It has been years since it happened. She is a still mother. Meaning, she keeps her body very still and she still considers herself a mother. She is rigid about this. Nicole Miyashiro
She sits, hand-over-hand, and holds your eyes in her gaze, because she has never backed down from talking about her mistake, although others might. Others might cower and remain passive and quiet and hope to disappear and be forgotten, but not her. Not Maddie, who was born Madeline and who had always questioned things incessantly as a child, but why? Why, Mommy—do people die?
And you know that Maddie, now grown, with the knowledge of life’s most cruel lessons, would be the first to give a straight answer – is about to answer it straight out.
From her experience.
“You see. There was this woman at the bus stop,” she says.
“This woman, she seems unrelated to everything else, but she is who I think of, because she was standing there at that bus stop every time I drove by on my route to work.
“The thing about it is, I can see her in my mind there at the bus stop. She wore sneakers and cropped spandex pants and a t-shirt. She held a rolled yoga mat beneath her arm, and the impression I had of her was: here is a pleasant, gentle woman on her way to yoga. She was smiling, not at me of course, there was a distance between us, but to herself, smiling with peacefulness.
“The traffic light would turn, and I would drive my car along the curve, maybe catch a glimpse of her in the rearview, and go about my day. So, you see, I expected her there, and she’d be there. She fit right into place with a happy ease, and I always liked seeing her. It was comforting to see her there, on her way to yoga, me on my way to work, the two of us doing what we both did at that time on those days.
“Funny thing is,” she leans towards you as if to indicate the secretive part.
“I saw her, right? Every day, but I didn’t see her at all. Maybe she was a bit older than me, maybe had some gray slipping through her long braid, a slight curve to her stance, but she was fit and light and, like I said, gentle. From my perspective. Here was this distant, gentle presence I was used to seeing every day, but if she walked up to me, I wouldn’t know her. I wouldn’t know her at all,” she sits back into her chair with defeat.
This is not the sort of story you press someone to rush. Especially because you know how it ends.
Maddie stares past the opened window of her sitting room and out toward her lawn that rolls and dips for an acre to meet the road hidden by the curving land and its full trees. You know the road is there because you came in on it. You’ve driven to her house often and while none of its interior has changed – framed portraits on the walls, green palms curling out from a clay vase, the coffee table book askew and opened to a cloud-draped mountainscape – so much is missing.
You lean into the paisley pillow that has always been in this armchair and can feel that a once familiar energy in the house has fallen away.
A mild breeze washes over you and then disperses, some of it expanding inside your chest with new space. This is one sign that the window is opened. The other is that you see that it is. The room has not been stuffy so much as still. And it is not nearly as hot as a typical summer day, like the day Maddie is getting to talking about.
“So,” she says. “In the morning, my alarm went off at 5:50. I always allow for 10 blinking minutes before I force my body out of bed. By six, I get myself up, peek at Kirkland’s baby monitor, make sure he’s okay, still resting quiet.
“Now, I can go on and on about the daily habits: using the bathroom, teeth brushing, face cream application…, but those I’ll leave out. The important part here is how automatic, yet precious it all was – seeing Kirkland asleep in the morning, still dreaming, safe and warm in bed. The feeling was devine. Perfect. Looking back, well, there was nothing better than moments like that, slipping into his shaded, sun-sliced bedroom and planting one on that smooth, giving cheek of his. He’d grumble and move a little before falling quiet and still again.”
She laughs. “So peaceful and sweet to watch him there with his eyes closed and dreams swimming in his head…
“Oh, but, what I’m meaning to say is, at the time it was all so tender and it was rushed and distracted, too. I’d be thinking about the next task, the next step, in a moment like that. And you see, that was where things had started to go wrong. So terribly wrong.” It’s the first you hear a quiver in her voice and see her smile fall to a numb plateau.
You hear her swallow.
“Let me get to the point.
“The mornings were the same, you see. Any memory I have could have come from any one of those mornings or a combination of them all. Every morning, there was brushing teeth, dressing, eating, packing his daycare bag, combing his hair, all of it in loosely the same order, but always those same things, the things that needed to be done.
“John and I each played our part, had a role. Makes it easy, right? Automatic.
“I snapped Kirkland into the rear-facing car seat of John’s car. Kissed him, told him I loved him… Every day. Whenever I closed that car door, stood back, hand-to-hip, waving my goodbyes, well that was the click in my routine, when things turned over from seeing that Kirkland was good and ready for daycare to then hustling to dress and get myself ready for work. My morning responsibilities with Kirkland were complete once John took over, driving off into the sun-filling morning.
“It was warm even early on that day. When I snapped Kirkland into his car seat, something different happened after that. Different, yet the same as every other day. Routine is not the same as remembering, I’ve come to find. You can move forward on routine without really thinking, without noticing… In a way, things were going just as they should, just as they always had. That’s where the tragedy lies. It was such a simple change, I had already forgotten it.
“You’re thinking, how could a mother do that? Plain forget? And I could go on and on with how harried our mornings sometimes were or how the occasional pressure of a work project gripped my brain or how the fog of an unexpected bill could hover every step of my morning, but these were not always happening and certainly not happening all at once, and on this day, well… I did receive an unexpected work call after buckling Kirk in, and this was also a different sort of thing, not common in my routine.
“I took the call.
“Thing is, I was already dressed and ready for work, because I had to be that day, which had me gearing toward work-related thought and the part of my morning that carried me the rest of the way there. The call pushed my mind over the edge to that side, the work side, and before you know it, I was driving to work, like I always did. Every day. I was on the road, in my routine, but obviously things were different, I just wasn’t seeing it.
“Remember that woman?”
“She wasn’t there. The bus stop felt bare and ominous as I passed, steering the car through the turn, thinking, no yoga today? And I actually felt disappointed or maybe even a twinge of fear that she might be sick. Or gone. Something terrible.
“That’s what stays with me, that woman, that moment. Because, I went ahead to work, parked the car, and heard the air conditioner expire with a huff as I clicked off the ignition—at least, that’s the way I think of it in my mind, an abrupt hush yelling at me with a final rush of cool air. Then I got out.
“I locked that car.”
A tear runs down her cheek. Though you know where it came from, it seems unlikely to have come from such a wide and wakeful stare. She doesn’t move to wipe the wet streak away. She breathes deep, and there has been no breeze through the window since that single one, but the temperature in the room is weightless, comfortable.
“By 11am, it was 89 degrees,” she reminds you. “By 12, above 90. Here I was dipping my head into offices, shuffling papers, making calls in the cool air-conditioned building and outside…” She gulps air.
You expect a rush of tears, a cowering sob to follow, but she won’t allow it. She sucks shaky breaths in and then steadies them on the way out until she can speak again.
“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of it. How, at first, he must have felt those swatches of sun warming his skin, the kind that’s sort-of soothing after blasts of air conditioning have been turned off. But then… he must have noticed he was alone, that I was gone. He must have waited patiently at first, because it was in his nature. So patient, easygoing. He was not a kid who threw tantrums or who would cause any kind of ruckus. After a while, though, panic must have risen in his chest, consuming him worse than that awful heat – the idea that his mother had left him.”
Her face becomes pale, and you want to tell her to stop. That there is no need for her to go on. But you see that she will continue with her story. She must.
“I imagine him calling and calling for me. Every day I hear him. I see him trapped in that car and swallowed by that horror, that hurt, of being left there alone. His own mother, for Christsake. I’d locked him in!”
You’ve forgotten yourself, and she sees your shock, the exaggerated whites of your eyes, before you can lower your gaze to the floor. But Maddie does not accept pity.
“Listen to me,” she says, taking your hand as if all of this has something to do with you, and this makes you want to stand and leave, to deny that you see it now, that you understand how all of this could have happened without anyone being able to stop it. “John asked me to drop Kirkland off at daycare that day, and I planned on it. I did. I’d prepared everything earlier by just a few minutes.
“That woman at the bus stop. She wasn’t there, and I noticed. But didn’t. I think about that every day. That moment.”
She releases her grip on your hand and then sits back with a resigned sigh.
“Every day I miss him.”