WHEN WILL I LEARN?
I place my hands at the back of my neck, the heavy pressure of fingers closing around the nape that does not often feel more than the brush of my hair across it in moments of eternal summer rage and sweat. Ground myself today, feel the pulse in my throat, play piano across my skin to realize I am still here, real. My hands shake when I am wrong, shake when I hurt the people I love, shake because I have let myself down. Nothing hurts as bad as hurting others. Fingernails bit down into irregular shapes, my finger pulsates in its own time because I have bit too far down, again and again. It will hurt for a few days; I will forget the pain and re-bite them when I drive home from work or am still for too long. When will I learn?
It is easier to talk about everyone else’s hands, their actions, what has stuck now between my fingers like syrup and honey, sticky like gum I keep brushing beneath the table. I recoil. Is this a grudge or accountability?
I am riding the line between pleasing others and myself. I beg of myself to be less selfish, but spin into trying to take care of me first. I am existing in opposites.
I beg myself to write about something, but my family. And I do, but everything feels empty and forced when it is not about them. It all falls flat, feels like a betrayal to what I need to get down.
I touch the scar I’ve had my whole life on my left upper forehead, hiding in the ridgeline of my hair. You can’t see it, but you can feel what dug into my skin, a small indent. I don’t remember the story, but my dad’s ex-wife cuts my hair and reminds me it’s from being hit with a beer bottle. I’ve always come back to my skin, my hands tracing irregularities, dents, bumps, and ridges. I like to know this scar is here. So I trace the dependable, inch-long indent in my forehead when I am thinking, anxious, grounding myself now. I have forgotten so much. I am scrambling, pen in hand. I do not want to forget any of it.
I remember writing pieces about cotton candy clouds slinking in to ruin summer or catching frogs in sultry sin. I remember staying up writing shitty poems and love letters to ideas of men until 4 am. I wrote pieces about an everlasting love that would not last and feeling so dizzy that I could not place my feet into the sand with conviction. Now, what I write about with conviction is my family. Mommy did this, daddy did that. Grandma hurt me. My brother was a child. He was hurting. I am angry. I am hurt. I am damaged. I am responsible. Are we sick of reading about the family’s flaws yet?
ON THE RIGHT HAND OF THE FATHER
I am sitting today on the right hand of the Father. My father touched a little girl with his hands that used to tuck me in at night, comb through my hair, and wrap through the strands with lullabies of drunken soldiers who just wanna go home. His hands reached beneath her shirt, violated her, and broke her still 2 years later. We are all stuck at this crossroad.
My hands come from him; my hands carry so much of my father. My hands want to say sorry for something that is not mine to apologize for.
I learn this little girl has been hospitalized from suicide attempts, that she wanted to die, that she’s changed so much of herself because of my father’s criminal actions. She is not the same anymore, her father tells the judge. He cries for his baby and so do I. I cry, but guiltily think who am I crying for. Am I crying for myself? Am I crying because I wanted the pain to be less? Am I crying for this child? Am I crying because things can never be the same?
I go to hold my little sister’s hand and she pulls away. She feels her grief separate from mine. I cry harder. The little girl my dad hurt is watching the side of my face. I glance because I can not help it; we make eye contact, and I shake from head to toe. I hope my eyes hold rigid apologies. I am sorry. I still look away.
Her family begs the judge to give my father the maximum sentence. They say that three years is not possibly enough for what he did to her. I shake and cry, selfish in wanting something else. I want the pain to be less, but the weight of his actions eats up the courtroom. My bitten-down fingernails clench deep into the palm of my hands, carving uneven, crescent moons into the skin of my lifeline. The pain distracts me from the tears I can not hold back. I can not imagine three years without my father. It sends shocks through my body, the fear of abandonment is electric again in my skin. I must be silent and choke on what wants to be a scream. The guard watches me in my seat, waiting for an audible cry, a too-loud sniffle, anything that looks like a disruption. I am stubbornly swallowing tears I can not see through. The inside of my mask is hot and wet with snot.
It is only a year without him when the day is over. I cry hysterically. I do not see his face when they tell him a year. It is less than three and yet, it feels like we are at the end. I snap at someone’s attempt to reassure me. You don’t understand I say, when my father leaves. They handcuff him before he can turn around and take him through the side door. I am trying to make eye contact through my tears, but he is gone too fast. I crumple because I had not prepared for goodbye. I do not see his face again for 7 months.
I think about how quickly this little girl’s family left the courtroom that day. They were gone before my family stood. They ushered their daughter out so she would not see my family’s reaction. I did not want her to feel guilt and neither did they. I hope that day was healing, that she felt some peace.
I pick at the scars now. The only person who really got me was my little sister. My baby, same age as this little girl. I wanted to scream and run, like I always did when things were too fast to feel. She held my hand and we sped-walked together with tears in our eyes until things in our chests settled down. Walking fast circles around the courthouse building to catch up with whatever reality we had to face. I thought I could stay strong for my little sister, but in the end, she was stronger for me. She asked me to ice cream and we laughed together through our tears, but it felt like I could finally stop running for the first time.
BEFORE AND AFTER
It is easier to say my father’s hands hurt me, my mother’s hands hurt me, my grandmother’s hands hurt me, my family’s hands follow me, but it is my own hands I am stuck with, my own hands I trace daily, my own hands I take part in the crucifixion of. No one is as guilty as these hands. String them up, hold them stretched apart for all to see. These hands left my siblings when things got too big. These hands thought only of themselves.
Instead of acknowledging that I reinforced my brother’s abandonment issues by leaving when he needed me most, I say, “Dad neglected him.” It is so much easier to hold these adults accountable over myself. But we all play a role and it is naïve to think that I did enough.
I am an adult now recognizing how much wrong there is in a world they told me wasn’t black and white. These hands did not stop what they should have. These hands should have fought harder for my siblings.
“But you were a kid. You didn’t know better.” “Absolve yourself of your guilt.” It never feels that easy anymore.
I feel that there’s been a lot of growing up to do when I was already grown. I look at life as separated by two intense moments outside of my control – my brother’s heroin use and my father’s big arrest. Before heroin and After heroin. Before arrest and After arrest. Events after being “grown,” these two substantial tragedies changed my whole life approach. Selfish at 24, I still make them about myself.
I am awake at 3 am listening to the old love songs from years when I was different and I am thinking of my second love, how this music was glued to his fingertips. I liked him because there was never silence. Music was under everything. I had a lot to learn that year. I liked him because he stayed up late and never slept too. The only thing I do not sit with are my thoughts now. I stay up alone instead.
I start the love song over. My thoughts get away from me. When I was still yet a child, almost grown there, bursting at the seams of 17, I would replay a song that rang out in pure poetry when I realized I had not been listening, had missed the words I ached to hear. 5, 6 times some nights replaying the same tune, just to force myself to really listen. Music only made it easier to remember the words. Always late at night, always desperate with the moon.
I think back to my childhood of sleep. When I lived with my grandmother, I curled so often into my grandparents’ bed, wiggling between the two in the evening that my grandparents, perhaps missing their bed, gave me my own small, baby mattress on the floor next to their bed. Fit for the regressed child, I loved it. When my grandfather woke early in his white undershirt and tidy whites and shuffled in his slippers to the bathroom for his morning routine, I simply moved into my grandfather’s warm spot, curling into my always sleeping grandma.
Grandma rarely left bed first. I did this even after I outgrew the baby mattress. I remember sleeping on the baby mattress with a broken leg in the 5th grade, much too old to be sleeping on my grandparents’ floor, but desperate to sleep through the night and feel as if I couldn’t be left, if I was always there. Abandonment issues, regression, disorganized attachment. I know all the terminology for it now. I have things to unlearn like it is safe to sleep now, that everything I did was to protect myself somehow.
When I lived with my father, I fell asleep best when my father sang to me. The songs he concocted led me to a handful of favorites. I remember hearing the “Sloop John B” for the first time in college, searching out the lullabies I craved when I could not sleep. The shock and betrayal I felt at my father for taking a quick, cheery song and making it slow, my nighttime guide. When he sang the “Sloop John B,” it was quiet, gentle, and I can still feel his fingers when it plays at my scalp to the ends of my hair. The lyrics were sad, strange for a lullaby, but carry my childhood today.
That’s where I like to think I carry my father. The parts of me that knew life was meant for adventure, for collecting buttons that didn’t burn in house fires, for pressing wildflowers into grandma’s books, for running until we were out of breath through the playground. The backyard playground he built where my brother taught our dog how to climb up the ladder, the adventures in dumpster diving and scrapping, or the time I shat in my 101 Dalmatian pajamas in his truck. He was muttering all the way to the dumpster. The white tablecloth restaurant we visited with peacocks completely underdressed where he tried to crash the quinceanera. My father, who grandma always had to tell him twice to do dishes then sang and danced the entire time as if he was having the time of his life. Now on holidays, I do the dishes with my brother and my cousin. We sing and laugh and joke. I like to think he’ll always be there for thanksgiving.
When dad stopped singing those home cooked lullabies, when he started to scream back and forth instead, I sat in the bedroom furthest from the fighting praying to God in a twin sized bed holding my grey cat or going next door to my brother’s room. Once my brother began to wake up scared, he’d wet the bed or shake in my doorway. We both were regressing those years. Even then, I learned to self soothe. It still wasn’t enough. I still thought I was grown up, but I’d hardly met my teens and all the bad things that came with. I was staying up for the fights then to make sure everyone was okay, closing my brother’s bedroom door and begging him to stay there and try to sleep. “You have school tomorrow. You don’t need to be up for this,” I’d say coldly before closing the door. I regret not crawling into his bed to hold him more. I left the room to sit on the arm of the couch. I could see the shadows of my dad and his girlfriend from the kitchen if I sat correctly. My whole body shook in the dark. I didn’t go to sleep until the yelling stopped and the kitchen lights went out. And then I passed out from exhaustion into the fur of my cat.
I had decided to move out of my dad’s home when things got bad in the 8th grade after his divorce and returned back into my grandparent’s home. I had been out of their house for a only few years, so my return felt normal; it was like I had hardly left my grandma’s. My younger brother didn’t come with me. I should have made him. I should have fought him to. My grandparents had strict rules; at least my father didn’t. Even if things were chaotic at my father’s, he was flexible with what we could do, watch, play, eat, and we rarely did chores. I think my brother preferred the chaos; I yearned for the stability instead.
NORMAL’S JUST A SETTING ON THE WASHING MACHINE
When I say my grandparents raised me, I consider them my parents in the way that they are who I call first in emergencies, who I used to crawl into their bed to cry and complain to and see every day, and who I grew up into with the conflict and beauty of dealing with growth and 3 children’s trauma. I didn’t call them mom or dad because I still had a mom and a dad. But they raised me and parented me and paid for it all.
My home was nontraditional and my family followed suit. You’d never come into my Grandma’s house and say we were a normal family. We’d laugh at you and say, “Normal’s just a setting on the washing machine.”
I learned long ago that blood didn’t make a family. So when I count my siblings on my hand, I say there are 7 of them. One full younger sibling who’s been off and on again by my side through the thick of it; 3 half siblings all from different partners, all substantially different ages – 27, 16, 8; 1 cousin I’ve grown up with my whole life; and my half-sisters 2 half siblings who love so hard you couldn’t tell them otherwise. Seven siblings. Blood isn’t what makes our family.
My brother’s hands are complicated to me. Last I saw them, the knuckles were red, angry, and exposed. Some slight road rash across the thick of his knuckle’s ridges. My brother’s hands are slow to trust, quick to fun, and I feel more disconnected from them now at 24 than I ever have before. I miss growing up with him. I miss him so much. It is beautiful to see him change, to be happy. My hands hold tight to my brother on the back of his motorcycle. I am trusting he’s got this. He’s capable and grown. He’s in control. He has owned who he is. He’s done so much by himself. He writes his own stories now.
I remember how my hands shook like they did when my father used to scream when my grandma suggested we drop my brother off at a homeless shelter or a police station, when he’d been caught selling. I fought and shook in my college apartment and could never tell my brother this truth. I said back that he’d stay with me before we ever took those options. These hands weren’t strong enough to protect him when we were kids, so I am compensating now. My survival is linked to his. I am throwing all of myself into loving my siblings.
I think back to the times I’ve hurt my brother. I slapped him with a brick, stabbed him with a pencil, and pushed him down a flight of stairs. And hell, he’ll never let me live those down. Why should I? These hands hurt my brother when I hurt. I owe you apologies, Ben. I am sorry.
When I rarely saw my older sister, it was like she was an untouchable goddess, always growing, always new hobbies and interests, always something new. I ached to know everything about her because I knew nothing. And I spent my time doing everything she did when I saw her. My brother was the same way, only he ran into the room and pinched, poked, and prodded her until he was tied to the toilet with scarves, screaming and laughing because she was just spending time with us. When mom came back, she made my sister untie him and we laugh about it still every holiday we see each other.
I ached for my siblings. My younger sisters grew up without me. We see each other now for holidays and weekends and visits to grandmas, but that there are years of your lives I am still gone for. I wonder what the longest I’ve gone without seeing my sister is, who turns 16 today. I am not there to celebrate. What do I know about your childhood?
My sister, who is eight, won’t eat her food while at the Hungarian church my dad used to take us to. He lets her drink coffee and only dessert. I disapprove of the coffee and tell her to “try just a bite” of my sandwich and she bursts into tears. She comes back and tries to hug me and I spit at her to “get away from me.” I am ashamed of my reaction to the child handling more than she should have to. I am too familiar. My hands were jealous of an eight year old. My hands repeat patterns. I hope she does not remember how my hands have hurt her. I hurt her from resentment of my past; my hands have to own this. I apologize later that day, but pray she does not remember.
My cousin’s hands are my blood. He is hurting at the hands of my family too. We are all too similar to leave him be. I felt natural jealousy that his mother would show up for fun things and spoil him every time she saw him. I see now she picked him up and then dropped him off his entire life. A cycle of constant disappointment and abandonment. Feeling jealous was selfish. How do I reconcile that?
My grandmother’s hands almost give up guardianship of my cousin. She says she just doesn’t know what to do anymore when he’s depressed and doing poorly in school, that he wants to hurt her and make her miserable, and they’re having all this conflict and anger. They have a fight and she tells him to go ahead and stab her with one of the kitchen knives. She threatens to admit him in the hospital again when he asks her to give him his space. He tells me that one of them will die soon. My hands are in crisis, shaking again. I fear that I can not protect him when I am so far away. I ensure everyone is safe and call CPS. My hands shake the entire time and I pace in my driveway silently crying while knowing full well the length I am going to make sure my little brother is safe. No one ever tells me if CPS came, but the agent calls back to say they have assessed the situation and everything is okay on their end. My hands wait for the conflict to come, for the call from someone angry, for the ring at the doorbell if someone is mad enough. No one ever even mentions it. I remember my hands shaking that night while watching TV in my living room, trying to pretend like everything could be normal.
I think back to the time my favorite aunt told me she hoped her children never had the childhood I lived, that she was happy her kids would never have a relationship with their siblings the way that I did growing up. She said it made her sad. I cried on the drive home that night. How it stung so deeply because I hadn’t confronted how hurt I was that I didn’t truly grow up with my siblings. It hurt to acknowledge that what I missed of normalcy was the day-to-day of them growing up without me. It hurt to hear that what I had with my siblings was a mother’s worst nightmare. But I think that today, we are stronger for it. Comparing does little to help, but I know we will ride or die for each other in ways her own kids could not.
I recognize where I am hurt, where triggers slice my skin and send me careening with an anxiety I wish I could control. I see where responsibility is webbed between these fingers, laced reactions to my childhood and my siblings. “Normal is a setting on the washing machine,” my grandma said, but is it normal to not know your blood? To be jealous of your siblings for getting more attention than you?
So I go home, see my dad now, and realize this is the best things have ever been between us. He allows me room to struggle. He listens, apologizes, makes reparations, and constantly feeds me with home cooked concoctions. Talking over food, his hands are making repairs. His hands are teaching me accountability. His hands are teaching me forgiveness. I don’t dare to ever forget, to lighten the extent of the damage he caused, but I know that he’s unlearning and changing. And that’s all I can hope for.
My grandmother mentions the CPS investigation a year later. She doesn’t ask if I am involved but acknowledges she was wrong instead.
But I am still tucked back into the family system. “Breaking out shows the others you can get out. Why go back?” my friends say. I have plenty to own with these hands. I have things to make up for. I have apologies to make. I have siblings who need more. I have moments to stop for. I have family to unlearn with.
When do you stop? It is not in moments of crisis, but when the water freezes over after periods of inactivity. Do you know what it is like to keep going when everything else stops? I am running into tomorrow, my fingers webbed against the breaking ice. I am 24 now.
Kalie Johnson is a 25 year-old living in Lynwood, IL. She’s a first-generation graduate from Baldwin Wallace University. She’s published in BW’s The Mill and California State’s Watershed Review, as well as in Fatal Flaws Literary Magazine and The Bookends Review. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, hiking, roller skating, and camping.