Featured Essay   

Give Me a Sign     

by Linda Tharp

There’s a lava rock wall in front of a Maui condo complex from which a nondescript sign announces the complex’s name, a series of leapfrogging n’s and o’s heralding vacation before you’ve even dragged your jet-lagged self out of the rental car. The wall’s rocks are rough and my daughters’ skin, still mainland pale, appeared delicate in comparison as they stood under the sign for the requisite photo in their matching sundresses and Salt Water sandals, their hair not yet chlorine-brassy and their noses not yet peeling.

Nine years later Mom and Dad invited me back to Maui; they returned every April or May and always stayed at the complex with that rock wall. My husband endorsed my joining them, probably hoping time away would have a mellowing effect on me, and assured me he could handle his job, the house, three kids, and our Dalmatian for a week. A week! It was too good to be true.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” I asked him. “Because you’ll have to get the girls back and forth to school.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Don’t worry—I mean, I can drive.

I shook my head. “It’s not just that. Things come up that you never have to deal with, things you don’t even know about: permission slips, missing library books... There’s more to it than just driving.” Then I said, so quietly he asked me to repeat myself, “Besides, what about Erin?”

“What about her? I told you, we’ll be fine. Just go have fun.”

I half-heartedly bought sunscreen and a paperback or two, and agreed—perhaps too enthusiastically—when others said, “That’s so exciting you get to go!” What they didn’t know was that a lethal cocktail of melancholy and guilt threatened to derail my trip before it even started. Worse, I feared my cocktail glass would be refilled every time I saw the sign hanging on that rock wall and remembered my girls standing under it. 

I’m not sure how old they were in that photo—probably five, six, and eight. It seemed as if time stood still then, like I’d be forever unsnarling tangles from tender scalps and refereeing turns in the front seat, and I remember feeling comfortably stuck, contentedly itchy with life’s predictability. Now, even though it had been six years since life morphed from comfortable and predictable to this, returning to a spot we’d all enjoyed seemed callous, like I was trying to forget—or ignore—what has happened. Because today, Erin, our oldest, is in a wheelchair, nonverbal, and permanently disabled. She will never stand or speak again.

Six years after that photo was taken—six years after she tied a plastic grass skirt around her waist and swayed her nonexistent hips, six years after buying her sisters puka shell necklaces with her allowance—Erin lay in a teaching hospital’s ICU in a medically-induced coma, her private room so crammed with monitors and IV pumps and nurses that she seemed inconsequential by comparison. She eventually survived the tenacious virus that breached the usually unbreachable blood-brain barrier. Or, that is to say, doctors called her existence survival.

I expected things to become more complicated as the girls got older, and when Sarah, our middle daughter, accidentally baked her pet rats Phoebe and Camille in a misguided attempt to give them a morning of fresh July air (which became intense heat sooner than Sarah anticipated), I felt a perverse sense of relief despite my rants about irresponsibility. The complications I anticipated were along the lines of nefarious boyfriends and speeding tickets; sun-dried rats, I decided, would provide exemption from future catastrophe.

Often I wondered if Erin’s doctors were misguided, if their achievements weren’t necessarily in Erin’s best interest; if her survival—by their fluid interpretation, anyway—would be enough. In the era of that photo, I believed Erin’s future held more than the comfortable predictability she was raised with. The particulars swirled in my imagination like glitter, bits of hope and promise catching the light but not settling into a discernable pattern. That pattern took shape in Erin’s early teens, her passion for space exploration blossoming into dreams of a NASA career, and while she lay fighting for her life in ICU, a dog-eared NASA application packet with the return address of “Astronaut Selection Office” lay at home on her bedroom desk—which illustrates the fluidity of the word “survival.”

We did our best to maintain an illusion of normalcy during Erin’s eleven-month hospitalization, but life felt like a series of wrong choices: spending time at Kelley’s science fair awards instead of at Erin’s bedside, or letting Sarah and Kelley go to Catalina Island with Mom and Dad for the day despite a nagging fear that the ferry would sink. I was governed by guilt and doubt, no longer trusting instinct or common sense. Part of that, I know now, is because life was upended for no reason other than a willful virus. Nothing seemed safe anymore, or sacred, or sure. In a matter of hours I had gone from weighing Erin’s desire for our attendance at her space launch, to listening as a neurosurgeon recommended sawing away part of Erin’s skull. Now I was afraid seeing that condo’s sign would unnerve me more than finding those two caged heatstroke victims in our backyard. 

I was in no hurry to leave our rental car’s backseat despite the five-hour flight spent seat-belted to a barely cushioned concrete slab, my reluctance having nothing to do with comfort and everything to do with avoiding that sign for as long as possible. But as fate would have it we neither hit traffic nor careened off a cliff so here we were, pulling into the condo’s parking lot, and there it was, not thirty feet in front of us. Empty, is what I thought—the wall looked empty without three little girls in front of it. I waited for the smack upside the head I’d expected, the harsh realization that all three girls would never stand here—or stand anywhere, for that matter—ever again. The smack never came.

I spent hours on the same chaise lounges the girls squirmed on as they waited to go swimming after lunch, Coppertone making them slick as eels, and on the same beach where they built castles that melted like sugar with the tide. The smack never came, but a revelation did: even if Erin hadn’t gotten sick, even if our whole family was here right now, the girls wouldn’t be in matching sundresses, I wouldn’t pose them for another cheesy picture, and there’d be no more sand castles. It had nothing to do with Erin’s illness, and everything to do with the passage of time.

After Erin got sick I spent countless nights wondering if her survival would be enough, if blinking and breathing and swallowing would be enough for a girl with the former determination—and the former smarts—to join NASA. But in my either/or mind, I’d lumped “survival” and “NASA” together: Erin couldn’t have one without the other. When those sand castles were washed away, the girls built new ones, some more elaborate than the original, some less, but they didn’t stare at their now-vacant lot pining for what was.

The nonverbal, wheelchair-bound Erin will never join NASA. But the able-bodied Erin would not have received a standing ovation upon her high school graduation three years after she was almost declared brain dead, or be named Ambassador of the Year for her involvement with a nonprofit that provides wheelchairs to the disabled in Third World Countries ten years after that. The old Erin lived large, but so does the new Erin—without ever uttering a word.

I’ve returned to Maui every year since then with Mom and Dad. That rock wall is still there, but it no longer symbolizes evaporated plans—now it’s simply jagged stones, possibly thousands of years old, possibly manmade and bought at Home Depot, stacked like a jigsaw puzzle. And if I look closely, I see tongues orange from POG juice, fingers sticky with Roselani ice cream, and am reminded of what’s waiting at home.


Linda_Tharp2.JPGLinda Tharp loved language from an early age when she first realized words can hurt you, a tactic she employed against neighborhood bullies due to her inability to throw either sticks or stones very far. She lives in Southern California with Gary, Erin, and grand-dog Maggie, and is currently writing a memoir based on the impact of Erin’s illness.

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