The toddler down the street died last year. His name was Evan.
His father ran him over with the family’s brand new SUV, a red and chrome wonder just driven home from the showroom a few months before.
Before the accident I often saw the two of them outside together on weekends as I picked up my mail from the box where it was not so lovingly wedged in by my mail carrier.
Evan was about two years old and had brown hair cut in a bowl style. He was often carrying a ball almost half his size and tossing it toward his father,whose name is Everett. Everett was usually washing the red SUV and ignored the ball as it rolled past him. I knew the father’s name because Everett’s wife and the toddler’s mother would call out whenever the phone rang.
“Everett! It’s for you!” she’d say, standing on the brick porch, leaning over the black iron wrought railing, a blue flowery apron hiding whatever she was wearing.
“Mommy!” Evan would cry out.
“I love you Evan!” she’d say, blow the child a kiss and disappear inside as Everett mumbled “Take a message. I’m busy.”
Everett was always busy. Too busy to take a call, too busy to look up at his pretty wife and always too busy to catch the ball little Evan tossed at him.
I don’t see any of them any more. Certainly not little Evan, who was buried up at St. Joseph’s Holy cemetery about a mile away after a Mass on a Saturday morning where his little white casket covered with flowers topped by a tiny blue angel sat in front of the altar as Father Simmons did his best to give a sermon over the weeping of Everett’s wife and Evan’s mother.
I went to the Mass, even though my wheelchair had trouble getting past the end of the street where they’re doing construction. I had to ask a twenty something Italian construction worker, younger than me by at least fifteen years, to put a plank down for me so my front castors would get over the potholes that used to be a sidewalk. I explained that I was going to a funeral for a two year old and his eyes grew wide.
“Is that the little boy who got run over?” he asked, his biceps bulging as he dropped the plank to the ground.
I nodded as I tested the board with my front wheels and found it to be sturdy. Maybe construction workers received more requests like this than you’d think.
“How do you get over something like that?”
“You don’t,” I shouted back as I rolled away. “Thank you.”
He waved as he leaned down to pick up the board, then left it there shouting at his foreman “She’s coming back! Lives down the block! Going to Mass! Yeah- St. Joseph’s church for that little boy, a funeral-“
I kept rolling as his voice melted in the distance, lost in the sounds of cars pulling up at St. Joseph’s. And I watched for a few moments as the family went inside, Everett with his wife on his arm, and two sets of grandparents close behind.
Evan’s mother’s name is Janet, I learned when Fr. Simmons gave the sermon. He addressed the parents by name, calling them “Everett and his beloved wife Janet” several times. But when I looked over, I saw that Everett and his wife weren’t sitting next to each other. Janet was next to her own parents, it seemed, flanked by her father and mother as she wept into a white handkerchief. Everett on the other end of the pew, sat with his head deeply bowed.
“You’ve lost your angel,” Fr. Simmons intoned, his voice carrying through the large church. Only six rows of pews were filled, mostly with family and neighbors like myself. Poor little Evan didn’t live long enough to have a chance to meet and greet many people, to network, or to even make it to preschool. He was, as all toddlers are, a neighborhood phenomenon.
Little Evan had a particularly good set of lungs on him and when Janet pushed him past my door in his carriage a few times, was shouting out the equivalent of the Gettysburg Address to anyone who cared to listen. I rolled onto my porch one day and offered her a glass of lemonade which she took gratefully and we spoke for a few moments. It was the day after Everett came home with the red SUV.
“I see you got a new car,” I said to make conversation with this woman whose name I didn’t even know, as Evan sat in his stroller banging pastel colored toys loudly.
Janet wiped her brow and sipped at the lemonade. “Oh that. His new toy. I wish he hadn’t done that. We barely keep up as it is. But you know how people are – they think if you have the newest and best you’re succeeding and in Everett’s job – he’s a salesman – it’s important.” She leaned over as Evan threw one of his toys onto the ground. “Honey, keep them in your stroller. Dirty. It’s dirty. Don’t put it in your mouth.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat in church, looking over at Janet now, remembering how she lovingly wiped the toy off that day before putting it back into Evan’s eager chubby hand.
Suddenly a new noise erupted as Fr. Simmons stepped off the altar toward the casket. Startled I looked over at the source. Everett had begun to wail, a deep loud sound from within. He was holding himself, his arms wrapped around his body. I wanted to roll across the church and put my arms around him, especially when I saw that neither of his parents moved to console him. The priest hesitated for a moment, then continued on with the service.
And then Janet, who until now had wept continuously, rose from her place in the pew and moved next to her husband, putting her arms around him as he shook. His wails continued and I heard him say “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Our little boy is gone. It’s all my fault” over and over again.
I looked over at the casket where little Evan lay silently, perhaps a favorite toy tucked inside. No matter what carelessness Everett had displayed – or not – in this tragic accident, I knew for sure that no one would ever condemn him as much as he did himself.
Later after I made a cup of tea and sat at my small kitchen table waiting for it to steep, I found myself weeping. Suddenly I realized that I could never again feel the same degree of blame toward the man who hit me the day of my accident. Witnessing what I had in church changed that.
A week later, my doorbell rang. I rolled over and opened the door. Janet stood there. I invited her in and she sat on the edge of my blue recliner, wearing a pair of old jeans and an Old Navy sweatshirt, looking around nervously. Then she began to cry.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t come over to do this.”
“It’s alright,” I said as gently as I could, putting my arm on her shoulder.
“My parents left today and Everett and I are all alone in the house. It’s so hard. And – and you’ve always been kind to me so I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind if I stopped in. Everett just buries himself in his work. I know that’s what he’ll do now.“
So we talked. Of things like forgiveness and God, accidents and men, acceptance and grief. We drank tea, we watched Oprah. And Janet returned, almost every day, for several months as the waves of grief rolled over her, unbearable waves that sent her reeling. Sometimes we walked down to St. Joseph’s and sat in the church and prayed, often lighting candles .
Then one day, about three months after the funeral, she stopped coming over.
We still waved at each other from down the block. I saw Janet at Mass, although Everett no longer went. I saw him still driving the red SUV. I saw him park it in the driveway at night and get into it in the morning. But he never washed it in the driveway or lingered near it like he used to.
One Sunday morning a few weeks ago when Janet was at Mass, I saw him go out to the SUV, get in and then just sit there, his head bowed over the wheel. I sat and watched him for a few minutes, then rolled down the block and tapped on the window of the car.
He opened the door, startled. I didn’t ask him if he was okay. I simply held him as he wept with unimaginable grief, our arms encircled around each other.
By the time Janet was home from Mass, he was back in their house and I was back in mine, making a cup of tea. We were safely ensconced in our suburban, mortgaged homes designated only for nuclear families, a most impractical arrangement for a sense of community.
As I drank my tea I wondered if Everett found any comfort in keeping the car, a thought that never occurred to me before.
I suppose grief teaches us, whether it is our own or another’s. We merely need to be able to withstand witnessing the suffering. In the end, the grieving we do behind closed doors is universal. It is the same lamentation , the same cry asking the great eternal why.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan