Ham Sandwich_1978


Fight or flight – you learned it early in my family, there was no other option.

My fight or flight instinct was activated, over and over and over.  Most anything that happened was traumatic and dramatic.  In those moments, the world might have actually come crashing down. Today, I have to remind myself that life is not as dangerous as it once was and that I’m grown now and I’ve evolved into an adult and there isn’t much to be “AFRAID” of anymore. Other than the scary things, like wars, republicans, pollution, genetically modified foods…imminent danger is not always near.

Ham Sandwich

~June 1978~

I want a ham sandwich, I have asked Patrick and Bobby to make me one and they are too busy to even listen to me.  Peggy says “I have to take a shower, no time for you.” she smirks and laughs a litle, knowing I know she has all the time in the world, she just slept around 900 hours.

I can do most anything myself, but I like it better when someone else helps me, but I’ll never tell them that.

The yellowy-green refrigerator is old and rattles when it kicks on.   I sling open the door, which I can do because no one is here to tell me not to, someone is always telling me what not to do, they’d probably tell me not to make this sandwich by myself, but since they won’t help and I’m hungry, I’m doing it.  I keep the fridge wide open letting all the cool air rush around me, the marischino cherries in their sweet syrupy juice inside the glass jar in the door catch my eye. I’m not supposed to eat them, but my hand is just the right size to slip down into the jar and take only one.  My mouth watering, I look away. I know Momma will be mad at me if I keep eating those.

A giant platter, the good kind you only use on a Sunday because it has flowers on it and isn’t made of plastic, holds the ham.  Tin foil covers every inch of ham. Momma says it won’t dry out if you cover it.  She swears there is nothing worse than dry meat.

I reach in and slide my arms back and forth to get the platter onto my arms. The bottom is cool and slick.

I back up teetering under the weight of the platter, sliding my feet out to steady my balance. I turn, take a few quick steps to the chair next to the table, the platter moving me on it’s own toward the table and hike one foot up on the chair to boost it onto the table, because I am not tall enough to reach it otherwise.  I slide my arms back and forth again to rest the platter on the table.

Standing on the chair, I’m careful peeling back the foil, one tear and the meat will dry out when I put it back in the refrigerator. I hop down off the chair and step to the drawer, there’s red wallpaper behind the sink, with pretty ladies in dresses with black hair and flowers that look like they are flying all around. It’s peeling off in places, but that’s okay, looking at those ladies makes smile and not think about how the paper is peeling off.

I pull out the drawer. Loose silverware jingles, I’m not supposed to touch the big wooden-handled knife in the drawer, but ham, is a tough meat and a butter knife won’t do. That’s what Momma would say if she were here. I’m careful carrying the knife back to the table, holding it out in front of me as far as I can, the blade facing away from me, and slide it onto the table before I climb onto the vinyl-covered chair.  I hop up, and stand low and wide, I ease the knife off the table, pointing the blade away and set to sawing on the ham, back and forth trying to cut a big piece.  I can’t slide the knife all the way through the meat and have to jiggle it to keep cutting, the knife sticks and I can’t get it out of the meat.  I pull with both hands balancing on the chair.  The knife slips and jumps free.  I teeter and fall sideways, one foot forward to balance, the other lifting, moving in slow motion, trying to find balance.  My left hand slips down onto the table the right raises the knife up high. My feet lose their grip, my arms turn in wide circles and the knife lands on my head.  I feel a sting. The knife slides right through skin and then I feel blood.  For the longest second everything is still and quiet and blood is leaking down my face. I drop the knife from my hand as if it is hot, open my mouth and scream, my tongue lolling and body shaking, I scream and scream.  “I cut my eye! I cut my eye!  I cut my eye!”

Peggy runs out of the bathroom – naked. I stare with only one eye.  She is 15 and has boobs and I have never seen naked boobs before.  I want to look away, but her pink round boobs are staring at me.  She has hair between her legs. For one second I want to laugh, but remember I have just stabbed myself in the head, my head throbs and I forget laughing about her hair.

“My eye!” I yell at her “My eye!” in case it wasn’t clear enough through my sobs.

She scrambles toward me across the plywood floor, water streaking behind her, her wet hair flat against her head.  She grabs a dish towel, her hands grab my head and mushes it onto my eye.  A throbbing headache settles into my left eye.

I am crying, sobbing and sucking in breath while still screaming.

“My eye, my eye, I cut my eye!”

“Shhh, shhh, shhh.” She says to me quietly, rocking just a little. It feels like Momma.

I lay my head against her naked shoulder, sniffling and crying.

I want her to put clothes on but my head hurts too bad to ask her.

She pulls me down off the chair holding the towel on my head.

“Let’s go in the bathroom, so I can get dressed and we’ll get a washcloth.”

Momma’s answer to most anything is a wet washcloth and now it’s Peggy’s and mine too.

I’m lightheaded and sick in the back of my throat.  My throat is closing up.  She steers me toward the bathroom, because I’m squeezing my eyes shut.  I don’t want to see the blood.

She pushes me down and I sit on the soft shag cover of the toilet.

She pulls my hand up and presses it on the towel.

“Hold this right there.  Press hard so it stops bleeding.” She’s not being so nice anymore. She’s like that, sometimes she’s meaner than mean and sometimes she’s nice, I never know which one she’s going to be.

“My eye!” I’m still yelling over and over and crying.

“Shut up!” she yells back at me with a heavy pause in between the words.

“You’re not dead, let me get my clothes on and we’ll look at it.”

I stop yelling like she says and sit stiff, holding the towel as hard as I can against my head. I’d stuff the entire towel inside my head if it would make the blood and the hurt stop.

I hear her slipping pants on and shuffling around.

I know I’m blind for sure and will have to wear a patch over the place where my eye has been taken out. I’ll be teased by people and asked stupid questions about what happened. “I’m wearing a patch, what do you think happened?” I’ll say matter of fact.

“Ok, let me see” She kneels down in front of me, touching my knee, her clothes brushing against me.

“No, I don’t want it to bleed anymore.” I know she has to look at it. Someone always has to look at it.  I want her to wrap my entire head in gauze with the wet washcloth and let me lie on the couch until it heals.

“Amy, take the towel off, I need to look at it and see if you need stitches.” She says firm but not mean.

“No! No! No! I’m not going to the hospital. You can’t make me, I’m not going!”  My sister Jenny once went to the hospital to visit old Mr. Micky when he was dying and she passed right out and smacked her teeth into the marble wall outside the elevator, so hard that they left a dent in the marble and knocked her teeth out.  I can’t imagine what will happen to me.

She grabs my hand and pulls the towel off holding my chin with her other hand.

“Sit still damn it.”

It stings and I know the blood is pouring out.

I want to run away from her and bleed to death somewhere else.

“It’s not that bad Amy. It’s not that bad.” Softly again.

She leans us both into the tub and turns on the water.

She pulls a washcloth off the side of the tub, wets it and puts over my eye and pulls my hand back up to hold it.

My shoulders shake each time I cry.

My eyes are still pressed shut.  She stands me up and pushes me into the living room, but I drag my feet.

“Let’s go look at it in the mirror in Mom’s room, you’ll see it’s not so bad. I promise.”

Her hand in the middle of my back she pushes me until we are in front of the mirror in Momma’s room.

She takes my hand down from the towel. I keep my eyes closed.  I am afraid to look at it.

“Open your eyes, it’s not that bad Amy” I turn my head.

“No, I don’t want to see.”

“It’s just above your eye Amy, it’s not that deep, it’s ok, you can look.”

“No!  I don’t want to. I want Momma.”

“Ok, I can’t leave you here like this, please look, it’s not that bad and then I’ll go look for Mom.”

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I want Momma!”

“Calm down, you little freak. Just look at the damn thing, you’re not going to die.”

I feel light-headed and a pain in my chest, and a dark black hole in the middle of my neck.

I have to look.

My head is down, I open my right eye and there is blood on the floor.  I am in trouble for that for sure. I want to run.

Peggy raises my chin with her hand and moves in front of me.  She touches my forehead. I feel her breath on my cheek. Her wet hair smells of strawberry Suave shampoo.  I love strawberries.

“When I count to 10, open your other eye and look in the mirror.”

“Ok” I whisper.

She moves to the side of me,

“1, 2, 3” I stiffen

“4, 5, 6, 7, 8” I squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I can

“9, 10, ok look.”

Ready, I sigh, open my eyes and shut them again.  I catch a glimpse of myself.  Blood is smeared around my face.

I open again and look. I hold my breath.

I lean in and look.

My eyebrow is split wide open with white bone underneath.

I turn away and run in circles screaming, my arms and legs flying this way and that.

“You lied! You lied!  I can see the bone! I can see the bone!” I’m running so fast I get dizzy.

She runs around after me, with the bloody washcloth, catching me, shoving me against the dresser and clamps the rag back on my split open head. It aches and throbs.

“Calm down Amy.”

“Liar! Liar! I’m telling Momma you’re a liar, I want Momma”

“Ok” she pushes me into the living room, “Sit your ass on the couch and hold that washcloth on your head and I’ll go find her.”

“You can’t leave me alone, I’m bleeding to death”

“You need stitches, so I have to go find her, there isn’t anyone else to stay with you, I’ll just be a minute.” I don’t believe her and don’t want her to go, a minute lasts hours sometimes.

Sucking my stomach in and out, I cry into the bloody wet rag. Blood smells like the monkey bars at school. I don’t want to die.

I hear the door slam as Peggy leaves.  My eyes are shut.

I wait and wait and wait and wait for what seems like hours, tears leaking out of my good eye.  Pressing the rag against my head as hard as I can.  It hurts and the blood keeps seeping through onto my hands.

~

There is more blood than I think you are supposed to lose out of your body.  I learn at the hospital that cuts on the face bleed more than anywhere else on the body.  It’s even more stressful than it should be, because we don’t have a car and Momma has to ask around for someone to take us to the emergency room, which takes even more time and me crying out “My eye!” When someone finally to take us to the hospital, I lay in the back of the car and cry while we drive.  I end up with 3 stitches and leave the bandaid on for weeks. Momma yells at me to take it off and eventually just rips it of my head one day after my bath, because I would not dare remove it. EVER.  The stitches are taken out a little too late, by our neighbor Mrs. Faust, who used to be a nurse. This too is traumatic and dramatic, someone having to hold me down to get them out. Everything is complicated. Always.

~

I’ve been hesitating lately at putting any new memoir writing sessions up, but I said I would and that’s what I’m going to do, hopefully the path will continue to unfold as I move along through this process.  Not sure why this piece of writing is what I posted, but it’s the piece I kept coming back to, so it’s here now.

This is my third grade photo, if you look above my left eye, you’ll see the scar.  I still have it today, it’s just a lot smaller, or my head’s a lot bigger. Maybe both. And that’s the point right? Hopefully as we learn and grow and distance ourselves from a traumatic event, we can heal ourselves. I used to think this story was 100% funny, but now I have compassion for both me and my sister for having had this experience.

Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger says: Traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological…trauma represents animal instincts gone awry. When harnessed, these instincts can be used by the conscious mind to transform traumatic symptoms into a state of well-being.

We don’t have to be victims. We can heal ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Ham Sandwich_1978

  1. I’m so glad you shared this story. It’s pitch perfect in details and voice. I love that you had thought the story was 100% funny when it sounds so scary and tragic. Our family has some stories like this one that have become “colorful” family lore and we still laugh. Getting to a place of compassion is a real victory.

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