To Be Heldhttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Beach-on-a-cloudy-day-2.jpg?fit=1920%2C1440&ssl=119201440Jen RouseJen Rousehttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/jenrouse.jpg?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
The first time I sat at the sand table was a lot like every time I sat across from her, unable to let anything out. My body so tightly clenched and uncomfortable, so filled with shame, and I had already decided I wanted her to like me, to care about me, and how could anyone do that if I admitted how horribly broken I was? Which is one of those statements that defies logic, right? I mean, having chosen therapy. Having chosen to sit there and ask for help, to not allow her anywhere near me was a fascinating choice. Now, looking back, I don’t know if it really was a choice. It was a battle. I used to think, perhaps, it was a battle with her. It was so hard to love someone and to need help from them.
The room is dim and deep and warm. And I’m letting the sand run through my fingers. The tears are there, but I am clenching every emotion. It’s not that there’s a story I want to tell, but that all I feel is guilt for being there, for wasting her time, for being alive. I feel guilty for being alive. For needing care. For needing another human being for anything at all makes me sick. So I choose a millipede and throw it in the sand.
This is an easy story, riddled with all of my typical moments, triggers, inability to enjoy something incredibly beautiful because I am always the one called upon to organize the supposed adults in my life. It is a trip arranged by my family for my grandmother. Basically a big trip before she dies. It hops multiple islands in Hawaii and she requires a wheelchair. It requires a minivan that no one will drive, so I have to when I’m left to take care of some of them. It requires planning small excursions off the islands, but all the adults find it impossible to make even one simple decision. No one ever admits to needing food, a bathroom, a break. I’m old enough to drive but should not be in charge of a trip my family members planned. This is a recurring pattern with my family. The helplessness and the inability to pay attention to basic human needs. At this point in time, of course, my grandmother had many needs. And my depression was throwing itself against me like a set of knives. No one noticed. In the middle of paradise I couldn’t stand to be near them, but I had to take care of her. No one was taking care of her.
The millipede came out of a dark corner. It was enormous. I had just checked us into a hotel, after my father and his girlfriend had left. The millipede went straight for my grandmother, scurrying like a horrible devil towards her feet. I couldn’t get to it fast enough. The cane she had, keeping her rooted to the spot on the slippery linoleum, went out to try to knock it away, but instead disrupted her balance. My grandmother fell to the floor and hit her head. Because I didn’t do anything quickly enough. Because there I was so fucking miserable and hating every minute of this trip, and I couldn’t get my shit together enough to keep her from falling. Everything was falling. Should we take her to a hospital? What if she had a concussion? Why wasn’t anyone talking about the blood thinners and the potential for horrible bleeding. And why the fuck wasn’t there a competent person anywhere near me. It wasn’t fun. It was never fun. No matter how many times my family members remember things fondly, I remember how agonizing it was to be alive, trying to think about all of the things that needed to happen for all of the people who needed care to have what they needed because no one, no one would ever think of me.
And so I put the millipede in the sand tray. And so my therapist came to sit close to me. It was already so dark outside—the streetlight falling across us through the old heavily paned windows. I wasn’t really ready to have her near me yet. I wasn’t sure she liked me. I wasn’t sure she gave a shit about what happened in that room. And, honest to god, I wasn’t sure it would ever matter. I was just keeping an appointment to stay alive. I was the person who came not for therapy but to deliver myself through another week. Still she tried. She flung the millipede from the sand tray. She smiled. She said, “There.” She laughed like a friend. Her way of trying to comfort me. I was so susceptible to that kind of nearness, and it had taken us so long to get there. Could we like each other? Could we do any meaningful work? We would get in each other’s way so often, but this night I did begin to go down a kind of path with her, one where I would challenge the guilt and shame I’d enshrined as part of my identity. This night I would turn back from the door before leaving, her silhouette sharp like a raven in the dim light, and I would ask to be held.
Jen Rouse is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Poet Lore, Pretty Owl, The Tishman Review, The Inflectionist Review, Midwestern Gothic, Sinister Wisdom, the Plath Poetry Project, Occulum, Lavender Review, and elsewhere. She has work forthcoming in Up the Staircase‘s 10th anniversary issue. She’s the 2017 winner of Gulf Stream’s summer poetry contest. Rouse’s chapbook, Acid and Tender, was published in 2016 by Headmistress Press. Find her on Twitter @jrouse.