Sidelined

By Erin Sanders

She always finds a way to make her pain heard. In that way, she’s an open book.

It’s a common belief around here that her husband is a saint. For years her tongue and her mood swings have followed him around from state to state. With every move, a new community of people comes to simultaneously respect and pity him for the cross he willingly carries. Not that he knew what he was taking on at the beginning. He couldn’t have. They were young; she was independent and a little wild. Her words, her touch held the promise of a new and exciting future. Everything about her was enticing.

And now they’re burdened down with a house full of girls they can barely control and, from what I’ve heard in some of our little moments on the sidelines, the memory of the child that might have been.

We’re late to gymnastics again, but class hasn’t started as we walk into the gym. As usual, her voice is one of the first things I’m aware of even before I step through the doorway. Girls are milling around on the mats, goofing off and chatting while they wait. Parents are sitting in isolated clusters in the bleachers. Except for Lorene. She’s out on the gym floor, standing in her street shoes on a mat, bantering with some of Sadie’s friends and laughing like these preteen girls are some of her best friends.

As always, she’s too loud. She never seems to be aware of the way her words can make people around her uncomfortable.

I send Sadie out to her classmates, then find a spot by myself near the other moms and pull out my phone. Gymnastics is a nice breather in the middle of a busy week. A solid hour to make a few phone calls and catch up on social media, maybe even read a book, and to watch my girl do the thing she loves best.

I order a pizza to pick up on the way home and am just about to tap open my email when I hear Lorene’s voice again. It’s more subdued this time and not far from me; her words sound resigned but miserable.

“It was a year ago yesterday.”

Mental facepalm. Of course. I should have been prepared for this. Thank God she didn’t sit down beside me. So, it’s been a year now. And she’s still looking for sympathy. We heard all about it in the beginning. About how excited they all were. A boy. Finally.

Sometimes I think she forgets that this isn’t her unique pain. She’s not the first one to be stunned by drops of red weeks after the feminine supplies have been packed away. She’s not the only one to be halted in the middle of choosing the perfect baby name; of dreaming up a nursery, clipping diaper coupons even though it’s unreasonably early. She is not the only person to feel the pain of losing a child.
But there’s one thing she doesn’t know.

She’s never experienced the sight of a dark blob in the spare bathroom toilet, believing that life is beautiful and precious from the joining of the first two cells, but choosing to say, “It’s just tissue,” before pressing down on the handle. That’s a side to loss that she’s never even imagined.

But, really … I can’t complain. There’s my Sadie Grace out there, the brightest smile in this roomful of energetic girls. And through it all, there’s been Matthew. The one who holds me when I need it, and lets me go when I just need a little space. He’s always understood me; he always has the ability to make me smile. Matthew is the force that keeps me grounded.

Why the spare bathroom? Why were we even in there that night? Such a tiny room, with a shower barely big enough for one person, but roomy enough for a couple of honeymooners. It must have been the closest. When I walked in, I didn’t know I’d find myself bleeding. I didn’t know I’d be staring at those yellow walls and calling for Matthew, then saying, “You look first. I can’t.” I didn’t know I’d walk out of that bathroom empty. Until the day I die, I’ll be able to recall every detail of that little room.

At seven and a half weeks, a baby has ears. And nostrils. Lenses are forming in the eyes.

She thinks she knows empty, her with her five daughters and her busy mouth. You can’t really know what empty is unless you’ve carried it around inside, unspoken and untouched. When it was her sadness, she talked to everyone about it. She used Facebook as an outlet. Asking for prayer, posting photos. I avoided her a long time after the photos. Those gruesome baby fingers, too young to be photographed. And then the casket pictures, the gravestone. And through it all, the talk about the physical discomfort and the tears. There’s not an emotion she felt that someone didn’t hear about.

How long does it take a 0.04 ounce human to decompose?

“Come on Jasmine. You can do better than that!” Lorene could probably choose more encouraging words to yell across the gym. Her oldest daughters, Lilli and Jewel, are in the top of the bleachers, dragged along again to wait as their little sisters tumble and flip on the mats. I always wonder what they’re thinking when they hear their mother’s voice. But their faces reveal nothing. They’re both messing around with their phones, talking once in a while, ignoring everything else in the gym.

A couple of years ago, my mom made the statement that in heaven I’ll have two children. I haven’t decided yet if I want to believe that.

I try to tune out Lorene as she actively watches the girls practice and talks with the moms around her. They seem to genuinely like her, but there’s no denying that a conversation with Lorene in public is a very public conversation. As their words flow back and forth, I keep my eyes on the blond braid bouncing around in front of me. Sadie’s body on the gym floor is as limber as her daddy’s fingers on the piano keys. He passed along that easy gracefulness to her. It’s there even when she’s struggling to learn a new move or just sitting and waiting. Sometimes I see him so strong in her that I wonder if there’s room for pieces of me to show through. I’m relieved when Emily’s mom moves beside me and asks about my day. The hour moves more quickly now.

And suddenly, there’s Sadie, interrupting me in the middle of a sentence and about to shake the phone out of my hand. “Mom, can Kira spend the night? Please?!”

She’s breaking a house rule, or at least tiptoeing around it. Don’t ask for your friends to come over while they’re listening in. Ask privately first. Kira is standing five feet away and looking in a different direction like I don’t know they’ve already discussed this.

“Um, not tonight, baby. This is something we need to plan ahead. We’ll talk about it at home and you can call her later. OK?”

“But she needs to come over tonight. We’re —”
“Sadie. You can call her later. Do you have everything? We’re stopping for pizza on the way home and it’s going to be ready in just a few minutes.”

Somehow, she’s fine with this answer. She’s laughing now. “Did you see me mess up that back handspring? Somehow I landed in Jessalyn’s lap!”

That irresistible laugh; I’m smiling too. “Yeah, I saw you. You’re something else, girl.”

And then, Lorene’s voice again, “Kira, come! Don’t make me wait for you.” Then to her friend beside her, “My back is killing me! I’ve got to get home and get my feet up.”

I never understood the word “strident” until I heard this woman speak to her own children. Kira barely glances in her mom’s direction before turning back to Sadie, embellishing the story for the benefit of Emily’s mom and now Emily who’s wandered over, ready to join the party. When Kira’s in the middle of a group of people, it’s always a party. This kid isn’t old enough to use sarcasm so well. But there’s no denying it. The girl is funny.

Sadie and I say our goodbyes and start toward the door. Lorene is wrestling with her toddler’s shoes as we walk past.

“Hey Lorene. How’s it going?” My voice is light, casual.

She’s distracted as she answers. “Fine. But I’d be better if this kid would keep her shoes on when I tell her to!”

Almost immediately a small set of hands reaches out and takes over the task. Sadie. She’s making faces and sweet talking the dimples into Laila’s cheeks. And now the shoes are securely on and the little girl is up and chasing Sadie, squealing and giggling as my little princess picks her up and spins her around.
As I finally pry my daughter away from her buddy, Lorene is talking about what a chore it is to feed seven people every night. And how expensive. I have a sudden urge to call Matthew and apologize to him for every time I’ve ever complained about anything.

Instead I say goodbye and Sadie and I walk away. She doesn’t realize she’s too old to hold her mama’s hand in public and I’m not telling her. She’ll figure it out soon enough. For now, though, we walk through the double doors of the gym, and I savor this moment, small fingers gripping mine, her excited voice telling me the stories bouncing around in her head, and the promise of an ordinary evening ahead of us.

 

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