Lives follow a path. They’re supposed to follow a path. Like the sun arcing across the sky. You get up on a sunny summer morning and you expect to have that beautiful day. The sun is not supposed to suddenly fall out of the sky just as you’re getting ready for lunch and leave you in darkness for the rest of the day.
Maybe a person could live through that if they knew it was coming. If they knew there was not going to be an afternoon and they weren’t looking forward to it all morning.
If you knew your boy was only going to live until he was twenty, would it be different? Some parents know, don’t they? Their child is born with difficulties, something wrong. The doctor says, “This child won’t have a long life. His heart will fail. Her kidneys will fail.” Whatever it might be. Does the parent think about their time differently? Their childhood? Do they love that child differently? When they hold them as infants, as toddlers. When they are tying their shoes, teaching them to throw a ball, playing basketball out in the drive. Is it different to listen to the boy in high school, all shy and worrying about who to ask for a date to the prom? If you know it might be the last time he dresses up and asks a beautiful girl to dance? Do we say, “I know everyone else is worried about these things but please don’t worry, you, because you’re going to be gone soon and you should have a good time?” Would a mother of a child like that be more awake if she knew this was going to be the last time she could unscramble the collar of his shirt, straighten his bow tie? Would she have remembered to take more pictures?
At Thanksgiving I almost asked Tom’s brother to take a picture of us, Tom and I and Finn and Christine. But then I didn’t, because I thought, I’ll be imagining Ben there too, in the blank space on the side of the picture. There’s no blank space there but I see blank space. Just behind Tom’s shoulder. Of in front of Finn, where maybe he would have stood. If someone had told me we could only have him for a short time, would I see this hole where he is missing, everywhere I look?
It’s a mean trick when the life is cut short. It’s as if I settled into a good book, a summertime sort of good book, that part of the summer between the weeds and the harvesting when the days are a little easier, when school is still out. You’re getting cozy in your summer chair, and the sun is warm, and the book is so good. You’re glad it’s a big, thick book because every page is wonderful in an unexpected way. And suddenly, just partway into it, you turn a page and it’s blank. And then next page, and it’s blank too. And the next and the next. You grab the rest of the pages by the end and shuffle through them quickly, like through a deck of cards, and you see they’re all empty. The rest of the book is a blank. It was so good, but it was only a short story.
Sometimes I feel like I’m wandering in my house like a ghost. I look back and think of all the times I was with Ben and yet not really there. Not all the way awake. And now I wonder that I’m not awake now because I’m trying to go back and retrieve all the memory that’s almost lost. I don’t seem to know how to live my life because the map I had to the path made me think it was different. This is not the path I thought I was on. If I had known, maybe I’d have chosen another one.