“Stay with us, stay with us,” the swarm of ghouls yelled at me just after dawn on Halloween morning.
Witches had snatched my three-hour-old baby, taking her so I could not see her. Her cries from being torn away from my breast tore through me, but the ghouls told my husband, who now held our newborn child, to get the hell out of the room.
The doctor who’d cut me open just a few hours before to birth our baby, now pressed with the heels of both hands on my newly stapled belly, which was bleeding out. A gush of blood, blood pressure dropping to thirty over forty. When the numbers match up, the body is dead.
The rest of the goblins, I remember, discussed a machine, some machine they wanted to arrive to help me survive. The nurse was a minute away, they said. The drug she would give me would cause bloating, and they had to give me someone else’s blood. “I’m just tired,” I complained. I did not know I was dying. When she arrived, she wore a Nurse Ratchet costume, with a tight white tunic, bright white leggings and a small blue-and-white striped paper hat bobby-pinned in her coiffed blond hair.
Halloween had never been my favorite holiday. Even when I was young, I wasn’t one of those kids jazzed up about all the candy or hiking around in the chilly damp dark of the Chicago suburbs. After all, the reinvention of slasher films like Halloween, which came along in 1978 when I was only nine, was released right around the time my mother made my older brother take me trick-or-treating with him instead of with her. The movie is set in an Illinois suburb and is about a psychotic brother who kills his sister.
The community center in the small Oregon coastal town where I lived when I finally became an adult hosted epic Halloween parties. Adults dressed up and danced to a live band. We went outside and smoked cigarettes on the patio with a full moon shimmering on the ocean, and though there was no official costume contest, the vibe was clear: effort was required. Some made marginal efforts with store-bought masks, the Scream and Freddy Kruger, but many tried for more local flavor, like our friend who came as a Blackberry Bramble, his body trapped inside a swirl of Himalayan Blackberries, the kind that have no thorns.
Sometimes on the nights of the epic Halloween parties, my boyfriend from the Oregon coast snuck bottles of alcohol into the post office next to the community center, a cramped closet of a space. We told our friends “the bar is open,” even though an actual bar was just across the street. My spouse-to-be loved to mix and drink “duck farts,” a vodka-Kahlua concoction that slid down the throat smooth and thick. This was the man I would marry.
One year my boyfriend carved out a giant pumpkin and put it on his head. The inside of a pumpkin smells like rotten guts. It’s hot inside a pumpkin. It is hard to dance with a man with a pumpkin on his head. Later in the evening, when I’d had enough shots of alcohol and enough of his pumpkin head knocking against my face while we tried to dance, he took off his costume during a break and I stole the pumpkin and threw it over the fence of the community center. The pumpkin soared toward the Pacific Ocean, bashed on the rocks below and broke apart. My boyfriend was furious at me about that. We had a drunken fight. Pieces of slimy pumpkin washed up on the beach for weeks.
When I was in elementary school, before WalMarts and K-Marts loomed on every corner where one could buy any pop-culture character or superhero made of plastic and nylon, my mother made our Halloween costumes. For a week before the night of All Soul’s, pounding her foot against the pedal of a Singer sewing machine, my mother stitched together a Pink Panther jumpsuit out of soft felt, or a poodle skirt with a real white poodle. In fourth grade I was a real-life looking scarecrow—I can’t fathom where in our suburb Mom found the straw stuffed in my sleeves. Another year, I donned a cape with thick royal blue faux-fur that reached down to my ankles and a satin sash on which Mom calligraphed Miss America. I remember her down in the basement that year, ingeniously spraying a piece of thick twine looped in three circles with a can of silver spray paint, the sparkly paint stiffening the twine as it dried. She fastened the two ends with Super Glue and created my very own DIY tiara for my head.
I wore these homemade costumes with the pride of being the daughter of the most creative mom on earth. I plodded the leaf-strewn sidewalks and crossed slippery brick streets all in the name of gathering sugary treats. I followed my older sister and brother around and prayed no one would jump out of the bushes.
My labor was long and grueling and our daughter’s head had cocked inside of me, her ear pressed against my pelvic bone like a dog listening to a high pitched whistle. Eventually, after “not knowing what else to do to get this baby out,” the doctor cut me open. The nurse had to stick her hand up between my legs to dislodge our baby from my bones while the doctor pulled on her legs from inside my belly. When she popped out everyone yelled, “Big baby! Big baby!” She weighed ten pounds, a beautiful perfect pumpkin.
After she’d been washed and cleaned, she latched onto my breast in the recovery room. The nurse said, “Let me know if you feel any blood,” and explained how when a newborn suckles, the fundus contracts. I felt a wave press against my cervix, that sore, thick ring of tissue through which my baby never did pass, and then I felt the wave break through and gush forward. “There’s some blood,” I said, leaning my head back on the pillow. The nurse lifted the sheet covering my legs and shook her finger. “That’s not normal.” She reached over the bed and slammed an orange button on the wall. Gallons of blood soaked the sheets.
Blood is always rushing around the body, looking for a way out.
As children of the 70s, my sister, who had long black hair and a lovely face, rolled up her locks on each side of her head like Princess Leia. She donned a long white robe. My brother put on his white football shoulder pads and a hockey mask to turn into a Storm Trooper. Then they both drew with Sharpie on a white plastic garbage can and told me to crouch down, my skinny little body stuffed inside the overturned bucket. I was R2D2. I could not breathe. I thought I could die in there.
In high school, I dated a big-personality, hot-shot tennis player, and I loved him. On Halloween, I met up with him at a party. I don’t remember what I dressed up as, but I remember thinking, when I found him dressed in a drab trench coat, that was a strange costume for such a jovial guy. “What are you supposed to be?” I asked. He smiled his gap-toothed grin and then flashed open his overcoat. His strong chest and legs were naked; all he wore were tight boxer briefs with a banana and two tennis balls fastened in front of his crotch. He laughed and others around us at the party laughed. I laughed nervously too. The whole idea that the tennis star used tennis balls for his testicles was kind of clever. But that he dressed as a flasher and I was his girlfriend; well, that was as jarring as the banana.
In the hospital, after they’d given me the drug to help clot the blood, I stayed in the ICU, which was the last place I’d hoped to be after the birth of our baby. The maternity ward nurses were kind and snuck our pumpkin newborn behind the curtain to let her feed from my breast. The Hospitalist, a man, dressed that Halloween morning in a woman’s pink shirt and a candy-striper hat. He came to tell me all the ways I had averted death. The ICU had given me six pints of other people’s blood. I’d turned into a vampire. My baby sucked from my nipple like a wild animal. We fell asleep together in the bed, my little pumpkin nestled in the crook of my arm.
Another year at the Oregon coast, my husband-to-be and I dressed up as two of our closest state park’s most-visited attractions—a wind-battered tree that looked like an octopus and an old lighthouse. I helped him stuff brown socks with paper and wire to make stiff branches that we looped around a belt that hung around his waist. I built a white and black tower with more wire and paper and cellophane on top of the wide brim of an old black suede farmer’s hat. Inside the tower, I turned on a headlamp and when I walked into the community party, I received all the attention I’d hoped for, laughter and smiles and nods of approval. I was so creative.
That night, I snuck out of the party to drink shots of Jägermeister stashed in the back of a pickup truck.
That night, my boyfriend said he saw me kiss another man in the parking lot.
That night, I had alcohol poisoning
For days, I threw up nothing but bile.
On the Day of the Dead, my body reacted to the drug they gave me to stop the bleeding to save my life on Halloween. My lower region was wrecked from days of labor and too-long an effort to push a baby from between my legs. My bowels would not do peristalsis. But, like the ghouls warned, the drug that stopped the bleeding caused my stomach to swell up like a pumpkin. Nothing was moving out. The pressure became too much and something needed to give, so I vomited for hours. The wretches sent spasms of pain through my cut-open womb. Because I had eaten nothing for days, I vomited nothing but bile.
The nurses tried to relieve the pressure by sending a tube down my nose, but the young nurse could not get the tube inside the only orifice of my body that had not yet been violated. For the first time in four days, I broke down and wept, begging her to please stop her torture, like the last survivor in a slasher film. An older nurse said, “let’s try the old fashioned way,” and gave me relief through my other end. My husband had to wipe me once my insides started to move out. I told him “I think this was what we meant when we said, ‘in good times and in bad.’ This is the bad.” He did not disagree.
I remember the Halloween my mother swore out loud because she’d poked herself with a sewing needle. She was trying so hard to make green felt shoe coverings for my elf costume, trying to sew the tips of the coverings so they curled up like toads’ tongue. The shoe coverings went over the foot and up the ankle and then had to fit back over bulky Wallabies shoes. I had to wear shoes because Halloween in Chicago is cold. I suspect my mother sewed those shoes coverings well into the night. I didn’t appreciate until much later what kind of mother would cobble together such little elf shoes.
The day we finally came home from the hospital, my mother and sister and six-year-old niece had decorated our house. A fire crackled in the woodstove and the house was warm. My husband, the father of our baby, took videos with our new recorder as I walked the baby around the house and showed her each room and where she would sleep, and letting my old dog sniff her tiny feet, so grateful to out of the hospital.
My own feet looked like gnarled gourds, the bumpy kind, a knob for each toe. Before labor ever started, knowing I was overdue, I’d gone to get a pedicure and asked while the salon owner massaged my feet to please also rub my ankles because a pressure point there will supposedly help start labor. The acupressure did nothing, but she painted my toenails bright orange, the color of Halloween, the day our daughter would eventually be born; a full ten days after her due date. I would not be able to bend over and take care of my own feet until Christmas.
The last Halloween we celebrated with a big party on the Oregon Coast was October 31, 2001. Eight month earlier, my father suffered a subdural hematoma and underwent emergency brain surgery. I flew across county to visit him. His head looked like a Jack-a-Lantern, but he had survived. Then, in September, just a few weeks before our first wedding anniversary, one of the scariest days in America showed the images of planes dying and people dying over and over. On the beach, at dawn on the morning of September 12, with a big stick, I scratched the word Forgive in the sand as the waves receded during a low tide. By the afternoon, other people had scrawled with their own sticks: Never Forget, This is War, and the American flag. I suffered depression and drank too much. One night I drove away and did not come back home to my husband.
On Halloween, two good friends came dressed as the Bride and Groom of Death. The wife had painted her face a chalky stone white and drew black circles all the way around her eyes, up to her brows. An old tattered white wedding dress draped on her body, a torn veil hung over her face. “Why aren’t you drinking?” she asked, sipping wine or maybe a beer. We sat on a couch in the entryway to our little cabin, a strange space in the house where I tried to grow plants. It was warm. I was sweaty. I had not dressed up. I demurred her question by telling her I decided drinking just wasn’t good for me. Trying to be healthier. Fending off depression about the reality of the world. A dry protest because of the war. That kind of thing. But she pressed more. But surely a just a glass of wine?
I sighed and looked at the dark rings of death around her eyes and felt the welling inside myself, the shame and demoralization, and then the surge crashed forward: I told her about my last drunken night, that I did not sleep in my own home, that my husband did not know where I’d been. My shame wave broke all over her white, ripped-lace dress.
The Bride of Death jumped in her seat, then sat back down. “You took a giant shit on your marriage!” Her black-lined eyes glared at me. She was not wrong.
Seven sober, quiet years passed and all we did, if we were home, was hand out treats on Halloween. But then, on our daughter’s first birthday, exhausted from new motherhood and a year of bodily complications caused by her difficult birth, I realized I’d have to start throwing Halloween parties all over again. My mom was in town from Chicago, my husband’s parents would drive from the city, and my sister and my niece wanted to celebrate too. Halloween was our daughter’s birthday, a day that almost killed me but which I survived, though my belly remained swollen and sagging, like pumpkins left too long in the field.
I made cupcakes with honey instead of sugar and our small family watched our daughter play with ribbons and boxes on the living room floor. Later, my niece wanted to go trick-or treating. She dressed up as a “morning person,” in a robe and slippers with messy curlers in her hair. She looked how I’d felt for the last year, and we tromped around our little coastal town while I pushed my daughter in her stroller for her first night of trick-or-treating ever. I didn’t even think about Freddy Krueger. And my brother called to wish us well.
My mother’s sewing skills did not make my gene pool but the double-weight of Halloween and birthday puts pressure on me to at least try. The year our daughter turned two, I had to hand-sew a costume because I had no machine. Our daughter was an early talker and she told me quite clearly she wanted to be a rhinoceros. I managed to sew a gray fleece balaclava with a bent paper towel roll sewn into the fabric for the horn. But in the end, our daughter decided to wear a thrift store-bought lion costume and I wore the rhinoceros hat.
Since then, I’ve bought two sewing machines. I broke the first one with determination and ineptitude, though I managed to sew two capes, two mermaid outfits, and defend the honor of homemade costumes over the Disney store princesses dresses my mother sends because she no longer sews.
Every year now we throw a fun Halloween party. Children arrive dressed in costumes—rocket men and unicorns, fairies and goblins. We make a homemade cake and spider cookies and have jars of candy everywhere. We bob for apples, pin the fang on the vampire, and go trick-or-treating, the kids running ahead of all the adults. I always remember Halloween as the day I almost died, but I also count my blessings that I am able to breathe and stitch together a life as an imperfect wife and a mother. I decorate our house with skeletons and spider webs, with candles and spiders and ravens and rats.
This year my daughter will be eleven years old and wants to be a ghost. We bought a white dress at a thrift store and I will shred the hem and refashion a white lace shift to give the dress a spookier feel. I may swear under my breath when I have to put on my reading glasses to thread the needle but I will not be at war with myself or drink to oblivion or start a war with my spouse. I will paint my child’s face white and will ink dark rings around her eyes and I will feel no shame as I look at her, only a deepening sense of wonder and love. What a sweet and hallowed treat.
Nancy Slavin was a longtime English and writing instructor for a rural community college as a well as violence-prevention educator. She’s the author of Oregon Pacific, a collection of poetry, and a novel, Moorings. Nancy lived on the north Oregon coast for over twenty years until she relocated with her partner and child to the Portland area. Her website is www.nancyslavin.com.