by C.C. Parker
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. —Mark Twain
Her scraggy cowl-neck sweater and faded jeans blown out at the knees look out of place on the pink velvet tufted chair in which she sits. The room was uncomfortably silent despite the number of us and the energy, palpable and fierce. An obvious and brooding presence, my sister is her own weather system; a gathering storm. The aura of Laura forms an impenetrable force field, even in the soft elegance of my parents’ Victorian parlor.
The aura of Laura, designed for defense against us, the nuclear family, intimidates my mother, my father, my brother and me. She also once held the tactical munitions deployed on her husband. We all instinctively lower our heads, like beaten dogs in order not to trigger Laura’s fury, whatever that fury might be—bad day, money problems, the feeling of being cheated out of her parents’ hard earned comfort and wealth. Despite what we’ve been through, her power reigns. We bite our tongues and tiptoe. We dumb-up, cutting off ourselves or one another when we’re close to tripping on the wire of the point of no return—an outburst of rage and the belligerence that bloomed in her adolescence and tapped its roots deep.
Now, on this Easter Sunday, throw in the dynamic of Laura’s kids. All three—aged high school to college—have joined us in the parlor. The two eldest text one another with only a mahogany coffee table separating them. They are giggling. The youngest one is clinging to his mother like an abandoned primate. In this chaos, feeling strangely ill at ease in my parents’ home, I look to my father for solace.
I deflect my gaze to my sister. She is talking to the kids about the trinket they stole from the Chinese restaurant the night before and I notice the inked letters splayed across the fingers of her right hand. A secret message is revealed for me to see from this angle. Does anyone else see these words? Are they real?
I set my eyes in my lap, squeeze them shut; the inked letters burn there like sunspots on the back of my eyelids. I see “Forgive” etched into the pliant tender skin on the inside of her forefinger. I see forest green, block type. “M” and “e” are inked on next: one letter on the inside of her middle and ring fingers. She can press her fingers closed and it’s an ordinary hand. The words appear or they disappear. She can choose to reveal them or seal them within her very flesh. Her body is holding a secret and telling a story at the same time.
These tattoos are new. They are an outcry of repentance intended for the world to see. I interpret them as an apology to her husband, perhaps too late, an apology to reunite her with her kids, and an apology to resonate with volunteers at the suicide prevention hotline, right? I can’t help but wonder if the words are meant to bring her reconciliation or are another kind of flashy wound displaying the pain she bears.
We are strangers now. Didn’t used to be. We were the closest when she fell in love with my college boyfriends. We shared a commonality: we were attracted to the exact same boys and those boys were attracted to us, wonderfully as sisters. We were both so cute, my sister and I. Thin, pretty, bubbly, flirty, big sister, little sister, what a fun package! First Michael, then Rene. When Keith came along and I ended up briefly marrying the man, the distance between sisters began to build.
Our mom wanted me to steer an amicable relationship with Laura. Her own sister died tragically at only twenty-one years old; my mother was only twelve at the time. You’re lucky to have a sister, she’d say, faraway eyes and biting the nail of her forefinger to the quick. I maintain, it’s easier to appreciate in retrospect.
As a kid, and even now, I could never approach Laura one-on-one for fear of confrontation. Her lips were tight, her teeth clenched; her anger primed for decades. However, I recognized here in my parents’ parlor, enveloped in comfort, that she—always so tough—had at some recent point become vulnerable and small as she understood her role in her husband’s downfall and in his death. This is what those two tattooed words unveiled: remorse, perhaps fragility, perhaps pain. This knowledge struck me. Hard.
I drifted back in my mind to the birth of Laura and Steven’s first son, Jacob, in 1994. The two of them—the youngest siblings of respective families—made it clear that Jake was their baby, theirs to rear with no outside influence. They even heralded a you’re-not-allowed-to-come-to-the-hospital-after-the birth kind of thing. The basis for this type of treatment emerged as a result of dealing with my mother.
My mother had a short fuse, a wealth of unreconciled feelings over loss, and an inability to relate to Laura. And Laura’s other half? Her spouse, in many ways, was an uncanny replication of our mother. Steven harbored ill feelings reflective of his own childhood. He came along as “a surprise,” more than a decade following his closest sibling; his mother was well into middle age and his father, ornery at best, exuded little excitement for rearing another child. Hence passions in this particular circle rode high. Laura and Steven took the same stance, us versus them, with both sets of parents.
Spirited angst fueled their agenda of family. Laura and Steven procreated three times; the first, Jake, burgeoned from my sister’s belly in her snow-white mermaid-ruffled wedding dress. The two stood defiantly together at the altar and in the new marriage, steady and sure, arrogant even, and they built an isolated world. Emma came two years later and Zak, shortly thereafter. They kept us at the periphery of their lives. Steven flourished in the community—Cub Scouts, Brownies, PTA, chaperoning. He worked the contractor desk from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Home Cheapo and developed a gregarious rapport with every builder, plumber, and electrician within a twenty-mile radius. My sister pursued her nursing degree. Hard work pays off. They moved out of a crappy condo and into middle class America in a four-bedroom house on the other, better side of town. In the privacy of their home I could imagine them mimicking Sinatra, kicking our asses by belting out, I did it my way.
Time whizzed past us. The kids’ pictures on the wall changed. From baby and toddler, to Jake in his Boy Scout uniform, Emma in her tutu and Zak posing with his fifth grade class. These stills reflected what we didn’t know—the ins and outs, the trials and triumphs—of their lives. We weren’t present as grandparents, aunt and uncle, per se. And we wanted to be. My brother and I, along with our parents, craved that extended family.
So we got proactive, pursued opportunities to celebrate their birthdays. The kids acted withdrawn, unnatural when we were around. Their parents had succeeded at driving a wedge between us, good and lasting. Laura and Steven taught them to resent us for our financial means and success, for our willingness to embrace them. They taught the kids to hide their light spirits and keep us at bay.
My brother and I, close in age and forever best of friends, eventually grew callous. Steven didn’t want Emma hanging around with me because I was now divorced and apparently that too made me marred. My parents didn’t relent; they continued to care a great deal for Laura and love and provide for their grandkids. The kids stayed overnights at Mom and Dad’s, my parents shuttling them to and from residences and restaurants and activities; anything to remain a part of their lives.
Nearly ten years ago communication waned. Dad’s calls, the messages left after the tone following the recording of Steven’s goofy yet endearing impersonation of the dog’s voice, went unanswered. All the while, we envisioned my sister or Steven there, listening to my father’s voice laced with worry please just call and let us know everything is okay and rolling their eyes. The kids watching them. That’s when a surprise visit by my father to the house enraged them. They didn’t like surprises, the intrusion. After that Dad stayed away, respected their privacy, voiced how lousy it felt to be closed out of their lives.
After six months of radio silence, my father didn’t care about enraging them, they’re my goddamn flesh and blood and again he made his way out to the house. He didn’t find Laura. She worked the second shift now. Dad did find Jake; he lay behind a closed door on his bed staring at the ceiling. He found Emma and Zak too. They were in the basement watching TV. Steven, unresponsive and buried under the bedclothes, snoozed in the darkened master bedroom. He still worked at Home Cheapo, but his role as the kids’ primary caretaker had long ago sputtered out. Jake also reported on the screaming matches that raged between his parents for months. “Mom kept pushing him to put in for a promotion and more hours at Home Cheapo, but he didn’t want to. This made Daddy sad and tired.”
My father heard from Laura shortly thereafter. Under the swell of depression or perhaps his own rebellion against Laura, Steven let the bills slide; the mortgage crashed into default. Laura happened to open an envelope imprinted with their bank’s stationary. She melted down. Passionately.
Mom and Dad bailed them out and wrote the checks to keep the family in their home. Dad began dropping by the house several times per week, asked what he could do to help. When Steven returned from Home Cheapo, he walked right passed Dad, pulled the shades in his room and went straight to bed, toward the incomplete but soft comfort of the covers. He retreated there waiting for Laura to be kind, civil and loving. Waiting to be the team they used to be: us versus them. Laura worked double shifts now. The kids ordered takeout and watched TV in the basement near a pile of dirty clothes that nearly reached the ceiling. Dad could see that even the most basic needs were unmet. The food was not nourishing, the clothing was filthy, the shelter financially precarious, and he couldn’t make a guess at love. Did any of them feel loved?
A year passed before Laura called again. November 23, 2006—Thanksgiving and a date now branded in all our minds as indelibly as those tattooed letters. Mom, Dad, my brother Chris, my boyfriend Dennis and I were staying at a B&B in Killington, Vermont—a fun-loving ski town, with mountains holding on to the last of autumn’s bright leaves. My dad’s whole face lit up when he glanced at his ringing cell phone. It’s Laura calling, he told us.
“A police lieutenant just came to the door,” she said, her voice clear and matter-of-fact through the receiver. Dad had the phone mashed to his ear. I could hear every word she said. “They found Steven’s body in Weston.”
The blood drained out of Dad’s face, his mouth remained still. Laura kept talking. The phone came away from Dad’s ear. Now Mom, Chris, and Dennis could hear too. “He hanged himself.”
Dad, our eternal patriarch, is one of the strongest men I have ever known in character and physical strength, and here was his kryptonite. He said nothing.
Laura kept on. “The lieutenant said he was a coward.”
Dad blinked in slo-mo.
“I told him, ‘I certainly hope you treated his body with respect.’”
She seemed really put off about the whole thing, angry, I thought, and now she was concerned with how they handled his body.
“Come to the house now, okay?” she said and then hung up.
Dad provided the directive. We moved from stagnation to hustle, packed our things, my breath short, hands trailing behind themselves in cinematic delay, the movement of my limbs feeling as if underwater: Steven hanged himself. My mother did not hustle, a woman of social graces; she leaned on the bannister in the foyer,
sobbing, muttering how could he do such a thing. My brother stood, his things tossed into a Stop and Shop paper bag already at his feet, his usual manner of baggage, formerly chatty and filled with holiday spirit, now rubbing the heel of his thumbs into his eyes. Dennis lightly held my hand as Dad crossed over the threshold three, four times, to cast our stuff into the back of the minivan.
Out to the car, collectively. Time moved in defined frames. Pile in, slam door, vacuum sound, secured. Dad thrusting down the transmission stalk, our heads slamming against the seats as we reeled backward. He had aimed for Drive, but miscalibrated. He paused, his brain hiccupping, stymied under duress, tried again. He pulled the stalk down a couple of notches more and catapulted the van forward. It spit up shards of dirt and gravel in the direction of the flowery inn.
We embarked on the four-hour ride back to Massachusetts. The van’s interior was deathly silent and the vibe was weighty. The mountains, terrain we had covered time and time again, sprawled out endlessly before for us, surpassing their usual proportions. We scaled and scaled, too much for the van’s transmission, any transmission, to climb with speedy efficiency. It was only a matter of time before one of us was going to break down and scream, beat our fists against the van’s upholstery in disbelief and frustration.
Was this an act of spite? Retribution? Self-hatred?
We didn’t break down and scream or beat our fists into the van’s upholstery because two hours into the journey Dad sensed we were going to break down and scream and beat our fists into the van’s upholstery, and pulled into a Dunkin Donuts before it happened. The five of us made a tearful reprieve over cups of tea. We bought half a dozen chocolate honey dipped and poked at them with white plastic knives. Laura’s words, daggers to our hearts, still didn’t make any sense.
How could this happen in our family?
We sat there at the three small tables we dragged together to make one. For I don’t know how long. I stared at the bottom of my Styrofoam cup, dry for a long time, looking for the same things I searched for in Dennis’s face as we made a mad dash out of the inn. Confirmation of a dream, a cruel joke, or a twisted power trip typical of Laura. Could this be her cruel joke?
If she didn’t need us for our quotidian love, why now? Why does disaster make you gravitate to family?
Like zombies we boarded our ride again on this day that left a well-earned shadow on Thanksgiving forevermore. Inside our family we refer to the incident as “the hanging.”
Remember when the kids came over for a bit on Christmas Day? You know, before the hanging.
We poured out of the van in blind panic and stumbled across their lawn. Laura and Steven’s house looked as normal as others on the street. Our feelings softened as soon as we saw the kids; we went to them with open arms. We wrapped ourselves around them—three numb lumps on the sofa. For the moment, Jake, thirteen, Emma, ten, and Zak, eight, had run out of tears. In time we would all learn our tears were everlasting.
How do children wrap their heads around the rejection, the violence, the abandonment? How will they not consider suicide as an easy way out when their lives get tough?
Laura appeared with a literal checklist in hand. Cremation, memorial, people to the house. She had already been to the morgue. The first few words she said to us, she said in front of her children. They remain lodged in every one of my cells’ memory. And cells remember shit.
“He hanged himself with such conviction that he nearly took his head clean off,” she told us as if enjoying the shock of more bad behavior.
What had that looked like exactly?
In her signature style, she then slipped her arm through my father’s and stormed off petulantly to the bedroom saying, “He’s left all this mess.” She wasn’t referring to the memorial, his cremation; she was referring to the bills and the unfinished work of family. The work and strife. She wasn’t referring to the heartbreak of her children. This was about her, about Laura’s pain and burden. Laura didn’t think about Steven with remorse in the background, or offer a helpful heart in the foreground. Now he had let her down at the ripe old age of thirty-six and that just plain pissed her off.
We joined the kids on the couch. Coming together through the tragedy was instinctual and it brought comfort. Mom put her arm around Emma and clutched her so tightly to her bosom I thought Emma would squirm away. She didn’t. She stayed inside the safe embrace of permanent love.
Mom’s death grip is trying to melt away the pain.
Laura unleashed a tirade we could hear in the living room. Occasionally the subtle bass tones of my father’s voice interjected. Hell hath no fury like Laura scorned. Dad and Laura stayed in the bedroom for well over an hour, talking finances, talking about “Steven’s problems.” A sticking point for Laura was the fact that Steve wouldn’t replace the stove, three of four burners gone. He couldn’t have at least managed that since he worked at Home Cheapo?
When Dad emerged he sank his tall frame into the couch. Laura pried the languid kids away from us and shuffled them into the kitchen. Conference time. For both parties. Dad sat gazing into his lap. When he spoke his voice was journalistic, trance-like. He summarized for us. “Laura and Steven fought last night. Steven left in a rage around midnight. Called half an hour later. Emma picked up the phone. He said goodbye. He said he was never coming back. He said he loved her. Then Laura took the phone from Emma. Steven told her that your mother and I would take care of you. Then he hung up.”
My sister there in front of me, in her outdated hippy clothes she’d worn since high school, sat between Jake and Emma. I glimpsed again at the letters engraved on her fingers. Steven’s death had made her suffer; it had just taken time. The sentiment had emerged, breaking down through her anger, penetrating the force field, the aura of Laura. Perhaps the days passed by and a great heaviness grew inside of her, a gnawing guilt, and she knew she could never free herself from it, the ligature around her own neck, unless she reconciled it. Maybe, little by little, she began to see into her own guilt, the extremeness of her actions against him, and the heaviness began to lift, leaving behind its inevitable and appropriate scar. And through asking for forgiveness, she began to assimilate the fragments of life again in a way that might make her whole.
I will never know. I can’t ask these questions because Laura still is impenetrable. Her acute vulnerability remains largely hidden, only revealed by a slight of hand—those dark letters on her fingers. I wonder though, if I had been the good sister years ago, could my kindness have prevented her from feeling so left out and betrayed? Could her path have been different? And what about now? A sister can be a good sister at any age.
Seems I need the inked letters too, engraved on my fingers or on my heart for my sister to see.
F-o-r-g-i-v-e Me. This would be a good place to start.