Authors: Tara Westover
Then it was 12:00. The TV was still buzzing, its lights dancing across the carpet. I wondered if our clock was fast. I went to the kitchen and turned on the tap. We had water. Dad stayed still, his eyes on the screen. I returned to the couch.
How long would it take for the electricity to fail? Was there a reserve somewhere that was keeping it going these few extra minutes?
The black-and-white specters of Ralph and Alice Kramden argued over a meatloaf.
I waited for the screen to flicker and die. I was trying to take it all in, this last, luxurious moment—of sharp yellow light, of warm air flowing from the heater. I was experiencing nostalgia for the life I’d had before, which I would lose at any second, when the world turned and began to devour itself.
The longer I sat motionless, breathing deeply, trying to inhale the last scent of the fallen world, the more I resented its continuing solidity. Nostalgia turned to fatigue.
Sometime after 1:30 I went to bed. I glimpsed Dad as I left, his face frozen in the dark, the light from the TV leaping across his square glasses. He sat as if posed, with no agitation, no embarrassment, as if there were a perfectly mundane explanation for why he was sitting up, alone, at near two in the morning, watching Ralph and Alice Kramden prepare for a Christmas party.
He seemed smaller to me than he had that morning. The disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this. He, a faithful servant, who suffered willingly just as Noah had willingly suffered to build the ark.
But God withheld the flood.
When January 1 dawned like any other morning, it broke Dad’s spirit. He never again mentioned Y2K. He slipped into despondency, dragging himself in from the junkyard each night, silent and heavy. He’d sit in front of the TV for hours, a black cloud hovering.
Mother said it was time for another trip to Arizona. Luke was serving a mission for the church, so it was just me, Richard and Audrey who piled into the old Chevy Astro van Dad had fixed up. Dad removed the seats, except the two in front, and in their place he put a queen mattress; then he heaved himself onto it and didn’t move for the rest of the drive.
As it had years before, the Arizona sun revived Dad. He lay out on the porch on the hard cement, soaking it up, while the rest of us read or watched TV. After a few days he began to improve, and we braced ourselves for the nightly arguments between him and Grandma. Grandma was seeing a lot of doctors these days, because she had cancer in her bone marrow.
“Those doctors will just kill you quicker,” Dad said one evening when Grandma returned from a consultation. Grandma refused to quit chemotherapy, but she did ask Mother about herbal treatments. Mother had brought some with her, hoping Grandma would ask, and Grandma tried them—foot soaks in red clay, cups of bitter parsley tea, tinctures of horsetail and hydrangea.
“Those herbs won’t do a damned thing,” Dad said. “Herbals operate by faith. You can’t put your trust in a doctor, then ask the Lord to heal you.”
Grandma didn’t say a word. She just drank her parsley tea.
I remember watching Grandma, searching for signs that her body was giving way. I didn’t see any. She was the same taut, undefeated woman.
The rest of the trip blurs in my memory, leaving me with only snapshots—of Mother muscle-testing remedies for Grandma, of Grandma listening silently to Dad, of Dad sprawled out in the dry heat.
Then I’m in a hammock on the back porch, rocking lazily in the orange light of the desert sunset, and Audrey appears and says Dad wants us to get our stuff, we’re leaving. Grandma is incredulous. “After what happened last time?” she shouts. “You’re going to drive through the night
? What about the storm?” Dad says we’ll beat the storm. While we load the van Grandma paces, cussing. She says Dad hasn’t learned a damned thing.
Richard drives the first six hours. I lie in the back on the mattress with Dad and Audrey.
It’s three in the morning, and we are making our way from southern to northern Utah, when the weather changes from the dry chill of the desert to the freezing gales of an alpine winter. Ice claims the road. Snowflakes flick against the windshield like tiny insects, a few at first, then so many the road disappears. We push forward into the heart of the storm. The van skids and jerks. The wind is furious, the view out the window pure white. Richard pulls over. He says we can’t go any further.
Dad takes the wheel, Richard moves to the passenger seat, and Mother lies next to me and Audrey on the mattress. Dad pulls onto the highway and accelerates, rapidly, as if to make a point, until he has doubled Richard’s speed.
“Shouldn’t we drive slower?” Mother asks.
Dad grins. “I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly.” The van is still accelerating. To fifty, then to sixty.
Richard sits tensely, his hand clutching the armrest, his knuckles bleaching each time the tires slip. Mother lies on her side, her face next to mine, taking small sips of air each time the van fishtails, then holding her breath as Dad corrects and it snakes back into the lane. She is so rigid, I think she might shatter. My body tenses with hers; together we brace a hundred times for impact.
It is a relief when the van finally leaves the road.
I AWOKE TO BLACKNESS. Something ice-cold was running down my back.
We’re in a lake!
I thought. Something heavy was on top of me. The mattress. I tried to kick it off but couldn’t, so I crawled beneath it, my hands and knees pressing into the ceiling of the van, which was upside down. I came to a broken window. It was full of snow. Then I understood: we were in a field, not a lake. I crawled through the broken glass and stood, unsteadily. I couldn’t seem to gain my balance. I looked around but saw no one. The van was empty. My family was gone.
I circled the wreck twice before I spied Dad’s hunched silhouette on a hillock in the distance. I called to him, and he called to the others, who were spread out through the field. Dad waded toward me through the snowdrifts, and as he stepped into a beam from the broken headlights I saw a six-inch gash in his forearm and blood slashing into the snow.
I was told later that I’d been unconscious, hidden under the mattress, for several minutes. They’d shouted my name. When I didn’t answer, they thought I must have been thrown from the van, through the broken window, so they’d left to search for me.
Everyone returned to the wreck and stood around it awkwardly, shaking, either from the cold or from shock. We didn’t look at Dad, didn’t want to accuse.
The police arrived, then an ambulance. I don’t know who called them. I didn’t tell them I’d blacked out—I was afraid they’d take me to a hospital. I just sat in the police car next to Richard, wrapped in a reflective blanket like the one I had in my “head for the hills” bag. We listened to the radio while the cops asked Dad why the van wasn’t insured, and why he’d removed the seats and seatbelts.
We were far from Buck’s Peak, so the cops took us to the nearest police station. Dad called Tony, but Tony was trucking long-haul. He tried Shawn next. No answer. We would later learn that Shawn was in jail that night, having been in some kind of brawl.
Unable to reach his sons, Dad called Rob and Diane Hardy, because Mother had midwifed five of their eight children. Rob arrived a few hours later, cackling. “Didn’t you folks damned near kill yerselves last time?”
A FEW DAYS AFTER the crash, my neck froze.
I awoke one morning and it wouldn’t move. It didn’t hurt, not at first, but no matter how hard I concentrated on turning my head, it wouldn’t give more than an inch. The paralysis spread lower, until it felt like I had a metal rod running the length of my back and into my skull. When I couldn’t bend forward or turn my head, the soreness set in. I had a constant, crippling headache, and I couldn’t stand without holding on to something.
Mother called an energy specialist named Rosie. I was lying on my bed, where I’d been for two weeks, when she appeared in the doorway, wavy and distorted, as if I were looking at her through a pool of water. Her voice was high in pitch, cheerful. It told me to imagine myself, whole and healthy, protected by a white bubble. Inside the bubble I was to place all the objects I loved, all the colors that made me feel at peace. I envisioned the bubble; I imagined myself at its center, able to stand, to run. Behind me was a Mormon temple, and Kamikaze, Luke’s old goat, long dead. A green glow lighted everything.
“Imagine the bubble for a few hours every day,” she said, “and you will heal.” She patted my arm and I heard the door close behind her.
I imagined the bubble every morning, afternoon and night, but my neck remained immobile. Slowly, over the course of a month, I got used to the headaches. I learned how to stand, then how to walk. I used my eyes to stay upright; if I closed them even for a moment, the world would shift and I would fall. I went back to work—to Randy’s and occasionally to the junkyard. And every night I fell asleep imagining that green bubble.
DURING THE MONTH I was in bed I heard another voice. I remembered it but it was no longer familiar to me. It had been six years since that impish laugh had echoed down the hall.
It belonged to my brother Shawn, who’d quarreled with my father at seventeen and run off to work odd jobs, mostly trucking and welding. He’d come home because Dad had asked for his help. From my bed, I’d heard Shawn say that he would only stay until Dad could put together a real crew. This was just a favor, he said, until Dad could get back on his feet.
It was odd finding him in the house, this brother who was nearly a stranger to me. People in town seemed to know him better than I did. I’d heard rumors about him at Worm Creek. People said he was trouble, a bully, a bad egg, that he was always hunting or being hunted by hooligans from Utah or even further afield. People said he carried a gun, either concealed on his body or strapped to his big black motorcycle. Once someone said that Shawn wasn’t really bad, that he only got into brawls because he had a reputation for being unbeatable—for knowing all there was to know about martial arts, for fighting like a man who feels no pain—so every strung-out wannabe in the valley thought he could make a name for himself by besting him. It wasn’t Shawn’s fault, really. As I listened to these rumors, he came alive in my mind as more legend than flesh.
My own memory of Shawn begins in the kitchen, perhaps two months after the second accident.
I am making corn chowder. The door squeaks and I twist at the waist to see who’s come in, then twist back to chop an onion.
“You gonna be a walking Popsicle stick forever?” Shawn says.
“You need a chiropractor,” he says.
“Mom’ll fix it.”
“You need a chiropractor,” he says again.
The family eats, then disperses. I start the dishes. My hands are in the hot, soapy water when I hear a step behind me and feel thick, callused hands wrap around my skull. Before I can react, he jerks my head with a swift, savage motion.
It’s so loud, I’m sure my head has come off and he’s holding it. My body folds, I collapse. Everything is black but somehow spinning. When I open my eyes moments later, his hands are under my arms and he’s holding me upright.
“Might be a while before you can stand,” he says. “But when you can, I need to do the other side.”
I was too dizzy, too nauseous, for the effect to be immediate. But throughout the evening I observed small changes. I could look at the ceiling. I could cock my head to tease Richard. Seated on the couch, I could turn to smile at the person next to me.
That person was Shawn, and I was looking at him but I wasn’t seeing him. I don’t know what I saw—what creature I conjured from that violent, compassionate act—but I think it was my father, or perhaps my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.