Sunday, October 6, 2013


The sharp sound of shattering ceramic echoes through the room. A spinning shard comes to rest. Then all is silent. I close my eyes and drop my head forward for a few breathless moments, allowing the memories to sweep over me.

Even in a whisper, my voice echoes, “Do you want to kiss her good-bye?”

The tow-headed, eight-year-old boy, his blue eyes open wide, remains silent, bowing his head to one side and slightly shaking it “no."

“This may be our last time alone with her.”

He remains motionless.

The young woman lying before us in the soft light is peaceful in her repose. Crisp, white sheet pulled up under her arms, golden-brown hair spilling away from her serene, unmade face. Eyes softly closed, arms at her sides, palms open, slender, ringless fingers relaxed.

I stroke her hair, then lean over and kiss her. Though my lips linger on hers, she does not respond. I touch her cheek. It is cold, as cold as the ceramic tile walls, as cold as the stainless steel IV pole with its dangling, disconnected tubes, as cold as the now-silent vital signs machine and the crash cart carrying the deactivated defibrillator.

I slowly step back, take a deep breath and close my eyes. I hear my own heartbeat.

With my hand on his shoulder, I lead the little boy beyond the blue surgical curtain and into the doorway where a nurse is silently waiting. She whispers that she is so terribly sorry.

I ask if my son can have a lock of his mother’s hair. We sit on the blue plastic seats of the sad, square metal frame waiting room chairs until she returns with a white envelope. Inside is a long, golden-brown swirl of hair. I thank her. We leave. Just the two of us.

Among the images that recall themselves from the summer that followed, many of them caught on home video, all bereft of a mother's touch, is a grainy video of my son standing alone on the sidewalk, sparklers sizzling and scintillating in each hand on a July Fourth night and, when they burn out, he drops them to the sidewalk and shrugs his shoulders as the scene fades to black.

In the fall, his elementary school class visits Disney World on a day trip. I have to work and am unable to chaperon, but I give him money to spend on food and souvenirs. That evening when I return from work, he hands me a small shopping bag imprinted with a Disney World logo. Inside is the black Donald Duck ceramic coffee mug. The money I have given him for himself, he has spent on me.

The cup has accompanied me ever since, for nineteen years, treasured and protected, a constant reminder of my son’s unselfish gesture.

As I am rearranging a book and some papers, the cup has fallen from the stool where it always rests as I sit drinking my morning coffee while reading. Despite my desperate attempt to grasp it in its seemingly-slow-motion fall, it has crashed to the terrazzo floor and shattered.

I weep. I weep, not for the loss of the cup. There will be others. I weep for what is irreplaceable.

Then, I raise my head, shrug my shoulders, pick up the pieces, and breathe into life's next moments.

Morning coffee in my Donald Duck cup on the tailgate of a NOLS 4X4 in the mountains of Montana.


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