For my eighth birthday, my parents gave me a sky-blue bike with a white basket.
It was much bigger than the old pink bike I'd learned to ride a year or two before, and I was so pleased with it that at the first opportunity, I ran outside to try it out. At the time, we lived in Kenner, La., and the place where my best friend and I played and rode bikes was the parking lot that ran between our row of townhomes and the field behind them, which we were forbidden to enter because it was full of snakes. I rode the new bike around the parking lot for a while (this was much safer than it sounds, since we lived at the closed end of the lot and there was no through traffic) and then, for some reason, I decided that I was going to ride alongside the curb and stop the bike by putting my foot down on the sidewalk.
I wasn't athletic in the sense of being good at sports, but I was a little monkey of a kid and did all sorts of things that made my parents gasp, like shinnying up trees and riding my bike with no hands and leaping off the landing on our front stairs. I couldn't see any reason why I shouldn't be able to use my sneaker as a brake, and in theory, I suppose it ought to have worked, but it didn't. I took my right foot off the pedal as I approached the curb, and I remember stretching my leg out toward the concrete -- and then, in less than the blink of an eye, I was inside my house, in the downstairs bathroom, crying and in pain, with my own bloodied face staring back at me from the mirror.
My mother was washing the dirt out of my scrapes with a wet cloth, and I asked her, "Did it really happen?" I had no idea why I had asked or what "it" was -- I could see I was hurt, but I had no memory of getting hurt. Upon further questioning, my parents told me that I'd come running inside under my own power, screaming all the way. They said I'd fallen, and I believed them, but I couldn't remember it. I couldn't remember getting up or coming inside, either. There wasn't a gap in my memory; there wasn't even a flicker. I'd been putting my foot down to stop, and now I was here, and I didn't understand any of it.
I hadn't been wearing a helmet, of course -- it was 1979, and the only people who wore helmets were Evel Knievel and those guys on CHiPs. My head had bounced off the concrete like a watermelon when I fell, and our neighbor, who was a nurse, looked me over and said I probably had a mild concussion. I spent the rest of that day lying on the couch and most of the following two or three days feeling vaguely sick, and then I was fine. But for literally years afterward, those missing minutes of my life bothered me. I tried to remember what had happened -- had my pedal hit the curb? Had the bike fallen on top of me? How long had I lain there before I got up and ran inside? -- but there was nothing.
I didn't expect to have that creeping sense of unreality about anything else in my lifetime, but on the day P died, there it was, just as it had been all those years before. Something had happened to me that was so big, so traumatic, that my brain couldn't cope with it and kept trying to skip over it. When G and I came home from the hospital that afternoon, she wanted to draw pictures, and since I didn't know what else to do, I said we could. I sat there on the living-room floor with a green marker in my hand, outwardly calm and composed, inwardly thinking Did it really happen? A few hours before it had been a normal morning, and now in what seemed like less than a blink, our family was gone, and I couldn't believe it. Even now, when I recall what happened that day -- turning around, the look of his eyes, 911, CPR, the room at the back of the ER, the tube down his throat, the dried blood on his lips -- my first thought is How could something like that happen? How could he just have been dead like that? In our home, in our bed, how? Was it real? Was it?
And of course it was real, the way my accident was real, but I don't think it's ever going to seem any more real to me than that fall I can't remember. I'm not in denial; I know P is gone and no matter how much I long to, I will never see him again. Every day that goes by without him proves that. But the actual physical fact of his death -- that it happened just like that, while I was looking the other way -- is impossible to encompass. And if forgetting it were as easy as knocking myself over the head, I'd be looking for a bike to fall off right now.