Stairs

‘Nana, why doesn’t Simba want to eat Pumba?’

‘Because Pumba treats Simba nicely, and so Simba treats him nicely too.’

‘But Pumba and Timon make him eat bugs, it’s gross!’

‘They’re doing that because they care about him, sweetheart. They don’t want Simba to hurt anyone, and they don’t want him to starve, either.’ Nana cuddled closer to me as the film launched into another song. ‘So Simba saves them from his sweetheart, because he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, especially not people that stopped him from starving as a baby. That’s why me and your grandpa feed you up, too!’ She leaned in and tickled my tummy- ‘One day you’re going to be just like Simba, and you’ll be looking after us!’

‘Will I get to be a lion, too?’ Nana smiled at my four-year-old naivete.

‘Maybe, if you put in enough work.’ She patted my head and kept her gaze fixed on the screen. ‘Just like Simba’s daddy said, we’re all a part of the circle of life. You always reap what you sow, sweetheart.’ She chuckled lightly, as if just remembering she was talking to a toddler, ‘That’s why you should always eat your vegetables. They grow on big strong plants, so they’ll make you big and strong too!’ I moaned in disgust and we watched the rest of the movie in relative silence before Nana put me to bed.

That’s one of the nights I want to hold on to.

*

Time flies by when you’re a kid. At least, that’s what I thought on my tenth birthday, when Grandpa had a ‘bit of a tumble’ and had to be driven away to be looked at by men in white jackets. They looked at him like he was some kind of alien… He was only asleep. I didn’t know why, but they told my Nana to say goodbye to him.

She drove me to stay at Aunt Clarice’s house that night, but she was crying so hard her pretty blue eyeliner bled down her face in scary streams. ‘He’s only asleep, right Nana? It’s all going to be fine, right?’

She sniffled and kissed my forehead as she pulled into the driveway, smudging my face with blue. ‘I hope so, sweetheart. I really hope so.’

I don’t think I realised until just then, that adults tend to lie just as much as children; only when it suits them.

*

After they put my Grandpa into a box in the ground, my Nana started to drink a lot more wine. I’d never tried it before, but I would watch her at all times to make sure she didn’t have a tumble as well. I hated the stairs, since that evening. Especially when Nana drank, when she couldn’t make it up them, couldn’t even make up a sentence or keep her eyes open. She would simply lay slumped over, asleep at the kitchen table with her kind wrinkled fingers clasped around the wine glass (an old wedding gift) as if looking for a fresh anchor.

*

I was fourteen before I started sneaking sips from the bottle. She didn’t notice- she didn’t seem to notice many things anymore. I remembered the day when I was four, watching the Lion King, and her trying to be philosophical. “You reap what you sow, sweetheart”- Well, I would often think, seeing her drooling over a coaster with her half-empty glass still on the table, That’s not exactly true, is it? Grandpa never did a thing to those stairs, but they broke him anyway. You took care of me all these years, Nana, now how do I take care of you? I think the stairs broke you that night, too. 

Then I’d finish the bottle and go to bed, forgetting about things I’d been told to remember, like homework and tidying the house. I never forgot to put my nana to bed though. If the men in the white coats couldn’t fix him, how are they going to fix you?

*

Aunt Clarice came by one day while I was at school and found Nana on the floor, drooling and groaning in her sleep. Being the sensible adult she is, Aunt Clarice took her to the men in the white coats.

A  “transient ischaemic attack” is a lovely trio of words that the men in white coats used to describe my Grandpa, then my Nana. This time though, it was me they told to say goodbye. This time it was my black eyeliner that ran down my face in scared little streams.

*

I don’t know if anyone is ever the same after a thing like that. I know I wasn’t. I used to lie in Aunt Clarice’s guest bed at night and think for hours on end:

All you did was love me and Grandpa. When the stairs broke him, that love went away- but not before it broke you. Now the stairs have broken you, and all I did was love you, so where does that love go now, if I’m not broken? …Am I broken?

 How am I supposed to reap what I needed you to sow?

School was a joke (an excuse to hang out behind the sports building and smoke cigarettes with a bunch of people I’m sure Nana wouldn’t have approved of) but living with Aunt Clarice was the punchline. My bratty cousins saw an absence of them and a plethora of me in Nana’s will as a direct attack on them, effectively isolating me from that rosy familial glow I’d come to miss.

One good thing came from this awkward time, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, when the only way I felt anything close to warm was through a bottle. When she wasn’t talking about ‘reaping what you sow’, Nana sometimes talked about ‘blessings in disguise’.

When I fell down the stairs at school and woke up surrounded by men in white coats, I had no way of knowing that’s what it was. Aunt Clarice wasn’t there, and my cousins definitely weren’t there, but the guy who’d found me was.

A random person who didn’t even know me was asleep, holding my hand all night while they held me for observation to make sure I wasn’t about to take after my Nana too much. The softness of his touch was like something out of a book or a movie- something you never expect to actually exist until it suddenly and remarkably does.

He stayed until I woke up properly, and even after that he was there talking to me. It turned out we’d shared classes before, but never actually been introduced. His name was Chris.

When he smelled the alcohol on my breath (a seemingly permanent affliction back then, regardless of whether or not I’d been drinking) he invited me out for tea.

*

They say it’s hard to trust people again once you’ve lost them. I think it’s harder to trust love again. People are predictable, easy to trust, and you give in what you put out. Love isn’t like that. Love is unpredictable fire that can burn a hole through you or simply keep you warm. I’d say it depends on how you tend to it, but even that isn’t always the case.

With Chris, it was a warmth I had not felt for a long, long time. From the first week together to the first decade, each piece of happiness I managed to scrounge from myself to him was returned to me in some small ways (flowers and kisses are a classic favourite), and some bigger ways, such as the twins and his paying for my therapist for the few years when I was ready to admit I needed one.

Eventually, I’m content enough to simply sit down with my family and not even think for a while. Like me and Nana used to do. It’s nice… Cuddling the little ‘uns close to me while Chris holds me closer and the younger of the two (by five painful yet worthwhile minutes) sings to every single song, while the older looks at me with owl-eyes and asks,

‘Mama, why doesn’t Simba want to eat Pumba?’

I smile, and finally understand what Nana meant.

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