The Caged Bird
Let’s Start Here
I was in grade school. I think that ‘we’ didn’t say elementary school at the time; my mom says grammar school. I’m not sure if that is a Catholic thing, a ‘my family’ thing or what. Never mind because it doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, I was there. That day, I was at the top of our street. The road sloped down to the bottom, which met up with another short strip of pavement. My house was there. This was a time when, IF a place delivered food, they didn’t deliver to my house. Our weird sliver of a street wasn’t even on the map. The day of GPS and Google maps wasn’t yet. If, by chance, my mom’s persuasion worked, she would have to run outside to chase the delivery man or just wait to flag them down. This was where I lived.
The bus dropped my brother and me off at the entrance to our development. I think most people would say neighborhood, but ‘development’ sounded better, I think - at least to my mom. If my mom wasn’t there to pick us up, we wove through back yards to get home. My brother and I, mostly, walked separate. On that day he was ahead of me.
So at the top of our street, I stood. I saw my brother in the distance, approaching our neighbor Michelle. She would baby-sit us from time to time. She and her three older brothers lived across the street. She walked over to my brother and bent down, as her thick, brunette hair fell forward from her shoulders, almost blocking his profile. What appeared to be a sweet gesture turned horribly wrong as he backed away screaming; his terrorized face turned to find me.
I had no clue what was happening, but whatever it was forced me to run with tears of fear streaming down my chubby face. The backpack smacking my backside with every step. Once I got to them, Michelle told me that my mom was at the hospital with our youngest brother. He was pulled from our backyard pool, unresponsive.
In my mind, surely, he would be dead. People don’t survive drownings. We went into my house, to drop off our school things. I recall laying in my bed, crying with a stuffed animal clutched close to my chest. I just wanted everything to be okay - I prayed. But this - this event - nothing would ever be ‘okay’ again.
That evening, Michelle took us to McDonalds for dinner. Most of my childhood, dining out, especially at a fast food joint, was limited. I found much comfort there. We sat among the chicken nuggets, fries and hot mustard - my dipping sauce of choice. I remember being at a table - my brother and I facing this teenager. She seemed much older then…looking back she was just a kid. In the background, the glow of the neon menu cut through the darkness of the day.
Later on, my parents took us to see my youngest. He was at the hospital in which I was born. Due to his age (2 years), they had him in a secure ‘bed’ which was basically a metal cage. He seemed just fine, completely unaffected, as the rest of us were forever changed.
I don’t know if this was a gradual process, or a hard transition, but my mom kinda lost it a bit. And the bit that she lost, was gone forever. She wanted nothing more than to have the pool filled in with concrete. She “hated the pool”; sometimes she’s embellish the statement by calling it a “damn pool” or even that “fucking pool”. There was so much anger and my dad didn’t really entertain it. Maybe he ignored it. Regardless of the real reaction, he didn’t do a damn thing because that fucking pool is still in their back yard twenty-nine years later.
So many strange things happened, most of us just took it all for granted (or again, kind of ignored it). When we called attention to these behaviors we either made fun or got annoyed…audibly annoyed. Maybe some of her behaviors could have been dormant, passed down from my grandmother, waiting to blossom. As the paranoia and fragility of life really sunk in, mom basically barricaded herself in the house. She didn’t like going out, as she felt safer in the house. She built a life in her own bubble, only venturing out (via car) for the usual errands, school activities and the occasional two-hour trip to Jersey. Whether she left to get the mail or for a 3 mile drive for groceries, the doors to the house would be locked…THE MAIL…WHICH WAS IN A MAILBOX AT THE EDGE OF OUR DRIVEWAY. She’d lock the doors if we’d be in the back yard, or went out front, walked ACROSS THE STREET to the neighbor’s house, or whatever. All doors would be locked when we were in the house. So many times I was locked out, I might have gone in the garage to get something and she’d lock the door right behind me.
If we went anywhere, we were barraged with questions and safety tips: “where are you going?”, “let me know when you get there; let me know when you’re on your way”, “what are the parents’ names, phone numbers/addresses, make/model of car, license plate numbers, professions?”, “be careful”, “watch the crazy psycho bastards,” among other things…but the most infamous of directives “LOCK YOUR DOORS”.
She continues to get filled with anxiety that manifests into physical responses when one of her grandkids walks towards the pool - if the ball they’re playing with rolls in that direction..if the kids are in the backyard without an adult, or she believes the adult is not paying attention. She will forcefully jam her fingers into her ears (the tips instantly turning white) and squeeze her eyes shut. Her mouth falls open as if her jaw has become unhinged, sometimes uttering the name “Jesus Christ” or to let our a pained sigh. This reaction certainly invokes stress among those around her which is usually met with one of us saying “Oh my God, stop”, “you’re just being ridiculous”, or the all time favorite “would you relax?!”
Now that I write these words, I realize how unfair we have been to her. We have no empathy, rather we are a family that doesn’t support each other in bad or tough times. I never want to know what it’s like to believe my child is missing. I never want to see my young child, face down at the bottom of “that fucking pool” as his “little blue shoes” (one of those piercing descriptions of the day that has stuck with me all these years) kept him anchored. The thought of the adrenaline rush as she jumped in to pull his lifeless body out, makes me want to puke. I never want to know that. I don’t want to carry the responsibility of almost having someone die on my watch, let alone that someone being my own blood.
But, I do know what it’s like to be brushed off, pushed away, made the butt of jokes, and not supported. I know what it’s like to have my feelings/emotions ignored, rather than addressed, or talked about in a caring/helpful way. I know what it’s like to not be comforted, when that’s exactly what’s needed most.
And it’s not until now, that I write all these words…to realize that she and I are, a lot, the same.