Counting Backwards

“C,mon, momma, one more time!  This time count to fifteen!” Crystal enunciated.

“Okay, but this is the last time,” Mara said, as she pulled the swing chains back for 15 gentle pushes.   “One . . . Two . . .Three . . .” she chanted.  Truth be told, Mara would count all afternoon if Crystal asked.  The child was pure joy and Mara marveled at how the sunlight picked up different shades of copper and gold in her daughter’s flowing hair as she tilted her head back in unabashed delight. 

On the way home, Crystal quietly counted the number of people on the bus.  Mara thought about her four-year old’s penchant for counting.  She counted everything – the steps to their apartment, the dresses in the closet they shared, even the spoonfuls of cereal she eats before they go to Mother Waldron Preschool.

“Mrs. Santiago, your girl’s a smart one,” Mrs. Kirkwood said yesterday afternoon.  “The other day she let me know that the paint tray for Miss Donovan’s three-year olds was missing two colors and asked if she could lend them two of ours.  I asked her which colors and she said it didn’t matter.  She said they usually have 20 colors, and now they have 18, so we need to get it back to 20.  Today, she counted Jimmy’s teeth.  Maybe she’ll be a mathematician or come up with a computer program that will change the world,” Crystal’s preschool teacher predicted with a smile.

Crystal counted 27 fellow bus passengers and eventually her head rested on Mara’s shoulder as she napped to the drone of the long bus ride.  Mara was restless because she needed to get home and complete the research on her new project. 

She wished she still had her old car.  The Saab was pretty reliable until the transmission gave out.  The money she got from selling it to the garage owner was used to pay the next two months’ rent.  It made up for Nick’s late child support, further proof that he had little interest in raising a child.

The cracks in their marriage became clear after their first failed attempt at in vitro.  When Dr. Pahed cautioned that odds would be lower if they tried again, Nick looked at his shoes and said, “That’s alright.  Maybe we’re not meant to have kids.. This was really just for Mara anyway.” 

After much discussion and mild attempts at renewing their passion, they divorced six months later, when Mara was surprisingly five weeks pregnant.  “I’ll help you take care of it,” he feebly vowed.  He held Crystal only twice before moving to San Antonio.

That night, when Mara finished reading Where the Wild Things Are, Crystal announced “And that was page 48,” as she snuggled close on their shared sofa bed. 

“Momma, let’s count different tonight,” Crystal suggested.  “Let’s count backwards,” whispering the last word, as if she herself was surprised with the novelty. “Okay, ” Mara responded, impressed that they were about to embark on the next phase of Crystal’s obsession with counting.  “What number do you want to start with?”

One hundred!”  Crystal continued whispering, as if it was the biggest number in the world.  She carefully repeated each number Mara recited.  “One hundred . . . ninety-nine  . . ninety-eight . . .” 

When they reached ninety-two, Mara felt a sharp pain deep in her belly, so deep she couldn’t pinpoint the source even though she pressed down on the general area.  She sucked in slowly in trying to continue counting, but had to stop at eighty-five.

Crystal was worried when she looked up at Mara’s face.  “What’s the matter, momma?  Are you hot?  You’re really sweating!” 

“I’m just tired,” Mara managed to say, not wanting to scare her.  “How about we just go to sleep?” 

“I’m sorry, momma,” Crystal murmured, patting her momma’s face.  Mara told her it was nothing and they hugged.  It was a while before the girl’s breathing slowed to steady sleep breathing. 

Mara started drifting herself even though the waves of pain remained in the background. At times, it reminded her of her worst menstrual cramps, the kind she experienced as a teenager.   The typically ensuing headache throbbed at the top of the base of her neck.  She had better take care of this before she made a mess in the sheets.

Trying not to wake Crystal, Mara shifted slowly out of bed to go to the bathroom.    She stopped when she realized her underwear was dry.  What am I thinking, she thought.  I don’t have periods anymore.  Not since my surgery. 

In the course of trying to get pregnant, the doctors said she had endometriosis, that tissue lining of her uterus grew on her ovaries.  It scarred her so badly that she was infertile.  She had to have a complete hysterectomy to prevent major problems.  That’s why she and Nick could never have their own children . . . That’s why he was so angry, why he left her a week before she was to go to the hospital for the operation . . . That’s why . . .

Her train of thought jolted her.  She eased back in bed and closed her eyes tightly trying to clear her head.  What was she thinking?  What hysterectomy?  She has Crystal, for heaven’s sake, a child from her own womb. She must be tired.  Perhaps her financial problems were too much handle.  Maybe she shouldn’t have taken on the new project with her already heavy workload. 

She reached over to touch Crystal’s face for assurance. For a heartbeat of a moment, her fingers met only air, then she felt her daughter’s skin.  She opened her eyes and watched Crystal breathe.  That calmed her, watching Crystal’s chest move in cadence while her eyelids fluttered.  Mara fell asleep with her arm around her daughter while the pain in her belly faded into vague pulses.

The 6AM alarm mercifully called her out of a most disconcerting dream. She remembers counting backwards starting from a hundred, as a pretty young Asian woman held her hand and said, “That’s it.  Good. When you wake up, you will feel groggy and a little nauseous.  But don’t worry.  The doctors will take good care of you.  Everything will be all right.” 

Scenes shifted in this dream world.  At one point, people were looking down at her while she was lying down.  They were wearing blue masks that covered their noses and mouths.  Splatters of blood dotted gloves and white costumes.   Bright lights blinded her, but she caught shadows of words. “Stabilizing . . . doctor . . . pressure. . .ovary”  She heard faint beeping and pinpoint sounds of metal on metal.  She tried to see what was happening but a male voice warned, “She’s waking” and a woman said, “It’s too early!  Increase general by  . . .”

The alarm beeping seemed to keep time with the throbbing of her headache.  As Mara opened her eyes, she simultaneously reached for Crystal.  The little girl giggled. “Don’t tickle, momma! I’m awake,” she said as she scrambled out of bed.

Their morning routine started as usual.  Mara took a shower first and started breakfast in the kitchen.  She heard Crystal counting something in the bathroom and her cell phone rang.  Her hellos went unanswered and all she heard was paper rustling, murmuring and steady beeping.  As she pushed the END button, snippets of her dream invaded her thoughts.

That call signalled the beginning of odd things, little off-center clicks that were mild irritations.   The knives and cereal in the kitchen were out of place, and the coffee mug with Crystal’s photo was missing. She found Nick’s socks in her undies drawer, and couldn’t find the blouse she bought last week.  All the while, she felt vague cramps and the area above the nape of her neck pounded incessantly.

Crystal didn’t seem to notice anything different.  When Mara knelt to kiss her goodbye at the preschool, Crystal hugged her tighter and longer than usual. Before she let go, she whispered in her ear, “You don’t have to count backwards anymore, momma.  It’ll be okay.”  Mara started to ask her what she meant, but Crystal’s friends called to her. 

She ran to her playmates, but turned and blew Mara a kiss, declaring, “Momma, I love you one hundred times!”  “I love you a million,” Mara called back, catching Crystal’s kiss in mid-air.

The stops and acceleration of the bus ride to work aggravated Mara’s headache.  She closed her eyes and massaged her temples and breathed deeply. Suddenly, she heard someone speaking gently in her ear, “Mrs. Santiago.  Mara.  Wake up.  C’mon.  Time to wake up.”

Mara opened her eyes to see who was whispering.  She was somehow lying down, looking up at a white ceiling.  What in the world happened?  Was there an accident?  Did she faint?  She couldn’t move but felt okay.  No apparent injuries, just the headache.

Bending over her was the young Asian woman from her dream this morning.  Mara tried to talk, but her words felt far away and thick.  She thought she asked, “What happened?  Am I okay?” 

But the woman just kept looking at her and cooing her name.  She turned away to adjust a tube attached to an overhead clear plastic bag, further frustrating Mara with the lack of communication.

Mara was scared.  What the hell was going on?  Was she badly injured?  Paralyzed? What if she’s in a coma and nobody can hear her?  The woman kept fiddling with the tube.

Mara’s panic heightened when she thought of her daughter.  Who’s taking care of Crystal?  Who will pick her up from school?  In desperation she managed to blurt, “Crystal!”

“Welcome back, Mrs. Santiago,” the woman said, turning toward Mara, fully attentive.  “Your right on time.  The operation went well, and all your signs are normal.  How do you feel?”  Mara nodded, sorting out her thoughts and trying to speak.

“I’ll be right back,” the woman said, patting her arm.  “Dr. Pahed is right outside and I[ll let him know you’re awake.  He’ll fill you in on the details.”  

Before opening the door, she turned to Mara and said, “By the way, I only see patients while they’re going in and out of surgery, and most hardly notice me, much less look at my name tag.  Thanks for remembering my name!”  She tapped at the embossed tag on the left side of her uniform.  It read Crystal Kirkwood.

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