Dad died before the ambulance got there. The EMTs didn’t come right out and say it in front of me, but I caught on pretty quickly when one of them checked his pulse, shook his head at the other EMT, and then immediately went to work on mom. All three of us were rushed to the hospital.
Mom’s condition was critical. Something about her being pregnant made the situation much more dangerous. None of the doctors would say exactly what happened. All they could tell me was that my parents had lost a lot of blood. When I asked how, they just said they were working on making mom better. Dr. Jessica, who I hoped would be there to help calm me down, was absent.
There was a significant commotion in the room where mom was being worked on. Doctors and nurses were crowded around her. It took a few moments, but then I realized what was happening: they were taking the baby out of her. This terrified me; I didn’t know much about pregnancy, but I knew it was almost three months too soon for mom to be giving birth. Something had to be wrong.
I’m not going to dwell on this next part. When it comes to most of the emotional trauma I’ve encountered, I’m okay with giving a lot of details. But the final moments of my mom’s life were too terrible; too raw. I don’t want to make myself remember all the particulars. Basically, mom knew she only had moments to live. She’d lost an unbelievable amount of blood from what the doctors would only refer to as “bites” around her groin and upper thighs. Like dad, her femoral artery had been damaged. His was entirely severed, which was why he died so quickly, but mom’s wasn’t as bad. Still, the ER doctors couldn’t fix the wound. On top of it all, she’d undergone a Cesarean section to save the baby. Her system couldn’t take all the trauma.
Before she died, she was able to see her baby. I was brought into the room, too, presumably to say goodbye. Mom was gray. And most of the gray was covered with blood. Her blue lips formed the words, “I love you.” Her whispered speech was so quiet I still don’t know if I heard her or just filled in the gap with what I remember of her voice. But after that, I distinctly remember her telling me, “take care of your baby sister, Joy.”
That’s all I’ll say about those last moments.
I suffered an emotional breakdown soon after. Again, I was held in the psychiatric wing of the hospital. I never saw Dr. Jessica. I had sessions with another doctor, Dr. Fallon. He was kind and capable, but he wasn’t the person with whom I’d formed such a powerful connection months before. Along with Dr. Fallon, I spent time with Emma. Emma was my aunt; mom’s sister. She lived in New Hampshire and travelled to Florida the day after my parents had died. I guess mom had something in her purse detailing what should be done in the event of anything happening to her and dad.
Emma made the funeral arrangements and did all the other work behind the scenes to deal with their affairs. I didn’t attend the funeral. I was barely conscious. As days and weeks went on, though, I began to come around. I grieved. I screamed and threw tantrums and hit Dr. Fallon. But, slowly, the pain lessened. My sister, Joy, was doing exceptionally well. Despite her premature birth, she was the picture of health. She was strong and vocal and, as weird as it sounds, mature.
A little over a month after the death of my parents, Joy and I were released into the custody of Emma. Emma was eight years older than mom and lived alone. She was a very successful accountant. In fact, I believe she was the only one in the modest New Hampshire town in which she lived. During our time in the hospital, Emma had taken great care of Joy and me. I’d grown to like her very much. Before that point, I’d only seen her a handful of times over the course of my life. But I’d enjoyed her company those times. Learning that Joy and I would be moving to New Hampshire to live with her gave me a surprisingly strong sense of hope.
We arrived at our new home in early March. I’d noticed I hadn’t had a single hallucination or vision since the day of my parents’ death. While I knew it was only a matter of time before they came back, I hoped the new environment would make them easier to endure. Plus, I loved Joy. She was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. I think she loved me, too. She’d always hold my finger in her tiny hand and smile at me, locking her enormous, blue eyes on my own. I never forgot how mom’s last words were to take care of her. Joy’s protection and betterment became my purpose in life.
Emma decided I should be homeschooled. While I thought it was odd, I didn’t have anything against the idea. I’d been nervous about starting in a new school with kids and teachers who didn’t know I was being medicated for schizophrenia. Besides, Emma was a fun teacher. Since she worked from home, she was always around to give me little lessons over the course of the day. She didn’t want to make the experience like a regular school. Instead of having a long block of classes, she just integrated subjects into conversations we’d have. She loved to talk. That part got on my nerves a little bit. Sometimes I just wanted to be left alone, but Emma was always working to get me to discuss things with her. I figured I’d get used to her after a while.
And I did. Before I knew it, April had arrived to release the frosty fingers of the New Hampshire winter from around our throats. Deep snow gave way to mud and tiny shoots of plant growth. Emma and I, along with a bundled-up Joy, started to take long walks through the thickly wooded area behind the house. Emma, of course, used these walks to teach me about the various subjects she believed were important to my education. I held Joy as we walked through a muddy clearing surrounded by white birch trees. Emma talked about the Native American tribes who lived there before they were driven from their land by European settlers. The clearing where we stood, she claimed, used to be a very important spot.
She extended her right arm and pointed out into the distance, behind the birch trees, and had me look at the long, low stone walls which formed a broken ring around where we stood. Then she took Joy from me. She asked that I go over, just beyond the wall, to a thick tree stump that stood darkly against the forestscape, and tell her what I thought of it when I came back. I obeyed.
As I walked closer to the stump, it became clear it was from a bizarre tree that didn’t grow anywhere around where we used to live in Florida. It was very thick, maybe six feet wide, and just a little taller. Hundreds of thin branches extended from the black trunk like grasping, skeletal arms. When I stood directly in front of the thing, I examined its surface. It was darker than any wood I’d seen. Almost like it was painted. Knots and blemishes covered its bark. In the cool, early spring breeze, the limbs trembled as if they were shivering.
When I’d gotten a good look and was ready to head back to Emma and Joy, a powerful gust of wind blew me directly at the tree. I stumbled and grabbed the stickly limbs to get regain my balance. A couple broke off in my hands, but I was able to steady myself. I stared at the black bark of the tree. I felt wetness on my hands and glanced over. Dark red sap oozed from the breaks in the wood. I wiped my hands on the front of my jacket and looked up. Tens of pitch black eyes opened in the center of the tree and met my gaze. The musical, wordless voice of my lost friend, the black woman, filled my mind. I backed away with uncomprehending surprise. From around the tree, far away, I could see Emma and Joy watching me. Both were smiling.