Trigger Warning: infant/child loss, drowning
The day my daughter died, I became the villain of my own life story.
When your child dies of cancer, there are fundraisers and flower delivery vans and friends taking shifts sitting up with you through the long black nights and washing your hair.
When your child dies and it’s your fault, there are no homemade casseroles filling your freezer, no one to hold your hair back as acrid vomit wracks your body through the early morning hours, bilious and yellow from the lack of meal trains organized on your behalf.
There are half-hearted assurances and crepe-thin oaths that you did nothing wrong, but no one holds your hand as you trudge, desperate and empty, behind a too-small casket, upturned palms wretchedly empty.
Because what kind of mother lets her daughter die? What kind of mother? What kind of mother?
Annie was born with a full head of chili-red hair.
“It’s a girl!” Chip cried, a tear coursing down his cheek, tinged green from his chronic, but now long forgotten, aversion to blood.
“I’m so proud of you,” he whispered, and brushed an errant strand of hair, soaked with sweat, from my forehead, before planting a tender kiss on the top of my head.
“I can’t believe she’s here.”
In my worst moments, I imagine the last seconds of her life. Was she old enough, conscious enough of her own mortality, to know what was happening? I remember the bulging, terrified eyes of a newborn as a snug onesie is pulled down over their bulbous, disproportionate heads, and for one fleeting second they are in darkness, without air or sense or comfort. If an infant can feel horror, primordial, instinctual, then surely she must have felt the same?
Did she flounder, thrashing, splashing, grasping for someone? Or was she assured, in the way that babies are, that her mama would swoop in, be there any moment, save her? Was there a moment she realized help wasn’t coming? Was she afraid? What images of her so-terribly-short life bathed the backs of her eyeballs as her brain slowly suffocated? Did she see my face? Did she feel something akin to betrayal? With her final fragment of consciousness, the last fire of a synapse, did my daughter’s brain shriek, Where is my mama?
In the best moments, I have hope that perhaps she simply floated, weightless and peaceful, from the shores of this life, bobbing in the wake of her own tumble, until the over-chlorinated cocoon that carried her away from me faded into stardust and eternity.
On bad days, I know, in my deepest, most terrible self, that she didn’t.
Her gummy smile used to crack her face open, her mouth stretched wide, as if she couldn’t contain all that joy within one terribly small person, as if it needed an outlet to pour out of.
In the long, horrible days that came after, reporters from KJTV and WP10 and who knows where else congregated in threadbare clusters at the end of our road, loping tentatively toward our home from time to time, craning their necks and their cumbersome cameras over our cinderblock fence, trying to catch a shot of the pool, or of me, or, in a best case scenario, of me lying prone, beating my fists against the chipped terracotta tiles by the pool, I suppose? I thought about it, more than once.
Eventually Chip brusquely cleared the block, physically shooing the sensible pump-clad and contoured reporters away from our home. “Leave us alone, please,” I heard him, his voice catching on a suppressed sob.
“Mr. Sutton,” a bright voice, dripping with flimsy concern, peeled. “Do you blame your wife for what happened to your daughter?”
Chip’s voice was gruff. “My wife loved Annie. Please, we lost our girl. Leave us be.”
When the front door slammed behind him, his eyes traveled up to meet mine. He nodded stiffly, and padded to his office, the door clicking closed behind him.
She only took contact naps. She’d open her bleary, inky blue eyes and I’d watch as the fog of sleep lifted, her momentary panic, her pupils contracting until they focused on my hovering face. And then the smile, that earth-shattering smile- relief and unbridled delight. Ah, you’re still here, it seemed to say. “You don’t have to be afraid, Annie. I’ll always be here,” I whispered, lips fitting into the shallow valley of the bridge of her nose.
In the Sheriff’s Office, they asked the same question in about a million ways: could she walk? How did we suspect she got out there so quickly? Was she still crawling? Eleven months is awfully young to be walking independently, wasn’t it?
Eventually Chip asked, “Are you implying that someone moved her out there? Are you trying to ask if someone put her out there on purpose?”
The Sheriff waved the question away, a troublesome gnat zigzagging around the room, but its buzzing filled my ears until a migraine bloomed in my cerebellum and two deputies had to help me out to the Subaru, Chip three paces ahead. He opened the door and I spilled into the backseat. The ride home was silent, but for the buzzing question still flitting between us.
Her hot dog fingers would bury themselves into the depths of my thick hair and spool ribbons of it into her soft palms, pulling my face toward hers for a wet, open-mouthed kiss.
As it tends to do, the news cycle moved on, and our front yard fell silent. It felt like a force field was cloaking our existence, because the world moved on without us- without her- and without the reporters furtively shifting through our trash, now no one acknowledged our existence, our loss, at all. Her name disappeared from the local papers. The medical examiner, and social services, and the crematory, satisfied now, all stopped calling, stopped dropping in unannounced. I felt invisible, but for the realtor’s terse jerk of the head in our direction, mumbling something to a prospective buyer as she ushered them inside our neighbors’ home, which had been abruptly listed for sale.
It was just Chip and me and a stack of pink and yellow-striped birthday presents piled up in the corner of the living room that I couldn’t bear to move, even though my entire being vibrated with agony with every glance in their direction.
But then, suddenly, it was just me.
The divorce papers called our marriage “irretrievably broken”.
“While Mr. Sutton believes that Mrs. Sutton was not maliciously responsible for the death of their child, it is indisputable that Mrs. Sutton’s actions directly led to her death, the strain of which has contributed to the total and irreconcilable breakdown of the marriage.”
“Oh, Annieeee,” I trilled as I walked back into the living room, fingers sliding my second-day blowout through the second loop of a hair tie on autopilot. Paw Patrol filled the room with a campy beat.
I didn’t notice that she wasn’t in her spot on the couch so much as the back door was open.
Through the open blinds, I saw it.
A mass of matted red hair bobbing just above the nearly-still surface of the pool. The blob of pink fleece footie pajamas blurred through the lens of the water.
And then I was thrashing through waist-deep water, cutting my way toward her, fumbling to lift her head out of the water as it flopped haphazardly about, all the tension released from her tendons and sinews, heavy with water.
This was not reality. Couldn’t be. This was an unwanted image flitting through my brain, another intrusive thought, like how each time I descended the staircase the picture sprang to my mind, unbidden, of fumbling, dropping her down the stairs, her doughy body thumping down each tiled step, punctuated by sharp cries, until there was only silence and one final thud. And then I’d close my eyes, shake my head, and the horror would fall away like ash, and she’d be there, gurgling and happy, tongue tentatively poking at her newest tooth, and okay. She was always okay.
No, no, no.
My brain buzzed with only this word, beating out a frantic rhythm that kept pace with my racing heart. There was no sound; no splashing or the sodden squelch of laying her on the cold deck tiles, but I would read later than the neighbors called the ambulance when they heard my screams.
No, no, no. It was only three minutes.
Her eyes were half-open, almost sleepy, like when she fell asleep, milk-drunk and content at my breast. Peaceful, like she’d never known fear.
Oh god, had she been afraid?
But she was horrifically still. I knew, even as I slammed my palms against her sternum to the beat of Stayin’ Alive, like they’d taught us in our parenting classes. She was still and gray in the way the stillborn son I’d delivered as a teenager had been. “You’re going to hell,” my grandmother had spat as I sobbed over his fragile body, with its hazy skin already beginning to sag, completely devoid of a subterranean current of moving blood flushing his face. “God is punishing you.” She called over her shoulder as she slammed the wardroom door shut behind her.
The paramedics peeled me off her like a second skin.
My fingers raked the air, reaching for her even as the frenetic scene unfolded around me, like one of those doubletime shots of traffic moving through an intersection, cars blurred into nothing but for their taillights streaking out behind them like the tail of a comet.
No, no, no.
My therapist’s office is dimly lit and layered with essential oil diffusers sending up gentle puffs of lavender-scented clouds, down-filled throw pillows, and a tinkling Buddha water fountain. It’s intended to be soothing, but it feels more patronizing. I wince at a fluffy stuffed animal tucked into a shelf, tears pricking my eyelids. It seems exceptionally cruel for CPS to mandate my presence here now that I have no child.
Dr. Linda nods and smiles serenely from time to time, but mostly I sit and cry more than I say anything of note. I certainly don’t feel rehabilitated or supported or like I have been aided in any sort of revelation about how I got here, to this nubby Ashley loveseat in this dark office.
Today I’m angry.
(That’s normal, Dr. Linda says.)
Today I rant. And I cry. And she nods and smiles and says, “Go on.”
Why is it that in true crime shows, as a victim lays clinging to life, they use their last breaths to name their killer?
Is it that vengeance burns in our bloodstreams even after the rest of our humanity has been flayed from our bones? Is laying blame more powerful than everything else?
These questions keep me up at night now, buffeting me with their sharp edges.
“Interesting,” Dr. Linda says. “Let’s explore that idea. What do you think Annie’s last words would have been?”
I’m momentarily paralyzed by the exercise.
“Annie had only learned one word when she died.” My voice is rough, and the words taste so bitter I spit them out.