Sunday, June 29, 2014

Losing Hope: a short story by dj runnels

Most middle-of-the-night phone calls in my house are wrong numbers.  That is my first thought one night, shortly after New Year's, when the phone rings.  And without looking at the clock, I know it can't be past midnight, because I'm not groggy enough to have been asleep that long.  Still, I'm in no mood to deal with someone who can't dial a phone correctly.
I let my husband answer it.  It’s not a wrong number.  And something is clearly wrong.  He listens to the caller for many minutes, responding in brief non-sentences.  Uh-huh...Oh, no...Oh, my God...He sits with his head in his hand.  I cannot see his face, but I watch his back, hunched forward with despair.  Now as I lie on my back, my eyes scan the darkened room, trying to guess whom the caller could be.  My intense curiosity to know what has happened is choked with dread.  Someone very close to us must be injured or seriously ill for us to get a call at this hour.  My mother?  His mother?  Perhaps his sister lost the baby.
I should tug at his arm and whisper, “Who is it?”  But he will not be distracted whenever he is on the phone.  

I hear him ask, “Well, was anyone else in the car?”

A car accident.  That doesn’t narrow the field of possible victims.  We all have cars.  I sit up, mentally stumbling down a list of people who might consider it urgent that we know about a car accident.

“What about Darren?”

Finally, a name!  But it’s not a family member.  The only Darren I can think of is my friend Tania’s husband.  I press my hand to my mouth.  Not Tania.

“God be with you,” my not-usually-this-religious husband tells the caller.  “And thanks for letting us know.”  He hangs up quietly.  Sighs.  Then turns to face me, although I can’t see him in the dim light.  I am on the verge of hyperventilating.  

“Tania was in a car accident on Barrington Road.  She’s in the hospital.”
I swallow.   “Then she’s not dead?”
“I guess she’s in serious condition.  Something to do with a kidney.”
He waits, not wanting to continue.
“And?”  Curiosity conquers my dread.

He tells me all he has learned about the accident from another neighbor, who was kind enough to phone us.  Tania had just picked up her daughter Hope from preschool when an oncoming snowplow lost control and rammed into her station wagon.  Later we would read in the papers that the plow had peeled the car open like a can opener.

“Hope was killed,” he says.
Seldom do I notice the brutality of this word:  killed.  It starts with a crisp K sound.  It has only one blunt, choppy syllable. It conjures images of knives and explosions and violent encounters of the sort seen mostly on bad TV dramas.  And it doesn't belong in the same sentence as Hope.

Hope.  Age five.  Glossy black hair in a little-girl bob.  Tanned skin glistening with water droplets from having just jumped over the lawn sprinkler.  (“Pinkler,” she used to call it.)  Five or six neighborhood kids shivering, grabbing towels.  “Does anyone want a drink?”  Tania emerging from her screen door with a pitcher of lemonade and small plastic cups in purple, yellow and turquoise.  I regale Tania with some witty nonsense about my job.  But we keep our eyes on the kids.   Hope is squealing and running ahead of the others.  An out-going child.  Warm and sunny.

Summers with Hope stretch out endlessly.  Chalk pictures on the driveway—fish, houses and ABC’s.  Kids comparing their bright red or orange tongues after slurping down Popsicles.  Tubes of sunscreen falling through the webbing of lawn chairs.  The Big Contest:  who would be first to ride a bike without training wheels.  Huge bandages covering miniscule boo-boos.  My son helping Hope shovel sand into a plastic bowl in the sandbox, where they are building a parking garage.

The last time I saw Hope was December 27, in the Disney aisle at a video store.  Did you have a good Christmas, I asked her?  Her little Dalmatians hat bobs with every turn of her head.  She wants to get home and watch her movie, not chat with the neighbor lady.  But I’m not through showing what a good friend I am.  I ask what Santa brought her.  She says she doesn’t know.  I quip, “Can’t remember?  Must have been good stuff!”  Those were my last words to her.  A bit of sarcasm, then a casual dismissal.  See ya later.  And now the child is dead.

My husband and I cannot fall back asleep.  I will not sleep for the next three nights but will give in and take a sleeping pill on the fourth night.  Like somnambulistic sentries, we march sluggishly past the night-lights in our hallway to check on our own two children, a boy and a girl, each asleep in warm, flannel oblivion.  How will we tell them the girl they played with for four years—through sprinklers, across the grass, in the sandbox, running, laughing---is dead?  How to explain death to a child, when we don’t understand it ourselves?

We stand in our five-year-old daughter’s room and look out her window at Darren and Tania’s house across the street.  There is the dark bedroom window of their five-year-old daughter, Hope.  She should be in there, asleep in her bed, covered with a Dalmatians bedspread.  I can envision her little form lying there in the dark, perhaps with her mouth half open.  But she’s not in that room.  She’s dead.  We try and try to hammer this fact into our heads, but it’s like pushing thumbtacks into cast iron.

The rest of the night passes slowly, very surreal, with tears inadequate for their job.  I debate about driving to the hospital to see Tania, but the neighbor who called didn’t specify which hospital.  I don’t want to call her in the middle of the night to ask, although I can’t imagine that she is asleep, either.  Also I worry that I will drive badly through the cold night in my sleep-deprived state.  Towards dawn, we huddle over coffee mugs and discuss whether to take the kids to school or not.  

When the children get up for breakfast, we tell them the news carefully, in stages.  They look at us quietly, eyes turned up to us, the tall and supposedly protective adults.  But we certainly didn’t protect them from Hope’s death, did we?  We answer what few questions they have.  Is Hope really, truly dead?  Not just pretending?  Yes.  (Although we are secretly hoping it’s all one big mistake.)   Was Hope wearing a seat belt?  Yes.  But in some accidents, wearing a seat belt doesn’t help.  Why is Hope’s mother in the hospital?  We repeat what little we know.  Try to explain what a kidney is.  The kids turn quiet.  Do you feel able to go to school? we ask.  They nod.  They are more successful at eating breakfast than we were.

The phone rings and I jump, reminded of the phone call we received during the night.  It’s the school calling to see if I can serve as a substitute teacher today.  I feel a flash of outrage.  How dare they ask such a thing when Hope has just been—?  But of course, they have no way of knowing about the accident.

“I’m sorry,” I tell the secretary, “there’s been a—”  Not a death in the family.  A death in the extended family?  That’s not accurate either.  A death in the circle of friends?  That sounds like a movie title.  “There’s been a death.” Wrong thing to say.  She overreacts, thinking it’s one of my children or my husband.  “No, no,” I assure her.  “Just a friend’s child.”  But that sounds as if Hope is somehow unimportant.  “Look, I can’t even think straight.  Please take me off the list for a couple of weeks.  I’ll let you know when I can work again.”  She offers condolences I don’t deserve.

My children finish their Cheerios and head upstairs to dress for school.  My husband is in the shower.  I remain in the kitchen staring at the cold snow swirling across our deck.  Wishing I could be in another place and time altogether.  Suddenly a sparrow plows right into the patio glass door and flops to the deck.  I clutch the neck of my purple sweater, watching, hoping the bird is only stunned.  But it lies there motionless, save for the wind ruffling its feathers.  I dash to the bathroom.  Over the sound of the shower, I tell my husband about the bird.

“I don’t want the kids to see it!”  I wring my hands and pace the steamy room.
After he is dressed, my husband goes out on the deck, scoops the bird up with a section of the Chicago Tribune, then carries it to the field behind our house, where nature will reclaim it.  Evidence removed, the children will never know about the sparrow.  If only we could shield them from Hope’s death so easily. 

I take the kids to school and inform each of their teachers of the tragedy.  They are acquaintances of mine.  I have subbed for each of them.  And they, too, offer sympathy I don’t deserve.  I ask them to notify me if my children exhibit any emotional trauma.  Yet my children calmly remove their coats and placidly proceed to their seats.  I am the one tearing soggy tissues into shreds.

En route to the hospital, a pick-up truck nearly rams into me when I don’t change lanes fast enough to suit the driver.  I shiver, despite my minivan’s powerful heating system.  That’s all that’s standing between me and the Valley of Death:  one guy with road rage.  One snowplow.  One lightning bolt.

At the hospital, I work my way through a rat maze of chemical corridors and cold, metal desks to find a receptionist who knows where Tania’s room is.  But she questions my identity.  Only family members are allowed in intensive care.  The floodgates open.  No, I am not a family member, I sob, but I must see her!  This is not an orchestrated sympathy ploy.  I am simply desperate.  The receptionist rises, points around a corner and directs me to Tania’s room.  Take this elevator to the third floor, follow the corridor and something-something-something.  I don’t hear all of it because I can’t believe she’s letting me go there after all.

I go up the elevator and stumble irritably down the hallway like a toddler who skipped her nap.  This way.  No, that way.  My face scrunches up in confusion.  I find Hope’s father, floundering about in what looks like yesterday’s suit.  His power tie is loose, having lost all of its power.

“There was a car accident and Hope is dead!” Darren blurts, tears streaming.  Today, he is not the controlled lawyer.  Today, he is a grief-stricken father.  “They won’t let me see her!”
Darren takes me to Tania’s room, where she has recently been placed after being in intensive care.  Then he disappears, to continue his aimless sojourn of the hallway.  Tania is lying flat, with pillows propping one arm and both legs.  The IV tubes, I expected.  The monitors going blip-blip, I expected.  But she has large purple bruises under each eye that match my sweater.   And in addition to the kidney, one of her vertebrae is damaged.  Had it broken completely, she would be dead.  If it doesn’t heal correctly, she could be paralyzed.  So she must wear a neck brace, which looks like a torture device designed to squeeze and push her head right off her neck.  And on top of all this, her daughter is dead. 

I look for a part of her not covered with cuts, bruises or tubes.  I decide on her head.  I become a human hairbrush, letting my fingers twist their way through her soft black curls, my fingernails barely skimming her scalp.  Little did she know, when she used the curling iron yesterday morning, that she would be lying here the next day--the curl still there, the daughter gone.  It is strange to touch someone outside of my family this intimately.  But it is one of the best ways to comfort my children when they awaken from a nightmare or become ill.  It either soothes Tania a little or she pretends it does.  

“I’m glad you’re alive,” is one of the few things I say to her.  But I can’t leave without murmuring the standard if-there’s-anything-I-can-do.  And she gives me a job.  Her laundry is piling up at home, she says.
“I’m the queen of laundry,” I say with a smile.  Laundry is my least-hated household chore.  And I’m relieved she didn’t give me the grim task of notifying family members of Hope’s death.

But I didn’t realize until I had her baskets of laundry in my house, and began loading my washer, that Hope’s clothes would be in there.  I see tiny Winnie the Pooh shirts that I remember her wearing.  I pile them around the agitator, feeling agitated myself.  I see knee smudges on a pair of floral leggings and squirt them with stain remover.  Hope will never wear them again, but I treat them with care, knowing they were hers.  I use sweet-smelling fabric softener.  I fold everything as neatly as you might see it in a department store.  I weep over tiny underwear, over socks no longer than a watchband.  I think of all the clothes Hope must have in her dresser and closet at home.  I remember the red dress I gave her for her last birthday.  I chose red because it looked so good with her shiny black hair.
Then a thought hits me: What if Hope was wearing that birthday dress when she was killed?  The concept overwhelms me.  Well, what if she was?  Would it make me somehow responsible for her death?  Illogical.  Would her parents remember the dead child in the red dress, forever equating me with her death?  Not likely, since Tania was knocked unconscious.  Darren never saw the body, either, as he drove straight from work to the hospital and the officials there would not allow him to see her.  So why should I care if Hope wore that particular dress the day of the accident?

But I can’t shake this thought and I’m obsessed with knowing what the girl was wearing.  I wonder how I can find out.  I can’t expect the hospital to tell me.  They were reluctant to let me visit Tania.  I’ll just have to ask Tania herself.  She would remember what she dressed her daughter in for preschool that morning.  But what am I thinking?  How can I torture the bereaved mother with such a trivial question?

My thoughts are tormented, erratic these first few weeks.  I travel the path of the bereaved:  Why are we here, why do we die, how can such a young child die, what is the purpose, what is the point---the same tired questions that have plagued humankind since life began.  Most of all, I find it hard to believe that it happened at all. 

And I become obsessed with other details.   What was the last thing Hope said in the car?  Did the driver of the snowplow feel guilty?  What was I doing at the exact moment of the accident and why didn’t I somehow know about it, by feeling a “disturbance in the Force,” so to speak?  Did the paramedics cry when they saw Hope?  Or are they numb to this sort of thing by now?  My brain will not shut up.  And there are nightmares about accidents, blood, decapitation.

Exasperated, I distract myself with trivial errands.  To Kmart to look for light bulbs.  To the hardware store for water softener salt.  Dragging my feet down the aisles.  Months later, I would remember very little of what I did during this time other than visit Tania in the hospital and shovel snow.  It seems to snow daily and I dig out my driveway, as well as Darren and Tania’s driveway.  Dreadful  weather.  But I see logic in it.  When someone dies, the weather should be dreadful.   I had read a book in junior high called The Red Pony.  Such a sad book.  Wasn’t there bad weather in that story when the pony died?  John Steinbeck knew death = bad weather.  So why do so many people die on bright, sunny days?  They are wrong.  They are supposed to die on snowy, gray days.  But of course, that isn't how it works.

The weather is especially poignant for Hope’s memorial service.  A Chicagoland snowstorm. My husband is stranded thirty miles away, on business, and cannot attend.  So I take the kids.  I almost faint before making it to my seat.  You can’t afford the luxury of fainting, I chastise myself.  You have to drive the kids back home through a snowstorm.  And there is the on-going guilt for not being stronger, since Hope’s parents feel so much worse than I do.

The foul weather doesn’t prevent a large turnout for the service.  Hundreds of mourners step through slushy, blowing snow in their nice black dress shoes.  Tania arrives in a neck brace and a wheelchair.  She is healing and will not end up paralyzed.  Not in the physical sense, anyway.  She does not cry, not even when they play (predictably) a song with the word “hope” repeated throughout.  I suspect that if she did cry, she would shatter into a thousand pieces.  I want to sit near her, comfort her, push her wheelchair when needed, but there are too many people present and they all want to be near her.  I feel left out.  And then I feel guilty for thinking about myself.

My eight-year-old son hopes that during the service, Hope will miraculously sit up in her coffin.  Look, everyone!  I’m all right!  It was all a mistake.  Throngs of teary-eyed mourners will rush forward and embrace her.  Hope!  Thank God, you’re all right.  You had us all worried, you silly girl!  Those stupid doctors thought you were dead.

I want this to happen, too.  But there is no coffin.  Hope has been cremated.  I haltingly explain cremation to my son.  But he blinks his long eyelashes and looks at me blankly.  He cannot accept reality without seeing Hope’s body.  And we will never see her body.  The girl has just plain disappeared from the face of the earth, despite the image we carry of her and the fact that we just talked to her at the video store.  It’s a paradox that spins us around like a dog chasing its tail.  I wonder if my son will ever accept Hope’s death.  Or if he will ever grieve.

At the library, I try to find books about bereavement.  I am not successful.  Despite my schoolteacher’s familiarity with libraries, I cannot get my brain to lead me to the right shelf.  I have the patience of a gnat.  A librarian’s radar senses my frustration.  I tell her that my neighbor’s child has died.  A seemingly permanent quaver in my voice prevents me from saying more.  But I see something in her eyes.  She absorbs my pain, is saturated with it.  It is more than sympathy.   It is a Knowing.

Over the following weeks, the bereavement books lead me to books on religion—first my own, then everyone else’s.  Then philosophy books.  And now I am seeing that Knowing look in others, the way I saw it in the librarian.  We are all connected, claims one of the philosophy books.  I never did understand what it meant to “be one with the universe,” but suddenly I am one with all people, as if each of us were a computer, simultaneously linked to the Internet, able to access and trade ideas.

I explain this theory to my husband.  He gives me a funny look and wants to know what’s for dinner.

At Tania’s house, I notice several changes.  Every horizontal surface in the house contains a floral arrangement, each one competing to be the most colorful, the most spectacular.  Photos of Hope are all over, on every mantel, every table, every shelf.  In beautiful frames of all sizes.  And next to all the flowers and photos are boxes of tissues.  Long rectangular boxes and short squarish boxes.  Pop-up and regular.  Puffs, Kleenex, Scotts.

I take a seat on the sofa.  Smell the flowers.  See the pictures.  Talk about Hope.  Pull up tissues.  And every time I’m in this house, I look for Hope.  I feel her presence.  I look around, wondering when she will trounce down the stairs in mismatched socks or call out for more milk from the kitchen.

I visit Tania again and again, each time hoping I will somehow find Hope or find some sort of answer to the question of Death.  Each time, I realize we are cut apart.  I am a woman with children.  She is a woman without children.  We will never be close friends again.  Each time, I leave feeling depressed.  Yet a few hours later, when I am at home making meat loaf, listening to my children argue over whose turn it is on the computer, I feel better.  And lighter, as though I have shed a heavy coat. Everything goes wrong in my house about this time.  Just as the heavy snows start melting, my sump pump stops working and my basement may flood.  The oven igniter quits igniting and I cannot make dinner.  We lose one of the library books about bereavement and may have to pay for it, adding insult to injury.
But my children are alive, I remind myself.

We find the library book under the front seat of my car.  We pay to have the stove and sump pump fixed.  I go back to teaching.  And despite all our wishes to roll over and play dead, we do not.

Summer comes.  At Hope’s preschool, they plant a tree in her memory.  At the foot of the tree is a hand-painted stone with Hope’s name on it.  “She was a tree of life to all who embraced her.”  A quote from the Bible.  Romans something.  I struggle to understand the meaning of the quote.  A tree of life?  I like trees, but why compare an active, healthy, radiant child to a stationary tree?

My husband and I sit on our deck, gazing out at the field behind our back yard.  The field where he laid the sparrow to rest.  Summer thistle has given way to Queen Anne’s lace, then autumn goldenrod.  

“You’re not the woman I married,” he says.
“Really?”  I quip.  “Then just who did you marry?  And where was I during the ceremony?”
But he will not be distracted.
“Do you feel better?” he wants to know.
“Do you?” I counter.
“It was different for me.  I’m not home with the kids all summer.  I didn’t know her the way you did.”
I’m wondering why, if he has accepted Hope’s death as he claims, he still can’t say her name.  Or the D word.
“Yes, I feel better,” I admit.  “Whoever I am.”

On the anniversary of Hope’s death, it troubles me that there is no gravesite I can visit.  And I am reminded of an old story.  An Asian and an American visit the side-by-side graves of their loved ones.  The Asian places food on the tombstone of his ancestor.  The American, placing flowers on his own ancestor’s tombstone, looks over at the food and scoffs, “When is your loved one going to come and eat that food?”  The Asian calmly replies, “When yours comes to smell those flowers.”

The kids and I brave the snow and cold to visit Hope’s memorial tree at the preschool.  No one is there at this hour of the afternoon.  We tie a red ribbon around the tree.  A remnant from one of my daughter’s Christmas presents.  It seems inappropriate, since Hope did not receive any presents.

“How does that look?”  I give the red ribbon an extra knot at the back, to make sure the Chicago wind doesn’t decimate it within the week.  I slip my gloves back on and look at my children—five and eight no longer, but now six and nine.  While Hope is forever five.

“Mom,” says my daughter in her high voice, “sometimes I feel sad about Hope.”
I hold her pink-gloved hand in mine.  Her gray eyes look up at me.

“I’m sorry,” I tell her.  Neither of my children has cried openly over Hope, but I understand now that they quietly grieve.  As I look back to the ribbon, I feel tears coming. And I wonder:  do I cry because Hope is gone?  Or because she is not to be found at this tree?  And if she is not to be found at this tree, where is she?  Some would say she is everywhere.  But if that’s true, why do we need to visit this tree?  When is my loved one going to come and see this ribbon?

“It’s cold out here.  Let’s get in the car.”

I make sure the kids are buckled before I drive off.  Saying a silent prayer to God or Buddha or Allah that no snowplows collide with us on the way home.  Feeling simultaneously glad and guilty that I have two children whom I love more than my life.
I do not tell Tania that we tied the ribbon around the tree.  She will find it on her own.  And her lips will form a soft smile, knowing someone remembered her child.  But she will always carry a sadness with her.

I dream that I find Hope wandering around the field behind my house.  Her eyes unfocused.  Lifting her short bare legs through the weeds.  It is summer.  She is barefoot, in her red birthday dress.  But the weeds are dead and dry, as in winter.  I run towards her.  Here she is!  She was here, all this time! Didn’t anyone think to search the field?  Hope!  Hope!  Let me take you home.  But she can’t hear me.  I want to run to Tania’s house to tell her the exciting news.  But I’m afraid if I leave, Hope will disappear again.  So I call and call to Tania.  Tania, I found her!  I found Hope!  She can’t hear me, either.  Instead, I follow Hope, watching her.  She is day dreaming.  Looking at the weeds, yet not looking at them.  The sun glinting off her short black hair.  Tiny tanned toes stepping gingerly through the crunchy stalks.  In this field, last year’s dead sparrow has long ago begun its journey to rejoin the earth.
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