Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.9]

First grade ended for summer break. Mindy got to come with us our first weekend at the Lake cottage. Grandma Trailer had arrived the day before and was standing in the kitchen baking a chicken noodle casserole for dinner. Mindy and I ran right to the back porch swing. There was a bench in front of it against a wall, and if we swung high enough and timed it just right, we could grab the windowsill ledge and pull ourselves into a standing position on the bench, a maneuver necessary to escape the sharks that swam under the swing.

Grandma made us some braunschweiger sandwiches and potato chips for lunch. Saying we could have a picnic on the pier, she packed everything into an old wicker basket. Loaded up with the basket and two seat cushions, we shuffled the length of the lawn to the pier and plopped down cross-legged. We watched the ducks float on the water and the dragonflies shoot in zigzags over the lily pads. A fisherman anchored very close to our pier glared at us. I told Mindy we’d have to be quiet, or he’d blame us for scaring his fish away.

After lunch, we swung on the branches of the huge old weeping willow tree in Grandma’s yard. Then we ran over to the sycamore tree to gather as many seeds as we could in our basket. On the concrete front porch, we ground the fuzzy part out of the seeds with the coconut door stopper until we formed a huge, soft tan ball. We took it to Mom and Dad, who were sitting next to Grandma on the back porch. We told them it was rare silk from India and asked if they would like to buy some.

Redirecting us, Grandma said she thought it would make good food for the fish, and she found some little cardboard French fry boats for us to pack our exotic silk fish food into. We took the baskets to the pier and pretended to take the fish’s orders. Mindy was the cook and I was the waitress. We sprinkled pinches of fluff into the water and the fish fell for it every time. We saved one big hunk of fluff to put under the Catalpa tree for the caterpillars—a gesture of good will to keep them friendly. We then got permission to walk down to the corner store and playground. Dad gave us five dollars and put his watch on my arm after setting the alarm for ninety minutes later. “Come home when you hear the alarm. Push this button here to turn it off.”

As Mindy and I passed several houses on our way, we pretended we were being followed by the twin boys from down the street. We ran from tree to tree and ducked dramatically behind parked cars and trash cans. Finally, we arrived safely at our favorite spot—the playground’s witch’s hat. Two older girls and their little brother, who was about our age, were already on it, so we chose the monkey bars until it was free. After a good thirty minutes of spinning and tipping in circles, cackling like crazy witches, we were thirsty and walked down the stone steps behind the park leading down to the beach and corner store.

We bought two red cream sodas in bottles from a machine and asked the clerk, a teenager who looked a little like Leif Garrett, to change our other dollars for dimes. One dime bought us ten balls for the mini bowling machine. We bowled and ogled the clerk, giggling conspicuously, and dared each other to go up and ask him stupid questions, like “How many people live on the lake?” and “How much do those fishing poles over there cost?” I’m sure he was relieved when my watch alarm finally went off and we zoomed out of his store as if on an important mission.

Grandma was putting dinner on the table when we returned. We asked for chocolate milk, which Mindy guzzled before Grandma could fill her plate. After dinner, we played croquet on the lawn while Dad started a fire for roasting marshmallows. Without saying a word, Mindy gobbled seven marshmallows. I was delighted to see her enjoying herself so much.

As the fire slowed down, the bugs started to get us, so we went in and put on our pajamas. Dad said he was going for a jog around the lake. Mom and Grandma stayed downstairs to clean up. Grandma had brought along the Barbies for us. We staged an elaborate fashion show in the spare bedroom. Mom and Grandma soon came up to watch the news, and after a while Mom asked Grandma if she remembered when my dad had left for his run.

“Oh, about sixty minutes ago, I suppose.”

“Hmm, it usually only takes him around forty-five.”

After a few more minutes, Mom said, “Maybe I should get in the car and see if I can find him.”

“I’m sure he’s fine, Bobbi.”

Mom left the cottage while Mindy and I moved on to our own fashion show with Grandma’s chest of old dresses and jewelry.

About thirty minutes later, Mom came running through the front door saying she had found my Dad lying on the side of the road about halfway around the lake. He’d said he couldn’t catch his breath and his heart was beating unevenly. Running to a nearby house, Mom had asked someone to call an ambulance, which then took my father to the local hospital. They were running some tests on his heart now and Mom was heading over there. I begged Mom to let me come along, hoping I could somehow make him feel better.

“Oh, come on then. But, hurry up,” Mom said.

Once in the emergency room, I could see into a room where Dad was sitting on a bed with his shirt off and a blanket wrapped around his legs. He smiled when he saw me and the doctor waved for us to come in. Dad had a cuff around his arm and white circles with wires coming out of them stuck to his chest. I ran to hug him while Grandma kept Mindy in the waiting room.

“I’m okay,” Dad said. “My heart was skipping. They’re running tests to find the problem.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked.

“Yes. I’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll be back soon, before you wake up tomorrow.”

“Why were you lying on the road?”

“Because I couldn’t breathe very well and I felt dizzy when I stood up.” “Oh. What are those things stuck to you? Do they hurt?”

“Nope, they’re just electrodes monitoring my heartbeats.”

Dad opened his arms so I could go hug him. Mom asked the doctor some questions and I told Dad about our fashion shows.

When we got back in the car with Grandma, I noticed Mindy staring wide-eyed in the dark. For a while, I’d forgotten that she was even with us and wondered how I could have done that. I felt bad and told her that my dad was going to be fine. I tried to not act worried anymore.

Grandma tucked us in and I let Mindy sleep in the safer, cozier position against the wall. I gave her the softer pillow in the pink and blue kitty case. Lying in the dark, I kept seeing my dad sitting on the hospital bed with his shirt off. I thought of all the bunnies I could, having a tea party picnic in a colorful forest.

When we got home that Sunday, Dad took a week off work to see some doctors. One of those mornings, I woke up and made him a get-well card. I found him in the basement sitting on the couch with his back to me. He was listening to Vivaldi. I tiptoed up next to the couch, within his periphery, but he didn’t move. His shirt was raised and he had his hand on his heart. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Daddy?”

“Oh hi there, Honey. You’re up.” He slowly pulled his shirt down to cover the white circles and wires still stuck to his chest.

“Why are you crying?”

He pulled me onto his lap and said, “Oh, it’s just the music. The violins.”

“Why do you still have those on?” I asked, lifting up his shirt to see the circles and wires.

“I thought your heart was back to normal.”

“Well, the doctors want to try to record my heart if it skips again so they know what kind of arrhythmia I have.” He pointed to a small black box attached to his belt loop. “These electrodes send heart signals to this box, which records them onto a tape the doctor can listen to later.”

“Does that mean you still have something wrong with your heart?”

“Yes, but they don’t think it’s serious.”

“So you’ll be okay?”

“The doctors think so, as long as they can get my heart beating regularly again.”

“Daddy, are you going to die?”

“Hopefully not from this!” he said, trying to smile.

Seeing the tears in my eyes, he gently said, “We are all going to die someday, Honey. Everything alive must die sometime. It’s part of life.”

“But that’s so sad.” Tears poured down my cheeks. “I don’t want you to die. And I don’t want to die. Why do we have to die?”

“Well, our bodies get old and start to break down as we age. But our lives could be LONG together.”

I felt a crushing pain in my own chest. “I wish we could die at the same time.”

“Mmm. That would be nice, but I’ll most likely die before you since I’m older.”

My throat burned and my head pounded while I felt the violin strings wind themselves tightly around my heart and squeeze. I hugged him and cried for a while.

Then Dad said, “Try not to feel sad. We should enjoy the life we have and not think about dying. You know, I have a feeling there’s a good chance that by the time we’re old, scientists will have discovered some medicine to keep us from aging and dying.”

“Really? Then we might get to live forever?”

“We can hope for that. Many scientists are working on curing and preventing all kinds of diseases so people can live longer and longer.”

The hope of that pill bought us some time and eased the pain a little.

“I love you and don’t want to live without you,” I muttered into his chest.

“I feel the same way. But let’s try not to worry about that for a long, long time. Okay?”

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