Tommy drowned early in summer when we were still throwing off the school year like our heavy winter overcoats. The Potomac swollen with rain, three boys on an outing, a sudden impulse to try the water, and he was gone.
"He never even took his shoes off," we told each other over and over, as if that homely fact could somehow shrink the horror to scale.
There is something disorderly about the death of a young person. In a universe disturbed by so much over which we have no control, an untimely tragedy rattles the teeth of our already shaken confidence. We want to domesticate death, fight it on our own turf, in familiar rooms with shades drawn evenly, top sheets turned back and a circle of hushed voices closing in.
What to do with this unseemliness of superfluous shoes and cries of terror for the final word? . . .
An attic of my childhood: up steep stairs and on the naked landing, stale sunshine trapped in the scent of naphthalene. Trunks of winter woolens, tissue-layered; a mandolin with a broken string, a tangle of wire coat hangers, and over all, mouse droppings like scattered caraway seed.
Far under the eaves, the heart-shaped candy box lies, tied with a satin bow. I slip off the ribbon, and the photographs slide out, a dozen, each in a gray folder, identical, the baby smiling in a high chair, her features ones I know, but I am certain I have never seen her before.
Downstairs, the July heat is almost bearable after the stifling attic. I find my mother in the kitchen. I tell her of the baby in the photos, and the look on her face is one I do not understand, almost as if I have caught her in a forbidden act, a look at once sly and guilty.
"Go away," she tells me, "leave me alone." But these are the wrong words for me. I poke and push at her. "Come on, tell me who the baby is." And finally, she bursts out at me, "It's no one!"
How can so many pictures of someone be no one? I'm on to something now and zero in on her as only a child can do, knowing intuitively the way to the heart's core. "Who is it? Tell me!"
My mother's face is crumpling; she stands at the sink with her hands twisting her apron, crying, "It's your sister, your sister who died. Now go away and let me be."
Such a mixture of emotions to deal with. I had thought myself the first child, the only daughter, and this thunderbolt. Most difficult of all to understand was my mother's grief. She had me, after all, and the other girl had only lived for five years. I heard other details later, because I couldn't let it go. I probed. I learned the name of her affliction. A leak in the heart, they called it; she had been born with it. I heard how precocious she had been.
"As though she knew her time was short," whispered my grandmother, one eye on my mother for fear she would hear. An aunt told me how my parents never went back to the apartment where the child had died, had left it all, food in the cupboards, sheets on the beds, had turned the key and walked out.
I was 10 years old when I first learned of my sister's existence. What puzzled me most was the depth of sorrow engendered by such a slim life span. I felt my mother's anguish inexplicable, couldn't fathom why every visible trace of the child had been removed as though the clotting of pain was so fragile, the merest spider shudder could set it to bleeding again.
And I didn't understand for years until I had my own baby and saw in that moist bundle of flesh and bone my own freedom bound now by inextricable knots that could only be cut, but never loosened.
A friend wept at her mother's death and would not be consoled. "I'll never allow myself to love anyone like that again," she said, but the two curly headed girls who sat, stunned to silence by their mother's tears, had already made her words meaningless . . .
My father married a refugee from the Holocaust, soon after my mother died. Left with small children, he needed someone to care for them. Even my mother's sisters approved his choice. It was a good deed to marry such a woman, one who had "lost" two sons in the death camps. ("Lost" as though she had carelessly misplaced the boys somewhere and might one day remember where she had left them.)
"She's been through so much," one aunt told me. "She'll be grateful for anything; she'll be good to your brothers. She lost sons, after all."
So one blistering August day, when even the bluebottles were too languid to buzz, I heard the woman shout at my 6-year-old brother, and the words were ripped out of her like so many pieces of flesh, "Why do you live and my sons are in the ground?"
I told that story everywhere in my family, spitting out my own loss and jealousy with every terrible syllable. "Wicked woman," I said to all sympathetic ears.
The refugee woman is dead and my father, too, but I still ask her forgiveness whenever I think of that summer day. Out of the unspeakable depths of her loss, the words were wrenched. My brother was there and was splattered by them, but he was not the target. How could we all have so misread her anguish? As if children were interchangeable and one could take the place of another . . .
Tom, we file into the rose-lit church: your mother, father, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, friends of your family and friends from your school, group after group. The girls wear flowing dresses, the boys walk stiffly in their high-school graduation suits, solemn, shaken, most tasting death for the first time. We celebrate your brief life with the old words, share memories we will carry home with us.
And then we walk, blinking, into the sunshine to hold fast to one another for a little while. Only your young voice is missing from this concord. We file past your parents, blurting out our measured phrases. Onlookers, we stand at the periphery of grief. Life, they tell us, must go on, and it does.
But for your parents are left the endless days diminished by your absence, the taste of ashes now, forever in their mouths.