I do a lot of things to try to silence my mind: writing worlds that don’t exist; meditation; insanely difficult puzzles. But today none of it’s working.
It’s been five years since this story was first published and 36 since the events happened. But it feels like yesterday. Sometimes our grief is so large we just have to share it.
The scream was a deep, miserable thing that flew out of my mouth, gushing into the room like rusty water bursting from a pipe. I gripped the edge of your crib and watched the graying of your skin; marveled at your beautiful lips, parted as if you were still breathing. My spirit ripped away, and suddenly, floating at the ceiling, looking down, the room filled with your silence and my screams.
Throughout the year, bits and pieces of your last day arrive out of nowhere like stray bullets. But each year on the anniversary of your death, the complete story comes back like a great wild thing with dripping fangs and ragged claws, chasing me until I turn and face it. And when I finally do stop running and surrender to the great empty cave in my chest, I can’t breathe. But if I am patient, soft things punctuate my memory, like whiffs of cinnamon, when I least expect them: your tentative smile, your moss-colored eyes, the tender white flowers in the forest just outside your bedroom window.
Sometimes the remembering goes well. Other times shock still flows over me, years later, while I’m meditating; or explodes in the calm of the afternoon after the students have left my classroom. Worst of all are the times I forget because then my grief flows with guilt, a poisonous combination. But always, no matter how the memory comes, I am thirty years old, you are cradled in my arms, and I am drowning in the burden of guilt. I was your mother. Shouldn’t I have known something was wrong with my child?
I lift your photo off my dresser, looking for answers. In it, we’re sitting on the edge of the big bed, two days after coming home from the hospital: you in mid-yawn, me in my pajamas; looking straight into the lens, mouth pinched at your daddy for suddenly appearing in the doorway with the camera. But it was what happened next that never fails to startle me. Like the bell before a horse race, it clangs in the memory whether I am ready for it or not.
On that spring morning, the sky’s thin light and tattered cloud blanket had somehow shackled the airflow. Even the birds in the garden were still. Two-year-old Ashley had tugged on my sleeve as we stood gazing at the unusual light. “Mommy, do clouds ever get lonely up there?” At that moment, you started to cry.
We went inside, where you and I nestled into the rocker in our living room, and Ashley played with her books. Behind us, adjoining glass walls gave us a floor-to-ceiling view of the forest. You were halfheartedly nursing, occasionally pulling away to smile up at the open-beamed ceiling. As you slipped into a milk-drunk sleep, you let out a contented sigh. It was during this quiet time, and I lost myself in the discovery of your loveliness, so different from your sister’s dark beauty.
Your strawberry blond hair, the miniature pillows of your earlobes, your long artistic fingers hooked onto mine. As you slept, you gently pursed your lips as if you were kissing the green warmth of the morning. I’d like to think you loved that moment. That rocker. That room. Me. It is where your last picture was taken and where we gathered after your funeral.
I carried you to your crib, moving softly. I covered you with the blue quilt Ashley gave you the moment we came home from the hospital. Oh, how she adored you. She’s the one who gave you your nickname: Emmy.
While you napped, Ashley and I whispered in the kitchen, her voice struggling to contain her excitement of our upcoming walk. Then, as now, she used her body as she spoke, a dramatic sweep of her arm declaring the importance of taking a hike with you in the forest, of introducing you to the birds and squirrels. “Emmy needs to hear stories, so we have to bring some books too,” she said, handing me The Runaway Bunny.
I put my finger to my lips. “You know if we’re really quiet, maybe some fairies will come out, and Emmy will get to meet them.” I shouldn’t have said it. If I had only kept my mouth shut, Ashley wouldn’t have leaped up, and then my perfect family could have been suspended in time—even for just a few more minutes. Instead, she tugged at my hands. “C’mon, Mommy!” She marched me into the bedroom, her little overalls leading the way, her fingers crossed you’d already be awake.
Have I told you there were tears on your eyelashes? Had you been crying? From above, I saw my body standing still, like the hundred-year-old redwoods outside the window—watching everything, unable to move. I let go of Ashley’s hand, reached into your crib, and plucked you out. Ashley backed away, grasping the doorframe. “What’s wrong with baby Emmy?”
“She’s a little sick,” I lied. I couldn’t say it—not yet. I sank to the carpet, cradling you like roses. I grabbed the phone and stabbed 9-1-1, and when words came out, they were alien on my tongue. Unforgettable, unbelievable words, shredding my gut with each syllable as I responded to the dispatcher’s questions, “No, not breathing…two months…in her crib…no, not sick…”
I’m not sure how long I kneeled on the floor, rocking you to my breast. But in the suffocating silence of the room, a searing thought burned into my chest. Where was Ashley? My eyes darted around the room. How much time had passed since I saw her last? What kind of a mother was I?
“Ashley?” My voice caught as I twisted around to look through the doorway. She was standing in the middle of the living room, hugging herself—watching my every move, her little body rocking in tandem with mine.
There was a siren, and then there were the eyes of the EMT, kind but urgent, as he gently lifted you out of my arms. There was something else in his eyes that afternoon. Acceptance, was it? He averted his gaze in the ambulance while one purposeful hand worked the knobs of the respirator and the other cupped your forehead. As we sped toward the fishhook curve onto Highway 1, our arms briefly touched, and in that instant, I felt a rush of compassion for him. He knew. I knew. You were gone. But moments later, when the driver turned on the siren, I took it as a sign of hope. Now I believe it was simply a gesture of kindness, a scream to match my own.
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Oh, Vanya. Heart wrenching. Beautifully told, and your Ashley rocking with you. Sometimes we know about our friends, some things that happened, but we don’t know until we’ve heard the story told in their own voice with their hearts raw and peeled open. I hold her with you there on the floor. Feel your loss and the spirit of your Emmy. Love to you as you remember.
My dear Vanya…your words capture Emmy’s beauty, your pain and the memory of an unimaginable moment. Thank you for sharing this lovely piece again. Holding you close. Sending love
Thank you, Nancy, for holding Emmy with me.
Thank you, Renee, for holding me close.
Hi Vanya: this is a breathtakingly beautiful, exquisitely written essay. I am so, so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing it with all of us. Sending you lots of love.
Dear friend, I am so sorry. I didn’t know about this… I have a young friend who lost her 3 year old son a little over a year ago. She is still quite devastated and he was her only child. She doesn’t know if she will ever recover her joy in life. I cannot imagine though I have had my share of grief. So much love coming your way. Hugs,
My gosh Vanya.
So powerful. I felt every word.
You have such amazing strength and passion for life.
You are beautiful
Thank you, Patrice! I really appreciate this.
Oh, Francine. Thank you. I am sorry to hear about your friend’s loss. I’ve received many emails and even letters from mothers who are carrying the weight of untimely death. I always suggest they write a love letter to their child. Get it all down. Perhaps it might help her?
Teresa! Love your words. Thanks for making me crack a smile.
What a beautiful and sad piece. Thank you for your bravery to write this.