Photo: Paxson Woelber, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)).
Still sometimes late at night it slides in—what it felt like to think of my brother Tom outside. In the coldest seasons of his years of homelessness, it would rise up late in the day if I was alone in the hour in which darkness descended.
Each year as the seasons shifted, as leaves fell and the frosts came to Santa Fe or New York, I would grow tired and short-tempered, my body aching. The small muscles along my spine would seize up and I would get tight headaches. A knot would form at the base of my skull as my shoulders lifted and pinched, causing a tingling pain to come on along the backs of my arms. I would have to distract myself, get my mind off Tom—have a beer, talk about movies, pop a Valium left over from a prescription for back spasms.
I came to rely on certain facts about his relationship to winter. That he had been a skier, a camper, a mountain climber. That Alaska was, aside from a few years in Boulder, the only home he had ever known. He knew how to survive outside. He had the skills to stay warm, to make a camp in the woods. As long as he could keep track of his gear. Find enough food. That was my biggest worry at first—that he was always hungry.
Nights, I tried not to imagine the worst possibilities of where he might be. Instead I placed him in the safest, warmest camp I could conjure. I led him into the thickets beside the Coastal Trail, built him a snow cave, stuffed him into a fat sleeping bag on a thick foam pad, filled his pack with dry gloves and long underwear, placed new socks on his feet. What else was there to do.
If it gets really bad, I thought, he can always go trespass somewhere and get arrested. I knew he knew that. I knew he wouldn’t forget that.
A kind of long, jagged breath became habitual. A quick, sharp intake and a slow, unsteady exhale. When roommates noticed, inevitably, I felt the strangeness of the question: are you okay? How could I know? By what measure? Usually I seemed fine. And maybe I was. But sometimes I went sideways, unexpectedly, for no obvious reason. Sometimes I would lie on the sofa as if inside a shell, a hard stillness, trying to will myself to move.
Dad kept spare clothes at the house, shirts and boots and hats in Tom’s size, offering them when he could. Any clothes or winter gear Tom might need. Extras of everything, since Tom never kept things for very long. Since they’d be given away or dropped or forgotten or stolen.
Part of me was glad I didn’t know too many details. What I already knew of Anchorage winters was enough. Biting cold and obsidian skies folding down over him, the bright sharp darkness of nineteen-hour nights. The air crisp as if shot through with ice. It made your eyes water and then froze the tears against your lashes. And then there was the thick, dull feeling of body parts slowly going numb. That wooden sensation all around your thighs, and your earlobes and toes, too, if you weren’t careful.
I dreamed of being the one to hand Tom a wool cap, a thick coat, some flannel-lined carpenter pants. Sturdy leather hiking boots, weatherproofed, solid—or fat Sorels, rubber-and-leather snow boots lined with sheepskin.
During cold snaps, Dad would drive around looking for him, stopping if he saw him on the sidewalk, inviting him back to the house for dinner and a shower. Tom often said yes, just for a while. Sometimes Dad would give him a haircut, do his laundry. Always he gave him some cash. And then Tom would want to leave again, go back outside.
In the background, memories. Dark evenings when, home from college, I’d been in the habit of putting on long johns under my jeans and a down coat and a fleece hat and going out walking. Alone in the streets of our Turnagain neighborhood, between the intermittent streetlights, trudging through the layer of scraped, compressed snow. As I roamed past the houses we had always lived among, hugging the edges of the plowed roads, I communed with the split-level homes—their wooden siding, their mailboxes and garage doors and driveways. I was looking for ghosts, I think, and trying to unravel the secret of what my life was.
Maybe there were flashes of former selves. Friends, crushes, my atmospheric solitude. Our mother there but gone. And more—the potential of youth, its fullness. Did I find those ghosts or let them go? I wonder, still, who was the self I had expected Tom to help me become.
One year I sent him a gift package of cookies I made every Christmas. But several weeks later Dad said Tom had never come by, so he ended up eating them himself. After that, he told us there was no point in sending anything but cards. Tom could read our notes someday, he said, when he was getting better. Then he would know that we had been thinking of him all along. But my letters were awful—full of platitudes and stilted prose, tight with all I didn’t say.
Mornings, Dad would scan the Daily News for bits about homeless men, reading close when a body was found in Chester Creek or Kincaid Park or somewhere else nearby, looking for the name: not Tom. He stopped taking trips during the winter, wanting always to be home to answer the door if Tom stopped by on a cold night.
Ignorance as a black hole, its event horizon limning every wintry hour.
There could be no Christmases, no Thanksgivings, no New Year’s Eves without that thing. The wondering, the demands it made. Inside or outside, warm or cold, hungry or fed, desperate or content. His own birthday, late December. Family dinners, celebrations. There were no moments at all, really, without his absent body and the absent knowledge it signified.
People helped. His friends, my friends, family friends, neighbors, friends of friends. A teacher from our high school drew Tom indoors with the ruse that he needed someone to read aloud to, picking up Moby-Dick, keeping Tom listening as long as possible. A friend’s parents left the outer door to their front vestibule unlocked when they were not home, so he could warm up in there anytime. A friend of Zach’s, running into Tom on Spenard Road, gave him a pair of expensive fleece pants he happened to have with him.
The tension inside, whatever it was—always about to overtake me. I became a minor paranoiac, fretting over trivialities, my days pervaded by a sense of danger, ruled by panicky indecision. I stopped doing yoga, though I had practiced it off and on for years, finding the releases that came as I stretched and breathed too overwhelming. My heart would pound hard and my face would flush and I would feel dizzy and have to sit down. So instead I hiked, charging hard uphill, or I went out and laughed and drank and danced, or I closed myself in, watching DVDs alone in the dark, hour after hour.
Snow. Its faceted quality, the way it caught light, flashing at random angles as you moved. Frost. Rime. Hoar. Powder. Slush. Hail. Graupel. Névé.
Friends would say he came by their houses. They would say they ran into him at the library, they passed him in their cars. He was standing in the rain. He was in the parking lot beside Westchester Lagoon, staring off into space. They cooked him dinner or gave him a few bucks or let him take a shower. He was seen on C Street, on Fifth Avenue, or at a corner of the lagoon that we called the Ducks. They were worried, they were unsure what to do, they were impressed. I was impressed. Our friend Russell said to me, “In some ways I think of him as the ultimate Alaskan man.”
I thought he was brave. I thought he was stupid. I thought he was smart. I thought he was stubborn. I knew, of course, that he was ill. When friends who saw him out walking asked me what they could do, I said, “Feed him.”
Flake. Crystal. Bank. Drift. Cornice. Field. Glacier. Pack. Blizzard. Storm. Flurry. Shower. Slide. Burst. Avalanche. Crevasse.
Fear conflates the present with the past, makes one forget how to distinguish what has happened from what will happen yet. I have moments when, remembering those days, I feel a sudden pulse through my head and find myself wiping at tears. Then I register that it is a memory and as I catch my breath I hear myself saying, It’s over now. You don’t ever have to feel that way again.
Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, the Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Sardy has twice had her work listed among the year’s notable essays in Best American Essays. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
From the book The Edge of Every Day, by Marin Sardy. Copyright © 2019 by Marin Sardy. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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