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Paper Cranes

I grew up folding paper cranes. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer around the time I turned seven and she quickly picked up the art of origami. She had been hoping there was some truth to the Japanese myth about folding 1,000 paper cranes, where the person who folds them gets one of her wishes granted. Even if it didn’t work, it at least gave her something to do to pass the time during her stays in the hospital. Before her wellness spree began she let me fold paper into basic figures like cootie catchers and carefree cats. It wasn’t long until I was folding cranes alongside her.

I was always a mama’s girl, wanting to work hard and grow up to be just like her. My mom and I had always spent the days crafting and baking together before she got sick. She drove me to figure skating practice after school was over and would always stay to watch me practice my twirls and backwards skating. When my mom was a teenager she had been a competitive skater. When she got sick, though, I had to give it up because it cost too much money. My dad and I always got along but he’d always worked a lot. He was really good at math and would help me with my homework whenever I had questions. He was gone most weekends, though, playing golf with his work friends.

Some of the cranes I would fold were silver, others magenta, some were big, some little. The night I folded my five hundredth was the first night it happened.

Every night before bed I folded a set of three cranes, the first one burgundy, the second one navy, and the last one white. After this I would turn off the lights and go to sleep dreaming of when my mother would be well again. The night of June 21st, I slept soundly until 2am when a soft fluttering noise woke me up. At first I thought nothing of it, assuming it was Perry, the cat. A few minutes went by before I heard the fluttering again. This time I opened my eyes and sat up in bed. In front of me was not the soft tabby fur I’d been expecting. Instead there were three baseball sized origami birds, one red, one blue, one white. The red one cocked her head to the side and softly whooped at me. She turned around and leapt off my bed and into the air. A slow procession of various origami animals began to swirl above and around my bed. Paper koalas and pandas crawled across the floor as sailboats and alligators swam through the carpet and tulips and roses sprouted from my bedspread. All of the creatures I had been folding had been lit up with life. At exactly 2:17am the origami creatures fell to the floor and stopped moving exactly like when someone unplugs the vacuum cleaner by tripping over the cord.

I couldn’t tell my parents about the creatures. They obviously wouldn’t believe me. They’d tell me it was just a dream. But as each pair of pink flamingo legs strode across my rug I found myself enthralled by the beauty and magic. Outside of the cartoons I sometimes watched Saturday mornings on television, I had never seen such a vibrant display of color and movement.

After that it happened every night. I named the bird who always woke me up Scarlett. I spent the first few nights mesmerized by how soft Scarlett’s voice was. Listening to her flap and rustle her wings as she shifted rhythmically was like a slow heart beat. She cooed softly like a dove when she was content, her tiny paper beak forming the sounds. If I stuck out my hand to pet her, she would nestle her head into my palm, sounding perfectly pleased. In the morning I’d act like it never happened. I never told my parents. I didn’t want to lose the birds or any of my other creations. I was sure that as soon as I told someone about my secret, the magic would disappear completely, as if it had never existed.

Every night at 2:00am Scarlett woke me up. She would croon to me once and then the others would spring up from where I’d left them and dance. I had begun to fold more interesting characters for the nighttime show. I made lions right after folding deer to watch the slow chase as they galloped along my floor. I created eagles, sparrows, and evens dinosaurs. Every night there was an elaborate display of the war between one paper species and another. I made tidal waves that flooded the ships and bears that chased down the squirrels.

I began to fold in every available moment. I stopped playing with the other kids during recess and instead folded bouquets of flowers and herds of field mice. I had stopped folding the paper for my mother’s sake and had begun to do it for my own enjoyment. I imagined stories to go with each new creature, a fox and rabbit were both folded from the same blue paper with green checkered print because they were going to be friends. I spent all recess with my latest creations. I forced the fox and the rabbit to play an elaborate game of hide and go seek and tag. In the end, when the bell rang, I’d have the rabbit be captured by the fox who would make a quick meal out of him. At night, I’d watch the same origami critters come to life to act out the games I’d played with them during the day. It was as if I was the director to a big time movie and each night the show I got to watch was like a private premiere.

It wasn’t long before the other kids stopped talking to me altogether. I didn’t mind and I hardly even noticed. I had flamingos and elephants to take care of. I didn’t have time for friends with their sleepovers, birthday parties, and get-togethers. The idea of a sleepover was repulsive. I couldn’t stand to miss a night and allow my zoo parade to go on without an audience. I needed to be there to keep the animals from getting too loud. And what if one of them had escaped while I was gone? Time spent at a play date with school friends was wasted; I couldn’t possibly explain to the other kids why I was folding paper. If I was to tell them why I’d surely lose the cranes and their friends by outing their secret. I knew I had to keep quiet about it even though Scarlett never told me so. It was an unspoken rule just like wishes, if you make them out loud they can’t come true.

Birthday parties were the worst. I was glad when I stopped getting invites to those. First of all, most of them were pity invites. The parents all called me the “one with the cancer mom” when they thought I couldn’t hear. I knew it wasn’t the kids who were inviting me, but the parents who felt bad for my mom. One time at Annie’s house we were eating cake when I had to go to the bathroom. Three moms were in the kitchen drinking wine and I overheard Bridgette’s mom saying, “I just feel bad for that girl. The one with the cancer mom, what’s her name?”

The worst part were the gifts. My dad had taken up a second job in order to afford medical bills and to keep food on the table while my mom took time off to recover. Mostly she spent all day knitting with lavender yarn, drinking tea from the health food store, and doing yoga or Pilates. Her wellness spree meant that she couldn’t go into town. The exhaust from cars might interfere with her detox. Because my dad was working all the time it meant neither parent could take me into town to pick out gifts for my friends so I was forced to make my own gifts. It’s not like we could have afforded anything for them, anyway. The only thing I could craft was origami and I certainly wasn’t willing to part with one of my creations. So, for the longest time, I’d attempt to bake cookies or draw pictures for the kids. No matter how hard I tried my gifts always looked pitiful in comparison with Gameboy games and pop star CDs.

As I came to spend more time with my paper creations, some of the boys started to cut in front of me in the snack line. Sometimes they’d push me out of the way if I went to walk through a door before them. Once or twice they called me names like “weirdo” if they caught a glimpse of what I was folding. One boy, Christopher, was particularly nasty to me. He was a bit fat for a fourth grader, and he loomed over me. He had thick, curly red hair and freckles splattered across his hands and cheeks. His nose was always sun burnt. He told me he hoped my mom died, and that he hoped I caught cancer, too. He told the other kids that cancer was contagious and to stay away from me. Most of the other rotten kids left me alone once they thought they could catch it. For the most part I didn’t mind being left alone.

Once the other children started to ignore me, I realized homework wasn’t a necessity. The teachers had all given me a free ride for the year, agreeing to pass me out of sympathy for my mother’s condition. It’s not like you learn anything important in the second grade, anyway. Since school no longer mattered and I no longer had friends that needed pretenses, I was able to dive full force into my origami. I became quite skilled and was able to use more than just origami paper to fold my friends. Soon I learned how to use printer paper, then newspaper, receipts, dollar bills, and even toilet paper. I used note cards and sticky notes, tissues and tracing paper. I folded critters under my desk during class, out in the open during recess, under the table at dinner, and against the bathroom floor during my nightly bath. No one noticed, or, no one chose to say anything in protest.

Scarlett’s creases began to grow softer as she aged. My strokes were breaking down the fibers of her paper flesh. Nonetheless, she would coo to me at night and I’d whisper to her the stories of my day. I’d tell her about the things I’d overheard the kids in the back of the bus gossiping about. Stories about how this one 5th grader was dating a middle school boy and wasn’t that crazy!? Scarlett listened to me tell her about how I’d gone to make myself lunch one morning while it was dark — I wasn’t allowed to turn on the lights because it would bother my mom’s sleeping rhythms. My dad wasn’t home yet and I was to see myself to the bus by 6:54 am. I went to make myself another peanut butter and jelly sandwich only to find no more peanut butter, or almond butter, or ordinary butter, for that matter. When I checked the jelly container I found the glass jar empty in the recycling bin. For lunch I had two dry pieces of bread, water from the drinking fountain, and large handful of carrot sticks my mom had purchased for her liquid diet. Scarlett simply purred and nuzzled into me further while we watched the animal parade before us. At 2:17am the room fell silent as the paper animals all collapsed again onto the floor. Scarlett had stopped fluffing her wings and the silence echoed. I sighed and neatly placed all my animals back in their proper storage units before lying back in bed to go back to sleep.

 

My mom had read online somewhere that she should take a holistic route in addition to the traditional medicine her doctor prescribed. She became a vegetarian, then a vegan. She did daily exercise routines that encouraged blood flow to various parts of her body. She did yoga and Pilates and went for a twenty minute walk after every meal. She was always finding some new diet that would help to make her feel better, slow the growth of the tumor, or increase relaxation. She kept a strict sleeping schedule, 10pm-8am, and I’d better not disturb her. She sat me down and explained all of this, telling me, “I’m going to need to take some time for myself. Right now it’s really important for me to focus on getting well. I know you’d rather have me be a little distant now if it means in the long run I’m healthier and able to spend more time with you. You know I love you.” She went on yoga retreats and stayed at a special weeklong camp for women looking to overcome cancer in a natural way. She claimed she came back feeling more ambitious and able to face her disease.

One night when Scarlett woke me up I was ready to tell her the story about how the 5th graders had just watched “The Movie” which was the film the teachers plopped all the 5th graders down in front of in order to teach the rudimentary details of sex and puberty, in case their parents had been too embarrassed to have a conversation with them. It seemed like “The Movie” had been enough to make all the 5th graders begin dating one another, as if by watching a 30 minute film they’d become mature enough to handle romance. They hadn’t. Two girls on my bus ride back were crying because the both liked the same boy, who’d agreed to date them both, and when they told him he’d have to pick between them he said he was late for soccer practice.

It never got much more eventful than that. Two third graders got into a fist fight about who won a game of wall ball. One time a kindergartner got on the wrong bus and was too afraid to let the bus driver know, so all she did was sit in the back and cry while the entire bus system was shut down in an effort to find the girl. Once I saw a third grade girl kiss a fourth grade boy outside the bathroom in the library. Scarlett listened to me recount it all with a knowing purr and a gentle nuzzle.

 

My mom was still fighting cancer when I went back to school in the fall as a third grader. I was bullied a bit more by the older kids, ones who told me I was weird, a nutjob, and even, if when Christopher was sure no adults were around, “fucked-up.” Scarlett and I looked that up in the dictionary. It made me uncomfortable.

The day Christopher called me fucked-up was the first night Scarlett spoke to me. She whispered softly, almost as if she was telling me something I already knew, “They’re just jealous of you. Don’t let them get to you.” She nuzzled me and I nuzzled her back, letting myself cry for a moment, silently, of course, so as not to wake my mother.

Christopher was extremely persistent in his efforts to make me unhappy. One day he’d shoved me face first into a mud puddle, staining my clothes in red clay and oil from the parking lot runoff. Another time he’d stolen my origami dinosaur and cat and sliced them up with a pair of scissors. Scarlett listened calmly to me while I told her each story. Then, she’d whisper gently to me, “He’s just jealous.” So I believed her. I believed her even when he got rougher and pushed me up against the brick wall behind the storage shed one day during recess leaving me with skinned elbows and bruised shoulder blades. He spat in my face and told me I was ugly. He took my lunch from me, dumping out my saltine crackers and cucumber slices, making fun of me for not having a “real lunch.” Scarlett listened to me tell these stories, and just like always, she’d say it was simply because he was jealous.

One day he was more than jealous. He pressed me up against the wall behind the game shed. It was dark and musty back there, but it had always been safe. It was my preferred folding location. He covered my mouth with his left hand and shoved his dirty hand places any good sex ed course would tell a third grader to not let anyone touch. His hand was stained grey from the pavement smears left on the ball he’d been playing wall ball with before he’d come to torment me. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said anything to anyone besides a “good morning” and “thank you” to my bus driver. I cried after he left, silently, of course. I was good at that by then. I buttoned my pants again with shaking fingers and saw myself to the bathroom. I washed my hands four times in straight hot water and did not stop crying. When the bell rang signaling that recess was over I bit my tongue to stop myself from crying. I wiped my tears and snot on the grey cotton of my sweatshirt and I went back to class pretending that nothing had happened.

That night Scarlett didn’t tell me he was jealous. That night Scarlett simply let me cry under her wing while she nuzzled me and cooed. I was crying loudly, far too loudly for me not to disturb my mother, and I knew it. In fact, I heard her footsteps as she walked down the hallway. I heard her turn on the tap water in the kitchen. I heard her footsteps walk right past my door, and I heard her walk right back into her room without stopping to ask me what was the matter. The stress of dealing with me was bad for her health, I supposed. “I just can’t. Try talking to your dad about this,” she’d told me when I first tried to explain to her about the boy tripping me in the hallways. “I need to focus on getting well. Can you let me do that?” I could, and I did, simply by silencing my sobs.

The parade went on without me watching. At 2:17 in the morning Scarlett didn’t leave my bedside, even though the rest of the animals froze. Instead she continued to look after me, softly combing her beak through my hair. It was a few hours later when I finally couldn’t cry anymore. She spoke, “You’ll need to tell someone about everything he’s done to you. Especially this.” I shook my head, no, I was too embarrassed for that. “You’re lovely,” she whispered. Again, I shook my head, no.

“Please,” she tucked a strand of hair behind my ear using the point of her beak, “tell someone.” I told her I couldn’t. As the sun began its steady climb she told me she had to go, and stiffened.

At school the next day I refused to leave the classroom. I was going to do everything I could to stop things like that from happening to me again. My teacher didn’t question me. I was still the kid whose mom had cancer.

That night Scarlett and I had a real conversation, though she only stayed for the 17 minutes that I’d grown to expect. She begged me to tell someone. When I adamantly refused she told me she wouldn’t come back the following day if I didn’t speak up about what he’d done to me.

The next afternoon I stayed after my last class, waiting until all the other students left on their bus rides home, and I stopped Mrs. Teeves from packing up her things. I asked her if she’d ever been bullied as a child or if she ever had anything bad happen to her when she was a third grader that had made her upset for a long time. She said she had been bullied as a middle schooler and she wanted to know if I felt like I’d been bullied. I quietly told her everything, about the origami that came to life, the fact that my mom couldn’t be disturbed anymore because the stress added to her illness, and how Christopher had bullied me. I even told her about that day when he’d touched me.

My parents were called and Mrs. Teeves spoke with each of them on the phone. She agreed to drive me home because my dad was still at work with the car and wouldn’t be able to get off until after 7. During the car ride home I pulled Scarlett out of my pocket and stroked her gently admiring her folds. The ink on her paper had long ago brushed off into a softened pink and then finally into a dirty and tear-stained beige. Some of the folds were ripping at the seams, the paper aged beyond the point where it was sturdy anywhere. The softness of her paper reminded me of an old t-shirt from a theme park my mom and I had once visited. I cradled her to my face and whispered to her, letting her know I’d done what she’d asked.

That night my parents stayed up late talking to me about how sorry they were, but I didn’t listen. I wanted to go to sleep so I could wake up and be with Scarlett again. I wanted her to tell me that I was lovely, I wanted her to tell me everything would be alright and that my troubles were worth it and that everything would be okay now that I’d told Mrs. Teeves about all that had been going wrong. I wanted Scarlett to coo at me and brush her beak through my hair as we watched the procession of tiny animals as they danced and climbed and fought and ran across my bedroom floor. But my parents wouldn’t let me go to sleep. My mom apologized profusely saying, “It’s all my fault,” and, “I should have been a better parent. I thought it was just something silly that would blow over. I thought I needed to focus on me so I could be around to help you later. But you needed my help then and I ignored you.” She even said, “I’m sorry.”

After my parents finally let me go to sleep, I woke up at 2:00am out of habit. Scarlett was sitting on my nightstand. I checked the time again thinking perhaps the clock was fast. When the time hit 2:05am and the birds didn’t flutter to life, I realized something was wrong. I picked up Scarlett first, pressing on her wings, wiggling her neck and beak. Nothing. She didn’t move. Frantically I grabbed an origami bear, trying to manipulate him into life. He didn’t move either. Hurriedly I leapt back into my bed grabbing for Scarlett, begging aloud for her to come back to me. I wept, telling her I needed her. I sobbed as I scrambled to wake her up. I tried breathing into her beak to give her air. I held her up against my ear to check for a heartbeat. Nothing. The magic was broken.

For many nights I struggled to sleep through the night knowing Scarlett wouldn’t be coming in the night. I kept folding paper but to no avail, none of my new origami creatures woke up in the night. One night I woke up at 2am to the same fluttering sound I had been used to, only to find Perry, the cat, butting up against my arm inviting herself in for cuddles. I sat and waited and checked the clock on my wall to be sure the time was accurate. The red crane never rose up above my bed. Instead she sat, tiny and small, folded on my bedside table, exactly where I’d left her. Even when I stroked her tail feathers and threw her into the air, she made no movement outside of the realm of what was normal for paper.

That night I cried. I knew for sure then that I’d lost my cranes. I knew I’d have to make friends again, go to birthday parties, and that my parents would begin making me lunches in the mornings. I cried for a long time that night without understanding why the cranes had stopped their dances. In the morning my mom declared that she’d found a job and that she thought going back to work was going to be good for her health. I think what she meant to say was, “I’m sorry for acting childish and I should’ve listened to you when you asked. I’m going to be a better parent now.” The words didn’t come out that way, but they didn’t need to. I understood.

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