My sophomore year of high school was a trip, man, and I mean that in many different ways. But I loved my English class–it was small, all my good friends were in it, we wrote short stories … I was digging it.
So flash forward to March, when we’re all handed To Kill a Mockingbird and told to read it. Silently. And I get to the quote I posted in the above-linked entry, and start laughing out loud, and then am amused and oddly excited because I’m being forced to read something that’s actually kind of cool, even if the teacher is giving me the What part of ‘silent’ did you not get, Miss Price? look from her desk.
I was the kid who read two books at a time, because school books were kinda boring. But not this time; I read ahead with Mockingbird. I loved Scout. I loved how she talked, and I felt like I knew Maycomb–Florida in the late 80s was not Alabama in the Depression, but there were remnants around that I had grown up with, and recognized.
And then …
… well, I had an accident that resulted in a ruptured spleen, emergency surgery, and a week in the ICU. On a respirator. My heart had stopped more than once as they got me into and out of surgery; the doctors and my parents were worried about whether or not I would survive, and whether or not I’d be me if I did.
I was me, all right. Once I got my head around the idea that I wouldn’t have to eat or drink anything (wait, what?), and I’d slept myself out, I was bored. Desperately, miserably bored, with an undercurrent of fear and occasional pain, unable to communicate beyond hand signals and some very shaky notes written on a legal pad.
I needed to keep breathing, and sometimes I’d forget to. The respirator would breathe for me, but if I didn’t breathe myself, I wouldn’t be able to come off it. So I would lay there, in my crowded-with-monitors ICU cubicle, trying to remember to breathe, looking at the clock and thinking It’s 11:45; just get to 12 and then … well, then we’ll get to 12:15, I guess, but we can do that …
In the face of what was almost the worst possible thing in the world for her, my mother focused on the practical. (She’s always good in a crisis.) I had homework–there was this entire book I was supposed to read for English!
So my mom read To Kill a Mockingbird to me.
She sat in the corner of the cube, in a hard chair, her legs crossed and her arm leaned on her knee, holding the book up and reading. I remember her hand on the spine of the book; my mother has long fingers, and her nails weren’t polished, but they were pretty. I always wished for hands like my mom’s, because they were bigger than mine (they still are) and were strong.
My mother kind of is Scout; her voice became Scout’s voice, to me, yes, but beyond that: my mother was the tomboy in the overalls, her father her hero, growing up in a world quite a lot like Scout’s.
I listened to my mom read to me, and I breathed, and I didn’t look at the clock anymore because I’d fallen into the story.
And I could, now, tie back to Banned Books Week and what I said in the post I’ve linked to at the beginning of this entry. I could tell you why I feel this is an important book, or why I think it’s one of the great American novels, or how I feel you should read this and then read The Color Purple or Beloved. But really, that’s not what this entry is about. This is about how, whenever I see that book, I see my mother’s hands holding it, and when I read it, I hear her voice. And I remember to breathe as I fall back into the story of how Scout’s older brother Jem broke his arm when he was thirteen.
1Mine was a total rip-off of something we’d read earlier in the term, but it was also the first time I was writing a story with an eye toward using my word choices and the character’s voice to evoke a particular atmosphere–and thankfully, my teacher got that. I was very lucky in my English teachers, overall, during my formative years.[back]
2Hell, Laura, this was supposed to be an uplifting anecdote about why you love one of the great American novels; what the hell?! Yes, well, plot twist. Spoilers, though: I survived, and my brain was okay.[back]
3I don’t know if this is true; it is what I thought was the truth.[back]
4I have since learned–and by “since” I mean “last week”–that the parts she read to me in the hospital are the only parts of that books she’s read. I’m now on a Mission from the Literary Gods.[back]