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LIVING DEATH | JIM ROSS

LIVING DEATH | JIM ROSS

In a World War II vintage townhouse in a suburb of Washington, D.C., sitting on the edge of the bed, eighteen-month-olds Ben and Bella watch Daddy fall onto the floor. Mommy, who is downstairs with newborn Mikey, hears a thud, runs upstairs, and sees Daddy on the floor turning from blue to purple. An ER nurse, Mommy squats, confirms presence of a radial pulse, and feels his cheek. He mumbles, his arms contracting, hands clenching, legs jerking, eyes staring blindly. Ignoring doctor’s orders to rest until she recovers from her C-section and preeclampsia, Mommy throws herself into chest compressions until paramedics arrive. Seeing Mommy beating up Daddy, Ben and Bella hold onto each other for dear life.
After Daddy comes home from the hospital, Ben and Bella learn how to hook the pulse ox and blood pressure cuff onto him and watch for the lights to blink on. If Daddy sits up suddenly, Ben grabs the stethoscope and places the chest piece over Daddy’s heart. If Daddy starts coughing, Bella brings him a heart-shaped pillow to hold to his chest. After watching Mommy examine Daddy’s feet, the twins go on foot patrol.
Mommy orders Ben and Bella their own plastic stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs. The two walk around with stethoscopes hanging from their necks and place chest pieces on whoever is near.


At 29 months, a month before Christmas, Mommy asks Ben, “What should we get Daddy for Christmas?” Dr. Ben answers, “We need to get daddy a new heart as strong as diamonds.”


Two weeks later, on the anniversary of his brief death, obsessed with the question of what he’s accomplished to justify having lived, Daddy loses control and has to go into the hospital for an indeterminate stay. Ben, Bella, Mikey and Mommy move in with Grammy and me and take over the family room.
Daddy’s getting sick, again, hits Ben hard. He has trusted Daddy. Ben also feels that his doctoring skills and magic are inadequate. He refuses to talk with Daddy by phone.
At Christmas, Ben is given a real white doctor’s coat and a kid’s doctor’s medical kit. Ben and Bella together are given a model hospital, complete with landing pad and helicopter. “Here’s Dr. Ben” becomes his calling card. After conducting a thorough examination, his standard lines are, “You’re fine” or “You’ll be okay.” After accepting imaginary payment, he walks a few steps away, turns to look back, waves, and says, “Bye, let me know if you get sick.”


At 33 months, I ask Ben to examine me, saying my tummy hurts.
He checks me out and says, “You’re fine. You just have a big tummy.” He calls to Bella, “Dr. Bella, I would like your opinion.”
Bella says, “I’m not a doctor, I’m a girl.”
Ben says, “You can be a doctor too. Girls can be anything they want.”
In raring-to-go style, Bella runs to Ben’s side saying, “Here comes Dr. Bella.”
A few days later, when Dr. Ben is doctoring Grammy, Bella comes over, nudges Ben, and says, “Make room for Dr. Bella.”


At 38 months, Grammy and I attend a welcome-to-school event while Mommy is at work. While Ben is off doing something else, Bella climbs to the top of the slide and says to me, “I know, everybody dies. But why? How? I don’t want you to die. You can die when you’re veryvery old. And then you’ll go to God.”


At 47 months, Mommy takes Ben, Bella, and Mikey to their first swimming lessons. Driving home afterwards, she overhears Ben and Bella talking from their car seats about Daddy being taken to the hospital and zapped back to life. Mommy’s heart races.
When Grammy and I hear about this, we wonder, how could they know? Daddy’s v-fib happened when they were less than 18 months old. Are they truly remembering? Or have they heard people talking about it?
I say to Mommy, “You’ve got to pump them for how they know about this.”
Mommy asks Bella, “You and Ben were talking about Daddy being taken to the hospital and zapped back to life. How do you know about that?”
Bella says, “It was a dream.”
Emily asks, “Did you have the dream?”
Bella answers, “No, Ben did.”
Mommy asks, “How do you know about Ben’s dream?”
Bella answers, “I saw it in Ben’s brain?”
Two days later when we’re all together out in the countryside, I ask Bella a series of questions and she confirms it was Ben’s dream, he had it “a few months ago,” and she saw it in his brain.
Mommy asks Bella to describe what happened in Ben’s dream. Starting with Daddy’s falling to the floor, she describes the sequence of events, focusing on Mommy coming upstairs, getting down on the floor, and trying “to get a bee out of Daddy’s tummy.” Bella insists that she saw all of this in Ben’s brain.
Mommy, Grammy, and I ask each other, did Ben truly have such a dream? Had repressed memories come back in the form of a dream? Could Ben really remember something that occurred when he was so young? Or was Bella the one dreaming or remembering, even though she attributed the story to Ben’s dream? How much of this makes sense only through the lens of wild twin stuff?


At 48 months, Ben is sitting side by side with Grammy, who is reading him a story.
I place my hand on Grammy’s shoulder and say, “Grammy is my best friend.”
Ben slowly looks up from the page and shakes his head. “No, she’s not.”
“Then who is my best friend?” I ask.
Ben answers, “Yourself. Your best friend is yourself.”
“Myself?” I ask.
Ben nods. “And there’s another self, just like yourself, in heaven.”
When I asked Ben hours later about this, he insists, “YourSELF is in heaven.”


At 49 months, Ben reports that he had climbed a beanstalk and entered heaven, where he visited with Grammy’s older sister, Joan, who died three years earlier. He says that Aunt Joan told him, “Heaven is no place for you,” took him in her arms, and carried him back down the beanstalk. “This is where you belong,” she told him before going back to heaven.


At 49 months, Ben and Bella spend a week in central New York State with Mommy, Grammy, me, Mikey, and over 20 others who claim to be descendants of Grammy’s father’s father, who spent his career running paper mills in Vermont and New York. Ben and Bella hear about lots of people who died, some long ago.
On the final night, Ben observes, “When you get old, you turn into a kid again, then you die. Then you’re a kid again, you become a grownup, you get old, you turn into a kid, and you die. And then you’re a kid again.”


At 54 months, on the anniversary of Daddy’s brief death three years ago, and of his long hospitalization a year later, Daddy loses control and goes into the hospital again.
Ben shakes his head. “Will my Daddy ever come home?” he asks.
“Daddy will be home soon,” says Grammy, though based on last time, there is no way to predict when that will be.
Disappointed, angry, sad that his doctoring and magic failed, Ben says, “Maybe he won’t.”
A few days later, I give Ben some Russian nesting dolls to play with. He takes them into my office and closes the door. Standing at the card table, he lines them up by height, down to the quarter-incher from deep inside.
Taking a step back, Ben observes, “This family has only girls. Can you have a family that’s only girls?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “Some families are only girls.”
“There can be a family with no Daddy?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “But your family does have a Daddy.”
“Will he be home for Christmas?” Ben asks.
“Maybe he won’t,” I say. “We don’t know yet. Soon.”
They stay with us for the long weekend before Christmas and then move home, unlike two years earlier, when they encamped in the family room for the duration. A week later, while we watch over the kids, Mommy picks up Daddy and brings him home.
“You were right. Daddy did come home,” Ben tells me.
“Of course he did,” I say.
After the weekend following New Year’s, Daddy goes back to work, and the kids all return to preschool.
A week later, Grammy’s brother Fred dies. Fred was living alone and had been sick for a long time. He had almost died so many times, when it finally happened, it came as a shock.
“I’ll climb the beanstalk and visit him, Grammy,” says Ben. “I’ll give him a message for you. Do you want me to say you miss him?”
Grammy says, “Tell him, I’m glad you’re not hurting anymore. And please say hi to Aunt Joan.”
“You mean your sister Joan, who brought me back down the beanstalk?” Ben asks.
“That one, yes,” says Grammy, laughing a tear.


In Month 56, out in the countryside again in a familiar, rejuvenating setting that Daddy loves, as Ben dances in the bedroom, I say, “When I say ‘Benjamin,’ you should jump whenever you hear, ‘jamin.’” We try this a few times and, each time, “jamin” propels Ben into the air.  

“When I say, ‘Papajamin,’ every time I say ‘jamin,’ you should jump,” says Ben.
I say, “I’m sorry, Ben, but my jumper doesn’t work anymore. You’ll have to do all my jumping for me.”
“I can jump too,” says Bella.
“Then every time I say ‘abel,’ you should jump.”
“Ysabel,” I say, “Ysabel. Ysabel.” Each time, at “abel,” Bella is propelled skyward.
“Benjamin. Ysabel. Benjamin. Ysabel.” Alternatively, Ben and Bella shoot into the air.
Staring out the window at the fish run, Ben says, “The fish are still alive. There’s only a cover of ice. Beneath the ice, there’s alive fish.”
“Can you see them?” I ask.
“I can see them in my brain,” Ben answers. And he jumps, without benefit of “jamin.”
“The people in heaven can see all your memories,” Ben continues, staring out at the ice-covered fish run.
“My memories?” I ask.
“Everybody’s memories,” says Ben. “They can see the memories of everyone alive. And they call your name.”
“I’m hearing them,” says Bella.
“What’re they saying?” I ask.
Bella says, “They’re saying Bella.”
“And Ben, they’re saying Ben. And Papa,” says Ben.
“What else?” I ask.
“They’re saying, ‘I wish you could see me the way I can see you.’”
“Do you wish that?” I ask.
“No, because I already can,” laughs Ben. “I can see them as clearly as the fish who swims beneath the frozen ice.”
“I can’t,” says Bella, “but I can see them in Ben’s brain.”


In Month 57, back at home, a shelter-in-place order is issued to contain COVID-19.  Mommy can’t escape double night shifts in the ER.  Daddy starts working from home.  Preschool shuts down.  Bella begs for “a kid’s desk” where she can practice her letters and art.  
The family hunkers down in the countryside, driving two hours home whenever Mommy needs to work. “It’s much easier being quarantined in the middle of a forest, where the kids can run free.”

Wearing cape and holding a staff, Ben morphs into a cross between action hero and wandering pilgrim.
Sitting at her desk, Bella tells Mommy, “We need to have school. I’ll teach girls’ art; Ben, boys’ art; Mommy, cooking; Daddy, outdoor education; and Mikey, recess.”


Month 58, back home in DC Metro, case and death counts mount. Bella watches virus news with Mommy and a nurse friend. They talk about intubating the whole ER. Bella cries, “Mommy, what’s happening to people’s bodies?  Why are so many people dying?”  

Mommy says, “Let’s go down to the basement. That’s what I do to calm down.” She takes Bella into the shower and turns the water on warm. “Take deep breaths,” Mommy tells her, “And imagine you’re someplace else.” Bella asks, “Where?” Mommy says, “The countryside.” Bella smiles, breathes deeply. Shower done, wrapped in plush green towel, Bella says, “I calmed myself down. I know how to calm myself down now. Should I tell Ben?”

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