catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 14 :: 2014.07.11 — 2014.07.24


The secret separation

I was just seven years old when a police officer shook me awake in the middle of the night. He took me from the warm coziness of my bed, which I had shared with my mother since my father’s death a year earlier, to the cold, cramped, and now brightly lit kitchen of our two-family house. 

A second officer sat at the pale, green Formica kitchen table, which rocked back and forth on the uneven linoleum floor each time he leaned forward and then straightened up. He jotted down notes on a thick pad with coffee stains on it as he talked to someone on his radio.

“536 Van Buren Street. Bushwick.”

I cleared my throat, but with no intention to say anything out loud.

My heart pounded, my ears hurt when I swallowed, and I crossed and squeezed my legs together to keep from wetting myself.

Where is Mommy? What’s going on? Why are the policemen here?

Was I in trouble for lighting that Marlboro I found in the kitchen drawer the other day?

The squeak-cry of the bottom step of the stairs that led to our front door drew my attention to the silhouette image of my mother inching left-together, right-together, reaching for the cast iron banister outside. A paramedic helped her.

Why was Mommy bent over and holding her stomach like I did when Grandma gave me too many apricots?

The paramedics directed my mother to a stretcher, then blanketed and belted her before lifting her into the ambulance. This already surreal image was augmented by a siren that rotated and flashed, but made no noise.     

Please, God, I begged. Don’t let anything happen to Mommy; she’s all I have. She just can’t die.

I forgot all about having to go to the bathroom.

Moments later, I was in the squad car in my pajamas and my slippers, next to one of the officers, who had put his navy blue hat on my head.  It smelled like plastic toys, new leather and dry cleaning fluid — exactly like my father’s old Air Force hat used to smell.

Even perched up on the armrest of the back seat, I struggled to see out the front window. That silent siren now screamed through the night air, filling it with a strange, inappropriate excitement until the unthinkable happened. The ambulance we followed turned right at the same intersection where we turned left.

And there it was again — that fear of being left behind, that angst of body and soul that refused to relinquish control until I was a step closer to the abandonment it promised. I felt it when I would be out with my mom. We would walk hand-in-hand, then I would stop to tie my shoe or to pick up something I dropped, and she would continue walking. I was scared to death every single time that I might not ever catch back up to her. I always knew she would one day be taken — against both her will and mine. Just taken.  

The backseat officer told me my mom was sick and was going to the hospital. Period.

We continued to our destination. Too frightened to say anything, I preferred to interrogate the officer in my head alone.

What is this place? When will I be able to see Mommy? Why can’t I just stay at Grandma and Grandpop’s house? How long will I be here?

The long walk down the hallway at the Brooklyn Children’s Home was orchestrated by the crack-pop gum chewing of the woman whose hand held mine. The room where she delivered me was Tootsie Roll long, narrow and dark with several girls asleep on perfectly aligned beds on one side of it. 

On the other side, there were no girls, just a single row of identical beds with plain, white sheets, grey wool blankets, and grey and white striped pillows that peeped out the sides of white pillow cases. The woman who held my hand escorted me to one of those beds and said good night. 

No stories of kings, queens and faraway lands. No singing of “Good Night, Sweetheart. No trip to the bathroom.

I longed for the sound of my mother breathing next to me, and for the smell of Midnight in Paris always in the air when she was around. And I hoped the people at the hospital knew, as I did from watching Quinn Martin’s F.B.I., that you could tell if a person was alive by holding a mirror in front of their face, and seeing whether or not the mirror would get foggy. 

Would they take good care of Mommy?  Would she be safe? 

I bunched up the corner of the top sheet and nibbled on it, pretending it was the fuzzy nose of the cuddly, stuffed dog I was accustomed to sleeping with.

I wet the bed.

The next morning, I heard two women say I was the same age as another girl, just before one of the women came over and dressed me in that girl’s oversized clothes, rolled up the sleeves and cuffed the dungarees. 

I wished I had my own clothes.  I wished I had my own toys, especially my cuddly dog. I wished I knew what was going on.

My spot at the dining room table that day and every day was right by the kitchen door.  Each morning for a week I smelled and watched an institutional-sized soup kettle, sitting on an institutional-sized stove, plop-plop and boil over with thick, lumpy oatmeal that looked as though someone else had already eaten it. 

I never ate oatmeal again after that.

Each afternoon for a week, I would walk up the hill at playtime, squat down to pull out a blade of grass, watch my feet slide forward several inches in my oversized shoes, and wonder what was going on. 

Then one day, unannounced, the nightmare ended. The police picked me up, and dropped me off at home into my mother’s care as unremarkably as taking me out for ice cream might have been. 

I peppered my mom with questions, bright-eyed with the curiosity and wonder any second grader having been through this nightmarish terror would have had.  Her response, however, was that we just wouldn’t talk about this having happened, and so my questions never did get answered. 

Even years later at a family event, when I mentioned something about having been in an orphanage before, someone pulled me aside and yelled at me saying, “Don’t you know that’s supposed to be a secret?”

My mother was not someone I could ever force into disclosure, not even for something this critical to me — not even for something that would inevitably rob me of many years of the perceived peace safety, and tranquility that I might have said were the rites of childhood. Though just seven years of age, I already knew too much of her personal struggles, too much of her having been beaten by my father, too much of her having been forced into too many things — too much, period. 

And so, if she somehow needed to guard this — my baptism by fire into the world of abandonment, insecurity and fear with secrecy, choosing to let it remain a mystery even to the one it most injuriously affected — then my sometimes unquenchable rage toward her, and toward every other adult who should have known better how to handle this outrageous situation, would have to eventually be subdued by the fact that she is my mother, and I love her.

To death. 


And even in this, there is forgiveness.

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