“Don’t blame yourself,” they said.
My sister is laying in the middle of the road. Underneath a bicycle with a bent rim. There’s a black car with an open door. England Dan and John Ford Coley are singing from a car radio. It’s sad to belong. She has on a purple and white tank top. Her blood is splashed across it like acrylic paint. Staining her chest. Staining a stranger’s shoes. My Mother is screaming herself into oblivion behind me. She is unable to make a complete sentence. “My baby, her face.” She keeps repeating it. Like a prayer. The paramedics are brawny and sweating through their blue and white uniforms. Seems like every paramedic I’ve ever seen in my life was sweating. I’ve seen a lot of paramedics. There’s gauze and more blood, before they finally get my little sister loaded into the back of an ambulance. Screaming sirens. My Mother’s moaning rising in volume to match it. A tragic game of chicken using sound.
I’ve been to this emergency room before. In the middle of the night. Wrapped in a rough, woolen blanket. My throat on fire. Unable to talk. I’ve never paid attention to the waiting room. The walls are a dull gray. The color white turns into when it’s been neglected for too long. Everything loses it’s shine, when neglected too long. A nurse with tired eyes, and a run in her stockings offers me a soda. A stick of gum. As if I can keep my mouth busy enough to forget what they are doing to my sister behind a closed curtain. Is this where eating disorders start? My Mother is tense beside me. She’s still saying it, quietly, under her breath. She’s whimpering the words into her lap. “My Baby. Her Face.” I am watching her closely. Is that trembling fear? A low blood sugar? Does she need juice? I am eleven years old. Sometimes, too many times, I feel like the mother. The doctor comes out. He has my sister’s blood on the front of his shirt. My sister is tiny. How can there be so much blood? How can anyone lose that much of themselves, and still be okay? The doctor is saying the things he thinks a Mother wants to hear.
“She has no internal injuries. No broken bones…. Facial trauma always looks worse than it is.”
My Mother’s brittle hold on composure cracks wide open. She can finally find the words to finish the sentence. Her fear propels the words out like a power washer. They hit the dingy walls. They hit the doctor’s bloody shirt.
“My baby, her face! Is there going to be a scar?”
The doctor looks confused. He doesn’t understand, but I do. My sister is the beauty. Everyone says so. She is my Mother’s clone. Everyone says so. They pat my head on their way by. I have freckles and an overbite. My sister is the beauty. I am eleven when I understand for the first time, sometimes awful shit just happens.
“Don’t blame yourself,” they said.
My pants are pulled down around my knees. The toilet seat is cold. Hard and unforgiving. The Pointer Sisters are singing “I’m so excited.” People are getting drunk on scotch and soda, and life. There’s birthday cake and balloons, and my five year old in a tie. White tablecloths and crimson in the toilet bowl. How much blood isn’t important. When you’re six months pregnant, and the baby inside you is as heavy as a stone, any blood will undo you. I make my way through the celebration. The lights hurt my eyes. My in-laws are kissing under a disco ball. My sister-in-law is wearing a white dress with red flowers. My son is doing the splits on the dance floor. My husband is laughing. Someone is trying to hand me a plate full of meatballs when the screaming begins.
I feel like I’m underwater. Like I’m asleep. I want to be asleep, even as my mouth forms half sentences that my heart rejects.
“My Baby. Not moving. Pain. Blood.”
My mother-in-law is crying beside me. I’m staring across the room at a table full of brightly wrapped gifts. I remember another day in this room. Another table piled high with gifts. I’d been a child bride, eighteen and dipped across my new husband’s knee, in front of an elaborate cake and a couple of champagne flutes. His kiss was deep, and full of promise. Buttercream frosting. Eagerness and tongue.
He tries to hold my hand as they roll the fetal monitor up beside the bed. I pull it away angrily. He leans forward on his stool. Eyes trained on the monitor. He’s cocky, and drunk, and sure of getting his way. I’ve got my head turned to the wall. Staring at Halloween decorations. Bitterness already coating my skin like shellac. They tighten the belts around the mound of my belly. My uterus. My son’s grave. The tears on my face have dried into concrete mixed with a mascara that promised it was waterproof. Make up is no match for grief. The static and silence coming from the machine isn’t a surprise. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever noticed how loud silence can be. The doctor comes in with an ultrasound machine. My son is still. His heart a black marble. The nurse wipes warm gel from my belly. She’s young. Maybe younger than me. Too young to stare death down. Her name tag is crooked with a smiley face. Her eyes are brimming with tears. Threatening to fall on my arm. My eyes are dry. I am silent for the first time in two hours. They call it shock. They coax water and Valium down my throat. The doctor explains gently, about the induction of my labor. The removal of my son from my body. My husband is gripping my hand against my will. I am playing with my wedding ring under his fingers. I want to rip it off and throw it in his face. They ask if we want an autopsy. I begin screaming again.
My son slips like a water balloon onto a bloody bed. He never feels the air on his blue skin. He never feels my lips on his head. He never hears my voice when I croon goodbye to him. The priest comes with holy water and pamphlets. He talks to me about God’s will as my son is carried away from me for the final time. My husband has his back to the room. Hands in his pockets. Staring at the parking lot lights outside. I hold Polaroids of my dead child’s face in one hand, and the priest’s useless pamphlets in the other. Michael Myers is wielding a butcher knife over Jamie Lee Curtis from the TV across the room. I know I will rip the pamphlet into pieces as soon as the priest leaves. Don’t talk to me about your God while some undertaker is trying to find a box small enough to hold the remains of my child. I am a bad Catholic. An empty Mother. A broken vessel. It will take me years and therapy to stop punishing myself with the word “Why? It’s a natural question. Such a small word. You can destroy yourself, and everything around you, with just three letters.
We bury him in a pouring, rain. I kneel in the mud in my pumps and hosiery. I am wet and dirty and cold. I am twenty-four years old when I allow grief and silence to unspool me. I am twenty-four when I see that sometimes awful shit just happens.
“Don’t blame yourself,” they said.
I am forty-one when a ticking time bomb explodes into red and orange and purple behind my Father’s right lung. He’s wearing a Patriot’s cap, and kicking the examining table, like a bored six-year-old. The image of the ‘Mass’ looks like Play Doh on crack. The oncologists eyes are sad and sorry. My eyes are filling with the hot, useless tears I won’t allow myself to shed. My mother refuses to make eye contact with anyone. She has moved her chair across the room. She keeps her back turned on the Michelangelo printout of my Father’s lungs. The things that will kill him before his summer tan has a chance to fade. I am forty-one when I watch my father shrivel before my eyes. He loses weight and body mass so fast his skin can’t keep up. It hangs on him like an abandoned sheet. His dentures won’t stay in his mouth. The faded tattoo on his right bicep becomes a smudge. A green Shrinky Dink. I am forty-one, and already feeling like an orphan while my father fights for breath. He turns to me, and says: “I’m not upset, and I don’t want you to be upset either, I’m not afraid to die.”
Of course, I think: “Dude! Are you nuts? This is the perfect time to be upset!” The look in his eyes stops me. I see hope. In the eyes of a terminally ill man. I see my Mom as a young bride. I see myself as a newborn baby. I see the regrets my Dad isn’t taking with him. I see the past where he was, alive and healthy. I see the future where he’ll be alive and healthy, living forever in the hearts of everyone he ever loved. I am forty-one, when I see these things in my dying father’s eyes. Sometimes, awful shit just happens, and no one is to blame.