Fiction

Coping Mechanism

July/August 2016

By Deana Coddaire

lockandkey-briandmains-com“What are you afraid of?” my psychiatrist asks, and I hate her a little.

I breathe. “We’ve looked at houses in Kennebunk for six months.” I speak slowly, as if to a child. “Nothing is perfect. Or we can’t afford it. Our current home is old, lots of character. It’s our first house. We’ve been there for 24 years. Our children were born there.”

Dr. K tucks gray hair behind her ear, waiting.

“So, uh…” Her silence throws me. “We’re thinking of building…but, what if…” My hands flap weakly.

“What if…?”

I know. It’s because my mother died, right? It’s what everyone concluded. One bright bulb actually said my brother “turned gay” for that reason. Who knew?

An endless mental ribbon of anxieties unfurls: What if we buy a house and I hate it? What if we build, and make all the wrong decisions? What if John loses his job? What if something terrible happens? And then it hits me.

The last time I moved from one house to another, something terrible did happen. And damn it, Dr. K could be right.

October 28th, 1978. Moving day. I was eleven, and my siblings and I would finally have our own rooms—which meant sleeping alone for the first time. That night, I tiptoed downstairs.

“Mum? I can’t sleep.”

The television flickered blue around my parents’ door. “Up in a minute.”

I scampered up the steep stairway on all fours (seemed faster this way) and leapt into bed.

My mother appeared, and I wriggled happily. Her footsteps crackled the old linoleum like bubble wrap. I counted steps: One-Two-Three-Four.

She sat on my bed, chuckling. “What’s so funny?”

I squinted at her face in the dim light. “This house is so big,” she said, her voice soothing. “Dad says I’d go downstairs from our old bedroom, and my footsteps went, ‘thump, thump, thump, thump’ to the kitchen.”

I was already drifting.

“Now, it’s ‘thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump…”

I fell asleep to the thumps.

That weekend, my mother went on retreat with the church, and on Sunday evening when I heard our Suburban’s burbling rumble, I ran outside. Moving far slower than her 32 years warranted, she climbed down from the driver’s seat. I burrowed my face into her sweater, inhaling that signature mixture of scents: Jungle Gardenia cologne, Winston cigarettes, and Dial soap.

“Back to Bilbo?” I asked; we were reading The Hobbit again.

She gave me a wan smile. “I’m sorry, Deana. I have a headache.” She rested her arm around my shoulders as we went inside.

My father appeared and took her suitcase. They headed to their bedroom, and I headed to our china closet, which, inexplicably, was also our medicine cabinet. I grabbed the familiar bottle of pills and a glass of water and entered my parents’ bedroom.

My mother was speaking. “–worst I’ve had.” She turned, squinting like I was the sun, and accepted my offerings.

Later, I went downstairs to say that I, too, had a headache–a ruse to miss school. My father’s anxious gaze never left the limp shape of my mother on the bed, a dishrag over her eyes. “Take an aspirin and go to bed,” he snapped.

The next morning, we were greeted by Dad’s sister, Sandy. As a rule, we only saw Aunt Sandy, Uncle Wayne, and my three cousins, Kelly, Kim and Koral (always spoken as one word: KellyKimandKoral) at their Christmas open house. We stopped short, agog.

“Dad’s at the hospital with Mum–her headache got really bad.” She spoke quickly, no slivers of silence for questions, and added that Mum’s best friend Marilyn was on her way; she’d be keeping us overnight. No school after all, I thought.

I was lying on Marilyn’s couch–the result of a tag-induced asthma attack–when my father came by later. Words drifted from the kitchen: “Meningitis…coma…life support…” I understood none of this and lay quietly until he came in. “Mum’s still sick,” he said, looking elsewhere. “You’re staying here again.”

Turning onto our street Wednesday, I knew something was happening. Familiar cars lined the street, announcing the presence of my mother’s family; strange for a weekday, but I was always thrilled to see these beloved, lively people.

The glowering sky expanded downward and clung to the windows like a wet, gray shroud as Marilyn’s car rolled to a stop and we tumbled out into the mist. We trooped up the stairs, and Aunt Mary Ann emerged. Awaiting her boozy embrace, I smiled patiently, but my lips fell slack when I noticed the makeup running down her pale cheeks in black, tragic streaks. She leaned down to whisper, “It’s okay to cry, honey.”

Aunt Sandy followed. Grasping my shoulders, she said, “You’re the oldest—be strong.”

Baffled, I entered the strangely subdued house. Forced, damp smiles loomed everywhere, each brittle gaze deflecting, ricocheting away.

M

y mother’s teenaged sister made her way through the murmuring tide and with uncharacteristic gentleness offered to brush my hair. I sat on my father’s mushroom footstool, a brown velour oddity permanently placed at the dining-room window, where a cracked mirror perched on the sill; I babbled incessantly about anything I deemed impressive.

My father’s voice: “Kids! Let’s see what you’ve done with your rooms.”

I raced my siblings to the staircase, barely noticing the sudden silence. We stampeded up, briefly bottle-necking on the dim, crooked landing at the top; a silent shoving match ensued before we popped like corks into the hallway.

Upon reaching my room, my mouth dropped into a surprised “o.” My grandmother was perched on the unmade bed, looking as incongruous as a painting in a Porta-Potty.

“Kids,” Dad’s voice was strange, and he cleared his throat. “Mum’s gone up to Jesus,” he said, and then, “Ah, Christ, Ma.” He put his thick, callused hand over his eyes, and for the first and only time in my life, I watched–with a horror as deep as I have ever known–as my father began to cry.

Time stopped. Thoughts and feelings ceased for a few heartbeats…but too soon, the numbness faded. The combined shock of the news, my father’s choice of words (Dad and Jesus didn’t see eye to eye), and seeing him cry knocked my world asunder. My response was visceral, violent; my grandmother hurried to the china cabinet for my asthma medicine.

It was too much to bear. So, in those next few minutes, I flung that unimaginable, fledgling sorrow into a closet, locked the door, and threw away the key.

“A coping mechanism,” Dr. K says. “Common with children. They avoid mourning the loss because facing it is unthinkable. And sometimes, it works. But,” she pins me with her gaze, and I refrain from squirming. “It must be mourned eventually.”

Her words challenge me, but I hear an internal sentry: I’m sorry, ma’am—those files are inaccessible. Nothing to see, lady. Move along.

“I’d like to try something,” she continues, and my body tenses. “It has to do with appealing to your heart–your inner child–instead of your adult brain. May I?” I nod, and she begins to speak. “That little girl inside is so sad.” Her voice, gentle and soft, forces my eyes down and makes me grit my teeth. “So alone.”

I suddenly desperately want her to stop; I am caroming toward a yawning, immense, black-filled canyon.

“She misses her mother so much.” The emotion in Dr. K’s voice draws my eyes upward, and I am shocked to see tears in her eyes. “She needs comfort, and she can’t find it. That little girl is so sad, Deana—but it’s okay to be sad.”

Oh no.

Dr. K’s face doubles, triples through my tears. Ragged sobs rend out of my chest; my sorrow feels too large to be allowed.

She continues after a while. “Your home represents comfort and safety–like a mother figure,” she suggests. “If you are subconsciously equating this move to the one from your childhood, it stands to reason that you are equating it to the loss of your mother–a loss you never mourned.”

The theory resonated.

She said I needed to allow myself to cry–and cry, I did: in the shower, on a jog, in the car. And on moving day, when all we had were the echoes of our footsteps in empty rooms, my husband and son patiently waited while my daughter and I walked through every room, weeping and holding hands.

But we moved, and no tragedy struck. New memories are accumulating, and it feels like home. I feared being unable to remember our old house without pain, but the memories are fond, comfortable. They remind me that loss–a door through which we all must pass–is survivable; some of us just take longer to find the key and walk through it, for fear of what lies on the other side.

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