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[Note: This post was written by and posted with permission from my mother, Betsy Meyer. She tells the story about the death of my brother Billy at age 7. I have vivid memories of my mom writing and editing this story throughout my childhood. I can still hear her furiously pounding away ‘hunt and peck’ style on her manual Smith Corona typewriter.]
The flashbacks are cruel and unexpected. The trigger might be an ambulance siren or mounds of fish on display at the grocery store. Such everyday things slice through protective layers that keep me sane.
That morning sunlight fluttered through the window panes and across the bedroom wall, registering on my slowly waking mind. The alarm rang and I shuttered… another week to get through. If only I could sleep awhile longer, maybe sleep would blot out the memories of the weekend…the arguing and bickering.
My psychiatrist was the only one who knew what was going on inside my marriage. Week by painful week in the sanctity of his office where calm and reason did not reign, he led me to the ultimate truth. Bill and I existed in an emotional vacuum unable to draw support from each other. My marriage was doomed.
I rolled over and touched the far side of the bed. It had not been slept in. Dully I reconstructed last night’s battle. Bill was up in the living room, sitting at his desk paying the bills. It was two weeks after Christmas and there were the usual holiday things to be paid off…nothing extreme. We were struggling with mortgage payments and commutation fare to the city and had celebrated Christmas on a modest scale with lots of homemade gifts. I was downstairs in the kitchen cleaning up the dinner dishes when Bill called out to me.
“What’s this for?” he demanded.
“What?” I asked.
“This bill for Dr. Sawyer.” My head snapped up and my back went rigid. I counted to ten before I answered.
“It’s his fee for Gayle.”
“Seventy dollars? I’m going to talk to him!” Bill said angrily.
“Bill, she was in the hospital for ten days. He took care of her the whole time.” I answered as calmly as I could while I slammed a pot into the sink. God damn it. It was bad enough that he doled out the household money each week as if I were an imbecile. How dare he challenge our physician for services worth hundreds of dollars more.
Lying there in bed I saw him as he was last night…the voice of reason, speaker of truth; talking to me as if I were an old dog as he dragged out the same old bone to appease me.
“I get up and commute to work every day, provide us with food and shelter, don’t drink or gamble. What more do you want?”
“Want…I want you to care about us, to protect us, to cherish us, to have visited our fourteen month old baby when she was strapped down in a hospital crib with IVs stuck in her arm for ten days.”
Turning he looked at me and said, “Even if you found someone else who might want you which I can’t imagine, he’d never want three children as well.” Sensing the truth in this I screamed in frustration. I was twenty eight years old. I couldn’t cope with being totally responsible for three children. What hurt most was the realization that he was hiding, unable or unwilling to see his responsibilities.
Getting out of bed, I glanced in the mirror and stared at myself. The fears that were gnawing at my spirit were eating away at my flesh. My nightie hung like a tent from my shoulders. God, how much weight had I lost? I was a bag of bones. My face was worse, far worse. It had aged fifteen years in these few months. Where were my blue eyes? These pieces of gray steel weren’t familiar. Where was my smile? I had become a shrew. Why couldn’t marriages disintegrate gracefully? I turned away from the mirror. It was time to make sure Billy got on the school bus. I listened but heard no sound from the girls. Good, maybe they would sleep late, especially the baby. She was still so frail.
Suddenly Billy appeared in my bedroom. He was still in his pajamas and sleep was in his eyes.
“Mommy, I don’t want to go to school today. Can I stay home?” I watched him twist nervously at a strand of blond hair while he studied my face with his large, trusting blue eyes. Oh dear, he must have heard us arguing last night.
“All right, but you’ll have to help me with Sandy and Gayle. I don’t feel well.”
He stared at me in amazement. I was never sick. Pulling up his pajama pants, he looked at me and said, “You know that when Daddy’s not here I’m the man in the house.” I cringed. How could a seven year old be so astute? He stood watching me solemnly as he blinked. His incredibly long blond lashes swept his cheeks. He was a study of Huck Finn boyishness even though he smelled faintly of soap and shampoo from his bath last night. Turning, he headed downstairs to the kitchen. I heard him open the refrigerator and cupboards and knew that he was fixing himself some cereal as I crawled back to bed.
When I opened my eyes again the sun was streaming in. I could hear the baby cooing in her crib. Sounds from the TV filtered up from the living room and I heard Billy talking to Sandy, patiently teaching her how to tie her shoe laces.
“No Sandy. Make two loops like this and pull them together. See!”
I spied a glass of juice Billy left me on my nightstand and drank it, grateful it was there. I felt as if the worst was over. Maybe it was the extra sleep and the brightness of the day after the gloomy weekend, or just the knowledge that Billy was home to help with the girls that made me feel I might get through it. I got up and changed the baby. Then I went back to bed. I drifted off and was dreaming of being tangled in a giant web when Billy woke me. He was wearing the brand new CPO jacket my parents gave him for Christmas. He loved it because it had room for all his treasures in the deep zippered pockets. He looked so grown up.
“Can I go outside? Sandy curled up for a nap.”
“All right. Wear your hood and take Sheba for company,” I replied. As he turned to leave, Billy called his little black dog.
“Come on Sheebs…let’s go out.” The dog bounded from her favorite chair and they were off.
Then I got out of bed and took a shower. The hot water hit my back and neck and smoothed out the kinks that came from sleeping hunched up on the edge of the bed. God forbid I should touch Bill, even inadvertently in my sleep. He didn’t want me near him. He had not forgiven me for getting pregnant with the baby. Ha! As if I’d planned it. I could not remember a moment of passion or tenderness that could possibly have resulted in her conception. My thoughts wandered and I worried about getting enough money so I could leave Bill. It would take forever to earn it from selling the children’s clothes I made and wholesaled in little boutiques. Even though a holiday sale proved my things were salable, I had a long way to go before I could support three kids. There was no doubt in my mind that if we split up I would be responsible for them. Wearily, I turned off the water and dried myself. Sandy called me and I hastily got dressed and went down to her.
“Hi Sweetie. Do you want to go outside with Billy?” I asked. Her eyes sparkled and she ran off to get her new snowsuit, another gift from Grandma and Grandpa. The white fake fur on the hood was dingy already. Why did Mom choose such impractical clothes? At least this was better than the endless supply of smocked dresses and white pinafores I had to starch and iron. I helped Sandy get her leggings on and waited while she struggled with her mittens, insisting she could put them on herself. Not blessed with Billy’s sunny disposition, anything could set her off. I spent a lot of energy jollying her along so that life would not be a giant temper tantrum and was grateful we were having a good day so far. Finally she tugged on her second mitten and I opened the front door.
The sharp, cold air stunned me. I squinted into the brilliant sunlight. Then I turned and looked around for Billy. He was not on the terrace. I called but he didn’t answer. I called Sheba. Why didn’t the dog come to me? They must be down on the beach, out of hearing range. Turning, I went back inside the kitchen and phoned a neighbor whose house faced the beach. Her phone rang and rang. Where was she? Her car was parked in her driveway. Finally someone picked up her phone.
“Hi, Maria? Do you see Billy down on the beach? I can’t find him. He stayed home from school today.”
“Oh Liz! A boy just fell through the ice in the harbor…way out.”
“Oh no! It’s Billy…”
I dropped the phone and raced upstairs where I pulled the baby from her crib, throwing a bunting and blanket on her as I tore out of the house. I grabbed Sandy by her mittened hand and dragged her along, running and stumbling across the road and down the street to the entrance to the beach. I held baby Gayle tighter and tighter as I gripped Sandy in terror.
When we reached the steps to
the beach my eyes darted across the horizon and I stared out at the harbor which was frozen as far as I could see, except for a gaping hole. There was no activity out there, no ladders stretched across the ice, no ropes, no rescuers; nothing but the ice that went on forever and that hideous, open black hole.
I gripped my girls closer, desperate to protect them while the coldness of the day crept inside my heart and worked its way down to my feet which were rooted to the top step. Across the beach, near the pavilion, I spotted some people bundled up, standing around motionless, like stick people. Behind them in the parking lot I noticed an ambulance.
Suddenly my legs jerked into motion and propelled me forward, down the rest of the steps to the beach. Sandy hung onto my hand and struggled to keep up with me. We slowed down when we reached the sand. It was much easier to run barefoot in it on a hot summer day than to struggle in heavy shoes that got heavier as they filled with the icy, cold sand.
Suddenly, I was weak…afraid I would collapse right there, but we struggled on. The people seemed so far away. Would we ever reach them? We got to the pavilion just as a man closed the back doors of an ambulance. Distraught, I ran to him and cried out, “It’s my son, it’s my son.” The man looked at me and asked, “How old is your boy?”
“This is a much older child, around twelve,” he answered.
“No, no. Billy’s big for his age. Is he wearing a brown parka?” The man nodded his head up and down as the ambulance drove off.
A policeman appeared at my side and gripped my elbow. Someone took baby Gayle from my arms and led Sandy away from me. The policeman took me to his patrol car and urged me to get into the front seat. Then he climbed into the car, threw on his flashing lights and took off after the ambulance.
“Maybe it isn’t your son,” the policeman said softly. The whine of the sirens penetrated my stupor as I watched the flashing lights of the ambulance in front of us. It was so hard to think. The sirens were making me dizzy. We were on the back road. I had been on it recently but could not remember why. The road, the road …Oh no! I had taken it every day for ten days to be with the baby when she was so ill in the hospital. Why were we going there? Billy was dead. No one could help him at the hospital.
When we arrived at the emergency room the policeman got me get out of his car while a man emerged from the back seat. Who was he? As we entered the hospital a doctor came out and said to the policeman, “Bring the man in first.”
A few moments later the policeman came back for me. He led me to a tiny cell like room. A stretcher filled the space. There was a boy on it. His wet, blond hair was plastered to his skull. His eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling. His left arm dangled over the side of the gurney, his hand nearly reaching the floor.
I stared at him. It was Billy. I wanted to touch him but was repelled. He would be so cold. I wanted to kiss him, ask him what happened, tell him I loved him, but I could not speak. I pushed against the back wall of the claustrophobic room, desperate to escape what was in front of me, to blot it out, but I could not. I had come to claim what I knew would be mine. In one shocking moment I learned life’s cruelest lesson… I could not bear to part with this child who was so intoxicatingly alive with little boy bravado. Had I done this to him? My heart screamed “NO” but my voice was silent.
I don’t know how long they left me alone with Billy in that room but it was too long. Death has no voice. I cowered against the wall of silence as my life energy seeped out of me. I looked at Billy lying so still …like a dead fish with staring eyes, laid out on ice in the fish market. A door opened and a doctor entered the room with a nurse following him.
“Here, take these pills,” she said. “They’ll help.” Nothing would help. Even I knew that. But I reached out and swallowed the bitter, little pills. I did not have the strength to resist. Once I took them the nurse led me to an even smaller room. She switched on the light and shut the door as she left. There was nothing but a chair and a telephone on a little table in there. I collapsed on the chair. The black phone was stark against the white walls. Why was I in this room? Every so slowly, my hand reached out and touched the phone and raised it to my ear. I heard the dial tone. I watched the phone dial spin as my right index finger dialed. My finger had a life of its own. I did not know who it was calling. Hopefully it would be someone strong; someone who could make this nightmare go away. I held the receiver to my ear. I heard ringing at the other end of the line. There was a click as someone lifted the receiver and I heard a disembodied voice.
It was my father. At the sound of his voice I cried out to him.
“Daddy, Daddy…Billy’s dead. He fell through ice. Oh Daddy, help me!” Next I called a friend. The last call was the worst. I had to tell Bill. With trembling hands I dialed his work number in the city. When he picked up the phone I blurted out the horrifying news.
“Oh no,” he moaned and hung up.
Just then someone opened the door to the cubicle. I looked up and saw a man. He walked into the room.
“Hello, I’m Detective Blake. Because your son’s death was unexpected there will have to be an autopsy,” he said.
“No! Don’t let them touch him,” I begged.
“I’m sorry. It has to be done. It’s the law,” he replied.
“Law? What law? How can there be a law that lets little children be cut up?” I sobbed.
“Please listen to me,” he said. “The police have to be sure there was no abuse or negligence. Come, let us take you home.” He helped me up from the chair and led me down the endless hospital corridor. We went through the automatic glass doors and outside to the crisp, clear, bitterly cold January afternoon. The police car was still parked askew at the emergency entrance. The detective opened the door and put me into the car while the policeman nodded to me from the driver’s seat. There was just the policeman in the car with me. The man who had been in the back seat on the way to the hospital was gone. He was spared. My thoughts were chaotic. I could not get away from Billy’s lifeless form.
For the first time in more than twenty years the harbor had frozen over. Everywhere we went people warned about the ice. Tidal bodies of salt water are not safe when they freeze. Billy had been fascinated with the boys skating on the pond in the village when we drove past them on Friday. Was he trying to ice skate without skates? My mind circled back to the black hole so far out in the harbor. Did the ice just give way and gobble him up or did it heave and crack? Was he frightened or did it happen so fast there was no fear, no pain, no knowledge of what was to come?
From the moment we moved to this beach front community two years ago, he knew and understood that he was never to go into the water without an adult. Did he know there was water under the ice…dark, lurking, dangerous? Was there an answer? Would it help to have an answer when Bill grilled me? I dreaded the confrontation that was sure to come. Would Bill lash out at me while there were people around or wait until we were alone?
Closing my eyes I saw him wagging his finger at me, carrying on about how it was my responsibility as a mother to keep track of the children and that I couldn’t even do that. Just then the policeman interrupted my thoughts.
“What is your address?” he asked. I looked up and saw that we were driving down the hill to my house.
“215,” I responded. He stopped in front of our driveway and took me to the front door. Sheba, Billy’s little black cockerpoo crouched on the terrace. I couldn’t stand looking at her. Why hadn’t she perished instead of Billy?
There were a lot of people in the house. As soon as Sandy heard the front door open she charged and grabbed my legs.
“Where were you Mommy? Where’s Billy?” I scooped her up on my hip and headed for the love seat in the dining room. I hugged her and held her on my lap.
“Honey, Billy had an accident,” I said. She looked up at me, puzzled. A little frown etched itself on her forehead as she listened to me.
“But where is he Mommy?” I looked at her. How could I tell her that she would never see her big brother again…never hear him read her favorite story or help her tie her shoes? Never again show her his loose tooth, the one he could wiggle with his tongue.
“Jesus took him to be with God in Heaven,” I answered, not believing a word I uttered.
“But Mommy I did not see Jesus on the beach.” Stunned by her literalness, I turned from her and looked out the dining room window with its winter water view of the frozen harbor as my neighbor came over to us.
“Sandy,” she said. “Why don’t you and baby Gayle sleep over at our house tonight? Go get your favorite book. Carolyn will read it to you.” I looked up, grateful for Eileen’s help. Billy and her youngest son Kenny were best friends.
By the time Bill got home his parents had arrived as well as the priest from Bill’s church. I could not bear the thought of relinquishing Billy to a cold, dark hole in the ground where bugs and worms would eat away at him. Anything would be better than that, even cremation; but I knew that Bill would want a traditional Christian burial. For ten years I had put up with his religious rigidness but I could not give in on this. I would not bury my child in the ground. How could a non-practicing Unitarian and a high Episcopalian be so far apart? After all, we were both Protestants. Sensing my determination, or possibly the hysteria that was threatening to overtake me, Father Smith spoke to us.
“Look Bill, I know how difficult this is for you but remember that Liz has her own beliefs. Listen to what she’s saying. You know, neither of you grew up in this community. Yours is a young family and it’s possible that you will be relocating again. If so, it may be easier for her to leave the area if Billy is not buried here. It will certainly ease the financial burden if you do as she wishes and have him cremated.” I stood there gnawing on my lip and picking at my fingernail. I looked over at my in-laws. They were so resigned. They had been through this before. Their youngest son drowned when he was fourteen. Bill looked at his father.
“Do it for Lizzie son.”
“Okay, Poppa,” Bill replied.
Father Smith took my hand and squeezed it.
“If you want me to, I will take Billy’s ashes out in the harbor and say good-bye for you.”
“Oh yes, please do that. And Father Smith, I want his eyes to be donated to someone. That way part of him will still go on living.”
Just then a couple entered the house. I looked up as they approached me but did not recognize them.
“Hello, I’m Detective Blake. I saw you in the hospital this afternoon. This is my wife.”
“I’m Mary Ann. I had to come with Peter to see you. We have two little boys of our own. I’m so sorry.” She leaned over and hugged me hard.
“Have you made plans for the funeral?” her husband asked. I looked at Bill and Father Smith. Neither spoke.
“I want the funeral to be Wednesday morning and then the cremation,” I said.
“I don’t know if that will be possible. It will take time for the autopsy to be performed,” he said. I looked up at him, further numbed by this news.
“Have you decided on a funeral parlor?” he asked.
“I want Brooks, the one in the old Victorian house in the village…the people there were very nice when my friend’s mother died last year. I felt comfortable there. Please call them,” I said. Wearily, I got up and went to check on the children.
“Sandy, are you upstairs?” She didn’t answer. Then I remembered; the girls were at a neighbor’s and Billy was at the morgue.
I had to get away from all the people. Slowly I started upstairs. Panic overtook me when I walked past Billy’s room. It looked so normal, so lived in. Turning my head, I continued up the long flight of stairs to our bedroom. When I got there I looked around and shivered. The coldness of our marriage lurked within these four walls. I got undressed and crawled into bed. I dreaded going to sleep.
There would be no comfort from Bill. His silence would condemn me. As I drifted off my mind took me back to that horrid little hospital room and my eyes flew open. There would be no escape in sleep. When Bill finally came upstairs he crept into our room and slid into his side of the bed. I turned to him and saw only his back, rigid and unyielding. I turned on my side and pulled the blankets up to my chin. Night wrapped itself around me but it did not keep out the hurt or loneliness.
In the first moments of awakening to a new day I was an innocent. My mind was still fuzzy from that night of troubled sleep but I did not recall what had caused it. My body was tilted towards Bill’s side of the bed. He must still be in it, weighing it down. How strange. Ever since the transit strike had begun, his company paid for a block of hotel rooms in the city and he had been staying there week nights.
Sheba was circling the bed, her nails clicking against the wooden floor. Hers was the only noise in the house. Why was the dog upstairs in our room? She always slept with Billy. Then I remembered and recoiled from the knowledge that he was dead. I tried desperately to get back into that tiny space where I was just moments ago. My stomach lurched as I ran into the bathroom and threw up. On the way back to the bedroom I stubbed my toe on a toy that was on the floor in the hallway. It clattered down the long flight of stairs and came to rest at Billy’s door.
Bill was oblivious to the noise. I walked into our room and looked at the clock on my nightstand. It was 8 A.M. I noticed a mark from the bottom of the glass of juice Billy had brought me just yesterday. I crossed the bedroom looking for something to wear. Mindlessly, I picked up my wrinkled clothes from the chair where I had tossed them the night before. I bent over and picked up my socks from the floor. No, I needed clean underwear and went across to the bureau for it. I looked at Bill lying in bed with his eyes closed. He couldn’t still be sleeping. My morning noises drove him crazy.
“Bill, come on. You have to get up,” I said. He opened his eyes and looked at me. I watched him blink in a futile effort to keep tears from oozing out while he drew his legs up under his chin, trying to protect himself. He opened his eyes and focused on the far wall, marshaling his strength.
“Oh no,” he cried. “Oh noooooo.” Slowly he pushed the blankets aside and got up.
I finished dressing and went down to the kitchen. Sheba followed, whining and fretting. I went to the refrigerator and stood with the door open, unable to remember what I wanted. I heard Bill coming down the stairs. When he reached the landing to Billy’s room he paused, then continued slowly on to the kitchen. There was no fresh coffee perking on the stove, no bread toasting in the toaster. These simple chores were beyond me. Bill came into the kitchen. He moved his keys from hand to hand. They made a jittery little sound all their own.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We have to be there in a few minutes.” I nodded and got my jacket from the closet. My hands trembled so much that I gave up trying to fasten the buttons. We left the house and walked down the crooked kitchen steps to the driveway and climbed in the car. The silence was unnerving. We remained silent as Bill backed down the drive and headed towards the village. He drove up Main Street past his church and parked in front of the Victorian house of death.
Suddenly I remembered every detail of the sociology paper I had written on The American Way of Death, based on Jessica Mitford’s expose of the funeral industry. My mind went on “Red Alert” as I geared up for what was to come.
We got out of the car and walked up the path to the big, gray house. We didn’t speak…we didn’t touch. The funeral director met us at the front door.
It was eerie to be back in this place where Clare’s funeral had taken place less than a year ago. She lived further up Main Street in a white Victorian house with black shutters. I missed her terribly. She had been a substitute mother to me and had been more worldly and forgiving than my own mother. When I saw the funeral director standing in front of me, all thoughts of Clare vanished. Mr. Brooks knew who we were. His brother, a volunteer fireman had been lowered down into the hole in the ice to retrieve Billy. Mr. Brooks carefully led us through the etiquette of funerals. Bill was silent, dazed. I listened intently. My body hunched forward as I strained to follow the presentation.
“When do you want the funeral to take place?” asked Mr. Brooks.
“What?” I asked.
“I said, when do you want to have the funeral?”
“Oh, tomorrow morning,” I responded.
“I don’t think we can do that. It will take time for the autopsy to be performed. And for your son’s body to be released. I’ll have to check with the Medical Examiner to see what we can work out.”
“It has to be tomorrow,” I said looking up at him. “Please, this is agony.”
“Let me make a call to the coroner’s office. I’ll be right back,” he responded.
Bill sat staring out the window. I couldn’t tell if he was in the room with me or someplace deep inside himself. Mr. Brooks returned and sat down at his desk.
“Your son’s body will be released this afternoon,” he said. “We will be able to make arrangements for the funeral to take place tomorrow. Do you know what you want?”
“I want a closed coffin, visiting at the funeral parlor in the morning and the funeral to follow at the church. Then I want Billy to be cremated. I want everyone to have a flower in memory of him; a carnation or perhaps a daisy. Will you take care of that?” I looked up at him expectantly. “Oh, I want to donate his eyes to someone.”
“That won’t be possible under the circumstances. Too much time has passed since his death.”
“Oh no…” I cried. Mr. Brooks changed the subject.
“Did you bring the clothes you want us to use?” I looked up stupidly.
“Clothes? He’s dead. Why does he need clothes?”
“Well, we could put him in a shroud.” Mr. Brooks waited for me to respond. I stared at him, unable to speak. He moved on.
“Come, let me show you the caskets. Children’s caskets are white with white linings.”
“Casket? Why do we need a casket? He’s not being buried. He’s being cremated. Can’t you use something else?”
“No, you will have to purchase a casket,” he responded.
“How much will it cost?” I asked.
“Well, it depends…”
“On what?” I asked.
“On the height of the child; up to 48 inches requires one size and over 48 inches requires the next size.” My stomach churned.
“Billy is tall,” I said.
“Come, let me show them to you. They are over here,” Mr. Brooks said.
“No! I will not look at those things.” I shrank in my seat. Bill never uttered a word. He sat, still as a stone while Mr. Brooks and I negotiated.
“How much is this funeral going to cost?” I asked.
“Four hundred dollars.” He answered.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s very kind. Thank you for helping us.” Mr. Brooks leaned across his desk and touched my arm.
“Please let us know if there’s anything else we can do to help you get through this,” he said. Then he stood up and led us back down the front hall and out to the front veranda.
I hadn’t noticed how cold it was when we left home just an hour before but it was bitter. I pulled the collar of my jacket up around my neck and shoved my hands into my pockets. I felt something hard in my left pocket and pulled out one of Billy’s match box cars. A sob as old as life itself passed from my heart. We got into the car and started home as I clutched the toy inside my pocket. Bill and I did not speak. Just as well, there was nothing to say. I knew from his scowl that he was disgusted with my behavior in the funeral parlor. Before, it would have made me anxious if I did something that didn’t please him but something snapped inside of me and I didn’t give a damn.
Bill stared straight ahead and clenched the steering wheel. He drove down Main Street as slowly as he had driven up and turned left at the bridge that led the way back to our house. We were surrounded by the harbor. There was no escaping the water that had devoured Billy. How could something so beautiful be so treacherous?
When we got to the house Bill pulled into the driveway and turned off the car. We sat in silence and watched as another car pulled up to the house. I fumbled with the handle and pushed against the door with my shoulder but couldn’t get the door open.
“It’s locked,” Bill said. “Pull up the lock, Liz.” I just kept pushing on the door.
“Didn’t you hear me? It’s locked. Pull up the lock!” Bill leaned across me and flipped the lock. The car door sprang open and I stumbled out into the driveway.
Startled by the suddenness of my exit from the car, I looked up and saw my dear Uncle Joe and Aunt Freda walking up from their car. They must have left at dawn in order to be with us. I remembered vaguely calling out for them last night. Together, we walked up the driveway and entered the house. My aunt quietly took over the household tasks. She had never set foot in my house before but she moved confidently and efficiently, checking out the contents of the refrigerator and starting a pot of coffee. My uncle worked his way through the group of people milling about; introducing himself to our neighbors while he bestowed hugs and words of comfort.
I was walking across the kitchen when the phone rang. I reached out to answer it.
“Hello,” I said.
“Mrs. Meyer? I’m Joe Brown from the Star. Can we have a picture of your son?”
“A picture?” I asked.
“Yes, a photograph that we can put in the newspaper…”
“But he’s dead. A picture won’t help,” I whispered. My uncle took the phone from my trembling hand.
“Hello, who’s there?” he demanded. He listened for a moment.
“There will be no photographs,” he said and firmly hung up the phone.
Unable to focus, I looked around the kitchen for the girls and remembered they were still across the street with neighbors. I hung up my jacket and started upstairs to find clothes for us to wear to the funeral. When I got to the top floor, I went into the girls’ room and hunted for Sandy’s shoes. They were near the window. I picked them up and examined them. They definitely needed to be cleaned. I looked around for something for Sandy to wear and found clean tights and her blue dress with long sleeves. Billy thought she looked like Alice in Wonderland in that outfit. I picked up her scuffed shoes and went back downstairs to the kitchen. My younger sister Julie had just arrived from New Hampshire.
“Oh Liz. Daddy called last night. I left at dawn.” She hugged me and held me tightly. She was Billy’s godmother. “What are you holding?” she asked. I stood clutching Sandy’s little red oxfords to my chest.
“I have to polish Sandy’s shoes for tomorrow,” I responded.
“Here, let me do it for you,” my sister said as she took them from my hand. I looked around the room, startled by the number of people who had arrived in the few minutes I’d been upstairs.
“Where are the girls?” I asked. “I want my girls.”
They’re with your neighbor, Eileen,” my uncle said. “She came over for diapers and clean clothes a little while ago. She’ll bring the girls back in a little while.” I turned and headed back upstairs, intent on finding something to wear to the funeral. My neighbor Ann followed me.
“Liz, what are you doing?” she asked when we reached the top landing.
“I have to find something to wear for tomorrow,” I said. I opened the door to my closet and stared at the clothes hanging inside it. I knew I would not find what I needed. Our clothing budget was used for buying suits and shirts and ties for Bill. Ann looked in the closet and tugged on a hanger. She pulled out my brown linen suit. It was my favorite outfit.
“Here Liz, this looks nice,” she said.
“It’s not black,” I whispered.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Ann said. She laid my clothes on the bed and searched for shoes.
“Liz, these look good with your suit. What do you think?” she asked. Getting no response from me, she placed them next to the suit. “Do you have stockings?” she asked. “Where’s your underwear drawer? You’ll need a slip too.” Piece by piece, my neighbor Ann assembled the outfit that I would wear to say good-bye to Billy.
I nearly fainted when we entered the funeral parlor the next day and saw the white child’s coffin that held Billy. I pitched forward and Bill caught my elbow. I steered clear of the casket and sat down in a wing chair in stunned silence. I was beyond hysteria or calm acceptance, numbed by grief and drugs. There had been no peace in sleep. My dreams were filled with the nightmare that was my life. I was the last of us to see Billy alive and I was the only one of us to see him dead. Everyone else was graced with memories of him as he had been, bubbling with life. I willed myself to be anywhere but in that room with my dead child. I squeezed my eyes shut and cocked my head to one side straining to hear a whisper.
“You know Mommy, when Daddy’s not here I’m the man of the house.”
My inner eye watched as Billy hiked up his pajama pants just as he had done the day before yesterday. Instinctively I reached out to touch him but could not. He was in a private place inside my heart…an inner oasis where I could reclaim him at will. My terror dropped away and I took a deep breath. I felt my life energy pulse through me and knew for the first time since his death that I would survive.
[Note: The following is one of my favorite pictures of Billy. I remember sitting on this couch with my brother watching t.v. together. This couch stayed with us throughout my childhood. Even after it was reupholstered, it still had an almost magical quality because it kept my memories of Billy alive.]