Derek Russell (B.ARCH 2022)
Derek Russell (B.ARCH 2022)
I had a dream once that I was mortal, and woke up only to find it was true.
Many people say they can hear their body talking. Almost as if there is some indecipherable language that connects their brain to their muscles; a neurological network on a deeper, more intimate level. When I sit and try to listen, I would say that all I hear is silence, but that’s just not true — it’s something more akin to white noise or endless static. The disconnect is deafening.
When I was young my parents bought a rug for my room. Colored yarn threaded unto itself created highways and houses, a little village plastered to the floor. I would take my Hotwheels and roll them along the cotton streets; I was a policeman, or a firefighter, or a father of three kids headed home from work. Did I know anything about the way the world really worked? I did not. I’m still not sure I really do. All I know is facsimile.
At what point can you discern the edges of your body? The location where your body ends and another begins. For me, this investigation took two years. At 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning in March, the air was sharp with the chill of winter and the bathroom was fresh with puke. A deep chocolate brown to be specific. By mid afternoon, brown subsided to yellow, reflected in a somewhat golden tan in my skin.
The emergency room was alive with the buzz of adrenaline and concern, both so intertwined that one could not be distinguished from the other. I didn’t know it then but I would spend the remainder of my spring break in and out of hospitals, with doctors injecting fluids, probing for an unidentifiable problem. Perhaps when my seventeen-year-old limbs felt as if they were falling from my body, or I would wake up in the middle of the night drowning in an ocean of sweat, this might have been an indicator of a serious problem. Instead it went unchecked.
Looking back is like looking into a fog, where all these things I once saw clearly now seem abstract and indistinguishable. I cannot trust my ability to recall, for every memory seems simultaneously true and untrue. Yet I’m afraid that if I don’t attempt to collect all the pieces, my life will slip between my fingers, and one day, looking back, I will be wondering where it all went. My life, I want it back.
Sometimes it’s the little things that hurt the most. The things that felt so easy in another life that now seem like impossible tasks. Things like lifting up the bed to put on my sheets, or some days even, rolling out of bed. Such simple tasks that used to require nothing of me now require everything, every last ounce of my being. I always like to think, sometimes as a thought experiment and sometimes out of my own pretension, about all the things that have led me to this particular fleeting moment. Was it all just a curious accident, or does reality move forward with intention?
I spent my teenage years plagued by fatigue. I told my parents to stop waking me from my afternoon naps, mostly so they would stop questioning me. The sleep was so deep I often felt like I was on other planets. Intentionally pulling me from slumber without my body’s consent felt like a stab to the chest. It was almost as if I was dragged kicking and screaming from this alternate universe; imprisoned by my tethers to the earth. In this state, I often couldn’t even discern my sense of self. I had no clue of who or where I was. Even the simplest exchange sent me spiraling into a wave of confusion. Conversations between myself and my parents escaped my memory, never even registered.
One unassuming summer afternoon, with the air fresh with the dew of recent midday rain and the sun penetrating the clouds, I was once again dragged back into reality from oblivion. “We need you downstairs,” my mom uttered in a slow and wavering voice as I struggled to put on my shorts. Beneath me in the kitchen sat my oldest sister, Jenna, and her fiance, Marshall, gleefully unaware of the gathering family as they chatted with my dad. At the time, I was the last sibling left in the nest, only halfway through high school, just on the cusp of sixteen. My second sister, Melanie, always the most observant and inquisitive, sat in silence at the far end of the table, my entrance piquing her curiosity. Three siblings whose busy lives were slowly dragging them in distant directions. “Why are we all here?”
A sudden hush, the sounds of summer seeping through the open windows.
“Your dad has something to tell you,” mom stuttered.
My dad’s face had aged far beyond his years. Only fifty-two, he looked like a peer amid ghosts. “They found a mass.”
I used to imagine that streetlights were controlled by little tiny mice who would manually change the colors. Inside was an elevator and atop the elevator was a candle. Some mice were in charge of moving the elevator up and down, others were in charge of tending to the candle and maintaining the glow. Every few hours the shifts would change and new mice would replace the old. Sometimes, however, a mouse would fail to do its job and the lights would go out. Maybe it was due to carelessness or maybe it was because of a workers strike, mice demanding better pay and more reasonable hours. In fact, streetlights were not even in service to them, but in service to the humans who seldom gave thanks.
“Your brain really doesn’t work like the rest of ours,” said my mom.
My mom’s favorite nickname for me as a child was Magpie. She called me this in part due to my insatiable curiosity for life and the universe, but also in part due to my fixation with all things shiny, things on the ground. For her, my behavior mimicked those goofy avians. Perhaps I was always in the clouds. It didn’t matter what the object was—a coin, a Fruit Roll-Up wrapper, a spring from a mechanical pencil, or a lost earring—these artifacts fascinated me. I was an archeologist searching for the origins of all things, inquiring as to how this particular device crossed my path at this particular moment in time. For me it was still trash, but the story the object told surpassed any physical worth, a priceless possession.
These days I can’t seem to finish anything I start. It’s all like loose threads spiraling endlessly to no end, split ends. Some days it feels like everything falls apart, like the stitches are too loose to hold. Sometimes I think it couldn’t get worse, but I know this is a lie I tell myself to settle with the pain. Slowly but surely the fabric tears will be resewn. Jagged and uneven perhaps, but repaired just enough for us to overlook the seam.
If I close my eyes will days go by?
Each year as the spring blossoms begin to wither and are replaced by a plethora of vibrant green and yellow grasses, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Every night, as afternoon succumbs to dusk, emerging lanterns cast a fiery glow upon our newly formed shadows. The soft flutter is unmistakable. Crawling out from corners and the windows we left open for the breeze, tenebrous creatures appear from Earth’s dark places. Attracted to the fires of suburban sprawl now illuminating the eastern plains, these Miller Moths seek deliverance.
Deriving from the Army Cutworm, these strange beasts follow an unusual lifecycle. Born in the eastern plains of Colorado’s Front Range, the quarter-sized creatures emerge with an insatiable appetite for the fruits of the Rocky Mountains: wildflower nectar. This appetite is their main dilemma; the wildflower blooms are concentrated miles away from the moths’ breeding grounds. Upon emerging from their pupae, the full-grown insects must begin their treacherous journey to the west, migrating through the municipality of Colorado Springs.
Moth season, as we sometimes called it, plagued us year after year; the sighting of one moth each June signaled the chaos that would ensue. The city’s many inhabitants would soon mobilize, arming themselves with vacuums and fly swatters in a war against the descending swarms. As the insects swept across the city, seeking high ground, the annual war would begin, a war for power and dominance. While many spent their evenings smashing the intruders, my dad opted for a different approach. Each night, my family would begin the ritual of turning, obscuring, and relighting our many lamps. We hoped to lure them away from the many important rooms. My dad would then stand on the nearest furniture, a couch maybe or a stool, and rapidly clasp his fingers around the moth, forming a gentle cavity within his hand. Once the marauder was firmly apprehended, we would jump up from our observation decks (often a safe distance away in case the procedure failed) and quickly open the door to our back porch. My dad would then expel the passenger back into the night, back to the shadows from which it emerged.
Sometimes this ritual would take place three or four times within a single night. This trend continued throughout the early half of June.
The battles seemed endless: when one creature was caught another resurfaced in its place. Some nights the sky would be so thick with Millers that black clouds would form within the plains. Summer would blend into summer, and the murderous spree would continue.
Now the clouds are fewer and fewer.
A very strange phenomenon occurs when a Miller Moth is crushed. You’d expect some ensuing train of entrails and yellowish smear but the reality is actually quite surprising. It was often that I’d lift my foot or whatever blunt force had accidently murdered these hooligans, and the carcass seemed to have disappeared completely. On many occasions I have searched fervently for a trace, with no avail. Often, small bits and pieces of the remains could be scavenged, rarely meeting the expected sum of limbs and appendages. Mostly, all that remained was dust.
In more controversial textbooks on psychology, you’ll find documentation of the “Mirror Test,” or Mirror Self-Recognition Test. Designed from the Darwinist studies of Gordon Gallup Jr., the test attempts to determine if an organism is capable of self-recognition—if they are aware of their own existence. To carry out the test, a visual marker is placed somewhere on the anaesthetised animal. When confronted with their reflection, narcissus evoked, the animals who pass the test discover the marker. Some attempt to remove it, others merely touch the area more frequently, suddenly aware of the manufactured blemish. As of this writing, the few species to have successfully completed the test consistently include great apes, dolphins, bonobos, Asiatic elephants, orcas, and the Eurasian magpie.
The Eurasian magpie became the first non-mammal to pass the mirror test in 2008 after a small group of researchers administered the test on five specimens. Dots were placed on the bird’s throats, either colored or black, and a mirror was unveiled inside their cages. Those with red or yellow stickers scratched at their throats or began scraping their necks against the edges of the cage to remove the blemish. Those with blacknwa dots, invisible against their feathers, had no reaction. These birds were seeing their own image for the first time—how confusing and terrifying it must be like to begin to understand their corporeality.
I can hardly remember mine.
Do you ever get that feeling where your bones don’t seem to quite fit beneath the skin, threatening to disconnect from your ligaments and nerves? This feeling comes and goes—I haven’t felt it since my diagnosis.
I feel the ghost of my dad everywhere in this house. My mom said she felt him leave but he’s still here, always looking, always watching. Call me superstitious but the walls and windows of my childhood no longer look the same. Even the light doesn’t filter in the windows the same way it used to. At night the doorways creak.
To me it always feels so surreal to be awake amidst the haunted hours of the night when the world is asleep. Especially since I am often awoken by the dissociation of my body from itself: insides become outsides in an uneasy waltz.
For now I wander the halls aimlessly, the glow of the moon illuminating the gentle form of my body. If I could find sleep I would, but it always evades me, at least while the Prednisone courses through my veins. When all the globe is in slumber, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the breathing.
The view from above Cheyenne canyon is breathtaking. At that place where the earth folds upon itself, 14,000 feet up, the sky, the trees, the plains become one; it is Earth in its totality. A gentlest blue meets an endless ocean of gold and the deepest of greens, colors only found with the steady curve of the horizon. It’s no wonder to me that Katharine Lee Bates saw majesty from the peaks. It wasn’t until I left the place that I saw it for myself. How could Eve know her garden until it was no more? It’s upsetting that we can’t appreciate the profound things in life until we no longer have them. I love this place and I hate it. In all honesty I don’t know if I’ll return, I don’t know if I can. My blood flows through the mountains and valleys, the wounds are so deep.
I had a dream last night that I was dying instead of my dad. That indescribable feeling at sunset, where beginning submits to end, penetrated me. Slowly I collected my goodbyes, spent time with the people in my life who mattered the most. The gestures were anything but grand, a simple goodbye to a simple life too short. I used to imagine that before I died I might travel, see the many beautiful things the world has to offer; instead I found beauty in the local. Grand adventures became backyard BBQs, an eternal goodbye sealed in a quick hug. My world was shrinking, the borders slowly retracting until the edges no longer existed. I could feel the numbness inching up my body, beginning in my toes and creeping towards my heart. Even in this state I could not wrap my head around the concept of death. At least that is what I kept saying. I don’t think that’s what I truly meant. It seemed that my time had almost arrived. As we saw the sun setting, my mom took my hand and slowly walked me down my neighborhood streets, familiar images that seemed obscure and foreign in this state. It was as if I was seeing the rows of houses for the first time. We were walking toward oblivion. I told her that I couldn’t go, that all of it was unfair. I had spent my entire life taking, without the time left to give it all back. How could I leave without a trace or scar, proving that my measly existence had meaning? All she could reply, with tears welling in her eyes, was that I had no choice but to settle with death. I understood then that life is not some game. Ideas of fairness and justness do not exist in the grandest schemes. There is no rhyme or reason why some of us live the lives we live. It is unfair and there is no remorse for when and how we leave. The universe does not measure in equality, instead it plays roulette.
We struggled to decide the fate of Dad’s Facebook profile; somehow gazing upon the digital mask of the dead felt uncanny. We agreed to leave the profile active for a year, allowing those acquaintances from decades past to make the discovery themselves.
A year came and went, the profile remained. How could we erase him?
The first time you experience a near brush with death, it doesn’t sink in. It festers at the tip of your consciousness for a minute or two before dissipating. You take life for granted. It’s a right, not a gift, right? But the second time, it sinks into your bones. It perforates your soul. I am mortal, and perhaps my infantile illusion of immortality has finally disappeared.
As of today, it has been four years since my dad was consumed by cancer. It engulfed him; his lungs, his liver, and yes, even his rectum. “It’s been there for maybe seven to ten years,” they said. The dreaded colonoscopies begin at fifty. He was fifty-one. By fifty-two he was gone. People don’t die at fifty-two. People don’t die at eighteen. Yet my father’s ashes sit in a blue urn on my dining room shelf and his son’s blood is being closely monitored for signs of rare diseases.
I knew more of my father with cancer than without.
But people do die, and perhaps I was privileged enough to feel invincible. I could be gone tomorrow having withered away, lonely, on an uncomfortable hospital bed. If so, where would the eighteen years of my life have gotten me? What mark would I have made? What would be left of me?
This is the gamble we are forced to take. We spend the first eighteen years of our lives in school, training to live out the remaining fifty, or ten, or one. Just two months before our graduation a kid from a neighboring high school was killed by a drunk driver. Two months shy of graduation, he had spent eighteen years learning what his life could amount to, then didn’t. He gambled and lost.
It is the little things that remind me of my Dad: the chattering squirrels he used to feed and the endless train cars that pass the highway. We’ve adopted little meaningless rituals to remember, like drinking cans of Delaware Punch when we visit New Orleans or eating lunch at Sweet Tomatoes while stopping in Denver. These little homages to a life now gone remind us that he is still here. Perhaps we are afraid that if we don’t partake, he will truly disappear.
He passed away at age fifty-two, an age we all thought was too young; an age he was never really grateful for. A year later as I laid golden on that hospital bed, I would have died at seventeen, thirty-five years earlier than my dad; an age I was ungrateful for. Looking back, I consider myself lucky for each year that I lived, knowing full well that I was not entitled to them. I’m beginning to think that lives aren’t measured in years.
I think what scared me the most was the concept of leaving this earth having left nothing behind, existing purely as a shadow and disappearing just as easily. I know that in time the world will be slowly swallowed by the sun. They say that eventually the universe itself may even collapse inward. On this cosmic scale I know that any impact I might have would be an even more microscopic gesture than any grain of sand, yet somehow also that this cannot be true. Part of me cannot help but feel that I am a part of something larger, and even though I will never truly be able to understand the vastness of space and time, what I understand is that in this moment, I have the ability to touch the lives of billions of people. Maybe if you were to add together all the moments I had touched together, you might see something as large as a grain of sand. If you tracked its journey from the shoreline out to sea and followed the pathway into an incomprehensible oblivion, I imagine that the way would be lit by its past. This series of smaller than microscopic events marking the trail, leading towards a future impossible to achieve without remnants of the past.
Perhaps I am giving these words to you because I don’t have anything else to give. Things tend to contradict themselves, and nothing to me makes more sense now than it did years ago when I began writing. All these pieces of my life have been written, scrambled, and unwritten so many times that a single truth does not exist. Maybe that is the true marvel of the human brain, the fact that we can hold two or more conflicting ideas or memories, simultaneously believing them all to be verities.
Sometimes I imagine that we all have timelines, and, somehow, inexplicably, all of these timelines have coalesced into the now. People can live in different eras, some bygone and some we have yet to see. We all know those people, the ones who still live as if it were 1925. It almost seems like people from different times are constantly crossing paths, bound up within this thing we call the present. My dad lived in the year 1987, echoes on repeat until the day he died. That’s the year he married my mom, it’s the year I’d like to think he was at his happiest.
Maybe there are people from the future to whom we cannot assign dates. Ahead of our time. My own timeline is randomly tied to someone else’s, but at a different point in space and in time. Perhaps I could have lived fifty years from now or fifty years ago, and my timeline would’ve aligned with others, or wouldn’t feel so out of place or misunderstood. But what would the difference be? All of our timelines are uneven and mismatched. Twenty years ago or twenty years from now, my timeline would still be one in a series of disjointed things. I always think about death, but only recently have I discovered that we all get similar amounts of time, tiny specks in eternity’s timeline. Sometimes I forget that I am not alone in death—that while my timeline may end, it ends alongside, before, and after others. There is a painful comfort in this conformity.
The fact that my timeline aligned with yours is beautiful and harrowing at the same time. I had the privilege to know you in life, feel your skin against my skin, and that doesn’t mean I won’t know you in death. As a kid I always used to think about history, how somehow I could feel the thousands of years of people who came before me who laid the foundation for my current existence. Only now perhaps can I feel those behind me. There is a pain, a suffering, a collective human camaraderie that binds us together in ways to which we never consented. Our present built from the artifacts of our past, our future built from the artifacts of today. Some may degrade, but their marks left in the lives they touched could never be undone.
And today, looking back, all I see is now.
Derek Russell has an affinity for a somber winter's eve and shredded cheese.