Somehow the death of Whitney Houston makes me want to share this story, that I wrote originally for my mother in law, Charlotte Behrendt. The story appeared in Square Lake, and is one of my favorites. Enjoy.
A woman who lived in a beautiful suburb became very sick. Your lungs, said the doctors – a crack team of specialists – they will have to come out. You will have to learn to stop breathing. All right said the woman, for she was a respectful person who liked her doctors. She played tennis and golf with them at her husband’s club and she valued their wives and the ways they arranged flowers and entertained at bridge parties.
So the doctors took out the woman’s lungs, and she found she didn’t miss them so much. She got used to not breathing, and she began, even, to find the fast and the slow in/out takes of breath going on all around her annoying and disturbing. The people around me, she thought, they are like big puffy sacks, like those industrial vacuum cleaners always roaring down the halls of the ladies’ locker room, like giant accordions always playing a polka at a retirement party. They are too physical, she thought. And she would sip her green tea and be thankful she was no longer forced to engage in this noisy respiratory activity. The sighs, the snores the sneezes, and the groans – she was quite beyond all of that. And inside her was a blessed silence, the quiet devoid of air.
A little while later, the woman felt sick again. This time, said the doctors, it is your brain. It will have to come out.
This posed even less of a problem than the lungs, because the woman had always thought, and so did everyone else, that she thought too much – too deeply, too quickly, and about too many things. The decision to remove the woman’s brain actually came as a great relief to all. No more extension classes, no more public lectures, no more arguments at cocktail parties with valued friends about the death penalty and the peace process in Israel and the large number of single mothers and children below the poverty line.
Only her eldest son seemed bothered by this latest development – the ten-year-old son who made numbers fly through the air in his bedroom, who could see the baby black holes orbiting through the den downstairs. The son wanted to be a physicist when he grew up and he felt his mother had understood. Now, he felt sad; he had no one to talk to anymore about Stephen Hawking and his theories.
The third time the woman got sick, they feared for her life. Your heart, said the doctors, and with this they became quite serious. It is your heart that will have to come out this time.
You may be changed, they warned her. Your quality of life, well, it will be altered.
The woman felt for the first time a bubble of rebellion forming inside her lungless chest. Her vacant head buzzed with an unfamiliar, painful charge.
I don’t know she said I don’t know.
The woman walked home with her diseased heart. She unlocked the front door and heard the distant click click of digits being tossed in the air and changed infinitesimally by the shifting of a decimal point, or the addition of one or more parentheticals.
This meant the mathematical son was home from school. So the woman walked up the stairs to ask him what he thought she should do.
Mom, he said, there is only one solution and it is bit risky.
Oh no son, she said, not more risks. No more operations. I am feeling quite queer.
The son nodded sympathetically as she spoke. He had put down the numbers and they faded into the bedroom carpeting, glimmering faintly before they extinguished in the avocado shag. He said:
When the baby black holes circle through the family room, you must jump in the path of one of them. It will take you into itself and it is possible that you will fall down a wormhole into a parallel universe. There, I postulate, you will be ok; either your heart will be sound, or else they will give you back your health somehow. At least it will be an adventure, and you can’t stay here, in my opinion.
If you stay here and don’t have the operation, you’ll die. But Mom, it’s no good living without certain organs. Look at what happened to Uncle Elvis.
(Uncle Elvis had both his corneal basements removed many years ago, and while he could see just fine after the procedure, no one could see him, and to everyone else, he resembled a shadow roaming up and down houses and walls.)
All right, son I’ll do it, and without saying a word to her husband, her friends, or the other children who were outside playing hop-scotch and taking turns catching each other as they jumped off the roof, she went down into the family room with her son to wait for the orbit of the baby black holes.
They watched the Jetsons for a while, and then the news, and then the son saw the small black point coming across the room, over the coffee table moving over the barcalounger toward the bar. Now mom he said and she threw herself in front of it. And disappeared.
Many years later the son was mature and wise: a famous scientist, a beloved teacher, a doting father. He fell sick and the doctors told him: it will all have to come out.
He knew what to do. And he told many others.
Outside the house the son had inherited from his mother, lines of friends, family, students, and colleagues gathered, waiting their turn. Some were sick, some were depressed, and others just felt a great and urgent need to try something new or go somewhere else.
You see, the son had explained in one of his famous physics lectures. Stars are actually everywhere. Inside and out. Shining or absorbing. White like day or black like night. And within each atom of the burning or anti-atom of the burnt, a world, a time, a thought, a power; a probability, a possibility, which means: a chance.
Inside the house people disappeared at regular intervals, and others came through the door and jumped into the dark specks floating through the living room. The son directed them carefully, showing them where to position themselves.
He left last, holding the dog.