The smile on Maggie’s eight-year-old face always breaks my heart on court days. Single mom-ing hasn’t been too bad and her dad and I even keep it pretty civil. I just hate seeing Maggie go through it. We enter the playground as is our tradition. Our thirty minutes of bliss before facing the custody judge and the questions and the paperwork…
“What do you feel like playing on first?” I ask. Maggie sheepishly surveys the cramped Bleecker Street playground. “Swings.”
We take our place in line. “I have to go to the bathroom,” Maggie says and quickly runs in that direction. They get independent so fast. I spot an open seat next to an eccentric elderly lady and take the opportunity to rest my feet.
She barely notices my presence but I can’t help but focus on hers. She wears a leopard faux print coat too warm for this weather and clutches a bright gold purse. Her hair is disheveled and her tinted glasses remind me of Elton John. I smile at her ability to sleep while sitting up. I have the same talent.
I think of myself in forty years. Maggie will be off ruling the world somewhere. Where will I be? Still in the city. Downgraded to a studio or junior one bedroom out in Bay Ridge, or worse, Queens. I look again at the lady next to me. This time there is less of a difference between us.
My thoughts are in so many places I almost don’t realize she’s physically shaking next to me. A strange gurgling noise escapes from her mouth. I look around. Some other moms nearby start to take notice. They slow the swings and turn to me expectantly as if by default my proximity to the woman puts me in charge.
I freeze. Is this a medical emergency? Or is she just drunk? Where is Maggie? I pull out my phone, swipe it open and look up at the other mothers in the park. “Do I call 911?” All blank stares. Not even an opinion. They just stand there blocking their children from this questionably gruesome experience. Where is Maggie? I look at the lady one more time. She turns her head and makes eye contact with me.
“I’m going to call an ambulance. Ok?” Please respond. She does. She projectile vomits leaving a pool in her lap covering the shiny gold-ness of her bag. I’m mostly spared aside from a streak that hits below the calf and over three quarters of my right foot. For the moment I imagine the thin lining of my pantyhose is enough protection from human excretions. I look to the crowd, now all turned away in disgust. There is Maggie at the forefront. It’s so nice to see her. She is confused and scared. I am too.
I go with my gut and grab my phone again. I begin to fumble to find the keypad option when I feel a sharp slap on my hands and my phone drops to the ground.
“Noo. Beth Israel.” The lady is agitated and mumbling words I don’t understand. I sink down at a complete loss. Does that mean she can’t go to Beth Israel or that she must go to Beth Israel. I grow angry as I look at those around me, refusing to make eye contact but darting their eyes back at me every instant they can. You really don’t notice this happening here? The mom in line behind me eases up to me as if approaching a wild animal and meekly hands me a half full bottle of water. Thanks? I can at least appreciate the acknowledgment.
I look at my daughter staring expectantly towards me and the weight of the situation hits me. I’m forming the way she will behave later in life. I now grab my phone with renewed confidence and dial 9-1-1. I start giving the details to the operator as I sadly look at the woman next to me. Her convulsions have slowed but her breathing is heavy and irregular. I swear she’s glaring at me. The operator tells me to stay on the line until the ambulance arrives in case anything else occurs. I hear the words and my heart stops. It’s a court day. We have a custody hearing. We have to get going soon. I look at my watch and then again at the fading state of the woman, and am immediately shamed at my first concern. Tears are easily falling down my face now, but I feel frozen in place and can’t seem to wipe them away. Maybe they will wash away some of the vomit.
Without realizing, I reach my hand out to touch her and start awkwardly rubbing circles in her back. A part of me wants to embrace this woman that withers before me, but I can’t shake my natural wariness. I wonder if she can even feel my hand through the thick coat.
The breathing seems to stop and a stillness overcomes everything. My own breath halts. I feel she’s gone before I lean in to examine her. I realize my hand is still on her back and I jerk it back quickly, unconsciously recoiling from death. I look around now and my anger is gone as I see the solemn faces of everyone nearby. We all suffered through this. Maggie runs up to hug me and I steer her to the clean side of me.
The ambulance sounds and soon there is a new rush of energy. I finally breathe freely with the knowledge someone else is in charge. Each mother is now more than eager to tell her account of the story to the EMTs.
I quietly hand my card to one and tell him to contact me if they need additional statements. I put my arm around Maggie and look down. “You ok?” She nods. I’m ok too, because this time when I look at Maggie – I don’t see forty years from now. I don’t see tomorrow. I just see life. Appreciated.
more by ANNA KOWALCZUK
photography by Rolfe Kolbe