Silence and Laughter
Catherine was the good child: National Merit scholar; athlete; the child who’d unload the dishwasher without being asked. My brother Bobby struggled with depression; I (four years younger than Cat; seven years shy of Bobby) was a foureyed klutz, the type who’d make mountains out of molehills, the B/B+ to my sister’s A. Catherine was beautiful, too, in that uncopyable way: 5’11 with regal shoulders; auburn hair that fell to her waist; Bjorkian cheekbones; thick, unplucked eyebrows.
She’d gotten Lyme’s disease at age twelve and never fully recovered. As a teenager she could predict rain by the aches in her joints. She suffered from chronic migraines.
There is a seriousness inside my sister. Perhaps it is the seriousness that comes with having known pain, real physical pain, from a young age. She has an old soul. Not of this world. Not of Manhattan. Not of the Hamptons. Viking Sister. Indian Chief Sister. I used to sneak into her room and finger her things turquoise bracelets; records in sleeves as if, in touching her curios, I thought her coolness would rub off on me. I’d stare at her bulletin board, plastered with clippings of cowboys and motorcycles and desert scapes, trying to penetrate her faraway world. Cowgirl Catherine.
When Catherine found out she was pregnant, she was 23, two years younger than I am now. My family was in Bridgehampton. Now that us children have grown up and scattered, we get together as a family infrequently; but when we do, it is here, in Bridgehampton.
I remember that it was morning: I am sitting on the screened porch with my parents, who are buried in The New York Times. I am staring out into the open field, recalling memories of running around out there in the dark, playing flashlight tag with Bobby before he withdrew, looking up into the night sky and seeing my first stars (not many but some, enough). Being overwhelmed with terror at the sight of these exotic things, stars; feeling lonesome and scared underneath the sky because the world is too vast for me to handle being in. (The Big Empty Feeling, my mother would coin it, because it helps to put a name on things.)
Catherine enters the room with a steak, which she proceeds to devour. It’s scarcely eight am.
“Cat,” my mother addresses my sister in the kitchen, a while later. “Any chance you’re pregnant?”
I remember walking with Catherine along the ocean later that week, when she told me she was leaning towards not having an abortion.
Let me be clear: she and the babydaddy are not together. If she keeps it, she’ll be raising a child alone.
Catherine is an atheist. She studied Darwin in college.
We walk. To our left is the Atlantic: cold, lapping, endless. Blimps with ads can hover all they want but that’ll change nothing. I don’t know how people have fun at the beach the ocean scares me, makes me feel overwhelmingly small just like the big sky does. I let Catherine walk next to the water; I’ll stick to the side with the multimillion dollar bungalows, things we can own, try to control.
“I don’t want to be a person that always needs to be in control,” she says. “I want to live life, take what life gives me and make that beautiful, you know? Live out what life gives me, rather than stepping back and trying to control it all the time.”
It’s a neat idea, parsing livinglife from controllinglife. It seems wrong. It’s just life. Life is. It’s not like sometimes we’re in, sometimes out. We’re the controllers and the controlled. Sometimes caught up, sometimes watching. We make decisions and watch them slip out of our grasp, develop a life of their own.
Still, at gutlevel, I understand. We were born inside the New York pressurecooker. We were trained to make choices that’d make our resume more appealing, as if that was life: resumebuilding.
Indiana for Indiana Jones. Bruce after Bruce Springsteen. Isis, oh you mystical child.
“Isis. Sounds like the name of a stripper,” my father said.
“Well, the child will have good genes,” he said. “Trinity mom plus the dad’s father is an Israeli mathematician, right?”
Isis was born two weeks late, with a large freckle plopped on her forehead like her third eye, exposed. (“I bet she’ll have bangs when she grows up.”) I was away at college when she was a newborn; my first memory of her is back on that screened porch. I am with a philosophy-head lover and my mother, we are reading. Isis lies in an absurdly fancy and oldfashioned pram. Pink blossoms from the magnolia cover the ground outside. There is late afternoon stillness, which the singing of crickets sporadically break.
“When will she start doing stuff?”
Isis studies us in silence.
“She seems to hold a lot of wisdom,” my mother answers.
“Ya, she’s like a wise watching guru. Like Cat. But seriously, when will she talk?”
“The most intelligent creatures take longest to develop. The gestation period of a mouse is three weeks.”
The rest of the day is banter about what it’s like to experience the world as an infant, before having language; what one can understand whether one sees more or less when one’s experience is unfiltered by words. The philosophyhead requests to go to the beach, where we continue our speculations and makeout.
That conversation could’ve happened the summer after Isis was born, or the summer after that. Time passed. We waited. I think adults like having children around because they stop the years from bleeding together. Each season becomes marked with milestones. With Isis, the passing of time felt more like a threat: okay Isis you’re about to be two, will you please make some sounds?
You’re a big girl now! Almost four! We really better get you talking!
Now, Isis is fiveandahalf and she still can’t speak. We don’t know precisely what’s the matter. She needed physical therapy to learn how to crawl, how to move; now, she runs and jumps somewhat spastically all over the place. She’s in speech therapy, and has made progress: she can sound out more consonants and is trying.“KawwFEY! kawwFEY!” she barks at my mug of tea.
Catherine got married in May, out here, at St. Ann’s church. Needless to say, she’s continued to be a savage: she’s an ICU nurse, and faces death the hard facts of life daily. I’ve been doing my own “lifeliving”: futzing around nature communes out West. When I came out for the wedding, I hadn’t seen Isis for almost a year. I wondered whether I would be sad.
It is impossible to feel sad around Isis. I know, I haven’t been around often, and I’m only the aunt. Still. She laughs so much. She is, honest to God, the happiest person. The Holy Fool. Unadulterated Joy. There’s real wisdom in her, I know it. At dinner, she bounds around the table, sticking her big head in between Bobby and his plate of steak, letting out guffaws. Smacking us with kisses. As I’m bent over the sink in some tight outfit that exposes my big bum, she squeals with delight and grabs it; I shake it; she peals. And as my father grumbles over the fact that it’s due to storm on Catherine’s wedding day (“A catastrophe!”), it’s
Without words she has a zillion laughs, and her laughter teaches me the most important lesson about lifeliving… the only cure for the Big Empty Feeling… something no resumebuilding crap could teach…:
Life is funny.
So I hope, that on that stormy beautiful day, as the rain pitterpattered on our redandwhite shelter… and inside was cozy and full of flowers… I hope that you saw it, too. Life is funny. Maybe you felt a smidge uncomfortable shifting damply in the wooden pew, patting your damp updo as the maid-of-honor read Darwin’s Origin of Species from the priest’s pulpit, saying:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank…with birds singing on the bushes… and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by LAWS…
Maybe you felt a touch awkward (although I am sure that you didn’t because it was too beautiful and at this point, I, a bridesmaid, was doing my damnedest to hold it together and not start bawling) as Isis bounded tall and spastic in a white dress and flowers in her hair with her snorts and roars and squeals of delight towards her mother and fatherfigure, to join hands with them for the Blessing. Isis’s Blessing. We all stood, reciting together:
Sing a hymn of praise; bless the Lord for all his works. Ascribe majesty to his name and give thanks to him with praise, with songs on your lips, and with harps; this is what you shall say in thanksgiving: