Laura Cockman – Beginnings

At January 2015’s “Beginnings”, Laura Cockman shares about the beginning of a longtime friendship. 

They say friendship isn’t something you learn in school, but I’ll tell you where you can learn it: on the school bus.

I was born cautious, and by cautious I mean generally fearful of everything. I was also born screaming, and so you’d think that I would have grown into a loud child, but it really seemed like I exhausted all of my energy before I left the hospital, and by the time I climbed aboard my first school bus, I was mostly interested in keeping to myself.

The bus was an early one, and since I was lucky enough to live so far away from school that the proverbial walking-up-hill-to-school-both-ways would have been more like wheezing through a marathon, the bus driver compensated for how early we had to wake up by consistently arriving to each stop ten minutes earlier than she needed to. This meant that she arrived at school ten minutes before we were allowed into the building. An eternity in the pre-cellphone era.

Most mornings while I waiting for the teachers to escort us off the bus and into the school building, I would sit quietly with my girlfriends. We were a real exciting bunch. Our number-one morning activity was what we’d refer to as a “chapstick party.” Even though we were allowed to stand up once the bus stopped being in motion, we remained in our seats and passed chapsticks in circles, sniffing them. Yeah, we were scintillating.

But nobody else ever stood up on the bus either. And so everybody was confused the day the bus floor began rumbling. It happened once, twice, then stopped. Glancing around the edge of the bus seat, nothing appeared out of order, so I turned my attention back to someone’s brand new key lime Lipsmacker. But it tumbled out of my hand when the floor rumbled again, this time more violently, sending tremors up the entire back of my seat.

The bus driver seemed too busy glancing out the window at the scenic squares of concrete she parked by every morning to be concerned with things that could actually have been happening on her bus, so I resolved not to worry about the rumblings. Remember, this was my first bus-riding experience, so I was still a couple of years away from the bus driver who would crash into another bus when she forgot to brake, the bus driver who hosted gambling games for cash prizes on the way home (I still regret telling my parents about that one before I could make some cash), and the bus driver who forced certain children to sing karaoke to earn passage onto the bus. In short, I still (naively) trusted bus drivers.

And eventually the rumbling stopped, so I told myself to stop worrying. Like I said, I was naïve. I should have known that the ceasing of the rumbling should have been a cause for concern.

Suddenly, a tentacle lashed out from the seat above me, scattering the remaining chapstick tubes everywhere. No, not a tentacle…an arm.

“Rrrrrr,” growled the creature attached to the arm.

And there, squatting on the top of a bus seat, arms waving frenetically about, was Jonathan, my soon-to-be best friend.

But I wouldn’t know this yet.

“I. Am. A dinosaur!” yelled the creature as it flung itself down from its perch on the bus seat. I recoiled as its arms lashed out wildly in my direction.

“Run,”  he screeched, “Or I will eat you!”

Not having had much contact with boys or dinosaurs (and what’s the difference, really?) hurdling from the sky directly at me in my short existence, I did the exact opposite. Curled into the fetal position, I peeked out as my friends sprinted up and down the bus aisle, and Jonathan chased them.

You might wonder where the bus driver, that responsible adult, was at this point, while children shrieked and ping-ponged from seat to seat for ten solid minutes, but I promise I can explain this to you. Her inaction in this situation can be completely rationalized by acknowledging that there is no song more perfectly captivating that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” and that such a true musical treasure can only be fully appreciated when on repeat and when all other senses are completely tuned out.

So I lay safely curled in the bus seat when the tapping began on the back of my skull. Prepared for another aerial assault, I swatted the air above me. Nothing. Rawwwr, purred-the dinosaur-boy from above me. I waited. Prepared.

A hand shot out from underneath the seat, latching around my ankle and dragging me onto the floor.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he confirmed, “And I’m going to eat you.” If this were Jurassic Park, he was the raptor hiding in the bushes when I’d thought I was finally safe. Clever girl, ha.

I may have never been as excited to see teachers as the moment when they came to let me off the bus. And I may have never been less excited to board the school bus as I was during the next few days as the primordial beast waited to awaken for ten minutes of hunting each morning when the bus stopped. Thank goodness for the end of the school day, when my neighbors would knock on my front door and ask me to play.

So my heart was beating fast with post-school-day, post-bus-ride adrenaline when I went to open the door this particular day.

“Helloooo-oh,” I said. Jonathan stood there.

“I’m a dinosaur,” he informed me.

My mom walked out from the kitchen.

“Who’s this?” She asked, “A new friend?” Or course, you can probably guess by now how Jonathan introduced himself.

“I’m her boyfriend.”

“How sweet,” Mom smiled, and Jonathan walked into the house.

One exhausting hour later of oh-how-cute-they’re-playing-tag and would-it-be-too-much-to-pray-for-another-asteroid-to-strike-Earth-now, Jonathan’s mother called asking to send him home.

“Hit the road, Jack,” Mom told him.

Jonathan marched out the door, down the driveway, into the cul-de-sac, and, well, hit the road. With his fist.

“You can’t call me, Jack, though,” he called out as he ran off, “Next time, it’s hit the road, Jon.”

Giggling maniacally, I suddenly knew there would be a next time.

Now, nearly twenty years later, reflecting back on the moment when I knew Jonathan and I would become best friends, I can’t help but think of the saying that friendship is like peeing your pants: everybody can see it, but only you can really feel it. And when I think of this statement, I have to agree that friendship truly is like peeing your pants, because the first time I met Jonathan, I kind of did.

Laura Cockman – Hindsight

Laura Cockman shares a moving first story at Tenx9’s December 2014 event “Hindsight”.

I would see the tumor later. Dad kept it.

“Yuck! He’s sick,” the kids on the bus would say in disgust when I would say he still had it. But no, he wasn’t sick. Mom was.

She lay on the couch every day, that was it. Sometimes she pulled a blanket up. Sometimes two. Sometimes she took them off. But I never touched her blankets because she was sick and even moving the blankets hurt. Hugging her hurt the worst.

I could understand that because I was nine years old, right? I was the big girl. Couldn’t I remember to leave Mommy alone so she could sleep? Ryan didn’t know any better. He was only three.

And I would wonder: How can something hurt you so much that you can’t even hold your baby boy?

And I would think: Surgery was supposed to make you better.

And I don’t know what Mom thought because she never cried or complained. She lay on the couch, death-pale, and she ate what she was told to eat and threw it up afterwards. We all did what we were told because there wasn’t anything else we could do.

My Mimi and Papalelo came to take care of their daughter. Mimi was a registered nurse and Papalelo would come to have an entire hospital wing named after him for saving so many babies’ lives. All the way from Florida to Ohio, they brought gum and gifts and videogames and books and their stethoscopes and medical licenses and prescription pads.

They came to do all the things Mom couldn’t anymore. Wake me up, pack my lunch, put me on the school bus each morning. All dancing around Mom’s sleeping-dying figure on the couch.

And I thought: How can there be something so painful that even your own mommy and daddy can’t make you feel better?

Little by little, they helped her to stand up and walk around the living room. She was determined, they said, and after several months she could eat on her own and sleep without painkillers. This was good. Mimi and Papalelo booked tickets to go back home. Papalelo left us at the end of August. Mimi would stay for two more weeks to help Mom transition back into her life. She had a flight booked for September eleventh.

Life dragged me into September eleventh like a rollercoaster pulling me towards a drop. Mimi would leave while I was at school. This was the last day I would eat Toaster Strudels with her in the morning. This was the last day she would watch me walk to the bus stop. This was the last day her sweet lavender perfume would cover the too-clean, over-sanitized smell of the machines and medicines scattered around Mom’s couch. After this day, it would just be me, Dad, my baby brother, and the strongest woman I’d ever seen reduced to a near-ghost in the living room.

I hugged Mimi as long as I could before she sent me off to school on the morning of the eleventh. Even Fairfield East Elementary seemed agitated that day. Mrs. Wiggins didn’t care that I could hardly pay attention to her lessons. She kept glancing at her computer and talking to other teachers as I scribbled through worksheet after worksheet, thanking goodness she was not going to make me read or answer questions today. All day, she repeated the same unusual pattern of behavior: present an activity, help us begin, check her computer. And all day I waited to go home and discover how to interact with my broken-down mom.

At 3:00 I finally slunk off the cold yellow bus to walk up the hill to my house, where I would be alone with my mom and my brother and the tumor. I opened the door and tip-toed down the long front hallway towards the living room and kitchen. I had learned that this was one of the many times I should expect Mom to be napping on the living room couch. I was to quietly walk over to the kitchen table, set down my bookbag – delicately!, eat a snack, complete my homework, and go to the basement to play. As Mom’s sleep patterns repeated, so my patterns of habits would repeat.

But as I walked down the hallway, I heard the soft sound of the television for the first time in weeks. It was on. As I turned the corner to see if this meant Mom might be awake, Mimi rose from a plush green chair next to Mom’s sofa.

“Let’s get a snack for you,” she said, spinning me around and steering me toward the kitchen. I hadn’t even noticed there was no snack ready for me on the table. What I had noticed were words like “bomber” and “suicide” flashing across the television screen.

“I decided to stay for a little while longer to help your mom,” Mimi explained, her brow furrowed. Suddenly realizing Mimi hadn’t smiled once since I walked in the door, I ran over to the couch to see my mother. Mimi hurried over to distract me, but she wasn’t fast enough to stop me from seeing an airplane crash into a tall tower on the tv screen.

“Was that supposed to be your plane?” I worried. Breaths came quicker and quicker. All this time I had been worrying about my mother dying, and I had never so much given any thought to the possibility that anyone else I loved could be moments from dying, too.

“Shh, sweetie, no, no,” Mimi consoled, folding me into her arms, “I am staying to help your mom. We need to be quiet and let her rest now.”

Mom’s eyes fluttered open. “It’s ok,” she whispered. She rolled to her side, and for the first time in months, I could clamber up onto the couch to be with her. As I settled into the couch with my too-fragile mother, she reached around me, and together we watched buildings topple over on the television screen. While everything else was crumbling, my mom was putting herself back together. “It takes time and it takes effort and it takes a lot of love,” she told me, “but people are good, and they will always want to help make things right again.”