Here is the next post in my series called “A Day In The Life”. To read the previous post click here:
Writing this one has been tough, like trying to water ski on a choppy ocean. As I search my mind to recall the details of the events, I find myself overlapping old memories with what I learned later. At the time this story takes place, I was not yet aware that my mom had an illness, and was just beginning to realize something was different about our lives.
The Christmas that wasn’t to be
Our first Christmas with my baby sister, Ana (not her real name), was a different kind of Christmas. She was toddling all over the place now, and her strawberry blonde curls and rosy cheeks made her look like an angel to be placed atop the small spruce tree in our living room.
That year, my mom decided we should go to Florida instead of the usual routine of celebrating Christmas eve with her family and Christmas day with my father’s family. My brother and I were going to miss the large gathering with our aunts, uncles and cousins, but the promise of sunshine and beaches made it a worthwhile trade.
Instead of decorating the tree with the usual tinsel garland, icicles and shiny bulbs, we decorated our small tree with yarn and home-made ornaments. We had a simple dinner on Christmas eve and were tucked into bed early that night. All was peaceful as we fell asleep with the naive bliss of a child’s mind filled with anticipation. We awakened at 4:30 in the morning and exchanged a few gifts before loading our suitcases into the car and starting our trek to Florida. We were so excited we didn’t even mind that we only got a few presents.
Many years later I learned that the reason my mom wanted to go to Florida for the holidays was to avoid being around her siblings and my dad’s family. A small disagreement had turned into a huge fight with her sisters, fueled by a paranoid notion that they were all plotting against her. At around the same time she became convinced my dad’s family was devising a plot to humiliate her. What little I remember about any of this was the few comments I overheard when she was accusing dad of “being in on it”. I didn’t know what “it” was but it didn’t sound good.
The early manifestations of my mom’s illness came in the form of paranoia and started shortly after she and my father were married. She seemed to experience a reprieve during her pregnancy and after my sister was born, but gradually the symptoms reappeared. I always wondered if she would have stayed well if we hadn’t gone to Florida. I know that isn’t true, but the trauma of what happened on our trip seemed to be a turning point in the course of her illness.
It happened two days after Christmas. We had been traveling and stuck in traffic for many hours on the way to Florida. Tired, we stopped at a hotel for the night. In the morning, I was standing next to the bed when I heard a terrifying screech and turned to find my sister crying and balled up on the floor. My dad pulled off her PJs, poured a bucket of ice on her, and placed her into a cold shower. My mom was screaming. My sister had been scalded by a cup of hot coffee that had been sitting on the dresser within her reach. By the time the ambulance arrived, my sister’s delicate baby skin had peeled off of her chest and neck – a site I will never forget.
We spent the next week in Atlanta, while my sister was being treated in the hospital. Our moods were somber, and my brother and I didn’t know what was going to happen next. We spent our days watching Scoobie Doo in the hotel room or outside the hospital eating Good and Plenty candy and sweet tarts. As long as there were sweets to occupy my time, I could focus on something other than the echoes of my sister’s scream and the sirens that were already becoming embedded in my memory.
When the time came to travel back home, the car seats were covered in white sheets and the interior was sprayed with Lysol. It was essential to keep things as clean as possible to prevent the baby’s 3rd degree burns from becoming infected. The poor baby looked like a mummy wrapped in bandages, whimpering and lying in my mom’s lap in the backseat.
My mom was becoming extremely angry and distressed, blaming all of us for our parts in what happened – my dad for leaving the coffee sitting within reach, and my brother and I for not watching her better. The softness in her face that had been there this past summer was vanishing now, like the warm southern air fading away as we drove farther north.
My mom watched over Ana around the clock, shutting the rest of us out. The house was filled with tension, and our only relief was when my dad drove my mom and the baby to the hospital for a dressing change. So relieved were my brother and I to have the house to ourselves, that we started wrestling and wildly chasing each other instead of cleaning our rooms as directed. Our playfulness soon turned into fighting, and by the time my mom and dad arrived home with the baby, we were screaming at each other. It was one of the few times my dad struck me with a belt. Even then I knew his anger had little to do with our wild behavior.
The silence that followed for the next few days, interspersed with my sister’s crying, was almost worse than my mom’s yelling. The ominous feeling in the air continued until late winter, when my sister’s wounds gradually began to heal, leaving pink scars on her neck and chest.
Somewhere my mom had read about cod-liver oil preventing scars, so every day she laid my sister on our washing machine and rubbed the oil onto her freshly healing chest until it was raw. The screaming and crying was almost unbearable.
“Come and see” My mom would call to us “do you see those little grains, I think the scar is breaking up!” and then she would return to her rubbing.
I look back now and wonder, did that scar represent something bigger to my mom? Did it represent her own guilt about leaving town during the holidays to get away from her siblings and my dad’s family? Did she think about it every time she looked at me and my father. Somehow my brother had now been absolved of any of the blame, leaving my dad and I to share equal parts of her condemnation.
The coming of spring brought with it a bit of relief. When my mom announced she was once again pregnant, our excitement was subdued. There was no dancing this time around, only a quiet determination on her part to heal my sister’s wounds. I believed she would be able to one day. Hopefully one day soon, so that we could once again experience the joy of a new life being brought into our family.
I was ready to greet this new baby with the wide open arms of optimism and love.