Melancholy. An abidding sadness follows me home. I leave in sunshine, but the climb up the hill feels overcast and drenched. My mother’s absence? The house holds her presence in pictures, in the dishes that were her choice, in the way the two sofas have roles, one for humans, one for dogs. Except that I, the human, sit on the dog sofa with my pups who don’t understand that they can’t be with me on the human sofa. But it is not the remnant of my mother’s spirit fueling the realization of her absence that fills me with sorrow. It’s the thing that always bites, that is spoken or not spoken, but that makes itself known.
It’s the not being counted, not really. It’s the not being invited to the dinner with family friends I haven’t seen in a year, whom I would love to see again, whom I believe would be happy to see me. It’s the way he looks away, converses and laughs with Ruth May and leaves me in my role as silent witness. It’s the way I’m never quite right, never quite good enough. “Oh God,” he says, when he sees the dogs. “I hoped you’d leave at least one of them behind this time.” They are not badly behaved. They are really quite sweet. And I am there to help him, leaving behind my daughter and my dirty house and my laundry for another day. Still, he cannot accept me, cannot accept them, although he accepts Ruth May’s little dog.
It’s the way he condemns so much of what I love, so that I cannot talk to him of much. Politics, a little. How the others are doing. Polite conversation.
It’s the fact that all he can do is worry about whether Ruth May’s baby can get Irish citizenship (I didn’t tell you she was pregnant, did I?), when his eldest daughter is forever forbidden from her Irish heritage because of his disinterest in her. He doesn’t worry about my daughter’s rights to her Irishness. No. Just this new baby’s, yet unborn, because she is really his, unlike me, unlike my child.
A neighbor walks by on the path up the hill, sees me on the roof. “Adah,” she calls down to me. “On the roof? Again?
“More shingles.” I shrug.
“Come by later,” she offers. “We’ll be home all afternoon.”
Later she tells me I’m a good daughter. I was almost born on this beach, lived here my first year. She changed my diapers back then, knew my biological father. She was my mother’s good friend, had shared 40 years of history with Mum before she died. What does it mean to be a good daughter? Is it true? My complaining now feels dishonest, mean. I want him, just once, to include me when Ruth May’s around. To show interest in what I care about. To offer me love.
The truth is, he does. In his own way. I just want more, want too much.
Another moment of sadness, a quiet grief. A wave, that’s all, on the surface. Deep down in the lake, all is still.
I cry. It’s true. I don’t get mad or tell myself to stop. Seems futile, really, to hate myself for feeling second, third, fourth-best. Yes. Fourth best. The least of the four. The last although the first. It’s just what is. Not good. Not bad. Just the way life has measured itself out for me.
I remember the rock, the moon, the emu. I remember the hammer swinging and the sun on my arms, and being happy knowing I could do this, take the shingles off, put the new ones one. Make decisions. Figure out the ridge caps. Such a rhythm. At first I was resentful–I’ll be honest. I was cold at first. My fingers ached, pulling the old shingles out. I thought, “I’m not doing this again. He needs to get a new roof. I can’t keep running over here every time the wind blows, replacing the shingles because he’s too cheap to buy a new roof.”
Not nice, these thoughts. I looked out at the water, looked for the little white birds who had dipped into the water and out the last time I roofed, all bright flashes of light and joy-in-being. They were gone. My thumb bled. I sucked it, tasted blood and tar from the roof. Tasted grit and life. Swung the hammer. Reasoned. “It’s OK. He doesn’t have much money. If it happens again, I’ll talk to him about replacing the whole roof, and in the meantime I’ll just replace all the shingles that look too old or brittle, even if they’re not broken. Thank goodness we have so many left over from when I replaced the upper roof seven years ago.”
And the sun warmed me. The light sparkled off the patchworked shingles, snaked through the gutters, clogged with grit and moss. There would be time to clean them, as fast as the work was going.
It dropped away, the resentment. Slipped out the door. It was just a little wave. Everything under the surface untouched.
This crying, it’s a wave too. He has his ways, his habits, like I do. Ruth May is the youngest, the beloved. Leah is the beautiful, the one who stands strong, the one he has never said no to. Rachel is just Rachel. She commands respect because that is her way. She doesn’t notice when it’s not freely given because she has learned the art of dismissal. He respects her for it. And for something else I cannot speak of yet.
And me. I’m Adah. Did I tell you that? Adah the bookworm. The cripple. The lover-of-words. The one who sees backwards. RC knew who I was the day we talked about The Poisonwood Bible a few weeks ago. Sometimes he teaches it. We were talking about using it in the classroom, and I told him why I’d not finished it (I have since then), because my mother said it was about the four of us. And he said, “Oh, you know which one of the four girls you are, don’t you?” And I thought, Is it that obvious. But it is.
So I am Adah again. Silenced. For her it was a choice. For me too. But in the end she found her voice, stood straight and walked again. I too can speak, can shake off the crippling sadness of not ever being quite right. Can walk up the hill, feel the tears drying, turn back to look down at the houses, at the patchwork roof of my father’s home, at the water beyond, refracting light.