“I wish you and your brother were closer,” my dad says in a text message one late summer day, playing intermediary.
We’ve never been close, I thought, but didn’t say. This is just the way we are.
“He told me that he just wants his family back.” Another text.
“You can’t be close to someone who has a secret,” my aunt would say to me just a few weeks later while we were standing in her kitchen drinking coffee. She was getting ready to leave for work and I was about to drive over to the hospital.
It was a rainy afternoon, gloomy and cold, and we were bored. I was 10 and you were 5. Dad must have been working and Mom was sleeping off a migraine. I convinced you to play “Harriet the Spy” with me. I liked Harriet; she knew things. But like Harriet, I didn’t yet understand that not knowing was often better. We got out flashlights and crept around the house, peeking into the non-existent nooks and crannies of our singularly rectangular house. We huddled in our shared bathroom, an interior room with no windows, tapping on the walls and listening for secret rooms through empty toilet paper tubes, hoping to find mysterious spaces between closets. Until we were tapping too much and too loud and woke up Mom, tired and in pain, angry because she hated to show herself in that condition. It didn’t matter that we could always hear her retching, just on the other side of the hollow door that divided their bathroom from the kitchen.
It wasn’t necessary, either, to press an ear to the wall to hear the yelling. I wonder if you sat in your room, listening to me get mine the same way I would sit and listen to you get yours. You would argue back, which always infuriated Mom and made her scream louder and longer. I would whisper for you to just be quiet and stop arguing, just to end it.
But we would never talk about it with each other, our shared experiences across the wall.
I used to think a lot about the hours you sat with her, alone, all through the night, sick in that same bedroom, while I slept, unknowing, 600 miles away. Mom’s collapsed. She seems really sick, what should I do? I think of all the people you called before me, who equivocated, uncertain. Dad was in Mexico with one of his brothers, unreachable. But me? I was just a phone call away: realistic, level-headed, unambiguous. Call 9-1-1, I would have said.
Eventually you do. Call 9-1-1. And then me. Nevermind that I didn’t answer the phone the first or second time you called.
But by then it is too late.
I did see your text — the one Dad worried I was ignoring– with the photo of some artifact from our childhood, but I didn’t really see you there, tapping at the wall, hoping for my attention, my approval, because while I like to think I know something about secrets, I am actually an expert at looking right at a thing and seeing nothing at all.
A week later, I finally sent you back a thumbs up, after my heart had softened just a little bit, because neither of us has ever been able to say whatever it is we want to say.
But by then, it is too late.
There was a small wooden box in our home that fascinated me as a child. On one face is a scene carved into the wood that feels Japanese, a snow-capped mountain, a boat in the water, and what must be an ancient tree shaped by the wind sheltering a small house. Muted tints in the wood accentuate the details, pale blue for the water and the sky, chestnut brown for the mountain, and red on the sail and the frame of the house. The scene is contained by a border of tiny chestnut brown diamonds carved into the wood. On the opposite face of the box is a pale blue bird, perched on a branch, with a faded red flower that might be a chrysanthemum, also surrounded by the same tiny diamonds. The other four sides have a detailed wooden inlay pattern that reminds me now of the parquet floors in Russian palaces I would later slide over as a newly-minted adult.
While the box was certainly beautiful, I loved it most for its secrets. All of the edges are smooth, beveled to a curve, and the opposing scenes make it difficult to tell which side is the top unless you know what to look for. Impenetrable at first glance, there are slight irregularities in the parquet pattern on one of the sides that hint at a sliding piece of wood. This is the first step to unlocking the secrets, allowing the landscape scene to shift over, revealing a compartment inside. Then the other side can slide up, exposing a tiny drawer with a little wooden knob.
I have no memory of whether there was anything in the box when I first figured out the puzzle. I imagine that I took it out to my mom, beaming at my own ingenuity and intelligence. “Look at what this box can do!” Nevermind that I was snooping in their bedroom again, flicking my fingers through the doo-dads and trinkets that accumulate in a life, yearning to be allowed into the mysteries of a parent’s world. Just a few years before I had found a collection of tiny yellowed teeth in a black lacquer box in the shape of a heart, knocking over the first domino of acceptable lies parents tell their children: the Tooth Fairy. Shortly followed by the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
After she died, I took possession of the box and it was packed away with other belongings I claimed for my own. Years later, I unwrapped it from some tissue paper and put it on the shelf in my own bedroom. I showed off its lovely secrets to my husband one evening and he said with amusement, “I bet that’s where your parents kept their drugs.”
“Dad told me you went to the ER with pancreatitis?” I ping you in a series of text messages, the dutiful and concerned sister. “What’s the deal with that?” Dad has given me some details, but I pretend not to know, to give you a chance to tell me yourself. “How is that treated?”
“Time, pain meds, and lifestyle changes.” That’s all you give me.
Two days later you are on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma.
The Christmas that I was 16 and you were 11 was supposed to be a good one. The bankruptcy was behind us and Dad was having a good year with his home improvement business. One Saturday morning he called me into the garage to enlist my help with a present for Mom. He had found a diamond solitaire ring at a pawn shop but he needed a way to get her ring size. He had never given her an engagement ring. That afternoon I coaxed Mom into a conversation and I asked to see her wedding ring, sliding it onto my finger to admire it. I used the memory of how the ring fit to cut out a length of twine for Dad to use.
On Christmas Eve, family friends came over to hang out. They arrived after dark, loudly stomping their feet on our front stoop and burst in from the cold December air, Christmas sweaters on display, proudly bearing a bottle of Goldschlager, gold flecks dancing around in the clear liquid like a snow globe. Shouts of excitement ensued and the adults explained the concept of “proof” to me while I sniffed the contents, curious. The strong cinnamon burned my nose and they laughed as I recoiled. I wandered in and out of the kitchen that evening, lurking around as they played poker and euchre. Everyone was still there when I went to sleep.
The next morning — Christmas morning — was different, but I didn’t understand why for a long time. The stockings weren’t out and Mom wasn’t the first one up. There was a loud clanking of putting the kettle on for coffee and the door to the garage slamming shut as Mom and Dad sought out their morning nicotine fix. I think Mom shooed us away so that she could finish stuffing the stockings in order to maintain the appearance of an unbroken Christmas ritual. Eventually we settled around the tree and went around, opening presents with appropriate oohs, ahs, and thank yous, even if everyone except me seemed completely exhausted.
We were almost to the end when Dad handed Mom a large present for her to unwrap. Upon discovering a coffee maker box, she looked confused and hurt. Hadn’t they had the conversation that household appliances were not to be given as gifts? But inside that box was another box, and then another, until she reached a hinged velvet box nested in the center. The ring. She burst into tears. And Dad and I excitedly shared the story of the secret, the collaboration.
Years later you told me about how everyone but me stayed up late into the night that Christmas Eve and how you helped our drunk parents into bed, but only after mom was sick several times. I slept through the whole thing.
“When I saw your brother’s hands shaking, I should have mentioned it to the nurses. I don’t think the hospital was prepared for his withdrawal,” my dad says on the phone while we are discussing my plans to leave for Indiana the next morning.
“But you told me that he was ‘maybe drinking too much?’”
“I was trying to coach him through weaning off of it by himself. I’ve managed it on my own before.”
Our last, true “family vacation” was in California where we all met up for a cousin’s wedding. After the wedding festivities in Fresno were over, the four of us drove west to the coast to visit Dad’s older brother and his family in Cambria. You and Dad went ocean kayaking while mom and I walked around the quaint downtown. At a little jewelry boutique I bought a necklace with a delicate butterfly made from pale green and pink beads for $23. One of the links later snapped, but I’ve always kept the butterfly in the original white cardboard box.
The next day, we made our way up the coast on Highway 1, toward Monterey and San Francisco. We stopped for lunch at a cliff-side restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean and I ordered a salad that came with the most flavorful cherry tomatoes I have ever eaten. I asked for seconds, and as I tasted the sun, soil, and salty air in each ripe orb, I could understand why so many people wanted to live in California.
After lunch, it was Mom’s turn to drive, and eventually the rest of us dozed off in the car, lulled by the winding road, heads against the windows. I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I remember waking up to the sound of Dad shouting, “Ruth!” and the car veering around a curve, tilting at a speed my still-sleepy brain instantly understood to be dangerously fast. I looked out the window and saw the waves crashing up onto the rocky cliffs below, and I wondered, in that moment, if we were all about to die.
We didn’t, but later I would wonder if it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
My eyes are red and dry from a 12-hour marathon drive. I’ve met my dad at the hospital and it is close to 10 pm when we finally leave to go to his sister’s house where we are staying. Every inch of the state is under construction, it’s dark, and I am so tired of being in the car.
I’m thinking out loud when I say to my dad after I’d safely merged onto the interstate, “Mom must have struggled so much with whatever undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems she had.” I feel wise and empathetic in finally reaching this understanding of my mother as an adult.
We pass a glowing glass tower on the side of the interstate where a corn field used to be. It is full of cars and a neon sign announces: Carvana. A box full of cars, stacked to heaven. Buy online, press a button, and drive away.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it untreated,” my dad offers. “I spent most of my life trying to keep her medicated with pot. Everything turned to shit if she ran out and I couldn’t get any for a few days. She was always so angry. No wonder she had a stroke.” He says this without malice; his voice is tired.
My sister-in-law and I don’t know each other very well. I am not about to ask her how this has all happened. It’s entirely possible that she has no idea herself.
After sitting together in the ICU for hours at a time over the course of many days, staring at my brother’s (her husband’s) swollen, feverish body surrounded by a Gordian knot of the tubes and wires that represent hope for recovery, she opens up enough to share with me some paperwork related to their finances that she is trying to sort through. My brother has been handling all of the bills and it turns out to be quite a mess. I sigh and wave my hand, apologizing that my parents didn’t exactly model financial responsibility.
I don’t say it, but I feel that I should apologize for something else: our tendency to stuff things that are too big to be contained into tiny little boxes.
My too-big things go into a strong steel box and shrivel up, hard calcified knots somewhere in my soul. Maybe that’s why I have all these tumors, I’ve wondered to my therapist, who is teaching me to “feel my feelings.”
It is beginning to look like my brother’s box is flimsy from having been through too many cross-country moves or was forgotten in the basement. The tape is peeling at the seams and there are water stains.
“Did she say anything about me?” I asked you at some point in the hazy, grief-laden weeks after Mom died.
“She said that she had always worried that she was the reason that you stayed away, why you never came back home.”
Why didn’t you call me? I will never say. It doesn’t matter. It is too late.
My secret is that I blamed you for her death. But I bet you probably knew that. My other secret is that I am jealous of that time you had together, not just during the years after I left, but during the hours alone as she was dying.
“I have to leave to go back home soon,” I say to his nurse in the ICU. One of my boxes has a hole in the corner and I am looking for reassurance. “What is going to happen? Will he be okay?”
This is a small regional hospital and they are no strangers to diseases of despair. Some nurses are more optimistic than others and give chirpy answers like, “there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be fine.” But this one is matter-of-fact; to some extent it is out of their hands: “We’re supporting him as best as we can until his organs decide whether or not they are going to heal.”
Before I get in my car to drive the 600 miles home I tell you supportive, loving things with a sincerity I don’t think I could muster if you were awake.
A month later, you have turned the right corner. We talk on the phone, your voice tinny from the amplifier attached to your trach tube.
“I’m sorry I had to leave before I got to see you make so much progress.” My voice is light with relief.
“When were you here?”
You don’t remember anything from those weeks.
“I think we have a pretty decent sister-brother relationship,” you tell me in a text message the night before you are discharged from the hospital. “But we should talk more often.”
I have a shelf in my bedroom that is cluttered with boxes. The secret box. The velvet jewelry box with my mom’s ring. An unfinished wooden box with a metal clasp that my son decorated with hearts and flowers and gave to me to keep “all my treasures.” The small, white cardboard box with the long-broken butterfly necklace. A photo frame that slides open to reveal a space for more treasures, more memories. A cushioned box of embroidered silk that gently holds tiny rings I liked to wear as a little girl — a unicorn, a pink fish — and a dollar bill I found in my mom’s purse after she died.
Ten years ago I bought a cut-glass box at a local boutique. The four sides were cut as prisms and welded together with pewter edges. The hinged top has fragments of green glass melted in, and a swirl of decorative pewter with one green and one iridescent bead. I planned to put some of my mom’s ashes inside and seal it up, but I never did. Her ashes are still in a bag at the bottom of the cedar chest in a spare bedroom in the basement, and the glass cube sits on my bedroom shelf, with all the other boxes, empty.
Desi Allevato lives in central Virginia with her husband, where they are raising one child, two cats, and a hundred tree saplings in a suburban backyard. She has a brain tumor, ADHD, and an unfinished dissertation about Russian history, and assumed her life was pretty ordinary until a friend told her should write about it. She is a contributing writer to Grow Christians. Follow her on Twitter, @desirosie.