April 30, 2007. Seconds before the sun rose, and moments after the moon hid its face, Sammy smiled into the kitchen. “Good morning, Mommy.” Up early, dressed and ready for his day in blue jeans and a powder-blue polo shirt. The temporary tattoo on his left arm was faded and peeling, but his hair was gelled and combed. He sat in the big recliner with Harry Potter and read. He was looking forward to the seventh and last book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” due out in July—only a few months away. From the kitchen, I saw the crown of his head, his curls, and heard the sound of pages turning. As I poured my coffee he told me about Harry, but I didn’t hear the details. Why didn’t I listen to the details?
I prepared two lunch boxes, one for Scooby-Doo (Joey) and one for Duke (Sam). Joey’s lunchbox had Scooby-Doo’s silly, ready-to-run-at-any-second smile on the lid. As a toddler, he’d accessorize his outfits with his favorite Scooby-Doo ski-cap and matching red gloves, though he’d insist on wearing only one glove at a time. It was his thing. Sam’s lunchbox was army-green with a camouflage cover. “G.I. Joe, A real American Hero” was printed across the top in bold red, white, and blue letters. Duke was centered, standing crouched and ready for action, armed with grenades and vest pockets filled with high protein soldier snacks, I imagined. And shooting out from his pumped biceps were three bullet points—a summary of his character: “Brave – Smart – Motivated.”
Lunches were packed and breakfast—mini-waffles and peanut buttered banana slices—was done. Backpacks were loaded into the car, and Joey and Sam climbed into their booster seats and buckled up. As David and the boys pulled out of the driveway, I stood in my usual place and waved good-bye. They always turned and waved; it was our routine. But Sam didn’t wave or look back this day. Joey did, but not Sam. Why didn’t he wave? Why didn’t he look?
He didn’t like Mondays; he had P.E. on Mondays. “I’m the slowest runner in the class,” he’d told me one Monday before school. “But you have the fastest mind,” I said. “Some kids are fast runners; some are fast readers—like you. But very few are as smart as you. Maybe you’re not the fastest runner, but you are the fastest learner.”
He smiled. “Yeah, I am the fastest learner, aren’t I?”
In second grade, he was given a special test. “Samuel is very gifted,” the school psychologist explained to David and me over the test results. “I’ve never met a child like this before,” he said. “His scores could not be any higher.”
David was smiling. I was a little slower. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What are we talking about here?”
“Sam’s IQ,” David asserted. “He’s in the top percentile, Deanna. We’re talking MENSA membership.”
I shrugged while David combed over the paperwork.
“You don’t seem surprised,” the psychologist remarked.
“We’ve always kind of known Sam was special,” I said. While I was thinking…I want to dream about his future, and who he’ll be one day—when he grows up, my brilliant Sam. But more than anything, I just want that large dark cloud in his heart to go away.
May 2, 2005. Another Monday morning, with only a month left until summer break, Sam complained of chest pain. He assured me it was from either tying his shoelaces, or from the weight of his book bag. He hid his fear, so I hid mine. I dropped him at school. Yes, took him to school! I tried not to be afraid.
I called the doctor, and cried, and hovered in the parking lot nearby, and begged to Nobody, Not today, not tomorrow, not ever, please…just live. I was the worrier, always watching—I couldn’t live without him. And he was the warrior, always soldiering on. How could he lose when he was so alive?
There were other instances of chest pain. “Mommy, I just felt a pain,” he’d say, and point to his heart, “Here. But it’s gone. It went away.”
I’d wink and give him a thumbs-up. And ask him, “Nothing else hurts, right? You feel okay, right?” And he’d nod. “You’re fine,” I’d tell him, and he’d wink at me and blow a kiss through the air, “A-Okay.” His breathing was normal, his color was good; there were no other signs.
January 30, 2007. I let him take a day off and stay home from school. “You’re really sick then?” I asked him.
“Yes. But not too sick,” he assured me.
I brought him crackers and soup while he worked on a puzzle in bed. He’d planned to begin reading the book “Eragon” by Christopher Paolini, but decided instead to watch it on TV. So we curled up together on the sofa and spent the late morning under a blanket, lost in a story about a magical boy, Eragon, and his flying dragon, Safira, and their fight against evil. So bonded were they to one another, that if one died, the other would too. And because of this bond, they could hear each other’s thoughts.
“Love, family, accomplishments—they are all torn away, leaving nothing. What is the worth of anything we do?” Eragon cried.
“The worth is in the act. Your worth halts when you surrender the will to change and experience life.” Safira counseled.
8:20 a.m. David walked the boys into school, the Bank of America Learning Academy, or BOALA (like koala), which is situated in the office park where he works. Joey went to the right, to his first-grade classroom; Sammy went to the left, where other third-graders were filing in. David stood at his corner, his usual place, to wave good-bye (he told me later). But Sammy didn’t look back. Why didn’t he wave? Why didn’t he look? Just a glance?
What was different? Did we miss a sign? A warning?
10:00 a.m. It was a beautiful morning. The sky was cloudless and light blue, like Sam’s shirt that day—the same shirt he was wearing in a photo I’d taken of him on the playground, waving and smiling down at me from the top of the jungle gym. It was a perfect day to renew my New Year’s resolution and start exercising. I even walked to the fitness center for added benefit.
In the gym, a paramedic was lifting weights. I noticed his fire rescue t-shirt. “Hey,” he smiled. “How’s it going?” He was calm.
“Good,” I smiled back. Okay. Everything was okay.
12:40 p.m. I was eating lunch and writing a grocery list when the phone rang. A close friend called to tell me about a classmate from high school. “She’s dead,” she said, sounding shocked.
“It happens, we die,” I thought, or said aloud, I don’t remember.
She told me there was alcoholism involved, which angered me. I was unsympathetic and she’d probably thought as much. But I’d seen death; it didn’t shock me. I was gruff. “People die,” I told her. “And the older we get, the more classmates we’ll hear about.” She seemed stunned, so I apologized.
I was angry. Mad with fear. Afraid every hour of every day of death, of my little boy dying. Sammy, who loved life and wanted with all his heart to live, was being watched by death. No one understood. I was angry at the universe – at the world – at the mass in his heart. Give me, or any grownup, this death threat—we’ve had our time; but not this wide-eyed little boy. It’s against the rules!
We moved on to lighter conversation and caught up on kids, us, life in general. We lunched together over the phone and chatted for forty minutes or so, then ended our call. Both of us needed to grocery shop before carpool.
1:30 p.m. Boys and girls lined up for P.E., holding their two-fingered peace signs up high, one finger on lips, hushing their voices—quiet and ready. Sam smiled at his teacher (she told me later), and his expression, like a seed, was planted in her memory.
On the playground, Coach sent the class on warm up laps. Sam knew he was exempt and could have walked, but he liked to run with his friends: Seth, Fisher, Jacob, Jennifer, Allen, Carissa, Austin, David, Amenah, Brandon, Penelope, Hanasi, Gwyneth, Logan, Alexis, Dylan, Matthew, Justine, Ander, Jonathan, Taylor, Kiana, Kendall, Beatriz, Ashley, Caitlin, and Joshua.
He was running. Free. Happy. Full with life, and laughing. Laughing. His closest friends were running beside him when, without warning, in one moment, one second hand movement, that interval of time, before which he was living and then…he collapsed. And nothing broke his fall. Not his hands, not our hope, not even that supposed Helper up there. Nothing. His talented and gifted mind fell to the ground. And the earth, with its sudden force and unforgiving gravity, struck my sweet boy’s perfect face; the impact injured his perfect nose, his perfect lips.
I was leaving for the grocery store when the phone rang. The caller I.D. displayed, “Bank of America,” but I didn’t recognize the number. Dread. I lifted the phone slowly as if I could control or slow down or stop what might happen on the other end; as if I could use time, hollow it out, or stop it. I was holding my breath until, “Hello?” I exhaled.
“Deanna! Something has happened! Sam! I don’t know! David ran out…” a woman’s voice—David’s assistant, Valerie?—was shouting in my ear.
I knew what had happened. His heart…
I dropped the phone and ran. My body moved. Without its mind, it moved. Crazed, it shook, ran, and screamed. Circuits over fired. I heard panting in my ears, drumming in my chest, screaming cries in my head. I ran into my nightmare, out into the sunlight, blind but focused. My attention on one thing only.
1:38 p.m. Chaos. Sam’s action figures came to life. Soldiers on a rescue mission: police heroes, paramedics, teachers, and a woman I’d never met, named Sandra, began CPR on my little boy, I found out later.
Fire rescue was arriving, and David was running toward the playground, shouting, “Defibrillator! He needs a defibrillator!” Firemen instructed him to stay back. He wouldn’t, and didn’t. “No!” he fought them, “I’m his father!” He stayed beside Sammy on the playground as paramedics took over.
“Danger! Repeat! Danger! Mission Survival! Duke! Take my mom, I’ll cover my dad, I have to stay with him! He’s injured!”
I pleaded and forced the minivan-army tank, through traffic. “Please! No! No! No! No!” While the troops were gathering, I was dangerously alone. Driving at speeds near ninety miles per hour. The wind hollered, the engine roared, and I cried out, “Sammy…No! No! No! No! No!” All the world was on a cell phone, clueless civilians in the way. With my fist, I pounded the steering wheel, willing his heart to beat.
—And one, and two, and three, and…
Ahead, soldiers were pointing radar guns in my direction; a speed trap was waiting. I cried out the window. “Help! Help! Please! Help!” Two policemen, one in a car, the other on a motorcycle, followed me. I was too far ahead of them, still panicked and driving seventy to ninety miles per hour. I pushed on through minefields of traffic lights, cars, and SUVs. Drivers were unaware, oblivious, on phones, and deaf to the sirens. But help had arrived. The police cruiser and the motorcycle were gaining on me.
When they were behind me, I pulled over and ran—hands out where they could see them—across gravel, through dust and sirens, toward the open window of the police car. Officer Twisdale seemed confused, uncertain, but took control then, and I knew it was him—Sammy’s Duke. He was a decorated soldier with experience in his posture, a straight face, right hair and serious eyes. In between gasps, I shouted at him, “My son! His heart! His heart stopped! Help us!”
“Soldier down, Duke! Soldier down!”
“Get in the car!” Duke ordered.
I grabbed for the rear door handle.
“No! Here, in front!” he said, pushing the door open. “Seatbelt!”
Taking off from the roadside, the cruiser’s acceleration, the sirens, radio voices, signals, clicks, and electronic noises lulled me as we flew together without words. Disoriented but hyper-aware, I noticed him, Duke, listening to something, straining to hear. That voice? Did he hear them too, those commands?
“Duke! Take her! Keep her safe!”
I knew the statistical possibility, the unpredictability. His heart… But I still believed in the impossible up to that point. So I tried to believe…and hope…and breathe as we drove.
I jumped out of the cruiser when we arrived at the school, and ran deeper into my nightmare. There was a fire truck, intermittent red lights, my son, bound to a stretcher, his face covered with tape and tubes, his bare chest being pushed rhythmically by a paramedic, more blue uniforms running toward a rescue truck, and David running alongside.
Cries. Commands. Urgency. Sammy was loaded into the truck, David climbed in after him and the double red doors slammed closed. David told me later about that horrible image he’d seen through the small rear windows of the rescue truck as it pulled away: me, standing in the parking lot, alone, crying. I don’t know what to do! I stood there staring at those red doors, lost, and separated from my dying child. I knew David was with him, but… What do I do? Where do I go? Sammy, I’m here!
Someone was shouting at me. Duke? I followed the voice back to the police car and climbed in again, beside Officer Twisdale. Ms. Adams, the school principal, sat in the backseat behind the metal mesh. “I’m here,” she said. “I’m here.”
My brain was swallowing sounds, sirens, radio voices, muffling them as I hurtled through space, my mind flailing, trying to listen and hold on as we drove away.
In the rescue truck, while paramedics continued trying to revive Sam’s heart, David reassured him, and made phone calls.
“Daddy’s here…I’m here, Sammy…”
He’d gone over this drill in his head countless times. He’d prepared a list. He’d kept phone numbers ready in case…If this happens…I’ll need to…If Sammy…I’ll have to…
He phoned Dave C, a close friend, who was also a police officer, and arranged for Joey to be picked up after school. BOALA had been locked down because of the emergency. Along with his schoolmates, Joey had been kept safe in his classroom from what was happening outside. Away from the shouting and sirens, his crying parents and his dying brother. Rescue and police had come and gone, and unbeknownst to Joey, his big brother had gone with them.
“Sammy, Daddy’s here…I’m here…”
David called Sandy, his father, who was a five-hour drive away. “Dad, we’re going to need help taking care of Joey!” We’re going to need help while Sammy is in the hospital!”
My whole world was in a convoy on I-95: a motorcycle, a police cruiser, and a rescue truck with all that mattered inside, bleeding through traffic—blaring. And still, drivers were clueless; a child was dying and soldiers were fighting, but SUVs blocked the battle. I saw strange faces behind tinted glass, and reflections of red lights flashing. Blue sky sped by, though everything was slowing. His heart. Please. Let me keep him. Please. Be alive. Live… In their cars, in air-conditioned comfort, civilians chatted on cell phones, immune to death, so distracted by life. Wake up. Please, please, be awake, please… I focused on the flashing red lights and imagined Sam’s heart beating. He’ll wake up. He’ll wake up. We’ll be home again…eating Popsicles. He’ll wake up…
“Move! MOVE!” The officer, Duke, yelled at unmindful drivers. He swatted at the windshield, willing cars out of the way. He moved into the median and sped alongside the cement divider, pushing on, faster then.
At the hospital, everything stopped. I left the cruiser and ran. Doors slammed, footsteps hurried, voices shouted. Clumsy silver wheels spun beneath Sam’s small pale body. Pushing and running beside his metal stretcher, a team was whisking him away. “What meds does he take?” someone hollered.
“Toprol!” I shouted back, loud and instantaneous, as if I could save my boy with this one word.
On her knees, a nurse straddled my boy, straight arms pushing, pushing. Then stopping. Climbing down. Climbing up. Another nurse assumed the position, flat hands, pushing, pushing…tiring. I was wide-eyed. Cold. “No—keep trying!” I begged.
Inside the Emergency Room, David and I shouted, pleaded, cheered, and kissed him, so he would know we were there.
“Come on Sammy, you can do it! Come on baby! Come back! Come back, Sammy, please come back!” I stood at his feet, my face touching his toes. I kept my eyes on his toes—his perfect toes. I kissed them. Pressed my face against their softness. Cold? So cold. His dovish body, passive, yet moving, was being pushed on repeatedly. I heard a voice counting.
“…And one, and two, and three, and…”
No! Stop! You’re hurting him! I glanced up at a small monitor—glowing green numbers, no lines, blank. Then more needles, a catheter, tubes, more drugs. Leave my boy alone! He hates needles…He’s afraid of needles…Get your hands off him…STOP! I screamed in my head.
I wouldn’t risk being removed because of hysterics, so I didn’t yell out loud. But inside of me…a raging animal, a fury. Then, when rescue heroes showed signs of giving up. No! Please don’t stop! Keep trying! Save him! Please! Please, Sammy live. Live. Please come back! Come back! Silent but frantic, I scanned the room for answers, maybe a miracle. I turned and saw that Duke had been standing behind me. Still. His eyes wanted what mine wanted. Sammy. Racing without moving, we were both helpless.
3:30 p.m. There were no bleeps (no electrical noises), no continual signal that would be clicked off. Just dead calm. “He never had a rhythm,” I heard the ER doctor say. What?! He had a rhythm. I knew his heart. How can you say…? You don’t know him. He has a rhythm. He faced me and added, “You know he’s not here anymore. It’s not him. He’s gone.”
Gone? I looked back at Duke. He bowed his head and turned away, and then he was gone.
I don’t know what to do! My beautiful boy. Lying there. A sleeping cherub. No. No. No… Oh, his beauty. So perfect. So gentle.
A voice behind me commented on his curls, his complexion. Then, a stranger in the room, a woman, questioned me, “Did he play soccer?”
WHAT? “He had a heart condition!” I stabbed. And might have done worse, when I heard David’s voice command her to leave. I continued shooting her with my thoughts. Even if he had been a soccer player! And he wasn’t! He couldn’t… His heart stopped! His heart! You should not be in this room if you don’t know his heart!
I stood over him, frozen, appearing quiet, but screaming and running in my mind. Running. In my head I fell, or felt I was falling. Through a tunnel. Frantic. In the dark. Then I saw lights in the black. Nothing but lights and darkness. Which way? I froze. My thoughts collided and killed themselves. I’ll go with him. This way. He won’t go alone! I’ll go with him.
I turned and saw Dr. Armstrong, Sam’s cardiologist. Had he just arrived? Or had he been there for some time? “I don’t know what to do!” I cried to him. The shocked silence on his face is what I remember. He held me, or I went to him and held him. We held each other. “I don’t know what to do!” I cried again, needing a father to fix the brokenness. “You don’t have to do anything,” he hushed. I recall his eyes, the way they held my boy—our boy. He loved him too. I could see his thoughts speeding and crashing. Like mine, they had nowhere to go but to die. I wandered away from him and back to Sammy.
Wanting to hold my child, I leaned over his body, and nuzzled him with my face. Needing my chest to his, my heart to his heart, I pressed into him and heard a noise; a vapor wept out of his nose and with it, a froth of blood. I demanded a towel. Where is his nurse?! Why has everyone left?! Dr. Armstrong swept in with a white towel. I was thankful he was still there, and didn’t know that he was. I cleaned my baby’s face and touched him. Gently. No more blood. Sammy…
The room was noiseless and white, as if a heavy snow had fallen. Too bright. I was cold and numb, dead. And if I wasn’t, then… Just let me be. Let me die here. Take one of those needles, and give me a lethal dose of something and let me be…dead. There was nothing left. No thoughts, no present, no past. No world. And I couldn’t stand any longer.
Someone helped me climb onto his bed to lie beside him, his body. I pressed my brow against his and smelled him, the way I did after his birth, when he’d been swaddled and laid in my arm. I hid my face in his neck and tried to breathe him in. I wrapped my arm around him and kept my body against his. Frozen, together. We were invisible, our souls. And simply held each other—for how long I don’t know. Eye-to-eye, lashes touching, our eyes closed, we held each other and slept. Away to oblivion, together. Sweet sleep. And Time turned its face, wrung its hands, and waited while we slept.
In a bad dream, I am hunched over a child, protecting him. I can’t hear; my ears are ringing—a bomb has gone off. My nose burns with dust and tears. I cover the child with my body and comfort him with my arms and whispers. “I’m here. I’m your shield. You’re safe.” I want to take him and run, but I am paralyzed by fear. “I’ve got you. It’s going to be okay.” I still have hope…and time. I need more time. I will save this child, or I will die with him.
It waited, but eventually, Time, governed by deadlines, turned back and muttered at me. “It’s time to go. Let’s go,” David whispered. I knew then that I was dead, but left among the living. Is he…? No. We can’t leave him? David gathered us to go. I didn’t see his face, but I heard his urging.
Childbirth. It’s depicted as a screaming, sweating, panting, and frantic experience. It wasn’t that way. There was no screaming, just nervous silence; and no sweating, but shivering chills; and no panting, but a lot of breath holding; and no frenzy, though there was fear. For just minutes when baby’s heart rate dropped. There was a possibility that something was wrong. Our nurse called for help, fear in her voice.
When fear enters a room, quiet is passed around. Help came, but it was quiet. Nurses worked, monitors beeped, a doctor put on robe and gloves, and finally there was the sound of my baby’s cries. His ten fingers reached for something unseen in the air. His ten toes were counted and kissed. He was perfect. I held him and hid my face in his, and smelled him. Sweet. Silent tears of relief wet our lashes in the stillness and aftereffects of a wish. At that moment, I promised him that I would always protect him and keep him safe, and never let anything hurt him. That day, eye-to-eye, blinking, we saw our souls. In the quiet, sweet peace, we nuzzled together.
If only Time had held us then.
Child-death. It’s not even a word, and it shouldn’t be. But delivering a child from death can be a screaming, sweating, panting, frantic experience. It was that way. But death, death is quiet. It doesn’t scream, it doesn’t sweat or pant, and it isn’t frantic. Like fear, when death enters a room, quiet is passed around. It was quiet.
If only time had turned back, just minutes, just enough to save him and start again. To hear monitors beep, and his soft voice say, “Good morning, Mommy.” His ten fingers would reach for mine, and his ten toes would be counted and kissed again, and again, and again, and again…
I had left that hospital nine years before with no manual on mothering, no baby nurse, no warranty. Pushed outside and left curbside in a wheelchair. On my own, my arms full of his life. To love. To protect.
Unable to stand, much less walk, I was leaving that same hospital again in a wheelchair. Pushed outside and left by the curb with no directions on loss, no social worker, no death nurse, just a lap full of refuse. A bag lady holding what? Papers? A folder, a blanket, his personal belongings? Waiting on the sidewalk, my arms full of his death. Empty.
I don’t remember the trip back to the school. Or how I was moving from one place to the next. I only recall snapshots, incoherent fragments of memories from that wandering hour.
A caravan of BOALA teachers filing out of a hospital waiting room.
A small train of cars.
Ms. Adams in a front seat, David and I in a back seat, mute.
Arriving at David’s car, haphazardly left in front of the playground, and falling into it.
Staring at the gray dashboard in David’s car, then standing in the doorway of Kim and Dave C’s house. Their daughter, Hannah, and Sam had been buddies since they were Grasshoppers, two-year-olds, in pre-school. We’d just picked up Sam yesterday, here, in this doorway, after dinnertime. He’d spent the day with Hannah. Talking, laughing, playing…all day. Kim had just mentioned this, yesterday—how much fun they’d had together. Their nonstop laughter.
Waiting in their living room, shadowy and faint, and hearing someone say, “Joey, your mom and dad are here.”
Seeing Joey’s unknowing face, his backpack, his Scooby-Doo lunchbox, as he waded forward through the shadows. There were no words. How could I find the words? How could I tell this little boy that his big brother, his world…? Did I smile at him? Did I take his hand? I heard someone in the background sniffling, weeping, and then I saw the gray dashboard again.
Then wandering. Alone. Walking back toward my van on the side of the highway. There were no sirens, no dust, only my slow, crushing footsteps over the gravel as I made my way back to the minivan-army tank.
Driving home? How was I driving? I don’t remember driving. I remember the road’s edge, the sloping shoulder, coming closer. I thought of ditching, going down into that valley. I didn’t fear that shadow anymore. In fact, I demanded that it face me. I had been afraid every minute of death, but there was nothing more to fear.
At home then, I was an empty shell. Hovering in some other world, mute, with swollen eyes, staring at flashes of the day, slow motion images that replayed, and replayed.
Time, take me back to the beginning, so I can save him; or take me to the end, so I can die.
I was dying. My heart was too damaged. I didn’t need to kill myself; I knew I would die that night.
I don’t know what to do!
I didn’t know what to do, in the past, after the discovery of a mass in my five-year-old’s heart. So I found a nearby church and slipped inside during its off-hours. The walls were painted a quiet green. I sat in the unlit center of the empty sanctuary, away from the windows where sunlight streamed in. I gazed at the massive stained glass mosaic of Jesus beyond the pulpit. He was limp and his head was tilted to the side. He was looking down, or his eyes were closed.
I lay down on the purple cushioned pew and admired the details, the dovetailing, in the wooden pocket attached to the seatback before me. Hoping for some kind of divine answer, I opened the book that was tucked into the wooden pocket, and read: “You will find me. Seek me with all your heart and you will find me.”
And if I find you…?
I rested and imagined a gentle god stroking my head, the way I stroked my boys’ heads as they fell asleep, the way my father had stroked my head, decades ago, as I fell asleep. I felt calm, safe, in that sanctuary, if only for minutes.
Then what? Sammy’s heart, his heart? What do I do?
I heard nothing.
I need help.
I needed to talk to a living guide, not the Guide that I hoped was there, but someone who was there. I was collapsing under the weight of what I knew—there was a time bomb ticking inside Sam’s heart, and it could go off at any time. I was keeping myself together, but I was sleep deprived, scared, hungry, powerless, desperate…
I needed help.
7:00 p.m. I don’t remember who called Reverend Pound, the only spiritual leader I knew. Maybe I did? His business card had been in my wallet. He came quickly—in minutes, an hour? We sat in silence not because we were strangers, we weren’t. It had been four years since we sat together and talked. Our last conversation had been about Sam’s heart catheterization. I’d cried in this complete stranger’s office, blew my nose and nodded when he told me I’d be a different person in time.
And, now I was different. We sat down in the living room and I watched his eyes scanning the photos of the boys, staring past me at the smiles over my shoulder, at the pictures on the sofa table behind me, and then back to my face. His eyes were urgent, gaping, longing to say the right thing. He considered me with a composed panic, as if I were aiming a gun at my temple, as if my trembling finger might pull the trigger, splattering thoughts and brains everywhere, if he breathed the wrong words.
I must have looked insane. I sat mute holding a blanket—the one that covered Sam’s body in the ER—with big, brown, stupid, smiling monkeys on it. I muttered dumbly about the past, and how I appreciated his kindness. He commented finally, sympathetically, something about how my maternal need to hold my son must be great. I nodded. Stupid blanket! I must have looked like a gorilla mother holding a substitute baby—a brown fuzzy blanket? What covered him then? A zipper? I hated those smiling baboons! Yes, I wanted to hold my son, he was right. But since his body was dead, my maternal need was to die too. I wanted to smother myself with those monkeys. That’s really why I was holding the blanket. I was a stoic lunatic.
Reverend Pound spoke in a quiet and calm voice. There wasn’t much to say, and he knew that, especially to a mother rocking a dead baby in her arms. He asked if he could pray for us. David and I nodded. He prayed to his lord, Jesus, touched our hands, and then stood to go.
We stood in the doorway and watched him walk to his car. He looked limp and his head hung forward and his eyes were cast down. After he drove away, I noticed the sky was fiery. The sun had set, and inside the house, it was dark when we closed the door.
8:00 p.m. Lost. I didn’t know what to do. I never wanted to hold that blanket again. I threw it into the dog’s crate. When, from out of nowhere, the dog showed up and cautiously approached the fleece pile. He smelled every inch of it. I stood there watching, wondering what he saw with his nose. Master Sammy? He began licking a monkey. “Reggie!” I pushed him away from the blanket. There was blood on it. No! Oh…no! I picked up my baby again and wailed. But when my baby turned back into monkeys, I threw them back in the crate and let the dog lick their wounds.
As day became night, I was cold with shock and it was time to make phone calls. I would have to say it. Sammy died today… While playing, laughing, running, Sammy… While having the time of his life, Sammy… With each call, each time the phone rang, he died again. Sammy… I made long-distance calls and repeated the nightmare, and heard howling, choking—rattling sounds on the line. My parents’ cries were the sounds of murder by my own hands, as if I had tortured them to their last breath and listened as they screamed, gasped, and begged, “No!”
After the calls, I retreated to my bathroom like a dying animal withdrawing into a cave, to vomit…to wail…to die. Tremulous groaning turned into loud, howling, wolf-like sounds that came up from the ground and echoed off the walls of the cave. Emptying, dying, lasting cries that twisted me into dry heaves until nothing was left.
At some point, I came out of my cave and climbed onto a raft and drifted. I saw David then, on his own raft, and Joey, in his own lifeboat. Each of us drifting in the dark, lost at sea, alone. We bumped into each other at Joey’s bedtime. Robots on floats, paddling, doing.
“Joey, put on your pajamas. Brush your teeth. Go pee. It’s time for bed,” a robot voice said.
Why are we brushing our teeth?
“Joey, come sleep in bed with us tonight…please,” another robot said.
Joey climbed up onto the king-sized bed, submitting to the change in his routine. He’d never slept in his parents’ bed before. Unlike Sam, Joey never asked to sleep with us for safety, never left his bed and came running into our room in the night, and never seemed afraid. He’d slept in the dark and through the night since he was three months old.
“Joey, honey, lift up your head, here’s your favorite pillow and your colorful blanket,” a robot said.
Most nights at bedtime, I lie down with Joey (in his bed) and read to him. Some nights, when Sam isn’t reading his own book, he curls up on the floor next to Joe’s bed with his pillow and blanket, and listens.
One night, the boys wanted me to read from the mammoth-sized book that had been engrossing me: “The Mammoth Hunters,” from Jean Auel’s “Earth Children” series.
“How many pages is that?” they goggled at the size of the book.
“A whole lot,” I grinned.
They wanted action, so I picked a hunting scene and got right into it. The young girl, Ayla, was about to participate in her first mammoth hunt. “A chill of anticipation shot through her…” A huge, tusked beast was about to be taken down with nothing more than a few spears.
The boys peered over their fingers, over their colorful blankets. “Too scary?” I asked. They shook their heads. “You want me to go on?” They nodded and held their blankets closer.
Ayla and the hunters dashed about with their fire sticks. The shaggy, stampeding beasts screamed and blared. A young man threw a spear into the abdomen of the old matriarch of the herd. Joey closed his eyes. He was asleep.
Joey always fell asleep in seconds, or sentences; never making it through minutes of pages. Sam and I would giggle, and count, “…four, three, two, one…” with our fingers, like referees, counting down the boxer. We’d signal to each other that the round was over and whisper, “He’s out!”
Sam settled back into his pillow on the floor and blinked at me, “I love you Mommy.”
“I love you too, puppy. You tired?” I asked. He shook his head. “Of course you’re not.” His eyes drifted back to the book so I continued reading over Joey’s deep breathing.
The young man threw a second spear and the old she-mammoth sank to her knees, slowly, gracefully. The hunter then touched his spear to the head of the “valiant old cow” and praised her brave struggle. He thanked the Great Mother for the sacrifice that had allowed the Earth’s Children to survive.
I closed the book. “That’s enough for tonight. Let’s get you to bed.”
“Mommy…? Those hunters really loved that mammoth, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“They cared about the Earth too, didn’t they?”
“Yes.” I tucked him in and kissed him goodnight. “Your lips are chapped, baby. Use your Chap Stick,” I told him, touching his soft, warm cheek. “Go to sleep now.”
He reached toward his nightstand for the cherry balm. “Goodnight Mommy. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“See you in the morning, sweet prince.” I went to the door and turned back to look at him. Nestled in, he kissed the air with waxy rose lips and blew into his hand out toward me, and I told him again, “I love you.”
“I’ll see you in the morning,” he assured me.
“See you in the morning.”
David and I lay on our sides, facing Joey who was lying between us. He appeared to be sleeping but his eyes were still open. We were corpses. Staring at nothing. Mute and stiff. Unable to touch or hold each other—but together on one raft for the night. In this nightmare, we couldn’t sleep or return to the dream of living.
Time stopped and waited. Then, reset itself to zero, turned its back, and went on without us. I heard footsteps, then a dog sniffing, its nose searching. Sammy…? I closed my eyes and heard more sniffs, more steps in the distance. Sammy…? I curled into myself and vanished, and separated from this world. And waited for death to take me.