She is three, no four now, and she is running along a stretch of grassy lawn. Her feet flash over the mix of brown and green blades of grass and the skirt she wears---skirts and dresses only---peals behind her, bell-shaped. Her short hair, self-cut, flops beneath three bows placed strategically yet erratically on her head. She faces forward, never looking away to either side or behind herself. Her arms and legs pump fast and hard as she races to meet up with friends to play, big kids, who are waiting for her in the cul-de-sac. Except she never thinks they will wait for her and so she, the younger child, spends her life running to keep up.
I shuffle more slowly behind her, trying to gauge the right distance to stay back---enough forward to assuage my desire to protect and enough back to respect her desire for freedom and independence.
She has no idea I am there, but I watch her closely, not just for safety but for the remembrance of pure emotion I know she feels. She is unguarded, yet. Her joy at finding and playing with friends is open and flows like a wave over and through me. Her excitement about joining in the game makes my heart beat faster. That must be it; it can't be my pace walking behind her.
But it might be my fear when I watch this baby of mine, child of my body and heart, running to a future that I don't know and cannot control.
She reaches the corner and stops. Her body is still, frozen beside a tree. I stand quietly across the street, waiting, watching, wondering when or if I should step in.
You see, what she ran towards was not there.
The children were someplace else and the cul-de-sac was empty.
When her shoulders began to sag, I spoke up, "Persistence..."
She perked up, her relief in my presence evident; she wasn't alone. This time, she didn't have to deal with the emptiness and absence alone.
"Mom!" she said, running towards me.
"They're not there, they're gone! The friends are gone!" she said.
"I know, I wonder where they went," I said, my voice a little tight because our rule is that you don't move locations without telling me and now I wondered where Patience had gone. Patience, who has chucked the shackles of my apron strings as an unwelcome weight as she hikes her own path. I have to develop sneaky skills that allow me to keep tabs while she enjoys perceived total freedom, a state she has violated by breaking a rule meant to inflate my trust with confidence.
"I no...don't know," Persistence said, shrugging. She has begun being careful to avoid "baby" language such as "amimals" for animals and "no know" for don't know. But her faith that I can fix this situation is still absolute.
"Why don't we go see if our neighbor is home to play," I said.
"Okay!" she said, and slipped her hand into mine, skipping alongside me as we walked back towards our house. This time we kept pace and walked side by side. This time my stride was confident. This time I knew my place.
In the park where I do my laps on the soft surface track there is a bench beside an oak tree. Next to the bench is a plaque with every parents worst nightmare on it. It is a memorial plaque for a boy who died when he was 18. His senior year, and mine. I did not know this boy, and once I asked my husband, who grew up here, if he did, or if he knew what had happened, but my husband was as clueless as I. Although I've read the plaque several times, it gives no clue about who the boy was or what happened to him. No hint as to why he never got to grow into a middle-aged man, as he would be now.
So I try to piece it together from the context, but I only end up with more questions. Did the family remain in the area? Do they still remain here? The bench, plaque and tree are well-kept, but perhaps that is park maintenance rather than loving family who still grieves. Was this park important to him? There is a playground and also an old rough swing on an oak tree. The swing is really just a big stick through a rope. I wonder if the boy did kamikaze stunt swinging there at that tree on that swing, with his friends, as boys will. Or did he die here? I don't know, that seems unlikely.
Perhaps it was in the water. It's a waterfront park, and the lake runs out to the bay here. I don't know whether he went voluntarily or involuntarily. Once upon a time, a guy told me a lot of teens in this town killed themselves that year. So I don't know.
I don't know how it came to be that this boy never aged beyond gaining the right to vote, but I do know that a mother and father lost their son, and their grief sits on a copper plate on a stone by a bench under an oak tree in this park. Perhaps that space was for them. perhaps his mother sat on that bench and stared out to sea, trying to undrown from the enormity of it.
How do you ever let go?
My little brother is three, no four, no three, or maybe four, and he is in the back of my car calling out the make and model of every vehicle on the road. I couldn't identify half of them. I'm in my very early 20s and we're running errands together. I'm buying some new things for my apartment and it's a hot and humid summer's day in Atlanta.
"Kudzu kudzu kudzu," we sing together as we pass a grove of dying trees choked with the parasitic vine.
"Shoot the hootch shoot the hootch!" we sing as we drive by the Chattahoochee River.
He resumes identifying cars and trucks, and I couldn't recount that for you if I tried.
But we're driving in my car, and he's gazing at the sky through my hatchback, which he loves. it lets the sky in my eyes, he tells me.
My brother is seven or eight and he's calling me on the phone crying because it has been confirmed: the schoolyard rumor is true that there is not really a real Santa Claus. He is devastated, his pride hurt because he feels fooled and his trust breached because we all lied to him. He wants me to pick him up from school and come to my house to be with me and my husband because he never wants to speak to Mom or Dad again because they lied to him.
I am sitting in my office holding my office phone. I hear the buzz from the cubicles outside my door, and I stare out my darkened UV-reflective window.
I ponder how to respond. I wonder how a very much bigger sister can be there for her little brother, because he is a child and I am an adult, one of The Adults who has perpetuated this myth on him. As an adult, I understand why we did this, why he is upset, and why he can't come to my house. If I were younger, closer to his age, I might help him run away, but I am not.
"You are going to have to go home," I say, "You are going to have to tell them how you feel." Then I told him I was so sorry, so lamely. I am trying to not wish harm to his classmates who brought him to this state. I am failing.
"I am so sorry," I say again, "So sorry this happened."
I do not know my place. I do not know what to say to him. I do not know what to say to my parents about this.
My brother is in his early twenties, finishing college, training to be an officer in the Army, and working a responsible job.
"A blackhawk has crashed [location redacted};word is no cadets on board, but 5 crew injured, at least 1 still trapped in wreckage," tweeted a friend.
Wow, I thought, that is where my brother is right now, but he wouldn't be on a Blackhawk.
I called my father.
"Your brother's not there," he said, "He's at Ft [redacted], or he's supposed to be. They were flying out today."
"Flying out today?" I asked, "Flying out on what?"
"Helicopters," my father replied and then, that moment, that's the moment it hit us: that could be the helicopter my brother was on.
"Just wait," I said, as we both tried to slow our hearts and dial back the panic to worried, "Just wait, my friend said it was four Guardsmen and an officer, that wouldn't be him. Why don't I try to dig up more details and you try to call him, okay?"
Unbeknownst to us, my father must have been calling my brother in the middle of the chaos. He couldn't reach him, and called back to say so.
"I'm sending you a link to a live ongoing news story. It sounds bad but I don't think it's him," I said, "Call me as soon as you hear anything."
Frantic time, thirty minutes, an hour, a day, a lifetime, I can't say how much time passed. I forgot to look at the clock.
This is the new normal, new normal, new normal, a part of my brain chorused behind all my wildly speculating thoughts.
My father finally called, "Your brother sent a text. He figured we'd be worried, and he said he's okay. He does know the people, and said it's a long story and he's busy so will call later when he can."
Could it only have been an hour? One hour of wondering?
I thanked God for modern technology that got us information so fast, and reassurance so quickly. I thanked God for this mercy, that my brother was okay. That today, it was not a sad story for our family. But then I remembered it is a sad story for another family. Another boy's name for another plaque.
The rock lump that had been sitting in my stomach ever since I learned of the accident moved to my throat, and my heart cried out for mercy for the injured and the killed and their loved ones.
My brother called later, and my father called me to relay the story. My brother, it seems, was standing near the helicopter, waiting for the next Blackhawk to carry him to his training exercise. he stood beside his gear, which included weapons, and the pilot gave him a thumbs up. He gave a thumbs up back, and the Blackhawk lifted up, maybe about 150 feet, and then it corkscrewed down, hard and fast. My brother and the others grabbed their gear and ran for their lives, pieces of the helicopter flying past them and pelting behind them. They then turned back, running to the crash site, intent on helping. Later they learned the fates of those on board.
He was not injured, my brother, but I think perhaps that he was hurt.
I do not know my place. I do not know my stride. I do not know the right amount of space. I do not know what to say to him.
But I will do my best, and at the end of the day, it is enough, I hope, that we try.