The limestone shelf has always been here. Porous limestone, ancient fossil limestone, African fragment broken from the great continent Pangea before time began and forming a hard swollen finger pointing south.
Thin sea water, skinny as a snake, slips over the shelf, falling and rising, a hundred and forty million years rising and falling. Glaciers crawl close from the north; glaciers recede. The water ebbs and flows, the rhythm of iced ages bringing fine sand from crumbling Appalachians.
Moving, always moving across the limestone, the sand dribbles and creeps like tiny pale crabs, blows in soft drifts. It fills the low places, piles up against the high, sand and water waltzing restlessly under a southern sun.
Winds blow from across the Atlantic and up from the Caribbean. They push the water, shape the sand until a long soft barrier emerges like a slender sleeping body, a new island stretching lazily a hundred and fifty miles, a barrier island.
The sea pounds on the east side of the island in winter, whispers in summer. At north and south ends, inlets swirl with ocean water rushing in and a brackish lagoon sliding out. New inlets open under the force of storms, or close. The beaches continue to change—sometimes wide and flat, other years steep and narrow. The Spanish will call the land “Florida” and the cape swelling like a breast from the barrier island “Cabo Cañaveral.”
Sand and sea are always moving, even after the rocketmen arrive. They launch their spacecraft from cement pads poured over ancient limestone, and still tiny wave-ends murmur up the dark wet sand.
On July 24, 1950, Bumper V-2 blasts off a tiny hand-poured cement pad in the middle of the palmettos to become the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. As my mother waits out the sticky final months of her pregnancy with me two hundred miles down the coast in Miami, neither she nor my father realize this event will have anything to do with us, if they even hear about it. Although my father studies electrical engineering on the GI Bill, he never imagines he will one day become a rocket engineer. In fact, no one really can foresee the world that Bumper launches that humid morning.
Conditions are so primitive at the launch site that those working on it receive hazardous duty pay to compensate for the swamps, four species of poisonous snakes, and alligators. The aggressive salt marsh mosquitoes that attack the scientists are able to reproduce up to a million mosquitoes per square yard in one day. Bobcats and sleek Florida panthers roam the scrub. Cottonmouths, copperheads, and rattlers slither around estuaries, across coastal dunes, and through pine flatlands that sit just inches above the water table. Directions written to the launch site along the sandy road include the admonition, “Don’t stop or you’ll bog down.”
My mother’s water breaks on the cusp of three hurricanes. September is prime hurricane season in Miami, and this year, several circle her due date. “Charlie,” “Dog,” and “Easy” bounce over the South Atlantic as my father carries my mother’s suitcase onto the hospital elevator. When the elevator door opens, the nurse picks up the suitcase, takes my mother’s hand, and closes the door in front of my father. When my mother wakes some time later, the hurricanes are veering away from Miami, and she has a new baby girl sleeping down the hall in the nursery.
She holds me in her lap as we ride in my father’s ’46 Chevy along the narrow strip of asphalt that is Southwest 8th Street, the Tamiami Trail, stretching a hundred and ten miles through the Everglades to Tampa on the west coast. The Silver Court Trailer Park sits on the edge of Miami, and the buildings that line the route squat modestly under the relentless sun.
Our trailer park blooms lush and green with tropical vegetation and raucous local birds and song birds just arriving from up north. The heavy smells of night-blooming jasmine and gardenias hang in the humidity. Variegated crocus and palms reach over the trailer park’s crushed coquina shell road as my mother pushes my stroller along, the small tires lazily crunching the shell with each roll. We stop at the common bathrooms housed in whitewashed stucco with green stains creeping up the outside.
At our trailer, chameleons scurry across the screens of the porch my father built, our living room. My mother, who grew up in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood as my father, puts me out in my playpen in just a diaper, because what could be better for a young child than that fresh Florida air?
My bare chest presses against the cold x-ray plate. “Hold your breath,” the cheerful technician says. The familiar whirring sound begins and stops. “Breathe.” I exhale.
“Good girl.” She comes out of the booth and clanks the film plate out of its holder and clanks in another. I am always a good girl. Even if it is one of those x-rays with gagging down chalky goo to light up my insides, I stand straight and stretch my arms long around the plate, never moving during that held breath. Every six months, the doctors, the interns, the residents, the nurses come to listen with their flat metal disks—a murmur, they had said at three months, hidden in the depths. Sometimes wires cling to my small body like praying mantis, their delicate feet the suction cups.
“A hole between the auricles,” they teach me to say. How lucky I am to be living in this era with new discoveries every year, they say; children before weren’t so lucky. My mother believes in technology and doctors; after all, my father is a rocket engineer. They will discover a way to fix my small heart, she is sure, just like they are sending men into outer space. We are not afraid.
And so a childhood of drawn blood, questions and tests until one day when they might know how to do the surgery that will be needed, while I imagine that murmur as tiny lapping waves cooing over dark wet sand.
A full-size cement dolphin at the entrance to the Sands Motel rises continuously out of the waves, the spotlight at night making shadows on the cement foam. Around a horseshoe-shaped patio court, dim lights illuminate the walkway. The ceaseless sound of surf, louder at high tide, more faraway at low, surrounds us. In the years after Bumper, my family, now with a little brother, moves to Brevard County, home of the Cape. Just about everyone is from someplace else like us, and the County population grows three hundred and seventy-five percent. I celebrate my eighth birthday here at the Sands as we wait for our cement-block “ranch” house to be built in the new subdivision.
My town of Satellite Beach is incorporated in 1957 after Percy Hedgecock and his brothers Shine and Hub begin developing the hundred and thirty acres of saw palmetto and oak scrub they had purchased just months earlier. The land is “wild, raw, and unimproved,” as the documents read. A giant metal balloon in the shape and features of a satellite is erected on the town’s main road, State Road A1A running south to Sebastian Inlet.
Building and construction are a way of life as bulldozers push housing developments, shopping plazas, schools, and new businesses out of the palmettos. Ditching and draining by big machinery continue day and night turning wetlands into dry land for development. Mosquitoes are conquered with DDT, at least partially. The County population doubles again in 1960, and Satellite Beach adopts as its slogan, “Where Progress Prevails.”
An evangelical faith in technology and its role in creating good for all mankind sweeps down the beach. The space industry is going to prove our superiority to the atheistic Soviets, as all America knows, and should we flag in our efforts or will, the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik passing overhead every ninety-eight minutes eggs us on.
The whole world is watching us and our little strip of sand. We see ourselves and our rockets on the TV news, in Life magazine, in newsreels before movies. The country is counting on us, all the families involved with the space industry, and no one is looking back. A newspaper photo with the King and Queen of Belgium among the crowd at a launch shows everyone in sunglasses, a few shielding their eyes from the glare, and all looking in exactly the same direction—up.
My bedroom is still dark when my mother comes in to wake me. “Time to get up, honey” she says. “Mmph,” I grunt and pull the sticky sheet above my head. Outside my window, insects, night birds I don’t know the names for, maybe armadillos, and gnawing, nibbling things click and scratch sporadically as they finish their nightly wandering. Other creatures are just waking up and starting their rounds.
“Remember how we are going to the beach to see Alan Shepard’s rocket take off?” my mother nudges me. At the word “beach,” my eyes open. Assured that I’ll get up, my mother clicks on the ballerina lamp on my bureau as she leaves. My six-your-old brother is already bounding into my room. “Come on,” he says. “We don’t want to miss it.”
“Get out of my room,” I growl at him in my best ten-year-old sister voice.
In the dark morning, the kitchen and dining room are lit like a stage set waiting for us to prepare for our secret mission. The living room and Florida room are in eerie darkness on either side of us, the television quiet, and the curtains still closed over the jalousies. We’re going on an adventure, my sleep-fuzzy mind starts to realize as my mother puts bowls of Rice Krispies in front of me and my brother. My mother already has the radio on, and sure enough, the announcer tells us importantly, “Today, May 5, 1961, we are going into space with Alan B. Shepard.”
“He’s scheduled to take off very early,” my mother tells us, “but Daddy says there are always holds in the countdown so we might have to wait for a while.”
Daddy is already out at Cape Canaveral. When the countdowns get to a certain point, as everyone in school knows, the engineers are locked into the launch blockhouse for security, and the flight coordinators, like my father, stay at their stations at Mission Control a couple of miles away. My brother Ricky, my mother, and I will be going to Cocoa Beach, which lies between our beach and the Cape, to watch the launch, driving down onto the hard-packed sand and finding a good place to park. My mother has already filled the small aluminum cooler with sodas and bologna sandwiches. My father has said that the launch pad they’ll be using near the tip of the Cape is a good one for a view from Cocoa Beach.
Not only that, but they’ve closed school for the day so we can all watch this historic event. We have lots of historic events living near Cape Canaveral. Alan Shepard will be the first American in space, flying Freedom 7. We kids can recite the names of all the Mercury 7 Astronauts. My friend Linda S. and I (there are five Lindas in my class) call them out as we jump rope: “Car-penter, Coo-per, Glenn, and Grissom. Schir-ra, Shepard, and Mis-ter Slayton.”
I pull on my two-piece bathing suit, then a clean shorts set over it, the pink seersucker one with matching rickrack on the bottom of the legs and blouse, the one my mother finished just last week. Even though it’s a warm May morning, the mugginess makes me a little cold and I put on my father’s nylon windbreaker. It smells like Old Spice and cigarettes.
My mother turns the lights off as we go out the front door. The fronds on our palm trees hang slackly in the stillness. Bright stars dot the blue-black sky.
At the children’s heart clinic in Miami where the catheterization is to take place, I walk in regally as if I were going on stage for one of my dance recitals. We always come to this string of wooden World War II Army hospital buildings for checkups, and I know well the sound of our footfalls on the unpainted floorboards as we move from exam room to exam room. There is no air conditioning here, but the stethoscopes always feel cool and friendly on my chest.
For this event, I know a tube is going to be inserted into the vein in my right arm, the good vein so perfectly visible at the right spot in the crease for blood tests. They’ll put me under so I’ll be asleep as they snake the tube up my vein, through the artery, and down into my heart. There the doctors will learn something new. The grownups say this is the most important test yet. I get the feeling that what happens next depends on this one. I’ve overheard heard someone say, “this year,” and maybe I heard, “before it’s too late.” It seems like this is the beginning of a countdown.
“Pre-teens,” they call us, and we are on a church youth group “hayride” in the back of a pick-up truck with a couple of bales of hay. We bounce south along the narrow patchwork stretch of A1A, getting farther and farther from what we know as civilization and our ordinary lives. Mile after mile of scrubby gray-green palmettos pass as if waiting to be bulldozed into a shopping center. Beyond the narrow beam of the car headlights, the scrub now seems interesting and mysterious, maybe a bit dangerous. We know that snakes and raccoons ramble in there, maybe even panthers or bad men, but we speed past them all in our innocent confidence.
We have a mission tonight, a reason to be here during the full moon in May. This stretch of beach beyond the Eau Gallie causeway and before the road ends at Sebastian Inlet is just sand, twenty miles of sand and waves that carry on seemingly forever, still wild enough that turtles come ashore this time of year to lay their eggs. We silly preadolescents focused mostly ourselves, the children of Cape Canaveral who have gone to the beaches a boring number of times to watch missile launches, are going to witness a natural event that has been going on for millennia.
South of Satellite Beach, the tiny towns thin out until the only lights on the side of the road are occasional motels built in the fifties or even the thirties. Appearing first is the warm glow above the palmettos, then the simple bulb illuminating a wooden or cement sign—the Surf Caster, the Dolphin, the Sea Turtle—and then the warm glow we leave behind.
On the way to Shepard’s launch, I get to sit in the front seat of the big Chevrolet, of course, because I’m older. Our car creeps down the very quiet First Street, the headlights pointing east toward A1A. A tiny sliver of pink lies across the horizon as we turn onto the main road. A few other cars are on A1A, all heading in the same direction as us. My mother is quiet in the dashboard light, and even I don’t feel like talking so early. My brother sucks his thumb silently in the dark back seat. The car engine hums the way cars seem to hum at night.
This part of A1A is maybe ten feet above beach level so that in the brightening light on the right side of the road I can look over the tops of the palmetto scrub to the ocean, flatly spreading to Africa. The small morning waves roll languidly toward the shore just because they have no place else to go. The beach is deserted, and the rise of palmettos above it stretch consistently the same height and density for miles.
The sun suddenly pops its orange edge above the horizon, and by the time we enter the outskirts of Cocoa Beach, the whole big ball floats on the water. Maybe someday we’ll go to the sun, I think. After the moon, of course, as President Kennedy wants us to do this decade. My mother turns off the headlights and clicks on the radio. The only thing on either of the local AM stations is the launch.
Now there are a lot of cars going our way. In fact, the farther we get into Cocoa Beach, the more cars there are, and soon we are creeping along in a line. “It’ll take too long to get to the north end of the beach at this rate,” my mother says to me. “We’ll take the ramp at this end.”
My brother rouses in the back seat. “Are we there yet? When do we get to eat the sandwiches?”
Eventually, we turn right and drive down the ramp to the beach, following the other cars. My mother finds a place to park and starts to back in like my father taught her. A fat man from the next car over with New Jersey license plates stands behind us to direct her to stop just before the wheels hit the soft part of the sand.
We climb out of the car and my mother gets out the beach blanket, except she spreads it on the roof instead of the sand. She puts the transistor radio on there, too, and turns it on. A commercial for Ipana toothpaste plays. My mother says that must mean there’s a hold in the countdown if there are commercials. Ricky opens the cooler and pulls out the bag of Frito Corn Chips. “Can I open these?’ he asks.
“Later,” she says. “Get out your sand toys.”
“I don’t want to play,” he says. “I wanna see the rocket.”
He and I climb onto the car hood and scramble to the roof. As far as I can see in either direction hundreds, maybe thousands, of cars, pickup trucks, and even camper trailers are parked on the sand, their front grills pointed toward the surf. It’s more people than on a Sunday afternoon, and it’s really only seven o’clock on what would be a school day.
“It’s going to be a while,” my mother calls as she settles into her folding aluminum chair next to the car with her Good Housekeeping. She is wearing her prescription sunglasses with the green glass, and a cotton scarf tied lightly under her chin to keep her permanent from getting mussed up.
I strip down to my bathing suit, then head for the water, watching for the traffic still coming down. The wet sand is cold from the night and the water chills me as I wade out. It’s almost flat calm, just small currents of waves rolling in. The sun, still low in the sky, is as white as if it has been up for hours, and a long ray of water sparkles under it, reaching from the horizon to the shore. My brother joins me and we hold hands, jumping up as the waves reach us, over and over as if it really matters if we jump the knee-high waves or not. He keeps shouting, “Mommy, look!” She looks up briefly from her magazine and waves.
After swimming and floating, and making a sand castle and moat, and climbing on and off the car roof, and not finding any kids I know, and talking to the very white, wrinkly people from up north who ask the question they always ask each other—where are you from—and eating corn chips, we’re bored. My mother is comparing notes on the Jersey shore with our next-car neighbors.
“When are they going to shoot the rocket off?” Ricky asks.
“Can I walk down the beach to that place that sells tourist stuff?” I ask.
“Why didn’t you bring a book?” my mother asks.
“Why didn’t you remind me?”
“Can we get a hot dog?”
“It’s almost two minutes!” shouts the fat man.
We turtle watchers finally pull over to a wide sandy patch and get out. Following a narrow path through the palmettos, we all know how to pick our way down to a beach. The lucky among us carry flashlights, and we turn them on to fleetingly light up a patch of wilderness preserved like a jungle movie set, our own light crisscrossing the others. Anything could be lurking in the palmettos with fronds that clatter noisily against each other in the breeze. Flashlights make the dark darker when the beam moves on, and in our hands, we possess the power to light it up again.
The narrow path requires single file, and the noisy voices stretch out along the way. Sometimes a squeal rises up, something about stepping on sticker burrs or being brushed by the rough frond of a palmetto. The rising moon sits enticingly on the edge of the water, and the familiar surf urges us on, while the beach ahead and the sandy path glow white. One by one, flashlights click off and voices quiet. Like lemmings, we jump off the low edge of the dune and run through night-cold dry sand to wet sand and the lick of water.
I doubt any of us have seen a sea turtle before except in an aquarium. Do the chaperones even know what to expect? But anything is possible and probable in our era; we live with magic and mystery all the time. Rockets defy gravity, but prehistoric beasts ripe with eggs still climb out of the waves on a beach little changed from the days of the Ais Indians. On humid nights, we sit around our black-and-white televisions, insects crashing into the window screens, while reptiles creep up the beach under the moonlight. We giggle about boys at the edges of gymnasium sock hops as the cycle of life quietly turns elsewhere in the night. Growing up in the go-go era of the Space Coast Sixties, we expect no less. We know we’re going to defy gravity someday ourselves.
Stretched out across her chenille bedspread, my mother and I are having a talk. We have never done this before, even though at age eleven, there are some female things I probably need to know about eventually. Last night, as I was putting the dried dishes away, I told her I knew I was having an operation soon because I’d overheard her telling Grandmom, so my mother has decided to set up this talk about open-heart surgery.
She has spread out on the bed diagrams of hearts, the insides of them on graph paper, different angles with arteries cut short, and pictures of the operating room and machines. We talk of chambers and auricles and ventricles and the recently invented heart-lung machine that is making it all possible at this point in history. She shows me the picture in Life magazine with the machine and the tubes stretching from it. They disappear under the sheet covering the body on the table surrounded by masked and gowned surgeons.
I understand. I heard Mrs. Moxham from down the street tell my mother I am just too young to know what to expect. But I know what to expect. It’s science, and I do well in science; I do well in all my school subjects, in fact. I like having this important information that no one else at school has. I create a science project on poster board showing how everything will work. I like having this very special heart problem.
But at this point, I don’t know the heart-lung machine has only been around a few years and has been used on just a handful of children. I don’t know about the dogs and the chimps in the early surgeries. How some bled out during their operations. And some were poisoned by the wrong kind of blood, and there might have been severe infections later for the others. I don’t know that surgeons need to experiment to learn how to do open heart surgery, how most of the successful ones so far have all been closed heart. But to really fix things, like, say, a hole between the auricles, they need to cut open the heart.
I understand scientific experiments. That’s what we need to do to get into space. Sometimes they don’t work, I know. Sometimes the rockets blow up right on the launch pad or just fall over. Or they go off course, and the people in the blockhouse blow them up on purpose. Or they lose thrust and fall into the ocean. Eventually, the scientists feel good enough about what they learn to try humans. That’s how they did it at the Cape—monkeys with wires and tubes clinging to their small bodies, then humans, astronauts, of course, in space suits. Grownup hearts, then children’s. Some don’t get any worse. One or two get better. Some die. But I don’t know that. Do Mommy and Daddy know?
My mother turns the transistor back on, which she had turned off to save the battery. We hear the announcer say it is two minutes and counting until liftoff. He tells us that Shepard will be able to talk to the control booth by space radio. Even my mother climbs onto the roof with us, holding our radio.
“One minute, thirty seconds to blastoff,” the announcer says in his flat countdown voice. “The Redstone rocket carrying Alan Shepard into space is venting its liquid oxygen,” he drones. “The cherry picker that carried him up to the capsule won’t be moved away from the gantry until the last minute in case it’s needed.”
We can’t see any of this, of course, since we’re almost ten miles away, just the flat-faced south shore of the Cape with a couple of things sticking up out of it.
“Sixty seconds and counting,” he notes.
“Fifty seconds and counting.”
My brother and I huddle close to our mother. The sounds of hundreds of radios all tuned to the same station drift up to us. The waves lap noiselessly against the sand.
“We’re in the final stages of the countdown now,” the announcer’s voice rises just a little. “There goes the umbilical cord connecting the rocket to the rest of the world.”
“T-minus ten,” says the announcer. “Nine, eight, seven . . .”
“SIX, FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE,” everyone on the shore shouts out with the announcer, whose voice never changes.
“Zero,” the announcer says. “Ignition. We can see the ignition. The rocket is beginning to rise, agonizingly slowly. And here we go. We are going into space with Alan B. Shepard,” he declares. “It’s rising slowly, painfully slowly. It looks so lonesome with that little red spotlight on the tail.”
“There it is!” Ricky shouts simultaneously with possibly thousands of other people on the beach. We all point toward a big white-light ball followed by a long fuzzy tale of smoke, some of it pink from the sun. The Redstone emerges from the top. “There it is! There it is,” my brother says excitedly again and again. The sun suddenly flashes off the missile’s white side and everyone on the beach “ooohs.”
The announcer follows the track of the rocket as if it were a horse race: “At T-plus thirty seconds, he’s at five miles altitude. The first report from his microphone has just come in.
“He’s twelve miles offshore now, outside the range of land-based rescue teams, over a string of search-and-rescue boats supplied by the Navy,” the announcer informs us.
An extra-bright long fiery flash spurts from the bottom of the rocket and a burning chunk falls away. We’re not worried. We’ve been trained to know that this is just the rocket’s first stage, which has used all its fuel, falling off and making its way down to the bottom of the ocean to join the debris of other rockets and the treasures of Spanish galleons.
The Freedom 7 arcs down range toward the Bahamas and disappears into the atmosphere. Thousands of arms shield eyes against the sun like a mass salute. We all rotate south like radar domes watching the sky where the missile could be, far beyond the sight of regular human eyes.
“T-plus two minutes,” the announcer continues. “He’s a busy boy up there now. At thirty-three hundred miles per hour, Alan Shepard is the world’s fastest man. T-plus two and a half minutes at forty miles altitude. The world’s fastest traveling man. The engine’s burned its fuel. He’s almost weightless now.
“Ninety miles altitude!” the announcer shouts. “Alan Shepard is officially America’s first man in space.”
“Where is it, mommy?” Ricky asks as we all stare at the perfectly blue sky.
“It’s there,” I say, watching the forever blue. “It’s there.”
At the children’s ward the night before the surgery, I think it doesn’t look too bad because kids get to go up and down the hall in wheelchairs. I say “hi,” and they say “hi” back. Mommy and Daddy and Grandmom and Grandpa Joe walk me to my room, and a nurse follows us in. My mother carries my little suitcase with my pajamas and some new books. Doctors, Residents, Interns, Nurses come in to listen to my heart. “They want to make sure it’s still there before they operate,” my father jokes.
They tell me how they will put the mask over my face. How I should just breathe normally, and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep. How the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat for me so I can be very, very still for the doctors. How when I wake up, my heart will be fixed.
How they will put the mask over my face, and I should just breathe normally, and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep. How the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat for me so I can be very, very still for the doctors, and when I wake up, my heart will be fixed.
How they will put the mask over my face how I should just breathe normally and the funny smelling gas will make me go to sleep how the heart-lung machine will do my breathing and heartbeat formehowIwillbeveryverystillhowwhenIwakeupmyheartwillbefixed.
Everything else drops away—boys, girls, trucks, flashlights on the beach. I am alone with the sand and the night around me. The moon, low on the horizon sends a long ray of yellow across the surface of the water. Palmettos sigh and crackle noisily with hidden night life. The moon-baked waves run toward the shore, over and over, the white foam edge glowing, then cresting to fall in a delicate fringe murmuring up the dark wet sand. The sound surrounds the beach, fills the air, repeats itself like a chant. listen listen
Soon something unformed rises and falls with the waves, closer and closer, rises and falls—a tiny head, front flippers, the big shell gliding through the water—until one wave strands her and she begins her slow plod up the sand. Her great shell dips side to side as she makes her way above the high tide line. She finds her spot and starts to dig, thrashing and throwing a halo of sand soft and bright with moonlight. She settles into her spot and drops her eggs one by one into the nest, her eyes dumb and unfocussed. The moon climbs over the crest of the beach, hovers.
My mother waits and waits. The surgery plan is for four hours but four hours, five, seven, nine pass while the OR nurses go in and out. They’ve already been informed that no one will be allowed to tell them anything until it’s over. My father reads much more of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich than he intended. Probably hanging on the wall is one of those plain white-faced clocks with big black hands and numbers that my parents don’t want to look at. Beyond those wide swinging doors, I am sleeping.
Finally the surgeon emerges, shakes my father’s hand. “Everything is fine,” he says. “A bit more complicated than expected. But Linda is fine.” It’s then he tells them for the first time the story he will have to repeat later so they can take it all in, a story that wasn’t in the diagrams on my mother’s bed: There wasn’t just the hole . . . we found more than expected . . . three veins on the wrong side of the heart . . . brain medically frozen for thirty minutes, blood flow stopped . . . a piece of Teflon tubing through the hole to plug it and drain the veins into the right side . . . there permanently . . . should be no problem, should work . . . the Teflon tube? . . . no, it’s not usual . . . we improvised.
Hours later, the turtle scatters loose sand into a fine, thick cover for the eggs, and without looking back, makes her way again into the indifferent water.
When I finally wake up in my hospital room, the private duty nurse is sitting in a chair reading. My mother is just sitting. I try to say something but can’t. Is it over, I want to know. Both of them are immediately by my side.
“You won’t be able to talk for a little bit, honey,” my mother explains. “They had to make a hole in your windpipe and put a tube in so you could breathe better.”
“It’s a tracheotomy,” the nurse says coolly as she takes my pulse. “Nothing to worry about.”
You mean I couldn’t breathe, I want to ask. I put my hand to my neck and feel the plastic box inches before I touch where my skin should be, the hoses forcing oxygen into my lungs. After a few days, the box comes off, and I have to learn to breathe on my own through my neck. I write notes voraciously on little pads of paper to be heard. I change my new Barbie doll’s outfits. I watch cartoons from the television hanging from the ceiling. After another ten days, the doctor comes in to take out the tube.
“Now you’re going to have to learn how to breathe through your nose again,” he says as if it were a great joke. An oxygen mask is put over my face while he works. I feel a small tug as the tube comes out and a little gurgle, then the creepy feeling of stitches being sewn even though he’s “numbed it up” first. There will be a scar at the base of my neck as well as the looping one across my chest where they opened it up.
Everyone in the hospital room watches while the mask is removed. If I get this right, I will be able to leave the hospital tomorrow. At first I panic as nothing happens when I automatically work my neck muscles as I have been for the past week. Then my body remembers and takes over. My first inhale is a gasp. I think I cry a little bit.
I had been dead, technically, they tell me. They cooled my brain, froze it so it couldn’t interfere with procedures in my chest, and I was technically not alive, they tell me. Just like that, they tell me—“You were technically dead for thirty minutes.”
“Linda was technically dead for thirty minutes,” my parents tell my grandmother, the neighbors, the newspaper reporter that does a story on me as the American Heart Association poster child for the county spring fundraising campaign. They all look at me as if my parents had said, “Linda just learned to ride her bike without training wheels.”
I was technically dead for thirty minutes. No thinking, no thoughtless impulse, no control. Just being. Or not being. Only silence, perhaps, like deep space, a trillion stars staring eyelessly. No gravity, just hovering, maybe, above the crowd around the table, trying to decide whether to continue toward that farther light or return to the small cold body lying there.
But I never get to make that choice. They make it for me and bring me back, a miracle of science, like Alan Shepard’s space flight the year before, almost to the day, when Mission Control brought him back to earth.
That summer, there are all kinds of things I’m not allowed to do. The breastbone needs to heal and can’t be jarred, the bone they broke on purpose to get to my heart. No diving is allowed, no swimming in the ocean where I could get hit by a wave, no bike riding (might fall off), no dodge ball at summer day camp.
My mother signs me up for an art class to give me something to do, and I learn how to make a pine tree look like a pine tree; I can’t quite get palms, though. I read a lot: Time magazine, the World Book Encyclopedia, and the Weekly Reader Biographies of Famous Women—Nellie Bly, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Curie and her X-rays, Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the ocean into the darkness and never returned.
And what else? What else happens that summer of ‘62? In May, Gus Carpenter orbits the earth three times. In July, the Telstar satellite sends back the first broadcasts via outer space. The Red Threat from the Soviets hangs over our days. We’re worried about their friendship with Cuba, only ninety miles from the tip of Florida. I get a haircut that is supposed to make me look like Haley Mills in “The Parent Trap,” but it doesn’t.
What else? What else that summer? I don’t remember, but I’m starting junior high in the fall. I don’t talk about my heart now. I don’t want to be that kid anymore. I go to a party and dance with a boy.
We are teenagers, just barely. It’s summer—long, hot, sticky, stifling summer. Our tans are sunburned. My freckles run together. Flat-chested and long-torsoed, we wear bikinis. The curve of my looping scar peeks above my top. Marie has hips, but I’m narrow as an egret, not an elegant Snowy Egret, but a short, pencil-legged wader.
The beach is full of midges, invisible biters like salt attacking from every direction. The air refuses to move. The tide is so far out that the thin shelves of coquina lie exposed with weak tidal pools between the layers. Offshore, the flat, tropical-gray sea is warm enough for sharks, but we see nothing on the tepid horizon. It beckons and we start toward it.
Soon, though, it’s too much trouble to walk out. Even our summer-tough feet can barely stand the coquina’s rough surface, white hot under the afternoon sun. We step into a soft pool, silky sanded bottom, water just above our ankles.
We lie down on our backs, settling like sediment. The water is as warm as embryonic fluid. It almost covers out stomachs but not enough to fill our navels. Our hair floats like seagrass. The heartless sun scorches our salted skin.
We turn onto our stomachs and push on the sand back and forth, back and forth, the water riding the backs of our legs. We are amoebas, primitive nummulites, plankton governed by currents and moon. We pose like prehistoric lizardfish balancing on pelvic fins just before they first walked ashore, as tiny wave ends murmur up the dark wet sand.