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He’d stumbled through the frenzied aftermath. Hospital, police, morgue, autopsy, coroner’s report. And people to call. Terri, again and again. His sister in Seattle. What about his father? I suppose I’d better, he thought, but not the funeral, no—last thing they needed was Frank showing up there.
Those arrangements. Funeral home. Transporting the body back to Virginia. This this this that that that next next next. Exhausting—thank God it was so exhausting! Except for trail mix and Snickers, he couldn’t eat, but he slept.
Each morning, he got up and stood ten, fifteen minutes in the shower, leaning against the wall and letting the hot water scald his neck. He’d given up trying to shave—hand trembled too much. Then pulled on jeans and T-shirt to face the next numbing round of to-dos on death’s checklist.
Reaching home, he clung to Terri as if she were a broken spar lashed by violent seas. He saw with a jolt that she’d tidied up the toys and games normally strewn all around and put them in Tim’s bedroom, shutting the door. The house felt cold and empty, shrouded in heavy silence: the boy’s voice was gone, and they had no heart to speak.
The funeral was September 12, a hot, dry, windless Wednesday. The traffic from Route 236 whined in the background as the little group gathered at the gravesite, sweating and dizzy in their formal clothes.
Alex held Terri’s clammy hand, but willed himself not to look at her. He stared at the ground beyond the gaping hole at their feet, but saw nothing, heard nothing. Instead he saw Tim in his red swimming trunks scampering down the sand to the water, waving his arms and whooping his signature whoop. And the solemn three-year-old in his Spiderman pjs, sitting up in bed, turning the pages of a picture book—Alex couldn’t make out which favorite it was. Then suddenly the still, pale face on the table at the morgue . . . .
He’d shuddered and felt frightened. What happened now?
Lifting his head to erase the image, he stared at the empty sky. A silent crow flew across thirty yards away and settled on the branch of an oak near the cemetery wall. Last year’s leaves lay brown and curled at the base of the tree and below these presumably the rotting leaves of the year before and the year before that and . . . . How old? he wondered.
A brown and white cat appeared from behind the trunk and slunk intently after some invisible mouse.
A bird flying, a tree rooted in its own mulch, a stealthy cat . . . .
This doesn’t make sense, he thought, why should . . . ? He looked down and saw a line of ants carrying leaf fragments past his black shoes, and they seemed to be moving in slow motion, as if time had slowed to a dusty crawl.
He shut his eyes, but scenes flashed behind his closed lids: the blonde ponytail of the girl in green running shorts who’d called 911, then knelt in the sand whispering “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” while he frantically worked to resuscitate Tim. The white shirts and black pants of the EMTs whose faces he never saw as they bent over the boy with an oxygen mask and defibrillator. The pathologist—a short stout Nigerian woman in her mid-fifties with close-cropped gray frizzled hair and heavy bags under tired eyes. The black letters of her name on the white plastic tag on the lapel of her lab coat—Dr. Kwambe-Maste—he remembered wondering how that was pronounced. She’d laid her hand on his trembling shoulder and said, “he’s at peace now; he’s okay,” her voice soft and low against the constant hum of the refrigeration unit. “You go home now,” she’d patted his back, “you got to take care of yourself now, and your wife. No need to worry about him anymore.”
He opened his eyes and heard the minister say something about “the resurrection and the life”—whatever that was supposed to mean, in this place, at this time—saw all the others in a silent semi-circle in their dark, uncomfortable clothes fit for the occasion.
This is ridiculous, he thought. We shouldn’t be here.
Color drained from the blue sky, the tree’s green leaves, the brown scorched summer grass. They all seemed gray to his bleary eyes, his ears deaf to the words intoned by the minister and his numb hand insensible to his wife’s grasp.
He didn’t care, just wanted it done before the aching sky sucked up all the air, leaving him breathless and collapsed in the dirt.
Gripping his hot hand, Terri had felt him shudder and hold himself rigid.
The short service, the drive to the cemetery, the internment—it was all a blur to her, a surreal nightmare where everything’s tilted off balance and out of focus. She looked over at her parents, who were holding hands, their heads bowed. Her mother was heaving with silent sobs, while her father’s mouth was clamped shut, lips quivering.
What am I supposed to do, she thought, if I can’t put this right? She knew Timmy was dead, of course she did, but inwardly she still hadn’t absorbed the irrevocable fact of his loss. That bitter acid leached from her heart to burn through her guts.
She glanced across at Jorge and Maria. What was Sophia doing now? she wondered. Who was looking after her? Probably at the park, on the swings—she and Timmy loved those swings. Or playing with her dog, Lester, a white and tan spaniel puppy she’d been given for her ninth birthday. Oh the trouble that had caused! Timmy begged and wheedled for weeks on end: why can’t we have a dog like Lester? Sweet little Sophia, with her round white face and jet black hair—she’d be sad Timmy was gone, but in a month or so . . . .
I don’t know what to do, she thought again—it’s like I’m trapped.
People around her were starting to move. The small coffin was lifted and she suddenly saw the hole in the ground. Her throat caught and she let go of Alex’s hand, her limbs limp as if the blood were draining from them. She turned and stumbled a few steps away from the grave. I can’t watch this, she thought, I’ve got to do something. She felt arms encircle her shoulders, gently squeezing. Maria was holding her, stroking her hair, laying her wet cheek against her own.
Terri’s father drove them home, slumped in silence in the back of the Buick.
Her mother smothered grief with activity. Yesterday morning she’d been on the phone with the Italian Gourmet Deli on Maple Avenue to order platters of ham and turkey sandwiches, vegetables, fruit, cheese, cookies and brownies. Now she bustled about the kitchen and dining room making sure everything was set out right, plenty of fresh coffee, tea, water, sodas.
Small groups stood around holding paper plates, cups and glasses, groping for something to say. But what? Here today, gone tomorrow, poof!? They all tried, Alex saw that, and even those who hadn’t known Tim were hollowed out with pity. But what was there to say? Was it okay to talk about something else, like the weather or the stock market? As it wound down, a wave of relief swept through the room.
Let’s get out of here.
But for Alex and Terri, there was no out. As the sickening shock receded, behind came broad waves of pain—body-wide migraines twisting their intestines and flooding their eyes. They ate gray sawdust and Terri threw it all back up.
More even than the nausea and anger of the next few weeks, they felt also the paralysis of inaction. Desperate to do something—anything—wherever they turned was blank, a flat white wall of denial: nothing could penetrate grief’s intolerable tedium.
Terri was a sociable, energetic, angular woman with a runner’s long legs and lean torso. She was accustomed to bulling her way through any rubble that blocked her path. Weekends she ran the W&OD trail, pushing Timmy in a Graco jogger stroller. She was fit, driven, ambitious.
At night, her dreams were filled with action—incoherent, perhaps, and inconclusive, but nevertheless infused with purpose. But each morning she woke again to the reality of absolute impotence in the face of the overwhelming truth of her son’s irreversible death. She felt she was being choked by an invisible hand whose grip she could neither ease nor evade. Friends came by, friends e-mailed and texted. They held her hand while she wept and went for walks. The human contact held her together.
Alex ignored his e-mails and gave abbreviated answers to texts: “No thanks” to invitations and “Thanks” to condolences. He didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone. What was the point? They just exacerbated his anger and irritated his exhaustion.
CNN reported that the Syrian Air Force had bombed residential areas of Aleppo, killing an estimated 230 civilians, mostly women and children. The Washington Post told him that more than 5,000 Haitians had died of cholera since the 2010 earthquake and makeshift orphan centers lacked adequate supplies. In Afghanistan, the Taliban burst into a school, where they doused a teacher with gasoline and set her on fire in front of her class, then systematically gunned down all 132 children in the building.
And yet the world went on.
What was the random death of one ten-year-old boy in the great scheme of things? Not even a blip, just one tiny stat. Nothing. People die and yet the world just goes on and on. They die all the time, every minute of every day. So what? Years ago, just a couple of generations back, you had five or six children and probably two or three died before they were five. Did they feel gutted like this, he wondered, or did they mutter “he’s in a better place now” and just get on with it?
He thought of them as the news dead—those projections from the TV that pass across our consciousness undifferentiated from all the other images: highlights from yesterday’s NFL games; Clairol hairspray ads; Jay Leno one-liners; tomorrow’s weather.
Behind each stat are parents submerged in grief, bewildered children orphaned and lost, but we must look away. We have meals to eat, children of our own to read bedtime stories, pleasures to enjoy. We twitch with momentary sadness, but the moment passes and we’re relieved.
But Alex had joined the stats, and each anguished face was a life whose future had been sucked into a black hole of stunned sorrow. The brute force of all those deaths and the shockwaves of their grief spooled out of the TV into his marrow.
He couldn’t sleep. A looped recording ran behind his eyelids: Tim at the campsite, at the beach, the churning sea, the shifting sand, the campsite the beach sea sand. Then dreams began: Tim stuck somewhere lost, somewhere he could see him but Tim couldn’t hear him call or see him wave beyond reach as if behind a soundproof one-way window. Confused, stricken, turning away . . . . Nightmares of searching . . . in closets, in the basement, in the trunk of the car . . . desperate . . . time running out . . . mouth dry, panic mounting . . . but searching for what, why? Nightmares of needing to get somewhere . . . not clear where, exactly, but desperately important, and he was standing on a street corner trying to hail cabs, but they wouldn’t stop, and buses went by but he didn’t know the bus routes or schedule, and he pulled out his phone to use Uber, but the app wouldn’t load up so he called Boston Coach, the car service he sometimes used, but the phone just rang and rang and he looked at his watch and now he knew he’d be really late . . . .
He woke, drenched in sweat, gasping for breath.
Often alone, he was never lonely, strangled by suffering, dragging through the days. For three weeks after the funeral, he’d remain in bed long after he awoke, a mask tight over his eyes to block the light, trying to be nothing, trying to shrink all consciousness to a small black silent square. This worked only sometimes and never very well; mostly the mind whirled and drowned in suffocating pools of regrets and it was better to get up, move, run, face the white day.
Then came panic attacks. Unpredictable: while he was driving, when he was eating his breakfast granola, as he watched TV. Panting, cold sweats, heart palpitations. His mind told him the paralyzing fear was irrational, groundless, but the body was a rabbit frozen by a hawk’s shadow. The car window shimmered and he felt it would shatter. The kitchen wall swayed and he was powerless to dive away from its collapse. Nameless dread engulfed him. Seconds later he’d snap out of it, but his hands would be clammy and his heart still racing. He didn’t tell Terri because she’d insist he get help. Ride it out. Go running.
Running was anodyne. The steady rhythm, the breathing in and out which signaled he was in the world if not of it. Not that this mattered much. He wondered why he wasn’t suicidal, but he never felt that desire pulling at him although it was a simple way to pay; too simple, perhaps—the dead don’t suffer.
So he ran.
Terri undertook grieving as an assignment she pursued with dogged determination, signing them both up for counseling and online support groups where people shared their feelings and memories and talked about stages of grief. The effort drained her dry, but she was frightened she’d disintegrate if she didn’t keep pushing.
He saw how important this was to her, but still, it baffled him, left him as empty and angry as before. He felt he had disintegrated, and all this talk just rattled the shards. The seams of his life had burst, the shell shattered and empty. The counseling especially seemed to help her, but for him it just tightened the screws that bored into his core another few threads each time they went, so he quit after three sessions. Terri didn’t like it, wanted him to stick with the program, but . . . whatever . . . he was too worn out to worry about that.
On a bleak, wet day in early October, he drove to the cemetery and stared at the small headstone and the rectangle of earth beneath which his son lay. He saw the boy, uncommonly still, jammed tight in the wooden box under the ground.
He turned aside and puked beside the asphalt path.
Some days he’d go into Tim’s room, which they’d left untouched. He’d lie on the boy’s narrow bed, shutting his eyes the better to sense his smell, invoke his presence, see him asleep. Terri had gone in once, felt nauseous and suffocated, said never again, said they needed to clean it out so they could move on.
Move on? Where to? What for? If it had been possible, which it wasn’t, would they have tried to have another child? The thought sickened him.
One Thursday morning in late October, he forced himself to work in the yard, clearing out dead annuals they’d planted last spring, trimming the straggling bushes, cutting the withered roses down to stumps: winter was on the way.
Raking fallen twigs behind an azalea in the back corner, he disturbed a nest of ants, sending them scurrying for cover. He looked around, suddenly aware of everything stirring, rustling, slithering, flapping all over the small yard: the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, beetles, bees, worms, grasshoppers, snakes—a ridiculous profusion, a nauseating superfluity that mocked the notion that any one life could possibly matter.
He kicked a small pile of leaves in angry disgust, uncovering a little red plastic bat—the kind for whacking wiffle balls. Blotched and cracked, it had probably lain there a couple of years. He picked it up, remembering the small boy in blue shorts and red t-shirt swinging at the white wiffle ball and shouting, running, falling, laughing.
I can’t go on, he thought, I can’t do this.
He knew that one day there’d be more to his existence than this parasitic agony, this angry pulse he’d collapsed into, but for now everything seemed blank except the constant throb of misery.
He recalled an interview he’d read last year—a torture victim who described how his whole world shrank into one single point of fear and pain, followed by deadly fatigue, and how he’d searched for some way to believe a day might dawn when those sensations wouldn’t comprise his entire universe.
He stared at the dirty, broken bat, longing for something—anything—other than this wrenching despair. Then he threw the bat over the fence into the neighbor’s yard and went back inside.
On a compulsion Terri thought crazy, he drove back down the coast to see if the local authorities had posted signs or cordoned off dangerous areas of the beach.
Tuesday, October 30, a cold dry windy day, with gusts up to 35 miles an hour whipping hard sand off the dunes. Everything looked different. Although Hurricane Sandy had passed well out to sea as it roared north over the weekend, the storm’s southwest edge had kicked up waves and winds strong enough to shift the contours of the shoreline.
Now he’d lost the place where he’d lost Tim.
There was nobody there, no signs, no warnings, no nothing. He wanted to feel indignant or enraged, but he felt empty. Spent ten minutes looking at the furrowed sand and white-crested water, wondering what to do. But the same wall blocked him here too: nothing could be done.
As he drove back, he listened to the radio in a desultory way. Hurricane Sandy’s death toll was rising: 65 in Cuba and Haiti; over 100 so far in New Jersey, with more expected as the wreckage was cleared; probably over 200 all told by the time the storm blew itself out somewhere over Canada. And there were more car bombings reported in Iraq, more civilians killed in renewed fighting in Syria . . . .
If only he hadn’t taken Tim to the beach. Terri’s classes at GW had started on Tuesday, August 28, so it was just father and son. His summer months had been so busy he just hadn’t spent much time with Tim, who’d filled the long vacation with swim team meets, tennis lessons and soccer camp. Now that Alex finally had some time, it seemed worth skipping the first couple days of school for a short trip that combined two of Tim’s favorite activities: camping and the beach.
Sunday evening they’d packed their rucksacks and loaded the car: tent, sleeping bags, Coleman camping stove and propane tank. They left the cooler in the kitchen so they wouldn’t forget to load it in the morning with hot dogs, cole slaw, sodas, and a few beers for Alex. On Monday they’d set off just after 9:00 am and driven south on I-95 against the Labor Day traffic flooding back north. They stopped around Petersburg for an early lunch at Subway and then pressed on to Carolina State Beach Park, which was emptying out when they arrived around 4:00.
The next morning they got up early and set off down the outer bank to a secluded spot below Kure Beach. The temperature was already in the mid-70s when they got there, but a light wind off the ocean cooled the hot sun. Alex spread out a blue-and-white striped beach towel and settled down to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Fifteen yards behind him, Tim started digging in the softer sand near the dunes. He loved making sand forts, with turrets and moats, or digging down as far as he could to find water. Every twenty minutes or so, he’d scamper down to the water to cool off and plunge into the waves, arms waving, whooping and yelling against the crashing breakers.
Alex had just finished a chapter when he realized that Tim hadn’t been down to the water in quite a while. Tough to say how long—time was so fluid at the beach. He turned around to see how the fort was coming along and was puzzled by the tumbled low mound where there should have been crenelated battlements. And no sight of Tim. So he got up and walked over to the diggings. Suddenly he saw a small fingertip poking out of the jumbled sand. He paused, uncomprehending. Then flung himself at the spot, scrabbling frantically, screaming into the wind.
At first they’d clung together through the deepest fog of the funeral and the consolation queue of well-meaning dinner dishes they’d flush down the disposal. But more and more, as the year narrowed to its shortest day, each found it increasingly difficult to comfort the other as they felt the weight of the other’s pain pressing on them, grief on grief.
She leaned on her friends, who knew that just being there helped.
He still couldn’t do it.
These people got up in the morning, put on their jackets and ties, their dresses or skirts, combed their thin beards or fastidious realtor’s hair, poured out the kids’ cereal and hustled them to the
school bus then set out for their law offices, their dental practices, their banks, their IT consulting firms, their latest listings, their State Department desks. What could he talk to them about? What could they say to him: “Gee, I’m sorry your life just got flushed down the crapper”? And between them always loomed the children, theirs safely at home, his in the earth.
While she friended online support groups, he took down his Facebook page, cutting the cord that connected him to the world. He was a ghost of the person he’d been, living a shadow life, sure of nothing, except that he no longer wanted to stay in touch with the people he knew in the sunlight.
And drinking: in the weeks after the funeral they’d drifted into drinking more and more. Mostly vodka tonics and wine. But Alex soon found that alcohol deepened his desolation, so he quit completely—easier than trying to cut back. Terri persisted and seemed perversely to relish the belligerence the booze induced and the toxic atmosphere this generated.
When she’d had a few belts, meals together were torture. Anything from “looks like more rain” to “how were your students today?” seemed to annoy her.
Silences hung heavy between them like stupefying hangovers.
In the weeks after the funeral, they’d made love every few days with a kind of desperate intensity. But now, never. They rarely touched at all.
Their suffering was the greatest gulf between them. Terri thrashed every inch against the blind black tide that sought to smother her, but the determination he’d long admired had calcified into obduracy, while she despised Alex’s immersion in wordless pain, as if embracing annihilation.
The first Saturday in December, they decided to see The Master at Cinema Arts in Fairfax. For no reason, their load felt lighter that day. As they walked into the garage, Alex started telling her about Richard Brody’s review in a recent New Yorker.
“He says that Philip Seymour Hoffman channels Orson Welles.” He turned the key and put the car in gear. “You know, playing the character like he’s Citizen Kane.”
He pressed the accelerator and reversed slowly, inexorably, into the closed garage door, which screeched in protest as the wood and metal crumpled.
Terri swiveled round. “What the . . . ?”
But Alex remained immobile, staring into the blind windshield, his hands resting lightly on the steering wheel.
Terri turned back and looked at him.
“What’s going to become of us?” she asked.
He sighed and shook his head a little.
“I don’t know.”