I’m 9 years old. Lots of boys like me but I don’t really like them. My babby sister was born her name is Keren. She was born Febrey 10, 1993. We might get a puppy because are other dog died. Now I have five best friends Abbey, Alison, Kelly, Liz, Michel.
I’m in third grade—the land of cursive and times tables, boys and recess, friends and best friends. I really like Mrs. Thomas’s class even though she sits me next to Aaron Wiseman who has a crush on me. He takes my bookmarks out of my books and hides them in his desk, but I pretend not to notice and bring other bookmarks from home. I hang out with a girl named Kelly Sweesy a lot, and even spend the night at her house. Her parents are really cool because they buy us doughnuts for breakfast on Saturday mornings. I found out that I liked the cream filled with chocolate on top. My mom and dad are cool too, I guess. I don’t really think about it much. But Mom was crying the other night.
Mom throws the phone on the ground. I pick it up while her face goes pale, and tears surface. “What did I do?” Dad asks me.
“I don’t know.”
And I don’t know. We just went to Wendy’s with his friend Susan. I got fries, a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and a Frosty. Everything’s clear on my end—but Mom isn’t mad at me. After I hang up the phone, I call Grandpa and Grandma. They are at our door in less than five minutes. Mom shoots me a look, more like a glare, “Why did you call them?” But she doesn’t wait for an answer, and grabs Grandma’s arm. Grandpa follows them into her bedroom for a top-secret grownup meeting. Sometimes it takes place in Spanish just to be safe.
Mom and Dad walk into the garage when he gets home from work. I press my small body against the white metal door and hope my right ear with catch a clear conversation (in English). I stretch to my tiptoes somehow thinking the added height gives my hearing advantage—nothing. I run back to the kitchen to grab a plastic cup. I saw on TV once that if you put it up to a door it helps to funnel the sound. I try again. Nothing but mumbling—it doesn’t matter what language it’s in now, there is no way for me to hear anything. Great. I hear footsteps and tiptoe-run back to my room. I poke my head out from the hallway, making sure Mom and Dad went to their room. I walk quietly into the kitchen, but no one is in there. I wait a few minutes and hear the door to the garage open again. I start running back to my room and then see my sisters, Kelsey and Kathryn, come into the house. They were hiding in the van, and trying to overhear Mom and Dad’s conversation. I call an emergency sister meeting in my bedroom only to find out Mom and Dad spoke to each other in Spanish—we know nothing.
Later, I confront Mom while we’re standing in the laundry room. She leans against the counter while my small frame demands an answer, “What’s going on?” She gets down on my level even though she isn’t much taller. She leans over and looks straight at me, “I’ll let you know when it’s all over.” I listen and nod, “Okay.” I leave the laundry with full faith in Mom. She’ll let me know when it’s over.
* * *The older me wants to yell, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t be okay with her answer! What does it even mean?” I was nine and walked out of the laundry room content with a simple sentence. Everything mom said seemed to be sanctified by her love for me—her eyes looked into mine, her hands were on my shoulders, and her words were quiet and smooth. Only later do I understand that there are times when I should doubt her omniscience. I didn’t ask enough questions as a kid, and I’m learning how to ask now.
* * *“Now I know it’s not okay! You really don’t even want to go to our stuff. Mom just tries hard to make it okay, and says you’re busy, but I know you really don’t want to go! You’re never home!” My eyes glare at his, as my small hands are flailing everywhere trying to grasp for the right words and feelings. I give a final thrust with my hands—upwards—in Dad’s direction. He stands accused. His face wrinkles a little, but his lips are unmoved. Dad looks at me as I turn around and march out of the room. Mom tells me later—when I’m older— that he cried after I left.
On Friday, the bus stops in my neighborhood and I jump down the three black steps. I walk home. Mom is waiting inside the house; she stands slanted to one side with baby Keren on her right hip. Her smile is gone and she looks straight at me. The words leave her mouth and hit me in the forehead.
“Daddy left.”She stares blankly at me. Her words sound recited and hollow like a lifeless recording replaying old information. She tells me Dad packed his suitcase in the morning and left; she doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Tears have dried on her cheeks, and my face becomes a smaller mirror of her own. I don’t want to be like other kids who live between two houses and have two sets of parents. Their parents don’t really care about them, I have decided. My dad goes to church, he’s a well-known doctor, and he’s a father to our big family—Keren isn’t even a year old. I know he can’t do this. God won’t let him. It’s bad to leave your family. It’s bad to leave five kids.
“This afternoon—I tried to make him stay.”
“What did you say, Mom? How could you let him leave? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he coming back?”
* * *Mom played at home with five kids and cleaned up after us. She came in during times when Kelsey and I were lunging for each other’s hair or using scissors for a nice trim. Keren crawled around while she cooked white rice and kidney beans to put on our colorful plates. Kelsey, Kathryn, and I had Lunchables because she bought them from the store and made sure they made it into our backpacks before school each day.
Dad brought us by the hospital so we could see where he worked. He would show us all the new little babies wrapped tightly in their respective pink and blue blankies. We got to meet his other doctor friends and a few nurses, and eat ice cream in the break room. I also got to meet some of his patients; one lady was named Susan. He had discovered precancerous cells in her body and, according to her, practically saved her life. They were good friends, but Mom told me she thought she was an idiot. I didn’t think that was nice, but now I understand it’s okay to call names—sometimes.
At nine, life happened and I reacted. In my head, Dad was wrong to leave, and Mom should have tried harder to make him stay. I assumed things were just black and white, bad and good, because I didn’t know there were questions to be asked that the grownups were dealing with. Life, for a time, moved on at a simple pace until I found out that human beings get anxious, and the idea of sex can tear right through the middle of a person and split the scull of an entire community. Black and white become grey and kids get mixed up in the middle. When I was in grade school, the Disney Channel didn’t show stuff like that—I learned it from my parents.
* * *My face is red and my eyelashes are black clumps protruding from my puffy eyelids. I go straight to my bedroom and pull out my watercolor set—I had carefully kept it from Kelsey’s chubby hands. I begin to make signs not caring if I mix any of the colors. I grab the Scotch tape and plaster my paintings to the wall. The words I MISS DADDY soak the cheap construction paper. Then, I sit at the kitchen table and wait for something to happen. If I hope hard enough and long enough, maybe Daddy will come home again. God has to know what’s going on; has to know how bad I don’t want anything to change. I sit—nothing happens, and Mom takes us to McDonald’s for dinner.
Mom detours on her way back home and goes by the beach. This way, we can climb all over the playground and enjoy some fast food. And, for one whole hour I forget about how awful and hopeless I feel. We scream and laugh and have races down all the slides. Kelsey gets sand in her eye and starts to whine. I don’t care as I yell, “Tag, you’re it!” We run around some more. After the sun sets, Mom calls for her kids and steers us back towards the white van. “I call front,” Kelsey shouts, just in case the people three cars down wanted to know. She giggles. Mom tells us to make sure to wipe off our feet as we sprint to the van and climb over the seats. Kelsey and I wrestle over who will sit in the front seat next to Mom. She wins. We take a little bit of the beach with us—sand covers the dirty carpet in the van.
Mom finally sends us to bed. We all make it under our covers eventually. I just stare at the white popcorn ceiling until I finally fall asleep. I don’t hear the phone ring or the neighbors come over. The next morning Mom tells me she went to Grandma and Grandpa’s to see Dad—he’s staying there while Grandma and Grandpa are on a trip to Israel. Mrs. Ellis, from across the street, came over to stay with us while we were sleeping, so Mom didn’t have to leave us alone. She told me Dad yelled at her. He walked outside to meet her in the driveway, and asked her why she came. She said she loved him.
Dad calls to say he will take us to the fair. We wait, all ready with our shoes and socks on. This will be our first trip to the big state fair! I’m tired of sitting by the front door, so I call Dad’s secretary to see if she knows why he’s late.
“Has my Dad come in today?”Dad doesn’t call after I page him. I wait fifteen minutes and try again. He doesn’t call back, so I wait a few more minutes and try again. He still doesn’t call. Tired of dialing, I walk up to Mom and demand that we go look for him. Reluctantly, Mom consents; my whining and begging will not stop until she does. I want to find Daddy. I need to find him, because if I see him, he will want to come home. No loving father could really want to leave his family. Besides, even if he doesn’t like Mom anymore, at least he likes us. We—Kelsey, Mom, Keren, and I—pile into the car. Mom straps Keren in and tells us to put on our seatbelts. Kelsey and I look at each other wide-eyed and smile. We buckle ourselves in tight. For a second, I wonder what Kathryn and my brother Jonathan are doing—I bet they would like to see Daddy too, but they’re at a friend’s house. I’ll tell them about everything when they come home.
“No. I haven’t seen him. Have you paged him?”
“Yeah, I’ll try again.”
“Okay, well I hope you get a hold of him.”
When we arrive at Grandma and Grandpa’s, Kelsey and I scramble out of the car. Everything will be better once I can give Dad a hug—he probably needs one right now. Once I see him I know he will want to come home. Everything is so simple—why do grown-ups have to make it complicated? We walk up to the front door, but no one answers after Mom knocks. She tries the doorknob, and the house is open.
Kelsey and I follow Mom through the large wooden frame. We quietly sneak back to my grandparents’ room where I see my dad sleeping. Mom’s pointer finger straightens in front of her skinny pink lips while her eyebrows lower. Now is not a time for giggling. Kelsey and I grin at each other—we are going to surprise him! I glance over at my dad and notice something lying on his bed. It’s his gun. Before I can connect everything, Mom grabs a phone and yells, “Get out of the house! Now!”
We run outside. I go and wait in the car with Kelsey. Mom dials 911—her body is stiff and shaking. Keren is strapped into her car seat—we left her in the car while we went inside. Her tiny fingers curl and her eyes look around. I start to cry. I pray and pray, hoping my dad is at least alive—even if he is paralyzed from the neck down. Mom asks the dispatcher, “Is there any way someone can have blood running from their ear and still be alive?” The trained female voice answers, “I’m not qualified to answer that question.” Mom collapses to her knees sobbing with the black receiver in hand. I twist my hands together and look at Kelsey. My face is wet, my eyebrows are lowered, and my lips are scrunched together. Kelsey looks around without crying. She watches Mom, turns to me, and then looks over her shoulder at the ambulance coming down the street.
The loud sirens can be heard coming down the road. There’s a huge red fire truck right behind the ambulance. I turn to look and see another ambulance behind the first one. A man walks in the house and then another. They pull out a stretcher from the ambulance and head towards the house. I cry. A paramedic walks towards Mom…
Saturday, January 29, 1994
My dad died yesterday . . . he was confused and hurt and unhappy [.] [H]e went to live with the Lord. I’m 9 years old and I miss him a lot But I know he love[s] me. . . . I love my Dad.
The memories become fragments again. I remember talk of burial plans, calls to family, and a memorial service at the church. There were those who told Mom she should make sure we all went to counseling, so she asked me what I thought.
“Kristie, do you want to go to go to counseling?”
“Why? Has their dad died too?”
“No, but they’ve read a lot of books.”
“Oh great—they’ve read a lot of books.” My eyebrows rose, and I rolled my eyes in Mom’s direction. She signaled with a quick up-down nod and never asked me about it again.
* * *I could see them writing out the description on my file: girl watches parents go through painful separation and walks in on father after he commits suicide—never received counseling.
When I got older, I discovered it was okay if I needed help.
***“Kristie! Look at the snow!” Mom knows I will love the white mass around us. My two-year old body wears an enormous snowsuit as I stagger around the sidewalk. This is my terrain! I am in control of the bright whiteness under my black boots. My arms protrude from somewhere near my shoulders—they stick out like fat toothpicks as I wobble. My knees are bound straight as I stick out a leg hoping the other one will follow. My right foot lifts off the ground and tries to meet up with the left. My eyes open wide as my body leans forward. For one second, I stand at an angle, and then fall flat into the cold snow. My small body creates an upside down snow angel.
Mom grabs the back of my suit and lifts me from the icy wetness with a gentle grin. She wipes off the remaining white flakes, and wraps her arms around me. My face is red from the cold and from the tears that immediately follow. They continue to roll as she holds me and smiles. She lowers her body to set me upright on the cement, but my feet stay in the air as if the sidewalk is a sheet of burning coals. She keeps one arm around my waist as she straightens again and sets me on her left hip. My adventure in the cold is over. She kisses my face and we go inside.
To read an open letter to my father click here.
To read more about my journey in counseling click here.