Auditory stimulation. My left ear fills with Lana Del Ray’s “Dark Paradise” while Max goes to town on Emma, licking her face with a gentleness that melts my heart. His little sister. Who is now gnawing at the doorframe – another loving reminder that she is the boss of our home. Her toenails click against the polished cement floor as she walks off to temporarily fade from existence.
I lay on the shag carpet in my writing room, two pillows folded under my chin. Daylight battles a glooming grey sky, casting a dim, unsettling glow that is neither rain nor shine. I pray dark clouds prevail. A rainy, grey Sunday snuggled in the safety of home.
Of Monsters and Men’s “Love Love Love” filters on Pandora.
I close my eyes.
This song feels like the day. Effortless and grey. Bundled in clouds of soft white cotton.
I move with the moment.
My first ten years of life were lived on Birchwood Place in Pembroke Lakes. A small, two-story townhouse tucked away on the end of the street. My memories of that time, that life, are fragmented and scattered. Spokes on a bicycle wheel. One memory followed by white space followed by another memory completely out of sequence. A movie paused at every other frame. Unrealized childhood.
But it’s there. I know it’s all there locked away. Somewhere in my chest, in my head, sectioned into little plastic bins like evidence lockers.
Ryan Heller: age 0 – 6 months
Ryan Heller: age 6 months – 1 year
Ryan Heller: age 1 year – 2 years
And so on.
But I’m not sure which shelf to pull from. Which box to open. And I’m honestly not sure what I would find. Because it’s so distant. I have little emotional or mental connection to those early years, for reasons unknown. But I’d like to watch the film again. See the characters, the plotline, the story arc. I want to know my family then. My parents in their thirties, learning to care for their first [and last] child. My grandparents always at the house, loving every moment of having a grandson. My aunt rubbing my back as I drift off somewhere else entirely. There was always family. Always arms to disintegrate into, a shoulder to melt away on, a hand to hold my head.
And almost as if on cue, sunlight wins the battle and illuminates the room.
A metaphor. My mind opening to a past I chose to forget.
My father holds me while rocking in a chair by the crib. I fall asleep on my mother’s chest, feeling the rise and fall of her lungs with each breath. There was nowhere more safe, more warm than that townhouse. During those first years.
But that is not where it began.
If I were to start at the beginning, if I were to go back to day one, it would have a different tone.
Shortly after I was born the doctor realized I had a fractured femur. There was speculation as to how the fracture formed. Was it there already? Was I dropped by the nurse? For the first stretch of my life, I was confined to a crib in the hospital wrapped in a half-body cast from the waist down.
I realize how significantly that fracture shaped my life. From day one, fresh out of my mother’s C-sectioned belly, a path was being defined.
I just Google image searched “C-section” and “vaginal birth” for the sake of curiosity. Never again.
A chain of events resulted from my fracture, from a solitary post-birth incident. But it had to happen. Otherwise my path would have been completely different. I wouldn’t be typing these words. I wouldn’t have endured the years of physical therapy, the leg casts, the ridicule from other kids in school, awkward walking. My parents wouldn’t have experienced the devastation and fear that more than likely produced an even greater primal caretaking instinct for their newborn son.
It was a ripple effect that bled into so many lives.
From my family to their friends. Doctors and therapists. From kids in school who formed judgments because of my leg braces, to the teachers who had to defend me. Even those who are reading these words right now.
One event. One split second that resulted in a fracture. And the ripple continues to expand beyond comprehension. But there are so many events in our lives. So many ripples. A continuous momentum, energy created that never ceases to exist.
That is how I began and where this story truly begins.
A complete breach baby, both arms and legs crossed, cut from my mother’s womb. From a hospital crib in December. A Christmas bear perched next to my body. Half baby, half plaster cast strung up in the air like a Thanksgiving turkey ready for roast.
* * * * *
The townhouse was perfect. My father built a two-story wooden bookcase that spanned the entire living room wall, equipped with a rolling ladder you could climb up to take something down. His vinyl album collection occupied the first two rows, bands like Zeppelin and the Beatles mixed with Motown and Jazz shaped the beginning of my future playlists. Family photos, old books, a red gumball machine stuffed with multicolored round balls, plants, statues and stereo equipment filled that enormous bookcase. It was an art piece in itself.
The opposite wall was made of Chicago brick – red, brown and white blocks that climbed floor to ceiling. I would trace the grout between each brick with my finger, always careful not to smudge the powder on the white ones. Although there may have been a few smiley faces secretly scattered within my little arms reach.
Potted plants lined the sliding glass doors that led to the back patio, both inside and outside. The ficus tree is still a symbol of my childhood.
Maroon shag carpeting ran throughout the house, replaced by Mexican tile a few years down the road. Eighties-style furniture anchored the living room. A wood framed beige sectional and large wicker chair that housed your body like a clamshell. A blue, crème and brown abstract diptych framed in gold hung on the brick wall above the couch.
Colors of earth, of stability and grounding. Green, brown, crème and red. Textures of wood, brick, ceramic, wicker and shag. There was an undeniable warmth felt, that I still feel, from being in that home. It was a combination of two people in love. A newborn baby. Of young thirty-something’s starting a family. It was felt the minute you walked through the front door.
There is something indescribable about a childhood home. The setting of my first memories. An environment that embodied safety and comfort, that bred creativity and love. A place still existing somewhere in my cerebral cortex, in another dimension, where I am wide-eyed and curious about everything. Where I am freshly hatched from the womb, from plaster casts, crawling on maroon shag carpet. Clutching the soft white blanket adorned with stars and hot air balloons, clowns and moons. The blankie that never left my sight without inevitable tears. My first obsession. The townhouse was chapter one, a chapter that set the stage for a life I proceeded to take into my own hands with each passing year.
It was a life with no particular turmoil to speak of. No rage-filled or abusive parents who contributed to subsequent years of drug abuse and self-hate. I had a mother and father who set out to give me everything I needed. Grandparents who humored my every request with an unbelievable amount of adoration. An aunt who catered to me like I was her own. That townhouse was never shy of family or love. Never short of laughter or music.
My dad playing The Beatles on repeat. Waking up to “A Beautiful Morning” by The Rascals on Sunday. Dancing with my mom to Basia’s “Time and Tide” or Simply Red, “Holding Back the Years”. Even now I put both songs on while writing and have to stop because I am met with what feels like a scalpel to my heart. An emotion that is unrecognizable, that is like the melting of a hardened shell. Slow dancing with my mother in the living room one night, a bubbled glass tumbler of Vodka in her hand, my head pressed against her.
A time that seems too pristine to fully digest. Unreal, untouchable. I am Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, peering into his childhood through a window during the bitter cold of winter. The feelings trickle in but are immediately shut down. Barricaded within a fortress of something that I’m not yet ready to understand.
Memories tinted by an orange-sepia hue found in old photographs. The thick volumes of photo albums my mom compiled over decades. I question the authenticity of memory. Are they based on old pictures my mind stitched together? Or is my concept of that time just drenched in a vintage color palate? My truth is my truth and it is all subject to perspective, but most of my memories can be found in those photo albums.
The great mystery.
That book was shut and shelved to make room for stories about little blue pills that made life bearable. Stories of underage sex and experimentation. Of a boy who turned left instead of right. A boy who likes boys. Who likes secrets. Who plays alone. Who carried a rage that rooted deep within. Shame that grew into a convincing façade.
But there was more.
There was so much more.
“Breathe Me” by Sia comes on. An intoxicating crescendo that creates the perfect moment.
I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
I lost myself again and I feel unsafe
Be my friend,
Hold me wrap me up
I am small and needy
Warm me up
And breathe me.
It is a heaviness that rests in my chest. In my heart. Because life was split into parts, chapters. Chapter One: The little boy with the loving family. The little boy with leg braces. The little boy who walked on his tip-toes. The little boy who played Barbie and dress up. The little boy who put on shows for everyone. Who was affectionate. Who doled out kisses and hugs. Who had the high-pitched, squeaky voice. The little boy who clung to his mother because she was his best friend.
The little boy who knew he was special.
But somewhere he faded.
When the seed of shame was planted. When I threw tantrums if my parents tried to lock me out of their bedroom at night because I was too afraid to be alone. When the first thing I stole was a Rainbow Bright doll in Kindergarten. When that same teacher sat me in the hallway and poured Lemon Joy dish soap in my mouth for saying something she didn’t agree with. When I was threatened by a boy in First Grade because of the way I acted. When I was told I walked like a girl. Talked like a girl. When I realized I wasn’t the athlete my father wanted me to be. When I realized I wasn’t like other kids.
This obsession with the past, of why I can’t remember, is haunting. I know I was a happy kid, the environment was pure and my family was present. At some point, at some early moment, I understood that I was different. I knew I thought in another direction and my imagination was strong. When my parents arranged playtime with other kids, I wanted to bring them into my world but they rarely followed. So I often wanted to be alone. My cousins were the closest and together we united in fantasy, an escape that took us very far from reality. We created other lives, intricate stories with special powers, witches and monsters. Places that took us far from the small bedrooms we ran around with costumes and props, blankets as capes, brooms and plastic swords. I think we knew our parents were having an escape of their own. They would disappear somewhere in the dark of the patio. The smell of vodka and cigarettes lingering. Until our two worlds collided and we went home.
This has been some of the hardest collection of words I have written. I’ve read over it a dozen times, added and subtracted. Writing about family, about my parents, is extremely difficult. I know they are reading each word. Reading each word with disappointment and hurt. These are not the stories they hoped for their child, certainly not the stories they knew. And I question why I am writing, especially if I now know it is upsetting the two people who raised me so selflessly. Who are seeing a very different portrait of their son. Memories and feelings that are not their own.
But I write these stories, I write about my life, because it is freedom. It is no longer hiding behind masks and hoping no one sees I’m really still that little boy who is scared of the dark. It is opening a closet and removing old clothes one by one, making room for a wardrobe that allows me to walk a little taller. Prouder. More confident because I know it fits. I no longer have to hide. Embracing the past, the good and the ugly. Releasing it and attempting to live in the present. It is shaping a future that stems from acceptance and growth rather than shame and guilt.
And I know others feel the same. I realized that when I went to rehab. Those stories I held on to, the feelings of inadequacy, of darkness. The crap I did in my past, the choices I made, continued to define who I was. Everyday I felt like a failure. A lost boy looking to connect with himself. Always floating above my body, but never quite making contact. Needing to escape from feeling because I felt too much. Always escaping. The boy who walked around like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Different. Awkward. Wasted potential. Uncomfortable in my own skin. Carrying the past around in invisible bags slung over my shoulder like anchors. Never shedding those metaphorical leg braces from childhood.
How does a good little boy who was happy, who had a loving family, who was raised with hugs and I love you’s, walk the path I walked?
He makes choices.
Ryan, my cousin, my wonderful beautiful cousin, you hold a special place so dear and close to my heart. These words you so graciously place together flow immaculately as I praise your bravery in awe. Please continue to share. Within your writing is a bit of all of us. we seek a way to let out these emotions, but are non the less frightened by others reactions. Yet, what sparks interest more then saying the words we never said? "let go of the masks of changing faces and live!!" Thank you.
I feel like I'm back at Birchwood place reading this. I totally remember that wicker chair!
Hi ryan, this story brought back many memories for me. The description of your townhouse etc. I don't know if you remember but we had one of those bookcases also. I sent the story to Stephanie and her comments where : wow, impressive writing, very touching. Love ya,,,, keep it up