Pamela Johnston print version
A Girl Like You
I have this dream where I'm standing on the bank of a river that's full of winter trash-leaves, tree limbs, bloated animal carcasses, the occasional boot. I'm standing there and trying to figure out how to get across the water, thinking that if I can just move quickly and lightly enough, hopping from one solid thing to the next, I might actually be able get to the other side.
I've never figured out exactly why I need to get across. As far as this dream is concerned, it doesn't really matter.
The important thing is, while I'm standing there, trying to plot my path across a terrain that keeps changing, my mother comes down the bank behind me. I can hear rocks sliding downhill underneath her feet, and somehow I know it's her before she even says anything. She always stands where I can't see her, just behind me. I can hear her voice over the roar of the water, though I'm sure I wouldn't be able to hear anything else.
"What are you doing?" my mother asks.
"Trying to figure out how we'll get across," I say.
And then I always say one more thing-one of three things, actually. In the first version, I tell her I'm going to walk downstream and look for a bridge. "There's no way we can cross this by ourselves," I tell her.
"That'll take too long," she says. "Come on. Let's just go."
And before I can think about trying to stop her, my mother walks ahead of me and into the water, until it closes over her head. She doesn't hesitate, not when her feet first sink into the melted snow and ice, not even in the moment before the water covers her mouth and nose. I'm startled by what she's done, every time, so I wake up before I have the chance to find out whether or not she comes out safely on the other side. I'm guessing not.
In the second version, the one I have most often, I tell her I'm going to swim across and go for help. "Just wait for me here," I tell her. "I'll come back for you as soon as I can."
"You can just forget about that," my mother says. "Look at that water. You'd get knocked out by one of those branches, then where would you be? Dead, that's where."
"Let's just wait a while and see what happens," my mother says. "We're in no hurry. We have time."
Time for what, I don't know. But that's what we do: we sit on a rock together and watch the melting winter run through the channel it's cut in the ground. To keep myself from being worried about the fact that we're not getting anywhere, I think about all the places this water is coming from. I make an alphabetical list of all the lakes and reservoirs I've seen on state maps: Alturas, Brown Bear, Cascade. In this version of my dream, it's trying to think of an "I" name that finally wakes me up.
* * *
This dream started a long time ago, years before my mother died-otherwise, I never would have mentioned it to my neighbor, Carrie, and I'd be more willing to see it as a part of my grieving process, which is what Carrie would have me believe.
"This dream is giving you the chance to let your mother go," she says. "But the fact that you're still shocked awake by her absence indicates that you're not ready to do it yet. Your job is to figure out why. Did the two of you leave something unresolved?"
I've been working in the yard since seven o'clock this morning, when it first came light, weeding the flowerbeds and putting things right for summer. Carrie, on the other hand, is still in her robe and slippers, drinking the cup of coffee she brought outside with her when she came down her driveway looking for the morning paper and saw me here, already hard at work.
"She only dies in one version," I remind her. "In the other two, she's still alive at the end."
Carrie is a grief therapist, so as far as she's concerned, everything in the world boils down to letting go. She began her life of helping people through their sorrow after she lost her first child. This is the story she told me the very first time we met: Carrie went to the doctor each month and everything was perfectly fine, a textbook pregnancy. Then, two days before the baby was due, Carrie's dog barked at something he was seeing through the living room window. She remembers stopping right in the middle of making herself a tuna salad sandwich, holding a heavy new jar of pickle chips in her hand, because the baby didn't kick like it always did whenever the dog barked at something. Carrie called the dog into the kitchen and offered him a jerky treat. The dog went crazy doing all his tricks, yapping for a reward. Still, nothing.
Carrie has three kids now. The first one is buried in the cemetery at Dry Creek, and Carrie talks about her the way she'd talk about any of the others: "We drove up to see Ellie this morning," she said last week, on what would have been the baby's fourteenth birthday. She claims it took a long time for her to get to this point, to think of Ellie as someone who's still with us, not someone who used to be. Personally, I'm not convinced this is a step in the right direction.
I hadn't seen my mother in almost ten years, not since the night I left Boise, so in some ways she had come to seem like a person who used to be. When people asked about my family and I said we weren't in touch, they assumed this meant something they'd rather not know: humiliating punishments in dark closets, or something else they'd rather have me keep to myself.
Last month I went downtown to the public library on my day off and caught up on the Boise news. This is something I did about once a week, whenever I went to the library: I skimmed the local section for pertinent information and figured seeing nothing meant everything was fine. But this time, there she was: my mother, in a photo I'd never seen before. Died as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident. Survived by a son, Ethan James.
Something inside me started shaking when I saw my mother's face, though my hands were perfectly still. The paper wasn't moving. I noticed this before I understood what had happened. After that, I just looked at the words for a long time. Died. Accident. Survived. And then my son's name, sitting quietly at the end of a line of type.
Carrie knows nothing about the baby I lost, the baby I left behind. Lee knows, of course, though the version I gave him is slightly different from the truth. There was a boy, I said. I had a baby. I was eighteen, way too young to be anybody's mother. I had to give him up. All of which is true but, from the standpoint of fact, not completely accurate.
Lee doesn't know that I left the baby the same night I got on the bus to Seattle, the same night I met him. I put Ethan in his car seat, in my mother's car; I buckled him up and kissed him goodbye, talked to him for a few minutes so he wouldn't think I was leaving him there alone to freeze in the dark. Then I stood in the trees at the edge of the grocery store parking lot until I saw my mother coming out, pushing a cart in front of her. She opened the door and leaned into the car before she saw him there, backed up as though she'd bumped her head against something hard and unforgiving; I watched her wonder whether she'd left him there, then figure out what I'd done.
After she'd pulled out of the parking lot, driving like she thought she could catch me if she got home fast enough, I walked downtown to the Greyhound station and caught the 8:05. Twenty minutes later, I was outside the city limits and half an hour away from the Oregon border. I thought leaving the state would make me feel different about what I'd done, like I'd crossed a real line and not just the imaginary kind you can see on a map. I thought I could make myself feel distance by creating it. But my stomach still felt like a hard and solid thing inside me when we stopped for a meal break in Kennewick.
I went to the bathroom, thinking I might throw up, but nothing happened. I didn't know how I would eat again, how I'd ever do anything normal like brush my teeth or take a shower, much less get a job and come home every day to an apartment where only I lived. For the last two months we'd been crammed into a five-room house where you couldn't get away from the sound of a baby crying unless you went outside and up the block. It was the house where I'd lived all my life, with my mother, and it had never seemed so small as it did after Ethan moved in with us. You wouldn't imagine a baby could occupy so much space.
Still, there was no way to do something like this and just go ahead with your life, like a regular person. That much seemed clear. I came out of the bathroom, looked at my watch and sat down on a bench by a row of telephones with finger-smudged receivers, wondering what I would say when I called her.
A guy sat down beside me. He had dark hair, dark eyes. "Your bus is taking off," he said, pointing out the window.
"I know," I told him. "This is as far as I'm going."
"Me too," he said. "The buck stops here."
That was Lee.
* * *
Carrie was living next door when Lee and I bought our house three years ago. I avoided her at first. She's the kind of neighbor who's always asking questions: Where did you get those lovely planter boxes on your front porch? How do you keep your lawn so green in all this heat? I was new to home ownership; Lee and I had been renting for a long time, saving our money, living with things someone else had picked out. Both of us wanted to make a place for ourselves, something to fill up the spaces we'd made in our lives. So I didn't like the critical eye Carrie seemed to be turning on everything I'd chosen for our home. I thought it was only a matter of time before she found me out.
After a while, though, I understood her curiosity was genuine only insofar as it could start a conversation about something else entirely, the thing she really wanted to talk about, which was nearly always something about herself. She told me her whole life story in less than an hour: the lost baby who gave her a new lease on life, the people who come to her office now when they've started to believe they can never do what everyone else, it seems, has done.
"They think moving on is the hardest part," Carrie says. "But what I tell them first of all is this: moving on will be a piece of cake once you've figured out what's standing in your way. Owning your will to survive-that's the hardest part."
She actually says these things.
Lee and I have had many a laugh over my impersonations of Carrie. "You thought making this lasagna was hard," I say, when he brings a blackened dish to the dinner table. "I'll tell you this right now, Lee Marshall: owning the fact that you allowed this lasagna to burn-that's the hardest part."
It's not a kind thing to do, I'll admit. But it's hard not to laugh at a person who truly believes she has the solution to every problem stored somewhere in her head.
It would have been easy to call my mother that first night, to say I was scared and tell her I'd made a mistake, I was coming home. That would have been the end of it. "I know you feel like your life is closing in on you," she told me once, " but I promise you, it gets better. Babies grow up. You just have to hang in there with them until they do."
I didn't call her, though. I talked to Lee. We shared a bag of potato chips, then a candy bar. We walked three blocks to an all-night coffee shop, ate breakfast in the dark and read a newspaper someone had left behind. Before too long, it was morning. Once I could see everything around me, buildings and streets and cars full of people going to work, nothing all that different from what I'd left behind, it was easier to think about moving on.
We spent three days at a motel and lived in one of those tiny stucco cottages with a half-size refrigerator in the kitchenette. A few weeks later, after we'd found an apartment and jobs that paid the rent, I bought a postcard of the Seattle skyline. I'm all right, I wrote, but I'm not coming back. I know he's better off with you.
I mailed that card knowing my mother would see the postmark and figure out where I was. Maybe I wanted her to come and get me, to show up at my door and insist that I stop being selfish, come back home. You have a son now, she would have said. You can't be thinking about yourself. You're no better than his father if you do this to him, walking away from your responsibilities.
"Come on," she'd say. "You can do it. I can help you."
I would have gone home without a fight, I know. But she didn't come.
"You're completely convinced that this dream has no connection to your mother's death," Carrie says now, sitting on the front steps of my house.
"Yes," I say. "I started having this dream years ago." I look toward her house, wishing one of her children would call her through the screen door, as they often do.
"Even the version where she dies?" Carrie says.
"I don't really know if she dies. She goes under the water, and then I wake up."
Carrie gives me a patient smile. "So maybe the other versions of this dream have been your way of preparing for that moment-of helping you understand what you're feeling now. Is that a possibility?"
In her mind it is, of course, so I pretend to consider this for a moment. Actually I'm trying to remember what possessed me to tell her my mother had died in the first place, but it's Lee who told her-Lee who found me crying in the living room when he came home from work, who met Carrie at the front door when she knocked.
* * *
The night I left, I'd been home with the baby all day. Ethan had been crying for the last three hours, which wasn't unusual. Still, I called the Ask-a-Nurse line. It was evening, and the doctors had long since called it day.
I answered the nurse's questions: he wasn't running a fever, wasn't throwing up. I knew all the questions by heart, and I knew what she'd say at the end. "Sounds like colic," she said. "You said this happens every day, right?"
"Around four o'clock. It's like he just explodes."
"Colic," she said. "Nothing you can do for that but wait it out." I didn't say anything after that, so she asked, "Do you have some help there?"
"Yeah, my mom."
"Good. You give her a call if you start to feel like you just can't take it anymore. Just put him down in a safe place and call in the reinforcements. It won't hurt him to be left alone in his crib for a while. If he starts to run a temp, you can call us again."
Ethan was in his crib, his knees pulled up to his chest and his face gone red and sweaty, his whole body furious. I'd put him down before I made the call, and now I didn't trust myself to pick him up again. I closed the door between us, walked down the short hall and into the living room. Finally I got my coat and headed out the front door, watching the street for my mother's headlights. She should have been home by then, so I thought she must have stopped at the grocery store on the way. I started walking in that direction, enjoying the cold and quiet.
When I went back home, I was planning to bundle him up and put him in the stroller, walk him to the grocery store, maybe meet my mother there. I'd read somewhere that motion and the cool night air could help.. But Ethan was still crying when I got back home, and he didn't stop while we walked.
Carrie's daughter calls her from behind the screen door of their house. "Breakfast," she says.
"Tell Daddy I'll be there in a minute, Joy. Tell him I'm talking to Jane right now." I know this is code for something else, that her husband knows about my mother, the grief I won't acknowledge. "What I keep thinking is," Carrie says, turning back to me, "that river is significant. It's in all three versions of the dream-it's the one thing that seems to stay pretty much the same. Am I hearing you correctly?"
I nod and decide to let her follow this path.
"So that's what we should be concentrating on-we need to figure out what's in that river. Then we'll understand why you and your mother are so hesitant to cross it. What did you tell me-broken tree branches and dead animals, right?"
"I don't think it's anything that spooky," I say. "I grew up in a town that was built along the river. You had to cross the river to get anywhere."
"That's great!" Carrie is delighted that I'm finally participating in my own recovery. "So maybe you are ready to move on with your life." She taps her front teeth with one pink fingernail, thinking about this possibility.
I called my mother, just once. I'd been gone a long time already. I don't remember why I called, except that it was almost Christmas.
She answered the phone and I said hi, exactly as I would have if I'd just talked to her yesterday. After a minute I said, "It's me. Jane."
"I know," she said, and I could hear her throat closing around the words.
"I'm fine," I said. "I just wanted to call and let you know that."
I heard her drinking something, and then she said, "I can't believe you'd call after all this time."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"No, I'm glad to hear your voice. Where are you?"
"At home," I said. "I mean-you know. Washington." She didn't say anything after that, so I asked "How's Ethan?"
"He's great. He started kindergarten this year." She paused again, a long moment of crackling dead air. "Is that why you called? Are you coming back?" she asked me.
I shook my head, but of course she couldn't see this. "I just wanted to know how he's doing. I think about him all the time."
I could hear a voice in the background then, high-pitched and soft. My mother turned away from the receiver to answer. "Yes," she said, "but only two."
"Is that him?" I asked her.
"He sounds so grown-up. Is he reading or anything yet?"
"No, but he can write his name pretty well." She waited a moment before spoke again. "You can't do this, Jane. Either you're here with him or you're not."
I nodded my head, and then I remembered to say. "All right."
"Thank you for letting me know you're okay," she said.
"You're welcome," I said, and then she hung up.
Carrie's daughter comes outside this time, trying to fish her mother away from me. "Dad says come inside right now," Joy says, and puts her arm around Carrie's waist, tilts her head to Carrie's shoulder.
"All right." Carrie smiles and runs a hand down her daughter's long hair, the color of wheat. I'm thinking that Ethan's hair was this color when he was a baby, though of course it may have changed by now. He's ten years old, not much younger than Joy, and I have often tried to imagine him in a body of this size, standing nearly as tall as me. For all our differences, Carrie and I have this in common.
"We'll talk again," Carrie says-not a statement so much as a warning. I nod and wave them away, back to their breakfast table, the whole noisy family gathered together in their sleeping clothes and fighting for the syrup.
Of course I wonder where Ethan is, now that my mother is gone, who's taking care of him. My name wasn't listed among my mother's surviving family, so no one will be looking for me to take over as Ethan's next of kin.
Actually, I don't know if they'd let me have him back, or if he'd even want to come with me. Maybe he wouldn't have a choice. I don't know what she told him, whether she explained everything or simply said he had a sister, Jane, who moved away. That would have been the easier explanation, and I wouldn't have blamed her for writing me out of his life.
And then I wonder how I'd begin to explain all of this to Lee-though that is the least of my worries, really. Lee had his own reasons for getting on the bus that brought him here when he was seventeen. He may be the only person in the world who will understand these things: a girl can leave her child because she loves him, and come back to him because she loves him still.
* * *
"What are you doing?" my mother asks.
"I'm trying to figure out how we can get around this," I say. "I don't know what we're going to do."
She takes my hand and starts for the river, not saying anything, stopping just before she takes the first step into the water. She sticks her toes in first.
"Cold," she says.
I tell her I'm not going in, but she keeps moving forward anyway, her fingers wrapped tight around my wrist, and I realize she will not let go. She takes one step, and then another, and when her arm is stretched back as far as it can, she turns around to look at me.
"Well, what else are we going to do?" she says. "Come on. I'm right here. I won't let go of you."
She is my mother, after all, so I do what she tells me: I take the first step. The water opens to let me in, then comes together above my feet, sealed tight around my ankles as though it has never been disturbed. We aren't moving now; we're just standing there while everything rushes around us. My mother is right: the water is cold, not far removed from the snow it used to be, but the longer I stand there beside her, the warmer it seems.