By Paul C. Rosenblatt
After my brother died my parents pretty much stopped talking to each other and to me. I thought we were the saddest, most depressed family in the world. I never saw my parents laugh. We never went anywhere together and never even looked much at one another. And they definitely didn’t want me to ask them questions. Day after day of sadness and pretending to be a family.
But one Saturday morning there was a surprising change. My parents started busily cleaning the living room and front hallway. In the three years since my brother died I had not seen them do much of anything together. When they finished, they kept glancing out the living room windows. Soon an old black Honda Civic pulled up in front of the house. A gray haired man with a briefcase got out and limped to the front door. My parents ushered him into the living room. Mom brought refreshments from the kitchen. He thanked her for the refreshments and thanked them for agreeing to meet with him. This was a very weird situation. We hadn’t had visitors since people stopped paying condolence calls a few weeks after my brother died.
I sat on the couch near Dad, tense with curiosity about what was happening, but Mom stood up, pointed at me, and motioned to me to follow her out of the room. She led me to kitchen, sat me in front of the kitchen television, and cued up what once was my favorite movie, “Home Alone.”
“You can watch this and snack on whatever you’d like. We’re going to talk with that researcher.” She left the kitchen, closed the door, and went down the hallway toward the living room. Then I heard her closing the door to the living room.
I waited for 60 seconds to pass on the kitchen clock and then silently left the kitchen, tiptoed down the hallway to the door to the living room, and lay down on the floor next to the closed door, eager to hear what they were saying. For a while the man asked my parents easy questions about themselves, like their age, their education, and how long they had been married. But then he said, “I imagine the next questions will be really painful for you. I’m sorry. I want to begin by asking, How did your son die?”
His question sent a chill down my spine. My heart was racing and I felt an uncomfortable tightness in my guts. I lay there remembering when he died. For weeks after it happened Mom was always crying and Dad was always silent and wooden. I knew that Mike had been a passenger in a car driven by a high school friend. The car crashed into a tree and he was taken to the hospital. Four days later he was dead. On a gray, cold November day we had the funeral. I was eleven years old and didn’t understand what was going on or what I was supposed to do. Mostly I remember Mike’s coffin being lowered into the earth and dirt being shoveled on top of it. I will never forget the thud, thud, thud of the earth hitting the top of his coffin.
The man’s question, “How did your son die?” frightened me, because I thought my mother might plunge into weeks of weeping and my father into weeks of being totally wooden. But I didn’t actually know how Mike died, and so I was very curious about how the question would be answered.
Nobody said anything for a long time. All I could hear was the thunka-thunka-thunka of my heart. Then Dad said to Mom, “You tell him.” There was another pause and then Mom started talking, her voice tight with the effort not to cry. “He was riding with friends. An older boy, a friend of his, was driving. We don’t know why the driver lost control, but he drove off the road and hit a tree. The other kids had seatbelts on and were okay. Mike didn’t have his seatbelt on. His head hit something; we don’t know what. The other kids thought at first that he was okay. But by the time the paramedics came, he was unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, but he was already gone. Massive bleeding in the brain. They kept him alive for four days, but his brain was gone and so was any chance for a life. We agreed to let them pull the plug; he died as soon as they did. We were there, touching him.”
The stranger said, “I’m sorry. What a horrible, sad loss.”
Mom started sobbing. I was fighting back tears.
Dad started speaking, and he was crying. I was surprised. I didn’t remember Dad ever crying. I was so focused on Dad’s crying that at first I didn’t pay attention to what he was saying. When I finally started listening to his words he was saying, “It’s been a tough, tough time. We miss him so much. I think about him day and night. Why did this happen? Why did God want him to die?”
There was a pause, and then Mom said, her voice shaking, “He was my first born, my first baby. I so loved him and was so proud of him. And then that happened. Nothing we could do about it. He was gone in an eye blink. How can I live without him? I try to be a good mother to our younger son and a good wife to my husband, but there is so much sadness in me.”
She continued talking, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about what she meant when she said she tried to be a good mother to me. I liked that she said that, but it made me very sad too. I knew she had been trying to be a good mother to me even though she was so often locked into a dark, sad, hurting place that she almost couldn’t do anything. I kept trying to help her and Dad by being a good son, but I couldn’t make up for Mike being dead. I couldn’t be him; I couldn’t replace him. In death Mike took up almost all the space available in their hearts and minds for kids. There was almost no room for me. Mostly what they did with me is tell me to take care of myself and leave them alone, like being told to sit in a chair in the kitchen to watch “Home Alone.”
I started paying attention again, and heard the man ask, “Can you tell me how his death has affected your marriage?”
There was another long pause, and Dad said, “Well, we have been strong for each other. I don’t want to make her cry, and she doesn’t want to make me cry. And that means we don’t talk about it, but….”
Mom interrupted, “His death ripped an enormous hole in our hearts and our marriage, and those holes don’t heal. They don’t get smaller. So much of me died when he died. And so much of what the two of us had, wife and husband, went away too. We’re like two polite strangers who happen to live in the same house.” She started sobbing again.
I was trying hard to hold back my tears when I heard her say in a surprised, and I thought angry voice, “Wait! Is that the boy?” She opened the living room door and stared down at me. I was so scared to be caught eavesdropping and so afraid of what might come next that I curled up into a ball and covered my head.
She bent down and whispered to me through her tears, “It’s okay. It’s okay. But I need you to go back to the kitchen.” I got up and walked toward the kitchen with her following me, her warm hand on my left shoulder. I sat down in front of the television set, which was showing a scene in “Home Alone” that I always had laughed at. But now it didn’t seem funny, just sad that a boy would be so alone.
Mom bent over, kissed me on the forehead, and whispered, “It’s okay. You’ll be okay. We’ll be okay. Talking with that man is good for us.” She touched my cheek and then went back toward the living room.
This time she didn’t close the doors.
Copyright 2020 Rosenblatt