My parents weren’t born until 1975, but they were total hippies. They had vague memories of Reagan, and the way our country turned its back on those with AIDS, HUD and Iran-Contra -- all of it. Their own parents had lived through the 60’s, but they stood on the sidelines and observed because they were too busy cobbling together enough to keep Illinois family farms going.
My parents met while at a mediocre state university, both feeling like they had a sign on their backs that said “Kick Me: I’m Poor White Trash.” But they always wanted to change the world. At first they thought it was through teaching, and the Ivory Tower and all that noise. They did everything right, and they got advanced political science degrees and made just enough noise to call it Social Justice and to feel like maybe they could bring kids into the world. So they did. Jimmy in 1999. Me in 2002.
I can’t give you all the details. How my dad saw himself in every student, except the rich ones from the suburbs, whom he antagonized and shamed. Inside he was still poor with one pair of dungarees and boots he stuffed with newspaper. It made him afraid to stop working, to stop, period. Mom taught too, but once me and Jimmy came along, teaching didn’t hold the same import. We loved our lives. We lived in a town with a university at its center and everything radiating out from it. Jimmy and I would ride our bikes home and find international students from Africa and Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, along with the entire art faculty at our table, a little drunk. My mom was in the kitchen, so happy and a little high. She’d have us carry in huge dishes of curry, samosas, aloo goobi and garlic naan. She’d present us as if we were the most delicious dishes she ever made, one hand on each of our heads, blessing us. She’d kiss us all over our faces for the entire world to see.
Here’s what happened. So you understand my dad isn’t evil. My mom got sick. She was stage 4, so she wasn’t working. Couldn’t work. The state of Illinois was starving higher education. There were massive layoffs at the university and my dad’s program was small. Small but mighty, he used to say. Even though he was tenured and full, boom. He had one year of employment still, but he walked, out of principal.
My grandparents’ house, 13 miles outside of town with 6 acres had sat empty. My parents had cared for it—mowing and upkeep, and we mushroom hunted and picnicked and spent time there in all seasons for the thick silences, but my dad and mom explained we were going off grid, in a sense. We were going to grow tomatoes and sunlit happiness. I was 13. Jimmy was 16. We’d have a plethora of peace and quiet, which my mom really wanted. To die in. She said stuff like that so we’d press our face up to the fact that she was dying. She wasn’t scared. She thought it’d be like before she was born. And when I can’t sleep, I try to remember what it was like, before I was born. I think of the sign above the front door my dad made, reading “Utopia”. Everyone says I speak like some forty-year-old, but they don’t get it. Most adults don’t know what I know. Dad likes to say it isn’t their fault, but I sometimes wonder. Maybe I’ll be a hospice nurse. Maybe at 14 I’ve already found my calling. Easing pain.
My caseworker asked, “Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and change?” Made me want to punch her in the throat and I’m a pacifist. My dad grew weed, yes. He sold it to middle aged folks grappling with hard life and there was so much of it, suffering everywhere and the weed helped. It took off the hard edges so people could endure. My father never, ever glorified it and he mostly dealt in trade—an oil change, alpaca wool socks for the whole family, six loaves of stone ground wheat bread, and people came in and helped with my mom.
Mom died, bathed in our attention, the solidity of our love—we were a wall around her. The whole world was right there, in us four. I told my caseworker that’s all I’d say about it, in addressing you, the court, but maybe all of you gathered can imagine how the world was blown apart too. Maybe you can understand some pain can’t be eased. Only carried.
The people who once ate our table will turn their backs to shame us now. When the cops came, with a helicopter even, Jimmy grabbed my hand and looked hard into my face, looking for all the world like a child, not my nearly seventeen-year-old brother. “It’s just time, Suzie,” he said. “Dad will do it. We’ll endure it. When I’m 18, I’ll come for you and we’ll be right back here. In the meantime, you carry it all with you.” He pointed to his own forehead, and tapped twice, something my dad would do to tell us, “Think. Think.” We watched out the kitchen window, our beloved father in the front yard of Utopia, down on his knees, hands behind his head, centered in a spot light that made me shudder, that made my teeth chatter and so we grabbed hands, knowing the world had come to tear us all asunder.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, Rappahannock Review and Iron Horse Literary Review. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.