She Googled “bird strike,” trying to understand what killed her daughter. Wikipedia explained how a barn swallow could cripple a 737: “Jet engine ingestion is extremely serious due to the rotation speed of the engine fan and the engine design. As the bird strikes a fan blade, that blade can be displaced into another blade and so forth, causing a cascading failure.”
An aeronautical David versus Goliath, except that this David graduated from shitting on Cheryl’s gallery to disintegrating forty-five thousand tons of United. Boeing, meet beak.
Emily, 11-years-old, was traveling as an unaccompanied minor. The obligatory “Care Package” from the airline cost an additional $120.00—it was an expensive trip. Ironically, Cheryl thought, her daughter was not unaccompanied at all; she plummeted thirty-thousand feet at exactly the same rate as three hundred or so of her fellow passengers—the laws of physics saw to that. Even in death, she was not alone, she lay scattered along a California beach alongside dozens of other families, including “accompanied” children.
These moments she cherished; the infant breathing deeply, like a bellows. The child radiated heat, even through its sleeper and swaddle. She warmed Cheryl’s arms and chest, and mood. These moments she cherished. If comfort had a scent, this was it; lilac and peace. It fluttered from Emily’s head and plump cheeks. Cheryl gathered her daughter, and snuggled her nose into the baby’s neck; Emily chuffed, and then exhaled a choppy breath before settling back into the security of her hypnotic rhythm.
The nightlight glowed like a miner’s lamp, provoking introspection and reminiscence. Maybe Emily was a blessing disguised as a blessing, Cheryl thought. As a mother, her life would now be shared. Her emotions would be forever absorbed by this new tiny roommate, and likely reflected back to her, whether she fancied that or not.
“I hope for you,” Cheryl whispered into the crib after laying the child down.
She grimaced as she straightened herself; the stitches were still tender.
“I hope for you,” she repeated.
Cheryl inhaled deeply, and tapped the side of the crib before she left the room.
She can’t decide how she feels about crumpets. They could be glorious warm hosts for peanut butter, but they also looked as though they would do a smashing job of cleaning Cheryl’s kitchen counter. She looks at the crumpet and then at the counter, considering the experiment, before gobbling it down. Grabbing a banana, she heads out the door.
She had been “shoulded” into therapy.
“You’re not accepting the loss.”
“You’re not allowing yourself to grieve.”
“You should see a therapist.”
Fine. I’ll see a therapist, she finally told them. She wondered if it was normal to talk to a therapist about how much she didn’t want to see a therapist.
“Can we talk about anxiety?” Cheryl asks.
“No.” The therapist smirks. “Today I’d like to cover the “Godfather” trilogy.”
Sometimes, Cheryl thinks Dr. Plaw is more psycho than therapist.
“What’s on your mind?” Plaw refocused.
“How are you?” Cheryl answers.
“Fine, thank you.”
“No,” Cheryl explains, “That’s what’s on my mind. How to respond when people ask, ‘How are you?’”
“How about the truth?” Her therapist prods.
Dr. Plaw has a frustrating skill. She communicates without body language. No raised eyebrow, her arms are never crossed or uncrossed, they always seem to be just placed, like throw cushions—which are never thrown at all, but rather perfectly positioned to seem like an afterthought. Dr. Plaw exuded afterthought; she radiated throw pillow.
“People don’t respond well to, ‘Better than you’d expect!’ when your child lies dismembered under a horizontal stabilizer.”
Dr. Plaw, in a gesture completely out of character, raises an eyebrow.
“I’ve been reading up on planes,” Cheryl explains.
“But you are better,” said Plaw.
“Better than what?”
“Better than they expected.”
Cheryl rocked back and forth. Her scalp stretched away from her skull as she throttled fistfulls of hair.
Her face was flushed, warm, and moist from tears. Her eyelids were clenched in despair, creating visions of white and red lightning as blood searched for a way in. The wickedness, she thought, all this crying begetting crying; Emily would not relent. Her wail would occasionally subside to a whimper, teasing Cheryl with hope, only to gather anew—like a cyclone growing over an ocean. The baby became full-throated again, and finally, Cheryl’s levee broke.
“Shut the fuck uuuuuup!”
Cheryl hurled the words into space.
She opened her eyes and inhaled deeply—her chest expanded and her eyes widened. My God, it’s actually stopped.
It hadn’t. The infant had been momentarily scared mute, startled by her mother’s howl like a fawn in the presence of a wolf. Then, as though realizing danger had passed, the baby once again released its anxiety unto the world.
Cheryl, in a fetal position along a baseboard heater, covered her head with a cushion, submitted to exhaustion, and slept.
The delicate pinging of spoons patrolling the perimeters of coffee mugs made the silence less awkward. Cheryl could feel the topic approaching, like an arthritic ache ahead of a storm. Work, politics, and movies had already been scraped to the bone, only one thing left to talk about.
Here it comes.
“So,” Marina shifted in her chair, “have you had a chance to go through her things yet?”
Cheryl stared at her dessert and thought, this square is the closest I’ve been to a date in more than a decade. She stifled what would have been an inappropriate chuckle.
Cheryl sighed, “Not yet.”
“Cher,” Marina reached her hand across the table, and laid it upon Cheryl’s, “at some point—”.
“I know, I know, I know,” Cheryl answered. But, who really cares if a box sits in this closet or that closet or in storage or in the garbage or up someone’s ass?
“Just call a service to come get the stuff; you don’t even have to touch it. Brian’s things, too. Some family could make good use of it.”
Brian, Cheryl’s husband, died of a massive heart attack during Emily’s birth—an emergency cesarean section. He suffered a non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction—Wikipedia had also explained that event to Cheryl in detail. Following his passing, Cheryl referred to him as “The only man ever to die during childbirth,” a moniker which rarely elicited the guffaw Cheryl thought it merited.
Marina continued, “Let’s pick a day next week.”
The company would be nice, Cheryl supposed, and Marina is one of the few humans she could tolerate for what would be an afternoon of rummaging through her late-daughter’s late-clothes and her late-husband’s late-suits, late-ties, and late-watches; late watches—Cheryl stifled another chuckle.
“Fine,” Cheryl relented, “but not Tuesday, the new season of “Ozark” drops.”
“Fine,” Marina rolled her eyes.
She made the mistake of putting on her own coat before her daughter’s, consequently perspiration beads were forming on her forehead as the wrestling continued.
“Em, help me!”
Cheryl knelt, and grappled with the 5-year-old’s wrist, trying to guide it into the sleeve of her winter coat; it was like trying to bullfight cooked spaghetti. The preschooler’s heels were digging into her mother’s thighs, the pain was made worse as her daughter became distracted by her favourite stuffed tiger, which lay a few feet away on the living room rug. The little girl reached for it, relying on her mother to belay her like a mountaineer repelling a cliff; Cheryl had had enough. She grabbed her daughter’s shoulder and jerked her square so they were nose to nose.
“I swear,” Cheryl seethed, “if you keep fighting me there’ll be no friends, no toys, and no TV!”
Then there was quiet, save for the sound of mother and daughter breathing at each other. Em’s pudgy lips parted, separated by her protruding tongue. Her cheeks puckered, bracing her tongue in position, and then she blew as hard as she could.
Cheryl’s face was sprayed with moist humiliation. With that, she snapped.
She tackled her daughter around her torso, tossing her forcefully onto her shoulder; she heard Emily cough as breath was knocked from her. The girl let out a cry as her elbow collided with her bedroom door frame, Cheryl charging her to her room. Once over the little bed, she raised her daughter over her head, one hand on her stomach, the other under her chin, and drove her down. Em’s eyes were wide, her cheeks quivering with terror. As Cheryl leaned into her daughter’s face, her hand descended from the child’s chin to her neck.
“I sweared to God,” Cheryl spat, “it will be five years before you leave this fucking room.”
Cheryl turned and left. Two photo frames broke as they tumbled from the walls to the floor with the force of the door slam.
From behind the wall, Emily slowly sputtered, and then released her terror in heaving cries. Cheryl rocked on the edge of the sofa, and glanced at her reflection in the mirror. She was sweaty with heat—fueled by adrenaline and fury—still dressed in her parka, her eyes were bloodshot and rimmed in scarlett. She kneaded her face with her palms.
“What's wrong with me?”
They hadn’t spoken for several minutes. Cheryl tried to calculate exactly how long they had been sitting in silence, but the room had no wall clocks, and she couldn’t fidget briskly and yet subtly enough to peek at her sleeping smartwatch. Lucky watch, she thought.
“What’s going on in there?” Dr. Plaw asked, gesturing to her own head in a manner which, Cheryl thought, came close to suggesting her patient was loopy.
Plaw’s question triggered an image of Brian walking away from her in frustration, as he often did when they crossed swords, with his arms tossed above his head, “I’m not a mind reader, you know!” he would say.
“Not much,” Cheryl finally answered.
The office was decorated with an eye on Professionally Bland; or was it Expertly Benign? The walls were taupe with the necessary white trim. The paintings on the walls would showcase nicely as part of a coffee table book titled “The History of Unremarkable Hotel Art,” and the shelf by the window supported a small army of books withdrawn from the mandatory self-help library: Richard Carlson sandwiched between Brené Brown and Rhonda Byrne; that image triggered a giggle that Cheryl tried unsuccessfully to stifle.
“Yes?” Plaw persisted.
“I was just thinking about time,” said Cheryl, scrambling.
Cheryl was convinced that therapists spent at least one year of graduate school learning to master the use of isolated vowels: “Oh?”, “Ay?”, (or “Ahhhh!”), “You?”, or “Why?”
“Am I allowed to say I find it passing by very slowly today? The time?” Cheryl asked, flushing slightly.
“Absolutely. There are sessions like that.”
Cheryl chuckled to herself again, but this time didn’t wait for the doctor’s prompt.
“It reminds me of when Em was a toddler,” she began. “She was never a good sleeper; up at six a.m. regardless of what time I put her down. I would have all these activities planned to help the day pass by more quickly: have breakfast, get dressed, go to the park, come home, play with her cars, do a puzzle, watch “Backyardigans”, have a snack, colour.” Cheryl inhaled as though she had run short of oxygen. “We would do all those things, and I would look up at the clock…it was only 7:52! She’d been up for less than two hours! That was tough.”
Cheryl smiled and laughed at her own anecdote.
“Especially when you’re alone.” Dr. Plaw said.
“It’s especially tough when you don’t have a partner.”
“Oh,” Cheryl made a dismissive gesture, “no different than any other single mother out there.”
“Exactly,” her therapist pushed back, “tough.”
The room was quiet again.
“You must miss him.”
Cheryl scanned the room, from the trim, to the wall, to the bookshelf, to the window. What is that? she thought, feeling an unfamiliar melange of tightness in her throat and nausea somewhere below that. Anger? Sadness? Shit.
“I don’t know,” she concluded.
“Tell me about that.”
“What do you want me to tell you?” Cheryl was getting exasperated.
After a moment of silence, she continued, “I loved him, he got me pregnant, and while I was being cut open delivering our child he needed emergency attention, and died for chrissake! Do I miss him? I honestly don’t fucking know! Ok?! There!” She leaned on the arm of the sofa, and planted her nose onto her fist. “Fuck,” came out muffled.
“It must feel good getting that out; something you’ve probably not felt entitled to express to anyone.”
Outside, the sunlight was dissipating. Clouds, or sunset? What time is it, anyway?
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Plaw said softly, “but I’ll have to stop you there for today, but I’d like to talk more about this during our next session. I would also like you to consider whether you’d be willing to come in twice a week for a little while.”
Cheryl felt the warmth radiating between Marina’s arm and her own, and she resented it. They stood side-by-side staring at the door to Emily’s room. Emily’s former door? To her former room? Cheryl didn’t want company, she didn’t want support; she wanted emancipation from her former life. And the bedroom door agreed with her. It bore the badges of teenage dissent—the required “Keep Out” placard tent-poled fellow soldiers, largest among them a watercolour affiche specifying, “Parents Over the Age of 18 Must be Accompanied a Child!!”
“So?” Marina prodded.
Cheryl inhaled deeply, and then exhaled, “Fine. Let’s do this.”
The door resisted as though it, too, was stuck in the past, sealed by pressure. The hinges complained of neglect.
Cheryl walked into her daughter’s room for the first time in four years, and was met by terror.
Emily was sitting on her bed, her suitcase on the carpet at her feet, her legs crossed and tucked under her thighs in the afterthought manner only 11-year-olds can manage. She wore gray sweatpants and her navy sweatshirt, the baggy one with the beaver on the front. Her mother had suggested she dressed comfortably for the flight; her neck pillow was tossed lazily over her shoulder.
Cheryl felt the tingles of her blood pressure dropping as she glanced from the bed to the rocking chair in the corner, the one she would collapse into to breastfeed her infant in the dark—Em insisted on keeping it, “It’s super comfy! Why would you want to get rid of it?”
Now, though, someone else rocked in the lounger—her husband, Brian.
He wore his famously faded brown jeans and was barefoot, combing the rug with his toes. He scratched his chest through his favourite weekend t-shirt, its collar worn and stretched and the Huskies logo barely visible anymore. Cheryl had called it his “U-Conn U-Neck.”
He smiled at his wife, and spoke cheerfully, “Hi, Hon!”
Cheryl whipped back to her daughter, who finally glanced up from her phone to meet her mother’s gaze. The girl’s eyes became dark, and her top lip snarled.
“What the fuck, Mom?!” Em roared.
Chery was overcome, “Stop it!” She spit the words in a defensive panic.
Her palms flew to her eyes, and rubbed them so hard lightning appeared behind them in the darkness.
“Cheryl, what is it? Are you okay?” Marina turned her friend, holding Cheryl’s shoulders.
Slowly, Cheryl lowered her arms, and cautiously allowed her vision to focus again on the room, where the bed now stood empty, and the rocker in the corner was still and undisturbed as it had been for years.
“Let’s get this over with,” Cheryl said, moving towards the closet.
The louvered doors folded upon themselves, revealing the contents of a forgotten closet. From hanger to hanger, from floor to shelf, memories battered Cheryl’s psyche, like a cliff undergoing erosion.
Inside, the beige carpet — was this once white? —bore on its back a large box; BABY was etched along its length with a heart on either side, and rattle play-acting as the ‘Y’. The box, in turn, supported an album; it was white, and tuffetted; DAUGHTER was embroidered in gold across its cover like a coat of arms. Cheryl knew its contents well; the mandatory collection of the baby’s first-year artifacts: birth notices, hair strands and at least one tooth; The Emily Wood Museum of Natural History. Also inside, a collection of charts and graphs; Weight: Normal; Length: Normal; Appetite: Normal. If the child was normal, Cheryl could only conclude that it was she who had been…abnormal, misfit, unfit.
She had confided in her pediatrician that she was finding motherhood difficult. “Hell” was easier to pronounce, but more dangerous to speak.
“You know,” the doctor said softly, leaning towards her on his squeaky stool, “it’s okay to not like your baby.”
Cheryl cried softly. Some steam had been released, some guilt had been acquitted, some sense of self restored.
“Thank you,” she had said.
Cheryl set the album aside, and lifted the box to her lap.
“What’s in there?”
Marina’s voice startled her; she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. Without answering, she lifted the cover, revealing the time capsule sheltered inside. A newborn's unused diaper, a pacifier with a hippo handle, a trio of plush animals each holding the other in their Velcroed paws; a dog embracing a cat, the cat hugging a mouse.
Cheryl excavated further; the U-Conn U-Neck, a photo of Brian and Cheryl overlooking a valley somewhere. The snapshot was comforted by a frame with “DAD” molded along its bottom. Finally, Cheryl drew another piece from the box—a white terry cloth onesie with purple piping—and held it aloft before bringing it to her face and hiding within it. Suddenly, she was overcome with them—the aromas of lilac, and peace.
The past charged at her, first birthday first step first fall sleeplessness sleepfullness disobedience confidence reliance arguing apologizing hugging kissing.
Cheryl wept. Her shoulders heaved and her chest throbbed. She fell forward embracing and protecting the box as though it was the child whose memory it honoured. She wailed longer, exorcizing the knots and the doubts and the emotions which had been warring with each other for a decade.
“Cheryl?” Marina reached her hand towards her friend.
“I miss them,” Cheryl’s cries continued, “I miss them both so much.”