Featured image: Linda Hoffman Kimball’s, “Zion’s Bright Trio”
First Place Prose
Life After Death
by Christy Crowe Hughes
It should have been a dream come true, and in a way it was. Three years ago I found myself at what my sons agree is the best place on earth: Disneyland. Friends had gifted us an all-expenses paid vacation —a chance to dodge reality for a week. Our only job was to show up for the magic.
My husband, two sons and I arrived at the gates on a balmy December morning, and the park, a wonderland of Christmas trees, lights and garland. Holiday music blared from speakers on Main Street where families in matching celebratory t-shirts gathered, hugging and laughing.
We crossed the threshold, scuttling toward our first ride. As I rallied myself to hold our place in line, my husband took his turn to walk Christopher and Michael around the park. I scanned my surroundings, taking in the mirage, trying to place myself. You see all kinds at Disneyland; it’s such easy amusement to people-watch. The woman in line ahead of me, with soft eyes and a gentle smile, held her daughter, her hips gently swaying. The pleasure of their embrace was familiar, reassuring, and the mother’s attentive gaze conjured my best friend’s mother before me, a woman who had passed years earlier. She was a rare individual, the kind that had bestowed love and confidence in me when I felt lost, unlovable. Here in front of me now was another woman with answers, I was certain. And I, bereft, found myself reaching for her with full intent to confide, “My daughter died ten days ago.” But seeing my outstretched hand alarmed me – I had not given it permission to move – and so I recoiled, pulling it to my side, burning with shame.
My mind then began its recurrent hemorrhage, retracing the harrowing, sinuous ride that ultimately placed us here – this absurd place where adults dress up as cartoons and sing in streets. It began with the terrorizing discovery of Ella’s lifeless body, followed quickly by a call to the police, the body bag she left in, an explanation to my sons, mounds of phone calls and drop-in visits, the burial place, flowers, and funeral service. Too many questions, so many decisions, all at a dizzying pace. So when the course finally came to a halt, I sat bewildered at my kitchen table, waiting for my fourteen-year-old daughter to walk through the door and greet me.
My sons were only six and four years old, and God-willingly have many years ahead of them; I would not allow their sister’s death to ruin their lives. But as much as I wanted to protect them – wanted to revolt against the facts now stacked against us – the truth of our new situation blocked my every attempt. Somehow I was sleeping in specks; enough to stay upright, but everything was hazy. At night we huddled in the same bed, and I woke every thirty minutes, panicked until I had ascertained each person’s breath and heartbeat. If only I could take it back, somehow return to a world where this outcome had seemed impossible. How exquisite that lie had been.
“I wish we all had died. That would have been better,” Christopher told me after the viewing. He uttered my secret; everything in me begged to die. But what could I say? Certainly not that. And in his confession was also a petition for me, his mother, to dress his wound as I had countless times before. I searched for a remedy to offer my son, but found none. Instead, my own wretchedness flooded me, so nodding I replied simply, “That makes sense, but I’m so glad you are alive.” I reached for him and Christopher burrowed into me, and although my arms were fastened around him, my heart was wasted.
My family returned to the line juggling popcorn and churros, but as they took their place, I felt relentless rot mount inside me. “I’ll be right back,” I hollered as I ducked under the ropes and jogged off. It was too far – I couldn’t make it – so instead I found a remote corner, withdrew a lump of napkins from my pocket, and quietly retched into them before making my way to the restroom. As I washed my hands, I scanned my reflection in the mirror for splatter and caught my eyes: shell shocked, broken. How am I supposed to live in this new world? my mind raged. Do I even want to?
I made it back just in time to catch the ride. Christopher asked me to sit beside him, and I staggered into the car. And we were off, darting through the darkness, whipping around, up and down. Christopher screamed. Instinctively, I lunged to pull him to safety, but as I wrapped my arms around him, he pushed them firmly down to his waist. I then recognized the familiar cadence of his shaking belly. He was laughing. Astonished, I turned toward him. He grinned at me, and then came another delighted howl. This wasn’t terror; this was jubilation! A token, an extended hand, this obscure universe calling me, reminding me that I am still the only mother my children will ever have. How my son – a boy who wished for death just days earlier, now wild with life – wants me to sit beside him, belongs to me, and I to him.
I guess we’re doing this, I thought in wonder. And somehow we still are.
Life is full of hard things. Some hurts will never go away. And yet Christy seeks to find and create beauty wherever possible. She is a published essayist, and lives in Utah with her husband, two sons and two big dogs.