By Ann Burack-Weiss
It is 1946 and I am 10 years old. The first night home after my tonsils come out, I begin to cough. Scabs and blood fill the yellow enamel pail with the green rim. Doctor and ambulance follow.
My nose is packed with cotton. Sirens scream. Outside the hospital are bright lights; nurses wearing big white hats hold out their arms to me.
I am flat on a table, more bright lights. I want to sleep but they keep slapping me awake, calling my name.
The next thing I remember must have been a day or two later. I am in bed and two young nurses enter. They carry scissors and speak in a soft Irish brogue. My hair is matted with dried blood. They must cut it all off.
I am a tall, skinny girl with a curved back. “What beautiful hair! ” is the only compliment on my looks I have ever received. My hair is long, thick, dark and carries a miraculous wave. With it you can shape corkscrew curls that rival those of Shirley Temple.
You cannot cut my hair! I cry and shout. Perhaps they take pity on me or fear that I will begin to cough again, but they soon agree.
They leave and return with a bottle of oil and thick-toothed combs. It is long, rough going. The oil needs time to soak in, it hurts as the comb is dragged through, the washing reveals missed areas, back to the oil, the combs, the washing. Finally, they are done.
I am handed a mirror. It is hard to take in who I am looking at. This chalk white face cannot be me. But, of course, it is. And when they leave, I go to sit by the window.
I am in the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston – recently re-established on land – and the window faces a deserted block by the harbor.
I look out at the dilapidated buildings (as clear in my mind’s eye today as the view I see each day from my bedroom window). And I say to myself in an adult voice that I don’t recognize, “You were going to die. Now you are going to live.“
I am seated in a small room, conducting an intake interview. I face a young, black woman who is telling me about her descent into crack addiction and the day she decided she had to quit. It is a harrowing story. I am listening hard. She has just said that she looked in the mirror and couldn’t recognize herself. I am there with her.
Then - we are rising, rising, swept up and swirling in a vortex. I am no longer the social worker with the degrees. She is no longer the client with the problem. Our identities have been stripped away. We are pure spirits – disembodied beings passing each other in the same swirling pattern, tiny molecules up there in outer space.
Then - we are back in the office, returned to ourselves. She is talking, I am listening. She is still speaking of the mirror. How much time could have passed – not as long as a minute. Seconds, perhaps?
One transcendent experience in a long life does not a mystic make. And it is totally possible that the image of an unfamiliar face in a mirror performed some neurological voodoo.
Yet, whenever I think of the hereafter, I picture myself and my beloved dead as spirits whirling around in the vortex.
The vortex contains all the souls who ever lived – those blessed with the riches of life, those who had the hardest of fates, those who died at birth, those who lived on to a ripe old age – all now equal parts of the same whole: together awhirling, atwirling, aswirling in the vortex.
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