This is the first in a three-part series on gun violence.
In part one, long after the shooting at her old high school, Megan Stielstra worries about her father’s heart.
In part two, Nicole Piasecki writes a letter to the wife of the shooter who killed her father.
In part three, Megan and Nicole talk about the shooting that changed their lives, who owns the story, and what to do with fear.
* * *
Write your name here. Address, here. Here — check every box on this long list of disorders and diseases and conditions that are a part of your medical history, your parents’ medical history, your grandparents’ medical history and down the DNA. So much terrifying possibility. So much what if in our blood, our bones.
I checked two. Melanoma and —
“Heart disease?” my new doctor asked. I liked her immediately; her silver hair, her enviable shoes. Is that an appropriate thing to say to your doctor? I know we’re talking about my vagina but those heels are incredible. Later, I’d love her intelligence and, later still, her respect for my intelligence even when — especially when — I acted bonkers. She removed the weird, spotty growths from my arm and told me they weren’t cancer. She diagnosed my thyroid disorder and fought it like a dragon. She helped me understand my own body and demanded that I treat it with kindness, even when — especially when — I was stressed or exhausted or scared. It’s so easy to forget ourselves, to prioritize our own hearts second or tenth or not at all. Do you see yourself in that sentence? Are you, right this very moment, treating yourself less than? Cut that shit out, my doctor would say, except she’d say it in professional, even elegant doctorspeak and to her, I listen. Her, I trust. Every woman should have such an advocate and the fact that our patient/doctor relationship is a privilege as opposed to a right makes me want to set the walls on fire. Look up — see the wall in front of you? Imagine it in flames.
“Megan?” she said, and I pulled myself away from her shoes. “There’s a history of heart disease in your family?”
“Yes,” I said. “My dad.”
She asked questions and I did my best. “In his forties, he had chest pains shoveling the driveway in Michigan and got — are they called stents? — he got stents, and then in his fifties he had the same pain playing racquetball and they had to MedEvac —”
“This was in Alaska — he lives on an island now. It’s called Kodiak. Yes, there are bears — they sent him to the mainland for surgery and afterwards he went right back up the mountain —”
“He’s always on mountains, hiking insane heights with drop-offs like this —” I made a ninety-degree angle with my hands — “and carrying moose around in backpacks which are like what, a thousand pounds? and sure, fine, he’s in great shape; he eats tons of wild salmon and can bench press you and me put together but still, he’s almost seventy, and a week ago he was hunting and had those pains, again, and they sent him to the mainland, again, and —”
The more I explained, the angrier I got.
Anger is easier than fear.
Afterwards, I called my dad’s cell phone. We talk often, a couple times a week. He tells me about the weather or the ocean or whatever book he’s reading, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, but today I want to hear how he’s doing. He just had heart surgery. I pictured him on the couch, dog at his feet, benched for who knows how long and bored out of his mind. Maybe I could entertain him, tell him stories, make the time pass quicker. Healing sucks.
He picked on the first ring.
“Hi! How are —” I started, but I didn’t make it to the you.
“Can I call you back?” he said in an exaggerated whisper, and then, in the same matter-of-fact way you or I might say I’m at the store or Sitting down to dinner, he said, excited, “I’m tracking a moose!”
The first heart I dissected was a miserable failure. Me, in my kitchen in Chicago with a knife and a fist of raw meat, and then, a minute later, a long, veiny slab, veal-colored and flat like skirt steak, watery purple seeped into the cutting board.
I thought about dissecting frogs in high school, the smell and the death and the tiny, fragile jawbone; deer carcasses hung upside down and bleeding in our garage in Michigan; Christopher, my then boyfriend/now husband, gutting rabbits on the porch to impress my father, the blood and the mess and the pressure of becoming a family; laying on the table in my paper robe and hearing my son’s heartbeat he’s alive he’s alive he’s alive.
So much joy. So much fear. How can a heart take it?
I stared at my work, messy wet chunks of meat. After a while my dog stuck his nose in the back of my knee. I looked down and he wagged his tail so hard his shoulders shook.
“Fine,” I told him. “You win,” and I set the cutting board on the floor.
Every fall, my dad flies through Chicago to hunt birds in Michigan; him, my Uncle Chuck, and two English Setters to point the way. I love these trips because we get to see him and I hate these trips because we don’t get to see him enough; morning flying in, evening flying out, and a few days between hunts. Poor dad. Poor Chuck. I’ve yelled at them both.
Maybe I used the wrong words. Let me try again.
I love you. I miss you. Stay another day. Stay two days, a week. Caleb is getting older. I’m getting older. You’re getting older. I have so many questions, so many things still to learn, so many things to say like please dad please I’m afraid of the mountain and please dad please, how is your heart?
After the most recent surgery, he sat in my dining room and we talked genetics. Did my grandparents have heart problems? Would I? What about my son, then six-years-old and looking at a picture book, some kid-friendly anatomy thing. “Grandpa,” he said, pointing. “Is that what a heart looks like?”
Dad bent over the page. “Well, real hearts are more purple than red,” he explained. “There are veins and tubes and blood —” I watched the two of them, heads together. You can tell they’re related; same looks, same laugh, same fearlessness. I like thinking of the beauty we pass down, as opposed to the danger. “Tell you what,” dad told him. “When I get back to Alaska, I’ll send you a box of deer hearts and you and your mom can dissect them.”
A month or so later, grandpa’s box arrived by FedEx. It contained three frozen hearts, a few rounds of caribou steak and thirty pounds of halibut which, according to my father, is the world’s best eatin’ fish. I stuffed the freezer, leaving a heart out to thaw, and went outside to ride scooters with my kid. “By the time we come inside,” I told him, “the heart will have melted and we can cut it up!”
I like thinking of the beauty we pass down, as opposed to the danger.
He looked at me from underneath his helmet and said, “Why do we want to do that?” which, frankly, is an excellent question, one that is rarely considered by this little boy specifically and, I wager, by children in general. Usually they jump right into that strange neon puddle. They run headfirst into that electrical fence. They grab that scorpion. They eat that thing. They stick their fingers in that other thing, and who the hell cares why?
I’ll tell you who.
But with the arrival of the deer hearts, our roles had switched. The child now requires a logical explanation before he’ll go anywhere near the creepy, drippy things, and I find myself both unable to stay away and unable to articulate why.
The next time I dissected a heart, I came prepared. I studied anatomical diagrams. I read websites on coronary artery disease that terrified me and articles on cardiology that were way over my head. I watched YouTube channels on dissection, videos of open heart surgery, and Christina Yang performing her first solo valve replacement because oh my god I love that show.
Left atrium, chordae tendinae, ventricle.
Interventricular septum, tricuspid valve, papillary muscles.
I thought about the frogs in high school, skin flaps peeled back and pinned to the dissection tray; salmon yanked out of the Pacific, flopping like crazy and smearing blood over the boat till you whack them with a baseball bat; my friend Jeff writing about killing a fish as a child, how it influenced his understanding of queerness and masculinity; my son catching his first big fish on a river in Alaska, so excited, so proud, and his Uncle Tim telling him he had to kill it, me standing there thinking of Jeff, thinking of the memories we carry; flash forward twenty years and my boy’s grown-up and still traumatized from killing this fish right here/right now; flash back to the present when he tells Uncle Tim no thank you and we go in search of skipping stones and talk about death: plants and fish and humans, scales and guts and bone.
I set the cutting board on the floor and called my dad.
“How’s the writing?” he said.
“Ugh,” I said.
“That good? What are you working on?”
My dad is one hundred percent supportive of my work. One notable and admittedly deserved exception: a published story where I spelled Dall sheep like d-o-l-l and he went off, something about a Tom Wolfe novel where the main character goes quail hunting with buckshot. Buckshot! Can you believe it? Does he want to eat the bird or explode the bird? I mean if you can’t even bother to research — I tell this story every semester to my writing students: Dall and doll, Wolfe and quail. We talk about movies set in Chicago that get our streets wrong. We talk about our responsibility to the places and people we write about. We talk about the pressure of telling stories about the people we love. “Are you scared to write about your dad?” they ask. And I answer, “Hell yeah I am!”
“I’m writing about you,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said.
I talked about the deer hearts, a metaphor for fear. Body, bones, blood. “You can read it first,” I said. “In case you —”
“Oh, kid,” he said. “Write whatever you want.”
A tidal wave of gratitude.
“— so long as it’s the truth.”
When Marilyn, my stepmother, called to tell me that dad had been airlifted from the urgent care center in Glennallen to the hospital in Anchorage, I said, “Fuck,” but with four or five u’s so more like fuuuuck. I have a mouth like a sailor, but I try really hard not to curse around Mare because I know she doesn’t like it and I love her very much. She gave me three brothers (we got drunk by the fire pit and decided we didn’t like step), and three sisters (we got drunk in the banya and decided we didn’t like in-law), a brilliant niece (Hi, Olive!), a brilliant nephew (Hi, Nico!), and here we are, a family.
I remember the exact moment that I fell in love with Marilyn, not as my dad’s wife, but as a separate individual that I’m lucky to have in my life. We were shopping on Michigan Avenue; Nordstrom’s or Bloomingdale’s, somewhere for shoes. The salesman unwrapped boxes and sat across from us. “Where are you from?” he asked Mare.
“Alaska,” she said.
“Ha!” he said. “Sarah Palin!”
I am not Alaskan. I cannot and do not speak for Alaskans and Lord knows I’m no fan of their former governor, but Dear Lower Forty-Eight: That shit’s getting old.
Marilyn smiled. This was not her first rodeo. “Are you from Chicago?” she asked the salesman.
“Born and raised,” he said.
“What do you think of Blagojevich?” she asked, referring to the then-governor of Illinois, recently sentenced to fourteen years in federal prison.
“And Ryan?” Five years, plus seven months home confinement.
“Remind me: how many of your governors are in jail?” Four. Out of the past seven. Plus thirty alderman and some 1500 others — that’s not a typo: fifteen hundred — convicted in the past forty years; bribery, extortion, tax fraud, embezzlement. It was early 2009, immediately following the presidential election, and Marilyn and I had been talking about politics. We talk about politics a lot: abortion, education, gun control. To say that I am left and she is right is incorrect and oversimplifies us both, so I’ll leave it at this: even though we see many things differently, it always feels like I’ve learned from her as opposed to fighting her. In our country’s current mess of a political discourse, I walk away from our conversations thinking It’s possible. She’s patient. She listens. She loves my dad and she loves my son and on the phone that day, her husband on a helicopter and scared out of her mind, she pretended I didn’t swear. She knew I needed to say it.
Maybe she needed to hear it.
“I’ll come,” I said, reaching for my laptop. How fast we hit autopilot: call your boss, call your babysitter, book your flight.
“Talk to your dad first,” she said, explaining that he’d call me before they took him in to surgery. Like most Alaskans, she’s pragmatic: flights are expensive, travel is complicated, worry when the time comes. I am a Midwesterner: we worry always about everything. I paced my living room, waiting for the phone to ring and imagining the worst. I knew dad had been at Moose Camp, my Uncle Chuck’s set-up on the mainland, but I’d never been there. In the absence of information, we substitute what we already know, so I pictured my dad on Barometer Mountain on Kodiak, its 2000-some elevation gain spread with wildflowers and ridiculously amazing views. He’s wearing camo overalls, rifle at the ready, eye on something four-legged, almost has it, almost there, and then — a sort of tingle, like firefly wings on the inside of your skin, running up his arms, down across his chest, circling around his heart like a washcloth in a fist, squeezing tighter, tighter, body locked and all you can see is sky. Look up — the ceiling is all clouds. So white. So close. The inside of your skin.
Chuck and my brother, Thomas, were there to help. The clinic in Glennallen sent him by MedEvac to the hospital in Anchorage.
My third dissection was a bust. I got out the knife. I got out the cutting board. I got out the charts I’d printed from the Internet and reached for my heart.
I don’t know about your freezer, but ours is a god-awful mess. My dad brings us fifty-pound boxes of vacuum-sealed fish and steaks wrapped in butcher paper, and then stands in front of the open top freezer of our city apartment-sized fridge, perplexed. He forgets that we don’t have a second chest freezer in the basement or the garage. He forgets that we don’t have a basement or a garage. Then he gets this very determined look on his face like Dammit they’re my kids. I have to help them. And takes everything out of our freezer and puts it all back in with great strategy and expertise, like how secret agents in the movies build bombs inside of suitcases. The result is a hundred-pound wall of meat intricately stacked inside 6.08 cubic feet, and everything else is jammed in the inside of the freezer door.
What happens next is life. You pull out one salmon filet and the stack comes crashing down. You make juice popsicles that spill before they freeze. The cap to the vodka doesn’t get screwed on all the way. Ziploc bags don’t get zipped, bags of frozen peas upturn, food goes bad, there are… smells, and somebody starts collecting animal hearts for reasons not yet understood.
That is the freezer I expected to see.
What I saw instead was very clean, bleached white, organized and nearly empty: two ice cube trays. A pint of Ben & Jerry’s (flavor: The AmeriCone Dream). A neat, small stack of fish. A neat, small stack of steak. No hearts.
I got out the knife. I got out the cutting board. I got out the charts I’d printed from the Internet and reached for my heart.
I texted my husband. Who else would’ve been in the freezer?
Where is my heart?
A beat or two passed.
The deer heart. That dad sent.
oh i cleaned the fridge
He texts all-lowercase, sans punctuation.
I see that. Where is my heart???
I used three question marks so he’d know I meant business.
He texted back with five.
The conversation overlapped, thumbs flying.
THE DEER HEART.
i threw out a ton of stuff
IN A ZIPLOC.
it was going bad, freezer burn
I NEED IT.
YOU CAN’T JUST.
THROW MY STUFF OUT WITHOUT.
wait are you actually pissed
YES I’M PISSED
I didn’t understand, either.
My dad hunts big game, gone weeks at a time tracking moose, elk, caribou, whatever license he drew in the lottery per the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game. Sometimes it’s a family thing; dad, Chuck, my cousins and their friends setting up camp, hauling gear in 4-wheelers, cooking over open fires, navigating trails in twos or groups. But sometimes he’s alone at twenty-five hundred elevation with just a backpack, a rifle, and, to keep his daughter happy, an iPhone. When he first moved to Alaska not long after I left for college, he built a boat in his backyard; 28 feet of welded aluminum with a bed, a GPS, and a Dickenson diesel heater. It took him three years. He had to learn how to weld. He’s always been into fishing and now he takes people out on the ocean, the ones who come to Alaska for a quote wilderness adventure end quote. Before that, he was the elementary school principal for the children of the Coast Guard, and before that, he was the middle school principal in Chelsea, Michigan. He was my middle school principal in Chelsea, Michigan.
If you have not had the pleasure of your parent administrating school governance while you are going through puberty, here are a few fun anecdotes.
I was waiting outside my dad’s office. A girl walked out and we locked eyes. I could tell she’d been crying. Later, at the football game, she held me down by the neck under the bleachers and told me she was going to shave my head. I remember the thick of her palm on my throat. I remember our team must’ve done something great because everyone above us stood up and cheered. I remember wondering, randomly, when she was going to shave my head.
I remember the fear; can’t move, can’t cry, breath locked.
Fast forward to adulthood: this same girl sent me a friend request on Facebook. I’ve been staring at her name in my inbox for a year.
My freshman year in high school, I’d walk the ten or so minutes back to dad’s office at the middle school to get a ride home. There were girls, a couple years older, who followed me every day in their car. They’d go like 5 miles an hour, all of them leaning out of the front and backseat driver’s side windows, staring at me. I kept my eyes straight ahead. To this day, I’m not sure who they were, let alone what I did to make them mad. I wish I’d known. I wish I’d stood up for myself in some spectacular way, telling them off or keying their car or taking them on at the All-Valley karate tournament and when my leg gets hurt in the semi-finals my awesome guru coach uses an ancient pain-suppression technique in the locker room and the jerky asshole coach tells my opponent to sweep the leg, Johnny! but I do a crane stance and we’re all friends in the end.
That didn’t happen, of course.
I kept walking. I pretended I wasn’t scared.
Once, in gym class, I hit one of those girls in the face with a softball. It wasn’t on purpose. I was just shitty at sports, but still, I was sure she would kill me. After school, I asked my dad for help, and we drove back to the high school, its open, outdoor campus weirdly designed for California, not Michigan. I thought he was going to talk to the gym teacher, but instead we went to the baseball field and threw balls till it got dark. Can you picture him, still in his suit and tie, slamming a fist in his glove and trying, through sheer force of will, to summon forth some sort of athletic ability from his awkward, acne-ridden, bookwormy dork of a daughter? In my memory, we were out there for hours. We were out there for years. Hell, we’re out there today. “Power doesn’t work without aim,” he told me. He’d said the same thing when he taught me to shoot, the two of us waiting for partridge, a pheasant, anything to aim for, to work towards, to hit, a final effect after all this cause.
“You’re doing what with deer hearts?”
I’m drinking martinis with Randy, the chair of the creative writing department where I teach. This is the man who gave me Love In The Time Of The Cholera. Last Exit to Brooklyn. Memoirs From a Women’s Prison by Dr. Nawal el Saadawi. He took me to Sister Spit to see Dorothy Allison. He took me to the Goodman to see the Odyssey. He took me to The Dragon’s Den to hear Stanton Moore. He taught me how to listen. He taught me how to teach. He was the first person to show me that my writing had value and, in the same breath, challenge me to make it better.
“I’m dissecting them,” I told him.
“I see,” he said. “Why the hell are you doing that?”
There were always guns, but they were in my periphery; this was me hanging out with my dad.
I tried to explain: blah blah metaphor blah. Randy waited patiently as I talked myself in circles, finally arriving tipsy at the truth: I’m afraid he will die. I’m afraid of the mountain. I’m afraid for his heart.
“Have you told that to him?” he said, which in retrospect is a very good question but at the time seemed insane.
“You can’t just say it!” I said.
“Sure you can. It takes —” he counted on his fingers — “five words.” He studied me for a second and said, “For you, a thousand.” He grinned. “Maybe ten thousand.”
It was nice to see him relaxed. It was nice to talk about something besides the college. “You want to find a job that’s not a job but a calling,” he’d told me when I first started teaching there, and it certainly felt that way: radical pedagogy, diverse student body, what bell hooks called “education as the practice of freedom.” Then the new corporate leadership; faculty jumping ship, fired or forced out. It wasn’t a job but a heartbreak.
We had another drink and he told me about cutting up cows on his family’s farm in Minnesota. Ever since I started this thing with the deer hearts, everyone wants to talk about meat. About butchers. About dissection and hunting and organ donation and blocked arteries and invasive surgery, our battered, aging bodies, so beautiful and mortal. I love these stories, how one opens the door for another.
We paid the check and got our calendars, trying to schedule a meeting for I don’t remember what. I suggested the following Friday morning, but he couldn’t. Something about a doctor’s appointment. Some tingling in his chest. Nothing to worry about. Everything is fine.
That Friday afternoon he had emergency quadruple bypass surgery.
I blame the college.
I blame the mountain.
Crazy or not, it’s easier with somewhere to aim.
I texted my father, asking if he could send more hearts.
How many? he wrote back.
One would be great!
My phone rang.
He explained that he was out of hearts and of course he’d love to shoot me a deer or two or five but he couldn’t because deer weren’t in season. Question: Does it have to be deer? Would — he paused to consider his words — this thing you are doing work with caribou? What about elk? Sheep?
I didn’t know.
I didn’t know what this thing I was doing even was.
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The next day I bought pig hearts from a butcher in Roger’s Park. They were smaller than the deer hearts; at home on my cutting board they looked like Valentines. I sliced through veins like dental floss and thought about the frogs in high school, where they’d come from and how they’d died; my son’s Uncle Lott and Uncle Ryan taking him to an organic farm in Indiana, playing with pigs and chickens and cows that would later be slaughtered; waiting, waiting, waiting until the pheasant took off into the sky, the barrel of my rifle following it higher, higher, going, gone, and I pointed the rifle barrel-down at the ground; waiting, waiting, waiting on the table in the paper robe, a doctor’s fingers over my moles; different table, different robe, a doctor feeling for the cyst that swallowed my ovary; different table, different robe, a doctor taking blood and blood and blood; different table without the robe, naked and open and terrified.
I looked up. My son, now eight, had just come in from swimming. Raw meat was piled on the counter. I wore smeared rubber gloves. My laptop was open, playing a video of open-heart surgery, the live organ pumping, sucking, and stuck with needles. “What are you doing?” he asked suspiciously.
The pause was long.
Finally: “I’m writing an essay.”
He eyed the meat. “That’s an essay?”
I tried to explain, a task since Montaigne. “It’s a kind of question,” I finished.
“Okay,” he said. “Did you find the answer?”
When I was little, my dad would take me hunting on the weekends. We’d drive in the green station wagon to a very specific field with a very specific tree. It had a heavy branch, like an arm, that stuck out from its side and ran parallel to the ground. Dad wore head-to-toe camo, waiting for birds to hit the sky, and I’d sit on that branch and bounce, watching our dog disappear in the underbrush and then leap above it, like he was riding waves.
There were always guns, but they were in my periphery; this was me hanging out with my dad. I was too young for a hunting license. I could shoot, but not to kill. I liked target practice. I liked shooting skeet. I liked the clay pigeon exploding mid-air and the tiny hole in the center of the target, proof that I got what I aimed for. “Great job, kid!” my dad would say. That’s the part I liked most of all.
At some point, I stopped. Sundays were for hand bell choir — I played the high bells and could pull off both a four-in-hand and a triple Shelley — and Saturdays were American Top 40 with Casey Kasem which I’d record on my boom box — yes, boom box — and play nonstop for the entire week. Look: I was almost a teenager. I was, like, busy. I had, like, friends. We went to Briarwood Mall and did I don’t know, nothin’ which in the late Eighties meant Hot Topic, Wet Seal, and Orange Julius, and now, I think, is H&M, Starbucks, and Forever 21.
That’s what I told my dad, anyway.
The truth was more like this: I’d just taken a mandatory hunter’s education course. We watched a slideshow on conservationism and Michigan-specific regulations; then we went outside for shooting, blood trailing, and tree stand safety. I knew most of it already from weekends with my dad. But now it would be different. Now it would be about killing.
Dad paid the six bucks for my small-game license and we went to our field. I remember passing the tree where I’d bounce when I was little. I remember Duchess scaring up a pheasant. I remember watching it climb, reaching an almost fixed point in the sky and then — freeze. A perfect shot.
I so desperately wanted him to be proud of me.
“Do you remember when I dissected frogs in high school?”
We’re in Alaska for the month of August. It’s sixty degrees on the island, twenty hours of sunshine on the solstice. There’s fishing and hiking and laughing. My son plays with his cousins in an enchanted forest that Marilyn made in the backyard, complete with teeny furniture for fairies. My husband drinks beer with my brothers, laying in the grass to measure distance between bocce balls. My dad paces the living room, phone at his shoulder, calling his neighbors to find me a heart.
Shut your eyes and count to ten: one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three. Imagine what can happen to a body in that amount of time.
“It’s weird,” I went on. “I don’t remember the teacher, or even what year it was, and you’d think I’d have a problem cutting animals because I was a vegetarian in high school. Right? And you took me upstairs and opened the chest freezer and pointed at the frozen venison like This is the food that we eat, Megan. What food are you going to eat? And I —”
“Hold on,” he said to me, and “Maybe?” into the phone. Then he covered the receiver and asked if buffalo hearts were okay.
“Buffalo’s fine,” he said.
“My daughter’s in town and she needs them.”
“— for art.”
After I stopped hunting with my dad, he started giving me books. He played me Paul Simon and Lyle Lovett. He bought us season tickets to the Wharton Center in Lansing where the Broadway touring companies perform in Michigan. We’d get dressed up, drive the hour or so East, eat somewhere fancy and off to the show. Le Miz. Phantom of the Opera. Cats, the glowing eyes before the curtain rose. Once on This Island: the best singing I’d ever heard. The Wiz: the best dancing I’d ever seen.
I thought all of this art was for my benefit, a way to connect away from fields and rivers. But the more I get to know my dad as a person instead of just my parent, I can see that he needed it, too. In grad school, he’d studied the Concord writers — Thoreau, Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and her father, Bronson. When I was ten we packed the pop-up camper and went to New England. I remember the pencil scratches on the walls where the Alcott sisters marked their growth. I remember how still it was at Walden Pond. I remember my father’s face as he stood at Thoreau’s grave. Years later, I taught Kafka classes for a summer study abroad in Prague and took my students to the Jewish Cemetery where he was buried. I’d been in his head for years; journals, stories, letters. I have friends who’ve described this same feeling at Jim Morrison’s grave, or Kurt Cobain’s. Bruce Lee and Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Oscar Wilde and Princess Diana.
There’s something in the wind. History crawls on your skin.
Someday, I’ll take my son there. I’ll ask him to describe my face.
A box arrives in the mail. It’s from Alaska, an address I don’t recognize. Inside are four frozen hearts and a note:
One of the oddest packages I’ve packed, enjoyable but odd.
I take a picture of the note and post it to Instagram. Then I get back to work.
Right marginal artery, diagonal artery, auricle.
Pericardium, pulmonary trunk, superior vena cava.
In case you didn’t know — a deer heart has four chambers. So does a human heart. A frog heart only has three. I was surprised to find that fact in my head, twenty years since high school. Also in my head: cutting the frog open with scissors. How its tongue is connected to base of the mandible instead of back near the esophagus. Peeling away thin layers of membrane and finding its tiny, jelly-like heart between the shoulder blades.
Not in my head: what the classroom looked like. How the desks were positioned. My notebooks. My lab partner. My teacher.
Later, I wiped heart off my hands and got on Facebook.
I know we haven’t talked in years (hi, hello, how are you?) and I know this is totally random and probably insane, but I was wondering if you remember dissecting frogs in high school.
I sent this message to a handful of old friends, people I remembered fondly from show choir and debate. The responses went something like this:
Great, how are you?
Yes, this is insane
YES I REMEMBER IT WAS SO GROSS
I hate science
Those poor frogs!
I don’t know… who was the teacher?
I have blocked out high school entirely.
ugh, who cares
Did Mr. Leith teach that class?
He taught chemistry, right? Did he do anatomy, too?
It was Mr. Leith, wasn’t it?
Shit. It was Leith.
It was the end of my first semester of college in Boston. I was in the dorm, studying for final exams. Soon I’d be flying home to Michigan, the first holiday since my parents had split the summer before. Which one would I stay with? Where would I spend Christmas? I felt guilty for choices I hadn’t made yet, selfish for wanting time with my friends, so desperately eighteen.
Someone knocked on my door then, stuck their head into my room and said, “Aren’t you from Chelsea? Chelsea, Michigan?”
My high school was on the news. There were the buildings, our ridiculous outdoor campus snow-covered in mid-December. The baseball field where dad and I played catch. There were cop cars in the parking lot. School shooting, said the newscaster. Unknown fatalities. And later, Condition unknown. Then, Critical condition. And No word at this time and Fatalities unknown at this time and One fatality at this time. They didn’t name names, of course.
Only this: The shooter was a local schoolteacher.
And this: The victim was a local school administrator.
A local school administrator.
This was before cell phones. Before voicemail and call waiting. Before all of us on the Internet and Twitter with its to-the-second news. It’s so fast, panic and speculation scrolling through our feeds. Back then it was slow. We had to wait. No one was home at either of my parents’ houses and I couldn’t get through on their work lines. I paced my dorm room, listening to the busy signal. In the absence of information, I filled in the blanks: a school board meeting, maybe; one of countless I’d attended as the principal’s kid. My dad at a conference table in his suit and tie. Mr. Piasecki, the superintendent, would be there, and Mr. Mead, the high school principal. I know both these men. Were they okay? They had kids my age. Were they okay? Our families got together sometimes. Were they okay? Other people would be there, too; the elementary school principals, maybe some teachers and parents. Was the shooter already in the room? Did he burst in later? What happened, where was my father, under the conference table, a desk, a supply closet — can’t move, can’t cry, breath locked.
We learn to fear our own imagination.
Five hours went by before I heard his voice. Five hours before I knew he was okay. Maybe that doesn’t sound like long, but stare at a clock for a single minute and see how calm you feel. Shut your eyes and count to ten: one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three. Imagine what can happen to a body in that amount of time.
Imagine what can happen to a heart.
I don’t want to remember Stephen Leith. I don’t want him in my head and he doesn’t deserve my heartbreak, but memory gives a rat’s ass about permission. A smell can take us back. A look, a taste, a song. I hear Paul Simon and I’m eight years old in the car with my dad. Leaves turn colors and I’m twelve in a field with a rifle. Slice into a heart and there I am in high school, cutting up frogs. I remember the formaldehyde. I remember they were double-injected to better see their veins. I remember the stuff: scalpel, scissors, forceps, pins. I remember the ugh! and the gross! and the ewwww, but the teacher is gone, wiped clean by time or anger. He was my teacher — that much I know — but everything else is constructed from media reports and legal documents, a story nobody wanted to be part of.
I’ve always engaged with the heart as a metaphor; a desire, a thing to survive, to heal from or shoot for.
Some students liked him, apparently. He won a few teaching awards. He played in a band. He had a ponytail. He was thirty-nine years old, the same age I am now, and on December 16, 1993, he walked into the administrative offices at Chelsea High School with a 9mm Browning semi-automatic handgun. It wasn’t a board meeting, like I’d imagined after hearing the news reports. It was a grievance meeting: superintendent, principal, and union rep. Leith shot all three of them, killing Joe Piasecki and wounding Ron Mead and Phil Jones before his wife, Alice Leith, came in and told him to give her the gun.
Mrs. Leith was my AP English teacher. She taught me Shakespeare. She taught me that a lot is two separate words. She prepared me for the ACT’s and SAT’s, those vital steps to getting the hell out. Once, a boy in my class asked her about the purpose of literature — why did he have to study it, what impact did it have on his life — and Mrs. Leith gave an incredible monologue about language and poetry and what it means to be a human being.
This woman married to that man.
It’s enough to break your heart.
When she asked for the gun, he set it down on a desk. Then he went back to his classroom and graded papers until the sheriff arrived.
Later, it came out that he’d been reprimanded for “behaving inappropriately” to female students. Later, he’d say that medication effected his judgment, even though he was clear enough to reload. And later, years later, I’d read about his guns: eleven total, including an AK-47 assault rifle.
My dad wasn’t at the high school when the shooting happened. He arrived just afterwards, one of the helpers I’d learn about later from Fred Rogers. When I finally got through to him that day, when I heard his voice instead of the busy signal, my first thought was relief. It didn’t happen. And then, almost immediately, shame. It did. A man lost his life. A girl lost her dad.
I will never know what that feels like.
“Here,” I want to tell her. “Here is my heart,” and I want those words to mean something. I want them to mean everything. Our hearts are with the families, we say and nothing changes. Our thoughts and prayers, from politicians who’ve taken thousands from the NRA. Relief that it happened to someone else, somewhere else, on a different block or neighborhood or community or country. Shame or guilt when we feel bad, and who has time for that? People are dying. That man should not have had eleven guns. That man should not have had a gun. His right to a gun is not greater than our right to walk through this world, alive and living.
This past February was my dad’s 70th birthday, and he and Marilyn went to New York to see Hamilton. My aunt Sally and uncle Bob joined them and I showed up as a surprise, sliding up next to him in the impressionist wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “What do you think?” I asked, referring to the painting in front of us. “Well —” he started, launching into his ideas, the colors, the form, not even looking at me at first. Long story short — hugging, laughing, drinking, and just after midnight, in the first few hours of seventy, my dad decided he wanted to join the crowd outside the Today show and try and get on TV.
“Don’t people line up early?” Mare asked.
“Five a.m.,” said Bob, who’d looked it up on his phone.
“We won’t sleep!” Dad said.
“Who won’t sleep?” Mare said.
“I need a poster,” Dad said. “It has to say I’m visiting from Kodiak. People love Kodiak.” He looked at me. “Do you have any poster board?”
That’s how I found myself, two o’clock in the morning, running around New York City in the freezing rain looking for twenty-four hour poster board. And markers. “Good markers,” Dad insisted. “Not those thin pointy ones.” We wound up in that pharmacy — what’s it called? — Rite Aid, which for future reference has a surprisingly well-stocked office supply section.
“Anything else?” I asked, my arms full of paper and scissors and non-pointy markers.
“Yeah, grab me some nitroglycerin.”
“— in case I have a heart attack.”
We stared at each other.
I could almost see him counting down: three, two — and he laughed.
So I laughed. We laughed our faces off in Rite Aid.
“You know I’m going to write about this, right?” I said.
“Why do you think I said it?”
Three hours later, he was on the Today show.
Three days later, he was back on the mountain.
Last night, we had a dinner party. Randy drove down from Oak Park. Jeff brought wine from the bistro where he works. Lott and Ryan played cards with my now eight-year-old son. Christopher prepped steaks for the grill; his hands were covered in sauce and he asked Randy to grab him something from the freezer.
“What’s this?” Randy asked, holding up a Ziploc bag.
Everyone looked at me.
“It’s my heart,” I said. “My last heart.”
It felt meaningful, somehow. The room was heavy.
And then, in one of those loud little-kid voices, my son said, “Let’s cut it up!”
A plan was made: thaw the heart, eat dinner, and dissect. The table was set; wine poured. Randy talked about the farm in Minnesota. Ryan talked about the farm in Indiana. Lott talked about sheep in Florida. Christopher talked about Agriculture class in Texas — “Mostly we watched movies about animal deformities” — Jeff talked about his heart surgery — “I watched them put in my stents!” — Randy talked about his — “I watched my angiogram!” — and my son asked what the heck we were talking about. These are the men in my life. They love me even when — especially when — I act bonkers.
Naturally, we got drunk and forgot about the heart. But later, when everyone was gone or asleep, I got out the cutting board.
I thought about Alice Leith lecturing that kid in English class about the meaning of literature; Billy’s mama running dog entrails under the faucet in Where the Red Fern Grows; Fleur Pillager working at Kozka’s Meats; Raskolnikov holding the axe over his head; “I Am a Knife,” by Roxane Gay; Sethe and her children and the handsaw; Materia cutting her daughter open with sewing scissors in Fall On Your Knees; Lidia holding her stomach in Chronology of Water; Janis screaming awwwww take it! Take another little piece of my heart!; humans as blood bags in Fury Road; Indiana Jones hanging from a rope bridge with Mola Ram; every episode ever of Trueblood; the rhythm sequence from Jeunet’s Delicatessen; Louise Erdrich: “How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel”; Charles Yu: ““You want to tell a story? Grow a heart”; and Eileen Myles: “I can hold your heart for a second. And that’s all anybody ever wants.”
I’ve always engaged with the heart as a metaphor; a desire, a thing to survive, to heal from or shoot for.
Now I know that there’s nothing more real.
We walk through the world at its leisure. We’re here at its mercy and with its blessing.
At some point, we have to ask ourselves how we want to live.
* * *
Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Her work appears in Best American Essays, New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and on National Public Radio.
From the book THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE: Essays by Megan Stielstra. Copyright © 2017 by Megan Stielstra. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Editor: Dana Snitzky