by Eros-Alegra Clarke
All day my body is curved around my seven-month-old baby, Joaquin. He rides on my hip, his hand resting on my breast, his arm slung over my shoulder. I am once again transformed into a one-armed pourer of tea, maker of ba-bas, masher of potatoes. A one-finger typist.
In less than an hour, I have two near misses with my children. The ‘beep-beep’ of the microwave alerts me and I am leaping from my chair, across the room, screaming, “No!” My daughter has placed her bowl of noodles and metal spoon in the microwave and hit ‘instant cook.’ I give her my scariest voice so she will understand the danger. I make explosion sounds and act it out with my hands. My scary voice makes something wilt inside of me. I want to curl up around her, and beg, “Please, just listen. Don’t get hurt.” She looks at me all innocence. Pink clouds and scorpions with butterfly wings dance through her mind.
Later, I am making a bottle for Joaquin. I hear a squeal as if Zaviera is tickling him. The squealing gets louder. Again, my instincts send me flying in time to see Zaviera, poised like a pro-wrestler, her hands on the corner of Joaquin’s play pen, jumping down on his stomach with both feet. I yell, “NO ZAVIERA!” I yank her out, my insides turning. She tells me I’ve hurt her ears. I tell her that I know. She needs to listen. What she was doing was very, very dangerous. I feel like I have a tight fist in my brain as I go over it and over it. When I am sure she understands, I hug her and say, “Wow, you were just having fun and then Mommy yelled. You didn’t even realize you could hurt your baby brother!” She nods appreciatively, climbing on my lap, wrapping her arms around my neck.
Inside, terror continues to snake around my organs, the back of my brain whispers, What if…what if you didn’t make it there in time. I feel the perfect curve of my son’s skull beneath my chin as he rides on my hip. My mind tunnels backwards to a dark place it doesn’t want to go. Because as I type this, my six-month-old nephew, Cezar Wairere, is in a coma and his brain is dying.
If he survives, he might be blind, he might not walk. He will be brain-damaged. Everyone is trying to be positive. It only makes me want to scream and throw things and say, “There is nothing to be positive about!” I don’t scream, I don’t throw things, but I raise my voice. I swear when I speak to my husband about the situation. The family is free-falling through the horror grasping at platitudes, grasping at small things, cups of coffee, the babies, the details.
My husband asks for prayers on Facebook. I write several of my close friends privately. I do not go public. Because, you see, there was no accident, no illness. He was put in the hospital by an adult. He was shaken repeatedly. It appears the abuse was ongoing. There is blunt force trauma to his head. A shame streaks through me, inky, ugly. It stains everything. I keep asking my husband, “Who? Who did it?” We have answers, but we don’t trust them yet. The police are still gathering evidence. All of us are retreating back into our respective corners of ‘what if.’ There were so many choices along the way to this moment.
Today, my husband and my oldest child, Sol, went up to the hospital to support the family who are keeping vigil. I could not go. As much as I wanted to wrap my arms around my extended family, my husband and I knew that I would look at that little baby who is breathing because of a machine and I would be claws and snarls and rage and fists and hatred and sorrow and denial and shame. I would not be the woman I need to be for the family I love.
Tonight, while I held my baby in my arms, he cooed in his sleep. My daughter buried her face into my back. I thought about the fact that there is a person carrying on with life: breathing and eating and talking and doing whatever it is that he or she does. That person also beat a baby and put him into a coma.
I want to pray for what is best for my nephew and his soul. Not what we need. What he needs. He has suffered enough. I want to pray to understand what to do with this rage. So many monsters continue free, unaccounted for. We make excuses for them.
“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” – Albert Einstein
Dan looks at me, shakes his head, hands me the phone without warning. My sister-in-law’s voice is something I fall into. I want to close my eyes and sink into the grief, like a small, polished stone. A wish someone has made. She tells me that Cezar is in his father’s arms. He is gone.
Passed on, with God, he’s dead.
I imagine my family moving beneath the bright fluorescent lights of the hospital, this dark thing held in their hearts. I imagine them praying over Cezar with a ferociousness, calling upon God as his little body surrendered.
I imagine the baby’s father, Adam, his giant body cradling the small, perfect form of his son. It is a punch in the throat, a punch in my heart. Something tightens beneath my skull and I can’t stop thinking of tiny toes, tiny fingers, tiny heart, stillness, the weightless weight of a dead son in his father’s arms.
That thing beneath my skull continues to tighten as I watch my husband write the words over and over again, to family to friends. He stops every few seconds, looks somewhere distant, returns. From the couch, my oldest son asks me, “Why does God make us so that we die?”
My husband’s fingers stop their typing. The hard questions begin.
“Because,” I say, “God gives us just enough time in our bodies so that our souls don’t get too tired. If we were here forever, we’d get really, really tired.”
Tonight, I am tired.
Today, on the last day of the tangi (three day Maori funeral), I watch my niece, Minaka, walk over to Cezar’s grave and drop a soft, yellow zip-up pajama. I watch child after child line up, grab a flower, a handful of pale earth, and throw it on the coffin, the adults hovering over them to make sure they don’t fall into the grave.
The air turns biting cold, the sky dark. Sol asks me if it is night time already. The rain begins, the winds are cruel. Zaviera is climbing all over her daddy, trying to escape. She whines and whines. We grow impatient with her. I clutch my jacket tighter as I step forward and grab my handful of earth. I think that I am done crying, that I have been emptied out after seeing Cezar’s small body resting in silk, his legs bare, his tiny fingers curled as if clutching something. He had a soft knit hat on his head to hide what had been done to him. I lost the edges of my body as I looked at the bruise on his lip, the shade of death in his skin, his closed eyes. I still don’t know that those edges have returned.
For the last few days, our lives have been a merry-go-round that refused to stop, one that has replaced horses and wild animals with mattresses, wharenui (Maori tribal meeting house) walls, long nights, and hard chairs. It plays no music and moves too quickly. The children have clutched, cried, demanded, threatened, and held on. They lose themselves in laughter, running races with their cousins, in grabbing for lollies and cookies. And then once again they are gathered into the spinning of our adult world. The karakias (prayers), the speeches, the singing, the ‘sit still, be quiet’, ‘we are saying goodbye to Cezar,’ that makes their world feel out of control.
Dan and I have held our position in the middle, picking our children up, putting them down, passing them on to relatives, gathering them up again. We are exhausted, dizzy, sick. We are trying to be kind, and patient. We fail. We keep trying.
Standing at the edge of Cezar Wairere’s grave, a fistful of earth and grit in my hand, I look down at those yellow pajamas, the white teddy bear next to the coffin, a few toys, and flowers. The scattered earth has begun to cover them, fistful by fistful. The space inside of me returns. I let go of my handful of earth and then walk through the graves until I stand looking at bushes, flax, weeds, the hill, the mist hovering in the air.
Several years ago this month, we buried the baby of our dear friends. His name was Noah Ranui. He was nearly one and he was beautiful. His death was from a heart defect. On that day, Sol was only two years old, Zaviera was still a baby, Joaquin had not been born. Kneeling at his grave, Sol climbed up in my arms with a fistful of dandelions. He brushed my eyelids with his fingertips, the flowers trailing against my skin. He said, “Close your eyes mommy, it’s okay. Close your eyes.” And then he pressed his nose into mine.
On that day, I feared all of the things that could happen to my children; the illnesses, the accidents. On this day I am mourning something that could have been prevented. This baby was murdered. I refuse to use pretty language, to soften the reality.
Murder is defined as: “The unlawful killing of another human being without justification or excuse. To kill brutally or inhumanly.”
I have learned that when violence takes the life of an adult, we say ‘murder.’ But when a baby is killed by violence we use words like ‘tragedy’ ‘abuse’ ‘wrongdoing’.
I stand in the rain and I feel arms around my waist. It is Sol. I pick him up and he lets his body relax into mine as I cry. He is five years old, and there are no dandelions in his fist, but once again, my brave, question-asking son stands within the gap between me and God.
These are things that will not go away inside of me as the earth covers the small body of a baby boy. It will not go away as we get back to the daily acts of living.
Cezar Wairere Taylor, I will not bury your spirit in euphemisms and platitudes. I know you are beyond the reach of anger, pain, or sorrow, but here on this earth, while I breathe and live and hold my babies, I will not forget what has been done to you. God Bless you.
Eros-Alegra Clarke is editor-in-chief of Milk & Ink, an online literary magazine that celebrates “family in the extreme,” which just published its first literary Anthology, Milk & Ink: A Mosaic of Motherhood. She won the 76th Annual Writer’s Digest grand prize for her personal essay, “Salamander Prayer,” and placed in the 4th Annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards. She was nominated by Writer’s Digest for the top 101 Best Websites for Writers. She can be found blogging about life, writing, and motherhood at: http://alegra22.wordpress.com/ and www.milkandink.com.
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