CW: abuse, CSA
My father is dying.
Every week, a new emergency: a stroke, pneumonia, sepsis, C. Diff. His lungs, filled with fluid, crackle through the stethoscope bell. His muscles are wasting. He falls a lot, shreds his skin clean down to bone. When my mother escapes the apartment to run errands, he speed-dials my sister, sometimes crying, sometimes ranting about our half-brother Scott, accusing him of getting a little too close to our mom.
My sister forwards me voicemails. We are building a case for Power of Attorney.
“Scott blew it, as far as I’m concerned,” Dad says in one, his speech slurred like all the times he drunk-dialed me after I went no contact in the mid 90s.
“He can go to hell from now on. I want nothing to do with him, ever … I’ll talk to an attorney. Well, I already–I already talked to one. Got the phone number, and he said, things can be done to expose these people … It’s important I talk to you. I sure wish to talk to you, sweetie. Please. Please call dad. Please, honey.”
“Please call. Please. This is your father. I need to talk to you. You and your mother mean the world to me. I love you. Please.”
I froze the first time I played one.
He sounds like my half-brother Greg on the taped police phone call, the one that got him arrested for sexual abuse:
Transcript: man, crying, “I don’t want your mom to hate me. This is my life. This is all I have.”
Five years after Greg’s body was found crouched face-to-carpet in front of his flickering television, I ran a postmortem criminal background check and discovered he died facing trial for Sexual Abuse in the 2nd Degree of a child under twelve: same crime he perpetrated against my sister & me.
I texted my mother.
How old was the victim? She replied.
I texted my sister.
How old was the victim? She replied.
What they meant was: Do we have corroboration?
We were conspiring in time-travel case law: If Greg touched a little girl in 2001, he did it in 1986, too. Future bad acts.
I scanned every page of the court case and emailed a copy to my mother.
“I got called a liar, too,” she said.
She meant by my father, after my sister had come forward in 1989 and my mother kicked Greg out of our lives. Dad always chose Greg.
Greg, his Airborne Paratrooper golden child. Greg, his first and favorite son from his first family, with his first wife.
I wanted to mail my father Greg’s case, certified with return receipt. I wanted that green postal service postcard with his signature on one side & my name and address on the other, like he was signing for me, signing you are mine.
But I did not want to reconnect.
The last image I saw of my father for over twenty years: his half-toothless grin reflected in the rearview mirror of his car as he careened, drunk, down the driveway, laughing after I had screamed, Greg did it to me, too.
After my father got sepsis, when nobody thought he would make it through the night, my mother said, “Do you want to talk to him?”
I surprised myself and said yes.
I don’t know if he knew who I was. He asked about my nephew’s guitar and whether he would come play it. Maybe he thought I was my sister. Maybe he thought I was my nephew.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” he said.
I was willing to let it all go: the black eyes and bruises he left on me, that time I had a skull fracture and who knows what the ER docs really thought:
They declared a seizure did it, and maybe it did, but fists landed there, too, and it wasn’t always clear which injuries were abuse and which were my disabilities.
[Didn’t they count on not knowing for sure? Didn’t my father? Didn’t I?]
How he drove drunk with me in the backseat of the old Matador, swerving over the double yellow lines while my body got tossed around on the bubbled plastic seat liners. I used to pretend they were bubble wrap, that they would protect me if we crashed.
All the times he peeled up my long patchwork skirts to reveal my panties and said, “I bet the boys like that.”
Or said I was draining the family dry because of my medical bills, that I never should have been born.
I was willing to let it all go. He sounded so frail, so weak. He couldn’t hurt me anymore.
But he did make it through the night.
And the next night.
And the next.
And a hospital social worker said, “He needs round-the-clock nursing home care.”
“You have to do it,” Scott told my mother, and my sister and I agreed. Our mother is in her seventies with health problems of her own. She can’t help my father up when he falls. She can’t help him in the bath. She can’t lift him into the car.
Finally, she got the paperwork for a Medicaid application. To meet the income caps, she will sacrifice my father’s social security. She will sacrifice his pension. Without that income, she will lose the apartment. Her home. Again.
Years ago, she sold the house after my father left her for his high school sweetheart, the one he’d been seeing since the mid-90s and maybe longer. It went for $75,000, furniture included, and she packed up a truck and moved to a cramped apartment across town, divorce papers drawn and ready to sign.
But they never signed the divorce papers. Instead, he came back, and they signed a lease. Now, they’re bound by poverty: no money to live apart.
My father gets wind of the Medicaid application, threatens my mother. “If you put me in a nursing home, I will divorce you.”
My sister and I laugh via text. Can you fucking believe him?
Voicemail to my sister:
“You do something like this” — he means the nursing home — “This is not helping anything. I’ve never hurt my wife–your mom–physically, but mentally I guess I did for … I don’t know why now. But I thought I would have time to make it up. I didn’t want that stroke, either. And this other thing that I caught”–he means the C. Diff — “they’ll get rid of it. It will clear. I need to talk to you honey. All right, sweetheart, I hope you take this, call me back.”
August 2011, my first time visiting home since 2000. My sister and I pose in front of our favorite childhood roller rink:
What you don’t see: my father’s van speeding past, me running to my mother (I could still run then) in a panic. “Was that dad? Where is he going?”
My mother, admitting she invited him to my goodbye breakfast before I hit the road back home to Utah.
“I want one last picture of us all together,” she says.
I make her call him, tell him no. We sit in the Super Skate parking lot, staring out the windshield, Mom’s knuckles white on the steering wheel, until his van passes the opposite direction.
I wonder whether she wants the picture or dad does.
Later, he yells at my mother. “What would Karrie’s Grandma think if she knew my own daughter refused to see me?”
My mother yells back. “What would she think about why we don’t have a house?”
The night of my father’s stroke, I look at the Super Skate photos. “I should have let him come to breakfast,” I tell my husband. “I should have let mom get her photo.”
I was willing to let it all go.
And then we found out about the secret money, inherited from his brother in 2005, not long after the house got sold:
It wasn’t a normal inheritance. My uncle’s guardian — a half sister — invested his money while he was locked up in the Veteran’s Home, let it grow. She created their own birthright.
My aunt leaked the secret without knowing it was a secret. My mother called her about the nursing home and Medicaid application, and my aunt said, “What about the money from our brother?”
Every sibling got three disbursements, enough to buy a house in Cedar Rapids.
My mother lives on the edge: barely a few bucks after rent, Medicare supplemental insurance, prescription co-pays, her phone bill. “If we still had the house, we’d be comfortable,” she says. I know she regrets selling it. Back then, it seemed like her only option: get the hell out of that place of bad memories, get a little cash, try to pick up the pieces.
She needs a dental implant. She needs a new car. My father totaled her van three years ago and they never had the money to replace it.
The van. Oh god, the van. He bought her that van, used, when they got back together. He used to show it off all the time like an engagement ring.
“What do you bet he plunged some of that money into the van?” I text my sister.
“And then he wrecked it,” she texts back.
Of course he wrecked it.
Here we go again: I email my mother the probate case.
I tell her, “There’s the proof in black & white. He got that money.”
“I will never understand why he did it,” my mother says.
Because he never loved us, I want to say, but I don’t.
Ever since I left home, I have had trouble finding a home. I have lived all over: Iowa City, Portland, Salt Lake City, Boulder.
Of all the cities I have ever lived, I loved Salt Lake City the most because of the Mormons. I almost became a Mormon because I thought they know how to fix this.
The first time I visited Temple Square, I broke down in the visitor center in front of a row of miniature houses with television screens in the windows. Families can be together forever, the videos promised.
A pair of sister missionaries approached. I don’t think I understood yet that they were missionaries, even with the name tags. They directed me to the family history computers. I sat down, typed in Greg’s name, and it returned his social security number from the Social Security Death Index.
I could run a background check, I thought. I could learn things about him he never told me in life.
“Write it down,” one of the sister missionaries said, sliding a scrap paper toward me.
I didn’t know I was dialed into Granite Mountain Records Vault.
In 1960, the LDS Church blasted into a cliff in Little Cottonwood Canyon, drilling 700-foot long tunnels 675 feet below the surface and reinforcing them with concrete and steel. Ten-foot-tall steel cabinets line the corridors, relentless drawers like cells in a honeycomb, a card catalog of every human name the Mormons have harvested so far. Volunteers around the globe photograph birth certificates, baptism records, obituaries, marriage certificates — and more — on microfilm, delivering images to the hive, where archivists preserve them in perfect 55-degree temperatures and 35 percent humidity. Entrance tunnels lend the only hint of unnatural activity, like a secret alien laboratory or B-movie beehive.
Nobody except authorized personnel gets past the 14-ton Mosler doors — built to withstand nuclear apocalypse. Once a document goes in, it never comes out. The archive shuns tours and forbids researchers access to the originals. The security of the records trumps all else: The simple swishing of pant legs kicks up enough fugitive denim dust to obliterate a record.
Not even the Salt Lake City temple is so secure. When the Wasatch Fault ruptures, the earthquake will liquefy the clay and sand beneath the temple. It will fall. The LDS world headquarters will fall. The holy city of the saints will crumble, but the vault will live on, cocooned like a time capsule, impervious as an escape pod to the problems of man.
These are the records that allow Mormons to baptize the dead, save the souls of their ancestors, and seal families together for all eternity.
In 1836, the Prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland temple. He said that the hearts of the children must turn toward the fathers. He meant the ancestors. And so Mormons seal up the records, and seal families. Nobody ever goes astray.
Families can be together forever if the hearts of children turn toward the fathers.
In 2008, when Greg died, I got written out of the obituary. One day later, a corrected obit appeared:
I got written back into the family line, but only kind of. Carrie with a C, not a K. How does your family not know how to spell your name?
I never knew which family member called in the correction until I found out Scott is a Mormon–converted via shotgun if he wanted to marry the love of his life. But even still: converted.
Scott, the peacemaker. Scott, the negotiator of treaties when our family was at war. Scott, the one who will never erase you from the family line.
How do you not know your own brother is Mormon?
Scott broke me into Granite Mountain. Scott wanted us to be together forever.
Is this family?
“If Dad spent that money on anyone, he spent it on Greg,” my sister says, but I don’t know.
June 1977, Army infirmary:
“Parents killed in car accident April 1977.” But our father is still alive, and Greg’s mother didn’t die until 2004.
Greg dreamed our father dead.
Like brother like sister.
February 8 1990, two days after 15 candles on my birthday cake and four months until I tried to commit suicide:
“It’s hard to tell if it’s the fog, but it was different there,” one of the drivers said. He meant on Highway 30 near ADM Corn Sweeteners, same road my father drove every day to work maintenance at the ethanol plant.
One minute: clear skies. The next: fog so thick a school bus driver slowed his bus to a creep. Behind it: 17-year-old Lynn Jones, “the best of the best,” the principal of Prairie High School called him, an Eagle Scout, a swing choir boy, a “quiet leader.” He slammed the brakes too late, slid right under the bus.
The ethanol plant is eating cars.
January 22, 1988:
Cedar Rapids Gazette: Friday’s dense steam cloud provided drivers with a terrifying few seconds of driving. The highway simply disappeared.
Maury Burr of the Iowa Department of Transportation: “You drive into them and it’s lights out.”
February 2, 1988:
Sometimes, I imagined Dad’s pickup disappearing into the fog on Highway 30, too. Father killed in a car accident, 1990.
After I ran that postmortem background check, I found Greg’s widow on Facebook. I didn’t know if she believed Greg or his victim, but I took a gamble. I wrote, I am Greg’s youngest sister, and he did it to me, too. You are not alone.
We talked on the phone. She said, “Your dad used to come into our home and insult Greg’s mother.”
“I don’t know how to tell you this about your dad,” she said., “But —
I wrote down the words, traced them over and over as she talked. He had a girlfriend in Strawberry Point.
We knew about the girlfriend. We always knew.
Eight years old: I answer the plastic Garfield phone, tell the strange woman asking for my father that he isn’t home and “May I ask who is calling?”
“This is his wife,” she says, in a menthol voice.
“But you’re not Mom. Mom is his wife.”
In my medical records: my father’s social security number. I could run a background check. Find out things he never told me.
Mom finds a nursing home bed for Dad. “We can’t put him in the nicer one because they want a $3,000 deposit,” she says.
I research the cheaper nursing home, the one for poor people:
“We’ll have to be vigilant about abuse,” my sister says.
I picture my dad’s red catheter tubes curled on a shelf in the bathroom when I was a kid. He’s had to use them all these years because his bladder is too elastic, too stretched out, to squeeze out urine. I get so sad for him I hurt there, like a UTI. It’s where I always hurt when I think about him too much.
He did it to himself. He could have used his secret money.
It doesn’t make it any better. I am relieved when he does not go.
“We can’t put him in a nursing home against his will,” the doctors say.
They are going to leave that to his children. Pursue Power of Attorney, they advise us. It’s the only way.
Excerpt from a social worker report during one of my extended hospital stays, St. Luke’s Hospital, 1990:
When I was 13 or 14, I got a job detasseling corn. They recruited us at school, handing out the applications, and luring us in with the promise of good money we could spend however we wanted. We didn’t even have to get a ride. Buses would pick us up and transport us to the fields.
My father tried to stop me: No daughter of mine will get dirty in the corn fields.
I did it, anyway. Spent the money on my own school clothes and supplies. I thought if I bought them myself, he couldn’t yell at me anymore for costing him money.
That autumn, the falls started. The paresthesia. The seizures. Joint pain — there since childhood — intensified. I saw rheumatologists, orthopedists, neurologists. They tested me for arthritis, lupus, lumbar injuries, epilepsy, and Lyme.
Diagnosis: migraines and epilepsy, but it didn’t explain the pain or how my knees, shoulders, ankles, elbows and fingers slipped out of joint.
My father latched onto Lyme and refused to let go, even when blood tests came back negative:
The newspapers all that year:
“A tick must have got her when she out there detasseling,” my father said. He found a way to blame that job, to blame me.
But I never got bit by a tick.
“Your medical bills are draining us dry,” he said. “I wish you were never born.”
No daughter of mine will get dirty in the corn fields.
But it wasn’t just that job. It was any job.
Kool Moo ice cream stand, Cedar Rapids, 1992: My father skids into the parking lot, marches up to the counter reeking of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and demands I clock out and come with him. “I am not coming back for you later,” he says. I cannot drive because of my epilepsy, and he knows the buses do not come to our house in Hiawatha.
“Go ahead,” my boss says, his eyes fixed on my father’s, nodding like he might to a gunmen demanding cash out of the register.
Mr. Higgins has a lot of problems from his childhood because he is bitter for having to work at such a young age.
I see it now, how my father thought he was breaking some kind of cycle. He was never a child, so he would see to it I was always one.
I wish you were never born.
At my epileptologist’s office, we discuss the possibility I was never born.
Periventricular heterotopia: newborn baby neurons never migrated from their birthplace inside the ventricles to create the cerebral cortex during fetal development. Instead, they clung to the shore of their primordial sea inside the neural tube, anchored for life in the swirling waters of cerebrospinal fluid.
I might be a fetus and adult at the same time.
Four years ago, I got diagnosed with a neural tube birth defect called Chiari Malformation, which means: my skull is too small for my brain. My cerebellum crowns through the foramen magnum like a baby through the cervix. My brain is trying to be born.
On MRI films, my neural tube is a scroll without a seal: my spinal cord slit right down the center, like with a letter opener. All the secrets of my fetal development unfurled. Inside that tube: cavities called syrinxes. Syringomyelia.
And from that loose scroll: crest cells that migrated to my brain and face to create connective tissue, grow teeth.
My teeth. Deformed, with extra roots that curl and twist in my gum tissue like sea anemone. I have a high, narrow palate crowding my molars so close their roots appear tangled on x-rays, like trees planted too close.
The brain gives birth to the body.
By now, my sister has been diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder that explains our joints sliding out of place, paresthesia, chronic pain, migraines, high dental arches and tooth decay, my Chiari-Syringomyelia, maybe even my epilepsy. That’s why we are talking about periventricular heterotopia.
“Your neurons migrate on lattices of connective tissue,” my neurologist tells me. “If you have a connective tissue disorder, maybe those lattices aren’t quite right.” Heterotopia means: out of place. Neurons out of place, in the wrong home, cause seizures.
All the things my father blamed on Lyme, on my detasseling job, on me, turn out to be genetic.
And they were passed down through him.
I know because of Greg. The Airborne paratrooper golden child. Paternal half-brother. I got his records from the VA, filled out the request as next of kin, sent the corrected obit to prove it:
His records are full of tendon ruptures, hernias, migraines, pain, insomnia, joints out of place.
My father’s red catheter tubes, his stretched bladder; spontaneous pneumothorax in the 1980s, transported via ambulance from the ethanol plant to re-inflate his lung at the hospital; aortic root dilation; pain pain pain: all symptoms of EDS.
Not Lyme. Not my job getting dirty in the cornfields.
“See if you can get your brother Scott to go with you to the geneticist,” my neurologist says when I list off the family history. “Have them look at his joints, too. He may be the key.”
Scott, the peacemaker. Scott, who broke me into Granite Mountain. Scott, the Mormon. Scott, whose corrected obit unlocked Greg’s records. Scott, whose shoulders slide out of place, too.
Scott is my skeleton key.
On the phone, I tell Scott about Dad’s accusation: Scott is getting a little too close to Mom.
False accusations of incest from a father who never believed a real one. Greg did it to me, too. My father laughing, his half-toothless grin in the rearview mirror.
Scott tells me how he changes the oil in Mom’s van, helps with repairs around the house, helps when she can’t lift up my father from the floor.
How my father gets angry when he asks to speak to my mother on the phone.
“I never thought he was jealous,” he says. “I think of your mother as my mother now.”
This is what my father fears most: The hearts of children turn toward mothers.
I think, I will write you into the obit, too, when she dies. I will make sure you are listed as a surviving son. I will create your birthright like you created mine.
In Granite Mountain, a second obit will strengthen our connective tissue, bind us together forever.
At the cardiologist office, we discuss the possibility I was never born.
My echocardiogram gives me away: a patent foramen ovale, the hole in the heart of every human fetus, a secret passageway through the septum for blood to bypass the lungs. Fetal lungs are dormant. Unborn babies, floating in an amniotic sea, do not breathe. Their tiny hearts keep their blood a secret. Shhhhh, the lungs are not alive like we are yet.
When a baby breathes its first breath, the portal closes forever: no going back. Within a few months, it seals tight as a tomb. Except maybe mine never did. Maybe my lungs never trusted the air. Maybe my heart never trusted my lungs. My portal is still there, waiting, luring my blood back through time.
Inside the right atria: the Chiari Network, meshy strands leftover from embryonic development, named for Hans Chiari, the physician who discovered them during autopsies, same man who discovered my neural tube birth defect. Chiari is inside me everywhere. A through-line from heart to brain: Chiari, Chiari, Chiari.
Maybe EDS, too: it causes heart defects.
Or the hole could be an atrial septal defect–not a purposeful passageway, an accidental one, when the atrial tissue failed to finish forming.
Either way, my heart thinks I am still incubating. I do not yet exist.
Later, they find an aortic aneurysm, too: Something for old people, I think. How can I be old and never born at the same time?
EDS causes that, too: my conception will be my undoing.
“Does anyone in your family have heart defects?”
“My father,” I say.
The hearts of children turn toward the fathers, literally.
What about the hearts of fathers?
My father’s high school sweetheart left him money when she died last year.
Last year. They were still together, still in love. She had my father’s heart until the bitter end.
“Her children called him,” my sister says. “Asked him not to take it. They needed it for her burial.”
We have to find the kids, check the story. Medicaid demands a full accounting.
I search the obits for her first name; it’s all we have.
Judy + [town where she died]
One hit. Right year, right name, right location.
It could be my family:
Judy married a man named Clifford–same name as my father. She named her first daughter Denise.
I freeze. Denise is my sister’s name.
I text my sister. She replies, “I am going to be sick. Mom always told me that Dad insisted on my name.”
“Let’s hope it’s the wrong Judy,” I text back, but we already know it is not.
I search the court database for her probate, find her divorce instead: 1997. The year Mom found out the first time. Dad promised to end it, but he never did.
But Judy did — with the other Clifford. The mirror Clifford.
We are not a real family. We are his pretend family.
I am glad I said no to that family photo. I am glad it doesn’t exist, because we don’t exist.
I start searching property records. Maybe Dad bought Judy a house. Maybe that other Denise — bizarro world Denise — is sitting in it right now. Maybe she is the real child, with the real inheritance. Maybe she just found out about secret money, too.
I dispatch my sister to our parents’ apartment. “Rifle through dad’s papers,” I say. “Look for a bank statement or maybe a safe deposit box key.”
The only thing she finds is shoe boxes filled with fishing trip photos and this:
I wonder if Greg wanted that photo. I wonder if Scott did. I wonder if they exist to him.
January 2018: I return home for my appointment in the Connective Tissue Clinic at one of my childhood hospitals, the same clinic where my sister got diagnosed with EDS. It is my turn to be written into this genealogy with my father and brothers and sister. For my connective tissue to become part of the connective tissue that binds us.
It’s seven years since my last and only visit. Nobody in my family has seen me with a walking cane, rollator, ataxia, hearing aids. I am recovering from DVT and a mini-stroke, still on blood thinners after I begged my doctor not to take me off them, weaker than I used to be. I am the same Karrie who left 18 years ago; I am not the same Karrie who left 18 years ago.
“That’s my Granite Mountain,” I tell my husband as I look out our hotel window at the hospital.
In my suitcase: hundreds of pages of medical records from my mother, my father, Greg, and me.
I may never know if my dad bought a house for his high school sweetheart, but I can draw the tracings of his heart on an EKG in 2005. I know the size of his aortic root dilation and how his hernia repairs failed. I know the precise date he refused to stop blood thinners against medical advice because he — like me — was afraid of another stroke. Is this family? Is this real?
The next day at the geneticist’s office, the doctor bends my elbows backward, measures the degree. Bends my pinkies backward, measures the degree. Pulls my thumbs to my forearms. Watches me hyperextend my knees, measures the degree. Shines a flashlight on my teeth. She examines my echocardiogram, reviews the records of my Chiari-Syringomyelia and scoliosis.
She says: You have EDS. It feels like something real. A real connection. I am part of a family. I made my own birthright, my own inheritance. I am my own skeleton key.
When she takes the family medical files, I think: Once records go in, they never come out. Families can be together forever.
In the hallway of my parents’ apartment building, I show my father my rollator, ask him to give it a whirl. He’s got a hospital rehab-issue silver walker, the kind you can pick up at the drugstore. He refuses to use it, keeps falling.
“Let me show you how to engage the brakes,” I say squeezing them and asking him to try.
“I’m going to need a new driver’s license,” he says, chuckling.
The state revoked his license after he totaled Mom’s van.
Now he is like me, the epileptic child who never learned to drive. He made himself like me.
“Keep it,” I say.
“Are you sure?” he says. “These things are expensive.”
“It’s OK,” I say. I guess I am leaving him an inheritance, too.
In the living room of my parents’ apartment, we talk about our hearts. Who has a hole in their heart, like Karrie? Who has an aortic aneurysm, like Karrie?
“Some of your heart problems, I have, too,” Dad says, and I can tell he is excited for the connection.
Why do our connective tissues have to be fucked up?
Scott asks me about Salt Lake City, talks about being Mormon. “I drink coffee and beer. I could never give them up.”
He is Mormon by shotgun.
I don’t tell him about Granite Mountain. “I almost converted,” I say. “But I could never give up coffee, either.”
Mom gets out her camera, directs us to stand together for a family photo. She is finally getting it: one last picture of us all together.
Is it real now?
When I leave, my father follows me out the door and shouts, “I love you!” across the parking lot. He looks so frail, so weak, like he can’t hurt me anymore, but then I remember the secret money. He is still hurting us. The heart of this father does not turn toward his children.
I’ll never understand why he did it.
He never loved us.
A month later, on the anniversary of Judy’s death, my father mails me his Harvard Heart Newsletter with an article highlighted:
Marriage is saving his heart.
I’ve never hurt my wife–your mom–physically, but mentally I guess I did for … I don’t know why now. But I thought I would have time to make it up.