket of fog that clung to everything it touched, my father beheld me for the first time. He gazed down upon me with his fading, watery eyes. But the way that he glared at me was a warning, an omen of things to come. I was the portent of death to him, a harbinger of darkness and pain and someone he could not possibly love. And from that day forward the mold was cast. The tenor of our relationship set in stone. He would call me “daughter” but only in the literal sense of the word. I was merely an idea – a placeholder for a future promised but lost – not a tangible being that he could ever love.
But there is nothing I can do about my father’s frigidity now, just as there was nothing I could do about it then. For love is a funny thing. We all clamor so recklessly to obtain it, yet offer it to others in such specific ways. For some it is unconditional and given freely without restrictions, like a gentle smile or a warm embrace. But for others it must be consciously earned. Suffered for and doled out when seen fit, like a reward for earning high marks on an exam. My father fell into that second group perfectly, a man who did not know how to love first. A man who without my mother’s balancing touch was incapable of altruism. Who could not separate his adoration for me from the death of her, and a man who believed fiercely, that there was no action I could undertake to make him change his mind.
The way that I see it my emergence into the world was a death for a birth. Like a “push” in a hand of blackjack. The ending of my mother exchanged for the beginning of me. But my implication in her death is a hard truth to swallow and it’s still lodged there in the fathoms of my throat. A perpetual reminder of the cost of my existence. But my father had a choice, you see, where I did not. He could have given freely of his love. Loving me first despite what transpired, separating my individuality from the reality of her death. But alas, it was not to be.
I’m older now and I’ve come to terms with his actions. I realize that not everyone can love unconditionally, have forgiveness in their heart or give blindly of their love. Maybe it was because of his upbringing, his reclusive nature or his deep obsession with faith that made him the way that he was. I’ll never know because we didn’t speak often when he was alive. But what I do know is that I can’t fault him for his beliefs or for what his definition of love was. All I can do is look forward, keep my focus off the past. Not let my upbringing influence the future that I’m endeavouring to create.
For a long time though, up until I reached my teenage years, I did keep my focus on the past. Back then I was like a skipping record that couldn’t find its groove. Like a tumbleweed in a stiff breeze, drifting where the dusty winds blew with no control over my destiny. I felt dull and dark and grey. Numb and shallow and low. I was lost in a world without love and so desperately wanted to fall into its warm embrace. And I could see it in my father’s eyes from an early age that he hated me. Loathing the fact that I was the one who had lived while my mother, his wife, had died. I might as well have put the knife in my hand and slit her throat myself the way that he treated me. The way that he glared at my form whenever we crossed paths. It was like he was trying to erase me from the fabric of his existence. To clip me from a newspaper like a coupon for a new life. A new reality. A remedy for a broken dream. Trade in your old, damaged Daughter for a new one! Get a new lease on life! See manager for details. I had been found guilty without a trial. Unable to plead innocence in my defense. And my sentence was a lifetime filled with guilt. Hard labor of the mental kind.
I came to understand it. Eventually made peace with how my father viewed me. But it took a long time. For you see, I came to realize that he had to replace a promise my mother had made to him – a lifetime of contentment filled with bliss – with something much darker, more destructive – longing mixed with pain. And I had her freckles and her eyes. Her confidence and her imagination and my presence only served to taunt him and remind him of her absence each and every day.
When I was younger, before my mother’s death had fully consumed my father, religion played a big role in his life. In our lives. My father had been a religious man once, full of sermon and prose and destined for the Seminary at an early age. But a chance encounter with my mother on a spring afternoon in May had changed all that. The path to the Seminary was abandoned and they quickly fell in love, marrying soon after. A few years later I was born and then everything completely fell apart. The intervening years after her death found my father returning his focus to the Church. Only this time he made my atonement his mission and the saving of my soul his charge.
I was taken to church constantly when all I wanted to do was run in the grass and play. My childhood became as rigid as my fathers faith and the pews and stone pillars became my playground and the worn marbled floor my grass and the faded murals of the cathedral ceilings my cloud-filled sky. I was expected to take confession and tell the Lord of my wrongful ways. But in my father’s mind I had only one sin to confess, one wrong to suffer to make right and he tried to get me to admit it at every chance.
But I was distrustful and suspicious of a god who would want me to confess that particular sin. Who would expect me to accept a world where anger and hatred coursed so strongly in someone whose blood I so closely shared. So at every step I resisted and my father would have to drag me to the confessional each week. Half-leading, half-carrying me down the long dim aisles of our church, through billowing cordons of incense and flickering legions of candled light. Past chiseled frizes of tortured men and always under the watchful eye of the crucified Christ. And I’d drift down those suffocating aisles in my white Sunday best with my heels dug in, my black polished shoes leaving thin streaks of protest across the marbled floor, a tiny trail of rebellion for those children who followed next. But ultimately my father would prevail. And he’d swing wide the creaking confessional door and shove me in firmly and suddenly it’d be all darkness and quiet and fear.
And in that darkness time stood still, and the slightest sound echoed loudly within my head. And then the disembodied voice of the Priest would startle me and I would scramble to sit up straight upon the hard wooden bench, my feet dangling inches in the still, musty air.
“Confess your sins my child,” the Priest would say, sliding back the cover of the screen as diffuse slivers of amber light flooded my darkened void.
“But what have I to confess?” I would reply, trembling.
And the Priest would say, licking his dry pale lips, “The worst things that you’ve done my child. The darkness in the deep.”
And I’d close my eyes and in my mind would whirl a vortex of paper as a thousand filing drawers all slammed open at once. Each childhood sin printed in capital letters on a crisp white piece of paper, flung from its manilla folder where it had been cataloged alphabetically by offense and crime. Around the mossy depths of my thoughts the pages flew. Each one alighting on my minds eye just long enough for me to read the printed offense.
I had stolen money from my father’s wallet to buy a beaded bracelet when he was passed out drunk in his worn leather chair…
I had lied about going to Spanish Club after school on Mondays and instead I would hang out behind the gymnasium with Annie and Kate and Grace…
I had found my cousins diary and laughed as I read the secret love letters she had written to the boys she liked in school…
I had kissed Billy Humphries and told him that I liked it when I really hadn’t because his lips felt like slugs crawling all over my face…
I had pulled Molly Stillwell’s hair and called her a bitch because I thought she had stolen my red lipstick but it was really Mara James who did it and I had never apologized to Molly…
I had let Jimmy Kendall look up my skirt for five dollars in the backseat of the bus on our class trip to the Mason’s dairy farm…
I had snuck into old Ms. Hulton’s house through her unlocked back door and rearranged all her china figurines while she was out shopping and then watched soap operas in her bed…
Oh, and I’d killed my mother. Murdered her on the day that I was born…
And then I’d snap open my eyes, stare blankly forward into the dark “I haven’t anything to confess,” I’d say.
“Now come my child. There is no room for lies. The Lord forgives your sins,” the Priest would reply.
“No! No!” I’d cry, fearing he’d sensed my lie. “I have nothing at all to say!” as tears streamed down my cheeks and my grip tightened on the hard wooden bench. “I have nothing to confess.”
“But you must!” the Priest would snap, his voice for a moment going stern and dry before returning to a whispered calm. “Just try and you will see.”
“I won’t!” I would yell, pounding my fists repeatedly on my thighs.
“Go on and do it!” the Priest would again demand, startling me. “There is no place to hide.”
And it’d all be too much for me. I’d feel suffocated as the paneled walls closed in, and I’d storm out of the confessional, tears heavy on my cheeks, my skin blotchy and red and terror in my eyes. He was right, the Priest, there was no place to hide. But I tried to anyway, tried to bury that one thought my father would never let me forget deep down in the darkened recesses of my soul.
And my father would look up from his Bible, as he waited there in the pew, and I would see the anger burning behind his dark, sunken eyes. Watch him hiss and stand up and grab for my arm as I ran down the aisle, thwarting my plans for escape, my desire to run and hide.
“What have you done!” He would scold through tightly clenched teeth. “What tragedy have you devised within these sacred walls?” And he would look to the Priest who shook his head as he exited the confessional, and there was apology in my fathers eyes.
“I’ve done nothing Dad! I’ve done nothing wrong!” I would yell, my words echoing loudly off the darkened cathedral walls. And I’d wriggle and spasm and break free of his grip, the assorted parishioners and clergy looking my way as I ran blindly for the doors. Out into the daylight I’d launch myself, the brightness of the sun saturating my vision and rendering me temporarily blind.
And sometimes in that moment I would see my mothers face, in that instant before my vision adjusted. She would smile and call my name and I’d ask her why she had left me, if it was really all my fault. But always before she could answer my father and the Priest were upon me, scolding me and shaking me in turn.
So I did the only thing that I could do as I grew older. I gave my father the widest of berths, steered clear of his judgement and disdain. Became a shadow on his walls. A whisper on the wind. A suggestion of a daughter. A fragment of a whole. I subsisted at the fringes of his life and orbited quietly around his person, all neutral and buoyant in the waters of his existence until I was old enough to go. And eventually, I did.
But life marches forward as difficult as it can sometimes be. And time drifts endlessly onward and so did I. I bought a one-way Greyhound ticket, made my way to New York City and never looked back. Became lost in the excitement of my independence. In the arousal of my unbridled curiosity, I fell in love with poetry and boys and rebellion and the plenitudes of youth. There was music in the air and a sense of community in the streets. I rented a small room above a cafe in the Village and took a job there in the afternoons. Spent my mornings reading Dickens and Poe and Frost while the rest of the world slept. Passed my afternoons serving coffee and tiny cakes to bohemian patrons between stolen paragraphs of Nabokov and Kerouac. I shadow boxed with Fitzgerald and Huxley by the glow of my bedside lamp and got lost in Sagan and Bradbury up on the rooftops during the warm summer nights.
It took me awhile but I was able to gather some money, begging a few loyal friends for the rest, and enroll in university, discovering there my love for philosophy and art. I took a semester abroad my junior year to Paris, studying Art and Film at the Institut d’Études Politiques and for the second time in my life everything changed. I met Sasha at a cafe on the Left Bank one spring day when the cherry blossoms along the Seine were in full bloom and he was the kindest, most gentlest soul I had ever encountered. He was fearless but respectful, generous and unbiased and I marveled at how someone could emerge from their adolescence with such purity intact. We’d meet in the evenings and he’d read Descartes to me by the glow of the city lights and we’d stroll the lively, atmospheric avenues of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and talk passionately about dualism and the nature of the soul.
Eventually I discovered the works of Jean Cocteau and fell in love with his depiction of dream-like states in films. I don’t know, his words just stuck with me. I devoured all that he touched. Especially his novel Les Enfants Terribles. In it he wrote that “Mirrors are the doorways through which Death enters the world.” and that thought just resonated with me, caused me to become obsessed with staring at my reflection. I kept looking for an answer, haunted by my past, hoping that if I looked hard enough I could see Death at work. That by somehow understanding its purpose I could take away its power. But it was to no avail.
And so I too became married, and started a family of my own. And I have a daughter now and she’s the greatest thing that I’ve ever done. In the mornings she dances between the sunbeams, flush with goodness and curls, while I lay in bed and watch. She giggles and laughs and does pirouettes like a ballerina, dancing gaily about the room. My prancing little pony. My savior in golden curls.
And she reminds me of my mother too. From the old movies I’ve seen from before my time, from when she was young. Her laugh and her smile, her carefree loving grace. It’s all there, before me in my daughter when I’m watching her dance. Like I’m back gazing into those mirrors of my youth, only it’s my mother I see, not Death.
Sometimes I can’t believe it. That the life I lived before could ever have existed. In my dreams it often comes rushing back to me and I spring awake, steady my hand on my bedside table to stop the world from spinning. Place my hand over my racing heart and feel its tremendous beat. My skin flush with heat. My pulse thundering in my temples, threatening to drown out the entire word. But in that moment I’m remind that above all else, I’m alive. We’re all alive and we’re loved.
Naomi – xoxo