Don’t step on the cracks or you’ll break your mom’s back. It was something my dad had said to me when I was younger. It was something he had said to me before my parents divorced, before my own body spent more time shuffling over the cracks in the sidewalk than stepping over them.
I walk on the sidewalks of Davis Street now, stepping over them. Staring down at the anthills wedged between the slabs of concrete, the wads of gum blackened against their surfaces. I know my boundaries: Market Fresh Books where I’ve made my own account to buy and sell used books, Panera where the employee sneaks me free cookies, whispering it’s on me today, the Northwestern Library where I’ve accumulated piles of visitor passes from the time I spend there. I inhabit these boundaries.
I don’t go home.
Home, where yesterday night I walked through the front door at 9:30 pm to my mom yelling at my dad, David, get this junk out of my house. Last Week: Was it the Jolly Green Giant who left the garage door open, Rachel? Last year: was it you who left the tape measurer outside?!
I create my own home. I inhabit my own place. I redraw my world with words on paper: a dirt road with a river running by the side of wooden houses, a soccer field trimmed by the pounding of soccer cleats, a dollhouse where all five family members sit down at the dining table together. I carry these worlds in the notebook in my backpack. I sling this backpack onto my shoulder. I get on the train or the plane or the bus or my bike and say hi to the train conductor or become the honorary member in the old people’s open mic or walk for so long and for so far that my feet blister and my legs ache.
I chose the road. Green Bay Road. Dundee Road. The road beside the Skokie Lagoons where the deer hide behind switch grass and pine trees. The road beside temple Am Shalom where I used to fold paper cranes during Sunday School. The road beside my house where the hydrangeas droop from waterlog. The road beside a construction site, a walk sign blinking, a chainsaw buzzing. The road beside Northwestern University Hospital building. Where I stand. The road beside Northwestern University Hospital building—where grandma died of stomach cancer—where I brought her paper cranes for good luck, where I later became the patient, sitting in Dr. Brown’s office, fingers wound into each other, leg bouncing, as he showed me the x-ray.
That was eighth grade when I went into the hospital. I was Sick. The daily routine was not walking down roads but rather a steady four hour rhythm of vitals checks and once or twice-a-day blood draws. Mornings—the sun rose up behind Chicago skyscrapers.
Afternoons—I sat outside in the fenced-in park on the corner of a city block surrounded by cars rumbling. I sat at a wooden picnic table with my mom playing Bananagrams. The sun beat down on us. My head hurt. She beat me. Later I went into the hospital room where a nurse hooked my chest back up to the heart monitor cords: Red. White. Black. I wrapped my hand around Rosey, my stuffed animal horse. I played skateboard park on my iTouch and a skinny skateboard boy with a blue helmet crashed into a wall. Blue. Green. Yellow: these were the colors of the hospital walls. I placed my iTouch under my blankets and tapped each of my fingers to each other to feel them. Someone turned off the light switch.
When I came back to school three weeks later, I got a long-term sick note excusing me from gym class. I didn’t have to worry about embarrassing myself falling over during the weekly mile runs. I didn’t know how to talk to anybody. I didn’t go out with my friends to Starbucks or the mall. I spent my time in the empty practice rooms during recess, sitting alone among the dozens of crates filled with music scores and broken sets of percussion instruments. In hallways, people would ask me where I had been when I was gone from school, and yet they asked me these questions in three-minute passing periods walking between classes. They hoisted their books in their arms and jittered as they spoke. I blinked at them. I told them “Sick” and walked away.
I am still walking. I take the route down Davis Street, beside empty store windows and Ginkgo trees. There are bike chains still attached to empty bike racks, a walk sign blinking, a concrete mixer truck—the kind we used to have as a toy model during my brother’s I-love-trucks-and-cars-and-planes-and-trains phase—grumbling down the road.
The Northwestern University Hospital building is across the street from here. I don’t have to see it to know. It was one of the first hospitals I went to in eighth grade. Eighth grade: I try to understand what happened that year. I read books about trauma and grief—Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Rachel Jamison Webster’s Widowed. I try to understand grief, about how trauma shoves your world down the neck of a compound light microscope, glaring, reimaged, how trees become not just trees, how trees become two trees. What trees looked like before the hospital: fireworks; and what trees look like to me after the hospital: closed fists on top of bones.
Still, the world is a battleground for me, a fight between what is and what was: the handicap symbol on the door of this church I walk by: I could walk. I wanted to walk. I had two feet and was still able to rip myself free of the heart monitor cords to run to the bathroom in the middle of the night. And yet, still, whenever they brought me down to the basement of the hospital for radio imaging, they insisted on a wheelchair. I could walk and yet I couldn’t.
I choose my own path now. I choose the train I ride, the speed I pedal, the rhythm of my feet against the concrete. These are the motions I go through: grief—those days where I walk 6 miles and look over the rims of the bridge, pushing my mind away from the thought of drowning there; anxiety—those days where I dig my fingers into my hair feeling like I’m about to crawl out of my own skin; numbness—those days where I am just going through the motions, saying “I’m fine, I’m fine,” even though every time I move my mouth I have to think to myself smile, smile.
What happened, what happens, we do not go down this road—meaning, I do not have the summary words to get into this. Meaning, I have spent five-hundred pages of getting into this, getting into the nitty-gritty of those three weeks gone from school, the three different hospitals, the “things” that happened there.
I don’t go home.
I walk away from it.
My mom writes me a letter on my birthday: I don’t say the right things, but know that I love you. Me: Mom, when you storm out of the house because I leave oil on the placemats, it’s hard to believe this. Mom: I love you, Rachel. Me: walking.
Walking until I can convince myself, until I find the flicker of desperation inside of me to turn my way home again, to believe this.