The Fear of Oneself
As we get near the house, taking off our gloves,
the air forming a fine casing of
ice around each hand,
you say you believe I would hold up under torture
for the sake of our children. You say you think I have
courage. I lean against the door and weep,
the tears freezing on my cheeks with brittle
I think of the women standing naked
on the frozen river, the guards pouring
buckets of water over their bodies till they
glisten like trees in an ice storm.
I have never thought I could take it, not even
for the children. It is all I have wanted to do,
to stand between them and pain. But I come from a
who put themselves
first. I lean against the huge dark
cold door, my face glittering with
glare ice like a dangerous road,
and think about hot pokers, and goads,
and the skin of my children, the delicate, tight,
thin top layer of it,
covering their whole bodies, softly
by American Poet, Sharon Olds (b 1942)
Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, 2013
While I cannot claim to have endured the unspeakable tortures of fire and ice described here by Sharon Olds, I can say that an unexpected experience once taught me that, whether I knew it or not, I would take a hatchet in the back without hesitation for the sake of my children. The day I learned that "I could take it" was the day, eighteen years ago, when my five - year - old son Ben and I put two - year - old Sam into his stroller and rolled him to the babysitter a few blocks away, then returned home to pick up our swim bags and walk to the pool, just a few blocks away in the other direction. It was a happy sunny day on our block, the Tuesday after Labor Day, 1995.
Only one little glitch marred the scene, but I had pushed that to the back of my mind: the two young men sauntering down our side street as I hoisted the baby stroller down the front steps. Just the tiniest alarm bell went off in my head. Should I cross the street, where contractors were erecting scaffolding to repair the Tiffany windows of the large old church that stood there, comforting men in white overalls and caps; should I ask them to please keep an eye on my house for the short while that I would be gone? But maybe, no.
I didn't want to be the woman who panicked because the passersby were African American and she was not. Though clearly this was not the case. Yes, I did feel a twinge of anxiety at the sight of those two strangers, but not because of their race. No, it was the slowness of their step, their observation of my exit, their sideways glance at the long thin side of my house, extending down the block on the corner. It was just an instinctive worrisome "Hmmmmm," followed by an instinctive urge to ask the men across the road, also African American, for help. So I know it was not race that caused the fear. Besides, if I stopped in my tracks every time someone or something in the city gave me the creeps, I'd never get anywhere.
Turns out I should have paid a little more attention to my fear. Instead, I glanced at their backs as they walked on -- one in white jeans and tee - shirt, one in green Army pants and red sweatshirt -- gave a shrug, fastened the baby bag onto the stroller, pushed on with the children, delivered Sam to the sitter, and was back in front of the house well within thirty minutes. All seemed as we had left it, the contractors across the street working quietly on the church.
Ben and I called out "Hello!" to the UPS man who was rounding the corner; waved up to a neighbor who was leaning out of his third - floor window to touch up the paint on his sill and shutters; stopped for a moment to chat with our neighbor Mark who was on his way to the trolley stop at the next corner. Our minds had already turned toward our morning at the pool as we bounded up the steps, unlocked the front door, then locked it behind us; unlocked the inner foyer door, locked it behind us. I had no more than placed the keys on the hall table when I noticed that the swinging door into the kitchen was closed -- odd, since we always kept this door propped open. A split second later the door swang ever so slightly, and I saw, with no mistake, the green trousers, the red sweatshirt.
Now, this is the moment in dreams when I try to scream but cannot, when I wrap my arms around my head and hunker down, cowardly. I always feared I might behave similarly, uselessly, in real life; but this day my fears were put to rest.
I grabbed the keys back up, screamed louder than ever before: "There's someone in there," and lurched toward little Ben, knowing intuitively that I had to keep my body between him and that kitchen door. I did not look over my shoulder to see if they were following; I did not think, "Do they have a gun?" My mind raced alternately between two thoughts only: "Keep Ben in front of me" / "Get out the front door." Keep Ben in front of me" / "Get out the front door." I fumbled through the two locks, wishing now that I had not closed up quite so securely; and I screamed without stopping -- "There's someone in there! Mark, Mark, Mark!" -- hoping to summon our neighbor before he got on the trolley. He returned immediately, sat us down on the porch swing, calmed our nerves, called the police, said, "Don't go back inside."
Simultaneously, another kind neighbor named Darryl (African American, I might add) ran up from the other direction saying, "Not to worry, not to worry," he'd just seen the two intruders leap from our steep back porch and run away, down the side street where I had first seen them less than an hour before. Mark and Darryl sat outside with Ben and me while the police inspected the house and my mind ranged over every door and window. Where had been the weak spot? Darryl also shared the disturbing detail that he had seen the two earlier, ringing my front doorbell! In retrospect, yes, they had been sauntering slowly, scoping the side of the house, watching me leave. And, no, they had not proceeded on their way after the boys and I rounded the corner. Instead they had returned, ringing the doorbell on the assumption that if no one answered, no one was home (a risky assumption, if you ask me; what if someone else had been home but in the shower? or home but ignoring the bell?).
When no one answered, they took the opportunity to return to what they had seen on the side of the house -- a very high kitchen window, open, protected only by a screen. My fault. One must have boosted the other, who then dislodged the screen, and both jumped in unnoticed. Voila! Entry! And all this while, out in the open, neighbors, painters, delivery people, and contractors went about their business. I guess it takes only a few seconds when all eyes are elsewhere. How strange to think that as I stood out on the porch glibly waving and chatting, these two men were inside, shifting our belongings about.
The police were patient. After a thorough check, they allowed me to go inside, with the gentle warning not to be too upset if the place seemed a mess. But, in fact, it wasn't too bad. There was no indication that our closets or dressers had been opened, so we were spared that horrible sense of violation that many break - in victims are left with. It's true, our living room floor was strewn with clothes and books and papers, but, as I explained to the police officer, Ben, Sam and I were responsible for that particular disorder -- a massive summer sorting project.
Our only electronics at the time were a couple of out - dated stereo systems and televisions from college days. We had not yet acquired anything of value. Yet, rather pathetically, all of this rummage had been carried down from our second floor and piled by the back door. These burglars had gone to a lot of trouble and heavy lifting without noticing that the back door opened onto a steep brick stairwell enclosed by a locked wrought - iron gate, requiring a key for exit. They could not possibly have gotten very far with their contraband. Without it, however, they were able to jump to the ground with whatever they had stuffed into their pockets (a handful of change, a $20 bill, my Visa card, and a remote control for one of the abandoned televisions) and make a run for it.
After an hour or so, the officers' work was done, the neighbors went on their way, and we were left to regain our bearings and restore order, custom, and ceremony to our upset home. Ben and I, and our friendly cat Josef, wandered from room to room calling out "911!" -- a game we devised on the spot to make ourselves feel strong and safe. We searched the house from top to bottom, finding all as it should be -- except for no sign of Marcus, our cautious cat. It was possible that he had slipped out an open door in all the chaos, but -- I kept telling myself -- more likely that he was hidden away somewhere in a very good secret hiding spot and would soon creep out quietly and surprise us (which he did).
Ben had a different idea: "Mommy do you think they took Marcus?" I tried to assure Ben that the robbers would not take our cat, but he remained troubled, "Well, you kept calling his name!" Awww, poor little guy! Now I understood the depth of his concern. What he had heard, when I was shouting for our neighbor "Mark!" to return from the trolley stop, was a cry of distress for our shy little pet. As a way of putting everything back into perspective, Ben made an excellent connection that afternoon: "Let's watch 101 Dalmations! What a wise child -- there's art informing life: the bad guys are vanquished; the pets are safe!
When we moved in, the previous owners had left this snake behind, up in the attic, wearing a cowboy hat -- too bad I didn't take a picture of it that way! After three years or so, we brought in down one spring for a yard ornament. It was there all summer, until about this time of year. I drove up one Monday morning, after grocery shopping, and thought, "What's different here?" Oh -- no snake! Well, since it was leaf - raking season and all, I thought maybe Gerry had put it away in the basement for the winter. But, no. The poor thing had just been kidnapped, never to be seen again! Alas!
I always had the feeling my mother would
die for us, jump into a fire
to pull us out, her hair burning like
a halo, jump into water, her white
body going down and turning slowly,
the astronaut whose hose is cut
blackness. She would have
covered us with her body, thrust her
breasts between our chests and the knife,
slipped us into her coat pocket
outside the showers. In disaster, an animal
mother, she would have died for us,
but in life as it was
she had to put herself
She had to do whatever he
told her to do to the children, she had to
protect herself. In war, she would have
died for us, I tell you she would,
and I know: I am a student of war,
of gas ovens, smothering, knives,
drowning, burning, all the forms
in which I have experienced her love.
both poems found in The Dead and the Living (pp 55 & 35)
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