Song: Chariots of Fire
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
A series of life memories, beginning at age two. Bits and pieces of those moments that have stayed with me, flash briefly before me…We are climbing to the top of Mount Washington in our rusted, white Datsun. Warning signs flash by us, “Strong Winds Ahead,” “Caution: Low Visibility.” My parents’ idea of a weekend getaway is taking the kids to a mountain nicknamed, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” A thick fog clouded my father’s vision. The shrill screams of my mother dissipate into the open abyss ahead of us.
“Sal! What are you doing?”
Nothing had prepared us for the deadly winds swirling around our car. I hear the flapping sounds of our UNO deck. Dozens of cards fly out of my window. The wind flutters beneath us pushing the car forward, taking us closer to the edge. I look down a 6,000-foot cliff, left with no choice but to close my eyes, tightening each lid. I attempt to take myself temporarily out of the moment, but I feel a sudden shift in incline. My father takes a blind k-turn with gravity against us. My mother’s cries are all I hear.
“Sal! You’re gonna kill us!”
I panic, chiming in with my mother’s hysteria, screaming at the top of my lungs. He can’t see where the cliff begins and ends. Fear runs through my body, as I hug my little knees tightly to my chest. I look up and see nothing but clouds and the gray sky in front of us. I watch my father’s chapped hand abruptly switch gears…A high pressure reverse; silence. A breath of calmness, a moment of clarity—we just barely clear the edge, escaping this near-death experience.
A gun fires: The day opens to a track meet at Wayne Valley High School. I look back at my mother below me. Giggling, I climb to the next bleacher. My brother Jimmy is six-years-old. He boldly attempts to caution me.
“Amy, don’t go any higher…”
But, I continue inching with both my hands and feet, moving to the next level.
“Mom, she’s not listening to me!”
My mother ignores him; she’s deep in conversation with another mom. Jimmy screams up at me, but I climb higher.
“Amy, stop climbing! Come back here!”
His screams disintegrate into the crowd as “Chariots of Fire” plays in the back of my mind. I am breaking free from my family with each passing row, climbing higher and higher, until finally! A triumphant moment, I stand proud and high. I look back at my mother with a huge grin on my face. I slip my tiny body under the guard rail, my fat little legs begin to wobble and I lose my balance. I’m now scared and nervous as I look down upon a twenty-foot drop. My head spins and I fall through the railing and to the ground. It feels like a dream, a slow never-ending fall that still haunts me to this day.
When I open my eyes a man is crouched over me, he’s a paramedic. A crowd is surrounding me. The lights from the ambulance reflect off of the bleachers. I look down at my body; I’m on a stainless steel gurney. My mother is standing over me.
“Everything’s okay Amy. You’re fine, just a couple of bruises.”
I experience a minor concussion and am left unharmed.
I used to wonder how I could remember events so vividly from such an early age. It’s called trauma: an emotional or psychological injury, resulting from an extremely stressful or life-threatening situation.
I flash to my kitchen. I’m an infant propped up in an old-fashioned high chair. I can’t breathe. A piece of taco shell is lodged in my throat. I’m gasping for air; my windpipe is blocked. I wave my hands to get my mother’s attention. She doesn’t see me. I feel light-headed as I see my father jump out of his chair and race toward me. He lifts me up and performs the Heimlich maneuver. I spit the hard shell out just in time to catch my breath. The back of my throat is severely scratched from the shell. My mother hands me a half-eaten baked potato.
These moments stand out in my mind, making small dents in my childhood. I’m wheeling around on the linoleum floor in my kitchen, carefree and laughing. My yellow banana toy “Ollie” tips forward and I fall off, crashing onto my chin. Blood gushes everywhere. I see the flashing lights from the ambulance truck again as I’m rushed to the emergency room for the second time in one year. I have a cracked open chin that requires eight-stitches.
I don’t know if I was suicidal entering this world or if I just wasn’t ready to be her daughter. Allow me to introduce myself. I am daughter to Sal and Barbara Passantino, born on February 29, 1980. My father is an earlier version of a New Jersey “Guido” and my mother is a white bread Irish Catholic from an upper-class family. They fell in love at the Jersey shore, innocent of their future together. Shortly thereafter, they became parents to three kids, Michael, Jimmy, and well, me.
Song: Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time
1984’s top 100 list: “Longest Time” by Billy Joel, “That’s All” by Genesis, “Magic” by Cars, and “Time After Time,” by Cindy Lauper, all became the eerie soundtrack to my childhood. I am still amazed how one song can take me back to a certain time, a specific moment or place, frozen in the back of your mind…
It all began on a day that started off normal; going to day care, partaking in my daily routine of Mickey Mouse inspired exercise called “Mousercize:” slithering on the floor like a snake, hanging my arms down like an ape. I remember giggling and laughing. I wish I could stop the memory there in that very moment before the day ended. After school I went home to what I call “the house of darkness.” The living room was dark and musty, barely illuminated by a dim lamp with an ochre-colored woven shade.
The house felt colder than usual, a distinct air that left me chilled. My father was bent over on one knee in his brown, polyester slacks. His right hand was on my mother’s leg. His face looked worn from the day; his black curly hair was frizzy and messy. He took off his thick prescription glasses and rubbed his eyes. His brown striped tie was undone around his neck along with the top two buttons of his yellow dress shirt. He reached for a pen in his pocket protector. The tired look on his face carried into his hunched over posture. My mother appeared to have been crying; her hair was up in a bun, revealing her puffy, jade-green eyes.
I acted intuitively, walking over in my oversized jeans. They are barely being held up by a “Strawberry Shortcake” belt. The heavy rust colored drapes loom around me, while the black and white television plays reruns of Little House on the Prairie. I stopped in front of her. “What’s wrong Mommy?”
Without even glancing up at me she shoos me away, “Amy, go upstairs!”
I’d never seen my mother cry like this; in fact she rarely showed any emotion. I look to my father, searching for answers. My dad looks back at me unable to ignore the rejection in my brown eyes. “Amy, they found a bump on your mother’s leg.”
My mom slowly lifts up the bell-bottom of her faded blue jeans. Her cries grow louder. She exposes a small mass below her right kneecap. I stare at this bump curiously, holding back my tears. She answers in a disheartened whisper.
“Everything is going to be all right…” she sniffles.
My dad hands her a tissue. What she says next makes me buckle at the knees. “I am just going to have to stay overnight in the hospital for a little while.”
“Why mommy?” I can feel the tears building behind my eyes.
“Mommy needs a small operation to have the bump removed,” my dad answers.
I don’t understand what’s going on.
“Grandma will be staying with us Amy.” My dad says placing his hand on my back.
I look at him. “Grandma? Why can’t I go with Mommy?”
“No Amy, I’m sorry.” He lifts me onto his lap. “Mommy has to go alone…”
My tears finally come and I lean over and reach for her, “Mom! Please don’t go! Don’t leave me with Grandma!”
She struggles to pull me off of her, “I have to.” She says sobbing into her tissue.
That’s all I remember of that powerful night with its hidden truths. It wasn’t until much later in life I found out my mother had just been diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of thirty-six.
The day she left to go to the hospital, I don’t think I noticed, or even had a chance to say goodbye, but what I do remember was that my father’s mother Concetta, my grandmother, moved in and that I was not happy about. I still don’t know why I had that feeling. Maybe it was because my mother despised my grandmother or maybe it was because she scolded me for not coloring in the lines of my Care Bear coloring book. I’ll never know, but what I did know, was there was a clear divide between my mother and my grandmother. Even when we went to my grandmother’s for Sunday dinner and holidays, my mother always stayed home on the sofa reading her newspaper.
My grandmother and my mom were polar opposites. She was the Italian mother-in-law who thrived on a clean house and entertaining. She would proudly cook for hours, perfecting her homemade tomato sauce. After her guests arrived, she’d sit down in the “host” chair next to the mahogany buffet. While she spoke she’d lovingly pet the lace doily that ran across the top showing off her perfectly manicured nails. Her silver hair would be freshly cut and curled. She looked forward to her days at the beauty salon. Occasionally when conversation broke, I’d catch her gazing up at the grandchildren’s baby pictures hung neatly on the walls, while my grandfather sat silently across the room on the plastic covered sofa. Their house always smelled like perfume and olive oil. The gatherings included a full Italian spread; an antipasto with fresh cheeses and deli meats, salami, pepperoni, provolone, and her signature salad; romaine lettuce with chunks of tomatoes, and sliced red onion, doused in homemade red wine vinaigrette. My grandmother encouraged us to eat.
“Are you sure you’re finished, Amy? Eat some more.” She’d say.
I usually skimmed the main course. It was a sin to refuse food at her house even if you weren’t hungry.
“I’ll have some more of your salad, please.”
I would listen to her gloat about my aunt’s military family or laugh at something my cousin Sebastian said. It was like we were invisible, my brothers and I. Sebastian was my oldest cousin, their pride and joy. He had a fancy job working for the government. Anne was his younger sister, the aspiring housewife interviewing the next wealthy guy to become her husband. My brothers and I just sat there silent and forgotten. Being the youngest I usually felt like I was just a nuisance.
“Can I do something, Grandma?”
“You can finish setting the table for dessert. Here are the plates.”
With a smile, I take them, politely setting the gold rim dishes. I place one at each seat, humming a song. In the kitchen I’d hear them talk about my mom. They begin to whisper and my humming comes to a halt.
“It’s such a shame…it’s such a shame…and those kids.” For a second I feel bad for my mother and I see why she stays home. I wondered if there will ever be peace between them.
While my mother is away in the hospital, I go home to a grandmother I barely know. My father seems to be working longer hours leaving me alone with the enemy. I feel guilty as she brushes my hair. She is very particular about how I wear it, always tying it back with an annoying pink ribbon before bedtime. It feels strange to have her tuck me in at night. Her presence makes me feel stifled, constantly grabbing my hands and filing my nails. Weeks go by, and my grandmother is still there picking me up from day care, insisting my lunch be made the night before so my peanut butter and jelly is soggy the next day.
While I was getting lessons on acting like a lady, my mother was in New York City at the Hospital for Joint Diseases. On our first visit after her surgery, the 40-minute car ride from New Jersey seemed like hours. I couldn’t wait a minute longer to see her. I remember looking over at my brother’s.
“We’re going to see Mommy! Aren’t you excited?”
When we walked into the hospital, we entered through a large lobby with gaping tall windows, black, shiny floors, and a long welcome desk off to the left. We sat patiently in the waiting area with balloons and flowers while my dad checked us into visitation.
“She’s going to come down and meet us,” he says with a smile, “she wants to get out of her room.”
From where we are I can see the elevator coming from the upper floors. I stare at it hoping to see my mother. The elevator door opens and I look, gasping and holding my breath, but it’s someone else, wearing a white hospital gown. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a nurse approaching us. There is a patient with a bandaged leg and a look of despair. I turn my head slightly; a woman is pointing at us. I finally notice the long dark brown hair and jade-green eyes. It is my mother.
Her leg is wrapped in a multitude of gauze and bandages from her hip to her ankle.
“Mommy!” I yell, carefully stepping around her wheelchair I throw both my arms around her tightly, squeezing her but she doesn’t hug me back. When I step away from her she is staring blankly at me. “Is your leg going to be okay?” I ask her. Something is wrong. Her leg is protruding awkwardly from the chair.
My father answers me. “When the doctor got into surgery, the tumor was larger than they’d thought…”
My father puts his hand on my shoulder. “The tumor wrapped itself around your mother’s kneecap so to make sure it was fully gone they had to remove her kneecap and her shinbone with it.”
My lower lip begins to tremble. I notice my dad’s face, helpless and worried, standing there beside his broken spouse. I feel alone in that lobby, my brothers fading into the background, my voice echoing off the tile floors.
“Will you be able to walk again?” I look at her.
She whispers, “I don’t think so…I have to go to therapy and they say it will be long and painful.”
A surgery that was intended to be simple had become my mother’s worst nightmare upon waking up. I remember the tears running down her cheeks as she was wheeled away by the nurse. Our goodbye was grim, my brothers standing there awkwardly, my parents barely speaking to each other. I had high hopes of leaving with my mother that day, but it was soon apparent we’d be leaving without her.
On the drive home a torrential downpour pounded the roof of the car, drowning out my sobbing cries in the back seat. Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper played in the background. My left cheek was pressed against the cold left window pane as I watched the raindrops mix with my tears. That song still takes me back to that car ride home. I was tired, exhausted, and hungry. After a long drive back to New Jersey, our nightmare continued. We came home to a kitchen counter covered in hundreds of black ants. I don’t know if it was a warning to us of the years to come, but it was the ending of a day I will never forget. I remember the fear that ran through me – fear of the unknown and what lied ahead of us. My brother and I screamed out loud, horrified by the outbreak. We had never seen our house with so many ants. They had crept through an open window during the heavy rains crawling across the laminate countertop. My father quickly ripped off his shoe in a panic and began hitting the ants one by one. Jimmy ran upstairs and I took a seat at the kitchen table feeling the cold draft from the window sweep across my neck. I began crying into both hands speaking in a low, broken, whimper.
“Why daddy? Why did this have to happen to us?
In a cold stern voice he yells back. “Stop crying Amy. Enough is enough!”
“but this—is—not fair… Why can’t mommy be here?”
He never consoled me that night and I felt this deep stabbing pain of loneliness in my chest.
I suppose many people have days like that, a day they never forget – a day that was so powerful they didn’t know the impact until it passed them by.
It would be weeks before she returned back home and it took a couple of months for her to start talking to us again, well at least to me. I recall going to her bedroom several times to check up on her. I’d ask her how she was feeling or try telling her about my day, but I got no response back. I thought she’d be happy to see her youngest daughter, but I was sadly mistaken. I’d ask my father what was wrong with her and he’d tell me to just leave her alone and stay out of her room.
When she started moving around again I became tormented by the sight of her tattered right leg. There was a patch of raw, bloody skin that ran the length of her thigh. It was from the skin-graph they took that was poorly pieced over her missing kneecap and shin. The scars ran deep with thick lines of stitches. I sat in the bathroom while she poured red iodine over the fresh wounds staining her skin a bright, bloody, red as it splashed into a shallow bucket. Those disturbing images stayed with me and still follow me.
Everyone has near death experiences I guess, warnings, showing you how fragile life really is. Some leave you untouched and unharmed, while others never go away. Her near-death experience stood to us as a reminder of what she lost that day – her leg, and a piece of her soul. She would never gain feeling or movement back in that leg again; instead she was left permanently handicapped with a cane at her side.