The best fiction always ties something down to fact, making the fantastical accessible to every strength of imagination. A magical tool is unique beyond belief yet recognizable as it serves a function that is nearly necessary to our lives in reality. A lie that is based in the truth will go further than one without a provable foundation, as has been proven over and over again in our history.
Fiction versus fact is not strictly an external concept, though; most of us are perfectly capable of successfully lying to ourselves. People go about their lives believing one thing and acting to the contrary every day, existing in perpetual cognitive dissonance.
The story I want to tell today is not like that. Despite our best efforts to live authentically, there will not always be adequate protection against shadows from the past. Intrusive thoughts can have a person swimming in an ocean of "What If?" and "I should've" and "Did I really?" Flashbacks wreak havoc on the mental and emotional health of a trauma survivor and the triggers frequently make no sense at all. Gaslighting weaves false memories into the tapestry of a person's soul until they have no confidence in their own recollection or perception of reality. The subconscious can twist reality into the most painful of dreams, so vivid that they prompt the survivor to question whether they were actually dreaming at all.
In many instances, survivors with PTSD will experience these things in simultaneous or rapid-succession clusters rather than just one at a time.
This is a fictionalization of the very real experiences of someone I love dearly. It touches on themes of parental death, corpse decay, suicidal ideation, and emotional abuse, as well as the effects those traumas can have on a person.
Left foot crosses the sidewalk break. Right foot crosses over that, roughly three-quarters of the way to the next sidewalk break so that my left foot will cross over first again. These are fairly small sidewalk squares so I only have two steps per square. One, two. One, two.
This sidewalk is good for times like right now - when my heart is racing, I can't blink, and the only sound I hear behind my own counting is a soft and terrible roar.
I need my mom to call me back, right now. Everything is too far gone for me to swim back to the shore and be okay without someone to save me and I know that right now she's the only person who can save me.
One, two. One, two. I was walking to work at the used textbook store when I couldn't fight the cyclone in my head anymore and am now just pacing back and forth at the end of the university's sidewalk, textbooks be damned.
Finally I get the buzz I'm waiting for, and a picture of me and my mom takes up the screen. I slide right to answer.
"Mama?" I murmur, and I know I won't be able to hold it together completely. I break through the pacing, but only to continue watching my steps back toward my car across campus.
"Oh, shit. What's wrong, baby?" She's panicking. I hate when I make her panic.
I can't speak at first, only breathe with as much control as I can muster.
"Beth, what's wrong? Are you okay?" I hear her chair scoot away from the dining table as if she can jump three states and fix it before she even knows what "it" is.
I scrape in a breath. "Is Daddy really dead?" I know I didn't yell, yet all of the air left my lungs with those four words.
A beat of silence. "Oh, honey," she coos. "Yes, your Daddy died. It was a little over three years ago, and you and your brothers picked out a beautiful headstone for him. Can you describe the headstone for me, Beth?"
I breathe, close my eyes, and detail the stone I've spent hours and hours staring at. "It's black marble. It has a Caduceus on one side and our names and handprints on the other," I say, sounding robotic as I do my best to fight the scream building in my throat.
"That's right, baby. I'm so sorry. You had that dream again, didn't you?"
I did, but the thing about that dream is that it hurts in a new way every time. It's evolved over the years, but through the differences I still consider them all to be that dream, because the core of it is that I get to see or at least talk to my dad again. It used to come more frequently but it's been about six months since the last one. I think my subconscious must have been saving up venom to strike me this time, because it's never been so deliberately mean.
Initially I think it was even kind, in a way. He would come to me in my sleep having been resurrected from death. Each time the dream came, about once a week at first, he would appear to be a bit more ...decayed. It was a little weird to have a zombie-dad in my dreams so often but I got to love him and be loved by him for a little bit longer, so it didn't matter to me when a section of skin sloughed off his face while we were shopping for model airplane supplies together, or when his hand came off in mine when we were walking at the park. The part that hurt the most with these dreams was that I had to re-bury him at the end of each visit, helping him into his casket and waving goodbye before covering the tomb. He couldn't come back for real and he couldn't even stay with me in my dreams; from these dreams, I woke up slowly and with tears already soaking the pillow. There was never any sobbing, just unblinking eyes and a pounding, broken heart.
When I told my mom about this one, she didn't know what to say other than to reassure me that his grave is completely undisturbed but that if he could come back she was sure that he would.
The second iteration of this dream hurt in new ways. In these dreams, he wasn't dead at all; he'd been forced to fake his own death to go into witness protection after whistleblowing a major crime syndicate. I would be out doing something mundane - I think I was sweeping a lake cabin in the most memorable one - and unexpectedly hear his voice whispering my name from a hidden place. I find him and my emotions explode; he and the two random suited men nearby have to shush me. My dad holds me through my silent sobs. He explains that the government paid for an immaculate wax replica of his body to really sell the story with an open-casket funeral, that he only has today to spend with me and my brothers before he has to go back into hiding, and we have to swear to never tell anyone. We spent time together, just talking and feeding ducks at a park, but at the end we hugged and I knew it would be the last time.
When I told my mom this story, she tucked my hair behind my ear and reminded me that she had been the one to confirm the deceased body was him before the autopsy could take place. She hugged me and told me that she knew my dad was never involved in crime, but he would have done anything to prevent living separate from us like that.
This time was different. My subconscious found a new way to torture me: Dad himself did the torturing. So I recount the nightmare to my mom, right there in the middle of the sidewalk.
The scene I describe is joyful, not at all matching the chill of my voice.
It was my high school graduation. We actually got to be in the stadium instead of the basketball gym because the weather was beautiful, which is a vast improvement on the truth. Before we walked across the stage, someone passed me an envelope that held a handwritten letter. I recognize, in red, penmanship that lines birthday cards and postcards with loving messages.
"You are my proud and strong eagle, Angelface. You keep me on track for where I need to go."
"I could not be more proud of you! I love you, Angelface! - Daddy"
But this letter is all wrong. It's so wrong, and I hate that even as I am standing awake I see it burned onto the backs of my eyelids and that I recognize every stroke. I hate that I had no choice in my dream but to read it in his voice.
The truth is, I hate you. I hate you so much that I took out every loan I could to pay for my faked death. How does it make you feel to know that you drove someone to pay over half a million dollars and go into debt that they'll never be able to pay off just to get away from you?
I live in Wisconsin now, with a family that I actually love. They make me happy. My wife is kind and funny, and she's a wonderful mother to our children. Our son is fifteen and his sister is nine, and while they aren't my blood I love them more than I ever loved you.
The blood-tinted ink filled the whole page, but I could barely make sense of it. I kept reading sentences over and over again, getting them mixed up and losing the thread of sense that I was clawing to keep hold of.
I chose this moment to give you this letter because I want to make sure you know that everyone who tells you I'm proud of you, that I'm smiling on your accomplishments from Heaven, is wrong. I don't want you to go another moment of your life with the belief that you are my daughter in any way further than genetics.
I know you saw the message on Christmas Eve where I told my ex that I didn't see the point of staying alive. I had a plan to end it all the next day but a new plan came to me in a dream that night, and I knew that I could escape the pain without actually dying if I just fooled you all. Quite the Christmas Miracle, right?
Don't take this as an invitation to contact me or my family. We are perfectly happy without you or any of my other mistakes.
Oh, and remember: If you kill yourself, I won't be on the other side to greet you. And that isn't just because I'm still breathing.
This is where I woke up screaming. This is the letter that has been flashing in my mind's eye all day and that pulled me so deep into the spiral of pain that I lost confidence in my own memory.
"Beth," I hear, distantly. I know I'm holding the phone directly against my ear but there's a wall of water between me and the sound of my mother's voice. "Your Daddy loved you three more than anything in the universe. Every fiber of his being was made of his love for you. He would never, ever…" she trails off. I know how she cries - this is where she has to put her face in her hands. I hate making her cry.
"I know he worked from far away a lot when you were growing up but every moment he had to spend apart from you was hell for him. You didn't see it because he wouldn't let you, but each time he kissed you goodnight, knowing he would fly out before sunrise and wouldn't see you again for weeks, he cried. Oh, baby, I promise you your Daddy loved you. Your Daddy still loves you."
I am breathing as evenly as I can. Eventually, with effort, I say, "Thank you, Mama. I feel better." I know she wants to hug me through the phone, but this distance is part of growing up. "I miss him so much."
"I miss him, too."
Neither of us speaks for a while. I know that she'll stay on the line with me for as long as I need her to, and I still need her to.
The lock on my car door lifts with a click and I shuffle in, press the ignition, and connect to the BlueTooth stereo. "I'm sorry I have to ask you these questions. I know that I should know these things," I say. My tone is flat again, gritting hard against a meltdown. I know I need this conversation. I know I'm not done asking painful questions.
A slow inhale, then she asks, "Do you have more questions? You sound like something is still bothering you, Beth."
My mouth won't move. As much as this call has already hurt, I have to ask more. This time, though, I tumble over the words that eventually spill from the dam of emotion in my throat:
"Did I actually try to kill myself when I was sixteen, or did I just make that up for attention?"
I hear her break, but we break together. My head is swimming and I feel physically beaten by the doubt, by the uncertainty, by the shame. Now she's the one struggling to speak.
"Yes, baby," she breathes. Her voice sounds so tiny and defeated. "That did happen. It was real, and we came to get you. You drove all the way home from Atlanta and your Papa and I were very proud of how well you did. We had potato soup for a week because that's all you could eat; you said that nothing else was worth the effort." We both chuckle, disheartened but genuine.
She always brings me details that are related but not painful whenever I need her help finding the truth. She asks me to recall adjacent facts, such as the description of the headstone. I think she does this to soften the blow of connecting back to reality, because I can focus on remembering the other thing without rejecting the facts that hurt.
"To be fair," I start, trying on a smile as I cling to that tidbit of truth. "Your potato soup could make anyone believe that eating is worth the effort, no matter how sick they feel."
I know the way her soft smile is spreading before she responds, "Well thank you, baby. I love making it for you."
We're quiet again, for just a moment.
"You're going to get better, Beth. Just keep up with therapy and never hesitate to call me and ask questions. I love you to the moon and back, baby girl. Your Daddy does, too."
I'm laying down next to the man who loves me. My mind is muddy so I decided I need to take a nap, and he joined me. He smiles at me like I'm a buttercup at sunrise, or the sweet scent of honeysuckle carried on the breeze at night. I know that he loves me.
But then he turns over to put his phone on the charger, and it's not him anymore. Suddenly it's the other. Suddenly, I'm being shunned and shut out, and my plea to know why is being ignored.
Behind my eyelids is hell with its dirty sheets, cruel words, and crueler expectations. I'm not sure that I actually know how to open my eyes anymore, though, because when I try to see reality I'm stuck in an angry gray ocean. I swim as fervently as I can, doing my best to stay above water, but the waves are taller than I am and the little yellow buoy in the distance seems so far away.
The water scares me; I've never even been to the ocean, yet I'm drowning so vividly in what I know to be a one bedroom apartment in the middle of the country. I close my eyes to escape the maelstrom and find myself back in that other apartment, from so many years and so many therapists ago. I relive all the times that affection was taken from me in order to train me to his liking, and all the times I was told that I was undeserving of love but should be grateful that he can't help being so kindhearted.
I feel a low, keening moan slip out of my throat and through my gritted teeth. I'm kicking and thrashing, trying to escape something but I don't know what, exactly, because the ocean feels like cotton sheets and the howling wind is broken through by a voice in the distance. I know this voice comes from that little yellow buoy. I know, distantly, that this voice belongs to a man who doesn't know whether to hold me or back away because he's never seen a meltdown like this before. I decide to try my hardest to get to that buoy and cling to it.
My arms wrap around my saving grace. In one perception it's the buoy, in another it's my beloved.
He's trying desperately to bring me back, but I don't have the words he needs me to have right now. All I can push out is, "You. Safe." My fingers dig into his flesh but if he minds he doesn't say anything.
Eventually, I can see him again. His eyes are frantic, panicked, scared for me.
"Beth, what just happened?"
The storm is clearing up, unfortunately making clear to me exactly what I was trying to escape. A flashback triggered by a perfectly normal behavior.
So I tell him, and he listens, and he jokingly promises to never put his phone on the charger while already in bed again.
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