Yesterday, I could have told you that I have never heard either you or Mom scream. That’s why when I was laying on my bed, headphones in my ears, relaxing to near-sleep, the sound of sustained, deathly screaming coming from downstairs could only mean one thing: a life-altering disaster had struck my little family.
In 1999, I woke up to the sound of my mother wailing, and found her on her knees cradling our phone in the kitchen. “Jon died,” she told me, while I wiped the sleep from my eyes and attempted to fathom a void that was once my brother. It took me a few hours to realize that this memory is why I was convinced that either you had broken your neck going downstairs, or Mom had died from a stroke.
I threw off my headphones and ran out of the room. You were running upstairs. “WHAT? WHAT? WHAT???” I panic-demanded. You answered, but I didn’t hear you because my either-or, mental death scenario meant that if you were the screamer, you must have just found Mom dead. I ran downstairs to find your mother, standing, healthy, a little bewildered. You were still screaming upstairs, a mournful, frantic howl.
I looked to make sure the dogs were alive–they were.
“Ari says she threw her fish away!?” Mom said to me.
I felt a corner of my mind shift from panic mode to manic fix-it mode. I ran upstairs as fast as I could. If you had accidentally thrown your fish away, it could still be alive, since fish can often survive minutes out of water. You were still screaming in your room when I found you.
“Which trash?,” I asked. “We can still save it.”
“I don’t know!!!!” you answered.
Figuring that your panic had rendered you amnesiac, I dug into the trash you had been using to clean your gerbil cage, throwing it all over your room. You’ve had a cold recently, so I was rifling through a lovely mix of gerbil shit, pee, bedding and snot rags. Mom tried to reason with you too: “which trash, honey?”
“I don’t know!! This one? That one?” You had no idea. Mom tipped over your bedroom trash–nothing but used Kleenexes.
“Honey…” Mom said calmly, “your fish is right here.” She picked up the container your fish had been swimming in while it waited for its tank to be ready after a cleaning. You kept crying; I fell to my knees for a second because they felt too weak to hold me up. Then we all hugged. Then we laughed.
The whole episode probably lasted 30 seconds at the most. Apparently, based on a quick exchange with Mom about an empty container you found in the trash, you thought someone accidentally threw your fish away; Mom thought you threw your fish away; and then I thought one of you died.
I probably think too much about life as I know it ending with a phone call or an accident. I’m too ready to believe that disaster has struck. Today I wondered if maybe I’ve passed this on to you.