by Alison Alstrom
As a writer, my work is to remember. All the little things. Not just that my mom didn’t come to the hospital on that second of the last 10 days my sister was alive, but also how my father looked when he told me that she wasn’t coming.
He was probably casual, might have shrugged, like it was nothing and everything all at once. But specifically — how did he look? What was he wearing? Which words did he use? Was there light coming in behind him, making a halo around the fine white tips of his still-stylish hair? Hair neatly combed that morning but now messy from his walk and the storm? Because he would have walked, first through the parking structure — both towering and subterranean — and then on to the main hospital building, across four lanes of Parnassus Avenue, and through the wind and rain that raged that whole 10 days, the 10 days that it took for my family to be irrevocably reft and rearranged by my sister’s sudden heart failure. And where was I when he told me? Was I hungry at the time? (probably not) Was I tired? (almost definitely).
And if I can’t remember, my work is to find these things out, these and a thousand other things, and write them down. Big things, important things, but especially small, everyday things, things that go unnoticed until someone gleans that without them, without those little things, minute or mid-size mundane things, the whole larger thing falls flat, loses its color and its pointy urgency. The whole sentence, the whole moment or event in question, an entire quickly-passing life will fade a little. Its contours, once so stark, so sensuously curved and dynamic they seemed to emit a fragrance, to have a temperature and gravity, a whole solar system of other mundane and precious details revolving around them, will soften and blur and the whole thing will just fade away. So maybe I call my dad, who doesn’t remember either. And maybe I feel him flinch when he thinks about it.
The truth is, calling this work ”my work” feels a little edgy. It makes me squirm, look up at the clock, pull the hem of my shirt down over my soft hips and belly. To ask you to slow down and see what I see, or feel what I felt feels like an imposition, a waste of your time. Like you’d care. Like I have the right to make him flinch like that.
And yet, work it is, hard work, actually, and I’m nothing if not a hard worker. So my work is that, then, to get over myself and just get to work. To tell myself every day that I’m writing and that writing is the work I’m doing now. And then to get back to it. So yes, he was standing, definitely. And backlit. His fine, white, still-stylish hair messy from his walk through the storm
Alison Alstrom lives in Portland, Oregon, where she recently completed the Atheneum Fellowship year at the Attic Institute. Previously, she attended the San Francisco Art institute with a focus on oil painting.