I hold my heavy carry-on in front of me so as not to bump people, brushing shoulders and rustling newspapers as I make my way down the narrow aisle. I’ll be out of the way soon. I see my seat now, row 24, on the aisle. A well-coiffed silver-haired woman is settled in the window seat. Good. Women are best.
I balance my bag on the armrest a moment and, unaided, hoist it into the overhead with quivering arms. I think of the silver-haired woman as I tuck my raincoat into the bin and wonder how it will go this time.
She is gazing out the window and I note her burgundy dress—a fine-gauge wool—the small pearl and gold earring on the ear turned my way, her well-cared-for hands. She turns as I take my seat, and I give her a quick smile before searching for the ends of my seat belt. Already I am restless thinking of the hours we will be together, but I know I must wait.
The plane begins to taxi, and passengers twist in their seats, adjusting air nozzles and getting out their in-flight amusements, ignoring the flight attendants, who demonstrate with gracefully robotic motions procedures for an event no one wants to think about.
Finally aloft, seatbelt sign off, I hear myself speak. I never speak first, but then I am no longer myself. I feel a twinge of pride in my daring. “Are you going home?” I have asked.
My seatmate smiles, thinking of her destination. No, she tells me, she is going to visit her daughter. I’m going to Washington to visit an old friend, I offer. I don’t elaborate. I don’t tell her it’s a hope-to-God-this-helps trip. We are chatting now; I can wait. A bit. We’ve met; soon I will tell her that my son is dead.
I nod and half listen as she talks. Her grandchildren, her son-in-law’s job, their complicated remodel. I wait for my opportunity, my heart skittering. Afterward I can “relax,” afterward the atmosphere will be less incongruous and false. Pleasantries is what we’re exchanging now; nothing is pleasant.
I dutifully ask questions, make comments, like the old me. I still have an interest in others—something that doesn’t square with depression. I feel sorry for her for what she doesn’t know is coming, but she will be over it quickly. And my tragic news is, after all, a reminder of her own good fortune. Cherish it!
I wait for her questions: What do I do? Where do I live? Do I have children? If it takes too long I will mention Sammy, our older, still-alive son, aware that I am using him as bait again, not talking about him as I previously did, with a mother’s marveling pride. For now he is a stepping-stone to his brother.
The need to release my news is urgent, visceral. I can feel it crawling up my throat now, and it will out. And why? Do I think I can purge myself of this toxin? That I can offload my pain? If only.
This is what I’ve determined: I don’t have to have a reason. Wanting to do it is enough these days. I am allowed—no, encouraged—to indulge myself, to be kind to myself, to put my needs ahead of others because of what I’ve been through. I can provide a doctor’s note to this effect, a PTSD diagnosis even. I have a psych file now. It’s red.
Lately I’m better able to deliver my news calmly, although my voice will give way if someone responds with questions about my boy and I begin to speak of him. And if they are too shocked, too warm and sympathetic, if they place a hand on their heart and gasp, or if they touch me, there is the possibility of tears—mine, and sometimes theirs. But my crying is no longer hysterical wailing, at least not in public. It’s a lower-level sort where my shoulders don’t heave and tears require only the heel of my hand rather than a jumbo box of Kleenex. Maybe this is progress?
I have learned to cry quietly in all kinds of places now—in the Costco return line, at the bank, pumping gas. Children pop up everywhere, and children of any age can set me off. My son had been every one of those ages. Until now when we’ve stopped at eighteen.
Vicky Mlyniec lives and writes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She is the 2005 winner of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction and a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. “This I am Allowed” is from her current project, Nate and Nikolaj, a cross-generational memoir. (The author discusses the genesis of this essay here on the Brevity blog.)
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett