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the lost years

I spent almost 25 years living alone in New York. There might be a moment on a shoot, when it became clear we would be running late. Phones were slid from pockets, as the crew had hushed conversations with their loved ones. That solemn, apologetic tone was the same no matter who was talking as they answered the question "When will you be home?" I had no one, nothing but an empty apartment and some dirty dishes. I had half-written books, and guitars leaning against the walls. There was film in the cameras, waiting to be developed.

I have almost no memory of these years now.

Right now, V is sick. Nothing terrible, but enough to stay home and parade around the apartment in her favorite pyjamas. N is cooking various treats for her, unable to predict which one she will actually eat. The doorbell rings, and it might be a doctor visiting from the local clinic but it is her sister. The rooms are full of conversation and fresh cups of coffee. I try not to step on the toys that are a…

scare me, but don't punish me


V has a habit of running towards me across the playground when I find her and N in the afternoons. She loves to crash against me at full force, burying her face in my shirt. It was a breezy Saturday, and she asked me to run after her. I took the opposite path around the slides and as I turned the corner I watched her stumble and fall, face down. All at once, I saw her nose was bleeding. That eerie calm parent DNA kicked in, as I checked to see if there was any blood inside her mouth, if her teeth and tongue were ok. N was rounding the corner, and there were tissues and wet wipes and cold water in a handful of seconds. Her nose was bleeding good, enough for it to be spattering on our shirts. Calm prevailed, as V cried out, her nerves a jangly mess of surprise. She was playing tag a few minutes ago, and now this.  

At one point, the bleeding stopped. Nothing broken, nothing swollen, a few scrapes, but air heaved in and out of her tiny lungs in gulps, clinging to N, full of baby adrenaline and fear. We made our way home, as the sun was somehow setting already. 

Upstairs, we cleaned her up, nestled her in warm blankets, put on her favorite cartoon, surrounded her with the fluffiest stuffed animals. She still cried in odd bursts. Her tiny nose was good and red. The decision was easy to make. We needed to get her checked, before she went to sleep. Yes, something as common-place as a bloody nose, but then that terrifying precipice, imagining what could happen in the middle of the night. There was a lovely dinner in the stove just waiting to be warmed up, a lamb tagine ready to be ladled over fresh couscous, but it had already been forgotten. 

We drove into the evening, as V made some jokes to me sitting next to her in the back seat, her mood springing back as fast as it could. I am always shocked at how quickly a child can forget, and forgive. I would like to be able to pull that off. The emergency room for children was not that far to drive, but there was no place to park of course. And then, there was a parking lot a few blocks away with a gang of teenagers on scooters by it. A strange moment passed, something like a deja-vu. I had seen this all before, the bright orange scooters, the feeling of V's hands wrapped around my neck as I carried her, the shape of the curb, the suddenly warm night air and N's face, as she walked quickly looking for the numbers on the buildings. 

Inside, we sat and waited as a young boy rolled a tiny girl around on a wheelchair, banging into the walls as no one stopped them. V sat on my lap, chirping like a little bird on an adventure. There were faces at the end of the hallway, a blonde girl maybe eight with her arm in a makeshift cast, her eyes sad and swollen. A mother and father with a baby that cried and cried. Eventually a doctor invited us into the room, and asked a few quick questions. We would not stay here, but go to another hospital. 

More walking, more parking, this time bribing the young guard at the front gate to let us inside, as ambulances wailed around us, revving their engines. And N is running from one door to the next, asking a fat lady smoking a cigarette where we should go, and then someone else. It seems no one can explain. V is with me, as we sit inside a gazebo. She explains that one side is hers and one side is mine, but I can come and visit her. And then we are inside, and have to put blue plastic booties over our sneakers. They say only one of us can go back, so I sit in the waiting area as I watch them disappear behind a little square of scratchy plastic in a great wooden door that slams shut. There are boys with black eyes. There is a little girl that cannot stop coughing. Confused parents are coming in, with babies in their arms, with a boy that hops on one foot. He sits and waits as his mother speaks harshly to him, waving papers in the air until he cries and she stalks off to go through that same door. I watch his face turning inside on itself. I try not to stare, looking at the parrots and monkeys someone painted on these green walls. Yes, someone painted all of this, and hundreds, thousands of people have sat in the same chair as me, eavesdropping, trying not to think of their loved one beyond that door, trying to read some old magazine left behind, rereading the same paragraph for 5 minutes because waiting to find out if your child is alright is almost impossible. A boy wearing a mask across his mouth comes in, his mother wears one too. I wonder how contagious they might be, and then wonder if they are protecting themselves from someone else. Who knows. A nurse in purple scrubs is handing out boxes of juice and milk to all of the children that are waiting. The mother of the boy with the bad foot comes back, somehow lifting him up and carrying him in her arms even though he is almost as tall as her.

And then they are marching out from behind the great door, and my hand goes up in the air with the weakest wave. V wants to run towards me, as if we are back at that perfect moment on the playground just a few hours ago but N grabs her hand and she is just walking. Everything is ok. No broken nose, no complications. I suddenly cannot be in this odd hallway another minute. We push the doors to outside and there are crickets and birds chirping, and all V wants is to play on the empty playground there. It smells of ammonia and cigarette butts and fresh cut grass. I crawl across the little fort with her, never letting go of her hand. There is a tiny house and she pretends to make a strawberry cake inside it, for all of us to eat.

At home, after she has gone to sleep we sit at the kitchen table drinking strong, sweet tea. Everything we could not say can now be said. The near-miss, the understanding of could have happened, what did not happen. N tells me there is an old Russian expression for days like this one, something you say to God - "Scare me, but don't punish me." 

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