“Grief is memory’s ragged stillbirth.”Mandy Blue Eyes, AKA Anna-Margaret Corinth Ragslin, mother of Isabelle and Beau.
I am told in the winter of 1995 it snowed many times inches deep and then ice; branches were brittle, crystal fingers that smacked the house when the wind blew. For days, people were snowbound, nothing in and no one out; the radio weather advisory warned everyone to stay put. Emergency services stalled. And still, the next day it snowed more. Inside our home, Mother paced bouncing me on her hip, mumbling prayers, because I was seven and had two days earlier caught a deep coughing sickness that lasted.
I don’t remember this illness and anyway Mother said I wasn’t really awake, just crossing back and forth through a fevered in-between, too hot to cry yet cold to the bone. Mother said when she shook me, I just watched her listless. Mother told me later that rubbing ice over my face in the university housing kitchen, she thought I wouldn’t make it. In that moment, she said she screamed for my professor Papa and his heathen myths–reached out for any link in the chain to tether me here.
Mother told me I said, “Papa, I hurt,” but I don’t remember. I just remember you, Papa, and how you held me, talking and talking, telling me what I know now are pagan stories of how humans survive the whims of the gods. Mother says the power went out that fourth night. Mother had tried cool baths, cold water on the forehead, followed by heated blankets, to break the fever. She cooed and baby-begged me to drink or eat. But you, Papa, never talked to me like a child. In the end, Mother said you calmly threw me in the snow and banked me there. I don’t remember the cold, but I remember you holding me with my blue lips shivering. And me, I was seven, old enough, hearing you talk, always talking, “Anna-girl!” when I tried to sleep. I think I remember Mother crying on the back porch.
I was twenty-seven when I remembered again that night, when I remembered you saying, “Anna-girl, you’re dying. Fight! Do you want to stay with your mama and your papa? Huh, girl?” I remember Mama’s anguished cry as I finally spoke. “Papa,” was all I said. I remember Mother pacing, whisper-begging to call Dr. Rolwan. “Shhhh…I’ve got you,” my papa said.” You told me my soul couldn’t go, so it didn’t.
Papa, little more than twenty years later, complete strangers whispered in grocery store aisles when I went out because of the trial and all. So I stopped going out until family made me. They tell me that my husband, Michael, wasn’t family anymore, although they understood that I can’t let that go too. Papa, Michael will not talk to me, and I got the
feeling folks thought it pitiful and wrong to ask any advice from the man who you still loved but who let your babies die. But I think you know the truth, Papa. That when he left by his own hand, how inside one could wail because one couldn’t even ask him how to go on yourself. I think you know how in pain, people choose sides; strangers chose sides. But we know, love is not a shadow at night and we can’t just choose the light because we are cold. I admit it. There has been a decline. Correction. I have declined, Papa. You may not recognize me. I blame the newspapers, Michael’s trial, both the ambiguity and zipped-pocket knowledge of small towns that led Hazel Mountenberry to me in the Food Giant grocery store in Boris, North Carolina, on a Tuesday. She saw me at the edge of the dairy and Popsicle aisle by the sliced cheese. I was twenty-four.
Cruel-curious people make me so ashamed to have lived without my babies. I know that I was so young, but I at first couldn’t feel their loss. Couldn’t really understand the sweet weight of arms full, now empty. I wasn’t raised to tell them that Isabelle still wet the bed at four and sometimes I didn’t change the sheets but crawled in beside her so she wouldn’t feel ashamed. I did not say that Beau, the baby, still wanted the breast, but I had weaned him and he was too old to go back, but sometimes when he cried more milk somehow came, and I gave him that comfort.
Papa, it was a chance encounter, my first fall. Mother just left me to go to the other end of the aisle for eggs. Usually and recently, she wasn’t thirty feet from me. But now, months gone after the big pretty funeral in stepfather Harold’s big Baptist church on Monroela Avenue, and almost a year after Michael was gone; the guilt of our children’s accidental death was a plague that ate his heart. Ms. Mountenberry who was old, pale, wretched and self-righteous said, “God knows these things, dear. He knows what we can bear,” and she touched my hand before walking away toward the bread. My soul opened up there and broke just as Mother came back with the eggs. Mother dropped those eggs and I bent in the aisle methodically picking up the yolks, more smearing than retrieving. Mother knew I was gone then.
Papa, the drinking began two years after the children’s death and I blame no one. I drank in closets, in the car, in the back of the laundry room. One day I wandered to the front yard and passed out piss-drunk. At twenty-six, I tore through Mother and Harold’s garage door by backing and breaking and backing and gunning down until I broke free. Poor choices. Rich pain. Fate and grief became lovers. You have to know about Mother now, how her cancer was marching her toward ruin. Papa, I sat in corners with my vomit, with my selfish sadness and Mother going, leaving. Sadness is a violin un-rosined. I do not blame Harold. Mother’s husband couldn’t split his grief between his soul and mine. By now, I was twenty-seven and every day Harold grew closer to asking me to go.
Papa, at first, there is denial, and I only felt the impression of my babies like an abstract painting I made where the inks stained my fingers and would never come out, and some bitterroot that I had not understood completely what I had created until it was stolen from me. Papa, Mother died when I was drunk on a ripped-vinyl-topped stool at a bar two towns over. That night she passed without her only child. Harold came and got me, didn’t say a word, put me to bed in my old room. I did not cry for him, for Mother, for my babies. And one day in April, when I was twenty-eight, the front door was open and I walked out. I did not look back and no one followed me. Papa, do you still follow me?
I ask because, Papa, you sent nothing, no gift, when they died. You did not call. You did not come back. After all you had never met them, my Isabelle and Beau. Perhaps you did not know, but I think you did. Somehow you knew.
I know I will not see you again. It’s okay. I understand too much time and regret have made us sunlight through winter’s bare branches. Papa, I never told you this, but I remember the snow too, how it felt warm and silent even though you kept calling my name. I remember you holding me when I was little, how that saved me. Papa, and…and…and… I could not do that for them, my babies. I wasn’t there to save them. One day, Papa, will the silence be sweet for me, some warm peace for me? Will someone say to my soul, “Yes Anna-girl, now you can go?” Will I be grateful for this, and will you, Papa, will you be there?