CW: suicide, child death
The first thing you notice is the noise. It assaults like rain beating on a tin roof, or a group of restless teenagers chattering in church. You hear voices, but the words are indistinct and whispery. You start to differentiate machinery sounds; the soft hum of a floor buffer, the buzz of fluorescent lights, and, behind your left shoulder, the steady beeping of the electrocardiogram unit.
Your body begins to demand acknowledgement. You are cold, very cold. This is not the chill of a brisk winter walk. You have not returned from your journey feeling invigorated, warmed by energy and sweet hot chocolate. This kind of cold seeps through the cracks of your house of flesh. It burrows through veins like a heat seeking missile whose mission is to destroy any pocket of warmth it encounters.
Although you can’t see them, you know your cheeks are white as the thin blanket carelessly tossed over your legs. Pain burns your throat, as if fire ants are dining on the sensitive lining.
The first time you were hospitalized, you were your daughter’s age. You recall the dull green walls, and the curtain dividing you from the other little girl sniffling and asking for her mommy. Your own mother is gazing at you with that half smile she gets when you make her a popsicle stick trivet or bring home a good report card. Your mommy promises all the ice cream you want, at least for a day or two. She holds up a jar full of clear liquid, in which bob two shriveled, dark objects. "These are your tonsils", she tells you. "The earaches and infections will go away now."
For a moment, you are confused. Just as you remember you are a grown woman with a family of your own, you realize the ache in your throat must be from the tube inserted when they pumped your stomach. At least you assume they must have done this. How else could you have survived the concoction you swallowed, chasing pills with tequila shots as if it were happy hour during college spring break? There was Prozac for depression. Xanax for the anxiety that left you gasping for breath and sure you were having a heart attack. Ambien, which was supposed to lull you to sleep but produced nightmares more hellish than your waking life had become. You even tossed in the Adderall you were prescribed but never took, having convinced yourself that your distractibility was the norm for a mother of a young child, conveniently forgetting your prior life of unfinished tasks and near-accidents.
Someone fusses with a tube in your arm. You catch a faint whiff of tea rose. You wonder if your grandmother has come to care for you. To feed you bites of lamb chop she holds between long, strong fingers whose nails are glazed with frosted white polish. Then you remember she died long ago.
You were seventeen, and thought of nothing but pleasure. You told your parents you were staying with a girlfriend for the weekend. Instead, you snuck off to a cheap motel with the cute guy who sat behind you in homeroom for years, who finally noticed you. For two days, you ate Chinese food in bed and fed quarters into the Magic Fingers while your beloved grandmother wondered why you didn’t come to say goodbye, and your parents grew frantic.
The tea rose nurse leaves. After the scent of her perfume trails off, you are blasted with hospital odors. The pine scented disinfectant used to clean the floors. Unidentifiable food being served to patients who are not in a coma. The decay of sick people. Each time the pungent odor of isopropyl alcohol attacks your nostrils, you remember the needles.
You recall clinging to your mother as the pediatrician pierced your pale, fleshy arm. If you were good and didn’t cry, you were given a strip of candy buttons. You peeled the little pastel globes off the strip with your teeth, hoping that for once the paper wouldn’t cling to the flat candy dots.
By the time you gave birth to your child, the doctor doled out stickers instead of penny candy. You wince involuntarily as you flash back on all the times you held your own squirming, fearful girl through her alphabet soup of preventative vaccines and booster shots. DTaP. RV. IPV. MMR. And so many others. Too bad they couldn’t come up with a shot to prevent accidental drowning.
Tears collect in the corners of your eyes and form rolling rivulets down your cheeks. Your arms lie uselessly at your sides. You are unable to stop the crying, or to blow your own nose. Still, this is nothing like the powerlessness of discovering your three year-old face down, motionless, in a mere few inches of bath water. You only meant to turn off the stove, then return immediately to the bathroom. But the laundry needed to be removed from the dryer before the clothes wrinkled, and your Amazon package couldn’t sit unattended on the front porch. After all, people steal. And mothers get distracted.
There is a sound of scraping chairs, then the voice of your husband greeting someone as if they are old friends. You are surprised that you didn’t know he is in the room. You didn’t pick up his masculine, musky cologne scent or hear him clearing his throat, a tic that flares when he is under stress.
Your husband sees the tears and yells for a doctor. The tea rose nurse returns and informs him it’s normal for people in comas to cry. She calls this an involuntary response. She is right. If she knew the hell in which you’re trapped, she would realize no one ever volunteers for this. She agrees to find a doctor, and suggests your husband hold your hand, talk to you. He calls your name, asks you to squeeze his hand if you can hear him. He urges you to return. You doubt he means it.
You feel sorry for him. He is stuck with the job of encouraging to live after you killed his daughter. He is too responsible to resign from this position he has been recruited into by the medical professionals. You decide to help him, and struggle to open your eyes. It seems impossible and ludicrous, like an infant passing through a birth canal, or a child-sized coffin being lowered into the ground. You vow to give it one more try, then you will allow yourself the luxury of sinking back into lassitude.
A blinding white light pierces your retinas as you succeed in opening your eyes just the slightest crack. The pain that slices through your head is the physical expression of the agony you’ve carried in your heart since the accident. But you are committed now, and will yourself to open them wider. Your husband’s face begins to come into focus. You can tell by the thickness of his beard stubble that he has not shaved in at least three days. His clothes are rumpled. He was wearing the same blue oxford shirt the last time you kissed him good-bye.
Behind the exhausted, tearful face of your husband, you detect a slight movement. You smell Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and her sweet breath before you see your daughter peek her blond head out from behind her father’s dark one. She moves toward you, arms open wide, ready to play the game: “How much do you love Mommy?”
She is wearing the white burial dress. It has a full skirt, wide pink sash, and a Peter Pan collar. With her curly gold pigtails and big blue eyes, she is nothing less than a fairy tale princess. Briefly, you wonder why her skin is no longer pale and waxy, like it was when you yanked her out of the tub. You resolve to figure that out later.
Just as you are about to attempt to move your arms so you can hold her close, she turns and skips away. At first, you don’t understand why your husband doesn’t try to stop her. You want to yell at him to bring her back, to ask him, “Don’t you see she’s leaving?” Then the truth dawns. You remain silent, except for your tears escaping eyes that have closed again.
Your daughter loved the feelings chart you bought to help her learn to understand her emotions. “Grumpy,” she’d say, closing her eyes and turning down her mouth. Or, “happy,” she would proclaim with a smile that made you forget the grumpy days. After she died, you tried to interpret your husband’s feelings, to understand whether it was safe to approach him. You realize how limiting those emojis are, with their singular reactions and flat eyes. Your husband’s eyes were a kaleidoscope of swirling pain, rage, disgust, and sympathy.
You struggle to breathe. You don’t know if this is another panic attack, or if this time you are dying for real. The heart monitor bleeps irregularly. You hear a lot of commotion; footsteps running away, then toward you, machines rolling, your husband being ordered to leave the room immediately. You open your eyes once more before he departs.
You catch pinpoints of love and need in his eyes, and in the way he backs out of the room so he won’t lose sight of you. For the first time since your daughter’s death, you wonder whether your marriage and your life are salvageable. You even care, just the teeniest bit.
Your little girl stops her skipping. She turns to face you. You know what she wants.
It’s time for you to make a decision.