When Things End, There’s a Magic To It All

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - 5:00 am

When Things End, There’s a Magic To It All

When I turned eight, my parents took me to the circus. There was more color than in real life, and the tent was twice as tall as the ceilings at the grocery store. Trapeze artists swung from ropes and twisted into contortions more obscure than my dog, but what really thrilled me most was the unicorn.

The unicorn’s entrance had been grand. Invisible flutes and accordions played over the speakers, and then the ringmaster commanded the audience’s attention through a giant microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, are you ready for some mysticism? Folks, we have a very special creature to behold this evening. All the way from the silver sands of Persia… the rare… the numinous… Lancelot, the Living Unicorn!”

Ambient music wafted through the room as a fluffy-maned unicorn clomped into the spotlight. His long horn swirled around itself like a twisted lollipop, making me believe that anything could happen, just like my parents had said when I told them I wanted to be a snake charmer or the first female president.

“I am looking for one lass or maiden to place their hands on this magical creature,” said the ringmaster as he searched the crowd for a volunteer.

Could it be? I looked at each of my parents for permission to raise my hand.

“Go ahead,” my mother encouraged as my father nudged my arm up. Hundreds of us reached for recognition as a drumroll rounded the room and when the cymbals crashed, the ringmaster was pointing at me. My father lifted me from under my armpits and ushered me down the bleacher steps until I was standing on the hay-crusted floor, holding the hand of the man who had chosen me.

“What is your name, young maiden, and where are you from?” the ringmaster asked with an affected voice and then placed the microphone below my chin. I couldn’t see anyone under the heat of the yellow lights.

“Courtney,” I said with conviction, “from Lancaster.” My eyes adjusted, and I found my father to make sure it was okay to answer him. This wasn’t stranger danger. This was destiny. I was going to pet a unicorn.

The ringmaster’s assistant knelt down to tell me how to approach Lancelot, her blue lashes fluttering between directives. As I walked towards the magical beast, I knew I was looking into eyes that knew all the answers of the universe. I placed the back of my wrist upon Lancelot’s neck and stroked downward with my fingers. The hair was less coarse than it looked, and his muscles were more curved and firm than I could see from my seat.

White dust began flaking off onto my hand, and I wondered what kind of powers I might absorb as the music started up again. The sparkly assistant took my hand, and we began a procession behind the unicorn, circling the arena that had a sweet-hooved aroma. I searched the crowd for my mom’s purple sweater and found her and my dad in it. I could tell they were proud.

After the parade, the ringmaster handed me a certificate, and the audience clapped. I waved a final wave, and my dad came down to the rim of the audience to snap a photograph.

The following week for show-and-tell, I brought in the certificate. I waited to go last, until all my classmates had shared their new toys or lost teeth. When it was my turn, I walked to the front of the classroom wearing my pink Barnum & Bailey t-shirt and prepared for the rounds of applause that would surely follow. I framed myself between the chalkboard and hamster cage, delicately holding the ivory parchment paper so I wouldn’t wrinkle it. My classmates quieted and looked to me. I was serious, and they knew I had something special to share.

“Okay, Courtney, go ahead,” Mrs. Hughes prompted. She was old and curt and probably had no business being an elementary school teacher. Allowing a delicious pause to permeate until it created the dramatic effect desired, I announced loud and clear: “I got chosen to pet a unicorn.”

I held up the certificate and pointed to my circus shirt just like I’d practiced in the mirror on the coat closet at home. The boys seemed indifferent to what I’d just said, but a few of the girls gasped, and then one shot her hand up in the air like a firework, waiting to be called upon. But before I could, our teacher interrupted.

“Oh honey, that wasn’t a unicorn,” Mrs. Hughes sneered. “That was just a goat with a horn glued on its head.”

My heart plummeted to my stomach like a failed paper plane. I was mortified. Confused. It couldn’t be, I thought. I’d felt Lancelot with my own hands. Seen his horn with my eyes! I took a good look at our teacher’s face and contemplated what she just said. Bonding a horn to something that already existed did seem more probable than capturing a legendary creature. Standing up in front of all my classmates, I realized I’d been duped.

The bell rang, and I stuffed the certificate into my backpack. I ran home and changed my shirt, swearing I’d never wear it again, and then cried and beat my fists into the soggy bed. I buried the certificate in a drawer and left it there for all of eternity.

***

I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy by the time I was nine. Even the Easter Bunny seemed like an unreasonable contender. I tried reinvesting in the possibility of these annual visitors for a few rounds of holiday seasons, but the image of a goat with a horn glued on its head was branded on the back of my brain. My mom attempted to keep up the façade, staging our living room on Christmas morning with little gold bells that she suspected must have fallen from Santa’s coat when he slid down the chimney, and I went along with it for the sake of my little brother. He was still a believer, but I knew that it was a big, fat lie and was confused why our parents were buying into all these conspiracies. But it was okay, because there would still be presents whether Santa brought them or not.

By ten, I realized that my parents didn’t know everything and that my best friend made things up when I asked her questions like Why is the sky blue? Even Miss Cleo, host of The Psychic Readers Network, seemed phony, and the news was starting to broadcast words I understood. Desert Storm was a war and people were dying. Even though I knew we were safe in our house, the sandy terrain and tanks on TV were becoming more real to me than a land where unicorns lived. A cloud of realism was now always lurking over me just like that pile of dust that always follows Pig-Pen.

And yet, a part of me couldn’t give up on the idea of magic. Maybe flying reindeer and tooth-seeking fairies were a bit far-fetched, but if magicians could make magic themselves, couldn’t I? I found it was possible on the stage. The summer after my 16th birthday, I spent a week at Show Choir Camp singing and dancing my way into this other world. The week culminated in a performance, but my parents didn’t come because my dad was sick. I was mad. We were doing a medley from Disney’s Hercules, and I had the solo. I went through the motions and smiled, shaking my hands in the same pattern as everyone else, but it didn’t feel the same. I was needy for approval, for applause from people who would remember what I’d done.

When I got home from camp, my little brother and I were called into the dining room. My parents sat stoic and serious at the table as the curtains flapped forward like pirate sails, the window-boxed air-conditioner blasting my long, Sun-In’d hair around. The direct air made my shoulders cold, but I took a seat next to my mother and kept quiet. My towheaded brother was distracted and wanted to go back outside to play but threw himself up on a chair anyway. It wasn’t dinner time and neither of us had done anything wrong, so we just waited to see what was going to happen next.

My father began a monologue, “I love you two,” he said. “Your mom and I love you more than anything.” There was a strange formality in his tone as if he was giving a presentation he’d rehearsed. A housefly bantered around the room.

“I have something difficult to share,” he continued. “But I promise that it’s all going to be okay.”

My mother sat in silence beside him. Her hand was on the table that still had glitter in the center seam from an art project I’d made. She was flicking her nails. My mom was usually the one to lead family conversations, the discussions about vacations or how my brother was getting to a game, but this was about something else. As my father went on, she continued to say nothing like a first lady at a president’s side.

“I’m sick and have to have a bone marrow transplant,” my father explained. “But your uncle is a match.”

My little brother scrunched up his nose, trying to make sense of it. I’d never seen his face so adult-like and knowing. My mother kept looking down, staring at a groove in the table, and I thought it was strange that she still hadn’t said anything.

“I love you guys,” my father said again. “It’s all going to be okay.” His voice was softer now, more like the one I recognized, but I stopped hearing it and watched his hair feather in the fog of feelings that was thick between us all. The t-shirt he wore was the same color as his earth-gray eyes and had the logo of a band that we had just seen in concert a month ago. We’d sang and danced in the stadium seats, and nothing had been wrong like it was now. My brother was back to looking like a kid again and was showing his impatience, his little legs kicking all around underneath the table. He wanted to go back outside to play.

My dad reiterated for a final time that it would all work out. He’d never lied about anything before, so why would he lie about something like this now? Walking around the table in a somber round of duck, duck, goose, he sealed his promise with a kiss on the top of each of our heads. I think we all felt chosen as the goose but didn’t know how to chase him down a road he had to run alone.

We were dismissed, and my dad disappeared upstairs. My mom went into the kitchen to start dinner. She took a pot from the cupboard and turned on the faucet, and I swear she was crying, but I wasn’t sure because all I could see was her back breathing irregularly. She was looking out the window above the sink, watching my brother, who was already back outside kicking his soccer ball against the garage door.

I didn’t know what to do, so I called my friend Moriah and asked her to drive me to the mall. I didn’t say anything about my dad or what he’d just told us, and she said she couldn’t drive me because her family was going to dinner, so we said we’d go tomorrow and hung up. I fanned through the stack of mail and saw that the fall fashion issue of Seventeen had come, so I tucked the magazine under my arm and went into the living room where my dad was watching VH1’s Behind the Music. I sat down beside him on the couch and leafed through the sleek pages, trying to decide what I was going to wear on the first day back to school.

***

My dad was hospitalized two months later. He’d caught a cold, and his weak immune system wasn’t fighting it. The temporary bed they put him in was too large for his shrinking body, and a creamy, yellow gunk had begun to coat the whites of his eyes. I wrote a letter on my angel stationery and brought it with me to the hospital to read, scared I wouldn’t know what to say to him and knowing how important whatever I did should be. I don’t remember what that letter said now, only that I’d wanted the words to do something more than end. I’ve always wanted things to be different from how they are.

A letter penned by Courtney to her father in 1997, during his illness. (Courtney Seiberling / © All Rights Reserved)

On August 12, my dad was gone before he left his body, and then he was gone completely. My mom was alone at the hospital. I have no idea how long she waited before she drove home, but when I heard her keys in the door, I knew something was wrong. Her face said the unsayable, and we all stopped breathing for a moment until our bodies remembered to breathe themselves. It was the first time I thought of magic being in our breath, in something seemingly so mundane. Breath had been the thing that had given air to my father’s voice and pigment to his skin until it didn’t anymore.

I wonder what I was doing the moment my dad had stopped breathing. Ordering Chinese food? Telling my brother to turn the volume down on his video game as he advanced to the next level? Did my dad advance to the next level? I miss Mrs. Hughes’s unshakable way of defining things for what they were, but I don’t know if any of us can really explain death. It shakes us. There is very little understanding when things end.

***

We put my father in the ground on the top of a hill by a tree overlooking other hills and trees. It’s a special place with a sky twenty times as high as that circus tent, and I’d visit his grave whenever I needed to feel him. By November, the dirt had hardened. Snow was starting to fall outside the windows of my high school, and people had stopped asking me how I was. This is the unfair part of mourning. Of course, the death itself is unfair, but just as I was beginning to grieve, everyone else was back to talking about normal things. There were no longer fresh-cut flowers delivered or ready-made casseroles in the fridge, just a lot of empty space that my father used to fill.

After high school, I went to college and shared stories about my dad with anyone who would listen. Memories kept him alive, and I wasn’t ready to forget him. I wore his concert t-shirts and tacked photos he’d taken on the cork board in my dorm room, pinning the one of me and the unicorn in the center. In the photo, I’m wearing a yellow shirt and green polyester shorts, grinning ear to ear with a missing tooth; Lancelot is to my right, and the assistant’s thin, shiny legs are in the background. I’d look at that picture as though it was a portal that could take me back to what it had been like not to have lost so much, but all it ever did was remind me of what I had.

For months, I missed parties and football games to run a museum out of my dorm room, granting admission to anyone who would sit on my bottom bunk and flip through my high school yearbooks with me. If I could prove who I’d been, I wouldn’t have to figure out who I now was. But like those black and white photos, I’d lost the color of my life.

I needed to keep going, to start opening to what was happening around me. I brought my yearbooks home on a break and went to parties when I returned. I auditioned for plays and drank beer after rehearsals and talked about Tennessee Williams and bands. I stayed up late and woke up early to run and feel the cold air punch my lungs and remind me how wonderful it was to be alive.

As I remembered, something started to happen. My dad came to me. Instead of in the stiff earth, he appeared in a Neil Young song on the radio. Rather than beneath a glossed stone, he showed up in the way I preferred my coffee. Today, he’s often a nudge of encouragement for everything that is possible or a reminder of all that isn’t. Things end. But something else always begins. There’s a magic to it all.

Courtney and her father share an embrace. (Courtney Seiberling / © All Rights Reserved)

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Contributor

Courtney Seiberling

is an assistant high school principal and yoga teacher, but really just wants to be a writer. Courtney lives in Los Angeles and loves to host dinner parties, go on hikes, read, and listen to music.

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Reflections

  • Susan Finn

    This is beautiful. Tender, true, and so very well expressed by your writing!

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Thank you, Susan!

  • What an exquisite article that is moving my heart and soul! Courtney….you are an exceptional writer. Thank you for this beauty. xo

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Hillary, I can tell that heart and soul of yours is alive, bringing so much good to the world. Thank you for your kind words.

  • JoAnn Phillips Shaeffer

    beautiful story.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Thanks, JoAnn! I know you are on a journey of loss yourself and my heart is with you along the way.

  • Mandy Ventresca

    Absolutely beautiful Courtney.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Thanks, Mandy. Much love to you.

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  • Lynn Sharp

    Wow…I could feel the emotion. The feeling of loss on several different levels. It took me back to memories of my father.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      That’s the hope, Lynn! I appreciate you reading and for your comment. I hope that you were reminded that your father is still with you and that it brings you great comfort!

  • Vickie L. Fogel

    Courtney, What a beautifully written piece. I knew your Mom back in college days and was at your parent’s wedding. She is so very proud of both you and your brother…..and, I know, without a doubt, so is your Father. I truly hope you keep writing…you truly have a gift!

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Vickie, hi! Thank you for being a support to the lives of my parents! I will keep writing, I promise! Many thanks for the read and your encouraging words!

  • Roy Reichle

    Beautiful and moving, Courtney. Your writing here swells with feeling and truth. Thank you.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Thank you, Roy! The truth always makes me feel alive and swell! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • Pamela Dunlap

    Dearest Courtney……this is so beautiful…such wonderful writing….How lucky you were to have had such a fabulous father….your life and your grief are very rich. Much Love to you.
    Pamela

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Pamela – that means so very much coming from you! I am truly lucky for my dad and for inspiring people in my life like you! Much love to you!

  • Gabby

    As I have aged and the first heartbreaking loss was followed by the next and then another, I found that my reconstruction of my life around loss changed. The first great loss made me feel I would always walk the Earth a swiss cheese, with secret, painful holes I could feel even if no one could see them. But with subsequent losses I saw, as you have, how the person doesn’t truly depart but rather changes form, internalized as constant company or as the sense of an additional organ within me. One person I have lost resides in a particular identifiable quarter in my heart, for example.
    More recently I have taken an active approach to loss of building something new into my life explicitly that I choose to interpret as a gift that relationship gave me- something like now I work in clay and in each moment of that he is with me.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      I love this, Gabby. So much of who I am has been informed by the tremendous humans I have been lucky to know. I’m glad you feel that, too. Losing people we love is so difficult because we can no longer have them in the way we are used to, but I do think we gain so much for having loved them and been loved by them. I hope the clay working and parts of your heart that contain your loved ones makes you smile and brings you great comfort always. XX

  • baudelairedog

    Your writing is beautiful. I love the way it flows. Several years ago I decided to fulfill a life long dream and become Santa Claus. The first year I went to a senior center. It was lots of fun asking little old ladies if they’d been naughty or nice. Then someone gave me their father’s heirloom Santa costume. Red velvet, beautiful long white hair and beard, shiny black boots and a big brass buckle. I wear it now almost every year. This year it was a for a three month old grandson. When I dress up as Santa Claus I actually am Santa Claus. The spirit of Christmas is everywhere. Everyone smiles and waves and is happy when they see Santa. If I were walking arm in arm with Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger everyone would point and say there’s Santa. The Santa suit is no different than the unicorn horn. There is a spirit of Christmas and a spirit of unicorns that is just as real as mountains or oceans or city lights at night. Believe in all of these things. Never stop believing. Our loved ones never leave. Your father is there in everywhere you see him.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Wow, thank you! I love that you truly embody Santa and all Santa means when you put on the suit. I have no doubt that you’ve touched many and reminded them of the spirit of Christmas and the possibility of magic!

  • s. park

    Courtney, Thank you for sharing with the world all of your gifts. You have a way of harnessing magic! You have a gift with words, I love the vivd imagery, I have several favorite lines! x
    much love,
    songhi

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Songhi, thanks! You’ve known me for so many years and I appreciate your love and support through all times of magic! XX

  • Bonnie Bird

    Courtney, this is such a beautiful story, and so movingly told! You have expressed the deep and transforming movement of grief in a very real way, that I am sure will resonate with many people. I hope you will always see the magic behind the humdrum of daily life, and please keep writing! It comes from your deepest, most authentic self.
    Thank you for the wonderful intention jar you made for me for 2016 — I am the friend Marty requested it for. I hope I get to meet you someday!!
    Blessings and love to you,
    Bonnie

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Oh, Bonnie! I hope to met you, too! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. Many blessings and much love to you!

  • Beth Ramos

    Thank you. I’m teaching a class to retired folk on the importance of fairy tales and mystery in our lives. You’re experience, so clearly, poignantly written, is the universal truth our busy culture keeps hidden. There is more than magic in the air, there is Mystery.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      How lovely that you are teaching a class on fairy tales and mystery! I think we want to ID things so easily in life so we can understand and define them, but mystery is worth so much! It keeps us searching, wandering…interested. Thanks for reading and commenting, Beth!

  • SallyB

    Courtney, thank you for bringing us your story of magic. It is true, it exists, and the joy of it is overwhelming.
    I lost my Mom 8 years ago after heart surgery which we knew she would survive, but didn’t…
    A year later, my beloved Brother died by suicide.
    We learned just after his memorial service that my Dad had terminal cancer. In his 80’s, he took his doctor’s advice and refused treatment, living a happy full life with friends and family. I was blessed to walk him home.
    These years of loss left me in deep sorrow and drawing within myself…eyes on the ground…just planting one foot in front of the other, step by step…
    But a dear friend, blessed with special gifts, told me that my brother was in my house. He could see him, and told me that he was fine…that he has no worries…and that he knows everything now…
    I learned more that my brother wanted to tell me, which was a gift indeed.
    But the pure
    joy of knowing that he is with me…that he exists…was beyond measure. And I felt my soul restored.

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Oh, Sally. What sadness for your family and what hard, intimate work you’ve done on your own to rise above such loss. My heart goes out to you and is with you in sorrow and joy. XX

  • Carol

    WOW…I read this with great joy and anticipation. My father died suddenly when I was only 18 months old so I never really knew him but the special relationship you had, and which you write about so beautifully, makes me wish I had known my father even more. That sounds selfish perhaps but you have conveyed the real sense of this relationship that touches me and as a writer I think that is what purpose writing brings…to reach out and communicate with the rest of us, which honors you and your father over and over again. Thank you

    • Courtney Seiberling

      Thank you, Carol! I can’t even imagine what it would be like to lose a father so so young…I was having a discussion with a new friend yesterday, who said she lost her dad when she was 6 months old. I’m sure the grief is even more of a process for the pieces you don’t have or know. It’s never selfish to share our experiences and I think we can learn a lot from each other by listening and supporting each other through them. I love that this piece has had an effect on people and it reminds me of why I love writing so much – to connect. Much love to you!

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  • Kathy

    Thank you for sharing your story. You are an amazing writer. I hope you continue to share your talent.

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