The Persistence of Doors
I was four years old, and we lived on the top floor of a fisherman’s house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I could see the ocean from my window, and our landlord often brought us fresh seafood. My father, a USAF radar operator, worked lots of seven day weeks and double shifts because of the Cold War and Korea. My mother was stuck at home, alone with no friends or family nearby, no TV, no vehicle, no bus line, and little knowledge of proper parenting. So she bought a book on child rearing by Dr. Benjamin Spock.
It was afternoon, and I was playing in my room and had dragged all of my toys out of the big gray vinyl covered toy box. My mother had instructed me to pick up all of my toys. But my favorite toy, an Avenger dive bomber, was missing its canopy, and I couldn’t put it away without the protection for the pilot. So out came everything. In the midst of my search, my mom came in and started fussing at me for disobeying her. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a big deal—a swat on the rear, a few tears, and then back to the search. This time, however, mama was putting me in time-out. I didn’t really understand what this meant, but I followed her to the doorway and tried to explain why I had to take all of the toys out before I could put them away.
I quickly discovered that time-out involved my mother ignoring me as she left the room and closed the door. Right on my index finger. The physical pain and the emotional pain of her indifference crashed into me like a bird slamming into a window mid-flight. I screamed as I tried to pull my finger out of the door. It didn’t budge. Not only was it stuck, but the harder I tugged the worse it hurt. I howled. I pounded on the door with my free hand. Through my tears and screams, I heard my mother saying something about leaving me there until I learned my lesson, that she wouldn’t open the door until I stopped crying. This couldn’t be true, I thought. Mama always comforted me when I was hurt. And it hurt too bad to stop crying. I tried. But I couldn’t quit. I knew I had been bad, but surely she wouldn’t leave me here like this. But she did. I screamed, I cried, I pounded on the door, I kicked the door; I fought to catch my breath, and I tried to form the words to let her know I was stuck and I was sorry and I’ll never do it again and please open the door mama I’ll be good mama I’ll pick up my toys and I’ll never leave them out again and please help me it hurts so much and I’m scared mama please don’t leave me here alone. . . but she did.
For thirty minutes, I stood there like a coyote caught in a leg trap. The book said to let your child cry for thirty minutes, so that’s how long she waited. The book said I would run out of breath before thirty minutes was up. The book was wrong. And to a four-year-old, each of those thirty minutes was an eternity. A lifetime of pain. A forever of abandonment.
When she finally opened the door, I fell to the floor, still crying but holding my finger up. It was cut and bleeding from trying to extract it. It was white from having the circulation cut off. As the blood rushed back, my finger quickly turned black. Mama carried me into the living room and put me on the couch. She said she was sorry repeatedly and got ice for my finger. I was exhausted from crying, and my whole body just quivered and spasmed. I fell asleep in my mother’s arms as she held me and rocked me in great grandpa’s handmade rocking chair. As I succumbed to exhaustion, I buried the experience deep in my brain. Or so I thought.