What Remains

Memories in Living Color

By Maddie Pillari

My mom had bought me new sneakers the day before, and in gym that day, I felt like I was running so fast I wasn’t touching the ground. First grade gym class wasn’t a competition, but I thought it was. And then Mr. Wilson blew the whistle and we gathered in a circle. Something had happened, and our parents were coming to pick us up. We sat in a circle, and I remember my six-year-old legs sprawled out in front of me, tapping the fresh black Adidas together so the white stripes lined up. One by one our circle got smaller, as teachers tapped children on the shoulder and led them out of the gymnasium, into the arms of shaking mothers. Something had happened, and I was smiling because school was out early, and I was mad because I didn’t get to run more. Finally, a gentle tap, and a warm hand, and then my mom with my sisters on either side of her. The indescribable feeling of a mother’s hand finding the back of your head, while you wrap your small arms around the back of her legs. I sat in our suburban, “Something bad has happened,” she told me. But I was just happy that I got out of school early, tapping my sneakers together. I don’t know when I understood what had happened. What it meant that Corinne was the last one to get picked up in the gym. What it meant that her father worked in the towers. 

I study the feeling now, and find it behind the knees, in the web of my left hand. A subtle, careful analysis of memory and of the flesh of my earlobe—I am here, still. My 10 toes and running nose and pounding head and silent screaming of air, in and down my throat. Some memories come to you in flashes of bright color. September 11, 2001 was that way—the orangey gloss of the gym floor, the green and black lines that webbed back and forth. The way I slammed the white lines of my new sneakers together while I sat, waiting, not knowing how lucky I was that my dad wasn’t working in New York that day. But who wants to go back to that, those colors, the repressed matter. An empty, windless field. A wistful and loud solitude that plunges us back in time. 


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The lavender feety pajamas had been my older sister’s, and so I was slipping back and forth in the attached socks. There were rubber, grippy dots on the soles, and I would make a game of scooting back and forth in the socks, trying to keep my balance. When I fell, I cracked my chin open on the hardwood. I remember my face feeling wet and warm. And I remember only starting to cry when my mom drew the dishcloth away from my face to replace it with a fresh one, and I saw how the brownish-red had soaked through and was now dripping onto the floor in fat raindrops of blood. I went through three more washcloths on my way to the hospital. My dad held me in the waiting room and the blood stained his crisp white dress shirt. The memory skips, then, to being on the table in a hospital room, thrashing at the two nurses trying to hold me down as a man with a blue surgical mask loomed over me, larger than life, a needle raised in one hand. I remember twisting, trying to bite a nurse’s arm, overwhelmed with the desperation; a wasp banging against the glass of an overturned cup. I learned later that they had to put me in a straight-jacket so the doctor could properly sew up my chin. I learned later that when my father walked down the hall to get a coffee a nurse grabbed him by the arm, asking if he needed help, because his shirt was saturated with blood.  I learned later that the same doctor that did the stitches on my chin had been arrested on drug abuse charges. He was caught taking the anesthesia and painkillers for minor procedures and replacing it with water. He hung himself after he lost his license. 

It’s all collision, violent and chemical light in and on the Nature of Things. An empty syringe, a chair knocked backwards from a step forwards. But there remains an empirical hope, a loosely nailed frame on the dissolving walls. Because we need the incredible, interminable. Lost in the long aisles of a grocery store and grabbing a stranger’s hand because you think it’s your mom’s and you look up to a stranger’s face and that very first of many of life’s moments of intense mortifications. The kind of memory that is perpetual and tragically, radically maternal. Because the aisles of time are ribs, devoid of flesh or fiber. What remains—intense sound and smell and color. By these, we are held, packed tightly behind the red and lavender bones, the shimmering and shattering twin towers. A day painted in the past. 


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The first of the four funerals I have ever been to was the same year as when I split my chin open in my pajamas and the doctor killed himself. My preschool art teacher was a Christian Scientist and died from a treatable cancer. In art class that year, before Thanksgiving, our class was split into pilgrims and Native Americans. She helped me cut arm holes into a brown paper grocery bag, and fringe the edges. She helped me tape feathers around a paper headband she fitted around my head. I remember her fingers, cold as she made sure the tape was secure in the back, tucking my hair back beneath the band that had ridden up, as she made her adjustments. My hands were stained blue and yellow from the colored markers she gave us to decorate our costumes. Always the artist, I covered my paper smock with Swedish-themed polka dots. She died over Thanksgiving break. I wore a black velvet dress, and my older sister and I were giddy at the event; something new was happening, we didn’t have to go to school that day, our mom had somberly promised us ice cream after. 

“Are we going to see a dead body?” my sister asked before we entered the room where the reception was being held. I had begged her to ask; I was too nervous to voice the question myself. “Of course not,” was the reply. My sister and I marched in front of our mom, looking back and giggling and then shushing each other, remembering the ice cream. The funeral parlor smelled like the hospital had, thick antiseptic and strange, strong, clashing perfumes. I wasn’t laughing anymore because between the adults, I could see a casket with the lid open. I walked as far as I was brave enough to venture, but close enough until I could see the waxy, powder-white face of my art teacher. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth she usually had, the smiling kind, were gone, uncreased by the bloating of the beginning stages of decomposition. And then I couldn’t see her anymore. My mom had turned me around, hands on either shoulder. She kneeled in front of my face, wordless, tucking a dark loose strand behind my ear, her warm hand petting one of my cheeks. I didn’t cry. I got a scoop of cookies and cream, and a scoop of strawberry ice cream, neatly stacked in a stale wafer cone.