On the anniversary of a horrific accident, a woman confronts her long-held fears.
illustration by Matt Wiseman
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When Ellis was a girl, the world was larger. During dinner she tried to explain this to her children, but they talked over her. She usually blamed such slights on her disfigurement, but lately, at the suggestion of her therapist, Ellis had put her energies into “seeing the whole picture.” For instance, it was quite possible that her children hadn’t heard her, or that they were ignoring her precisely because she was their mother and that’s what teenagers did. She cleared her throat.
“You couldn’t just call anyone up anytime.”
“I know. I know,” Susan, her eldest daughter said, looking up from the keyboard of her phone. “There weren’t any cell phones.”
Ellis motioned for Susan to put the phone away. “It was more than that. We only used the phone for local calls, except on Sundays when long-distance rates were lower. Mostly we wrote letters.”
“Can we write a letter?” asked her youngest daughter, Gracie. “It’ll be like in the movies when you have a pen pal. Do I have to know them before I write? Can I write to someone in China?”
Ellis rubbed her thumb along the mass of scar tissue on her arm. Her husband put his hand on her knee under the table and squeezed lightly. “Is there anymore of that salad?”
“You’re missing my point,” Ellis said to the children as she got up. Her boys, who were older than their sisters, looked up at her. “China might as well have been on Mars.”
“While you’re up, grab me some more of that potato salad,” her oldest said. Dean was seventeen and ate enough for three boys.
“The world was too large to comprehend,” Ellis said, realizing they’d not been listening. She stumbled slightly on the raised threshold of the kitchen.
“Mom, let me get it,” said her other son, Drew, pushing back his chair.
They still have some manners, Ellis thought. She turned back to the table and took Drew’s seat, placing her good arm on her other son’s hand. “It isn’t just cheap phone calls. I’d never seen a black person until I —”
The children cut her off, afraid that just by saying “black” she’d crossed a line. Dean had his father’s heavy eyebrows. When she tried to continue her story, he pulled them together and groaned out a complaint about all that his mother didn’t understand. Drew, returning with the potato salad, stared at his shoes. This boy, with his thatch of red hair, translucent skin, and complex network of freckles, was the only one of the children who resembled her, or rather how she used to look.
Years ago, when little Gracie was learning to speak, she and her husband, Frank, were in a car accident. Fire engulfed their small sedan and consumed Ellis. The doctors marveled at her body’s ability to heal. She didn’t know then that a physician’s idea of a miracle could differ so vastly from hers. Ellis got a good look at her new self nearly six months after the accident. The disfigurement was so utterly monstrous that all she could do was laugh. Her skin was stretched tight across a face that had lost its symmetry. She had no lips, no eyelids and a nose that looked like it belonged on a skeleton.
Dean dropped a spoonful of potato salad onto his plate. She took the bowl from him, scooped food onto outstretched plates and listened. The children, more literal than Ellis had thought possible, had begun to argue about the best way to measure the size of the world.
She knew, of course, that the Earth was the same size it had been when she was a child. What she’d wanted to explain to them was that now people, especially children, were more accepting of deviations because they were everywhere — on televisions, on computers. Her own world hadn’t started to shrink until she went to college in Chicago. There, in her Psychology 101 class, she met a boy with muscular dystrophy who sat in the front row in a wheelchair with his arms useless and curled toward his torso. (Her arms had done this when she was healing.)
Frank took Ellis’ face in his hands. He ran his thumb across the hypertrophic scar along her cheekbone. “Tell them.”
“I’m trying, but —”
Her oldest boy, the one who favored Frank, got up from the table, mumbling something about a study group.
“No,” her husband said. “We’ve got family business.”
The boy’s shoulders sagged. Ellis knew it was not because he’d be late, but because family business, in the past, had been announcements of new surgeries. She’d had 17 so far.
She grabbed her son’s hand. He stiffened and then turned his chair toward her, taking her small two-fingered hand in both of his. Ellis interpreted this action as revulsion. She often felt that because all of them remembered what she had been, that they could not accept who she was now. Her son’s hand felt heavy around hers and as she looked at them, she marveled at their size. When had her son grown hair on his knuckles?
Frank nudged her.
“I’m going to be on Oprah,” Ellis said.
“We’re all going to be on the show,” Frank said. “The tenth anniversary of the crash is next month and they are bringing all the survivors together to tell their stories.”
The children asked question after question without waiting to hear any of Frank’s answers. Ellis continued eating her dinner. She’d made the potato salad from scratch. She made all her food from scratch because her tastebuds were the only part of her that were the same after the accident. The fire that had lit her hair up like a sparkler and melted her rayon dress to her torso had not entered her mouth. She’d kept it closed.
Her youngest child, Gracie, came around to her side of the table and crawled into her lap. The other three children and their father had moved past the questions and started planning the trip.
Ellis started to sing “You Are My Sunshine” quietly into Gracie’s ear. The fire had not taken her voice and when Gracie was a baby, before the accident, the song had stopped her fussing or crying. Ellis had a rich tone to her voice and when she sung, the world around her quieted. The other children had been calmed by other songs: “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Shenandoah,” “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Gracie picked her head off Ellis’ shoulder. “Why does anyone care about the accident?”
Ellis wasn’t sure she knew why the accident had lodged in the nation’s consciousness. She felt it was somehow connected to the way the world had shrunk. How could she explain to her eleven-year-old daughter that their own family’s grief had become the country’s grief?
“No other accident involved as many cars, or as many deaths,” Ellis said and kissed her daughter on her perfect nose.
“But why does it matter now?” Gracie often persisted in asking questions beyond her ability to understand. When she was four she responded to all requests with one of two words: why or no. Frank or Ellis, on days when they were most frustrated with keeping charge of four children, would throw up their hands and tell the girl “because that’s what God wants.” Gracie had grown up in prayer circles held around her mother’s hospital bed and truly believed that God was the end of the line. She would, unlike the other children, always believe this.
“I don’t know,” Ellis said, but Frank had already overheard his daughter’s question and was recounting a dozen facts about the accident that made it, as he liked to say, newsworthy.
It bothered her that after nearly twenty years of marriage Frank still didn’t understand that just because she didn’t answer quickly didn’t mean she didn’t have an answer. Ellis was trying to find the right way to tell her daughter that such tragedies made people acknowledge their mortality. Own it, she would have said to Gracie. The images of the 200-vehicle collision had become part of the nation’s psyche. Ellis closed her eyes and drew back into herself. The sounds of her family receded, becoming indistinct chatter. This was how it had been in the months after the accident, only now, she could tell from the pitch of their voices and the speed of their words, that they were excited. Her family was no longer mourning.