It is late in April, one of those cool and wet mornings when the sun’s light is hazy and blue. I wake early, escape out the front door of my suburban townhome with a cup of coffee, tell my husband I’ll be back before the kids wake, and take off down the street in the family van, sip coffee, roll down my window, smell the lingering wetness of the grass. Under the low clouds in this flat neighborhood, townhome after townhome, it is yard-sale day, a seemingly endless trail of tables and tents, one after the other, manned mostly by women with tired eyes, messy hair, and halfhearted smiles who stand over unwanted relics of their lives, hoping someone will find value in what they don’t.
I think of Mom. She loved yard sales, followed signs off the highway for miles down unfamiliar roads, taking turns at the behest of signs stuck in the earth with rulers. Sometimes we’d drive until we discovered the signs were old, advertising a yard sale a week or month old. But other times, we would find the Holy Grail, a garage or front yard sprawling with discoveries to be made. “Just gimme a minute,” she always said as she urged Dad to pull over so she could climb out of the car, pull her purse over her shoulder, and venture down a driveway.
I always followed, browsing the picnic tables covered in piles of clothes, shoes and toys and Business Relationships atop table cloths laid out on lawns. I loved to find a big old purse for less than a dollar, sling it over my shoulder like Mom. I loved the Barbie doll clothes, ten-cent Nancy Drew books, painted porcelain jewelry boxes, clip-on earrings.
Mom loved the clothes, the practically-new-can-you-believe-how-cheap shoes or slacks she’d hold up to me, pressing the waist tightly to my stomach and eyeing them and me with a raised brow and pursed lips then a final wink. She loved the coats and shawls and dresses. She loved the hunt, the anticipation and the surprise, the transformation of old into new, unwanted into wanted.
She haggled like a pro, approached the homeowner with her pile, and with gum in her mouth and a punctuating wink, she’d make an offer. “Give ya a dollar for this,” she said.
“A dollar fifty,” they might say, their eyes on the piece of their past she held.
She wrinkled her nose, chewed the gum a few more times. “A buck twenty-five,” she’d say.
We were poor. I knew that. Most of the clothes in my closet were from yard sales or thrift shops. But it never occurred to me to be bothered by this. Each dress, each blouse, each pair of slacks, each jacket seemed to carry with it woven threads of other lives, stories, hopes, dreams, into which I made room for myself for a while before it ended up on a picnic table bench in our front yard. And I watched hopefully as another little girl or another mom found it, held it up, and examined it. I wanted them to see in it all I had liked and want it for themselves, take a piece of me along with it when they left.
∘ ∘ ∘
In my bedroom, now, sits my mother’s cedar chest, some of the finish peeling, one of its wheels missing. My mother used it as a kind of hope chest. In it she kept a combination of photo albums, books, and sweaters. I use it to store clothes. And at the very bottom of it, underneath yoga pants and sweatshirts, is her favorite pink sweater I have never worn. I keep it for another reason—to see her when I see it, standing there in the kitchen, her bangs in her eyes, both hands wrapped around a tea mug.
I can almost see her in the seat next to me now as I yardsale, as I look out my windshield at a pink toy car, the perfect size for my toddler. I pull my van over to the side of the road, climb out, scuff my moccasins over the black top, and hover over the object of my sudden interest. The woman who’s selling it eyes me as she holds a thick pile of children’s clothes she’s organizing on a fold-out card table under a tent.
“How much is this?” I ask.
She smiles, shrugs, comes up with a price on the fly. “15 bucks,” she says.
“Is it safe?” I ask. “I mean, how fast does it go?”
“How old is your little person?” she asks.
“Two,” I say.
She nods confidently. “It’s slow, slow enough for you to walk alongside it. Both my kids used it until they were about three years old.”
On the floor of the garage sits her little boy, playing with toy dinosaurs. I imagine this woman walking alongside him in the car, and as he moves, his little hands on the tiny steering wheel, he transforms into my Audrey, his face into hers, his blonde hair into her blonde hair.
I take a picture of the little pink car covered with no less than twenty stickers of various television characters and sayings, stamps of identity, and I text it to my husband to ask what he thinks.
Then she screams, the woman, the mother–a wordless, guttural yell. I look up, watch as she drops the pile of clothes and lifts her arms rigidly into the air, her torso stiffening into a strange arch. I watch as she falls backward like a toppling statue, hitting her head on the driveway hard. Then her body is possessed, transforming into sharp angles over the black of the driveway.
How slowly the mind seems to work when the world does not do what it usually does. For several seconds I do nothing but stand and watch, unable to make sense out of what is happening before it occurs to me she is having a seizure. I also realize that I am the only person at this yard sale except for her son, who couldn’t be any more than four years old. He steps out of the driveway and stands in the wet lawn. “Where’s your daddy?” I ask him.
Wide-eyed he stares at his mother then at me. He says nothing.
“Where’s your daddy?” I ask again. “Inside? Is he inside?”
He remains silent. I can’t stop him from seeing his mother like this, can’t stop the fear from detaching him from this moment. I try again to get him to speak, but he is floating away, leaving only a glassy-eyed stare in his place.
∘ ∘ ∘
When I was five, Mom’s doctors gave her only six months to live. She bargained for more, and she drove a hard one. She clung to life long past the six-month limit, trying always to carry on the normal rhythms. Yard sales were part of that rhythm, the intersection of that which is cast off and that which is reeled in, a story set out on a lawn or blacktop, a symbol of life’s tide, the ebb and flow of moments held and later relinquished. At every yard sale we ever went to, Mom was dying and alive at the same time, harboring pain and browsing, searching, lifting, ducking, wondering, and hoping.
We don’t wake up in the mornings thinking we need a Nancy Drew book or a big blue purse or a pink Barbie car. But something stops you, catches your eye in the periphery, changes your direction, pulls you in, the perfect balance of finished and beginning, a quarter from your hand to theirs.
I’m tempted to float away with this little boy. Then a voice inside: Do something. I was trained, just a few months ago, in First Aid and CPR, but most of what I learned is gone, suddenly, from my memory. I remember both that I should protect her head from injury and that I shouldn’t restrain her. I remember something about the possibility of her biting off her tongue as I kneel down next to her, hold her cold hand. I mumble to her as she flails, offer up words I would want to hear if it were me on the ground, absent from myself, possessed by something—the electricity of my own brain, a stranger. She can’t hear, I know. Though I offer them to her, the words are for me. “I’m…I’m here. You aren’t alone. Okay? I’ve got you.” I’ve got you—a strange kind of ownership. And indeed, in the otherwise empty landscape of this driveway, there is only me that can do anything to help and only me as witness. She turns blue, a slow transformation from her face to her fingers, and I think, She’s dying. She’s disappearing.
I remember my phone. It has been in my hand all this time, and I’ve done nothing with it. The text I just sent my husband is still on the screen. For a second or two, I can’t figure out how to escape the text and dial a phone number. I recognize my own immobility, how the seizure that is not mine gets inside of me. I shiver and somehow, I find the right screen, dial 911, watch as her face goes from blue to grey, watch as bubbles surge from her mouth like a volcanic eruption, and, sure I am watching her die, I look up again at her son, who is now standing in the yard, looking at her, at me, and I think, Part of him is watching her die. This is what moves me, what gets me off my knees and running, first into the neighbor’s yard, and then into the street. Though I see nobody, I scream for help, louder and louder. “Someone please help,” I call out, my voice quickly fading into the thickness of the air.
“911 operator. What is your emergency?” The voice stops me, reminds me I have called for help.
“I, uh, I…she’s having a seizure,” I say.
I am standing in the middle of the street, but a car drives by me. The passenger inside looks out the window at me, at the driveway behind me as car moves past me and then disappears down the street.
“What is your location?” asks the 911 operator.
“I don’t know. I don’t’ know,” I say. “She’s turning grey. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Time is a strand of hope being pulled from my grip. I run to the mailbox and read the number off the box. “Please come. Please come. She’s blue. She’s grey.”
“Who’s blue, Ma’am?”
“She is. This woman. I don’t know. Please get here.”
“I need the street name, Ma’am. What street are you on?”
Another car comes. This one stops, and a small, brunette woman opens the door.
“Help me!” I say. “Please help; I don’t know what to do. Where am I? What street is this? Do you know?”
“West Walnut Tree Drive,” she tells me as she climbs out of the car. I repeat her words to the operator.
“Okay,” says the operator.
“Okay,” I say.
“Who is having a seizure? What is her name?” says the operator.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know her. She’s not my…I just came to her…”
“Do you know how old she is?”
“How old does she look?”
I kneel back down next to the woman, look at her grey face and blue lips, spit bubbles still spilling down her cheeks onto the pavement. If she dies, I think, a part of me goes with her. It’s an irrational thought, but it seems like I’ve stepped inside something with her, so close to her that what happens to her happens to me, where she goes I go. “35,” I say. “She looks about 35 or so.” I have given the operator my own age.
The brunette eyes the little boy standing there on the lawn, watching his mother, watching me, his arms limp at his sides. She goes to him, lifts him up naturally as if he were hers, rests him on her right forearm and hip, turns around, away, points out somewhere into the sky or neighborhood, changes his perspective, asks him a question, and it distracts me for several seconds. I think, What we don’t see does not belong to us. She’s freeing him of this.
∘ ∘ ∘
In the final weeks of my mother’s life, I stopped looking at her. I would wake in the morning, get quickly dressed, and come downstairs, through the front room, the living room, the dining room, stopping before the back room—the den. She was there, on a hospital bed, connected to oxygen, to an IV, connected tenuously to life, but I did not see her. I wanted breakfast, a lunchbox to carry to school, the world outside that house–the sound and sights of normality. So I turned quickly into the kitchen, never stopping, never slowing down.
My grandmother, who had been staying with us for months by then, followed me, stood behind me as I poured cereal into a bowl. “You’ve got to look at her.”
“Who?” I said.
“Your mother. You can’t ignore her. She’s there. She’s still there.”
I didn’t answer. I did not turn around to face her.
Later that night, Grandma told my father after I’d gone to bed. “You’ve got to do something about her. She’ll regret this for the rest of her life, this looking away. It’s her mother.”
Dad, tired from his long day, sifted through a pile of mail and looked over Grandma’s shoulder into the back room where Mom lay. “You’re here to take care of Sue,” he said, more to the mail than to her. “Thank you.” Then he dropped his arms to his side. “You’re not here to parent Stephanie.”
After he’d turned away and gone upstairs to bed, Grandma was left in the quiet of the house, boiling with anger. She pulled out her journal, sat at the desk in the spare bedroom where she was staying or at the dining room table, and she scribbled down her version of what had happened. “It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like I don’t like my own grandchild,” she wrote. Twenty years later, I would read those words after my grandmother died. And though they would hurt a little, I would dislike myself along with her, lose most of my own memory of refusing to look at my mother, and fill that space in myself with what my grandmother must have seen during those final weeks—my mother, her hair cut close to her head, her jawbones jutting out, her eyes closed or wide with confusion. Through my grandma’s eyes, I don’t look away.
∘ ∘ ∘
“Please,” I say into the phone, to the operator. “Tell me what to do to save her life. I can’t let her die here. Do I give her mouth to mouth?” My breath into her lungs. It is all I can think to give her.
The brunette hears this, and she turns around, nods vehemently when she sees the lifeless color of the woman before me. “Do it. Do it,” she implores then turns back around with the boy.
But I don’t do it. I wait for the operator to speak. “Does she have diabetes?” asks the operator.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Go ahead and look for a bracelet, something that indicates epilepsy or diabetes.” I look down at her wrist just as it goes limp, just as her body melts into calm, and a wave of color comes over her face, a shadow lifting. I pull up her sleeve and find no bracelet. I crawl around to her other side, push up her sleeve, find nothing. “Nothing,” I say, and as I’m crawling back, there on the black top at her side, she opens her eyes. I freeze. I think, What does she see? What does this all look like to her? For a while, I can tell she processes nothing. Her eyes are open, but they aren’t focusing. But she floats back to earth. And then she sees me.
“Hi,” I say.
She sits up. “What’s this about?” she asks. But before I can think of what to say, I see the panic in her eyes. She can’t see the one thing that matters most—her little boy. She looks into the garage, under the tent, then hard at me. “He’s right over there,” I say, pointing to the street. She turns around and sees the brunette walking away from the house, carrying him—a strange woman, walking away with her child. She stands up, her face still wet with saliva, and stumbles down the driveway. “Hey,” she calls.
“Wait,” I call after her, “You really shouldn’t…..”
I watch as the woman takes her son from the brunette, who tells her she should sit down, that she shouldn’t carry him, that it isn’t safe. But no words change her course. She stands in the middle of her driveway, holding her son unsteadily, telling him not to wander off like that. “You scared Mommy,” she said. Then she looks at me, and I realize I’m still on the ground in the place where she just was. “What is this?” she says. The brunette stands at the end of the driveway. We exchange a look.
“The ambulance is close,” says the operator. And as she says it, I hear sirens.
“You had a seizure,” I tell the woman.
“What is her name?”
“What is your name?”
She sits down on a stool. “Michele,” she says. “What is this about?”
“You just had a seizure.”
“Does she have epilepsy?”
“Do you have epilepsy?”
“Does she have diabetes?
“Do you have diabetes?”
“No,” she says. “What is happening?”
“You had a seizure,” I say again, as if the words will fill an emptiness, a gap in time she doesn’t even know exists. I stand up, hold my purse close to my side.
She sets her son down, and he returns gratefully to his toys.
“Who are you?” she asks me. Suddenly, I’m not sure, not in this context, not in relationship to her. Who am I? And what am I doing here? How did this become mine? I tell her my name, tell her I was at her yard sale when she went down.
She narrows her eyes at me, doesn’t believe me. The operator tells me it’s okay to hang up now. And when I do, I am cold, my body shaking and shivering, my legs weak.
∘ ∘ ∘
The ambulances appear with a police car, which parks in the center of the street, presumably to block traffic. But this doesn’t stop a sudden wave of pedestrian yard-salers. Even with the ambulance parked in Michele’s driveway, its lights flashing, they still come, still sift through the clothes folded on her fold-out tables. I watch as they pick up and set down some Tupperware, a pair of shoes, a few toys set out on a tablecloth over the driveway, find nothing of interest, and amble back down the driveway, past the group of four paramedics who approach us.
I am amazed by the human ability to shut out what we don’t want to see. I want to scream after them. But I don’t. They have made a choice. They are here but somewhere else, saving something else.
“No,” Michele tells the paramedics when they ask if she is the one who had the seizure. “I’ve been right here all morning. I’m having a yard sale.” Her face is angry and defensive. At first she looks at me when she speaks. Then she looks at them. Then she begins folding clothes again. The paramedics turn to me.
“Were you the witness?” one of them asks.
I nod. “She doesn’t remember,” I tell them, suddenly a little defensive, too.
I watch as Michele re-folds a pile of clothes, paramedics surrounding her. One of them straps a blood-pressure cuff to her arm. The world seems to slow. I turn away, watch dew drip from blades of Michele’s grass. Thick clouds move like reaching fingers over us all. In those clouds is the same potential for electricity, positive charges clashing with negative, taking and giving, pushing and pulling.
The brunette and Michele laugh at a joke the brunette makes about living in Jersey. The brunette seems unconcerned with convincing Michele of the truth. Instead she distracts her, like she did her little boy, who is deeply engrossed in his toys on the garage floor. A fire rescue truck pulls up. Two more emergency personnel climb out of it, approach Michele.
“Wanna tell us what happened?” one paramedic asks.
I tell them. Michele’s eyes dart from paramedic to paramedic as I speak. She shakes her head. “No,” she mumbles.
“She fell backwards?” one of them asks me.
“Can you show me where?”
I step backwards, point down at the place in the driveway where she fell.
He bends over and looks, shrugs, returns to Michele. “Do you want us to take you to the hospital?”
“No,” she says. “I’m fine. I’m telling you. I don’t have seizures. I’ve been sitting here all morning. I’m just trying to have a yard sale.”
“She was unresponsive?” one of them says to me.
I nod. “Blue.”
They all stand together awkwardly, a few of them chewing gum, their radios beeping intermittently between static. One of them compliments the other on a new haircut. Pedestrians wander up the driveway casually, avoiding eye contact with anyone, scanning Michele’s items. As she holds her head in both of her hands, they look for something they may need—a particular size, a color, a price, a piece of hers that will fill their gaps. And though there is so much here, it seems that they’ll all leave without taking anything with them. The sky deepens into a darker blue, and rain starts to fall in light, almost imperceptible drips like the reality of a seizure hidden in its plain aftermath. The seizure, therefore, is mine alone.
A flicker of anger burns in me. If only I hadn’t left the house this morning. If only I hadn’t stopped here. My story could have been as simple as morning coffee. Now there is no way to relinquish it, to climb out of the memory, strip it from me like clothing, fold it neatly on a table and leave it.
“Here is my card,” I say to Michele as I scribble my cell number on the back of my business card. She accepts it when I hold it out. “Later,” I say, “if you want to talk about what happened, feel free to call.”
The brunette follows me down the driveway after I turn to leave, and she whispers that maybe Michele, in her daze and confusion, will lose my card. “But the neighbors,” she says, “have stepped out their front door and looked a few times. Maybe we could go over there.” I stop, know she’s right.
Together we make our way over to the neighbor’s house, explain what we witnessed to them, leave my card. They accept it graciously, tell us they’ll go over and check on her. And I think, I will never hear from Michele again.
∘ ∘ ∘
At home, the cold overtakes me. I shiver for hours. And I know that it, the cold, is coming from somewhere inside of me. My husband asks what happened, and I try to tell him, but somehow the story lacks drama, and he is perplexed by how shaken I am, by the way I sit and stare at nothing in my daughter’s bedroom as she and her sister play dolls. My body, my brain feels vulnerable.
Over our neighborhood floats a storm cloud in which positively charged ions move upwards while negatively charged ions form the base. In and of itself, the cumulonimbus exists because of this separation of atoms.
An ion is an atom with an absence or an excess of electrons. To be neutral, an atom needs as many electrons as it does protons, the positive charge in its nucleus. But particles lose their electrons, whether to, say, the friction of ice in a storm cloud or to the chemicals in the neurotransmissions of the brain. The brain uses a chemical to remove an electron from one atom, which makes it positively charged–suddenly attracted to negatively charged ions, atoms with extra electrons, who have something to give, who are searching for a way to relinquish. Electricity is this relationship between the need to give away and the need to receive, the movement of electrons from one particle to the next. How easily one particle need creates the next, and how endless the wave of transference. Without something to give or a corresponding blankness, we are disconnected, bondless, singular.
In an electrical storm, the earth’s charge becomes positive, reaching, like fingers, upwards toward the negatively charged base of the storm cloud. So intensely does the cloud reach back that the sudden leap through the air the electrons make to reach one another is a violent explosion, a storm of exchange, ions giving, taking, giving, taking, and creating new need. The storm ends only when the particles find their way to one another, bridge the gap between their needs, fill in the canyon that kept their charges opposite.
A seizure in the brain is its own electrical storm, large groups of neurons firing at the same time, particles pulling together so intensely that a sudden explosion occurs, violent and all-encompassing.
Electricity leaves no room for independence, for disconnection. It pulls us to the ground, pulls atoms to one another, creates shape out of nothingness, potential energy out of kinetic, energy into action, heat out of space.
A seizure is the taking or the giving itself, a sudden attack, an explosive charge of electrons, neurons firing uncontrollably, translating and transmitting, relinquishment uncontrolled. To seize is to take possession of, to take by force, or to put possession of, to bestow upon. It is to grasp mentally, to understand completely. Take what is mine. Make it yours. This and this too. Here, take it all.
∘ ∘ ∘
Michele is a negatively charged ion. And I am a positive.
I have gained something, like an electron. And I am driven by a negative charge, distilled temporarily into who I am to Michele from who I was before. Her seizure is like electrolysis, separating self from self like water’s hydrogen from its oxygen, only to set its molecules off in new forms, into new space, floating.
A doctor from the emergency room calls. She introduces herself, tells me,
“We have Michele here. You were at her yard sale today?”
“Yes,” I say, thankful that it seems Michele has gone for help. I’m sitting on my bed, still fighting the cold, now with a sweatshirt and a blanket.
“Can you tell me what you saw happen to her?”
And I think, She wants the story, my account of a thing that must have somehow left its mark on Michele. I fight a feeling that I’ve caused the seizure, that I’ve given it to Michele, that I’m forcing it on her. Maybe, I think, if I disappeared with the story, I could spare her the reality she doesn’t want. But the words spill from me, and what I realize in my narration of it all is how I emphasize my role, my place in the drama, my fear, my desperation. The doctor wanted only enough detail for her objective evaluation of her patient. I’ve given her some of myself though. When I am done, she thanks me, tells me it helps her. I expect to feel empty but don’t. Instead the story seems to remain in me, transforming, even growing.
Less than a half hour later, I tell it again, when Michele’s husband calls. For him, I include dialogue and colors, the light and nearly imperceptible rain, the brunette, who was now, in my mind, a face floating behind a car window. As I speak, I imagine I was the one in the middle of the road, then somehow in the hospital bed, my hand hers then in hers, my body convulsing, my chest rising toward the sky, then collapsing–softness over the hard, cold damp.
“Michele is here,” he tells me.
“Stephanie?” she says, my name in her mouth. “Thank you.”
Her tone has shifted. I don’t know why she suddenly believes me, why she isn’t afraid of the reality my words open up for her. But sometime between my leaving her and now, she has accepted the blank spots I created in her memory. This took such faith in a total stranger. I think, That’s what I am. A total stranger. But it doesn’t feel true.
“I just want you to know how thankful I am, how…the last thing I remember is you asking about the Barbie car, and I told you it doesn’t go too fast, and I…” She stops for a few seconds. I hear her sigh. “Thank you for all you did for me. I’m so thankful you were there. You were…you were like my…my guardian angel.”
“No,” I say, wondering about her need for me to play such a role.
“Please believe me. You are. You’re my hero.” Her voice is insistent, almost desperate, and I don’t argue.
Later, staring into my computer screen, my body finally warming, the shivering subsiding, the sun shifting toward dusk, I consider this—if indeed I am the hero in this story. It is tempting to believe. But a quick Google search tells me how little I did for Michele. I could have turned her over onto her left side to help her to breathe, keep her from swallowing her tongue or inhaling vomit. I could have protected her head from injury by propping it up on something soft. I had done none of this. But for her, the nothing I’ve done means everything.
Michele stays in my mind throughout the rest of the day, into the night and the next morning. I wake, open my eyes, feel my body shake again, close my eyes and see Michele’s blue face, her gray lips, her cheeks covered in saliva that slides onto the wet black of the pavement. I see myself from outside of myself, over myself, as if I am floating in midair, as if I am one of the clouds looking down on a vague figure standing alone in the road, cars flying by me, rain falling on me, my hair wet, my fingers cold and white. For reasons I don’t immediately understand, I see Mom’s old grey Toyota Corolla pull up in front of the house. She climbs out with another, child version of me, a transparency laid over yesterday’s landscape, a driveway from a yard sale where Mom and I stopped on the way to one of her chemotherapy treatments unfurls over Michele’s, worlds colliding. I sit up in my bed, shiver. In the middle of the road I shiver. Standing next to my mother, pushing my fingers deeply through hers, I shiver.
My husband appears in my bedroom door holding a hot cup of coffee, which he hands to me. He asks how I’m doing, and I don’t feel okay. But I tell him I am. It is the story I think he must want, the one most people do. It is not okay not to be okay when the thing that aches is yours alone.
I don’t want it to be mine alone. I want to share it, give it away, yet at the same time hold it close, keep it.
I close my eyes, find myself again in the van, living it over. I sip the coffee, close my eyes and see Michele scream and fall backwards into the grass where Mom once flung her big purse over her shoulder and walked down a driveway that blurred Michele’s yard sale with the other yard sales I’d seen that morning, with all the yard sales I’d seen in my life. Old records. Clip-on earrings. Michele’s blue face. My mother’s laugh, a table of folded clothes. A Barbie car. My mother’s fingers. Michele’s fingers, her arms bent and stiff, her eyes deep grey emptiness. Her scream snakes itself through all of it, insistent and haunting, the door into the world the seizure created there, sounding out in my mind over and over, caught in emotional circuitry, ions exchanging electrons, tying me to the moment irrevocably.
∘ ∘ ∘
After my mother died, my father woke me in the middle of the night. “It’s time to say ‘good-bye’,” he told me. We had planned for this after his therapist told him about the importance of laying eyes on the dead. The idea was that without seeing her dead, she would remain alive in me, that her end would not be solidified, that it would never feel real. More important than what happens outside of us is what we do with it inside of ourselves, how we make it our own, how we thread ourselves through it.
Dad led me downstairs unsteadily, his hand clammy around mine, to the back of the house, in the room he had remodeled for her, replaced nine small windows with two, one of them a big bay window upon which Mom was going to spend afternoons sitting, covered in a soft blanket, sipping herbal tea. I did not think about all that was over for her. Instead I thought of what was over for me—her suffering, the beeping of the machines around her, her voice, her smell, her laugh, myself in her eyes, me tucked next to her under the big blue comforter, hope. Now she was cold on a hospital bed in the center of the den, her hair combed flat to the side, her face unmoving. Though my grandmothers and father, who dressed her that night, did not put her in her pink sweater, I imagine it on her anyway. I have erased everyone else but Mom and me from the moment, my grandmothers, Hospice nurses, even neighbors who wanted to say their “good-byes.” They remain only in a cerebral compartment of mind where a more objective, fixed version of her death survives like a folded cloth, tucked away. But blowing in the wind of the present, billowing, lifting and pulling from my gripping fingers, is the memory of her there on the bed, just her in the pink sweater, her bangs in her eyes, and there I am with her, me as a child with a ponytail and a nightgown.
Moments are the things inside that survive us, that stretch out beyond the limits of individuality, connecting us, evolving from, with, after, and because of each other.
I have one of my mother’s dressers, a short wide one that my husband painted red a month before our second daughter was born. My mother used to keep mismatched socks in its top left drawer, and every so often, she’d pull it out and dump it on her bed. We matched them as she told me stories.
I tell those same stories to my own daughter now as we match our own socks out of the same drawer. The stories have changed. They must. That’s how I hold on to them, with every passage through my memory. Sometimes I stop to look at Sophia—her folding one sock over another or her taking in the stories and making them hers. And it seems, sometimes, as I watch her chubby little fingers, that they are mine.
Another dresser in our bedroom came from a yard sale in northern Pennsylvania. It’s tall and wide and red. The first time it was painted was a month before my older daughter was born. I did it with a spray can in the kitchen of the little apartment where my husband and I lived at the bottom of the hill on the northeast side of Reading, Pennsylvania. He was away on business, and when he returned, he noted, with a shake of the head and roll of the eyes, that the entire kitchen was covered in a barely perceptible, thin coat of cherry red spatter—everything from our dishes, the stove, the walls, the toaster, and the floor. I wonder if whoever lives there now finds the red, tiny droplets—a haunting remnant of some past life. What’s this? What happened here?
There is my oak dining room table, which was once my great-grandmother’s. It creaks and rocks whenever something is placed upon it.
A buffet stands next to it, almost as if it forms a set with the table, but my mother bought it at an antique shop in Binghamton, New York. I jam cardboard between the doors and the frame to keep them closed.
After finding it and falling in love with it at an old antique shop on Clinton Street in Binghamton, my mother gave my father a grandmother clock one year for his birthday. It stands next to the buffet in my dining room now.
I still have Mom’s mahogany rectangle table with leaves.
And her favorite oak tripod table that I keep in the corner of the living room. Sometimes one of the kids or a guest will put a drink there and make a ring in it. And I think, This all will transform it irreversibly.
Lining a living room shelf are books of poetry that belonged to my great-grandfather. When I open them, they crack, and pieces of them, covered in the dust of this life and others, fall to the floor where my children will step on them and track them outside where a broadwing hawk once killed a mourning dove and left a pile of feathers that has scattered around the neat, edges of our tiny square yard.
A lace table cloth was my great-grandmother’s.
A camera was my grandfather’s.
A pair of pants from a consignment shop.
Ears that are my father’s.
Eyes that are my mother’s.
A seizure that is Michele’s.
∘ ∘ ∘
“They think it was a reaction to medication,” Michele’s husband tells me when I call a few days later to check up, unable to get her out of my mind. “You should go by and pick up that Barbie car,” he says. “She really wants you to have it.” His voice is rushed and casual, which reminds me that the intimacy I feel with Michele is in my head alone.
“Sure,” I say. “Thank you.”
But I don’t go for the car. I return only incidentally, when my regular running loop takes me by Michele’s house. As I run by her driveway, I am flushed by the heat, the sun hot on my back and shoulders. I pause for a moment, half expecting it all to happen over again now that I have returned to the place where I left it. But the real driveway is not the one that lives in me. I’ve changed it, blurred it, morphed it, made it something else. This driveway, I think, the one here in front of Michele’s house, is not mine. I try to leave it behind, but West Walnut Tree Drive circles back on itself. And within twenty minutes, I stand before it again. And I think, This is the way of stories we claim. They braid themselves into the landscape of our lives so that we continue to circle back on them. They transcend boundaries of time, their electrons like reaching fingers, embroidery into the billowing sheet of the past.
Weeks later, I return again, on another run, my two-year old little girl in a running stroller before me. She’s pointing out birds, robins and cardinals, her eyes wide. Ahead of us is Michele’s driveway. Under us, Willow creek runs, an offshoot of Maidencreek, an offshoot of the Schuylkill River. I stop, look over the edge of the bridge, and I watch as, just feet below, the force of the water takes tiny pieces of the soft brown bank. The bank itself draws in water, holds it until it is too full and heavy to remain separate from the force of the current. The bank taking from the water, the water taking from the bank, both becoming one another. I feel, briefly, the endlessness of it as I move again, push forward toward the end of Michele’s driveway.
A man who must be her husband appears from behind the house, riding a lawnmower. I wave, and he stops, climbs off, and approaches me with a curious smile. I tell him who I am and feel the strangeness of my presence here. “Just wondering how Michele is,” I say.
He nods, and his smile softens. I am put at ease by his kindness. “She’d love to see you,” he says. “Let me go get her.” He disappears into the house and reemerges just seconds later with Michele, who is taller and more beautiful than I remember. She has long blonde hair and big bright eyes, and I think, She looks like Barbie. The image of her like this is hard to fit into the memory of the seizure on the pavement. But then she is close, right in front of me, her face more clearly the one that had been like a dark hole in her, grey and blue and wet with saliva. She hugs me, and her smell brings back the yard sale. I realize, for a second, that I somehow have been confusing, in my memory, her smell with the smell of the rain.
“I am so happy to see you,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to call.” She steps back, smiles, studies me.
“How are you?” I ask, feeling something like love billow inside of me.
“I’m okay,” she says before a soft sigh. “I can’t drive. Or at least I’m not supposed to. I have to go six months without a seizure before I can go to the grocery store or take my kids to their activities. It’s awful.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, feeling responsible for it.
“I’ve never had a seizure before,” she says. “You know, I used to be so sharp. Now, not so much. I can’t remember anything. And of course, I remember nothing about the seizure. I just remember you looking at the car…that little Barbie car…and then I remember sitting in the chair under the tent…and the ambulance. All I know about what happened to me that day is because of you.”
I nod, feeling less alone suddenly. Her seizure became my memory. My memory became her story. Giving and taking, like an exchange of electrons, like a yard sale transaction.
“Do you still want that Barbie car?” she asks.
“I’d give it to you right now if you had more than the stroller to get it home with.”
I turn and look at Audrey who is watching us from the stroller. “I bet she’d love it,” I say.
“Someday, you should come by with your car, and you can take it home. I want you to have it.”
“Thank you,” I say.
∘ ∘ ∘
I see Michele again only a couple more times, once in the Target check-out lane, where our interaction is more casual. We smile at one another over our children and carts and items. She says she’s been meaning to call about the Barbie car, and I tell her I’ve been thinking about her and hoping she’s well. She tells me she’s gone six months without a seizure, and she can drive again. I tell her that’s wonderful news. And it is. But I can’t help worrying that perhaps the story is over, the one we share, that it has become mine alone again, that it is, for her, fading in a way it isn’t for me. I feel the impulse to hold on tightly.
The last time I see her is in her front yard, when my husband and the kids and I are driving through her neighborhood sale a year after the seizure. “Look,” he says. “Isn’t that your girl there?” He points to Michele’s house, after many months of my pointing it out to him on our shared jogs. I nod. She’s having another yard sale. “Want me to pull over?” he asks.
And I tell him, “Yes.” My girl–somehow this ownership over her. She converges with her story, with those few minutes on the pavement, my memory filling in her blanks, her surge of brain electricity filling in the spaces in my synapses. To share a story, I think, is not all that different from loving someone. The need it fills or creates is what bonds us and makes us whole again.
Michele sees me and recognizes me immediately, stops a conversation she’s having with another yard-saler and walks over, hugs me, then laughs as she turns and holds out an arm at the tent, the picnic tables, the folded clothes, the stacks of discarded fragments of her life. “Here I am again,” she says. I smile. She looks over my shoulder at my van. “Is that your family?” When I walk her over, David rolls down the window. “Your wife is my hero,” she tells him. “She is an amazing woman. If it weren’t for her…I don’t know. I don’t know where I’d be.”
“It’s good to meet you,” he says. “Finally. I’ve heard so much.”
It’s like we’re old friends, like we’ve known each other for years. But I don’t even know her last name.
“The car!” she says. “Do you still want it?” Without waiting for an answer, she hurries back into her open garage and lifts up the big, pink Barbie car. She walks out with it, and a well-dressed gentleman standing under the tent asks how much she wants for that. “No, no,” she says. “This is hers.” And she sets it down before me. “She, uh….paid for it previously.” Then she mumbles. “Like a year ago…when she saved my life.”
We laugh together, load the car in the back of my van.
I don’t tell her I didn’t save her. That part of the story is hers, not mine, and it’s not for sale. The rest of the details of that morning when she had, or perhaps gave, a seizure is perhaps transformed by now, strung through her other worlds, her brain creating imagery from and for my words. I’m there somewhere, living as a hero in the cool rain, regardless of the coffee she can’t taste like I still do. She knows almost nothing about me. And yet we are woven inextricably to one another.
∘ ∘ ∘
I take the car, leave Michele there in her driveway, and leave a version of myself with her.
At home, my little girl will squeal with delight and climb into the pink car covered with stickers put there by Michele’s children. She’ll hit the gas, and I’ll follow as far down the street as she wants to navigate.
∘ ∘ ∘
My grandmother once told me that the last words she ever heard my mother speak were “I don’t want to die.” According to Grandma, Mom shouted this out in the middle of the night. I think of those words sometimes and the world inside my mother from which they were spun. One of her lungs had collapsed. The other was caving in. Her brain was barely functioning on morphine. But somehow those words found breath. I try to inhabit them, imagining what was inside of her then. Maybe it was running through the palmettos with Bobby Beard when she was a kid or swimming between the gators in the canals. Maybe it was the smell of her mother’s lotion or dancing to The Karate Kid soundtrack we bought at a yard sale one year. Maybe it was me, lying in bed with her, interlacing my fingers with hers, holding her tightly as she pulled her big blue comforter up over our shoulders. Maybe it was swinging up on the swings at the church on Bunn Hill Road, my legs wrapped around her torso as she pumped her legs and took us so high that it seemed that we had escaped gravity altogether. I hang on tight, listen to her laugh. And I think, Don’t let go.
But she does. She did. And I don’t. I hang on tightly even though she might never have woken up and called out in fear the way Grandma says she did.
“No,” said my dad when I told him Grandma’s story. “I don’t remember your Mom ever saying that.”
He and I live with the loss of the same woman. Sometimes, when I feel it strongly enough, I move close to him, just so I can feel his breath and remember that I’m not living it alone. Except that I’m still listening to her call out.
And I wonder which one of us has something to give and which one of us is reaching for more.
We keep the car two years before I point out to Audrey that she doesn’t drive it anymore. Since we don’t have a garage, it just sits in our dining room near the window untouched. “Maybe,” I tell her, “we should give it away.” A young couple lives across the way. We can see their house from ours. She is the daughter of a colleague. They have two small daughters. On occasion, we will give them the toys that Audrey outgrows. She thinks of this now. Less than a half hour later, she and I are lugging the thing down the sidewalk and across the street. The air is hot, thick, and buggy. Kaitlyn, the young mother, steps out her front door with her little girl in her arms. We both wave bugs out of our faces as I tell her about the car, the yard sale where I first saw it, and the woman named Michele who later gave it to me. While Kaitlyn listens to me, Audrey shows her little girl how the car works, how to get in, how to make it go forward, how to make it go backward. And for a few seconds, there is a heaviness in my heart. I think, I’m giving her so much. Maybe I’m rushing this. Maybe we’re not done with it yet. Maybe Audrey would have driven it a few more times. But then I see the smile on her face as the other little girl climbs into the pink car. Audrey is delighted. She has not just given over the car. She has given over a piece of herself. And it is welcome.
That’s the thing about the pieces of ourselves we give away to the world. They break away like comets, beginning their own orbit, only remnants of their origin. She’ll do what she wants with this car, with my story. It’s hers now too—hers and her daughter’s. And with it, she may take some of Audrey and me, Michele and her kids.
∘ ∘ ∘
This summer, I hurt my knee, so I stopped running by Michele’s house. I no longer see her or even her driveway any longer. But my husband does when he goes for his runs. Sometimes he mentions her, tells me he thinks of the seizure sometimes, of her, of me standing over her.
I wonder about the film in his mind, in Michele’s, in Kaitlyn’s, the way it plays out inside of them when they let it. I wonder if it rains that light cool rain, if I’m wearing my moccasins and yoga pants, if they smell the rain that was Michele, if the coffee mug is hot between their hands.
Michele and I are neurotransmissions, flickers of light, electricity.
And we both hold on to the darkness of the moments Michele’s seizure stole from her—nothingness, the space inside hard matter.
We’ll likely never see each other again. We aren’t friends. She is living her life on West Walnut Tree Drive. And I’m here.
But inside of me, she has taken up permanent infrastructure. All these synaptic transmissions later, one story, like a first domino, beginning in singularity and sprawling into infinity, her face now an artifact of me–a thing I didn’t need but discovered and loved and used and changed and give away like Barbie cars, ten-cent Nancy Drew books, painted porcelain jewelry boxes, clip-on earrings, coats and shawls and dresses, furniture we believe keeps the past alive–immortal things that seize us as we them, that we grasp as they billow into the sky, reaching, threading us from the ground, from water into oxygen, a universe of futures, transmission to receptor, words into worlds, silence into breath, darkness into light. Here, take this. And this. And this.
I’ve given you so much.
I’ve given you nothing at all.
About Stephanie Andersen
Stephanie Andersen teaches writing at Reading Area Community College in Pennsylvania. She is a climate activist, a yogi, a Zumba instructor and an evolving cyclist and birdwatcher. She lives in Blandon, Pennsylvania with her husband, two daughters, two dogs, and one bird.
Her work is Notable in the 2009 and 2015 Best American Essays and has three times been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Her words have appeared in Wilma! Women’s Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion; Stoneboat Literary; The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, Hippocampus Magazine, Twist in Time Literary Magazine, and Literary Mama. Her work is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree.