Lessons in Disaster by Melissa Stephenson

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close up of richter scale reading - lines showing tremors, like a heart monitor almost; photo by FrankGuido

It was fractions in fifth grade when the principal interrupted class, pulling our teacher, Mrs. Dolk, aside to whisper in her ear. Her lungs deflated, right hand magnetized to her heart, indicating something big had happened. Nothing big had happened in my life so far. (Indiana was not big, my house was not big, my dog was not big, my family was not big, my room was not big, my body was not big, and my heart, most times, felt like a white-knuckled knot inside my chest.)

When Mrs. Dolk left with the principal, I rolled spitballs at light speed, launching them to the far corners of the room, striking innocents until she returned with a television cart. Two other teachers and their classes joined us, and we all sat on the floor in the half-dark of a January day, legs crossed Indian-style as the news flickered on.

The room went silent as we watched the Space Shuttle Challenger rise into the sky and explode. They showed it again and again, as if some answer lay buried in that image. Rise rise rise, boom. Rise rise rise . . .

My best friend Mandy Reed began to whimper but Mrs. Dolk didn’t notice. We all knew there was a teacher on board, and that Mrs. Dolk had applied to be that teacher. We all knew the teacher’s name, Christa McCauliffe, and that she was a mother with brown, curly hair and a smile like a lighthouse.

Eventually my eyes moved from the television to Mrs. Dolk with her spiky blond hair, taut cankles, and bejeweled sweater. She was my favorite teacher, and I was careful to mention Stephen King books and grown-up movies around her so she understood that we could pretty much be best friends. Mrs. Dolk stared at the television, two fingers pressed to her lips as her head moved reflexively back and forth in a long, slow no. Tears rolled down her face, dampening her turtleneck, as if something inside her were melting. She was thinking, I thought, of the shuttle woman’s children, of her own children, thinking that it could have been her up there, blown apart two miles above Florida.

At home that night, I sat in front of my mirror dreaming about those dead people, the moment fire ate their oxygen and their cells ripped apart, souls hurtling toward the cosmos. (Someone once told me that when people die, they become stars.) I imagined the space teacher’s body parts—a finger, cheek, or rib—drifting up on some foreign shore. Or maybe the cockpit made it back to earth intact and was out there still, riding the gulf waves, orphaned hands inside space gloves, pointing the way home. I thought about it until my fingers pressed to my lips and my own tears began to form. I slowed my breathing to get my face just right: not crimped up in anger like my usual childish tears, but slack and surrendered, just like Mrs. Dolk.

I didn’t yet know if the thing I felt was empathy, sympathy, or some dark matter that mimicked it. How long does it take before practice becomes the real deal? Is it like fractions? You don’t get it don’t get it don’t get it then BAM—there it is?

Rise rise rise, BOOM.

Mrs. Dolk knew I’d wanted to be an astronaut. Later that winter I would even spent a whole week at Space Camp. But more than anything I wanted to be Big, to launch words and emotions past all stars.

“It could have been me,” I whispered to my grief-torn face in the mirror, dreaming myself not an astronaut exploded but a loved one left behind.

“It could have been me.”

But it wasn’t. Yet.

Almost fifteen years later, on August 6th of 2000, I was twenty-five, a newlywed, and had just moved to Texas to start graduate school. I’d lived a steady life of moderate achievement, my few close calls with danger born out of my own restlessness and curiosity.

That night, the phone rang and my father delivered the news that severed my life in two. My older brother and only sibling had shot himself in the head. Dead.

My memories immediately sorted themselves into one of two categories: before or after. That thing that lives inside of me, inside each of us, that thing that is us, unseen, sustained the kind of damage a head-on collision would have inflicted on my body. But there I was, alive. A survivor.

In the bathroom mirror that night, the face of some dark doppelganger stared back at me. A red-eyed intruder who was almost me. The new me?

In the morning, I flew to Georgia, where my brother had lived, to say goodbye. His body lay on a stretcher, face intact, head wrapped in gauze and propped on an ice pack. It didn’t occur to me to be angry with him. We were both genetically prone to the blues, and I knew it could have been me there if the perfect wrong thing had happened on an already bad day.

Back in Texas I discovered my secondary loss: how the word suicide could clear a room. My grief, it turned out, was not a badge of honor but a toxic happening. A disease. One mention, suicide, and my audience abandoned ship, leaving me alone, like a kid in a corner contemplating a bad deed.

I began to wonder: Had I brought this on myself, on him, when, as a child, I’d co-opted the grief of others as performance? What is the difference, after all, between imitation and invitation? Invocation?

I spent the next year obsessed with the mechanical failure of my brother the way, as a kid, I’d imagined the bodies of those astronauts blown apart—sailing back to the Atlantic like pieces of some puzzle God broke.

Though I hadn’t seen it, I thought about the black hole where the bullet crashed in, traveling through his Universe, all language and memories gone supernova. I imagined the bullet exiting, trailing shrapnel of scalp and skull and gray matter, like a comet in flight.

The image of his head came to me at the most inopportune times: when attempting to speak in my graduate literature seminar, while thanking a cashier, during sex, in the middle of dreams, while wrapping presents, or making soup. It came to me often while teaching my very first freshman composition class, short-circuiting all thought as I stood in front of twenty freshmen with my mouth hanging open.

Thesis: Here is where the bullet went in, behind the right ear, and here, at the left temple, is where my brother came out.

Conclusion: My brother is no longer a body but a star.

I slogged through a year of hidden grief until one Tuesday morning in September we turned on the television, as usual, and crawled back in bed to watch the news while sipping coffee. Not usual was the smoking tower behind Katie Couric. Also not usual was the second plane, smashing into the other tower, live on screen behind her—her reaction delayed as she awaited confirmation through her ear bud. Yes, it had happened. What you just saw happened.

What is that, I asked my husband, walking right up to the TV and pointing to the tiny specs, small as spilled pepper, falling from a tower.

I think those are people, he said.

He was right. That’s what was happening.

Falling, falling, falling, ______.

I latched on to those people swan diving towards concrete. Oblivion. People who had been. Were not. Now gone. For months I used that horrific image to replace the picture of my brother’s head when it appeared—easier to witness the shocking deaths of strangers than to wrap my brain around his.

On September 12th,, 2001—a year, one month, and six days after my brother’s death— I discovered that I could say it out loud—suicide—and no one would mind much. We were a community grieving, and so I belonged.

Another decade down the road, on a Monday in January of 2010, my father called to say that he was following an ambulance to Indianapolis, where my mother would undergo emergency brain surgery. She had fallen at home several times over the weekend.

It looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to her head, he said.

I was a mother myself by then—home in Texas, watching my son play Legos as I nursed my daughter.

After the weekend falls, my mother had gone into work at the high school where she passed out in her office, taking a file cabinet to the forehead on her way down. A co-worker found her unconscious in a pool of blood before the first bell rang.

This kind of wound, I soon found out, is called an ARI—an alcohol-related injury.

At the hospital, my dad gave the surgeon permission to remove a wedge of my mother’s skull.

Afterwards, I flew up to help her for a few weeks, and we sat in the living room of the house I’d grown up in watching news footage of a devastating earthquake in Haiti. As the cameras zoomed in on piles of rubble, I told my mother to please, please, please stop scratching with her long fingernails the twenty-three staples holding her head together. I still try to un-hear the sound of those nails on shaved scalp and fresh wound when I think of that earthquake, all those people in Haiti, and us in Indiana, watching, scratching, not talking about why she fell.

Drink drink drink BOOM.

She fell because there wasn’t enough her left in her to hold her up, and I wish I had some wisdom about that. I wish I knew what to say, but the truest thing I can tell you is that whenever I looked at my mother, I looked away, because the sight of her tapped in me a root so dark I couldn’t see it: That could be me.

By the end of her first week home, my mother’s head began to droop and ooze on the side with the C-shaped incision. A nurse-friend came by, declared it infected, and showed me how to do wound-care. In the bathroom I drained my mother’s head by softly pressing the skin on either side of the incision until fluid came out of a small hole between staples. The liquid was not red but mauve—one of her favorite hues for home décor in the ‘80s, which made me laugh. Laugh. I caught my mother’s eye in the bathroom mirror as we both heard the chuckle escape me, and I shuddered at the awful sight of us. I attempted to mold my reflection back in to some form of normal as I dipped a Q-tip in alcohol and inserted it in the loose spot between staples where, we guessed, the germs had gotten in.

I don’t feel a thing, my mother said. Not a thing.

We went back to watching TV, and again I told her please about the nails. She stumbled to the closet for a not-so-secret drink while I held my daughter on the couch, my son excited over trucks and excavators on the news. I let myself imagine the bodies below the rubble in Haiti, some still alive, and my breath ran shallow. I thought of my children’s bodies, and my mother’s body—vacated but not gone.

2010 would bring more disaster—deadly quakes in Chile, Turkey, China, and Indonesia—a seismic year of historic proportions, not to mention a fatal heat wave in Russia, and floods in Pakistan. The earth is shaking us off like ants, a man said on the news, and I thought of those bodies falling back in New York City. Like ants.

Soon, the people of Haiti would run out of air, and my mother’s one brain surgery would spiral into five because the drinking would feed the infection that would keep her from healing.

But not me. The knowledge emerged complete, like the answer to an equation buried in my brain for the past twenty-five years—BAM. There it was: He and she weren’t me.

It was a thing I’d known, a thing I’d felt, since I wore white bobby socks and Keds, adored Mrs. Dolk, and fought my way from Indiana to Space Camp: that if I reached up hard through the muck, I’d find air.

melissa stephensonMelissa Stephenson’s writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA, and Fourth Genre. Her memoir, Driven, was released Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July of 2018. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/FrankGuido

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