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Struck Dumb
by Valerie MacEwan


     I reached the bottom of the concrete staircase leading to the school cafeteria door just as Margaret Simpkins hesitantly planted her foot on the small top step. She wobbled a bit, reached for the door handle, and then her body suddenly swung around as she did a pirouette toward me, and fell, face first -- down five steps -- bump, bump, bump, turn and bump, then thud. When she landed at my feet, she'd turned over on her back and her eyes were wide open but her brain was not.
     Cheeks bloody. Raw. Skin like Phyllo dough. Each layer torn.
     Put casserole dish down on sidewalk. Look for help. Find none.

Bend down.
Check pulse.
Detect faint beat.
Open mouth.
Check airway.
Begin CPR.

Start compressions.

Two breaths, fifteen pumps...
Two breaths, fifteen pumps...
Two breaths, fifteen pumps...

Repeating. Forever. For days. For months. A year.
A gurney appears.
She is lifted up and gone.

     I faded back into the circle of sidewalk curb watchers. Picked up my casserole dish and joined the disassembling spectators who went inside the school hall, discussing what they'd seen in hushed, concerned voices.
     The doctors couldn't do anything for her at the hospital so they let her finish dying. The funeral notice was in the paper the next day. I didn't know Mrs. Simpkins personally and had only seen her when she attended plays and school suppers with her family. Her daughter found out my name from a teacher and sent me a kind note to thank me for trying. Her mother suffered a massive stroke, never woke up, didn't even feel the fall -- she told me that in the note.
     I rewind and play that scene in my head. It's been fourteen years and there they are -- the gawking strangers circling the scene, staring while I administer CPR. I hear the old woman's hard gasp for a breath. I watch as she shudders and begins to die. And always there is the sound and the feel of her ribs cracking as I try to administer CPR. I keep seeing me -- killing her -- breaking her ribs -- over and over again. Killing her with my ineptitude.
     Fourteen years later and here's my 86 year old mother sitting in a rocking chair reading a book. We share a house with her. We care for her and, in return, she makes us laugh. Stories of family, Europe, drive by impressions of the life she lived.
     I hope my daughter the paramedic will be here when something happens. I know I can't break my mother's ribs or watch her gasp for one last breath. I don't know if I could even begin to do CPR on her. I know I can't crush her ribs.
     Today, as I reminisce with my daughter, we talk about the places where we used to live and remember the houses we have loved. Eventually, the discussion comes to the small South Carolina town where the old woman died many years ago.
     "Do you think the reason I'm a paramedic is because of that woman that died?" my daughter asks.
     Today, for the first time ever, we begin to talk about the woman's death. My belief that I killed her has kept me silent.
     "The one who stroked out and fell down the stairs?" I reply.
     "No," she answers slowly ... deliberately ... "The old woman I killed."
     I stare at her for at least half a minute. Struck dumb. I have no voice."What the hell are you talking about? You never killed an old woman."
     "Yes, I did," she says. "Remember that girl, Sarah, from my class? She was hitting me, chasing me all over the cafeteria. Kicking me, chasing me, totally out of control. I couldn't get away from her. I think her Mom dropped us off... y'all were friends... I don't know why, but I know you weren't there yet. I couldn't get away from Sarah. She kept hitting me so I ran for the door. It was one of those school kind of doors, the one with the bar handle across it. I hit the handle, ran outside. I felt the door hit that old woman in the face. I killed her. I knocked her down the stairs."
     "I don't even remember you being there," I say. "I have nightmares about breaking her ribs... you are wrong. I killed her ... when I did CPR. I broke her ribs and it killed her."
     "Mom," she says calmly, "I've broken people's ribs. It happens when you do CPR. It doesn't kill them. You didn't kill her. I did. I remember her face, I'd hit her in the face with the door. Her face was bloody... remember?"
     "I thought that was from the fall. The doctor told the family the woman died of a stroke."
     "All these years I thought you didn't talk about it because you were ashamed of me. Thought you and Dad knew the truth and you didn't want to talk about it. I thought you knew I'd killed her. I killed her. You didn't."
     The only thing I can say to her is that we have to forgive ourselves for mistakes we make as children. The lame echo of my voice fills the room. I tell her -- blame the architect who made the stair landing too narrow to open a door onto without stepping back down onto the next stair. Or maybe it was a freak of timing -- the woman stroked out before the door opened.
     I grasp for explanations. Try to explain it away.
     The woman, incredibly frail, should not have been on those stairs alone, unsupported by a stronger arm.
     She should never have gone anywhere unaccompanied. We would never allow Mother to go out alone at night, to go alone anywhere at her age.
     But I cannot take my daughter's memory and replace it with a better one. She gives me absolution from my sin. This is what I am supposed to do for my children.I am the one who absorbs their pain, the one who takes their pain for my own. It is not right for her to comfort me. Mothers protect, children receive. This pain is unbearable.



About the author:
MacEwan lives at the ass-end of the Great Dismal Swamp and raises possums for fun and profit. She writes book reviews for Popmatters, is editor of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and her writing been published everywhere from the Asheville Poetry Review to the Writer's Digest's Novel and Short Story Writer's Market. In 1996, MacEwan attended the Ploughshares International Fiction Writing Seminar in Holland. Read her thoughts on Linux and Open Source on her blog where she tries to assist writers and editors who utilize OpenOffice.org or StarOffice word processing software while collaborating with Microsoft Word users. Oh, and one more thing ... MacEwan is proud to be a Googlism.



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