Amber Wong's 26-Minute Memoir

I wonder who I could have been if I had not been afraid.

It’s not that I’ve lived a cloistered life – far from it.  I’ve traveled the United States, the world by myself and lived to tell the tale.  I’ve had my share of impulsive moments – like when I was offered a place to sleep in a tent at Devil’s Monument with two guys I had just met, like when I said yes to a marriage proposal when I had only known the guy for a month.  Mostly, things have worked out fine.  I wasn’t afraid then.

Nor was I afraid when I went away to college at 16, or when I had my first car accident far from home.  These were things you just had to get over.

So maybe it was just an abundance of caution that I was born with.  I’m the kind of person who always checks when I get out of the car to make sure I have my car keys in my hand.  I always watch my feet when I step over a lawn median to make sure I don’t step in dog shit.  I always lock the doors twice in my car to make sure they are all locked before I start driving so that no one can jump into my car and carjack me.

No, I think that I first became truly afraid when my son was born.

Let me say that I am the second of three children.  My older brother and I were born 18 months apart.  We have all these memories of growing up together in Boston, slogging ourselves through the snow to get to school, playing in a fort with our downstairs neighbor, founding the “Knights of the Square Table.”  He was there when I was learning to ride my bike and fell into a rosebush.  He was there when we drove across the United States to a new home in California.  He was making fun of me, to be sure, as I got carsick from eating a new taste treat – Bing cherries – in the Badlands of South Dakota.  We still laugh about that.

Then we got to California – he was 10; I was 8.  Then Adrienne was born on January 1965.  We had a lovely little sister.

And we were her baby sitters.  Early on, Mom and Dad would go out and leave her in our care.  I still remember changing cloth diapers, safety pins stuck in a bar of Ivory soap to make sure they could go easily through the cotton fabric.  Adrienne smelled sweet, a cute baby.  When I looked at her, I would look to see if she looked like me.

When she was 2 ½, she got sick.

It was Easter Sunday, and my brother had an invitation to see some friends at their horse ranch just outside of town.  They had just received some new horses from the state of Washington and were excited to show them off.  We weren’t close to these people, but my brother was insistent, so we went.  All I remember is that it was hot in Pleasanton, and that the grasses on the hills were starting to turn brown.

After that visit, Adrienne started sleeping a lot, became irritable.  We didn’t know what was wrong, but she was sleeping way too much – about 20 hours a day.  After a month, when she seemed to be getting better, we visited Hearst Castle in Southern California.  Our last trip as a family.

Then she changed.  She went from being a sweet kid who liked to sit at her table and color pictures into a monster.  She would hit herself.  She would take off in a mall and run herself into rock walls.  It was almost as if a demon had overtaken her, trying to destroy anything that was sweet and lovely within her.

We took her to the hospital – EEGs, cognitive testing, everything.  We took her to specialists at Stanford Medical Center.  No one could diagnose what had happened to her.

Because of her violent behavior, we had to restrain her. We’d put her in leg restraints at home when she was in the living room, and especially when she went to bed.  They were cotton, but they were still restraints.  I knew how to do them too.  Mom taught me in case she was not home when Adrienne went to bed.

We couldn’t have anyone over to our house.

After a year of this, our family had reached a point where Adrienne had to get other care.  Mom and Dad took her over to the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Hospital, where she lived in and was treated for her behavior.  She was there among other kids who were there because they were recuperating from other illnesses, like severe asthma.

On December 24, while we were celebrating Christmas Eve with our relatives, we got the call from the hospital that Adrienne had died of pneumonia.

That night after we got home from the hospital, my brother was sobbing, inconsolable, saying it was all his fault – if he hadn’t insisted on going to the Easter party, everything would be okay and Adrienne would not have died.  The next morning I got up to sing in the church choir for Christmas services.  After that was a blur – her Christmas presents were donated to charity, her clothes gathered up and given away, her tricycle pushed into the far reaches of the garage.  And no one spoke of Adrienne again.

Mom didn’t get up in the morning, Dad went off to work, my brother and I went to high school.

The day that my son was born, it all came flooding back.  How can you have a child, fresh and new and perfect, and worry about some random bad thing happening to them that would break your heart?  That’s when I became afraid.

You can read more from Amber in the We Came to Say anthology.

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