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Linda Lacy’s “Back to Donnie” is just this kind of essay. It’s poignant, painful, and, in some ways, unresolved. It’s the kind of read that sticks with you for while after you’re done and leaves you wondering.
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Back to Donnie
The house is small now, the yard tiny, the street busier, the neighborhood foreign.
I was only nineteen when a man came along and swept me away with his impetuous, spontaneous nature. He was all I was not—adventuresome, free-wheeling, humorous, and fun-loving; what introvert wouldn’t want to move into that neighborhood? Donnie was from a large and very loud Italian family, full of love and alcohol. His classic Roman nose would be passed on to my children, as well as his generosity and bad temper. I fell in love with his family as much as with him. And so we married and promised our love and fidelity. The world was wide open; the house of our life was huge and ready to fill with memories.
Donnie was a short man, prone to gaining weight, with blue eyes and wild hair that would not obey any barber. His taste in fashion was nonexistent, and he wasn’t what one would think of as handsome, but he was mine. I was fresh, new, thin, with flowing red hair. I was ready to break out of my shell and begin this venture. We bought a maroon-red VW bus, circa 1960s, and fixed it up; he worked on the engine and I made Hawaiian curtains. By summer, we were on our way up the Pacific coast, living out of our vehicle, driving through the redwoods, the seaside villages, the train-trestle coast, all the way to Port Townsend, Washington.
Being married has a way of narrowing your vision and skimming life down to size. Being married to a control freak has a way of strangling adolescent pie-in-the-sky dreams. Near Port Townsend, after Donnie punched a hole in the bus window to exhibit his superior strength, I found myself shaken and puzzled. Over the next few years, I would come to accept this as normal behavior. Years of broken fences, holes punched in drywall, smashed windows, his bloody knuckles, destroyed heirlooms, and a few personal bruises convinced me that I was in a prison of my own making, a home I didn’t want anymore.
However, experiencing the bad makes one more cognizant and appreciative of the good. Years of intermittent tenderness, elaborate picnics, drives to the top of the coastal mountains, peering down sliding ranges, watching eagles dive—it’s enough to take your breath away and save a marriage. Then there are the children; nothing cements a good, or bad, union like the incalculable miracle of procreation. Four precious, fragile lives were given to us, and I settled down to spoon baby food, change green poopy diapers, and walk endless hours with screaming colicky babies at night. I had no energy left for the angry, unemployed child who sunk into his alcoholism.
After fourteen years of this marriage, which eliminated my hope for the male species, I finally escaped my prison with my babies in tow. I had clandestinely packed a few bags and hidden them in closets, waited for the perfect beer run when all the kids were at home with me, and then scooped up my human cargo and drove away with shaky fingers. Prior to this, it was made maddeningly clear to me that if I ever tried to leave, I wouldn’t walk out the door with my children. A secret run for our freedom was my only option. We went to a safe house, lived with relatives, and eventually I secured my little family an apartment. We slept on the floor and used a Tiny Tykes table for meals, but it was calm, safe, and full of relief.
The following years were for decompression and reorientation to the real world. The man I had so feared, loved, rooted for, and hated was reduced to an angry side character, flinging about hollow threats and filling the children with reunification theories on his scheduled visits. As time would have it, healing took place slowly. I was reminded of my human worth, and we began to see less and less of Donnie. His visits with the kids took on a different dimension as they matured into puberty and teenagehood. The loveable dad they believed would woo their mother back became just a weak man, a guy trying to grab onto the love of his children. Because of his subconscious control habits, the kids drew away from him, not wanting to see him, and I began to pity the man I once looked up to. As his self-esteem waned, mine was now intact.
It was autumn when Donnie called to say that he found out he had Hepatitis C. Not comprehending the seriousness of that statement, I later found out that prolonged alcoholism plus Hepatitis C equals death. We arranged to meet him at McDonald’s, and I wasn’t ready for this sight of degradation. He was the same man, full of love and generosity, the sparks of life jumping out of his yellow skin. He was still impatient, prone to control the situation and his destiny, touting that he would “beat this thing” as his hands shook so violently that he could barely eat. Donnie’s hair had turned grey, his face sagged, and his eyes were shaded. The man I once believed could accomplish anything was now expiring before my eyes.
A month later, we attended his funeral. His huge Italian family was there, loud and loving as ever, drinking and remembering Donnie as a younger man. I had the role of comforting my children, forcing small talk with relatives I hadn’t seen for years, and trying to take the pressure off Donnie’s parents. His ashes lay inside the urn on the table. The man I was so enthralled with, loved for better or worse, tried to accommodate, change, and then ran away from—his spirit had flown to heaven, and I was left to be the bulwark for our children. It didn’t seem quite fair, but he never was fair.
Ever since we divorced, and even since he has passed, I have a recurring dream that Donnie is back with me and I can’t seem to get rid of him. His presence is inferred, expected, and unquestionable, and I have struggled with this dream for twenty years now. Perhaps when we give away our heart to another human, in childlike wonder, we will always own a piece of their soul, tucked away in the recesses of our being. Every so often that person will emerge to remind us of the life we built together.
I remember the day I met Donnie at a friend’s house, and afterwards he took me to Baskin Robbins for an ice cream cone. He was lean, twenty-three, healthy, and ready to take on the world. Donnie was cocky in his self-assurance and let me rest on that confidence. I was wide-eyed and buggy with optimism and unbridled anticipation for the future. The house we built in our hearts seemed so big to me back then, with plenty of room for expansion. The yard was huge, filled with adventure, forts, and discoveries. The neighborhood was familiar, the traffic slow.
Linda Lacy has a BA degree in English and writing from Portland State University and has published short fiction in The Magnolia Review, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, Universalist, The Adventist Review, Imperfect Women, and The Anglican Digest.