Still Calling Me Daughter: an essay in my late 40s by Jessica Cherry

This February it was dark and sprinkling rain and I was walking up a steep hill in Wallingford from the Burke-Gilman Trail pushing the silver Gary Fisher mountain bike that my sister-in-law bought in 1994. In fact, she and I bought the same bike, the same week, back when she was my brother’s girlfriend, now 30 years ago. I remember that she bought the silver one that I wanted from a shop in our hometown that everyone called CycleJerks, and I was stuck with the purple one. She remembers that she bought the bike from our friend who worked at an entirely different store and, doubting my own memory, I’ll assume she’s right. My bike moved to New York City with me and lived there for 10 years with a stable of other bikes until I sold it and moved to Alaska, 18 years ago. My sister-in-law’s followed her back and forth across the country, until it landed in her garage in Seattle.

I was walking the bike up the steep hill because, only a couple of weeks prior, I was still living in Alaska, in the cold slumber of mid-winter, where on any given day my leg muscles might see only hot yoga or a lazy ski, if anything. My embrace of home weight lifting and a bit of snow biking in the pandemic years has tapered, to say the least. Like many of us, my husband and I had been floating, drifting, passing along in the post-pandemic, post-insurrection era, waiting for the next shoe to drop, and then just after Christmas, on a routine health test, it did.

Wait what? Really? We survived the Pandemic years so we could face this? We cursed, wept, and packed for the Good Hospital, in Seattle. Then, Boeing 737s started falling apart and cold temperatures in Kansas canceled our dog’s flight. I pleaded with the customer service “he’s an Alaska husky…and we aren’t going to Kansas…” “I’m sorry ma’am, the whole pet concierge service is shutting down.” I thought about what else I might apply the term “concierge” to and how absurd this all seemed. But, the afternoon before the treatment would start, we made it here, our family of three, collapsing into a friend’s backyard cottage. A few hours later, at the Good Hospital, I watched the first bag of poison flow directly into my husband’s heart.

In the days since that all started, I had found a temporary office out at Sand Point, and now I was biking back to the cottage after the sun had already set. Despite the sprinkling rain, a warm wind brushed my face, just as I dismounted for the steep hill to Wallingford. It had been so long since I’d felt a warm wind at night that I was immediately transported back to the 1990s, and the bike and its creaking gears sent chills down my back. This was a dream, a nightmare, a surreal mindset. I am on my high school bike again, but it isn’t mine. I am living in the same city as my brother again, but it isn’t our home town. He is still the same, but thirty years older, a scientist and a dad. His girlfriend is the same, but now a medical doctor and mother of their children. Our ailing parents now live just a few doors down from them. In 1994, I could not get far enough, fast enough, from my parents and now, here we all were in Seattle.

Did my husband really exist, or had I dreamed him into being, these past eighteen years? Were our home and dogs and Alaskan adventures all erased by some accidental time travel? Was I really still 17 years old, biking home from the coffee shop where I worked after school, my bank account empty but for a thousand tomorrows? I felt dizzy and alarmed. And then, in the intersection, a young man rode past me on a skateboard with a plaid shirt, torn jeans, and a stocking hat over long, blond hair. Maybe it was still 1994 and I was just a daughter. Now I wanted to scream.

I remounted and headed West, still climbing, but less steeply, past modest bungalows that I could never afford to live in. And this, too, felt strange. In the version of my life from a few weeks ago, a run-down, moss-covered bungalow would have been within reach of my professional successes; but not these here in Seattle, a million dollars or more in 2024. My heart was pumping and the rusty bike was creaking under the weight of the panniers, but my legs could still climb. And with this realization was a kind of lightness. I imagined the lightness, in fact, of adulthood’s responsibilities–homes, and cars and even loved ones–gently lifted out of view, and for that moment it was just me and the beautiful, old bike.

At the stop light on 45th Street, I made the mistake of checking my phone. There was a message from my brother: “Dad fell again/ is in hospital.” And this was the pattern now every few weeks, as Dad’s own cancer consumes him. I thought back to my teenage years, confident now that a few decades really had passed. I never imagined having to take care of my parents because I didn’t think they would live this long, honestly. When I’d been a junior in high school Dad had left on a kind of Walkabout and I didn’t expect him to come back. In some senses he never did, except that he was now physically parked in the smaller half of a duplex here in Seattle, with my mom in the other half where she was trying to rebuild a new life in recovery, at the last possible moment. She was a painter, but I’ve never known what colors she dreams in.

When I was a child, my parents offered hints as subtle as flying anvils that adulthood was full of false promises. Rather than a hard-earned, picket-fenced bungalow, we would be lucky to find a dank basement to hide in while the proverbial tornadoes pass through. Far too often, the sky is a threatening shade that promises something unpleasant, be it a funnel cloud, hailstones, or just a scary, moonless night. Of course, I’d assumed that their troubles were all their fault. But, try as I might, the career I’d planned for hasn’t been great either, and the political world didn’t turn into the Pax Romana that my high school history teacher said it would be. The American workplace has never felt so full of landmines and our culture has turned into a surreal array of technologies offered by late capitalism for whose benefit, I hardly wish to know. But a medical miracle for my husband–now that we were still counting on.

I parked the Gary Fisher at the cottage and offloaded the panniers before wheeling it into my friend’s basement. Inside the cottage, I set down the bags with my empty travel mug and dirty lunchbox and laptop and rolled up office clothes. My husband, thin and newly white-haired, but very real, was pulling a salmon fillet out of the oven, one he’d caught near home last summer. The smell surrounded us like a blanket and the dog knew to expect fish skin in his bowl that night. And this, perhaps, is middle age: a mash-up of the past and the present, the sweet and the pungent, many failures and a few successes. Is this a dream or a nightmare? Time will tell. But for now, well, I’m still alive.

 

 

Jessica Cherry is a geoscientist, airplane pilot, and writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s a consistently “late adopter” and this fully applies to Pearl Jam, whose songs are referenced here. Her anthology, Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska, co-edited with the late Frank Soos, can be found wherever books are sold. Essay originally published in

1 thought on “Still Calling Me Daughter: an essay in my late 40s by Jessica Cherry”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Beautiful essay, Jessica. That is a great description of middle age. May your husband heal quickly and the next chapter of your life be a smooth one.

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