Michelle Reinhold writes creative nonfiction and flash fiction; two of her essays and one flash fiction story have been published at Burnside Writers Collective. She believes deeply in the connectivity of writing and its power to link writer and reader through story. Michelle lives in Michigan with her husband, two daughters, and Lucy, her favorite dog in the world.
In that minute or so before you ask the question you don’t want to, while you’re going over every possible way to ask but are still not sure how to phrase it, his mom saves you. The surreal quality of the retelling makes it feel like she’s merely relating the family’s latest vacation highlights instead of the stuff your nightmares are made of. Pure love in her voice soothes your fear to a degree, but intense pain in her eyes pierces your very heart. You listen and wonder “How does this happen?” Again and again it happens.
And you think, as you stand in solemnity with all the others, “What if this were my child?” You look at your two teenage children, standing there with you, brave in their presence and yet so fragile in their demeanor—to your eyes anyway. And you wonder how protecting them can seem so impossible when it’s all you live for.
You gaze around the large, crowded room. It’s a fairly new building, and the room’s decor is tasteful, calming. You note the almost life-size portrait of the business owner and ponder briefly this life he chose to make his business. An employee excuses herself to cross in front of you with yet another plant. Arrangements, both colorful and understated, dot the landscape, living messages of comfort and peace.
Most notable, though, are the many young people. Standing, sitting, hunched over in grief, holding each other in tears and disbelief. Misty memories float around the room, landing here and there, stories picked up and carried forward with a “Do you remember when he...?” and “There was this one time when we...” Unexpected but welcome laughter mingles with the tears and sobs as these teens gather in solidarity to remember.
One of his childhood teachers waits behind you.You know this because she is chatting with the people nearby about what he was like in school as a young boy, (quiet, but a good student). And you think, “How did he get here?” To this point of no return. Your anxious gaze finds his sister, his twin. So many thoughts crowd your mind. What is she thinking? How does this fit into her reality? What comes next? The how’s and why’s, the what if’s and if only’s, lie just beneath, waiting. But there are no ready answers.
His aunt, a recent and very dear friend, finds you and you embrace. “We had no idea,” she whispers in your ear. How would you? you think. Everything can look so fine on the surface, our masks in place—we check the mirror to be sure—and off we go into yet another day that might be our last. To choose for it to be the last, though, is a mystery to you.
The line is long. You recall the ones in your own life, the ones who have tried and, thank God Almighty, failed. What is their pain? Where does it reside? How long has it lived? We each seek solace from our particular dark place—those thoughts and feelings that haunt us. What pushes one person further, to a more drastic, no-turning-back solution, than another? What is the breaking point? Again your eyes are drawn to your own teens, and again you believe that no one ever really knows another. Not really. Not even when she was once a part of you, her heart beating near yours, her very existence tied to yours inextricably.
What are they thinking? How does the unthinkable fit into their reality? On the hour-and-a-half drive down, there was time to chat. About the school day, dinner tonight, weekend plans. Directions given, a wrong turn made. This, though, this seemed untouchable. For the ride home, perhaps, you think. No, you hope.
Leaving what might be the hundredth cluster of people to draw her in that afternoon, his older sister comes to greet your older daughter. “Don’t wear black,” says her Facebook wall. “Wear yellow. He would have wanted that.” You admire her shimmery yellow tank as they embrace and chat quietly. Tears again as you stand close by, watching your daughter be the true friend you know her to be.
Your younger daughter reaches out a hand in greeting, twirling her hair around her fingers as she listens. Her nervous habit pulls at your heart as you remember those fingers wrapped in your own hair when she was tiny. And you ache as you gaze at her, wishing her away from here, wishing this were not a place anyone ever had to be. She has talked of him a few times in the past month, wanting another connection. It never came.
Then your attention is drawn back to your older daughter as she hands his sister a parchment with beautiful colors on it—a small painting with a poem. “When did she have time to do this?” you wonder as you look on in awe. Then you recall that after you related the news to your girls just a few days ago, she left for a bike ride, saying only when she returned that she had gone to the bridge in a nearby park. Water is her muse; poetry is her voice.
While his sister moves on to be enveloped in the warmth of other arms, you turn to see his mom talking with friends; you listen as she talks about the presence of God in this place, and that’s hard to hear because this feels like such a place of loss. But your faith tells you that this is essential for now; she is placing herself at his feet in each moment, relying on his grace to carry her on this unchosen path.Your silent peace prayer joins countless others.
Is that German? Or Dutch? Two older women in front of you, their conversation mostly unintelligible. You remember that the family recently welcomed out-of-town guests and guess at the connection these ladies shared with him. Your own connection was quite tenuous, its beginning barely a month ago when you met him for the first and only time. Not enough time to create any kind of bond, which you feel sorrier and sorrier for as you stand in this place.
You pull away from these thoughts to see the line inching its way to the spot up front that you don’t really want to get to. It’s the hardest part for you, looking in. Friends gather around to write memories and notes on the casket—“I’ll miss you” and “Stay strong” and “Love forever.” You look to your daughters, wondering if they want to just leave now, hoping they’ll suggest it, because this truly is the hardest part.
But your younger daughter is taking a marker from the basket and is patiently waiting her turn. Your older daughter is placing her poem in the casket. And you are thinking, “Where, my God, did these beautiful young women come from—who give me strength in my weakness?”
Unwillingly, you lean forward to look in, to see this gift, whose time it was definitely not. Who had so much left to give but was caught in a season of loss that overwhelmed him. And you are crying. How wrong it feels to be here at this time, in this place, for this reason.
And yet it is right. You know the three of you are here for them. His sister, his mother, his aunt. As you wait for your girls to sign his wooden casket, you watch the old photos and videos play across the wall. Memories come to you of your own little ones, standing with a guitar, sledding down a hill, posing with a larger-than-life cartoon character, laughing and playing with friends and family in so many of the pictures.
What else can you do but remember? In this moment, that’s all there is. And you pray that the memories are enough—for you, for each person there. For now, they need to be, because it feels like there is nothing else. Certainly no reason, no explanation.
The girls join you to leave, and as you walk together toward the door, weaving through the unending line, you take with you a little piece of his story. Even though you wandered in at the very end, you had a part to play, as did each person in that room. The challenge is now to carry his story with you, let it weave its way into the fabric of your other relationships—into your story. Then he does truly live on. And some sense, some reason, may find its way into the light.