The Empty Nest [story] by Zelda Lockhart

I am a woman who considers herself careful with relationships, but had not considered until recently in my life that careful was an excuse for reclusive.

On weekends, I walked the distance downhill to the rickety weather worn shed, resisting the sharp cold. My wheelbarrow crunched over snow, and I hummed, because I knew that happy people hummed, and I kept telling myself that now my life was my own and I was content. I fetched load after load of wood, pushed it up the hill to my porch. This activity gave me reason never to return to the gym. Why waste the money when there is work to be done here?

I had not been in a relationship outside of my relationship with the UPS guy who faithfully delivered my mail orders, and the cyber relationships with my virtual office mates. There was no one to threaten the rhythm of my days since my daughter moved out. I co-wrote grants for international not-for-profits, directing the staff that I only knew through the tone of their emails, and I never considered that the sound of NPR personalities had become the sound of family inside the empty house.

To the world of my professional contacts I was a woman of means and stature and worldly connections, and I let them believe this, while in reality I sat next to the woodstove in my house in the hills fretting over who to call with the news of my illness. I thought of calling my sister to say hello, or reaching out to my daughter Silas, who had not called over the first three months of graduate school and the first three months of the new boyfriend.

I busied myself with new non-committal loves. This week it was rice crackers. Somehow in my rearing of Silas, I had missed out on the advent of the gluten-free movement, and rice crackers were as good as anything to drive me to obsessed distraction from the messages of my body. Last week my love had been sewing with needle and thread. I made new curtains for my office, curtain’s for Silas’s old room, one stitch at a time, the hard way, until stitching turned to thought and fret again.

At the end of each week I loaded my truck with the trash and recycling and drove the twenty miles to the county dump while my closest rural neighbors paid the county trash service for this, but I claimed the activity kept me close to the land, not wasting money, but generating resources with my own energy.

 

“Don’t throw that bread crust away,” my mother had said when I was a child. The bread crust from the sandwiches of two stick-figure daughters had become stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey, which my mother dropped and scalded her foot with when she heard from the woman at the tackle and game shop that my Papa had not shown up for dinner because he had been sleeping with the bar maid who lived above the barnlike bar that stood in the cold cross breeze of Turkey Ford Road and Turkey Mountain Road.

That day I wrapped the gauze around my mother’s burned foot, I imagined my father’s voice moaning in pleasure in that cold wind that traveled up from the crossroad and whipped around our white clapboard house on the slanted flood zone below the ridge. That winter of the bar maid and the turkey burn, I turned twelve, and my mother rested her chin on the twelve-gage shotgun and left two stick figure daughter’s bereft.

Social services arranged a funeral and the empty body that was my mother lay there in the casket with the embarrassment of fully opened black eyes that the mortician forgot to sew shut. The sunken space in my mother’s face warned me to never love as deeply as I loved my father who disappeared just before the funeral. Never love that deeply and never cook turkey for Thanksgiving. To assure against the consequences of either, I did not form close bonds outside of the one with my daughter, and I did not celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas citing all of those who did celebrate as being emotionally and spiritually deficient.

And sex was not love. Six times in my life I had sex, never in my own house, never with anyone who knew where I lived – untraceable, unlovable sex to release the pressure. One of my one-night stands was at a conference where I came face to face with the members of a not-for-profit that owned a sanctuary for wild cats. I had been responsible for securing funding that allowed the sanctuary to purchase the adjoining three hundred acres of land. I arrived in time to sign-in, get my packet, and take my things to my room where I conveniently left my nametag. This forgotten thing meant no one knew who I was, and I remained seated when I was thanked at the dinner by Corbin Thibodeau, the grey haired man with a boyish face and haunting grey eyes, eyes that remained closed above me that night when the two of us rode in and out of pleasure until the first sign of daylight shown through the small part in the hotel drapes, and I retreated into anonymity.

Silas was told that her father was a man who unfortunately wished no connection with her after the one night, a man who I never knew again. The truth, I thought, was just recycling of bad memories, and should always be suppressed, unless suppression conflicted with survival. The truth was that I had successfully eluded the man and somewhere in the twenty-two years of Silas’ upbringing, he lost the scent or lost the energy to continue pursuit.

 

Something shifted for me when my child went off to college in Hawaii and left me in the North Carolina Mountains. Silas had created what little there was of my community, PTA, track practice, Girl Scouts.

Before Silas left for college she changed the ring tone on my phone to a toilet flushing. Something I did not appreciate, or find funny. Her humor never matched mine, and I lacked the inclination or technical expertise to change even the ringtone. I sat in front of the fire, secretly lonely.

I remembered the days where I climbed the ridge with Silas to find the dry-snap pieces of wood that could make good kindling, and I remembered Silas there at four years old, before her body was long with assurance and the slow departure from my intentions. At four years old, Silas’ squat body was still round with the blood from my body, still an extension of her mother’s movements; my child-soul walking in the space just outside of my womb. In the dry browns and grays of the woods we snapped the twigs and tossed them into the green Tupperware bucket, the only thing to remind us of summer against the dusty brown hues of winter camouflage.

By the time Silas was nine years old, she was much more efficient at snapping the twigs as an outlet for the rage a preteen cannot place. Despite her request for distance, I walked near insisting that Silas’ brown coat with fur collar could easily be mistaken by the hunter’s eye for doe or buck. I walked in close tandem wearing my red hoody synchronized with my child’s movements, but Silas knew that her mother’s movements were those of a woman stricken by the rules of her own shortcomings.

“I cannot breathe,” Silas often told me, turning to me with the eyes of my own mother’s, dead onyx eyes. Only my child could see the truth of my homemade prison of loneliness. As soon as Silas was able, she sought the world her mother could not give her, and my only companion was gone, and now, I did not have a recipient for the difficult news.

I sat in the quiet of my home with a packet of forms for exploratory surgery. The forms asked for a primary. “Who,” I asked myself, “is my primary?” and the question fell blunt against the cast iron of the woodstove, and the log and mortar of my modern log-cabin walls.

I listened to NPR, and gained temporary solace from the woman’s story; she was an oncologist, but was ironically diagnosed with cancer that spread throughout her body. One day this woman decided to stop trying to solve the puzzle of how to stay, just went on a boat and sailed the world on adventures with her husband. It was ten years later that this woman told her story, and her life was more enriched than before the threat of death; the will to stay prevailing.

“But,” I told myself, “that woman had someone.” Having someone for me meant getting past the breaker waves of connection, staying in the presence of relationship-fear long enough that illusions fade and leave the truth of what I can have with a lover. It meant having the heart to swim out, and over difficulties, until I could get to the peace of untroubled waters, but I preferred safety where I stood on the shore of my own life, alone.

I wondered how this could be; I had always sought adventure, had hoped always for a life lived fully without fear or imprisonment of the mind. Over the years I took Silas on any adventure that my means afforded, the Sea Islands with tent and bug repellant, where we walked far into the swamp to see the alligators that were not caged but in their natural environment. We ventured to the desserts of Arizona, and found the hikes that were so barren that the outpost ranger wept when we arrived in 120 degrees ready to see the landscape that no other hikers would traverse. There we saw the rattlesnake, roadrunner, and stood inside the fossilized carved temples, domed like a palm to hold the cave dwellers and saw the infinite spirals carved into rock by the people who we evolved from.

These had been adventures of the body without adventures of the heart, and so, at my next appointment just like at my first appointment, I was alone. They scoped and gently scraped the cavernous walls of my uterus seeking cells to tell the history of disease there. I reread inside my mind the anonymous internet blogger’s writing that if they find what they think they will then a hysterectomy and a hearty round of chemo is best, and I worked hard to focus on the photo of evergreen trees on the ceiling, trying to imagine a healthy forest inside my womb.

 

Quiet in my living room, I whispered somewhere in the haze of my thoughts that I would never leave my daughter, never leave her with the choppy sea of grief that some do not heal from, do not ever swim past, but I held the diagnosis in one hand and faith in the human will to stay in the other. My own mother had left, because of the pains she could not undo in her life. What spells can I undo? I wondered, and in the vulnerable warmth of my living room, I began to search my mind for the things I had not faced.

I thought again about the NPR woman’s story; the woman said it was her faith in living, her desire to live openly and freely that saved her, that she had put her body in synch with her spirit.

It was in that moment that my proclamation of having no regrets, no one but Silas to answer to stuck. If I died, Silas would be alone. There would be no palms to hold Silas’ grief. “If I die,” I whispered into the silence, “I will do to Silas what my mother did to me.”

I decided that I would try to do like the woman and free myself, focus on the truth, but each time I thought I conjured up the truth, I ended up with murky constructs that I was fairly sure were not truths: Silas’ father did not want connection, that I did not like or admire any human, that holidays were a result of spiritual immaturity.

I tried thoughts of faith; What did my mother believe in? I questioned. I did not ever remember going to church until my foster parents, a family in the next town over took me. First I remembered one song. Walk with me Lord, then I remembered words of songs promising eternity at a church so much like the one where my mother’s funeral had been held. Walk with me, I sang those Sundays of my childhood beneath the Southern Baptist stained glass colors where I stood seeking understanding of the world and understanding of where my spirit hailed from. Walk with me, I sang before fully letting go of the idea of loving anyone, my eyes on the place where horizontal and vertical intersected to make the sacrifice of the cross.

“Take me with you, Mom,” I often whispered through the lines of the song once the other voices had risen above the tactile of the body and the church bench, once they all sang loud enough that thought was no longer the function of the brain and praise took over, then I whispered, “Mom, take me with you.” I listened between the sounds around me, “Mom, take me with you,” but my mother never returned through the secret passage way of the pulpit floor where caskets like hers sat eye level at least once a month. She did not come back through the rabbit-hole structure of engineered religion that led to where ever she had gone after the day that the coroner helped clean up the bed, the color red more brilliant than rubies.

 

I tried to erase the thoughts from my mind. I went to the kitchen for tea. The sun was setting over the treetops, puffs of clouds made one purple layer over pink sky. I blanked out the thoughts that hollered like banshees in front of the locker of my heart. Focus on the sunset, I told herself, but it was so beautiful and distracting that I did something that I had not done since I was twelve year old. I cried: for every lie I ever told myself in an attempt to protect myself, I cried long into the night damning myself for doing this to myself, cried long enough to forgive herself, cried until morning came.

The woodstove was cold iron in the corner, and the mist hung sweet outside the window, the dark wood of my home framing the purple haze of a new day.

I told myself not to begin thinking, but to keep feeling, and without thinking, I bundled up in down jacket, boots, and stuffed the essentials of wallet and cell phone into my pocket. I went out into the colorless light of dawn, got into my blue truck and drove the space between my house in Boone to the Elkin, NC. Inside the geography of my heart there had been thousands of miles between me and this place, but it was only an hour drive. When I arrived at the white clapboard house on the slanted flood zone below the ridge, I got out of the truck in the gray of a day so much like the day my mother left, and aside from the vines, the smaller reality of every slightly worn thing, and the rusted chain of the porch swing, the house was the same, empty.

I stood there, with the fog from my warm breath blurring my sight, and I waited for the panic attach or heart failure that I always imagined would cripple me, but there was nothing more deadly than the memories I carried with me. The house was just a shell where no demons resided; it just sat there undoing the lie I had constructed.

I sat down in the icy dead weeds, with my back against my truck feeling the full weight of my adult body, the length of my woman’s back, the pull forward of breasts that fed Silas, the mother who had nourished life the way my mother had. “Poor baby”, I whispered, for my mother’s misguided coping. “Poor baby”, I whispered from an understanding of what was required for my mother to raise two children with a locker filled with demons sitting at the foot her bed. I glanced up at the window through which my mother’s spirit departed after the crack of riffle fire and explosion of bone and blood. “Poor baby,” I prayed again, and got back into my truck.

I did not go back to my house, but went to the woods, just beyond my house, sat on the rise of earth where Silas and I once sat eating cheese and crackers in the space where the spring sun broke through the buds and offered warmth. I scrolled to the “S” in my contacts and left the message of the diagnosed truth for my only child.

Late into the depth of that lonely night I heard the toilet flush on the table beside my bed.

“Mom,” was all Silas said in that voice that always whispered when Silas was trying to avoid tears.

After several minutes of embracing over the silence, Silas added the unexpected confession, “I found him.”

Before I could stop the stumbling rhythm of my heart, gloved knuckles gently knocked on the door. I had not heard steps on the porch but knew who it was when I realized that the few words spoken on the phone had been spoken in stereo, inside and outside the house.

 

I held one hand on the doorframe, one hand on the door before opening it, and there the two travelers stood, daughter and father, their gray eyes holding them in the space of familiar.

I stepped back into the house, and Silas stepped inside to embrace the strong, broad, structure of her mother.

 

There is the color green thick in the trees, the air filled with the smell of cold water over rocks and I can’t breathe overwhelmed with the moment. There is the smell of fur pine, cedar bark moistened by waterfall mist where Corbin’s and Silas’ shadows extend from the path, up the slate walls of the gorge.

Father and daughter climb ahead of me, and I tell myself to breath, and there is the milky smell of my mother’s breath next to my own breath, the milky smell of Silas’ breath on my strong neck, the smell of Corbin’s breath inhaling my own breath on that night at the conference thirty-two years ago when the rhythm of a body expressing love for me sent me screaming off into the silence of sunrise.

Here, on the exposed walls of the gorge, our faces are open with expression, and it has been ten years since the threat of death; the will to stay, prevailing.

 

 Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of David Simpson’s poem “Life Guard.”]

Image by Alex Lockhart

Zelda Lockhart is the director of LaVenson Press Studios: Inspiring Women to Self-Define Through Writing & Publishing and is the award-winning author of the novels Fifth Born, Cold Running Creek and Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle. Lockhart was awarded the Piedmont Laureate for Literature in North Carolina, a Barnes & Noble Discovery Award, and was finalist for both a Hurston Wright Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Lockhart is recognized nationally and abroad as an inspiring public speaker. She lives in Hillsborough on the 3.5 acres of land that she recently converted into LaVenson Press Studios, which offers a series of workshops, hosts a literary magazine, and feeds participants from its organic garden. Read more at www.zeldalockhart.com.

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