Tuesday, March 17, 2009


“Mommy, tell me another Ethan story, please?”

“Not now, Nola, we’ve been talking long enough, it’s time for you to go to sleep. You know, it’s already way past your bedtime.” but as firm as Kate tried to sound her resolve weakened quickly. She would like nothing more than to crawl back into bed beside her daughter and get lost in another story about her son.

“Please, Mommy, just one more, just one more story and then I’ll go right to sleep, I promise.” Kate noticed Nola’s delicate little hands, fingers crossed hopefully for luck.

“Alright, just one though, and then no more trouble, got it?”

“Got it,” said Nola triumphantly sitting back up, happy to be staying up even later. “Can you tell the beginning one, the one where Ethan was born?” Kate slid back into the bed beside her daughter and pulled the covers up around both of them again. “Ok, I like that one too.” She tried to smile at Nola, who look so pleased, so happy for this intimacy. Kate was instantly glad she relented because this was just what she needed. She needed to keep talking.

Nearly everyone else tried to shush her whenever she talked about Ethan. Nola was the only one who wanted to listen. At the first mention of her son’s name other people would murmur a shushing sound interspersed with vague platitudes while sadly shaking their heads. Strangely, few ever actually looked her in the eye; loss was somehow shameful. If they did meet her gaze, it was usually just to offer the old standby “I’m sorry” with a sympathetic expression plastered on their face. Sorry, yes, well of course they were sorry, who he hell wouldn’t be? What happened was…but she didn’t see why that meant had to stop talking about Ethan now that he was dead. That would be like forgetting him and she couldn’t if she tried. She didn’t want to walk around pretending he never existed, never to utter his name above a solemn whisper like it was against some rule to say it too loud. Kate didn’t feel like whispering, she felt like shouting, like screaming. Even after all this time.

Kate couldn’t ever stop thinking about Ethan. Everyone said it would ease up, that she would be able to let go enough so that life could go on. It didn’t happen. She knew in her heart it must not be normal to want to bring him into every conversation she had, from chatting with the cashier at the supermarket to discussing politics over cocktails at some faculty function she was dragged to…it seemed every subject lead to Ethan. For years now she had to remember to be aware of it so she could stop herself from going on and on about him. It obviously made people uncomfortable, it made for awkward silences and odd sideways looks. She knew people thought something was wrong with her and she hated that, hated them thinking she wasn’t handling this the right way.

But thinking about Ethan was like breathing, it just happened automatically. Or maybe it was more like a compulsion, a need. It felt primal like that, like a desire that had to be quelled or it would overwhelm her, it would get to the point where she couldn’t take it anymore.

Today was like that, the squelched need to talk about Ethan had been building and building, it started with that desperate longing that never really went away and kept getting bigger and bigger like swallowing one heavy stone after another until her gut was full beyond capacity, weighing her down to the floor. It was too heavy to carry the load for one more minute. She needed the release of talking about him. She never talked about the accident, or the hospital, certainly never about the funeral. She preferred to talk about the beginning. Just talking about simple, happy little memories, like those sweet early days when he was a baby, seemed to make her feel a little lighter while the story lasted. Thankfully her daughter was always a willing audience; she never tired of hearing Ethan stories, always hungry for all the details about him Kate could remember. It had become a frequent nightly ritual, a special time for both of them. Yes, Nola was her precious comfort. Thank God for Nola.

“When Ethan was born,” Kate began the story in an odd singsong voice, the same way she’d told it many times before, “he was the most beautiful baby in the nursery, all the nurses kept telling me that. Every shift when the new nurse would come on duty she’d stop by my room and say, ‘I’ve seen that beautiful baby boy of yours, Mrs. Collins’ and then she’d lean into the room a little further and whisper, careful so none of the other mothers would hear ‘…and he really is the most gorgeous baby ever, he's just so perfect.’ Can you imagine how many babies they must see, Nola? Thousands, I bet, really, many thousands. Yet they could tell there was something extraordinary about your brother. Most babies are kind of funny looking when they are born, all shriveled up and their skin is a weird reddish purplish color, their heads come out all smushed and misshapen. But not Ethan, he was the epitome of what a flawless, healthy baby should look like in every way, all pink, round, chubby and angelic, like a little cherub. Some of the nurses even suggested we get him into modeling, he was just that stunning.”

“Tell the part about when you brought him home, the part about all the people staring.”

“Well, when we brought him home from the hospital it was summertime so a lot of the neighbors were out, that’s when we lived in the city so people were outside more in the summer than you see around here. Anyway, your father could only find a parking spot four blocks away. Our old Pontiac had no air-conditioning, so rather than sit in the hot car while he circled around and around looking for a closer spot I decided it would be better to go ahead and park the car right there and walk. I carried Ethan in my arms. Daddy wanted to because I was still a little weak but I insisted. I just couldn’t put him down. Oh my, I held him all the time, just staring at him. I held him so much that sometimes when I’d finally put him down I’d realize my arms hurt. They say it spoils them, but I didn’t…”

“Mommy,” Nola interrupted, “what about that walk, the walk from the car to the apartment past all the neighbors?”

“Yes, right, sorry. So, as I walked down the street everyone wanted to peek at the little bundle I held in my arms. He was dressed all in beautiful shades of blue, he had a blue bonnet, babies still wore bonnets then, even boys. He had on a little cotton homecoming outfit and the cutest little blue booties that my great aunt knit him. But the blanket, well, that was something really special. The blanket wrapped around him was the most beautiful shade of silvery satin. I made it myself, bought the fabric when I was pregnant and stitched it to the softest white cotton so the inside would feel nice and fluffy against his skin. Then while I was in the hospital I added the trim and the blue silk tassels in all four corners…”

“And it looked like the blanket of a prince, like a blanket for royalty, right, Mommy?” Nola recited the words she’d heard from Kate dozens of times.

“Yes, that’s right, it was fit for a little prince. My little prince.” Kate smiled to herself, barely noticing that Nola lay down flat now and snuggled up against her.

“Anyway, every single person I passed glanced at the silver satin bundle in my arms, but when they caught an actual glimpse of the baby wrapped up inside they stopped whatever they were doing and each and every one of them just ranted and raved about your brother’s beauty. They’d say things like, ‘he’s amazing, he’s perfect, what a gorgeous baby, how lovely, how beautiful.’ Over and over every single person stopped us to tell us what a beautiful baby Ethan was. It was almost like a parade, you know?” Kate laughed, but when Nola made no reply she turned to look at her daughter for the first time since climbing back into her bed. She realized that Nola had finally drifted off to sleep. She was alone again now, empty arms folded across her chest, hugging herself. For a minute she could almost feel the weight of her infant son in those same arms, the solid feel of his chubby body, waving limbs wrapped tightly in the swaddling blanket. The emptiness was too much. She took a lock of Nola’s fine, brown hair between her fingers and stroked it a moment, then pulled, at first gently, then harder. Nola mumbled and woke up from her light sleep. Kate continued as if nothing had happened.

“…and people stopped to tell me how beautiful Ethan was wherever we went, all the time. At the store, the doctors, or even just out for a walk in the park pushing him in the baby carriage.” Kate kept an eye on Nola now and each time her daughter seemed about to drift off to sleep again she covertly moved or poked her a bit to keep her awake. “You know, as much as I was flattered, and I really was, it was also a little unnerving. He just garnered attention wherever he went. I understood though, how could you not notice him? He had such beautiful blond hair, a perfect chubby little face with round and rosy cheeks. And his eyes…”

But now Nola was finally fast asleep and Kate’s gentle poking and prodding couldn’t rouse her. Eventually she stopped trying, climbed out of the warm bed and walked out of the room, turning off the light switch by the door on her way, without looking back.

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