When I carry the box down from the attic and dust off the black soot and crumbling asphalt, the old roof which fell in on them when the new one replaced it the summer Jesi went in for transplant, I find pages and pages of weather worn notes jammed together and bent like wilting flowers. It is not, however until I take them down the stairs to the living space of the apartment and begin to sift through them that I know what I will find. I have lived in, or at least paid rent on the apartment in Arlington for over seven years now, though for over two of those years I have not been living there.
It was the home that I shared with Chris and Jesi and Kari when they were school kids navigating middle school and then, for Chris at least, high school. It was the home that saw our hurried mornings racing down the narrow stairs to the front door, loading bags and shoes and lunches, and sometimes even half eaten breakfasts and Elliot our dog, and following him, Mimi, into mum’s minivan, for the trip up route 2 to Lexington for school drop off. It was the home that for the year between Jesi’s first cancer and its return, Chris drove his sisters to school; when I would stand at the top of the porch stairs waving and reminding him to drive safely, the girls taking turns to ride shotgun in his old jeep cherokee. It was the home which we left the day Jesi’s cancer returned, when I moved into a small space on the third floor of Alan’s house so Kari could have some stability in her already disrupted life.
It is the home which has, since then, sat empty; as if we pushed our chairs back from the breakfast table and left its half eaten remains, stacked the dishes in the sink and walked out leaving it like a museum… time frozen… lives frozen… normality frozen forever.
“What would it have been like?” I asked my therapist one morning as she headed down the narrow staircase on her way to the front door, (for a long while I believed it would be possible to come back to my apartment so we began meeting there so I might acclimatize), “if Jesi’s had not died?” I was almost in tears finishing my question.
“It would have been very different,” she replied, her voice soft as she turned to look back at me. “Everything would have been very different.”
I place the box on the wooden slates of the futon base in the room Chris used to sleep in, the mattress since removed and taken to his college dorm, and sit on a stack of cushions to start sorting through its contents. Finally, after avoiding even coming to the apartment, I am now making daily trips from Lexington and staying an hour or two, more if I can stand it, in order to cull and clean and sort, deciding which parts of our lives will be preserved and which will be recycled and become a new beginning in someone else’s home.
For three days the boxes have been old notebooks and drawings from Jesi’s kindergarten and elementary school days. My progress slowed as she comes alive for me through her writings and her drawings and her familiar heart shaped signature. I hear her voice in my head when I read her assignments. I see her smile up at me from her pictures in books compiled by her preschool teachers. I feel her love when I see the hearts she drew next to her name and on her notes to “mummy and daddy”. I want to keep everything. More than that, I want to pull her back into the room, to become the child who loved first grade, who loved to read and watch TV and play baseball with her brother and cuddle with her dog. I want her to learn how to feel good about standing up in front of the class, (which she wrote in fourth grade was the thing she hated most about school), to get over being shy, “really shy” and feeling like she was not good at making friends. I want her to be able to continue to take horse riding lessons like she wrote, when she was nine, that she wanted to; and finally did when she was fourteen, and have the opportunity to spend time in a quiet place, “her favorite place to be” without being confined to a hospital room which gave her too much silence and too much time to think about not being at school where she wanted to be…
I want to see her grow up and become a teacher, because as she said in second grade, she loved school, or a writer as she decided in forth grade she wanted to be, because she loved to read. I want to see her become a vet, like she wanted to before the cancer returned and stole her from us. She would have succeeded too, at being any of these things … if only she had only had the chance to grow up.
But all I have of her is what she left me, and the memory of the place we called home…
When I return to my apartment having finally finished sorting through Jesi’s school notes, I decide to drag a box of old photos down from the attic. There are envelopes stuffed with prints and strips of negatives from the days prior to memory sticks and i-phones and computers we download our pictures onto. There are small albums with plastic sleeves, sometimes entirely empty, sometimes half full, albums from vacations in Norway with “daddy” or on Cape Cod with “mummy” or in Scotland with daddy and mummy and grandma. There are photos of birthday parties at Build-a-Bear, a row of little faces shining behind bears and bunnies and puppies held up in front of them, and Halloween princesses with candy buckets, and Christmases in the Australian summer. There are pictures of Jesi and Kari holding hands or sipping lemonade while they sit on deck chairs or of them splashing in a swimming pool. There are the faces my children used to be and who, especially in the case of Jesi, I want them to return to be. Never so much do I hear the voices of other more experienced parents in my head, enjoy these years, they grow so fast.
But it is different with Chris and Kari, I still have the sound of their voices echoing through the phone, the recent memories of Spring break, the couple of days we spent together in Portland Maine. With Jesi all I have are these photos and the firm round letters of her handwriting and her voice inside my head…
The morning after I begin sorting photos I dream of her. I dream she is sleeping in her bed. I dream she is walking up the staircase wearing her black and white houndstooth fedora. She is smiling at me the way I remember her doing. I dream I see her sitting in the lounge room.
But these visions are not of her in my apartment. They are of her in her bed at Alan’s house when I would sneak in, trying not to wake her, to start an IV medication. They are of her walking up the stairs to the third floor where I sleep, so we can talk. They are of her sitting in the family room at Alan’s house, the afternoon sun streaming in on her as she waits for her math tutor to arrive.
The memories I have of Jesi are no longer in the apartment we shared before the cancer came back. Those memories are fading. They live on paper and in photos which I can store and carry with me wherever I go. So I think that perhaps it is time to move on to that next place. That I must get through this period of mourning and reflecting, and that wherever I move to, Jesi will come with me, always in my heart.