The lecture continues, until the teacher has lulled us all into a drunken, tired state. No one’s really listening anymore, just copying down random notes to come back to the night before the test. As my friend and I play hangman on the corner of her paper, a man, probably an administrator by the ID tag on his shirt, enters the room. Probably here on a quick errand. I turn back to my friend, tapping the letter G in an invisible question, when I hear my name.
The man’s asking for me. I push back my chair, confused. I’m almost certain that I don’t have an appointment today. Maybe it’s a schedule change, or something of the like.
“You should bring your things,” he says, turning towards me. His expression reveals nothing, devoid of emotion. I could be called for a random survey or an expulsion hearing for all he cares. My teacher nods, confirming my release. I collect my books and backpack and turn to him, sending him a small smile to be polite.
There. A flicker of something indiscernible in his eyes. He blinks and the only connection we had that crosses the boundaries of child and adult vanishes. We walk out and down the hallway.
“Where are we going?” I ask, figuring I at least have the right to know where I am being herded towards.
“The front office,” he replies rather gruffly, not looking at me. I wait patiently for him to elaborate, but he suddenly walks faster, and I have to quicken my pace to keep up. We reach the office and the young receptionist looks up in surprise. She sees the man, then me, and realization flies through her face. She gives me a thin smile, then looks to the man.
“He’s waiting in the principal’s office,” she says, pointing towards a door to our left. The man nods and glances at me. He doesn’t say anything out loud, but I feel something resonate through me, perhaps given by the position of his body, or the clearing of his throat. However, he eventually makes up his mind and gestures for me to walk into the room. Apparently I am going alone.
A feeling of unknown dread begins to settle like silt in my stomach, I know there must be a perfectly rational explanation for this inexplicable situation, but I feel uneasy regardless. I thank them both mechanically, for what, I don’t know, then open the door to the room.
At first I don’t see him, still reeling from the strange man and the receptionist’s smile, but there he is, sitting, motionless, in an accent chair in the corner of the room. My dad. He stands up, walks towards me, takes my hands and looks into my eyes, almost searching for something. I see a tear escape out from under his glasses, and he clears his throat. He never cries.
“Your mother,” he chokes, “is with God now.”
“What?” What does he mean? Why is he crying? Why is he here? School hasn’t ended yet. He should be at work.
“Elise… There was an accident. She was driving to work-” he stops, blinking at me, and then I feel his arms around me, holding me close as I realize what he’s trying to say.
“No.” I back up, turning away from him. “No! No, no, there must be a mistake, she couldn’t have died. Dad, you’re wrong, she’s at home! Have you checked the house yet? Maybe she’s still at work. Yes! Dad, it’s okay, it was a mistake. She hasn’t died!” I start to laugh. He thought she’d been killed! It’s okay, it’ll be better now. I’ll show him. It’s going to be alright.
“Elise!” He grabs my shoulders. “Look at me! We’re going to be alright, okay, sweetie? We’re going to get through this.” He pauses, a sob caught in his throat. “I’m so sorry, Elise. I am so, so sorry.” He backs up. I watch him struggle to pull himself together as it hits me. He wouldn’t have told me if he wasn’t sure. He too would have exerted all possibilities to prove that she was alive. He had already accepted what I couldn’t. That my mother, my beautiful, lively mother, was dead.
I close my eyes. My body is slowly freezing, and the colors around me are too vibrant, too bright. A pounding headache fills my mind and brain. It throbs, again and again... I count slowly to ten, then open my eyes. It didn’t work. Dad’s still standing there, hopeless, with no control, wanting to fix this, but he can’t. This isn’t a dream. She’s still gone. Why is she still gone? Why did Death have to choose her? Of all of the people, all of the mothers, fathers, and children in the world, why her?
My shoulders begin to shake. Dad squeezes me, holding me against his chest as I sob. It’s all my fault. If I had stopped her from going to work this morning, if I had been sick then she wouldn’t have gotten into this accident. If I had only hugged her and told her to drive safe, maybe she would have seen the other car and had time to swerve. If I hadn’t woken her up on time, maybe she wouldn’t have had time to eat breakfast, and would have stopped for something on the way, Death taking someone else’s mother instead. But not mine. Why did my mother have to die? Mine?
“Elise! Elise!” He’s holding me and trembling too; it seems as though neither of us will be able to stop. We might be able to drain out all of the water in our bodies right here and now, and then we will be able to join her.
“No Daddy! Why her?” I wail. He gives no response, only shakes alongside me. I finally understand what it means to be heartbroken. I truly feel as though I will never mend, will never be okay again. I don’t even remember what it feels like to be happy. The world is barren and lifeless; nothing will ever be able to fill what we have lost.
But then I realize my father came to me first. I am the first to know. I am the oldest child. Which means that my younger brothers, my little brothers, don’t know yet. They don’t know that our mother has died. They don’t know. Didn’t Paul have a presentation in class today? He wore his little suit. I think Mom took his picture before he went to school. Mom.
“Mom. Mommy. Mommy!”
“I know, honey. I know.” He’s trying to be strong for me. My dad is trying to protect me, by not letting his own defenses crumble. Which means I have to be strong for the boys. I need to be strong for my little brothers. I need to be the closest thing they will have to a mother now. I need to comfort them, not cry, and show them it will be okay. I need to be strong.
“What now, Dad?” I pull myself up. I hate to ask him for help, to push him to make decisions, but I don’t think I can do it myself.
“We- We need to tell August next.” More tears leak out from under his glasses. I take a deep breath as I feel more tears trickle down my own cheeks. I’m not sure I can do it. To stand there and tell my 13-year-old brother that our mother is dead.
But I do. Soon history is repeating itself, and I sit with my father in a similar room, waiting for August. We tightly clasp hands over the rough upholstery of a couch in one of the offices, somewhere private where people can be broken beyond prying eyes. We sit in silence, both numb with shock and grief, until August comes, opening the door tentatively, apprehensive of what he may find. I go to him, and wrap him in the tightest, most secure hug I can give, and pray for help to do what I must next.
My dad joins us, but August is impatient. He begins to throw rapid fire questions at us.
“What are you guys doing here? Where’s mom? Is Paul okay? Where’s Mom? Ellie? Dad?”
He was always better at guessing what was going on than I was. And at accepting the facts, because as Dad repeats what none of us want to hear, he’s quiet. He doesn’t cry, not right away at least. He looks down, stiff. What he asks next is so quiet that I almost don’t hear it.
“Is this a dream?”
And I answer him, because I am a monster.
Our family hug resumes, tighter, more desperate than before, and we’re all broken, all soaked with the tears pouring out of us, mute because of the cries and primal sounds tumbling out of our mouths. I wonder if she can see us. Surely she too is broken. Surely she hates seeing her family in pain. Or does she see us? No one in this world knows where we go once we die. If we go anywhere at all. Maybe she’s just gone. Maybe we only live once. If so, what is the point in living?
But then as I look at Paul, my 8-year-old brother, his small cheeks shining with tears and confusion as I squeeze him as tight as I can, I realize we are all sobbing and broken for one reason. That we loved her. We loved our mother. Would I take away this pain if it meant forgetting her?
The funeral comes and goes in a blur. We cremate her, not wanting to keep her restrained by a coffin, and scatter her ashes on the graves of others we loved and out into the world. It’s what she would have wanted. I tell my closest friends, and accept their condolences. The words “I’m sorry” don’t fix anything, but it means they care, that I have shoulders to cry on. Somehow the rest of the school finds out. Most of them comfort me, offer their sympathies, and some their empathies. Those help the most. But after a couple weeks, it fades. They forget, the thoughts of the girl without a mom pushed from their minds making way for the issues relevant to them. I don’t blame them, though it hurts. It hurts that the world could forget her so easily. The driver who hit her had lost control, due to icy roads and the wrong tires. He came to the funeral, but he was the lone man at the back. With nobody he knew or could talk to, he left before the service ended. I’m sure he felt guilt, but it was not his wife who died. He would regret it, but move on. After all, the roads had been icy. Soon, we would all move on. We would have to, or would never be able to enjoy the time we have left.