It was 1979 and the boy was 7 and playing a Mattel electronic soccer, and Karen was 3 and resting her head on her mother's thigh, but the other part of it was that they were in the hospital and her mother was dying.
The accident put the mother into a coma immediately, but left her that way for another ten hours, nine of which were dreadful waiting. Waiting for something to happen, waiting for it to be too late to stay any longer, waiting for a doctor to come and tell them what the test that they had waited for was going to show.
The father was there, just coming up to sober. He had given the kids the soccer game to distract them so he could process his grief.
There was a nurse there as well, she tried to offer the girls some juice, but Karen didn't want any juice. The boy scored a goal so no one offered him anything.
The mother let out a gasp, then there was some sort of rushing and organized chaos as the medical staff moved parts of her body around and family asked frenzied questions, within a few seconds more doctors were there, more nurses, and both kids were pushed to a corner where they both stared at futility.
Eventually it was over. It had actually been over well before that. But.
There is a moment, it comes immediately after the doctors stop working and immediately before you understand that the person is forever dead, where time pauses. Everything stops. That stillness is inviolable, it is at that moment when you witness quantum physics choosing between potentialities, you are watching it decide that this not that will be, this is what will be what has happened.
It was in that sacred moment that Karen chose to sing. "Frost-y the snowman! Was a very happy soul--"
She never actually got to "soul," because by "Frost-" the back of her father's hand slapped her in the face with such impulse that she fell over.
It was a reflexive slap, the song was such an affront to the family and to quantum mechanics that his hand got to her face even before his eyes did. Everyone winced. No one said anything. The staff looked away, down, up, at machines and papers. The original nurse put a smile on and lead the kids by the hand outside. Maybe there was some ice cream there, let's leave the grown ups to talk.
"But I want to sing Frosty!" said Karen. " Just one time?!"
The problem with guilt, unlike shame, is that it is with you even when you are Alone.
Karen grew up and carried the guilt of that accident with her, the guilt of that single instant: she had distracted her father in the car. Too loud. Dropped the Oreos. The father had turned to look at her, yell at her. The only part that wasn't really her fault was that no one wore seat belts in 1979.
Thirty years later she didn't even have solid memory of her mother, but the accident and the hospital were in hi def. Her brother's descent into drugs, her father's decline into nothing, all had happened because she hadn't been able to save her mother. Not directly, but inevitably. No matter how you worked backwards from the splitting of 30 years of potentialities, they all started with the dropping of the Oreos.
And she had run through in her mind, in those 30 years, every other alternative potentiality: if she had simply sat quietly; listened to her father; died in a fire; died in utero... so many other possibilities and if any of them, therefore her mother would still be alive.
But those were unsatisfying fantasies, because they didn't change the source of her guilt which was, she knew, the dropping of the Oreos. That's what had to change, the opportunity missed. Then her mother would be alive, then she would have succeeded, then the guilt would be gone.
She parented differently now that she had a 3 year old daughter of her own, it was all four point harnesses and Chevy Suburbans and no snacks in the car.
But you can protect your kids from the world, you can't protect them from you.
When the family goldfish died Karen decided to use it as a teaching experience for her young daughter. They'd take the fish outside and bury it, and say a prayer, and in this way would learn about death and God and about the enormity and ceaselessness of the universe, that life is finite though memories are not.
But what do we know about the universe that we think we can teach? We humans fret about personality and behavior and the relative contributions of nature vs. nurture, but if someone asked God if they should study Francis Crick or Carl Jung, He would spit in their food. Get thee behind me, Satan.
When Karen sat Catherine in front of the bowl, in that instant of silence when Catherine should have been watching quantum decoherence, she instead did this:
"Frost-y the Snowman! Was a jolly happy soul! With a corn cob pipe--"
And the mother snapped. "CATHERINE!"
Catherine's head jerked back. Her eyes darted to the dead fish.
"Why are you singing THAT?!"
Eyes darted back to the mom, back to the fish, back to the mom. "--and a button nose--"
"Stop! Why are you singing that?!"
A sob came up first, back and forth went the eyes. "...I have to."
"So he'll wake up..."
Nothing in that room moved, except a flow of tears and Catherine's eyes, watching quantum mechanics take away her beautiful fish.
"... but now it's too late..."