harlan family story hour
I’m standing on a grey sandy beach, peering out over the steady waves that pour onto the shore and kiss it with their foamy white tips. I dip one foot into the hazy water and gasp in shock, my Californian skin unaccustomed to the icy chill of the Atlantic. Determined, I wade in, squelching the sand between my toes and staring up at the dense clouds congregating overhead. Suddenly, a surge of salt water sweeps up, knocking my legs out from under me. I flail in the cloudy, sand-filled surf, gurgling as I attempt to form four simple letters into a word, but the tide is strong, sucking greedily at my knees, and I find myself being swept out to sea. I bid a sad farewell to the world, preparing myself for the cold grip of seaweed and the crushing depths. Finally, my dad turns away from Sadie’s giggles to cast a cursory glance at his other daughter and finds me being swept away. With a mad leap and much splashing, he rescues me from what would have been an agonizing death, the abrupt finale to an abbreviated life.
Well, that’s the way I remember it.
My parents, on the other hand, would tell you that this story is completely ridiculous. They would scoff at my trauma, reassure you that they were standing all of two feet away from me, and that, far from having a near-death experience, I was merely nudged by a wave, tripped over my own two left feet, and was scooped up by my watchful father in a matter of seconds. Their inattentiveness, seduced as they were by my sister’s cherubic blonde pigtails, is a figment of my overactive, four-year-old imagination, tinted by a jealousy that seized me the moment they set my newborn sister on my lap and she promptly burst into shrieking wails.
My family’s dramaturgy is full of hyperbolic moments. According to my sister, I almost killed her when I was eight. We were having a sleepover in my room. Sadie had been battling a croupy cough for about a week. Around midnight she turned to me and, with wheezing, hacking breaths, asked if I would get her a glass of water. I brushed her off, mumbling something about “sleepy” and “just get your own.” The rest of the night is a blur of flashing lights and black boots, my parents running laps around the house as they forced my sister to breathe shower steam or freezer air, desperately banging away at her lungs, searching for the key that would unlock her frozen bronchi. I never understood why the police were there, or the fire trucks for that matter. I remember sitting on the landing, watching the big ladder truck approach and wondering what simultaneous catastrophe had managed to strike our neighbors. Confused when the shiny red truck, every inch the blown-up replica of the toys that lay strewn around my brother’s room, rolled to a stop in front of our mailbox, the thick hose grazing the branches of our weeping cherry tree.
My sister looked so little lying on the stretcher. Her pajamas quivered with each labored breath, rippling as hacking coughs shook her tiny shoulders. She was scared, as any four-year-old would be, of the strange men in their navy suits asking her to breathe deeply and wrinkling their brows as her lungs vigorously protested each invading gust of oxygen. She refused to get on the stretcher, so my dad lay down first, while Sadie, a tiny pink ball, perched like a silken caterpillar on his stomach. I can only imagine the terror my parents felt, sending their child off in an ambulance to beeping metal machines and mysterious breathing treatments, but when I turned to my mom and somehow choked out the paralyzing fear that had gripped me since she first called the pediatrician, the terror that my sleepy refusal to get my sister a glass of water had somehow infected her lungs and suffocated her, my mother, in an astonishing show of bravado, calmly smoothed back my sweaty bangs and told me it wasn’t my fault. However, to this day my sister will, with raised eyebrows and pointed eyes, remind me of my near sororicide. I brush it off with as much bravado as I can summon and remind her that, seeing as I was only eight at the time, the chances that I actually shoved her off the bed and told her to “get her own fucking water” are pretty slim.
There’s a ritual to the way these stories are told and retold, over gravy-soaked turkey or bright beach towels. Practiced line readings, cue indignant response. Mention the infamous trip to Cape Cod around the five of us and it sets off a chain reaction: vehement protests from me, followed by laughter with a side of condescension from my parents, and from Sadie and Joseph, who have thoroughly taken my parents’ side in a clear betrayal of sibling solidarity. My sister’s trauma is more nebulous, triggered by any number of stimuli ranging from ambulances and stretchers to popsicles (the hospital served a particularly traumatizing variety to underage patients) or even taxi rides. At our family gathering in New Hampshire this past Christmas, we lay sprawled around the living room watching the fire roar in the fireplace and the snow drift past the frosty windows, swapping stories laced with playful accusation. My brother vociferously protested his lack of ammo in this battle of “who will charge you guys more for our future therapy bills.” Didn’t you drop me on my head as a child? Didn’t you forget me at home one time? (That one actually happened but makes for far less exciting storytelling than my or my sister’s suffering. Sucks for him.)