This monthly recurring story series tells of the loss and bittersweet redemption of the African-American Knox family, specifically Tim (father), Clarisse (mother), Laurel (daughter) and Matthew (son).

Truth is folks want me to make pretty with my pain, but there is no getting rid of pain like I know. And if it were possible, well, the end of that grief is dying again, like drowning.

—Clarisse Knox, mother,
at the wedding of her daughter, mourning the death of her son.

I see Tim and that woman across the lawn at our daughter’s wedding, and I think of the first time our son, Matthew Knox, ran away from home; he was four, and I found him in Sears. The second time he was 13. He stayed away for three days hiding out at a friend’s house even though that friend repeatedly told Tim and me, still married then although unhappily, that Mattie was not there. The friend swore he had not seen our son. Later, Tim and I, after hours of calling around, searching, and crying and raging found out that while we suffered, Mattie (Matthew) had eaten shortbread cookies and drunk orange Fanta soda, that the friend, another 13-year-old boy, had brought down to him in the friend’s basement. Mattie had watched reruns of The Jerry Springer Show, and played Mortal Combat video games–the violent ones that I would never let him play. The parents of the friend finally noticed the activity in their basement and called us. All this came out while Mattie stood stoic, staring like a captured soldier into his father’s angry face. Every time Tim poked his finger into that tiny chest, his spittle and grief came out.

“Boy, why shouldn’t I just knock the damn fool out yo’ sorry butt?” Tim raised his right hand; he wanted to beat the boy into compliance and beat his own pain—someone had to pay for that pain—out of Mattie. And this pain being removed couldn’t be a spanking, some time-out, or a talking-to. Our living room was tense; we were still in our coats; Tim’s keys, still in his hand, were cold from the January air. Mattie stood still through it all looking into the wall above his father’s head.

I stood in the doorway, nervous and dazed from losing and then finding our son. I knew, even if Tim didn’t, that the boy was too old for spanking and too young to be beat like some man. Sometimes I think, only a mother could truly know the pain of it. I touched Tim’s sleeve, pulled slowly down the right hand softly.

“Why, Mattie?” I wanted to rage too. I wanted to tell him how for three days we couldn’t drive over a bridge without thinking of him drowned, how we shivered inside at our sad thoughts as we had crisscrossed the town again and again, back and forth over at least four bridges, looking, hoping, asking, and begging. “Why you leave us, Mattie? Didn’t you think we would worry?” Mattie wavered some, enough for one tear to come down, but still he wouldn’t break rank, not the way Tim needed him to.

“’Cause,” and Matthew stared at his father. We waited for more words. And when none came, Tim slapped him then like a man, and the little boy fell into my arms, me cradling him and him cradling his cheek. Tim stepped back, both shock and satisfaction in the tense line of his jaw. He stared at the boy until Mattie put his eyes to the ground. Then the pain had been paid to Tim’s satisfaction, and Tim left me to heal the child. Only I couldn’t. “Mama, I don’t think he want us no more.” That was all he said to me, then. “What kind of stupid talk is this?” Stoic again, Mattie went into himself, but some part of me was shaken in a way I couldn’t explain. I remember then thinking that this is what death feels like coming, and I wanted to snarl and protect my family from danger. I had a feeling of mortal danger in my house, but there was nothing tangible to fear in my living room. Still that feeling never went away. I held him in my arms until he wouldn’t let me anymore.

“Mama,” he began, searching my face, and then stopped. Something in my eyes and my little boy couldn’t say what he needed to say; he saw something weak there and he wouldn’t break me. He struggled in my arms then. My arms only released because he pulled away— because he was more of the man than I knew, and I couldn’t hold him any longer.

Today at the wedding, I see Tim frown, pull some table linens straight, talk again with the band, peer at some young girl in a sky blue dress that we didn’t invite. Everything must be right now for our daughter, Laurel. He’s a tight wire and I don’t think he can take anymore loss. Because three years after he ran away, our little boy was dead. He had run with the wrong crowd, got shot. And even though he didn’t drown, I always think he drowned. And if any stranger would ask me, (although no one ever did), I would tell them my son drowned. And we were just a little away, and we rushed to the shore, and he was four or just a little older, and we both held him still wet from the water. I know it didn’t happen that way. The truth was that we were away, and lost, losing ourselves in deception, denial and divorce. I know it didn’t happen that way, but I can’t tell anyone else the truth. I see Tim across the lawn talking, and I think of the truth that our Mattie was so alone and probably scared—because he knew what his father was doing, knew his family was sinking. Someone had to pay for that pain. I could tell Tim what I know, but no one deserves the truth I think I know. I swallow back a river’s current. Sometimes, I think, only a mother could truly know the pain of it.

About The Author

Telisha Moore Leigg is a writer, teacher, daughter, and mother of six-year old twin boys…unless you know her husband ; then make it triplets. She enjoys Japanese, swing dancing, and reading naughty books.