Chapter 1 1
My mom died and everyone says that I’m not handling it well.
I would think that if I was handling it well, that would be the time to worry. Like if I was going to parties and having friends over and acting normal, because no one should act normal when things are not normal. I mean that would be like watching TV when the house is burning because you forgot to shut the oven off which I only did once. Not because I wanted to die or didn’t care that the house was on fire—it was just that I really didn’t notice on account of the fact that my mom died and that made me not notice things. But just about everyone found that hard to believe, especially the firemen because they said that when they found me there was so much smoke in the house that I couldn’t see the TV and I was still sitting there staring at it anyway.
Okay, so my mom died twelve months three weeks one day six hours and fourteen minutes ago and some people think that I should be better by now and not burning down the house and maybe I should be smiling sometimes and speaking more and going to parties and because that’s not happening I ended up at the Bergen County Hospital Center on Monday night at seven thirty in Room 212 which is on the second floor just turn right past the vending machines and the restrooms on the left.
Inside Room 212 there’s a circle of chairs and boxes of tissues and a coffee setup with Styrofoam cups and cookies with swirls of chocolate on them and everyone here is seventy or eighty or a hundred years old except for me so it’s weirder than I thought it would be and it makes me really sad to be here, even sadder than I was before I showed up, especially when one of the really old guys named Henry starts to cry when he tells us about his wife of fifty years and probably four weeks three days fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds or something like that. I look at him—we all look at him—as he gets up to speak and a wisp of cotton for hair hovers like a cloud over his head and his lip quivers. He says her name is Evelyn and she has blue eyes the color of the sky in Montana in winter and then he says that they went on a whale watch in Nova Scotia for their fortieth wedding anniversary and grow sweet peas and tomatoes in their backyard and she saved up sleeping pills and then he helped her mash them up in chocolate pudding so she could go peacefully and on her own terms when she was ready and I’m thinking I’ll never come back to Room 212.
When Henry’s finished talking, the moderator who has short blond hair and freckles on her cheeks and looks like Peter Pan except without the green tights turns right to me and says, “Do you want to say anything or introduce yourself to the group or tell us who you lost?” And I say, “No.” Then she says, “Please,” so I say, “I lost my mom.”
Then it gets all quiet, last-man-on-Earth, apocalypse quiet, until Peter Pan says, “I’m so sorry. How did she die?” and I say, “Me. I killed her.”
That completely sucks the air out of the room and shocks Peter Pan and now all the old people look even more concave and shriveled than they did before I said it but Henry at least stops crying and everyone looks at me with their sunken old-people eyes like I am a monstrosity of unprecedented proportion or one of the great Horrors of the Western World and then they turn away and stare at their feet because people don’t like to look at murderers especially if they killed their mom. For the longest time it just stays all quiet and nobody eats cookies or drinks coffee and Peter Pan doesn’t know what to say so she just sits there like the rest of them and I feel even worse than I did before I came into Room 212. I mean I have no idea why I said that I killed my mom because my mom died in a car accident and I wasn’t driving or in the car with her or texting her or yelling at her on the phone and I wasn’t the drunk driver of the eighteen-wheel tractor trailer that hit her either.
just came out and now they are sitting there like a disgusting amorphous thing in the middle of the room and I can’t take them back or rewind my mouth or cover them up so I just stand up and leave Room 212 and head for the elevator which is left past the vending machines and the restrooms on the right.
Peter Pan–without–the–green–tights runs out after me and finds me punching the down button to the elevator over and over again and says, “Please wait.”
I say, “I should probably just leave because I upset everyone, especially Henry who doesn’t need to be any more upset than he already is.”
Peter Pan says, “Please don’t go. I’d really like you to come back inside. We all would.”
I smash the down button again and say, “If Henry dies of a heart attack brought on by shock and extreme sadness tonight it will be my fault and I’ll have to come back on Wednesday and tell all the other old people that I killed him, too.”
“Look,” Peter Pan says, “we have a group for teens that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays that you would probably like better than the Monday-Wednesday group.”
“Will you be there?” I ask, and before she can answer I add, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense, ’cause kids my age are too young to have lost someone,” and she says, “I know you’ve lost your mom, and I can’t imagine how hard that must be, but you’re not the only one. And yes, I’ll be there.”
I look at her pixie hair and freckles and nice smile and she says, “Losing someone you love at a young age happens more than you think,” so I say, “Okay, maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Then Peter Pan tries to give me a hug and I get all awkward and kind of tense up and pull away and then I feel even worse but she says, “Whatever you are feeling is okay, and we will work with you to make it better,” and I want to tell her that what I’m feeling isn’t okay at all because if it was okay it wouldn’t feel this bad and my dad wouldn’t have had to sign me up for this group, but instead I ask, “How? How will you make me feel better?”
She says, “One step at a time,” and smiles.
Her smile is just one of those things that makes you feel better even though you’re soaking wet and freezing cold and were just struck by lightning and are probably going to die any minute. So when the elevator door finally pings and slides wide open with a slurpy electronic hiss, I don’t step inside because Peter Pan is standing there with this hopeful, expectant look on her face and it’s like the sun just peeked out when it’s raining.
She’s quiet for a minute and then she smiles again and says, “Let’s go back inside.”
Her voice is soft—mom-talking-to-little-kid soft—and she doesn’t have a big bright smile. It’s more of a trust-me-on-this-one smile which is just the right amount of smile under the circumstances so I say, “Okay.”
So, here I am. Staring at my feet slapping against the shiny, slime-green linoleum on the second floor of the Bergen County Hospital Center as I walk back to Room 212 with Peter Pan walking right next to me. When I steal a glance over at her, she looks happy—like, found-one-of-the-Lost-Boys happy—so at least that’s something.
As soon as we sit down we go around the circle again and everyone except for me and Henry introduces themselves and says who they lost and how they’re doing—which is not good or they wouldn’t be here—and then Henry picks up right where he left off like I never said a thing about me killing my mom. He tells us the whole point of his life was to take care of Evelyn and then it gets so quiet and so uncomfortable again that it sounds and feels like it would if you were standing in a morgue waiting to identify a body. I mean, it’s almost as bad as when I said I killed my mom because everyone in Room 212 knows that Henry is going to die any second because he just told us that the whole reason he is living is Evelyn, and Evelyn is gone.
And we all know what that means.
Because if you are living a life that no longer has purpose it tends to end in a hurry.
Then Peter Pan uses her gentle mom voice to get a couple more people to talk and all of them still have reasons to live like book groups and fishing trips and Labrador retrievers and grandchildren and when they’re finished talking Peter Pan says, “We’re done for tonight,” and everyone starts grabbing their things and there are a few coughs and the sound of chairs being pushed back but mostly it’s quiet. Two of the really old people who have aluminum walkers for legs and the crooked backs of old bent trees hobble to the snack table and stuff some cookies into their pockets, and then the rest of the group shuffles to the door all gangly and hunched over like their limbs are the branches of the weeping willows in the park at the end of my street. I stand up with a jolt and rush to the elevator trying not to knock anyone over on my way out and trying not to think about me or my mom, or about Henry being dead.
I smash the down button on the elevator and when the doors slide open I step inside and stare at my sneakers grateful that the car is empty because at this point even saying hello to someone would be too hard.
They might smile or say hi and I wouldn’t be able to say hi back because what would be the point?
I’m just the weird kid who never smiles ’cause his mom died twelve months three weeks one day seven hours and sixteen minutes ago.