I tap my foot as I watch the cake in the oven. Is it supposed to start rising yet? The cake is still pretty flat to me, and it’s already been in there for five minutes. I open my phone and swipe down the excessive intro to the recipe until I reach the actual instructions at the bottom, which I read through another three times to make sure I got it right.
Arthur barrels into the kitchen, clutching his new toy plane that he drags through the air and a pencil. He crashes into my legs in a hug, pressing his face into my thigh and holding out a pencil.
“Have I grown this year?” he asks. “I’m five today. Am I bigger than at four?”
“Oh, yeah buddy. You used to be way down here,” I gesture to a place on my lower thigh, “Now you’re up here!” I rest my hand on top of his soft brown curls and ruffle his hair.
He giggles. “I need to mark my size on the doorframe now. Can you help?”
I blink down at him. “What do you need?”
“Mommy always takes a pencil and draws a line at my head on the door frame on my birthday. Can you help?”
I bite the inside of my cheek. “Of course,” I choke out. “Where do you want to draw it?”
“Hmm,” he hums, using his tiny finger to tap his lips. “How about there?” Arthur points to the entryway between the kitchen and the living room. He runs over and backs up against it, standing as straight as he can without getting on his tippy toes. Arthurs holds the pencil out again. “Ready!”
“Alright, little man.” I walk over and take the pencil from his hand. I rest it straight on his head, marking a line on the wall. “All finished.”
Arthur jumps away and bounces on his feet. “How tall am I?”
“Let’s see!” I try to keep the cheer in my voice and ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach. She will never get to see this. She will never get to see her boy turn five or six or seven. She’ll never see him start school. She won’t be there for him as he grows up.
I fish the measuring tape out of my kitchen junk drawer and turn back towards Arthur, who’s now driving his plane up the wall. She can’t be there for him, so I have to. When she asked me to be his godmother, I enthusiastically said yes. I never thought it would come to this.
“Alright, little man let’s see how tall you are. Can you hold this on the ground for me?” I hand him the end of the measuring tape, which he presses to the ground with his sticky palm.
I pull the measuring tape up until it meets the line on the wall. “You are 44 inches! When did you get so tall?”
He releases the tape and giggles. “How tall is that in feet?”
“Um,” I say, taking too long to do simple mental math in my head. “About three and a half feet. You’re right in the middle of three and four feet.”
“Woah,” he whispers, though I know he has no concept of what I just said. “How big are airplanes?”
I laugh. She’ll never get to answer his silly questions.
“A lot bigger than you are.”
“Hmm.” Arthur turns back and traces the line on the wall with his finger. “When will mommy come back so I can show her?”
It’s been almost a year since she left for a work trip and left Arthur with me. It’s been ten months since the taxi that picked her up from the airport crashed. Arthur still asks when she’s coming back. He seems to remember her dropping him off and expects her to show up at the doorstep any day now to pick him back up.
And I don’t have the heart to tell him that she will never see how big he’s gotten. She’ll never see who he grows up to be. Not on his birthday.
So, I force a smile and rub his back. “I don’t know, buddy.”
He looks up at me, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. His mouth opens slightly then shuts. For a second, I think he’s going to ask me another question about why his mom isn’t here. Then he lifts his airplane up in the sky and runs into the living room. I turn back to the cake and finally let the tears slip out of my eyes.
I stop stirring the noodles at the sound of a key in the lock of my front door.
“Guess who it is!” A voice calls out as the front door swings open.
“Uncle Marco!” Arthur calls, tearing down the hallway and jumping into my brother’s arms.
“Holy cow, look how big you’ve gotten!” Marco exclaims, lifting Arthur up in the air.
“I’m between three and four feet,” Arthur says proudly. “Just ask Aunt Ava.”
“It’s true,” I say, leaning against the doorway and I point to the line. “You can see for yourself.”
Marco laughs and sets Arthur down. “I’ll take your word for it.” He walks across the living rooms and gives me a one-armed hug. “And how are you holding up?” Marco asks in a low voice.
“I’m hanging in there. Though I wasn’t expecting you for a couple of days.” Marco moved to California right after graduating high school to start a company with his best friend designing some dating apps. It’s been moderately successful, considering it’s run by two nineteen-year-olds.
“I thought you might need some, you know, support today,” he says, squeezing my arm. Arthur has started poking around the giant red gift bag he brought with him. “Plus, I wasn’t going to miss my favorite nephew’s fifth birthday! You’re going to be driving before we know it!”
“Dear god, I hope not.”
“Is this for me?” Arthur asks, jabbing the bag.
“Why don’t you open it and find out?” Marco grins.
Thankfully, Arthur didn’t mention his mom for the rest of the day. I don’t know that I would have been able to hold it together at another mention of her. The rest of the day went by in a blur. Marco got Arthur some RC airplanes that they put together and flew in the backyard while I finished icing the cake and making spaghetti, Arthur’s favorite, for dinner. We ate dinner and the cake, which fell apart but still tasted good, then watched Moana. Arthur fell asleep and Marco carried him up to bed.
I stuff wrapping paper and plastic from opening his presents into a trash back. It’s everywhere, I can barely see the carpet which, God, desperately needs to be vacuumed.
“Do you ever take a break?” Marco asks as he walks in carrying two classes of red wine.
“There is no time for breaks when you’re raising a child.”
“Well, take one now. Just for a couple minutes. I can do this later.”
I drop the trash back and lean against the couch. Marco sits on the floor next to me and hands me the glass, which I thankfully take a drink from.
“I think Arthur had a good day.”
“The cake was a failure. It fell apart.”
“It was not a failure. Arthur still enjoyed the shit out of, and you know that boy was going to make it messy anyway. He loved it.”
“But Brooke would have literally made it perfect. Dinner, the cake, presents, everything. She always had things just right.”
Marco looks down and fidgets with a scrap of tissue paper on the ground. “She was good at those things.”
“She was great at being a mom. I just feel like Arthur is getting robbed of those things. I can’t even make a stupid cake. I feel like I’m failing him and failing her. I don’t know why she trusted him to me. I’m still learning to take care of myself.”
“Ava, stop. You can’t compare yourself with Brooke. She was older, more established. You had just graduated college not even a year before she, you know. Arthur loves you. And you are doing a great job with him. He’s adjusting so well.”
“I don’t think he realizes that she’s gone,” I choke out, tears not freely flowing. “He always asks about her. I measured his height this morning and he asked when she would be able to show him. We talked about him starting preschool and he asked if she would be there on his first day. And every time he asks, I can’t tell him the truth. I can’t face it myself; how can I explain it to him?”
Marco puts his arm around me, and I rest my head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, “It’s not fair. You shouldn’t have to do this alone. I’m going to talk to Derrick tomorrow and see if I’d be able to work from here. You shouldn’t have to do this alone. I’ll move back here and be around to help out with school schedules and dinners and anything else you need.”
“Marco, no, absolutely not. You’re not moving. You can’t. Your job is in California.”
He shrugs. “There’s nothing I can do in California that I can’t do in New Hampshire. Well, for the most part.”
“California is your dream; you can’t give that up.”
“You had dreams to. Remember all those travel plans you made? When shit like this happens, dreams have to wait. You shouldn’t be the only one who has to sacrifice something.”
A sob breaks out, and Marco stays quiet, rubbing my arm and not complaining as my tears soak his shirt. I’ve been trying to cope with the loss of my best friend, my sister while also trying to raise her son. There’s no one around to help, and I had to ask my relatively new job to work from home for an extended period of time just so I could take care of him. I don’t know what I’m doing.
“I can’t ask you to do that,” I whisper in between sniffs.
“You’re not asking,” Marco chokes, and I know he’s crying too. “It’s my decision to make. Not yours.”
We sit on the floor until all our tears are cried and all the wine is gone.
“Alright, little man, how are you feeling about preschool?” Marco asks as we walk Arthur towards the school for his first day.
“I don’t know,” Arthur replies, kicking a rock on the ground. “I don’t really know if it’s such a good idea.” He peers up at me and squeezes my hand. “Maybe I should just go back home with you.”
“You can’t, bud. I’m going to work today.”
Arthur looks up at Marco. “And what about you?”
“Come on, Arthur, preschool will be fun. They’ve got lots of toys and you’ll get to play on the playground and make new friends.”
Arthur looks at me, skepticism painted across his young face. “Yeah, but do they have airplanes?”
“They might,” Marco says.
“I still don’t know,” Arthur mutters as Marco opens the door so we can enter the school.
“Come here,” I say and pull him aside so I can kneel in front of him. “I really think you’ll like preschool. I met with your teacher, and he is super nice. I bet he might even talk about airplanes with you. I think you’ll have fun.”
“I think. And if something goes wrong, then the school will call me and either I or Marco will come pick you up right away.”
“And you’ll be here to pick me up?”
“Of course. Uncle Marco and I will both be here.”
“And we might just get ice cream afterwards,” Marco says, stooping down next to me. “If you behave, of course.”
“Really?” Arthur’s eyes light up.
“Well, if Uncle Marco is paying then absolutely.”
Arthur smiles and wraps his arms around my neck. I hug him to me and rub his back underneath the straps of his Paw Patrol backpack. I just hope I’m doing this right.
Arthur pulls back and places both hands on my cheeks. “I’m ready to go to preschool now.”
We walk down the hall and I try to ignore the judgmental looks from the other parents who are much older than I am. When we get to the classroom, I introduce Marco, Arthur and myself to the teacher, who shows Arthur his seat. We get him settled at his table and immediately gets distracted by the paper and crayons that have been set out. He starts to draw an airplane then starts talking to the girl sitting next to him about all the things that can fly. He barely notices when Marco and I leave.
“Hey, before you drop me off at my apartment, I need you to listen to something,” Marco says as we climb back into the car.
“I found this voicemail from a few years back and, well, I think you need to hear it.” Marco taps something on his voice, and suddenly Brooke’s voice crackles through the phone. And she sounds tired.
“Hey Marco, it’s me. I was just calling to chat. I tried Ava too, but she didn’t answer so I guess you're both busy living your fancy lives. So, um, yeah, I guess just call me back when you get a chance.” A pause, then she lets out a deep sigh. “Maybe you should come visit soon. I… Well, I could really use the company for a bit. This parenting thing… it’s hard, you know? Arthur is either crying or coloring on the walls or making some kind of mess and I’m just so tired. It feels like I can’t do anything right. But anyway, that’s enough of that. I love you and I miss you. I’ll try not to rant too much when you call me back. Bye.”
“Why do you still have that?” I ask, wiping a tear with my finger carefully so it doesn’t mess up my makeup.
He shrugs and smiles, eyes gleaming. “I’m really bad at deleting my voicemails. The point is, Brooke wasn’t perfect. She was a great mom, but not because she did everything right.”
And for the first time in a year, I get maybe just a little bit of comfort. I always thought she had everything under control. She was always the calm, poised one. She always did everything right. But Brooke did not sound calm at all. She sounded exhausted. She sounds like me.
“Thank you,” I say and wipe another tear.
“What are we doing?” Arthur asks as I help him out of the car and into the cemetery.
“We’re here to visit someone.”
He doesn’t ask any more questions as we pick our way through the cemetery. I haven’t been here for months, since the funeral, and I still have the way to Brooke’s grave memorized. Arthur holds my hand and peers curiously at all the larger, monumental graves but doesn’t ask any more questions. I wonder if he remembers the funeral. He was there, but he was preoccupied with finding worms in the grass then paying attention to the sermon.
We come to a stop in front of a tombstone that reads:
Loving mother, sister and friend.
It’s an aggressively basic tombstone. Marco and I were too distraught to come up with anything original. In the end, I think Marco ended up looking up what to put on a tombstone. The first few days after Brooke’s death was a blur, I barely remember.
“Aunt Ava?” Arthur asks. “Who is this?” He points to the tombstone, but the solemn look on his face makes me think he may already know.
I sit on the grass in front of Brooke’s plot and pull him into my lap. “This is where your mom is buried. I thought maybe you’d like to see her.”
He leans forward and places his hands in the grass. “This is where mommy is?”
“Yeah. When people pass away, they get placed in a cemetery so that their family can still come and say hi to them.”
“Pass away…” he echoes. “So can she hear me if I talk to her.”
I swallow and decide not to lie. “I don’t really know, buddy. But I like to think she can hear us.”
He nods and scootches forward off my lap and onto his knees in the grass. He leans forward and places his hand on the tombstone.
“Hi, mommy,” Arthur says, “I started preschool last week. And I’m between three and four feet big.”