I wonder who I could have been if I had not been afraid.
It’s not that I’ve lived a cloistered life – far from it. I’ve traveled the United States, the world by myself and lived to tell the tale. I’ve had my share of impulsive moments – like when I was offered a place to sleep in a tent at Devil’s Monument with two guys I had just met, like when I said yes to a marriage proposal when I had only known the guy for a month. Mostly, things have worked out fine. I wasn’t afraid then.
Nor was I afraid when I went away to college at 16, or when I had my first car accident far from home. These were things you just had to get over.
So maybe it was just an abundance of caution that I was born with. I’m the kind of person who always checks when I get out of the car to make sure I have my car keys in my hand. I always watch my feet when I step over a lawn median to make sure I don’t step in dog shit. I always lock the doors twice in my car to make sure they are all locked before I start driving so that no one can jump into my car and carjack me.
No, I think that I first became truly afraid when my son was born.
Let me say that I am the second of three children. My older brother and I were born 18 months apart. We have all these memories of growing up together in Boston, slogging ourselves through the snow to get to school, playing in a fort with our downstairs neighbor, founding the “Knights of the Square Table.” He was there when I was learning to ride my bike and fell into a rosebush. He was there when we drove across the United States to a new home in California. He was making fun of me, to be sure, as I got carsick from eating a new taste treat – Bing cherries – in the Badlands of South Dakota. We still laugh about that.
Then we got to California – he was 10; I was 8. Then Adrienne was born on January 1965. We had a lovely little sister.
And we were her baby sitters. Early on, Mom and Dad would go out and leave her in our care. I still remember changing cloth diapers, safety pins stuck in a bar of Ivory soap to make sure they could go easily through the cotton fabric. Adrienne smelled sweet, a cute baby. When I looked at her, I would look to see if she looked like me.
When she was 2 ½, she got sick.
It was Easter Sunday, and my brother had an invitation to see some friends at their horse ranch just outside of town. They had just received some new horses from the state of Washington and were excited to show them off. We weren’t close to these people, but my brother was insistent, so we went. All I remember is that it was hot in Pleasanton, and that the grasses on the hills were starting to turn brown.
After that visit, Adrienne started sleeping a lot, became irritable. We didn’t know what was wrong, but she was sleeping way too much – about 20 hours a day. After a month, when she seemed to be getting better, we visited Hearst Castle in Southern California. Our last trip as a family.
Then she changed. She went from being a sweet kid who liked to sit at her table and color pictures into a monster. She would hit herself. She would take off in a mall and run herself into rock walls. It was almost as if a demon had overtaken her, trying to destroy anything that was sweet and lovely within her.
We took her to the hospital – EEGs, cognitive testing, everything. We took her to specialists at Stanford Medical Center. No one could diagnose what had happened to her.
Because of her violent behavior, we had to restrain her. We’d put her in leg restraints at home when she was in the living room, and especially when she went to bed. They were cotton, but they were still restraints. I knew how to do them too. Mom taught me in case she was not home when Adrienne went to bed.
We couldn’t have anyone over to our house.
After a year of this, our family had reached a point where Adrienne had to get other care. Mom and Dad took her over to the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Hospital, where she lived in and was treated for her behavior. She was there among other kids who were there because they were recuperating from other illnesses, like severe asthma.
On December 24, while we were celebrating Christmas Eve with our relatives, we got the call from the hospital that Adrienne had died of pneumonia.
That night after we got home from the hospital, my brother was sobbing, inconsolable, saying it was all his fault – if he hadn’t insisted on going to the Easter party, everything would be okay and Adrienne would not have died. The next morning I got up to sing in the church choir for Christmas services. After that was a blur – her Christmas presents were donated to charity, her clothes gathered up and given away, her tricycle pushed into the far reaches of the garage. And no one spoke of Adrienne again.
Mom didn’t get up in the morning, Dad went off to work, my brother and I went to high school.
The day that my son was born, it all came flooding back. How can you have a child, fresh and new and perfect, and worry about some random bad thing happening to them that would break your heart? That’s when I became afraid.
Beautiful and so poignant.
Amber, this is beautifully expressed and resonates. After I had kids I became afraid of flying – who would take care of my babies if I died? Also, my first child had a birth defect and I was very fearful with my second pregnancy.
And I love the question you start out with – what a great writing prompt: I wonder who I would have become if…”
Extraordinarily moving story, written simply and directly. I love this memoir.
Thank you for your generous comments. I was really surprised by this 26 minute memoir exercise. Things just well up to the surface. Always something new to learn, about art, about life.
First, it’s a fearless move to tackle the 26 minute memoir. So there’s that. You have given us a beautiful glimpse into a full life. You’re so right, it’s amazing to see what bubbles to the surface when you dive into the pool of your past. You’ve shared so eloquently how having children takes us back there in a way nothing else can. Thank you for bringing us along with you.
This was good and I’m sorry about your sister. I can’t help but be so curious about how her illness started. I have so many questions and wonder if you must have had the same yourself.
Yes, I did. Since we never talked about it as a family, it was hard to get information. But a few years after she died, I found the autopsy report. They diagnosed her with viral encephalitis, likely equine, which they surmise was passed to her from the horses via mosquito bite. It caused a brain inflammation similar to meningitis, followed by permanent brain damage which affected her personality and behavior. Over the two years of her illness, we had hoped she would somehow recover – only after she died did we find that would never have happened. The pneumonia that she died from was completely unrelated to the encephalitis.
I don’t know how common this is, but it’s certainly random.
Dear Miss/Mrs Wong,
I found this story sad but real touching and real emotional.
It’s hard to find talking about herself and his family to the others.
But in my opinion it can be a useful tool to know oneself , our gaps and our hidden parts.
Best of everything to you and your family,
Antonio from Italy.
ps..contact my via email that i have to ask to you some questions.
Thanks for contributing this piece, Amber. A powerful and sad story told simply and beautifully—and astonishingly in 26 minutes. Wow.
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Dear Amber, I am so sorry that you had to bear this by yourself. I was in school with you and did not know. I remember being at your home once for a short time. I was uneasy but didn’t know why. When I began reading, I was confused as I only remember two children, you and Arnie, right? One thing I have learned in life is compassion and to never think you know what is going on with someone. I am happy for you that you have this creative and healing outlet. Your writing is very enjoyable and filled with images, smells, and sites that I will remember.
Best of everything to you and your family,
Just happened on this site and the 26 minute challenge. Loved your piece, Amber. It is so incredibly hard for children to go through something so devastating without any commentary or guidance from the adults around them… so they are left with whatever magical thinking they utilized at that age, such as your brother thinking he could have prevented her death if only he had not insisted on going to the Easter party. It is so clear from your words how very much you loved her, and also how you loved the unseen hurt part in your brother. Thank you for making the colors in my day today stand out a little more brightly. Carol