Hall of the Sky
by Tricia Louvar
Consider it superfluous to wear that purply red lipstick if the pediatricians diagnosis your four-year-old son with a rare disease. You put on whatever—clothes off the floor count—and continue on with barely a glimpse in the mirror. Sexualized banter with your husband goes offside and off-speed. You both agree to a moratorium on pleasure until you come to terms with what is ahead.
Instead you both engage in keeping the domestic dance of routines alive: you cook dinner, he cleans up, and you both read bedtime stories to the children. There is a small rhythm of breathing to the functioning of a family. Rituals make a child feel safe, hence, builds his self-confidence. And self-confidence seems to be a cure-all in a pop psychology kind of way. The parenting edict balances telling, prepping, enduring, and progressing.
Meanwhile, a torn down wall in your home leaves drywall dust piled up on the planked floor, looking like an abandoned farmhouse in early winter. The long deep cracks in the wall had opened and closed, depending on the moisture level on the sun-soaked mountainside.
The inside of that wall has a smattering of black oblong kernels of rat droppings among the yellow insulation. Though the house is old, perhaps the rats lived there before you did. You have no idea how long it takes for rat scat to decompose.
The deconstruction started on the same day you found out from the pediatricians that your boy was ill. Nobody knows exactly how he contracted it; the statistics say he is the least likely candidate to get it. You cull the Internet—online medical journals, federal health department documents, and prestigious hospital literature—and read the data and literature.
You sit back in an office chair, swaying back and forth, to read, to analyze statistics, to print off source documents, and to organize the papers in a manila folder that you cannot figure out what to label. So you leave that space blank on the folder and place it by the computer, because there are no other folders like it in the house holding such toxic information.
Here you are creating a case for or against his course of treatment. A patchwork of others’ opinions riffle through your headspace—the treatment could possibly kill him or does not providing treatment possibly kill him.
Your doe-eyed beautiful boy who cries when he sees another child cry, not knowing why, but feeling the pain anyhow, doesn’t know anything bad is happening to him. What’s inside him now is quiet and voiceless, until given the medical term.
Your husband is quiet about the whole thing. But you know him. When he hurts he buckles down on his lips and avoids eye contact. You don’t fault him for handling it as he does. However, you’re the captain of this family ship and want him to understand the severity of it all. Instead of telling him, you hand him the manila folder and say, “Please read the yellow highlighted sections in the event you haven’t done your own research.” He takes the folder and puts it down. It sits next to the remote control and lamp on the marred end table that has lived in all the places you’ve shared—three apartments and one house. He continues to read something else on his iPad. You know, in his own time, when you’re not in the room, he will open the folder. You know this because in conversations with his parents he will discuss in exquisite detail about the disease, showing he has read everything you gave him and conducted his own research. This makes your heart happy.
You take a long hot shower and when you get out, with a towel summoned like an inverted beehive on top of your head, inspect your face in the mirror. The inroads and exit ramps dump themselves off into your eyes as the imprints of time.
In the mirror to the left are the drawings of your ever-expanding pregnant belly from years back. Each week during gestation you used an eyeliner pencil to outline the contour of your body to see its changes. Sometimes now you stand naked and turn to the side to see how much you have deflated. Life had jetted out of you with each passing week, like a planet under your shirt. Other parents had told you that pregnancy was the easiest part of becoming a mother. They were right. You wrote the date next to each self-contour drawn. This day or the next never seems like a good time to wipe it all away. So you leave your former self in the mirror next to the one that exists in the present.
Entering motherhood transformed you into a tribe of belonging for the first time. You were not the popular girl, but the one who did her own thing and girls hated you for it. Motherhood connected you to something bigger than yourself. It’s a journey that amplifies everything—pain, worry, beauty, longing, desire, love, definitely love.
When the house goes quiet, you are always the last in bed after staying up late to write; you sit on your bedroom floor that is absent of butter lamps and their accompanying bowls and there is no meditation room, with incense. Rather, you sit down in lotus position on worn-out, stained carpet between the bed and dresser. You close your eyes. A patchwork of daily opinions stymies your headspace.
The day’s events filter and drain from your mind until you come to the screen door of blackness, where upon you take a mental walk through to reach a meadow of calm that enters your body, as when a heron waded and followed you down the Bighorn River. And you reside there for as long as you can.
One day you take your boy to the Griffith Observatory overlooking the vast geometric gridlines of Los Angeles. Along the length of one wall is an interactive periodic table in a section called Hall of the Sky. It’s a rotund room, with a large solar telescope in the center.
At the base of the periodic table is a panel of Lucite buttons. A press of a button illuminates an arrangement of its elements. You press the “human” button. He scans the lit periodic elements. You press the “sun” button. He scans the elements. You press the “earth” button. He scans the elements. You press the “universe” button. He is quiet and still. Then his finger depresses each, doing it and seeing the appropriate elements ablaze again.
“Do you see how we all contain the same things? We are mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus,” you say and point to each one. These are just words to him at the moment. You know that. But it will get his mind turning.
At the outdoor sculpture garden he casts himself as a shepherd moon, a small moon that orbits on the outer planetary rings. He sees his shadow revolve around the solar system etched into the ground. His arms move outward to fly into his imaginary universe. Time stops for him, while his giggles last for eternity. He is home in his body and in each moment. This is the Zen essence you strive for as you watch him just be.
The next morning he gets ready for montessori and in the car ride to there, he asks, “Mom, if we’re all made out of the same stuff, then who made the earth?”
Here it comes, you know. He digests life through a series of questions. You say that nobody knows for sure. But it’s a battle between scientists, who believe in something called the Big Bang Theory, and a superhero named God, who is an invisible spirit and religion is founded upon, and atheists, who believe this life is it, there is nothing hereafter.
He asks what you believe. You deflect the answer to instead say that he can spend his entire life trying to figure it out because nobody knows for sure.
“I’ll figure it out, Mommy,” he says. ”But Mommy.”
“Well. Mommy. Then. What happens to my penis when I die? It’s not a bone, so what happens to it?”
You start in on the idea of decay, like the bananas left out on the kitchen counter. You think about trying to explain entropy and ashes-to-ashes-dust-to-dust for a split second. But you leave it at the banana image.
“And what happens to my eyes?” he asks.
“They will be one of the first to decay on your body. They are soft and filled with fluid.”
He pauses. A light turns green. You go. He watches out his window.
“How will I get to the sky? Is there some kind of angel wagon?”
“I don’t know, sweet pea. Maybe you turn into ash and float away. Maybe you turn into a spiritual postcard and deposit notes into people’s hearts, which are like mailboxes. Nobody knows, love. ”
You want him to think big, to think anything is possible, to make up his own mind. You love all the questions he asks and write them down in your journal at night. He eats a dinner of a sprouted vegan patty sandwich and a plate full of sautéed broccolini, and finishes out the evening playing with trucks on the floor. Post storybooks and cuddling, and before you offer the nightly mantra—love you, be good to the world—you study his face under the lamplight.
“Mommy, if God created the universe, who created God?
You don’t know. It’s a valid question. Still, you have no answer even at age thirty-five.
“I’ll figure it out,” he says.
He goes on to ask about really important stuff on earth, like his birthday cake. He wants you to build him a three-dimensional yellow dump truck cake for his fifth birthday. Each year you build him a fancy cake that takes about six hours to complete—cutting cake into sections to build the design, then applying little fondant colored cut-outs and candies—but you assure him it will be everything he hopes it to be, you are almost certain of this.
You go to pick up his medication at the pharmacy. It’s a special order and has taken a few days to arrive. When you give the technician your son’s name, she retrieves the order in the back, looks at it, and then walks to see the pharmacist in a white lab coat, whom takes the white baggie in her hand and approaches you. She whispers, “I’m so sorry.”
She explains she has never filled this prescription before, because it’s so rare. “We just don’t keep that stuff around,” she says. “There is a limited supply, you know.” She is sorry; you are sorry, too, because you have no answers as to why this is happening. You pay for it and pick up a few more things for his party.
Later, after his party that night, you and your husband decide it’s time to start the medication. “What are we waiting for,” your husband says.
“Clarity,” you say and let out a big yoga sigh.
Timing is everything. Food interaction is a big concern with the drug’s effectiveness. You’ve been working on introducing new foods before pulling away most of his favorites. You get your son to take the medicine late at night so it has the most time to do what it’s suppose to do without being harmed by food.
The next morning he wakes and says, “Mommy, it feels like I have electricity in my belly?” You and your husband exchange glances of worry.
Daddy takes him into the kitchen for breakfast; you go behind closed doors to read the pages of the medication’s side effects. Stomach upset is a major one. You will work on controlling that through food intake. The doctor has informed you to create a side-effects journal. Anything outside his usual parameters of growing boy aches. You duly note symptoms.
The next day, you take a work-related conference call, with an author of a book you’re editing. His manuscript is vehemently against all alternative medicines and therapies. They are casted as bunk, misleading, and just plain wrong. If you cannot prove effectiveness by scientific research, then it does not work. Everything else is human-mind made.
After the call you doodle on your notepad, lost in a space of wonder if he’s just super conservative or onto something. You wanted to press him and argue for the possibility of Eastern philosophical modes of healing. But you were respectful of his adamant views. This was his book. So you listened to him.
As you sit there the phone rings. It’s the pediatrician. She barely says hello and starts right in. She abbreviates your name in conversation, like the people closest to you do.
“Take him off the medication right now. We should be doing this gradually but we’re going to just stop it right now. Get rid of it.”
Her words are like an unexpected fireball you notice in the distant sky. You are in awe, wondering what you’re seeing, thinking you know, but don’t really know. Rather, you are quiet and confused.
“I’m sorry. Please say that again.”
Her explanation, the one she tells you in detail about how she got your son’s case in front of and reviewed by a panel of prestigious doctors at a fancy hospital. They had reached a revised diagnosis based on XYZ that the original diagnosis was false positive for XYZ reasons. Your son falls into a gray area of medical diagnosis.
You still say nothing. Your brow is furrowed. “Isn’t it interesting, how much I had to convince you of his disease and now I have to convince you he doesn’t have it,” she says.
Shock. Skepticism. Those blip on your emotional radar first and second. Then, elation tries to seep in but you hold it off with loads of questions. The pediatricians were right in part yet wrong in part. A false-positive test result takes some mind bending to understand how that works.
You fall into a pit of feeling like a terrible parent for reasons you don’t even understand. You just went along with the diagnosis, because you trusted the doctors, read the research, listened to what they had to say, and wanted to get him healthy as soon as possible. More than relief, at the time, you are angry with yourself for not being skeptical enough.
Happiness should have been the instant response but it’s overlapping with confusion. But what if they’re wrong this time? And the disease really is there only to lay quiet and fester, with no treatment. Do you trust science or the act of universal intervention or both? Was this some kind of cosmic test or joke? You’re not sure if you failed or succeeded.
Doctors are not God but you treated them as such in the beginning. And here they are again giving another diagnosis, proclaiming his health as normal. What is believable? Did the collective universe answer your meditative prayers? Or did science just get it wrong the first time?
Your home’s wall is brand new. It is reinforced on the inside and coated in new paint on the outside. It never looked better. Whatever the ground does going forward—shift, lift, or lower—the wall should remain the same. In the bedroom, you rest post-coitally with your husband, and smell the paint fumes, even with the open windows.
“Your eyelashes tickle,” he says. So you flutter them with intention across his hairy chest. He pokes you in the rib cage and then rests his hands on your bare back. A kiss on top of your head makes you feel small and protected.
With your ear to his heart, it sounds so emphatic, almost bossy in a confident way. How does your heart sound? It bursts with letters of love and gratitude in the waking hours. You both stay steady in the dark as one interlocking capsule and float off into the space of sleep, where you dream of looking out clean windows at a calm ocean in the moonlight.
Originally published in Superstition Review, Fall 2010