When my mom yanked my hands away from the faucet, I didn’t understand. “Don’t!” she yelled, panic in her eyes. My toothbrush fell to the floor. I heard my dad watching the news on the television. My mother grasped my stubby hands and looked at me, “Maya. Listen very carefully. It’s important that you do not drink any water unless I give it to you. We have to use bottled water from now on. ” She continued to hold my stare, so that I couldn't possibly shatter it, until she saw me shake my head in agreement.
The news channel echoed through the house. I followed behind my parents as they walked out to hear the television better. The news woman sat, her face expressionless, and dark circles loomed under her eyes.
“Alert Warning: In the following cities of Ohio—Akron, Canton, Youngstown…the water is reported to be contaminated with high level chemical toxins. We are warning the inhabitants of these cities: Do not drink the water until further notice. We caution you not to bathe in the water, especially young children, because of such high traces of toxin found in the cities’ water supply. Symptoms of chemical poisoning may be sore throat, stomach ache, nausea, or fever. If you have any of these symptoms, you may have ingested toxic water and need to report to the hospital right away. A large number of the community is sick in the hospital and animals have been dying on the street. Many of the Ohio towns have become economically depressed over the years, and water supply is limited…”
My dad left the living room and ran into the bathroom, his feet skidding on the floor. He held tape and plastic bags in his hands. He started to cover the mouth of the faucet with plastic and taped the handles back. He moved onto the bathtub, tying the plastic carefully around the shower head. Then he put a note over it, saying, “Do not use.” They began to mark all of the faucets, even covering the hose outside.
“What’s wrong with the water, mommy?” I asked, but she didn't hear me. I could see she was tied down by the thoughts circling in her head. I followed her out of the living room and into the kitchen as she began to place bags over the sinks.
“It’s ok, honey. Just go play with your toys for now. Daddy and I have to deal with this,” my mom instructed.
I remember walking back to my room slowly. My parents’ voices started up. They spoke softly, trying to shield me from their words, but their whispers slipped under, through the lips of my door.
“We have to watch her carefully. She is only 7 years old. She won’t understand right away,” I heard my mom say in soft but hurried undertones, as if she was peeling back layers of her thoughts, cased in worry.
“It will be fine, honey. We closed off the sinks.”
“But we have to make sure she doesn't accept water from her friends at school. And, what about our budget? We have to buy water bottles now.”
They walked into the next room, their voices fading out until I could only hear the hum of the fan in my room, circling slowly. Soon, I heard my father’s car crawl out from the driveway.
I got up and walked out of my room and into the living room where my mom sat with papers in her hands, which she had called bills. They seemed to eat away at her and she had begun to look at them more and more.
“I’m thirsty, Mommy,” I whined.
“I know, Maya. Dad still has to go buy water.”
She began to pack my lunch for school, giving me only a small cup of water. She instructed me again not to drink anything unless she gave it to me.
That day the kids ran around the school, clasping bottles. The fountains had looked sick, bandaged with plastic. It was lunch and there was only a drop left in the bottle my mom had given me. After recess I was so thirsty, I could hardly think. I stared at my friend Leah, drinking from a full cup.
“Are you okay? Where’s your water?” she said.
“Yeah. Just really thirsty. I finished what my mom gave me,” I answered.
“Here take one of mine. My mom packed me two bottles.”
“I shouldn’t…My mom would be angry.”
“I’m sure my mom packed me safe water.”
“Did you buy it?”
“No my mom has some crazy filter. It cleans all the bad stuff out.”
My eyes lit up. I took the small bottle from her and said thank you. It felt cold on my throat as I swallowed.
When I got home from school, my father came home with seven cases of water bottles. In a matter of days, empty bottles began to fill the corners of our house, coating the tile floors of our kitchen and dining room. The next week he was out buying more. Neighbors would knock on our door asking if we had water we could lend them. My father would give them one bottle or sometimes say he couldn't spare any. We had to conserve every drop of water. I began to help my mom boil our bath water and bring in the buckets of rain water we collected outside by the river.
When I had woken up the next morning, I felt a scratchiness in my throat that had lingered slightly the night before. I came downstairs coughing slightly, my hand rubbing my throat.
“What’s wrong, Maya?”
“Nothing. I’m okay,” I said too quickly. I saw the taped sinks and remembered drinking the water Leah gave me at school.
“You look pale,” my mom said nervously as she walked over to feel my forehead. “You feel really hot,” she gasped. “How long have you felt sick?”
“Since last night.”
“We need to take you to the doctor,” she replied tersely.
“I feel okay,” I said.
My mom looked concerned. She continued making breakfast but she noticed that I had started to feel worse and worse. I had started to feel nauseous.
“Maya. You didn't drink any other water did you?” I hung my head near my shoulders as if they held weights.
“Maya. What did I tell you? What water did you drink?” she yelled.
“Leah gave me water.”
“Was it packaged?” she demanded.
“No. But she cleaned it.”
“Maya. How could you not tell me this?” she screamed.
My mom had grabbed the keys so fast and pulled me into the car. The hospital was packed with patients. When we were seen, the doctor did blood tests and checked my symptoms. My mom and dad frantically awaited the results. My mom sat biting her fingernails and my dad tapped his leather shoes on a sickly looking floor. The doctor came out and my mom jumped up and like a deflating balloon, she unraveled with a long sigh when he said I just had a bad case of strep throat, but to stay away even from the filtered water. My mom hugged me.
I sighed into her chest. After that close call, my mom watched everything I did and made sure I had enough water no matter what we could afford that week. My father’s job was somewhat unstable. He took on other projects to help earn more money. My parents worried about the toxins and they talked of moving, but hesitated hoping it would all be fixed soon.
We lived in Youngstown, our house lining the Mahoning River. To me it was the only town I knew, my home, where I felt safe growing up. But when our water reservoirs became contaminated, it never felt as safe again.
My mom used to love taking baths but, most days, we had only three buckets of water to use each bath. One to soak us and two to rinse with. My mother always worried about the contaminated water. My dad would try to calm her. Mostly she was scared for me. Each time she saw me go to reach for the handles of the faucet, she would yell, “Maya, no!” and hug me against her.
Most nights, she would worry about whether the bad water had already harmed us. “What did we drink without knowing, before the ban?” she would say to my dad. She would hear the news of more people put in the hospital, their bodies sickened and contaminated. Each time I coughed or sneezed, worry would creep in and she would take me to the doctor to check if I was sick.
My parents often sat in their rooms, clouds hanging over their eyes, talking over budgets and stacks of bills. They never knew I held onto their words, pulling them from my pockets to find ways to help. I began to collect jars of change I would find. Soon it would become filled with pennies. It was my water jar. I would empty it and give the money to my mother. Each time I placed the pennies in her hand, a smile curled up her cheeks.
The ban lasted for months but soon they began to filter through the water and the chemical source was said to have been stopped, but we never truly felt safe drinking it. That year, home didn't mean the same to us. But the next year the water was tested day by day and soon it was diagnosed as healthy. Slowly people began to turn back on their faucets. We tried not to think about the sick water, but we never forgot. In the corner of my room, lay my water jar.