The funeral is over. We step out of the church into the raw night. My hands are full. Cards, some baked items, small gifts and crayon pictures from children, all expressions of love from the many, many friends who came to say goodbye. They are on their way home now, but we linger.
Main street is beautiful. It is always quaint, and tonight it is worthy of a postcard. As far as I can see, up and down the street, every house and shop is shining with strings of lights. There are wreaths on the doors. Last I knew it was Thanksgiving. That’s when the accident happened, and the hospital was empty of all holidays. I missed the transition to Christmas.
We stand on the sidewalk, waiting for the little white coffin. He used to play at this church. He sang on the stage, ran through the halls, dripped glue on the laminate tables.
Time moves on. The world seems content with this. It’s Christmas, after all. Everyone must bake cookies, shop the sales, see the parade, go to parties, watch Hallmark specials, wrap gifts. They becomes a blur of red and green, gold and silver, rushing past me in festive activity.
I can’t move. If I take a step forward, I’ll leave Samuel behind.
Mothers don’t leave their children.
Each year the kindergarteners learn songs, make paper bag costumes and jewelry out of colored pasta, and put on a short Thanksgiving presentation for the parents. It’s almost a practice for the much anticipated kindergarten Christmas concert, which is performed on the stage, and is important enough to be accompanied by a printed program with each student’s name. And, if I remember correctly, followed by cookies.
Samuel was funny about attention. He craved it and was simultaneously embarrassed by it. When he stood with a class of kids in front of a group, he sometimes froze in place, staring, not singing. Sometimes he covered his face. Afterwards he twirled and pranced, words coming together so quickly I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, as he (I assume) recounted how marvelous it was.
This year the kids wore homemade headpieces that looked like turkeys. Samuel’s flopped over to one side. I watched him sing with his class, then joined him for lunch in the cafeteria. He kept his Indian necklace and turkey headband on the whole time. He ate mandarin oranges. That evening he stood on the hearth in the living room and practiced for the Christmas concert, only three weeks away.
Are they thinking about us? The families and teachers at the Christmas concert, do they remember that one of the students is missing?
I sit at home and imagine Samuel, dressed in his best, singing with his class just like my other two did. Later in the evening pictures of smiling children and proud parents fill social media. Comments praise the kids and congratulate them on their hard work.
A perfectly normal kindergarten program.
It’s all wrong. There is nothing normal about it. There is a terrible, terrible hole in the middle of the stage, and Samuel is gone. He’s dead. How can they celebrate?
The pain is loud, wet, messy. Nothing matters but the pain. My face on the rug, my knees tucked under me, clawing at the carpet, needing something solid under my fingers to grab, to resist. The noise filling my ears is hardly human. It is formless, wordless. It will never stop.
The pain does not diminish, but the energy does. My muscles lose all tone and every inch of my body sinks into the rug.
I have no idea how long I’ve been laying here. The pain has turned thick and silent, settling into the bottom of every cell in my body, weighing me down. I push over and slowly stand. My feet shuffle, one foot forward, next foot forward. I steady myself along the wall, and then against the bathroom counter, and look in the mirror.
I don’t recognize the person looking back at me. Her eyes are bloodshot, face smeared, cheek and forehead pocked and flushed from pressing on the rug. I can’t remember if I combed my hair this morning, and reach for the hairbrush. The stranger in the mirror mimics me, and suddenly I hate her and her ugly, puffy face. I slam the hairbrush against the counter, snapping it in half.
The vehemence evaporates as quickly as it ignited, and I am heavy again. I close my eyes, a long blink. I retrieve the top of the hairbrush from the floor, glance vacantly towards the mirror, and will my feet to move. One foot, next foot, they take me to the trash can. The hairbrush clatters inside, heavy as a hammer.
One of my joys in life was to watch Samuel’s enthusiasm when he did something he really loved. He forgot all else, and played in such a way that his entire body was immersed in the experience. If he could literally roll in his fun, even better.
A foot of snow turned our backyard into an adventure land. I chased the kids outside to play, bundled and topped with pom-pom winter hats. Samuel struggled to raise his feet high enough to walk, flopping face first into the snow. He rolled in it, ate it, dug tunnels under it, and tried to swim through it, each new activity introduced with “Daddy, mommy, look at me!” He brought handfuls of snow from every corner of the yard to pat onto the family snowman.
Hours later, when he finally came inside, he stood with arms outstretched scarecrow-style while I peeled off his frozen layers. His cheeks were flushed, a combination of his hard work and the cold. Chunks of snow fell to the floor as I removed every soggy piece. It was packed around his wrists, under his gloves. His boots were cemented to his socks by a layer of snow somehow pressed inside, past his ankles, and all around his feet. He was wet to the skin. Shivering. And happy.
“You’re a popsicle!” I half laughed, half scolded, lifting his hat and knocking the last of the ice out of his hair.
I wrapped his goose pimpled naked body in a dry towel, scooped him off the snow-covered rug, and carried him to his room.
“Hot chocolate?” I suggested, as I rubbed the pink back into his pruney toes.
Samuel, lover of small things and everyday pleasures. Delighting in snow piles and swimming in the bathtub. Thrilled by playdoh and sandboxes and collecting rocks in his pockets and hiding under blankets. He ran up hills to conquer them, to stand free at the top, to fly back down. He explored the world with body parts the rest of us reserve for boring functionality. He tasted dirt and rubbed his bare arms against the cool stone wall, squished noodles on the floor with his big toe.
He didn’t want to miss any detail of life.
I chew. I’m not sure what I’m tasting. I chew because I know I’m supposed to.
Jeremy is laughing with the kids, all giggles and silly jokes. He craves distractions.
I tell myself to smile with them, but I might as well try to lift 500 lbs. My face doesn’t respond.
Four plates, four cups, four chairs at our table.
Next I’m supposed to swallow.
The kids came home from school all talking at once. Backpacks and coats and shoes dumped inside the back door, rushing to the living room because they had been waiting and it was finally time. Each had a paper bag decorated with glitter stickers and crooked cut out hearts. They claimed spots on the rug. The boys emptied their bags in one glorious dump, while Jana investigated and itemized hers piece by piece.
Pink envelopes, squashed boxes of baby animal tattoos, tacky puns, “Yoda Best, Be Mine!” And candy. That was the real prize, anything with a piece of candy taped to it. They sorted and admired and gleefully compared lollipop flavors.
Samuel eyed the other piles. There were 10 kids in his preschool class, much fewer than the public school classrooms where his brother and sister exchanged valentines. Most of the preschool parents were still idealistic, crafting free-time into pinterest-inspired educational activities and steering their kids away from holiday sugar rushes. He had heart-covered pencils, erasers, a notepad, lots of stickers, and only two pieces of candy. His eyebrows narrowed, forming a serious crease across his forehead.
“Next year,” I promised. “You’ll have a big class when you go to kindergarten and you’ll get lots of treats.”
My words did not soothe.
I’m big on real life, not artificial fairness. I’m not going to give him extra candy to make it even. Windfall candy comes from elementary classrooms, where teachers and parents have shed their rookie ambitions, replacing them with a more pragmatic approach. The older two didn’t get lots of candy in preschool either. It’s just hard being the youngest, because you are more aware of what you’re missing. But life isn’t fair. It’s an important lesson to learn.
Still, Samuel loves trinkets most of all. He treasures them long after the other two have forgotten.
But just one.
“Hey, look what I have in the kitchen. Do you want it?”
Of course he does. It’s cherry berry. He returns to his pile, appeased as long as he has sugar in his mouth.
I imagine him next year, giddy, eyes huge at the fortunes of kindergarten.
Evenings are quiet after the kids go to bed. Jeremy and I sit in the living room. Sitting close, sitting a thousand miles apart. I disappear into a story. He looses himself in a computer game.
There is nothing to say. I study him out of the corner of my eye. His face is unfamiliar with a blue pallor from the light of the screen. I try to remember who we used to be before. It’s foggy. It was so long ago. Those functional people have been dead and forgotten for ages. The future is just as murky, as if our only guide is a medieval map with sea monsters lurking in the unexplored waters, and no way to know which is worse, my imagination or the actual dangers ahead of us.
His fingers pat the computer keys. I hear myself breathing and realize I am staring at the wall across the room. I look over at my husband, this man I used to know.
“I’m tired, I’m going to bed.”
He knows. I am always tired. I am always ready for bed.
“OK, goodnight, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
We still say it, every night. Our compass rose. We’re both afraid of what might happen if the silence erases those last words as well.
There is no undoing, there is no fixing. There is no understanding. There is no way to turn this into something inspiring.
I am practical and logical to a fault. A friend told me that Samuel was now an angel, and I nodded and pushed my lips together into something that was supposed to be a smile because I don’t trust my voice to stay respectful when I’m annoyed. She was trying to be kind, so I tried to be gracious. No one mistakes little boys for angels when they are alive, and they don’t become angels when they die. Samuel’s not an angel, he’s not a star, he’s not a butterfly or a rainbow, and the cardinal is not a sign from him because it’s the same cardinal that sat on the feeder when Samuel was warm and breathing, eating oatmeal at my kitchen table.
I lift my head just enough to make out the numbers on the clock. 3:22am.
I’m no longer surprised.
I slip out of bed carefully so I don’t wake Jeremy, pulling my pillow with me. The living room is dark. I settle sideways on the couch, my arms wrapped around my legs. I swaddle myself in a blanket, leaving enough extra to tuck under my bare toes. I rest my chin on my knees and stare out the window.
It is still and clear. The crescent moon is visible through the silhouettes of empty tree branches. I can’t remember if it is rising or setting.
I close my eyes. My nightly practice. I feel the stillness press on me until the tears squeeze out. Samuel, oh my Samuel. You can’t be gone. I don’t understand. I’m so sorry baby, I am so sorry…
I pull in as tight as I can and cry, quiet and still as the night outside.
All my life I’ve wiped away tears as they come. I don’t bother anymore. The tears fall undisturbed unless my face gets itchy, then I wipe them all off at once.
The clock pat pats the seconds.
The moon. It is creeping past the lower branches of that tree. It’s rising.
Only two more hours until the coffee maker starts.
I taught Samuel a little song. We used to sing it for the family he would never know in China.
“When you see the moon you’ll know I see the same one too. And when you see the stars they’ll say hello, from me to you.”
Grief comes in waves, they say.
Not yet. It’s more like a flooded river has breached a dam. The water thunders through, tearing apart trees, homes. Caving mountainsides. Destroying everything it touches.
And it keeps raining.
The kids complain at dinner.
“Mommy, I’m soooo tired of scrambled eggs. Can’t we have something else?”
They are tired of cereal too. And pizza delivery. So am I.
But mostly I’m just tired.
The best part about May was caterpillars. They were lanky and black, with a white racing stripe and hairs that stuck straight up. Jana and Samuel made habitats for them.
Samuel liked them the best. He would adopt one, loving and dooming it at the same time. The caterpillar would be restricted to roam his arms, and be named something like “Caterpillar” or “Crawly.” Every few minutes it would fall to the ground, only to be rescued and returned to it’s assigned course. Sometimes he would let it crawl on a toy or stick, always repositioning it when it went the wrong way.
After a few hours of so much love, each caterpillar got sleepy and stopped moving. Samuel would put it gently into a nice spot for a nap, tucked under a leaf or blade of grass.
He loved them.
Every morning the kids climb out of the car in the drop off line at school. They wave goodbye and head inside with the other students. I wave back.
Every morning the tears drip over my cheeks.
Every morning Samuel should be with them, skipping and swinging the backpack he loved. The backpack that sits by the back door. It’s been there for months now. Untouched. I can’t bring myself to move it. I haven’t even looked inside.
Every morning I drive home, curl myself into a ball, and weep.
The next time I change the calendar I will be looking at Samuel’s birthday, his first in heaven. The calendar must be lying. He left us so, so long ago.
I used to wonder at the ancients in the Bible who lived for centuries. What was it like to be that old? Did they age more slowly, their 300 akin to our 35?
Now I know. I too am Methuselah, withered and wrinkled, a stiff, tiny knot of flesh. I don’t try to keep breathing, it just happens.
At the pool I noticed a pink circle on Samuel’s back.
The next day it was the size of a plumb.
I called the pediatrician.
Under the revealing lights in his office, we could make out a dark ring around the edge. A bulls-eye rash. Lyme disease.
Samuel was feverish and achy for several days as the antibiotics went to work. The rash advanced until it dwarfed his tiny frame, reaching most of the way across his back. A lyme rash isn’t supposed to be itchy, but he scratched. Slowly it faded, his happiness returned, and we were back at the pool.
The doctor confided that in 20% of the cases he sees, the effects of Lyme continue even after a lengthy treatment. He advised me to watch out for unexplained crankiness, joint pain, and fatigue. I wondered if Samuel would be the unlucky 1 in 5.
A few months later it would not matter if he was cured of Lyme or not.
723 children in the US died in car accidents in 2016. 1 in 73,000. One of those was Samuel.
I am Lieutenant Dan, my legs cut out from beneath me, shaking my fist and screaming at the gale that batters my little boat. I rage at the world. I rage at my friends for not knowing how to help. I get tangled in piles of guilt for being angry at the people who have been there for me as much as they know how, people who genuinely care. Anger and thankfulness cohabitate, their offspring is guilt.
My friend Leah meets me for lunch. I tiptoe around my feelings, needing someone to hear them, wanting to express the anger and betrayal, but not wanting her to feel blamed.
She shrugs. “I figure I have no idea what it feels like to lose a child, so I decided to let you feel whatever you feel and stick around through it.”
The storm vanishes. All that is left is gratitude.
Two years ago the huge oak in the corner of our yard was struck by lightning. I was in the living room when it happened and felt the shock wave like I was body-slammed.
We have a “tree guy,” a parent we met through preschool. Trees are his livelihood, and he respects them to the point of speaking about them as companions. When I worried once about a tree leaning over our driveway, he reassured me, “It won’t fall, it know’s it’s leaning.”
He walked around the oak, inspecting it, and (I suspect) listening to it, and gave us the sad news. The lightning strike would be fatal. But it would deteriorate slowly, and he felt safe scaling it for several more years. We should enjoy the time we had left, and then take it down.
On a breezy afternoon the kids go outside to play with the boy from across the street. From my spot by the window I watch them argue and concede the rules of some new game they’ve invented. They establish home base at the bottom of the The Lightning Tree.
I watch the branches bend in the wind and my chest tightens. Maybe it’s weakening.
I can not loose another child.
“Kids!” My voice is sharper than I intend. “Right now, come inside.”
They look up, surprised.
A gust of winds stirs some leaves near their feet.
“No arguing,” I demand. “Come on, hurry.”
Their arms go limp and their sticks drop to the grass. They exchange glances and trudge toward the back porch.
The breeze blows the branches again. The tree sways.
“Get inside!” I order through clenched teeth.
I can’t get enough air.
They are silent as they drag past me through the door, but their eyes accuse.
I close the door behind them, the slam startling all of us.
It was the wind, I tell myself.
I can breathe again.
They are bored, annoyed, they complain, they bicker. Jana presses her forehead to the window, watching the boy across the street run around his front yard, carrying on the game by himself.
I am staring out the window again. Nature grieves with us today. Outside the gray sky melts down over the gray trees and gray grass. Raindrops splatter on the windows and I pull my fleece tighter. I remember the hospital windows on the day Samuel left us. I remember the chilly windowsill under my arm and choosing one raindrop at a time, following it’s path down the glass.
I thought it would rain forever. The world would flood and none of us would survive.
Jeremy comes up behind me and puts his arms around me. Together, silently, we watch the rain. I realize I’m standing stiffly, my body impliable as one of the trees. I consider if I need to remain a tree. I relax my head onto his shoulder.
Relaxing unleashes the tears.
For both of us.
No, I need for you to be strong! I can’t face this, one of us must stay strong.
But we are both broken.
I turn around and we cling together, broken together.
“We’re not going to let this tear us apart. We’re going to make it, right?”
Yes. We have to.
We have to.