Clubius Contained Part 22 – Panic Attack (April 1964)

Aunt Pat kissed me on the cheek, looked at me and said, “Tell your mom I’m thinking of her and that you and your Aunt ‘Hant’ Pat had a great time together and you’re welcome back any time!” I nodded and told her that I would. Aunt Pat liked to tease me that before I knew what an “aunt” was, I thought her regular name was “Hant Pat”. And then when I found out what an “aunt” was, and figured out that was what she was, I called her “Aunt Hant Pat”. I usually didn’t like people teasing me, but because it was her, and she felt like my big grown up older sister, I was okay, but only on this one thing.

“And tell her”, she said grinning, “That you insisted on wearing these same pants every day you were here, despite having others in your suitcase and these probably in great need of a wash at this point.” She laughed through her nose like a grownup. I pushed my lips together and didn’t nod or say anything. Those pants with the stripes down the side WERE my favorite.

She wagged a finger at me and said, “So you’re going to throw your Aunt ‘Hant’ Pat under the bus, are you? Let my sister think I didn’t even try to get you to change your clothes while you were here.” I did a big smile and nodded my head. Now she did a regular laugh.

She looked up at the woman with the airplane uniform on and said, “He’s all yours!” The woman nodded, looked down at me, held her hand out to the open door where a man in another airplane uniform was standing, holding it open.

“This way young man”, she said. I walked out the open door and felt her fingers just touch my back. The wind was blowing outside and the sky was gray. I walked up the little stairway to the open door into the plane at the back by the tail and she followed me up. I always liked to run up stairs but I figured I shouldn’t run up these because I didn’t want to get in trouble. Inside the plane I looked down toward the front and it looked the same as the one I had gone on to fly out here to visit Aunt Pat last Saturday.

“I’ve got a seat for you up near the front on the left”, the woman in the uniform said, “So you don’t have to sit by the smokers. Your aunt said you prefer a window seat so I’m glad we had one for you.” I thought it was strange that you could have a uniform that was also a dress, but she WAS a woman.

I looked out the little round window and saw Aunt Pat standing by the big window of the building looking out, but I figured she couldn’t see me.

She seemed more like a grownup than the last time I’d seen her a couple years ago, though she still tried to be more like a kid, specially when she and I were alone together. Now she was married to this guy named Ray who was now my “Uncle Ray”. He was nice, but way more like a grownup than she was.

She and I had fun while I was there. We drove up to this place called “Seneca Lake” and this town called “Watkins Glen”, where she said mom and my Uncle John were kids and used to live with THEIR mom and dad who were MY grandparents, but Aunt Pat wasn’t born yet. She showed me more pictures she said were of mom as a little girl, but that still seemed hard to imagine that mom used to be a kid like me. But I had seen Aunt Pat change from what seemed like an older kid when I first remembered her, into more like a grownup now. She was married and everything, and not living with my grandparents anymore. She and Uncle Ray lived in one of those “apartment” places, where you live in part of it, and other people live in the other parts.

But now I was going to have my own adventure of flying in an airplane again, all by myself. I had seen so much flying in airplanes from watching Sky King with Molly and in other shows too, and from reading Tom Swift books, but coming to visit Aunt Pat was the first time I had done it for real. Some of my friends had already been on a real airplane, but they had gone with their mom and dad. I was the only one who had gone on an airplane ALL BY MYSELF.

It had been really neat coming to Binghamton on the plane, because I got to look out the window the whole time and see the ground way below us. When we first took off, I could see roads, houses, buildings and cars. But as we got higher up I could only see green parts and brown parts. Some of them looked like squares. There was even this really big blue part we flew over what the captain said was “Lake Erie”, which was one of those “Great Lakes”, like that “Lake Michigan” that Molly and I swam in in Saugatuck. Sometimes there were clouds BELOW us instead of above us and we couldn’t even see the ground. At one part there was blue above us and below us so it looked like there wasn’t any ground anymore, only sky above and below. That was really weird, maybe like being in space, if space was blue instead of black.

And now I could do it all again. The propellers on the plane’s engines started going and then the plane started moving away from the place we got on. That woman in the airplane uniform showed us how to hook and unhook our seatbelts, and then she came down the walking part between all the seats and made sure we all had ours on. She even reached down and pulled on the belt part of mine to make sure it was on tight, but it already was. The plane went on the airplane roads out to the long straight one that was the “runway”. Then it stopped and the engines got really noisy and there was a jerk and the plane started rolling down the runway, faster and faster. The feeling of the speed was really exciting. Mom said she didn’t like to fly, but I REALLY liked it.

Suddenly I could feel we were off the ground a little bit and then we started to go up quickly. There was a rumbling noise underneath me like machines were turning on and off. I looked out the window and I could see houses and roads and cars, getting smaller as we went up. I wanted to keep watching to see when we got so high that you couldn’ see them anymore and they changed into just those squares of brown and green. Then we flew into this fog and wisps of it shot by the window really fast and I couldn’t see anything. The plane shook up and down a little, but I figured if the plane was still going forward it would be okay, and that woman in the airplane uniform and all the other people on the plane didn’t look worried, so no way I was going to, since they’d think I was a scared kid.

I could feel us still going up and the white stuff went away to see blue sky with the white clouds below us. I guess we had just flown through a cloud. The puffy clouds below us were neat looking but made it hard to see the ground below. When I could see it, it was looking like green and brown patches now as I could feel that we were still going up.

Then the pilot used that radio thing to tell us that we’d reached our “cruising altitude of 18,000 feet” and that he was “turning off the fasten seatbelt sign”, that meant we could unhook our belts and even walk around. But I just wanted to look out the window and see when we flew over that giant blue “Lake Erie” again.

When that woman came pushing her thing with the wheels and asked me if I wanted something to drink, then I stopped looking out the window and watched her while she found me a Coke and poured it into one of those clear plastic glasses like I’d seen grownups use to drink that punch stuff at the parties at Molly’s house. Then when she went down to the next person I looked out the window again.

As I looked out and saw all the clouds below, I thought about Aunt Pat, and how she wasn’t living with HER mom and dad, my grandparents, anymore. Other people might think she was a regular grownup, but I knew that she still wasn’t, that she was still like a kid, but she couldn’t be that way anymore around other grownups, like that Uncle Ray guy she married. I figured that I would get to be as old as she was and I wondered if grownups would expect ME to act like one of them too. I wondered if mom and dad had that kid part inside them too, but they didn’t want to show it to anybody, except maybe to me or David but only once in a while.

Aunt Pat showed me those pictures of mom when she was a kid my age and said that mom had told her that she had been a “tomboy”, and never liked to play with dolls like other girls. Aunt Pat said she didn’t know for sure because she hadn’t been born yet, but that’s what “my big sister told me”. Looking at those pictures of mom as a kid, she had that same big smile and eyes.

I thought about the hands of a clock again. Always moving, pointing at different numbers, but you couldn’t SEE them move.

It didn’t seem to take very long before the captain pilot guy said that we were getting ready to land at Willow Run airport. I liked how when we were landing the plane bounced a little bit on the runway and the engines got really noisy again and I could feel the force of it trying to slow down, then moving slowly enough that it became like a giant car on the special airplane roads. We stopped by a building and that woman in the airplane uniform opened the door and the grownups sitting with me stood up and started going off the plane. The grownup sitting behind me stood up but waited for me to go first so I did.

When I got to the front of the plane, the woman in the uniform told me to wait next to her until all the other “passengers” went out first. The pilot was there too and he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Was this your first flight son?” he asked. I shook my head. “Second”, I said.

“All by yourself?” he asked. I nodded.

“Yep”, I said, like it was no big deal. He laughed through his nose and I kept nodding and I laughed through my nose too.

Then when all the other “passengers” had gone out, the woman in the uniform walked behind me down the stairs thing and into the building where dad was, watching me and waving.


I woke up the next morning in my top bunk bed and could feel the cold air from the outside coming through the window even though it was closed. It was almost my birthday and it still felt like winter. I wondered when my birthday party was going to be and if it would be outside in the park or inside in the house. Mom and dad said they were waiting for the weather to get warmer so we could have it in the park.

David was already up, he almost always got up before I did, and was probably down in the basement playing. I heard mom and dad talking in the kitchen.

“You’re letting it get to you, Liz”, dad said.

“How can you NOT let it get to you”, mom said, “After seeing all that devastation on the news reports last night, I just can’t even imagine what those people in Alaska must be going through after a massive earthquake like that. My mind just wouldn’t let me stop thinking about it last night. YOU saw it too. How did you manage to sleep last night?”

“Well”, he said, “When you’ve been through a war, driven through, bombed out cities, slept in a tent or a halftrack but never a proper bed, been up all night, you learn how to sleep anytime and anywhere.”

“And when are we going to do Coop’s birthday?” she asked, “It’s goddamn freezing out there, Eric, and it’s supposed to be even colder tomorrow.”

“Let’s just schedule it for next Saturday and hope for the best”, dad said, “And then worst case we do it in the house like his sixth birthday party.”

I heard mom breathe out air really loud. “That only worked because Margie brought over her records and record player and turned it into a dance party”, mom said, “And you were still a starving grad student back then so people maybe understood. But now you’re a college professor and we still have no goddamn furniture. It’s embarrassing.”

“C’mon Liz”, dad said, “Our friends would understand.”

“I DON’T understand”, mom said, “Why can’t Eastern pay you enough so we can buy some goddamn furniture.” I could hear her voice sounding different, like she was ready to start crying.

“Well I can pick up some part-time work”, dad said.

“Oh Jesus Eric”, mom said, now sounding mad, “You’re already way too busy as it is. You’d never be here. And now you have to go to that conference Monday in Chicago. It’s hard enough keeping all the balls in the air when both of us are here.”

“It’s just three days”, he said, “And it’ll look good on my CV when it comes to getting tenure.”

“I don’t know if you understand”, mom said, “Sometimes I just feel like I’m hanging by a thread. And I had plans too Eric, we talked about this. You were going to get your PhD and a professor job and then I was going to go back to school and get my masters. That’s never going to happen, is it?”

“Oh Liz”, dad said, “Sure it is. Everything is just taking longer than we thought.”

“Right now it feels like it’s taking way TOO long”, mom said, “I can’t keep this up. We’ve been married almost fourteen years now and I feel like I’m just a maid and a nanny watching you slowly achieve YOUR goals.”

“Jeez Liz”, dad said, “That’s not fair. We’re both in this together.”

“Well… maybe not fair”, mom said, “But that’s how I’m feeling right now, I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you!”


I hadn’t felt very hungry last night because my stomach felt bad, and this morning when I woke up my whole body felt weak and my head hurt. David had got up and gone in the kitchen to eat breakfast, and then mom had come into our room to check on me.

“You still not feeling right?” she asked. I nodded. She put her hand on my forehead, “You feel warm. Better stay home from school this morning and rest. You may have picked something up on your trip. We’ll see how you are at lunchtime. You hungry for breakfast?” I shook my head.

“Ah Coolie”, she said, shaking her head, she hadn’t called me that nickname in a while, “What are we going to do?” She asked questions like that sometimes that I really didn’t know how to answer. She seemed sad and worried about stuff she was thinking about.

“Your dad’s off to Chicago for a couple of days for a conference”, she said, “It’s part of his job, I get that, but I’m just not used to doing everything here by myself.” She stood up and moved her head back and squeezed the back of her neck with her hand a couple times and groaned.

“I got to get your brother off to school”, she said, “And then I’ll be back with an aspirin and a cup of water for you to drink.” I nodded, and she walked out of my room and back into the kitchen. I heard David asking her if I wasn’t feeling well.

Still laying in bed, I felt the cold air outside from the window near our bed, and even though I was under the covers my body shivered. I heard the front door open, mom telling David to have a good day, then closing again. Then it was quiet. I didn’t hear mom’s footsteps or anything.

The phone rang. I heard mom go into the kitchen and answer.

“Yes this is Jane Zale”, she said. Then she was quiet.

“That can’t be right”, she said, “I deposited my husband’s check last Wednesday. I should have the receipt right here, hang on.” She was quiet again.

“Oh my god”, she said, sounding really worried, “I must have forgotten to make the deposit. I’m so sorry!”

“Oh no”, she said, “I just sent out checks with all the monthly bills. I can run the check over right now. Please don’t bounce any more of them.” She was quiet again.

“Why not?” she asked, and was quiet again.

“Oh dear god”, she said, “Thank you for the call. My husband’s out of town and my son is sick.”

“Goodbye”, she said, and I heard her hang up the phone.

“Oh no”, she said again, louder this time, “Not now, not today. I can’t do this today.” I heard her walking around the living room making noises like she was trying to breathe. I could tell something was really wrong.

I did my best to sit up on my top bunk and then slid down to the floor. I walked slowly out of my room to the hallway as I heard her continue to walk around the living room making funny breathing noises. I got to the hallway door to the living room and stopped and watched her.

She saw me, and she looked really afraid. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her look like that. She stared at me like she needed help.

“I CAN’T BREATHE”, she said. Then she sucked a bunch of air into her mouth and said it again, “I CAN’T BREATHE COOP”. I suddenly felt really afraid too. I didn’t know what to say or do. Was she going to die? Would it be my fault because I was the only one here to help her. Should I call the ambulance or the doctor or the hospital? But I couldn’t move and just stared at her.

Between gasps for air she said, “Jesus, what the hell is happening to me!” She didn’t look fierce like I would expect but just afraid.

Finally I managed to say something. “I don’t know what to do. Should we call somebody? The doctor?” She was breathing in and out really fast.

“Yeah”, she said, “Call someone… phone’s in the kitchen.”

“Should we call dad?” I asked.

“No”, she said, “He’s on the road.”

“Should we call Molly’s house?” I asked. Hers was the only phone number besides ours that I knew.

“Yeah”, she said between gasps, “Call Joan.”

I dialed Molly’s number. The phone rang for a long time but no one answered.

“Go across the street and get Joyce”, she said.

“Who’s Joyce?” I asked.

“KENNY’S MOM!” she yelled, angry like I should know that, “Go quickly, Coop. I feel like I’m going to pass out.” I wasn’t sure what “pass out” meant, but it sounded like something you did before you died.

Even though I had pajamas on and bare feet and didn’t feel well I went out the front door into the cold and ran across the street to Kenny’s house and rang the doorbell over and over. Finally his mom opened the door.

“Cooper”, she said, “Why are you in your pajamas and your bare feet? What’s wrong?”

“My mom says she can’t breathe”, I said, “She needs your help.”

“Okay”, she said, “Let’s go”. She came out the door, closed it and walked quickly across the street with me.

“What happened?” she asked.

“I don’t know”, I said, “Nothing happened. She just said she couldn’t breathe.”

We went in our front door. The living room was empty but I could hear mom moaning in the kitchen and gasping for air.

“Jane”, said Kenny’s mom, “Are you there in the kitchen?”

“Oh Joyce, thank god”, mom said, “I’m having trouble breathing!” She started to gasp and cry at the same time.

“Dear Jane”, Kenny’s mom said, taking her hand, “Have you called your husband?”

“No”, mom said.

“Can I try and call him for you?” she asked.

“He’s on the goddamn road!”, mom said fiercely, crying.

Kenny’s mom looked really worried when mom used that swear word but didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry Joyce”, mom said, “I can’t think straight, please forgive me!” Kenny’s mom nodded slowly.

“You’re forgiven”, she said, “I’m just trying to get you some help.” Mom nodded slowly and closed her eyes while she breathed out really fast. I could tell she just wanted what was happening to her to stop.

“Should I call the hospital, the ambulance?” she asked, “My husband has our car so I can’t take you there myself.” Still breathing in and out fast, mom opened her eyes and shook her head like she didn’t know. She looked like a scared kid. I was embarrassed for her, and for myself.

“I can try Matilda”, she said, “She used to work as a nurse.” Mom nodded quickly, her eyes closed now and still breathing fast. Kenny’s mom used our phone and made a call. She explained to the person on the phone what was going on with mom.

Finally she hung up and said, “Matilda is on her way over, she said she might be able to help.” Mom nodded.

“Joyce. Thank you SO MUCH”, she said, “I couldn’t deal with this without someone else.” When she said that I felt bad that I couldn’t be “someone else” to help her. I felt like a stupid kid that didn’t know anything.

“Oh god”, mom said, “I feel like my heart is going to jump out of my body! Am I having a heart attack?”

“I don’t know Jane”, Kenny’s mom said, “But I don’t think so. Hopefully Matilda will know what to do.”

We were all quiet now. Mom sitting in the chair in the kitchen. Kenny’s mom and me standing next to her.

A station wagon came and parked in front of the house. I looked out the kitchen window and it was Molly’s mom getting out.

“Molly’s mom’s here”, I said.

“Oh yeah”, mom said, “I guess I called her when you were getting Joyce. I can’t even remember what I said to her.”

I watched Molly’s mom run from her car to our front door and bang on the screen door. I ran into the living room and opened the door.

She looked at me and asked, “How’s your mom doing?”

“She’s in the kitchen with Kenny’s mom”, I said.

“Okay”, she said, then looking at me in my pajamas, “How are YOU doing? Are you home sick?” I nodded at the second question. I didn’t know how to answer her first one, I didn’t want to tell her about feeling embarrassed about mom.

“JANE”, Molly’s mom said loud, “I’M HERE!”

“We’re in the kitchen”, said Kenny’s mom. Molly’s mom went to the door between the living room and kitchen and stood there. I couldn’t really go in too because Molly’s mom was in the way, so I just stood there feeling like a stupid kid who didn’t feel well and didn’t know what to do, and I had to wait for the grownups to figure things out. But I’m glad they were there because I didn’t want mom to die.

I heard Kenny’s mom tell Molly’s mom everything that had happened. Finally Molly’s mom said, “Jane, I don’t think it’s a heart attack, I think you’re having a panic attack.”

“Why would I have a panic attack?” mom asked, still breathing hard.

“I don’t know”, Molly’s mom said, “I know you’ve been under a lot of stress lately trying to keep all the balls in the air.” She took a quick look at me like there was stuff she didn’t want to say because I was there. That made me feel like a more stupid kid.

“Jane”, she said, like she was talking to a kid, “I can take you to the emergency room at U of M hospital if that would make you feel better.” I couldn’t hear mom say anything and I didn’t know if she was nodding or shaking her head.

There was another knock on the screen door. I opened it and it was Paul’s mom. Molly’s mom saw her from the doorway to the kitchen.

“Matilda”, she said, “We could sure use your help and nursing experience sorting this out.”

“I’m glad I was home”, Paul’s mom said, “But I’ve got something in the oven so I can’t stay long.”

Molly’s mom told her all the stuff that Kenny’s mom had told her. I just stood in the mostly empty living room and listened.

I heard Paul’s mom say, “Jane, I’m pretty damn sure you are having a panic attack and that you’re hyperventilating. Do you have like a paper lunch bag or other small paper bag?” I heard a cupboard open and the crunching sound of a paper bag being opened.

“Now Jane”, she said, “Close the opening of the bag over your mouth and breathe in and out slowly.” There was a moment of silence.

“I know it sounds strange”, Paul’s mom said, “But it usually works.” I heard the bag making crunching noises, I guess as mom breathed into it.

“Okay good”, Paul’s mom said, “Keep going and just try to relax and focus on your breathing.” More bag noises but no one was talking in the kitchen.

“Is that better?” she asked. Again I couldn’t tell if mom was nodding or shaking her head, but Paul’s mom said, “Good.”

“Matilda you’re a lifesaver”, I heard Molly’s mom say.

“Yes indeed”, said Kenny’s mom, “Thank you so much, Matilda.”

“Happy to do it”, said Paul’s mom, “We girls need to stick together. Jane, you probably should talk to your doctor or maybe even a psychologist about what might have caused this. When’s Eric home?” she asked.

“Thursday”, mom said, “He’s at a conference in Chicago.”

“I’ve got to get home or I’ll burn my cookies”, Paul’s mom said, “And then I’ll have an unhappy hubby! Can you two sit with her a bit more and make sure she’s okay? Worst case, run her to the ER at U of M hospital.”

Paul’s mom came out of the kitchen and looked at me standing in the living room. “I think your mom’s going to be okay young man, but YOU don’t look so good.” She put her hand on my forehead and nodded. “You need to drink some water and get back into bed.” I nodded, still feeling pretty stupid and not able to do anything to help.

Paul and Kenny’s moms went home, but Molly’s mom stayed, and she and mom went for a “walk around the block”. I wondered if that was because they wanted to talk about stuff and didn’t want me to hear what it was. When they got back, Molly’s mom drove her car back to their house. And then before David came home from school, mom asked me to not say anything to him about what happened, because he was too young to understand. I wasn’t sure I understood, but I said okay. I wondered if she’d tell dad, but I didn’t ask her.


The next morning, Tuesday, I was feeling a little better, but mom said I should stay home from school one more day and reminded me not to tell David about what happened. When she looked at me she would smile, but it felt like more of a pretend smile, like she was thinking about a bunch of stuff that she was worrying about. After David came home from school and ate lunch, she took him over to the park to play while she sat in the middle of the park and watched him, like she used to do with me before she let me do whatever I wanted. I just played in the basement and watched shows on TV.

I went to school on Wednesday and when I came home after school dad was back a day early from his “conference”. I guess he knew what had happened, though he and mom didn’t talk about it at all, at least that I could hear, maybe because they didn’t want David to find out. They also said they had decided to “postpone” my birthday party until the next weekend, because the weather was supposed to get warmer and we could have it in the park.

When I finally had my party in the park, mom didn’t come. Before the party she “apologized” to me for not being able to be there, but said she was feeling “under the weather”, and said that Molly’s mom and Paul’s mom would help dad with the food. She had never not come to my birthday party before.

I wondered if she was embarrassed about having that “panic attack”, like I had been embarrassed last year when Joey told everybody in my class that I’d pull down my pants for Mary. I could still remember standing there in class getting ready to go out to recess when he said it and everybody looking at me and just feeling like I wanted to disappear. It wasn’t like other things I remembered, it was like it was happening over and over again each time I thought about it.

Mom and dad did get me a record player for my birthday, though they said I had to let David use it too. My friends at the party were mad that they didn’t know that I was getting it, because they would have bought me records for birthday presents. And while we played in the park they were all telling me good records to buy, like “Hey Little Cobra” by the Ripcords, “The Way You Do The Things You Do” by the Temptations, and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Beatles.

My friends didn’t ask me about mom or the panic attack, so I guess they didn’t know, which was good. I did wonder if the other grownups at the party knew, besides dad, Molly’s mom and Paul’s mom. Kenny came but HIS mom didn’t. And Danny’s mom was mom’s other best friend, besides Molly’s mom, and I couldn’t tell if SHE knew.

And now I was wondering if there was something wrong with our family. Dad couldn’t make enough money. He and mom argued all the time. She had a panic attack. And I had said last year that I’d pull down my pants for Mary and Joey had told everybody at school. Maybe we weren’t regular people like other people were. Maybe we were all bad.

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