I love the Kentucky summer. There’s something about the heat and humidity that puts you in another world. Soaks into your skin until it permeates your brain. Makes everything feel distant yet deep inside of you at the same time.
Despite my love for the summer weather, I certainly don’t love my hometown. Good ol’ Mt. Washington just feels so backwards and boring to me. It’s kind of sad, too. I mean, Main Street boasts a Dairy Queen, a church and a carwash, a handful of shuttered businesses, and the charred remnants of a junk store that turned out to be a meth lab (it exploded).
This truth-telling makes me feel guilty, like I’m a mean city girl who’s turned my back on my own people. But I haven’t, I swear. Besides, I know they all think I’m crazy for moving to Brooklyn. And that’s fine with me. We don’t have to understand each other’s choices.
The thing is, I never liked it here. Even though there are parts of my hometown that I desperately love, I always felt out of sorts, like I was just born in the wrong place. There’s something that will forever feel bizarre about cleaving my life the way I did when I moved to the Northeast.
Yet today, as I looked out my car window at this strange hometown of mine, I actually saw some happiness. I’ve been looking out of my car window as a transplant for 13 years now, and it took me this long to realize that I always see so much sadness in my town because I look out and see my own sadness. That doesn’t mean there isn’t sadness here; people are bored, depressed, underworked and underpaid. Farmers have lost their livelihoods. Generic yet uniquely American strip malls have sprung up on the land that once meant everything to them. High school kids are on meth and heroin, they’re missing teeth, they eat bad food every day. But there are also high school kids smiling while they do tricks on their bikes and skateboards. There are contented parents sitting around the public pool while their kids squeal in the water. There are athletes running alongside the highway, sweating and glistening and gritting their teeth in that satisfied way the insanely athletic do. There are dogs and beers and lanky legs propped up on lawn chairs. There are vibrantly red cardinals flitting from one gorgeous tree to another over proud men mowing lawns with their shirts off. There are heavily accented, ridiculously friendly conversations in grocery store lines about butter. There are familiar faces waving and saying hello. There are swing sets and grills and the smell of damn good meat in the air.
It finally occurred to me today that when I look out at these pleasant markers of small town life, I don’t see them for what they are. Instead, they remind me of my own traumatic history, of my lanky legs with their hand-carved scars, of the childhood home the bank took away, of my mother, who is gone, who, in many ways, felt gone even when she was still here.
We have a choice about how we tell our stories, and I realized today that I’ve been telling myself a story of sadness, a story that started well enough with a cute little family full of love and happiness, but then mental illness and tragedy shattered it all. But wait! The young daughter made a swift exit, a getaway to a greater, more sophisticated place where she actually belonged, and she was saved! Phew!
Now that I can finally stare the sadness of my past in its face without disguising it as the sadness of this town, I can see how simple this version is. Even during those difficult years, we had happiness. My family’s story is not just about our tragic woes. It’s also about a writer discovering the importance of her creativity, the same creativity her mother shared and sparked and encouraged. It’s about a father who made his kids laugh at the darkest aspects of life. It’s about a brother and sister who gained strength from one another and grew into happy, healthy, big-hearted adults with kids of their own. It’s about four people who loved each other so much that, despite the angst they evoked in one another, figured out how to get to place of understanding and peace. It’s about a family that succeeded in the face of trauma.
I don’t need to feel sad and guilty about the fact that I am living my dream life in the greatest city in the world. I don’t need to look at my history and feel an uncanny confusion about who I was then versus who I am now. I know exactly how I got here, and it wasn’t on a trail of tears. I can let go of that guilt; it’s okay to dislike my hometown. It’s okay to see and feel sadness when I’m here. But it’s also okay to see and feel beauty and joy when I’m here. Perhaps I was rejecting or turning on a part of myself – the happy part of my teenage years – and now this guilt is fading because I’m finally embracing them while also giving myself permission to be who I am.
These thoughts about home are all a valuable yet also long-winded way to avoid writing about my father’s cancer. Yep, that’s right. We (my husband, baby, dogs, and I) are here in Mt. Washington right now because my dad was just diagnosed with cancer. We’re here to see him and hug him and go to an oncologist appointment with him. We’re here to cook and freeze food so he’ll have easy options in case he needs treatment. We’re here to empty boxes that still remain from his recent move, to organize cabinets and put things away because he gets anxious when they are not and in turn feels peaceful when they are.
We are also here to distract him. Or rather, to listen to him. My dad is a talker and addresses all subjects head on. It’s a thing that I love and admire about him but that also drives me mad. We’ve discussed mindfulness and acupuncture and racism and gardening and too many other things to list. I feel a bit selfish and dramatic, sitting out on the balcony alone, ruminating about my mother’s death and our family’s rocky past, but his cancer has made the pain of my life feel fresh again and I needed a break. But instead, I’m out here freaking out over the fact that my dad is going to die. Maybe not right now, maybe not even from this cancer – the doctor said it is slow spreading – but good god, he’s going to die at some point and then I’m going to be an orphan, and that’s just how things are.
I keep finding myself in these thought loops about what should or is supposed to be, and it’s a terrible and wrong thought loop to be in as nothing really should or is supposed to be, but come on, Dad should get more time than this after caring for my mom for so long and giving up so much. He’s 64, strong and otherwise healthy, smart, fun, funny, handsome. He should have a second wife, a second life. Instead, he gets cancer. And maybe this diagnosis and a second life aren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe he doesn’t even want a second life. It’s just that I keep thinking about a future filled with dead people, grief and loneliness, and then I sink into a deep dark hole and wonder if this is what my mom, who lost her father when she was eight and then spiraled into mental illness from there, felt like all the time.
Good grief Becky, you need to climb out of this hole. This hole is in your head. You made it up. You are not in a hole but in fact on a balcony with a laptop and a beautiful sunset, waiting for your vibrant, very much alive chatterbox of a father to return from the store where he ran off in his pickup truck to buy a salad to accompany the pizza your gorgeous husband is cooking for dinner while your beautiful baby boy sleeps peacefully, guarded by your devoted dogs resting dutifully outside his door. You are here, rooted in a wonderful reality, surrounded by so much life.
“Hey Beck, there’s a light up there behind your head if you want me to turn it on for ya.”
I was so lost in my head that I didn’t see my father drive into the parking lot or walk up the stairs. As I stare at him now, I’m struck by how he is so much like himself, so outwardly unchanged despite the deformed cells changing him on the inside. I wonder what it feels like to have your own body turn against you like that…
No. Ruminating can be a dangerous thing. It is time to rejoin my reality.
Writer’s note: The oncologist reported that Dad’s cancer, CLL, was caught so early and is so slow-spreading that he does not need treatment and will not feel the effects of it for a long, long time.