I woke to the sound of knocking coming from somewhere below me. I stumbled out of bed and down the stairs, shivering and flicking on lights as I went. The knocking became pounding, not at the front of the house, but at the back. My heart raced as I neared the door.
I turned on the outside light and looked through the glass of the French door. The light made the snow gleam a cold blue. I opened the door. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Jansen, was holding my mother who stood swaying and shivering in her dripping pajamas.
Mr. Jansen was saying something, but at first it was as if a roaring filled my ears. All I could hear was the creak creak of the black walnut trees that lined the path to the river, their tall thin trunks swaying in the winter wind. Then his words finally reached me. “. . . and I found her down at the river, guess she jumped in,” he said simply. He was a tall, thin man, and my mother seemed very little huddling hunched and sodden under his arm. He said nothing more, holding her out with his long arms as if offering a gift, launching her toward me. My arms were stiff like two bowling pins as I caught her there inside the doorway, the frigid winter air swirling around us.
I stared at Mr. Jansen. Words formed inside me, filled me. I wanted to ask, “What should I do?”
But Mr. Jansen was backing away. His eyes would not meet mine. My mind was scrambling to think: Could I ask him to help me put her to bed or give her a bath? But he was a man; he should not see my mother naked. Silence crackled between us. As he walked away, I would not cry out, “Help!”
Inside me there was just a cold sensation of tightness, as if all of my muscles had drawn inward, as if my breath were a tiny moth beating its wings in my chest. Just do whatever has to be done.
I managed to get my mother upstairs, hauling her with one of her arms over my shoulder, my other arm around her waist. I’d decided to run a warm bath. I dumped her on the toilet and struggled with her to remove the soaked pajamas. Her lips were blue, her teeth chattering non-stop. I didn’t know if the hot water would shock her, so I made the bath mildly warm. Pressing her hand on my shoulder, she dipped her foot in, then screamed slurrily, “Isss bloody burning hot!”
I added more cold water. She finally plunked in, her body smacking the bottom of the tub as I lost my grip on her. I gradually added more and more warm water, as she could stand it, until it was a regular hot bath. After she seemed warmed enough, I leaned over and grabbed her under the armpits, helping her steady herself as she lurched out of the tub. I toweled her dry, helped her get on other pajamas, and put her in bed. She lay there, teeth still chattering. I got in next to her and lay spooned against her, willing her my warmth.
There is a phrase I clearly remember telling myself in my childhood, repeating it like a mantra, a vow, a motto: “ I am so strong, I can get through anything.” I had no idea of the cost of such survival, the suppressed longings, the anxiety that became like a second skin. The alternative, to not cope, to possibly let my mother die, was too terrifying.
If there was rage, in the moment of crisis it was pushed so far down that I couldn’t even feel its simmer. It wasn’t until adulthood that the immensity of the desertion occurred to me. My mother had left me, a ten-year-old, alone in a house in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter and jumped into the icy Millstone River. She left no note, not even the barest goodbye. Did my mother even think of me as she plunged herself into a cold death, or was her despair so great it overshadowed all other thoughts?