Features & Essays

The One That Got Away

We all have near misses that haunt us: Lovers. Friends. Opportunities. Former selves. This year’s essay collection by local authors honors that which we’ve grasped but cannot hold.

ON THE RUN

Every time she disappears, I sift through the madness for remnants of my mother.

By Shawna Jackson Van

On my 33rd birthday, my mother sent me a manila envelope full of cards I’d given her over the years. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy!” proclaims one. My three-year-old self signed it with block-ish nonsensical letters on the inside. Another is a list, sent to “Santa Clouse” when I was five years old. I used my blue sneaker stationary when I was 11 to plead for a chance to wear pantyhose to a relative’s birthday party.

On my 40th birthday, my mother mailed a registered letter accusing my sister of robbing her house when she was out of the country and me of knowing. I was told to “pick a side.” This was followed two days later by a dishwasher-sized box full of pages torn from photo albums, my baby book, old newspapers, my children’s letters to her—and, inexplicably, two coffee mugs and a $100 bill. “Happy birthday,” she wrote on a piece of torn spiral notebook paper, “I’ll always love you.”

Over the years, she’s mailed boxes of costume jewelry along with detailed lists of where each item was purchased or received as a gift, and just last year, she sent an oil painting my grandmother completed of my brother, sister, and me sitting outside under an oak when we were children. Hollowed but intact, I sort through the remains of what she leaves behind or the treasures she mails—organizing, storing and donating. How many times have I held the celery-green Tupperware colander from my childhood, full of spaghetti or cherry tomatoes, under the water at the kitchen sink?

My mother’s illness rocks her from deep, impassive depression to feverish mania. I am as familiar with this cycle as the seasons. I know her trigger dates; I feel her pacing in another state; I wait for the packages to arrive or the cryptic email stating, “It is for the best that you not know where I am right now. When it is time, I will send you an address. . .”

When I was growing up, she used to re-arrange the furniture or remodel the house, our family’s signal that a new manic episode was blooming, but without children at home or a husband to root her, she now travels from house to house and state to state agitatedly, more frequently. She has moved from northern Colorado to Virginia to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Nashville back to Denver and now, most recently, to the Pacific Northwest.

She leaves phones and new laptops by the sides of roads in Nebraska, Texas, Idaho, spending weeks driving, fleeing black helicopters, surveillance from taxi cab drivers, family members who are all—to varying degrees—in on a plot to kill her. She is impossible to contact directly, changing her phone number and email address without warning, punctuated by months of relative, medicated stability where I might actually exhale—she’s joined a book group! She’s going to movies with new friends! —before her illness tracks her down at the new location. “I don’t like the way she looked at me,” she might say, referring to a neighbor’s 10-year-old child. “Her mother is training her to be an assassin,” and it starts all over again.

She finds signs and interprets messages in arbitrary places—the Black Mountains in Nevada were named after her father’s family, she writes in a Christmas letter. Characters in movies speak to her in her Aunt Nelly’s voice and tell her whom she can trust. The airport shuttle driver takes her home on secret routes to protect her from swarms of hornets intent on following her home and setting up residence in her closet. She tells me this in a restaurant as casually as if she were recommending a beach read or a brand of oven cleaner. A second later, she leans in and laughs—“We are so bad, eating these fries! But they taste so good!” I experience a quiver of vertigo—her laughing across the table, the hornets, the savior shuttle driver all swirling in my head—and I dig my nails into my thigh under the table, hard, to come back.

One day after dropping my daughter off at school, my phone rings, and a woman from my mother’s church, a woman I’ve never met, tells me she is deeply concerned. It takes her a while to get to the point, and I have to encourage her—let her know that it’s okay, I won’t be frightened or offended. She tells me that my mother has a fantasy protector, Dan, who ties yellow ribbons on highway signs guiding her to each new location. “Has this happened before?” she asks, and I close my eyes at the side of the road where I’ve pulled the car over, the sun searing the side of my face.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about who my mother was before her illness. In her senior portrait, 1965, her beautiful face smiles hopefully into the future. She is four years from her first psychotic break, and I wonder if it was my birth that set into motion her illness. Isn’t that the self-absorption of children? We believe we actually create or destroy our parents and they exist only in the context of us. I move outside of myself and feel compassion for my 22-year-old mother, newly married and living in a strange town with a tiny baby and her husband of one year. I think about the house fire I survived at 14 days old, and I wonder if she started it. These are not answers I’m likely to get—my biological father is dead, and his version of events was no less peculiar than my mother’s, but I try to invent the answers anyway. My imaginings are not so different than those of my mother’s, I realize, except I possess the capability to put the thoughts away when I need to and make dinner or go to work.

In reaction to my mother, perhaps, I ruminate on the fragility of permanence. I tuck myself into bed and visualize all the terrible ways those I love can be harmed. Sacrificing the lamb of sleep to appease the gods of chaos, I envision how I could lose everything in an instant—and I play the tape in my mind of what this looks like—the police officer at my door, the 3 a.m. phone call, the location of the nuclear blast, the car accident on I-25.

And yet. Unlike my mother, I’ve somehow managed to not splinter completely—a miracle of brain chemistry or good luck. I say, “Stop” out loud to my dark bedroom ceiling. I get up and walk downstairs in the dark, make some tea, read a book—until the trauma has dissipated like fog in the early dawn. In another city, my mother packs her bags and the car. She mails a box of memories to her daughters, composes an email and hits send—opens the map on the kitchen table, highlights directions. I start to make breakfast, and she slips behind the wheel of her car, drives to the next safe place.

THE MISSING YEARS

We promised ourselves we’d move on. But 10 years later, rooted on a rural Kansas farm, I had slowly lost myself.

By Sandra Hume

If you know me, you know this: Laura Ingalls Wilder is my jam. Though a born and bred Northeasterner, I’d always found deep meaning in Laura (we’re first-name basis) and her Little House books. So when I left the east coast for the High Plains of the Midwest to marry a farmer I’d met on the internet, few were surprised. Many were amused. And most wished me luck. On a flat, dry, far-from-town Kansas farm, living with a guy I’d basically just met, I’d need it.

For a while, luck held. Being in love was enough. It tickled me that I was, indeed, living a version of Laura’s life, married to a farmer in the middle of nowhere. And we both knew this wasn’t forever. Weary of farming, my husband was planning to move into a more managerial role, freeing us to relocate within two years. Did we want to try the Pacific Northwest? How about Texas… maybe Austin? We happily busied ourselves imagining our options.

But options have a way of falling off, one by one. We spent the next ten years right there, between wheat and sunflower fields, in the same home we’d initially agreed was temporary.

Ultimately it was a decade I’d look back on with fascination, wondering where it went. Much of it was, to be fair, a net gain. I had a new extended family I loved, and a new immediate one with two unimaginably amazing children. Removing our kids from their grandparents’ lives—or vice versa—had become unthinkable, no matter how lonely I’d become.

And by then, I had. I hated that word. Lonely. I considered myself a bootstrapper, aware my life was mine to shape. Things aren’t working? Then fix it. So I tried. I ventured into town among a county full of people I didn’t know, first as a substitute teacher, then, a few years later, as a preschool and grade-school parent. Making friends cold was a skill gone rusty. Evidently I wasn’t good at it. There were people I could say hello to or chat with as we waited to pick up our kids. But I had no tribe. No one to confess to that I’d had a bad day, no one to grab a drink with at the end of it. (A moot point; there was nowhere to grab a drink anyway.) I could more easily tell you what church someone walked into each Sunday than if they took their margaritas with salt or not.

Depression set in, affecting both my parenting and my relationship with my husband. It didn’t help that I, long a devotee of the outdoors, now spent all of my days inside, thanks to whipping winds and the risks of encounters with snakes (my unfortunate lifetime phobia).

Somewhere along the way we’d decided on the state of Colorado as our next home, within driving distance to Grandma. But when would it happen? At the seven-year mark, long past both of our limits, I turned to my husband and implored, just give me a date. Something to look forward to. He obliged: a little over a year hence. But the date came and went and he confessed: Not now. Things are too complicated.

Okay, I said. Then I sat back, thought, and came up with a suggestion: maybe the kids and I could spend the next school year in Massachusetts. The kids could get to know their other grandmother better, and we could reap the benefits of civilization. When the year was up, we’d rejoin him in Kansas, all of us—ideally—ready to move on. He agreed.

Those months in Massachusetts revealed something unexpected. I could make friends after all. I nearly wept with relief, because now I knew: it wasn’t me. Kansas was just a bad fit. I returned with new confidence, assuming we could rely on the fruits of our “city” experience to get us through whatever time it took to be ready to move.

But I was wrong. If anything, things got worse.

The fortieth birthdays clinched it. In a house in the middle of a field ninety miles from the nearest Walmart, I jealously tracked the celebrations littering my back-east Facebook feed. I couldn’t look away. I lamented the unfairness of a life where I couldn’t even count on a milestone birthday being any different from the rest.

If “lonely” is an ugly word, feeling sorry for yourself is exponentially uglier. I no longer liked myself.

The final rock-bottom came in early summer, eleven years after I’d first arrived in Kansas. School had just let out. With my children screaming past me in the house, pregnant with our third, I found myself staring down two months of days exactly like today: me and two kids, one of them always needing far more than I could give, inside, all day, while my husband worked. In that moment I was Laura again in These Happy Golden Years, standing on the frigid winter prairie, stock-still with the revelation she’d have to spend an entire weekend in a one-room cabin with a family who hated her: “Oh Pa. I can’t.”

I couldn’t.

I told my husband I meant it. I was broken. If he couldn’t come to Colorado yet I understood, but I needed more than this life could give me. So did our kids, particularly our oldest. He sighed, because he knew I was right.

“So I’ll look for rentals in…Colorado Springs?” I didn’t know the state well, but as cities went, Springs was the closest.

He looked hesitant. “I was thinking more like Fort Collins.”

“Great!” I said. “Where’s that?”

From that first day in town to now, I’ve never stopped being grateful for the mundane. Coffee shops and breakfast burritos. Frozen yogurt. Bike lanes. Libraries I could walk to—on Sunday, even. Conversations with neighbors. Hiking trails. Playgrounds. Date night with my husband and babysitters to make it happen. Pizza delivery. Hummus at the grocery store. Sushi rolls. Friends across the street. Friends at my kids’ school. Friends.

I don’t regret my time in the middle of nowhere. I dug down into myself and found just how strong I was—and how strong I wasn’t. I stood up for myself, and for my family. And I’m far more appreciative of everything I lost to that decade.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to meet a friend for a margarita.

ONE OF OUR OWN

Could our daughter overcome her fear of “the other”?

By Andrew Kensley

Despite my wife’s and my overt efforts to foster tolerance and acceptance in our children, our 11-year-old daughter has an innate aversion toward anyone that may appear, how shall I put this, less well-off. While this may not be rare among children that grow up in stable (insulated?), middle-class (privileged?) homes, it bothers me. Fear leads to hatred.

Sophia’s dread translates everywhere, but was most evident last summer during our stops in Paris and London, oozing as they do with eclectic artsy-types that don’t exactly fit the Abercrombie and Fitch archetype from central casting. The “Freaky People,” as she calls them, appear at every turn: busking on the Underground; in the neighborhoods around our Airbnb flats; outside bakeries and sweet-smelling kabob stands. She crosses the street and avoids eye contact.

I explain that some people get dealt a bad hand in life. Everyone needs help sometimes, I say. But my youngest daughter digs in, clinging to her robust survival instincts. Surely she’s not the only one who feels this way about people living in cardboard boxes in sketchy alleyways, shaking cups with fingerless gloves.

I wonder if the reason these people stimulate our instincts to either flee or defend ourselves is that we feel a pang of guilt for their predicaments? Is it possible that at some point in the shapeless continuum of human connection, we all contribute in some way to letting our fellows descend into despair?

When it doesn’t feel good to see our brothers and sisters diverge from the trail, our first inclination is too often to say, “At least it’s not me.” But the truth is, we start and finish the human race on the backs of others, and always will. When one of our own falls away from the pack, we are all weakened, and yearn to pull each other back into the collective. It’s part of the reason we’ve made it this far.

On the tail end of our European holiday, in Barcelona, a homeless man limps to a standstill 50 feet from our perch on the steps of the National Museum of Art of Catalunya. As we wait for the famous water and light show to begin, Sophia and her older sister Ella hand the destitute-looking man a few Euros and some bottled water. He accepts them with a rough-hewn smile.

Ella returns quietly. I wait nervously for Sophia to cringe and exclaim, “I thought he was going to grab me!” or pinch her nostrils and say, “Ew, he stinks!” I, too, have become conditioned to respond fearfully.

But she melts into my wife’s lap, sobbing. “He just looks so sad,” Sophia says.

My wife and I share a glance and bathe in the tender silence. Maybe I’ve underestimated Sophia’s abilities.

I wonder if this will end up becoming that moment for her. You know, the one indelible recollection that distinguishes a seminal life experience from all others before it and after? Or the one we recall when reminiscing about when exactly it was that we “grew up.”

Much of our positive mental memorabilia evolves not from prearranged experiences foisted on us by parents (guilty), but by the simple act of drawing in another being to our circle of “we’re-all-in-this-together.”

The show dazzles with fluorescent dancing fountains into the unpredictable darkness, where strangers and untold threats lurk everyday, everywhere. With the old man still in our sights, we applaud and relish the moment, suffused with joy on many levels. Sophia, eyes glancing ever so subtly toward the homeless man, is, I think, left with something more.

FIRST POSITION

Life without dance was easier. But it left a hole nothing could fill.

By Carrie Visintainer

The floor beneath my bare feet is gray vinyl. I shift my weight from side to side, rolling my neck, adjusting the waistband of my black capris. All around me are women: a twenty-something in billowy pants, a petite middle-aged lady with cascading curls. They stand relaxed while I continue to fidget, re-doing my headband, smoothing my tank top. The instructor appears and I watch her in the mirror. Her eyes sparkle with a passion that I recognize, and I try to grasp what she’s saying. But her words sound unfamiliar: Plumb line, undercurve? As she begins to demonstrate a warm-up, melting forward like water, I can’t help but glance toward the sliding back door.

More than two decades ago, in my early teens, I was a dancer, even earning a spot as an apprentice to a professional dance company. Our repertoire was primarily ballet, with some contemporary elements, and I loved everything about it: The discipline. The sensuality.

The lithe muscled backs. I thought bodies flowing through space were the most beautiful thing ever, and I will never forget the day I first got pointe shoes; I can still see the inside of the store with its neat shelves, smell the brisk scent of leather, feel the softness of satin against my fingertips.

But eventually, it all became a burden. I was spending every moment outside high school at the studio, and any extra energy I had was dedicated to nurturing bleeding toes or icing a swollen knee, instead of anything about a typical teenage experience. Plus, I was on a path to college to study science, not dance. My parents were concerned. I was, too.

So reluctantly, I left the company. And my life did open up in the form of interesting activities like forensics and student council and boyfriends. But nothing filled the space that dance left. At first, the depth of the void wasn’t apparent, but then as I progressed into adulthood, through marriage and motherhood, as I tried to shove similar-seeming art forms like Nia and Zumba into the hole with no relief, it began to gnaw at me, a sensation that vibrated on a cellular level.

Finally, I found a unique local offering, an intermediate modern dance class for adults. I signed up, knowing I was no longer “intermediate,” worried that the particular expressiveness of dance had gotten away from me forever.

In the studio, the instructor suddenly says a word that I recognize: First position. My heart thumps and automatically I snap up, lifting from my rib cage, heels together, toes pointing out. My arms drop in front of my thighs, resting in a gentle arc. The next words are familiar, too, even though they are French: tendu, plié, relevé. A smile risks its way across my face, and my limbs follow along as the instructor reveals each successive move. Okay, I think, maybe? I mimic what I see in the mirror, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

With a little pivot, the instructor jogs to the back of the room and turns on the music. It fills my head completely with a primal, rhythmic beat. And it’s then that I feel it again: the passion. I begin to dance, the blood moving to my fingertips, my toes, heat building up like a storm. My plumb line, I remember, is what connects me to the earth, and as I shift into a sashay, I am practically fifteen all over again. I exhale deeply, lifting my arms overhead, leading with my heart.

USED TO BE

One moment, I had a friendship that rooted me deeply. The next, it was gone forever.

By Ellie Sciarra

Nancy became my best friend. A relationship that nourished the soul, comforted my grief. A place to land softly when needed. Wholehearted love. I read that women live longer when they have a close girlfriend, and I thought, given the depth of our friendship, that I might just live forever.

I had met her the week my mother died. It was as if I’d lost a soul and gained a soul, and perhaps that’s one reason the friendship flourished so deeply. Nancy was funny to my seriousness, laughter to my tears, a large presence in the world to my quiet internal thoughtfulness. After meeting her, I discovered she was generous and alive, and made the best meals, everything from hot bread salad with vegetables and cheese to four-layered raspberry-chocolate icebox cake. n hindsight, the friendship fed the lost grieving daughter that I was—and I filled her cup with loyalty and devotion.

We shared a love for dance, and our careers were igniting. Tap for me, jazz for her, launching into careers as teachers and performers. But we partied together, too—laughed daily, planned my wedding, shared endless cups of coffee. We spilled our hearts out, dreamed of growing old together, celebrated birthdays, New Years and holidays, all while rooting our feet into what would become a fourteen-year friendship.

Then this happened: Early December 2003, a day like any other, and we spoke on the phone. We talked about getting together for lunch, which given our busy schedules took some juggling. Ten minutes into the phone call, and in the last 10 seconds, she said, simply, I don’t want to be your friend anymore. From the end of that 10 seconds silence rained down loud. Poof, it was all over. I remember standing holding the phone within the silence, thinking, and then speaking, “What did you say?”

She repeated herself and hung up, and so did I, confused. I didn’t know then that that was one of the last times I would hear her voice. The finale of our friendship was unforeseen and bewildering to me even now, a decade later. Silence crept into the days and weeks. To quell the never-ending “why?” I fabricated reasons—she needed space, her brother had cancer, I had a full schedule of classes, was rehearsing a dance show. Two months earlier I had been a full hour late for a planned lunch date, having scheduled a private lesson that I had failed to add to my day planner. The image of her eyes, glaring and cold, sitting at the table waiting for me replayed in my mind. This was before cell phones, and my tardiness had perhaps disrupted her entire day. Was it that? My mind revolved around potential reasons endlessly.

But I never knew, never got an explanation. By the following spring, I arrived at a juncture where three oncoming waves met. The perfect storm—of losing my used-to-be best friend, turning 50 and menopausal, and letting go of producing and dancing. The force of colliding, the zipper of momentum, the volume of water, the spray of the waves had all come together.

I went from sadness to despair, hate to anger, and I fooled myself into compassion, thinking I could take the high road. It lasted for years. In truth, I hated her for a very long time. I hated her behind the sadness. I hated her sitting there beside my grief, my pain, my exhaustion. I hated the betrayal. I hated the feeling of shock that stuck to the myelin sheath of my bones. Most of all I hated the silence, like liquid quicksilver poison, dripping into the empty space of time.

One day, a year later after the phone call, I realized how much I had loved and cherished our fourteen-year friendship. A relationship of platonic love. And, I hated that I loved. Loved her for many reasons: that my own funny self would show up around her, that I laughed longer and louder, that I finally found a soul sister days after the death of my mother, that I loved the conversations, phone calls, shared books, dances created and just knowing that she would be there forever. And I wondered how could I have both loved and hated her?

For years, I chiseled away at the stone of grief and loss—uncovering the sorrow, the blaming of self. I oscillated through the hormonal mood swings from depression to agitation to anger. My voice grew stronger with the vulnerability that came through being broken open by life. My own collusion to silence no longer was necessary as protection. I talked about it with everyone who might care. I befriended anger, and it became a source of power, a form of light, which surprisingly opened the door to forgiveness.

Softly and quietly, I did just that—I forgave myself. Perhaps I had been waiting for her to do it. Or for the universe to explain itself. Forgiveness was slow in coming, not a given and rarely all or nothing. That was part of the lesson.

But I realized in the end, that I was on my own here, forever. I would just have to laugh louder and longer by myself. I would share books and phone calls and conversations with others, and let it, and her, go.

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