A testament to the healing power of unconditional love.
Widely acclaimed for her emotionally powerful stories that capture the real lives of women, Heather A. Clark, bestselling author of Chai Tea Sunday, tackles the subject of childhood mental illness and the impact it has on a close family.
The story begins from nine-year-old Nate’s point of view, etching the details of an unbalanced mind struggling to make sense of rampant thought patterns and heightened paranoia. Enter Ashley, Nate's mother, and a hardworking advertising executive concerned that she’s not giving her family enough of her time especially now that she senses something might be wrong with her son. As the story moves deftly back and forth between the two perspectives, the narrative converges to reveal one family's journey of discovery as they strive to find balance in their lives.
Based on a true story, Elephant in the Sky articulates a complicated, real-life subject with grace, wisdom and sensitivity, and beautifully explores the distance a mother will go to protect her child.
About the Author
Heather A. Clark is the author of the bestselling novel Chai Tea Sunday. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three children. Visit her online at heatheraclark.com.
Read an Excerpt
Elephant in the Sky
By Heather A. Clark
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2014 Heather A. Clark
All rights reserved.
I want gum. Not the gross green kind that Mom has in her purse. I need the awesome sticky pink gum. Or the purple kind. That's good too. The yummy Hubba Bubba stuff that lets you blow a bubble so big it sticks to your whole face when it pops.
One time last summer I blew my best bubble ever. It took four pieces. And it was so amazing because it went in my eyes and all over my hair. And Mom was mad. I knew right away because her face was all blotchy and red. And she kept biting her lip when she used ice to get it all out of my hair.
"I'm going to get pink gum. No ... I want purple. Or maybe orange. Wanna come?" I ask my best friend, Noah. He lives four doors down from me in the blue house and we do everything together. Our favourite thing is swimming. But Mom says we can't do that anymore because summer is over and the pool is closed. So instead we ride our bikes. As long as we have sweaters on because it's starting to be cold.
"Noah?" I repeat. He is ignoring me. "Do you want to come?"
Noah shrugs. He doesn't look away from the Wii game he's playing in my bedroom. It's tennis. Our favourite. I thought I wanted to play with him but then I started and it kept hurting my eyes, so I stopped. And now I want gum, anyway.
"How are you going to get it?" Noah asks me. His eyes stay on the screen.
"There's gum at the store. Lots of it. I'll bike."
Noah shrugs. He doesn't care about my gum.
But I want it. I need to have it. Even though I know I shouldn't go to the store by myself.
I pause for a minute. I feel bubbles in my belly. The kind that come when I know Mommy will be mad. And I feel hot. I always feel hot right after the belly bubbles.
I push past Noah and the Wii remote he's still holding. I need to get to my dresser fast before I start sweating. The sweating happens after I feel hot.
I rip off my sauce-stained sweatshirt. Dad made spaghetti when he picked me up from school for lunch. It's Friday and he said we could have a special treat. So I picked spaghetti. But then I didn't feel like eating it so I used it to paint rocket ships on my belly. I thought Dad would think I was creative and smart. But Dad just seemed mad when he saw my rocket ships.
I tear open my top drawer. I pull out the first T-shirt I can find. It's red. I wish I wore that at lunch. Maybe Dad wouldn't have seen the spaghetti sauce.
I put the red T-shirt on.
I'm still hot. And I'm sweating now too. I pull off my track pants so I'm wearing just the red T-shirt and my Spider-Man underwear. They are totally my favourite underwear. They are from Santa. And I still believe in him even though everyone at school says he's not real.
I think about putting on some shorts but I am too hot. And the belly bubbles are getting bigger.
I need gum. Orange gum.
"You're going out there like that?" Noah asks. "Don't you think your mom will be mad?"
I know he is right. Mommy will be mad. But shorts will make me too hot.
Oh, I know what to do!
I will put on another pair of underwear. The blue ones. They will cover up my Spider- Man real underwear. I am smart for coming up with this solution. Mommy will be happy. She likes it when I think of my own ways to solve my problems.
But then something does not feel right on my insides. I don't know why.
I think it is because the red shirt is too tight and it is pressing on my belly bubbles. I yank it off and pull out all of my shirts from the drawer.
I try on a yellow one. It's scratchy.
I switch it for an orange one. Mommy says it is faded. And way too small for me and needs to be thrown out. But I will not throw it out no matter what. I love it because it says "Grandpa Loves Me" and I don't see him anymore. It was the last present he gave me. So I will wear it forever.
The orange Grandpa shirt is too tight on my arms. It hurts.
So I try every other shirt in the drawer.
I am hot anyway so I decide that wearing two pairs of underwear is kind of like wearing a bathing suit. And summer wasn't that long ago. I need my gum.
I run to my door and listen. I know my big sister Grace is in her room pretending to do homework. And she will tell Dad if she knows I am going to get gum. She always tells on me.
"Dude, you gotta make a run for it if you're going to get gum. Just go already, would you?" Noah gives me a little push.
I look back at him. I am not sure I should go anymore. I don't know what to do. I cannot seem to think and my brain feels all fuzzy.
"What if they find out?" I ask Noah. I do not want Mommy or Daddy to be mad at me. But I need to get the gum. I have to have the gum.
"Dude, if you want the gum that bad, I'll lie for you. I'll say you're going poo in the bathroom or something. Just go."
I do not want Grace to stop me so I run down the hall. Superman fast. I pass her bedroom. I think I hear Grace humming but I am running too fast to know. She must actually be doing her homework because she always hums when she's doing it. It hurts my ears, but Mommy likes it.
I do not know where Dad is so I grab my bike from the garage and ride down the street very fast. I speed to the next street. Cars zoom by me. There are so many of them. One almost hits me. The guy driving the car honks his horn. But I don't care. The outside feels good. I am almost not hot anymore. But the belly bubbles will not go away.
I ride to the store. I jump off my bike and run to the fruit stands outside on the sidewalk. I smell grapes. So I stop to look at them. There are rows and rows of the dark purple kind that turn into grape jelly. I want to eat one because they remind me of my Mommy. They are her favourite.
But I need my gum. So I forget the grapes and run to the front counter. There is a skinny man in a white shirt with a green apron sitting on a stool. He does not look up from his book but waves his hand to say hello. He does not see me.
I look at the gum. I want red.
Or maybe orange.
Nope. Pink. It has to be pink.
I feel hot again. I cannot decide. I do not know which one I want and my brain is buzzing.
I will buy them all with my money. Dad gave it to me as a prize after lunch because I helped him clean up and did not break one dish. I put it in the pocket of my pants to keep it safe.
I look down.
I am not wearing my pants anymore. I do not have my money. I try to figure out how to get the five-dollar bill from lunch. Dad gave me that one because he knows it is my favourite money because I love blue so much.
Oh, right! Now I know. Blue gum. It's my favourite colour so I know I will love it. Do they have blue gum? They must.
I keep looking but can't find it. I do not know if there is blue gum. I need to think harder. But my brain is working too fast. I cannot make it stop no matter how I try. I hit my head with my hands to try to make it work better.
And then I remember something important.
The big bubble gum machine from swimming lessons. Mommy sometimes gets gum for me if the swimming teacher does not need to "talk to her" after my lesson is over. When I am good I get to put a quarter in the bubble gum machine that has all different colours of big sticky gumballs. And it has blue gumballs.
I know there must be blue gum if the swimming gumball machine has it. I pull off some chocolate bars from the counter shelf to look underneath them. The chocolate hits the floor and the noise sounds kind of like the drums on my Wii Rock Band game. I like the sound. So I pull off some more. There is no blue gum under the chocolate bars.
The man in the green apron looks up from his book. He looks really mad. He is shaking his arms and yelling at me but I cannot understand his words. His voice sounds funny to me. So I start laughing.
The man yells at me in a louder voice. And I still think it is funny. So I laugh harder. It is like a contest to see who is louder. And I want to win.
But then I stop laughing. It is not funny anymore. I hear what the man is yelling. He is telling me to get out of his store. But I cannot leave yet because I need my blue gum.
The man starts screaming the word "police." I am happy because the police help you. And I need help because the man is not funny anymore and he is scaring me. I want to go but I cannot leave without my gum. There is no blue so I get pink and purple and red and orange. Four packs.
The man comes out from behind the counter. He grabs my arm. I am really scared so I kick him in the leg and pull away.
Then I grab my bike and ride home as fast as I can so I can share my gum with Noah.CHAPTER 2
Without needing to look at the clock on the wall behind me, I knew I was pushing my luck. Despite finishing my part of the presentation sixty minutes earlier, I didn't need to glance at my boss, the CEO of one of the world's largest and most successful advertising agencies, to know I wasn't going anywhere any time soon.
I stifled the sigh threatening to expose itself, plastered a smile on my face that I knew would look genuinely energetic, and forced myself to remain engaged in the creative concepts discussion — even though all I could think about was that I had promised my family that I wouldn't be late for dinner. Again.
As the creative director at AJ & Emerson, I knew how important the meeting was that was going on around me. We had just finished our pitch presentation for one of the largest bids the industry had seen in years, and just over a hundred million dollars in yearly revenue was up for grabs. I'd had a team of twenty working on the pitch creative for weeks, and I couldn't let them — or myself — down by not remaining fully engaged in the meeting. Even though it was running over by about sixty minutes and I was once again going to miss dinner with my family.
This has to be a good sign, I could practically hear my boss, Jack, thinking. He smiled and nodded, soaking up the glory of the overly enthusiastic clients who were asking so many questions I knew we had nailed the creative.
I caught his glance and returned his smile before answering the question that had just been posed by Chelsea, the client's senior vice president of marketing. A woman in her early forties with a bright smile and a killer Dolce & Gabbana suit, I knew we'd have fun together at a business dinner with lots of wine.
"Yes, Chelsea, concept three is our official recommendation. We love all the creative we've shown you today, and we think any of them will work. They all effectively communicate the business strategy you've briefed us on. But we feel the skyline concept does the best job of showcasing your unique selling proposition. It's highly visual and we think it will immediately resonate with your consumers." I took a quick breath, pausing purposely for effect. "When we came up with the idea, I knew we had a winner."
"And how long did that take?" Chelsea asked, smiling across the boardroom table that was littered with concepts and sketches. The meeting was quickly waltzing towards the two-and-a-half-hour mark.
"Let's just say it wasn't straight out of the gate. The team has worked very hard on your business. In fact, the whole team has been, and would continue to be, extremely committed to ensuring we deliver the best creative this industry has seen." I returned Chelsea's smile. We connected, and my spidey senses told me how close we were to winning the business. "I'll be honest and tell you the creative process for this presentation took a lot of work. But of course we had fun along the way, too ..."
"Well, we certainly like fun. As long as it accompanies great work. Which this is, by the way." Chelsea pushed her dark-rimmed glasses to the bridge of her nose and continued to examine the concept I had recommended. "In fact, it's excellent. Absolutely amazing work."
And there it was. The final confirmation that told me we had won the business. For a pitch presentation, Chelsea was much more forthcoming in her feedback than most clients would be in her shoes, which I couldn't help but notice were the hottest pair of suede Miu Miu peep-toes to hit the fall runway. The woman clearly had great taste, in both her attire and creative judgement.
"May I ask what the next steps are?" I was anxious to know what would happen next, but even more eager to wrap up the meeting, since we had pretty much secured the business. With the long hours and tough work now behind us, I wanted to get home to my family. All I could think about was sinking into my kitchen chair at our oversized harvest table and talking to my husband and children about how their days had been.
I knew that Pete, my husband of almost thirteen years, who had decided to quit his full-time job as a copywriter to stay at home with our kids, would be just finishing making dinner. I vaguely remembered him saying something about pork tenderloin as I was getting dressed that morning, but my brain had been focused on my big presentation and not on an early-morning dinner selection.
Our twelve-year-old daughter, Grace, would be setting the table for dinner, still wearing her volleyball uniform, which would likely be wrinkled and untucked. Setting the table was Grace's weekday chore that she couldn't miss — or complain about — if she expected her allowance on Saturday. She had learned her lesson the hard way when she'd complained about it every night and had to wait another week for her allowance so she could afford to buy the new shirt from Aritzia she'd wanted.
Grace was our early-marriage surprise, leaving both Pete and me completely panic-stricken at the sight of the faint double line on the pregnancy test I had peed on. We'd only been married for a few months, and were in the very early stage of our careers. Both of us still worked the incessantly long hours required by any advertising job, and we never seemed to leave the AJ & Emerson office, where we had met two years before our daughter's arrival.
Bolting through one of the speediest engagements in history, Pete and I had decided to get married after only six months of dating. With no more than a long weekend available to us, we eloped to the closest warm location that had a minimal waiting time. We were married on our second day at the only dodgy hotel we could afford in the Bahamas, with no one but a rented-by-the-hour minister and a witness from our hotel, whom Pete swears was the same person who brought our room service the next day. We flew home and returned to work on Monday morning.
Three months after we were married, I found out I was pregnant. Lucky for me, I had one of the easiest pregnancies a girl could hope for, and I breezed through the nine months with very few changes to my lifestyle or crazy workaholic ways.
Despite my immediate infatuation with our daughter, I fell victim to the pressure to return to work, and took only half of my maternity leave. To my surprise, Pete suggested that he take advantage of the recent changes that allowed fathers to stay at home with their babies, and he temporarily left his job to take paternity leave with Grace. With no family to help take care of Grace, and local daycares that all had mile-long waiting lists, we had limited options for who could stay with our daughter during the day.
Pete happily fell into the daily routine of babyland, and he and Grace quickly formed a tight-knit bond that, if I was honest with myself, I knew I didn't have with my daughter. I loved Grace more than life itself, but the monotony of diaper changes and feeding schedules drove me batty. And I wasn't prepared to return to it for many more years.
But Pete's plea for more children grew in frequency as Grace got older and when he returned to work. He'd lost both of his parents when he was in his early twenties, and the only family left was his sister, whom he rarely saw, so he'd become anxious to surround himself with a big family and lots of children.
I wasn't so ready to add to our brood. I had recently been promoted, and was thriving at work. I loved the challenges of my job, and wanted to keep climbing the AJ & Emerson creative ladder.
Pete, on the other hand, seemed more content to ride the slower track at work. But even with him coasting in his career climb, we were still struggling to achieve balance at home. The demands of an advertising agency were intense, and we bounced from job to home at lightning speed with very little room for anything else. I was convinced that adding another child would throw us even more off kilter and unhinge any sense of sanity we'd managed to hold onto.
Excerpted from Elephant in the Sky by Heather A. Clark. Copyright © 2014 Heather A. Clark. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings The mother and the son take turns narrating the story and showing their side, the son doesn't get as much playtime, but the fact that you hear from him was very important. This mother, Ashley, is a full time working mom with a husband that took the stay at home with the kid part of the duties, so she is a little removed from what is going on in the house day to day, but with odd things happening she starts cluing into what is happening at home which is making her work life completely suffer. Without spoiling this magnificent read, things start imploding and the family must figure out how to live the new normal. First, as a working woman I LOVED the portrayal of the working mom. The honesty to show that it is hard for the parent that is at work to be completely in the know at home also was great. I loved the arc of this mom as she made more of an effort to work on the home/work balance and how that is a struggle to be fully present in both places. Nate is the second child in this family, the baby of the family, and by giving him chapters and a voice really gave the story more depth and grit. Although his chapters were sometimes the hardest to read, the value outweighed the struggle to read them.