The Year You Were Born:
Your mother leaned forward in an aluminum lawn chair, scrunched her toes into the grass as the hot wind blew waves through her summer dress. She took another fleshy bite of watermelon and let her eyes slide closed as she savored the cool sweetness that filled her mouth. Your dad sat at the picnic table drinking a can of beer. He cupped a match from the breeze and lit a cigarette, and when your mother leaned forward, he stole a glimpse of her swollen breasts through his exhale.
She stood in stages, first pivoting her hips forward, then bracing herself on the armrests, and finally arching her back to gain momentum. Your dad smoked and watched her waddle into their new two-bedroom country rambler. She needed to use the bathroom for what felt like the hundredth time that day as you pressed an unborn foot against her bladder. Your dad’s voice followed her, asking for another beer.
When your mother returned, your father looked up from the lawn mower he had begun fiddling with, and he saw perfection. He saw the sheen of her brown hair, her freckled shoulders under the straps of her orange sundress, her delicate jawline that tumbled down to her pink lips. He saw her carrying a sweating can of Old Milwaukee. And your father, as he had every day for the past two years, fell even more deeply in love.
Later that night, your father and mother held hands at Clear Lake Beach and watched fireworks explode in the black sky. Red, white and blue sparks rained down and disappeared over the mirror of water. The crack of fireworks sent sonic pulses into the marrow of your parents’ bones and lit the distant shore, the silhouettes of trees emerged purple and yellow before disappearing into the night. You kicked inside your mother’s stomach, and she took your father’s hand and slid it under her sundress until it laid against the curvature of her belly. He felt your toes drumming against the taut skin.
Driving home, your mother’s water broke on the bench seat of your father’s pickup. With her dress warm and wet, your mother softly cried as your dad, half-drunk, lit another cigarette and guided the pickup to the county hospital. A nurse met them in the parking lot and helped your mother into a wheelchair. Your father held your mother’s hand all the way to the hospital bed, and for the next five hours, he fed her ice chips and dabbed sweat from her forehead. At 3:42, on the morning of July 5th, six pounds of screaming purple infant entered the world.
At your father’s insistence, the hospital discharged you the same night. Your mother swaddled you as your father drove the pickup down the country roads, slower now, a little more carefully. With your mother’s breast in your mouth and a pink and blue cap on your bald head, you rode back to the country rambler, where your father pulled the bottom drawer out of his dresser, dumped his socks on the floor, filled it with a fleece blanket, and laid you down with one firm hand. Fireflies blinked outside in the yard, and in the distance someone shot off leftover bottle rockets. In the blue dark, under the roof of the country rambler, you spent your first night together as a family.
When Your Son Was Four:
You braided your fingers through the coarse hospital linens that hung over Oliver’s bed, tears cupped in the bottom of your eyes. He was still alive. The beeping machine reminded you of that much. But would he ever open his eyes again, and if he did, what kind of world would he see? The neurologist made clear that severe brain damage was the best-case scenario. Even when you pressed, the doctors deflected any questions regarding whether Oliver would ever emerge from the darkness.
You unraveled your fingers from the sheet and set his limp hand on yours, leaned in and kissed the rope burn across his neck. Fuck cowboy hats. You do so much to protect your child: healthy foods, don’t talk to strangers, a gate at the top of the stairs. And then…a goddamn cowboy hat. Fuck Bruce. No. It’s not Bruce’s fault. He only wanted to make Oliver happy. And he was such a happy boy when his daddy came home from a business trip to Dallas with the small, brown cowboy hat. Oliver pushed the hat down on his head, the braided string falling below his chin, and shot finger-guns into the air before running from invisible bandits. He wore the hat everywhere: the store, Sunday school, even a wedding once. Some kids have stuffed animals or blankets. Oliver had his cowboy hat.
The sun turned red behind the city skyline as invisible heat waves lapped at the blacktop. Inside the hospital, the air conditioner kicked on to keep the room at a cool 70 degrees. Nothing changed. The temperature. The beeping. Your comatose son. Your pain. Your fear. The nurses changed every six hours, but only in name. When was the last time you slept? You had been crying again. For how long? How long does it take?
The events played over and over in your head, and though only two weeks had passed, you still had to fight to put them in order. Oliver ate lunch. You remembered details. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a red delicious apple and a glass of milk. He tipped his cowboy hat back while he ate so his blond bangs hung near his eyes. You told him to play outside while you washed dishes. How much time passed before you yelled to him from the back door? You can’t remember. In the absence of his answer, you rationalized your panic. It’s nothing, you told yourself. He’s playing games. Walking barefoot into the long grass, you continued to yell his name. And then you saw him, though at first you couldn’t comprehend the image: Oliver, motionless, floating in the air beside the swing set, his cowboy hat pressed to the side of his maroon face, head tilting forward and to the left, fine hair trembling in the breeze.
When the paramedics arrived, they shocked his heart into beating again, brought him back from the dead. Later, a police officer hypothesized that Oliver had tried to go down the slide, but the string on his cowboy hat had hooked a wingnut and his momentum had pulled him off the slide. The string made a noose that left him hanging by his neck for…who knows how long. Long enough for his synapses, so fresh and promising, to suffocate and die, extinguishing one by one like streetlights at dawn. The part that continued to haunt you was imagining what must have been going through Oliver’s mind, the panic when he realized his helplessness. Feet kicking through empty air, feeling for the ground but coming up empty. More and more, you understood this feeling.
You wiped your tears on Oliver’s sheets again as another nurse rotated into the room, looked at the beeping machine and left. Bruce arrived, showered but unshaven, and looked down all glassy-eyed at Oliver. He watched Oliver’s face for any hint of movement, any slight flutter of an eyelid from which he could garner optimism. Bruce leaned in and kissed Oliver’s forehead, sat down and pulled you in with one arm. The smell of whiskey chased away the spice of his deodorant. It would have been six years in September. He quit the day you told him you were pregnant, the day you gave him the ultimatum. And he got sober and became an amazing dad. Bruce kissed your temple and told you to go home and take a warm bath. Get some sleep.
Outside, lights flashed in the distance like the fireflies that blinked above the field outside your house when you were a child. It dawned on you that it was the Fourth of July. Across the country people celebrated the birth of America. They partied and got drunk and shot fireworks. They drove fast, roasted hotdogs, skinny dipped, kissed boyfriends, laughed. In the hospital, it was 70 degrees. The machine beeped. Bruce bit his bottom lip and pressed his palms into his thighs. You unraveled your fingers from Oliver’s sheet and stood. And nothing changed.
You sat in the yawning mouth of your garage at the end of the cul-de-sac with a half-drunk bottle of cabernet in your lap. Oliver watched a movie in the cool downstairs, probably Toy Story, probably for the hundredth time. The neighbor’s cocker spaniel ran in circles in the street and stopped to growl at its reflection in a puddle as you drank more wine and watched the sky darken. Fat plops of rain splatted the driveway. Day six of waiting for the funeral.
Everything has crumbled. A sentence hanging in the gallows of your mind. A sentence spoken by your mother years ago as she stood before an audience of disinterested friends and extended family dressed in compulsory black. A sentence spoken too loudly into a microphone that poked up like a reaper’s bony finger from a podium engraved with a cross and sun. Your mother’s words hung in the air like an accusation to the audience, who sat in stick-straight rows, stern faces trained toward the casket and the blown-up picture of your father. Everything has crumbled was the extent of your mother’s speech, concluded only by her collapse into tears and you ushering her back to her seat. Then, she came apart.
But you remember how Bruce held Ollie in his firm arms while Ollie rocked and hummed on the bench outside the funeral parlor. You ushered your mother into the backseat of your car as she screamed and cursed and clawed her own face. And even through the closed windows, the guests could hear the scathing profanities between gasps for breath. Bruce kissed the top of Ollie’s head, looked up at you, and mouthed the words, “Go ahead.” And you drove away with your mother, possessed by grief, throwing herself around your backseat.
Sitting in your garage finishing your second bottle of wine, you began to understand your mother. Last Wednesday, the funeral man told you that you can’t have Bruce’s funeral on Monday because of the Fourth of July. He said to do it on Tuesday since the Fourth is on Monday. For the sake of attendance, he said, Tuesday is the day. You didn’t tell him Tuesday is your 50th birthday, and on Tuesday there will be two open seats on an airplane bound for Hawaii, a surprise birthday gift from Bruce.
You waited for Oliver to fall asleep and cried alone in the darkness of the open garage. You remembered Bruce bringing you coffee in bed, and how you sometimes caught him crying at sad movies. You recalled the smell of his aftershave when you nuzzled his neck. Every moment you had known for the past twenty-seven years, Bruce was there. You screamed out as mortar blasts rattled your bones. Sparks sprayed down purple and yellow, red and blue, illuminated confetti that died moments before landfall. The dog that growled at its reflection now whimpered at the front door of its home, its face pressed flat to the ground.
Oliver slept on the couch, the pop-up menu of Toy Story playing over and over on the television, as you stumbled toward your third bottle of wine. Tomorrow will be your birthday, and you will stand in place as people take turns paying their respects. They will talk with one eye drifting away, prepared to escape the conversation at the first possibility. But you will stare into their nervous eyes and force them to witness your grief. And they will smile and baby-talk Oliver, call him, “Buddy,” or “Champ.” And you will fight the urge to grab them by their collars and yell, “He’s twenty goddamn years old! He’s not a toddler!”
And still these “friends” and family will push forward to see the VIPs of the funeral, the tragic widow and her mentally-disabled, fatherless son. And with their phony masks of grief made more transparent by the glow from the extended holiday weekend, they will say, “If there’s anything I can do…” or “He was just so young…” And you will want to scream, “Finish your fucking sentence!” But instead, you will recite rehearsed lines and hand out empty thank yous. And through the day you will force yourself to callous up, and people will challenge your fortitude to fight crying by telling you what a great man Bruce was. Then you will caravan to the cemetery and go through the motions and dump a handful of dirt onto his grave while the sun soaks into your black dress. And at the end of the day, you will come home and sit in a warm bath with a bottle of red wine, and for thirty minutes, you will allow yourself to completely unravel.
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