I’m watching low clouds pour over the sandstone peaks of the Colorado Front Range from the window of my rented cabin. The grey damp lends itself to a productive day of work at my laptop, letting me get lost in deep projects or skim across my email inbox like a hawk across the glassy surface of an alpine lake. Sporadic to match the rainfall outside, every few hours my phone rings and I lose an hour to gossipy phone calls with other remote workers on my team. It’s frenetic and pointless like a treadmill – I’ll hang up and realize we hadn’t accomplished anything in an hour. Around 5 pm, the white winter sun dips bleakly behind the foothills and my eyes realize they’re tired. I assemble a tray of snacks and collapse in the awkward Ikea chair in front of the TV to devour a saved episode of Drag Race. This is my normal Friday night.
Icy raindrops tick against the window as the sky darkens and I watch drag queens pat their faces with elegant powder and wrap themselves in glamorous textures. Feathers, leather, gold lamé. I chase gluten free crackers and salty Italian cheese with duck rilletes, and exhale deeply to process another week.
My phone buzzes on the table, shaking the wrapper of the dark chocolate I was saving for dessert. Last minute questions from work. Friends in a groupchat confirming plans to meet for a hike in the morning. Pictures from my brother of his kids enjoying fish fry with our parents at their favorite Friday night dive. The whole family toasting the weekend with red cheeks and bourbon old fashioneds and fried lake perch, a thousand miles away. I respond with happy, hollow emojis and let the acrobatic drag queens soothe my feelings of isolation.
An hour later, another text. This time from my dad, sharing the story of his drive home in our family group chat. I skim the message sent and keywords leap off the screen. Beads of sweat pool above my eyebrows. Stop sign. Breathalyzer. He’d rolled through an intersection and had to perform a field sobriety test, passing with a .03 despite recent ankle surgery making the heel-toe walk impossible. The text glowed with defiant pride, my eyes followed the cop’s finger just fine.
Christ. It’s a dread-inducing account of a day-ruining event, but as I read it I felt ever-so-slightly vindicated. I saw this one coming. My father is no stranger to casual beers at lunch, running errands after a couple of Lites with the yard work, or letting beers on the golf course bleed into wine at dinner. He wouldn’t bat an eye about driving home. He possesses a confidence around alcohol and his own tolerance that was distilled by a 1970’s sixer-in-the-passenger-seat Midwest upbringing by an absentee father who was often traveling as a whiskey distributor, by the camaraderie he felt for an industry that had connected him to his wife when they met working for a beer distributorship in LA. He is the demographic that beer ads are made for, longing to be that solitary guy on a motorcycle on a wide-open highway, cracking open a cold one to celebrate his freedom. He bought the vision (and the neon sign) of buxom chicks delivering overflowing steins as heavy with ale as they are with coital symbolism.
So, what’s a little buzzed driving to a man who was never indoctrinated by Red Asphalt, never traumatized by horror stories of beat cops wiping up brains next to an overturned jeep on prom night, like I was?
The ugly, averted possibilities play in my head in a made-for-TV kaleidoscope. His sunken eyes against the pallid cinderblock wall as the bars slam shut. Catching a shiv in the holding cell. Getting caught up with a record and letting the resentment fester and grow until he devolves into a disillusioned, disenfranchised serial offender. But no, this time he was lucky, divinely protected, and he knew it. The story ended with a proclamation – I don’t ever want to do that again.
I breathe deep and pause the show, catching a queen flying midair into a deathdrop while a Swedish chair digs into my back. Timidly, I wonder if this offers my lucky-and-reckless father an opportunity to reflect deeply and allow this experience to ripple like a pebble in a pond of self-awareness until it reaches the peaceful shores of resolute, intentional living. God, I’d love that. I’d feel so proud and renewed, with a sour twist of told-ya-so. We would have something in common again – a similarity of steadfastness in reaction to close calls and lessons learned. I resisted the urge to call him and talk to him about how he felt, about the timing and the deeper meaning and his next steps. No, this wasn’t the time. He could come to me if he wants to talk big.
My phone vibrates against the empty plates and shakes me back to life. My brother had weighed in. “Take a deep breath and watch this,” was the caption attached to a video of his 4-year-old daughter onstage at the supper club. The dinner rush had given way to a honky tonk. Standing next to the band, she was playing a tambourine in hot pink snow boots while tipsy women shuffled en masse before her. Through a haze of green stage lighting, my niece Norah tapped the tambourine against her thigh, lifting her giant blue eyes to the bandleader for reassurance.
A few weeks prior, before I packed my car and left Wisconsin in protest against the second polar vortex of the year, I hosted my brother’s two kids for a sleepover. We built sleeping forts when the munchkins spent the night – one for each of them, in my room. We discovered this technique to be the most successful after several rounds of trial and error. Separate bedrooms were too spooky, the leather couch got too sweaty, the floor wasn’t cozy enough, but Fort Finley and Norah Castle were comfortable, safe and effective. In tents made of blankets pinned on top of dressers with heavy dictionaries and chip clips, the kids were masters of their domain with nightlights, sound machines, stuffed animals and layers of blankets.
The forts are custom-built to suit their inhabitants. Fort Finley reflects the resourceful 7-year old future engineer inside. It’s a labyrinthine cave between a bureau and the footboard of my bed with a system of doors and access points to keep his destructive sister out and a small travel alarm clock so he knows when it’s time to wake me up in the morning. While Norah Castle – beautiful and wild like its namesake – is a breezy lean-to constructed with a floral tapestry from my college days. Inside, Norah enjoys a tower of full-size air mattresses and a glowing unicorn night light.
Usually, it’s a flawless system. But on this particular night, Norah was restless and resisted the comfort of her castle. She was violently overtired from a day of playing outside, not to mention cracked-out from a grandma-sized scoop of ice cream and desperate for a sleep that she was afraid to succumb to. My usual tactics to help her weren’t working. Again and again, I would tuck her in, give her a squeeze and reassure her that I was close by, but each time I’d try to walk away her little legs would kick the covers and she’d howl, “Noooooo, I’m just too scared!”
I was frustrated. I could hear her sleep-loving brother toss in his sleeping bag and groan in response to her cries. Plus, I wanted to sit down and mindlessly scroll Twitter after a long day of playing Super Auntie.
So we dismantled the walls of her castle so she could see me and know she was safe. But she watched me and protested every time I closed my eyes, breathlessly asking me not to go to sleep and leave her alone. She was just too scared.
I walked over and lay with her on the giant queen-sized monstrosity of an air mattress that dwarfed her. With a deep sigh, I opened a line of therapeutic questioning, asking first what she was scared of.
“I’m just too scared,” she croaked, her voice hoarse from crying. I explained, matter-of-factly, that she was in a safe bed, in my safe room, in grandma’s safe house, in a safe town in the safe world, and that her big brother and the dog and I were right there with her. It was all so obvious, couldn’t she see?
“Yeah, but I’m still too scared” was her whimpered reply. My jaw clenched. I needed to try something else. I rolled over and stared at her in feigned confrontation.
“You know what, girlfriend? I don’t believe you.” Her giant blueberry eyes stared at me, shocked, but curious. “Because I saw you today. I saw you skate across the frozen pond and mash bananas for pancakes with your bare hands. I saw you jump off a couch onto a half-inflated air mattress to launch your brother into the air. Those are not things that scared kids do! Those are brave things. So I think, actually, you’re brave.”
Delight rolled through my gut and out my mouth in a giggle. I was enjoying this line of thinking. I continued. “Actually! I remember when we went on a long hike through the snow all the way to the river and you got too close and slipped into the icy water. And I remember I asked if you could make it back home, and you stitched your brow and said yes and walked all the way back with icy cold feet, like a champ! So I don’t believe you. I know you’re brave because I’ve seen it.”
It was working. I paused while she stared at me. After a long minute, she whispered, “What other brave things did I do?”
I laughed, relieved, and reminded her of some of our better adventures. The dead raccoon we found in the woods after Finley got stuck in the mud and we had to pull him out of his boots to save him. The day we went to the buffalo farm to buy meat and let a chatty barn cat give us a tour. “Scared girls don’t pet barn cats,” I reminded her.
I stared at the ceiling, remembering, and noticed the sudden hush. I glanced over to see her eyes had closed and her breathing had slowed and a small, satisfied smile rested on her lips. I eased myself off the air mattress and tiptoed around Fort Finley back to my bed, where I skipped the Twitter scroll and slipped into sleep.
The next morning over yogurt and cereal she asked, “Hey Aunt Whee-Whee, what else do brave girls do?”
Icy sleet pelts the windows of the cabin and my iPhone buzzes in response. A new message from my sister-in-law, posted under the video of my brave girl and her tambourine.
“Norah explained to us on the drive home how the conversation will go when she tells you about her brave night. She said she was scared up there, but Whitney told her how scared people live. But not her! She’s brave!”
Three dots on the screen signaled another message incoming.
“They miss you bunches. We all do.”
I was improvising when I explained to Norah that scared people stay inside all day. That they don’t have sleepovers or adventures on the farm, and only eat dry toast. If I’d been truly honest, I could have shared with her that scared people also endlessly scroll Twitter instead of making plans for their life. That scared people get addicted to work and stay in safe jobs and never write their novel. They stay in the town where their family lives because venturing off, knowing you’ll be alone, makes you feel just too scared. Even if you know that you’re driving in your safe car on the safe roads.
But that’s not me, I’m brave! A week or two after the sleepover, I woke up on a Wednesday and drove from Milwaukee to Colorado with no set date to return. I got stuck in a snowstorm and had to sleep in my sleeping bag in a hotel room with a flyswatter on the wall. I kept going and made it to a cabin in the foothills where I enjoy great snacks and good TV and I know that family is always a text away.
I’m brave because I did it even though I was scared, and because I can sit with all these feelings and cry and miss the munchkins, but also go for hikes up mountains and eat Vietnamese food and think about where to go next. And now I’m wondering if the always running is also something that scared people do when it’s easier than making peace with a family that feels like its growing in a different direction from you.
But I’m scared and I’m brave and soon enough I’ll be on my own stage, just like Norah and her tambourine.