My friend Wordgirl has some lovely reflections on her favourite time of year, Hallowe'en. I shared a somewhat sad (but kinda funny in retrospect) story about one Hallowe'en where I got a ride home in a cop car.
But I have a much sadder story:
I was six, i think. Possibly five years old. I had (and still have) a somewhat wonky eye - the muscles behind the eye are lax, and when i get tired my right eye will sort of wander off on its own, so that you don't know if I'm looking at you or looking at something over your shoulder. The name eye surgeons give this affliction is a "squint" ... and I don't know what it has to do with squinting, but hey, they're the doctors.
When one of my kids notices my eye is wandering, she'll say "Dad, your eye is going wonky. Go to bed." And after a good sleep, it's fine. But when I was five, it would happen even when I wasn't tired, and it would cause double vision. Of course my parents were alarmed, so they took me to an eye doctor. He scheduled me for elective surgery, but it was months and months down the road.
On October 29th, Mom got a phone call. They eye doctor was on the line, telling her that there had been a cancellation and that they could get me in on Thursday, two days hence. My mom was delighted. I was less so.
Thursday was Hallowe'en..
I wasn't so much upset about the not dressing up. My costumes were always crap anyway - fifth of six kids, so by the time I got to the costume box it was a black towel for my neck, a crappy plastic Lone Ranger mask, and I could go as my brother "Zorro's" sidekick, "Zero". Yay. Plus, my older brother? Armed with a curtain rod for a sword? Always fun. Yeah. Good times. (twitch)
So I could do without dressing up, and coming home with welts all over my legs from being slashed at by Zorro, and dodging cars in my all-black costume (reflective tape? Hah!). What I didn't want to do without was the candy. But once my mom assured me I could have one-fifth of everybody else's haul (and didn't my brother love that little piece of news!) I was okay to go in for surgery.
I went in on the night before. I had a bed in a public ward - eight beds, all of them empty except mine. The nurses were all very attentive, checking on me, making sure I wasn't scared or lonely all by myself in the dark. Hey, coming from a small house with five brothers and sisters, I was thrilled with having a choice of beds and quite enjoyed having someone to bring me juice or ice cream at the yank of a cord pinned to my pillow.
In the morning, they prepped me for surgery. I didn't like the needle in my bum very much, but it was over and done with before I could even cry. My mom was there, which was comforting. She showed me these cool cuffs they were going to put on my arms, right at my elbows. They were much like the cuffs they use to test blood pressure, except not flexible at all.
"Here," said Mom. "I'll put one on you. They have popsicle sticks inside them. I betcha can't bend your elbows when you have this on."
I tried, and sure enough, she was right. The cuff had popsicle sticks inside, running down my arm so that when I tried to bend my elbow, I couldn't. I giggled. I never knew popsicle sticks were that strong.
"Here," said Mom. "Let's try the other one on."
I did, and pretended I was the Frankenstein Monster, lumbering along, swinging my arms stiffly out. My nose was itchy and I couldn't scratch it. Mom scratched it for me. I was getting sleepy, anyway.
Mom walked alongside as I was rolled down to surgery, still wearing those cuffs. It was okay. I didn't feel like moving my arms. We got into surgery and the doctor said "OK, now you'll feel a little pinch." (I did, and winced, but it wasn't that bad)," ... and I want you to see if you can count backwards from ten for me."
Well. Easy peasy. Ten ... nine ... eight ... the light overhead suddenly flared a brilliant white ...
I woke up in blackness. I called for my Mom. She was right there.
"I can't see," I said. I was scared. So scared.
"It's just bandages," said my Mom. "They operated on your eyes and now you have bandages on them. Just close your eyes, rest them a bit. They'll take the bandages off in a day or two."
But I wanted them off now. So I reached up to tear them off ... and discovered what the cuffs were for.
Mom soothed me. She sang to me, rubbed my chest, talked to me in that low, honeyed, mellifluous voice she had. After a while, I nodded off.
And Mom went home. Dad was away, flying. She had kids to get ready.
I woke up to the sound of a child's screams. A boy? A girl? Couldn't tell. The cries were high pitched, pained, mixed with gurgling, wracking sobs. I reached for the bandages, to tear them off, to see what horrible thing had happened to this child. My stiff arms flailed and my hands scrabbled at thin air. I tried to get at the calling cord, pinned to the pillow, and couldn't reach it, either.
Was this a little boy who fell off the monkey bars and broke his neck? A little girl who was loading the muzzle of her Daisy Air Rifle with a wad of mud and shooting it and put her eye out? I knew that breaking your neck and putting your eye out were the two most common childhood injuries, because of all the warnings from my Mom. But this somehow sounded worse.
Moments later, another child was wheeled in. Who knows what had happened to him - running from house to house and not looking both ways? Darting out between parked cars? His agonized screams drowned out the first kid's.
I lay there, in blackness, small and terrified and confused, surrounded by the sounds of unseen, unknown horror. I couldn't speak or cry out, didn't want to draw attention to myself, such easy prey for whatever beast was skulking, slavering nearby. I lay still and quiet and if the tears stung my useless eyes you would never know it.
Another hurt child came in, and another. A typical Hallowe'en night for a kids' ward in a hospital, I suppose, but as the other seven beds around me filled with crying, screaming, frightened children my head filled with grotesque images inspired by their wails. I imagined missing limbs, bodies torn and rendered and shattered, faces turned to bloody pulp ... all of that and far worse, and all within an arms reach of this tiny little boy with no eyes but an imagination so incredibly vivid I could hear the blood dripping onto the floor from the cleaver raised over my head.
I cannot ever be terrified for myself again, after that night. I have never had, and cannot imagine, a night so filled with galloping, raging fear. It gripped me and held me for hour after hour. I don't remember sleeping that night - I may have. But if I did, I promise the fear never let up for one moment even in my dreams.
My Mom came in the next morning, as early as she could after getting my brothers and sisters off to school. I can only imagine what she must have felt to find me cowering, sobbing soundlessly, so tiny and helpless and afraid. I remember that she took the Head Nurse out into the corridor and I heard her voice - not calming and honeyed but whip sharp and acid bathed. She gathered me up into her arms when she returned, and in the blackness I could hear a nurse start to protest ... and the protest gurgle and die in infancy, the victim of my Mom's venomous glance.
They took the bandages off that morning. The doctor was reluctant but my Mom promised him that either he could do it or she would but this child would not be blind any more. She tore the cuffs off my arms and I can still hear her apologies, mouthed against my ear as she wrapped me up in her arms and the doctor unwound the bandages.
I was fine. My vision was blurred for a few days, I'm not sure how many - that part isn't clear. Some details you forget.
Some, you never do.
So, Hallowe'en means something a little different to me than it does to some people. I remember the fun. I remember dressing up, and playing pranks, and that one year there was an early snowfall and my brother and I were the only two kids to brave the blizzard and how we came home with pillowcases bulging with impossible quantities of candy - good candy, not those disgusting popcorn balls or stupid apples or black licorice but Wagon Wheels and Smarties and Kit Kat bars and Jersey Milk and Crispy Crunch and Lik-M-Aid and Hershey's kisses by the pound.
But I remember the dark, too. It doesn't keep me awake or anything. In fact, I don't think about it very much at all.
But it's always there.
I sleep with a light on somewhere - in the hall, or a bathroom, perhaps the glow from a television; not enought to disturb anybody else, but enough to keep it from being totally black in the room.
Just a little light. You understand.