Read Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir Online

Authors: Rita Zoey Chin

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Nonfiction, #Personal Memoir, #Retail

Let the Tornado Come: A Memoir

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for Larry

In a murderous time

    the heart breaks and breaks

        and lives by breaking.

It is necessary to go

    through dark and deeper dark

        and not to turn.

I am looking for the trail.

—Stanley Kunitz

Let the morning time

drop all its petals on me.

Life I love you

all is groovy.

—Simon & Garfunkel

PROLOGUE

In the dark, especially in the dark, against the pillow, I hear them. I hear them in the quiet and in the ruckus. I hear them when I am three and just beginning to remember, when I am eight and my mother lies on her back and stares at the ceiling and will not look at me. I hear them in steel and dirt and
sidewalks
, in distances and conversations. I hear them when the sky is the color of oil. I hear them in the blank sun and in the rushing of bathwater. When I run, I hear them loudest.

On the day of my birth, I’m sure they were there—
thunderous
, rhythmic, coming and coming: hoofbeats.

I
cicles drip from the windows encircling the dressage arena, and as they melt, they grow longer. They are dazzling, glistening
in the sun, but right now each one is a threat. The light would be dazzling, too—the brazen shaft of sun angling into the arena, catching the dust as if it were fog—but as we pass the sunray, Claret curves his body away from it. His horse brain is naturally wired to flee from any perceived danger, but for this horse, who has had real reasons to be afraid, anything unexpected is dangerous. He has no way of understanding why this shaft of light has suddenly appeared—why the sun’s journey on the ecliptic has just aligned itself with this particular window—but I know he trusts me, so I speak to him with the insides of my calves and keep our rhythm, steady, forward, one-two, one-two, one-two. I keep circling back to the light, each time getting closer. “You’re okay,” I tell him, leaning forward to pat his neck. I want him to feel my determination, solid as a ball of silver. And I want him to feel that my confidence is, in part, born of him, of his strength, of the many days he carried me through my own fears, those days when I wasn’t sure if he’d throw me off his back, those days when he had every reason to but didn’t. Eventually, we ride right through the light, our little triumph. And then, as if by conquering it, we have forced it to surrender, and like the melting ice, it disappears.

We are alone. The only sounds in the arena are our sounds: Claret’s feet hitting the ground, his breathing, my breathing, the slip of my breeches against the saddle. Outside the arena are the discordant sounds of the rest of the world: trucks rumbling by on the main road, water dripping, the barn workers speaking loudly as they drive the tractor around. I slip my outside leg back and ask Claret to canter. He steps up into the stride, and I ride the swing of him, powerful and deep. These are the moments when I feel free.

Claret and I are in constant conversation. With each gentle tap or shift of pressure, he knows what I’m asking of him. Usually he answers yes, and occasionally he answers no, but most of the time I go with him, and he goes with me. It is a kind of dance, and while we’re not always graceful, we have moments when we move together as one.

I have come to know Claret’s body better than I’ve known most
bodies. I know when his back is supple or his hind legs are stiff, when he has energy or when he wants to stand still and gaze ahead dreamily. And I know when he’s distracted, when he has an itch, and—sometimes before he does—when he’s about to trip. I know that today he is more easily spooked than other days. I feel it under his skin, a frequency, like lightning close by. But I don’t focus on his fear because it’s amorphous and contagious, and because I’ve learned that while every flash of lightning doesn’t mean a storm, I’m ready for it when it does. So for now, I focus on the three beats of the canter, on this cool air rushing over us as we go faster down the long side of the arena.

S
uddenly, one of the icicles crashes down, and Claret panics. He spins, bucks, spins, bucks. Though his erratic movements are swift, time slows. I’m acutely aware of the inexorable force of him, the adrenaline zinging through his fourteen-hundred-pound body. I know his impulse to flee as well as I know anything, because for years the same impulse ruled me. There was a time when my pounding heart would have matched his, when fear would have been the only answer for us both, but right now, as the irregular beats of Claret’s hooves mark an eerie uncertainty about where the next steps will land, I’m surprised to find that what would once have been fear is now a strange curiosity: will I fall? But it’s a distant curiosity because mostly I’m not thinking; mostly I’m a body following a body, and there’s a freedom—and even a kind of excitement—in that. As Claret jumps forward and yanks on the reins, I feel each degree of movement as if it were a snapshot, frame by frame. And between each frame and the next lives the smallest, almost imperceptible, glimmer of calm. “Whoa,” I say, softly. “Whoa.”

Claret stops then, and I pat his neck. We have survived the icicle. I tell him he’s a good boy, and he exhales a long breath. Then I ask him to canter again. I’m not going to worry about all the other melting icicles ready to come down. This is the only moment we’ve got, and everything about what we’re doing demands one thing from both of us: trust.

When we pass the window where the icicle fell, I can feel the pause in Claret’s body, his impulse to pull away, but with my body I assure him it’s safe. I can’t promise him it won’t happen again, only that when it does, we’ll get through it. And he listens. And we are safe. When we finish, I drape myself over his long neck and breathe into his mane, as his body softens against me.

T
here is no single way to tell a story. For me, Claret’s story begins many times; both of us hold many stories, and sometimes it’s hard to imagine there ever having been a time when Claret wasn’t part of mine. We’ve saved each other in countless ways since he entered my life, even when it didn’t feel like anyone was being saved at all. Sometimes parts of our story feel so immediate when I think of them that they trump the present moment. The story of my childhood is the same: those years of loss and wandering keep happening, as if they’re rewriting themselves on the inside of my body, zapping me afresh some days while I’m busy living my new life. They say memory is like that, that to the brain there is little to distinguish a memory from the actual event. So as resounding and complete as any present moment is, one side of it is always touching, even in the gentlest of ways, the past, where there is always a story inside the story, waiting to be told.

ONE

W
hen we arrived in Massachusetts, spring’s thaw had already begun to hatch the first crocuses, small bold banners breaking through the grayed dirt. We drove slowly up the driveway as I turned off the car radio and rolled the windows down. This was a big moment, and I wanted to experience it with all my senses. Birds flittered about busily, weaving a cacophony of tweeting and cawing into the air. But a quiet hovered outside their music, enclosing it the way an ocean takes on rain.

And then we were facing it: our new home. As I stepped from the car, I still couldn’t completely reconcile that this sturdy colonial, with its sweeping yard and old trees and roomy bathtub, was ours, and that I was actually going to live in it. Even more astonishing was this: I’d get to do that living with a good man and our two sweet rescue dogs, Aramis and Starlet. Here in the driveway, with the bright flowers and the birds and their attendant silence and the man I married five years ago
standing just outside the car in the navy pullover fleece he often wore, was, by all appearances, a manifestation of the imaginary life I’d swiped from countless L.L. Bean Christmas catalogs as a child—the imaginary life I’d cobbled during my homeless, wandering years, staring into people’s houses after dark and wishing for their soft lamplight, their mazes of rooms, and the safety of their front doors, that clear demarcation of home.

Now, two decades later, I held a key to that long-imagined front door. Larry and I smiled at each other over the roof of the car.

We’d moved from a modest house in Maryland, where my family still lived, so that Larry could take a job as neurosurgery chair and work to resurrect Boston Medical Center’s failing neurosurgery department. I was going to take a break from teaching and devote myself full-time to writing, while the cows lowed on the farm across the road and our dogs frolicked in the yard and the forests all around us kept thrusting upward into the sky. It was going to be a happy life—that was the plan.

My mother liked saying, “Man plans, God laughs,” usually during some major disappointment or catastrophe of mine. I didn’t believe in her spiteful, cackling God, yet her words wormed their way into my psyche and left me always a little on edge, as if the minute I began to put faith in the future, something would come and scramble it. “Aha!” her God would say. “So much for your plans!”

Though I’d been putting distance between my parents and me for most of my life, and had finally marked that distance in miles, her words followed me like the wind chime outside her bedroom window, that eerie clanging I never got used to and can still hear. So the revolution of thoughts in the driveway that day was swift:
Is this really my life? Yes, this is my life. Too bad I’ll lose it
.

I put the key in the lock and opened the door anyway.

One of my favorite things about our new house was the generous placement of windows. As soon as I walked in the front, I could see out the back, and wherever I looked there was a haven of trees—majestic oaks and elms and maples, and a variety of conifers—the kind of woods
that seemed inhabited by sprites and other fanciful creatures. And over the course of those first days, as I unpacked boxes and made our first cups of tea and set up my writing desk and hung white fluffy towels and blasted the music and danced from room to room, occasionally stopping to squeeze Larry exuberantly, a childlike wonder persisted in me.

I trotted around outside like a seven-year-old, skipping down hills with the dogs chasing behind, plucking rocks from the woods, parking myself in the fragrant shade of a pine tree and squinting up at its fans of needles. I’d left a lot behind in Maryland—my sister and her daughter, friends I loved, my favorite sushi bar, a kick-ass Sunday morning yoga class, a rewarding teaching gig, and the familiarity that can only come with time spent living in a place—but here, even in those first hours, I felt more at home than I’d ever felt anyplace else. The opening of our front door that day signified one of the clearest thresholds, literally, of my life: a beginning, a clean slate, the long quiet afternoon into which I could finally exhale.

“You make everything beautiful,” Larry said to me as I opened a window. He was standing in the middle of the room, pivoting around in his blue pullover.

“You make it easy,” I told him.

O
nce the books were arranged on the shelves, the dishes snug in their cabinets, the rugs unrolled on the floors, I parked myself at my desk and started working. As the words slowly spread into pages, the yard outside my window kept erupting into blossom—tulips, irises, peonies, lilies, lilacs, a blazing pink dogwood, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, azaleas. Someone had once loved this place, and that love still lived.

When I took breaks from writing and watching the blooming wonderland of our garden, I explored nearby towns and discovered small countryside markets, ponds shimmering up at the trees, secondhand bookstores selling rare books, strawberry fields where people filled their own baskets, unmanned flower stands with homemade bouquets in
mason jars and an envelope for the honor system of paying, and a rocky beach with swings facing the ocean. In the evenings I would lead Larry around the garden and show him what new things had popped up, and he would bend down to sniff whatever I pointed out, even the flowers that had no scent. Then I would tell him what I’d found on my travels that day.

I had always been a solo wanderer. As a kid, in many ways I hadn’t had a choice. But on the moody October day of my twenty-first birthday, I chose to go hiking alone in the woods, and in the years that followed, I went to festivals and museums and restaurants as my own date, slipped into the bat-encrusted mouths of caves where no one saw me enter or exit, navigated road trips to new cities and to rickety spider-run cabins in backcountry towns. And in most of my favorite dreams—the ones that send me flying over trees or swimming in a glacial sea or visiting an unexplored planet—I’m by myself.

Even my secret road-trip fantasy, the one I’d been imagining for years, was one of solitude: I’m driving a convertible, always heading south, and the sun is always on its way down, setting freckles on my face while the wind whips my hair and Dylan plays on my radio, singing about a brass bed. I drive and drive with the self-possession of a girl who knows where she’s going, even when she’s lost. Also, in the fantasy, I’m wearing cowboy boots.

My fantasy used to culminate in my stopping at a roadside bar and beating a stranger at a game of pool. He’d be wearing a big-buckled belt and a cowboy hat, and he’d have deep laugh-lines around his eyes and large hands. After I’d win, he’d take me back to his humble digs and undress me on his brass bed. But over time, the fantasy revised itself, by editing him out. It turned out the thrill wasn’t about the man; it was about the journey, about making it alone.

L
arry and I got along well because we both flourished in the vast and solitary space of our interior lives. We never demanded
time from each other, and when we did converge, we appreciated the respective otherness of our different worlds. I relished what I learned about the brain—that its covering, for example, is called dura mater, which means hard mother; or that there is a kind of seizure that makes people laugh; or that you can remove a pituitary tumor through a person’s nose. And Larry enjoyed being quizzed on poetic forms and rules of punctuation, having discussions about narrative arcs and character development, listening to me wax on about the importance of imagery.

And now, on the open canvas of our new life together, yes, I wanted to make something beautiful.

W
hen the ambulance arrived two months later, I was hunched over on our front step, clutching at my heart. It was summer by then, the shadows long on the lawn. The trees stood full and heavy, their leaves wet with light. I was certain I was going to die—and on such a glorious morning.

Within minutes an EMT was taking my pulse. As he leaned over me, the hulk of his shoulders blocked out the sun. He might have been a football player. His fingers were gentle at my wrist, and his touch comforted me, as if his hand could mean the difference between life and the grave. “Yeah” he announced, slowly giving my arm back, “one hundred and seventy-eight is pretty fast.”

He wanted to know if I had any history of heart problems. I didn’t. Had I taken any medications? I hadn’t. Was I on drugs? I wasn’t. I’d simply been sitting at my desk when a strange vertiginous sensation jolted me, like one of those falling dreams, and my heart began stampeding. That’s when I grabbed the phone and ran out the front door.

“You ran out the front door?” he repeated. A smile came slowly to one side of his mouth, as if he’d just unearthed a clue, and I took this as a sign that maybe I’d be okay. But I kept my hand on my chest anyway, and when he told me my heart was starting to slow, I could feel it was
true. According to him, my blood was one hundred percent saturated with oxygen, my lungs were clear, and my heart, though fast, was beating in a normal rhythm. At the uncertainty in my voice as I declined a trip to the hospital, he told me not to worry. “We have a lady who calls all the time with panic attacks,” he said, still with that smile.

Panic attacks? How could something so physical—the pounding heart, the shaking hands, the tunnel vision—have been a product of my own mind? I wanted to call Larry, but he was in the operating room, removing a tumor from a patient’s brain. So after the ambulance left, I Googled my symptoms and stared at words like
hypoglycemia, thyroid disease, heart arrhythmia
. My face turned cold with recognition at the last: there was my diagnosis—a heart arrhythmia. Though the EMT had told me otherwise, my belief lived far deeper than his words could reach: these words in front of me, as bold as truth, were confirmation of a lifelong fear.

I’d first suspected something was wrong with my heart when I was eleven and noticed it thumping in my chest. My sister and stepbrother let me check their chests, but theirs were still. “Look,” I said, pointing at mine, “it’s moving!” Later, when the school nurse told me the reason my heartbeat was visible was simply that I was skinny, I didn’t entirely trust her. I worried constantly over my defective heart, and for months after she shooed me back to class, I regularly took my pulse and the pulses of my friends. Mine was always the fastest.

Now that my childhood fear had come full circle, I didn’t know whether to gloat or start planning my will. Instead, I looked up one more thing: panic attacks. There again, my symptoms matched. I was surprised to find that panic attacks can strike “out of the blue” and are often initially mistaken for heart attacks. But in reality, a panic attack is simply a fight-flight response that occurs at the wrong time—like a fire alarm going off when there’s no fire.

I abandoned the sea of disorienting medical text on my computer and the sketchy websites that promised a cure in exchange for my credit card number, and spent the rest of the day feeling shaky and alone.
The hours trickled by, and when Larry came home that evening, I approached him solemnly in the foyer and told him my news. “I think something’s wrong with my heart. Also, I may have had a panic attack.”

Larry, being a thoughtful and steady man, and also a man who, unlike me, took his time when given information to which he was expected to respond, went about his usual habit of unloading his keys and wallet onto the front table, then walking into the kitchen to place the mail on the counter. We gave each other the standard hug and kiss, and then he asked, “What happened?”

I told him about the palpitations and the paramedics, half watching him and half watching the trees outside hold the late light like honey while the sun rested like a slingshot in a low branch. Larry exhaled audibly, and for what seemed like a long time. His scrub top was coming untucked, and his hair had lost its gelled stiffness and flopped forward onto his forehead. It had been a long day for us both. “You’re fine,” he decided, smiling as if there were no other choice. And we stood like that, in the kitchen, with all that light between us.

I
couldn’t entirely blame him for dismissing me. We each had hypcochondriacal tendencies, which I found to be a source of both intrigue and familiarity when we were first getting to know each other. In fact, it was when we discovered that we’d both taken a semester off from college after diagnosing ourselves with MS that I fell in love with him. Since then, we’d both gone the neurotic route on occasion, thinking our headaches were tumors, our stomachaches cancer, our fevers malaria.

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