Today, I was thinking about the time when I was about seven, and my whole family went to MacDonald’s. We used to go there a lot back then, actually, because my Dad was always too busy to make dinner, and Mom was too weak from all the chemo treatments. We had more money back then, but not a lot, and the cost of Mom’s treatments was taking a toll, because Dad’s church back then didn’t provide very good insurance benefits. That’s one of the reasons we had to leave that church actually, and Mom, I think, always felt a little guilty about it, because Dad was happy there.
Well, we always went to the MacDonald’s by the highway, because the playground there was totally ruckus. It was this massive, plastic castle complete with ramparts and slides and wobbly bridges and even a dungeon that was really a ball pit. And the three of us kids, Josey wasn’t born yet, would tramp around inside that claustrophobic castle for hours.
I remember, one scorching day, Sy, Zo, and I sat up in this little loft space all the way at the top of the castle, where you could look out and see everything – the crowded parking lot, the thundering semis at the truck stop down the road, and the crisscrossing concrete roads and ramps at the highway, cloverleaf interchange. Zo, who was about four at that time, was telling a story about the neighbor’s dog or something, when I noticed that Mom and Dad were preparing to leave. I could see them easily from our perch at the top of the castle. Mom was pretty sick in those days, and even on that humid, summer day, she still wore black. She also had on a light, brown pageboy style wig to cover her bald head and one of those wide-brimmed straw hats to block the sun.
Anyway, I saw Dad helping Mom up from her seat at the plastic picnic table next to the cubbyholes where all the kids leave their shoes, and that always signaled to us that they were ready to leave.
“It’s time to go,” I said to Sy and Zo as I slid down the ladder to the main part of the playground, trying to act all cool. Midway to the picnic area, I stopped. I wanted to jump into the ball pit one last time. That was my favorite. So I climbed through the mesh net and bellysmacker-ed into the ball pit. Nobody saw me. Sy and Zo were probably already with Mom and Dad, and we were the only kids there at the time.
So I burrowed myself down into the lake of plastic balls, and I was amazed by all the colors and the way the sunlight lit up some of the colors but not others, but mostly, I was intrigued by the way all those balls muffled the sound. I felt like I was scuba diving at some beautiful, colorful coral reef.
I could hear Dad telling Simon and Zoey something, but I couldn’t make out what. Then, I heard Mom call my name. “T. Time to go.” She coughed a little, because it hurt her throat to yell. “Tristan.”
I kept swimming in the ball pit. I was going to wait for the sound of her voice to get closer, and then I would jump out like a jack-in-the-box and surprise her, and we would have a good laugh together, and we’d hug, and she’d give me a kiss on the forehead. But the sound of her voice changed. All of a sudden, she was screaming out my name over and over. I could hear her flip flops snap over the padded floor. I could hear her breathe, scared and shallow.
I stared up at all those colors and realized I was going to be in huge trouble when she found me. Why was she so scared? I was fine. Why was she scared? I curled up against the plastic lining along the dark bottom of the ball pit and closed my eyes, hoping to disappear, praying to go back in time…or ahead in time, anything to get me out of this moment. Why was she so scared? Her voice grew closer.
I heard Mom cough, and I could even feel the sound in my fingertips. She was close. I felt the ball pit shake when she pulled aside the mesh net entrance. “Tristan?!” She shrieked. I clenched my eyes shut. “Tristan?!” She sniffled. She was crying. I could hear it in her voice, and I thought maybe I could hear a tear splash against one of the balls, but I probably couldn’t hear that.
Her voice grew fainter. I heard a semi truck pass and a jet fly overhead. Dad spoke to Mom in almost a whisper, “It’s ok, Bunny. We’ll find him. He’s ok. Let’s just have a seat over here, and we’ll…”
“Don’t touch me. Don’t…” Mom shouted, and I heard their arms slap. “Why isn’t he coming? I’m calling. Why…” She fell down crying. The doors squeaked opened, as MacDonald’s employees peeked out to see what was happening. Mom’s breaths sounded raspy, like tree limbs rattling together in a breeze. What was happening? I was so scared.
A man approached my parents. He was heavy. I could hear his footsteps. “Is everything ok?”
“Tristan?!” Mom cried.
As if awaking from a coma, I rediscovered how to move my arms and legs. The colors pushed away and gradually fell aside in waves as the real world came back into view. I was standing.
With my finger tucked away inside my mouth, I shuffled, pigeon-toed, out of the ball pit and into the picnic area and just stood there in the sun staring at my droopy socks until Mom finally noticed me. She leapt up over a picnic table to get to me in a flash like a superhero. We were both crying.
“Why are you crying, Mommy?” I asked through sobs of my own.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again, T. Don’t you ever leave me like that again. Don’t ever leave.” Then, she put my tennis shoes on me and tied them even though I already knew how.
I will never forget that day.