Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sister, Savior

Screams cut through the air. Barely muted by the closed bedroom door, they were the shrieks of torment and fear. I struggled to get up from the waterbed, propping my calves against the wood frame and pushing my hands down by my sides. My hands shoved down farther until they hit bottom, the wood below the mattress – damn, there must be another leak. As I tilted forward onto my feet I felt Mom standing in my doorway, hand raised as if to knock on my half-open door. She looked tired, wasted from the effort of simply breathing, and her cheeks sagged in defeat. My eyes met her flat, clouded ones and she quickly looked away, ashamed that she had been caught trying to decide whether to ask for help. I said nothing as I walked behind her, but smoothed my hand lightly across her linen shirt on my way by. I’d take care of it.

The cheap doorknob, brass paint chipping off in my hand, turned easily and rattled loosely as I cracked the door open. Although it was a bright spring day outside, this room was a cave. The shades drawn, the floor strewn with clothes and journals and stuffed animals. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I took shallow breaths through my nose, trying not to smell the familiar scent of fear, sweat, unwashed little girl. I scanned the shadowy piles of bedclothes and dirty laundry and my eyes did a double-take and jerked back to the corner.

She sat slumped on a sour-smelling heap, her toes protruding slightly from underneath her Strawberry Shortcake nightgown. Her unruly black hair fell on either side of her face, fixed in knots like wild blackberry brambles. There was no indication that she knew I had come in – no break in the deafening reverberations that saturated the room. She had some lungs, that one.

I dropped my hand from the knob and picked my way through to her, squatting down in front of her nest.

“Shhh, shhh, baby. I’m here.” I whispered. I knew better than to touch her at this stage. She would recoil as if from an electric shock and let her anger fly at me, a cobra’s defense.

“Shhh, shhh, baby. I’m here.” My mantra repeated over and over again. As the words began to breach the barrier she had thrown up, the screaming turned a corner and became guttural. I continued to whisper, the cadence of my voice never changing and within minutes she was taking great hiccoughing breaths, sucking in the sour air of this place. She would not look at me still hiding in her rounded ball. Shock waves radiated from her, an earthquake that kept shuddering and traumatizing the ground around it for miles. Tears soaked the hem of her favorite nightgown, dripping steadily from her lower jaw as she began to rock. That was my cue.

I sat down cross-legged, something sharp underneath my right leg poked through my jeans. Shifting, I pulled her into my lap, settling her small frame into the hole created in my lap. She fit perfectly. She remained tightly curled, a frightened potato bug unsure that it was safe to come out yet. We rocked back and forth, my arms encircling this defenseless creature as I continued to chant, “I’m here, sweetie. I’m here.” I wouldn’t say the words ‘it’s okay’ because we both knew it was not. I wouldn’t patronize her with those words.

Slowly her back uncurled like a fern frond. We had been there for hours or maybe just minutes. Time was of no consequence in this room. We would do what had to be done to complete the cycle. I breathed slowly and deeply. This was right.

The first time I had held her like this she weighed less than a puppy. Two months old, she had measles and a tapeworm and had just been evacuated from an orphanage in Vietnam. Her shock of cornsilk hair stood up tall and black from the top of her head – an exclamation point. Here I am, it yelled. I was three years old, settled way in to the back of the wooden rocking chair, feet barely dangling over the edge of the seat. Someone had placed this bundle of blankets into my expectant lap and she hardly made a dent. Her flannel cocoon was warm and her smooth brown cheeks lay nestled in a makeshift hood.

“What do you think?” my father asked.

“I love this baby. She’s mine. I’m going to keep her,” I said matter-of-factly. I had a big brother and a baby doll named David, but this warm little creature was real and perfect and a girl.

Today, I couldn’t help but recall that first impression. She was mine. Mine to care for and protect. I couldn’t fail her. She filled the hole. I could fix this. Her rounded chin lifted just slightly and the hair fell away from her face. Her hot chocolate eyes looked up at me, large and questioning. Her body was eight years old, but she was my baby. The left side of my mouth curled up and I nodded my chin at her. Slowly unclenching one fist, she lodged her thumb in her mouth.

“Hey,” I murmured softly, “get that nasty thing out of there! You’re too big for that, silly.”

She smiled around her thumb, a gentle glow in her eyes. I gripped her wrist and tugged lightly as her bicep strained against the force. A small giggle escaped from the corner of her lips and I increased the pressure. We played this little game of tug-of-war silently until she relented and let me win. Her wrinkly thumb popped out and a silver string of spit hung like a spider’s silk, a bridge back to her full bottom lip.

“Whew! Got it out,” I smiled gently.

Another giggle erupted as she slid her thumb back in.

“Oh, no! Not again.” We were the only players in this drama, the choreography had been worked out meticulously. A few more minutes and she would be ready to stand up and brush off the crumbs of this morning’s trauma. No discussion. No explanation. Play your role and move on. She didn’t want to talk and I didn’t want to know. By this afternoon she would be raiding my closet like a pesky younger sister and tagging along after me and my friends. No telling when we would be called to the stage again, but if I had to admit it, I was happy to be the one to do this. It was my job. I wanted to save her. Kari to the rescue.


Kim Meisner said...

What an incredibly powerful piece. It took my breath away--the love, the fear, the incredible responsibility you shouldered, and the absolutely beautiful writing. I was in that room with you. Wonderful.

Jerri said...

What Kim said_me, too. Right there in the room, hearing and seeing it all.

Wonderful piece, Kari.

Kari to the rescue. How true.


Suzy said...

Stunning piece, puts us right there with you.

Scott from Oregon said...


Deb said...

Wow! It's clear to me that you came here to love children and to help the rest of us experience that love through your writing. I hope you'll share more of this story.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

"We would do what had to be done to complete the cycle." Gorgeous.

Michelle O'Neil said...

Wow Kari,

This is really beautiful, powerful writing.


holly said...

ditto everyone. WOW!

Miss Devylish said...

Makes a lot more sense now regarding how things went during high school..

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