Spiking a fever of 104 when I was a baby. My mother crawled into the ice bath cradling me in her arms. She shivered as she whispered pleas into my perfect shell of an ear: “Live, please live, my baby, please, please live.”
A bout of flu that slid into pneumonia when I was ten. The cluck of the doctor’s tongue as he listened to me cough. Cold fingertips pushing against my ribcage.
Running across the street to catch the bus. Screech of tires and string of curse words. My pulse thrummed the entire ride to school.
The afternoon my uncle let us kids hop into the back of his pickup truck and drove us down the winding country roads near his house, hitting every pothole and bump. How we squealed! The more air we caught, the better, until my uncle’s dog, the droopy beagle named Scout was thrown from the truck to the pavement. The cousins and I held our breaths until the wet sound of dog hitting pavement broke the spell of disbelief. I banged on the cab. My uncle screeched the truck to a halt, rocking us into each other like wobbling Weebles. Scout breathed his last breath while my uncle begged with him, “Please old boy, stay with me, ya hear?” Whoever heard my mother’s pleas when I was a baby did not indulge my uncle. When we got home, my mother screamed at my uncle. “What if it had been—?” She couldn’t even finish the sentence. Couldn’t look at him without biting down on her lip so hard it looked like she might bleed.
A hard candy lodged in my throat. Saved by my ninth-grade teacher and the whack of her hand between my shoulder blades. I was her cautionary tale, her reason to keep her Red Cross certification current.
Car accidents, bike accidents, weaving between cars in downtown Portland when I was twenty-one and half-drunk on free happy-hour whiskey sodas. Mike was the cute bartender slipping me freebie liquor for months before either of us got drunk enough to ask each other out. A few scraped knees and a bruised hip were the only marks of my drunk cycling. I still have the Polaroid Mike snapped of my bloody knees after I limped back to the bar, dragging my bike behind me. I scratched punk fucking rock into the pigment before it set and then tacked it to my bulletin board. Later I would smile ruefully when I came across the picture of my bloody knees while sorting through boxes before a move. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I said to myself, then tossed the photo back into the box, unable to part with this artifact of my young, reckless self.
What could I say? The photo sparked joy. It reminded me of how glorious a gulp of cold air could feel in my lungs when I was twenty-one and living in an apartment two doors down from the Commodore where old men lined the bar like wilting daisies in a planter box. They sang along to the Frank Sinatra songs on the jukebox and muttered dirty jokes that I laughed at between sips of whiskey sours.
Dead now, all of them. Crooning Frank from wherever their souls landed. Maybe I’ll see them again, collect on those promised drinks and bummed cigarettes because I can smoke again now, can’t I? Isn’t that how this works?
I had family history and a pack-a-day cigarette habit until I got pregnant with Ella. I smoked pot. Had a whirlwind romance with coke in my early twenties before I nestled into alcohol. Wine bottles piled to the top of our recycling bin clanked together in a shameful symphony every Sunday night when Mike lugged the bin to the curb, joking about strong shoulders (his) and a weak liver (mine).
I was sure I would depart this earthly plane with part of my body eaten away by cancer. Some mornings I lay in bed contemplating the thousand microscopic sparks of disease I was sure circulated through my body. I housed the makings of a grand finale firework show that no one could see. The cancer was igniting, attaching itself to an unlucky organ. I was a biological dart board. If I had to choose my cancer, it would be something inside, something that didn’t fill the cup of a bra or require rerouting of my digestive system. I did not want to smell of shit during my final months.
Almost funny how much time I dedicated to this unrequited disease. Monthly breast exams, mammograms, colonoscopies, visits to the doctor for the cough I couldn’t shake. If only I had known. Cancer was another obsession, like so many feather-haired boys of my youth, that would never be mine.
I did marry that knife-wielding someone. Mike. Poor Mike. My death has nothing to do with him, or his Henckel, but he will spend the rest of his life chasing forgiveness that can’t be granted. He should have raked the leaves. He knew they were slippery. I was always telling him leaves are slippery as ice, but he got busy. He wanted to play Civilization on the computer. His Twitter feed beckoned. Couldn’t I give him a goddamned break?
I always promised I would haunt him if I died first.
“You mean haunt me and my hot new wife,” he joked.
My husband wasn’t the only one I promised to haunt. When she was six, I joked with my daughter, Ella, that if I died and she saw a light flicker, it was me saying “hello.”
“No, mama, don’t,” she wailed. Her grandmother was three-days dead, and Ella was wading into the concept of death and never burrowing into her nana’s embrace again. Believing that haunting would be a comforting prospect to a six-year-old was one of my more pronounced parental lapses. It became a joke between us. “Remember when I said I’d haunt you? Am I a bad mother or the worst mother?”
I was more of a fan of the joke than Ella, truth be told.
Recently, after I mentioned the haunting prospect to now twelve-year-old Ella, she looked me in the eye in all seriousness and said, “Mom. No. Just no.” Even though she’s old enough to trick-or-treat with a gaggle of friends and without her parents, she’s still afraid of the dark, afraid to run to the basement to grab her soccer uniform from the drying rack. She inhabits an uncanny tween valley of fearless and afraid.
“Okay, sweetie. I won’t haunt you,” I said, patting her arm. Such a magnanimous mommy, I promised not to haunt her or to spy on her while she and her friends made the Halloween rounds this year. Trick-or-treating was Ella’s and my thing, but this year she was leaving me at home. She asked me to pause the episode of Great British Baking Show I was watching to break the news.
“No parents this year, okay? Please don’t be weird,” she said.
“Me? Weird?” I hoped the gentle tease in my voice masked the feeling that I had been punched. I knew the day would come when she would leave me at home to trick-or-treat, that she would one day leave me altogether, but it came as a shock nonetheless. I stared at Prue and Paul’s frozen faces on the screen.
“I’m serious. They almost didn’t let me come. I’m not even in their main group!” Ella cried, tugging at a hank of hair from the bangs she was growing out because only children wore bangs. Most of her hair was gathered under a red bandana wrapped pirate-style around her head. Pirate had emerged as the costume this year and I was only too happy to oblige and assemble her look from thrift store jewelry, ripped jeans, and an old shirt of Mike’s. No more spending twenty dollars on an Elsa wig that would be ripped off after the first house was trick-or-treated. At least the main group did not demand pricey costumes.
“Why don’t you go with your main group then?” Girls with names like Isabel, Vivian, and Pearl, their giggles had frothed over their piles of candy when they were seven. Names that had disappeared in recent years, replaced by names with edges and pedigrees. Maris. Cassandra. Brit.
“I don’t have a main group!” Ella wailed.
My heart broke that the feeling of being an afterthought, an easily shed accessory, had been passed down to another generation.
Ella stormed to her room, her plastic dagger slipping out of the scabbard I’d sewn crooked late last night after my third glass of Merlot. It lay in the middle of the rug, reminding me of the days of discarded-toy chaos when Ella was three. Now it was socks and underwear and bras draped on every surface of her room. I missed the plastic mayhem.
I stared at the dagger, wondering if I should rush to Ella’s side and reassure her that she didn’t need a main group, that maybe she was already part of this one, the legion of Maris, Cassandra, and Brit, but didn’t know it yet. I decided to let her have her sob, her overwrought Halloween meltdown before she had to go to the bathroom, splash water on her splotched cheeks and reset her face for trick-or-treating.
Her Halloween days are over now. They must be. Tagging along with the main group or not, this day will forever be ruined by me and my untimely death.
A girl in my fourth-grade class had a dead mother. Cancer or car accident, it was something normal. Something that washed over us, that we tried not to hold onto for too long so that the fear could get its grip on us, wrap its icy fingers around our necks and whisper that it could happen to us too. The girl wore blue jeans and sweatshirts, and her hair had a lump in the back where it started to tangle after her mom died. She brushed the top layer and draped it over the growing lump until one day the teacher pulled her aside and snipped it off. “Let’s free you of this rat’s nest,” the teacher had said, and the girl sat stoic while the teacher cut at her hair with scissors. The girl’s hair lay flat after that, and I thought she was so lucky to not have to endure the daily agony of hair brushing, lucky to bring bags of Cheetos and fun-sized Snickers in her Muppets lunchbox. After the fascination over her disaster faded and the nascent popular girls were done performing kindness and sympathy, we all stayed away. The girl’s misery was contagious. We didn’t want what she had. By fifth grade, she was gone. Moved away I presume, but truth be told I hadn’t thought of her for years, not until this moment. I couldn’t tell you her name. She was the girl whose mom died in fourth grade.
Will Ella suffer the same fate or worse?
A few minutes after Ella slammed the door on her way to meet her fellow trick-or-treaters, I grabbed the dagger from where it lay discarded on the living room carpet. I smeared white makeup on my face, added a dot of lipstick blood dripping from my lips, and threw on a black robe from last year’s vampire costume. I wanted to be undercover—or at least in the holiday spirit—when I caught up to Ella to hand off her costume dagger. I imagined myself producing it from the folds of my cape and placing it in her hand. Arr matey, you forgot something.
When I tripped over the dragging hem of the vampire’s robe and catapulted from the top step of the steep staircase to our house, I held Ella’s dropped plastic dagger in my hand. I gripped the dagger so tightly and adamantly that I made the split-second decision not to reach out for a railing, so I wouldn’t drop the dagger. I tumbled down the wet leaf-coated staircase. I felt the blinding pain of my forehead hitting concrete but then I was knocked loose. I was two places at once. A body and a not-body. My not-body hovered, watching.
My body still held the dagger in my, yes, cold dead hands, when the sheet was draped over my lifeless form by the paramedic. “It happened quick. She didn’t suffer.” The words were faraway, a cloud surrounding Mike as he knelt beside my body.
I peed myself, shat myself, but otherwise my vampire makeup was immaculate, the drops of blood drawn into drips at the corner of my parted lips so vivid the paramedics wondered if it was real. I was a crumpled Mommy vampire. Ella was far enough down the street, huddled with her friends four blocks away that they didn’t run to follow the sirens and flashing lights speeding down our street to the bullseye of my body. The girl named Brit, a pirate in high-heeled boots, joked that maybe the sirens meant that the trick-or-treating herd had been culled.
“More full-sized Snickers for us,” she sniffed. Ella laughed the too-loud laugh of a candidate still bidding for a position in the group.
“God, Ella, it wasn’t that funny,” Brit murmured under her breath.
Of all the moments she would remember: begging me to let her go trick-or-treating alone, running out of the house before Mike could snap a picture of her costume, feeling so flooded with the push-pull of annoyance and desire for my presence that she left without saying good-bye—it was that moment with Brit and the girls, and the sound of her loud barking laugh that stuck with her.
After she had gathered more candy than ever before, after her night of Halloween triumph, she returned home to Mike waiting for her on the top step, a phone in his hand. “You didn’t pick up,” he said. And she hadn’t, ignoring every call. I’m not a fucking baby, Ella thought to herself as she tramped around the neighborhood with her fellow preteen pirates. Leave me the fuck alone.
The laugh echoed in Ella’s head as she lay on her bedroom floor where she slept that night, that week, as far into the future as my fading tunnel vision allowed me to see. And she heard that laugh and she whispered into the scratchy weave of the carpet a silent prayer for a knock, a light flicker, a mother.