I was a mature 10-year-old and my younger sister, Reena was only three when we were enjoying all the glories of new immigrant life in the Housing Projects of Queens. Aside from the male jogger who hung upside down, dangling his junk in front of us, everything from this period blends together like a hazy blur. There are few memories that stand out, but the one I remember most is the time my sister got a hole in her head.
Reena and I were playing the projects version of hallway baseball (without the ball) – basically just the slide part – with the Jehovah’s Witness girls down the hall. The halls, with their well-greased linoleum floors, were full of the smells of Russian Borscht and Korean kimchi. With our socks on, we would take a running start and then slide, as if into home plate. The irony, of course, was that we had never watched a game of baseball. We took turns doing the run, slide, and end up on butt routine, laughing harder and harder each time.
Until it was Reena’s turn. She went flying, faster than all of us, because that was Reena. She only had one speed, and it was “gone before you realize.” They always said she had shpilkes in her butt and maybe that’s what prevented her from landing on it. The whole thing happened within a span of 10 seconds. She somehow decided to dive head forward and went skidding, like a bowling ball on a newly-oiled lane, and rammed her head into the corner of our metal door. I’m not sure what the corner looked like, but it must have been like a small snow plow because Reena got up holding her hand to her forehead and all I saw was blood. Her immediate reaction wasn’t even to cry until she looked down at her hand and saw it was covered in dark red blood. She started yelling “Krov, Krov” (Russian for blood) and crying hysterically.
I’m not sure if this whole catastrophe was really my fault, but I certainly carried it as such. Why had I let her do that? All those giggles were trumped by the tears. I instantly remembered my mother’s favorite saying to me whenever I laughed too much as a kid, “if you laugh too hard, you’ll be crying later.” Why hadn’t I stopped the laughter before it got out of hand? I expected more from the 10-year-old me.
The minute we crossed through the door, everything felt like a Russian movie on fast forward. I only knew to go to the kitchen and get ice. I had tunnel vision on the ice as if recollecting some science lesson that taught me to put ice on a wound. I grabbed both of the plastic ice cube trays and slammed them down as hard as I could on the counter. The ice cubes popped out all over the counter, spilling onto the floor. I collected them all into the closest Key Food plastic bag and I tried to convince myself I had done something helpful. Meanwhile, my mother took a screaming Reena to the bathroom to clean her forehead, the cold water filling the sink with red. My mother said she knew Reena needed to go to the emergency room and my grandfather was able to drive them.
I stayed home, answering the phone, growing more and more nauseous by the minute. I reflect on this moment and wonder if this was considered one of my first anxiety attacks. Maybe this was the root moment when my brain went into cahoots with my nausea and made a pact: “From here on out, whenever life freaks her out, let’s send in the nausea troops!” So I answered the phone, between sobs and pukes, all while envisioning the blood-red sink and hearing my three-year-old sister yelling blood in her little Russian voice.
First, my aunt called. I started out calmly enough trying to explain what happened. But within a few sentences I was just bawling, shouting “Reena has a hole in her head and there was so much blood!” I felt better knowing that my aunt worked as a medical assistant at the hospital and was able to meet my mother there. Then my father called — and within one second of hearing his voice, I was convulsing and gasping for words and conveying to him exactly the breadth and depth of this wide, gaping hole in her head from which she was hemorrhaging.
My dad, who was working as a manager at a large bakery in Brooklyn, wasted no time getting out of there, only to find that his car was blocked by someone who was at lunch. A co-worker lent him his car, with a warning that the brakes weren’t fully functional; he had an appointment scheduled with the mechanic after work. My dad heeded his warning and booked it, as they said in 1984 Queens, over the BQE to LaGuardia Hospital. There, my sister had received three full stitches to her forehead, leaving a small scar that’s easily covered by bangs. That was the extent of it. Three stitches. On their way home from the hospital, Reena was rewarded with an upside-down, clown ice cream cone from Baskin Robbins and was back to running around the playground the next day. I, on the other hand, sat on the bench and watched, gasping each time she climbed too high or jumped too hard or ran too fast. I’ve always wanted to protect that little girl; I’ve often wished for a giant invincibility cloak (not to be confused with invisibility) that I can drape around her, forever protecting her as she exists, apart from me in the world.