Pressed quietly between infrequently worn jeans and the wall of my bedroom closet was a garment bag. It had been there for exactly two years, seven months, and 12 days, but who’s counting? I extracted it from the closet and pulled the plastic up around the hanger and looked at the dress. It was familiar, yet foreign in the same way that the freckles on my back are foreign. Sliding it from the hanger, fabric splashed onto my bed in a puddle. Bits of material folded erratically like white caps blowing across the bay on a windy afternoon. Which seemed appropriate.
The dress is a storm.
It’s the raging downpour soaking my face, hair, outstretched arms, disappointed at its inability to dissolve me. It’s the vicious impact in my limbs as I strike the tree in the front yard with a blunt ax again and again in the darkened night sky. It’s the desperate sorrow involuntarily howling from my diaphragm night after night. It’s the indescribable mother’s pride at every milestone--he is a walker, reader, writer, poet, strikeout pitcher, responsible student, thoughtful brother, kind friend. It’s the love sewn into our cells connecting us for eternity.
It’s also toxic sludge.
For it is the dress I bought after he died. The one I wore to his memorial. The one I found after numbly wandering the stores in search of something to put on my body that would represent our relationship, my mothering and nurturing and nursing and birthing. The one that would represent him, his love of the color green--green shorts and green Tabasco and baseball and the million other things that make him Riley. And now it lays in a puddle, its power of a tsunami dormant on the bed. Pulling my shirt and tank top over my head, they land in their own puddle by my feet. Sliding the jeans over my heels, the puddle expands. In my reflection, there is a woman he’d recognize and a woman he wouldn’t recognize. Shoulders slumped, hair mangled in lumps past my ears along my neck. Last night’s mascara reinvented as today’s exhaustion. I can fix those things by standing up straight, washing my face, brushing my hair and curling the ends back like a modern day Farrah Fawcett. I cannot fix the expression. The blank stare, the smile-less features that replaced the woman, his mother who used to smile. The woman in most of the photos taken during the 11 ½ years of his life. There is nothing to be done about that.
After pacing across the carpet, staring the storm in the face with my mother rage-pride-grief-anger-love, I pick the dress up. It’s just me and the soft, elegant green fabric. It is not Christmas green or Saint Patrick’s Day green. It’s not lime or sage. It’s warm, inviting. Luxurious. A wisp of blue, just enough to make it warm green. I open it and step inside, imagining it as a chute to another life where he will be going to high school in the fall. When it resists at the hips, I shimmy until it gives way and it can be pulled up and over my shoulders.
My fingers pull at the zipper until I can make it go no higher. It will be snug, but I know it will fit if I suck in my stomach. I wonder about wearing it to the middle school promotion ceremony tomorrow. The one that his peers will be at, the one where they will announce his name even though he doesn’t go to the school anymore, the one where I will walk across the stage in front of hundreds of families and all of their living children and accept his honorary certificate.
“Are you sure you want to go to that?” my sweet friend had asked suspiciously a few days earlier when I talked about graduation and how I had offered to be a chaperone at the eighth grade dance the same night.
“Of course,” I said, as I stood in the hallway of her home, there picking up a no-longer-needed bunk bed for his younger brother. “I want to go,” I said, holding her concerned look for a few extra seconds. Then I moved through the bright entryway with its light walls and dark floors toward the bedroom to look at the furniture.
I’m going because of him; I will always go wherever he is. I will never leave him. I will never leave you.
“It’s gonna be pretty intense,” she added, following me. “Are you sure?”
I was sure. I am sure. The only thing I wasn’t sure of was the dress, something to put on my body that would represent our relationship, my mothering and nurturing and nursing and birthing. But now before me is this perfect green stormy toxic-love-grief dress. With swirls of ribbon wound around the middle and covered in a layer of textured fabric giving it dimension, it’s a beautiful dress. Probably too fancy for the middle school. I barely remember buying it, though I knew I would never wear it again. Never, ever, ever. Yet here we are.
A year earlier, in a secondhand strapless gray dress and a large sunhat, I gripped his stepdad’s arm as I walked through the damp grass to the middle school graduation. Rows of white chairs in neat rows. A stage. Flowers. Hidden behind sunglasses, I scanned the crowd. I barely recognized anyone because I barely knew any of the families in my stepdaughter’s grade. Sitting near the back, I imagined what it would feel like a year later when the seats were packed with the families I know from the years of joint classrooms and shared teachers and volunteering and back-to-school nights and field trips.
Between the announcement of graduating students names, “I want to be here for Riley’s graduation next year,” I whispered into the side of my husband’s face and I twisted my fingers through his.
“Of course we’ll be here,” he said, giving me a reassuring squeeze. “It will be hard, though. Harder than this.”
I knew that even before his words colluded with my suspicions. My heavy eyelids fell shut as I blocked out the fanfare unfolding all around. Twelve months were impossibly far away, so that day melted from my consciousness as the clock swung from one day to the next and the calendar pages fell from the wall. I became preoccupied with all of the other milestones and anniversaries and holidays to get through. I became preoccupied with the ultrasounds, the biopsies, the dead babies scraped from my womb, the nightly injections, the egg retrievals. The only reminder of what was to come was the picture of his stepsister in her graduation gown on our wall, her long straight hair curled back and coerced into place with hairspray.
Possibly nine months went by without me giving gradation much thought. I was at his friend’s house as he worked on the yearbook layout. He wanted to show me the pages from the annual charity run organized in Riley’s honor by classmates to raise money for a free summer camp for kids with heart defects and an organization that funds congenital heart defect research. There were also pictures from the handprint memorial we did at the middle school on the second anniversary of his death.
I swiveled toward the friend and his mom who waited patiently for me to look closely at the images and read all of the captions on the computer screen. In their home office, we were surrounded by board games, some that he and Riley had probably played together on one of their many playdates. “Since you’re here, I just wanted to know how you felt about the kids carrying pictures of Riley across the stage with them when they graduate?” the mom had asked. “Some of the kids were thinking about it, but we wanted to check with you.”
I took a deep breath, punched by the knowledge that it was coming, then said, “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” while reaching for a tissue. “I’m planning on being there. It would be an honor.” And just like that, graduation was closing in….
Pushing the green fabric against my skin, over my hips, along my stomach, I examined my profile, and especially my middle section distended from the fertility drugs. Rotating back and forth, I worried that I looked pregnant. I wondered if it matters. It doesn’t. None of it matters. It also doesn’t matter that I worry about whether people are sick of hearing about him. Or sick of seeing me cry. It doesn’t matter that I feel like a show-off in green--his favorite color--worried that I will stand out too much, that I’ll be too fancy in a sea of sundresses.
As I slide the straps off my shoulders and the material falls to the ground, I step out of its storm. I realize no abrasions or blisters appeared on my skin. No lightning pierced through the ceiling. I gingerly place the dress back on the hanger and back into the garment bag for tomorrow.
The next day, I felt like an imposter as I was zipped into my stunning green dress that I swore I would never ever ever wear again. Yet I could not imagine wearing anything else. As I pulled eyeliner across my lids, brown lines appeared. As I brushed mascara across my tiny, nearly invisible lashes, they became less invisible. A hot iron curled my hair, gloss stained my lips a pale salmon. Three green beaded bracelets given to me from friends wrapped around one wrist, while my black grief band with his name embroidered in green encased the other. A sip of water downed an Ativan. From there, I heard the gathering of keys and the bustle of family getting ready to head to the car as I stood in front of the full length mirror one last time. In the reflection, I saw the intensity of the storm; I felt it holding my brokenness. In the reflection, I also saw love; it was also holding my brokenness. Riley and I are in the storm together. I will never leave you. I will never leave you, either. A warm breeze squeezed through the sliding door; a warm tide rose within.
My feet slid into sandals. I remembered to grab my sunglasses and my purse, but failed to remember my hat on the desk. Once we were at school, faking confidence with my head held high, your brother and grandmother and stepfather at my side, I walked to our reserved seats near the front. Exuding heat, sunbeams streamed from my hair. Radiating you.
Welcome to the ninth issue of Six Hens.
Pressed quietly between infrequently worn jeans and the wall of my bedroom closet was a garment bag. It had been there for exactly two years, seven months, and 12 days, but who’s counting? I extracted it from the closet and pulled the plastic up around the hanger and looked at the dress. It was familiar, yet foreign in the same way that the freckles on my back are foreign.
Sliding it from the hanger, fabric splashed onto my bed in a puddle. Bits of material folded erratically like white caps blowing across the bay on a windy afternoon. Which seemed appropriate. The dress is a storm...