My name is Dr. Emma Jane Earl. I was born October 31, 1980. It was exactly one year after my friend Becky was born. When we were little, we used to have our birthday parties at the same time. Mom bought gifts for both of us: Barbie dolls for Becky and books for me. Maybe I didn’t get as much then as I could have, but I never minded. I was always happy that Becky was happy. You see, Becky’s mother didn’t ever throw her a party; she didn’t even remember when Becky’s birthday was and Becky never asked her for any gifts. Mom said it was because Becky’s mom was abusive. I knew what “abusive” meant in the dictionary sense, but it was much later that I understood it in a real sense.
But I digress. You don’t want me to write about Becky. The object is to write my personal history. From what Mom told me, I was a good girl right from the start. I hardly ever kicked her, to the point where she sometimes worried that I might not be alive. When it came time for me to be born, I came out so quickly that the doctor was still scrubbing. The drugs they’d given Mom hadn’t even started to work yet, not that she needed them.
My first memory is from before I was a year old. I remember her holding me in her arms, rocking me to sleep. Mom was singing an old Fleetwood Mac song to me; I found out later it was “Landslide.” I always found this odd because Mom never really listened to pop music. I never got a chance to ask her if there was any hidden significance to this. You know why, but I’m trying to write this in chronological order, so I’ll talk more about that later.
Being such a good girl, I potty trained myself before I was a year old. Another of my oldest memories is of splashing around in the toilet, happy as a clam while Mom and Dad look down at me, laughing to the point they cried. Mom picked me out of the toilet, wrapped me in a towel and said, “Baby, that water’s not for playing in.”
Mom always called me “baby” even after I was no longer a baby. At first this annoyed me because like every little girl I thought I was practically an adult. We were shopping in the supermarket when I was three when I threw my only tantrum. Mom held up a bag of frozen peas and said, “Do you want peas for dinner tonight, baby?”
I stamped my foot and shouted, “Stop calling me a baby! I’m twee yeaws owd!” [I’m trying to capture phonetically how my childhood lisp sounded, but this may not be entirely accurate.]
Mom didn’t hit me or even look embarrassed. She was always cool under pressure. She knew that on those rare occasions when I got angry, she could appeal to my sense of reason. She bent down and said, “You’ll always be my baby. No matter how big you get, you’ll always be my baby.” I cried and apologized to her. She picked me up to hug me and then asked as calmly as if nothing had happened, “Do you want peas tonight?”
I always think Mom wanted another baby. She came from an old-school Catholic family where before her generation, six children was the minimum. Even Grandma Emily had four children, though only Aunt Gladys and my mother survived. But coming from an old-school Catholic family, Mom didn’t want to get pregnant before she was married and she didn’t get married until she was thirty-two. I came along a year later and I think Mom knew I was such a handful that she didn’t want to have another child until I was well-adjusted.
I’m sorry to digress again. When I said that I was a handful, I don’t mean in the traditional sense. I only threw that one tantrum in the supermarket. The rest of the time I was quiet, cheerful, and obedient. I could read by the time I was two years old. By the time I was three I could read at an adult level. Mom took me to the Parkdale library every week, following behind me with a basket to carry the books, most of which I couldn’t lift myself yet. When the Parkdale library ran out, we began taking the bus into the city to get books from the Rampart City library. Browsing those rows of dusty old books for me felt like when other kids went to the toy store.
I might have become a librarian if not for that visit to the Plaine Museum. This was a special treat because Daddy had just been made a full partner in his accounting firm. I don’t know whose idea it was to go, but I suspect it was Mom’s. She knew from all those trips to the libraries that I loved to learn.
Every time I go through the main doors of the Plaine Museum I feel three years old again. I look up at the vaulted ceiling with the light pouring through it and it seems so impossibly far away. (I’ve never been religious, but I’ve always thought this must be what it feels like for people to walk into a grand old cathedral like Notre Dame or maybe the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.) Daddy picked me up and put me on his shoulders as we went up to the ticket counter. I tried to reach the ceiling, but it was still so far away.
Daddy carried me over to Alex the mastodon’s skeleton. There are a lot of other creatures bigger and more impressive than a mastodon—a Tyrannosaurus Rex for example—but to me at the time Alex was so impossibly huge that I didn’t think anything like that could possibly exist. So I asked Daddy if I could touch it. “Sorry, honey, it’s not allowed.”
There was a nice old janitor who worked there named Percival Graves who changed my life forever that day. He was sweeping at the time and he must have heard me. He came up to stand by my parents and slyly said that he needed to sweep up by Alex. He conveniently lowered the velvet rope so that Daddy could get close enough for me to touch Alex’s tusk. I marveled at how cold it felt, but I knew then that Alex was real. And though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I knew I wanted to spend my life unraveling mysteries like what happened to the mastodons.
People ask me all the time why I study meteors. Sometimes they ask this politely and sometimes they ask it because they want to know why someone so gifted is wasting her life looking at rocks when I should be curing cancer or something like that. Usually I just tell them that I think meteors are interesting. The better explanation is that meteors are like Alex’s tusk: part of something so much greater and yet something that we don’t fully understand. Meteors help us to understand our planet, our solar system, and our universe. If we can ever understand those, we’ll be able to figure the rest out.
That might be more poetic than what you’re looking for here. Science is the one thing that I find I can get poetic about. Ever since that day in the Plaine Museum I’ve been in love with science, with the study of new ideas…
…I think Mom thought I loved science a little too much. When other kids went to the park they would play on the equipment or play games with the other kids. I sat on a blanket, reading a book. One time a little girl asked me to play with them. I didn’t really want to, but Mom encouraged me. They were going to play hide-and-go-seek. They all laughed at me when I asked how to play. The girl who’d invited me over explained the rules and then declared that I would be “it.” I had to count to a hundred and then go look for them. This I did so easily and matter-of-factly that the other children accused me of cheating. This upset me, because to me cheating was akin to lying, something I never, ever did. I ran crying back to Mom and we went home. No one asked me to play at the park again…
…Even though I was only four, my parents enrolled me in kindergarten. If they had the money, my parents might have enrolled me in a fancy private school, but even as a full partner, Daddy wasn’t rich and Mom had given up her chair with the opera company to raise me. So I went to the local public school. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into. I thought it would be fun.
It wasn’t fun, at least not at first. The other kids made fun of me for being little, for having red hair, and for having a lisp. Mom had tried to prepare me for this, telling me that I should be nice to the other kids, to give them a chance. They didn’t give me a chance, essentially shunning me after that. I didn’t do myself any favors by answering the teacher’s questions honestly. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned intelligence isn’t always valued.
So I guess it made sense for Becky and I to become friends. She was just as much of an outcast as I was. She was fat even for a five-year-old. Her pigtails were always crooked because her older sister did them. Her clothes—handed down from her thinner sister—didn’t fit. The other kids would have ridden her mercilessly if not for having a better target in me.
I didn’t set out to make friends with Becky. It was just a coincidence that the teacher chose chocolate chip cookies for our snack. I’m allergic to chocolate—which I found out when I was two when Aunt Gladys brought me a box of chocolate-covered crickets from Africa—so I thought I would offer them to Becky because she looked sad.
We didn’t hit it off right then. That came when the other children wouldn’t let me nap near them, saying that I would probably wet myself. Becky stood up for me, the first of many times that she did so. We’ve been friends ever since…
…We’re finally getting up to the moment you probably will concern yourself with the most. Over the years I’ve thought about the sequence of events leading up to that event and I’ve marveled at how the slightest events can bring about something so tragic.
It all started with a lamp. When I was five Mom gave me a lamp, the base of which was shaped like a cat in a ballerina costume. I think she gave it to me because I had made a friend and had proven that I could be a normal little girl. Most people would probably think the lamp tacky, but it was one of Mom’s most cherished possessions. Grandma Emily had given it to her when she was a little girl after Mom said she wanted to be a ballerina. (Ultimately, since Mom didn’t have the body of a dancer, she had learned to play the music the ballerinas danced to.) Her passing it on to me was in her mind a sort of rite of passage. I didn’t really understand the significance, but I knew there was something important about it.
I didn’t mean to break the lamp. Sometimes, though, late at night, I’ll wonder if maybe I had some subconscious desire to hurt Mom. I don’t think so. I think it was just an accident. I was reading late, I took off my glasses to put on the nightstand, and then I tipped it over. Another child would have tried to cover up the evidence, but I went to my parents’s bedroom and knocked on the door—not because I worried they were having sex but because I was polite. Mom opened the door and asked what was wrong. “I broke your lamp. I’m sorry.”
When Mom ran into the bedroom I sensed this was worse than I’d thought. I found Mom in the bedroom, kneeling over the pieces. She held the cat’s head and shoulders in her hand while she cried. “Mommy, are you all right?”
She wasn’t angry with me, though I wished she had been. Instead she turned to me and said, “Oh, Emma, how could you?” It was the first time I’d really hurt my mother. She had thought I was responsible enough to care for her most cherished childhood possession—I wasn’t.
I had never been grounded before. I didn’t even understand the concept. For most kids that would have meant no television or video games. I didn’t watch TV—except for the occasional PBS documentary—and we didn’t have a video game system. For me, grounding meant that I would be limited to books for my schoolwork and I couldn’t play with Becky for two weeks. (Becky still came over to watch TV—Mom didn’t want to punish her for my mistake.)
I was still angry about this when Jimmy Gates showed up at lunch. He was the bully in our third grade class, thanks to being held back due to his poor grades. Usually Becky and I would surrender our lunches to him for him to take what he wanted, which was never much since Mom only packed healthy foods for Becky and I.
That day I decided I wasn’t going to give in to him anymore. I fought back. At first I was winning, having taken him by surprise. While I was tall for my age, I was still the youngest in the class and thus he probably thought I was the weakest, the one who wouldn’t try to fight back. Once he recovered from this initial shock, the fight turned his way.
It wasn’t a surprise that Jimmy carried a switchblade; Becky and I had seen him showing it to other kids. It did come as a surprise that he would use it on me. I don’t think he wanted to kill me, just to scare me. First he wanted to humiliate me by cutting off one of my pigtails to keep as his trophy. What he planned to do after that I have no idea. Probably he would have just threatened me with the knife. At most he might have made a superficial cut to make me bleed a little, to get me to scream.
Once again Becky came to my defense. She couldn’t beat Jimmy, so she ran and got the teacher, who managed to stop the fight. But for me that wasn’t the end of it. I cried all the way home. Mom thought I was worried about how my hair would look, promising that we would get it cut so no one would notice. And to some extent she was right; as a little girl I was vain about my red hair because it was unique and therefore special—like me.
What most bothered me was realizing my own mortality. My parents had always kept a buffer between me and Mr. Death. My grandparents all were dead before I was born. Of my other in-laws, Aunt Gladys was the only one who ever came to visit, the rest having disowned my parents for turning their backs on their separate faiths. Aunt Gladys was always healthy and vibrant and even though she was older than Mom, she never seemed old. My parents didn’t let me have any pets, I think because they knew how upset I would be should my doggy or kitty get sick or die. So I was completely unprepared to deal with the thoughts that popped into my head about what Jimmy might have done to me with the knife.
It was because I was so distraught over this that Mom rescinded the grounding. At that point it didn’t matter since I was spending all of my time in bed, most of that sleeping and the rest of it crying. The lisp I had worked to get rid of in first grade returned. I developed bad habits I had never exhibited before like wetting the bed. I refused to go outside.
With me rapidly becoming an eight-year-old agoraphobic, could anyone blame her for trying to get me out of the house? She knew the carrot to dangle in front of me: science. Dr. Cathy Gerritt was giving a lecture at the planetarium called “The Big Bang: New Revelations on Old Science.” Mom knew I had a copy of Dr. Gerritt’s book; she had bought it for my seventh birthday. She was right that I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like this.
As I said, I was vain about my hair in those days. Mom took me to her salon, where they tried to balance my hair out, but the end result was so short that I looked like a boy. I might have canceled except Daddy had already bought the tickets and I really did want to go. To try and assuage my fears, Mom dressed me in my nicest dress, the pink one I wore to birthday parties and such—on those rare instances when I was invited. She even managed to get a bow in my short hair. “No one will think you’re a boy now,” she said and I agreed.
The presentation itself went fine. Mom made sure we got seats up front so that I wouldn’t have to try seeing over the grown-ups. The deference the adults showed me I attributed to being a kid. The other explanation came later when Mom took me up to have Dr. Gerritt sign my book. Dr. Gerritt is a very nice woman—I still see her sometimes at conferences—and I know she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. And really it was a simple mistake to make; with my short hair and pasty redhead complexion, anyone could have made the same mistake.
I turned shy as we went on the stage, so that Mom had to speak for me. She asked Dr. Gerritt if she could sign the book for me. Dr. Gerritt agreed and signed it. Then she complimented me on being such a brave little girl. I might have thought nothing of this if she hadn’t mentioned how her niece had leukemia and was confined to bed.
A mistake like that wouldn’t have bothered me these days. But back then I was feeling insecure because of my vanity. On the way home I cried. I didn’t want to go back to school because I knew the kids there would make fun of me for how I looked. It was because I was so upset that I was lying on the backseat when it happened.
The car hit Daddy’s side, hitting him almost straight on. If I had been sitting up, I would have been forced to see him die. As it was, I only had to see the aftermath, of him slumped over the steering wheel. I saw the blood and feared the worst. Mom tried to comfort me, telling me that Daddy was just taking a nap.
What she did next saved my life. She told me to lie down and no matter what not to move or make a sound. I don’t know if she knew what would happen, but I think maybe she had some idea. She tried to sound cheerful, saying that she was just going to make a phone call. She never came back. They shot her so that she couldn’t call the police.
I heard the gunshots. I had never heard a gun before, but I knew that’s what these were. And I knew who had been shot. I knew Mom was dead just like I knew Daddy was dead. I didn’t scream or jump out of the car, though. I was a good girl…