My sister chooses her footfall carefully and unlatches the old door without a sound. We step into a calming pall of static emanating from a small domed white noise machine in the opposite corner of the room. There’s a desk, a black refrigerator, a nightstand, and a twin bed. A foldable canvas crib takes up the whole of the remaining floor space.
My sister dips over the edge of the crib and softly rests one hand on the back of her tiny sleeping son. At first he doesn’t stir at all. She gently pets his back with her palm in persistence. This time I see his feet jerk in a shock the way you wake yourself when you dream you are falling. He thrashes his legs in disoriented terror under his blanket, but doesn’t make a sound. I’ve never seen a child this small woken in the middle of the night, and it strikes me for the first time just how traumatic this whole business is.
She lifts him from his crib into her arms, and he starts to whimper, gathering breaths deep enough to cry, yet still he is eerily silent. As I watch from the door frame I feel afraid, but can’t seem to grasp why. In the dark, for a moment I am able to see the room through his eyes, cloaked in strange shadows and whispers. I can feel the seal of sleep snap open and the safety of what felt like the womb crack in a sudden expanse of confusing dimension and sound. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been close to that part of myself—the one that we can only truly find in our most acute moments of helplessness.
I drag the crib over the carpet into the adjoining room and station it at the foot of a tall queen bed frame. My nephew finally begins to cry and my sister softly rests her dazed son back into his bed. We whisper goodnight and shoot each other sideways sardonic sister smiles that equally express our mutual cynical annoyance and our humbled bewilderment of this sudden, unceremonious rite of adulthood.
I return to the small room with the desk, black refrigerator, and nightstand, and climb into the twin bed. I feel an uneasiness that I can’t fully articulate to myself in the moment. A fear cozies into the sheets with me as I try to make out its shape. With my defenseless nephew in the next room, I feel close to all those things that may sweep us up at any moment without our say—maybe not tonight—but one day, as they do for all of us in the end.
It’s impossible to sleep. Above our rooms we can hear my dad and his girlfriend Ann still talking and dancing late into the night. The evening has been a celebration for my dad’s retirement from his practice as a physician and this is our first visit to their new house. In the morning we’ll learn that after the guests had sipped the last of their champagne and all gone home, my dad had proposed. He is 65. When he met Ann he was 60. He and my mother divorced when he was 52. When he and my mother gave birth to my sister, he was the same age that I am now.
At 34 I am not old, but I am no longer young. At last I am secure in who I am—more resigned really—climatized to my own specific biological lot in life, both in its strengths and many weaknesses. I don’t particularly like or loathe myself any more or less than I did when I was 24, I’ve only metabolized my self judgements as normal enough to just get on with it already. I have come by a certain hard-earned respect for myself. Despite my junk, I know I’m somebody I can count on.
I am well tuned to how much I will tolerate from the world and from myself. I know that my threshold for small talk is very low, my threshold for pain, very high. I know I’m good at keeping secrets. I know I’m bad at planning parties. For the first time, I know my friends truly love me, even though they are well-versed in my worst chapters. I know that when I feel shame, it’s best if I tell someone immediately, rather than let it fester. These are important things to know about oneself—some of these are things I did not know only a few birthday candles ago.
I am proud that my years have guided me to a place of self-reliance that makes me independent and capable, but also makes me rigid and stubborn, often unable to bend my life to another’s—afraid that if one of my buttresses goes—well, down goes the whole house.
Even still, when I encounter hard news, an impasse, or heartache, it’s abundantly appetizing to languish for weeks, maybe even months to make the aftertaste last long enough to flavor the minor chords of all the good sad songs. But to my disappointment, I’ve found that time has made me much too sturdy. Unbeknownst to me, over the years I’ve somehow acquired the discipline to abstain from total self-destruction.
Instead I carry on as a high-functioning adult. I pay my utilities. I attend meetings on time. I feed myself. I drink responsibly. I smile at my neighbors in earnest. It’s quite a convenient thing for your liver and your mortgage to not completely fall apart, but there’s something that feels phony about it too, as if some angsty inner voice no longer has license to express herself. My outer life refuses to recognize any wound that begs to paint her name all over the walls in kerosene and light a match. After all, now it seems there’s so much more of a life to burn to the ground.
But to be spared this danger comes at a price, and I’m beginning to feel disconnected from a whole catalogue of feelings that only belonged to someone who didn’t know any better, only ever had enough chips that it was invariably worth it for a good gamble. I think I’ll always miss that person, so committed to her capacity to feel. She reminded me that even when I thought I had nothing, still there was always one last very important thing left to lose.
And as for love? The men I thought I loved ferociously at the time, but gave me no ground to stand on, I no longer love. The men with whom I’d built a life, but no longer wanted to sleep with, I still love like my own blood to this day. I’ve learned that the tangibility of a relationship is almost never proportional to your desire to hold it. This is something only decades can teach.
I’ve had equisite sex with someone I didn’t love at all. And I’ve fallen in love with someone whose allure was never sexual—I would give anything for one more night just to rest side by side, our feet tangled and our clothes still on, the pace of his breath just slow enough in my ear that it might as well have been the ocean. I’ve learned that heartbreak doesn’t have to destroy you, it merely teaches you to learn to let go of things that were never yours to begin with.
I wonder if my father or mother felt these things at my age. I wonder what the enclosure of marriage had taught them that I still do not know. I wonder what the freedoms of my marriageless, childless world has taught me that perhaps they will never understand. I wonder what else might be rote to them now that I still have three decades to learn. And I wonder how we manage to go through our lives never really knowing the people we love most, only understanding their experiences as a likeness to our own.
In the morning my nephew wakes us early, triumphant to the previous night’s boogiemen. His day will be filled with a thousand new invitations to joy and fear in equal measure. Each one of his impulses will be a perfect pearl of truth, and his parents will not judge him for them. They will only love him, only watch over him. Every sharp edge or unguarded stair exaggerates the newness of his life. The adults understand their implicit danger and pain, their power to extinguish, hurt or teach. He will learn these things too, when it’s time.
My sister follows my nephew close as he does toddler laps around the kitchen, and the grown-ups pour coffee, rummage through pantries that are not our own, and eventually settle into the den together: my sister, my brother-in-law, my nephew, Ann’s daughter Emily and her fiancée Joe. Soon my dad and Ann emerge from the master bedroom and slink in like mischievous teenagers to announce their news. We giggle and feign surprise.
I look around the room to scan everyone’s expressions, three generations bound to each other in ways that on their surface seem to contrast the structures of our lives more than mirror. Yet here we are, loving and being loved, though none of us had ever explicitly made the request nor given permission. Here we are, a haphazard room of parents and children, family by blood and by law and by choice, partners and spouses and friends. We have and will make vows, make plans, and make promises. We will break them too. But in our own ways, we have all chosen to believe in their imagined underwriting.
Here we are. My nephew coos into a book with thick cardboard pages. Here we are. My sister gazes at him, tired but amused, worn by motherhood but fierce in her oath to make this boy’s life good. Here we are, hanging our hearts out on laurel branches from thin, silk threads, offering them bravely to one another’s company, and to the whipping wind, as if to say, “I understand what’s at stake to be up here with you.”