Boot Language Prologue

Spring, 1972

I ditched my math class, heading straight for the high school parking lot through the tall dry grass, in back of the science wing. Funny how our community cared so much about the manicured lawn and flowerbeds and left the hidden stuff uncared for.

I slumped over onto the front seat of my ugly little car and waited to see if anybody had seen me. There were no footsteps or shouts telling me to get back to class. I slipped onto the road, unnoticed. I had to see Dad.

Glancing out the window as I drove along the old country road, the land quieted my fears. The rolling hills were a green backdrop for acre upon acre of apricot blossoms lifting in the breeze, like party dresses. I wanted to be out there, to walk in the miracle of the land. But I had a job to do.

I accelerated through the beauty and connected with the freeway that took me into San Jose, speeding the last ten miles to the hospital, trying to keep pace with my careening thoughts. I hadn’t seen Dad in months. Would he even want to see me? This thought was the rotting morsel I had chewed on all morning, ever since I had decided I needed to visit him in the detox unit at Valley Med. I finally brought my car to rest in the hospital’s pockmarked parking lot.

I tried to imagine what lay inside the forbidding building that slumped in front of me like an aging beast. What did they do in all those rooms? Having been raised a Christian Scientist, I had never been to a doctor, let alone a hospital, except one time when I almost bled to death in my mother’s lap when I was only three days old. Mom betrayed her religious beliefs to bring me to the emergency room, her prayers floating above me like a halo. Though I no longer accompanied Mom to church, the teachings remained in my head like a dark stain. There was nothing I could do to remove it. Seeking medical help was an act of treason.

My older sister Margery called in a panic yesterday, urging me to go see Dad after he had been rushed to the hospital. She sounded breathless. “You really have to go – this may be it.” I exhaled with the impact of her words.

I hated it when she prodded me to do things but fearing this was maybe the last time I’d ever see him, I called the hospital, and a nurse let me know of his status. “He’s pretty incoherent, dear.” I knew there was more she wasn’t saying. It was the way she paused before she said, “I’m afraid he can’t come to the phone.” I wanted to slap myself for being happy, but I was. I couldn’t imagine having to speak to Dad. Not after all that had happened. Now I was here. I sucked in my breath and pulled the keys from the ignition, looking down at what I was wearing. Was there a dress code for visiting your dad in detox? Oh, hell. My anti-war t-shirt and frayed bell-bottoms would have to do. I grabbed my macramé bag and got out. I threaded my way between the cars, the pitted asphalt heating up my sandals. I searched for the hospital entrance, my hair flowing out behind me like a wave from the force of my gait.

Chapter One

I was lying in a pool of my own blood. That’s what they told me.

Throughout my childhood the retelling of this story happened so often it became my bedtime story. There were three narrators: my mother, my grandfather, and the young woman who changed everything. I was too young to remember it, but his is what I imagine happened that day.

I was three days old, on the couch in my mother’s lap, and she was trying to heal me. The storm outside howled as she squinted and leaned toward the lamp, the glow of the light softening her concentration. “Divine Love has always met and always will meet every human need.” She was reading from her Christian Science manual, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. Her head bobbed at important words. The slam of the door interrupted her words.

“Buon giorno!” It was the signature singsong greeting from our mother’s helper Eugenia, a young woman from Italy my parents sponsored in 1953. She brushed the raindrops from her hair and entered the room, stopping midstride as she took us in: the tiny blue veins decorating my eyelids, my limp arms, the bloody diaper.

“Signora! “Perche sta sanguinando?” She moved to pick me up.

My mother didn’t answer. She just placed her left hand over the front of my diaper, as if to hold me in place. I can imagine her elegant fingers fanning out, covering my chest like a shield. Years later Eugenia told me that something in my mother’s eyes reminded Eugenia of an old beggar woman back home in Monteleone, Italy, wandering through the rubble during the
war, quietly lost to her own demons. Eugenia wanted to grab me into her arms and run into the street.

“Guardi, al bambino!” Eugenia pointed at me then clasped her hands at her chest. My mother looked up at these words, her eyebrows one dark line. She had no time to explain what she was doing. How could she make Eugenia understand? Besides, she had a healing to do. She returned to her prayers.

The teenager’s arms spoke in outraged jabs, pointing to the street. “Prendi in ospedale immediatamente!”

My mother lifted her hand off of my body at this outburst, and heard the teenager’s sharp intake of breath as it mirrored her own and immediately placed her hand back onto my belly, camouflaging the blood with religious conviction. Her voice was louder now. “God is the light and the truth. Let neither fear or doubt overshadow your clear sense of calm trust…”

Eugenia ran to the phone, her index finger clawing the faded list of names and numbers on the wall. She knew my father was unreachable, so she dialed his father, my Grandpa Louie, who lived down the street.

She cried into the phone, “Il bambino è molto malato. Si prega di venire!”

Although Grandpa Louie adored Italian opera, he did not understand her words, but they felt like a shattering of all that was good. He chased each syllable that leapt from her lips, comprehending the tone, understanding the terror.

Eugenia stood holding the door open as my grandfather peeled into the driveway minutes later. His long khaki legs rushed past her as he crossed the foyer onto the living room. “Margot! What’s happened?”

My mother pursed her lips and lifted me to her shoulder. “Oh, I was just doing some thinking about…the bleeding.” Her face tightened for having mentioned it. She shouldn’t have said it aloud.

My grandfather saw the red smear on my blanket. “Jesus, Margot! Get in the car.”

I like to imagine that Mom was relieved to follow orders, to allow my Grandpa Louie, whom she adored, to come to her rescue, for she said nothing and put up no fight. Grabbing her big black pocket book, she rushed to the car as if it had been her idea, but she didn’t stop praying. She knew it didn’t matter where she prayed. Healing could happen on the couch, in the
front seat of the Pontiac, or at the hospital. God was everywhere.

We careened through the streets, Grandpa Louie’s uneven foot on the gas punctuating the journey in nauseating bursts. Twice he reached his arm out at sudden stops to shield us. The rain had let up, but the streets were still wet and the late afternoon sun reflected off the bumpers, forcing my grandfather to squint. I know he was much younger when this happened, but when I replay the story in my mind, he is old and his too-tight grip on the steering wheel shakes. His lake blue eyes dart from me to the street, his thin white hair floating above, like a cloud.

Years later as a young child, I would play all alone in his Pontiac, hoping to remember something that would help me understand what had happened that day. I’d sit in the driver’s seat and pretend to be Grandpa Louie. I’d scooch to the right and be Mom, praying. I’d lie down between these two spots on the soft bench seat, curling into a tight ball, a bleeding baby, by face looking up toward the ceiling of the old Pontiac.

* * *

When Grandpa Louie pulled into the parking lot of San Jose Hospital, he burst from the car and shepherded us through the entrance to the emergency room, shouting, “We got a three-day-old baby girl here!”

A nurse rushed forward, peeling the bloody blanket away. “It’s her umbilical knot. Did you pick it?”

Mom refused to respond to this silly question. The nurse had never met a Christian Scientist before. She didn’t know that they didn’t believe doctors or that they saw the body as a kind of mirage, an illusion created by evil. And she certainly didn’t know mentioning my symptoms could give evil more power. No wonder Mom didn’t answer. She was protecting me.

Mom closed her eyes and softy chanted, “There is no life, truth, intelligence or substance in matter…”

“Ma’am?!” The word shot from the nurse’s mouth, cutting the prayer short, as she grabbed me from my mother’s arms and ran into the emergency room, my limp body, pressed to her chest.

Mom moved to a grey plastic chair, one of the many that lined the walls of the waiting room. She placed her pocket book on the seat next to her and reached inside, past the tissues and red lipstick, for her Bible. She didn’t get up for water or food. She simply sat and prayed.

Grandpa Louie began to pace the glossy linoleum floors, his spidery legs taking him away from the sight of her. Finding a phone in the lobby, he called his son, my father, but he was in a meeting. Slamming the receiver down, he checked his watch: 5:00. He caught a glimpse of Mom with her head bent forward as he turned a corner and headed into the belly of the hospital.

Ten minutes later a doctor approached. “We don’t have much time. Your daughter has lost a lot of blood and needs a transfusion.” My mother looked confused, his words complicated, traveling from another world.

“Ma’am, do you hear me? Because of her massive blood loss, your daughter will have serious problems, most likely with her liver. There’s also a good chance she will be retarded.”

“Oh?” Mom was surprised the mention of retardation gripped her so. She looked up at him.

The doctor’s smile was tight. “We have a donor who’d like to help. He’s a new father, waiting for his child to be born upstairs. Do we have your permission?”

“Of course, you have her permission!” My grandfather’s shout came clear across the lobby. All heads turned in his direction. He had just completed another lap of the hallways. “Jesus, Margot, answer him!” Mom closed her eyes to my grandfather’s roar. She mouthed a prayer.

The doctor nodded to the nurse at the desk, who was speaking to a tall black man, his face dipped toward the floor as he listened. They both looked over at Mom.

The nurse spoke softly as they walked forward. “Mrs. Erickson, this is Mr. Hamilton.” She put her hand on the tall man’s forearm. “He has your daughter’s blood type. Will you let him help your baby?”

My mother looked up into his face and smiled. “Hello.” She rose to her feet and offered him her hand. The heat of his touch rushed through her.

“Are you insane?” my grandfather shouted. “You can’t put a nigger’s blood in my granddaughter. What kind of a joint is this? You’ll kill her!”

“Oh Louie, stop it!” Mom’s voice surprised them all as moved her body in front of Mr. Hamilton and stood to face my grandfather, hands on her hips, “Oh yes, she will have his blood.”

And with this act of solidarity with her progressive politics, my mother bent her religious vows and saved my life.

* * *

This  story affected everything and was the birth of a great debate. Had my mother healed me? Or had the blood transfusion? It all depended on who was telling the story. But no matter the truth, I knew I was lucky. My earliest memory is of being four years old, lying on a blanket in the backyard of my home in Saratoga, California, looking up at the lush Santa Cruz Mountains, and marveling that I was alive.

I felt a deep connection with the Earth cradling my body, and if I could have, I would have burrowed into the earth like an animal. This rooted my tender love for everything. It was the small things that brought tears to my eyes: the dramatic calls of a mockingbird that perched on the chimney day after day; the long breath of the wind in the pine trees on a summer hike; the toothy smile of our retriever Brownie and the soft whop-whop of her tail against my leg when I came home from my best
friend’s house. I couldn’t imagine a more magical life.

I can’t pinpoint the exact day that things darkened, but it happened somewhere around my sixth birthday. One Saturday morning the summer before first grade, my little sister KK and I were in our small TV room, when I heard Dad’s voice, “Girls?”

Alarmed by the pitch of his voice, I jumped up from my perch in the warm bear-sized chair where I had been reading. KK looked up from her coloring, the blue crayon still in her grip.