When I was six years old, I started getting stomach aches. They began shortly after Michael’s roly-poly baby brother fell headfirst into the swimming pool of their big, beautiful house in Beverly Hills on a warm Saturday morning. And drowned.
I heard my parents talking about it. They were somber and sad. My dad shook his head, and my mom cried quietly at the dining room table after the phone call came.
“Poor Jeanine,” my mom whispered. “No mother should ever bury a child.”
Up until that point, my only experience with death involved Blind Tom, our one-eyed goldfish who went missing shortly after Nebbie, our geriatric cat was seen eyeing him and making lazy circles around the fish bowl. But still, while I cried a little and avoided kissing Nebbie for a few days, I understood that cats have to eat too. This was all part of nature.
Michael’s little brother drowning on sunny Saturday morning seemed like a crime against nature.
Michael didn’t come to school for a while after his brother drowned. Maybe a week passed before he came back. Maybe more. When you’re six, time is more flexible, and the days and nights are mushed into one long memory. But when he did come back to school, he didn’t talk to anyone. He sat still and silent during Story Time and stared at his hands.
Then, in the middle of the story “Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears,” Michael gagged and vomited all over the big blue rug.
All the kids shrieked “Eew” at the smell of rancid cheerios, milk, and goldfish crackers. Michael began to cry and dry heave, and the teacher wrapped her dimpled arms around him and rocked him against her until he quieted down. She was crying, too.
That afternoon, I got a terrible stomach ache.
“I’m worried about my stomach,” I told mom when she picked me up at school.
“Does it hurt?” She asked.
“Yes. I’m afraid of throwing up.”
The next day, my stomach hurt so much that I went to the nurses office. I lay on the vinyl pink couch and counted the cracks on the tiled ceiling while she called my mother and asked her to come pick me up.
My mom took me home and made me peppermint tea, and I felt much better. But later that afternoon, my stomach seized, and I thought I might throw up.
“I’m worried about my stomach. I’m worried about my stomach.” I repeated over and over while bouncing from one leg to the other in a frantic attempt to distract myself from the niggling nausea. I started breathing very fast, and everything blurred around the edges. “I’m worried about my stomach. I’m worried about my stomach.” I was crying and gagging and trying to breathe.
My mom wrapped her arms around me, and held my rigid body tight against hers as she sang the song she had always sung to me whenever I was afraid of the monsters hiding in the closet: “Everything’s ok. Everyone’s ok. You will be ok. Everything’s ok.” Over and over and over she sang until I slumped into sleep.
I stayed home the next day and my mom and I watched I Love Lucy reruns and went to the beach. We ate cucumber sandwiches and homemade brownies on our front porch for lunch, and while she dug up weeds in the garden, I wrote a poem:
Life is worth Living.
Eggs are still hatching.
Mamals have babies.
But if you want to stay in your house
Cowering like a little mouse
That’s ok with me
But I would keep living.
That night, when she tucked me in, I asked what it meant to die.
“Dying means we aren’t here any more.”
I thought about my dolls and stuffed animals. Who would take care of them for me?
“Are you going to die some day?” I asked in a small voice.
My mom traced her fingers over my back, drawing letters that I could half-decipher. “Honey, I don’t plan on dying for a long long long time.”
“No. I wish it could be this way. I wish we could all live forever.
I thought about this while she rubbed my back. I thought about Blind Tom. I thought about Michael’s baby brother.
“Why can’t we?
“It just isn’t how things work,” she said sadly.
“Am I going to die?” I asked as I felt my stomach start to flip-flop, and I thought about Michael throwing up on the rug during story time.
“Not for a long long time, and not until you’re ready,” she said in her warm, reedy voice.
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
And I believed her.