I am running
through the cornfield at the back of our big white farmhouse, forty
acres of corn rows stretching away from our yard. We are out there
with the neighbor kids, shouting and running, knocking over cornstalks,
crashing through the sharp edged corn leaves that jut in front of
us. I hold my arms in front of my face, my legs pumping. Cutting
across rows along with the other kids, trampling stalks, we run
wild, invigorated in our total isolation. Some of the kids have
made a clearing in the middle of the field, and here I stop. We
mellow out, satiated by our pseudo civilization. When you are careening
down a row you can see the sky, and the yellow tufts of corn silk
at the tops of the stalks. When you are standing still you can feel
the silence, and you feel afraid. So you must keep moving, along
with the cats that wind between the rows, along with the neighborhood
kids that will have to leave soon for home.
Twelve years later I am being carried
out of a house in Arizona by two paramedics, overdosing on barbiturates.
When I get into the ambulance they talk to each other, taking my
pulse. The moment I realize that something is very wrong is when
the paramedic calls out my blood pressure. He only calls out one
number: 45. There is no other number. I am dying. These are the
times when your life floats away from you in a bubble. The paramedic
fights to keep me conscious by asking me questions. What is your
name? Where does your mother live? He asks me about my mother later.
By then my tongue feels like a mass of cotton in my mouth. It takes
me more than a minute to answer this question, not because I can't
enunciate the words, but because I can't remember.
We had a lot of cats growing up. Mr. T,
Momma Kitty, Calico (who was ground up with the corn one day, when
she was trying to escape from the neighbor's dogs), Tabby, Mr. Spud,
Marcy, Teeny Tiny. I learned about death through the death of my
animals. One night I was lying in my bed and I heard the screech
of tires on the street below. I must have been about nine or ten.
I remembered this noise distinctly, because I almost went downstairs.
That morning it had frosted and I found my cat Tabby lying next
to the mailbox, blood crusted in her fur from where it had seeped
out of her mouth. I had to rip her off the grass, her body pulling
from the frozen ground like Velcro. Later that night my mother gave
me a half a glass of wine, shooting my father a venomous look when
he walked in and asked if I would help him bury my cat.
Both my parents flew down to visit me
after my suicide attempt. In the recovery room the nurse handed
me the phone and told me it was my mother. She told me she was flying
down right away. I dropped the phone mid-conversation, my mind drifting
away. I think my mother started screaming when I set the phone down.
After the world came back into focus, I shakily whispered 'okay'
into the white plastic mouthpiece. That she was coming down to visit
was a matter of fact. I did not comprehend the magnitude of what
I had done. My father came soon after. All of a sudden my parents
were sitting across from me in a booth at a family-themed restaurant,
my father eyeing me from across the table, not knowing what to make
of the situation. I was twelve years old again. This was my family,
but somehow it wasn't.
One winter it snowed two feet. School
was closed and our desolate farm roads went unplowed. Snow-covered
fields stretched away from us for miles. The horizon was dotted
with tiny farmhouses emitting puffs of smoke from their chimneys.
We got out the cross-country skis and made trails down the deserted
roads. The weather had frozen the tree branches into crystalline
shapes, the world silent except for the slithering of our skis,
and our laughter as we fell sideways into the snow. A drainage ditch
ran alongside our yard. The snowdrifts were especially deep in the
ditch and we dug tunnels, carving out home-made igloos which were
suspended in the packed snow. I remember I dug my snow-coffin too
deep, water seeping up from the ditch, soaking my boots. Back at
the house we filled cups with snow and poured maple syrup over carefully
constructed domes, which we had to eat quickly, because the syrup
caused the snow to break apart. The snow never stayed long. In a
few days the rain soiled our monochromatic paradise with splotches
of gray and brown. And soon it was back to gray skies and the long
dull days of country living.
"Bite down," they told me, placing
a white plastic ring in my mouth as I lay on a gurney in the emergency
room. The ring was to open my throat for when they shoved the tube
down. "Swallow," one of the doctors said, as the rest of the nursing
staff were snaking a tube the size of a garden hose down my esophagus.
The doctor had to repeat himself several times before I could comprehend
what he was he saying. Later in my hospital room I hallucinated
that silverfish were climbing the walls. The dark television that
hung on the wall reflected the nursing station, and for hours I
was entranced by it, convinced I was watching an episode of ER.
We had a great horned owl that lived in
our barn. He had a nest on the top rafter, and when we went into
the barn in the daytime we could see him perched up there, his eyes
wide open, watching us. At times I caught glimpses of him slicing
silently through the night, the flash of his white underbelly careening
low to the ground as he looked for food. We often found his owl
pellets, clumps of hardened fur and tiny mouse bones, mixed in with
the dirt of the barn floor. Once I took some of the pellets to school,
and we dissected them in science class.
As I rode in the ambulance I kept feeling
like someone was pushing on my back. My hand was going numb and
I was staring at it, thinking about how I was staring at a dead
hand. This was the only time in my life that I saw myself from outside
myself. The paramedic was shouting at me, trying to keep my attention.
But I kept drifting back to my hand, thinking it was going to go
away. It was so familiar, yet so alien. I felt my soul disconnect,
and I was not afraid.
On one of the pages of our family photo
album is a picture of me and my sisters on our front porch carving
pumpkins. A mound of pulp and seeds rises like a volcano from a
spread out newspaper. Black kittens with tiny pointed tails rub
up against us. My sisters and I with our curly blond hair are smiling
at the camera. I remember on that day my hand slipped on the handle
of my carving knife and I cut my palm, the blood dripping down into
my pumpkin. After the incident pumpkin carving took on an air of
danger, and I always focused on how not to cut myself instead of
the face that I was carving. Looking back, the cut that day seems
the precursor to the many internal wounds I would suffer in that
house. But this was years before my parents' divorce, and we were
still innocent and having fun on the farm. In the picture we are
eternally smiling, our giant white porch surrounding us like a cocoon,
the blood already coagulating unseen, inside the pumpkin.
In the aftermath of my suicide attempt
I was completely numb. I left Arizona and returned home, only to
find myself abandoned, everyone fearing I would slip over the edge
at any moment. Shortly after my return I ventured out onto the desolate
geometry of farmland that lay just outside town, where my mother
was now living. I drove down long, narrow roads past raspberry furrows,
grassland, and potato fields, speeding down the road, my car kicking
up dust clouds from left-behind dirt of the farm machinery that
lay in patches the road. The corn was only a few feet high in the
field next to my house. Things had changed. Our once manicured lawn
was now a mass of brambles, straw grass, and scraggly apple trees.
Unfamiliar was the dirty yellow tinge of new house paint. Everything
looked soiled, an unclean version of what I had known before. I
continued down the road past grazing cattle, plowed furrows, and
dilapidated barns. My heart, in silence, raged.
Sometimes I feel like I died, and what
I'm living now is some alternate form of heaven.
I recently found a photograph of Momma
Kitty, a calico with a puffy black tail. She was perched in the
horseshoe chestnut tree that grew in front of our house, her eyes
glowing red from the camera flash reflecting off her feline retinas.
I remember the night I found her, huddled under one of the pine
trees in our yard, after we had just returned from a family outing.
She had been missing for days, and I was very excited to see her.
But when I reached under the branches to pull her out, she emitted
a sound that was unnatural, and I jerked my hand away. She passed
away that next morning in our basement. My parents heard her death
yowl. Luckily we were upstairs, out of earshot. I tried to feed
her kibbles the night we found her. I held a bowl of water up to
her and she took a drink. I was so hopeful she was going to live.
Years later, she came to me in a dream. She walked out of a fog
and was trotting towards me like she always did, with her tail raised
and her legs moving quickly, across the grassy field that was beside
to our house. For some reason she never reached me, just kept trotting
in place like she was on a treadmill. I stretched out my arms to
her, but we never came together.