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Story art by Zebi Damen.
I know the secret to traveling through time.
I hold my daughter’s hand as the transport assistant pushes her gurney down the flourescent hall. The wheels click against the irregular breaks in the linoleum. Right now I’m all here, in the anti-smell of hospital clean and the too-cold of hospital air. You can’t travel through time when the present is so insistent.
The assistant’s name is Tuggy and he makes fresh-squeezed lemonade so sweet your eyes turn back in your head. He’s gentle, slowing down for the bump across the elevator threshold, and I’m glad it’s him again today. We roll into Ped Onc and I help him inch my daughter into bed. What the tumor hasn’t paralyzed, radiation and chemo have sucked dry. She hasn’t helped in days.
Tuggy dims the lights as he leaves and I crawl in beside her. I stare at the unique curve of her skull beneath the skin on her head. There’s a dip in the skyline where they took a sliver out; even so, they can’t tell us what she has. Two things, they say, it’s one of two. This one has an eighty percent survival rate at five years. That one is two percent. We’re treating eighty, but it will turn out to be two. I don’t know that yet; that isn’t what I mean by time travel. Time travel won’t get you from fact to fact. You’d think it would; it seems all gears and gadgets and the innards of physics, but the truth is surprising. Time travel is a voodoo rite. You split your heart open and knit together the past, present and future with your blood, then cast what you’ve created into the wind.
I move closer and breathe in her scent. The beep and whir of the monitors is steady, unlike gurney wheels on linoleum. You need that to travel in time. I think the voodoo words: someday she might not be here, and I won’t be able to smell her ever again. Here in the present, I lie with my lips against her hairless, blistered skin and inhale deeply, sending her scent forward through time in a rocketship bottle to wait for me, just in case. And suddenly I’m there, in that future where she died, drying off a fork or a plate and looking out the window at daffodils in the frost, dissolving the knit of the bottle against the skin of my chest, remembering the way she smells.
She comes home from the hospital thirty pounds lighter, tied up in IVs and puking. In time—ordinary time—the puking stops and the IVs come out, and I wheel her through the spring air. She points with the hand that still works to the little daisies pushing improbably through cracks in the sidewalk. We eat chocolate-covered cherries for breakfast and strawberries for lunch, fat red ones dipped in whipped cream and jimmies. The steroids that keep her brain from bursting with fluid pack the weight onto her, but it’s hard to notice, living in the moment as we are. We are burning through the present, incinerating every atom of the here and now. That’s another secret to time: the present slows down and expands to twenty technicolor dimensions as you approach the singularity, leaving no space for the past or the future.
We are within the event horizon when my daughter stops making recognizable words. She touches a hand to her head, where cells multiply like daisies, crowding out her past and her future. We dribble morphine in by dropper and hope it slakes the pain. I lie on a mattress on the floor in the silent dark of her bedroom. I don’t think I’ll sleep with my arm raised to hold her hand, but I do, and when I wake I see I’ve missed her last lucid moments. Her legs and arms are blue and I recognize her breathing, because I have been reading about this moment for months. I count the seconds between each fish-out-of-water gasp. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. I count eight times; the ninth breath never comes.
It’s as close to eternity as you’ll get.
The universe is frozen while we cut off her nightgown and wash and dress her. As I fold her hands over the blanket and tuck in the stuffed cat she’s slept with since she was born, time resumes its flow, but squeezing through the singularity has disoriented it; I cry for the future loss of the pain I feel in the present. For the dull ache and blurred wash that will constitute what is left of her beneath the march of ordinary time.
But time, though relentless, is not heartless: it has an unexpected present of blood for me. I’m four months pregnant when she dies. When my son is born he cries; the blood-yarn loops and the wind blows, and I see my daughter between my legs. They wrap him and hand him to me. I look down and see my son, I whisper his name; then the needles purl again and I’m with her. It is the ultimate time-traveling gris-gris, this baby in the present that looks and sounds and smells like that baby in the past. I cry two kinds of tears in an endless round robin: gratitude for the visceral experience of holding her again, guilt for letting the past in to obliterate the here and now of him.
Time passes, ordinary time, and the ephemeral weave of blood and voodoo dissolves in its impalpable wind. When I look at my son, I see only him. One morning, standing in the kitchen, drying the forks and plates, I look out and see the year’s first daffodils. I search for the bottle I sent forward fifteen months ago and find only a fine powder, dark like dried blood, its contents long vanished. I have forgotten the way she smells. It is the first of many things I will forget as my heart heals, sealing away the long, ropy strands of voodoo blood.
But time is not heartless: the seal is not perfect.
My son turns four, and I am there among the cake-smeared faces when his preschool teacher—innocent, uninformed—reads the day’s story. Sally said to her mother, I’m feeling quite ill. Mother said, to the doctor! He’ll give you a pill. But Doc said, to the hospital, and quick, on the double! That thing—and he pointed—is awfully big trouble. A strand of blood coils into the hand I have pressed to my heart; time’s wind lifts the ends of my hair.
I lean in and breathe deeply of my son until the wind fades. I hold on to the rope of blood a little longer, until it’s time to leave. It bobs gently against my chest as we walk home hand in hand. By dinner it will have crumbled to dust.
There will be others.
This story originally appeared in Brain, Child Magazine.