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It’s 1992 and Mr. White Boots enters the house with a guttural meow and a mouse in his mouth. I scream like a banshee, thinking he’ll drop it at my feet or on my lap. My Game Boy falls onto the couch as I run to climb onto the dining room table. Mom comes in to shut me up.
“Lilia, stop. Get down from there.”
“Get it out, get it out!”
“You’re being overly dramatic. Stop!”
At seven years-old, every gross feeling I have about dirty, prowling mice runs through my body and causes me to shake and break out in goosebumps. My instincts often eclipse logic and reason, which whittles down mom’s patience. But I’ve seen their guts, bones, and heads scattered on the patio so many times that their presence is now haunting. I won’t get off the table until the mouse and its body parts are outside.
Despite this, when dad one day says he’ll buy me and my sister pet mice, I jump at the opportunity. I know I’ll never touch or play with them, and I’ll be scared to use the toilet and shower in the bathroom where their cage will stay, but dad wants to spend time with us. This is a project we can do together – not just a quick game of tag in the swimming pool, or a walk down the beach hunting for shells while he drinks rum in Coca-Cola and talks to neighbors.
Dad’s rarely home. He works at five hospitals on the island and is on-call for unexpected surgeries. On days when he’s with us, he and mom argue and yell. This is when my older brother slaps me, forcing me to run so he can chase and continue his beating. I thought it brought him pleasure to run at me with a mocking laugh and dangerous fists and legs, but I’ve realized he’s the outpouring of our parents’ unhappiness. Then dad leaves the house, and us, to do something else. He checks off invisible boxes on his ‘good father’ list and tells me we’ll play Scrabble or Rummy Tile later, right before heading out to surf or to go deep sea diving with friends. We never do.
I hold the plastic cage dad bought for my future pet mice and walk into my bedroom onto the brown concrete floor lined with bent staples and rusty nails. Hurricane Iniki passed through the Hawaiian Islands a few months ago. All the rugs in the house had to be removed, along with seaweed, sand, crabs and dead fish. The palm trees now stand firm in their curvy spines again and the weather is tranquil, as if nothing happened.
I stand next to my closet and, without warning, freeze. I’m struck by a mysterious and overpowering feeling, a sense of loss. The hurricane devastated my family’s house but something else is coming. Something even more ruinous. My body is speaking louder than logic again, yet this time I’m silent and paralyzed. A waterfall of sadness bursts inside me, irrespective of the sunny, quiet afternoon, and my skin becomes stickier under my t-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. In a split second I think I see a glimpse of the future.
Like an antennae picking up on signals I can’t yet decipher, my body tells me to smash the cage. The longer I hold it the more certain I am of what I see. If I slam it on the cement I know dad will buy me another without question. But I want him to say that my behavior doesn’t warrant buying another and that’s the end of that. This realization makes me boil. I throw the cage onto the concrete and it smashes like a plastic crystal ball, saying: your father will one day be poor.
Cracks run up the side of the clear cage and pieces break off. Through quick memories I see dad’s mercurial anger extending through his arm to grab my older brother by the throat and lifting him off the ground. I see dad having casual conversations with me and my siblings while breaking pencils and even a clipboard in his fists. His anger appears like a shooting comet that burns out with bare bottom spankings, a red grip around the arm or throat, or the breaking of an object. And maybe I already know, because I feel, that years into my own adulthood mom will tell me how she made a decision dad didn’t agree with and he smacked her across the back.
I sit with the broken cage, crying. It was at mom’s annual Christmas Eve party that I’d overheard a neighbor getting upset with dad because he hadn’t paid that neighbor back. My cheeks flushed and I stayed hidden behind the kitchen entryway. I was embarrassed for my family. Why would dad need more money? Who else is he not paying back? Is he dishonest? Who is my dad?
He’s the fun and adventurous parent who contorts his body into rigid forms, strikes an ugly face and then comes after me and my siblings like a playful monster. He’s popular with my neighborhood friends, ever since tying long ropes to the back of his Boston Whaler and attaching boogie boards just so we can ride around at high tide and push each other off at full speed. After spearfishing trips he lays out lobster, crab, and cuts slices of raw fish – sashimi – for us and Mr. White Boots as he skins his catch on stones in the backyard. And when dad’s home for bedtime, he spends too long tucking me in, talking about the cosmos and the meaning of life. Mom tells him to leave the room and let me sleep.
“Dad!” I walk to the patio where he’s waxing up his surfboard.
“I dropped the cage.”
He glances at the cage then bends down to finish waxing.
“Now nothing can live in it,” I say.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get another.”
“Okay, but maybe I should buy it?” I’m watching his face in profile, noticing white slashes of sunscreen across his nose, shoulders, and smeared on his balding head.
“It’s minor. I’ll get the cage when we get the mice.”
He won’t look at me. I don’t want another cage. I can’t stand mice! If only he could say he’s not going to waste his money, use discipline, show me he won’t follow every instinct he has.
Dad takes me and my little sister to the pet store in his brown Bronco a week later. The day is like most tropical days – hot, humid and thirsty. The mice are placed in two brown paper bags and he tells us to put the bags on the floor for the drive home. I refuse to touch the bag anyway and cross my legs up onto the seat.
When we get out of the Bronco my little sister’s bag has a hole chewed through it. She’s crying and the mouse is gone. Dad brings my mouse into the house then returns to search for holes in the seats. He carries out a little dish of water and even a couple nuggets of cheese. When he captures the mouse an hour later and puts its hot and dehydrated body into the new cage, it’s only strong enough to survive until sunset. My mouse is alone in the cage and dad has gone somewhere with his friends.
“Don’t worry,” mom says. “I’ll take it out and play with it after you go to bed each night.”
“You’ll make it feel loved for me? I don’t want it to die.”
Though shivers run down my spine when I see a mouse, I sense that every living thing is sacred. The mice at my house are always killed or dying by the claws and jaws of Mr. White Boots, left scattered in warm pieces. But it is death itself that scares me most.
I watch mom open the lid of the new cage and stroke his little back while he stares at me. He’s frozen still but I see his rapid heartbeats. I remember when I froze, before I smashed the cage. He’s scared too.
I back up toward the door when mom lifts him out and holds him in her hand. She ends up doing too many things, I realize. Maybe she’s unhappy because she’s the heroine and the hero. The mouse looks up at her and she holds his gaze, understanding.
My mouse is able to live for two years because of mom, then dies in 1994. I never get a pet mouse again and throw the cage in the garbage. Mom and dad announce their divorce that same year, and mom moves into a house at the bottom of a nearby valley.
Once I’m eighteen I leave to the Pacific Northwest for college and start exploring the west. I don’t want to go home to Hawaiʻi after freshman year, and instead spend summer working on a dude ranch in the high elevations of southern Colorado. On days off from serving guests and washing dishes, I bike trails around abandoned silver mines, hunt for ancient seashells on mountain tops and find amethyst and geodes, then ride with ranch staff to shop at Walmart.
One afternoon while on a break from polishing silverware and waiting tables, mom and my brother call from an Oregon number.
“Dad’s a liar,” my brother says, as soon as I pick up. “Lilia, the hospitals are taking away his license. Our home, college, any inheritance. Gone.”
As he talks my body feels vacant. I remain silent. He’s talking too fast, possibly exaggerating. Maybe he’s already thrown or punched something.
“He’s in rehab.”
My stomach churns with the same pointed ache that’d unexpectedly materialized at seven years-old. I then remember the plastic mouse cage. The past was in fact an experience of the future, which is now the present. I’m passing through a story I already know.
“He’s been stealing and mixing pharmaceutical drugs from the hospitals, for years. That’s why he’s pale and too skinny.” My brother’s voice finally pitches into sobs and he hands the phone to mom.
“We’ll figure this out,” mom says. “One day at a time. You keep focused on what you’re doing.”
Dad had watched people die in surgeries almost daily. Most situations were held up to the contrast of life and death, which made him notorious for being hours late, forgetting to take care of tasks, and not following through on commitments made to others. Lives in immediate pain and danger were tended to, and dad freely gave what he had – medical knowledge, advice, money, and nutritional supplements – to those with or without financial means. It was, however, as if he believed being an MD gave him some type of immunity to his own consequences.
Forced rehab is only the beginning. Court trials, debt, and years of emotional stress will dissolve his ability to use his limbs. Escaping to the ocean won’t be possible without the help of another. Dad will struggle to work and pay his bills while managing Multiple Sclerosis.
I used to stay up through the night worrying about my parents dying. Our bodies decompose into cosmic dust, dad would say while tucking me in, because humans are made of the same elements as planets and stars. Beyond the limitations of body, we are bound by love. But how is anyone sure that love is connecting them to others when they can’t feel it? Now I wasn’t certain what ached more: anticipating my father’s death, or watching him suffer and lose the respect of our community.
Whenever I had shrieked and scrambled onto the table to get away from dying mice, dad wasn’t home. Maybe if he’d been there he would’ve laughed and talked me through my fear of death with his intricate knowledge of biology, cosmology and the power of love. He might’ve given pause to feelings and personal truth. But it was mom who showed us how to save each other in the future.
Lilia Childs grew up in Honolulu, Hawai'i and now lives under a forest canopy in Portland, OR. Her personal essays have been published in national and international magazines and journals.