Excerpt from The Price of Admission, Chapter 4
When I was thirty-six weeks pregnant with my youngest son, I almost died.
Alright, I’m being a little dramatic. I didn’t exactly almost die. But for a second late one afternoon on my way home from work I did think I was about to die, and that should count for something here in this story I’m about to tell you.
My office then was on the fifteenth floor of a downtown high-rise and empty by the time I left, everyone else long gone. I stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor, but we only dropped a foot or two before the machinery made an awful metal-on-metal crunching noise and stopped.
Note that it’s important you know this is not actually when I thought I was dying. In fact I was still only paying half attention to what was going on at this point, thinking about what we could have for dinner that required the least amount of actual effort and chewing away on my fingernail, a habit I’d had since I was a kid despite my mother’s best efforts to stop me. When I realized we had stopped moving, I nonchalantly pressed the Open Door button on the elevator’s control panel with the hand that wasn’t in my mouth. No big deal. This wasn’t my first rodeo, you see. I had been stuck in the elevator before, even had to use the intercom call button to ask for help, which had looked like this, that first time:
Intercom Guy: “Yello?”
Me: “I’m stuck in the elevator.”
Intercom Guy: [Silence. Possible chewing noises.]
Me: “Hello? Stuck in elevator here?”
Intercom Guy: “Yeah, um, have you tried pressing the button labeled Open Door?”
Me: [Silence. Presses Open Door button. Doors slide open. Embarrassingly sneaks out of elevator.]
Intercom Guy: [Quiet in the distance now as I walk away.] “Yello?”
Except this time pressing the Open Door button had no effect at all, and just for good measure I tried reverse psychology and pressed the Close Door button, which also did not open the door. This was when I started to pay a little bit of attention. I had places to be and mouths to feed (chief among them, mine), and was at the stage of pregnancy where I needed to pee approximately every three minutes or so. Being stuck was not something that was going to fit conveniently into my life, not at that moment.
But when the elevator car dropped out from under me suddenly, the force of the fall throwing me off-balance and into the back wall—hard—that was when I really started to pay attention. My finger was still in my mouth when I fell and I bit down on it accidentally. The pain of that mixed with my surprise and fear made me gasp and then mew this weird guttural nonword that sounded a lot like “Mom” because no matter how screwed up your situation with your mother is you will still call out for her when you think you are dying, trust me.
And we were pretty screwed up at that point, my mother and me, but it hadn’t always been that way either. When I was a little girl I absolutely adored my mother. It seemed easy to love her then, maybe because of the optimism of childhood, or maybe because she didn’t drink that much yet, or not that we saw anyway. In restaurants she would order a glass of white wine and leave it mostly untouched, looking past it the same way she looked past most temptations, especially those with calories. Or maybe it was because everyone else loved her too, the mailmen and the handymen and each one of her four husbands, sure, but also anyone lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time with her. She would smile at you and it was like you had been given a gift that you would then spend the rest of your life chasing. Kind of like heroin.
I don’t know when any of that shifted, really, and whether it was a gradual descent into the depth of the hole she and I ended up in or if it had happened all at once. What I do know is that I spent years trying arrogantly to fix it all, staging catastrophic interventions that no one wanted to come to and pouring out whatever liquor bottles I could find. I sucked up false promises like an overeager child. There wasn’t any contempt in me then, not at first anyway, just sadness and pain and a growing sense of helplessness. But a decade of disappointments and lies went by and eventually I’d cycled through every possible emotion and ended up numb with it all, slowly distancing myself from the first relationship I ever had with the most tentative of baby steps, feigning a callousness and strength that I was never really sure I actually had in me at all because it was the only way I knew how to protect myself and my kids.
But the truth that I tried to pretend away was apparent in that one nonword mew. I missed my mother something fierce. And missing your mother—whether she is alive or not—is an ache that lives deeply ingrained in the core of your being, in the primal place that regulates the most basic things like breath and heartbeat and my love for my children and the way I think mushrooms and cheeseburgers and a good Cabernet are the most delicious things in the world. I missed her then even though she was still alive, even if she wasn’t all the way gone yet, because she wasn’t there either, not really. She wasn’t there in the way I thought a mother should be or could be and certainly not in the way she had been for us before. So I missed her in that nasally, whiny, victim-y way, where if I had been able to talk about it plainly (I wasn’t, it was forbidden) I would have been pretty insufferable to listen to and after about two seconds you would have wanted to stab me in the eyeball with your finger just to get me to please shut up.
I even missed made-up stuff that wasn’t even real, like the wisdom I wanted her to give me when I was standing in a swaying empty elevator car carrying thirty (forty) extra pregnancy pounds and a crazed, manic shining across my face. I wanted her to be able to say “you’re going to get out of here, don’t worry” to me like this broken elevator car was no big thing at all and for me to believe it because maybe she’d get out of where she was trapped too and become a happy normal everyday kind of grandma who wore floppy hats and worked in a garden and kept her house decorated in the smudges of my children’s fingerprints instead of hidden empty vodka bottles.
And then I laughed, out loud and a little maniacally, because all I could picture her saying if she was there was, “I told you to stop biting your fucking fingernails and get your shit together, Elizabeth,” and I don’t know, but maybe in some ways she was always with me no matter what.
I pressed my forehead against the cold metal of the elevator wall, shook my hand until my finger stopped throbbing so much, and then made my way back to the front of the elevator car where the emergency intercom button was glowing bright like a beacon. I pressed that thing like it was my epidural pump in labor, and thought quickly: Shit. I hope Yello Guy doesn’t remember me.
But it wasn’t Yello Guy. It was a soft, gentle voice, and it piped in from the speaker and filled the elevator car. “Are you okay?” it asked me.
“I think I might be stuck,” I said. “I even pressed the Open Door button. I swear.”
Then he said the exact right thing, the thing I’d wished my mother would have said. “You’re going to get out of here, don’t worry.” And for a second, in the dimly lit elevator car that I swear was rocking gently side to side, with this kind, paternal voice booming in overhead, I wondered if I had actually died and this was what it was like to walk into the light.
I remembered then how when I was young, little still, I used to sometimes roll off my bed in my sleep. I think this is actually pretty common, and it’s probably why they make those guard rails now that my own kids had when they were around that same age. And it wasn’t usually that big of a deal. I would wake up when I hit the floor—which thankfully was carpeted—shake the dust from my hair and climb back into my bed. No one else even needed to know, thank you very much, because I was embarrassed and proud and desperately wanted to be more grown up than I actually was. Everything was fine.
That is, of course, until it wasn’t.
Until one night I rolled off the bed and this time I didn’t wake up. Instead I kept right on rolling, somehow ending up fully underneath my own bed where I must have slept for a while like a total freak. And when I did wake up a little while later it was to complete terror and confusion because I had no idea where I was. I tried to sit up, only to hit my head against the underside of the mattress. I can still feel the claustrophobia of it all, the sensation of being trapped and alone in the dark, the realization that I was in a situation I did not know how to get myself out of.
So I did what anyone would do, what my instinct still had me doing as an adult swinging in a free-falling elevator. I called for my mother. My voice must have been muffled by the mattress and the bedding but somehow she’d heard me anyway and came running into my room, confused at first and then a little scared when she didn’t see me anywhere. She didn’t know about how I’d been falling out of my bed because I hadn’t told her, of course. So it took the two of us calling out to each other, a late-night mother-daughter freaked-out version of Marco Polo, for me to be found and eventually pulled to my rescue. Afterwards, once I was safely back in her arms and back in my bed, both of us were reduced to the kind of spontaneous giggling fits that seem to only happen when you think you’re doomed and then you realize you’re still alive and everything is okay and all of it, all that primal terror and confusion, just seems funny in retrospect.
I’d been quiet for too long, sucked into my memories. “Are you okay?” the intercom voice asked me again, and wasn’t that the question, right there? Was I okay? I was thirty-three years old and a mother of three and I might have just wet myself a little, and my belly was so full with yet another baby that I was constantly surprised by the fact that I could still move around at will at all. My fingers had been swollen like sausages for months and now one of them was bleeding, slowly, dripping a little on the elevator floor. My mother and I were so screwed up and I was so mad at her most of the time that I couldn’t think straight except apparently I still mewed her name when I got scared. But also, I had thought for a second I was plummeting to my death and then I didn’t, miracle of miracles, thanks be to God or Jesus or just plain luck.
So I told him I was okay. And the baby kicked and my belly shook and I wondered what the odds were that I would give birth right there on the elevator floor. By this time I’d been having contractions on and off for weeks, which they told me was normal when it’s your hundredth baby but I was never sure I believed them all of the way. Something in me was completely convinced this one would come in a special way or maybe just fall out while I was doing the dishes one night, and with the dim light of the elevator, the quiet space, and God-voice on the mic: there were worse places to give birth.
But my baby didn’t come then. The firemen did, breaking my reverie with their loud boot steps, knocking on the elevator doors and shouting down to me. My legs had fallen asleep underneath my heavy belly and I struggled to stand up again.
“Miss,” they called to me through the door, and I loved them then too for calling me Miss and not Ma’am. (It’s easy to love people when you almost die and then don’t.) “The elevator door is jammed shut, so we are going to force it open using a crowbar. Please back away from the door.”
I obliged, backed away. God-voice asked me if I was still okay, but it was too loud to answer through the noise of the doors being wrenched open with a crowbar, metal on metal again but not as scary this time. Slowly the doors started to open and light flooded in from above along with the gentle faces on the firemen. I blinked slowly, my eyes trying to adjust to the bright again.
The car had fallen and then stuck in between floors, and one of the firemen jumped down into the car and dropped to his knee. “Miss,” he started, and it was even better this time that he chose Miss because he could actually see me now, eight months huge and ruddy-faced. “I would like you to step up onto my knee. My partner up there will reach down and grab you and pull you up into the lobby.”
I looked at him, and at his partner. Then I looked down at my belly, and finally at my shoes, heavy wooden clogs. “You want me to step on you?” I asked. I had never felt larger.
“Miss, I need you to step on me in order for me to rescue you.”
“Um, I am wearing very heavy shoes,” I said, pointing to my feet.
“And I am a firefighter,” he countered, pointing to his uniform.
And so I stepped, and he held me, lifted me up even, and his partner pulled me to safety the same way my mother had pulled me out from under the bed and into the light all those years ago. And while it wasn’t exactly a graceful rising and somehow my skirt twisted so bad around me that the maternity panel ended up supporting my butt for a while instead of my belly, I still ended up standing on solid ground.
“Miss, are you okay?”
I’m not sure who even asked this the last time, either a firefighter or God again or all of them together in three-part harmony, but when I said, “I’m okay,” I meant it, even twirled a little in my backwards skirt as I walked away.
A couple of days later, my mom called me. We hadn’t been okay for so long and I usually wouldn’t even have answered but I think it was what happened in the elevator that made me pick up that time. “Yello?” I said, tentatively.
“Honey! I heard you got stuck in an elevator,” she said, and instead of an argument she was just my mom again for this moment. “Are you okay?”
“I am, Mom,” I answered. “I’m okay.” And I was.
I didn’t know it then, of course, but it was the last conversation we ever had. She died a few days later, and in the first chaotic weeks of grief I thought of that elevator and how quickly everything can change: you can be just standing still all minding your own business when the floor drops out from under you and you’re thrown right off your feet. It’s completely terrifying and it’s easy then to get stuck in unfamiliar territory, where the only way out is going to be calling out Marco and trusting, even while your heart tries to gallop right out of your chest, that the Polo is coming. And it is. There are people who will quite literally lift you up, grab your hands and pull. It’s happened before and it will happen again, of this I am sure, as long as I continue to have the faith to call out.
Click here to learn more about The Price of Admission by Liz Petrone.