I didn’t plan to visit my old house. Odd circumstances brought me there. Our friend’s mother died, and her funeral took us surprisingly near my childhood hometown. A quick phone search informed me that we were just ten minutes from Oyster Bay. So, after the funeral, we took a drive.
My old white house was now an attractive gray and sat atop a small hill. Workmen strode all over, carrying out siding, installing new windows. An ancient bathtub sank unceremoniously onto the tiny lawn. The tub was retro autumn gold on the inside, with peeling green paint on the outside.
“Did you ever take baths in this house?” my husband inquired.
“I don’t remember.”
“Because, if you did, you took them right in that tub. It’s at least 50 years old.” But I didn’t remember the gold/green tub. I didn’t remember taking baths there. I didn’t remember the house being perched on a hill. I didn’t seem to remember much at all.
I stood on the sidewalk and snapped a photo. An older man strode down the driveway toward us. He smiled, his dark black hair shining in the sunlight.
“Go talk to him,” said Doug. “Maybe he will let us into the house.”
“Hello!” I called out.
“Hello” he responded, with a Spanish accent.
“I used to live here, many years ago when I was a child. Is there any way I could go inside?”
The man hesitated for a second. “Yes,” he nodded, escorting us into the yard.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I muttered, approaching the backdoor.
My husband Doug and I stepped carefully into the house. Stacks of debris were strewn everywhere. The sad-looking kitchen was stripped bare, all the appliances were gone, stained walls all around. But the layout was the same, and my feet trod on the same wooden floors, worn, dull, and scuffed.
I stepped carefully through the stripped-down kitchen, skirting a large junk pile. The dining room seemed smaller than I remembered, with heaps of wood and plaster on the floor. Then I walked into the living room, and immediately felt tears welling up. Forty-four years melted away; I saw everything, just as it happened.
It was an October Sunday late afternoon. The autumn sun had faded into dusk. I lounged on a tasseled pillow on the living room rug, facing the stereo. I wore heavy black headphones and listened to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. It was one of my brother Marc’s favorite albums; he had left it with me when he returned to college the month before. (I hadn’t yet noticed how unusual that was. Marc never left his prized albums behind.)
I don’t know what I was wearing, probably ripped jeans and a Beatles tee shirt. I was 14, pretty enough for a severely burned girl who refused to wear makeup (because makeup was fake, and I was a true hippy). Picture me with brown thick curly hair, flowing abundantly down my back. “Go Ask Alice” was playing, with its ominous military drumbeat. It sounded creepy, foreboding, but I liked it if only because my brother liked it.
Then I heard something odd.
I turned around and saw my mother. She stood at the kitchen wall phone, leaning into the hallway. She had screamed. That was the odd sound I heard dimly through my headphones, the sound of my mother screaming. But my mother was a calm woman, not a screamer. I stripped off my headphones and looked at her, my face furrowed. Her eyes were wild, her face a mask of fear. Silently, she mouthed the word, “Marc.”
I raced upstairs to my mother’s room, where there was another house phone. I grabbed the receiver, my heart pounding. No one said a word. Silence hung in the air for one last blessed second, one last second of hope.
Then, in a shaky voice, my mother asked, “Is he dead?”
And the man on the other end of the phone said simply, “Yes.”
All that had happened in this house, this same debris-strewn house in which I now stood, 44 years later. Returning to this house made my stomach clench and my chest tighten. Every part of me ached in a torrent of grief. So why would I want to go back here?
I had to tell my story again.
We all must make sense of our trauma. Terrible things happen in life, unexpected tragedies befall us. At first, we just try to survive, doing our best to sleep, to eat, to simply breathe. Eventually we find some version of normality, returning to our jobs, picking up the pieces. But at some point, there is deep work to be done, the work of integration, the work of meaning-making.
Where did it happen? Why did it happen? How did it feel? What did I do or not do? Who said what? How did it change me? For good or for ill? To fully heal, we must wrestle with all these questions. It’s not enough to simply survive tragedy. Sooner or later, we must make sense of it.
Our traumatized brains scramble for a coherent narrative, a story to connect all the disparate pieces. Frequently, the first story we construct is toxic.
“It was my fault.”
“It happened because I’m bad.”
These are the stories I battle when I conduct psychotherapy, fighting against a client’s tendency to make the story hinge on their failures, their imagined unworthiness. Often, the job of therapy is to help clients weave new stories which are not self-destructive, stories which allow clients to go on.
“It’s my fault.” A client might say, voice shaking.
“Are you sure? What did you know at the time?”
“I should have known.”
“Really? Weren’t you just 15 years old when this happened?
“Would a 15-year-old know better? Your own daughter is almost 15 now. Do you think she would have known better? And if she didn’t, would you blame her?
“No! She’s just a girl.”
“Right. And so were you. Was it really your fault?”
“Hmm. Hmm. I never thought of it that way before. Well… maybe not?”
So then, what’s my story? How do I make sense of this tragic Sunday afternoon, 44 years ago?
This was the moment I grew up, the moment when I realized I was on my own. This was the moment when I set off like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, traveling my own yellow brick road, heading into the black woods with a tiny basket (or, in my case, an army green backpack). Like Dorothy, I was too young to be alone in the world. But, unlike Dorothy, I wasn’t trying to get home again. My home was shattered. I looked to build a new home, a new family, a new life.
“On your own?” you might be thinking. “Wasn’t your mother there? And your dad?”
Yes and no. My mother was… there. But she no longer functioned as a mother. She was a 44 year old psychologist who required her 14-year-old daughter to make her life better, not the other way around. I did my best. She did not comfort me; I comforted her. She wept, I consoled, but she was hysterical. Realizing the job exceeded my adolescent capabilities, I telephoned Rhoda, my mother’s best friend. I explained that Marc was dead, and asked her to come over immediately. That was my phone call to take care of my mother.
Since my parents’ divorce, my father lived hours away. I knew my father was angry with my mother, and her voice only brought him pain. So, it was I who called my dad, to tell him that his son was dead. I figured the terrible news would come a little more easily from me. He yelled at me when I told him about Marc’s suicide. In his shock, my father kept shouting, “No! No! You are wrong! I just talked to him!” I stayed on the phone until he calmed down, transitioning from yelling to weeping to resignation.
Once I made these awful phone calls, the one for my mother and the one for my father, it was my turn. I called my friend Karen, who lived 10 minutes away. “Marc is dead. He killed himself.” I cried into the phone, collapsing into a heap on the hallway floor. It finally felt safe to collapse, now that my friend was coming. I remember clutching myself, my arms wrapped around my chest, gasping for breath.
Karen ran all the way to my house.
This tragic moment, the one I relived in this tiny forsaken house, this is the moment I set off on my own journey, unmoored from the safety of family. I traveled my own land of Oz. I didn’t meet a Tin Man, a Scarecrow or a Cowardly Lion. But I did make friends, friends with unexpected gifts, friends who sang and danced with me, friends who still walk with me decades later. ( I saw Karen just last week. 44 years later, we continue to walk life's road together.)
In the end, my story is that tragedies happen, and beloved people leave us. But if we go on, bravely traveling our path, we can still create love, meaning, and purpose.
Life is so often a challenge. Losses beset us randomly, senselessly. Somehow, still, we must construct our coherent narrative. This is the job of psychotherapy, of art, of theater, of writing, of faith, of connection, of life itself. This is the task we face as we age, the ability to look back and say, “This was my life. This is how it happened, this is why it happened, and this is what I learned.” We make meaning. Hopefully, we make meaning infused with compassion, wisdom, and acceptance.
We go on, we look back, we take stock. We revisit our old houses, sifting through the debris, seeking elusive meaning in the plaster, the dirt and the dust.
And then, shoulders squared, facing forward, we keep going.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.