Their Jamie had always been the easy one. As an infant, he slept through the night, and he chortled at games like peek-a-boo and, later, hide-and-seek. With great affection, he put his pet lizard on his head, holding him with his delicate, baby hand, and took him on a trip through the house to enjoy the geography. But he could also stand still. Jamie mimicked Ralph, his father, a birder, as they stared out the dining room window and Ralph pointed out the juncos, the piliated woodpecker, and once a hawk. When Jamie was a little older, he and his father went into the woods outside town to see what birds they could find with binoculars. Jamie was sweet and fine and curly-haired. Andrea and Ralph planned for him to study Latin and Chinese, become a physicist and poet and violinist.
Cassandra, his younger sister was colicky, would not eat, would not sleep except to her own rhythms. She was even smarter and pretty, of course; she had Ralph’s crystal eyes. Jamie had Andrea’s darker eyes. On a misty April day, as the rain began to sprinkle, Jamie rode his bicycle with Cassie perched behind. He turned around to tell her to hang on tight and he slammed into a car. The doctors were unable to stop the brain swelling. He had not worn his helmet.
Little Cassie expected Jamie to bicycle back from the hospital, and she asked her parents when he would return home. Andrea explained softly that Jamie was dead; it was like what happened to Cassie’s goldfish.
“But Jamie’s not a goldfish,” Cassie stated. “Jamie likes lizards.”
Andrea ran out of the room, and the lesson on death had to be given by Ralph.
Cassie shook her head. “It’s a game. Come out, come out, wherever you are.” She put her hands over her eyes. “I can’t see you.”
Ralph said, “We have Jamie in our hearts. We’ll always have him.”
Cassie began to wail.
At pre-school, when the little girls came up to Cassie and patted her hand, she eked out a smile. The teacher watched for signs of depression, but Cassie continued to turn in her assignments and get high grades, though she seemed quieter than usual. Andrea and Ralph didn’t succumb to the dysfunction that was supposed to break up families undergoing severe stress. But Ralph abandoned birding after Jamie died.
Cassie caught pneumonia when she was seven, and Andrea almost went mad with worry, but Cassie recovered, missing only a month of school. During that time, Andrea read to her, taught her word games and spelling, and Cassie later became a champion speller and a ferocious reader. There was no permanent damage to her lungs. “We’re so lucky,” Andrea said.
Ralph said, “Yes.”
As a girl, Andrea had supposed the universe was arranged to please her–the bright, high sky, the fresh green spring, the soft chill rain. Her father had patted her head and said they were all lucky to have escaped. “Escaped what?” she asked him. “War,” he said, “disease . . . accidents,” and he went back to planting onions and parsley in their garden.
Later that day, the radio reported a war in Uganda. She picked up her geography book to see where this country was, and was relieved to discover that it was far away. She studied her history and practiced art, drawing paisley and circle designs in her notebook, lines flowing toward lines.
Years later, when Andrea was fifty-three, she said to Ralph they were lucky to love each other, to grow older together, to raise Cassie to be a smart and empathetic young woman.
Ralph said, “Yes.”
Andrea and Ralph traveled to England and Scotland for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. They had walked on Hadrian’s Wall when they were in their twenties, and she wanted to visit England again–London, Oxford, Stratford, and then north to Edinburgh, the brave, showy, curved facade of the Royal Circus in New Town asserting to the world that right angles in gray stone were comparatively easy but curves were difficult to build and would persist, could climb and hold.
The spring day was misty and chilly. Women wore their coats wrapped tightly; men, their collars up, bent their heads into the wind. Andrea and Ralph stood in the leeward side of the concave building, protected, smiling widely, and holding hands. They had left their gloves in the hotel room and could feel the warmth of each other’s palms. Andrea said, “At least it’s not raining.” She pointed to a pigeon flying above the roof. “Look!”
Ralph said, “Yes,” and wiped at the damp on her face.
published 10 September 2014