Even then, in those first jarring moments, I had the feeling things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better. Though I could not, for the life of me, imagine how.
“What time did you discover him?”
One policeman leaned over Daniel’s back, feeling both his neck and wrist for a pulse.
“Was he here all night?”
“He got up last night about midnight, said he couldn’t sleep.”
I thought briefly about the quiet of that moment, the simplicity of it, Daniel’s body framed in the doorway, backlit by the lamp on the hall table. A nothing moment I would never have thought about again, being half-asleep and used to a husband with insomnia.
I compared the nothingness of that moment to the loud, frantic, heart-stopping one it had become.
“I don’t actually know whether he came back to bed at all, but he wasn’t there when I woke up around six.”
I was thirsty and nauseous and needed to sit down. I stepped away from the policemen as they began searching around the body, beneath the desk—looking for what, I wondered. I leaned against the fireplace in Daniel’s study, as if there were a burning fire that could warm me. I was wearing two sweaters and a cashmere shawl, but I still felt cold. My eyes were tight and dry, and I couldn’t stop blinking.
The nervous flutter of my eyelids made me dizzy. Everything was flashing by in a rapid series of stills. I couldn’t keep the scene around me in focus: outside, there were the pulsing lights of the police cruiser, my two neighbors standing like sentinels watching from their snow-covered lawns. Inside, a policeman speaking on a cell phone in the hallway, the quiet briskness of the cops in their black nylon jackets, the swishing sounds of their jacket sleeves each time they moved their arms.
The absence of Daniel’s heartbeat and the deafening pounding of my own.
I lifted my thumb and forefinger to my eyelids to hold them steady for a moment. “Had he been complaining about any symptoms?”
“A headache. Last evening, he said he was really tired, but then he couldn’t sleep.”
The policeman nodded. “The medical examiner is on his way. Have you contacted a funeral home?”
“I-I’ll do that. I’m sorry,” I said. “Would it be alright if I just checked on my children?”
The policeman nodded. “Sure,” he said, resting his hand for a moment on my shoulder, a gesture of compassion that seemed routine and empty.
I smiled weakly and walked away, my arms crossed over my stomach.
“Is Daddy going to be alright?” asked Kenya, my daughter, as I came into the kitchen.
I looked at my friend Rowena who had come to the house to sit with my children. We had already covered this ground with Kennie. Rowena made a face and shook her head as imperceptibly as possible.
I sat down at the table and held out my arms. Kenya came over and sank onto my lap. I held her head against my chin. “No, sweetie. Daddy’s not going to be alright.”
Panic rose in her voice and she sat up to look at me. Her eyes filled with tears. “Why? What happened?”
“We don’t know yet,” I said. “We’ll find out soon. They’ll tell us.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said.
She waited for my response. I closed my eyes and took a breath.
“Yes,” I said.
She shook her head and looked away. “You’re wrong,” she said, both defiant and afraid. “Everybody’s wrong.”
“It feels wrong, sweetie,” I said, “but it’s true.”
“No.” Her face crumpled and she began to sob.
I sighed and pulled her against me again. I began to rock back and forth—instinct kicking in. I hadn’t rocked my twelve-year-old daughter in many years, but it seemed like the only thing I could offer her.
I looked over at my son, Ethan, who was sitting directly across from me, his hands cupped around a mug of unsipped tea. He looked up at me, as if waiting for what I would say next.
Ethan was the first child I awoke after finding my husband dead in his study. I stood in the doorway of his room, watching him sleep, unable to cross the floor and wake him.
He was at peace, still floating in a world where his dad lived and breathed. I was the one who would change that world forever.
I went to the bed and sat down. After a moment or two, my son opened one eye. “This better be good,” he muttered.
I cleared my throat and tried to speak. Nothing came out.
Ethan rolled onto his back. He looked more closely at my face and then leaned up on one elbow. “What is it?” he said.
“Ethan, honey,” I said, and then paused. “Ethan, sit up, okay, so I know you’re awake.”
“What? What’s going on? What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry to have to do this. But, I need to tell you something—about Daddy,” I wiped tears from my cheeks. “Daddy—.”
Oh, how do I do this? How do I say this?
“He’s what? Mom, for Christ’s sake!”
I reached out for Ethan’s hands and took them in mine. The skin was rough and the knuckles chapped. I rubbed my thumbs over his knuckles and squeezed his hands hard and waited until I could steady my voice. “I found Daddy in his study this morning. Something happened to him during the night, sweetie. I don’t know. I don’t know what. But, he’s—he’s dead.”
“Dead? What! Mom, are you sure?”
I nodded. “I called the police and they’re on their way. I’m sure, Ethan. I’m sure.”
“I want to see him,” he said, pulling his hands away and jumping out of the bed.
“Oh, honey, I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You know, he wouldn’t want you to see him like this.”
But my son was already halfway down the stairs.
“Dad!” Ethan called, as he ran away from me. “Dad?”
I followed behind him, unable to catch up, my slipper coming loose on the stair. Then, Ethan was in the study, calling out. “Dad! Dad!” he was saying. I reached down to pick up my slipper, thinking my heart was going to land right beside it.
Now he was staring at me across the kitchen table. “She needs to see him,” he said.
I shook my head.
“Mom!” Ethan said. “She needs to see him.”
I looked at Rowena. She nodded.
I closed my eyes and put my cheek against my daughter’s head. Here in this moment it was suddenly quiet again, like before. I could hide here. I could smell the coffee Rowena had made me; I could feel my daughter’s hair against my chin. I wrapped my arms more tightly around Kenya and rocked, as much for her as for me. The sounds of the ongoing catastrophe that had burst upon our lives that morning were muffled behind the door—distant.
Sometime later, the medical examiner came and I walked down the hall to speak with him. He asked me some questions, like whether Daniel took any medication and said that he would order a post mortem to determine the cause of the death. He gave me some papers to sign. He said they were making preparations to remove Daniel’s body. I retreated back to my hiding place in the kitchen, as if it were the only room in the house undamaged by the sudden blast of Daniel’s death.
I sat down and Kenya climbed back into my lap. I closed my eyes and went back to rocking. Just rocking.
“Clare,” said Rowena.
I looked up. The policeman was standing in the doorway. “They’re ready to leave, Mrs. Blakeley,” he said.
I stood up and took Kenya’s hand. “My daughter needs to see her father first. We’d like a couple of minutes alone with him. Is that possible?”
“Of course,” he said.
I turned back to the table. “Ethan,” I said, beckoning. “Come on, honey. Come along.” It seemed totally ordinary, not the least bit surreal. As if he were three years old instead of seventeen. As if we were getting in the car and going on a play date.
They left us alone in the study. Daniel’s body was strapped to a gurney; there was a blue sheet folded neatly across this chest.
Kenya knelt down next to him and put her face close to Daniel’s. “Daddy,” she whispered. She reached one hand over to his face and touched his eyelids one at a time. It was the way she used to wake him when she was a toddler and sneaked into our room in the early morning.
Ethan flinched and reached out. Then, he seemed to catch himself and lowered his arm back to his side.
Kenya pressed Daniel’s forehead with the flat of her hand. She paused, as if taking his temperature and looked up at me. “Where is he?” she asked.
“He’s gone up to heaven,” I said. “He’s with his mom and dad. And all the angels.”
Good lord, what was I talking about? Did I even believe what I was saying to her?
“And Raphael and Ariel,” said Ethan, which gave me a start until I realized he was talking about the pet rabbit and duck we used to own.
“No, I mean where,” said Kenya, “if his body’s here.”
“Well, when someone dies, they lift up out of their body,” I said. “They go up and up until they stop at the place where the spirits live.” I lifted my arm towards the ceiling. We all looked at my hand floating in mid-air.
“And then they can’t see you anymore, can they?” she asked.
“No, Daddy will still be able to see you,” I said.
“How do you know?”
My eyes filled with tears. “It’s always that way,” I said. I nodded and smiled, rubbing my hand on her back. “Just like my dad still sees me.”
Kenya nodded. Her hand slipped away from Daniel’s forehead. She bowed her head and pressed her hands together in prayer. I had never seen my daughter pray and wasn’t sure she even knew how, or that she was actually praying now. We all waited solemnly until she finally stood up and looked at me.
“Alright,” she said.