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By Susan Kelly
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Susan Kelly
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I opened the door to Whit's bedroom, passed the hump in the bed, pulled the slatted blinds open, and looked out at our poplar tree, whose leaves this March of his spring break were no larger than ears. The view from Whit's second-story window was the same as from Russ's and mine: a dozen smallish houses, four brick, six clapboard, all one-storied—across and down Liberty Ave. "I booked us at the Omni for graduation weekend."
Beneath the quilt, Whit's voice was muffled. "Don't do it, Mom."
"You'll jinx me, making reservations three months ahead of time. I'll get expelled or flunk or won't get into college. Wait until May." The heap in the bed elongated as he stretched to full height, and the footboard creaked from the pressure of his toes. "What's that?"
I listened. "Sounds like the theme from Mulan."
Whit's curly brown hair emerged from the same red-white-and-blue zig-zagged patterned sheets that I'd taken to boarding school and never discarded; linens grown soft and faded and dated from years of launderings. "When did Disney music get so sad?" he asked, then wrapped his arm around the pillow and inclined his head toward his bicep, silently saying Watch this as he flexed, forming a muscled bulge. He laughed at his own vanity. "Does Ebie have to practice the piano now, on a Saturday?"
"She's playing, not practicing, and it's also one in the afternoon."
The fourteen-hour nights—and days—her teenagers spent sleeping annoyed my friend Anne, who was married to Russ's partner in Lucas Contractors. "Why?" I'd asked her. "If they're not awake they're not asking for the car or watching television or leaving the kitchen in shambles or tying up the telephone."
"I don't know why," Anne had stubbornly insisted. "It's just wrong."
Anne was five years older than I, and the same span separated our children, so she'd been my standard over the years for weekly allowances, television time, punishments, even when we got a dog. "The McCalls got their dog when Dixon was eleven," I'd told Whit when he began begging in first grade. "You can wait until then, when you're old enough to handle the responsibility of looking after a pet."
Ebie thudded upstairs and leapt on Whit. She mashed her palm to the crushed, cherubic ringlets her brother had hated throughout childhood but appreciated now for their wash-and-wear ease. "The college chicks are going to love my hair, Mom," he'd told me.
"You have bed head," Ebie informed him.
"And you're going down, Miss Elizabeth," he growled, then grabbed her, pulling her under the covers with him, trashing the bedclothes.
I thought of Anne's rolled-eyed observation: "A teenage male always has to be touching someone. Preferably someone soft and female."
"Careful how you wrestle with Ebie," I'd cautioned Whit.
"Because it hurts."
"I don't hurt her."
I'd put the carrot peeler on the counter, turned to face him, and gestured to my breasts. "Here."
"Mom!" he managed to protest despite a flush of embarrassment. "She doesn't have anything there."
"How do you know? When you were ten, did it hurt if someone accidentally hit you in—"
"Okay, okay," he'd conceded.
"Better bed head than pea head," I said now. In some barbaric boarding school ritual of solidarity and machismo, Whit had shaved his head with the rest of the Windsor School lacrosse team. He'd sat down in the barber's chair, said, "I'll have a number four," and stood up bald. I looked out the window again. "This time last year he was hairless, and I have pictures to prove it."
* * *
Putting her hand on my shoulder for balance, Ebie scrambled to her knees on the folding chair, one of several hundred arranged on the grass for the outdoor ceremony. Tightly furled vanilla diplomas stood sentry in a mahogany box on the dais. "Where's Whit?" she asked.
I craned to see through the milling crowd of families and guests claiming the seats saved earlier with programs and handbags, even masking tape. Through pastel linen shifts and flowy flowery skirts, through shy sisters and lanky-limbed brothers and striped seersucker suits, around the occasional hat and bow-tied neck. They were gathering in the deep pool of blue shade near Turner Hall, a crowd of eighty-odd boys—men—for the Senior Shake, pressing hands in the traditional good-bye to lower classmen whose English school designations—third and fourth and fifth form—still confused me even after Whit's four years at Windsor.
So many traditions. The tie-cutting on the gymnasium steps an autumn-spangled afternoon, when the required black necktie signifying New Boy status was finally snipped in half by an approving upperclassman. The rag-wrapped, gasoline-soaked torches pitched into a bonfire the cold November night before the final football game. The senior pranks and Midwinter Dance and Spring Formal, the Sunday evening hymn-sing chapels and the Sunday morning demerit hall for "idling," for "infelicitous language," for an infraction ambiguously termed "poor judgment." Traditions all, leading to this moment: rows of white chairs upon the lush-grassed Windsor Green in the shade of tall oaks, a flower-flanked podium, the grape-blue Virginia mountains crowning an impossibly pastoral horizon. This breeze without wind, this sun without heat. This perfect, unblemished, early June noon of graduation day.
"Made-to-order," Russ had said.
"God-given," someone else remarked.
"Someone's been living right," Whit's roommate's mother had said.
"Can you see him?" Ebie asked again now.
"Look for his hair," I suggested, and watched a bosomy, clear-skinned girl in wedge heels and spaghetti straps. A girlfriend, no doubt. Be kind, I thought, remembering suffering through my own graduation after having been told the night before by my high-school boyfriend that he wanted to be free and that we were through, over, fini. "This is the hardest thing you will ever go through," my mother had consoled and assured me.
Now, with anticipation that was nearly palpable, the young men moved among the Turner Hall columns to alphabetically arrange themselves, a sea of shifting bodies dressed identically—but for the baggy pants leg here, the slightly too-short sleeve there—in navy blazers and gray trousers. The same attire my mother had campaigned for the groomsmen to wear in my wedding. I'd staunchly refused but, watching those boys twenty years later, regretted the decision.
Brown and black and blond heads, tousled and combed and all a bit long, still damp from recent showers. The Jacks and Bills and Marks and Bobs together with the aristocratic Spensers and Howells and Pinkneys. Smiling, taunting, laughing, jostling, nervous, excited, happy. Each one, each lean or stocky, tall or short, handsome or plain child the epitome of youth, the pinnacle of potential, a representative of the future. Unspotted by the world, untouched by sorrow and all the various heartbreaks that most surely lay before them. "Oh, Mom," Whit would have said had he heard my thoughts, "that is cornpone with a capital K."
"There he is," I said.
"Where?" Ebie demanded.
Russ took out the camera and I took my daughter's hand. "Come on, the Gauntlet's beginning. Want to come with us, Russ?"
"I'll save the seats."
"What's the Gauntlet?" Ebie asked, colliding with a straw pocketbook dangling from someone's shoulder.
"Watch," I said, hurrying her along.
"I hate my dress."
"I know you do."
"I want a dress with a waist, not one that hangs from my shoulders."
We threaded our way through the crowd, over humped tree roots and behind the rented bleachers, until we stood just behind a human wall of masters, the teachers who'd instructed and coached and counseled and proctored and disciplined. Professors who'd eaten and played alongside the boys; who'd doled out assignments and punishments and weekend permissions; who'd inspected the boys' dorm rooms and invited them to their campus homes and taken them to town for errands and appointments. These adults, bald or bearded or spectacled, with twenty years experience or two, who'd been in loco parentis, as Windsor termed it: in the place of parents. They gathered now on either side of a path toward the graduation stage in a last rite of connection, their final act of authority as the file of graduates processed between them.
"Take your hands out of your pockets," one master reprimanded.
"Straighten your tie, you look like a Georgia redneck," another grumbled, and his charge immediately, reflexively, touched his neck where the orange-and-black rep tie, identical to those before and behind him, dangled loosely.
"Hold up your shoulders."
"Onward and upward," one murmured, and I recognized him as the English teacher whose classroom door was covered by a poster of the Longest Sentence in the World, over one hundred words, diagramed. A master famous for his contrariness.
"He expects us to talk back, Mom," Whit had explained, and I'd tried to comprehend the complicated balance of adult-to-adolescent familiarity and respect understood only by those who attended Windsor, who participated in it.
The students passed in a snaking line through the dappled shade, each made straights-pined and serious by the solemn music. Each boy was somebody's baby, somebody's darling, somebody's son. One of them—Russell Whitford Lucas, junior—was mine.
There. Just there, not slowing his stride but meeting my eyes.
"Are you crying?" Ebie asked, and I gripped her hand, led her quickly back to our seats.
Not then, no. Not when his name was called, not when he rose, or shook the headmaster's hand, not when he beamed a triumphant grin in our direction.
"This is for the boys," the senior mother representative said into the microphone, and handed an envelope to the headmaster. Another tradition, this collective donation: the Mothers' Gift. "For new sofas in a commons room," she continued, "or a grill at the pool, or a footbridge at the stream, whatever need arises for the boys." She turned to the audience again. "Would all the mothers please stand up?" The assembly shifted with our rising, and the unexpected request.
"This check is a gift to Windsor School from the mothers, in honor of their sons." She paused and pointed at us. "Look at these mothers. Because not only have we given Windsor this money, we gave you our sons."
Then, tears sprang to my eyes.
A genial dismissing smile from behind the podium, a rustle of seated bodies, sibilant whispers from folded programs. Then, one sudden, high-pitched, giddy and anonymous yelp released them. They surged up from their chairs in an exultant tide, noisy and jubilant, reaching for each other and into breast pockets. Clandestinely purchased cigars were flourished, clipped, and lit, and the acrid scent filled the air above their wide smiles. With clumsy gestures of male affection they clasped each other around the neck, posed triumphantly in the sun for pictures with family, teachers, each other.
I held back, overcome by a roller coaster of emotions: sentiment, euphoria, pride. Pride for his achievements, pride in the number of friends who crowded him, proud of his college acceptance. For my sweetly average boy who'd fretted about his grades, agonized about rejection, and who was rewarded, after all, for being a good citizen who worked hard. Because he earned it, deserved it.
And this small, other pride as well: that he was mine.
Never mind that on this quintessential summer morning identical ceremonies and celebrations were taking place on greener lawns or grander halls or cavernous auditoriums elsewhere. Never mind that ribbon-tied diplomas were being bestowed this day, this hour, upon thousands of high school seniors all over the country. Never mind that this rite had been enacted every June for a hundred Junes at this very school. Because this lawn, this day, this diploma, and this senior, were singularly mine.
Russ clasped Whit's hand firmly and grinned at him as though they were colleagues now. My heart nearly burst for Whit, with love as boundless as the blue heavens above us, and this fleeting thought: He will never know how much I love him. I turned to hug Ebie instead, sensing her shy longing to be included in the chaos of celebration.
A plaster cast was suddenly flung heavily around Whit's shoulders. "I came to find you because I don't know when we'll see each other again," a freckled face said earnestly to Whit.
And then my eyes welled a second time, at the boy's unembarrassed show of affection.
* * *
While we finished cramming duffles and boxes and athletic gear into the car, Ebie pawed the graduation gifts. "Look at all your loot," she said of the tokens of remembrance and mutual congratulation. "This one feels like a towel and duh—" she pinched another "—a book." She looked up as Whit thunked his trunk, another relic of mine, down the flight of fire escape stairs.
He was wearing one of his astounding collection of silk-screened T-shirts, a thriving dorm hall industry in an all boys' school. YOU MAY NOT LIKE US, BUT YOUR GIRLFRIEND SURE DOES it read, and I thought again: Be kind. Not only to him, with those legions of waiting coeds so easily heartbroken, but to those same legions of girls equally capable of crushing him: Be tender with him. "What happened to your graduation clothes?" I asked.
Yes, as on this day he'd also unknowingly shucked off childhood, and me. Never again would I know exactly where he was or what he was doing, or that he was safe.
We pulled away from the parking lot, drove slowly past the grand brick buildings with their stately columns and broad flagstone porticos. Drove down the long slope of the entrance and past the empty athletic fields with their acres of clipped grass. Past the Tin Can, an old gym infrequently used but for its roof, whose surface the students painted every autumn with a fresh slogan, a rallying battle cry in another Windsor ritual. Bring 'em on, it had been emblazoned one year. Taking all comers it read the next autumn.
"For Grant But Not Forgotten," Ebie read aloud as Russ slowed for a speed bump. "What does that mean?"
"Grant Reynolds was in our class," Whit said. "He got cancer when we were juniors, and that's why we shaved our heads last spring. So when Grant was bald, we all were, too."
Illness was behind the baldness, then; compassion, not lacrosse. My throat involuntarily tightened. Oh my paltry, pointless fears, each one unfounded: tempting fate with early reservations, inclement weather raining on our graduation day parade, not attending a first-choice college—
"Is he okay?" Ebie asked Whit.
"He died. This past January."
I looked at the blocky bright orange letters spanning the entire roof, letters large enough to be read from an airplane and certainly from our car windows. The tin glared in the treeless sunshine. For Grant But Not Forgotten. But I had forgotten about Grant Reynolds, who was some mother's child, some mother's son.
And I cried for the third time that day, this time for some mother's sorrow.CHAPTER 2
"Without a front wheel it looks crippled. Or like it's praying." I spin the rear wheel of Whit's new lightweight collapsible bicycle. Attached to the car roof for the four-hour road trip to the beach, the bike is a graduation present from his grandparents.
Whit lays the detachable front wheel on the back seat. "When I was eleven I wanted a mountain bike for Christmas more than anything," he says, then laughs. "And instead I got a Huffy. Ben Harrison teased me forever about it. He'd call me up to go riding and say, 'Bring the Huffy.'"
"You should have told me," I say, struck all these years later that I'd unknowingly embarrassed him, caused him pain instead of pleasure.
Whit adjusts a bungee cord securing the bike to the roof railing. "While we're at the beach I'm going to bungee from that crane near the amusement park at the fishing pier."
"Oh no, you are absolutely not," I say, and add a final bag of groceries to the backseat of my own car. Whit and I are caravanning eastward together.
"I'll use my own paycheck to pay. Or what's left of it. Who's FICA, anyway?"
"The Feds," Russ says. "Your friendly IRS."
"Don't I get a break since my father owns the company I work for?" Whit asks, insulted by the governmental assault of automatically withdrawn taxes. He's working for Lucas Construction this summer, as courier, carpenter, cleaner, and occasionally even roofer. Maybe that explains the current fascination with heights. "Can't you pull any strings, Dad?" he asks.
Excerpted from By Accident by Susan Kelly. Copyright © 2010 Susan Kelly. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved the cover and was intrigued. But the story kept getting held up by SO MUCH talk of trees and landscaping I wanted to pull my hair out. The book could have been much shorter. The characters were generally likeable but you didn't get near enough of them.
Laura Whit will lose her son at a young age, a loss that threatens to destroy her life moment by moment. She's almost beyond grief when the novel opens, having no feelings and running through the random thoughts that invade her mind all to frequently during a normal day! She's grieving and her sorrow is depicted without melodrama but no less poignantly for the tragedy this kind of grieving truly is! Her husband, Russ, is burying his grief in work and her 10 year-old daughter is combining her grief with normal pre-teen angst, a sense of dislike of everything and everybody. So it's hardly surprising when Laura falls into the beginning of a relationship with a tree surgeon. But is he a lover or is she a mother to him, a replacement for her son? And what does it mean how quickly her daughter takes to him like a duck to water? Is sex solace for indescribable pain - does it make one feel alive through the deadness of grief? What does grief do to a couple? And how will another loss change the equation for Laura? Grief can crush one's being and the effort to live beyond loss is for a time crippling and absolutely devastating. But the author, Susan Kelly, knows exactly where and when to insert the humor and gutsy side of life so vital for healing and recovery, recovery to continue living with meaningfully real relationships, not substitutes, that celebrate the life mourned and lost. By Accident is a very powerful book about a very cruel, very devastating reality; it is all the more richer for the gracious point of view Susan Kelly presents in Laura Whit and those part of this forever changed world! A poignant, precious story, Ms. Kelly! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on May 27, 2010