By Pixie Casey.
I wake up in the guest room of my parents’ house, which technically used to be my bedroom, though it hasn’t felt like it in forever. There are no dumb posters on the wall or plastic bracelets on the floor. The walls have been painted a very pleasant shade of yellow and the curtains and the comforter are done to the nines because my mother subscribes to Martha Stewart Living and doesn’t mess around. The floors are beautiful—original hardwood that my parents had forgotten about until they finally ripped all of the carpeting out twentysomething years ago. There used to be a pink carpet in this room. I remember the day my parents had it installed. My kid sister (I mean, she’s thirty-two, two years younger than I am, but I’m the middle kid, so she’ll always be my kid sister) and I were all pissed off about it because it was pink, and pink was stupid, and we didn’t pick pink and no one ever asks kids their opinion on anything even though we are clearly smarter than everyone else.
But it was 1987-ish, and aesthetically my mother was in her mauve period, and that was the end of that.
We used to make believe that the carpet was an ocean between our twin beds, and one of us would throw a stuffed animal in the middle, and, depending on where it landed in the carpet-ocean, the other one would have to perform a daring rescue. If she couldn’t sleep, I’d tell her a story or make shadow puppet shows on the wall. I think about it as her two-and-a-half year old daughter—my niece, whom we’ll call Grace—sleeps next to me. This is not a typical Saturday. We are having a sleepover at my parents’ house because my kid sister is going in to labor with her second child today, and I’ve come down to help out with Gracie and hang out with them as we wait for the news. The early morning sounds in the house are disconcertingly familiar: spoons clinking against ceramic, newspapers rustling, my mother telling the dog to calm down.
Gracie wakes up and wants to talk about the birds that she hears singing outside the window. There are always a ton of birds around my parents’ house. My mother puts bird feeders up everywhere because she can’t stand the thought of birds going hungry in the winter. My mother worries about everyone and everything. I mean, like, she’s a Mom, you know? Capital M. Deserving of one of those World’s Greatest mugs.
“They’re pretty, aren’t they?” I ask her.
“I hear the owl,” she says. Her house is filled with owls. My mother found out that my sister liked them, so she buys an owl every time she sees one. Now Gracie loves owls, and thinks they are the best birds, which means more owls for their house. My mother, I should mention, is also the best grandmother.
Gracie, my mother, and I are sitting on the big bed in the guest room and talking about the day. My mother is very careful with her words—we don’t say hospital, or mention the baby, or anything that “might scare her.” We just want Gracie to chill out today. The next few months are going to be hectic. I wonder if she will remember her life before him. I try to remember my life before my sister and can only come up with an image of my mother handing me a teething ring from the freezer above. What age is that? Like 10 months? I Google “teething.” It is embarrassing how little I know about raising children. I’m sure I knew it at some point, for some test, but it didn’t strike me as an important thing to remember, because I never had any intention of applying it.
Turns out it’s six to twelve months. The teething ring was a green pretzel. I think I scared my mother when I told her that memory.
My father brings home egg sandwiches and we sit downstairs in the family room to watch an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine at Gracie’s request. She doesn’t really watch the show at all, but she likes the song at the beginning and much prefers to run around the room with my parents’ dog, Lola. My parents are sitting together on a couch, giving a running smartass commentary on Thomas. We all decide that we kind of love this arrogant jerk train named Gordon, who keeps bragging about being special and the best while plowing his way around snowy tracks. Naturally, hubris claims yet another victim and dumb old Gordon gets stuck in the snow. We all laugh when Gordon gets his comeuppance, but we laugh harder when Thomas has to help him out, and in return, Thomas gets hit with a giant snowball and needs to be rescued himself, because Thomas is a big baby and everyone knows it.
My kid sister calls. She’s on her way to the hospital. My mother’s energy changes from expectant to anxious.
Gracie is sleepy, and wants to snuggle up and watch 101 Dalmatians. She doesn’t watch a ton of television, but for some reason she wants to watch old Disney movies right before she sleeps and right before she wakes up. There is something dreamy about the ’50s animation and the music. But they are also legitimately frightening once you’re old enough to understand what’ s happening. In this movie, for instance, a completely mad woman wants two idiot henchmen to kill and skin ninety-nine puppies. To make a fur coat! This is a children’s movie! Classic creepy fairytale logic. Don’t ever study children’s literature unless you’re prepared to learn that every story is somehow about periods.
I’m in the middle of taking a shower when my mother knocks on the door.
“Eight minutes apart,” she yells. “We gotta go!”
I get dressed and quickly do my makeup. I can’t get my eyeliner right because my fucking leg won’t stop shaking.
I’m walking from one bathroom to another, so I can use my mother’s hairdryer. “Well, now we might not go,” she calls after me. She explains that my sister is in triage, because they want to monitor her blood pressure, but they’re not sure if they are going to admit her yet. My mother starts asking questions: “Well, what if this happens,” or “What if she needs this?” Irish Catholic mothers are instinctual fiction writers. They are forever asking what if, what if, what if.
My 80-year-old neighbor, who has lived next door to my parents for so long that she was there to await news of my birth, comes over to have coffee and wait with my mother. My father is apparently at Home Depot. Why? Who knows. Nobody knows why the fathers of suburban Connecticut go to Home Depot. I like to think it’s like a Steven Millhauser story, with all of these dads being pulled in by the ghost of some lost love in the venetian blinds aisle, destined to walk the aisles until they feel like themselves again and can return home.
My mother: “Where is your father? New York? Gawd.”
My father walks through the door. They have been married since 1972. You cannot teach this kind of timing.
Kid sister texts: She’s being admitted, but she thinks it’s going to be a long night. My parents and I take Gracie to an indoor soccer arena to meet up with my older sister’s family. My older sister is easy to spot on the bleachers. She is 5’10” and has a mass of naturally curly platinum hair. She is calm and beautiful and always impeccably put-together. She always seemed far away from my kid sister and I when we were growing up—the seven and nine years that separated us, respectively, were a big gap during certain phases in our lives. She had a grown-up air about her, even then. She went to proms and had boyfriends and listened to good records and got to wear makeup. We didn’t expect her to like, hang out and play kickball with a bunch of elementary school kids.
My older sister has three kids. Her daughter is on the soccer field, playing under a dome. The entire complex creeps me out. It has a very apocalyptic feel to it, like we had to build indoor soccer fields not because kids wanted to play soccer all year but because the world outside was too dangerous to play in. Her two boys—the Twins—ask for money to buy crap at the concession stand. She hands them some money and they’re off and running. Next to my sister on the bleachers is a plastic Superman wallet that one of the boys left behind. I love my sister’s kids. They are funny and happy and weird and great and so much like their mothers.
I check Twitter and, as usual, everyone is talking about the same thing, so, of course, I look at the thing everyone is talking about and talk about it too. Twitter is flawed and often extremely dumb, but when you’re a socially anxious person, it can be helpful. Twitter is just a public mood swing. Check your feed and you can check your psychological state.
But I have always been an Internet kid. If you were talking about Animaniacs on Prodigy in 1994, congrats, we were probably friends. It is easier for me to talk to people if I get to write things down.
I sneak over and buy a SuperPretzel from the concession stand because I’m a human being, man, all right?
We get back home and Gracie says she wants to rest. She specifically does not say “nap” or “sleep.” She just wants to lie around and read picture books and color and chill out. She is so tired and fighting it like crazy. I try to convince her to take a nap, because she needs one, but she refuses. My mother says she’ll “crash soon,” and asks me to babysit while she and my father head to the hospital.
Gracie has been drifting in and out of sleep for about an hour. I text my husband, C., who is in the mountains this weekend visiting his mother, who is two-and-a-half years into a Stage IV Inoperable Lung Cancer diagnosis. “She hasn’t smoked in forty years,” is something I used to say a lot when she first got diagnosed, because people are shitty about lung cancer and say stupid things. When she was diagnosed, she had roughly ten years of remission from breast cancer. Nobody ever intimated that the breast cancer might be her fault.
C. has taken our ten-year-old greyhound with him. I miss them terribly. The dog has slowed down in the past year or so, and my heart can’t really take it. I am my mother’s daughter. I worry about everyone, and everything, all the time. My nerves are shot, and not in the cutesy, “I’m so weird and nervous!” way, but in the Axis I/inpatient hospitalization/dialectical behavioral therapy kind of way. There is just too much noise going on all the time. I am in total denial about both Conor’s mother and the 10-12 year average lifespan of greyhounds. I am terribly shy and I don’t interact with many people, but if I love you, I love you so much that I can’t bear to think of a world without you. I am the person always taking pictures, trying to stop time, to preserve things.
To live with an old dog is to live with the anticipation of loss. To live with anything worth loving, really.
I’m keeping my anxiety under wraps because Gracie is the priority. We sing and draw and tell stories and watch Peppa Pig. I haven’t heard from my parents and so my body is seizing up with worry; my stomach is sick, my arms and legs stiff. I feel like the Tin Man, pre-oilcan. Wouldn’t a magical stress-relieving oilcan be killer? If L’Occitane sold one I’d buy it in a second.
It is way past Gracie’s bedtime, and she’s refusing to go to bed. I can’t even get her to put on her pajamas. I am a total pushover. I make a better aunt than a mother. I’m always sneaking them candy and letting them watch stupid cartoons and challenging them to Mario Kart. I’m not trying to be irresponsible; it’s just that I remember how hard it was being a kid sometimes. It’s important to have ice cream sundaes for dinner at least once in your life.
Gracie is running all over the living room. She climbs on the piano bench and starts smashing the keys. She wants to open and close the piano, and I tell her no, and stop, and watch your fingers. I must have told her to watch her fingers at least eighty times tonight. How does anyone make it through childhood with fingers? The world is not a safe place for curious beings that haven’t learned how to be afraid.
My parents return. Apparently my kid sister has been given an epidural, and they expect the baby sometime tomorrow morning. I apologize that I haven’t been able to get Gracie to sleep, or put on her pajamas. “Well, you don’t ask her,” my mother says. “You just put her in her pajamas and tell her it is time for bed.” I am the walking definition of Book Smart, No Common Sense.
As my mother gets ready for bed, I smell cigarette smoke coming from my parents’ room. I know it’s my dad, and I know he’s been sneaking cigarettes, even though he had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass two years ago, even though I’ve been trying to get him to quit for at least 25 years (I used Ramona and Her Father as an instructional pamphlet, basically), even though I have yelled at him a million times about his heart and his lungs. I peek my head in to my parents’ room, where my father is watching the news.
“Stop smoking cigarettes,” I tell him.
“What are you talking about?” my father asks. He is a terrible liar.
So I handle it the way my family handles anything scary or bad: I make fun of him. I tell him I’m not Encyclopedia Brown or anything but it’s not too hard to crack the case. He laughs. I tell him to stop smoking again. He won’t.
I take my night meds and get ready to sleep.
Gracie finally falls asleep as I flip through a 1945 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that my mother must have found in my old bedroom and placed on the guest room nightstand. I went through a phase, after I got out of the hospital in my early 20s, where the only places I felt safe going were the doctor’s office and this little antique store near my parents’ house. I bought a ton of old books, you know, heavy paper, gilded covers. They weren’t first editions or anything but I liked them better that way, because they looked like they’d been lived with, obsessed over. I Instagram a picture of the title page and caption it “important research.”
Gracie moves around a lot in her sleep. She kicks, lifts her arm above her head, and constantly moves her toes around. She has no idea what is about to hit her. I put the book back on the nightstand, careful not to drop it in the ocean.
Pixie Casey is your eccentric aunt in metallic shoes. You can read her at Rookie or follow her @pixie_casey.