Maybe, when she looks back, she’ll remember all the times in her life that people told her she had heart. That people praised her for it. Said she was an angel. Sacrificial. And she believed them. And she’ll think that’s a big part of the reason for the ego. But she’ll also know that the ego was there before — the ego was there from the start.
She’ll remember that, when she was very young, her mom told her that everyone messes up. That everyone sins — even when they’re not trying to and even when they’re trying not to. And her mom asked: “Do you understand?” And she said: “I know. People sin. Except for me.” And when her mom told her that she would mess up and sin too — that she already had — she cried. She cried for the best reasons and for the worst reasons. She cried because her heart was broken and her self-image was broken, too. Because she thought she deserved to be the exception.
And she’ll remember how, in second grade, she spent a lot of time worrying about heaven. Because somehow she’d gotten this idea that the first thing all the saints would do when they got to heaven was get some popcorn and sit down in comfy chairs and watch a movie of everyone’s life from beginning to end. And she imagined the film getting to her life. And she imagined the film showing hours and hours, or what felt like hours, of her standing behind an eyelet lace curtain in her playroom, pretending to be a princess and talking to herself. And she imagined all the serious saints trying not to smile or else looking shocked because look at how much time she wasted and who did she think she was? She must have thought she was pretty special. And she did. She did think she was pretty special but she didn’t want anyone else to know that she thought she was special.
And she’ll remember everything with her dad, too. The times when she used all her heart for him and the times she kept it back in disgust. The times she tried to cure herself of her heart — tried to harden it, to toughen up, to be less sensitive.
And maybe she’ll remember that, one night, when she was about nineteen. While her dad was doing his putzing and taking his medicine in that desperate way he had where he threw his head all the way back and swallowed the pills whole with no water or juice or anything and shuffling his way over to the cereal cabinet to begin his nightly ritual.
And she was standing on the other side of the island watching him lay out his bowl and his spoon and his cup of ice-milk and his labeled bin of cereal and she thought about how, later that night. Very late. When he’d fallen asleep sitting up on the couch with his half-eaten bowl of cereal in his lap and the TV on and little parts of some never-to-work-again machine spread all around him on the coffee table and the floor. And, maybe, a Cocoa Puff or two on his undershirt. She or her mom or one of her brothers or sisters would wake up and find him like that, his head at an unnatural angle, and brush him off and lift him up and slowly pick around the scattered parts to get him into bed.
Maybe, while she was thinking all this, he started tapping his cereal into his bowl and leveling it off with his spoon like he always did and his eyes were vacant and she couldn’t stand it anymore. Her battered, broken heart couldn’t stand it. No one knew what he had or if he had anything at all but something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
And her ego got ugly. Raised its ugly, ugly head and she let all her breath out, very fast and very angry, through her nose and kept her mouth in a tight line until she opened it and said:
“I will never be like you.”
She looked down at this stooped thing that was supposed to be her father and it raised its head and looked at her, surprised. And she continued.
“I will never, never, never be like you. I just…won’t allow myself. I will never be so weak. I don’t care how sick I get or how sick I want everyone to think I am or how…how disappointing my life gets. I will never feed my sickness with sugar and…cover it with pills. I will never be so dependent. Because I’m not that weak and I don’t care how bad I hurt. I don’t care how bad it gets.”
And she braced herself for his response, squared off her shoulders ready to take it. And what did he say? (Oh God.) What did he say?
He dropped his head and looked at the floor and then looked up again and straight into her eyes and spoke gentle and full of sorrow.
“I hope that’s true,” he said. “I really do. But, mostly, I hope you never have to find out if it’s true or not.”
It was coals of hot fire on her head and it was a jolt to her petrified heart to discover he was still her dad. That’s what he said. And even though she’d braced herself, she found she couldn’t take it.
And she still can’t.