Beyond the golden years of trick-or-treating, Halloween morphs into a high-pressure holiday, like New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July, when you feel like you must have plans or else endure a long night of loneliness and self-loathing, a night pierced by the cackling laughter of fun-havers outside your window, a night most unhallowed. If you happen to have plans, your suffering is of another sort: weeks in advance of the party, you have to figure out what you’re going to “be.” And then you must buy and assemble components of a costume, and then you have to wear it all.
Having a child relieved me of that burden: the moment I dressed my infant as a pea pod the focus shifted to her, and because of my ever-advancing age, thank god, I will never attract such attention again unless some darkly or too brightly humored person one day dresses me as a pea pod, and by then I will be too far gone to know or care.
I suspect that people who like Halloween are drawn to the lure of the carnivalesque. They want to be someone else for a night, to flout the rules of society and self without reprisal. There’s chaos to that behavior; there’s chance and misrule. No wonder I don’t like it. I’ve had enough trouble without borrowing more.
Even so, I have tried. I have been game. In college, I convinced my roommate to don a blue blazer and black fedora and to pencil in a thin mustache so that she could be pimp to my prostitute. (Our friend, whose feminism surpassed our own at that time, dressed in black and held a sign condemning our costumes. She stayed by our sides all night.) A year after, having taken a Women’s Studies class and watched a few hours of CSPAN, I borrowed from my mother a satiny Coke can costume and affixed to the top of it a black squiggle of yarn: it was a pubic hair, condemning Clarence Thomas and supporting Anita Hill. And then there were the years of the blond wig. I wore it with prison duds and carried a muffin pan: Martha Stewart. I paired it with press-on nails and tight jeans: Carmela Soprano. For its swan song, the blond wig transformed me into Britney Spears. She and I, pregnant at the same time, were a page out of US Weekly, “Who Wore It Best?”: sunglasses, pink sweats, shirts that bared midriffs 6-months-swelled, and, in our hands, packs of Kools, venti coffees, and babies not wholly attended to—mine a doll, hers, her son Sean.
Three months after that last Halloween, Britney shaved her head, apparently in the midst of a crackup or maybe to hide traces of drugs in her hair so she wouldn’t lose her boys. I was in a hospital room with my infant daughter. She had been born with something wrong, a defect, you could say, although I do not use that word. We had learned about her problem, her father and I, on Halloween, two days after the costume party. “There is no stomach,” the ultrasound technician had said. “Maybe she hasn’t eaten recently. You can’t see the stomach unless there’s something in it. Or maybe it’s still small.” In time we were to learn that our daughter’s esophagus was divided in two. She would be born in Seattle so that we’d have easy access to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, and then she’d be moved to Children’s Hospital, where we would live, she and I, until the ends of her esophagus grew close enough together for the surgeons to finish the work that nature had abandoned. This stay would extend for months and then, after a surgical complication that nearly ended her life, months more, a great lonely and frightening swath of time that would cauterize the split between my past self and who I am now.
Who needs Halloween? Every day—I do not exaggerate—I live with fear; I give some thought to my child’s life, to her being alive. In the mornings, Thank God she has woken up; when I drop her off at school, Please let her survive this day, let no madman enter this place and kill her; when I put her to bed at night, Is her window locked? Is my door open so that I can hear her call out? I know why this is. It’s because once, I left her in a hospital room while I went to have a shower, and while I was gone she almost died. A nurse was there; my mother was there; but even so, an intravenous line had burst my child’s superior vena cava and filled her chest cavity and scarred her lungs with poison. Her lower organs had shut down because her blood could not reach them. Her head had swelled because where could the blood go? She lay there, only three months old, dying.
In a way, I saved her. When I saw how she looked—her head too large, a line running across her chest, above it dark red, below it yellow—I ran from the room, searching for the head of the NICU. I found him amidst a bunch of physicians, leading morning rounds, and I interrupted to say, “Dr. Brogan, something is wrong.” Why should he have listened to me? I am an English professor, not a doctor. He is a doctor, and was busy. And already a nurse and a surgical resident had downplayed my concern. But during my week in Intensive Care, he and I had gotten to know each other, had bonded over literature, in fact. (Before med school Dr. Brogan had been an English major: never let it be said that ours is a useless degree.) So he had reason to trust me, and he dropped what he was doing and followed me. They all did. He told me later that the expression on my face had been enough to convince him to come. I looked like I had seen a ghost.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House.” “The Brain has Corridors” more suitable to ghosts; “Ourself behind ourself, concealed – Should startle most.” I am haunted by the events of that morning. I wish they would let me be. In that moment, I was awake, definitive, intent. I acted. Doctors and nurses and technicians acted. My child lived. But it left me with the knowledge that such things can happen: a mother can go to have a shower and, because she hasn’t done so all week, take a few extra minutes to apply her makeup, and when she returns, her child might be changed, her child might even be gone. That mother—myself behind myself, concealed—lives in my brain. She doesn’t startle me much anymore; I’m used to her rattling around, and I’m learning to limit her circuit. But there she is, and there she’ll stay, watching my daughter and waiting, waiting, waking me from my sleep, ever watchful and waiting still.