Excavation

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After my dad died and my mom’s worsening dementia forced her into a care facility, it fell to my sister and me to clean out their house. When we walked inside, it was like uncovering an intact archaeological site.  My dad’s closet was still filled with his fleece jackets and golf shirts. Inside the pantry, opened bags of potato chips and crackers were sealed with clips. I expected my mom to walk into the kitchen, grab the half-used bottle of Windex from the shelf and clean the table.  It resembled a sudden dash from a cataclysmic event instead of the actual slow, steady progression of age and disease. We felt like trespassers in a home we had known since childhood, invading our parent’s most private spaces. Silently, we filled boxes and garbage bags with the remnants of their lives.  

In the back corner of my dad’s office closet was a sealed box of 8mm film reels labeled with the years 1956 through 1963.  We both froze. We had never seen them, but we knew those reels were of our older brother Dave, who died when he was eight.  

Randi looked horrified.  My heart pounded in my ears.  Fifty years had passed, but we were still two little girls traumatized by our parents’ pain.  

She grimaced and laughed.  “You can take them. You’re the family historian.” 

I considered this. As a child, I had secretly dug through what remained of these years with guilty hunger. And now I had unearthed a long-lost piece. But as always, I questioned my obsession with this part of our family’s past.  I resealed the box and loaded it in my car.  

A year later, the box of reels still sat in my closet.  Every time I looked at the little yellow Kodachrome boxes, I felt that familiar rush of pain and guilt.  My dad had turned all the old family films into DVDs, but he had left these years out. On the box in my dad’s block writing was the word “No!” underlined three times.  These memories were not mine. I had no right to appropriate the grief they held.

 I took the entire box to Costco, filled out the transfer form, and watched the clerk stack it on the shelf behind her.  

I was three and my sister was five when Dave was diagnosed with leukemia. My parents spent a year driving him to Seattle Children’s Hospital for treatment while Randi and I stayed with relatives and friends.  My memories of this year are disjointed clips of a longer movie. 

Dave in the backseat of our white station wagon, his thin legs dangling out the door.

My mom crying to my dad “They’re not doing anything,” while he shushed her.

The station wagon pulling away from the driveway while a faceless woman tried to calm me.  

 One scene played out in full.  

Randi and I were at a neighbor’s house and I was imitating the cat clock on the wall, swishing my bottom back and forth in time to the cat’s tail and moving eyes. My sister and the other kids’ laughed, and I liked their laughter. When my dad arrived, we ran to the door where he was silhouetted against the porch light.

 He didn’t start the car.  He sat in the front seat and stared out the windshield. “I have some bad news.  Dave died tonight.”

My sister put her head on the dash and so I did the same.  I don’t know if she cried. I know I didn’t. I was four, and my head was on the dash because my sister’s was.  

We walked into a kitchen full of women.  My mom was on the phone, supporting herself with her hand on the wall.  I stared at her as my aunt guided me to my bedroom. Her fingernails were painted blood red.

The next scene was in the kitchen again, and I was asking my mom, “Are we moving because that boy died?”

She turned away from me and covered her face. 

 Without context, I created my own story through a four-year-old’s lens.  A boy died and we were moving away.  

Before Dave got sick, my dad received a job promotion and transfer to a new city but the move had been delayed during his treatment.  The station wagon was full of suitcases and boxes, our parakeet in a birdcage and our dog Kelly sprawled out on the seat, but it must have felt empty as we drove down I-90 to the other side of the state.  My mom’s blonde head was in front of me, staring straight ahead out the windshield. When the city of Spokane loomed up from the freeway, my dad turned to my sister and me in the backseat. “This is your new home,” he announced. My mom said nothing.  

Our new home contained no trace of Dave. His clothes and toys were gone and the photo albums were put away in a closed cabinet downstairs.  My dad went to work, my sister went to school, and I spent the next nine months alone with my grieving mom. I have no memories of this time, and the only existing photo is my sister and I with a department store Santa.  I emerged from this anesthetic sleep the same time my dad brought out the camera and took pictures of us at the lake. The photo of my mom, sister and I sitting together on a towel in the sun triggered the smell of our canvas tent and plastic air mattresses, the gritty feel of sand between my toes. The new photos were pasted into new albums and shelved alongside the old ones.  But while other families looked at photos together, mine did not. We stopped telling our story when Dave died.  

We weren’t forbidden from opening the cabinet or talking about Dave, but my sister and I sensed our parents’ fragility.  It terrified us. My dad was largely a silent shadow who left at breakfast and returned for dinner, and my mom managed the house and us with a hypervigilance we understood as fear.  Tragedy was always close at hand, and permanent. Because any mention of Dave caused my mom to crumble, we tiptoed around the past like it was a shameful secret. My brother was a phantom I barely remembered but his death had obliterated our family history.  

I was probably seven or eight when I discovered hidden sites in our home where remnants of Dave existed.  I knew I was invading my parents’ privacy, but the need to see this evidence was more powerful than my guilt.  I dug and pried open everything I could find. I excavated the past as greedily as a grave robber for reasons I didn’t understand but couldn’t control.

I was constantly drawn to the photo albums in the closed cabinet downstairs.   I waited until my mom was vacuuming upstairs and opened the cabinet door like a thief.  If I heard her footsteps on the stairs, I shoved the album back in. The black pages were fragile and held together with gold cord, and I was careful not to tear them.  If one of the photos slipped out of the little white triangle, I knew how to tuck it back inside without bending it. I marveled at how my dad measured and glued the corners to ensure a perfect fit.  He wrote dates but no captions, so I created the story myself.

  October 1956.  Dave wears a baby-size baseball uniform.  

 June 1958.  Dave stands on top of a mound of dirt in the backyard.  He is leaning on a small shovel like a man.  

July 1958. Two pictures side by side in the album show Dave sleeping on the bottom of a wood bunk bed with a bedspread of cowboys and Indians and our dog Kelly curled up at his feet.  In the second picture, Kelly has claimed the pillow and Dave is now curled at her feet. Whoever took this picture thought it was funny. And it is. But there is no one there to smile with me.  

April 1960.  Easter morning, and Dave stands in his bunched up slacks and holds my sister’s hand.  She smiles because she is wearing a white bonnet and black patent leather shoes.  

January 1960. Dave is surrounded by birthday presents and a swaddled baby sleeps in my grandma’s lap.  The baby is me

October 1960.  I clutch a coffee table and cry as I struggle to stand.  In the next picture I have plumped to the floor and am smiling.  

When my dad glued these pictures side by side, he must have laughed.  So I pointed at the first, then the second.  “She cried when she was walking, and smiled when she fell!”  But there was no one there to laugh with me about my first steps.

December 1961.  Christmas photos suddenly bloomed into technicolor.  Mom’s auburn hair and emerald green dress showcased her porcelain neck and arms.  My sister’s blue dress rode up over her skinny legs as she sat in my dad’s lap. Dave looked sideways and I thrust my head forward like a baby chick.  Every photo was alive with energy and movement.  

I was hungry not just for memories, but for my place in them.  I needed to see evidence of a childhood before it was poisoned by pain. So I studied my Christmas dress with lace hem and my black patent leather shoes, the doll I received for my second birthday that was bigger than me.  I admired the matching outfits my mom bought for my sister and me, at how they coordinated with Dave’s slacks and white shirt. I liked how I sat on the floor, with one leg tucked up so my lace hem bunched up over my socks.

 December 1963Dave, Randi and I sit in front of the Christmas tree in our pajamas. We touch our heads together and smile.

I looked for familiar toys under the tree:  Lincoln logs, a curly-haired baby doll in a stroller. My white-blonde hair tousled was from sleep, and I tried to reconstruct how it felt to pad into the living room in my slippers and see the tinseled tree filled with presents. 

There were no pictures between October 1964 and June 1965.  The only picture of myself at five was with the department store Santa.  My sister’s eyes were haunted and she clutched her hands. I looked at the camera calmly.  This was three months after Dave died. Did I know what happened to us?  

Under the stairs was a small storage closet I turned into a reading nook with a bath rug, pillows and lamp.  It was here that I stumbled on an unmarked box buried in the back. The lid wasn’t taped shut, so I eased open the flaps and aimed a flashlight inside.  A small house made of popsicle sticks. A Mother’s Day card with a small child’s scrawl. A clay handprint. A studio portrait of Dave at seven, his hands folded in front of him.  His bright eyes were looking at someone to the side, and his smile was full of laughter. Whenever I was secluded in my private cave, I opened this box and lifted the lid of the popsicle stick house.  Opened the Mother’s Day card. Ran my fingers over the indentation of the little hand. Then placed them back in their precise places, closed the box and slid it back under the stairs. 

My explorations left me shaking with fear and shame.  At four years old, I was so untouched by Dave’s death I referred to him as That Boy Who Died.  But my parents were so devastated by the loss of their child they still couldn’t face it. What right did I have to wallow in the grief they owned, to desecrate a grave they wanted to leave buried?  

On the top shelf of my mom’s bedroom closet were three pastel books with soft nylon covers.  Pink for my sister, white for me, blue for Dave. My dad’s block printing alternated with my mom’s rushed cursive as they took turns recording their lives as parents. 

 My mom wrote, “Randi learned to creep when she was 6 1/2 months old–the beginning of my troubles.” 

 My dad wrote “Randi is about the smartest little thing–by nine months, she could drink out of a straw, eat a popsicle, and fight with Dave over Alpha-Bits.”  

I was more interested in my book, though it had fewer entries. Each sentence provided clues to who I was, and who I might have been.  

“Darcy is the laughingest baby I have ever seen.  She likes everyone and smiles until she can’t smile any wider.  She laughs and laughs–especially at her brother and sister, they are pretty good for babysitting.”  

I liked that I laughed a lot, that I liked strangers, that my brother and sister made me laugh.  

“Darcy is the worst climber yet–we thought Randi was bad at it, but Darcy never stays on the floor.”

 I liked that I was adventurous and brave, that I was willing to climb even if it worried my mom. 

A piece of my blonde hair was taped to a page. I stroked it.

 “A real whitey,” my mom wrote. “And curly, too. Just hope it lasts.”

 There are no entries after 1963.  

I ran my hands over Dave’s blue book.  Most of the pages were filled.  

“At five months Dave sat alone, proud as could be.  So proud, in fact, that he just wanted to sit, sit, and sit.”

  “At eight months David pulled himself up and stood on little wobbly legs–in about a week he was standing against everything.”  

 “In the reading readiness tests, Dave had the highest grade of all the classes, and the only perfect score in the mathematical section.  In fact, the only perfect score they have ever had.  We’re so proud.”

I turned to Dave’s health record with its list of vaccinations and boosters, the dates he got mumps and measles and chickenpox.  My mom wrote the date October 25, 1963, and drew two squiggly lines under the word “Leukemia.”  

“Our fine son is so ill,” she wrote.  “We just pray and pray!!”

The next entry was the last.

“Sept. 20, 1964. Our dear David passed away.  Such a wonderful little boy. Such a short life.”  

The page was cut out, then taped back in. The yellowed tape was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.  I pitied my parents, whose pain was so deep they tried to slice it out with a sharp blade. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the last entry was not written by my parents.  Someone else had recorded Dave’s death. Was it the same person who taped the health record back into his baby book? Someone who believed everything should be preserved? That Dave’s death could not be separated from his life?  

Fifty years later, we needed photos for my dad’s memorial service. My mom was struggling with dementia, so my sister and I opened the cabinet, took out the albums, and turned every page.  Photos were freed from their precise little corners, placed in an envelope and sent to the funeral home. During the service, I held my mom’s hand as the photos faded in and out of the screen.  My dad’s high school graduation photo. My parents’ wedding photo. My dad standing over a high chair, carefully giving Dave his first haircut. As always, the photos were just disconnected shards of our lives. The entire story could only be told by our parents, and they were taking it with them to their graves. 

 The house was the last to go.  I folded my dad’s jeans, and my knees buckled with the grief that was always entwined with their loss.  I imagined my mom going through Dave’s dresser drawers after he died. Did she lift out his pajamas and smell his little boy scent?  Did she open the toy chest and crumble at what was inside? She would have seen the Tinker Toys they gave him for Christmas to help him become an engineer, the Lincoln Logs to help him become a builder. Or did someone else box everything up and send it all away? My mom tried to eliminate these memories, thinking it would eliminate the pain, but their absence magnified it instead. Did my dad rescue those small pieces of Dave and create that box under the stairs?  Did he hope my mom would eventually find joy in Dave’s popsicle stick house, in the card he made her for Mother’s Day? My dad kept his grief boxed up in closets, waiting for the moment they could face it again. 

 The movies came back in slim DVD cases covered with a collage of still photos from the film. I sat at my computer and stared at the cover.  The center photo was of my mom in a sunlit backyard, smiling down at a swaddled baby in her arms. I was stunned. In all my digging, I had never seen these photos.  In another, my dad held the baby and smiled directly at the camera. I was breathless with agony, seeing these strangers.    

My hands shook as I inserted the disk.

My dad flickered to life on the screen, bouncing Dave over his head, laughing towards the person whoever was holding the camera.  The music I’d chosen on the transfer form was a jaunty jazz tune, and I quickly pushed mute. In the silence, I could almost hear the clicking of the projector as the baby nearly flew out of my dad’s arms. I wondered if my mom was filming this, if she was laughing or nervous or both. I had grown up with a mom who was constantly on alert for danger.  This was where the mom I knew would have said, “Ben, be careful.” But my dad kept throwing the baby high and smiling at the person behind the camera. The dad I knew would never worry my mom.  

The next scene was a snowy road and my mom was tying our dog’s leash to Dave’s sled.  He was probably two years old, and his small body was bundled up against the cold. When the dog lunged forward, Dave’s head jolted backward and my mom laughed towards the camera as his sled jostled and careened down the road. She urged Kelly on, laughing and clapping her hands.  

I was seeing my parents as they were before their child died.  They were fearless and optimistic, bouncing their first baby without worry.  They believed a two-year-old should feel the speed and wildness of a dog pulling his sled.  I felt the familiar tightening in my chest at what my family lost. At what I lost.

I made a copy of the DVD and handed it to Randi.  She backed away, hands raised in front of her and shook her head. “I just can’t do it.”

So I watched the movies alone as my parents and Dave moved through his short life.  He splashed in the wading pool, drank water from a hose. He toddled toward the camera with his little smile, reaching out to whoever was recording this moment.   I celebrated these eight years of hope and fearlessness and mourned its loss. And I claimed this grief for myself.

I took a photo out of the album and framed it.

February 1960I am one and can barely sit upright next to Dave on the couch.  My brother is squeezing me and we both are smiling so big we are nearly bursting.  

These remains will have to be enough.  With them, I can tell the story of our lives.