“Some day… there will be a story you want to tell for no better reason than because it matters to you more than any other… You’ll stop looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re keeping everybody happy, and you’ll simply write what’s real and true… That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.”
-JD Salinger to Joyce Maynard
excerpt from At Home In The World
There are probably a lot of stories in my life that matter to me. But if my kids ever ask why I am the way I am - it will probably start with this part:
I am six. I am standing in the doorway to my mama's room watching the paramedics. She has been sick before, we have had doctors here, but this is different. They take tubes out and put masks on, and do all sorts of things that make no sense to me. They have never been to our house before. My daddy is standing in the same doorway with my little brother. I cannot believe that nobody, NOBODY from her family is in there with her. I try to go to her, but daddy holds me back, he says the "doctors" need to do their job.
"She is dying!" I shout at him.
"No - no she's not," he looks me straight in the eyes when he says this. Little brother stares straight ahead and repeats it, "No, no she's not." It is not like he believes it, it is just a mantra we tell ourselves every day. He is three and I am six - but we know what truth is - and we know this isn't it.
My brain is frozen, swimming in an ocean of panicky frustration. I am trying to find a way to explain things to them. Is daddy really that stupid - or does he just think I am?
"I need to stay home from school today," I tell him, "When she dies, I need to be here."
He is firmer this time, "No, you are going to school right now."
"I can't!!" I shout
"Then I am going in to kiss her goodbye and tell her I love her."
He grabs my arm, harder than he ever has. "No, you can do that when you get home."
My face is defiant, my eyes are hard on him. I never disobey. I never talk back. But even at six, I know this is huge. "You are lying! She won't be here when I get home."
"You worry too much. She's fine. Now get to school." He kisses the top of my head, but I yank myself away before he can hug me. I look at little brother. He is looking back at me. He knows what I know.
Vicki lives next door. We walk to school together everyday. She asks why there is an ambulance in my driveway. I tell her that inside my house, my mama is dying. In the same bed where we watched CHiPs three days ago, she is wearing her velvety blue robe with the white flowers and she is leaving me.
"You always think that," Vicki says, "She hasn't died yet. She'll be fine."
I look at the ambulance. The doors are all shut and the lights are not on. They're not in a hurry to take her anywhere. I don't talk to Vicki all the way to school. I don't talk to anyone.
I'm in the first grade at Stine School. My teacher is Mrs. Fleischer. When I sit at my desk, she asks if I am OK. I nod, and try to smile. What if I am wrong about mama? What if I act like a big fat baby and then have to come to school tomorrow and admit I really didn't know what I was talking about? But Ms. Fleischer goes to our church. She knows my family and she asks if I want to take a walk with her. "No thank you," I say.
What would I tell her? I am six, my own family doesn't believe me, why should she? Besides, grownups have this uncanny need to quell a child's fear by explaining it away. But no one can explain this one away . . . there is no fear more ginormous than this - my mama is leaving me forever! And there is . . .no . . . .possible . . . .way . . . to stop the train wreck that is about to become my life.
Mrs. Fleischer takes it easy on me all morning, letting me daydream at my desk and never once asking me to go to the board or read out loud. It's not until 10:30, when I am busy cutting a pig from pink construction paper, that the announcement comes over the loudspeaker. "Mrs. Fleischer could you please have J report to the principal's office?"
The entire class gasps. I am the smartest girl in class, the teacher's pet, the girl in charge of the class hamster, and I am being called to the office. This humiliation is deadened only slightly by the fact that I know what is waiting for me there. Both Mrs. Fleischer and the classroom aide have their hands to their mouths. I stare ahead, unblinking. Carefully, I close my scissors and put them, along with my half-finished pig in my desk, taking a moment to breathe before I close the lid. Mrs. Fleischer kneels next to the desk and whispers, "Would you like me to walk with you?"
"No," I tell her, " No thank you." Mama says to always be polite, "No thank you." She glances at the aide and follows me anyway.
We get to the principal's office and daddy is standing there with little brother. I glare at my daddy. "She's dead isn't she?"
The whole office is silent. I have never hated him before, but I hate him now, and I will make him pay.
"I came to take you to the park," he says like he's suddenly decided we could all use a skip-day.
"Why? So you can tell me she's dead?"
"Come on," he says, "let's go." There is a sad smile exchanged between the three of them, the principal, Mrs. Fleischer and Daddy, before he ushers me out the door.
Little Brother and I climb into the backseat of the our blue Grenada. It's October, but in Bakersfield, the sun never takes a break. The pleather seat sticks to the back of my legs. "Is she dead or not?" I ask. Daddy says nothing, and I fold my arms across my chest like I don't even care. Like maybe if I act like it's no big deal he'll let it slip. Grown ups act like things are no big deal. Grown ups act like cancer is no big deal, like dying is no big deal. Hell - they pretend it isn't even happening. "You might as well tell me now," I say.
He looks straight ahead and says, "Let's just go to the park." Little brother asks which one, and between sniffles Daddy tells him, "Anyone you guys want."
We pick the one with the rocket slide. After an agonizing ten minute drive, Daddy sits us down on a small hill near the red and silver rocket, "I need to tell you," he starts, choking on his own words, "that Mommy died this morning." He can barely say it, giant sobs stealing his breath. Little brother looks from me to Daddy, enormous tears threatening his bright brown eyes.
My face is frozen, no tears, no quivering lip, just silent, seething rage. "Is that all?" I ask. My long blonde hair whips across my eyes in the hot California wind. There was nobody to help with pigtails today.
"Well, uh, yes, I mean . . ."
"Where is she?" It's a whisper, but full of loathing - I already know the answer.
"She's gone - at the hospital, I mean the funeral home."
"You said I could kiss her when I got home."
"She's not there honey," he reached out for me, sobbing.
I jerked away. "What are you crying about?" I spit at him.
"Well, Mommy is gone, and I miss her, and . . "
"You shouldn't be crying now - she's fine NOW, you should've been crying when she was sick, when she was scared, when she was in the hospital - THAT's when you should've been crying. It's no use now."
Little brother is hugging his knees, tears cutting silent streaks on his summer tanned cheeks. I want to hug him, but I can't because then I would cry, and mama said to be tough for him.
Daddy looks appalled. "Well, if you can be so strong, I guess I should try . . ."
"Yeah, can I go on the rocket slide now?"
He is just staring at me. I stare back. "Can I?"
I run. I run as fast as I can over the hill and up the hot metal ladder until I get into the very tip of the rocket. When I am safely inside, I curl up alone in a ball, and I cry and cry until the salt burns red welts on my cheeks. How will I live? I'm Mama's girl - what am I without her? I look out of the porthole at Daddy & Little Brother. They are my family now. Too bad there's only one of them I can even stand to look at. The other one stole my mama - he lied to me, then stole her away.
It would take 10 years for me to forgive him. It would have taken longer if I'd known then what I know now: She was already dead when I saw her. He asked the paramedics to pretend to save her, so we wouldn't have to see her still, dead body. Then he sent me to school, and my brother into another room, so we wouldn't see our mommy leave our home for the very last time.
But Daddy didn't know my secret either. Mama didn't die that morning. She died in the night. And I know, because I was there.