The Shape of Fear

Sarah Gorham

… moves like a centipede in the bathtub. Pricks like punctuation. Festers like a puddle of water edged with mud where cows trod and bullhead slurp. Who would dive into fear like that, willingly?

She squatted against an outside brick wall, sweating on an unseasonably cool day. Camp was still in session, but her task this morning was protecting her belly, pressing her arms against it, trying to create a counter-ache that would distract her from the real ache. She mumbled, climbed into my car. Her whole body mumbled, a definite blip on the taciturn scale. Have you had anything strange to eat?

There was a nasty bug running around so I took her home.

Saltines with jelly, toast with margarine, and plain old Melba Rounds—all tossed into the garbage. I unwrapped her favorite processed cheese, sliced it into strips. Bought flexible straws and a bright green plastic cup and filled it with ginger ale. Stood with arms folded, begging, finally raised my voice, You must drink. You cannot go three days without drinking.

Girl took a little sip. Okay?

Later, at the hospital, a physician breezed into the examining room, unfolded her on the table as if she were a dinner napkin. He leaned on the child’s abdomen, then released with exaggeration. It’s called “rebound tenderness,” sharp pain with the let-up of pressure rather than application. Sign of trouble in the appendix. He checked off his mental list. Deep palpation over the descending colon, in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen. Rovsing’s sign? His movements were inorganic, rote. Turned the patient on her side with right hip flexed to determine presence of Psoas sign. Negative. Ditto the Obturator sign; no pain in the hypogastrium. The girl was definitely sick, but unfazed in any specific way by any specific prodding.

Not surgical, his conclusion, probably just flu. You can go home now.

That night I dreamed my child in a cup of milk. Looked down to see the milk rise up to her nose. Took a quick swallow to keep her from drowning.It is a fine example of Faience—a porcelain box with cabriole legs and ormolu fittings, hand-painted in the Romantic style. On the lid, a man embraces a woman, her bared breast a pink pastille, flowers flung aside now that they have got down to the heart of the matter. Underneath, someone has replicated the Meissen mark, implying that the box was fit for Augustus Rex, more likely his Queen.

Technically a jewel casket, and I made good use of it. Not for jewels, for I had none. Not for decoration at all, unless you call scraps of paper covered with anxious scribblings decorative.

But let me backtrack a bit. Before it came into my possession, the jewel casket was filled with great-grandmother’s necklaces, bangles, a gold watch she intended to refinish. These were wrapped in white Kleenex so as not to chafe against each other. The box sat on her dresser, a nice piece itself of inlaid wood and brass pulls. 

When she died, the casket was emptied of jewels and filled with great-grandmother’s ashes. Refined, beloved Marianne—matriarch of an enormous clan, fit to be buried in decorated porcelain lined with blue velvet. Until one cousin came to her senses. The box was ready to go, perched on a French writing desk in the front hallway. Family idling, coated and sad. One cousin turned to the other, saying, What are we doing? Are we sure we want to bury this thing? It’s over a hundred years old.

And thus the ashes were tipped into a FedEx envelope, later into a conventional urn, still later that morning the ground dug up, the urn buried properly with a scattering of Lutheran prayers, and for those who didn’t believe, fidgety silence.

Again the ER. Again the girl was unfolded upon the table, dressed in a gown covered with blue fish. Two more days—making five—without much sustenance and only thimblefuls of Kool-Aid.

This time we were simmering, pleaded our case to the receptionist and still hung five hours for someone from surgery. Then the surgeon arrived, ducking in for a few minutes between her own patients. She proposed a pelvic and rectal exam to get a better look around the inside, deliberate probing for sensitivity—not nice or kind. If the appendix lies entirely within the pelvis, there’s often a complete absence of abdominal rigidity, so her investigation was shamelessly thorough. I asked if my daughter might need privacy, turned abruptly to leave the room only to have the surgeon grab my arm and order my return. She needs her mother right now. Please.

But the patient was under-responsive, except to the indignity of it all. Or she was holding it in, holding out for a lesser diagnosis. I too edged into denial that anything more serious than flu was at hand. After all, that first doctor with the unpronounceable name, hadn’t he confirmed it two days earlier? The flu. Could we go home now? Possibly?

Another two-hour wait and finally by ultrasound the appendix was sighted, tucked behind her uterus. It was indeed ruptured, flailing like a snipped hose, spreading little pellets of excrement into her gut. The patient was whisked into surgery, promised she would be sleeping like she’d never slept before. There followed an uneventful forty-eight hours blessed by on-demand morphine and as many popsicles as she wanted. She was only thirteen. The other food she craved was French fries, which, of course, were verboten.

In 2006, a graphic designer from the UK named Orlagh O’Brien conducted a survey she called Emotionally: Vague. The aim was to create a graphic, or visual, representation for each of five emotions: Anger, Joy, Fear, Sadness, and Love. Two hundred fifty men and women from over thirty-five countries between the ages of six and seventy-five responded. The sample was a mix of friends, their friends, colleagues, and strangers.

Q1: What makes you feel this emotion (let’s say “fear”)? Write it down.

Articles, prepositions, and abstractions topped the list: “being,” “death,” “alone,” “heights,” “people,” “dark,” “darkness,” “control,” etc. O’Brien arranged them into a box, a stack of words with the most common in black, fading down to the least common in light silver: “spaces,” “unfamiliar,” “past,” “think,” “war.” Where were the specifics? The rusty nails, dysplasic cells, yellow eye teeth, and wandering eyes? I half-expected the list to work like a microscope, from general to particular, group to individual, but most of us, even the solitary fearful soul, never get beyond the broadest description. Language was a soft, floppy tool for this group trying hard to communicate what it felt. The result was like a fading Beckett monologue:

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