Renew Through Life
Heavy footsteps fall down the hallway and stop at the end, where three closed doors lead into three bedrooms: the twins’ rooms and mine. Leaning back against my headboard in the dark, balancing a Sleepytime Tea on my closed laptop, I forgo further movement. He is standing outside my room. It’s midnight and I leave for the airport at 5 a.m. It’s his last chance to talk to me.
The tell-tale fingernail tap-ti-ti-tap-tap sounds through my wooden door, followed by a singsong “entre vous?”
Like some sort of joke, he begs entry.
“Come in,” I reply, an incorrect response to the meaning of the French phrase. Neither of us speak the language, but according to Google Translate it actually means “between you.”
My dad steps through and squeals, “Emilyyyy, you’re leaving us,” in a fake whine and plops onto my twin-sized bed.
I flick on my iPhone’s flashlight to see him bare his toothy grin in the white underlighting, like a campfire storyteller.
“Yeah, I know,” I say, forcing a smile that is weak in comparison.
“Come on, aren’t you going to miss me?” He pouts down at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “Of course.”
I wait for a comment about how I’m giving him a “hard time,” but I don’t have another response stored in my back-of-head-small-talk-rolodex.
“Well,” he pats my knee through the bedsheet, causing my laptop to wobble with my tea. “I just wanted to thank you for your kind words in the car the other day.” My throat drops to my stomach. “I know that was probably hard for Ashley and Haley to hear, and, y’know, it’s a bummer we didn’t get to talk about it as a family. I’m sorry about that.”
I resist the urge to dig my nails into the cavern between my shoulder and collarbone and tear off the skin in frustration. He’s wrong in so many ways.
By “the other day,” he meant Christmas Day. The twins and I spent Christmas Eve, the Norwegian Christmas celebration, with my mom at her twin sister’s house, where we ate lefse and sushi, and cookies with coffee.
Christmas Day was always for our dad’s parents. As usual, this year we opened excessive amounts of presents and when conversation ran dry, discussed world affairs. My dad’s sister told me I need to be more open-minded when I expressed distaste towards Joe Rogan. We laughed. Despite disagreeable politics, my family enjoyed that I talked a lot and sounded smart, which reflected nicely on them. According to my dad, though, they could do without my tattoos.
Once my sisters and I were exhausted, we got in my dad’s car to go home. While pulling out of the driveway, he put on a big smile and opened his pre-planned argument: “So, it isn’t often that I get the three of you alone.” My sisters, in the boot, were glad they let me sit shotgun.
“And—I wanted to discuss this as a family, but apparently Mom told you—I don’t know what her and her sister are planning, but she let you know that after the two of you graduate,” he gestured back at the twins, “she plans to move on from us.”
My sisters’ lack of response gripped the back of my shoulders.
“I just want you guys to know, I didn’t do anything wrong. Like, I didn’t cheat or anything.”
Beat of silence.
I cringed. “We know, Dad, don’t worry,” I said, now wondering why this was his first concern. “You’re still our dad and she’s still our mom. That won’t change.”
I didn’t want to affirm that he did nothing wrong, but it seemed too cruel to tell him off on Christmas.
“And I got my sixteen year chip a few days ago. I’ve gone sixteen years without any drugs or alcohol. So, I just want you guys to know you can come to me about anything,” his tune changed with a sharp left turn. Over a decade was impressive—every day was impressive for an addict in theory. But I had been his daughter for 20 years, and I knew when he was lying.
My sisters nodded. He drifted around the roundabout onto the main road. The large country-club houses shrunk to ramblers. Twinkling lights flickered on the windowpane. The colours clashed like fireworks in my weary eyes.
“Yeah, that’s great, Dad,” I said.
“C’mon, it’s cool!” He leaned back and held up his chip over the centre compartment. “Do you guys want to hold it?”
One of the seventeen-year-old twins took it. He’d never spoken to them about this side of himself. Educating them about the risks of drugs and alcohol was my mom’s job. They shared a silent glance between one another in the rearview mirror.
“I still have the first ones you gave me,” I said blankly, providing conversational fuel.
My dad looked at me, “Wow! Oh my gosh, you remember?”
In your earliest memory, you were walking at your mom’s side, hopping building to building above streets, safe inside the warmth of the Minneapolis Skywalk. Your arm stretched up diagonally to clutch your mom’s hand, which effortlessly dangled at your height. Her spare grip pushed a double stroller, carrying the twins. Strangers passed by and remarked, “Boy, do you have your hands full,” with friendly Midwestern smirks. Your mom, who already knew her hands were full, offered a glib nod back.
You were going to visit your dad in the hospital, and earlier you had been excited. You’d never visited anyone in the hospital. Before you left the house, your mom handed you a token to give to him, which she told you was for spending 24 hours getting better. She told you the shiny coin was special because you were going to give it to him.
She lifted you into the backseat of her minivan and told you to raise your arms in the car seat. Somewhere along the way you lost the coin. It took a few minutes before you noticed your hands were empty and remembered they shouldn’t have been. Your tummy twisted with an awful feeling.
In the bright white hospital room, you held your tears in your throat, telling your dad how you were sorry you lost his coin. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he laughed, crouched down, and slighted his fist to reveal another token between his index and his thumb. You gasped, your awful feeling melting. He pushed it towards you, and you grabbed it with all five fingers.
“Is this a magic coin?” you asked.
Both your mom and dad chuckled and decided “Why not?” Dad said you could keep it.
There was a sentence, inscribed in all uppercase letters, popping out of the smooth surface. You touched the letters beneath your pointer-fingertip and read them out loud. “Re…new……th-RUG?” You did not know that word, but you knew the next. “Life. New life new life new life,” you repeated under your breath.
“Renew through life.” Your mom ran her fingers beneath the words, reading them out for you. You closed your fingers around the rim. Your dad placed his ginormous hand gently against your small back. Not for the last time, you felt golden.
Years later, the echoes of middle school gossip and coaches shouting “On the thirty!” slipped out of your reality when you plunged, streamlined, through the green-blue pool water. You discovered by honing endurance that your pain became currency transferable for pride. Swimming felt like the closest to flying a girl could get.
Every once in a while, though, you remembered it’s much closer to drowning. This thought emerged when you hit the cool water at the Minnesota State Swimming Competition. You were just sitting on the bleachers, watching your scrawny figure windmill its arms stupidly. The summer sun glinted blindingly on the surface. You choked, and when your head breached the surface at the backstroke bars, you heard the pity clap.
On the car ride home, your mom tried to talk to you about your anxiety. You, however, claimed to have none; you had just left your school’s social work program, where your anxiety manifested socially. The school documented your clinical lack of popularity, which was mortifying. You weren’t stupid—the claw gripping your chest wasn’t ignorable, but you were on a mission to take your shame to the grave.
The night after races, you could never sleep; endorphins kept you up. But, after killing yourself in each race, you laid in bed with your eyes shut anyway. Your little sisters tore through the house in thuds of dancing leaps and shockingly—annoyingly—talented belting. You shifted from your stomach to your side to your stomach, and the noise grew quieter, until just your parents talking in the stove-fan light remained. You heard your name and tuned in, still as a statue gathering dust. It was barely discernible, but you heard your mom suggest medication. Your dad whispered “no” much too loud, because “it’s weird.”
Without reluctance, you nodded slightly in agreement.
“It doesn’t matter,” I meet his eyes, icy-blue, swallowing his pupils in the phone flashlight’s glow. The fluffy blanket suffocates my crisscrossed legs. I wiggle my toes around beads of sweat. “We already knew.”
“But that’s the problem,” his forehead crinkles. The light from below exaggerates the shadows and highlights of his wrinkles, making me feel too young. “We didn’t get to tell you as a family.”
“No, Dad, we already knew.” He scrunches his eyelids, but I keep my best poker face. I feel like an RPG protagonist and “force kindness” or “monotone” are the only options dangling above my head. I normally choose the former, but now I’m tired and have a flight the next morning and we’re sitting on my childhood bed in my childhood bedroom and it’s midnight, my alone time. “Before Mom told us, we knew. We’re fine with it. We don’t care.”
You spend high school in bed, growing stale. It was a shame that no one liked you, but you wanted to be alone.
“I want to be alone,” you screamed again, most often following a terse “get out of my room.”
The mirror was your greatest source of pain. At the sight of your face, that petrifying pain swelled your tongue. Your body turned to stone. You could only stare into your cold icy-blues in disbelief that you were you. Repulsive you. You were ugly and vain for caring about it and selfish for indulging in such vanity.
You remembered a child-psychologist, back in grade school, calling you “well-intentioned”: what people say when you’ve done something wrong. You laid awake on popcorn crumbs, keenly aware of the MacBook slumbering at your side. You opened up for no one, except for solitude. Her, you treated like a house guest. You conversed with her for hours, pacing up and down your room. The stream of consciousness eroded all your poise, and the stone of your statuesque persona ground to a pebble, whisked up in the rapids. For dinner, you offered her your pain for free.
Inside your drawer, in a shiny purple box, you hid your blade under your dad’s old coins. He didn’t remember them, and they gave you no comfort, so what were they even for now?
“But it wasn’t fair to me,” Dad whines, the same way I used to when I was a little kid. The typical response, of course, was that “life’s not fair.” I hated to hear this but couldn’t argue.
“I don’t care,” I say. My limbs shake, sweat pooling under my arms. I long for five minutes ago—for comfort.
He frowns deeply. “I care.”
It strikes me that this is the first time I’ve told him how I feel. Then, it strikes me that he’s never asked. He’s never asked the twins, who still live under the same roof. My blood runs fast, hard, almost painful. Begging for freedom I won’t grant.
“But I don’t.”
“Oh,” he says.
The conversation is over.
He replasters his grin. “Well, it was sooooo great having you home, Em!” and pulls me into an awkward hug. “I’ll miss you so much. Okay, goodnight.”
He waves with a whole flat hand, not dropping his bared teeth until the door fully shuts behind him.
I touch my phone to turn off the torch. My room is cloaked in a dark grey, not quite black to my now adjusted eyes. My rabbit heart pumps like it’s on the clock, over and over. Eyes shut, head on my arm, knees curled up, I go through the steps of sleep. For five hours, I lie awake, tired, and sweating. I want to get up to distract myself but can’t. I have to wake up early for my flight. I can’t risk sleeping in.
My mom, my best friend in my emerging adulthood, comes into my room at five, like I asked her to the night before. She brings me an espresso in a cute little cup. Wordlessly, the two of us putz around the house, handing hairbrushes and utensils to each other intuitively.
She drives me to the airport in the dark. She’s already started her day, but to me it’s just a late night. On the radio, a Christian pop group sings a ballad. Mom lets out a breathy nasal sigh, a habit that always makes me squirm in the passenger seat. It feels uncomfortably cliché: the stoic mother listens to worship songs while the melodramatic daughter sulks in resentment. My mom and I are supposed to be different.
“I have depression,” I say factually, running my nail along the plastic interior panel. “But I am happy, like right now. But I always have it.”
“Totally,” she smirks, keeping her eyes on the road. “It’s stupid that people expect people’s lives to be perfect for them to be happy. You know what I mean?”
She always ends statements with that question, and I always answer “yeah” because she’s never wrong. But, if anyone deserves a perfect life, it’s her. If addicts get a new life, a renewed life, why can’t she? After decades of fixing our messes, winning bread, and making mortgage payments, the praises others sing for her never seem to materialize.
I tell her about Dad coming into my room hours before. She snorts and rolls her eyes, saying he does that on purpose, starting serious conversations when you’re relaxed, your guard unwound. So he can stay in control. So he only has to reveal what he wants to.
“It’s just like when he made amends to me,” she elaborates. “All he said was ‘I was wrong.’ That’s it.”
She’s always keeping everything together and being told she’s amazing for it, but no one, not even her partner, ever lets her be human. She might not be “an addict,” but she still deserves a break.
“Things are looking up,” Mom tells me. “Let’s not think about it anymore.”
“Agreed, no more thinking,” I say—because I’m a liar, I guess.
Associate News Editor (Volume 49) — Emily is a third-year at UTM, studying Environmental Science and Political Science. Her academic career is best illustrated by terminal indecisiveness between the humanities and sciences. As a passionate writer, she looks forward to igniting her own creativity for The Medium and hopes to learn from others and grow in her work. Aside from speed typing thousands words worth of analyses, essays, and articles, Emily enjoys spending her spare time running miles through the woods, assembling the perfect outfits, reading on public transit, and drinking copious amounts of coffee. She can be found on Instagram and LinkedIn.