I have a photo of myself, Stevie and his little brother Scotty, my three brothers and my sister, taken on the lawn of a local park in the town where my siblings and I grew up. At 12, I was the oldest, and as if in practice for motherhood, I'm cradling Scotty on my lap as he smiles up at me, mirroring my own big grin. Stevie, 9 or 10, brings up the rear, holding a baseball bat; he looks ready for a game. Stevie's parents, Stephi and Alan, were caring for us at our home at that time while our parents were traveling in Europe, and all was going well. Our shining faces in the photo were a testament to that.
But then all of us kids got sick with a virus. One night I was in the bathroom, bent over the toilet, feeling like I was obliterating part of myself as I expunged the poison of sickness. I wanted only to be alone in this purging, and when Stephie came flying in, the picture of alarm and concern, I yelled, "Go away!" The next day she said, her face still showing her hurt and puzzlement: "I was only trying to help you!" I didn't know what to say, didn't know how to explain my discomfort at throwing up in front of someone. If I could go back in time, I'd respond: "I know you were. I'm sorry I was rude."
Stevie was sicker than any of us. I kept vigil with him and his mother, who spooned food in his mouth as he lay unconscious in bed. I asked, "How can he swallow if he's not awake?"
"It's automatic, " she replied. I felt her anxiety, her helplessness, and I was moved by the poignant softness and innocence in Stevie's heavy-lidded closed eyes, his open, unresisting mouth, his obedient swallowing. I was reminded of my own closed eyes and open, receptive mouth as I knelt at the altar, receiving the Holy Communion wafer. I felt the retreat of Stevie's spirit to a holy place, a place we could not go.
The night I learned he had passed, I became acquainted with grief; I threw myself on my bed, and I felt, like Alice in the dark hall of aloneness and confusion, that I was swimming in a pool of tears.
Our parents came home, and we were happy to see them. Stevie's funeral was held shortly after. Neither I nor my siblings attended; I guess it was assumed we had been privy to enough already. Afterward, my mother remarked that she had "never heard a woman cry so" as Stevie's mother had at the sight of her son's lifeless body.
For a long time I felt guilt about Stevie's death, assuming he would not have died if his parents hadn't agreed to come and stay with us, thus exposing him to a virus. Then my father informed me that he had a congenital heart condition, so perhaps he was never meant to live very long.
I would look at Stephie sadly when our families got together in the ensuing years, my unspoken feelings clamoring for a voice I could not give them. Only now can I write of of how Stevie's face pierced my heart as he hovered in the twilight zone between life and death, and of how, at the same time, I can still see his face beaming bright as the sun, as he ran and played with us in those happy summer days.