Saturdays were piano days. Each week, Mom eased our maroon ’79 Grand Prix into the Southwestern faux-paradise of Sun City, Arizona, its streets lined with palm trees and tidy beds of gravel. Inside the white barrier walls, lazy herds of Continentals, Cadillacs, and golf carts grazed between the lush grass medians and strip shopping centers whose restaurants offered early bird specials. Despite the age of its residents, it felt like there was time enough for everything in Sun City: water aerobics and golf, game shows, and afternoon naps. Even the ambulances never flashed their lights or sounded alarms like they did in Glendale, where we lived. Mom and I were so entranced by this placid geriatric harmony – an endless summer vacation beneath a sweltering bell jar – that we forgot the tension back home, if only for a few hours each week.
Every Saturday, Mom and I arrived early at my grandparents’ house so I could practice the lesson one last time before Helen, my piano teacher, appeared pink-cheeked and panting from her short trek in the heat from her nearby cottage. Nanny kept a small brown upright piano in her living room in the hopes her grandchildren would learn to play, but I was the only one who ever did. In those final minutes of practice, I would dash off a few bars for my mother and Nanny who listened from the white couch in the white-carpeted sitting room whose wall-to-wall potential for stain made me nervous. Helen’s appearance fascinated me. From her sack dresses and cotton slips to her virgin white Keds and fold-over anklet socks, Helen embodied a childlike wholesomeness in her mid-sixties that surpassed even that of my sixth grade friends.
Once Helen settled into the high-backed chair next to the piano, Nanny retreated with my mother to the kitchen and closed the sliding pocket door. I would wonder what they discussed while I sat on the padded velvet bench, but I was quickly distracted by Helen’s tantalizing scores, particularly etudes and sonatas by Chopin, Mozart, and Bach. When introducing a new piece, Helen would move over to sit with me at the bench where I’d listen and watch as she played the piece through before encouraging me to pick my way section by section. We would play this way for an hour, first Helen, then me, side by side, the tinkling melody developing between us like a thought passed back and forth. I loved the first lessons of anything, a new world opening before me, without the threat of my father hollering, “Sour notes!” each time I made mistakes at home.
At the end of each lesson my grandmother would thank Helen and shuffle her back into the heat with a friendly but firm farewell. With Helen gone, Mom and Nanny returned to their conversation while I explored the back yard, which was as carefully manicured as the front.
While exploring Nanny’s potted ferns one Saturday, I pushed aside the green branches to make a startling discovery: a small nest of quail eggs tucked into the corner of the container. I had never seen any wild eggs before. These were about an inch long with slate blue freckles. Despite the trembling in my stomach, I didn’t believe I was hurting anything, not really. I just couldn’t stop myself from reaching into the nest to take them, not just one but two, tiny and fragile.
I slipped silently inside the house, slithering past my grandfather who snoozed in his brown pleather recliner in front of a muted golf game on TV. I wrapped the eggs in Kleenex and tucked them into my piano bag, hoping that my books wouldn’t crush them.
The five-mile drive back to Glendale felt as if it took forever that day. Normally, I dreaded returning home to Bellair, the middle class master-planned community where we lived, but that week I bounded from the car as soon as my mother pulled into the driveway. Once inside, I hurried to my room, closing and booby-trapping the door with a bell.
I carried the piano bag past my four-poster bed and into the closet, shutting the door. With my clothing hung along one wall and shelves of stuffed animals propped along the other, it was like being inside a plush womb. I scanned the shelves overflowing with toys, games, art supplies, and science equipment. Thanks to my ongoing projects, I had enough raw material to build a nest large enough for Big Bird. I got to work filling an empty shoebox with scraps of newsprint, string, and paper – things a mother bird might use to house her young – and gingerly placed the eggs, still intact, inside the makeshift nest. I covered the eggs with yarn and paper and replaced the lid, sliding the box into place with the rest of my shoeboxes. It couldn’t have been a more perfect illusion: one box among many that would garner no special attention, even if my mother did peek into my closet “just to check” as she often did.
Each day after school, I played a game of doubting that the eggs would hatch – what were the odds? – but desperately hoping that they would. A week went by with no change. The speckled eggs looked exactly the same as when I found them at the roots of the fern. I considered telling my best friend, Jennifer, but I liked that the quail eggs were a secret; it made them mine. Besides, if nothing happened, I could dispose of them without admitting to yet another failed experiment. Piano day came and went again without a sign. When there was still no change the following week, I kind of forgot about them. There were other things to worry about, anyway.
Like thousands of classrooms across the nation, my sixth grade class was still reeling from having watched the coverage of the Challenger space mission. Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher on board, had left behind a classroom of students in New Hampshire who would never see her again. She was an average person, just like us, only one lucky enough to win a ticket to outer space, the sort of contest that any of us might have entered if it meant a ride on the Challenger. On January 28, 1986, twenty-eight of us listened to the radio blaring from the front of the classroom. Bellair Elementary, opened when I was in first grade, was already in need of expansion by the time I entered sixth. That year, my class was assigned to a stuffy beige portable at the back of campus, but on launch day, our unfavorable conditions didn’t matter. We sat enrapt, listening to the chatter between mission control and the shuttle, shifting in the confines of our wooden wrap-around desks as crackling adult voices spoke in jargon. Torturous minutes were spent checking this and that before the rockets lifted off with a billowing blare that awed us into silence.
At T-plus-seven, a man squawked, Houston, Challenger roll program. We wriggled with excitement. At T-plus-eleven, someone said, Go, you mother. We giggled. At T-plus-40, the same voice said, There’s Mach one. Going through nineteen thousand. Okay, we’re throttling down. Girls and boys who normally sneered at each other were smiling, giving the thumbs up. Somewhere inside the shuttle, Christa McAuliffe was the first of us to escape the earth’s gravity, flying upwards into the starry dark of our imaginations. At T-plus-60 seconds, a man exclaimed, Feel that mother go! Wooo-hooo! I imagined the thrust of my legs pumping back and forth on a swing, higher and higher, gliding past the gravitational pull of the Earth into the cloudless blue, that perfect moment at the edge of fear and exhilaration, at the apex of the swing’s arc, when my friends would encourage me to leap off, thrust my body into the air –
Uh-oh, blurted one of the astronauts.
We froze in anticipation, but no boom ever came.
There was static. Then silence. Then nothing.
Finally, a reporter broke through the dead air to say that there had been a flash of light and debris falling to Earth. It was unclear what had happened. Challenger had disappeared. One by one, confused grownups handed the broadcast back to each another in gibbering disbelief. We knew all the names before they stuttered them: Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Mike J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe. We knew what a mission specialist was and a pilot and a commander. Our class had been studying planets and building models of shuttles. We thought we knew everything about space travel, but in the coming weeks we would learn the importance of a tiny piece of rubber called an O-ring. As the reporters droned on, a shorted-out thought floated in the abyss of my mind: Nothing is –
Weeks later, the radio silence still haunted me on the walk home from school when there was nothing else to think about but the shuttle crew burning to cinders. What had happened to Christa McAuliffe after T-plus-sixty? How could a person become nothing in a matter of seconds? This was back when elementary schools had paddles in the principal’s office, not counselors or grieving vigils. No one told us how to think or feel or sent notes home encouraging our parents to talk with us about it, so my classmates and I told each other bad jokes because it was all too big to understand.
How do you know that the crew of the Challenger had dandruff?
Because there was Head and Shoulders all over the beach.
One afternoon in late February, I came home thinking about Christa McAuliffe in the final moments of her life. I had a habit of dwelling too long on things that scared me, and as a latchkey kid, I was left alone with these thoughts for several hours each day. Maybe I liked to scare myself by imagining how frightened she must have been, but really, I was worried about something like that happening to me.
Greeted by the sotto voce whoosh of air conditioning, I padded to the kitchen for a box of Cheez-Its, then to my room, flopping onto the bed to veg out. I shoved salty crackers into my mouth by twos and threes, daydreaming of a future that might include less of my father’s nightly Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard mixtape that included the hits, Don’t You Have Homework to Do? and Can’t You Just Leave Your Mother and Me Alone? I could only hope that their bickering meant my parents might get divorced. A strange noise came from my closet. I froze to listen. It was a sort of scratching and squeaking. No, not squeaking. Chirping. I lay there, wide-eyed, brushing orange cracker dust from my mouth as the astronaut’s voice inside my head squawked, Uh-oh.
I tiptoed to the closet door, opening it slowly. The shuffling sound came from the shoebox on the second shelf tucked beneath a diorama of the Grand Canyon and a box of crayons. I slid it out gingerly and stared inside to find my penance: two helpless creatures who blinked at me expectantly. The baby quail were smaller and cuter than I had imagined, tiny brown puffs of life. I had messed up big time. I cursed myself for taking the eggs, but it was too late, so I sat with the baby birds on the floor of my closet until the garage door whirred open. Mom called out for me, but I couldn’t move. Her voice drew near in the hall, increasing in intensity when I didn’t respond. “Are you home?” she demanded, walking through my bedroom door, triggering the bell.
“Mom…?” I cried weakly. She stepped inside the closet to find the baby quail chirping in my lap.
“What did you do?” she gasped. “You stole them from their mother?”
“No,” I protested, “I didn’t know this would happen. They were just eggs.”
At the sight of them, my mother melted onto my wooden toy bench, staring into the box as the little ones squirmed in the eggshell fragments and paper scraps. She wrung her hands as if to prevent herself from reaching out to hold them. “Where did they come from?” she said finally.
“Nanny’s back yard. I didn’t think they would hatch. It was an experiment.”
Silence settled as she contemplated me, shaking her head. The only other time I had stolen something – pom-poms from a craft store when I was three – Mom made me return them and apologize to the owner despite my shower of tears and rolling thunder of “I’m sorrys.” The front door opened and slammed shut then, rattling the house, which signaled my father’s arrival. “They’re hungry,” she sighed, letting her head fall into her hands. She stayed like that for a moment then stood, smoothing the creases in her slacks. “We should figure out what to feed them, but I need to tell your father first. Just don’t touch them too much.”
From my room, I heard my father yell, “What?!” and “Goddamn it!” I couldn’t make out her words in between, but I could tell that my mother was pleading on my behalf. I let the argument die down before I emerged with the shoebox, driven by the chicks’ desperate cries. I could feel their talons scuttling in despair through the bottom of the cardboard; they had to eat something. Mother was on the phone asking my uncle, the most outdoorsy of our family, what baby birds ate. Mealworms, he guessed. We didn’t know where to get those, especially at six at night. She hung up and called Laura’s mother, a nurse, who advised us not to feed the birds any liquids, though I had found an old eyedropper just in case. She suggested Kitten Chow, which we didn’t have, saying that it could be moistened and torn into tiny chunks – or that we could try cooked egg whites, which seemed barbaric to me.
“Those birds need to go back where they came from,” my father huffed as he stalked out of the kitchen, “and get them off the counter. Birds carry disease.”
“But they’re just babies,” I blurted.
He stopped short at the door, his neck flushing red. He tilted his head and turned around slowly, making sure to catch my eyes. “Did you hear what I said, young lady? I said, put those goddamned birds outside. Now.”
By then, the early evening air had dropped into the seventies. I sat on the AstroTurf of the patio with the box of birds inside the protective circle of my thighs while my mother boiled eggs on the stove. Miraculously, the chicks knew exactly what to do when we fed them, gaping open their mouths before gobbling down bits of cooled egg white. My mother, unable to resist anything small and in peril, quickly became my co-conspirator. “Don’t we have enough animals around here?” my father barked at dinner, gesturing toward Sheba, my beagle, chained and whimpering at the wall. He didn’t like her begging at the table during meals, so she watched us, sad-eyed, at the end of her collar every night as we ate.
After dinner, I tried not to touch the chicks as my mother urged, but the call of their downy brown bodies impelled my inquisitive fingers. Gently, I placed the backside of my palms flat in the box until the quail hopped inside, allowing me to stroke the curve of their backs, their tiny air-filled bones delicate as china. Life felt perilous and promising at once. At bedtime, I said goodnight and pushed the shoebox to the back of the plant rack, closing the lid; I was loathe to leave them for fear that something as curious as me might shimmy through the air holes Mom had punched in the top.
The next afternoon, I hurried home from school to check on Huey and Louie. I pulled the lid off the box, hoping they wouldn’t be dead. That night when my father saw me handling the birds, he threatened to dump them into the yard where they could take their chances. The best my Mom and I could do was persuade my father to let them stay until my piano lesson when I could return them to the nest in Nanny’s yard. By Friday, Louie, the smaller chick, appeared listless and weak. His wispy brown feathers moved beneath her breath as Mom agreed that something seemed wrong. “Have you been touching it?” she asked, squinting at him.
“He’s not an it, Mom,” I insisted, “his name’s Louie.” She gave me the eye. “Just a little,” I lied. In actuality, I had been touching both of them every minute she wasn’t watching.
“Maybe he just misses his mother,” I suggested.
“Maybe the egg whites aren’t sitting right,” she said.
“Let’s give it – him – a little rest, okay?” she said, leading me by the shoulders into the house. Over dinner, she assured me that Louie would be all right in the same voice she used to promise me that the doctor’s needle wouldn’t hurt. After dinner, I watched Huey bob playfully, singing and chirping, while Louie cowered in the corner with labored breath. He closed and opened his eyes slowly, as if even blinking pained him. Despite my mother’s ongoing admonitions, I couldn’t help from stroking Louie’s mink-soft feathers in an effort to ease him. Envious of the attention, Huey peeped loudly until I offered my palm for him to hop inside. I felt the frailty of life dance on the fat pads of my twelve-year-old fingers. Had the Challenger crew comforted each other like I comforted Louie, like Mom comforted me? Did the astronauts promise Christa that everything would work out all right? Each time I looked at Louie, I wanted someone to swear that nothing bad was going to happen, that no one else would be taken away, but a voice whispered, Uh oh, and I knew it was my fault. As I went to sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking, Nothing is.
On Saturday morning, we drove to Nanny and Pop’s for my piano lesson with the box of baby quail resting on my thighs. Upon arriving, I sped past Nanny with barely a hello, dashing outside to find the cracked shells of five eggs in the otherwise empty nest. Huey cooed as I set him inside the nest. A bird cooed back from the neighboring yard, maybe their mother, so I retreated inside the house.
The following week, I returned to find the shell shards scuttled and the nest abandoned. The mother bird had decamped with her brood to a safer yard, one that didn’t have nosy young girls poking around, but before she left, she pecked Louie to death. His decomposing carcass lay exactly where I had left him, in the middle of the nest, alone.
In the months that followed, a hollow feeling arose whenever I looked at the nest. My thirteenth birthday came and went that summer as we waded through 115 degrees, me with piano lessons and low-risk craft projects, my parents with their bickering, and Nanny and Pop with their tidy yard and silent golf games. Life returned to the way we once knew it, that is, until November.
We were in the doctor’s office, a building of cold white rooms and bad watercolor paintings of cowboys and sunsets. Mom shivered in her short sleeves on the exam table so I reached over to warm her hands in mine. Mom said something but the electricity in my brain couldn’t move fast enough for me to make sense of her words.
The doctor came in. Though Thanksgiving was a week or so away, it was still ninety degrees. Residual heat came off him in waves, penetrating the brittle, icy air. As he sat, his bleached white coat exhaled a plume of tar from his walk across the hospital parking lot. At T-plus-seven, he said, I’m Dr. M – thanks for coming in today, shaking my hand like I was a grown-up. I shifted in the hard-backed plastic seat as he talked in the same nothingness language that my mother spoke. Everyone seemed to have read a training manual that I had missed; was I the only one who hadn’t been there before? At T-plus-eleven, my dad said, Stop fidgeting and listen. I shook my head to clear my ears. At T-plus-40, he said, Look, this is going to be hard on all of us. We’re going to have to throttle down.
No one notices the small things that wind up changing our lives – a child’s hand in a bird’s nest, a rubber ring on a space shuttle, the mutation of a single cell – we study them later, when the future has become the past. What we didn’t know then was that the cancer that invaded my mother’s breast had already spread. Long before she underwent chemo, radiation, and a radical mastectomy, thousands of tiny Trojan horses slipped past the pia mater, the outer membrane known as the “tender mother” of her brain, to nest silently in the folds like eggs waiting to hatch. At the time of her diagnosis, we carried forward with our mission to save her –what else could we do? – and repeated the lie that everyone abides by in the face of uncertainty: we will get through this.
True to her doctor’s prediction, my mother needed help with everything but she made a point of driving me to piano lessons each week. Her slow recovery became the new normal as I turned fourteen and fifteen. Piano days became sacred, more ritual than routine, the music offering us a kind of faith that we depended on. As long as Helen and I were at the piano and my mother and Nanny shared tea and biscuits, it was all going to be okay.
Except it wasn’t. My mother’s once-lustrous curly brown locks never grew in the same, so she continued to wear a wig, a dark helmet-head sort of thing that scratched me when we hugged. Her olive skin had sunk into a pale waxy yellow that puckered along the sunburned, irradiated seams where the surgeon had removed her breast. At one time in our lives, we had danced together – she taught me how to do the conga around our dining room table – but the summer of my sixteenth year she came home from work each day with migraines so severe that she went straight into her dark bedroom without a word to anyone, leaving my father and me to maintain the tenuous truce that always verged on war.
That November, three years after her diagnosis, we learned that my mother’s brain was littered with tumors that bulged into her frontal and temporal lobes. There were thousands of them. Inoperable. Months of throbbing, blinding pain finally made sense. “It’s like someone spilled pepper onto your mother’s brain,” her oncologist said. She was only forty-five.
That year, we brought Thanksgiving to her in the hospital, but she could only gesture with her eyes, relying on us to feed her. When she fell into a coma the week before Christmas, Nanny and I clung to each other beneath the falling wreckage of certainty that there was nothing else we could do.
After my mother died on December 18, 1990, Nanny, Helen, and I agreed to continue meeting each Saturday for the rest of my junior and senior years. By then, I could drive myself to piano lessons with Helen, followed by tea and conversation with Nanny. We spoke about life and love and travel and getting outside the very limited world I knew. I was going to be the first in our family to attend college, and Nanny was going to help.
When I looked in on the nest for the last time, Louie’s bones had long ago turned to dust, hiding evidence of my crime. On the way home, I lay flowers at my mother’s grave, which had since grown over with a tough carpet of grass. I sat cross-legged, imagining Huey and Louie in my lap as I plucked a strand of milkweed and twiddled it between my fingers. Bombarded by the relentless August swelter, I pondered the same questions I had since I was twelve, since always. Did it hurt? Could she feel what was going to happen to her? Was she afraid or relieved when it was finally over? Or, maybe what I really wondered was, would the same thing happen to me some day?
The night she died, my father called my name to rouse me from the chair by her hospital bed where I dozed with a heavy algebra book on my lap. The fluorescent lights overhead were dim; it was past eleven and the skies were black. She’s gone, I think he said, but all I heard was static. Looking at her, I finally understood the meaning, the weight, of the words, Nothing is.
I was groggy and stiff with discomfort from being cramped in that hard chair in her freezing, white room. Earlier that day, the nurses had turned off the alarms on her monitors; it was so quiet that I could hear my father exhale until he had no breath left. Against the crisp sheets, my mother’s skin was blotchy and mottled with blue, her eyes closed like she was sleeping, but I knew instantly that she had left the shell of her body. I imagined her plucked away by an invisible hand while I slept, floating in the dark of space, alone. There was no warning, no explosion, just confusion and silence – and like that, she was gone, an untraceable flash in the atmosphere.