“Mothers are all slightly insane.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
First there is the sigh, then, “Why are you doing that to yourself, Babe?” His voice drifts toward me from the other side of the king size bed jabbing at my bubble. Just a slight whiff of exasperation trails along behind his words. I wondered what he is talking about? Doing what? I blink a few times, sharpening focus. He has cracked the shell leaving me no choice but to look at what is exposed. Oh God… it’s me, a curled up feverish child tangled in the rumpled duvet, clothes unchanged and musty, hair unbrushed, breath of the morning though it is night. I have been here for hours, for days, for months sobbing quietly, or not so quietly, with a book in my hands and an unending stream of hot, fat tears rolling sideways across my nose onto the damp pillow.
I am reading “The Catcher in the Rye.” Well, trying to. Swimming in it is more like it. The quirky words, that gorgeous dialogue and the vivid scenes it creates scrape my heart raw but somehow this etching and scouring feels … right. It’s a good kind of pain, like the sore muscles in your back after a day of gardening in the Spring. It feels right to me anyway. As right as a table with three legs can feel. I am desperate to spend time with any Holden I can find.
My husband suspects I am asking for trouble. A person who would intentionally subject herself to this kind of torture is probably destined for another trip or two to the shrink’s deep green sofa with it’s never ending box of tissues at the ready. It’s kind of worth it though. To feel the closeness of that personality. And…I could be cracking up. Oh, is that all? Who cares? That doesn’t scare me a bit.
The last time I read The Catcher in the Rye I was pregnant … the first time. Twenty two years ago in a one bedroom apartment on a busy four lane road. I remember lying under a quilt then too. I had sewed it with my own mother from bright scraps of fabric we had found at a garage sale. This was our gold panning. Searching for nuggets to build a warm home for my own new family without spending too much. She showed me how to stitch the pattern and I caught on fast. Patches of woven colour all anchored in black. A checker board of square easter eggs. I was so pregnant I could hardly breath reclined like that. Had to wedge pillows here and there under belly and back to keep from suffocating. Breathing is hard now too.
A close friend who was a punk rocker in college and had later become a high school literature teacher sent the paperback copy over as a gift when she heard we were planning to name our baby boy Holden. Maybe she sent it as a warning flare. A shot across the bow. A cautionary tale. I see that now of course. Now that it doesn’t matter.
Our story was supposed to be an joyful one. Our son would be called Holden after his Grandmother, on his father’s side; Doreen “Dodie” Holden. Dodie had been a boisterous night club singer and elegant dancer in the hay day of Elvis. This was the clean-cut wholesome era of the Mickey Mouse Club and the cinched waste skirt suit with matching hat. Miss Holden’s razor sharp wit, sailor’s tongue and zesty laugh ensured she was always the north star in the room. She was loved by all and cherished by her five children. She was an irresistible force of a woman so his name was not supposed to be tragic. It was meant to be a salute.
I was propped up in bed then too. A paperback copy just like this one balanced on the tailbone of it’s spine at the crest of my enormous pregnant stomach. A flag on a mountain top. While reading and rereading some of the more agonizing passages, I distinctly remember thinking that maybe choosing the name Holden was a mistake. It weighed too much. After all, anyone who had read the book, which was basically anyone who had been to high school, couldn’t help but instantly envision a hopelessly delusional teenager in a hunting cap when they first encountered our newer, brighter version. The kid in the book was just too sad and confused. Loveable, smart, charming and funny sure, but mentally unhinging and pretty much oblivious about that. Perhaps hanging the Holden tag around his neck was unfair? Too complex and dark. He was just a baby after all. Shit, he wasn’t even born yet. But we were young, full of love and way too optimistic. We were bulletproof.
For a while I thought maybe we should choose something trendy like Tyler or Joshua. I even tried Elliot on for size, calling to an invisible child in the next room. “Elliot, it’s time for dinner!” But there was no ring to it. His name would be Holden. Looking back now, I’m not sure why all three of our child’s names ended up originating from his father’s side of the family. Not one from mine. I was easily swayed in those days and possibly drunk on fluffy pink pregnancy hormones.
So here I am, a few months after the death of my Holden, compelled to read The Catcher in the Rye, again. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because grief makes a person crazy. The novel arrives in my hands one day and I begin. Seeing the letters of his name embossed on the page makes my heart lurch and bellow. Oh how I love the anguish filled, deeply flawed, young Holden Caulfield. I love his quirky, conflicted way of speaking and the fact that he often talks inappropriately loudly. I am fond of his way of insulting girls without noticing, of spending too much money on strangers and walking around all night, soaking wet, in the cold of winter. I understand him completely now. Finally. I could fix him in ten minutes. Just give me the chance. I want to hold his hand while he tries not to make his way home to his rich, detached parents after being kicked out of boarding school. Again. I want to help him face the disgrace and disappointment. I want to make him a sandwich and give him a warm bed.
Taking a cab or booking into a cheap hotel with JD Salinger feels like spending some time with my son. It doesn’t seem crazy to me at all. “I don’t know.” I whisper across the light grey duvet in the direction of my husband, and I chuck the book like a frisbee onto the floor. “I don’t know why I do anything any more.” I release a sigh of my own. The library paperback skids and spins on the hardwood then wedges up against the wall in the corner. It is almost touching the precarious stack of books I just unpacked from a box in the basement . A box marked in dark black marker “Holden – BOOKS – take these when you move out.” When we packed them up together Holden had drawn a funny little smiley face on the box giving me the thumbs up. Kerouac, Hemingway, Burrows, Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson – – the reading list of the disillusioned.
I have been struggling with the idea of writing Holden’s story. Of revealing parts of him that perhaps he wouldn’t want revealed. Shit, parts I don’t want revealed. In throwing back the drapes there may be so much uncovered that I will be left standing in the town square naked and so will he. Why would we want to be so vulnerable?
In my desperation to find out more about what really happened in Holden’s life the last year or so and to continue my relationship with him on some ethereal molecular level, I beg for dreams where he will explain it all to me, call almost every contact in his phone directory, message his Facebook ‘friends’, talk to his actual friends, book a visit with his shrink, have lunch with his doctor and even consult mediums and clairvoyants. Some of these are very expensive exercises both monetarily and emotionally. Nobody has the answer. I’ll have to find it myself.
One of the psychics said during her trance that our angels (how I hate that word in the context of Holden, I can almost hear him laughing cynically and saying “angels schmangels.”) often communicate with us using symbols. She told me that Holden will let me know he is with me and that I am on the right path by placing dimes and/or white feathers in places for me to find them. I find a dime in the bottom of the kitchen sink while I am up to my elbows in hot soapy water. I find a dime under the Christmas tree. I find dimes in my pockets all the time. Never quarters or nickels, or even loonies, which would be appreciated. The woman didn’t know Holden had the majestic Bluenose tattooed on his forearm. I also find white downy feathers. On hiking trails, rolled in my yoga mat, in my hair and more often than not between my feet when I looked down. Every time I see one I say, “Hi Honey, I miss you. I love you. How are you? Please tell me about how you are and what you’re learning?” Come to think of it, these are pretty much the same things I used say to him while he was alive.
I talk to Holden inside my head. When I am out walking or lying quietly in bed I tell him about things and ask him about his new situation. I begin to ask Holden if it would be ok with him that I write about him publicly. If he thinks that by telling his story, or at least my interpretation of some of the things that happened in his life, a greater understanding of his humanness and all of our humannesses might be found. Will there be people who can relate to him and his experience here. Will hearing his story help them to feel less alone and maybe more understood? Is there any benefit at all in dragging out all the laundry and hanging it on the line? If I am to do this, I need his permission.
I was a broadcaster for all of Holden’s childhood and would often tell little stories and anecdotes about him as a way of connecting with my radio morning show audience who also had children. He was a very entertaining child and provided great material. Many listeners commented that they enjoyed hearing about little Holden’s quirky ways and how he was growing up. As Holden got older and more self aware he asked me to stop talking about him on the show without first asking for permission. It bothered him and made him feel betrayed if I used his personal foibles to entertain my audience. He was nobody’s ‘material.’ When he was 17 he asked me to stop talking about him completely.
So, it is a hard question to answer. Will it be alight to talk about him now? Now that he isn’t around to clarify or defend himself? I tell Holden that I will have to be completely honest about his struggles with his mental health, his drug use and some of his more dangerous choices if this book is to be at all meaningful. Is he open to the idea of me sweeping every speck out from under our beds? I wait for an answer. None comes. Nothing definitive anyway. I walk and read and meditated an bore myself shitless with Netflix and keep asking. Crickets. So I stay in bed for months and his story clouds my every waking moment.
One day I receive an email reminder that The Catcher in the Rye is due back at the library. I had forgotten all about it. I notice the book lying in the corner where it had landed weeks before, wedged up against the wall, in no hurry. The famous story of the other lost Holden who so many troubled souls saw themselves in.
I slump down onto our bed, stretch my arm out, grab the book and lift it from the floor. Where had I left off reading the night my husband had accused me of torturing myself? I thumb through the pages, past scenes of the Holden Caufield I can so vividly picture. Holden in his dorm room, Holden riding in a cab, Holden sitting in a dark bar with some questionable females, Holden in his red hunting hat, Holden trying to ice-skate and impress a date at Rockefeller Plaza…I had read them all.
Then I find it. Mid-chapter, the place I had surrendered. Page 151. Tucked quietly in the seam of the book, its pages yellowing with the years, patiently waiting for me, a fine, pure white feather.