She doesn’t think about Max’s eyes, or the way his fingers felt wrapped in hers. She doesn’t think of how sunlight looked caught in the tangle of his wild hair, or the way his laughter could scramble up and down the length of her, ripple across her skin like a tickling wind. Sitting here now, alone in a house full of people, staring out the window at a day full of color, her lap is empty but she feels the weight of him, the fidgeting solidity of his three-year-old body, his sleepy head against her shoulder, his breath against her neck. Beyond thought, he is her phantom limb, the details of him stored in her cells. His whisper is the sound her movement makes, her arms reaching out, encircling air.
Her neighbors are kind. They bring food in Tupperware containers. They tell her husband what they’ve brought, and he labels each dish with a yellow sticky note before putting it in the freezer. Lasagna. Shepherd’s pie. Enchilada casserole. He thanks them and she marvels at his gratitude, his poise. She wants to crawl inside him, but when he tries to hold her, she stiffens against an urge to push him away.
They bring flowers too, in glass vases, and her 4-year-old daughter, Rose, rearranges them. Every day, Rose empties the flowers out onto the table, sorts them by color, by shape, by emotion. “These ones are happy,” she says, filling a vase, focused, brow furrowed. “These ones are sad.” When she finishes she looks to the empty chair across the table and asks her little brother how he likes it. “They’re for you, you know,” she tells him, more warning than invitation, and after a few seconds, she smiles. “I’m glad,” she says. “Me too,” and then she places the vases all around the house, pausing before setting each one down. “Here?” she asks him. Her mother watches, and it is there, in the stab of pain that reminds her she’s still alive, that she can see him too, nodding, approving. “Yes. There.”
Her husband is gone by then. He leaves whenever Rose starts talking to Max, but shestays, her heart breaking over and over, gently, violently, like waves on a rocky shore.
On the designated day, friends and family come. She sits in a chair and stares out the window and doesn’t think about his eyes, his hair, his laugh. People who loved him, who still love her, lean over to look in her eyes. They tell her they are a phone call away. “Don’t hesitate to call,” they say, and they hug her and she hugs them back and she thanks them, but what she feels isn’t gratitude. It’s rage and fear and loss. It’s a hole where her son used to be, wide and gaping. It separates her from them, from everyone. She could step off the edge and fall into it. She could lose herself there, in the emptiness, the stillness.
She could do that instead of screaming, instead of breathing.
They file past her, one by one, until finally it’s Rose stopping in front of her. Rose who doesn’t have to lean over to look into her mother’s eyes. Rose who picks up her mother’s hand, works her tiny fingers between her mother’s longer ones. Rose who smells like shampoo and grass and sun, her voice curling itself around her mother’s silence. The words don’t matter, it’s the sound that wakes her, the sweet familiar cadence of her little girl’s voice.
“I’ll show you,” Rose says finally, and she tugs on her mother’s hand, leans her body back to pull her from her chair.
She rises, feeling ancient, a tree pulled up by its roots. She holds tight to her daughter’s hand, stepping around the gaping hole because she must, stumbling forward because this is the part that can’t be done gracefully.