Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Accident

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This piece is excerpted from The Beginning of Everything, by Andrea J. Buchanan, which was named as a PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing Award finalist. Read more about Buchanan, who is one of Literary Mama's founding editors, in this issue's Profile.

The thought saunters in, as all of my thoughts do these days: a plain fact, casually registering in my consciousness, free of judgment aside from a friendly welcoming impulse. My brain, injured and deprived of cerebrospinal fluid due to a spinal CSF leak, is now perpetually agreeable to thoughts. It perpetually says yes, acknowledging thoughts with pleasant surprise, without discrimination. And so I'm not disturbed when the thought appears. Instead I welcome it the way my brain now welcomes all ideas, with a moment of feigned recognition, the way you might improvise delight at parties when being introduced to someone you don't remember but surely should. Ah! Hello! Of course! That's how I reacted when the thought made itself known, when I sat up in bed, the whole world a flat and unceasing sensation of pain, and felt some part of me think: Remember, if it gets really bad, you can just take all of your medicine at once and kill yourself.

*

I have wanted to die twice before. Well, wanted is a strong word. Perhaps better to say: Twice I have realized it was an appealing option. The first time was in the midst of labor with Emi, the pain so wrenching and overwhelming that I found myself having reached a place of surrender, thinking I understand now; if it's my time, it's my time; I'm okay with this, I can go now. And then suddenly the pain gave way to progress and I emerged on the other side of it into a new plane of existence, for sure, but not the noncorporeal one I had, for one surprisingly peaceful moment, imagined.

The second time contained no such grace.

*

In the bathroom, I open the medicine cabinet. There are easily fifteen bottles there, medication I have been prescribed but, for the most part, have not taken. Powerful prophylactic antibiotics, for the surgery I ended up not having. Painkillers that were barely capable of wounding my pain, let alone killing it. Migraine pills (which did nothing), neuro meds (which made me feel worse), a couple of steroids left over from a weeklong course that didn't help me think any clearer, but did make me feel as though I could. Motivated and energized, but still lacking lucidity, this mostly resulted in bold, ill-conceived home-improvement projects, and ill-advised impulse Amazon purchases, which would surprise me later when they arrived as if of their own accord.

Early on in my internet research, trying to learn more about CSF leaks and my strange constant headache, I came across an interview with George Clooney, in which he mentioned the strange constant headache of his own CSF leak, and reported that the pain was so bad he wanted to die. I remember feeling relief, as though his admission finally legitimized my own pain. 

"Even George Clooney wants to kill himself. And he's George Clooney!" I wrote in the text I sent to my husband.

It would be easy enough to do. Probably any one of these bottles, taken all at once, would be enough to make all of this stop forever. It's not a terrifying thought at all. It reminds me of the acceptance I felt in the midst of that intractable labor pain, in that it feels strangely comforting. I'm okay with this, I can go now. I close the mirrored cabinet and know that my mirror self and I have come to an understanding. For a moment, we both feel the relief of knowing there's a way out.

*

"Shouldn't you be dead?" a friend texts. "I mean, if your brain isn't working?"

It's a fair question, and I know the answer, but it floats away from me, a note in a bottle, bobbing in the ocean. My brain works well enough to keep going, I explain. It does the basic things it's supposed to do. I can breathe, I can walk, I can talk, I can function physically, aside from the small weirdnesses I have begun to notice: the way that lying on my left side brings on a panic attack, my heart flubbing weirdly in my chest, a strange rush of adrenaline burbling inside me; the way that once I've been upright for too long, my eyes stream tears, but not from sadness; the way everything feels odd and disconnected, as though my body is moving of its own accord, without my brain to tell it what I want it to do or where I want it to go.

It's like being very, very, very drunk, I explain. I have never actually been very, very, very drunk, I have only ever been tipsy; but that is what this feels like, except more so, the whole world tipping over while my mouth still moves, my legs still walk, the way a drunk person can talk and walk and think that they are fine.

"So you're fine, then," this friend says.

I am not. But also, I am. Because he has a point. I'm not in a coma. I'm not paralyzed. I'm not on life support. I'm just in pain, stuck in bed, my brain in a fog.

"Everyone feels foggy like that," he says. "Part of aging." 

"You're right," I say. "That's true."

My brain agrees with everything.

This must be a coping mechanism, this agreement, a small part of me thinks from way back in the recesses of my brain. It's as though the me who is Me is just a tiny seed of a me, swathed in cotton, far, far away, and every once in a while I can hear some kind of distant echo of a thought that makes sense. But of course these thoughts will make sense: My brain is eminently agreeable, and so it welcomes all thoughts with the same dumb enthusiasm. A coping mechanism! Yes! Brilliant!

*

The second time I wanted to die also involved my children. It was not the pain of deliverance, though, not the surrender of acceptance. It was the powerlessness all parents are confronted with at one time or another. The guilt of a split-second of inattention. The general parental agony of being unable to protect your child from the harm inherent in the world, and the specific parental agony of having been responsible for it.

Quinn was three, Emi was six. It was President's Day, the children home from school. I was getting ready to take them out to some activity, to break up the monotony of the morning inside our small apartment. Quinn and I were in the bathroom, she washing her hands, me putting on makeup. It was a normal day.

How many times did I go over this sequence of events after what followed? How many times did I live these moments?

She slapped her hands on the towel in a simulacrum of drying them, and ran off to retrieve her cars, which she'd been in the middle of racing up and down the bed of the treadmill that stood in our living room. I leaned into the mirror to better see what as I was doing as I put on my eyeliner, and I heard a strange, loud grunt. It was a sound not unlike other sounds I'd heard my children make when they fought—and yet somehow immediately I knew this was not a fighting grunt, not a grunt about someone hogging space on the table for coloring or someone taking someone else's favorite car. 

"Quinn?" I called from the bathroom, still looking at myself, frozen in the mirror. But then I ran, because everything in my body felt wrong, a sickening rush of adrenaline flooding me with panic. 

I ran around the corner from the bathroom to find her slumped against the living room wall, behind the treadmill, near the couch, her mouth open, her eyes wide. As I ran to her, calling her name, her eyes widened even more, and then rolled back in her head, and then she seemed to fade away, the life falling away from her, before her body started shaking with seizures. She gripped her toy car in one hand as she seized up, her other hand flailing near the extension cord on the floor behind the couch. Wet hands. Cord.

I scooped her up, and she was dead weight, her body limp for a moment. I laid her on the couch and she continued to seize, her eyelids fluttering. Emi, too, was fluttering, alighting from one couch to another like a nervous bird, panicking, asking "Is she dead, is she dead?", over and over while I kept shouting, "Oh god, oh god, Quinn," as I tried to revive her. She wasn't breathing. "Is she dead?" Emi screamed, and I told her no, but to myself I said Not yet, and as I leaned over her face, listening for breath, Emi jumping and panicking in my peripheral vision, I swore that if she was dead, I would kill myself.

Somehow I found the phone, somehow I dialed *11, 811, then 711, then finally 911, somehow I screamed our address over the phone and told them to hurry while they told me to calm down. Then it was Emi telling me to call Daddy, Emi telling me she was scared, that she was going to run for help. Quinn turning blue, turning gray, shaking and shaking. Me trying to rescue-breathe for her, me turning her over onto her side and hearing her finally take a breath. The 911 person telling me to try to stand her up, but Quinn was too limp, me trying, Quinn falling, me dropping the phone, me carrying her to the front door, realizing that Emi was nowhere. A man showing up telling me he'd found Emi on the stairs, she was too scared to take the elevator by herself, that he'd told the front desk to call an ambulance, that Emi had told this man that she had just watched her little sister die in my arms.

Finally the paramedics arrived, rushing in, wanting to know what happened, but of course I didn't totally know, I had been in the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror, and Emi couldn't tell them: In her six-year-old version of events she had seen Quinn explode in lightning bolts and then fade into nothingness before she died. But she wasn't dead. She was moaning, making sounds, starting to open her eyes, saying "Mommy" as they lifted her onto the gurney.

"I don't want to ride in the ambulance, I want to stay here in case Quinn dies, I don't want to see her die again," Emi told me, but we had to ride in the ambulance, even though it was scary, even though it seemed like Quinn might die again as she vomited and passed out.

Once we got to the ER, Quinn was conscious, but crying, screaming, trying to talk but unable to talk, unable to focus. Agitated. Emi wanted to know that she was okay, but was terrified to see her in the room with so many cords hooked up to her. Wet hands. Cord. A nurse, a doctor, a social worker, so many people asked me to recount what had happened. I began to explain, and Emi jumped in to tell them, "Mommy can tell you her version of the story, and then I'll tell you what really happened." The suspicion that fell upon me in that moment was a thing I could feel, the sound of mental accusations being leveled, the weight of reports being filed. But I noticed everyone relax as I hugged Emi tight and told her of course she could tell her version of what happened, she might have seen different things than the things I saw, and that the grown-ups needed to hear both versions, the grown-up Mommy one and the big-sister one. She sat with coloring books and graham crackers and juice while I choked out the version of events as I understood them, still hyperventilating through tears of shock and guilt.

What I told them: That as far as I could tell, from what I had been able to make sense of, Quinn had left the bathroom with her hands still slightly damp from washing, and had reached under the couch to get her car. In doing so, she had touched an extension cord where one of the plugs was not fully flush with the socket. She suffered an electrical shock and passed out and went into seizures. 

What I did not tell them: The plug upon which she seized was the plug that powered my laptop. My computer. My work. The instrument I used to write about them, my children. The thing that simultaneously enabled me to be proximal to them while also taking me away from them, enabling me to be in the room with them, perhaps even writing something about them, some anecdote or story, while utterly being absent from them outside of a Hmmm? or a Sure, that sounds like fun in response to who even knows what was being said.

What I told them: I hadn't seen it happen, I was still in the bathroom. I'd just heard it happen, and then ran as soon as I could.

What I did not tell them: I was in the bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror as I put on makeup.

Once they were done, they went to Emi, and I could hear her begin to tell her story of how Quinn floated up to the ceiling as she died.

*

Within hours, she improved. She was able to talk to us again, and while the doctors did their doctoring, I tried to distract her with questions about things we'd done that morning, and she remembered them, so I was hopeful. She perked up a bit more and then wanted to take a nap. I was terrified to see her sleep, but the doctors said it should be fine. I stayed with her at the hospital for as long as I could, then Gil took over and I went home to be with Emi, who was still shaken, like me, who didn't want to sit near the couch where Quinn had faded away, who was upset that she had ripped her Belle costume dress and demanded that I sew it right then with my shaking hands on the couch where I thought Quinn had died, who was worried that maybe she might have made Quinn die a little because she wished Quinn was dead sometimes. She couldn't get the pictures out of her head, she told me, so she started to draw them. Page after page of Quinn looking dead, or floating, her eyes rolled back in her head, little panic lines to indicate her shaking from a seizure.

The next morning, at the hospital, it was as if Quinn was super- charged. When she saw me, she lit up and gave me a big hug and kiss, and when I said, "Oh, Quinn, you're so sweet!" she replied, "Oh, Mommy! That's just love!"

"I was so worried about you," I told her, and she said, "But Mommy, I was so worried about you, too! And you know what? I just love you, all the time. I'm just always going to love you!"

She was fine, but I was not. Because I'd thought all of that was gone. When she was lying there on the couch seizing and turning blue, I thought all of that—all of that personality, the sweet brilliance of a kid who could happily and freely reassure me that she was just always going to love me—I'd thought that was gone forever. And even once I knew it wasn't, I was still somehow perpetually stuck in that awful moment when I was on the phone with 911 and she was dying and I was so sure that my own death was the only way I would be able to survive it.

She was fine, but Emi and I were not. I tried to cope by staying in motion, so as to keep at bay the impulse of my mind to replay those endless scenes of my running around the corner, finding her slumped against the wall, her face turning lifeless and gray. In every small moment of rest, I would relive it, and so I tried to remain restless, doing what I could to keep the flood at bay. Emi coped by allowing the flood. "Let's talk about how Quinn died," she would say, while coloring or getting ready for bed, and this was the last thing I wanted to talk about, the thing I was endlessly trying to prevent my mind from chattering at me about. And yet I knew this was her way of processing, to create a narrative to understand the trauma, and thus tame it. I suggested, "How about we think of it like a book, a very long book that we can't read all at once because it's just too long to read at bedtime, and we read a chapter at a time together and then put it away?" And she agreed. And so each night, we'd lie there in the dark, and she'd narrate the story of how Quinn died but didn't die, and I would will my body to be calm next to her, embracing her, even as my heart hammered in my chest and every nerve ending I had seemed to scream She's dead, she's dead, you have killed her.

The first weekend after the accident, Emi requested a "Mommy- Emi" weekend, so that we could spend time together, just us. I wasn't sure whether this was a good idea, for us to be alone—after all, we had experienced Quinn’s accident alone, just the two of us. And yet her impulse to create a different, more positive bonding experience for us was a good one. Gil took Quinn to his parents, and Emi made a list of all the things she thought we should do: bubble baths, s'mores, going to the shoe store to look for fancy shoes, going to a "grown-up" yoga class, playing dress-up, doing art projects, playing beauty parlor, watching movies and eating popcorn, sleeping in my bed together. I marveled at her natural impulse toward healing, this restorative, remarkable combination of ordinary and extraordinary things.

It was a good weekend for both of us. At the yoga class, which she managed to keep up with, and which I managed to survive without a panic attack during the quiet moments, she accepted the compliments of the teacher with grace, and when a fellow class-goer we knew asked her "How is your little sister?"—unaware of what had happened, or what a loaded question that might be—Emi responded, "She's fine, thanks," with a smile. But these things, too, were fragile: On the way home from the shoe-shopping portion of our weekend together, she tripped and fell, ripping her tights and skinning her knee, and I sat with her on the sidewalk, crying along with her as she sobbed and shook in my arms, the grief of everything finally pouring out.

*

The further we moved away from the event, the more things shifted in my memory, in much the same way Emi's narrative changed and shifted as she retold it to me and to others. Lying in bed together in the dark those nights as she read a chapter at a time from  the Big Book of Quinn Almost Dying, it wasn't that she was lying or confabulating; it really felt to her as though she saw sparks shoot out of Quinn's body, it really felt to her as though she saw a lightning bolt descend from the ceiling and cause Quinn to fade away, even though of course she never dissolved into thin air; even though, like me, Emi never saw the actual incident, only the second or so afterward. I couldn't argue with the validity of her interpretations. I couldn't say that any of it wasn't true. What about me and my own memory? What is more important or true, the memory of clumsily stabbing at the phone, trying and failing to dial 911? The memory of realizing Quinn was gray and not breathing? Is it true that her heart stopped for a moment, that after she stopped seizing and stopped breathing she really truly was dead? Or is that only how it felt to me? I'd had an eyeliner pencil in my hand when I ran out of the bathroom to find her. I must have still held it when I'd picked her up off the floor and put her on the couch. Days later I found it lodged between the couch cushions, an indictment of my narcissism, my own self-involvement. And yet when I encountered it, I almost couldn't recognize it for what it was—was this one of Emi's pencils? How did this get here? Who put it there? It seemed so out of place. I'd completely forgotten that I'd been holding it when the accident happened. But there it was, reminding me that not everything I remembered was true, and that maybe some things I remembered weren't.

It took maybe a year to be able to stop living in the parallel world of what might have been, to stop being suspended in that limbo where it was eternally Monday and I was on the phone with 911 and Quinn was dying. Every day I had proof that she was fine, that the only actual consequence of the accident was my own inability to shake the shadow of the event itself. I couldn't write; I stopped writing about my children; even just using that laptop made me sick to my stomach, despite the fact that I knew I was not literally killing them by typing out an anecdote. It took time, and then a serious deadline, to get me out of that guilty funk. Deadline. Eventually I bought a new laptop, a new extension cord, and got back to work.

Would I have actually killed myself if Quinn had died? I had been berating myself for my selfishness—for writing about my children; for using a tool to write about my children that had, due to the poor placement of its power cord, nearly killed one of them; for the narcissism of looking at myself in the mirror putting makeup on; for the narcissism of writing down stories to make my life more interesting—and yet how incredibly selfish was the thought of killing myself? To make it even worse, to scale the absolute heights of selfishness, I'd had that thought literally as my other child was in front of me, terrified, more in need of me in that moment than ever. And yet that was my thinking. How could I even consider it, even in a moment of desperation? If Quinn was dead, and then I killed myself, Emi would have two people to mourn, her six-year-old mind would not be coping with pictures and restorative weekend plans, she would be traumatized for life. And yet that is the thought I felt more certain about than any other thought that day, the memory that haunts me more than almost any other part of that series of events that replayed itself in my mind like the sickest movie: That I would die, too, and that I would deserve it.

But no one died. Not Quinn, and not me. Instead I watched them both heal. I marveled at their natural tendencies toward health, at their natural impulses toward recovery. "Trauma doesn't have to be traumatic," my therapist told me, and I watched that statement unfold as a true life experience. Quinn had no memory of the accident, no lingering effects from it, and although she was aware of the attention and anxiety of the adults around her, she moved on from it even better than could have been expected. And Emi prescribed herself art therapy, suggested healing activities and rituals, stunned me with her innate sense of resiliency and emotional integrity. They could do this at six and three.

Even my foggy brain is capable of thinking: How could I even think of asking them to do this at fifteen and twelve? I already see them struggling to cope, Quinn’s natural buoyant happiness giving way to anxiety, Emi freezing, unable to turn her stress into art just yet.

*

Mirror-me at the medicine cabinet tallying up my medications, plotting my way out, is for a moment indistinguishable from the mirror-me of almost a decade ago, putting on eyeliner and dreading the endless task of filling up the hours until bedtime, calculating the odds of whether at least one kid will take a nap so she can work on an article, or write a quick draft, or just have a fucking break, one moment to herself before she has to cut up more fruit and make who knows what for dinner and sew a Belle costume and settle another fight and read two sets of stories and wait in the dark for the tiny voices of children to quiet down into the breath of children on the edge of sleep until she can finally go work on something or sleep herself. Mirror-me at the medicine cabinet sees the mirror-me before the accident, completely oblivious to what will happen next, no idea that the eyeliner in her hand is an accusation, no idea that her dread of the quotidian is a thing she will regret, will pray for in the adrenaline-sick moments ahead of her, will swear to never again take for granted, although of course she will, we all do, eventually, as we forget and become impatient with everything all over again. Mirror-me at the medicine cabinet and mirror-me before the accident merge into one me for a moment and the small buried part of my brain that is still me says No, this is not a viable plan, no matter how much proof you have that they will be okay, that they have it in them, both of them, to thrive and to survive trauma. No, they will not find you, they will not dial *11 and 811 and 711 before finally dialing 911 and screaming for someone to hurry, they will not promise themselves that if you are really dead, they will kill themselves, they will not be trapped in that moment forever, wishing they, too, were dead.

And of course my brain agrees with this.

This is what my brain does now: It agrees with itself. And so I find myself thinking Of course. These medicines are not a plan. I will not take them all at once. I will throw them out at some point. Good idea! Good thinking!

*

I go back to bed. My friend has texted again. 

"Didn't mean to minimize," it says.

"No problem!" I respond. "Going to sleep now." 

"You'll probably feel better after a nap."

I won't. But I recognize that's just his brain trying to be agreeable too. I push all the pillows aside to be as flat as possible, to make the pain as small as possible, put on a podcast, and float in the fog of Britain and the run-up to World War I. I hear the interviewer talking to a group of historians about the deaths of so many young people, and eventually I fall asleep.

Read more about Buchanan, who is one of Literary Mama's founding editors, here.


Andrea J. Buchanan is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book is The Beginning of Everything, which was a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing. Her other work includes the multimedia young adult novel Gift, the internationally bestselling The Daring Book for Girls, her essay collection on early motherhood Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and seven other books.


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Thank you for your candor. My daughter has anaphylactic allergies, and within minutes her eyes swell shut, her lips distend, and she starts wheezing. We've taken many trips in ambulances, and it has taken a toll on her brother, too... on all of us. Once, I left walnuts on the cutting board. I fault myself. I know know that feels. Your essay was a riveting in its honesty.
Raw,vibrant and alive. Beautifully riveting in its stark vulnerability of disconnect and the agonizing dread that shadows it.