I’m in the third grade and eight years old. I won’t be nine until November. I was asleep but I’m awake now, and I want a drink of water. The room is dark. I push the covers away and step onto the cold floor. The glow from the living room at the end of the hallway is just enough that I can find my way to the bathroom. I’m almost there when I hear voices. Voices and sounds I don’t recognize.
I pass the bathroom and tiptoe to the edge of the living room where I see three men wearing white pants and jackets. One talks to my father. Another writes on a clipboard. The third guy bends over a stretcher that is about three feet from the floor. He’s talking to my mother who lies on the gurney with a sheet pulled to her shoulders, one arm across her forehead. She moans softly.
My father hurries toward my mother. I hear her as she cries, “Oh, my head hurts so bad.” The men in white push her toward the front door. When the gurney is halfway out, I scurry back to bed and pull the blanket over my head. I don’t want a drink anymore.
Later that night
I’m in bed. The neighbor lady from next door pats my arm. “She’s going to be okay. She has to stay in the hospital for at least two weeks then they’ll do surgery. You can’t visit her in the hospital because children have to be twelve to visit, even during visiting hours. But she’ll call you on the phone when she can. It will be okay.” I don’t believe her; I know it won’t be okay. But I don’t say it out loud. I listen and hope she’s right.
Three weeks later
I’m playing outside when I’m called to the phone. My mother wants to talk to me. I haven’t let myself think much about her; I’ve pretended everything is normal. She tells me she’ll be home in two weeks. I hang up and think perhaps I was wrong; maybe she will be okay.
Sometime after the phone call
My older sister tells our brother and me that Mother has died. There are lots of people in my house. My father is pacing back and forth, crying, saying, “Why did this have to happen to me?” I think, it happened to my little brother and me, too, and he’s just in first grade. And my sister, even though she’s a grown up already. I don’t say anything.
I am at my grandmother’s house. The downstairs is full of hushed conversations and grown-ups milling around. My mother’s body is in a casket on stilts, high above my head. Someone picks me up and asks if I want to look at her. I say no and turn my head away. I don’t want to see her dead.
The next day
My sister tells me, “You can go to the funeral if you want to, but you don’t have to.” No. I don’t want to go.
Sometime after the funeral
I sit in the closet under the staircase. My mother’s dresses hang above my head. I’m angry at her. Why did you have to die? If one of you had to die, why couldn’t it have been Daddy? You know he can’t take care of us. I feel guilty about wishing it had been him instead of her. I do love Daddy, but I know he can’t take care of us. Mother could take care of us without Daddy, but he can’t without her. My anger dissolves because I know she wouldn’t have died if she could’ve helped it. She wouldn’t have left us.
I’m old now. Still, I wonder, how did I know so young that everything would not be okay.