Ghosts do leave shadows
To be free like that
I was young and unafraid
Here’s what I wrote in response:
What’s at the core? I ask myself this on the days I am crawling out of the muck: self-doubt, fear, loneliness. What’s at the core?
I was an effeminate boy, but I was never told to “act like a man,” or to “man up,” as my ex used to say. Mom never said, “boys don’t bake, or dance, or sing, or act, or garden,” and Pop never made me try out for sports, but came to my gymnastics competitions and let me do backflips on their bed.
At the core, I was fearless. I had self-confidence. I did well in school and was resilient when pre-pubescence brought name calling and I became the target in Dodge Ball. I had girlfriends who cherished my imagination, and siblings who protected me and told me I was witty or smart; I had a big gold dog and my own room. I had books and musicals and a record player.
At the core is that foundation, the house built on stone, bedrock—you pick the cliché. Solid.
I want to stop right here. To idealize my life and have you tell me I was lucky (I was lucky; I am lucky), but the story takes a nasty little turn. You’ve heard it before: the early onset dementia, the matriarch turning into a sick old lady who doesn’t cook or clean or drive anymore, who repeats the phrase, “I’ve done it all my life, and I don’t want to do it anymore,” over and over and over and over.
And you know what happens next: her dark hair (dyed black for nearly thirty years) grows out a thin line of silver at the roots. She wears reading glasses all day long, but doesn’t read anymore, because “the words get all jumbled on the page.” Her eyes magnified so large that what used to be two cool blue lakes become great dark blue holes into a terrified brain full of tangles. She stops showering, stops listening, talks incessantly and has accidents in her polyester pants.
The core holds solid, but our little confident boy starts to lose his grip. Safety is eroding. (Look how I slip into the present tense: like the nightmares I had for years—and occasionally still have—waking up from the image of her naked body in the bathroom, holding onto the towel rack while I dry her off. I’m sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, waking up thirty years later, telling myself, “It’s over now.”) The confidence eroded (past tense now), but the core still solid in there.
Oh, but the muck that has to be cleared out daily. Except after those rare nights of deep, peaceful sleep, when I wake up thankful for her, for that safety I had as a child, the kind most children never get. That’s when I sit with the happy ghost of her, and she tells me how proud she is of me, of what we did together, of who we’ve become.