Grief in the Days of Time Machines
Melanie McCabe

Grief in the Days of Time Machines

I want to travel through time.

If I can close my eyes and replay an event from my childhood, have I not in some way returned to it? There is a comfort in that for me, but it is a limited one. I can “see” the past again, but it is akin to watching a movie. I can observe myself doing something, saying something; I can watch and listen to my parents, my sister, but I cannot answer back. The Melanie in the memory has a script that was written many decades ago. Is it even possible to remember that script? Does writing about it change it irrevocably, undoing the past that was and leaving an impostor in its place?

I am the sole survivor of the childhood I knew. If I tell you that something happened, you may very well believe me. My parents cannot refute me. My sister can no longer interrupt me, correct me, or tell you that that was not the way it happened at all. It is a weighty responsibility. I could change everything by writing about it.

And I have been longing to do just that.

Be clear, Melanie. Do you mean longing to write about it—or longing to change everything? 

I think I mean both.


After my father left the room, after my little sister had fallen asleep, I got out of bed and tiptoed across the floor to where it waited for me atop my dresser. Next to it, the fishbowl gleamed yellow beside the nightlight. Back in my bed, I hung the little transistor radio over my bedpost by the strap of its leather case and turned it on, waiting for the tunes to fill my head and give me a soundtrack for whatever story or worry buzzed inside of me.

That January night in 1967, I was ten years old, and the songs that I coveted, that had climbed to the crest of the Top 40, were “I’m a Believer” by The Monkees, “Words of Love” by The Mamas and the Papas, and the Four Tops’ “Standing In The Shadows of Love.” I had a game I played while I waited to fall asleep. I would make up a musical in my head, guided only by the order in which that evening’s tunes were delivered to me by the night DJ on WEAM, 1390.  

But when I adjusted the volume to a level just high enough to hear, just low enough not to wake my sister or alert my mother, what rose out of the tiny holes was not music but the urgent voices of two men talking about something. About what? About a fire. About astronauts. About Apollo. About disaster.

I listened to those reports for hours, unable to stop myself. The names Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee conjured in my mind not distinct men but, instead, only their terrified faces, trapped inside bubbles of glass, distorted by pain and screaming. That story—the first real tragedy I can remember—combined for me three of the terrors that had already found their way into my imagination: claustrophobia, calamity, and fire.

At only two years old, I had locked my mother inside of my bedroom closet. Not intentionally, I don’t think. Perhaps playfully. She had gone in to hang up some clothes, and I followed behind her and gave the door a push. It closed suddenly and with a resounding click. The closet was tiny, with a wood-paneled door that had no knob but, rather, a heavy metal latch, like something one would find on a gate.

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Melanie McCabe

is a high school English and creative writing teacher in Arlington, Virginia. Her latest poetry collection, What the Neighbors Know (FutureCycle Press), was awarded Honorable Mention in the Library of Virginia Awards. Her first book, History of the Body, was published by David Robert Books. She has been a finalist for the Graybeal-Gowan Award, the Wabash Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, the May Swenson Award, and the Philip Levine Prize.