Read an Excerpt
Just across the meadow from Mansion House on Naushon Island, there’s a barn devoted entirely to genealogy. This newly renovated space, bright and spare as a Chelsea art gallery, serves as an archive for the eight generations of Forbeses who have summered here. Ancient maps depict the Elizabeth Islands, the tiny archipelago to which Naushon belongs, and which juts southwest from the underbelly of Cape Cod. Alongside the maps hang old sepia photographs and, as if we family members were racehorses, color-coded bloodlines. Each of us has his or her own card, and the cards are connected by differently colored ribbons. Each color represents a separate line of descent from John Murray Forbes, the young merchant in the China trade who in 1842 bought the entire six-thousand-acre preserve. Nine years earlier he had married Sarah Hathaway, with whom he had seven children. My particular line, marked by a blue ribbon, descends from William Hathaway Forbes, the eldest son, who shifted the family’s enterprises from tea and opium and railroads to telephones. It proved to be a good decision.
From the time my own children could walk I’ve taken them to the barn at least once each year because I’ve always wanted to make them feel a part of this tradition. As they grew older, I tried to explain to them exactly what a “cousin” was, and what having an “uncle” meant, and how far back a “great-great-grandmother” reached in time, and what it meant to have a relative “once removed.” I thought it was important for them to understand this larger backdrop to their lives, and for me to be able to say, “See. There you are. You belong. You’re part of the clan.” A quick glance around the room is all it takes to spy the recent births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. Each is highlighted by the temporary addition of a round colored sticker on the card.
I have three children, though only two of them are still with me physically. The card on the wall representing Charlotte, my middle child, has a red dot in the corner, and the dates December 23, 1997–August 18, 2004.
Whenever I visit the barn now I can still feel six-year-old Charlotte tugging on my shirt, trying to hurry me along, saying, “Come on, Mummy. I want to see my tag.”
Charlotte’s hair was a soft corn silk blond with red highlights, very straight and very shiny, and every time I was with her I wanted to touch it. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose, and a crooked little grin, and her eyes were large and green like her father’s, with exceptionally long lashes. When I think of those eyes I remember how they were always opened wide and absorbing everything, almost as if she knew she did not have much time and she wanted to make the most of it.
I can still hear her commentary on what our ancestors wore in those old photographs, and how it was different from what she was wearing. Charlotte’s fashion sense seemed to have emerged with her from the womb. Once, when I was still nursing her, I was in a meeting choosing fabrics for a project and this infant attached to my breast reached out a tiny hand and started stroking one of the bolts of cloth. Typically, the fabric that attracted Charlotte’s attention was the one we ultimately went with for the sofa.
Charlotte was a girl’s girl who loved to twirl and dance in fabulous fabrics, and after she began to dress herself she was known to wear one pink loafer and one blue one, which usually inspired me to do the same. Whenever she stole into my closet for dress-up, invariably she pulled out only the best cashmere sweaters. She also went straight for the Manolo Blahnik heels. When I hid them she’d come find me, tug on my sleeve, and say “Manolo.” It was one of her first words.
And yet Charlotte was just as much a nature child, someone who fundamentally “got” Naushon. She loved to run through the fields and see shapes in the clouds and catch snakes and turtles out by the lake. But she also loved princesses, and as she began to learn to read and write, most of the stories she composed were about her own variations on Snow White and Cinderella. I remember her, just days before she died, dancing through a neighbor’s garden, hopping about to taste each and every variety of arugula. I also remember her during berry-picking season. She’d just come back from a birthday party and was purple all over from making jam in the kitchen, but on top of the berry stains her face was painted like a tiger’s.
A fairy princess and a critter catcher. A tiger who made jam. A middle child who nonetheless ruled the roost. The mystery that haunted me during my first months without her was: What happened to all these contradictions? All this exuberance? What about all this joy? They say my daughter died, but where exactly did my daughter go?
For me, the place for probing such questions has never been a grand cathedral, or an ashram, or even one of those stark white buildings beneath the steeple in the center of a New England village. The woods and meadows of Naushon have always been my church. And long before I knew anything about my great-great-great-grandfather, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and how he helped develop such ideas into the school of thought called Transcendentalism, my approach to finding God was through the direct experience of nature.
I loved Naushon’s forests and meadows because this was the one setting in which Forbes children were allowed to be rambunctious and expressive, even rapturous. For as long as I can remember we rode horses there and we sheared sheep. We drove pony carts, cleared trails with chain saws, put on plays in the forests, skinny-dipped on the beaches, rolled down the hills, and sang at the top of our lungs while tramping along the dirt roads. It was—and remains—a matter of pride among us to never use a flashlight when out walking at night, not even in the woods. If you’re a Forbes, you’re supposed to know the trails well enough that you can sense where you are.
This barefoot, unbuttoned life on Naushon was all the more precious because of the way it contrasted with the puritanical constraints imposed in all other respects by old-line families like the Forbeses—and there was no lightening up on my mother’s side, either. The maternal genealogy reads like a “You Are Here” map at a New England prep school. Saltonstall, Cabot, Palfrey, Winthrop—the names above the entrances to the ivy-covered buildings are my family names.
For kids like us, brought up on formal teas and white-gloved dancing lessons, the wildness of Naushon provided the kind of soul nurturing that Brahmin propriety and reserve seemed to neglect. In me, its elemental beauty also inspired some very un-Brahmin soul searching, begun when I was young but brought to a crisis by my daughter’s death.
To the extent that Naushon could never adequately answer my deepest questions about Charlotte, it could at least make me feel that, wherever she had gone, it was not so very far. Naushon had a way of uniting not only past and present, the spirit world and the natural world, but the living and the dead.
Mansion House etching, 1856.
In the attic of Mansion House, built in 1809, the faces of long-dead ancestors are preserved in a series of plaster “death masks,” which I remember from my childhood as fondly as some other girl might remember a gilt mirror from her mother’s dressing table. And the collection is not nearly so morbid as it might seem—and often does seem to visitors who are brave enough to follow me up the rickety stairs and brush away the dust to see them. Using wax or plaster molds to preserve an image of the dead is a custom that goes well back into the Middle Ages and was still common at the end of the nineteenth century. These casts were often used in funeral ceremonies, as models for subsequent sculpting or engraving, and, before the advent of photography, for purposes of forensic identification. In Egypt, of course, there was a much more ancient tradition of stylized masks, made of gold, which were thought to guard the soul from evil spirits on its way to the afterlife.
On Naushon we didn’t talk about life after death, or about the existence of a spirit world, and yet the references were all around us. Some of my ancestors are buried in a beech forest near the center of the island. Others gaze down from the oil paintings that line the entryway to Mansion House, and, yes, some of these paintings have eyes that seem to follow you around the room. Since 1855 there’s been a sundial out front that carries this inscription:
With warning hand I mark Time’s rapid flight;
From Life’s glad morning to its solemn night,
Yet through the dear God’s love I also show
There’s a flight above me by the shade below.
It’s hard to deny that the place carries a haunted-house vibe, with a soupçon of Miss Havisham and more than a hint of Peabody Essex Museum. In the Chestnut Parlor, elk antlers rest on top of the grand piano. Glass cases contain relics from the days of Hong Kong and clipper ships and the family’s early investment in railroads, the telegraph, and the telephone. We have trinkets left by summer guests who included Daniel Webster, Herman Melville, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Generals Sheridan and Pershing, and U.S. presidents from Grant to Clinton. John Singer Sargent signed the leather-bound guest book when he came to paint portraits of the children, as did Frederick Law Olmsted when he dropped by to help with the gardens.
In the summer of 1811, James Bowdoin III, the man who built the big house and was its first resident, died so suddenly and mysteriously that family, servants, and farmhands all fled, leaving food on the table and in the cupboards. No one came back for seven years.
John Murray Forbes, the family patriarch, gives this account in his privately published Reminiscences:
Mr. James Bowdoin died very suddenly in the north-west upper room, and in the old armchair still kept there. His departure was so sudden that it was thought necessary to remove his remains at once to Boston, closing the doors of the Mansion House and merely turning the key, without clearing the dinner table or otherwise making the rooms habitable; and this is said to have remained exactly the situation here for about seven years. Somehow the story got around that Mr. Bowdoin had ordered this to be done, in the expectation of coming back at the end of seven years. However this may be so, the rumor of his haunting the house grew up. During all the years up to the building of the tower in 1881, I remember the old house as a very open one, not only to friends and shipwrecked guests, but also to wind and rain. All the windows were loose, all the shutters slammed and rattled, as did the doors; and the latches wearing loose permitted the doors, (especially that of the north-west room) to open of a windy night most uncannily. The cellar walls were not chinked up, the floor not plastered below; and, when the wind blew from the north, I have seen the parlor carpet rise up six to twelve inches, lifting with it a common chair . . .
When Secretary Stanton [Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s secretary of war] visited us just after the war, he was much over-strained by the excitement of his long service, and a good subject for nerves. He was put into the haunted room, but nothing was said to him, as far as we could find out, about the ghost, and he left us without a word on that tender subject; but about two years ago a friend of his told me that Stanton had confided to him that he had here come nearer the supernatural than ever before.
Many years later, when my mother came for her first visit, she and my father were sitting on the porch and she was so uncomfortable that she had to keep moving around. After they’d gone inside, my father calmly informed her that the ghost of Mr. Bowdoin had been standing behind them the whole time.
The disembodied spirits of deceased family members were said to linger in the hallways, to haunt the bedchambers, and sometimes to join us for dinner. One autumn I received a thank-you note from a cousin who had hosted a large dinner party in our dining room. With it she included two photographs taken while they had all gathered around after dinner to sing at the far end of the table. Very clearly in the middle of the photograph is the white silhouette of a woman seated in profile wearing a shawl over her shoulders and her hair in a topknot. Grandmother Edith had clearly enjoyed the madrigals and seated herself at the head of the table to enjoy them. My cousin thought I would be pleased to have the photograph of her for the guest books.
A ghostly silhouette appears at the head of the table in Mansion House, 2008.
I’d always accepted the presence of ghosts, as well as my family’s very matter-of-fact acceptance of ghosts . . . matter-of-factly. But “ghosts” are as common as mice in creaky old New England houses. Was the idea of ghosts on Naushon just a game, or was there more to it? The question never came up. Then again, I knew the visceral experience. I work at an elaborately carved wooden partner’s desk that was given as a gift to my great-great-uncle from Chiang Kai-shek when he was ambassador to Japan in the 1930s. Often when I sit down to work or to write I will smell cigarette smoke. I have come to consider this smoke as some familial entity who comes to inspire me in my work. I refer to this entity as my smoking muse. My smoking muse arrived with the desk. There is no explanation for its presence and I have just come to accept it and actually smile when it appears.
Great-great-great-grandfathers Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Murray Forbes with their first grandchild, my great-grandfather Ralph Emerson Forbes, 1868.
While my great-great-great-grandfather may have been the progenitor of Transcendentalism, much of the family moved well beyond him on the spectrum of unconventional beliefs, far more pagan than Puritan. And Naushon has always attracted more than its share of spiritual seekers, extending from Emerson himself (known locally as Grandpa Moo Moo) to Aldous Huxley—author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, popularizer of Vedanta, mescaline, and LSD.
For 150 years, our “blue” Forbes-Emerson descendants have embraced all manner of spiritual alternatives, ranging from Theosophy to Krishnamurti to mathematical astrology and the attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial beings. Over the decades, one family member or another has always kept the “doors of perception” wide open, sometimes banging in the breeze.
It’s also true that, whether the product of emotional constraint, inbreeding, or simply the luck of the draw, the Forbes clan has always exhibited more than its share of garden-variety madness. There was John Murray Forbes’s daughter Ellen, who flung herself into a gorge when her parents would not let her marry a man they deemed “inappropriate.” Her mother had written to Ellen’s brother William, saying, “I fear she has these bouts of insanity, and very likely you are going to wind up with an angel sister, and we an angel daughter.”
And then there was my grandmother Irene, who spent much of her life in McLean Hospital, where she was often subjected to shock treatments. Her mental illness aside, I always thought she was exotic and glamorous. After all, she wore nail polish and cared about the way she looked. She had an apartment in Boston with modern furniture, and she was also a fallen women. She had been married to an Emerson (a different branch from the poet) before my grandfather David Cabot Forbes stole her away from him. (The frequent crossovers and overlaps are why we winkingly refer to Forbes genealogy as a family wreath rather than a family tree.)
Ralph W. Emerson’s wife Lidian had visions, was said to be clairvoyant, and after the loss of their beloved son Waldo at age six, became a follower of Swedenborg, spent much of her life in bed, and became addicted to morphine. Emerson himself may have been the patriarch of a distinctly American voice in literature, but beneath the high collar and the frock coat, he was much more strangely mystical than the English professors let on. A year after the death of his first, very young wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, he went to her crypt and opened it. “I just had to see,” he wrote. He followed the same procedure after Waldo’s death, gazing at his son’s corpse “as if he was taking a long long look into eternity.”
I had always struggled with my famous forebear’s philosophy, finding it opaque, when deep down I wanted it to be as if I were sitting beside his chair and simply absorbing his wisdom, as if something in the DNA provided for a natural and easy transmission of his ideas. But the “transparent eyeball”? The “Oversoul”? It took me forever to realize that a schoolgirl appreciation and being able to fill in the right jargon on a quiz was not the point, and that the only thing that mattered about my famous ancestor’s ideas was their resonance in the heart, not the head. There was a far more intuitive way of appreciating Emerson, along with everything else in the world, and that way was my way.
My first memory of a spirit encounter was very Emersonian in its merger of the natural and the supernatural, the domestic and demonic, and of course it took place on Naushon. We were staying in the big Stone House up on the hill above the harbor, my brother Jamie and I sharing a room, and there was a huge thunderstorm. I remember hollering until my mother finally relented and came in and got us. I had been terrified, and suddenly it turned very cozy. My father was smoking a pipe, standing in profile in front of a huge bay window that looked out over the harbor pasture, when lightning struck an old pump house and danced along the ground. I could have sworn I saw a human form emerge from that flash of electricity and walk across the field.
Given this family tradition of seeking and seekers, perhaps it was not so unusual that six months after Charlotte’s death, when a friend suggested I might want to pay a visit to a medium—a woman with special abilities who was able to contact what’s often called the Other Side—I was guarded, but not entirely resistant. In fact, this experience wound up changing my view of life, death—everything—fundamentally. It altered the course of my grieving to help me move away from mere suffering and complete the circle of my own personal search.
“In Nature every moment is new,” Emerson wrote. “The past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit . . . People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
At Naushon, I’d always felt sheltered, grounded, and safe. The landscape of the Outer Banks, the cherished family spot of the very different tribe I’d married into, could not have been more different. When my husband, Michael, and I first began to vacation there, on what was not much more than a sandbar that ran just offshore and parallel to the North Carolina mainland for about seventy miles, I felt exposed and vulnerable.
For three summers we rented a place in Avon, a tiny town reachable only after a long, monotonous drive along a narrow road lined with pampas grass, windswept strip malls, sand-filled parking lots, and shingled houses that faced either the ocean or the bay. My first impression of that narrow spit of land must have come from sailors in my family telling stories of storms and shipwrecks, because I kept thinking about ghost ships and death by water. And about Roanoke, Virginia, the English colony just across the bay where, in the late 1500s, all the settlers disappeared without a trace.
We were living on the West Coast at the time. I’d been something of a rebel child, trying to escape the emotional straitjacket of my upbringing by relocating to California after college, and then, marriage and family life kept me there. But Michael and I relished the idea of East Coast vacations to keep us in touch with family. Naushon was the meeting place for the Forbes clan, and it was important to me that my children be a part of that. For my husband’s large Irish family, the Bighams, the Outer Banks was just as sacred.
Some people loved being able to see water on either side, but I found the lack of trees and solid, higher ground disconcerting. There was something so tentative about those houses up on stilts, exposed to the wind and the open sea. I guess I was used to having more to hang on to. I needed less of a sense that everything around me had been put together last week, and that it could all be gone with the next high tide. I was a bit spooked, too, because just before our visit I had had a terrifying dream, of being on the Naushon ferry, of the children and I falling off. In my dream, I grabbed Cabot and Beatrice but I could not reach Charlotte, who slipped beyond my grasp into the sea. I woke up gasping, with the sickening feeling of having let my daughter drown yet knowing I could not save her.
If I found any reassurance during those two-week mini-reunions in North Carolina, it was in the presence of Annie, my sister-in-law. The wife of my husband’s brother Harry, Annie was fun to spend time with, and a great mom, but she was also a pediatric anesthesiologist at a major teaching hospital. Avon was at least an hour from the nearest emergency room, but with Annie on the scene, at least I knew we were in good hands should one of the kids need medical attention.
Harry is a doctor, too, a cardiologist, but his patients tend to be on Medicare. Annie works with children, and beyond that, she’s a force of nature, so much so that her nickname as a chief resident had been “Commando Anne.” Her legend increased within the family when she performed successful abdominal surgery (general anesthesia, halothane in a mason jar) on Mr. Quiggles, her daughters’ pet mouse.
Back when her girls were small, I used to rib Annie about the way she kept everything in her home locked down with childproof latches, including the toilet seats—very problematic during personal urgencies in the middle of the night. Everywhere she went she carried a full emergency kit, including the bags and tubes for pediatric IV. I would venture to say we were the only vacationers on the Outer Banks equipped with airway kits and resuscitation masks in all sizes from infant to adult.
Getting from our home near San Francisco to the rental in North Carolina was a full day’s travel no matter how we did it. The last time we made the trip, Cabot was five, Beatrice was eighteen months, and Charlotte was four—three little blond dervishes running through airports. All of us have fair skin, and standing in line, I often felt very aware of just how much we did not look like a study in American diversity. Sometimes I wondered if we were tempting fate by being too white, too privileged, too prosperous, or too happy. But that would change soon enough.
Our condo in Avon was right next door to Harry and Anne’s, on the bay side, in a cul-de-sac with eight other identically shingled houses up on stilts. Harry and Michael’s parents were there as well, and they shared our unit with us. It was one big, happy family with no pretentions, no privacy, and no lock-jawed WASP emotional reserve.
The North Carolina coast can get stinking, steamy hot in August, and as a result, much of our vacation life took place on one of the large porches that each of the houses had on the second floor. The children could be contained, playing safely, while the breeze kept everyone cool. We would lounge out there, shifting from coffee and tea and newspapers to books and board games, followed by a snooze, followed by cocktails and dinner.
The complex also had a swimming pool, and Charlotte in particular loved to escape the heat by splashing in the water. She used to say to me, “Mummy, I like to be fresh and cool.” Anne and Harry’s girls, Grace and Julie, were eight and ten that summer, and they made a wonderful fuss over their four-year-old cousin, treating Charlotte like a little princess, playing endless games of Marco Polo under the watchful eye of various parents, as well as Grandmom and PopPop Bigham.
At the end of one perfectly ordinary day, we gathered at Anne and Harry’s for dinner, and any meal that I don’t have to manage is a perfect meal in my book. The kitchen gene simply did not express itself in me, and I’ve always been happy to defer to someone else’s expertise, especially when it’s a take-charge personality like Anne’s.
The conversation around the table was highly animated, as it always was in the Bigham family, and after a little wine had been shared it took serious effort to capture the floor and work in your particular anecdote. The Bighams have never been afraid to embellish whenever a few frills might be required to top what had already been a tall tale. Coming from my rather austere New England background, I loved all this emotional energy, the way the whole family would lean in and listen when Harry Senior went on about his grandmother delivering moonshine during the Depression, or his own experiences as a GI in Italy at the end of World War II. The kids especially hung on his every word.
After dinner we piled into the cars and drove off to get ice cream cones, which was a ritual rated just below Communion in the Bighams’ spiritual universe. Our group of eleven overwhelmed the small ice cream parlor, but after a while everyone had his or her favorite flavor. Then, with cones in hand, we moved outside to the lawn and watched the late setting sun glide down into the bay. We have photographs of the children with ice cream on their faces, turning cartwheels and playing in the fading light of that hot and sticky summer evening.
Getting the kids to bed that night was easy. When they were small I used to sing a John Denver song to them called “For Baby,” which begins, “I’ll walk in the rain by your side.” When I got to the line in the chorus that says, “And the wind will whisper your name to me,” I’d lean down and whisper “Cabot” and “Charlotte.” (Beatrice, still too young for this sort of thing, was already asleep in her own little room.) I finished the song, gave each of the kids a kiss, and tiptoed out. Charlotte and Cabot were both asleep before I reached the bedroom door.
It was about an hour later when I heard the scream. There was such an urgency mixed with terror in that voice that it haunts me to this day. I ran to the children’s room and saw Charlotte sitting up in her bed. I went to her and pulled her close, but her head against my chest was so hot I felt scalded.
I called out to Michael. “Charlotte’s sick. Come help me.”
Then I picked her up and carried her into the bathroom. I put her in the tub, turned on the faucet, and began splashing cold water over her. Charlotte had never really had any serious issues. Certainly she’d never had a fever like this.
Michael came in and hovered over my shoulder. “What is this? What’s happening?”
Charlotte had begun to point her toes, her feet curling inward. This was very weird, and made me very worried. I tried to stay in the moment, not letting my imagination run away to all the awful places it could go.
“How do you feel, Sweet Pea?” I asked her.
She stared up at me but didn’t speak. She was conscious—she was not having a seizure—but I didn’t know what the hell was going on. The muscle in her jaw began to twitch. Then I watched as her calf muscles contracted, then her thigh muscles, then her torso and her arms.
“I’m getting Anne and Harry,” Michael said. And then he was gone. I waited, feeling sick to my stomach as I watched my daughter locked in these painful contortions.
A few moments later the two doctors appeared in the bathroom, Annie with her black bag, their two girls trailing behind and looking very tentative. Within a couple of minutes Annie had sized up the situation, hung an IV bag from the shower rod, and had a line carrying fluids into a vein in the crook of Charlotte’s arm. My daughter was still frighteningly rigid, but the worst of it was that she couldn’t control her neck. We were all on her left, but her head was turned to the right, her eyes focused on the wall.
I glanced up just long enough to catch the eye contact between Anne and Harry. The level of concern that registered on their faces was not what I wanted to see. But at least they were with us. At least we were not stuck on this sandbar in the middle of nowhere with all the medical expertise of an MBA and an art history major.
Annie sent the girls to get all the ice out of the refrigerators. When little Julie came back with the first bucket, Anne dumped it into the bathwater. Charlotte was throwing off so much heat that the ice turned to liquid as soon as it hit the surface. Grace came in with a second bucket from the condo next door, and Anne poured that in as well. It also melted instantly.
For a moment we stared at the water and held our collective breath. That was all the ice we had. We were going to need more ice.
Harry used a digital thermometer to take Charlotte’s temperature. The device began to beep at 105—as high as it would go.
“Should we call an ambulance?” I asked.
I expected these two very competent doctors to say, “No need. Got it covered.”
But without missing a beat, both of them gave me an emphatic yes.
We had to wait a very long while for the EMTs, and while we waited my heartbeat was so loud I was sure everyone else could hear it. The gnawing in my stomach got worse and worse, but then the situation improved. The fluids transfusing into Charlotte’s veins and the cooling water surrounding her seemed to be bringing her fever down. Her rigidity began to soften, and she could even turn her head to look at me. But Anne and Harry still had these grave expressions, and they were still carrying on their own private doctor conversation with their eyes.
After what seemed like forever, the emergency team arrived and we briefed them on the situation. They lifted Charlotte onto the stretcher and got her ready for transport forty-five miles north to the hospital in Nags Head.
Anne and Harry said they would stay behind with Cabot and Beatrice. The grandparents were rather miraculously still asleep in another part of the house.
I would have preferred for our in-house physicians to go with us, because I trusted them a lot more than I trusted those EMTs. The only thing I said, though, was that I was going to ride with Charlotte. Michael got in the car behind us and we set off.
This was the first time I’d ever envied my husband his Catholicism. I wanted to pray, but I didn’t really know how. Instead, my mind filled with all the negative possibilities, all the existential horrors that I knew were out there like the blank landscape and the night sky and the equally empty waters of the bay.
Later, Michael would tell me that he spent the entire drive trying to work out a deal. His job is all about negotiation, and he begged God not to take Charlotte, at least not that night. We both knew that small, innocent children die every day, but Michael made the case that, even from an entirely selfish perspective, there just ought to be some recognition for all the years of devotion he’d put in, all the times he’d said the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. God had to do what God had to do—just not now, please.
We passed along the darkened road lined with pampas grass, the windswept strip malls, the sand-filled parking lots, and after a while Charlotte seemed better, cooler, and she began to chat with me. We both were still terrified, but we settled into the standard routine of “mother sits at sick child’s bedside and works to distract, amuse, and comfort.” I sang songs to her, and we talked about all the ordinary, fun things that had happened that day. I tried to acknowledge the fear she obviously was experiencing, while also trying to lessen her fear by dismissing the gravity of the situation. If only I could reassure myself.
Michael, of course, was not in on any of this. When he pulled up to the emergency entrance behind the ambulance, he did not know whether his child would be dead or alive. I watched him step out of the car and almost swoon when he saw me smiling.
“Hey, Sweetie Pea!” he called out to Charlotte. I’d never seen him look so vulnerable.
I watched the tension in his body fall away as she said, “Hi, Daddy!” His prayers had been answered. God was on our side. At least for now.
The ER docs were able to see us right away. They made Charlotte comfortable and monitored her vital signs as her fever continued down into the normal range. She had a bad bout of diarrhea, but she appeared to have stabilized.
“A nasty rotavirus,” they said, combined with dehydration. But somehow I knew that wasn’t the case. As much as I wanted to believe it, something in my gut told me that we weren’t going to get off so lightly.
But the doctors smiled reassuringly, wished us a good night, and sent us home.
Michael and I rode back to Avon in stunned silence, staring out at that isolated beach road once again, with Charlotte asleep in the backseat. I looked out into the blankness of the dark ocean surrounding us and, in my head, kept hearing a Gordon Lightfoot lyric that asks about the love of God and where it goes when it disappears. It was from a song about a shipwreck.
My sister Laura had seen that dark side. Her son Dawson, the same age as Cabot, had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at the age of four. For the first time it hit me that I never really understood what she’d been going through. How can you understand, unless you have a child in that kind of situation yourself? The Greeks said that we suffer into wisdom. I didn’t want to gain that kind of understanding. I wanted Charlotte to be well.
When we got to the condo I reported in to Anne and Harry while Michael carried Charlotte up to bed. When Michael came back down to talk, he related a version of our experience at the hospital that was more upbeat than mine. He seemed to accept the ER physicians’ assessment at face value. Neither Anne nor Harry said anything, but I saw a glance pass between them. They gave us hugs and their own reassurances, and after they left, Charlotte slept through until morning. Neither of her parents slept a wink.
• • •
The sun came up and it was sweltering as usual. We turned the air-conditioning to high and kept Charlotte inside. Generally she seemed fine, but she was so sore from the muscle contractions of the night before that she hobbled around as if she’d just run a marathon. At breakfast, to cheer her up, Michael told her that she walked like the most adorable little penguin he’d ever seen.
I assumed that if I could just stop shaking and start breathing again, maybe we could get back to having a vacation while we were still on vacation. We’d dodged a bullet, and now I wanted to put it all behind us.
Around midmorning I saw Annie out on the lawn in front of their house. She was wearing a black Speedo, playing with the children, drinking her coffee, and helping Harry tack up a windsurfer for his first sail of the day.
I pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, grabbed a cup of tea, and walked downstairs. The kids had caught a fish and were giggling and chatting as they watched it swim around in a bright red bucket.
I walked across the lawn and gave my sister-in-law a big hug. “Annie, we can’t thank you enough for last night.” Even as the words came out of my mouth they seemed so inadequate, pathetic. But it was her response that set me back on my heels.
She took a sip of her coffee and glanced over at Harry.
“Sukey, we were lucky last night. That could have ended very differently.”
I felt as if I’d been kicked in the gut. She looked so grim. I was actually a little ticked off at her for reverting so quickly to “Commando” mode. Why did she always have to find the cloud in front of every silver lining?