Despite its abrupt arrival, my accident felt anticipated after the fact,
like a long-delayed package arriving as a thwup on the doorstep. Finally,
I thought, as I spun through the air and thudded back to earth,
I tell this with the authority of memory.
I'm wearing dark clothes on a moonless night. A moonless night in
late March, a night scrimmed with the fine, soft rain that falls in
spring, the road's muddy shoulder too slick to run upon, the wet, bare
asphalt making for better purchase. Through the misty dark, a carload of
joyriding teenagers makes its oblivious way toward me.
My breathing settles, the road turns, my running shoes slop against the
pavement. Then: hit and run. A brief flight through the murk. A
I hear a girl scream, then the scream of the car—a stolen Neon that will
be pulled over within the hour. The jig is up for the fourteen-year-old
from New York City, AWOL from a wilderness-experience program in Maine,
showing off for her hick boyfriend and his three sidekicks. She tells
the cop she thought she hit a deer. She tells her parents she thought
she hit a deer. She tells the judge she thought she hit a deer.
Eventually, I guess, she thought she hit a deer.
I land directly on the yellow line—lined up neatly, head to
toe—and rattle loose. The road feels forgiving and cool. Something
breaks inside me, not only bones. I am thirty years old, with a husband
and a good job and a best friend and students who need me and a hole in
my life that I fall straight through.
Impossibly, I hear it all. The fading trail of the escaping Neon.
The silence of my body laid upon the yellow stripe, waiting not to be
revived but resurrected. Prone, waiting, in the middle of the road. The
panicked engine sound weakens with distance, and I wait.
Another rumbling, logy and low, the geriatric throat-clearing of a Buick
Skylark, another set of headlights coming around the bend. The brakes
are bad—a long, anguished whinny. Some spitting gravel. A car door
hitching open, the sound of boots quivering across the road.
Goddammit! Jesus on a stick! Of all the! Of all the!
Hard running, the ping of a cell phone, a few frantic directives, the car
door hitching open again, and he's back. Stay with her, they've
instructed him, but he doesn't.
Before he takes off, he moves me to the filthy shoulder, struggling under
my negligible weight, great clogged breaths gurgling out. Goddammit!
Of all the Jeezly! Of all the Christly! He lays me down. Hand on my
cheek. Not an unkind hand. Also not the type you hope for when you are
moments from dying. His breath on my face arrives as an airy, whitish
sifting, like an hourglass being cracked open and left to drain. It is a
moment of confusing intimacy.
Then, he bolts.
Sorry sorry sorry!
Boot heels flinting on asphalt. Car door, again. A consumptive stutter as
the Skylark pulls away, and away.
Now I hear everything: a branch leafing out. A sleeping bird.
The gate opens. Back I go.
parents were among the passengers on Flight 286, Boston to Las Vegas,
when the jet tottered in a wind shear, killing all on board. This is the
first fact of my life. I was two and a half years old, staying at the
rectory in the care of my uncle, Father Mike, my mother's only sibling.
It was Father Mike who had paid for their trip, the honeymoon they
always wanted. The news arrived as a blur of activity, side-of-the-eye
glimpses of chairs being whisked aside to make room for the hastening
My uncle's poor shaved face, damp and pink, pleats with grief. He melts
into that vinyl chair in his office off the front hall, two of his cats
draped over the desk like outsized paperweights. His face drops into the
well of his hands. He knows my step, and says to me, "Men cry
sometimes, Lizzy. Is that all right?" I nod, aware of the straight
hem of my hair brushing my chin. He can't see me but I think he can.
"Yes?" I ask him, granting permission.
It is possible I've attached these images to the wrong day in my
desire to remember something of my parents, if only the reverberation
caused by news of their death. The human craving is for story, not
truth. Memory, I believe, embraces its errors, until what is, and what
is remembered, become one.
Father Mike did nothing to dispel the widely accepted notion that
I had nowhere else to go. I can't imagine what he must have been
thinking, filing requests and petitions, the paperwork strewn over our
supper table among plates of leftover spaghetti and a cat nosing up from
a chair. There was a meeting with some priests from surrounding
parishes, and a call to the bishop, and finally a trip to the Chancery
Office in Portland. It's a comforting notion, all these lonely,
childless men blessing my two-year-old head. Finally they let him have
me, though by the time official permission arrived, my red coat with the
gold buttons had landed in its permanent spot on the coat rack in the
His was a lie of omission. Several priests visited back and forth
in those first aftermath days—not his friends, but church officials
whom he called Father and Monsignor instead of Larry or Bert. He
referred to himself in their presence as "Lizzy's only uncle,"
which made me feel extravagantly wanted. And it was true, he was my only
uncle, and my grandparents were dead. He neglected to mention, however,
that I had an aunt, my father's older sister, Celie, who lived in
Providence, Rhode Island, a world away from our western-Maine town of
Hinton and our rectory home on the banks of the Hinton River. Celie and
my father had not been close, too far apart in age and, apparently,
sensibility. Celie, unmoved by the notion of aunthood, had her own
family to tend, five awful boys. She would have taken me, though, being
a Catholic woman well acquainted with obligation.
Aunt Celie and Father Mike discussed my care only once that I know of, on
the day of my parents' funeral. His eyes must have been nearly swollen
shut from weeping, for it became a story in the parish, how hard he wept
while performing his offices, flicking holy water on their twin coffins.
I imagine Celie stiffened into a back pew, stoic and solemn, as
invisible as possible, fearing to be saddled with a sixth child. They
met after the service. He must have pulled himself together, taken her
coat, offered her coffee in his office. It was a smallish room with two
doors, one opening onto the parlor, the other into a hall that nobody
used except parishioners, who entered by the front door. The one
beautiful feature of Father Mike's office was a lamp my mother had given
him in celebration of his pastorship. She had often given him gifts—he
still wore the tiger's-eye ring she bought for his college graduation, a
ring I also came to love, that amber flash of cat. Big and
sphere-shaped, it looked like the ring of a high-stakes gambler when in
truth it belonged to a man who kept a piggy bank on a kitchen shelf.
He and my mother spent lots of time in that office, he liked to tell me.
She always entered hesitantly, as if she were a parishioner with a
problem of faith, and then they would get to laughing, ruffling the
rectory's quiet with the sound of their boisterous kinship. Aside from
some furniture and jewelry and a box of photographs, it is all I have of
my mother, those painted scenes, a pretty woman joshing with her only
surviving brother, her baby brother, the priest. My father appears in
these stories, too, but not as the star.
Probably I forgot my father first.
Aunt Celie did not fill that office as my mother had, I'm guessing. There
they sit, Father Mike behind a desk speckled with ink and paper clips,
the cats banished to the basement on account of Celie's allergies. She
takes one of the two straight-back chairs that face him. She leaves her
gloves on. There could not have been much negotiation. I want her,
he says. Her shoulders drop in relief. Be my guest. I've got a
houseful of kids already.
I spent seven years as Father Mike's child, a time delicate and
fossilized, sweet as a pawprint encased in amber, telling as a line on a
cave wall. Of course I mourned my parents, but that became his hardship
to remember, not mine, for I have no recollection of teetering from room
to room in search of them, as surely I must have done. My parents,
smiling out at me from a silver frame at my bedside, took on the
pleasant properties of an oft-told tale, their picture as dear and
distant to me as the cover of a beloved book, one I had read many times,
then reluctantly outgrown.
I learned my prayers and said them without urgency—they were just one
more open flower in the garden I had been delivered into. For seven
years, God adored us. I lost touch altogether with Aunt Celie, so
thoroughly that when the time came that I had to go live with her after
all, she was nothing to me, a stranger.
St. Bart's, tucked into a few acres of woods just off the Random
Road, was a small, poorly endowed parish with no school. At the turnoff
stood a sign that read St.
Bartholowmew's Catholic Church—All Souls Welcome in blue paint
that we refreshed once a year. Coming down the long gravel drive, the
first building you passed was the white church hall, long and low-slung,
reminiscent of a bowling alley. In winter its roof required vigilant
shoveling, often by Father Mike himself. Just beyond the church hall,
the trees opened into a clearing and the sky warmed down on the church
itself, a modest wooden structure with a steep metal roof. The rectory
appeared a few hundred feet later, a white clapboard Cape Cod with black
trim and a back porch that faced a slow-moving sparkle of river.
It looked like the home of an ordinary family, a place where you would not
feel rude dropping by unannounced. From all sides unrolled a carpet of
lawn on which Father Mike set up croquet games, a grill that he used
year-round, and a hammock with a waterproof cushion employed mainly by
the cats—Fatty, Mittens, and Boo, three fussy males. We called them
the bachelors. The east lawn draped down to the river; the south lawn
ended abruptly at a screen of pines. A shortcut through those trees—a
former animal path that we tramped into an alley over the
years—revealed a straight shot to the slope-shouldered farmhouse of
the Blanchards, our only neighbors.
Ray Blanchard spoke French, mostly, though his English was more than
passable. He worked as a deep-sea boathand, leaving for two weeks at a
time. We were far enough inland that his profession was regarded as an
anomaly, a baffling mistake, or a flat-out insult to the other fathers,
who labored close to home, running machines in the area paper mills or
working with dyes and leather at the shoe shop. Mr. Blanchard, with his
cut-up hands and sculpted, wind-bitten face, seemed mildly enchanting by
contrast. Not as enchanting as Father Mike, who strode across the
sacristy every Sunday morning in silver-threaded vestments, the
stained-glass crucifixion affording him an operatic backlighting that
never failed to thrill me.
Still, I liked Mr. Blanchard, and Mrs. Blanchard. I liked their brimming
house. Their daughter, Mariette, was my best friend (two little boys
would come later), so I slept there sometimes, Mariette and I wedged
into her narrow bed beneath an attic gable. On special
occasions—birthdays, Fourth of July—Mariette slept with me at the
rectory. We whispered and cackled and got in and out of bed, fetching
water or crackers or one of the struggling cats as Father Mike paced the
hall. What if we fell downstairs? What if Mariette forgot where she was
and mistook the window for a door? He worried like this over his cats,
too, sick with anxiety if one of them didn't appear on the porch at
bedtime. Every ten minutes I'd hear the screen door creak open until the
last prodigal had finally scooted in for the night. "Oh, you act
like the old men!" Mrs. Blanchard liked to say, though he was only
thirty-one when he took me in. He agreed, smiling, that he'd been born
old and wasn't getting younger. I loved that he stayed in the hallway,
pacing, angling ways to keep me from harm.
He installed me upstairs in three connected rooms
originally intended for the housekeeper: bedroom, sitting room, bath. I
don't remember my first days there except in pieces, spangled with
light. His own grief must have been unspeakable. His father succumbed at
forty to the faulty Murphy heart, his uncle James at the age of
thirty-eight. His little brother, Bobby, died of pneumonia during the
winter of their mother's cancer, a run of bad luck so preposterous it
seemed like a message from a wrathful God. When my twenty-year-old
mother left their Prince Edward Island farm to try her luck in the Maine
mills, my uncle, a fourteen-year-old with no other family, went with
her. It was my parents who sent Father Mike to college, who took his
emerging taste for classical music and fine reading, his studied
vocabulary, his longing for a life of the mind, as evidence of the
calling he had declared at the age of twelve. They sent him to Notre
Dame and then to Grand Séminaire
in Montreal, where he studied Latin and learned the ways of the Church
and, according to him, felt complete for the first time in his life.
When he was returned to the Diocese of Maine, he and my mother, together
again, lit a votive for each of their buried loved ones.
When I arrived at the rectory with my teddy bears and ruffly ankle socks
and my mother's store of dishes, some of the parishioners welcomed the
idea of a child. But not all of them. Priests, especially then, in the
early seventies, were expected to behave like the statues in church,
their unmarked faces listing chastely heavenward, their palms turned up:
Your wish is my command. They came to him at all hours, and the
phone rang so often the cats moved nary a whisker at the sound, but now
he had a kid to get to bed just like everybody else. A toddler with
sleep problems. The parish council retained the longtime housekeeper,
Mrs. Hanson, to get meals and watch the baby. Still, Father Mike was a
real father now. Some people didn't like this.
I wonder sometimes if he counted: his mother and father, Bobby, and Uncle
James; and then my mother, his beloved Elizabeth; and his
brother-in-law, Bill Finneran, my first father. He must have counted
them up. Who wouldn't? It would be no mark against God to count up the
bodies. I suppose he must have expected some ill to befall me. He must
have waited every day for signs: rash, headache, a swollen this or
reddened that. He patrolled the streets wherever we walked, his eyes
sweeping side to side, scanning for hidden drives, fallen phone lines,
He read to me at night from the novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery, fusty
books that lived with the glassware in my mother's breakfront. I see us
there, nestled in the only comfortable chair, an amber glow falling
across our faces from a donated floor lamp. How grateful we were, being
there together, he in a plain cotton shirt and black pants and shiny
shoes, his day's work finished; I in a nightgown and fleecy slippers,
willing him to turn the pages faster, even when I didn't fully
understand the words; the bachelors collapsed on our laps like socks
we'd forgotten to darn. His voice—that satiny tenor—filled the
parlor with the story of Anne's grand plans and Gilbert's unrequited
We read. We cooked. We tended our "moon garden," an idea he'd
gleaned from a ladies' magazine, turning up a patch of earth beside the
back porch and planting it with pale flowers that showed best in
moonlight. All through the warm summer nights into the crisp of fall, we
sat on the porch steps at day's end, sipping Moxie and watching the
river rise and naming our flowers, spring tulips to fall sedums, after
angels and apostles: Gabriel, James, Michael, John—even Judas got a
flower, one of the shabby ones. We were nothing if not forgiving.
Why did the people not love us? "Here comes Father Mike and
his little girl," he crooned, carrying me across an icy road,
lifting one hand from my back, but not too far, to wave to a parishioner
happening out of Stanley's Meats or Hinton Variety. Their faces, even
the smiley ones, held a reserve of disappointment, a disquiet that
showed in their faulty features.
"He makes arrangements," Father Mike said of God, meaning me,
his treasure. God had taken Elizabeth and Bill Finneran before their
time, and I was the thing He had given their brother in return.
To say I was unconscious for forty-three hours is not entirely
accurate. I had no desire to speak. Or to squeeze anyone's fingers. Or
to do any other thing they asked me—begged me, I should say—to do. Open
your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy, open your eyes. Open your eyes, Lizzy. Lizzy.
I did not open my eyes. I liked where I was.
Afterward, I called it "my accident," as if it were something I
The part you could see if you
cared to watch—the nuts and bolts of recovery—that's the part that
feels now like a dream. Turning points, epiphanies, miracles aplenty;
all those incremental steps toward wholeness. I could tell the story of
my stupendous recovery. My convalescence was shorter than anyone
expected, especially the humorless neurosurgeon who drained my head. The
orthopedist was more hopeful from the outset, but even she had her
doubts. I could tell you that story; it is not an uninteresting story,
though too heavy with pluck and gumption. The body seeks to remake
itself. It is no great surprise that my thirty-year-old body healed.
It's true that I count myself now among those tiresome people who can
feel rain coming, but other than that my recovery was total. I was
amazing. I mended. I am thirty-five now, and to see me walk you might
What I remember with such high-pitched clarity is not so much the bandages
and casts coming off one by one, or the pea-green walls of the P.T.
room, or the physical therapists palpating the tender spots and
apologizing in soft voices, or my record-breaking graduation from walker
to crutches to cane to my old shoes, which no longer fit. No. The
memories that stuck—crystalline in detail, though temporally
obscure—happened in the between-time, in that magical space between
the big Before and After, in those softly falling forty-three hours. My
head seemed like a room I lived inside.
At the hospital I did nothing but listen. This one's not going
to make it. That's how they referred to me: This one. Maybe
they said it out loud, though I cannot imagine such a thing. One of them
was plain tired. Another had just discovered a lump in his little girl's
neck. Another was ready to quit her residency and didn't care whether I
lived or died.
I didn't mind. I understood. These things I heard in my between-time did
not feel burdensome, they merely existed. People's desires have a way of
curling into a room like smoke, and there I was, breathing in.
They scanned my head. They removed my spleen. They rummaged amongst the
bones in my back. I had no idea how many bones made up a back. They put
a plate in my knee, screws and pins and a powder made of other people's
bones. They stitched a thigh muscle that had split down the middle. They
did not do these things all at once, on the same day. But they might as
well have. Time felt long, and short.
They picked sequins of asphalt out of my face with tweezers and later with
lasers. Tick, tick, tick, went the sound, like stones being tapped
underwater, like time being lost.
They buckled me into a rig that turned like a barbecue spit. Someone came
in and rotated me every couple of hours. Or minutes. Time did not seat
right. Light and dark did not match day and night.
Later, in the recovery room, or in the room where they clamped me into the
spit, I discovered how much Mariette depended on me. I had never known
this about my friend, how critical to her was my existing; how, if it
looked as though I were going to die first, she would offer to trade
places—despite her husband, her little son—if only to escape another
loss. These thoughts flew like frightened birds from the friend I
thought I knew, and I was surprised.
I heard Drew, too, imagining himself over the long haul failing the test
of devotion. That he had already failed the test of devotion in the
short haul weighed hard upon him. There was a woman somewhere; he was
sorry. I have seen the Northern Lights twice, and one time I heard them
as well, and that's what my husband's thoughts sounded like. Like the
Northern Lights. Sad and unreachable.
I had been
"out"—unconscious but not gone. I had arrowed through the
mist and landed on the road. I'd been moved by a stranger, a bystander,
my witness. My witness fled, gunned his engine, and raced back to the
corporal world, leaving me stranded. But I did not feel alone. A gate
had opened, and my head filled beautifully with memory.
Then, in the cool, humming, middle-of-the-night hospital quiet, came an
alteration in the air. A slow warming. My uncle—Father Mike,
twenty-one years gone—stepped through that open gate.
After a long struggle, hours or minutes, I opened my eyes. An angel's
wing. Threads of silver and gold. The frayed black cuff of my uncle's
jacket. A crescent-shaped hole where he'd lost a button. An amber flash
of his tiger's-eye ring. His voice sounded like poured cream, exactly as
I once knew it.
I was so happy to see him, so unutterably happy. Finally, I thought
again, and fell asleep, moving mercifully back in time.
Hours later, or minutes, I told Mariette, Father Mike was here. In
her face I saw relief and tears. Drew, Mariette cried, Drew,
get over here, she's awake.
Hallucination. Morphine. Trauma.
No, I insisted.
You're awake now. Look around.
I woke preoccupied by a life I had not lived since I was nine years old.
My explanation—that my long-dead uncle had spoken to me from the great
beyond—was not something the people around me were willing to
So, I was
awake. Awake, but still gone. And I would not come back without him.