Light Shines Even In Darkness
The smooth movement of my hands is soothing, almost compelling me to continue it. The pile of clothes beside me is slowly growing, pastels and pockets peeping out from under the layers. I finish folding the shirt with the tiny dinosaurs, his favorite, placing it to the side. It has to go on top; it’s how it is. I reach for a pair of duck pants, barely even flinching when I hear Ben’s voice.
“I knew you’d be here,” he says, like nothing could be more true. “You knew I’d be here eventually too.”
Of course. Each year it’s the same. I’m never anywhere else. It’s always this room. The room at the end of the hall. It’s locked almost every day, all except for one. Today.
“You should be out with the girls,” I reply, ignoring Ben’s words. “They’ll get bored and start harassing the neighbor’s dog again.”
“Alicia went home. Izzy’s watching a movie in the living room. She won’t move for hours, I can pretty much guarantee.”
I don’t speak, tucking the hood of a jacket behind the fabric and folding it as well. I pull a plaid shirt from the pile of laundry that hasn’t been dirty for three years.
Ben stares at me, and I do my best to pretend he’s not here. I don’t want to crack. He always makes me crack. I can hold it together when he’s not around, fake it enough for Izzy and my family, but not once he shows up. He knows me too well. He can see everything. And the worst part is, he understands. If he couldn’t, if he told me to get over it, I could stay strong. But he doesn’t, because he feels it too. I can’t handle both of our pain.
He doesn’t interrupt my folding, knows from past experiences that I need to do this, but he does move to stand next to me. He peers up at the sign above us, made lovingly by my uncle. I hate that sign. It’s too perfect. Carved out of beautiful wood and customized blocks, it was a favorite of his. He loved that his name was up there. Jace.
I want to take it down, but I can’t. I want to tear the whole room down, but I just can’t.
The only thing I can do is tidy up the mess that isn’t there, run my fingers across the toys coated in dust, and refold the clothes.
Next is a soccer jersey. The memories of backyard dirt cling to it, the joyous essence of a game now lost and faded.
Ben catches sight of the jersey, and his eyes plead for me to hand it to him. I do, swiftly moving onto a hoodie with cars on it. Ben fingers the smooth fabric, no doubt trying to grasp the images that work desperately to fade from our minds.
If we lose the ephemeral glimpses of the past, I’m not sure we can keep up with the future. I regret not taking more pictures. More videos. I regret not doing more of everything.
Ben’s arm brushes against mine as he gives back the jersey, and I hate him for being here. I hate him for always knowing that what I need and what I want are two different things. I want to be alone. I need to be with him. I hate myself for both of those things. For a lot of things.
“We can’t keep doing this,” he says in a broken whisper. “We can’t.”
He knows that’s not true. That if we stop we’ll never be the same, because it’ll feel like we let go for the second time. He doesn’t even mean his words, but it’s what we tell each other since it’s what everyone else says.
Time doesn’t heal the way people think it does. It may take away the agony of the memories, lessen the nightmares, and allow you to breathe again. But it never stops you from hurting all the way. It can’t, and it won’t.
My breath hitches, and I stop folding to grasp onto the bedside table. The seemingly mocking stuffed animals on the comforter swim in my vision. It’s starting. I knew it.
When Ben’s eyes drop, the saline coming from them like it’s coming from mine, I clench the wood even harder. I can see the scratch marks from previous years. Guilt begins to overwhelm me, as it always does.
It had been a minute. Just one stupid minute that I’d been distracted. Ben and Izzy were out in their blow up rafts in the reservoir, singing songs. I went to take a video of them. My husband and five-year-old, what could be cuter? I didn’t know Jace was awake from a nap on his towel. I didn’t know he’d see us out in the water, and want to join us as anyone who’s three is bound to. There are so many things I didn’t know, all things I should have.
I thought I had it right. I slathered sunscreen on them, made sure Izzy had water wings in the water and that she was with Ben. I even knew CPR because it was something I thought I should be able to do. It didn’t help me in the end. It was too late.
“Don’t,” Ben breathes, startling me. “I know you’re thinking about it. Don’t.”
“If I had just been there,” I reply, feeling as if water is invading my lungs too. “If I turned around even a little quicker. God, there are so many things-”
“No,” Ben interrupts harshly, and I can hear him choke on his words. “It wasn’t you. Not just you, at the very least. We were the reason you were gone. I called to you about our singing. It was me who-”
“No,” I answer, repeating his sentiment. “Don’t, Ben.”
We both know it’s foolish to blame ourselves. We know it’s not our fault. But with nobody to turn against, we’re lost. We’ve never found what it is we’re looking for. We don’t ever have answers. There is no why for what happened. It just is.
I turn to fold the last few pieces of clothing, setting the dinosaur shirt on top as it should be. I carry the clothes back to the dresser, putting them away with care. Ben watches me as I adjust the stuffed animals on the bed once more, making sure they’re “comfortable” as Jace always did.
The silence is deafening. I hate that, too. It only serves to remind me that what was once lively is now crushed. There is no laughter. There are no silly voices reenacting scenes. There’s no calling to me to find lost things or to inform me of hunger. Nothing.
"Jace,” I finally say, allowing his name to slip from my lips.
This is it. It’s where I break. Every time.
"Jace,” Ben repeats, his voice shattering too.
I find myself being crushed against a sternum, a ribcage, a neck. I despise it like I do every year, but, even as my stomach churns at my need for Ben’s touch and for my vulnerability, I can’t stop myself from returning the embrace. Every part of my body molds around Ben’s, an attempt to hug away the pain. My arms curl around his neck, my fingers burying themselves in his hair. His face burrows into the top of my head, and I can feel the wetness there as surely as he can feel it in his shirt. There’s no point in caring to let go or not anymore.
Time passes. I’m not sure if it’s seconds, minutes, or hours. Time doesn’t often make sense in this room.
Slowly, carefully, Ben’s arms slip from my body. His hands shake, and so do I, but one manages to tilt up my face. His fingers reach up to wipe the tears from my face, my own hands moving to mirror the action for him. The warmth in his eyes drives away the chill I feel in my core, and he presses his forehead against mine with a sense of relief. We’ve made it through the hardest part once again, survived another year. I let my eyelids fall down as I cherish the moment of solace found in the simple gesture.
The door squeaks, and I immediately become flustered when I see Izzy standing there. The little girl’s eyes seem too calm, not confused enough, and she doesn’t greet us even after we turn to her and wipe at our eyes in a frantic attempt to hide our sorrow.
We’ve always tried to keep the dark parts of our lives away from her, to bear the burden of her feelings so she doesn’t have to experience them. There’s only so much we can do. She was close to Jace, naturally, and I know for a fact she still remembers him even though she won’t talk about him often. I think she’s worried she’ll upset us, even though we’ve encouraged her to express herself. She’s only eight, and it kills me that she carries that with her.
Still, she always manages to bring a sort of vibrancy to our lives. Almost every day of the year, we don’t have to feel the despair we do on this one. She brings us joy. She keeps us going. She is our beacon of hope.
I hope she finds those things with us, too. I think she does.
She brushes past us, approaching Jace’s bed. She’s clutching something in her hand. It’s a plastic dinosaur. She places it on his pillow, smiling like she knows something we don’t.
“I’m going to give you this,” she chirps, seeming excited. “I know dinosaurs are your favorite. Alicia’s mom went to the store with us, and I bought him for a dollar in the front section. So I bought him for you. I figured you were getting tired of playing with the same things.”
She places a delicate kiss on the dinosaur’s head, looking satisfied. She turns to us.
“He’s happy now, I know it,” she announces, patting both Ben and I on the arm. “You don’t need to be sad anymore. We’ll all play together again someday.”
She beams up at us again, then skips away down the hall.
“Our eight-year-old daughter just gave us grief counseling,” I say in disbelief. “I can’t even . . .”
“I guess that means we’re raising her well?” Ben asks, the faintest hint of a smile on his face.
“I guess so,” I answer.
We’re silent for another moment.
“She’s right, you know,” Ben says, sighing. “It’s pretty sad when someone not even half our age knows more than we do about what to do when grieving.”
“I have a feeling she knows more than we do about a lot of things.”
“I think so too.”
I sigh too, feeling the waves of melancholy recede back once again. I’m returning to normal, a much needed change since this morning.
“Come on,” Ben suggests gently, wrapping his fingers around mine. “We have things to do still. Lives to run. We can’t hang around here much longer before Izzy scolds us about making dinner.”
“Yeah,” I agree, taking one last look around the room before I close the door. “You’re right.”
Goodbye, Jace. Next year I’ll bring the dinosaur, and hopefully cry a bit less.
Ben places a kiss on my cheek before tugging me along, and I know he’s thinking something similar.
“Mommy, I’m hungry!” I hear Izzy call from the living room.
“I’m coming!” I reply, laughing along with Ben at how perfect his prediction was.
I can’t help but smile at my family as Ben goes to tickle Izzy for complaining.
I’m not sure I’ll ever stop folding Jace’s clothes, or being sad on this day, but I think I’m finally starting to see that what I was looking for to find peace all the years is here. It’s right in front of me. It seems to me that as long as I keep my family in my heart, I can get through anything. The way I feel when I hear Izzy’s continued laughter mixed with Ben’s only serves to solidify that point.
This is my reason for living. My reason for holding each day dear to my heart. My reason for just about anything I do that shows my love for them.
This is my light.