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This must be what they mean, thought Margaret Crawfield, when they say “It hasn’t registered yet.” Now, with the funeral over—black cars moving slowly from the house then back to it, hushed voices, handclasps—now at the end of the dreadful week, with the flowers faded, the funeral foods eaten and kindly crowds gone, the terrible fact reveals itself at last. Peter is dead.
She walked. Through the rooms, down the hall, in and out, she walked. The rap of her heels was loud. The hum of the refrigerator and the slam of a car door across the street made the silence quiver.
Suddenly she heard herself ask aloud, “What are we going to do?” The high, piercing voice, asking the passionate question, repeated, “What? What?”
She had no tears. There were, at this moment, none left, though there would be a lifetime of them for her and for them all, Arthur her husband, Holly her daughter, and the grandparents who had so dearly loved Peter.
On the dining room table, beside a bowl of brown daffodils drooping in stagnant water, lay a pile of condolence letters waiting to be acknowledged. She sat down, took the pen, began a sentence: Dear Cousin Andy, thank you for your—and put down the pen to stare out of the window.
Life was there, wind rippling through new leaves, crisp and creamy-green; robins hopping stiff-legged on the lawn; a baby carriage parked on the neighbors’ porch. Life.
She gave up. There would be no letters today. Not yet. Her hands, her arms, her shoulders were limp. Toy hammers beat lightly inside her head. So she sat, closing her eyes against the brightness.
“Mom?” said Holly. “Are you asleep sitting up? Are you all right?”
“No. Yes. I’m not asleep. I’m all right. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I came in at the back door. I thought maybe you’d be taking a nap. Dad told you to lie down, didn’t he?”
“I know, but I can’t do it. I’m too restless.”
Holly laid a hand on the nape of her mother’s neck. “You’re all tense, all knotted there. Let me rub it for you.”
The warmth was good. Her daughter’s hand caring for her, loving her. It made the tears start up again, stinging and prickling the backs of her eyes.
“Thank you, darling. I should be doing something for you.”
“I’m fine. I’m younger,” said Holly, trying to tease, to lighten the heavy, heavy air.
Margaret swallowed hard and, making her own effort to lighten and brighten, remarked that it was Holly’s afternoon for hockey practice, wasn’t it?
“Yes, but I’m skipping it. Finals are coming up and I’ve missed so much that I can’t take time out for hockey.” Holly’s eyebrows drew together, giving her pretty face a look of anxiety. “I hate to leave you alone, so deserted, but I really should run over to Allison’s house. She has all the book assignments in Latin and chemistry that I missed.”
Margaret stood up. “Of course you should. Go over. I’m all right. We all are, you and Dad and I. We have to be.”
“I won’t be long, Mom.”
Margaret watched her go down the walk, with her books under her arm, her long hair flying in the wind and her long legs running. Not many months from now she’d be away in college. But not to think of that this minute.
“I’m all right, we all are,” she had just said to Holly.
Oh, brave words!
Ordinarily, at three o’clock in the afternoon Margaret Crawfield was busy, either at her part-time work as a tutor to housebound children or as a volunteer at the hospital. But not yet, not today while those toy hammers were still tapping in her head.…
She went upstairs and wandered, emptied a waste basket, put away a pink jacket that Holly had thrown over a chair, and straightened Arthur’s tie rack. She combed her hair; it wouldn’t do to look depressed, depressing Arthur to see her so when he came home. He never complained, he was a rock.… Her eyes filled again.
Presently her wandering brought her to Peter’s room, which she had been avoiding all week. Now she was drawn in. Facing her there was the closet door that, ajar, displayed shelves and empty hangers. She reached in and touched the hangers, remembering the shape and color of the clothes that had hung on them, the brown tweed jacket, the red windbreaker, and the good navy blue suit. All these had been given away on the day after the funeral, when thoughtful friends had come to clear out the closet and the drawers.
The rest of the room was untouched. Books, records, pictures, and posters remained, so that the room still looked as though Peter might walk in at any minute, sit down at the desk or lie down on the bed with his hands locked behind his head, while he listened to the New Orleans jazz he loved and could himself play so well. The piano downstairs was silent now; he had been the only one, in a family that cared very much about music, who had the skill to perform it.
She lay down on his bed. The room was filled with sunlight. On the opposite wall she stared at the outline of Mont-Saint-Michel on the poster between the windows. How happy he had been only two summers ago when they had all spent that month together exploring France! He had had such a great capacity for happiness! And that, in spite of everything he’d had to endure from the very moment, almost, of birth.
Her mind—my crazy, tormented mind, she thought—went back and back over the same worn path. Where the bed now stood, the crib had stood, across from the chest of drawers and the rocking chair, all of them adorned with painted ducklings in procession.
“For our first grandchild,” said Grandmother Frieda, “nothing is too good.”
And Grandpa Albert joked, “A beautiful boy, even though he has my son-in-law’s sandy hair.” He had put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder in affection.
It had been raining when they brought him home, but in this room, safe from the torrent, the baby had been snug. Nothing could harm that baby. Nothing.
Yet something had.…
Night after night he cried. There are few sounds as bewildering, she remembered, as a baby’s wail. Nothing had stopped Peter, not feeding, changing, or rocking.
“What can be wrong?” they asked the doctor and their friends and themselves.
“Oh, nothing but colic, it usually is just colic.” So the formula was changed, and that did work for a time. But only for a time. It had to be changed again and yet again. Then the doctor himself began to seem uncertain.…
One night Peter began to cough. Like any mother of a newborn, Margaret slept so lightly that the least murmur from the room across the hall sent her bounding across that hall in seconds.
The night light, a white kitten with illuminated eyes, shone on a tiny, purple-faced creature in torment. The cough was terrifying; he was struggling for air; the gasp, the snore, were like a death rattle—she had never heard a death rattle, yet that was the expression that leapt to mind.
“Oh, my God,” she said, and picked him up. But no, that was stupid. This was not a baby who was asking for comfort. This was—a dying baby? And she laid him back in the crib.
Arthur, whose deep, healthy sleep was what you might expect in a man so rational, so unflustered as he, had as yet heard nothing. She ran back and shook him awake.
“The baby! The baby,” she stammered. “I think he—I don’t know—”
On either side of the crib they stood. They looked once at each other, and with that wordless look each knew that this was the ultimate moment of decision, that they could not wait another minute.
“Wrap him up,” Arthur said. “We’ll throw on some clothes and take him. I’m afraid it’s pneumonia.”
She thought, as they rode through vacant streets, past darkened houses, “He will die before we get there.” And with her fingers groping under the wrapping of blankets she felt for the little heart.
Rain was flooding the city with an iridescent eerie gleam. It beat upon the windshield, and the wipers, madly sweeping, could barely keep up with it. In just such a storm they had brought Peter home when he was three days old. So happy, so proud they had been with their firstborn son!
The lights of the emergency entrance shone like a beacon to a ship at sea. Distraught, with their shoes untied, they rushed in. Competent hands took their baby from their arms; strangers took charge; the parents were helpless.…
“Yes,” the doctor said, “it is pneumonia. We have to keep him here, of course.” He looked over a chart, frowned a little, paused and remarked, though kindly, “He’s quite a little fellow for his age. But—well, I can’t tell you it’s not serious—but with antibiotics, you know …”
He was fumbling for something tactful to say, a way of giving these parents some encouragement for the night and the bleak ride home, but not too much encouragement. They knew all that.
“We can’t stay here?” asked Margaret, hopefully.
The doctor shook his head. “No point in it, anyway. He’ll be in an ICU. Better for you to go back and get some rest.”
So they went back, to lie awake together and wonder how the baby could have contracted pneumonia. He was never taken among crowds, and no one in the house had even had a cold. Nevertheless, such things did happen.…