A mother suffers guilt and gut-wrenching grief at the loss of her child.1st in Short Shots
|In a Moment's Breath was accepted to Literary Foray 10/8/2010
The cold of the concrete step seeps through my thin, black dress, and deep into my bones. Drawing my knees up, I wrap my arms around them, rocking slowly in a desperate bid to find a measure of warmth. Nothing can thaw the ice around my heart. A chilling wind sweeps off the lake, tearing strands of my lank blonde hair from the respectable knot at my nape to whip across my blurred vision. My eyes are gritty, every last bit of moisture having been spilled over the past ninety-six hours. It is as if even my body understands I don't deserve the release of tears. I rock slowly, fighting to draw air into my grieving body. The lump in my throat has become a constant companion, making breathing laborious and uncertain. I wish I could stop. The crushing ache of my chest reminds me, every minute of everyday, a part of me is gone.
The deepening evening sky joins the lake in azure shadows, casting the landscape in monochromatic gloom that can't touch the darkness in my soul. Resting my chin on my knees, I stare unseeing down the length of the pier. The clamor of voices drifts from above where my husband stoically accepts the condolences of family and friends. The pity in their eyes is more than I deserve and too much to bear. Weary, I let my eyes fall closed, grateful for even these few minutes of respite.
Hearing the excited stomp of little feet, I look up with a smile. My little Alexander the Brat does a delighted dance on the pier. Watching the minnows flee in terror, his giggles fill the air. The sun has bleached his flattop nearly white and added to the freckles across his pug nose. The white and orange of his flame-adorned swim trunks stand out starkly against his sun-kissed skin. Feeling my gaze upon him, he looks up and waves, his gap-toothed grin flashing in the late September sun. A beautiful week of Indian summer has allowed one last weekend at the cottage, and Alex is making the most of it. Waving back, I turn my attention back to my laptop with a sigh. The deadline is looming, and this story isn't going to write itself.
Hunger pangs pull me from the gritty, crime-riddled streets of Oakland and back to rural Indiana. Hitting the save button, I stretch and glance down to where Alex is playing with a bucket in the shallows. Giggling, I shake my head and stand. 'Those poor minnows'
Padding into the quiet of the cool house, my mind drifts back to my current book and the looming deadline. Pulling an assortment of cold cuts and fresh veggies from the refrigerator, I start making sandwiches. Sliding open the window above the sink, I steal a quick peek at my boy. He is standing on the pier, and as I watch he empties his bucket back into the lake. Smiling at the simple pleasures of both mother and child, I turn back to preparing lunch.
Setting sandwiches, vegetables and dip, chunks of watermelon and a couple Cokes on the tray, I bump open the screen door with my hip and the world stops. My heart lodges in my throat with a scream never loosed. Somehow the tray finds the patio table, yet my legs won't carry me down the steps. Hot concrete burns into scraped knees and shins as I scramble down the steep embankment on hands and knees.
Alex lies face down in the shallow water. The pink-tinged waves lap at his still form, billowing the material of his trunks with their soft caress. Splashing into the water, I pull him into my lap. Blood stains his hair a garish red. He looks so pale beneath his freckles. His lips are tinged a terrifying blue. Panicked, my gaze scans the shore for help. We are alone. Shaking my head I try to focus. My thoughts are disjointed. My movements are awkward as I try to scoot Alex up on the shore.
I've never performed CPR, but I described it in a story once. Searching my mind for the steps, the story's title escapes me. Using my fingers, I make sure his mouth is clear of obstructions. Tilting his head back, I open his airway. Taking a deep breath, I seal my lips over his and try with all my heart and soul to breathe life into my son. Pausing, I listen for a gasp, a breath. I hear nothing. Placing my palm on the breastbone, right between his nipples I press down in a quick and careful rhythm. Was that thirty? I am not sure. Close enough. Cover the mouth again and blow. Wait. Pinch the nose closed. I am supposed to pinch the nose. Over and over, I breathe for my baby, looking for any sign, praying.
I hear voices, but I cannot make out what they are saying. Rough hands pull at me, but I won't let go. I can't let go. I am thrown down in the sand, discarded by people more qualified to try and save my baby's life. I want to tell them that I brought him into this world, but somewhere in my mind a voice is screaming. 'Where were you? You were supposed to protect him!'
His feet are still in the water. Minnows swarm around him. I smile, thinking how he squeals when they nibble his toes. They no longer seem afraid of the giant. It is as if they understand. I wish I did. How could this have happened? It was just a moment.
Just a moment, no more. The words I have uttered so many times over the past couple of days bring fresh tears with them. A rhythmic thump seeps into my consciousness until my battered heart matches the beat. The waves wash over the sand in a whisper bringing the gentle thud thud to my ears. Opening my eyes I search for the source, my weary mind eager for any distraction.
I press my hand over my lips to stifle the wail of pain welling in my throat. Half hidden by the shadow of the pier, Alex's red bucket bumps against the seawall with the waves. Burying my face into my knees I rock, feeling the ache build in my chest until it bursts forth in a keening cry of raw grief.
Exhausted and aching in body and soul, I listen as the last of our friends take their leave. My husband thanks them once again for making the emergency call. Polite words float back and forth. A murmured reminder to call if we need anything reaches my ears, but I am too numb to reply. Crossing the short distance between our homes, they are gone and I am alone with my pain.
He settles on the step above me. His knees flank me, his arms settling around my neck, surrounding me with his warmth. The lump in my throat grows. I pray he won't speak. I don't know how else to say how sorry I am, or how I would do anything ... ANYTHING ... to bring him back.
I close my eyes as his chin rests on top of my head. I don't know how he can stand to be so close to me. I want to crawl out of my skin. Why doesn't he hate me? I hate myself. I hate him for not being there. I hate God for letting this happen. Hot tears start to flow again and I shudder with anguished sobs. He holds me, rocking with me until I can breathe again.
His work-roughened hand is gentle as it wipes tears from my chapped cheeks. Without words, he urges me to my feet, catching my elbow as I falter. He starts up the stairs, but I am not ready. Descending the last couple of steps on shaky legs, I make my way to the pier. Drawing in a halting breath, I lower myself to kneel on the worn wooden planks.
Leaning forward, I grope blindly under the pier until my fingers brush smooth plastic. Fumbling, I catch the handle and pull the bucket from its hiding place. Reverently, I tilt the treasured toy and watch the captured water splash back into the lake. Hugging the bucket to my chest, I watch the ripples spread out and think of simple childish pleasures. My husband offers his hand again and I stand, still clutching the toy.
Slowly we climb the steep steps to the cottage. My legs feel weighted, as heavy as my heart, and I wonder how I will survive the days ahead. The well-meaning souls say it gets easier. All I know is it can't get worse. I will count the days until I can be with him again, one empty, guilt-ridden day at a time.
WC ~ 1,487
1st place in the Short Shots Contest 3/2009