In a Steel Box Welded Shut Lies My Father. It’s the Law.

Posted on August 7, 2018

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Death becomes me.

My first experience with death was in grade one. A girl from my school was hit by a car outside our school yard. But that’s not where she died.  She was a tiny girl, fair haired and sweet. I see her now. A wisp of a girl, dressed in a pink shirt, dark pants with a ribbon hanging loosely from her hair. But it’s the image of her crumpled body, resting on the ground, that has tucked itself deep inside the crevices of my mind. Wispy girl swaying in the wind. I recall the high-pitched squeal of the siren as an ambulance pulled up to the school and swerved to a halt. Time stood still. I felt desperately alone as I witnessed each tragic scene play out in a disquieting hum. There must have been other kids, teachers and staff all standing around gripping their hearts too, yet, all I remember, is standing on the playground alone. Numbing pain, tragic loss and the beating soft beating of my heart.

The medics lifted her up from the cold hard cement and placed her swiftly yet so gently into the welcoming doors of their van. The doors slammed shut and off they sped with bullet speed and swirling red lights. We stared on with watery eyes until our teachers finally whisked us away inside. I never saw wispy girl again. Flesh and bone, all so visceral inside. The ambulance hit a bump along the way to the hospital and one of her tiny little ribs, cracked by the impact of the car, pierced her heart. The memory of her death, which seems so utterly violent to me now, left a huge gaping hole in my heart.

Maybe it is symbiotic or mere coincidence, but the death of that one little girl is a dark spiraling wound in my heart. I can’t erase and will be forever linked to a recusant memory from the same time. I was ‘practicing’ my letters in class, when instead of penciling in line after line of O’s, I began to draw thickly penciled spirals over and over again. I can still feel the sensation of soft lead rubbing against grainy paper, and even today, I still prefer pencil to pen. I like to imagine that the repetition of these spirals came after that little girl’s death because it was a comfort—an imposition of pattern in a disruptive time—a way of making sense of something that was far too vast and ominous for me to comprehend at the time.

But on that day, my teacher also made me erase all those expressive little spirals. The very thing that makes me love the pencil is the very thing that makes me dislike that teacher. Memories and angst cannot be erased. As an artist and a writer, I find pencils to be the perfect instrument for laying down thoughts and scribbles. The erasure is part of the tool’s beauty, but close observation will show you that a pencil mark can never be completely erased. There is always a trace—a word or a line or a dot—that refuses to be eradicated or rubbed out. And so, it is with our memories. We may attempt to erase the most painful ones, but they will continue to live on inside us in the form of an obsession, a flaw or a stubborn graphite stain that pulsates and punishes the paper like a spiralling wound.

Both a metaphor and a mantra, my obsession with black spiraling holes has been a quivering, turbulent mass in my life and my art. It’s no accident that I was utterly bewitched by The Wizard of Oz when I was a little girl—and still am. Maybe I was six. It was 1973 and I watched Dorothy’s story unfold on screen, with both wonderment and dread, as the film transformed from mundane grey to an explosion of colour. My heart sank when the film opened in black and white and I remember whining relentlessly about this to my mother. I yearned so much for colour. But she kept glancing at me with a subtle smirk while sternly telling me to “sit still and watch the film.” I finally succumbed and became enraptured by Dorothy’s dog-hating neighbour, the galling winds and ominous black sky. I was gripped by her story and the black twister as it whipped and snapped across the sky. With knees hugged high and a chewed lip, my stomach churned as Dorothy ran into the house. I let out a squeal when the house rose up and spun through the air and felt relief when the house finally came down with a thump.

More death. And then those legs.

Fairy tales are fraught with darkness, violence and death. But in the end, there is always that shimmer of hope that the goods ones will rise above, unscathed, and emerge into a state of pardon or grace. Where good triumphs, evil fails, so the saying goes. Or, for that poor Wicked Witch of the East (and West) her finale, a fatal blow dropped from the heavenly sky—her monumental fall from grace. Of course, this is a religious interpretation, but it’s worthy of closer inspection. Although I was raised Presbyterian, religion wasn’t a daily or even weekly ritual in our household, but it still permeated the air. A moral miasma that seemed to infect the very core of my being.

And so, the story begins.

Like the witch, my father had his own fall from grace.

Sleeping pills and a bottle of rye. A suicide—even a failed one—is an act of lonely despair. A twisted kind of hope at ending the shame and finding redemption. White and black-striped legs, crumpled above the knees and splayed out for all the world to see.

 

     Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!

     Ding Dong! The Witcked Witch is dead.

 

It is often said that children can feel it in their bones when something at home has gone amiss. I think it’s true. And we all know what happened to Dorothy. My dad was a creature of habit and he liked his home to be arranged in a certain way and set with his discipline and order. We were taught to never speak out of order, but to be stoic and fearless, and to eat all our peas.

I suppose it was his sense of discipline that made him insist that my mother wrap me up and send me out to school in that stormy blizzard. It was grade one. I recall putting on my fuzzy red coat with a scarf wrapped around my hood for good measure. My mom kissed me goodbye, and in a moment of husband-fearing meekness, sent me out into that blinding white storm. I walked and walked. I couldn’t see anything. I felt suffocated by the freezing winds and whirling white snow. I don’t recall experiencing a strong sense of Oz-esque danger, but something inside of me must have stirred. Five blocks into my walk, I turned back around. My mother was suddenly in front of me moving fast. She was wearing a light blue jacket. No mitts. No scarf. Not even a hat. I was relieved when I suddenly felt the warmth and familiar rush of home. I peeled off my ice-laden clothes. Visions of chicken noodle soup and warm grilled cheese played in my head. Armed with rosy cheeks and ghastly red thighs I spent the day perched on the couch watching the storm, waiting anxiously for my dad to arrive home. What doom would I face once my dad found out I couldn’t brave the storm?

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Posted in: Crime