“A Road Less Traveled”
by Leslie Shadwick
There are so many proverbs in our culture, and innate to every culture across the globe, that addresses the many hard life lessons we all have to learn in this meandering journey through self-aware existence. Time and time again, we’re told that “time will heal all wounds”. I can recall my grandmother brushing the tears from my damp cheeks and telling me that whatever emotions I had would come to pass. As an adult, I’ve come to find that not all wounds should be just assuaged by preoccupation or shoved into the back of our minds. Some should nursed, like a hot blister in the corner of our mouths, salted, and kept fresh, for it is this that makes ourselves cognizant of ephemerality.
In the mass-media tempest that is intrinsic to the world of today, with the glaring televisions screens flickering well into the early morning hours, and the unremitting connection with the world via cellphones, I’ve had the time to learn much about the people around me. I’ve always been a person that has struggled with social anxiety. As I grew up in a generation of technology, I’ve become accustomed to all of the distractions that the current times have to offer as well as being able to blend into the background because of their presence. I suppose most importantly, my ability to disappear was predicated by the fact that my mother wasn’t present in my life at all.
It isn’t fair to say that she had always been detached from my life, but there had always been the telltale signs of her disinterestedness from anything beyond the scope of her own existence. I can recall the sea of faceless men that came in and out of our lives, most more violent than the last. The late-night sterile glow of empty emergency rooms, her clothes adorned with strands of ruby pearls that tried to hint at me. Like constellations, they pained the picture of the monster she would become, had I only known how to read them. There were so many nights spent awake and fearful, cowering in the bed beside my most recent ‘stepsiblings’ listening to the dull thumps of fists on flesh in the next room… But it hadn’t always been like this, had it?
There were precious memories locked away, memories of summers beneath the hot sun of the cotton farm. Of her lazy feline smile as she lounged back in her sundress, sipping sweet tea from a mason jar, out of preference rather than some attempt to be ironic. There had been Christmases without the shrill yell of her voice when something went wrong, and something always goes wrong now, when she was contented to just be in the presence of her loved ones. When the presents didn’t matter, but the ideal of a family creating cherished memories had not been eclipsed by the shadow of her sickness.
She infected me too. It started as a preference for solitude, which cultivated in a love for literature, and an escape beyond the confines of my harsh reality. My closest of friends became Byron, Keats, Baudelaire, Wordsworth, and Shelley. They offered me a way to slip between the bars and into the golden haze of those summer days, beneath the blossoming bower, when the world was a much more beautifully tragic place. That love in me grew to despair for the bleakness of my own world. I withdrew from my peers and divested myself into an elaborate “fantasy world”. When I was a youth, sitting in the stark faux-home of a psychiatrist’s office, they gave me a name for this listlessness—Avoidant Personality Order, with depressive qualities.
Escape came readily for me, for I need but daydream to be transported to a different existence. From August to June, I spent my days ignoring my mother’s manipulative ploys for attention, the bite of her guilt trips, and all the sins she made against me. For it never failed, when the muggy days of June came, so too came some solace. I was transported to a farmland sanctuary under the guise of visiting my great aunt. I always knew the truth of the matter; my mother had some man she was interested in to go and visit. She would always bring me back a souvenir, a host of new bruises, and a chemically induced glaze to her brown eyes. And yet, I didn’t care, for in those months I was free.
Flora Angeline Worrel, was a name that I would spend many years reflecting upon. She’d worked tirelessly in a munitions factory during the Vietnam War, and her arms to this day had a queer orange stippling to them from the dynamite. She was my grandmother’s sister, late to marry, and a widower before I could ever really form a memory of her husband. She had no children of her own, and so I became as such, and in those cherished summer months I knew what it was to have a maternal figure that loved me more than herself.
Our days were filled with adventures outdoors, and at night I lay in bed listening to the stories she would concoct for me. They were better than any rendition of Macbeth could hope to be. I loved her, in a deep and aching way. She was the life that I wanted for my childhood self. The only semblance of innocence I could ever see within myself was found when spent at her farm. I could be a child, with a limitless sense of wonder, and a sun-kissed optimism.
I owed it to her to be the one that stayed as three men lowered her casket into the ground. It was hidden away in a copper vault, but it was her in there, all the same. I would know the warmth of her presence anywhere, and it lingered here, even in death. I didn’t want her to slip into that darkness without someone who loved her there. Her last moments above the deep dark womb of the earth shouldn’t have been spent with people that did not know her. I would be her sentinel, watching over her, in this last thing. It was all that I could do. I will never forget the finality that rung in the first shovel full of dirt hitting the lid of her vault.
In a culture where our dead are revered only within ourselves, I have made it my sworn promise to her, that she will not be forgotten. My mother’s tears and wailing only lasted as long as the funeral did, and when the eyes were off of her, her mourning stopped. Mine will not, though. Ann will be my nursed wound, which pricks of pain and joy, and I will cherish the memories made with her above all others. In a time when I was lost in the gale of my own suffering, she was my bastion.