I spent the night my mother was supposed to die sitting on the floor against the dirty diaper yellow refrigerator that sat in my grandparent’s kitchen. I was a three year old who understood both too much and too little of the whispers around me. I knew my mother might not come home from the hospital, though I didn’t understand what it meant to have a lung removed.
Dinner that night had been an uncomfortable affair. All the cousins had been deposited at our grandparent’s house so that their parents could be at the hospital. We were watched over by an aunt from Florida whom none of us knew very well.
We all lived in a rural area and getting food from a restaurant was a big event; that night, we had buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The other kids had saved all the white meat for me, but all the sympathetic eyes during the meal had kept me from eating much. I was a shy only child, younger than the next cousin by five years, and all I wanted was to see my mother.
In those days, children weren’t allowed in hospital rooms, particularly when the person was very ill. So for the three days since my mother had stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and collapsed at my feet, I hadn’t seen or heard anything about her condition other than the few things the adults thought I needed to know. She’s resting. God’s taking care of her. She loves you very much. What I’d overheard had been much more ominous. Words like tumor and the worst kind peppered the adult’s conversation behind closed doors.
That night, I know now, she was fighting to recover from the surgery, a trauma that had broken every rib and her breastbone and had cut her body halfway open like a scientific slide. All I knew then was that something very bad was happening that might keep her away from me even longer. When I went to bed, I let my aunt’s Chihuahua, Prudy, crawl into bed with me, even though I knew it wasn’t allowed. The dog snuggled up around my neck, a necklace of fur and comfort.
Long after the house had gone late-night quiet, I was still awake. My eyes were dry and burning; I had no more tears left. But what kept me from falling asleep wasn’t the pain in my eyes; it was the growling in my stomach. After standing the sensation as long as I could, I finally padded into the kitchen for some of the chicken I hadn’t been able to eat for dinner.
I’d never spent the night without my parents before and my grandparent’s house, filled with all manner of large, heavy furniture that cast giant shadows, wasn’t a friendly place to start. But with the little dog beside me to give me courage, I alternately ran and hid my way to the kitchen.
The refrigerator was a formidable presence, its side by side size and the color making it stand out from the rest of the white kitchen appliances. I approached it cautiously, listening for sounds that anyone else might be up. I think part of me realized that all I needed to do was wake up my aunt and she would get me something to eat, but something—shyness, perhaps, or simply the feeling of wanting to have some control over something—kept me from doing it.
I reached up and grabbed the refrigerator handle and pulled. I pulled so hard I hung on the handle, my feet dangling below, and still the door didn’t budge. I tried again and again, until finally I accepted it wasn’t going to open. I let go of the handle and turned around to lean against its slick surface. I slid to the floor, my pajama top rising up so that the fridge burned my back. The dog crawled up on my lap and licked the tears from my cheeks. We were still that way the next morning when my father, back to shower and change clothes, scooped us up in his arms and said that Mama had survived the night.
The refrigerator still stands, indomitable and running perfectly, in the house my cousin now lives in. Every time I pass it, for a brief second I am small and I feel the urge to pull it open. Just to make sure I can.
Elizabeth Burton teaches English in Lexington, Kentucky. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Stony Brook University, and she has a dog who relives her past life every night in dreams.