The Mayans did this thing called “cranial deformation.” They’d wrap their babies’ heads in strips of cloth to elongate their skulls. The process began at birth, with a few tight bands of white linen around the forehead. At six weeks, they bound stones to both sides of the head, to amplify cranial pressure. Because babies’ skulls are soft, they grew conically, like the tops of avocados.
The longer your cranium, the higher your status: a pine cone on your head, and you’re slightly higher than the peasants; a butternut squash, and you’re practically God.
The Mayan version of heaven was a kind of human garden. The ancestors of kings — those with the tallest skulls — are depicted in Mayan art as shooting out of the ground like fruit trees, hundreds of miles high, the tops of their heads sprouting hair like palm fronds that fondle the stratosphere.
In 2004, on Halloween night, I was sitting in a parked Ford Explorer on a suburban street, dressed as a skeleton. Like, skeleton face paint — three layers of it. White foundation, and two coats of charcoal and black. I was picking up a friend to drive her to a party. We’d drink Peachtree Schnapps. High school stuff.
I’d just participated in our town’s annual “Ghost Walk.” A friend’s father who worked for the township did my makeup — it took forty-five minutes — and told me to hide behind a tree stump in the dark, while kids I knew from school walked by with their families. Whenever I heard people coming, I had to pop out and scream at them. I did this four times. I was paid $10.
So here I was, in the Explorer.
Her name was Andrea, and she walked out after twenty minutes, dressed like an archangel. It was windy, and there were dead leaves blowing in her eyes. She had these huge fucking wings, and I had to get out of the car to help her bend them through the passenger door. A skeleton helping an angel into a minivan.
Eight months later, I was in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, watching Andrea’s mother cover her face in Kleenex. She was holding onto an iPod mini, so tightly the iPod was almost wet. And her eyes were shut, so shut it was like she didn’t have eyes at all.
“Catastrophic antiphospholipid syndrome” “Catastrophic tissue necrosis” “Nonresponsive” “Cytokine storm”
There was a nurse who came by to give us applesauce. There was another nurse whose only job was to hold a box of Kleenex in front of Andrea’s mother’s face. There was a third who took us — my friends and me — into a tiny holding room and told us that there’s this thing called the immune system and sometimes it goes batshit crazy for no reason at all.
We knew about the immune system. We were in AP Biology.
I was in AP World Civilizations that year, too, and we were learning about the Mayans and their fruit tree nonsense. We couldn’t do much for Andrea. After all, her head was shaped like a cantaloupe.
Andrea died within a week. There are too many metaphors about autoimmune diseases, so I won’t even try, but she had a rare one. We couldn’t really even pronounce it, we were so young.
I used to wonder why I spent so much time memorizing the names of Mayan kings, and the things they did to make sure that the end was not the end. It’s amazing how many things we learn in school that hide themselves in our heads, like stingrays in the sand, until something happens and they come to the surface.
I dressed as a skeleton again the following year. Crouched behind a tree stump and popped out every few minutes to remind people that they would die one day. Most of them laughed at me. I was paid $10.
And for months after she died, I kept googling her disease: “catastrophic antiphospholipid syndrome.” I was googling compulsively. Every syllable, every Greek and Latin root. I do it with everything that scares me — find the facts, memorize them, and spit them out. How else are we supposed to get by in this crazy world of cytokine storms?
When I’m a father, I’m going to wrap my baby’s head in white linen straps, to make his skull as long as a gourd. It’s not painful. I don’t think he’ll cry. I’ll coo at him, telling him that this is all it takes, this is all he has to do to rise up like a fruit tree when he dies, when his friends stand around a hospital bed wondering what the hell a cytokine storm is, and how it can end things so quickly, and how we all wish we had a Mayan ritual in moments like this, but, so often, we don’t. So we stand there, or kneel behind a tree stump, remembering all the things we learned in school, and repeating them in our heads, until the feeling goes away.