The afternoon cleaning had become therapeutic for me. The thoughtless, mechanical process of throwing out old newspapers, magazines and trinkets allowed me to shut of the anxieties in my head for a handful of hours and clear out a bit of the neurosis.
I would occasionally stumble upon some intriguing relic covered in dust which would capture my interest for the rest of the day. One day while trudging through the expansive mess that was the closet in my old bedroom it would be one of those old newspapers I usually just chucked into a recycling bin which gave me pause.
Most of the newspapers were old, from about 10-15 years ago, but this one was from the late-70s and it was from Wilmington, North Carolina, while the rest of the newspapers had been the local Islands’ Sounder or regional Seattle Times. This caught my attention, but what snatched it away and took it to solitary confinement was what slipped out from the newspaper when I picked it up…
A flattened milk carton.
Plastered on the milk carton was a picture of what I recognized as me at an age so young my internal memory never ventured back there, probably about two years old, maybe three. The picture was tucked beneath the word MISSING and surrounded by information that was utterly foreign to me, including the name of the missing boy who looked exactly like me.
The location was also a mystery to me. Jeff Clancy had gone missing in Wilmington, North Carolina. A place I had no memory having ever been, let alone living. I was from Eastsound, Washington. Born and raised on Orcas Island.
Looking at the deflated thing with my little face plastered on it made my brain almost want to explode. The worst part is I would not be able to talk to the only person who might be able to answer my questions, my mom, until the next morning. Until then, I was stuck with the rotting piece of cardboard, my sorrowful thoughts, a 12-pack of Budweiser and a house in the woods without cable or Internet.
I planned to get up earlier the next day so I could catch the culprit who was placing flowers on my father’s grave, but my twisted up brain didn’t allow me to get to sleep until 3 AM the night before. I barely made my morning Budweiser stop and saw the new flowers before I had to head to the hospital for visiting hours.
I was still wiping the taste of watery beer off of my lips when I walked into my mother’s hospital room and was shocked to see a smile upon her face. It appeared a rare “good day” had shined down upon us at just the right time.
“John,” her voice chiming my name when I walked in put a smile upon my face for the first time in literally months.
The warm greeting was unlike any I had heard in quite a while. I took a seat in the drafty room and held court with a casual conversation void of any specific topic for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t dive on top of my mom with an interrogation darkened with potential despair and misery right off the bat. We talked about the rain drizzling and collecting on the window, the amount of water in the food in the dining hall and how it reminded us of Swanson’s TV dinners and gardening.
After a handful of minutes, I could no longer resist to urge to start grilling my mother like a piece of meat on a grill in summer.
“Mom… I gotta ask you about something…”
I pulled the milk carton out of my pocket and nervously waved it in her face.
“What’s this about?”
My mom’s eyes squinted, her brow furrowed… but then her face went blank.
“I don’t know,” she said without emotion. “Who is that?”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to shove the little flattened box in her face and explain, but I knew I could not and it wouldn’t help anyway.
My mother would sometimes breakthrough with rays of lucid, conversational sunshine, but details like the carton I was parading in her face were still iffy. It was very likely she simply didn’t recognize my toddler mugshot on the thing. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t try again later though.
Debra caught me as I left the room looking dejected as a football player walking off of the field after losing the Super Bowl as the other team’s confetti fell upon them.
“Someone looks like they need a coffee right now,” Debra said as I tucked the carton stealthily into my pocket.
My face smiled at Debra who somehow had a look upon her soft face which was joking, comforting and understanding all at the same time. She looked very much like my mom right when my dad was starting to get sick and she was spending her days reassuring me everything would be okay.
The aroma of watery coffee thankfully whisked away the hospital smell which had been permeating every tasteful cavity in my body. I praised the drink of crushed Colombian beans my tears fell into like drops of cream.
The touch of Debra’s soft hand upon my forearm gave me pause in my heartache.
“I can’t imagine how hard this all must be.”
“I had a son who passed far too early,” Debra said with a tone that dialed in true sadness.
I wasn’t sure how to react, Debra phrased what she said as if it was a joke, but she didn’t laugh.