The Write Side: One Small Step (May-June 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

By Martha Heady

My parents’ bed was backwards. That’s the first thing I remember. Standing in the doorway, I saw their big, grownup bed turned so that the side for your feet was against the wall, and the side for your head pointed toward the door. Stranger still, there was a coffee-can, the kind that was too big to fit in the kitchen cabinet, heaped full of nails and placed inside a canvas sack tied with thin rope to boards at the edge of the bed. And my mother lay on the bed – actually in bed in the middle of the day – with the rope connected to the can of nails, tied to some kind of strap around her chin. It didn’t make sense, and it looked like it hurt. “It’s called ‘traction’,” Daddy said. “It’s to help Mama get well from our wreck.” After the hospital let Mama come home, they gave Daddy the canvas sack, the rope, a pulley, and the strap that hooked the whole thing together and which she slipped around her head and under her chin, just like the winter cap my grandmother knitted for me but it never got cold enough to wear. Since Daddy was an engineer – but not the kind who rode on a train – he knew how to rig up the pulley system. They told Daddy how heavy the sack had to be, so he plunked the coffee can on our bathroom scale and kept dropping in ten-penny nails until it weighed enough. “Can you feel the bones beneath your skin?” Daddy said as he curled my fingers, under his, around the back of my neck. “All the bones in Mama’s back got hurt when that car hit ours. So we have to stretch them apart, very slowly, for two more months. And after that, maybe she won’t hurt so much.”

He showed me a little card Mama kept close because it was her favorite verse, a verse I’d learned in Vacation Bible School, about mounting up with wings as eagles, creatures I’d never seen in real life, but knew were supposed to be even bigger than the mockingbirds shrieking in our yard. On Mama’s dresser, turned so she could see it, stood the folding clock Daddy took with him on business trips, and beside it the kitchen timer. And that seemed strange, too. The timer ticked for two things only: something in the oven, and whether my sister Donna had practiced the piano for 30 minutes. Yet here it sat, in the bedroom, and Mama seemed interested in both timepieces. Once every three hours, she untied the straps from her chin, slowly got up, and set the timer for 15 minutes. When it made its croaky “bing”, she returned to bed, to the coffee-can, the nails. She was flattened on the bed, weighted down, but I could nestle in beside her as she stretched her arms around me, like a mother eagle’s wings against the white sheet.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Mama’s and Daddy’s car was big and yellow, with round humps over the tires and brown seats that stuck to the back of your legs in the summer. I had just turned five but still couldn’t see over the front seat. I wondered what it must have felt like that night at the stop sign, in the dark, the moon high above, with the headlights coming from nowhere and growing huge in Daddy’s rear-view mirror. The man behind them never slowed down. After that, it was a long time before the yellow car was back in the driveway. And from then on, anytime Daddy had to put the brakes on all of a sudden, Mama – who was so tough that once when we stumbled across a snake in our yard, she chopped it into pieces with a garden hoe – would grab the back of her neck and hunch down in her seat. She didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t think she even realized it. But that’s how I learned why a wreck was bad: the car could be fixed, but your mom was never quite the same.

* * * * * * * * * * *

For years after the traction was over, Mama still spent weeks at a time in the hospital. Sometimes it was for her bones again, but more often it was for something wrong deep inside, something I didn’t understand. Whenever that happened, Mrs. Weir came to stay with us. She was an elderly family friend whose glass eye was an object both of fascination and dread. Along with her glass eye, which Donna and I visualized as a cat’s-eye marble – and longed to see her remove – Mrs. Weir had the ability to cook animal-shaped pancakes to order – cats, dogs, birds – which needed only a tiny bit of imagination to recognize. I collected porcelain animals, most of which shared a loose interpretation of animal anatomy with those pancakes. My pride and joy was a small white poodle with a blue porcelain bow around its neck. This amazing animal could forecast the weather merely by changing colors: if the front right leg turned blue, rain was on the way. The front left leg forecast windy weather; the back right leg, snow; the back left leg, a heat wave. Since we lived in the desert, the back left leg lived out its existence in a more or less permanent shade of blue. Mrs. Weir walked with a limp, something we were instructed by Mama not to mention. (Mama failed to extend that prohibition to asking to see the glass eye, I’m sure because it never occurred to her that we would be brave enough to hazard the question – and she was right.)

One day Mrs. Weir told me she knew rain was on the way because of her hip. Now this was news! If only Donna and I could devise a way to see that hip: would it be bright blue? Just a pale blue? And what a marvel it would be if at the very same time Mrs. Weir showed us her blue weather-forecasting hip, she popped out her glass eyeball to show us that as well.

We never saw either the hip or the eyeball. As time passed, the porcelain poodle, perhaps weary of its forecasting duties, fell off my shelf and shattered into a blue mess that even I realized was past the power of Elmer’s glue. Some things never do get well, I was beginning to learn. Mama and I both lay down in the middle of the day, and many times all day. She scheduled doctor’s appointments so we could see Dr. Holt as a team: I’d promise to stay in one chair in the waiting room, paging through Highlights magazine, while she saw the doctor first. Then it was my turn, but of course Mama remained as Dr. Holt, kindly and apologetic, stuck me with needles for blood tests and, later, for transfusions, as together we battled Mama’s stubborn insides and the blood disease with the fancy name that kept me out of elementary school. For six years Mama brewed iced tea and talked with Cecilia Hockett, my teacher from the “Homebound” program who spent two hours twice a week tutoring me on all the subjects the classmates I didn’t have were studying. Mrs. Hockett had purply-red hair and a sweet smile, and close-up you could see how her face powder settled into the lines around her lips. I’d sit in my bed after lessons were over, with a science book on my lap, my cat Cuddles and about fifteen stuffed animals snuggled up beside me, listening to Mrs. Hockett’s and Mama’s voices lilting down the hall. And sometimes, if I wasn’t hurting too much, or if both of us had extra energy, Mama would sneak me off to the TG&Y for a sundae from their soda fountain. By now the kitchen timer was back where it belonged, but Mama still kept the “We shall mount up with wings as eagles” verse on her bedside table.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Daddy’s telescope usually lived in the hall closet. But on clear nights, he’d set the glossy body on its spiky legs in our backyard. You didn’t look through the end of the telescope, like the pirates in Treasure Island did; instead you peered through a skinny tube on the side. Donna and I would bonk our eyes against the opening a few times before we got the hang of it, Daddy patiently explaining how to keep both eyes open but look through only one. After staring intently at what turned out to be my own eyelash pressed against the glass, I’d finally get my telescope-vision and be able to distinguish whatever marvel Daddy had chosen: dimples on some far-flung planet, a cluster of stars. You glanced up from the eyepiece and there were the Franklin Mountains outlined against the black horizon, then you looked back into the telescope to see the curved edge of the moon.

* * * * * * * * * * *

We spent parts of summers and most holidays with assorted cousins: those from New Mexico, those from Back East, those on the Other Side of Our Mountain, and the Favorite Cousins. When my New Mexico cousins visited, bringing their collie Lady with them, I marveled at how much she looked like Lassie, a show so heartbreaking I could never make it through an entire episode. The closing credits alone were enough to send me back to my room in tears. Lady remained home in Albuquerque after the Christmas she ate several glass angels off our Christmas tree and then had to be fed bowls of oatmeal to keep the ornaments from cutting up her insides on the way down. We younger cousins spent hours coloring: Carol Dee (an Other Side of Our Mountain cousin), who loved horses with a passion and had as many on her shelves as I had porcelain animals, drawing endless variations of horses in the same position, the distance between their front and hind legs your only clue as to whether they were running or standing still; me, cats – always cats – especially after I figured out how to do that hump formed by their back legs when they curled up beside you; and Kyle (a New Mexico cousin) drawing planets, rockets, and swirls of galaxies.

In the summer of 1969, I was ten years old and the grownups talked of nothing but Apollo 11 and the moon landing soon to come. This time we wouldn’t just watch the astronauts drifting upside-down toward each other inside their ship, or see that shiny pod crash into the ocean, the crew poking their heads through the door while Mama heaved a huge sigh of relief. No, this time we’d actually see someone throw open a door, let go, and step literally into another world. Beyond an interest in the picture I’d seen of Neil Armstrong, grinning like he knew a really good secret, his hair flat across the top just like Daddy’s, the closest I came to an understanding of the solar system were the weekly episodes of Lost in Space we were allowed – as a special treat – to watch while actually eating dinner on a TV tray, something unheard of in our family unless you were sick. I had a secret crush on Major Don West; the brash young pilot whom I was certain would wind up marrying Judy if the family could only become Found in Space. Don seemed to have a special knack for getting injured, resulting in dramatic music and a chance for Judy to nurse him back to health. One night as my sister Donna and I watched the show while sharing Jiffy Pop (an even rarer treat) with a babysitter, Major Don once again met the business end of some interstellar weapon, and this time collapsed, eyes closed, Judy nowhere in sight. I asked the sitter what was wrong – was he dead? “No”, she replied, “he just got knocked out.” Although I assumed a totally false air of comprehension, I knew no more than before. Was this an illness? Could getting “knocked out” explain all the times I had to stay in bed? Was Mama “knocked out” when we visited her at Hotel, a Catholic hospital with nuns as nurses and frightening paintings of Jesus on the cross, the sword marks and thorn prints with all the blood left on? If Major Don could be knocked out, what about Neil Armstrong? Now there was a thought. He might open the Eagle, his space ship – “No!” my cousin Kyle always insisted; “It’s a lunar landing craft!!”– exactly like the Life magazine diagrams specified, and be knocked out–wham!–the moment he stepped onto the moon. I wished Neil no harm, but it might be interesting, just to see if he cried afterwards. I wondered which scared Neil the most: staying in that spaceship, nowhere near as big as the one on “Lost in Space”, or climbing out of it.

* * * * * * * * * **

One day Mama and Daddy brought me a paper carton with little wire handles – just like the chow mein from Happy Buddha came in – but inside was a miniature turtle to keep me company while I was confined to my bed and he to his turtle home. Muzzy became the first in a series of miniature turtles whose brief lives consisted of scrabbling around their plastic enclosure until their shells became soft and they ended up in an empty Jell-O box, buried beside the backyard playhouse. We went through so many of these hapless green companions that for awhile the pantry shelf was lined with sad little sacks of Jell-O without their protective containers – much like the turtles themselves. Mama took potluck when she opened a packet: would it be lime tonight? Cherry? The standard favorite, strawberry-banana?

My final turtle, Professor Higgins, followed the usual routine: crawling, shell-softening, glazed-eyes, and not moving for a whole day, even when I placed him in a cereal bowl out in the sunlight, watching him tearfully for any sign of life. We allowed him one extra day, just in case, but no miracle occurred. Mama finally opened a Jell-O box, and I placed Professor Higgins inside. Instantly, his head jutted out, four stout turtle legs popped out and made cartoon-like efforts to get traction, and he was off and running, demonstrating with impressive speed the notion that “The Tortoise and the Hare” was no fluke. This striking example of miraculous rebirth had one serious drawback: you had to concentrate awfully hard on the miracle to keep yourself from wondering whether a similar miracle might have happened – too late – to Professor Higgins’ predecessors. And if in an instant a turtle could be healed, or scared back to life, could fly out of that box as if he’d sprouted wings, why hadn’t Mama soared from her yellow car a split second before the wreck? Why was she still so sick? And where did that leave me? Professor Higgins scurried around his plastic home with newfound speed while I pulled up my covers and wondered why.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Our Favorite Cousins belonged to Aunt Sissy, who let us paint our fingernails with real paint, not nail polish like everyone else used. She and my sister tried out Sissy’s recipe for hand lotion, which generated an unexpectedly high number of jars filled with sticky cream. We watched Mission: Impossible on their color television, hollering for my parents when the NBC peacock spread its tail, a totally different sight than the shades-of-gray peacock on our own tiny black and white set. My older cousins, handsome, long-haired, and generous with a small girl who thought they hung the moon, taught me how to play the guitar and which songs on a restaurant’s jukebox were worth my dime. Christmas there embraced all creatures great and small, from the elderly spaniel named Poopsie (so beloved by my distinguished, silver-haired uncle that he stood at the door and called, “Poopsie! Poopsie!” regardless of his dignity), to my cousin Danny’s German Shepherd who howled along as his master played the guitar and harmonica simultaneously, to my cousin Bobby’s white mice who lived in a cardboard liquor crate in the garage. Bobby’s ill-fated effort to keep the mice warm by placing a lit candle in their box met with predictably tragic results, with the added drama of a row of spray paint cans exploding around the garage like rockets. My aunt assured me with perfect gravity that the mice had fallen asleep long before any fire began. But I could see it in my mind: the smoke, the flames, and the rockets shooting off, each with a white mouse clinging to it on its way to the unknown.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When the night of the moon landing finally arrived, my sister and I begged, bartered, and finally won permission to spend it with our Other Side of Our Mountain cousins. Donna ended up at the cousin’s house, but my personal cousin, Carol Dee, would spend the night with me. Even better, we were given the choice of staying in the house all alone while my parents watched the Apollo 11 telecast two doors down on a neighbor’s big color TV, or joining them there. Of course we opted to stay by ourselves, becoming visibly more grown-up at the very idea, promising we wouldn’t get scared. Carol Dee and I would have sole possession of our television with its contrary foil-wrapped antenna, the same set on which we’d seen the Beatles perform for Ed Sullivan while my parents shook their heads over how long those boys wore their hair. And afterwards, if we wanted, we could spend the rest of the night on bedrolls in our playhouse.

The playhouse sat in the backyard against our high rock wall, and was big enough for adults to stand up in, though they had to duck down just a bit to fit through the door. Daddy built it as a miniature replica of our house, painted the same two shades of tan, with real shingles on the roof, floors of speckled linoleum leftover from the kitchen, and top-hinged glass windows that you propped open with sticks and yanked your fingers out of the way when it was time for them to close. Donna and I spent hours there, wearing Mama’s old nightgowns, pale silky dresses that trailed behind us in the grass and got snagged on stickers. We were pioneers, exploring the prairie like Laura Ingalls Wilder, tending sick stuffed animals and baby dolls with our stock of herbs: dried blossoms which we gathered from the purple wisteria covering the rock wall, and crammed into old Gerber’s baby food jars. Our prized just-to-look-at dolls had been Mama’s when she was little: a plump baby doll with a cracked porcelain face, and an elegant bride doll with a cracked porcelain face and her own padded fabric case. It was long and narrow, just large enough to hold the doll and her satin train, and each time we lowered the lid it felt like consigning her to her coffin. The small strip of ground between the playhouse and the wall separating our yard from cranky Mr. Ericson’s was the turtle burial ground, with now and then a tiny heap of softer earth indicating the presence of a new resident.

Many were the nights Carol Dee and I bundled up our sleeping bags, pillows, and stuffed animals and headed out to the backyard playhouse, where Daddy brought us each a slice of buttered bread sprinkled with sugar, the official bedtime-in-the-playhouse snack. Just as many were the nights Carol Dee and I clutched one another, glancing wildly around for the source of untold sinister noises, and reviewed our choices: to tough it out in the playhouse – but what if that sound was locked inside with us; or to make a break for it and race across the entire back yard and into the house – but what if that sound was out there, on the loose? And why, all of a sudden, did we think about those turtles buried right outside the playhouse door, those turtles that might or might not have been dead when they ended up there inside their Jell-O boxes? Never once had we managed the entire night anywhere else but tucked firmly into the princess bed in my room after a harrowing sprint across the yard.

But tonight was different; tonight Neil Armstrong was going to walk on the moon, knocked out or not, and we would be safe and sound inside my very own house, watching him do it. Yes, safe and sound, we two big girls alone in the den, literally locked inside, with the television drowning out any suspicious noises. We flopped down on the couch with its scratchy beige cushions after jiggling the TV antenna just like Daddy always did. Yet somehow it began to feel like a bigger version of the playhouse out back, the two of us the only people in a room getting creepier by the minute, the grownups we insisted we didn’t need to have around now separated from us by two whole houses and a long sloping driveway.

The grainy picture began to take shape – the Eagle had landed, its spindly legs settling onto the surface – and Neil was ready to step outside onto Tranquility Base. What would it feel like, alone in the dark, high above the heads of the whole world, moving through the sky: like an angel? One of Mama’s eagles? We heard Mission Control with its “Roger that” and “Over”; Neil Armstrong’s voice crackled in our ears. Onscreen the picture jerked up and down, the voices cutting in and out. But then we heard him announce that giant leap; he had done it. There, finally, was the print of his boot, the ridges on the sole sinking deep into the powdery ground. We watched as Neil and his crewman Buzz Aldrin took turns filming one another. Unrecognizable in his suit – arms and legs twice their size, that frisky grin hidden behind the glass globe of his helmet – he bounced gently across the gray expanse of the moon. For all the equipment strapped onto his frame, he moved as if weightless, completely untethered to this, or any, world.

Carol Dee and I stared at each other, eyes wide. Why not learn how it felt, stepping beyond our world, this room tinged green from the TV, two angels, two eagles even bigger than mockingbirds? What if you truly believed you were speeding forward, not running away from what you feared? Why not try it? So we did it – threw open the door and pelted down the driveway, the warm evening wind at our backs. We stopped, our Keds squeaking on the cement, and tilted back our heads. Above us glowed the golden west Texas moon, with the very footprints we’d just watched being made somewhere on its surface, new ones being formed even now.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Over the years, the playhouse gradually became a toolshed, mowers and paint buckets edging out our pioneer stock of medicinal petals. When I saw it two years ago for the last time, as we took down the “Sold” sign in the front yard, I had to duck my head to step inside. There was the linoleum floor, buckling after 30 years of Texas summers; there was the turtle graveyard, the wisteria hanging heavy along the rock wall.

Carol Dee grew up to own a spread of land, complete with real horses; her sister inexplicably became a taxidermist, fitting glass eyeballs into the reconstructed game birds bagged by hunters. My New Mexico cousins seemed to self-destruct with time, battling – and for the most part succumbing to – abuse, addictions, and spectacularly bad marriages. Kyle put away his sketches of rockets and instead became an air traffic controller, serving as a Mission Control of sorts until he was felled by untreatable vertigo and no desire to live. The Favorite Cousins kept their hair long and their attitude to the law fairly slack, and we no longer brought guitars to family gatherings. NASA missions became so commonplace that most of us weren’t even aware of their occurrence; Lost in Space was made into a movie. And I finally learned the hard way (during a short-lived swing-set game I’d invented myself in which one player would pump his swing as hard as possible while the other player – me – ran back and forth in front of him) what it meant to be knocked out.

Mama was still no stranger to the hospital, but now Donna and I were old enough to be allowed in during visiting hours. I learned about lupus, cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and the countless other diagnoses handed down to Mama, and I learned how to pronounce my own blood disease. We were still a team – though without Dr. Holt for many years now – comparing notes, alternating roles as patient and caregiver. Whatever had gone wrong when our bodies were formed, whatever was left out or put in when it shouldn’t have been, taught Mama, who then taught me, to exult in the good days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, when the pain eased, or the energy returned. You opened your eyes to the unfamiliar sensation of being unencumbered, of having slipped out of a harness. So you made your bed, or cooked your family a meal, or painted a picture, or graduated from college, knowing that at any second the timer would sound, calling you back to the bed, to the pain, to the coffee-can of nails.

And yet, during those buoyant moments of freedom, what possibilities shimmer there, only slightly beyond the horizon. I see a footprint – my size – sunk in an entirely unexpected world, and feel the warm breeze of a moonlit Texas night at my back.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataNovember 26th, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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