Sad Drama

I’ve been standing on the curb outside baggage claim at BWI for 25 minutes, waiting for my brother, Gerald. The air feels brisk but not unpleasant, and I’m reminding myself that Gerald’s tardiness is most likely not an indication of rudeness or disrespect, but rather a symptom of a life in chaos.

According to Google Maps, it’s currently a 22 minute-drive from his house in Ellicott City to the airport. Although he is a pathologically conscientious driver, he should be here by now, even if he didn’t leave his house until I called to say that I was waiting outside Door D1 (a not improbable scenario, despite his assurance that he was already “on his way”). 

The thought occurs that maybe it’s Gerald’s turn to get in a car crash, and that this explains his not being here. 

I briefly weigh calling to see if he’s okay, and I even pull out my phone but then decide against it; most likely he’s missed a turn or has gotten stuck behind a semi-truck, and a ringing phone will only exacerbate his stress. 


Do I remember the car crash that killed our parents? I think the most accurate, honest answer is that, if I do have any unique episodic memories of that event in my life, I cannot access them. When I try to force myself to recall some sensation or detail - as Gerald has pressed me to do many times over the years - I can only retrieve the stories I’ve been told, second-hand memories imparted to me by my brother and my grandparents.

I know that I was two and a half years old, that Gerald had just turned five, and that we were living in Minnesota at the time. I don’t know whether my parents were happy living there, away from both their families. I don’t know if they had made friends and felt they belonged, or if they would have moved away some day. Whatever their intentions or motivations in life, on September 15, 1989, on their way home from a restaurant, my parents’ car was T-boned by a tractor trailer at an intersection less than two miles from our home.

A babysitter named Amber was watching us that night, and my parents had left her our neighbor Linda’s phone number in case there was an emergency. When my parents hadn’t returned home by 11 pm, long after Gerald and I had fallen asleep, Amber called Linda, who started calling all the hospitals, and sent her husband to come retrieve us so that Amber could be relieved of her duties. My father was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. My mother was in critical condition, and would die several hours later, in the early morning hours of September 16. The Isaacs, my maternal grandparents, arrived from Maryland that afternoon. All this, I know from my grandma. 

Gerald remembers being awoken by Linda’s husband Dave; he remembers that he cried when grandpa tried to explain to us that we couldn’t see mommy and daddy anymore. Gerald says he remembers going outside after learning our parents were dead and hearing a bird that must have been a mourning dove because he remembers thinking that the bird sounded sad, too.

I don’t remember any of that. 

I can conjure up an image of both my parents, but the representations in my brain are most likely of pictures I’ve seen. I have fragmentary memories of that house in Minnesota where we lived, but for the most part, the most traumatic event in my life left very few psychological traces. Where Gerald has scars, I have only absence.


Gerald finally rolls up to the curb, slightly past where I’m standing, and pops open the trunk from the driver’s seat, staying in the car as I nestle my bag between a box of National Geographic volumes and what appears to be a diorama of a scene featuring neolithic hunters and a variety of now-extinct mammals. A single, unpaired Adidas shoe presides over the spectacle, atop an aluminum blanket that has been slovenly shoved into one corner of the trunk.

“Hey, how was the flight?” Gerald’s only salutation. 

“Uneventful” I shrug. “Bad traffic today?” 

“The usual,” he says wearily, his eyes darting between the road, and each of the three mirrors available to him, as he cautiously shifts the car out of park.

“How’s Grams liking her new place?” I ask, only half-turning my head toward Gerald, as if I too need to stay focused on the road.

“Well,” he makes that inscrutable sound of his, something between a chuckle and a scoff, “I talked to her yesterday, and she basically gets stuck in the same loop every time: ‘How do you like the new place, grandma?’ ‘Well, it’s what needs to be, I guess.’ ‘But how do you like it?’ “Well, it’s what needs to be.’ And you know how it is with her these days. You can basically only have the same four or five conversations, just rearranged in a different order.”

Gerald has always had the more bearish outlook on our grandparents’ health. I sense that he’s already begun the process of preparing for grandma’s eventual death. Understandably, but unfortunately, he has made ‘perpetual preparedness for the worst’ a virtue on par with the Cardinal tetrad. It must be said, though, that he has been more stable and functional throughout grandma’s move into assisted living, while I have been struggling to reconcile myself to the fact that the woman who raised us is no longer capable of looking after herself.

I anticipate an emotionally fraught weekend: we’ll be getting grandma’s house ready to sell, saying goodbye to our childhood home, and reckoning with all the material objects that once were belongings, but have now become clutter.  Every discussion about this weeknd with Gerald, though, has been purely logistical.

I can’t exactly remember the way to Gerald’s current apartment -he’s moved three times in the last three years- but the roads we’re navigating are all familiar. We lived at our grandparents’ house in Frederick from 1989 until our respective high school graduations, and although I moved away and never moved back, I return to visit as often as I can, usually flying into BWI. Gerald has tried several times to venture further afield; he got a scholarship to a university in Iowa, but for a variety of reasons --homesickness, grades that endangered his scholarship, boredom with Iowa --he transferred to the University of Maryland after only one semester. He tried moving to Colorado after graduation, but couldn’t find a job; he went to South Korea to teach English for a year, and was more than ready to leave by the time the year was up. After each foray out into the wider world, he’s returned, unwillingly but inevitably, to the corridor between Frederick and Baltimore, within the radial embrace of our grandma.


I don’t know if there was much deliberation about who would take care of us after our parents died, but Grandma and Grandpa Isaacs took us back to their home seemingly, without any objection. I suppose we would not have known if this had been controversial at the time.

Empty nesting had, I suspect, been particularly difficult for my grandma, and the idea of having to go through the entire child-rearing-process with two more kids was apaprently less daunting to her than solitude at home with my grandpa. We still occasionally saw my maternal Grandma , Fuller, but she was significantly older - she had my dad when she was 39, and my dad was three years older than my mom. Moreover, Grandma Fuller lived in Oklahoma, so the logistics of visiting were challenging from the beginning. 

Initially, after moving to my grandparents’ house, I would cry every night, and sometimes, when nothing could calm me, Gerald would start crying with me, and we would both cry for a bit, but once he stopped, I would stop too. That’s according to Gerald, of course. It would have been an extremely clever tactic for a five year old, and it might be true. I don’t remember, and my grandma’s answer each time I’ve asked her to confirm Gerald’s version of events is “Well you both cried so much that first year that I’m sure the beginning and ending of your cries coincided at least a few times.”

Gerald had a harder time adjusting to our grandparents’ home than I did. Whereas I had experienced an abrupt shift in life circumstances that required some getting used to, his little world had been shattered, just as he was beginning to make sense of and give names to it. All of his teachers, from Kindergarten through 3rd grade, would tell my grandparents that they worried Gerald did not seem engaged in the classroom.

Grandma and Grandpa both came to all our parent-teacher conferences over the years, and maintained a level of involvement in our lives that, in retrospect (and unfortunately only in retrospect) was remarkable, given that they were seventy years old by the time I graduated from high school, and that they had spent over half those years raising children. In my opinion, we had the best of all worlds: we were spoiled like grandkids when we were younger, and by the time we were teenagers, our grandparents (and Grandpa in particular) simply didn’t have the energy to implement or enforce  disciplinary protocols as rigid as those of some of my friends’ parents.

My grandpa, may he rest in peace, was doing his best at raising kids in the 90s, but he was a child of the 40s and a parent of the 60s. He let us both play whatever sports we wanted, and took us to all our games and practices. I suspect this was because he had enough context to understand team sports, unlike video games, skateboarding, and all the other activities available to 90s kids.

Around the age of nine, I started to become curious about my parents, and ask questions about who they had been. My grandpa was the one who would regale me with stories of my mother when she was my age. He was the one who told me that the year my mother was born, they planted the white ash tree in the front yard, and sometimes still called it “Barbara-tree.” Over the years, my association of that tree with my mother solidified. I would climb and sit with my back resting against the trunk, my legs straddling one of the sturdier limbs, and I would think child’s thoughts, trying to weave together fragments from my grandpa’s stories with pictures I’d seen in photo albums, and flourishes from my own active imagination to create a mental portrait of the mother I didn’t remember.


The plan is to go see grandma’s new apartment first thing in the morning, take her out to breakfast, and then spend the rest of the day at the house, sorting and cleaning.

Grandma’s apartment in the assisted living facility is quite small, but therefore, manageable. Her most recognizable furniture -- the stately oak rocking chair, the dining table with the drawers that pull out, the avocado-colored sofa that has almost come back into fashion -- moved with her, which must be helping to smooth the transition. It at least makes seeing her uprooted from her home less jarring than I anticipated.

Getting her into the car to go to breakfast is more of an ordeal than I remember, and I realize that I don’t know how long it’s been since the last time I saw her get into a car. For several years now, she’s stayed at home when I visited, and I ran all her errands for her. 

Grandma has her set of stock phrases that she repeats every time we go out to eat, and as she rattles them off, Gerald gives me a sideways smirk. It’s the first hint of complicity between us all weekend, so although it comes at grandma’s expense, I return it with a wink.

“So tell me about your new ladyfriend,” grandma playfully punches my arm.

“Her name is Luisa; we’ve been together six months,” I begin.

“What a beautiful name. Luisa?”

I smile and nod. We’ve had this exact conversation a dozen times, but I don’t want to embarrass her by pointing this out.

“And what about you, Gerald? Where’s that woman of yours?”

For a split-second, I wonder if Gerald has really become so distant that he has a girlfriend and hasn’t told me. 

“You mean Elodie?” Gerald asks sternly.

“Yes, that sweet brunette.”

Gerald clenches his jaw. “We got divorced...She, she left...you seriously don’t…?” He gets up abruptly and walks toward the bathroom .

When it’s just the two of us, Grandma says to me “You know, I think I did know that, but I didn’t want to remember it. He’s just had so much bad luck in his life. I didn’t want to remember that, but I should.”


The errant question about Elodie seems to have soured Gerald’s mood, and as we drive to the house, he launches a salvo: “It’s scary that that’s in our genetics, you know. Our brains could just totally go to shit one day.”

“She’s in her eighties,” I say. “This happens.”

I don’t know whether he’s heard me or whether it even matters. He’s building a full head of steam: “You should be more concerned about getting those forgetful genes. You don’t even remember mom and dad dying.” 

There it is.

“I was two years old. And you wanna talk about being stuck in a loop? How many times do we have to have this conversation?”

“It was just you and me, we were each other’s only link of continuity. I cried you to sleep at night, and lucky you, you just somehow forgot it all, moved on.” I’ve heard several variations on this theme from Gerald. I don’t remember thinking, when we were growing up, that it was just the two of us, or that we only had each other. We did have our grandparents after all. 

“What do you remember from when you were two years old, huh, Mr. Perfect Memory?” I jab back.

“I remember when you were born, and I was the same age then as you were when mom and dad died.”

“I doubt you actually remember me being born; you remember the home videos. You remember the pictures…”

“Nah, I remember them coming home with you, and I remember that everything changed. Big things like that stick with you, or at least they’re supposed to.” 

This is the most erratic I’ve ever seen Gerald drive, but at least he’s driving slowly. 

“Look, I’m sorry that I don’t have clear and distinct memories from when I was two and a half years old, okay?”

“Just try, just close your eyes. Think!”

This conversation is every bit as predictable as talking to grandma, and I've had enough. “You wanna know how memory actually works? Because I did some reading, and whenever you try to recall an episodic memory, you’re actually just retrieving your most recent memory. It’s not like you’re actually able to directly access a memory from 30 years ago. It’s a memory of a memory of a memory et cetera, so I do have memories of that night just like yours, except instead of retrieving memories of my own memories, I’m recalling memories of your memories and grandma’s memories.”

“Thank you for that dubious-sounding lecture, Dr. Fuller. I’m glad you’ve found the pseudoscience angle on our childhood.” 

There’s no point in responding so I don’t. 

There are only a few wispy clouds in the sky, but as we pull into the driveway, the house looks forlorn. At first, I assume I’m just projecting, but as I get out of the car and start walking up the driveway, I realize what’s wrong: the white ash tree has been cut down.

“Whoa, what happened here?” I demand of Gerald

“The realtor thought the limbs were getting too close to the house, and it had emerald ash borers, so it was probably going to die in a few years anyway. I had someone come cut it down and haul it away a few weeks ago.

“That was...that was...mom’s tree, that was...” The effort of holding back tears also stifles words. “That was her,” I say, kneeling on the ground next to the stump.

I expect Gerald to say something like “It had to be done,” or “We need to sell the house,” or reference some other practical concern devoid of emotion. What he says instead is much worse:

“Well, I guess now you know what it’s like to actually feel loss.”

This unexpected cruelty momentarily paralyzes me.

“You did this to hurt me, didn’t you? You..you just have to erase anything that’s beautiful to other people,” I don’t know if the words coming out of me make any sense. I don’t know if anything in this world makes any sense. 

Gerald rolls his eyes and walks away, leaving me with the stump of the Barbara-tree.

I sit on the ground for I know not how long, lachrymose, caressing the stump, trying to retrieve those child’s thoughts, memories of fabricated memories. 

I start counting the rings on the stump, lose track and start again. Then I realize that I don’t need to count. This tree was planted the year my mother was born, and she would be 61 if she was still alive. 

Quietly I sit, half-expecting to hear a mourning dove coo. The only sounds that reach me are the hum of car traffic and, in the distance, an airplane. I hope these memories do not become scars.

February 06, 2021 04:39

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