My father takes a breath, flips a stapled page, and continues exclaiming to the circle of wide-eyed six-year-olds: “If this was 520 million years ago, we would be swimming with them right now! Look around, they would be everywhere!” The array of kids; some best friends, some classmates I was forced to invite, and some little cousins, all seated in the dirt, gaze in wonder. This scene of my childhood birthday party, at the base of Eaton Canyon in Pasadena, California, a hiking trail my family has honored for years, is the last memory I have of my father walking and talking. Here is how my father’s active form will eternally exist to me: his exaggerated tale of the trilobite, the extinct marine arthropod he has been obsessed with his whole life. The rest of the party is spent piling vanilla ice cream cake into our mouths and running through the flowing stream that splits the canyon in two.
For that same birthday, later at home, I am gifted a trilobite fossil. My father drops it into my open palm. Dust brown, light, granular, rough, stone. The ridged indentations running parallel feel like my own ribs. My little hand holds what has come before me, what I am made up of, and what I will leave behind. The fossil could easily be a knockoff, a simple trap for the ignorant eye, but I know no difference. Trilobites left a gargantuan fossil record, so they hold no rarity or worth. Still, I will take this one with me wherever I go in the world.
This was before my father’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis left him bedridden. Before I had ever been away from my home for more than a night. Before I would call my landline just to hear my father’s voice in our answering machine, repeating how we can’t come to the phone right now. Even at this moment, I know very little. My father’s disease slammed into our family, creating destruction like the breaking of glass across a hard floor, my mother forced to pick up the pieces from every corner or face the rogue shards getting stuck in my bare feet. At first, he went quickly: cane to wheelchair to bed. Now, he lives in limbo. He is kept alive by a tangle of tubes and a staff of nurses. A brain in a jar, he calls himself. An ironic existence mirroring that of his favorite sixties sci-fi movies, half human, half robot evil genius. His eyes are the only part of his body he still has authority over, so he created a machine that tracks his pupils to control a mouse on a computer where he can type out messages, create music, and art; all with strenuous difficulty.
Because every letter he writes requires such focus, there is an importance to his words. To speak with intent, not just to fill a silence. As I’m rambling, my sentences watered down with ‘uh’s’ and ‘likes,’ I reflect on my father’s pragmatic communication. When his text messages sit in my phone, I remind myself of the effort he put into this expression. When I go out with my friends, guilt settles deep within me. I find myself needing to be beside him at all times, worry filling my moments away. If he is in front of me I know he’s breathing. A paradox: he’ll always be right there but he won’t be there forever. The whole family flits around him, and he remains the same in his bed, pushed to the corner of the house, the way cities are built around a single oak tree. “How's the world?”, he’ll type out, taking five minutes to get it right because he is stubborn and demands perfect grammar and spelling, even though I could guess what he intended to say the entire time. “Do trilobites still swim around?” Trilobites were certainly not around in 2013, the last year my father ever went outside, but he has an ancient quality about him: he knows about the world intimately, as if he was there for its creation and will be there for its extinction. He swam with the trilobites himself. The antiquity of our Earth frightens me, thinking of every creature who has
called this place their home. “Some people are alive too long,” he texts me. My father has watched all of his friends die. He laughs at this strange twist of fate, for he surely thought he would be the first.
Juno Emmalene Seagreen Trilobite Stilley. The family legend surrounding my name tells of the first two weeks of my birth when I was called, “The Goat,” for the animal noises I would make, until my mother sat at the city hall to validate my existence after my dramatic bathtub birth.
She would have had to wait in a separate line to add more middle names to her new baby’s birth certificate and was too exhausted to continue. We dropped the extraneous Seagreen and Trilobite. I discovered my father’s list of other possible baby names. In his messy, capitalized scrawl: Pigeon, Aurora, Friday, and Madeline. All the other alternate universes where I am those people. Who would I be if I was not myself? In a past life I am sure I was a bumble bee. A pirate captain. An alley cat. A trilobite.
There is dual selflessness and selfishness in parenting. My father refuses to take any credit in my development. He says he just left the door ajar. Yet, half of everything I am is because of my father. He did no active parenting, held no power over me. Asking my father if I could sleepover somewhere was merely a formality. My mother raised me while taking care of my father. Suddenly, she acquired another child. I’m a branch, grown from my mother’s tree. I see her in the way I look, laugh, cry. The things that I don’t like about her appear all over me. Her incapability to pronounce long words, her over-excitability. My mother was born to be a dandelion, to give and give and spread herself across the world until she is no more. I both shudder and
revel at the legacy I have been left. I am the last Stilley. I have to clean up the messes made, the ties cut. I’m asked if I’ll take my future husband’s last name and I say I’m keeping my last name while my future wife can do whatever she wants with hers. All one has is themselves and their reality, as every person is really just a brain in a jar. I like to imagine the fossil I have was the last trilobite to ever exist. It swam in the dirty brown Cambrian waters as the only of its kind. We are sisters in this way.
Being my mother’s only one, I am alone in my workings of the future and consistently unsure of what's to come. My big beautiful hot house, built in the 1930’s by the
great-great-grandfather my whole family is devoted to, is sewn onto my skin. The small town where I roamed the streets, learning to fall and covering sidewalks in chalk masterpieces, makes
my home dangerous. My aunt can hardly stand to visit because when she does she never gets out of bed, like a cat in a certain patch of sun. My mother works from home, going days without changing out of her pajamas. And of course, there is my father. I am the only one who can run away. Yet, this home base that has housed my ancestors, demands to be filled. There must be love within its walls, or it brutally falls apart to the hands of the contractors who scavenge in search of unique houses to turn grey. I see a vision of my children, and their children, all running through the same Eaton Canyon, five minutes away from this house where they return to after the long and adventurous day.
I used to dance through the trails of our canyon’s river, always upstream. It doesn’t flow anymore, and the waterfall it leads to is nearly dried up. Year after year, I saw it fade, until it was only a trickle. When I was young I would create stick dams, collecting water into tiny pools that would catch tadpoles and fish in their stillness. If there was a natural gathering of leaves and rocks, I would destroy it. I reveled in the small act of changing nature; the knowledge that when I left there would be something to remember me by. The trees were not witnesses enough. What is this universal desire to leave a mark? The Panama Canal and Mount Washington and maybe even New York City are all side effects of the ego. If I don’t leave something, was I even real?
Achilles chooses an early death just to be remembered, instead of living a life full of love that ends in swift anonymity. This is why my father and I make art, why a glacier makes a valley. What once existed can live beyond its own presence. With humans, there is always a subconscious thrumming desire to be remembered. A trilobite just leaves themselves.