How to Survive a Black Hole

Dawn Tasaka Steffler


I’ve been racing the sun for eight hours from LA to Tahoe. And I manage to pull it off, cresting Echo Summit just as the glowing orange ball sinks behind the mountains. My reward, as the serpentine road descends, is the great, green basin unfolding in the last of the dusky light: a place where my mother has said she wants to die, a place suffused with my older brother’s ghost, where the lake is a silver mirror surrounded by thousands of pine trees.

It’s too late to visit Mom, so I go to the house—a steep, pitched roof over beige siding with moss-green shutters and striped window awnings. I turn on the lights, and the wood-paneled walls of my childhood materialize, as does Mom’s collection of bear tchotchkes, grizzlies and teddies, wooden, woven, ceramic, and stuffed. I had once asked Dad, “Doesn’t this drive you crazy?” and he just shrugged his shoulders, “I can’t tell her no.”

Now he’s been gone for a year, and except for the two times I flew into Reno, Mom’s alone, too, with no logged visitors except for me—an endless stretch of days. Around a month ago, I decided. December isn’t optimal, but I have four weeks off for Winter break. And the walls of my little apartment were already closing in on me. So I’m here to clear out the house and move her to a memory care facility closer to me.

A hole in the wall by the fridge draws my gaze. Twenty-two years ago, we sat on the hard pews of Community Presbyterian while the Pastor tiptoed around the fact that Tim put a gun in his mouth. And while we were in church, a bear entered through an unlocked slider, attracted by the smell of food laid out for Tim’s reception, and demolished Mom’s kitchen. It pressed the fridge door against the wall so hard that the handle embedded itself in the drywall. I run my finger around the time-smoothed perimeter, another one of Mom’s precious souvenirs.

I spend the next two weeks sorting my childhood home into piles of keep, donate, or dump, and it occurs to me that this is an excellent example of a recursive algorithm for my undergrads: breaking down a problem into smaller and smaller subproblems until you reach a small enough problem that can be solved trivially. Still, there are moments I can’t explain. When I box up Dad’s tools in the garage, they feel oddly warm. Packing Mom’s wineglasses conjures up all the nights she was drunk and tossing Tim’s bedroom for a note he never left.

And Tim’s bedroom. His cold doorknob reminds me of how I have found it easier to respond over the years, “No, I don’t have siblings.” Even though the walls have been blank and the furniture gone for years, I remember his posters of Hubble Telescope images, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. But also whirlpool galaxies and nebulas that looked like someone kicked over bottles of different colors of paint. The only thing left is a map of the night sky tacked to the ceiling over where his bed used to be. I recall lying on the back deck, Tim’s finger tracing the constellations, telling me that the Little Dipper is also called Ursa Minor, The Little Bear. I lie on the floor and look up at the star map, searching for familiar patterns.

Finally, the house is empty, and it’s time to drive home. I stop by Mom’s favorite bakery before visiting her one last time. She’s in the TV room, which feels like a geriatric drive-in movie with wheelchairs instead of cars. She protests when I wheel her away from the cooking show. Back in her room, she doesn’t recognize me, and I can see the distrust simmering. Until I pull out the pink bakery box. Her eyes light up, and her twiggy fingers animate when she sees her favorite glazed, marzipan-filled bear claw. While she chews, I ask, “How would you like to go on an adventure? Move down to LA, closer to me?” Like a small child, she bobbles her head up and down. I have no idea if she’s responding to me or the pastry, but for the first time, I sense her cracking open. And I want to believe that decades of sadness and obsession can still fall away. Collect in her lap alongside all the almond slivers and shards of glaze.

On the way to the real estate agent’s office, I realize I had left Tim’s rolled-up star map in the front hall. The smell of something musty and wild bombards me the second I enter the house. Also, it’s breezy and freezing. I tiptoe into the kitchen, and it feels like I’m sixteen again, waterlogged in grief, my mother screaming and my father holding her by the waist, trying to pull her away. The fridge is open, the cabinets are open, the sliding door is open. I grab the map, run back to my car, and sit there, heart racing, thinking about Tim and black holes and how the weatherman said this coming weekend, they were expecting the season’s first snow.


Dawn Tasaka Steffler is a fiction writer from Hawaii who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a huge fan of Fat Bear Week. She is a Smokelong Quarterly Emerging Writer Fellow. Her most recent work appears in Many Nice Donkeys, Milk Candy Review, Flash Frog, and MicroLit Alamanac. Find her on Twitter and Bluesky @DawnSteffler.