Instructions: Read like a heartbeat.
“Tell me about the time you almost died.” I kneeled beside my mother and watched her origami. She folded sweaters into dragons and pea coats into swans; clearing space for sarongs and tank tops. Her wardrobe foretold seasons better than birds.
Sometimes the exposition began with construction. How the earth was gutted to uncover arrowheads and a bleached-out field of bones: occipitals, mandibles, clavicles. Lacrimals are delicate ladyslippers planted beneath the eye. (In Spanish the word for tear is lágrima. Lacrima is Latin for cry.) They do not survive weather. Nor the particles of the ear: malleus, incus, stapes too small to find, they stay buried listening to vibrations of the asphalt. Babies, maybe, paved over with their forgotten tribe. The politically correct, the superstitious called it cursed.
Other tellings started media res: the man in blue striking her heart like a prayer drum. The middle of the sternum is called the body. (Synonyms for body: soul, basis, essence, core.) In textbooks it’s called gladiolus (Latin diminutive of gladius, sword.) It’s also the name of a flower, an iris, a perennial, a term defined as enduring or lasting an indefinitely long time. Her ribcage charted bruises shaped like the constellation Phoenix.
Enter the mystery character: a retired cop with the hard-to-die habit of cruising town with an old patrol scanner. That is how one afternoon he left his living room and flew, fought for our futures with a steady one and two and three and rhythm. He bolted that premature tunnel shut.
A little bit further back: her high school sweetheart was driving. The Chevy spun, fluid in dirt, slid like a river and spit out its sediment; my mother a twig in the current. The car devoured her, unhinged its jaw like a sidewinder and swallowed her whole. Anthony was fine. (Middle English fin, from Anglo-French: very well. May not include thinking you killed your girlfriend but you survived.) He howled out a hailstorm of fists and why, why, why. He broke both wrists.
Blue-shirt lifted the car, snatched it up quick like a cat to an unfortunate ant; it was impossible. The answer isn’t in angels but adrenaline. The neurotransmitter, the hormone responsible for fight-or-flight and the goddening of men. It’s water soluble, a chemical also known as epinephrine. (Broken down, the roots give away its location. Greek epi + nephros means ‘on the kidney.’ Where it waits.) The primitive potion that propelled super-blue and prevented Anthony from feeling self-inflicted fractures.
It was narcotic. It reminded me I was real every time my mother retold it.
She absent-mindedly thumbed the keloid scar coloring her arm. (Greek chēlē: claw.) A keloid is a scar that keeps redefining its shape.
She allotted me three what ifs a day. I learned to use them slyly: abused conjunctions, seized the proverbial inch and stretched it a mile, celebrated the comma splice. “What if the cop hadn’t been there and you died, who would I be? What if I was half of me, the half from Dad or would I be my own sister? Do spirits have siblings, or would I be a whole different person?”
“I don’t know. Go put this in the closet.”
I couldn’t stop asking. She never told me I wouldn’t be anyone. She was my mother in every possible version. (Middle English moder, Latin mater, Greek mētēr, Sanskrit mātṛ, German Mutter, Irish máthair, Italian madre, French mére, and etc. forever.) Continents crumble, but mother is eternal.
It’s true for a moment she was pulseless. Revived by a passerby. Happenstance. A bored cop. Coincidence. But fate (14th century from Latin fatum, literally ‘what has been spoken’) has several entries. One for circumstance, but also inevitable, destiny, and the story of the Moirae: the three goddesses who spindle and cut the threads of human life.