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The Awakening

There was a moment, once, when all things changed; the sun became the moon, day night, truth a lie, the future the dark lost present. Allatonce jumbling, tumbling, stumbling, juggling, trembling, a screaming timelesseternity, a neverending second, reality nightmare, clarity blindness — a moment suspended and extended, a moment multiplied and divided, squared and reduced to No Thing. What I knew became ignorance, what had been whole was shattered. Was it the dream we all fear yet dream, was it a nightmare, an illusion — could time wind and unwind like a watch. Is time outside the frame that defines the infinite.... destiny discovered me.... was it cause or effect.... The grass was June green, past the innocence of spring, a filling out green was growing that would ripen dark in August. The sky was childhood blue and yet it seemed like a wide south-west sky, expansive beyond thought. The earth rolled its hills and Mennonite and Amish farms throughout the land of Pennsylvania. It was early June, 1968. That spring Knoxville had seen gas cans filled with rage in the back of pick-up trucks, outfitted with loaded rifles to fire the bullets of insanity after Martin Luther King was shot down in Memphis. Two months later Robert Kennedy was felled in a hotel in California in that nightmare way America has of silencing the voices of the courageous. That spring I was finished with the South, finished with its bigotry, it's white and colored restrooms, white and colored water fountains, white and colored, colored became Black and Black became Afro- American but only the names changed, the bridge wasn't really crossed, nor the wounds healed. There was progress in the Panthers, progress but not quick enough, not deep enough. That spring I was finished with the South. America was coming apart. I had just passed my oral exams and my thesis had been accepted. I would receive my M.A. in English by mail. I wanted out of the South. I had been there from 1962-1968, the sixties in the south. They had been hard years for a rebellious, white, free-thinking Yankee woman. I was twenty-two years old and I was going home, back to Connecticut to figure out the next step. I was tired of the South, and just as tired of Academia with its analysis of every word written. There was a senselessness everywhere; assassination, prejudice, violence, red-faced, red-necked hatred suffocated me. I was ready for a change. My mother flew down to Knoxville to help me pack and make the drive north. She was sixty-two years old. Hers was not a happy marriage. She had been a nurse when she met my father. She helped put him through medical school at the University of Tennessee. She had five pregnancies; two children survived, my brother and me. There had been one miscarriage, one child stillborn and one infant crib death. My father became a successful radiologist and my mother became the doctor's wife. When I was twelve or thirteen she began to paint. She loved it. It was hers alone but he always signed her paintings, printing her name on the canvas. She told me once that she had written poetry, quite a bit of it, but that my father found it and burned it all years ago. My mother — who had been orphaned at the age of six with her brother, their parents having died within one year of each other, her mother of T.B. and her father in a train wreck — was Catholic. My father was a non-practicing agnostic Jew of immigrant parents. His father died when he was eleven years old and left his mother with five children to raise, and run an East Boston grocery store. I came to learn, but not to understand, that my father forbade my mother to practice her religion. His mother had thrown my mother out of her house because she was Catholic. I guess one forbids what is threatening. When I was a young girl, my mother and I would drive out of town, away from New Haven and its environs. She would search for a Catholic church, in whatever city or town we found ourselves. My experience of her religion, besides knowing she kept a crucifix hidden in her scarf and glove drawer, was the empty churches we visited with lighted candles and statues and holy water and the smell of devotion. Sometimes I would see someone in the church, kneeling, fingering rosary beads and saying prayers. I would watch my mother light candles, kneel before the statue of the Virgin Mother, take out her hidden rosary beads and pray. I wondered who and what she prayed for, this devoted woman, denied and forbidden her religion. I had once witnessed my father, in a rage rip apart her amethyst rosary and throw the beads across the room at her. The church was a haven where I was able to see the relief on my mother's face. So often, it seemed to me, she lived in fear of his arm being raised against her, or my brother. When my father would threaten to hit my brother, my mother would place herself between them, taking the blow. On the days that we'd find refuge in a church, I could see her relax, exhale, as though she'd been holding her breath between these visits. It seemed to me that my father was as jealous of her devotion to her religion as he might have been had she been with a lover. This June trip to Knoxville was an unusual one for my mother. Although she traveled all over the world with my father, she rarely traveled alone. This was a week of freedom for her. When she arrived I was studying for my orals and it was a tense time . She expressed her hope to me that perhaps she might finally leave my father and live with me, temporarily, until she knew what she was going to do. I was caught in the worlds of Milton, Shakespeare, Kennedy, King, and my mother's burgeoning hopes of emancipation. The oral exams passed, thesis accepted, bags packed, rented furniture returned, we drove out of Knoxville heading north. We spent the first night of the trip in a motel. Early the following morning we breakfasted on pancakes, coffee, and laughter, and headed home. The sky was clear and I quoted Byron, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Ernest Dowson.   They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,  Love and desire and hate,  I think they have no portion in us after  We pass the gate.  They are not long the days of wine and roses,  Out of a misty dream our paths emerge  Then close within a dream. ALLATONCE the car, a black 1962 Mercedes, a heavy car, caught its tires in the gravel, and to avoid the median, I swerved too far to the right and veered off the highway and was catapulted over the edge, turning over and over and over, my mother's body covering mine as we tumbled over and over and over, the top becoming the bottom and the bottom falling out of everything. We landed at the bottom of a ravine. When I came to, I had no idea how long I had been unconscious — seconds, minutes or hours. Time had been fractured and would never tick or pulse or beat the same way again. I checked my mother. I looked into her eyes and felt her pulse and knew that she was dead. I saw her fingers crushed, what did broken bones matter when her breath was gone. I cried for what happened so quickly. I closed her eyes, that stared outward to a heavenly world I had escaped. "I killed her," I screamed over and over to the world. I screamed to the nothingness that surrounded me, to the void that engulfed me. "I killed her," echoed through this space of suspended life. I tried the door but couldn't get out. There was shattered glass everywhere. Everything was shattered. I tried to believe that I was asleep, that this was a nightmare, that I had learned my lesson, but no — I checked her again, seeing now her broken neck. I was there alone with her for nearly an hour, trapped with guilt and tears and fears as my only company. Finally, a gentle greyhaired black man called for help as I screamed, "I killed her" over and over. "No, little lady, never think that. It was an accident, a terrible accident...." The ambulance came, I screamed for the men to take my mother first. They put us both on stretchers and rolled us into the back of the ambulance, my mother and me, side by side, dead and alive; we drove to a hospital, drove side by side to the end that spring. Now I knew the unknowable place between life and death and nothing was ever the same again.
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