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Debbie Weingarten | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,460 words)
If your son cries in the night, begin a slow insistent hush. With your lips, make the sound of a snake. Even before you are fully awake, place your bare feet on the floor. Say, Mama is coming, and then creep past the purple glow of the nightlight to where he is a ball in his bed.
Lay your hand on his back.
If the covers have gone astray, or if his brother’s pinwheel feet are in his face, or if he has rolled onto the plastic toy he took to bed — fix it all. Place the covers back beneath his chin. Readjust the brother, put the toy on the shelf, kiss the forehead. Feel your way back through the darkness, over the sleeping dog.
Long ago, my parents were spelunkers. They would disappear into a hole in the ground, unsure of where the cave would lead, and pick their way along in the dark, their carbide lights illuminating the stalactites and stalagmites. They insist they felt excitement and possibility.
Once they brought my brother and me to a cave they remembered from college. It was supposed to be a family adventure. Together we would explore, and my parents would remember the way out.
What I recall is the surprising totality of darkness. And the terror I felt when we squeezed through the smallest of passageways. And the solidness — the unmoveableness — of the rock. If I breathed out or turned my shoulders in a certain way, I imagined I could be stuck there forever. If anything were to give, it would not be the rock; it would be my girl-sized bones.
Decades later, I still cannot relax into the dark.
The first time I realized I had created a mortal human being, a great sea of guilt washed over me. Claudia Dey writes about mothers as makers of death, and her words bring me instantly back to that raw postpartum day: the quilt on the bed in the blue room; the slightly yellowed infant, his days-old chest bathed in a square of window sunlight.
I could not stop staring at his rosebud lips, the folds of his wrists, his hair in a perfect Fibonacci spiral. Oh, how I sobbed when I realized that there was nothing to be done about his mortality.
That same baby, now a 7-year-old boy, startles easily, just like me. We are sensitive to sensory inputs — loud noises, the chaos of crowded spaces, certain fabrics against our skin. We don’t like scary movies or surprise parties. We want to know what is going to happen, in as much detail as possible, before it happens.
When he was an infant, if I shuffled the blanket just-so, his arms would raise over his head quick as a mousetrap; he thought he was falling. “It’s just his Moro reflex,” said friends, said my mother — a normal biological response by an infant who has been startled. But I was fascinated. A built-in panic button.
When my son was a toddler, my father-in-law took him on a walk along the ledge of the Grand Canyon. It was a crisp, blue day, and my son’s cheeks were the pink-blush of apples. Still, I turned stones in my pocket until they returned, trying to subdue the mother reflex.
All I felt was dread. All I could think was, What kind of mother lets her toddler go near the edge of the fucking Grand Canyon?
They returned laughing, entirely unscathed, having collected pine cones along the way.
It is the exact middle of the night when the dog wakes me with a worried whine, tongue against my arm, to tell me that something is wrong. The old cat is dying, and she has dragged herself into a closet. She is having seizures and has become tangled in a rainbow of clothes.
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The eyes of this particular cat are the color of the greenest-bluest ocean, but when she is dying, the color dulls to nearly-gray. I wrap her in a towel, and we spend hours on the kitchen floor. The dog is a nervous wreck; with each new seizure, she issues sympathy whines and thumps her tail against my knee.
The fingers of dawn begin to creep through the blinds, and I bring the cat outside to see her last morning — but she is still lucid enough to sense danger, and she tenses. Back on the kitchen floor, the three of us wait for death. Out the window, the sky is a pastel party dress thrown over the moon.
During the dust bowl of the 1930s, the ground took flight and blacked out the sun. Chickens thought it was night and went to roost. By April 1935, after years of drought and “black blizzards,” the worst of the dust storms hit. By some accounts, Black Sunday seemed the end of the world, and people prepared for death. An estimated 300,000 tons of topsoil up and blew away.
Now, in the Arizona spring especially, the wind picks up the dusty farm fields along I-10 and hurls them into highway traffic.
The joke is that the world is ending, but it’s not funny anymore. It’s so hot that airplanes in Phoenix can’t take off. Somewhere in the desert, a fissure opened up and swallowed a horse. There is either too much water, or there is no water at all. The world is spinning out, the balance tipping. Dystopian Netflix dramas multiply overnight, and the scenarios they portray seem newly possible.
One September, I drive across the Midwest with my photographer friend to document the farmer suicide epidemic. Beneath us, the Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. “The earth is shaking us off like fleas,” says the photographer. We record hours of interview tape. We pass a zillion cornfields and miles of pro-life signs that blur together into one sun-faded, blue-eyed baby.
For most of my growing up years in Ohio, I knew of no reason to panic. We would gather with neighbors beneath clear summer skies to peer through a telescope at the moon. We ate fluorescent Jell-o squares, sucked down blue Kool-Aid, caught lightning bugs that turned our hands into glowing pink orbs.
Still, my parents diligently collected water, in case of emergency — though it was never clear which emergency we were preparing for. We were not prepping like the Mormons do, or anticipating the apocalypse, but there was a diligence to it. Plastic milk jugs were to be refilled with tap water and stacked on the basement shelves, next to the camping equipment.
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By my estimate, there were 100 gallons of water, but my brother guesses two hundred. He remembers the lids carefully labeled with the date. My dad approximates 30 and says that he’s sure they did not appear until after 9/11, when he suddenly worried that someone could poison the water supply. But my mom recalls only a handful of jugs brought nonchalantly to the basement. She says we’re all exaggerating the preparedness, the intention of it all.
The first time we talk about the water as adults, we are crouched in the shade of my parents’ Tucson porch. My mom and I are drinking wine in the middle of the afternoon, which is not something we would normally do. But there’s a heat advisory and the asphalt has melted to sticky black tar. It’s too hot to do errands, to leave your dog in the car even for a second, to work, to think clearly.
My mom says the water was nothing compared to her childhood bunker. I screw my face up at her like a bratty teenager. It’s the wine talking. “You had a bunker?”
“Of course we had a bunker,” she says. “We lived through the Cold War. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you about their bunker.”
It is so hot that even the figeater beetles have given up for the afternoon, leaving blood-red holes in the prickly pear fruit. We are all waiting for the angry sun to disappear behind the mountains, for evening to creep purple across the desert, for reprieve.
In elementary school, a girl my age was found dead in the river. She had been missing for days, and volunteers had spread out through the woods, looking for signs of her. Maybe that’s when the panic began.
And then my class read a book about the Holocaust, and I realized that my relatives had been turned to ash. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I asked to leave the room. I sat in the library by myself, some kind of self-imposed purgatory.
Do not stand out, history warned. I would, of course, be given away by the Jewish nose and the complicated German last name, but otherwise, screamed my ancestors, do not stand out.
Do we inherit panic?
The night before Halloween in 1938, the radio in my grandmother’s girlhood Manhattan apartment declared that martians had invaded New York. The legend goes that upwards of a million listeners missed the announcement that it was a fictional story — just little-known filmmaker Orson Wells producing a radio reenactment of H.G Welles’ 40-year-old sci-fi novel, War of the Worlds.
In the story, a spaceship lands in a farmer’s field and obliterates everything and anyone who tries to intervene, including armed soldiers and police officers. And then the martians begin making their way toward New York City.
After it aired, there was mass hysteria. People made panicked phone calls to the police, ate their last meals, stampeded from the city, and some even jumped from apartment buildings to their deaths. The true level of hysteria is now questioned by historians, but my great-grandmother’s panic is knit firmly into our family legends. Since I can remember, I’ve heard the story of how she dressed her 4-year-old twins in mismatched clothes, shoved their shoes on the wrong feet, and made for the subway to escape the martians.
In reality, the Nazis were coming. Ten months later, Germany invaded Poland, and my great-grandmother’s friends and relatives were rounded up like cattle. It turned out that the panic was simply misplaced.
Now, as a mother, I think there are so many reasons to panic. For example, last April, a border patrol agent and his pregnant wife hosted a “gender reveal party” in the Santa Rita mountains. The plan was to fire a high-velocity firearm at a target containing an explosive. The color of the smoke would reveal the baby’s sex — blue for a boy, pink for a girl.
But the spring desert is a tinderbox.
There’s a video of the moment in which a papier-mache target erupts into yellow-orange flames, surrounded by blue billowing smoke. And then the tall, yellow grass catches fire. The agent and his friends flee, and the flames become the Sawmill Fire, which burns 47,000 acres and costs $8.2 million to extinguish.
I spend four hours standing in line at the Department of Economic Security next to a man who was hit by a car not 24 hours ago. He has just been released from the hospital in a wheelchair, his leg in a brand new cast. Afraid to miss his food stamp renewal appointment, he took a taxi straight from the hospital and has wheeled into line with the rest of us.
No special accommodations are given for his situation, and he is still reeling from the accident that broke his leg. We process together, our part of the line.
He was walking his dog. It was late at night. The car ran up on the curb and struck them both. His dog died at the scene.
He flips open his phone to show us a picture of the dog. We pass it around, all of us strangers, hands to our mouths, and stare into the dog’s kind, golden eyes.
Once I married someone cruel, even though the whole of my body was screaming through the numbness. In the time it took to snap a twig, I made a choice that has reverberated for years.
I’ve become superstitious about symbols.
The husband introduced me to eating jackfruit. Did you know that a single jackfruit can grow to 100 pounds? A beast of a thing, green and covered in bumps, the skin so thick, one must use a machete to slice it into quarters. To make it palatable, the husband told me, the farmer must beat it with sticks. Beat it and it will turn sweet on your tongue. (I later found out this was a lie.)
Once a dove flew into my parent’s living room window and the dust from its wings made a perfect impression of its feathers on the glass. Although it was stunned, it did not break its neck, and it flew away.
Psychologically speaking, I was once the jackfruit. And then I was the bird.
When I farmed, we’d joke about Zombie invasions. We decided the farm was perfectly positioned for our survival: far enough outside of town, with a reliable water source, plenty of vegetables and goat milk. If the Zombies came, or The Man, we could invite our friends over and hole up with .22 rifles for protection. We’d hunt javelina, dig a root cellar, and eat turnips every which way.
Around the same time, I went to a Chinese medicine acupuncturist. I told her that I wondered if something was terribly wrong with me. Leave your husband, she really should have said, but she stuck me with tiny needles and told me I have a wood constitution. When you feel empty, go to the woods and put the bottoms of your bare feet on a tree, she said. It is the most intuitive thing I have ever heard someone else say about me.
So, when the burn of the desert becomes unbearable, I escape. I drive up the nearest mountain to find pine trees and crawfish, pools of algae-filled water in dappled sunlight, wild geraniums, yarrow with leaves notched like vertebrae, the polished red of manzanita bark.
I have a recurring dream that one of my children slips from a small boat into the dark water, and I am unable to find him. It is always night; there is never even a fingernail of moon. Over and over in my sleep, my children sink like stones, and I thrash in the water trying to find them. Over and over, I wake with a scream stuck in my throat.
I give myself a talking-to. I say, Look: You are too worked up. You must leave your brain for a time. You must inhale the desert after a rain. You must see a movie. You must have a good cry and a good sleep. You must spend time naming all the dinosaurs with your children. You must hold the littlest for hours through a fever, and watch bats fly out beneath a bridge at sunset, and get on your knees to pull backyard weeds. You must smell the dirt on your hands.
My therapist and I have built an imaginary box to contain my anxiety until I can examine it in the safety of her office. In my mind, it’s made of heavy glass and has a snap hinge like an old jar.
I buy a weighted blanket off the Internet, hoping it will calm my night terrors, those pinprick anxieties that bloom in the dark. A friend says the mind is always wiser in the morning, that the middle-of-the-night self is notoriously out of sorts.
It’s true. In the dark, the possibilities come alive, and I dream all manner of terrible things. I am stuck in that isolating space between wake and asleep, where not even the loving partner can remind me that none of this is real.
I dream of being chased. I dream of being on the Hindenberg with my children before it bursts into flames. I dream of diving into the duck-green lake to rescue my son, but he is always just out of reach, his hair fluttering like seaweed.
In my dreams, the world is forever big and thunderous and unhinged. And I am always helpless against it. I lose sleep. I wake up in a sweat.
My own mother tells me, That’s just motherhood.
It snows in the desert, and I go hiking with my friends a bean scientist, and a goat farmer who also happens to be the president of a caving club, and two old dogs. We bushwack through brambles and yucca like upside-down umbrellas. The dogs jump between rocks and slide knee-deep into patches of white.
The farmer is talking about caving and what it teaches her, how being underground in the pitch-black has done something profound for her confidence. How, when she began caving, she was shocked that there was suddenly all of this beneath the mountains where she had hiked for years.
Her fascination is bewildering to me. I have just bought myself a weighted blanket. I have learned how to belly breathe in stressful situations, and how to do the butterfly hug, wherein you cross your arms over your chest and tap-tap your fingers on each side of your clavicle. I have learned the four elements technique where, to assuage panic, you put both feet firmly on the ground, swallow your spit to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, breathe in slowly through your nose, and focus your eyes on something the color of fire.
But what’s the point of it? I ask. I am being negative. Why would you purposefully walk into the dark?
There is learning, my friends insist. They are being kind. There is hope in the dark.
For days last summer, the world seemed to collectively freeze as cave divers attempted to rescue a youth soccer team — trapped for 17 days — from a flooded cave in Thailand. I read every breaking news report. I memorized the map of that complicated cave system. I learned that most of the boys did not know how to swim, that their soccer coach had been teaching them to meditate so they would not panic. I could not stop thinking about their mothers.
Months later, I read an account of the rescue by journalist Shannon Gormley, and I could barely put it down. I learned that the divers would request permission from the Lady of the Cave before entering; that some of the passageways were nearly too tight for their chests; that to keep from succumbing to their anxieties, they focused only on each of their hands finding the line in the dark, and then again, and then again.
“Underwater in the dark, there is only your hand on or near the line,” wrote Gormely. “If you don’t focus on your hand, your thoughts may take control. This is how you keep calm: hand, hand, hand.”
Which is how, when my nighttime brain starts to spin through the thousands of possible atrocities, I begin a silent recitation: Hand. Hand. Hand. Line. Line. Line.
Last summer, a 1,500-year-old sword was pulled from a lake in Sweden by an 8-year-old girl. The water was low after the hottest summer in 260 years, and she was crawling across the lake bottom when she found what she first thought was a stick. “I found a sword!” she called to her father, who did not believe her. And then the girl, covered in lake muck, pointed the ancient sword to the blue Nordic sky.
A 16-year-old Swedish climate activist gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She addressed a room of adults. “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” She looked out at the crowd, her eyes wide and sober, her voice quiet, but insistent. “I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
When the streetlights flicker on outside your own house, help your children into their pajamas. And if they should resist bedtime, make a routine.
Take the bubble wand from the bookshelf and blow a long train of iridescent globes. Watch the brothers, perched and squealing on the edge of their bed. They will try to catch bubbles in their outstretched palms; they will stand up and do The Floss dance inside bubbles like pink-bellied snow; they will fall over laughing when a bubble breaks against their teeth.
The sound of their happiness will coat your mother heart with a kind of protection.
Put away the bubbles. Kiss the foreheads. Make a circle of the house like an old guard dog: check the doors, switch off the lights, stand listening to your own breath. Feel your way through the darkness. Promise to fight the fire by the light of day.
* * *
Debbie Weingartenis a writer based in Tucson, Arizona and a fellow for Community Change. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Guernica, Vela, and many other outlets.
Editor: Sari Botton