I had to meet with the Beaver Elementary guidance counselor for twenty minutes every week, school policy in the death of a parent. Her name was Ms. Bernstein and she collected snow globes. My favorite was a giant tarantula that lay half-hidden in snow until you shook it, or held it upside down; then you could see its fangs.
“Most kids like the Snoopy one,” Ms. Bernstein said.
“I like arachnids.” I shrugged. “I like all animals, really.” This was our first meeting.
“How are you feeling?” Ms. Bernstein asked. Her office smelled like tomato soup.
“Like a bee sting.” I turned the snow globe upside down.
“Death is painful.” She nodded.
“The tarantula’s bite,” I said, “is virtually harmless to humans.”
Ms. Bernstein explained that the grieving process takes eighteen months, and she drew a timeline on a piece of paper for me to take home. She drew twenty empty boxes instead of eighteen, since she said she wasn’t sure when I had started the grieving process, whether it was after my mom had gone missing or after she’d been found.
“Do you think it’s suspicious,” I asked during that first meeting, “that Mom died in a drowning accident when she was an excellent swimmer?”
“Denial,” she said. “What you’re experiencing is a stage of grief. You need to work toward accepting your mother’s death.”
Ms. Bernstein said there were normal and abnormal ways of dealing with the death of a loved one. I didn’t know if I was being normal or not. Ms. Bernstein admitted it was a little strange that I was still asking questions about my mother’s cause of death.
I worried I wasn’t normal because I felt sad, but not as sad as I wanted to feel, as sad as I thought someone with a dead mother should feel. I got out of bed every morning, and brushed my teeth, and walked the dog. I ate Fruity Pebbles for breakfast and they tasted fine. I raised my hand first in class whenever Ms. Powell asked a question. So much was the same as before. “Shouldn’t I feel worse?” I asked.
Ms. Bernstein explained that I was experiencing the numbness after loss, and she said it was another expected response, especially for someone so young, someone still learning how to suffer. I asked if that meant that grief would be easier for Lizzie because she was older, and Ms. Bernstein said it was possible but unlikely, based on what she knew about my sister. Ms. Bernstein had been Lizzie’s guidance counselor once too, before Lizzie graduated from Beaver Elementary and gone on to Three Rivers Junior High. Ms. Bernstein had tried to get Lizzie placed into an institution for troubled youth, but Mom threatened a lawsuit against the school and Ms. Bernstein quickly changed her mind.
I hung up the grieving chart in my bedroom, tacked it on my bulletin board between an old report card and the glossy photographs of Sumatran tigers that I’d cut out from National Geographic. I would cross off every month as it passed.
When I arrived for our next meeting, Ms. Bernstein was with another student, a third grader. She kept a small desk chair outside her door, which she called the waiting room. There was a bookshelf along the wall too, with titles like Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Kids!, The Secret Language of Eating Disorders, and Learning to Live with Your Demented Child.
The third grader was upset about his parents’ divorce, and Ms. Bernstein could talk about divorce forever. I read through the DSM for Kids! while I waited. It was a list of all the things that could be wrong with a person, the disorders and phobias. There was a whole section on grief, normal and abnormal, uncomplicated and complicated.
“Tell me about normal grief,” I asked, once our meeting started, twenty minutes late. “Does a normal grieving process always take eighteen months?”
“There’s not a hard-and-fast rule,” Ms. Bernstein said. “It’s just a guideline.”
“Does it depend on how the person died?”
“What do you mean?”
“Would I feel different if Mom had died by suicide, the way she was supposed to?” I felt so stuck on Miss Ida’s prediction. I wondered how a psychic could stay in business if she got major details like cause of death wrong.
“Do you think you would feel differently?” Ms. Bernstein sometimes did this annoying thing where she repeated my own questions back to me, without answering them.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“Maybe.” She nodded her head like the Bo Jackson bobblehead that Dad kept on his dashboard.
“I wish we had rescued her,” I said. “My dad knows CPR, but he wasn’t there to use it.”
“It’s not healthy to blame yourself, or your father.”
“So what is healthy?”
“It’s healthy to cry,” Ms. Bernstein said. “I haven’t seen you cry.”
I hadn’t cried when Mom disappeared, or when she was found dead, and neither had Lizzie. Mom had always said we weren’t a family of criers, not on her side anyway. I had come home crying only once, in the second grade, because I had been the last kid picked on the dodgeball team in gym.
“Well, look at those skinny legs,” Mom had said, poking my thigh. “You’re not an athlete. Those legs are for reading books. Those legs are for studying.”
Mom had hated when Dad cried, and she’d flip off the TV if he teared up over a sad commercial like those ones with starving children in Africa.
Dad was sobbing in his room when I got home from school that afternoon, I could hear him. He came out with red-rimmed puffy eyes and even Lizzie had enough sense not to push it. My sister wasn’t evil, just angry, which was a normal stage of grief, according to the DSM for Kids! Guilt was another normal stage, and I hoped Dad knew that, that lots of people felt guilty about losing someone.
When my classmates finally stopped tiptoeing around me, they asked me what the worst thing was about having a dead mom. They wanted to know who tucked me in at night, who matched my socks and rolled them into little organized balls. There were a few kids in our grade who didn’t have a dad, but everyone else still had a mom. Some dads were divorced, some dads appeared only in old photographs, and David’s dad was in Afghanistan, a country that Ms. Powell had to spell on the board when the whole class wrote letters to the troops.
I said that some of the worst things about Mom being dead were that no one woke me up in the morning for school so I had to set an alarm, and no one ever cleaned the microwave so sauce was splattered inside. I told them I had more chores. I said my dad had been trying on different shades of Mom’s lipstick, which I felt bad for telling about, but I had gotten carried away with all the attention. Lots of kids knew my dad, since he still had the Freedom High record of most career touchdown throws, so I think the boys were surprised about the lipstick.
I told my classmates how Lizzie blamed our dad for Mom’s drowning, even though anyone could have pulled her out of the water that night.
“Is your sister still cracked?” Billy Dickle asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Cracked in the head,” Billy said, circling his finger around his temple. “My brother said she was.”
“No,” I said, because I didn’t think that was anyone’s business, and besides, Lizzie was really boring these days, baking at home all day like Rachael Ray on TV. She didn’t seem to be teaching herself anything in homeschool, but I guess Dad figured that she’d go back to high school eventually.
There was another thing I wasn’t honest about, because my classmates wouldn’t have understood, but one of the worst things about Mom being dead was that she would never finish the book that she’d been writing. The working title was The Sleep Habits of Animals and What They Tell Us about Our Own Slumber, but Mom had mostly called it The Book. She’d been trying to get a grant to finish it. Mom had said if I helped with the research, she’d make me a coauthor, or at least thank me on the acknowledgments page.
“Write it yourself,” Dad suggested, when I told him how much it bothered me that The Book would never be on the shelf in a bookstore or in the library under Nonfiction, Babbitt. He had a point, since I was already nearly an official coauthor. I printed out the rough draft and three-hole-punched it into a red binder. I carried the binder around with me everywhere, making notes on the empty pages I had put in the back.
So far, The Book had a chapter on the sleep of nocturnal animals, one on diurnal animals, and one on crepuscular animals, animals that stay awake during dawn and dusk. There was a chapter on animals that sleep for more than twelve hours a day (lions, gerbils) and another on hibernating animals (bears, bats, lemurs, turtles).
The chapter Mom had been working on hardest was on sleep-disturbed animals, which she said was work that no one had compiled before, really important science. She said it would open doors and windows for us.
Mom had hated being stuck teaching at a community college, lecturing to uninterested students and growing bacteria in petri dishes. She had really believed that The Book would put her name on the map, and she could get a tenure-track position at a university somewhere. We’d have to move, but she said it would be worth it. “No one knows about the sleeping lives of animals,” she’d declared. “Everyone wants to know what their dog dreams.” Boomer had been awake when she said that, sitting at her feet.
That was something that still bugged me: Mom had always been Boomer’s favorite. When she came home, he would jump and wiggle and wag his tail, dash around the living room with excitement, even if she’d just been out to the grocery store. He followed her around the house, except when she was vacuuming; then he’d hide under a bed. He could stare at her for hours with his deep chocolate-brown eyes, measuring her every move. Mom used to say that Boomer would always be her baby, even though he was getting to be an older dog with some arthritis in his hips. We didn’t know how old he was exactly, he’d been full-grown from the shelter.
Dad used to take Boomer when he went to watch Mom sleepswim in the river; no matter how late it was, Boomer never turned down an offer to go outside for a walk. I knew Boomer wasn’t a heavy sleeper, so the night Mom drowned, why didn’t Boomer wake Dad up to go out? Why wasn’t Boomer the one to save her? Why wasn’t he the hero?
I wanted to believe that Boomer did try to follow Mom that night. He would have trotted down the stairs at her side, run right to the front door to see if she would grab the leash. But maybe, as Mom was leaving the house, she turned to face her beloved dog and held up her hand like a stop sign, the motion for stay. Boomer was a good dog. He would have listened.
After Mom drowned, Boomer was sick for days with diarrhea, and we had to feed him white rice and boiled chicken instead of kibble. I didn’t think about it until later, but maybe he was sick with guilt.
Annie Hartnett was the 2013-2014 winner of the Writer in Residence Fellowship for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and has received awards and honors from the Bread Loaf School of English, McSweeney’s, and Indiana Review. Her stories and essays have appeared in Salon magazine, Indiana Review, Unstuck magazine, and PANK magazine, among others. Annie received her MFA in Fiction from the University of Alabama, and an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Annie currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston, and lives with her husband and their beloved Border Collie in Providence, Rhode Island.