We took a walk this evening as we often do. My husband pushed my daughter in her stroller as I walked alongside. There are things I notice each time we pass them—the morning glories a block down that wind their cursive tendrils round the fence posts, the fat yellow cat who glowers after us from the makeshift throne of her lawn chair, the Cape Cod nearly hidden beneath the weeping of a funeral party of willows. In one yard a thicket of blackberries. In another a bed of cherry tomatoes. Standing sentry at the park the orange-leaved tree that warns us of the coming cold.
Yesterday on my kitchen radio I heard about a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose child was cut from her arms with a machete. I should say I saw one woman and child in my mind, but there were actually hundreds. Hundreds of women and children hacked to death by machetes. Other children in the vicinity were tossed down wells. I can’t remember why. Afterward I squeezed my daughter so hard and long against my chest that she began to cry. I didn’t think it should frighten her to be loved so.
When I was twelve, my friend’s father Chet was crushed to death by a semi while he raked tar on the side of the highway. I knew him from church services and church picnics, from volleyball games and sleepovers I shared with Emily, his 12-year-old daughter. His son Jordan and I had begun a secret romance a couple of months before Chet died—the sort where you slip each other notes, speak infrequently on the phone late at night, and glance at one another across the pews when you think no one’s looking. I suspect Chet knew of our longing; I imagine it amused him, brought him joy.
Sometimes I take my daughter to the library, other times to the park. We sit on a blanket in the grass, and I blow bubbles. They mystify her. She stretches her whole body after them. When they pop, she studies the empty air with a furrowed brow as if to say, these things should not happen.
I attend a talk at the university. A man from the Democratic Republic of Congo describes how in his country rape is used as a weapon of war. After the militants break the women, he says, their husbands cannot forget their powerlessness. In this way, the people’s spirits wither and die. Then it is easy to sweep the broken families from the rich land like so many empty husks.
A woman in my hometown dresses her goose. It is plastic, white with a yellow beak, about three feet high. It stands at neck-stretched attention on the front porch next to a line of boxy yews. I pass the goose on the way to and from my parents’ house, and each time it sports a new look – always seasonally inspired. A Santa costume. A raincoat with matching bonnet. A pinafore of hearts. A sundress. Striped Uncle Sam suspenders and a top hat. The dour black cloak of the sober pilgrim.
Back when I was eight years old and the center of everything, I suspected that the world was designed for the express purpose of testing me. Everyone was in on it, even my mother. The stories that were too dreadful to be true – stories of kidnappings and murders and war – were actually untrue. My only responsibility was to react with appropriate horror and disbelief so that onlookers would admire my empathic spirit. Also, so that they would not know that I knew they were lying.
This morning I smooth down my daughter’s curls and find a lump, hard and inescapable, the size of a chickpea beneath her ear. I’ve noticed it before, but it was smaller and soft—the doctor told me not to worry unless it changed. So I call the office and request to speak to a nurse, who tells me it may well be nothing but suggests I bring her in to make certain. The appointment is in two days. Tonight I will forget to eat dinner. Somewhere out there a woman is dressing her goose.
Most would have thought Chet rough at first glance – he was bearded, spoke in a gruff voice and wore a working man’s flannels. But with me he was as gentle as a baby. And he noticed things. He noticed when I had something to say even though as shy as I was, I wasn’t likely to say anything. He noticed when I didn’t feel well or when life was weighing heavy on my mind. It wasn’t that I ever made a fuss. I sat where I was told to sit and did what I was told to do, but Chet could tell. I know because of how he looked at me, his large brown eyes the eyes of a vigilant deer, and because of how he mixed humor with hope. Sometimes I accompanied the congregational hymns on piano, and after service in the church lawn he’d softly box my shoulder. “You keep playing piano like that, you won’t even make it to junior high. They’ll just pull up in a limo and whisk you straight off to New York City.” He looked and saw and understood all at once. He remembered how the world can deluge the young, how it can surge the shore and suck them under. So Chet built his own floating harbor, his stack of sandbags. I wanted to marry Jordan in part because I cared for Jordan but in part because then Chet would be my father, too.
In the DRC, combatants pitch a 15-year-old girl into a pit and rape her daily for three months. Her friend, also in the pit, dies 6 weeks in, about the time the 15-year-old girl realizes she is pregnant. She spends the next six weeks watching her friend rot. Inside her girl’s body, life anchors its obstinate root.
Chet died August 5th, 1993, at approximately 11:00 a.m. After his death I asked my mother for the precise time and wrote her answer in my diary, then looked up the word approximately and wrote that down as well: “Near or approaching a certain state, condition or goal.” It’s 11:00 and Chet is approaching the state of death, is oblivious to its swift pursuit as he scrapes the tar rocks over the asphalt seam just ahead of the roller with its hot black wheel and engine whine that drowns out those horrific seconds when the other men leap into ditches and shout one another’s names. It’s 11:00 and the sun shifts imperceptibly, the clocks align and a trucker spills hot coffee on his crotch or fiddles too long with the CB or simply succumbs to the hypnotic white line he’s traced since Atlanta, since midnight or Sunday or was it maybe even July he wonders and is still wondering in that warmly blissful near-sleep of eyes rolled back, lids lightly closed when a horn bleats, the ground beneath his wheels crunches and dips and a deafening wrench of metal jerks him awake.
At the university, the Congolese man says, “If we tell people what is happening to the women, they will stop listening. They cannot bring themselves to listen.”
If my calculations are correct, the woman has been dressing her goose for nearly twenty years. It gawks on. The other day it boasted a black jumpsuit with golden studs. A large, glossy pompadour was fastened atop its small head.
August 5th, 1993. Soon after 11:00 our phone rings with a cheerful chirrup. My mother answers, hangs up, climbs the stairs, news of death in her throat. I blink for a minute, shake my head, walk past her, jog down the stairs, sprint out the side door past my father, who is locking the carcass of a turkey in the smoker, the scent of which will haunt me for the rest of my life but especially on that day as I run, as I ride my bike, as I climb the maple, as I try to read, play piano, watch TV – one thing after another after another until I find, at long last, that it’s approximately one o’clock in the afternoon, and I am approaching the state of grief, have exhausted all possible distractions when it rams me, annihilative as a semi, and I lie down on my bedroom floor and weep.
Later that afternoon, we bring the family a platter of smoked turkey muffled in Saran wrap. Emily and I lie across her bed. That morning, she tells me, her father woke her up to kiss her goodbye – not a typical gesture. He knew, she says. He should have stayed home. Jordan sits in the living room and stares calmly at the wall. I say hi, and he sends me a puzzled smile. When his mother told him the news, he closed himself in the garage and beat the wall with his fists. He has washed them, but they still trickle blood. The bruises across his swollen knuckles are already beginning to purple.
Now twenty years later when I visit my parents, I drive past Chet’s cross where it stands nestled in the long grasses on the side of the highway. Several minutes later I pass the goose. I scan the roadside intently lest either of these objects slip past unnoticed. First, the white wooden cross with its sash of faded pink satin roses and his name, Chet Weller, nailed across its arms in black capitals. Second, the goose trussed up in its new ensemble – inscrutable, undying, attended. Why I must acknowledge them I don’t quite understand except that to be acknowledged is their purpose – to remind me that good people die randomly and young, yet there are other threads woven throughout the tapestry of life. For example, there is the comic, the slightly zany. There is the ubiquity of the ridiculous.
I scrutinize my daughter for signs of distress. Is she unusually tired? Is her appetite diminishing? Has she forgotten anything she once knew? Each of her actions is an occasion for observation, each storybook an exam. Beneath the high-pitched sing-song of my voice runs a current of urgency. Where’s the kitty? Can you point to the kitty? What does the kitty say?
Once when I was eleven years old and drifting off to sleep, I was struck by the certainty that my life would end that night. I was not sick or suicidal, just perfectly sure that I would not wake the next morning. I cried at the thought of my bereft mother and father, my brother and sister, my friends. I cried as I imagined my funeral. I cried that I would never again play piano or read a book. After tiptoeing into my parents’ room and trying without success to convince my mother of my imminent death, I returned to bed and cried myself to sleep. But then the unimaginable happened. I woke up the next day in perfect health, dressed, ate breakfast and caught the bus to school. At least, one version of myself did. In someone else’s universe, however – in someone’s universe who could bear the pain – I was convinced I had died. The school principal’s universe, perhaps, or the universe of a second cousin I had played with a handful of times. In this way, I thought, death would always be distant. Death would renew my appreciation for life, my gratitude for life, but it would not come close enough to crush me.
I envy the woman who dresses the goose. The act betrays something that often escapes me. Frivolity, I think. Aimless enjoyment. Pleasure in the mundane.
For a couple of years in my mid-twenties I worked with SXI (severely multiply impaired) kids from ages three to nine. One evening near the end of that era I found myself chasing a double dose of Vicodin with a six-pack of beer. A student I loved, Cece, a mere nine years old, had been slowly dying all year – since I had met her – though in truth they’d forecasted an early death from the day she was born. She had lost her ability to walk, then to stand, then to use her hands. Her seizures became longer and more frequent. She was fine-boned and thin with snappy brown eyes and freckles and a glossy black page-boy haircut. She was goofy and sweet. She loved to play little tricks on her classmates and ride therapy horses and visit her friends in other classrooms. Her coffin was small and white. I wore a skirt she would have loved. I never met her brother, who had died a few years earlier of the same disease. After the funeral, her parents wrote me a thank you letter. With it they enclosed a picture of Cece standing outside. Her eyes glow brightly, as if her head is full of sunlight. I cannot bear to look at the picture for very long. Her eyes shame me for reasons I can’t quite grasp. I was a little afraid of her; she was so delicate and so brave. She understood something crucial, something that she could not tell me, something that I do not, cannot know.
After the talk at the university, I approach the Congolese man and ask him what can be done to help. He directs me to a booth at the back of the room. I scrawl my signature on a petition for the U.S. government to suspend all non-humanitarian aid to Rwanda, whose government is arming and funding the rebels currently ravaging the DRC. I pick up a few fliers about activist groups and a fundraising hike.
My daughter’s appointment is tomorrow. Today I sit her down so that I can chop vegetables for dinner, and she clings to my knees and screams. Eventually I give up and sit with her on the floor, build block towers that she, with the vehemence of a spiteful god, knocks over again and again and again.
After Cece had left school to die, I visited her at her home. Her mother let me hold her like I used to do in class when she wasn’t feeling well. This time she felt smaller, emptier inside. Her skin had turned a pale grayish green, and her face had swelled, lips and cheeks and eyelids thick with fluid. She shook violently. But she seemed to remember me. She couldn’t use sign language anymore, but I think she remembered me. Her body still leaned against mine with its queer, familiar heft. When I handed her back to her mother and said my goodbyes, Cece fixed me with the same intent stare, urgent now, desperate to communicate something her failing body could not.
Sometimes the goose is an opportunity to roll my eyes and wonder. Has the goose’s growing wardrobe demanded an entire closet? Does the woman organize the outfits according to season? Color? Holiday? And does she sew them herself, or does she order from a store? Could there be entire catalogues of goose costumes? Could there be a human being whose job it is to dream up new outfits for plastic poultry? To account for their short legs, their long necks, their substantial middle girth? To use these unique measurements to an advantage?
Weeks later, I find the Congo fliers in the back of my car. They’re wet and the ink has smeared. I slip them into the recycling discreetly, as though I am being watched.
I bought the six-pack on the way home from Cece’s. The bottles had barely begun to sweat when I popped the first cap and poured the dark bitter beer toward the two white pills already leaching comfort at the back of my throat. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, shoes on my feet, purse strap over my shoulder, sweater smelling faintly of her home, her soap, her souring skin. I tilted my head back and drank and drank.
Though I’ve thrown out the fliers, the lecture continues to haunt me, so I find the Congo Activists of Michigan online. I register for their hike, sign up for their updates. I send out impassioned e-mails, raise three hundred dollars, walk five miles. I collect my friends’ used cell phones and computer parts and donate them to an organization that helps youth in the DRC set up social networking cells. I attend Congo Week at the university student center where I help catch people as they are passing and ask them to sign a letter to the Secretary of State. Send a postcard for peace in the Congo? Some say yes. Most say no, thank you, or they tell me that they are in a hurry. One girl pauses reluctantly. She is weary but willing. “What exactly do I have to do?” she asks.
Two or three have heard of the crisis. They thank us for our work. The rest we give yellow half-slips of paper with a short summary of the conflict and a link to a documentary. When I leave the student center, I find one of the yellow sheets. The wind has blown it against the post of a bridge. It sticks there for a moment before slipping off and floating down into the dry bed of what used to be a stream.
Doctor Marla tweaks my daughter’s tiny nose before tiptoeing her fingers back beneath my daughter’s ear. I swallow hard, study the floor, think how this might be the moment I will recount years later, the moment when everything changed.
Since 1994 the deaths from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated at a little over six million. Such numbers are difficult to comprehend. Think Holocaust. Think Rwandan genocide times seven. Think two Chicagos, think two Arkansas. Or if that doesn’t work, think a driveway of stones, think a field of wheat with its waves of ripe, golden heads. Or think of Chet and his children. Think of the woman who dresses the goose, of Cece, of my daughter. And then think of yourself and how precious you are. Think of your lover and your parents and your siblings and your children and the women you have loved and hated, and the men, and your teachers, and your coworkers, and all the men and women you have seen standing behind cash registers, and all of the people you have passed in cars, and everyone you have passed on the sidewalk; think of the children who have made you smile, and the children who have made you laugh, and the children who have cried when you were flying in a plane or shopping for groceries or just trying to read a book in a coffee shop, and the children who ride their bikes up and down the sidewalk in front of your home, and the children who you see riding up and down other sidewalks, and the children you have seen at the beach in summer running into the sea, and the children you have seen in the winter sledding down hills. I stress the children because mortality studies on the DRC conflicts report that three million who have died have been children, young children, children not even strong enough to lug minerals out of mines or to shoulder guns – children under the age of five. One Chicago of dead children under the age of five.
I have seen the goose woman once or twice puttering about her yard. She looks as I expected her to look – short and solidly built with a stiff, gray hairdo. I have seen her watering her peonies in the mid-morning, sweeping leaves into tidy rows in the afternoon, but I have not seen her dressing her goose. I think perhaps it is part of her daily routine. She wakes, say, at seven o’clock. Dabs morning cream under her eyes, fishes her partials out of the water glass. Then she remembers the goose, and her heart quickens a little, reminds her of when her children would wake from naps and cry to her from across the house. Their voices were always so sudden and ardent that wherever she sat immersed in laundry or paperwork she would gasp a little and run to the nursery and stand a moment at the door with her hand on the handle, basking in that voice that called for only her. No, the goose is not the same, but as ludicrous as it is she still feels like she is taking care of someone – not the goose but maybe Mr. Henry, the neighbor five houses down, who always passes by dutifully at 8:30, behind his golden retriever. Or maybe her widowed Aunt Edith who visits when her rheumatism permits. Or maybe even someone she has not met, a young girl, a woman who drives past and cranes her neck for a brief glimpse of the goose’s new ensemble. A woman who thinks often on sad things. A woman for whom the goose, though she may not know it, is a relief.
Cece’s gaze still haunts me. I fear she was saying, “This never should have happened.” Or maybe, “Don’t forget me,” or, “Where is your anger?” or, “Don’t despair. When you die, I’ll find you, and we’ll talk.” Worst-case scenario: she was trying to tell me just how much she hurt, just how much she was afraid.
Before I left my work with the handicapped children, I took pictures. Pictures of Julio dancing as he hummed the tune to “Twinkle Twinkle,” his right hand raised in its constant salute. Pictures of Janelle shooting me her trademark sideways smirk. Pictures of Harry carrying his lunch tray, a skill we had mastered over several months. Pictures of Micah lumbering to the office, the attendance sheet clenched in his determined grasp. Pictures of Meredith turning toward my voice with her sunniest smile.
“That’s a swollen lymph node,” Doctor Marla says. “We see them all the time, especially at this age. I hope they didn’t bring you in just for this.”
In the DRC, Dr. Denis Mukwege repairs women’s fistulas after rape or childhood pregnancy has torn their bodies apart. One evening, rebels invade his home. He ducks the gunfire, but his security guard is shot and killed. For the safety of his young family, he flees to Belgium. But he is haunted. Who will sew the women up now? Who will stitch their delicate organs back together? Certainly not me with my fundraising hikes, my postcards, my meager collection of outdated cell phones. Certainly not me, who scans articles from the safety of my home while my daughter naps on her soft mattress or patters from room to room, raising a toy in her fist like a dictator claiming a country. A few weeks later, Dr. Mukwege returns to his hospital in Bukavu. Further north, militants once more take the town of Goma. Refugees flee. One man, an article tells me, sprints from the city gripping a Thermos. He carries nothing else. In another article there is a picture of a father pushing his two children from town on a bicycle. Beneath their two thin frames, sacks bulge over the crossbars. The mother follows behind, bent forward under the bags on her back. She has hooked them over her head that she might use the strength of her neck, which bows forward so heavily she has no choice but to stare at the ground.
I showed a friend the pictures of the handicapped children, wanted to share their dear faces with someone I loved. I had only clicked through two or three shots when she stood up from the couch.
“You hungry? I’m hungry,” she said, directing her gaze out the window.
I tried another friend. The same thing happened – the silence, the shifting, the change of subject. Before meeting them, I would likely have done the same, would have been struck mute and sorrowful at the sight of their crooked faces, twisted limbs. I would have seen Julio’s thick eyebrows and missing fingers, Janelle’s wayward eyes, Harry’s milky stare, Micah’s giant helmet, Meredith’s wheelchair straps biting against her torso. I too would have been keenly aware of the tragedy and oblivious to the triumph it underscored – that life had carried on, despite its imperfections, and gifted the world these wonders, too.
For a short time after the doctor’s news, relief dizzies me, makes me giddy. I whistle as I tug my daughter’s arms into her sweater. I skip out to the car as she bounces along on my hip. But the relief quickly fades. Yes, we have escaped death’s specter, but it will undoubtedly return. If this is some trifling exception, it is also a harbinger of the loss to come. One of us will bend over the other’s body after she has died, one of us will mourn and mourn and find little comfort.
In the fall there are the orange and red warnings of cold. Chet’s and Cece’s bodies rot into velvet pillows under six feet of dirt. In the winter there are red berries capped with snow, cedar boughs that smoke green in the fire. Julio sings his favorite song. My daughter laughs whenever the cat walks into the room. In the spring there are days so suddenly warm and happy you feel like you are ten years old. A sixteen-year-old mother dreams of pits and screaming. In the summer I believe the green will never end; it is always a surprise when it does. A father pushes his whole life on a bicycle. A woman wakes up each morning and dresses a goose, smoothes a jogging suit over a white plastic back, slips on the matching headband thoughtfully outfitted with a nylon strap that promises to hold fast no matter the wind or the rain.
Art by Matt Monk
Michelle Webster-Hein is an essayist and fiction writer from Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she finds herself moved by a multitude of common and not-so-common subjects. Her current projects include OUT OF ESAU, a novel set in a rural Michigan village, THE LOAD YOU CANNOT CARRY, a memoir of a global child psychiatrist, a children’s novel for my precocious daughter, and a series of meditations.