Survival mode

by Sje

I come home from the gym around 8 at night and my parents are glued to the TV, like usual, like the bugs that crackle all night long outside by the fluorescent blue death light. They’re watching a TV documentary on D-Day. It’s near the end and there’s a commanding officer, or someone like that, saying, “Freedom is not free. We pay for freedom with lives. Freedom is not free.” My dad says, to me or my mom or both, I cannot tell, “I mean, can you believe what they sacrificed?”

His voice sounds tight and scratchy and it’s obvious, to me, that he’s about to cry. He’s done this once before. Some time in my early college years he was reading some book about some war involving his idol Winston Churchill and, for some reason, as I can never imagine how on earth this happened, we were sitting on the couch together and he read something out loud and he started crying. I called him out on it and he said, choking up, “I mean, can you imagine what they sacrificed for us?”

And it really bothered me. I’ve only ever seen my dad cry twice – once after his younger brother died of lung cancer and once after mom tried to kill herself. Actually, make that three times, since she tried to do it twice. So now, today after coming home from the gym, that makes it five times in 25 years that I have witnessed and almost half of those were brought on by the deaths of strangers more than 70 years ago. And I know it sounds selfish and pathetic even but come on! That’s all you got? That’s all you can muster for us? How much do you think I’ve sacrificed living here with you, being raised by you? How can you show so much compassion for these ancient soldiers when you’ve been nothing but a brick – physically and emotionally – my entire life? When you know more about what’s going on in Chechnya than in my tiny, bubble life? Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’m so tired of that excuse. What a cop out. Meet me half way, old man.

Anyway, so I come home after the gym, dad’s choking up about D-Day and mom’s staring blankly, crushing red wine, per usual these days. She gets up from her chair, a bit wobbly, which I can’t tell is from the wine since it’s how she seems to walk now – always on the verge of toppling over – and says, “Give me a hug,” and smiles her weird, stretched, fish-eyed smile, the one that’s taken over her formerly big-mouthed, squinty-eyed face since the overdosing and wrist-slashing. I’m extremely sweaty – literally dripping sweat – and I don’t want to hug her, although I wouldn’t want to hug her, sweat or no sweat. It’s awkward, like most our hugs these days. But it seems to satisfy her. If I had the power and turned into a couch cushion at the moment of impact, I doubt she would notice. She doesn’t notice anything anymore, like popcorn burning in the microwave or her friends’ dejected looks when she doesn’t say hi to them in the street. Things like this used to make me cry. It only happened four months ago. It’s incredible the horrors we get used to so quickly.

Whenever they find some girl who was kidnapped eight years ago, living with her captors unrestrained and almost happily raising four kids, people always say, “How did she do it? How she could possibly have survived?” I know how. It’s not a choice. Survival mode. Incredible thing. You cry A LOT and you get mad and then you don’t. Then you start making jokes, still crying on and off, of course. Then you start adapting, changing little things that you do each day – not cooking as much to spend less time in the kitchen where you know she’ll be listlessly lurking. Then you get comfortable. Then you forget. Then a piece of you dies. Then you feel the hole and you can’t remember what everything was like before it fell away. Then you feel really fucking hopeless and watch Netflix instead of thinking about your feelings. Repeat. Life goes on.