Celia opened the dryer and felt a warmth brush past her face. Justin’s size 4T Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls had been rattling around in there for the past hour. The brass fasteners were probably hot, so Celia avoided folding the overalls.
Celia grabbed a t-shirt from the hot jumble of clothing. She held up the shirt and remembered its design. The Force Awakens was Justin’s favorite movie. Celia took him to see it on opening weekend. Celia didn’t know anything about Star Wars but thought that Justin, being a four year old boy, would like it. What kid didn’t like space ships and laser swords, right? Aside from the tsk-tsk glances from disapproving (and nosy) mothers, who obviously thought Justin was too young to see a Star Wars movie, she and Justin had a blast.
The same day that Celia and Justin saw The Force Awakens, they stopped by Wal-Mart to get a rotisserie chicken for dinner. The Star Wars display of clothing, toys, and other merchandise nearly assaulted them as they entered the store. “That one,” Justin said, jumping up and down in excitement, pointing to a t-shirt with the nefarious Kylo Ren on it. Kylo wore his evil mask and held a broadsword light saber.
Celia folded the shirt and set it atop the dryer. Even though Justin didn’t wear these clothes anymore, she folded each article deliberately and purposefully.
Celia reached into the dryer. She burned her hand on one of Justin’s metal overall clasps. “Fuck!” she said. Celia never got the hang of cleaning up her language for Justin. After a rather contentious week of no “shits,” “damns,” or “hells,” it only took stubbing her pinky toe for Celia to exclaim “MOTHERFUCKER!” loud enough for even the upstairs neighbors to hear. Celia fell to the floor in pain. Justin ran to her side, pointed at her twisted toe, and said “Motherfucker!” with the sweetest four-year-old boy smile Celia had ever seen.
Celia grabbed a pair of Justin’s Toughskin jeans from the load. Celia had repaired a tear in Justin’s jeans some years ago. One afternoon, Celia took Justin to the park. The playground had a three story, metal rocket slide as a centerpiece. Justin accessed the first level of the slide from a simple ladder. On the inside of the rocket, a second ladder gave entry to the second level. A slide protruded from the second level to the ground and a third interior ladder provided access to the third level. Justin, being small for his age, was able to slip through the metal bars that surrounded each level of the slide.
“Mommy! Look at me!” Justin exclaimed from the outside of the rocket, scaling its exterior, 20 feet off the ground. Celia had been scrolling on her phone and wasn’t paying attention. “Justin, no!” Celia exclaimed. In a split second, Justin realized he was doing something wrong, hesitated, and slipped from the third floor exterior of the slide. On the way down, his Toughskins caught a protruding bolt. Justin just hung there by his pants. “Mommy! Look at me!” he said again. Celia expected at least some kind of gash, contusion, or injury, but, when she retrieved Justin from the second level of the slide with the help of the nearby fire department, he was unscathed, save a tear down his jeans and some light bruising on his back.
Celia ran her index finger down the sewn pattern of Justin’s Toughskins. She folded the jeans and placed them next to Justin’s Star Wars t-shirt.
Celia took Justin’s blue blanket from the dryer. It had been crisp and new the day he was born, but time is unkind to baby blankets. Justin carried Blue with him everywhere he went. Blue was Justin’s matador cloak when Celia and he played bullfight. Blue was Justin’s Superman cape when he saved the world from the giant stuffed panda, Bamboo. Blue was Justin’s snot rag when he caught a cold. Celia wondered if wear and tear caused Blue to tatter more than the constant washing Blue demanded.
Justin had Blue by his side that first day in the hospital. A month prior to admission, Justin had developed a pesky cough that just wouldn’t quit. Then, Justin began to vomit. Celia had endured Justin’s vomiting before, but this particular bout was chronic, if not constant. He was throwing up daily. Sometimes he spewed from his nose and eyes. Justin stopped eating his favorite Nutella slathered chocolate chip waffles. Justin’s bones ached. Deep bruises tattooed Justin’s arms and legs. Then, one morning, Justin had a seizure.
The doctors told Celia not to worry. Lukemia had a 90% cure rate. At first, Justin’s treatment went well. But then it didn’t. Justin was among the 10% of children who rejected the medication. But still, every time the nurse rolled Justin back for a round of chemo, he swirled Blue over his head and said, “Mommy! Look at me!” Celia knew, in that deep down momma bear sort of way, that the doctors’ suggestion to remove Justin’s spleen was a bad idea.
She paced the waiting room with Blue in hand. The doctors told Celia that Blue couldn’t be in the operating room because Blue wasn’t sanitized. She tightened Blue around her hands so tightly that, had she wrapped Blue any tighter, she would have lost a finger or two. Maybe if Blue had been with Justin, things would have been different. Maybe if the doctors weren’t so incompetent to think that removing a vital organ from a child who bruised easily would be a “quick fix,” Justin’s story wouldn’t have ended the way it did.
Celia continued to fold Justin’s clothes. After he departed, she sobbed everyday for for a while. Somedays were better than others, but most of them really sucked. Time healed Celia eventually. But even still, five years later, irrepressible tears rolled down her face as she folded the last bit of clothing from Justin’s brief time here with her. Each fold whispered, “Mommy! Look at me!” and somehow made everything a little better.