When I was five, I slept under a blanket of dolls. They covered my single bed, each one in its special spot. “Drowsy” stayed close to me. With her half-closed lids and pink and yellow polka-dotted pajamas, she was my favorite. I felt guilty, though, as I secretly suspected the other dolls knew. I tried not to let my favoritism show, but at bedtime Drowsy had the favored spot, tucked under my arm.
“Flower,” the stuffed cat, was my second favorite. Stained with years of sleep-dribble, she was as soft as a pillow. My mother, who called her “that dirty thing,” was always throwing her in the trash; I was constantly fishing her out. And so I hid her. At night she lay beneath Drowsy until lights were out. I worried that she’d suffocate, but it was a risk we’d have to take.
Several stuffed dogs and bears sat propped against the wall-side of the bed. The foot of the bed was for less cuddly dolls: Barbies and other hard plastic types. The middle of the bed was reserved for “Andrea” – the doll I feared. A gift from my grandmother, she was more of a collectible than a plaything. A throwback from the days when dolls looked like grotesquely shrunken adults, her lids didn’t close, so her marble-green eyes with wiry curled lashes just stared. Her hair was coarse and shaped into in an old-lady bun. I was afraid of Andrea, but more specifically, I was afraid she’d find out how I felt. I included her in the blanket of dolls to hide my real feelings. Thoughts of Andrea’s revenge should she learn my true feelings was the source of many nightmares.
I didn’t know it wasn’t “normal” to cover your entire bed with dolls at bedtime. All I knew was that it felt right and more than that it felt necessary. I knew my father hated it, but I didn’t understand why. Every once in a while (I could never predict when) after tuck-in time, my dad would scream about having “had enough” of all the dolls on my bed. He’d grab fistfulls of dolls and throw them across the room, against the wall, or onto my bedroom floor. When the screaming would start, I’d grab Drowsy close; I couldn’t risk her being thrown. Let him throw Andrea, with the staring eyes, or one of the bears. Not Drowsy – she was only wearing her pajamas, after all, and she was so tired.
Decades have passed, and I no longer sleep with dolls. Sometimes I sleep with men who turn out to be familiarly quick-tempered. And then I sleep alone again.
My father is dying. His cancer has made him remorseful, sad and kind. It has turned him into the kind of dad I needed when I was five.
When I start to feel like I can’t handle the thought of my father’s cancer slowly eating him alive, I remember the dolls. I call up the pain, and I am a little girl buried in a security blanket of imaginary friends. I shake with fear and I think, I hope you die. I hope you die a slow, painful death for hurting my babies. I know I should feel bad for using that memory to make myself feel better. But I do it anyway. My dad is raging, my dad is throwing my babies against the wall, my dad is dying.
Karen McDermott is an attorney-turned-English professor. Her work has been published in several literary journals, including Statement magazine, The Maine Review, Out of Anonymity, Minerva Rising, and Writers Tribe Review. She lives in Los Angeles.