There is an accident on the bridge I take to the school I am not taking my son to for his first day of kindergarten. I was on-time on purpose this morning. I set my alarm. I would have woken my newly minted third-grader early had she not woken too early herself. There would be no parking and walking in together, hand-in-hand, like every other day. Not this not-kindergarten morning. I would get there in time to pull up to the curb, blow her a kiss on a diagonal from the front seat to the back and hurry her exit, curbside, to her teacher. I would not see new sneakers on five-year old feet and nervous smiles on still plump cheeks. I would not hear the chatter of the mothers standing in and around the kindergarten door, neither the seasoned nor the new at this letting go moment, this milestone. I would drop and I would drive away.
As we sit, still and suspended over the river, I think of the mothers who comfort themselves with tales of angel babies reaching down from heaven and opening opportunities for them, raining down blessings and bringing them good fortune. I snort through the tears I am trying to conceal from my daughter, her big-girl voice coming from the back, practicing to perfection a rap from her playlist. What do they make of these moments? When they’ve done their best to take care of themselves and the outside world does its thing? Is my magical, dead baby asleep? Why would he add to the torture of this day? Why not clear the bridge of all traffic rather than add the necessity to pass by the room he is not in, the group of mothers I am not part of, the small backpacks hanging on hooks with no space for his, the tears from both big and little humans.
I remember the tears from my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. How I compared mine to theirs then, too. How they thought they were losing something, how they were relieved in gaining the time, alone or with one less kid, back. How I left alone, with one less kid. How, I thought, less acidic their tears and insides must have felt than mine.
My throat has hourglassed around my voice box these last few days. Everything I need to say can come out except “Kindergarten”. The word “Harvey”, is also stuck in there, just below, hanging like a leaden ball on the underside of my sternum. My friends, who really want to know when they ask me “How are you?”, ask me. My friends, who would do nothing but wrap their arms around me, let me cry and listen to me explain the horror, who would comfort me with kind words and a laugh at some dark-humored joke, ask me and I just say “Good. How are you?”. Because I am out of practice. I am out of practice at imploding and/or exploding from my grief in front of people. Because if those words come out of me in the same sentence, it will mean, again and still unbelievably, that he really is dead.
It’s the raw, seeping wound of early grief. It’s the stomach eating itself. The inner layer of my body shrinkwrapping while the rest of me tries to untwist around it. It’s the bone tired from just being awake. It’s back to the bitter “should”, which I shed after a millennium of therapy and reconciliation with myself. If he “should” be going to kindergarten today, then he would be. If he “shouldn’t” be dead, then he would be alive. Whether it’s a random, cruel universe or everything happens for a reason, he’s dead. “Should” says something is wrong, out of place, unacceptable. I can’t go on, I can’t live, if I don’t accept his death. So to that end, I have adopted the softer “would”. He would be going to kindergarten today. He would be alive if he hadn’t died. But “would” does not suffice today or yesterday or the day before. Not this not-kindergarten week. He should, goddamit. Should should should.
The traffic slowly slinks forward, after the incident response vehicle and the ambulance drove by on the wrong side of the bridge to get to them. The GPS corrects itself to say that we will arrive just after the opportunity ends to drop and drive but before the photographs are done being taken and the moms have finished their congregating in front of the closed and locked gate of the school. We drive past the accident: four cars, shredded bumpers pushed to the side, shattered glass, the road covered in some kind of off-white grit, flares separating the rest of us from them.
I park three blocks away from school and we take our time gathering our things out of the car and walking. I make us almost 15 minutes late. She takes my hand and I tell her to tell her new teacher an accident on the bridge made us late. I look and don’t look for the kindergarten moms as we near the school. Nine of my daughter’s classmates have siblings starting kindergarten. Nine. That seems like so many. So many potential landmines on this short walk. Somehow, ten seems like it would be fewer. Somehow, ten feels like just the right number. But these nine, they are too many for me, too many for my poor heart. The blocks are free of familiar faces, as is the path to the side door of the school, as is the hallway when we enter.
“I’m going to say goodbye to you here,” I say, stopping just inside, not wanting to pass by the open door of the kindergarten room.
“Why, mom? Pleeeeaase. Please just come to my class with me.”
I remember my therapy appointment yesterday, crying on the couch. “Just sad that he’s dead,” I finally choked out. Nothing more, nothing less. This time, for once. We talked about how to talk to my daughter about how I was feeling. Set a boundary around not going into school in the morning. Show her we don’t always have to push through. Show her how to take care of ourselves when we are hurting.
“Okay,” I say, as the door to the kindergarten room closes from the inside as if by magic, as I exhale and place one foot in front of the other. “Okay,” I whisper and we walk together, hand-in-hand, to her classroom door.
Instead of going back over the bridge, I drive the bendy roads that take me to the grid of downtown streets. I keep seeing the remnants of that crash. How quickly the wreckage has solidified into one framed image in my mind. Bumpers, glass, grit, and flares. I think without thinking, “I hope someone didn’t die.”