[Trigger warnings: grief, death of a child]
Briar lifted the toddler carefully from the bath and wrapped a fluffy towel around him. She kissed his head and smelled the Burt’s Bees baby shampoo her sister preferred for washing his hair.
The warm water had made Isaac sleepy, so Briar supported his head while she dried him, as if he were a newborn. Isaac was two, a year younger than Matty had been. His skin was darker than Matty’s fair, Irish coloring. And Isaac had straight, brown hair while Matty’s was blond and curly. A piece of it was in the locket she wore around her neck.
“Mama?” Isaac said quietly. “Mama” was pretty much all the boy said. But Matty had been verbal almost from the womb. Excited, Briar believed, to communicate. He had uttered his first word at a year old, sitting on his father’s shoulders, a hand on his father’s head to keep himself balanced. He had raised his arm and pointed into the sky where a jet was leaving a fat vapor trail. “Airplane!” he had said, or tried to say. His father, a pilot, had been delighted.
As Briar relived these minutes with her son, she folded Isaac in closer to her chest. He was precious, but he wasn’t Matty. The ache she was constantly pushing down came on like rushing water, flowing over her heart like it would drown her.
She swallowed. She had been up on her knees, next to the tub, and now she eased back on her heels and took the baby with her. She just needed to rest for a minute. She closed her eyes and saw Matty’s precious face.
“You okay?” asked her sister. Briar had forgotten her sister was sitting cross-legged and quiet on the toilet seat.
“Mm,” she answered. She realized she had been holding her breath, let it out and inhaled deeply. As she gazed down at Isaac’s blue eyes, his lids drooping, she sighed. No idea, she thought, of the fragile, awful world.
“Close your little eyes.” Briar whispered. “Love, love, love you,” she added after a moment.
Briar stood and transferred Isaac to his mother. “Thank you for letting me give him his bath,” she said.
Her sister used both arms to take the boy and settle him on her right hip. With her left hand she reached for Briar’s hand and clasped it hard. “I trust you,” she nodded, speaking softly. “You can trust you.”
But Briar wasn’t so sure. She had, after all, killed her baby. Three years of counseling later she was able now to be in the presence of her sister’s child without having a panic attack. Her therapist would call the bath a breakthrough, while Briar credited her Xanax prescription.
Isaac had been born a year after Matty’s death, and for two years Briar had avoided her sister entirely. The closest she could get was to speak with her on the phone, but not about the pregnancy or birth. Briar told herself that grief, much like depression, was selfish. She castigated herself for making her sister walk on eggshells. She hated herself for being afraid of Isaac. For being afraid of herself around Isaac. For being afraid to have another baby.
Another baby was what her husband had wanted. Miraculously, he hadn’t blamed Briar for what he referred to as “the accident.” Or, at least, he didn’t show it. But all his grace and kindness only added to her pain, and she heaped onto herself the blame he should have felt.
They were separated now, she and Paul. He came over once a week for dinner, and Briar knew he was checking in to make sure she hadn’t gone completely off her rocker.
“You’ve got to snap out of this now,” he had insisted last time he had visited. “The house is a mess, and you’re too thin. You stared into space tonight while you were cooking. You’re going to burn the place down.”
“Probably,” she had answered him.
Briar held no hope for the marriage and tried not to think about her husband, told herself she did not miss him. She missed Matty.
Outside Briar rummaged around in her purse for her keys and then dropped them on the driveway. As she bent over to pick them up she reflected that everything she did was exhausting. Her legs hurt. Her face hurt. Her arms hurt from holding her sister’s baby. She hadn’t been tired like this before Matty died, had she?
If tonight was progress, and she conceded that it was, then what? She could never get her child back. And she couldn’t replace him. She was supposed to accept it and move on. Uh-huh. Right.
Briar didn’t think she could do it again. Bathe little Isaac. Once she had placed him in the water, the process had been familiar. But the effort to get there was monumental, like she was struggling up a sheer cliff face. One slip and down she would go.
She inserted the key in the ignition and jabbed at the button, then pressed the button softly, and the car started. If only she could start herself so easily. She had a good half hour’s drive in front of her, and she wished she cared.
The kindness she had received from her parents, her sister, even Matty’s pediatrician: there were a lot of people she needed to care about, too. And she did, she did. Didn’t she? She cared through what felt like a heavy gauze bandage.
Briar had swum laps that afternoon at the Y. The lifeguard who was always there waved to her as she dunked her goggles in the water so they’d seal. The pool was empty, and as Briar waved back she said jokingly, “If I get a cramp, let me drown.” She had smiled but wasn’t joking.
“Bad day?” asked the lifeguard as he walked the perimeter of the pool, twirling his whistle. He was blond with curly hair, too, and Briar was certain Matty would have grown into a handsome teenager. Matty, who would have turned six in a few months.
She had begun swimming to lose the baby weight and found she loved it. Now the endorphins just seemed to produce a kind of euphoric guilt. If she could just stay under water indefinitely. Live submerged, away from the brightness. It was quiet down there; with no pressure to get better, she could be alone with Matty.
Or if Briar could just fight the urge to breathe, she could end all of it. Paul was adamant about the monstrous damage she would unleash if she killed herself. “I already lost Matty. I can’t lose you.”
“Yeah,” she had shrugged, “okay. But you’ll get over it. You’re good at handling tragedy.” Briar sounded accusatory, and she hadn’t meant to.
Paul had just looked at her. So she said, “I’m sorry. And no, you don’t have to worry. I’m fine. Well, not fine exactly . . . .”
“It’d be very, very bad,” Paul interrupted her using his severe tone. “You need to take me seriously about this. I need to know you seriously won’t ever do that.”
All she could do was promise to try not to. So she did. And she tried not to.
Paul’s extraction of that promise irritated her. It was easy for him to ask; he hadn’t made a stupid, horrible mistake. He didn’t have to live every day with what he’d done. Briar longed to hold Matty again, and she wasn’t sure, but she thought she would be able to. Or, if there was nothing after death, wasn’t nothing better than struggling all the time?
As she drove, the seatbelt reminder began to ding, and Briar ignored it. Seatbelt-cheatbelt. She passed up the entrance to the expressway, afraid of its temptation. She preferred not to kill someone along with herself. She’d already killed her baby.
Stop, stop, stop, she told herself. Think of anything else. Concentrate on driving. Or . . . don’t. A quick, heartfelt swerve and she could plow her flimsy sedan into the brick storefront of the laundry to her right. Hadn’t Paul put gas in her car the other day? Maybe she would erupt into flames. If there was a heaven, she could be there in a matter of seconds.
The tug toward death was a massive magnet from some other world. And yet the tug of this world was clearly stronger, because here she was, surviving every wretched minute.
She was selfish and self-indulgent to want to give up. Suicide was a sin, but her life felt like a sin as well. Briar had always faced her issues head on. So round and round went her mind that when an SUV jumped the median of the parkway and headed straight for her, she froze like a deer in its headlights.
In the seconds before she reacted, Briar was ashamed. She had blatantly tempted fate. Like people who throw themselves off a bridge and whose last thought is to wish they hadn’t, Briar felt enormous regret.
But she didn’t die. And that accident, which had landed her in the hospital for a week, was, besides Matty, the best thing that ever happened to her. The impaired driver of that SUV had saved her life.
Later, it was easy to believe Matty had sent that SUV barreling toward her. To shake her up. To make her choose life. Briar knew it was Matty. Having forgiven her, he needed her to forgive herself.