Invisible Lives: Cassandra Jackson on Keeping and Discovering Family Secrets
“Though our loss is still hers, she has a profound loss that is all her own.”
In my invisible life, I begin the day at the fertility clinic; at first every other day and eventually every day at 7 am, I write my name on a slip of paper and hand it to a receptionist. Then I sit and wait for a nurse to call my name.
I walk into the blood draw room where rows of women sit in little chairs with armrests across the front. The women are dressed for work, but they all have one sleeve rolled up or they’ve removed their blazer to reveal a camisole and bare arms underneath. Nurses dressed in candy-colored scrubs glide back and forth on stools with wheels to gather fresh needles and vials from a countertop on the opposite side of the room.
When they are ready, they poke butterfly needles into their patient’s waiting arm and smile when dark red blood moves through a tube and spills like wine into a clear vial. They talk about the weather, jewelry parties, and how they will celebrate their birthdays. They do not talk about needles, blood, bodies, or their children.
Everything is smooth and choreographed, like the opening scenes of a sci-fi movie set in the suburbs. A nurse in pink Dora the Explorer scrubs waves me over, and I too am part of this movie. I walk in, smile, and take my seat. She glides across the room on her stool to gather her things and glides back while I roll up my sleeve and rest my arm on the cushion.
When she returns and looks at my arm, her smile fades. “Oh dear,” she says. “Your veins—they are just so small.” She taps my arm and turns it. “I wonder if… well… I don’t know if… hmm,” she says.
Dora Scrubs sucks in her breath and pokes the needle into my arm. We wait for the blood to run through the tube, but nothing comes out. She removes the needle and asks if I am okay, but she is too loud. Everyone in the movie stops to look at us. We have been demoted to audience members who have forgotten to turn off their cell phones.
She tries again, this time with all eyes on her. The room is silent as everyone waits for the vial to fill, but nothing comes out of my body. She begins to fumble through needles nearby, and eyes widen all over the room. I sit there aware that my body is now a secret that has already been told.
The nurse next to us says in a soft voice, “Just get Sherri.”
Dora Scrubs goes to the door, picks up a phone from the wall, and mumbles something unintelligible into it.
When she returns she asks me to wait in a chair in the corner. I move, and Dora Scrubs waves over a patient standing in the doorway. The movie resumes without me, without my body that refuses to play its part.
When Sherri arrives, the nurses all point in my direction at the same time. She greets me with a smile and tightens the tourniquet on my arm. She puts a needle in and all the nurses turn to look. Nothing comes out. And though some version of this moment happens almost every time I come to the blood draw room, even I stare at the empty tube and begin to wonder what I am.
“Try this. Hang your arm straight down by your side,” Sherri says. I let my arm hang and blood flies through the tube. The nurses let out tiny sighs of relief and turn back to their patients. Sherri smiles like she has put a genie back in the bottle.
She turns to the nurse next to her and asks if she needs new sheets. There is a bedding the mall.
In time, I learn to relish the sterile smell of alcohol pads, the gleam of thin needles, and the sharp sting of pain as I pierce my body. The things that make me feel real.
At night, I prepare the shot. I am in control. My body has no concrete limitations. I can penetrate it, drug it, change something as essential as the smell of it, just by taking these little shots. I can force eggs inside me to ripen with just the prick of a needle. I make my body sweat constantly. The smell I make myself excrete is both musky like a feral cat and metallic like a burning beer can. I touch the dampness of my pits with my fingers and smell them.
For the first time, I understand the feeling that drives anorexics to starve themselves, the deep fulfillment of control over one’s own body.
There is just one shot that I cannot easily do myself—the one to my own ass. I prep the needle and point my husband to a spot that has not already been stabbed.
When he goes out of town, I consider asking a friend. But instead, I practice twisting my body enough to inject a shot into my own butt. I feel my way blindly and jab hard and fast. It works, and I am hooked.
When my husband returns, he wants to resume giving me the shot. He needs something to do in this process. But I can no longer wait for someone else to puncture me like a balloon. I will not hold myself down while I wait for medical violence to split me while talking about whether it will snow on Friday. At home, I am my own nurse, doctor, husband. I am my own secret.
I am ten by the time I get up the nerve to ask her. I go outside, where Annette is washing her little yellow car, the Pinto that she inherited from my mother. A wave of nausea passes through me. But finally, I manage to get out, “Are you?”
She stares like I am someone important about to say something important.I mourn my version of the story because in it Annette is a connection to the past.
I stumble through, “Are you her daughter? Daddy’s first wife’s daughter?”
She cocks her head to the side, and for the first time, it occurs to me that maybe she doesn’t know that she is another woman’s child.
She throws back her head and laughs for a long time. When she stops to catch her breath she says, “Where did you get that silly idea?”
My heart is beating in my throat. I have betrayed her. I am sorry that I have hurt my sister, who does TV mom things with me, like make picnics and candied apples, and lets me use her makeup to give my friends makeovers. She tells people that she is the one raising me. But she is better than a mother precisely because she is not one. She is not weighed down by the responsibilities of bills and balancing checkbooks.
She is still giggling as she washes the top of the car. But she does not say anything else to me.
I try to laugh with her. Then I pick up a sponge and begin scrubbing a tire.
I am in bed at night when my mother walks into my room without turning on the light. She lays her body down on top of the shiny pink bedspread so that it stays between my body and hers.
“Aunt Sadie, Uncle Morgan’s wife. You didn’t know her. She died before you were born. She told me to do it.”
I do not understand what she is talking about, but I know not to ask questions when someone is talking in the dark.
“Aunt Sadie just kept on telling me to do it. She was a mean woman. Everybody knew Uncle Morgan just married her ’cause she was a teacher and had money coming in. Back then, teaching up at the colored school was the only kind of decent-paying job a Black woman could get. Uncle Morgan was good-looking—could have married anybody, but he loved money. Everybody knew Auntie was mean. Mean to her own son because he was dark-skinned.”
My mother wrings her hands so hard that I can hear her dry skin rubbing like flint and steel.
“I was engaged to a man before your daddy. And Aunt Sadie just kept telling me to go on and do it. After that, he stopped coming around, and then I had Annette. Your daddy adopted Annette after we got married.”
“What about the man?” I say.
The outline of her face emerges as my eyes adjust. She is lying on her back, staring at the ceiling.
“Mama was real mad at Auntie for a long time for doing me like that.” Her head rises still, like a mask, as she gets up and floats toward the door.
“Don’t say nothing to your sister or your brother about this.” “Does she know?” I say.
“Yeah. She knows. But we don’t talk about it. Your daddy is her father now. So ain’t nothing to talk about.”
I ask her if my brother knows. But she walks out and closes the door behind her without answering.
I lie in bed all night replaying my mother’s words—And then I had Annette. And then I had Annette. And then I had Annette—and making new sentences to connect the missing pieces of my mother’s story: Annette’s father is not mine. He is someone else, someone I do not know. My mother was engaged to this man. Her aunt told her she should have sex with the man. My mother got pregnant, and the man left her with a baby, my sister. My father married my mother who already had a baby. He adopted that baby. My sister is my biological half-sister. But not in the way that I thought.I hurt like someone has hollowed me out, emptied me and refused to give the pieces of me back.
I want to sleep, but pain keeps me awake. I hurt like someone has hollowed me out, emptied me and refused to give the pieces of me back. This is what it feels like when you land on the wrong truth. I cry, softly at first, and then hard, moaning into a pillow. I feel foolish because it should make no difference. In my theory, my sister was the daughter of my father’s dead wife, Willodene, a woman I never knew. And now she is the daughter of my mother’s dead lover, a man I never knew.
Still, I mourn my version of the story because in it Annette is a connection to the past, an answer to questions that can never be asked. What happened to your family, Daddy? When did it happen? Who did you lose? How did you go on?
My mother’s secret takes my sister further away from our family. She is not an answer but a new question. Who was your father? Do you have other brothers and sisters? Where are they, and do you want to know them? She is no longer just my sister. She belongs to someone else too. And though our loss is still hers, she has a profound loss that is all her own.
She is a secret. She is our secret. And a secret is just another word for a lie.
I am at the grocery store when I catch a checkout clerk staring at my arms. I have thrown on an old T-shirt on this unseasonably warm day, thinking that no one will notice anything out of the ordinary about my body. My body, Black and young-enough-looking, is good at keeping secrets. Even the receptionists at the fertility clinic cannot process the idea that my body is both Black and infertile. They regularly direct me to a sign-in list for egg donors, twenty-somethings who, for a fee, allow doctors to harvest their eggs and give them to infertile women.
When the clerk spots the bloody game of connect-the-dots on my arms, with one spot still red from an early morning blood draw, a thin shudder passes through her dark brown neck. She curls glittery pink lips into a wince and looks into my face. I am too startled to answer her narrowed eyes. She tosses her long dark weave over her shoulder and returns to her work scanning each item.
But her eyes dart back and forth between the groceries and the marks on my body as she tries to make sense of me—an apparent heroin addict buying Greek yogurt and organic baby spinach. By the time she hands me the receipt she is sucking her teeth and rolling her eyes. I thank her in a voice too happy for the supermarket. She makes “You’re welcome” sound like a curse, spitting the words so that they hang in the air in a comic-book word bubble.
I smile, feeling seen even if I have been mistaken for someone else.
I walk out of the store, pushing my cart with my arms facing as far outward as I can turn them. I see strangers, daring them to see me too, but they smile back and look right through me, their eyes filling in the gaps in my skin. I am invisible again.
Excerpted from The Wreck: A Daughter’s Memoir of Becoming a Mother by Cassandra Jackson.Copyright © 2023. Published by arrangement with Viking Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.