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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 165-176

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Olen Steinhauer

It was a year ago last July, the sixteenth. A Tuesday. I still worked at the bank, in collections, and Frank and I were still together. I'd spent my lunch break at the lumber store buying a pine board he had promised to cut into shelves, and when I returned, the message was on my desk. Frank had called from the hospital. It had to do with our son. Frank had asked that I drive directly over. Although the message didn't say it, I think I knew what it was--Jeremy was dead.

But no, I didn't really believe that. I knew it was what all mothers think on the way to the hospital to see their children. I was setting myself up, giving myself the worst possible news, so that when I saw him with a strep throat or simple fracture, there would be that sudden joy. But when I arrived, I was stopped by a doctor outside the room the nurse had solemnly directed me toward. The doctor was a small man with a lot of black hair on his neck and the backs of his hands. He said, "Mrs. Karen Asher?" and I nodded. Then he took me into another, empty room. Although I resisted at first, the doctor's hand on my shoulder kept me moving.

It had happened at summer school, on the playground. He told me there had been no warning signs. One moment our son was waiting impatiently in the hot field for the kickball, and the next, he was on the ground, not moving. It took a while to understand. The doctor was talking about blood vessels in the brain, a rupture. "A stroke?" I asked with a calm that would have surprised me if it hadn't been for the numbness. "Seven years old and a stroke?" It wasn't making sense. No, the doctor said. A brain aneurysm. I nodded, wanting to make it clear that I understood. I'm not sure why, but what I wanted above everything was clarity. When I first saw the doctor, my fingers had trembled against my slacks, but as he talked, the shaking slowed and became dense in my blood, like lead--that was the numbness. The doctor emphasized again that there were no previous symptoms, nothing anybody could have done, and I continued to nod, hardly hearing but thinking to myself, This is what shock is like. I said, "Thank you," but I was thinking, Later, when all this sinks in, I'm going to wish for this empty feeling again, I'll want to be empty. Then I noticed the sound from the next room, where they were holding Jeremy's body. [End Page 165]

Again guided by the doctor's hand on my back, I stepped into the room and saw Frank. His face was buried in the white wrinkled sheets that covered our boy to the neck, and his shaking body looked like it wanted to climb up and over the bed. I could hear his muffled crying, like a soft humming, and from behind me, a nurse paging someone. Past his shoulders I saw Jeremy's face. His eyes were closed, and his red mouth had gone purple and hung half-open. His white hair was camouflage against the white pillow. I remember standing there beneath those buzzing fluorescent lights, staring at Jeremy, and Frank on top of him, and all that came to me was that I didn't like his mouth open like that. It was something I had told him, that if he left his mouth open, the flies would land on his tongue. And when he got older, I told him it made him look stupid. And standing there in the hospital, I thought, That boy of mine looks stupid. I wish he'd close his mouth.

Since we had driven in separate cars, I went home from the hospital alone. I was thirsty. Because of that lumber Frank had wanted, I hadn't eaten anything. The board stretched from the hatchback...