What I remember from those days is the sweet relief of coming home to her. Mom would click off the news—it was February 1991 and bombs were falling on the Persian Gulf—and click on reruns of Bewitched on Channel 3, which aired at noon and again at twelve-thirty, enough time to finish a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and float the possibility of Samantha Stevens’ daughter, Tabitha, having her own spinoff one day.
Mom had been in bed since the start of what I’d learned was called the second trimester, trying to save her pregnancy. She was old now, thirty-five, and each of her biological kids—my older siblings Tiffany and Danny and me—had been more premature than the last. I don’t remember my mom looking sick, but she was. We had a picture of her on the fridge that had been taken at a Halloween party at the country club a few months earlier. In the picture, she’s sitting on a bale of hay next to a scarecrow and, in retrospect, she looks run down and much too thin, not skeletal but not far off.
Mom’s doctor had told her not to try for any more babies after me. I was two months early and had crunched my umbilical cord on the way out, a narrow escape that left me with a limp for the rest of my life. Heeding the prevailing medical advice, my parents rounded out the family by adopting an Indian baby, my little sister Jessica. They thought their reproductive days were behind them.
About a year later, Mom went on a business trip with my dad to San Diego and came back pregnant. She knew this when she walked into the produce aisle at the grocery store and couldn’t stand the smell. The situation was calmly, maybe too calmly, explained to me. The pregnancy hadn’t been planned, but it wasn’t a mistake either. It was a miracle.
Because Tiffany and Danny and I had been premature, Mom went to a doctor who specialized in early deliveries. He recommended an amniocentesis to determine Mom’s exact due date and stuck a long needle into her uterus to draw out amniotic fluid. The second the needle pierced her skin, Mom started having contractions. She was barely four months along. For then on, she stayed in bed. If she got up to make dinner or throw in a load of laundry, an inner earthquake would hit and she’d have to scurry back to her room.
The medicine she was taking to stall labor made her vision blurry, so she couldn’t read her beloved Sue Grafton novels, which is probably why we watched so much TV together. That and the war on CNN. I thought she was dying. I was right, it turned out, but she was doing it so grandly no one but me—her young, overly sensitive son—had noticed yet.
How much did I really know at that age? Not a word like amniocentesis, maybe not even that she was thirty-five. I picked all that up years later, as a teenager, from one of my mom’s newspaper columns. But that was after the fact, when what was wrong with my mom had a name. Back when it was happening, I only knew enough to be worried. I was like a fish that starts swimming backwards in the hours before a natural disaster.
I cried every day of kindergarten, big, shrugging, lip-sucking sobs that got me sent to Principal Beasley’s office and prompted weekly check-ins with a psychologist from the school district. She gave me a magic sticker and told me if I rubbed it, I would be transported to the happiest place on earth: the teacups at Disneyland. Maybe it would be me, not Tabitha, with the Bewitched spinoff. My homework, which I assigned to myself, the way kids do sometimes, consisted of hobbling around my room in a witch hat, practicing spells on my shoes.
My little sister Chelsea entered the world three-and-a-half months early, not so much born as rescued from Mom’s cancer-filled stomach via C-section early one morning in March. Tiffany woke up to find our bald, Mormon neighbor, Brad, in my parents’ bed. Mom and Dad had gone to the hospital, Brad said. They’d be back before long.
Brad cracked jokes we knew, even at the time, were stupid. “My wife asked me what I wanted for breakfast and I said Nut N’ Honey,” he said in the kitchen. “So she gave me nothing! Get it? Nut N’, nuthin’.”
For lunch, Tiffany fixed me a bowl of Ramen, the first I’d ever had, and Danny and I shook cans of Coke and popped them open on the gazebo in celebration.
My dad must have picked us up later that day and taken us to the hospital because my next memory is of him lifting me under the arms to the newborn intensive care glass to meet my new little sister. It didn’t look like a nursery in there. Instead of babies wrapped in blue and pink blankets and the sweet sound of lullabies, the room was sterile, filled with beeps, drips and alarms. Half a dozen babies lay naked on metal tables.
Mom had her hand in Chelsea’s incubator and was gently stroking her head. My little sister was shriveled, blueish-red, more like ET than a newborn. She had a tube down her throat. Wires and IVs corkscrewed from her. Medical tape stuck to the sparse hair on her scalp. A stuffed bunny huddled in one corner of the incubator, scared to touch her.
Chelsea weighed two pounds when she was born and in the coming days that number dropped so low it was measured in ounces. Less than a can of Campbell’s Soup, Mom said. Why it had to be Campbell’s I can’t say, though it was easy to imagine that she had given birth not to a baby but to a can of soup. I overheard Mom crying on the phone one day. Chelsea was too small even for diapers.
Before Chelsea could come home, my parents had to take a preemie CPR class at night. The problem was what to do with Jessica and me. It was hard to believe it had been more than a year since we’d adopted my second-youngest sister. Jessica was now a toddler and I was six. It’s not like we could watch ourselves. And so, in classic fairytale fashion, my parents shipped the two of us off to our cleaning lady’s mom’s house.
The lady was Polish and lived in a duplex between the overflow parking lot of the mall and Holladay Cemetery. Even my dad called her Babcia. No matter what was bubbling over on the stove, the pot about to lose its lid, Babcia served us Oscar Mayer wieners, the kind we tossed to our Lhasa Apso Annie at home.
It made sense I would be thrown away, what with my bad leg. Mom was probably sick of having to buy different-sized shoes for my different-sized feet. What surprised me was that she would throw away Jessica too. Not so long ago, my parents had carried her around so much her cute feet barely touched the ground.
During our long afternoons at the duplex, I locked myself in Babcia’s bathroom to cast hexes with my Merlin stone. When that got old, I’d pull the tights off my Prince Charming Barbie. It was either that or wander into the living room and watch Babcia’s redheaded grandson pick his nose. He’d veg out to episode after episode of Teddy Ruxpin and I’d push my magic sticker like a painkiller button. Sometimes it felt like the only other place I ever went was to the drive-thru at McDonald’s for dinner. My dad took us there so often Jessica’s first words were, “Fries and a Coke.”
Strange terms floated around our house: Apnea, bradycardia.
Chelsea had suffered brain hemorrhages at birth. She had a length of dead intestine removed along with her ruptured appendix. Only one kidney worked. A hernia worthy of the Pillsbury Doughboy protruded where her belly button should have been. When she finally came home after almost three months at Primary Children’s, she was a stunned bundle of blankets attached to heart and lung monitors and a green oxygen tank that was taller than I was. It was a good thing I was studying sign language with Linda the Librarian on Sesame Street. We’d have to talk with our hands.
Mom parked Chelsea’s bassinet on her side of the bed and didn’t travel more than a few feet away from it for months, like she was on a leash. Driving me to physical therapy or acting class was out of the question. Chelsea needed reminders just to breathe or she’d start to turn blue. Her heart had a defective duct. It took her the better part of an hour to get down a tablespoon of breastmilk as Mom massaged her cheeks and sang a sad ditty she’d made up. Chelsea Marie, dilly dilly dilly, Chelsea Marie. Every bowel movement was a miracle, a reason to call my grandma in Idaho.
Once the precocious baby of the family, I was now the neglected middle child with some sort of syndrome everyone smiled about. I had to stand in the hallway, where my germs couldn’t possibly jump off and latch onto Chelsea, and hold up whatever masterpiece I’d made with cotton balls and popsicle sticks or bright imprints of my hands as Mom rocked Chelsea in her arms. It took me longer to scrub under my fingernails than the time I was allowed to hold her.
Alone in my room, I fended off sea monsters and brought to life a portrait of the Swedish royal family my dad’s friend Anders had sent me so I’d stop asking questions about them. I liked King Carl Gustaf XVI because he looked not like a king but like an accountant with double-bridge glasses. These were modern royals. Gustaf and I would beam to other planets using my Star Trek: The Next Generation Tricorder and swoop into valleys filled with buffalo to save a sweet old buckle-maker from being caught in a stampede. Sometimes, Gustaf sacrificed his life for me and I had to ask an elephant with a castle on his back if he might lend me his heart. We performed preemie CPR on each other, Gustaf and me.
There was no kissing my sister back to life. If I picked Chelsea up and bounced her around, her jalapeño heart would explode. Magic was a first and last resort. I silenced the heart-rate monitor on Mom’s nightstand with a snap and twitched my nose with my finger to make Chelsea stop fussing. Dad had given me a chunk of Kryptonite for Christmas. I put on rubber gloves, took it out of my bow-tie drawer and slipped it under Chelsea’s bassinet. If a glowing green chip off the home planet could kill Superman, it could probably kill a preemie.
As the weeks went by and Chelsea didn’t die, I gained the six-year-old equivalent of begrudging respect. Mom let me babysit for a minute here or there so she could run to the bathroom or grab something from the fridge. That’s when I realized that in my sister I had the perfect captive audience. I’d bring Chelsea a Pink Pearl eraser, a weed, an old tennis ball from the yard. Things she could smell. She needed to know what the world out there was like, what she was missing.
I was known in my gymnastics class as the little ballerino who came in on his toes, danced on his toes, and left on his toes, though I was probably more like a bad sign language interpreter than an interpretive dancer. Linda the Librarian would not have approved. I acted out the ABC’s on top of my parents’ bed for Chelsea—acting out being the key phrase there. I skipped and hopped and stuck landings with such awful aplomb I was sure my mom’s Daddy’s Long Leg Dolls would hop off the entertainment center and come crashing down after me. It took me a while to build up the courage to reach into the bassinet and unball Chelsea’s hand. When I did, she sorta squeezed my finger. It was a sign.
On the piano downstairs, Mom had taught me to tinkle the notes that went with one of Samantha’s spells: B flat, G, B flat. I liked swirling my hands over my head to the imagined strum of the harp to…I don’t know what. Make Chelsea’s oxygen tank hop around the room? Turn her into a stuffed rabbit? Make her sprout fangs and shoot out of her bassinet? I was open to the possibilities. Whatever is worth trying on your shoes is worth trying on your sister. Or maybe what I mean is: A sister is a pair of shoes you try to magically make dance.
It was only a matter of time before Mom walked in on me.
I don’t remember her having to ask what I was doing or having a problem with it. In fact, it was the opposite: she encouraged my magic. We twitched our noses and shook our chins and came up with spells for burping and for gaining a pound or two. With Mom’s help, I talked into Chelsea’s listening fingers and she talked into mine, like Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. I’d wiggle one of her little red piggies, aka toes, and hear in my head the magical 1960s sound effects on Bewitched.
At Primary Children’s, doctors told Mom and Dad that Chelsea’s brain hemorrhages could lead to mental retardation or cerebral palsy. Then again, they had said the same things about me and I was going to be a famous Imagineer. They told us they had administered a drug that could cause Chelsea to become deaf or blind—so it was a big deal when Mom raced into my room one afternoon to tell me Chelsea had looked her straight in the eye and smiled. If you listened carefully, you could hear a soft bleat from Chelsea’s pathetic little lips: my sister’s version of a cry.
It took months of spells to keep her alive, but in that time the heart and lung monitors disappeared. The oxygen tank too. Mom showed me how to take Chelsea’s age and subtract the number of weeks she was early—fourteen—to figure out her “real” age. We learned to stay away from the sick kids at school. We avoided crowds and got flu shots.
Some nights Mom didn’t sleep. Any sign of redness or warmth made her pack Chelsea off to the pediatrician. If Chelsea so much as blushed, it was considered a rash and treated with antibiotics. Breathing through a tube had damaged Chelsea’s windpipe. Even on good days she sounded like she had bronchitis. On bad days, she honked like a seal. And yet, in spite of it all, she was catching up. She barfed, got colicky and did this little grimace when she pooped. She rolled over, sat up, held her bunny, drank from a bottle, grew bigger than a can of soup. Eventually, she jabbered so much we stuck a binky in her mouth to shut her up.
To prepare for Chelsea’s crawling days, we childproofed the house, put latches on all the cupboards and drawers, gated off the three stairs to the living room. Grandma Rosie came down from Idaho in her Ford Taurus and showed me how to tape a Kennedy half dollar over Chelsea’s bellybutton to make her hernia go away. I wanted her to be able to wear a bikini to the club.
Mom came home from the hospital one afternoon that fall, whooping and crying, to tell us Chelsea wouldn’t need open-heart surgery after all: the flaw in that defective duct had miraculously reversed itself. The picture on our Christmas card that year was of my brother and sisters and me pulling Chelsea from a box filled with pink tissue paper—a gift we couldn’t take back.
I never did magic again.