My son returned a month after the funeral. He was sleeping sweetly in his bed. I wanted to wake him right away. I wanted to shake him gently and to hold him against my body, while telling him how much I had missed him and loved him. But I didn’t dare. What if he were actually dead, again? What if he vanished the second I touched him? I sat on the edge of his bed and looked at the crown of his head, where his hair swirled, at the backs of his stick-out ears, at the nape of his neck. The covers rose and fell; he was breathing.
I felt an overwhelming tenderness for this boy’s body. I had mourned so intensely; the past month had felt like three years. Mourning had trained me to be circumspect about miracles. I sat on the edge of his bed, a simple black frame to which he had affixed stickers of cartoon characters, without taking my eyes off him. The morning out the window was at first gray then green and finally almost white in its intensity.
I wanted to call somebody—Stephan, my mother, my old friend Jenn, one of my new acquaintances from the support group— but how could I share this news with anyone? I was either insane or the world was not what we had thought it was. When Stephan returned from Barcelona, a conference he could not miss, he would help me decide how to accommodate this new Wyatt in our lives. Until then I had Wyatt to myself, so there were no decisions to be made.
The longer he slept the more I worried that he had not returned at all, that I was seeing an earlier version of him, stuck in a visual loop. I was remembering, not seeing, Wyatt.
At three o’clock, according to the alarm on the bedside table, I reached over to touch my son’s body through the covers. He roused—shaking off my hand, muttering and smacking his lips, curling closer into himself. The relief was almost overwhelming.
“Are you sick, Wyatt?” I asked. “Do you feel okay? Can I get you something?”
All of my actions felt oddly familiar but also ill-fitting, as if I were putting on the mask and mien of a mother. “Can I get you anything?” I asked.
From under the disarranged covers, an odor rose— the pungency of a boy’s body mixed with something both sweet and rotten, not like the stench of death but something else. I sat for a long time trying to place he odor. It smelled natural, rich, and verdant, as if there were things growing inside the darkness around his body. Fungal or vegetable growth.
When my ringtone sounded, a song from my childhood, I scurried out of the room and answered the call with a hurried “what.”
My mother asked, “Did you eat today yet?” Her voice had holes in it I could fall down inside.
“No,” I answered.
“Eat,” she said. “Eat, Danielle.”
“I have to go,” I said. “I will. I’ll eat.”
Wyatt’s presence pulled at me as I walked down the stairs. It took a great effort to pull myself away from him. It felt like betrayal, every second away from him a wasted opportunity.
I took the pineapple my mother had brought me the day before out of the fridge, sliced it in half, the yellow slick and sticky and bright, cut around the hairy spikes and the core, and took the sweet acid into my mouth. I stood sucking the pieces of pineapple into pulp then spat the pulp out, as if even eating had become unfamiliar to me. I kept telling myself that Wyatt was upstairs. In bed. That he had returned. Hope and joy threatened to breach the wall of my indifference, a wall I had built stone by stone over the past month. The woman inside me hauled the stones up from the deepest depths and carefully arranged them, ensuring that there were no chinks between them. It had been the hardest work of my life.
I was still standing in the kitchen when Wyatt walked through the room and out the sliding glass doors onto the back deck. He wore a red t-shirt and black jeans with frayed cuffs. His feet were bare, the condition of his feet abysmal, as if he had walked miles without wearing shoes. I imagined him walking up out of a cave, through a meadow, across dirt roads. He did not look at me but walked outside and stood in the center of the back deck with his face angled toward the sun. He looked unspeakable beautiful. The sun highlighted his light eyebrow, and he looked like a boy who had just woken up, still half in the world of dreams, still loaded full of fantastic images.
I texted my mother, assured her that I had eaten, put the pineapple back in the fridge, then joined my son on the back deck.
Wyatt remained unmoving in the sun until evening, and then he walked through the house and upstairs, back into his room. He sat at his desk, a small simple black desk he had picked out at Ikea. He turned on his tablet and watched cartoons, his eyes still. It was as if the images from the tablet were flowing into his eyes, feeding something behind them. I watched for a long time before, finally, I went into my bedroom, undressed, and climbed under the covers. Stephan called from Barcelona and asked how I was doing, a quick, stilted conversation. If Stephan could somehow teleport back to our home, could hold me against him, or if I could hold him, we could find some kind of mild relief in each other. It was hard for me to even picture him as he spoke.
I truly slept for the first time in a month. When I woke, I was sure he would be gone, but there he was in his bed, in the same position he had been in the morning before.
His schedule was not my schedule. He would sleep through the days, and if I did not disturb him, he would wake around four pm and make his way out to the deck to stand in the sun like a battery in need of recharging. Most mornings, I would sit by his bedside, watching him. He was always in the same position— his face turned away from the room, his stick-out ears and the nape of his neck were facing me. I could smell the odor of him from before or I told myself I could smell him through the new odor of rot and growth. I had no idea how much those two things smelled alike.
I desperately wanted to shuck the red t-shirt from his body and put it in the wash. I wanted him to wear clean clothes. I wanted to bathe him, to wash tenderly around the bruises I assumed were there, the purple yellowing. But I could not bring myself to touch him, except through the thick covers on the bed and then only for a second.
My mother arrived on the second day of Wyatt’s return, bearing a lima bean casserole. She poured lemonades. We sat out on the deck. She searched my face and I tried to smile. I picked at clotted cheese in the casserole and ate what I could. My mother nattered away, telling me about a book she thought I might like. Was I reading anything? I shook my head.
When Wyatt walked onto the deck and angled his face toward the sun, I watched my mother, waiting for her reaction. She didn’t seen him. For her, he was not there. His eyebrows and hair were turning lighter. He had been fair as a toddler, but his hair had darkened over the years. Now he was becoming fair again. He always did, in the summer, but not like this. His ears were translucent. I was afraid he was going to fade out, but I couldn’t express that fear. My mother looked at me, looking at Wyatt, with concern stamped on her face.
“I’m okay,” I said, trying to smile. Strangely, I was relieved she couldn’t see him— though that fact also made me feel like I was falling down an endless dark tunnel.
“Do you want me to stay the night? I’m worried about you being alone like this.”
“No. Jenn is coming tonight,” I lied. “I’ll be fine. And I have support group tomorrow.”
After Wyatt returned, it became easier to remember him and to recall specific details, as if his physical presence allowed the memories to take on the weight of lived experience. He had loved (he did love?) insects, the more bizarre the better. He collected pictures of them, had hundreds of images saved on his tablet, drew them with hairy legs and compound eyes, theorized new insects in new environments, and dreamed about discovering new species when he got older. He was gifted and odd, odder than I had been as a child. He taught me about the boundaries of what was normal and how sometimes crossing those boundaries was necessary. Sometimes, even when he was alive, I felt distant from him. I wanted to see the world as he did. I wanted to spare him, to any degree I could, from the expectations of society, from what it meant to be a boy, and from what it would mean to be a man.
It was absurd that he had died so young. No mother is ever prepared for it. No mother ever can be. Even mothers with advanced warning or mothers whose children suffer incurable diseases are blindsided by it. It is the most overwhelming experience.
I wanted to sleep, curled up, on the floor of his bedroom but didn’t dare. I would hear the tablet all night. The same cartoons, antic animals with plastic human faces, over and over again. Sometimes I would hear him walking down the stairs at four am, and I would wonder what he was doing down there.
I allowed him free reign.
I was dwindling. I pulled on a summer dress that I wore in my twenties but swam even in that. I slid into sandals and stood at the front door for a long time with my hand on the doorknob. I didn’t want to leave while Wyatt was in the house. He would be sleeping for several more hours, but leaving him felt wrong.
When I walked down the front steps and got into the car, I felt like I was betraying him. I felt ashamed. But I also felt that if I didn’t leave, I would waste away inside the house and that I might also die. Maybe I already had. The sun was intense, but I didn’t wear sunglasses. By the time I got to the old elementary school, blobs of bright colors danced behind my eyes.
It was a strange act of cruelty to hold these support group meetings at the former elementary school, a gothic structure converted into a community center. The brick face was imposing, the marble stairs chipped, and the foyer echoing. Many people came only to use the pool, and the pervasive chlorine smell always made me think of purgatory. Older people in flip flops waddled down the hallways. The younger people went to their swim clubs in the summer. I thought of Wyatt and his slim bare chest, the way he would jump off the side of the pool, heedless of anyone below. He had been heedless of so much. I regret that I was not there when it happened, when the car impacted him, but I am relieved I did not hear it, the way Stephan did. I don’t have to carry that sound for the rest of my life. I carry only the imagined sounds: the squeal of tires, the impact, and the driver’s side door slamming shut. The woman who killed him was holding her hand before her mouth, trying to stop something, maybe her soul, from escaping.
There were only three others at the meeting. Usually there were seven or eight— mostly mothers, a few fathers— but only mothers on this day. One of them was Janice Grossman, the facilitator, a woman with a slash for a mouth and a deep voice, led us in meditation. It was impossible to clear the mind even on the best days, but after what I had been through, it was stupid to even try. Janice’s voice was deep, intoning us to let go of all negative energy, to let out the darkness and let in the light. I wanted to smash her head like a watermelon. I wanted to choke her fleshy neck. I felt ashamed of, but not accountable for, these feelings.
This meeting, no one was willing to say more than a few words. We sat in an old classroom squeezed into chairs designed for children the age of our dead children. I looked at the faces of the mothers and knew none of them were going through what I was going through. For them, their children were simply gone. I felt guilty for my good fortune. Then I couldn’t believe I thought of it as good fortune.
Breanna and I dawdled in the room after the others had left. “Do you want to get a coffee?” she asked. I nodded, even though what I wanted to do was go back to Wyatt. My heart was directing me home, but my feet turned left on the sidewalk. We went to Beans in the Belfry and ordered two coffees.
We sat by the window and stared at cars passing on Main Street. Neither of us could talk. We had things to say, but they were too big and nested just below our tongues.
Then Breanna leaned forward and said, “He’s back.” Her face was deeply lined, the skull underneath it plain, but you could tell that she had once been the most beautiful girl in whatever high school she went to. She had not dealt with adversity until her son died— drowning during a family trip to the Eastern Shore.
I acted like I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Jonathan. He’s back. He sleeps a lot but he’s back.” She looked out the window. “You probably think I’m crazy.” I imagined her boy with seaweed draping his thin shoulders.
“Wyatt is back too.” I said.
We stared at each other the way two crazy people caught in the same delusion stare at each other. I wondered if the others who had missed the meeting were with their dead children. Maybe they had all returned. Maybe all children returned and we never knew until we were in the sad sorority of childless mothers.
There was not much we could say to each other.
When she left, Breanna smiled a strange smile, the same smile I felt on my face.
Days passed. Stephan’s return became imminent. He called every day, and we marshalled words and sent them across the air towards each other. After every support group meeting, Breanna and I would sit at the coffee shop and exchange a few words about our sons. “He’s still back,” we would say.
I asked Breanna if her son smelled different, and she nodded in a knowing way. “I can’t place it,” she said.
Wyatt became lighter and lighter, but at the same time, he seemed to stabilize. He was not fading. His hair was tow-headed, his eyes pale blue. I drank afternoon tea on the deck. Days were getting shorter.
I started to talk to him, to tell him how much I missed him and how much I loved him and always would. I talked about what he would have become. A scientist. An artist. Something out of the ordinary. I told him how grateful I was that he was back. I dreaded Stephan’s return. When we talked on the phone, I could tell he was getting drunk with colleagues. Maybe he was having an affair. I didn’t care.
The day before he was to arrive, I awoke to darkness, an overcast sky. My dreams had been murky and strange, but they dissolved the second I woke. It was later than usual, nearly ten o’clock. I sat in the living room with a coffee trying to read a novel my mother had recommended. The words did not string themselves together in a sensible way.
Wyatt came down the stairs at three o’clock. He stopped before the sliding glass doors. For the first time, I sensed some sentience inside him. He paused, and there was a ripple of movement around his eyes, the muscles pulling taut. Rain coursed across the glass.
“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I said.
I still don’t know why I said it, or what I meant when said it.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I didn’t want to say those words, but I had to. That is the way of all mothers. I was a lost mother in a world of lost mothers. I was not special in any way. I did not deserve ay of this.
Wyatt opened the door and walked out into the rain.
Jamey Gallagher lives in Baltimore. He teaches writing at the Community College of Baltimore County.