NOT EXACTLY DYING TO KNOW
I remember my first boy-girl party, how I dressed up in a new gray sweater, and since my breasts had become substantial enough to hold some sway, how I inspected my reflection from side to side predicting a world about to change. I remember arriving at my boyfriend’s house and, like an honored princess, descending the steps to the basement where my new friends were already divided into small, gossip-sharing groups. Too nervous to eat or drink, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play the games I knew we’d play. Then the lights went out. And I found myself grabbed from behind by a boy too big to be Bobby. Supported by his hands on my breasts, I was goose-stepped across the floor and dropped in the middle of the room The lights came back on.
He said, “See, I told you I would do it, and man, is she…”
And I knew even before I saw familiar fingers on the switch that I had been set up. In that moment of illumination, Bobby’s mother came down those stairs with frumpy shoes, starched white apron, brownies mounded on a tray, and a scowl on her face.
She said, “Robert, do not play with the lights when people are on the (pregnant pause here)… stairs.”
She seemed to understand why everyone was laughing, why I stood alone center stage, and why her oldest son, cupped his hands toward his own chest as though they were still filled with my angora.
For years I imagined not that my prince would appear, but that his brother would return, the one who breathed so heavily in my ear that day, the one who had grinned as he rotated his guilty hands into a universal palm-up gesture of innocence. I would pretend that he wanted to apologize for my grave disappointment.
But he never came. And the damage remained.
I don’t remember when my heart stopped, but they said it was about thirty minutes into a tube-tying surgery the afternoon of my third child’s birth as my blood pressure slipped dangerously low and was unable to right itself. It was as though some unknown traitor had flipped the switch off and left me stranded in the dark.
I tried not to wake, enshrouded as I was by a cold so intense it made my shoulders shake as though with uncontrollable laughter at some hysterical practical joke.
“Well, look who’s back!” The post-op orderly pried open my eyelid with her thumb and said, “Now, Mamma, don’t squeeze that girl so tight; you might just pop them stitches loose!”
Instantly lucid, I struggled to escape the heat against my back before realizing it was Mamma who’d crawled into my bed to spoon her warmth onto me. Trying to focus on the face of the nurse checking my vital signs, I was drawn instead past her to the vintage black and white images on the TV. Over her shoulder a camera panned the crowd as a flag-draped casket moved past, then stopped on a small boy offering a salute.
I was in kindergarten the year JFK was killed, and I’ve watched those grainy films so many times the blood spatter has become matter of fact. But that day in the hospital, I saw the horror unfold as artistically as if it were an origami dove smoothed out before me. And when the complexity was deconstructed, my drug-relaxed mind found between the resulting lines an elemental truth: the anniversary of Kennedy’s death was now the anniversary of mine.
Since then I’ve grown to think of dying as a process initiated on the day we are born. Having been in the dark a couple of times, I have learned the importance of living in the light, and I try not to worry so much about who controls the switch.