07 April 2016

December 30, 2015

The phone rang underneath my pillow. I reached for it, waking just enough to realize I had switched beds with Four in the middle of the night. I squinted at the screen.

Three. 7:30 a.m.

I knew I had to pick him up from Chappy's house in the morning, but I couldn't imagine he meant this early.

"Hey, do you need me to come get you?"

"Yes, I don't know. Yes." He was crying. I thought maybe his girlfriend had broken up with him. But why would she do that at 7:00 in the morning?

"What's wrong?"

"Mom, didn't you hear? Connor Cummings is dead. He fell off a building in New York and he's dead."

The next fifteen minutes were panic and nausea. I had to wake the Captain without stirring the boy sleeping beside him. I ran my hand down his arm and whispered, "I need you."

He took one look at my face and sat up. "What is it?"

"I need you to come with me." I led him to the living room and choked out the words, my fingers across my lips in instinctive defense against the horror, as if keeping the truth trapped would change it. The Captain pulled me in, held me, exhaled the fear that had gripped him from the moment he saw me at the side of the bed.

"It's not Two or Three," he reassured himself.

"But it's going to kill him," I said. "I don't know where he is. He's not answering his phone." Two had gone out the night before and probably slept at Anthony's. I decided to go look for him, but when I turned the corner of the house I saw his car in the driveway.

He was home.

We were going to have to wake him up and tell him his best friend had died.

We walked downstairs and pushed open the door to the darkened room. I sat on one side of the bed with the Captain flanking Two on the other. I brushed the hair off his forehead and rubbed his back until his eyes flickered.

"Two. I need you to wake up." He frowned and tried to focus. "Something terrible has happened and I'm almost certain it's true." In the few minutes it had taken me to go downstairs I had convinced myself it could all be a horrible mistake. Three had gotten the information from a friend, but he was just a teenager. No parent had called me. There was room for error. "I don't know if it is true, maybe Three got it wrong, but I don't think he did." Two was fully awake now. "I'm so sorry, honey. Connor was in New York last night taking pictures. He was on a roof and he fell. I don't know how it happened, but Connor is dead." I climbed up on the bed and covered him with my body, wrapping my arms around him until I felt the sobs.

The rest was as horrific as you can imagine. Shell-shocked boys at my house. A devastated community. Thousands of people at the funeral home. It took the Captain and me two and a half hours to make it through the line to pay our respects, to bend down to Connor's mother, empty-eyed in one of his bucket hats, and hug her just long enough to say, "We loved your boy" before being ushered out.

And we did love him, like he was one of our own.

On Christmas night, Three was invited to join Two and his friends at Anthony's house. It was kind of a big deal for him to be included in the group of close-knit boys, many of them friends since grade school. Three called for a ride home at midnight, adding, "Come inside for a few minutes. Mare wants to see you." In all the years I've been picking kids up at Anthony's house, I can count the times on one hand I've gone inside to say hello to his parents. This wasn't lost on the boys, who were so excited to see me outside my kitchen they buried me in a giant group hug. Warmed by all the love, I joined them outside to watch Connor try his skill on a hoverboard. He successfully avoided the pool and the shrubs and came to stand next to me.

"You can be my new mom, Mrs. D," he said, draping an arm across my shoulder.

"Nah, you already have a great mom," I answered.

"Okay, then, you can be my second mom."

"Fair enough." My heart swelled a little with pride, because Connor didn't really need me. Even though I'd offered advice, tended his wounds, fed him and ferried him about, he walked his own path. Connor shared his plans more as a way to include us, not to get our approval. I stood on my toes and hugged him good-bye, reminding him to join us for our annual Day After the Day After Christmas party. He said he'd try.

That was the last time I saw him. And since then, nothing has been the same.

Before Connor died, I was excited to start writing the blog again, if only once a week. I was running almost every day. I was cleaning out and selling things on eBay. I felt good about the future, like I had a plan. But words are useless, hollow sounds pitted against the maw of death. And no amount of running or money outpaces relentless, suffocating waves of grief. What good is a plan if our babies, our literal future, can be stolen from us?

The last three months have been a struggle to maintain a footing because I no longer trust the geography of life. It's like viewing a map of the world where Africa is the center. Everything is shifted and off-kilter. But even though it's disorienting, I'm not entirely sure I want to go back to America in the middle. America is fifteen more years of the Captain working in New York, the commute slowly killing him if the terrorists don't. America is me worried that One will never live independently. America is Four and Five struggling within a rigid school system incapable of seeing beyond their challenges. America is tiring.

I want to live my planned future now. I want to gather my family and move somewhere warm. I want my creative, kind, funny children to explore what interests them. I want them to work at what they enjoy. I want us to rise with the sun, feel the earth beneath our feet, tire in the fresh air and sleep soundly at night. I want to live smaller so I can love larger. I don't want to wait.

I know this isn't realistic. Despite how I feel, likely nothing will change in my daily routine because my life isn't entirely my own. I belong to six other people, most of whom count on me to help them navigate this world. So I must be the rising tide that lifts all boats, the proof that we can survive disaster. And I can, honestly and without reservation, preach that message. Life is worth the fight. I just wonder if, after the storm passes, we should stop treading water and swim for a new shore.