One Year Ago
On November 28th, 2009, Laura Ellen Eagerton died. I never got to meet the woman who would have been my mother-in-law, and she died without knowing about the granddaughter who would be her namesake. She was 68, with health problems all her life, and the last year most especially but no one expected her death when it came. They knew she wouldn’t have many years left, but she died suddenly during the night only hours after watching a football game with one of her daughters. She’d buried a seven year old son three decades before, and a loving husband nearly twenty years ago. I wanted to meet her so bad, and since Ember died, I wish I had even more. Hubby, still my boyfriend at the time, and I wanted to go up to Birmingham at Christmas to see her. We had to save up for him to take off work though, and she’d died before we could. She wanted to see her baby, and her baby needed to see her to say good-bye, but they where denied. Because of her health, phone calls where hard on her, and the last few months she couldn’t at all. So I never even spoke directly to her. But I had her granddaughters call her. I just never knew that was the only thing I’d ever do for my mother-in-law.
We flew to Birmingham for her memorial service several days later, and for the first time I met my boyfriend's family. We stay at the apartment she shared with her younger daughter for the last five years. The three of us stay up late looking through her pictures in the dust and clutter. Hubby is shocked at everything of his he finds, he had no idea his mother had held onto all of this in the decade since he moved out. But he was her baby, the miracle child it took almost a decade to finally conceive at 41. The baby born after the death of her first son. The difficult child haunted by his father’s sudden heart attacks and death. I wasn’t surprised at all to find a small plastic tub of ancient legos, his favorite toys as a kid, or the bat and glove, or the things he made for her in woodshop. Three of his half-sisters welcome me eagerly, his half-brother is polite, and the other two of the five half-sisters don’t show. The faces, names and relationships where all a blur, and secretly I throw up in the flowers outside the church. Every time we get in the car, it’s a struggle to keep my composure. Hubby blames the mountains for making me car sick. I wonder about the sushi we ate the night before, had it set on the counter too long? The church is overly warm against the chilled wind outside, stripping off my jacket I feel exposed in the once loose and flowing shirt that now seems too snug and taunt on my chest. We lay in her bed in the dark that night, wishing to be sleeping in the living room and whisper to each other.
When I find a dusty plush rabbit, his sister gives it to me. Laura had bought it for one of Hubby’s kids, her only grandchildren but forgotten to send it. I took it home with me, and when I find out I’m pregnant think of it as the only present Laura would ever give this baby. That stuffed bunny now sits on the high shelf in what was, and to me remains, Ember’s room looking down on the living rabbit that has for better or worse, taken over the room.
The night after we go home from Alabama, we lay in bed trying to find some sleep and I snuggle up to him, and shyly try to find a way to tell him how late I am. He gently cuts me off before the first word is fully out of my mouth to tell me he knows. Surprised out of my shyness, I blurt out what does he mean “he knows”. On the few occasions before, he’d nervously wondered out loud until we found out I wasn’t. His silent acceptance was shocking, and undid me. I cried mostly out of confusion and hormones until I slipped into sleep in his arms.
The next afternoon, December 5th, he brings one home, and I decide to wait until till the next morning to find out. He goes out drinking that night, but I stay home reading. When I wake up early on December 6th, he gets up too and waits in his recliner for the news. When the second little blue line appears, I let the stick drop from my hands. I go straight from the bathroom to his waiting arms. We spent December 6th 2009 cuddling in bed, talking about the future- our baby. I took a picture of the test to save for the baby book, and one of us. The first two people we told where my step-daughters' mother and my grandmother. We wonder how far along I am, and what happened to the birth control? With kisses my belly, he calls me his baby mama jokingly. I cry a little bit after telling my grandmother, but the tears are all kissed away.
The day we found out Ember was on her way to us.
Only a day after taking the test, I fly home to Baton Rouge for two weeks. Only my mother and grandmother are told of my pregnancy, they’re less than blessed and the visit is brutal. A cousin tries to set me up with a guy she works with and I fight to stop from snapping at her. I’ve been living with my boyfriend for over a year, but my family hasn’t come to accept it yet.
While there, I went maternity clothes shopping and started taking prenatal vitamins. Also, I went to my old hair stylist, as I do every time I’m in Baton Rouge. Katrina’s the only person I’ve trusted with my hair since I was 13, and seeing her for a while when I come to town is something I look forward to for the conversations as much as the hair doing. As I stand before her, my heart plunges as she tells me yet another piece of the local gossip I’ve missed. The day before, a high school senior (one year behind me) wrecked her car and went into a coma. A cheerleader, a perky, infinitely smiling girl, she’d spent the night with a friend, but forgotten her shoes for practice. She was rushing to get them in time for school, and as she drove, she was texting. At least this is what I’m told. Gossip travels fast in a tiny city, and our brand new City of Central outside of Baton Rouge still feels more like a small town. Then Katrina said a name from my past, jerking me out of rather bland sympathy to a sickeningly feeling of disbelief.
Kelsey Rae Lieux. Barely 18, not much younger than me, and now she was in a coma. Only one semester left before she would have graduated in the spring. We'd gone to a tiny elementary and middle school together, her one grade below me. I’d cheered with her for a couple years. Her mom worked in the office. She’d always been bouncy and chattering, and only once did I ever see her cry. I never knew why she had been, either. I found her during break sitting hunched on a stack of practice mats in the locker room, her hair sticking to her face and for once, without a best friend at her side. We'd never been close friends, but I saw her and talked to her every day for years, I liked her of course, it was impossible not to with her bubbliness. Too shy to hug her as she cried, I shuffled my feet and asked her to show me a cheerleading move I just was hopeless at. The tiny flyer sniffled once more, and showed me over and over, with each time brightening till she was laughing and announced I WAS hopeless but hugged me to take the sting from it. She bounced out of the locker room to rejoin her friends after redoing her make-up, as if her tears had never been. The years past, I left the school, and never talked to her again after I left. I’ll always see her as that tiny little slip of a girl who was so vicious in basketball and volleyball, who always sparkled and loved to cheer so much it would stop her tears.
Laura’s death and Kelsey’s wreck, within a couple weeks of finding out about Ember. At the time, I didn’t connect them but as I’ve looked back in the months since Ember’s own death, the sorrow of those events is linked to my personal grief for my daughter. Kelsey died in February 2010 from complications of her injuries caused by the wreck. A whole city mourned for her, just as they had prayed for her throughout her struggle to recover. She tried so hard, she never stopped fighting. Another Central teen, Steven Whiddon, died just a few months later, in June of 2010. Another kid I knew from school, another one dying far too young because of a car wreck. Just over a week later, my daughter died.
Rest in peace, Steven
And sweet Ember, Mommy misses you every moment of every day.