Nonfiction by Sophie Buckner
It’s 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, January 30th, 2007. Blue and red lights splatter on snow and ice. Sirens scream through cold air. I watch my mom kneeling by my dad, who lies on packed snow with blood trickling from one nostril. She’s pushing down on his chest with one hand on top of the other. Forcing his heart to beat. Trying to stop him from dying. Trying to keep what some call a soul from leaving his body cold and limp.
The summer before, I stood looking at a gray wall of names. I was trying to feel sad. Every name represented a person who had died, but how could I feel sad for someone when I wasn’t even alive to remember that person’s death?
We had spent the first week of our Hawaiian vacation on The Big Island snorkeling and hiking through volcanic rock. Then we went to Oahu and had decided to dedicate one day to Pearl Harbor. The harbor was still, but the stillness was laced with a hum of terror—voices from the past yelling orders, screaming as they died, or praying to God. Over two thousand people died here. I could imagine their fear but couldn’t mourn for those I hadn’t lost. I had gone through the museum and seen the movie and the black and white pictures. I had taken the boat to the memorial with the glass floor and seen the eroding remains of the USS Arizona, and now I stood before the gray wall of names belonging to the dead. But the museum, the pictures, the names were all just isolated pieces in a terrible haze. They weren’t connected to my reality or even to each other. I didn’t understand what had happened or how it happened, but mostly I didn’t understand death. I had met it before, but death was still an elusive concept.
I don’t know what everybody else felt at Pearl Harbor that day, but I imagine they felt much the same as I did. This place was becoming a distant memory in the world’s past. As the years move on, it slides slowly away until it completely disconnects with our world and becomes a curiosity for future generations—some old ruins with a mysterious meaning, like Stonehenge. The world will have forgotten yet one more great atrocity done to it.
My first memory of death was when I was eight or nine. Timbrow was an old horse who had health problems, but my sister, Jessie, and I were still shocked when we found him. We were playing in the back yard. Pretending to be wild animals or princesses, but our game halted when we both saw the reddish brown heap in the pasture across the fence. We’d never seen our horse lying on the ground before, except to roll in the dust. But this time, he wasn’t moving. I think we knew something more than sleep had taken Timbrow. Death was here, but since we were so young, we didn’t recognize it. We didn’t know the sterile feeling that replaced the warmth in the summer air was death.
When we reached Timbrow, he didn’t clamber to his feet like we’d hoped he would. His large brown snout lay on the dust and dry grass, blood trickling from one large nostril. Jessie and I stood over him and realized the terrible sadness. Even as I felt the tears slide down my cheeks, I still asked myself, “Is he dead?” I remember us in dresses as we stood crying over the corpse, but I know that my tomboy sister and I only wore dresses to church. Still, my memory creates a romanticized picture of two barefoot girls wearing sundresses, Jessie’s was blush pink and mine was yellow, patterned with tiny purple flowers. My memory even goes as far as putting daisies in our hands as we cried over the hulking corpse, at our first good look at death.
Jessie and I are in the “Consolation Room,” waiting with runny noses and red eyes. The couches are red, and the end tables each have a yellow box of tissues. As Dad is dying in the Emergency Room down the hall, I’m thinking that Dad cannot die. Convincing myself that God won’t let him.
My mom, a nurse, had been in the room with the doctors, but she finally comes in and tells us it is over. She leads us to Dad’s body to say goodbye. I sit next to the hospital bed and take Dad’s cold, white hand. Staining the white sheets, blood pours from a puncture where an IV has been removed from his forearm. Blood that was so precious a few minutes ago is now wasted on a bed sheet.
When we walk out, our family doctor, Dr. Allen, approaches my mother with his big hands hanging at his sides. He tries to say something but only stutters. He towers above Mom, but he seems almost scared of her. Shaking his head, he lumbers away.
I was only 6 or 7 when my sister, our neighborhood friend, and I sought a good look at death. I don’t know why we did it. I guess three wild girls on a long summer day needed something to do. But as soon as our best friend Carissa held up the dirty Sprite bottle, my stomach lurched.
Jessie’s tree frog, Goldie, had died, and Jessie, Carissa, and I stared at the makeshift casket we had buried her in a month ago. We had expected to see that same tiny, pale frog body we’d put into the bottle, but instead at the bottom of the bottle rested a chunky murky liquid. Carissa shook the bottle, and the deteriorated remains splashed around inside. Goldie was now a swirl of unrecognizable bits.
“They’re going to take him now,” Mom says through sobs. “Don’t look, girls.” Her voice is high-pitched and pleading. “Don’t look, don’t look,” she repeats frantically when I don’t turn my head from the open hospital door. I don’t understand why a seasoned nurse would turn away in terror from a body bag. I want to see them take Dad away, but the sobs in my mom’s voice cause me to turn my head down toward the tile. In a few minutes, I hear shuffling and see in my mind two faceless men carrying a long heavy black bag out the glass doors to the parking lot.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Mom says to a blonde nurse sitting by us. “How am I going to take care of my girls?”
I remember January 30, 2007 and the months that followed in chunks. Images churn in my memory with no order or connection. They’re just a haze. Not only are the images disconnected from each other, but they’re also disconnected from me. Even as I write about my father’s death, I can’t connect clearly with what I remember. I can write the events all down without even feeling my throat tighten or my eyes grow wet. It’s like the girl in the memories wasn’t really me. My own memories have become as unreal to me as the tragedy at Pearl Harbor felt to that naïve 15-year-old girl on summer vacation. I feel like I’m staring at that wall again. It floats before me reflecting flashes of a different world where I’m lying in my dad’s place in my parents’ bed crying silently and holding my sleeping mother’s hand, where I’m waking to Mom screaming and running through snow in purple pajamas, and where I’m looking at my dad wearing all white in his casket. Even as I see these scraps of memories, they are slipping away and even warping. Is that really what happened? Did Dr. Allen meet us before we saw the body? Where was I standing when the paramedics came? I thought Dad was wearing a black suit in the casket. The more time passes, the more I forget. Sometimes I’m scared that someday I won’t remember my father at all—that someday, I’ll go digging for a memory of him, and what I find will be a murky swirl of unrecognizable bits.
Death is synonymous with forgetting. Once people leave our lives, we start forgetting them. Maybe it’s a blessing; forgetting dulls the pain, so we can continue living. Those who can’t forget have to carry the pain until death comes for them. Part of me wants to be one of those people who never forgets, who wants to always remember the sting of losing someone. Like somehow, if I keep that pain, I will be keeping my father.
But I’m not being completely honest when I say I don’t feel the pain of my father’s death anymore. On every January 30th, that sting comes bubbling up again. All January, it sits waiting in my belly. Then a word from a friend, a quiet moment on my bed, or a kick from my pregnant tummy, and I’m suddenly listening to my own sobs. Wondering why I’m crying for something I can’t fully remember. It’s like my body remembers something my mind doesn’t, like it remembers the position of the earth in its orbit that means January 30th.
It’s been over ten years. And this year, on January 31st, I realized I had forgotten about January 30th. My body hadn’t reacted, hadn’t doubled over in rattling sobs. Had I truly evaded the pain for even that one day of the year? Was I really that callous? It had been a stressful week. A sick baby. A strenuous workload in my graduate studies. Maybe it was just the distractions that made me forget to mourn my father.
All of January 31st, I let the guilt for not mourning stew in my stomach. But I have work to do. A paper to finish for class that evening. I work through the day and finish just in time. In class, we all take turns reading our papers out loud, and when it’s my turn, words coast out of my mouth. But suddenly something breaks. I let out a laugh. And then another. I can’t stop laughing. I feel hot as my peers’ gazes rest on me, as I imagine their confusion. I feel my eyes getting wet, and I laugh harder to hide the tears. I’m not going to make it through. My chest burns, and I stutter out a few more words between giggles. “I’m sorry. I’m on minimal sleep, and I feel a little loopy.” It’s not a complete lie. I ask a friend to finish for me and barely hear her calm, even reading as I keep my eyes on the page and focus on my breath.
The experience embarrasses me, scares me. I wonder if I’m going crazy. But it’s also a relief. To know that, even though I don’t remember everything about my father’s death—the experience that scarred my life—my body still remembers and can recall that pain. So maybe that’s why we build walls for the dead and plant stone markers over rotting corpses. To scar the earth with human pain, so its body will remember and bear record of our suffering.
Sophie Buckner is a PhD student at the University of Connecticut studying rhetoric and composition. Her poetry and nonfiction can be found in Foliate Oak Magazine, The Offbeat, and Pilgrimage Press.