April 10, 2014
I know some things. I know you set the backyard on fire. It was autumn. You were six years old. The oak leaves were dry and crispy. You and your pal Don Johnson, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid from St. Phillip Elementary School who threw up every time he got excited, were playing in the backyard. I’m assuming you guys found the matches in the pile on Dad’s workbench.
Mom, the backyard is on fire. She said that’s how you told them, my mother and her best friend Claire.
Suspenders holding up your blue jeans. Velcro shoes. You never actually fessed up to whose idea it had been, who had lit the first match, maybe the only match, but the fact is someone had lit the backyard on fire, and Mom and Claire had to subdue the flames until the fire squad arrived. Back and forth they ran from the shores of St. Mary’s Lake to the kindergarten blaze, dumping two gallons of water at a time. You must’ve loved those firetrucks.
Mom says that people always remember things the way they want to remember them, instead of the way it was because it was never just one way. That memory isn’t what happened, it’s what happens over time. She says she was never really mad at you. That she was laughing while the yard was burning. She said it was because of your delivery–your Abe-Lincoln honesty had been so blunt. That, and the fact that Don Johnson was barfing the whole time.
My memories of you are a special kind of truth. Your laugh, or what things made you bite your fingernails, or what it felt like to be around you—a feeling I can only achieve when I am asleep and you appear in my dream. It’s the only time I can really sense your essence.
Mom told me you gave someone the gift of sight. The night of the accident, a nurse came to her, less than an hour after you died, and said something like this: Julian was a young, healthy man. Would you like to donate any of his organs?
On your last human day, I was leaving the house and you said to me, Seeya, Scrub. Then you threw a sock at my face. Then you died. To me, it’s just so crazy that one day I see you and the next day your eyes are in somebody else’s body. You throw a sock and then you’re gone. You become a memory, a ghost, just like that. For me, the idea is still taking some getting used to.
You died and we were taken to a different place. We didn’t choose to be the survivors, but we chose to survive. After you died, Mom said we must be responsible for ourselves, that we must be strong. After you died, Dad told me this: Individually, we will have trouble. But when we come together, we are strong. We press on.
After you died, I didn’t become the homecoming queen. I didn’t want anything to do with it in the first place. There was the homecoming game. I didn’t want to go and stand in the middle of a football field with hundreds of people watching me wait to see if I was a winner. Dad had his arm in a sling and Mom wore her ankle-length fox fur coat and they escorted me down the bleachers and out onto the field and I knew what everyone was thinking: There goes that naughty girl whose brother was just killed. And when the announcer called our names on the loudspeaker–Mira Ptacin with her parents, Dr. Philip and Maria Ptacin—it was Mom who led Dad and me onto the football field. As we were walking, people behind us were clapping, and before we even reached the field, Mom stopped, dropped our arms, turned around to face the crowd and waved both hands at them triumphantly. We weren’t even halfway there, but she just turned and started waving. Her entire body. She looked so strong, the way she addressed the faces in the bleachers with her entire body. It was like she was conducting whatever love they had inside of them. Like she was thanking the world for its love, thanking the world for us, and for her own life, even though she had just lost her only son. The way Mom looked in that moment, it was like she was looking at God, and was saying thank you for my beautiful life.
Mira Ptacin is a Maine-based creative nonfiction author and New York Times bestselling [ghost]writer who writes about the uterus and the American Dream. Her work has been featured on or in Guernica, NPR, Slice Magazine, The Atlantic, The Morning News, and more. She’s the founder of Freerange Nonfiction, and currently runs the writing program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Mira lives on Peaks Island, Maine, with her husband, their son Theo, and their two dogs Huckleberry and Maybe. Find her at www.miraMptacin.com and www.salt.edu.