Becoming a Mirror
Updated: May 10, 2022
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Behind our yellow colonial house with the black shutters was a swath of woods, seemingly ancient to me, with vine-covered hardwood trees, boulders sure to encapsulate dinosaur bones, and a carpet of soft decaying leaves. That autumn, the leaves gently released their hold on life and floated to join the many generations that fell before.
That autumn, I was eight-going-on-nine and wondered to myself if the calcium deposits in my neck were cancer. And I wondered if I was ugly, and if I was fat, and I wondered always if I was liked. And I became aware, that autumn, of the need to find out what was wanted of me in all situations and in all company and to faithfully deliver that person. I was fast in the process of becoming a mirror, one that reflected each person’s state of being and state of mind. I was in the process of calming my own turbulent and flowing being that I may be a good reflecting pool, and show the gazer that which he or she wanted to see in me.
If I had had a hand reach out to me that year and draw me out of my fear of becoming a person of my own, I might not have spent so much time wondering what was required, and I might not have spent a year pressing on the lump in my neck and waking in fear that I was dying. And I might not have been caught by a boy on the bus, pressing my hands on the sides of my thighs, wondering if they might look better half their size, and I might not have been made embarrassed of myself countless times in countless ways.
But that autumn, behind the swath of woods, a fire blazed at my elementary school, a fire which was set by my twelve-year-old brother. It burned down an entire wing of the building, and it incinerated the life which was set for us – a life of a certain amount of pain and joy, and of learning to cope at a reasonable rate. No one was hurt, thank God, but among the ashes of the school was a family of five living in a small New Jersey town.
And I, the middle child of this family, in the process of becoming a mirror, was inundated with the many beings who desired me to feel shameful, and guilty, and demeaned – and so I complied, of course, having no one to reach for me, for my family was thrown into utter confusion. They were angry and scared and lonely but fiercely protective of my brother and trying so hard to find equilibrium. I absorbed all those feelings, but being a good mirror, I showed them what they desired most to see, a little girl who was just fine, smart and happy, not worried about cancer or desperate to be liked.
We had moved to this town in New Jersey from Long Island. There we lived around the corner from our grandparents and our aunt, who was only five years older than Colin, eight older than me. We lived in a neighborhood with side-walks and courts and split-level houses identical in every way except the color of their siding. We lived on a dead-end street, where
Colin learned to ride a two-wheeler and showed me how to ride over the gypsy-moth caterpillars that fell from the Maple trees onto the pavement all summer long, how to squish them with the wheels of my tricycle and make their green guts shoot out their heads. We felt no guilt about those caterpillars just yet. We were protected by the nature of childhood, for even as adults looking back on this time, knowing full well the dysfunction beneath it all, it seemed an ideal experience; we lived in what felt like a village, with our many aunts, uncles and cousins coming and going between our house and my grandparents’ house. We were welcome to come and go as we pleased between houses as well.
This community in Long Island had gone up quickly in the 50’s, built on a barren potato farm. Most everyone was Irish Catholic, or so it seemed to me. I didn’t know there was any other religion besides Catholic growing up. My mother dutifully brought us to Church every Sunday. I studied the nuns, wondering if they were twins and if they had feet underneath their long habits. My brother, three years older than me, listened to the sermons, but he was a genius, and so the Church’s moralizing had the opposite effect to what it desired, and he became angry and suspicious, recognizing at an early age the lies he was being told.
The lies of the church. My mother was told them all her life. She was sent to Catholic school and beaten and humiliated by the nuns. When her little heart ached for all the people damned to hell because they chose the wrong religion, there was no comfort for her. And she had no respite at home. There, her father was a terrorizing alcoholic. He beat his children mercilessly. Generations of families living a spiritual lie, one in which judgment, guilt, and sacrifice were taught as reality, stripping away all joy, all ability to love, all empowerment. The anger turned inward, the anger projected outward, it was all diseased from the start.
When I was born, my mother told me she remembers being completely overwhelmed by the most profound and intense feeling of love. When the nurse put me in her arms, she said, “I love you.” It’s a story she tells me often. It doesn’t seem remarkable to me, but she tells it as if it was the most remarkable moment of her life. To feel love, unabated, unfiltered, pure. I am lucky I was born in such a way. Loved like that.
When my brother was born three years before, my mother was deeply entrenched in her secret ritual of bingeing and purging. When she took my brother to the pediatrician at only a few weeks old, he told my mother that her child was starving. Starving herself, she could not provide enough milk for him. My mother can tell you her story with far greater insight than I, but to me, it seems that this was the seed of change, germinating in a spiritual desert in which my brother would wander the rest of his life, searching for sustenance at one mirage after another and finding no oasis. Ironically, he was our guide to the well-spring of life, peace, and joy, forever deepening, forever full. My mother’s pain was too great to sustain life, and she had to change, to break free from her depression, to find a way to nourish us. Colin was her blind guide. His life was a sacrifice for her, and later for me. I see it now for what it must have been, an offering to us for awakening. May he rest in peace, and may he awaken in his next life, swiftly and gently
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Colin had been depressed. Earlier that year, he had started throwing my Barbies off our back deck, making them commit suicide. He had recently taken a bottle of Tylenol, trying to kill himself. When my mother brought him to a psychiatrist afterward, he sat in his office, waving his hands in front of his face slowly, pretending to be transfixed by their movement, fucking with the psychiatrist. He had been showing signs of distress lately, for quite some time actually. He had become angry and violent with me, once grabbing me by my stomach and twisting so hard my organs felt bruised. He hated school, felt bullied there, felt there was something fundamentally wrong with him because he couldn’t seem to find a way to fit into this world. He was medicated for ADHD, put on Ritalin, and eventually this year, he seemed to give in to his perceived role of outcast and black sheep.
This autumn, an older friend of his from the neighborhood had told him that the plexiglass on the windows of the school wouldn’t melt. Seeming an interesting test to them, they stole a can of gas from our garage and made their way through the reedy, swampy path, making bets along the way.
They crossed over the blacktop and made their way to the second-grade classroom. First, they tried the barbecue lighter upon the surface, and seeing no sign of change, began covering the window with gasoline. Beneath the window was a vent, which could be opened and closed when the classroom needed ventilation. The gasoline dripped down the window and leaked into the vent. The two boys, giggling with the thrill of what they thought would be minor vandalization, pulled down the child-safety button on the lighter and pushed the trigger. The plexiglass alit, the gas upon its surface igniting with sickening alacrity. And moments later, from beyond the glass, flames rose within the classroom, and in that moment, the boys realized the horror of what they had done. They ran. The older boy ran the long way to his home, my brother ran back through the swamp, heavy frantic leaps between boards on the path, as fast as his legs could go.
As all this unfolded another boy had been quietly playing on the swings. He knew my brother and his friend.
News spread quickly; Colin had been identified, my parents notified before the fire had even been extinguished. We ran to see for ourselves, the gravity of the situation could not be understood otherwise. At the end of the path was a slight hill which led to the edge of the field. I was short, so the flames of the school only became visible as I ascended the hill. One step and the flames came into view, blazing high above the roof of the school, as I made my way up, the surreal vision revealed itself, a full wing of the school was collapsing, appeared to be melting, to the ground. That fire roared as crowds gathered. My family stood dumbfounded by the edge of the field, knowing that somehow our life had just changed irrevocably.