1. I was six years old when I became aware that death was something that would happen to me. I was in the car with my mom, in the backseat because she followed the rules, and we were on our way home from the grocery store. We were driving down Turk Hill Road, and it was steep, and the trees on the side of the road were prickly evergreens, and I thought, One day I will die, and there will be nothing after that. Then I spent time trying to think through what the nothing would be. Nothing. Blank. Blackness. A void. An unmoving field. That part was the hardest, because I wanted there to be something, like a surprise cotton-candy machine or a Rainbow Brite doll.
2. I still don’t understand why I didn’t have to take math classes in college. I know that I graduated, but I also believe I haven’t taken a math class since I was a junior in high school, and that makes no sense.
2a. I did have to take science classes in college. I took geography, which my friend and I were sure was just a fancy way of looking at maps. It wasn’t. We nearly failed. I also took anthropology with all my roommates, and what I remember from that class is that we would get ice cream in Pepsi cups from the cafeteria beforehand, which made it my favorite class that semester.
3. I dated a lunatic in college. Here are some of the things he did: lit a cigarette as we deplaned on the tarmac and, after he was asked to put it out, flung the butt into the circular engine intake, causing chaos, then ran from the attendants, leaving me behind; kicked in car doors with his steel-toed boots in a very expensive neighborhood; came after me with a hammer; stole all my money. You know what? He’s not worth talking about.
4. I almost quit my PhD program while on the fourteenth draft of an essay I was trying to get approved by my PhD committee about why I had selected the areas of study that I did: Ralph Waldo Emerson, postmodern (or “pomo”) American poetry, and memoir. I was sitting in the tiny graduate teaching assistants’ office that I shared with fifteen other grad students when my husband, Dan, found me, head in my hands. He’d just gotten off work across the street. “Ready to go?” he asked slowly as he noticed my distress. “Back to New York?” I said. “Then yes. I quit,” I said. “I can’t do this.” Dan collected me, and we walked home, where he tore open a brown paper bag (a big one, for groceries), got some chalk, and wrote EMERSON and POMO and MEMOIR on it, then made me list the reasons why I’d selected each. That night I put the list into paragraphs and e-mailed it to my committee, and the next day the goddamn draft was approved.
5. I didn’t apply to Dartmouth College because I was afraid I wouldn’t get in. My grandmother and aunt both worked there — in graduate admissions and the cafeteria, respectively. After I got a full ride to nearly everywhere else I’d applied, I was really pissed off at myself.
6. My grandmother lived in a log cabin tucked into the side of a mountain. The walkway from her dirt driveway to her cabin was a series of slanted wooden steps and slabs of limestone. Inside, the place smelled like moss. Her kitchen was upstairs, framed by a wraparound porch with a view of the forest and sometimes black bears.
6a. My grandmother’s favorite TV show was Home Improvement with Tim Allen, and she would make sure it was on the television set in the kitchen when she made dinner. Years later the reruns played as if on a loop. Her husband, my step-grandfather, hated the show and would head downstairs to watch the Grand Ole Opry. He’d had polio as a kid, so he wore a brace and a black boot on one foot that made it much larger than the other foot, and he was loud and scary.
7. My entire extended family thought I was stupid to get my PhD. I am the only one in the family with a PhD.
8. When I met Dan, I knew right away I wanted to marry him. I didn’t even believe in marriage at the time. I was hungover and taking writing-tutor training with him, trying to figure out a way to leave the lunatic. Dan had a shaved head and was wearing loafers with a hole in one sole, and he was sunburned and freckled and said he lived near wine country in the Finger Lakes and was looking to move closer to the college. I thought: I could live with him.
8a. Dr. Phil, for whom I have an unexplained deep affinity, has a podcast episode titled “How Fun Are You to Live With?” I told Dan about it last week, and he laughed because we are each the only person the other could ever live with. For example, we do the dishes as we make dinner so there are no pots and pans to wash after we eat. People who stay with us hate that.
9. Dan’s brother died suddenly, of a known heart condition he’d had since birth, a bicuspid aorta. I knew he needed another surgery soon, but he died on his fortieth birthday, which is just not fair. His daughter, whose birthday it also was, found him. Come on, universe. So I listen to Dan breathing when he sleeps, just in case. His brother was not sleeping when he died, but still. I wonder if Dan’s brother experienced the nothingness that comes with dying. The nothing, then nothing, and then more nothing.
10. When I was little, I decided that if I couldn’t live at my grandmother’s log cabin, the next-best option would be Fraggle Rock, where all of Jim Henson’s Fraggles lived.
10a. My favorite Fraggle was Red. She reminded me of my aunt Barb, who lived with my uncle Keith in a lake house with a spiral staircase, and when it was time to leave their place, my parents would have to drag me to the car because I wanted to stay.
11. My aunt Barb and my uncle Keith married Dan and me on their property: their backyard overlooked the lake and was surrounded by trees and sometimes black bears.
11a. On our wedding day we ran out of food (but not wine); the cops were called because the noise carried across the lake, but they left when they saw my aunt (a different aunt) peeing on a bush; another aunt put pot brownies on the dessert table and didn’t tell anyone until the next day; Uncle Keith got really high; a different uncle recorded the ceremony with the lens cap on; right after we said our vows, Aunt Barb ushered us into the house, leaving the guests outside on that beautiful July late afternoon, and in the kitchen Dan and I stared at each other, married, and it was the best day of my life.
11b. My grandmother came to our wedding, escorted by one of her children, and sat in front in a white pantsuit. She looked happy, like she knew where she was, and I wish I had talked to her more, because the next time I saw her, she was gone, vacant, never the same again.
12. After the wedding, after Dan and I moved to Kansas, after I got my PhD and my teaching job and we bought our first house, my grandmother and her husband moved into a retirement community because she kept lighting the cabin stove on fire, and none of her seven kids wanted to keep going over there to put out the flames.
13. My mom moved to Kansas to be closer to Dan and me (and our cat, probably), and I thought briefly that I should have a child to make her happy. Then Dan and I laughed about how messed up it would be to have a child to make someone who is not one of the parents happy.
14. I have held only one baby, once, in my entire life.
14a. I know I have held a baby, but I cannot remember whose baby it was that I held.
15. When my mom put vanilla creamer into her famous Christmas Eve chicken dish, I knew something was wrong.
15a. I was ten when I first tried what would become my favorite chicken dish: It was Christmas Eve, and the chicken was wrapped in prosciutto and cooked with wine. I know this because, apparently, I got out of hand, and I overheard my dad whisper to my mom, “She’s drunk,” and I remember them seeming at once horrified and amused.
16. I want to sit on my grandmother’s porch with all my family there. I want to use icicles from the roof as ice in my drink, and I want to watch my mom laugh. I want to listen to Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits and forget that my mom can’t remember things the way she used to.
16a. Sometimes now, when I go to my mom’s apartment, she’s blaring All My Children or some other soap opera, and it makes me so sad and scared that I start to gag and have to go back outside. My mom isn’t like this; she doesn’t usually watch television. All the words in her favorite books are being taken from her, page by page, and I have to stand on her porch and look at the golf course just beyond the fence and remember to breathe.
17. I have an uncle named Lee who looks like Dr. Phil, which probably explains why I like Dr. Phil.
18. Once, in New Hampshire, my mom and I saw a tiny monkey in a yellow rain jacket standing on the seat of a motorcycle being driven by a man. I swear to God this happened. The monkey also had a little hat on. That night, we saw a black bear on Aunt Barb and Uncle Keith’s property while we sat outside next to the bonfire. The bear came right up next to us, and we screamed, and everyone ran in different directions.
19. I sometimes watch my mom in the public library. She has this vacant look on her face, like she’s unsure where she is until she sees me. I walk over and make sure she knows I’m there.
19a. Last year my mom started using a planner I’d bought her in hopes it would help with her memory. One Monday in November she wrote, “Today,” in blue ink, and that was all. I went home, told Dan about that, and sobbed.
20. One basis of math is the empty set. The idea is that if mathematical elements can be grouped into sets, then there must also be a set containing no elements. But the empty set is not nothing. It’s something. We need the empty set. Without the empty set no interactions can take place.
20a. After Dan’s brother died, we were at his house with everyone, and I went into the basement for more chairs. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was going to be where he had died. I looked at the couch where he had sat down after running on the treadmill. He wasn’t there. But he was everywhere in that room.
20b. Maybe what I have here is the empty set of my life, and my mom, Dan, New Hampshire, the bears, my grandmother, and the rest are the elements that make my life something. It’s not nothing at the end after all.
20c. EMERSON: transcendentalism, self-reliance, belief in the experiences of the self. POMO: lived experiences, confessionalism, the embracing of real emotion, risk-taking. MEMOIR: the belief that the story one tells matters, the practice of celebrating survival, the collective upholding of the dignity of the individual, the view from my grandmother’s porch in summer, the sun glinting off all those green and yellow leaves.