Authors: Lisa Genova
Tags: #Fiction, #Medical, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life
ALSO BY LISA GENOVA
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Genova
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First Gallery Books hardcover edition January 2011
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Manufactured in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Left neglected : a novel / Lisa Genova — 1st gallery books hardcover ed.
1. Life change events—Fiction. 2. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 3. Brain—Wounds and injuries—Patients—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
ISBN 978-1-4391-6467-9 (ebook)
For Chris and Ethan
I think some small part of me knew I was living an unsustainable life. Every now and then, it would whisper,
Sarah, please slow down. You don’t need all this. You can’t continue like this.
But the rest of me, powerful, smart, and determined to achieve, achieve, achieve, wasn’t hearing a word of it. If, once in a while these kinds of thoughts did manage to wiggle into my consciousness, I shushed them, scolded them, and sent them to their room. Quiet, little voice, can’t you see I have a million things to do?
Even my dreams began tapping me on the shoulder, trying to grab my attention.
Do you even know what you’re doing? Let me show you.
But each dream was elusive upon waking, and like a slimy fish captured in my bare hands, it slipped out and swam away before I could get a good look at it. Strange that I can remember them all now. In the nights just before the accident, I think my dreams were trying to wake me up. With all that has happened, I honestly believe that they were guidance sent from a spiritual source. Messages from God. And I ignored them. I guess I needed something less fleeting and more concrete.
Like a traumatic smack to the head.
Jeff, the distractingly handsome host of the reality television game show, smiles, stretching out the wait, knowing he’s making us crazy.
I am running through rain forest. Bugs are colliding with my face as I race. I’m a human windshield. The bugs are grossing me out.
Ignore them. Hurry.
Sharp branches are smacking and slicing my face, wrists, and ankles, cutting me. I’m bleeding. It stings.
Ignore it. Hurry.
A branch snags my favorite, most expensive silk blouse and rips it from shoulder to elbow.
Great, I can’t wear this to my morning meeting. Fix it later. Hurry. Hurry.
I reach the beach and see the planks of driftwood. I’m supposed to make a raft. But I don’t see any tools. I swat around in the sand with my hands. I can’t find any tools. Then I remember the map that Jeff showed us for a second before lighting it on fire. He grinned as it burned. Easy for him to be so happy with his belly full of food and his April-fresh clothes. I haven’t eaten or showered in days.
“Mom, I need help,” Charlie whines at my waist. He’s not supposed to be here.
“Not now, Charlie, I have to find a red flag and a set of tools.”
“Mom, Mom, Mom!” he insists. He pulls down on my ripped sleeve and tears it clean through the cuff.
Great, now it’s definitely ruined. And I don’t think I’m going to have time to change before work.
I spot a red blur above the flat beach about a hundred yards away. I run toward it, and Charlie follows, begging desperately, “Mom, Mom, Mom!”
I look down and see shiny pieces of green and brown everywhere. Glass. Not sea glass. New glass, jagged and sharp. Shattered bottles cover the beach.
“Charlie, stop! Don’t follow me!”
I’m doing a good job avoiding the glass while I run, but then I hear Charlie losing it and Jeff laughing, and I misstep. A piece of green glass carves deep into the arc of my left foot. It kills and is bleeding a lot.
Ignore it. Hurry.
I reach the red flag. Gnats are swarming in and out of my nostrils, mouth, and ears, making me spit and gag. Not the kind of protein I’ve been craving. I cover my face with the palms of my hands, hold my breath, and pace out twelve steps west of the red flag.
I dig with my hands amid a frenzy of gnats, find the box of tools, and hobble back to the planks of driftwood. Charlie is there, squatting, building a castle out of broken glass.
“Charlie, stop that. You’ll cut yourself.”
But he doesn’t listen and continues.
Ignore him. Hurry.
I’m about halfway through assembling the raft when I hear the wolves howling.
The half raft isn’t strong enough to hold both of us. Charlie screams as I pick him up, ripping him from his glass castle. He kicks and punches me as I wrestle him onto the half raft.
“When you get to the other side, go get help.”
“Mommy, don’t leave me!”
“It’s not safe here. You have to go!”
I push the half raft out onto the water, and the strong current grabs it. Just as Charlie floats out of sight, the wolves start tearing through my trousers and my favorite shirt, ripping my skin apart, eating me alive. Jeff is smiling as I’m dying, and I think, Why did I ever want to play this stupid game?
My human alarm clock, my nine-month-old son, Linus, wakes me with a bleating “Baaabaaa!” over the monitor before I die.
F R I D A Y
The actual alarm clock reads 5:06, about an hour before the time I set it for. Resigned to getting up now, I click the alarm mode to Off. I honestly can’t remember the last time I woke to the sound of
bomp, bomp, bomp,
instead of to the stirrings of one of my three kids. And the snooze feature is an even more distant memory. Mornings of bargaining for brief but luxurious extensions in bed.
Just nine more minutes, and I won’t shave my legs. Nine more minutes, I’ll skip breakfast. Nine more minutes, morning sex.
I haven’t touched that button in a long, long time. Well, Charlie is seven, so it has to be about seven years. It seems like forever. I only bother to set the alarm clock every night now because I know, I just know, that the one time I don’t, the one time I decide to rely on my little cherubs to wake me, it’ll be the morning I have some critical deadline or a flight I can’t miss, and they’ll all sleep in for the very first time.
I stand and look down at Bob, his eyes shut, face slack, mouth open, splayed on his back.
“Possum,” I say.
“I’m awake,” he says, his eyes still shut. “He’s asking for you.”
“He’s saying ‘baba,’ not ‘Mama.’”
“You want me to get him?”
I pad barefoot on the cold hardwood floor down the hallway to Linus’s bedroom. I open the door to see him standing at the bars of his crib, sucking his nukie, ratty blanket in one hand, beloved and even rattier Bunny in the other. His whole face smiles when he sees me, which makes me smile, and he starts banging on the rail. He looks like an adorable baby prison inmate, all packed and ready on his last day in jail, awaiting his release.
I pick him up and carry him over to the changing table, where his good mood collapses into a betrayed wail. He arches his back and twists onto his side, fighting with everything he’s got against what happens five to six times a day, every day. I’ll never understand why he so vehemently hates getting his diaper changed.
“Linus, stop it.”
I have to use an unsettling amount of force to pin him down and muscle him into a new diaper and clothes. I try a few belly blasts and singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to snap him out of it, but he remains my uncooperative adversary throughout the entire process. The changing table sits next to the only window in his room, which is sometimes useful for distractions.
See the birdie!
But it is still dark out, and even the birds aren’t up yet. It’s still nighttime, for God’s sake.
Linus doesn’t sleep through the night. Last night, I rocked him back to sleep after he woke screaming at one, and Bob went in a little after three. At nine months, Linus isn’t talking yet, only baba-mama-dada-ing. So we can’t interview him to find out what the problem is, and we can’t reason with him or bribe him. Every night it’s a guessing game that Bob and I don’t feel like playing, and we never win.
Do you think he’s teething? Should we give him Tylenol? We can’t just drug him every night. Maybe he has an ear infection. I saw him tugging at his ear earlier. He always tugs at his ear. Did he lose his nukie? Maybe he had a nightmare. Maybe it’s separation. Should we bring him into bed with us? We don’t really want to put that on the menu, do we? What did we do with the other two? I can’t remember.
Every now and then, motivated by desperate exhaustion, we’ll resolve to ignore him.
Tonight we’re going to let him cry it out.
But little Linus has remarkable stamina and lungs that won’t quit. Once he sets his mind to doing something, he commits 100 percent, which is a trait I think will serve him well in life, so I’m not fully convinced we should beat it out of him. Typically, he’ll cry for more than an hour, during which time Bob and I will lie awake, not so much ignoring the crying as we are listening to it, focusing on it, searching for subtle changes in the pitch or rhythm that might indicate the end is near, finding no such thing.
One of the other two, usually Lucy, will eventually knock on the door and come in.
“Linus is crying.”
“We know, sweetie.”
“Can I have a drink of milk?”
Now I’m up with Lucy fetching milk, and Bob is up settling Linus. Plan aborted. Baby wins. Score: Harvard MBA-trained parents, both highly skilled in negotiation and leadership: 0. Nine-month-old child with no formal education or experience on the planet: too many times for my weary brain to count.
Once dressed and picked up off the dreaded changing table, Linus is instantly righted. No hard feelings, no grudges, just living in the moment. I give my little Buddha a kiss and a squeeze and carry him downstairs. Charlie and Lucy are already up. I can hear Lucy moving around in her bedroom, and Charlie is lying in one of the beanbag chairs in the living room watching
“Charlie, it’s too early for TV. Shut it off.”
But he’s completely entranced and doesn’t hear me. At least, I hope he doesn’t hear me and isn’t deliberately blowing me off.
Lucy comes out of her bedroom dressed like a lunatic.
“How do you like my fashion, Mom?”
She’s wearing a pink and white polka-dot vest layered over an orange long-sleeve shirt, velvet leopard print leggings under a sheer pink ballerina tutu, Ugg boots, and six clips secured randomly in her hair, all different colors.
“You look fabulous, honey.”
“Come with me.”
We walk into the kitchen, and Lucy climbs up onto one of the bar stools at the kitchen island counter. I pour two bowls of Lucky charms, one for Lucy and one for Charlie, and a bottle of Similac for Linus.
Yes, my children are Peanuts characters. Charlie, seven, and Lucy, five, were given their names without thought or reference to the comic strip. Charlie was named after Bob’s father, and we both just liked the name Lucy. Then, when I was unexpectedly expecting again, years after we’d donated or eBayed every piece of baby equipment, years after we’d celebrated the end of diapers and strollers and Barney, we had to come up with yet another name and were stumped.
“I’d go with Schroeder,” a work colleague offered.
“No, definitely Linus. Or Woodstock,” said another.
It was only then that I realized the pattern we’d started with our first two kids. And I liked the name Linus.
I feed Linus his bottle as I watch Lucy eat all of the colored marshmallows, “the charm,” first.
“Charlie, come! Your cereal’s getting soggy!”
Lucy eats two more spoonfuls of charm.
Charlie drags himself onto the bar stool next to Lucy and looks down at his bowl as if it’s the worst homework assignment ever.
“I’m tired,” he says.
“Then why are you up? Go back to bed.”
“Okay,” he says and walks back upstairs to his bedroom.
Lucy drinks the milk from her bowl, wipes her mouth with her sleeve, hops down, and takes off without a word. In a hurry to be free like his sister, Linus drains his bottle and burps without any assistance. I release him onto the floor, which is cluttered with toys and crushed pieces of Goldfish crackers. I grab a ball and toss it into the living room.
“Go get it!”
Thrilled to be in on a game, he crawls after it like a playful puppy.
Alone for at least a moment, I eat Charlie’s untouched, soggy cereal because someone should, then I clear all the dishes to the sink, wipe down the counter, put on a pot of coffee, pack lunch boxes and snacks for Charlie and Lucy, and pack the diaper bag for Linus. I sign a permission slip for Lucy to go to Plimoth Plantation. Next to the question, “Will you be able to chaperone?” I check “No.” In Charlie’s backpack, I find a note from his teacher:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson,
Report cards went out last week, and I’m hoping that you’ve had some time now to look it over. I’d like to schedule a time to talk with both of you in person about Charlie. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience.
Charlie’s report card is not what every parent dreams of for her child, especially when that parent always, always received perfect report cards herself. Bob and I knew there would be issues, room for improvement with things like reading and paying attention. Last year prepared us a little. But in kindergarten, Charlie’s below-average marks in a few categories were brushed off by both his teacher and Bob.
He’s a boy! He’ll be used to sitting still and to the long day by the time he’s in first grade. I see it every year. Don’t worry.
Well, he’s in first grade now, and I’m worried. He scored either an “N” for “Needs improvement” or a “3” for “Below expectations” in
of the categories. Even Bob’s face blanched when he read down the column of 3’s and N’s. Whatever is going on with Charlie, a sweeping generalization about his gender isn’t going to cover it this time. What’s wrong with him?
The Lucky charms are making me feel ill. I shouldn’t have eaten all that sugar. I open my laptop on the counter next to the coffeemaker and check email while standing and waiting for the caffeine my addicted brain needs. I have sixty-four new emails. I was up until midnight last night clearing my inbox, so these all came in the last five hours. Several are from offices on the West Coast, sent late last night. At least two dozen are from offices in Asia and Europe, already well into today’s workday. A couple of emails marked “urgent” are from a young and panicky analyst in the Boston office.