Thunderstorms again, pouring heavy sheets of rain off the roof. All week we were caught in a low-pressure cycle: building, building, release. I drove the highway home from work slow and careful as a granny, my small car shuddering as the semis roared past, not listening to the seductive, honeyed voice of Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace, not talking on my cell as usual, but driving in silence with two hands on the wheel, aware of my warm body moving through the elements.
At home the girls had already eaten with Daddy. C ran naked onto the wet porch to greet me.
“Mommy, Mommy! We have an animal hospital!” she shrieked. I blanched, thinking of our two roaming cats or the old dog in trouble.
In the living room, stuffed animals lay ailing under blankets on the couch. Ducky had a hole in his beak, Penguin had a torn wing and both required emergency surgery. Forgoing dinner, I grabbed my sewing kit and sat down on the floor to be Doctor while A readied the patients for their procedures. C was the ambulance driver, running through the house with a basket to transport every worn-out, well-loved stuffy to medical treatment.
“What’s wrong with Leo?” I asked, as C carried her enormous, tawny lion, the size of a young golden retriever, into the waiting room.
“He has a bone stuck in his throat. He can’t breathe very well,” explained A. “It’s because he’s a predator.”
“So, what should we do, Doctor?” I conferred.
“Squeeze him until the bone comes out,” she ordered. I administered the Heimlich while A stroked the lion’s mane. Then C covered Leo with a fleece and placed a bunny on his back for company.
Soon the waiting room was jam-packed with sick creatures, all lined up in a pathetic row. Hello Kitty had eczema, and the penguin chicks suffered from severe cases of stomach flu and needed shots to their fuzzy backsides. After treatment they recovered on throw pillows while A made rounds, checking their vitals. She told me Sarah Donkey and Cuddly Bunny had cancer, but they were taking their medicine and would be better tomorrow. If only it were that simple. My mind flashed to my aunt, buying her wig in the city, anticipating chemo, and my yoga student who’d just died after four grueling months.
C cradled a fist-sized, dun-colored hedgehog in her hands.
“He has a heart-stone, Mommy,” she said sadly.
“A heart-stone?” I asked.
“You know, when someone’s heart stops and they can’t breathe.”
“Oh. You mean a heart-attack.”
“Yeah,” said C. “What can I do to fix it?”
“Electric shock him,” I told her, and C strapped on her green plastic John Deere tool belt, took out the screwdriver, and jammed it into the hedgehog’s fur until it crackled and he came back to life.
I thought of my Dad, seven years ago in the ER. The girls know he died of a heart attack when I was pregnant with A—it’s part of our family story. But there are gaps in the narrative. Whatever the paramedics did to him in the ambulance, we’ll never know, though I assume they gave him CPR and clapped the great metal defibrillator onto his bare chest over and over to try to restore the current that animates all life. The image moved over me like a wall of water, and for a moment I was drowning, and then it passed.
C wielded her John Deere pliers to remove a thorn from Doggy’s paw. I performed a final surgery on Pink Hello Kitty’s leg. The girls were engrossed in Animal Hospital, which for them was not a game at all— not like Chutes and Ladders or Old Maid— but a real experience. I made myself sit on the rug and be present with their excitement. So rarely do I actually play with my children. I’ll read books to them and join in tag or cards, but I don’t take part in the elaborate fantasies that fuel their most imaginative hours. Instead I busily get things done in the house or on the computer while they’re flying a cat family to Hawaii or birthing twins in the fort inside Sumac City.
One Sunday, both girls disappeared while T and I worked in the garden. They emerged wearing backpacks and serious expressions, C lugging a wicker suitcase stuffed with fresh chives and sorrel they’d picked from the herb bed.
“We’re ORPHANS,” explained A. “This is our only food.”
They told me C was the baby and A the two-year-old big sister. A robber had stolen their mother and they were alone in the woods with only their grandfather to help. “Orphans” lasted for hours, and there was no room for me in the game even if I’d wanted to stop my productive adult projects and join them.
How do we lose our ability to drop into the fantasy world and play? Our 16-year-old babysitter, an exceptionally bright, creative young woman, once watched A talking to six stuffed kittens in the block apartment building she’d constructed in one corner of the playroom.
“I used to play like that once,” S. said ruefully, checking her iPhone.
I didn’t make A and C clean up the Animal Hospital before bed. For three days, the animals covered our couch and rugs and we moved around them as if they were furniture. Then the mess overwhelmed me and irritation flared: I finally mandated a family tidy to put every last toy into its proper place.