After Daniel

“He’s buried in the back,” she tells me, “by the angel.”

I only met her a couple of weeks ago, and we shouldn’t know each other this well.  We’re working long hours at a terrible job, getting pools ready to open for Memorial Day. The days are crazy — driving from pool to pool, rushing to and from hardware stores, frantically trying to piece back together equipment that should have been replaced a decade ago — but once we hit the thirteen-hour mark and the sun goes down, and it’s just the two of us vacuuming leaves out of the pool, we start talking. If you work enough days like that, you get to these topics.


… once we hit the thirteen-hour mark and the sun goes down, and it’s just the two of us vacuuming leaves out of the pool, we start talking.”

She drives past every day, she tells me, but if she went inside, she’d cry all day.  She’d never leave. So she just doesn’t go. What kind of a mother does that make her, she wants to know.

She shows me her tattoo, a butterfly with wings that are baby footprints. The artist had to blow the image up so he could tattoo the lines, and the feet are still so small.  She tells me that she wishes she’d been more present that day. I think she was probably as present as anybody could be. I tell her that. You have to survive, I say. That is not a small thing.

We talk about death. A place we’ve both been closer to than most. A thing we’ve both considered over the years. Maybe even today. But who could do that to their family? That would leave them feeling the way that we do now.

She wonders aloud what her Hell would be like, and I can see she’s thought about this before.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I think Hell might be being able to see him, but he’s too far away to reach. But then I’d be able to see Daniel, and I’d be happy. So I think it might be hearing him cry and not being able to get to him. Except then I’d be able to hear him, and I’d be happy.”

It is after midnight, and no one is cleaning the pool now. We’re sitting on the empty deck smoking cigarettes, drinking Red Bull and bottled Frappuccino.

So Hell is the place where she cannot see or hear her child. Which is the place she’s living now.

I bundle my sweatshirt under my head and lie back on the deck. There are no stars where we live, but I watch the sky anyway. I tell her I’m writing a book, and she tells me that she was going to write a book once. I guess a lot of things in her world have become final.

Her book would have been a diary about how she learned to live again after losing a child. She wrote for a few years before she realized there was never going to be a book. There was never going to be a life after Daniel.

That seems like the end of a conversation, and I’m about to stand up, when she says, “Maybe this is a test.  There are supposed to be trials and tribulations, right?”

I can’t help it then. I’m laughing. I tell her, “If life is a test, I have already failed.”

And then we’re both laughing crazy, hysterical laughs.

“Like, no-chance-of-redemption, no-reason-to-show-up-to-the-final failed.”

“It-just-needs-to-be-over, put-me-out-of-my-misery failed,” she agrees.

I am not as strong as she is, but I don’t have half the reason she does. I’m not sure about “God only gives you what you can handle.” I think we just have to handle the shit God gives us.

What else can you do when Hell is an eternity of the things you couldn’t handle when you were alive? Might as well stay here where we can at least dream of something different.

She tells me as we pick ourselves up, aching muscles and sunburned shoulders, the things that people say to her. Things like, “At least you can have more.” As if children are interchangeable. I don’t know how people can make it to adulthood without any real concept of what loss is. What have their lives been like? She tells me that it will come around, that one day they will have to carry something heavy.

I doubt it.

I envy those people so much it keeps me up at night. I tell her that, but she says there’s a plan. She says she believes.

She wonders if God was teaching her a lesson.

I tell her that if God exists, and that’s how He works, He better hope I don’t make it into Heaven. Because I have some things to say, and I am not afraid of Him anymore.

The sun is coming up when we lock the pump room door, and as we’re walking to the car, I notice something in her eyes. A happiness I haven’t seen in her. I’m not sure I’ve seen that happiness in anyone, and I know somehow that she’s thinking about holding him.

Someone said to me once, or maybe I read it, that some people just aren’t supposed to be happy. I wonder sometimes if that’s true for me. It’s not for her. When I see her eyes light up behind the tears, I know that she is not one of those people.  She is supposed to be happy.

Rachel Peters lives in southside Richmond, VA with her husband and dog. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Fiction Southeast and the 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. She still cleans swimming pools from time to time.
Photo by Etienne Girardet