Shame alley-ooped my fear. I worked with children and I had a mental illness. They were antithetical.
I loved Pearl. Her gap tooth. Her three-year-old questions soggy with God. Her miniature record player, which she utilized like a professional, blowing on a record softly to clean it. Her seriousness while scribbling. Her tall halo of gold curls. The way she’d hold my face and squint at me for minutes at a time, breaking into giggles. It was a good job. To rub her belly when she was constipated and feed her crackers and chamomile. To be a bear on all fours chasing her across the carpet, into the closet, where she was less afraid than I. To wind up her little toy diver and watch him part the bubbles in her tub while she sang an unintelligible tune.
I am following my breadcrumbs home
. that good big
then why are you so afraid?
That night I confided to my housemates what was happening; the symptoms, what I’d need, what this meant. Hearing that my insomnia was physically painful, the irritability incapacitating as jagged thoughts piled senselessly atop one another, my housemate Cory came and sat in my room with the lights out, as a presence to help me fall asleep. Cory, who had buried my cat, stroking his dead fur before releasing him to the earth, as if he could feel her. I closed my eyes and felt the flipped record whir, needle settling into rightful grooves. I remember Cory wore a small headlamp to read by. I’d open my eyes and see a soft dot. My friend, the lighthouse.
The next morning, my father arrived. We embraced in a way that said Daughter, not Sick. Night after night for weeks, there were pots of beef stew, reruns of Third Rock From the Sun, and him snoring in a sleeping bag on my hardwood floor.
I’d told the three families I worked for that there had been an emergency, revealed no details, and requested an unofficial medical leave. At first, no questions were asked; only condolences and “get-well-soon”s were offered. But then Louisa and Adam wanted more. To know. To be treated like “family.” But my family told me I owed no one an explanation. Their advice came with concern: You will be judged, you won’t be rehired. Then a fresh email from Adam arrived in my inbox: We’re not here to judge you. Here I was, trying to recalibrate after sleepless weeks, after a fall into chaos and crisis. My father sleeping on my floor, his breath a compass for my ease. Here I was, reading Louisa’s email: There’s a little girl involved who had a friend disappear on her with no warning . . . I know that you felt you could not continue your work but we would have really appreciated you seeing her somehow a couple times . . .
Me, reading with a brain gauzed in insomnia and tender from fireworks. Me, thinking how those on land have so much to say to the drowning. Me, wondering what I owe, to whom. Me, crafting email after email and never sending it. Me, a month later, returning to work for all of the families but theirs.
Luna’s moms welcomed me back without a blip, no second-guessing in the eyes. “The diapers are in the bag, enjoy your stroll!”
Joseph’s mom, Ellen, who I’d worked for the longest, cornered me by the garage my first week back: “We have to know . . . We need to know what you’re sick with . . . It’s for the safety of our little boy . . . I had an aunt with Schizophrenia . . . I watched her suffer. It scares me. I need to know . . . I’m sorry, have I said too much? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry. I’m just scared . . . I’m sorry, I’m here for you.”Not once in the two-and-a-half years that I loved and cared for her son did she hug me. But after the confrontation, high on anxiety, she pressed a hug against me, then recoiled, not knowing what to say, do, or be. I must have been a terrifying mirror, built inch for inch of questions. Ellen had always been so meek, impossible to get a word out of. But in this moment she couldn’t help herself. I saw what being a mother is, right there. Right by her car, in pure sunshine. Do you know what it’s like to go back inside, back to work, after this?
Should I have told them all? My parents said, “Protect yourself.” My therapist said, “To request that information is against the law.” My heart said, “Tell everyone, tell the air, the old tree, the mothers, I am sick, I have sickness in me, I was and am and will be.” But I wasn’t ready. How could I be? Fear gilded me. Shame alley-ooped my fear. I worked with children and I had a mental illness. They were antithetical. I wanted room to be sick without being interrogated. If I’d had the flu, would she have asked me to see Pearl? If I’d been in a car accident? Or, was it just the not-knowing, the being shut out? The questions ricocheted inside me. In the midst of addressing Louisa’s emails, Ellen’s phone calls, I was trying so hard to blink instead of letting the guillotine of lethargy fall. I was holding my father’s hand as he drove me to pick up medicine. In the midst of reckoning with such a life-threatening disruption, I leapt between desiring to be seen and deserving only the respect and privacy of healing. What I did know: Where there were incessant questions and demands therewasnobreathingroom.
In the end, I was fired from both jobs for not disclosing the details of medical leave. In the last email Louisa wrote: We don’t want to have bad feelings, part on a bad note . . . We had lots of great times with you. I just want you to know that the way that things ended could have been a LOT better and that you bear some responsibility when you take on a job like this, being immersed in someone’s family life . . . We spoke many times about trust. We trusted you and so did she . . . I couldn’t respond. Heartbroken is a valid word except it leaves out the throat; I was throatbroken. I was the oldest tree in the world, and from me illness swayed its devastating fruit. Ellen left a voicemail on my machine, longer than I’d ever heard her speak. I stood on my front porch in the rain, holding her voice to my ear: “I used to tell everybody ‘I just can’t believe how much she sincerely loves to play with him!’ You could just play with him for hours and hours and you seemed to really like it, the games, everything . . . ” her voice too chipper, her goodbye thin—still, meaning it.
I didn’t think of it until I moved to another state and needed to get a new job, but I’d lost nearly three years worth of references. In those three years, a blank space. If in one month’s time three years could be erased, what was time? What was I, then? A ghost? In a world of shadows, where one’s aunt was Schizophrenic, so the nearest nanny-on-leave is Schizophrenic, who else could I become? I wanted to be tall and open as a door, but I was sick. A sick daughter. I needed my father’s hand across my forehead. To feel unequivocally allowed. Allowed, then lifted. Lifted, then trusted. Trusted, then trusted.
This is what I choose to remember: Weeks before I got sick, Pearl and I are outside in the snow. There is so much of it, it’s almost to her chin. We are stomping around the Church in constant circles, laughing hysterically. Adam finds us and somehow this is funnier; Pearl hams up the affair, purposefully falling face-forward into the snow, immersed completely, smothered and screeching. I scoop her up and toss her to her father, who wrestles a hug. Her mother is a few feet away, downstairs under the blinding ground, binding loops of precious metal, setting a black stone into a pocket of silver. Nothing is wrong. No one needs to know anything. Everywhere we look, there is a white depth. We are climbing through it. We must.
Shira Erlichman is a poet, musician, and visual artist. She was born in Israel and immigrated to the US when she was six. Her poems explore recovery—of language, of home, of mind—and value the "scattered wholeness" of healing. She earned her BA at Hampshire College and has been awarded the James Merrill Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center, the Visions of Wellbeing Focus Fellowship at AIR Serenbe, and a residency from the Millay Colony. Her debut poetry book is Odes to Lithium. She is also the author and illustrator of Be/Hold. She lives in Brooklyn where she teaches writing and creates.