The Game

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

This is the game:

In the center of the table, place the empty cylinder. The cylinder is whole and smooth, except about halfway down, which is punctured with dozens of holes. These are the spaces, demanding to be filled.

Through the center is where you slide the sticks, which will have the task of Holding Things Together. These sticks are thin, meager; solo, they flex beneath weight. One by one you layer them in place; you fiddle until they fit. They criss-cross in an architecture not unlike a bird’s nest, and when you have finished with this task, in go the marbles, a couple handfuls at least.

The game goes like this: 

Around the table you go. One, two, three, four. Each player has her turn. Each one pulls a stick. 

One, two, three, four. Try to pull the right sticks. Consider and judge. The goal is to have the fewest number of sticks without losing any of what’s piled up on top. 

One, two, three, four. Some sticks will seem to slide out without resistance; they didn’t mean that much. Others—you can feel it when you give that first tug—were more important. 

The marbles shift, perhaps drop a bit. Settle into new places, rely on other supports. 

One, two, three, four. Around the table you go. The pieces that are left now hold more weight. 

One, two, three, four.

But don’t be the player that pulls the last stick. The one that makes the marbles coming crashing down. 

One, two, three, four. One two three four. Onetwothreefour.

We moved to Rwanda. It was not a small thing. It was not a few sticks. 

It’s been days, weeks, months, (years?) since I’ve been able to write, since I wrote what you just read. I can’t tell, at this moment, if the writing itself is a stick (something that helps Hold Things Together) or a marble (something that has fallen to the floor). 

Five weeks after we arrived in Rwanda, I called my mom. Her house was on the market, and I wanted to know whether she’d gotten a good offer. 

Yes, she said, we have a contract, and I have cancer.

She said it more graciously than that, of course. She is my mother, and makes efforts to soften things, as mothers do for children. 

In my memory, there are two layers of that conversation: The one that I can find when I sit down to really think, really remember. The way she led into it, steered out of it. Held me underwater for the briefest possible amount of time. 

We talked about other things. She made her voice as calm and upbeat as it always is, only letting the cracks show at the end, when she told me to go get lots of hugs. She said it twice. “Lots of hugs, okay?” Because mothering means sometimes being the reason for pain in the person you want more than anything to protect, and that fact is agony.

And then there is the layer of memory that covers over that one, and it consists entirely of being underwater. All the rest of the conversation muddled, senses scoured, the word cancer throbbing in my head. 


There is so much more to tell you. That conversation was days, weeks, months (years?) ago, and so much more has happened. So much more has happened, and when I make a simple list it doesn’t even seem real, that so much could have happened in so short a time. One two three four.

But I’m tired. Writing a memory means re-living the memory, and there are only so many memories I can swim inside, at least for the night. At some point someone pulled a stick, and every marble came crashing down on the floor. We are not Holding Things Together, not really, not anymore.

“Lost my marbles,” it sounds like a joke. But isn’t it just a perfect metaphor? Such a slippery tumble, such a cacophonous noise, and, as things roll out of sight, such a loss. 

Yes, a loss. I write it and erase it, then write it again. I’m not writing here for sympathy; I’m not crying for help. But the marbles are on the floor and I can’t pretend like it doesn’t matter, that it was no big deal. 

Better try to make this more positive, I think. Nobody likes a downer. Surely I can make things better by the end of this post. Surely I can grab the wheel and turn this ship.

In real life, there's no choice but to try. I have learned to try to focus on gratitude, have spent so much energy searching for the sliver of light, reaching for it. Trapping fireflies in the dark.  

A loss. I’m writing it because it’s true, and I need to write it. This doesn’t wrap neatly now with the “lesson,” this hasn’t all turned from broken pieces to stained-glass window yet. 

I’m just standing here in the mess. Marbles on the floor.  

Later I will need to sift through. I will have to search for what was lost, and may not recover all. I will need to ease things back into place. 

Later I will need to drop to my knees and grope for what was lost. Put the pieces back. They're sure not to be in the same order as before, and the pattern, I expect, will be so unfamiliar--so foreign--that I may not recognize the self I preserve here, in these few words. 

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