This fell out of my head this morning shortly after I woke up. I took it to my writer's group and read it.
You never expect the call when it comes, in the middle of an ordinary workday: on your supper break, for instance, or midmorning. It always jars – or that’s how your memory retains it, at least. Everything that has gone before the call tends to fade to ordinary in retrospect; the sound of the phone changes everything, makes everything so extraordinary. They never say exactly what’s happened, never use plain language: “There’s been an accident,” they say, “Come quickly; be careful.” the location is often “Hospital,” they say, or maybe “Firehouse.” “Be careful,” you remember, as you drive, most often alone.
Getting there, wherever it is: that’s the first step. Then you’re given a place to sit and wait – sometimes in a small, private room, sometimes a plastic chair in a huge public waiting area. You still don’t know much; they may not know all that much to tell you. Usually someone will come and say something unmemorable to you, and then you’re left alone again. The book you inevitably brought goes unread – your mind can’t focus. Maybe you make some phone calls: a spouse, an ex-spouse, your mother, your best friend, your workplace. And after a little more time sitting alone, people begin to come. It’s what you see on their faces that activates your own emotions, that tells you what you’ve been feeling all along, but were too afraid to feel when you were alone. Now you begin to feel frantic yourself, not knowing, not hearing, still in shock, still half-unbelieving. But nobody comes to tell you anything. Not soon enough, anyway.
Eventually, sooner or later (it always feels like later) someone does come. Often it’s a doctor, face mask askew, inevitably clean but maybe a bit rumpled, eyes worried. He tells you things aren’t looking good, not promising, probably fatal. Or perhaps the denouement is slower: perhaps there’s a slow matching of parents and children, and at the end, like the one not picked for the school sports game, you stand alone, or nearly so. As the Newtown school Superintendent said, “We realized we didn’t have enough children.” Others have taken their children safely home, and you stand alone, still not knowing what to think, what to feel. The truth is slow in coming, slow to sink in. You won’t be taking her home. No, not ever again. She’s gone, they couldn’t save her, she didn’t suffer. She’s gone. Dead. Only child, youngest child, oldest child: does it really matter? Wife, mother, daughter, sister: does it really matter? Isn’t it the surprise of the call, the suddenness of the absence, the last words you said the last time you saw the person? Isn’t it that muffled, cotton-wool shock that envelops you? Isn’t it that absence, that eternal, forever absence, that absence that suddenly strips you of what you are, what you know about yourself, what you do, what you’ve always done? It’s that moment that comes to define you for a very long time – in the heart’s void that a new identity takes root: victim, bereaved one, brave survivor, one-who-is-left-to-go-on.
How do you get home? How do you tell others? Who goes to the airport to collect incoming beloveds? If you’re very lucky, you’re surrounded with friends who hold you close, answer your phone and the ringing doorbell, pick up tranquilizers from the drug store, hold your hand as you walk through this unfamiliar territory of death. If you’re lucky, you’re alone maybe only when you sleep. If you’re lucky, the child who died comes to you in your dreams and tells you that she really is okay, really isn’t gone at all, that it’s what you’re walking through in those first few days – that’s the illusion. Given that worst luck in the world you’ve just experienced, it’s those little things, those vital things that you count important, that keep you alive.
What you don’t know then is that it all passes. Almost passes. It will be days and weeks that pass at first, and that inevitable journey of grief. It will be worse after six weeks than it is after six days. You will do what you need to do to get through; you will eventually go back to work. For months, maybe years, the loss will be the first thing you tell people when you meet them. “Hi, I’m Ann. I have a daughter who died.” After a time you will stop telling people this. You will make friends who never knew that other person who died. You may move away and live in a community that never knew them. You will have crazy thoughts like, “If I move away, how will she find me?” The first day comes that you don’t cry. The first day comes that her death isn’t the first thing you remember in the morning and the last thing you remember at night. The day even comes that you can function on the birth day, on the death day. Some year you will not even remember what day it is when you wake up on that day. But it takes a long time. It takes a really, really long time.
And then someday something comes on the television. You realize someone, maybe several someones, are getting that call you got so long ago. It hits you suddenly and hits you hard, and it’s like you just got that call yesterday. You fall down the rabbit hole and you stay there for quite some little time.