When I was six or seven, I didn’t fear the monsters under the bed. My bogeyman was a book. Feeling a chill of fright if I so much as glanced at the worn gray-green binding, I knew the spot in my parents’ bookcase where it lay in wait. The volume was a 19th-century collection of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated with sentimental engravings. Many of the tales had a dark and creepy tinge, but one story in particular frightened me and caused my aversion to the entire book. It was about a mother, weeping at her boy’s graveside in the middle of the night, who sees a cloaked spectral figure:
“You wish to go down to your child! Do you dare to follow me? I am Death.” She assents, is enveloped in his mantle of darkness, and sinks down “deeper than the spade of the gravedigger can reach.” The name of the story is “The Child in the Grave.”
Thirty years later, on a hot Sunday in August 1986, sun floods our living room through a wall of windows. I am setting the table for brunch and waiting for the results of a blood test. In the yard I scan the redwood play structure with its yellow slide, the red trike parked on the brick patio, a child-size garden hoe and shovel propped against a post. I think I also see a ghostly form, a faint, ominous gray-green mist that flows and reconfigures itself, hovers, peers in the windows, tentatively touches the bell on the tricycle, sits on the swings.
My son, Zack, almost 4, is happily pushing small trains—his grand passion—along their wooden tracks in his bedroom when the grandparents arrive. Grandpa carries his instrument case and music. We are having our usual Sunday brunch with chamber music afterward—a trio, with Grandpa on flute, Grandma on the piano, my husband playing oboe. Zack likes to conduct the music with his dad’s baton or draw while I listen and wash the dishes.
Zack loves drawing as much as I do. Obsessed with trains, Zack drew train tracks at two and a half. Now, he draws and paints his stuffed panda, Bumby, and endless pictures of tracks and trains complete with cowcatchers, engineers, and spewing smoke. A special train, “For my Momma,” has pink hearts drifting out of the smokestack.
I do not tell my mother and father that we are waiting to hear whether their only grandchild has a deadly virus. I want them to have this last Sunday of music as usual.
Three days ago, when we took Zack to the hospital for the blood draw, our doctors said, “Don’t worry, he can’t have it.” He is their success story—their interventions and ministrations have saved a child who almost died several times in his first two years. Zack spent so much time at Cedars-Sinai that everyone on the fourth floor knows the boy with the irresistible smile. The doctors don’t want to find out that the treatments that saved his life will end it.
I, however, know the answer. After the blood test, I awakened at 3 a.m. and put it all together: transfusions and Zack’s mysterious symptoms—lack of growth, constant infections, thrush, swollen glands, persistent diarrhea. I sat up and woke my husband. “Zack has AIDS.” He listened skeptically and went back to sleep. I did not.
Zack is bent over paper and markers. My husband and my parents are playing Bach, unaware of the ghostly banshee hovering outside, patiently waiting, stroking the chains of Zack’s swing. It is surreal to watch this child whose eyes dance under his shiny brown bangs and know that he is doomed.
Some days the ghoul thickens to clog the space between me and everything I experience, from fixing breakfast to tucking Zack into bed. At other times, the mist thins or wafts to the edges, seen only in my peripheral vision.
When school starts in the fall, no one knows about Zack’s diagnosis except the principal. She and I want to spare a child who charms everyone he meets from becoming an object of fear and repugnance.
A year later, 1987, Zack is too ill to attend kindergarten. On a still night in Los Angeles, I hear Zack cry out and enter his room. I click the balloon man from night light to lamp. Red, yellow, white, and royal blue globes float into the rectangle of black glass. My pale, worried face, its wreath of dark curls melted into the blackness of the night window, appears above as another, larger balloon, untethered from the bundle.
I feel the heat rising from his forehead before I touch him. The pink and green cars printed on the pillowcase are dark with damp. His bangs are black shards stuck to his forehead, his eyes glassy and distant. Clutching Bumby’s nose tightly with one hand, he points to the underside of the top bunk with the other. He must be delirious because he says, terrified, “Momma, look! There are monsters!” I wonder what he sees. Has delirium transmuted the jacquard weave of the satin mattress cover from curling vines to rampant beasts?
I climb in bed next to him until he falls asleep and then mount the ladder to the top bunk, where I spend the rest of the night on monster watch. He sleeps fitfully, still has a high fever the next day. He talks about the monsters coming back and dreads their return at nightfall. What can I do?
Suddenly an inspiration. Several days earlier, a friend stopped by and handed me a tiny brown vial filled with oil of lavender, explaining that the scent is relaxing and might be good for Zack. I forgot about it until now. I bring the bottle into Zack’s room and explain that I have brought monster repellent to protect him when it gets dark.
“Pumpkin, you know how we use bug repellent to keep the mosquitoes away? How they don’t bite us when they smell the repellent? Well, this works the same way. All I have to do is sprinkle it on your pillow and the monsters will smell it and run away.” He nods assent, silently watching me. I place a cool compress on his forehead, and he closes his eyes and rubs Bumby’s nose.
It works. The monsters flee and he is soothed to sleep by the aroma of lavender. We use the repellent for several nights until the fever is down. He is reassured by the little brown bottle that sits on the base of the balloon man lamp, at hand should the beasts return. They never do.
My strategy has been so successful that I want to market monster repellent. I envision a small spray bottle that sits near the register at children’s shops, an impulse item, with a label so fanciful and engaging that it is hard to resist—comic illustrations of monsters with alarmed expressions beautifully drawn in bright ink. The text, a quote from the old Cornish prayer, would read Monster Repellent: for all ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.
But I am not a mother who can find an entrepreneurial hour away. I am battling a larger monster in our home; a beast out of Goya’s last visions is hunkered down in the middle of the living room, its bony spine bumping the ceiling, tongue up the chimney, yellow fingers and horny toes reaching into every room. In the moonlight, huge leathery wings beat against the brick terrace beyond Zack’s window. Its demeanor is strangely impassive. It has no grudge against us. It is simply being itself by devouring my child. And I am trying to keep Zack alive long enough for the doctors to find their monster repellent.
In those lavender-scented moments in Zack’s room, however, I am triumphant inside my tired blue mommy sweat suit—the uniform that enables me to jump out of bed already dressed and ready for any emergency.
A few days later, Zack and I are sitting on his bed, the bottom bunk. The Brio wooden train set, as always, is spread out on the cork floor. Zack is holding Bumby. I am holding a small, blunt navy sneaker. My son turns to face me, intently silent for a moment, his dark eyes huge. Then he speaks: “Mom, I love you more than trains.”
Over the next several months, the right side of Zack’s neck and his cheek become increasingly painful and swollen. He is no longer able to turn his head to the right. A new monster has overpowered his weakened immune system. A microscopic one with a large name that we learn later: Mycobacterium avium-intracellulare. From one side he looks perfect, an angelic 5-year-old; from the other, purple and suppurating with infection, grotesque. He knows it. When he puts on his yellow terry Halloween kitty-cat hood that covers the sides of his face, he says, “Now I look the way I used to.”
Soon, Zack spends most of his time in the white bunk bed in his room. I keep him at home surrounded by his beloved trains and stuffed animals, will not let him end his life in a strange room in the Formica twilight of a hospital. Nurses come every night. He loves and charms all who care for him. Theresa, one of the favorites, is a kindhearted and zaftig young woman.
“Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to marry Theresa. She would make a good wife.”
“Why is that, Zack?”
“Because she has soft breasts.”
One day, as I am straightening up Zack’s room, Theresa enters for her shift after a week away. She is disturbed by the spread of infection in his swollen face and she asks Zack, who is in his bed against the wall, whether his cheek is bothering him very much. He answers:
“Well, my momma has made me a bandage [to protect it] so now I can lie facing there”—he points to the large window on the opposite wall—“and watch the sun rise.” Theresa, speechless, turns toward me with tears in her eyes.
Zack becomes aware of Death’s presence. And, not surprisingly, he is preoccupied by ghosts. He fixates on a Ghostbusters toy he sees on TV, and Theresa, a soft touch, brings it for him. The Ghostbuster gun is junky plastic, basically a flashlight that projects cartoons of menacing monsters while making loud tinny machine-gun sounds. He is disappointed. This is scary and ugly.
“Don’t worry, I’ll fix this for you, Pumpkin,” I say, and go out to my studio to see what I can do.
First I disarm the noisemaker. Next, I take apart the card with the transparencies—in frames that rotate around the bulb just like the View-Master of my childhood—and remove the ghoulish pictures. I find some clear Mylar film, Mylar inks, and pen nibs. Then I cut and insert a new plastic circle upon which I have drawn tiny images in the one-inch spaces. I hurry back and give him the toy. Shining on the white wall of his room as he flicks the button are “Betadine Bear,” a smiling Thomas the Tank Engine, and Bumby in different poses—standing, sitting, hanging from a pink balloon in the clouds against blue sky, and I love you. To Zack from Mom surrounded with hearts.
In his last week, Zack says, “Take me to Dr. Lilliana, Mom. She’ll fix me up.” I tell him the doctors are looking for the right medicine. He trusts they will find it. But no repellent exists. The monsters are unstoppable.
Days after his memorial service in the backyard, I return to my studio to press bits of old zinc type into a piece of soft wax. Cast in sterling, it becomes a bangle bracelet—a torn strip of silver with small dingbat hearts pressed into an irregular edge and a tiny train disappearing into the overlapping ends—a magic charm to beckon, not repel. Each morning I slip my hand inside my son’s words. I love you more than trains circles the pulse points of my wrist: a silver incantation that summons a small ghostie.
Things are different now. There is no more Sunday chamber music. The gray-green volume disappeared long ago. In the empty yard, the only ghosts are my memories. I understand why the mother in Andersen’s story was unafraid to follow Death down into a grave to find her boy.
I would welcome a haunting.
Anna Belle Kaufman is an artist and psychotherapist in California. Excerpted from the summer issue of Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, a forum for women’s voices and visions since 1976. To read the full version of this piece, go to www.calyxpress.org/excerpts.
This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.