Sometimes the baby cries—but not too much. She is a good baby. Someone must have told me she is my sister. I do not remember her name. I know the Mommy-lady likes her because her lips do not press tight the way they do when she looks at me. She talks softly to it and smiles as the baby nestles in the crook of her arm. I sit on the threshold to the bedroom where the pair lie in the big bed. The Mommy-lady works nights; I must be quiet now. I watch from the outskirts, seated in a pint-sized rocker, clutching a white dog with a radio concealed in its belly. Day after day I spend hours sitting—watching while they sleep. I form impressions of my small world while outside Dr. King uses his words to pull us all closer. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 says no more racial discrimination in employment and education, no more racial segregation in public facilities. The big world nods its head and gives Dr. King the Nobel Peace Prize as tears fall on my toy dog’s head.
Everyone thought it best I return to New York.
“How was your flight?” Kim asked as she maneuvered the 2003 Audi Infiniti sedan from JFK’s parking lot onto the Belt Parkway.
The coast to coast flight had been long. There were too many connecting flights, cramped seating. My right leg, now swollen even with the compression stocking, throbbed. I stared through tinted windows into October night. Early morning, really. I witnessed the familiar scenery roll by as the knot in my stomach tightened. Now here, the reality made my insides revolt. At moments I felt short of breath, mysterious aches and an impending sense of dread as if given a prison sentence with no possibility of parole. My one goal: escape.
“Long.” Silence had filled the space between us. “Even with the three hour time difference,” I added, closed my eyes, leaned back in the seat. I heard the ticking of the turn signal and felt Kim ease the car into the right lane. Light traffic at 12:16 AM. The smooth ride almost lulled me. Yesterday seemed a lifetime ago. Yesterday, October 15, 2003, I was in southern California. Yesterday I had my last swim at Crown Valley Pool—my haven. Yesterday. Another loss.
“We didn’t have time to get the room ready. There’s too much going on with Ma.” Kim’s words came out in a rush. “Chris still has to move his stuff out. We’ll set up the air mattress in the living room for a couple of days…” My sister, the diplomat, trying so hard to negotiate us off the ledge without losing anyone. I wanted to help her so I clung one handed to this fragile lifeline, twirling above the abyss as I pressed spastic fluttering eyelids with my other hand.
Kim, over the phone lines, had promised too much. What else could she have said? Classic middle child and a seasoned diplomat accustomed to smoothing the way for the angry older sister sending those damned suicide notes, the thirty-two year old baby brother shut up in his room, protecting the seriously ill mother still touting the happy family lies: We’re all fine. Yes, Aundria is in Minneapolis…no out in California now writing a book. Kim “saving” us as her hair falls out, dark circles form under her eyes and she doubles over with mysterious back and neck pain. Stress related the doctor consoles her, writes a prescription, tells her to rest then sends her to the three bedroom apartment packed tight with her husband, four year old son, seventy-three year old mother, brother, and now sister on the way.
Everyone thought it best I return to New York despite…well so many of us simultaneously falling apart. I could think of nowhere else to go. I did try. My family a last resort for I’m too old, too ashamed that I’m still not good enough. I languish on the threshold aware that my first impressions of my world remain unchanged.
excerpt from memoir-in-progress Smiling Is Not Resilience