My Turn to Stay
My Turn to Stay

By the time we’d wrapped the Jordan almonds in circles of tulle tied with pink ribbon, the smile on my mom’s face had faded into the blank emptiness I knew so well; that scared me and made my stomach hurt. The lights were on but the room felt dark.  No more joking around ~ putting tulle on our heads or laughing about how awful the candy-covered almonds tasted, hoping no one would break a tooth biting into one at the reception. Would Aunt Margaret’s dentures come loose? All the giggles stopped in a heartbeat~ and Mom went into her bedroom. I put 150 tulle-wrapped Jordan almonds into shoeboxes, carefully labeled and taped a 3×5 index card on each one, and stacked them on top of the punch bowl box. 

My brother was getting married on Saturday.

I was only seven but I was used to these dark places mom lived in. I lived there too. When you’re a kid you have to, there’s nowhere else to go. We weren’t like families on TV or any family I knew in our neighborhood or heard about at school. Two things were clear ~ we kept to ourselves and you learn that not everything is as it seems. There was a silent language, an unspoken radar needed to navigate the crazy ~ required if you were to stay in Mom’s good graces. 

It happened slowly ~ this absorption into mom’s ideas, moods, and rules for being in the world, or not being in the world. The not wanting to be in the world was the dark place that I didn’t know how to keep her away from.

I wore a pink dress to the wedding. It was the prettiest dress in my closet. Mom kept it wrapped in a plastic bag from the dry cleaners, but I’d sneak into the closet and stick my fingers through the bottom of the bag and run my fingers over the soft fabric ~ seeing myself twirling, spinning round and round like a ballerina with a crown of flowers and ribbons like wings. Everything I wore that day was new. New black patent leather shoes with cleats ~ those little pieces of metal that were nailed into the heels of dress shoes ~ they were supposed to keep the heels from wearing down ~ I liked them because I liked the tap tap tap sound when I walked. My anklets and gloves were edged with lace and I had new underwear. I was the oldest part of the outfit. All this fuss and finery was because I was the flower girl in my brother’s wedding, a task I took very seriously. I took everything seriously. I had so many questions and asked as many as I could before knowing I’d reached the limit of my mother’s patience. Zero was her preferred number. 

It’s hard to know anything when you can’t ask questions. When so much of what I needed to know was off-limits. I felt desperate for information. If I knew what was wrong I could fix it. I really believed I could fix it ~ the dark place Mom lived in so much of the time. Because when Mom was there, so were we. My dad and me. We were like two planets that orbited Mom’s sun. She was the center of our chaotic universe, where the pendulum would swing from chaos to confusion and back again. While not  a stable force, her magnetic cords for keeping us in tow were unbreakable. We were along for the ride until just as suddenly, all would be back into some sense of normal. My relief was immediate and I’d go full steam into doing all I could to maintain this happier place, laughing too loud and trying too hard. Each time thinking I could make her happy and keep her from going into her bedroom. I tried. My heart aches to remember how hard I tried to stop the pendulum from swinging.

My brother was fourteen years old when I was born. Being only seven, I was too young to know what life was like for him. I do know he was kind to me and carried a sadness for me that I was only beginning to know the why of and far from being able to have words for. Our age difference didn’t allow for comparing notes. That came later. 

I  didn’t fully understand that after the wedding vows were spoken, the cake cut and the rice thrown, my brother would leave. Really leave. That our house would become quieter still, the outside world retreating further from our door. No more of my brother’s friends stopping by, bringing with them their smiles and laughter, oblivious of the house rules, shifting us into “normal” and charading them with cookies and lemonade. All’s fine here everyone. Though the fun didn’t last beyond the slam of the screen door when they left, I felt that life could be different.

When my brother left, the glimpses of lightheartedness and hope of something normal disappeared. And he knew it would. 

The car was parked at the curb; suitcases and me on the sidewalk waiting for the bride and groom. My parents standing on the front porch steps, mom’s face held in a grim smile, I was glad to be two flights down, out of arms reach. Not yet. No. There was still more happy in this day. Bags stowed in the trunk, my brother slid behind the wheel of the Ford Starliner, and with the windows rolled down, the car pulled away from the curb. 

I ran alongside the car, wanting them to see how fast I could run…I would beat them to the corner. Laughing, smiling…running as fast as my legs could carry me. Out of breath, I stopped, I’d won the race. My brother turned the corner and kept going. I stood still and waved. I waved and shouted goodbye until I couldn’t see them anymore. I knew then he wasn’t coming back.

He couldn’t take me with him and it was his time to leave. He was supposed to leave. He needed to leave. And I had to go back home. There was nowhere else to go. It was my turn to stay. I walked back to the house, the cleats on my patent leather shoes tapping a slow beat up the stairs. 

​Sometimes you can’t outrun what’s waiting for you.

Photo by Lyndse Ballew

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