Published on July 27th, 2021 | by Tiffany Graham Charkosky2
One More Forgiveness
The electric blue bedroom wall bowed in, where the hundred-year-old tree had crushed it. Chunks of plaster clung to the wall like white lint on cashmere.
I hadn’t been home when the tree fell that Sunday in November, having left my family for a community event, the first I’d been to since the world had closed down eight months earlier. I felt the familiar mix of guilt and relief that accompanies a weekend escape, compounded by pandemic living, wondering if there was any end in sight. It was still sunny when I left. There was lightness in my steps at the prospect of being untethered from my house and these people I love, if only for a few hours.
We all used to leave for eight or nine or ten hours every day, each of us in our own lives before coming back together. The warm embrace of this home we have built, an exhale at the end of those days, a tiny pause before the scramble of dinners and soccer practices, homework and football. Those days are already a distant memory of a past we miss, but don’t want to return to, at least not full tilt.
On this Sunday, I was gone less than one hour before my phone rang. Ben, my eleven-year-old son, was on the other end, mumbling something I couldn’t make out. I was outside, and the wind had picked up. Music played under a big white tent, and household necessities had been donated by the local grocery store for neighborhood residents to take home. Urban planning consultants asked neighbors what they loved about their community (the culture, the people, the food) and what they would change if they could (safety, more things for kids to do, better parks).
After months of working from home, it felt good to be outside, chatting with strangers, collecting data and listening to problems that weren’t mine. I pretended I didn’t notice the sky darkening to the west.
This call from my son annoyed me; I’d been gone less than one hour out of the past 5,760 hours.
“Ben, I can’t understand you. Slow down. What’s wrong?”
“Mom. A tree. The tree fell on our house.”
“What do you mean a tree fell on our house?”
A shuffling sound in the background, like the phone had been placed inside a pocket. Then, my husband, Brian. “It’s bad. Can you come home?”
I was ten years old when my mom became sick with cancer. After nearly two years, she died on a Saturday morning in October. Living with a dying person brought mortality to the front burner of my brain, something I fretted over in different ways each day. First, I worried about if my mom was, in fact, dying. Nobody in my family ever said that she was, but even though I was young, I saw her getting worse and worse, never better for even a moment. Once it became clear to me that she was dying, I worried about when it would happen. I wondered how fragile a body can become before it gives up altogether. Each day on my way home from school, I imagined walking inside and being told this was the day the final whisper of life had left her.
After she died, I pictured terrible things happening to my dad, brother, and sister when I was away from home. While ice skating with my friends, I had visions of flames swarming our house and coming home to a pile of wet, black ash, the firefighters’ work complete before I knew what happened. After her tiny flame of life had nothing left to burn, I worried I would not survive and that without our mom, our dad would leave. This habit of worrying and picturing disastrous outcomes has taken root in me, providing a strange comfort when they don’t manifest.
Brian and both boys were home getting ready to watch the Cleveland Browns game when it fell, the entire house shaking with its force. Because the sound was so horrific, our next door neighbor told us that it took her several minutes to build the courage to tiptoe upstairs from her basement to see what happened.
The firefighters who came the first day to mark the yard with caution tape marveled that the tree hadn’t smashed through the roof, noting the quality of these old houses. The insurance adjusters and contractors who have documented our damages have all said their own versions of the same thing. “I can’t believe that wall is still in place,” one of them shook his head in awe, staring at the electric blue wall, buckled, but not broken, right in between two miraculously unbroken windows.
We swept up the plaster dust and kept living, grateful the house had done its job of protecting its inhabitants. Once the power and heat were restored, we fell back into the routines of virtual schooling. Andy’s favorite place to learn remained underneath my desk and we continued passing Post-It Notes back and forth during our respective Zooms. Ben emerged from his room during his lunch breaks and within days, the damages to our house became another thing we got used to.
After months of paperwork and documentation to prove we weren’t committing insurance fraud, work to repair the house finally began. I sent the boys outside so I could get the rooms in order for the workers to, finally, erase all evidence of this tree. I peeled every single athlete-shaped sticker off of my eight-year old’s walls, carefully saving them on my own bedroom wall for later. I removed every poster, every jersey, every shred of his personality that covered these blue walls. Andy was five when we moved here and when he needs me to prove my love to him, he asks me to help him rearrange his furniture. I’m the muscle behind the designs in his mind as he figures out how to inhabit his own space. It was only a few weeks before the storm that his bed had been centered between the unbroken windows.
I needed the boys outside because getting this particular room ready to be fixed made my chest burn, forcing me to see how easily the tree could have fallen while he was in this room, asleep, in a bed against this exact wall. We had the dead limbs removed a year earlier because I worried about one specific branch falling on the neighbor’s room. I took care of the neighbor boy, but did not take care of my own.
Andy, who was born with his cord wrapped around his neck. The doctor told me to stop pushing as he looped his fingers through this cord, allowing him to breathe. I didn’t know this until several hours later, when Brian was unable to erase this scene from his mind. Andy, who I once lost in an indoor sports complex. Brian was coaching Ben’s flag football team and Andy ran away from me in the time it took to take off my coat and sit down. The first seven minutes of searching for him were bearable as I kept thinking I would find him right near us, just outside my lines of sight. Andy, who may never have been born at all if I had known, before he was conceived, that I carry the gene that caused my mom’s cancer. Andy, who slept on his belly since he was a week old, flipping himself over, somehow, and whose sleep would have allowed me to sleep myself, except that I just perched over him, making sure his back kept rising and falling.
The final three minutes in the sports complex were compressed agony, as I pushed open every door, scanning the parking lots and calling his name. When we found him, he was as far away from us as he could have possibly been and still remain in the same building. He was sobbing and wailed, “Why did you leave me?”
As I peeled his stickers and swept the dust that his walls kept exhaling, it occurred to me that a better mother might have thought to have this dust tested for lead. A better mother may also have insisted that the money we were saving for a kitchen go towards removing the entire tree instead of just the dead limbs. A good mother protects against the future and would have, at least, been home when the tree fell.
How many times do our children escape tragedy’s sliding doors? Peeling these stickers was a penance, my reckoning and recognition of one more near miss. We made it exciting for Andy and let him pick a new paint color. He wanted something “less babyish” and more like his older brother’s room, light gray. He never wondered what would have happened if the tree had fallen while he was sleeping, or if his bed had been on this wall. He wanted the stickers arranged in the “awesome” haphazard way I placed them on my own wall, in safekeeping for when his room was ready.
How many times do we forgive ourselves as parents for these almost-tragedies? Six weeks before Ohio’s stay-at-home order was issued, I caused a car accident on the way to school, when I turned left into a Subaru. Andy had state testing that day, and when his results came in several weeks after, he reminded me through his tears that he would have done better if he hadn’t been thinking about the car accident, worried that I was on my way to jail. I later blinked away my own tears as I pleaded “no contest” in front of the judge and accepted my ticket. He noted this was a “tricky intersection,” but it was only 500 yards from my house, a drive I had made hundreds, if not thousands of times. I don’t know why I didn’t see the car and I thought, constantly, about how lucky I was that everyone in both cars was wearing seatbelts.
The world is starting to open back up and the fear of the past year clings to me like static. I remember playing in my grandparents’ basement as a child, their cellar filled with dusty jars of beets, green beans, and SPAM, foods that looked too disgusting to eat. Having survived the past year, I understand this cellar now.
What will become my musty cellar? I won’t miss shaking hands, or accepting kisses on the cheek as hellos, or buffets. I did love hosting parties, but I can’t imagine having so many open, uncovered faces breathing all over my furniture and walls, sharing our air. At-home schooling spared me daily reminders of that left turn. I’ve resisted the impulse to wrap my arms around people I’ve missed, including my own grandma. She keeps toilet paper in her closet now that she has moved out of the house with the cellar.
There is comfort in knowing the whiplash we’re recovering from is a collective burden, something that needs little explanation. When our roof was wrapped in a large blue tarp, we had something physical and tangible that symbolized the disaster we’d been living through. The same week that the boys returned to daily school, exactly one year after closing, was the same week the wall in Andy’s room was finally fixed. I needed him to come home to a new room, the clean slate of having full classrooms and fresh, flat walls.
As I replaced Andy’s stickers, I saw a dip in the newly gray wall, barely visible, where it meets the ceiling. I considered asking the contractor to come back, to make it perfectly straight. But I let it go, deciding to live with this tiny scar, a reminder of what could have been, a catch in my breath to be grateful for this sturdy old house, this extra year worth of hours to see these boys grow up, a quiet before a collective rush to make up for lost time. A tragedy, so far, averted. I extended myself one more forgiveness, knowing I moved the bed in time.