Monday, August 9, 2010
Short Story: "Cole's Heart"
As for me, there's only that split second when I wake each morning when I'm not thinking of Cole, or that waste of a human being who now lives comfortably on house arrest while my son lies in his grave. Every other waking moment, Cole is with me as a flash of memory, a burning in my stomach, an ache that cannot be soothed. I try not to talk about him much when I'm with my friends at work, though I know they would understand if I did. The fact is, I really can't talk about him at all, lest the lava of my emotion bubble through the slender fault line caused by uttering his name.
People will tell you, when you lose a child, that the best thing to ease the pain is the passage of time and the return to the routine of daily life. The problem is every part of my routine is affected by his absence. In the mornings, I don't have to enter his room multiple times to convince him to get out of bed. At the grocery, I no longer buy the cherry pop tarts or dill pickles that only Cole would eat. Chelsea always does her homework without prompting, but I used to sit with Cole at the kitchen table every evening to make sure he finished his school work. Routine daily life brings nothing but fresh reminders of the ornery, challenging, charming boy that was my son.
“Mom, you worry too much,” he would say every quarter when he would bring home his report card. “I don't need good grades to play in a band. You know I'm not cut out for college, don't you? I don't need to have a lot of things to be happy. I'll get some crap job during the day and play guitar with the band on the weekends. I won't even ask you for money all that often.” Cole's self-assured grin would somehow win me over, if only for a few minutes while my temper dampened.
Looking back, I'm not really even sure if he was serious about not going to college, or if he was just trying to push my buttons. Cole's guitar still sits in the corner of his room. Every once in a while, I'll run my fingers over the guitar's taut wire strings, thinking maybe there will be some minuscule bits of his DNA, his essence, that will rub off onto my fingers. It's the closest thing I can think of to holding him again.
Last night, Chelsea caught me holding the guitar. “Mom? Are you okay?” she asked, leaning her upper body on the door frame while keeping her feet planted firmly outside the boundary of Cole's room.
“I'm okay, sweetheart. I just like to come in here sometimes when I'm thinking about him. How are you doing?”
“You're still pretty angry, aren't you? I mean about the kid who was driving drunk that night? I haven't seen you relaxed since Cole died,” she said softly.
“I suppose I am still angry. That kid has no idea what kind of destruction he caused in so many lives just for a few beers. I fantasize about making him feel the pain that I feel, but I don't think he ever will. I'm trying to be a bigger person than that, honey. I really am. It's just so hard to let it go.”
Chelsea stood quiet for several seconds, processing what she had just heard. “Mom, I think maybe it would do us both some good to meet some of the people who received Cole's organs. What do you think?”
“I think you are wise beyond your years. I've been doubting whether I was ever going to be ready to meet any of Cole's organ recipients. But if you think you are ready, I can be ready, too.”
Chelsea gave me a gentle smile and disappeared into her bedroom. I'm not sure how I'm going to approach this challenge, but interest in meeting the organ recipients is the first time Chelsea has opened up about Cole, so I need to do this for her. Maybe I need to do this for me, too. Tomorrow, I will ask the hospital for the paperwork I need to seek the identities of people who received Cole's organs who are willing to meet with us..
I pull into the driveway with Chelsea in the passenger seat. I put the car in park and grab Chelsea's hand and just sit there, silent, trying to muster the courage to walk up to the door and ring the bell. The house is a white craftsman-style structure with beds of red and white tulips lining the sidewalk. I see a child's face peering out the curtains from the front window. I have to go in now, since we've been discovered in the drive. They are expecting us, after all. Chelsea says, “Are you ready?” I nod and open the car door, stepping out into the spring air to meet the keeper of Cole's heart.
The front door opens before I have a chance to ring the bell. A slender, petite woman greets us both with a warm smile. “You must be Elizabeth and Chelsea. I'm Kate. Please come inside. I am so grateful that you made the drive to meet us. You must have had a long trip. Can I get you something to drink, or do you need to freshen up?” she says.
“Thank you, but no. We stopped a short while ago to grab a bite to eat and drink. You have a lovely home. It's very peaceful here,” I say, hoping to dispense with the pleasantries and get on with the business at hand.
“Oh that's very kind of you to say. Please come into the family room and have a seat. I want to learn about you. Tell me about yourselves, and about your son.” Kate sits on a love seat across from Chelsea and I, leaning in with sincere interest.
I've got to talk about him. I feel my muscles tighten, hoping they might put a layer of insulation between my emotions and my exterior facade. “Well, there's not much to tell about me, really. I'm just a single mom, working to support my kids...my kid. Chelsea is a freshman in high school and very smart,” I say, noticing my hand nervously patting Chelsea's leg. “Cole was a senior in high school. He was a very laid back kid, very funny, and loving. He wasn't much for sports, but he did love music. He started a band a couple years ago, and he loved composing songs. We miss him, every day...”
Chelsea, sensing that I was struggling, picks up the conversation. “Cole liked everyone to think he was just nothing special, but he really was pretty talented with his music. I brought a CD with some of his band's music. Cole wrote most of the songs on here. I thought you might like to have it.” Chelsea passes the disc to Kate, who accepts it without hesitation.
“Thank you, we would love to listen to it.” Kate sits quietly for a moment. Finally, she says, “I won't pretend to know what you are going through. I've never lost a child. But I almost lost a child. Doctors didn't think that Zoe would last through Christmas without a new heart. I hope you know that out of your pain, Zoe's life has blossomed. I really do wish that you never had to go through losing a son and a brother. But since I can't change it, I can at least let you know that your decision to share his organs saved my daughter's life. Thank you.”
“If that simple decision during the worst time of my life saved another parent from having to go through the same thing I was going through, I'm glad to have done it. Would it be possible to meet Zoe?”
Kate smiles. “Of course. She's eight, and I didn't think she was quite mature enough to hear our conversation to this point, but I'm happy to have you meet her. I'll be right back.”
I take in a deep breath, grabbing Chelsea's hand as I exhale. “Are you alright, Chelsea?”
“Kate's very nice, Mom. Everything is going to be okay.”
I lean back into the couch, noticing a myriad of photographs flanking the red brick fireplace. Pictures of two girls dominate the collection, though there's also a formal photograph of the entire family, with Kate and her sandy-haired husband standing behind the two seated girls. One picture stands out and my eyes linger there. One of the girls, blond and pink faced, looks swollen with her blue eyes bulging out from her face. Though clearly ill, the girl's smile is cheerful, as if she's just been laughing at a joke.
Kate returns to the room with her husband and two girls. I stand to introduce myself to Kate's husband. “I'm Elizabeth, and this is my daughter, Chelsea. Thank you for having us here today.”
“Hi, I'm Jack. It's our honor to have you both. These are our daughters. The younger one is Amy, and this is Zoe,” he says, guiding his older daughter by the shoulder to stand in front of him.
“Zoe, I'm so glad to meet you. You are such a pretty girl,” I say trying to make her feel comfortable with me.
“Thank you,” she says shyly, backing up into her father.
“Let's all sit down. Zoe, why don't you tell our guests about school and your teacher, Mrs. Miller?” Kate prompts.
Sitting on her father's lap, Zoe hesitates. He puts his arms around her and whispers in her ear. Zoe says, “My teacher is really nice. I'm still in first grade because I missed a lot of school. But Mrs. Miller didn't get mad at me for being gone so much. She helps me a lot.”
“That's so wonderful that your teacher is so understanding,” I say. “I'm sure you are catching up on all your work quickly. How are you feeling after your surgery?”
“I feel a lot better. I'm not so tired all the time. I still have to take medicine everyday, but Mommy lets me mix it up with chocolate milk,” Zoe says with a grin. She starts fidgeting at her father's fingers laced around her middle.
“Well, taking medicine every day isn't such a terrible thing. This is my daughter, Chelsea. She takes medicine everyday too, because she has allergies that make her sneeze.”
Chelsea smiles, and says, “Yeah, medicine's not so bad if it makes you feel better. What kind of things do you like to do when you're not in school, Zoe?”
“Well, when I was really little, I liked to dance. But then I had to stop because it made me too tired. So, I like to listen to music and pretend I'm dancing. Mommy says I can start dance class again in the fall.”
“Have you ever thought about about playing music yourself? Like the piano or a guitar? It wouldn't make you so tired, plus, you could record your music and then dance to all the music you've recorded once you're strong enough to dance,” Chelsea suggested.
“That would be neat,” Zoe gleamed. “I could dance to my own music! That I made! You wanna come up to my room and see my CD player? I have my own MP3 player, too.”
Chelsea looks to Kate for approval, and with Kate's nod, Zoe and her new friend escape upstairs.
“She seems to be doing very well,” I say to Kate and Jack. “You have a lovely family.”
Kate rises from her seat and walks toward me, taking Chelsea's place on the love seat. “Jack and I really cannot express to you how thankful we are to you and Chelsea...and Cole. Our girls mean everything to us, just as I know Chelsea and Cole mean everything to you. I wish I could bring Cole back for you. But I want you to know, if there's anything at all we can do for you, we will absolutely do it.”
“This may seem odd to ask, but if Zoe expresses an interest in learning to play music, would you ask her if she would like to play guitar? Cole loved to play guitar, and in some small way, it would do me good to know Cole's heart is doing what it loves to do best.”
“I think that's a wonderful idea. Jack used to play guitar; he could teach her if she wants to learn it.”
Jack asks, “Would you like to join us for dinner? We bought enough food, hoping you would.”
“Chelsea and I would love to stay for dinner.” And we did.
It's Christmas again, our second one since the accident. The year passed so slowly without Cole. In the creeping days that followed our visit with Zoe, I grew to know that Cole still dwells not only in the heart that beats within a young girl's chest, but also within Chelsea's heart and my own. Chelsea recognized this fact much earlier than I.
Kate and I have kept in touch, and she sends me pictures of Zoe on occasion. Today, I'm carefully packing up Cole's acoustic guitar and sending it to Zoe for Christmas. She's been learning to play, apparently having quite a talent for it. It's no surprise. After all, her heart is really in it.