“I don’t know if things happen for a reason,” my dad says in a low aside to my boyfriend in the pizza parlor in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “I just pray to have that kind of perspective one day. There’s certain mysteries I need solved.”
The men in my family orbit this place. Some of them in long, trailing ellipses, like my dad who is Pluto for how rarely he passes through North Dakota, and others in tight circumference, like my brother Aaron and my uncle Ben, both of whom studied aviation at the University of North Dakota here in Grand Forks. Then there’s my paternal grandfather, whose people come from here. His parents brought him to their homeland from San Francisco when he was a child enough that he knows this place has “the best red potatoes in the world.”
My grandfather recalls over a diner breakfast of hash browns the aunt he would come here to visit whose attic was forbidden to children. A charming child and first born boy, he sweet talked his way into an attic tour. He found it full of Sioux and Lakota artifacts. Apparently his spinster aunt had been friends with Sitting Bull.
“Oh come on,” my dad says later in the car to my mom who heard the story firsthand. “That sounds fake.”
“I don’t know,” she replies, “That’s what he said.”
We are California people marooned in a myth.
My dad had another brother named William Jr, or Lemmy. Another orbiter. Lemmy appears in a sepia photo over my grandmother’s desk, his chubby forearms propped jauntily in front of him, a big smile beneath his bowl cut. It’s a look as if to say, “What’s everyone so sad about?” Like he’s mid laugh. When he was twelve and my dad was seven, they went to skip rocks at the Russian River. Boys run amok as every boy was in the seventies. When I hear about that day I hear nothing about my grandparents, where they were, what they were doing, if they blame themselves for being distracted when the river embankment gave in and Lemmy, somehow, fell in the water to drown while my dad was spared. All I know is the story of how everything fell apart, my grandmother in such a state of despair that my dad jokingly refers to a day when a record was left spinning on the turnstile long after it had stopped playing, a pad of butter mysteriously abandoned in the grooves.
My parents were cleaved together by the tragedy of their families. My mom met my dad at the height of his rebellion, when he was prone to breaking open the silence of a grief stricken home with the ear-shattering explosion of eighties drum solos. He auditioned for her rock band, which she had formed some five years after being woken up in the middle of the night to the news that her seventeen-year-old brother Jeremy, the glittering blond golden child of her family, who would hoist her up on broad shoulders and protect her from bullies, had been in a drunk driving accident and had died instantly. While my dad’s parents stayed together, needing to to prove something in the face of such an extreme loss, my mom’s weren’t so lucky. The pain of proceeding as normal broke them and their family deteriorated into the black hole Jeremy left behind. This is the alchemy of irregular death, of untimely grief. It’s the reason the word “cleave” means both things.
In North Dakota for the first time, I’m struck with the way you can track footprints through the snow. You know where everyone went, but don’t know why.
I have a third dead uncle. I am supposed to use phrases like “passed on” or “no longer with us” but when you transmute death into platitudes it wins. It’s not elegant. It’s not clean. It’s not euphemism. My dad’s brother Ben, erased at forty-five by a sudden accident, is not here at dinner.
Riding in the backseat of the rental car, I imagine him here when he was in school. Training to become a pilot. Having done the craziest thing and left California to walk in covered tunnels through the snow. Where the wind was in Canada moments ago.
His spirit hangs over North Dakota – this place that transmutes Cary boys into men, as if some answer of how to stretch into adulthood lies hidden in the snowy footprints like some simple hieroglyphics, so clear to the eye that I miss them by virtue of my complication.
It was at a moment where things for everyone felt stable for the first time in years. My brother was headed to the University of North Dakota, my parents were recovered strongly from the recession, I was in New York temporarily for a job that I loved. So when my dad texted and asked me to call him as I was walking through Columbus Circle to catch a train, I wasn’t prepared for more than a conversation about when I would be coming home.
He answered the phone with a long pause. And even though I’d grown up the luxury alive child in the aftermath of all that grief, I still shot into the silence with “Who died??” Sarcastically. To shame my dad for making me nervous. It turned out it was my uncle. The dead kid replacement. My dad’s second brother. That’s who died.
I learned shortly after the Columbus Circle call that I feel grief in my hands. They throb painfully and before I know what’s going on I sit on them to dull the ache. This is why I so often find myself sitting on my hands as I start to cry. Maybe that’s where the expression comes from. Sitting on your hands. You’re powerless. Months later, coming up for air from a spiral of drinking and having ill-advised sex with the worst people, I finally admitted to my therapist the myriad ways I was handling the grief, and my aching hands, all wrong.
“It’s disgusting,” I tell her, prone always to self-disparagement, “My uncle’s dead and I’m being a reckless asshole. And I sex addict?”
She answers simply that women often react this way to loss. That our bodies know the herd has been thinned, the tribe compromised, so we turn to sex to repopulate the ranks. It’s primal. She reminds me to think of what infant and child mortality were like even a hundred years ago. Our bodies know to procreate so we can make it through the winter.
But what is winter to a California girl whose only memories of the North Dakota chill were implanted until today? Somehow my womb knows winter. And as my dad toasts Ben, I project myself out over those plains, the snow pulled uniformly across them like a shroud, and think of the many who have been buried in this hard earth, a stone at their head if they were lucky. My dad and I go to this dark place often when one of us catches the other’s eye and the tears start to fall. We remind each other that this kind of grief is a luxury. To live so long is rare in human history. I wish someone would tell that to my hands.
My grandfather is struck by a memory as we drive to the graduation. I hear his voice behind me without seeing his face.
At eighty-eight he is vital and aggressively healthy. A retired pilot who flew for Pan Am when there was nothing with more cultural currency, he is shot through from head to toe with confidence. He lifts weights every day. He has only stooped to 6’2” from his former, towering 6’4”. He doesn’t drink or eat sweets aside from whipped cream straight out of the can. His determination to press on haunted my grandmother after Ben’s death. The way he found solace in routine terrified her, as she spun out of control. Echoes of the pad of butter.
Now, in the car, he’s recounting a memory of a flight to Hawaii long ago. As with all his memories, it is vivid and striking. He tells us about taking Ben, then a toddler, to the bathroom when the fasten seatbelt sign turned off. The plane hit some hard turbulence and sent them flying. My grandfather staggered upright to find a huge gash on his forehead, but all he cared about was making sure Ben was ok.
“My forehead is bleeding like hell, I’m spinning around going, ‘Where is Benny? Where is Benny?’ And I look up and find him in the toilet!” he exclaims. We all laugh.
He tells us about reprimanding the whole plane’s crew for turning off the seatbelt light when they did. We’re all nodding, drifting off and forgetting what the story is really about when he says, “I was just glad Ben was alright.”
And my chest is hollowed.
In the hotel room in the Marriott by the highway at midnight I am in conversation with my womb and the heater. It clanks and rattles just at the moment that my knuckles start to loosen on consciousness. And so does the heater.
My womb wants to know when I’m going to put it to use. It rages at me monthly, a petulant child streaking the walls with crayon, screaming at the terms of its existence and its emptiness. I whisper to it that it’s not time to bring children into this world of edges and ledges, of short and long falls, of car accidents and plane turbulence and winter shrouds. Whatever translator was meant to give my womb these whispers is sleeping, and it clenches again at its emptiness, a warning, a closed fist.
The North Dakota air sucks the moisture out of my skin, greedily gnawing me to the bone. Three generations of my blood are sleeping at my side, perpendicular to empty fields and crisscrossing highways and state borders that bleed into long vowels at their edges. Victims of geometry and mistaken timelines, tapes wound backwards and shredded, mislabeled, misfiled, we peer into this mess and try to apply meaning to it. For now, to us, death is and has to be dropping into a river of answers. And if that’s so, my dad will find his clarity at the precise moment it doesn’t matter anymore, the moment he relieves himself of his thrashing and acquiesces to floating forever downstream.
Crossing the highway on our last day, all of us in the car, a truck rolls by, dropping a single potato in the intersection. My grandfather, in a rare moment of sentimentality, insists we stop so he can rescue the spud from getting run over. Some things we have control over. Others are less certain.
Lexi Cary is a bi writer (w/b)itch and musician based in Los Angeles. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in DUM DUM Zine, Angel City Review, Always Crashing, and Germinal Mag. You can see more of what Lexi‘s mother calls her “vagina poetry” at lexicary.com and @_lexicary on Twitter and Instagram.