All the Wrong Things

Whenever someone caught her in a parking lot or the hallway of the hospital and asked how her daughter was doing, Francis said the same thing, “She’s dying.”

Soil at the top of the image; the sky below.

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Ed had an entire list of words and phrases to express what he felt. All were clichés that had been passed on to him from his mother, words sufficient to express some minimal emotion in a simplistic way, but Francis hoped his hurt must have run deeper than he sounded.

“He never gives us more than we can handle,” said Ed, pushing his hands in his pockets. Francis cringed at the words and patted the dirt around the flowers.

Macy Ann would have liked those flowers, soft petals about the size of her thumb. Yellow embedded with a deep purple circle. Three months before she was diagnosed she had worn a yellow bee costume to the Great Goblin Party at their church. “Why don’t they just call it a Halloween party?” Macy Ann had asked, and her mother, Francis, had laughed.

“Those flowers are real pretty,” said Ed. “Real nice.” Francis could tell he was dying to smoke a cigarette, but this was one place he would not light up. The cemetery. The only place. Back at home he would stand on their front porch, smoke a cigarette, and pee onto her azaleas during the television commercials of his baseball games. The front of their house smelled like a mix between a dog kennel and a nursing home.

There’d been cards and emails every day since Macy Ann died. People approached them at church with pained faces and said how sorry they were, and Francis knew they meant it. They were sorry that a child had died. Sorry that they didn’t know what to say. Sorry that there was nothing they could say. Sorry there was nothing they could do, but that didn’t stop them from ending their pained encounters with, “You let us know if there’s anything we can do.” Francis knew they meant that too, and it made her want to scream.

Francis had stopped answering the phone about two weeks before Macy Ann died. She could not bring herself to repeat the same old story to one more person. Whenever someone caught her in a parking lot or the hallway of the hospital and asked how her daughter was doing, Francis said the same thing, “She’s dying.” No one knew what to say to that. When she refused to pick up the phone, Ed took over because he could not tolerate not answering a phone. “She’s a fighter,” he’d say, as if their daughter had been preparing for her next boxing match. “We’re just trying to stay strong.” His answers were easier, better, and they made people feel less guilty hearing them. Francis saw nothing to fight over. Death was coming to take her daughter away and there would be no fight, just a slow yielding with tubes in her nose and a machine to count the heartbeats that death would soon halt. When death finally did come, Francis did not speak to anyone from the time the doctor told them she was gone to the moment when the coffin was put in the ground.

Francis returned to her daughter’s grave each day for weeks, sometimes with Ed, but most days without. He returned to work at the loan company one week after Macy Ann’s funeral, and Francis was home alone. She didn’t mind it. In fact, she preferred it. She could drive the three miles to the cemetery in silence and sit on a blanket next to her daughter’s grave.

The first toy she took was Macy Ann’s favorite Barbie doll, a Disney doll in a golden yellow dress that had originally come with three pink roses sewn onto the front of the skirt, but Macy Ann had picked them off, and now the tiny buds were lost. Francis had scolded Macy Ann for not taking care of her toys, and she had looked up at her mother with her uncomprehending blue eyes and said, “I wanted to plant them and grow some more flowers.”

Francis placed the doll at the base of the headstone, first standing up, but then she bent the legs and placed her in a seated position, as if the doll were attending a picnic. That was what gave Francis the idea for the next day. She found Macy Ann’s ceramic tea set, the one they had given her for her fifth birthday. Francis arrived at the cemetery early, before the dew had burned off the grass. She kneeled on the ground, her knees pressing into the moist soil, and she ignored the stains the grass made on her slacks as she placed the pieces on the ground in front of the Barbie which was still in its sitting position against the headstone. On the ground in front, Francis put each tiny cup, saucer, and spoon in place, and then she placed the teapot on the tiny tray with a sugar bowl and milk pitcher. The porcelain tea service, which had been preserved atop the highest shelf in Macy Ann’s bedroom, was decorated with pastel scenes of rabbits, birds, and kittens. When she had given it to Macy Ann, Francis made it clear that it was too valuable to play with. “I want my grandchildren to have this tea service,” she had said. Looking down at the tiny cups sitting in a circle on the grave, Francis wilted inside at the thought that she never let Macy Ann play with the toys.

Francis stood and surveyed the toy arrangement on the grave. Each piece was so intimate, so delicate. Combined, they were buoyant and cheerful, as if awaiting Macy Ann’s nimble hands to clutch their tiny handles. Looking down at the scene made a thrilling little cut on Francis’ heart. The tableau was perfect — Macy Ann’s tiny toys all in their places over the soil that was beginning to offer up a thickening of the tiniest threads of grass  — the very sight of it made Francis gasp with delight.

The next day she brought the game pieces. Setting them up in rows like soldiers, each plastic round button or miniature sculptured game piece was spaced in measured squares along the edge of the burial plot. It was nearly noon before Francis got them all in place. Edging them into line with the tip of her fingernails, they were measured out precisely. When she went home for her lunch of chicken noodle soup and crackers, one of Macy Ann’s favorite lunches, Francis perused the file of photographs of the grave on her cell phone. If the weather turned bad she would have to rearrange it all. She watched the weather channel all that day worried for signs of a strong wind or rain that might violate the picture over Macy Ann’s grave.

On Thursday morning she arrived just after eight, and only a few of the taller game pieces had tumbled over. She righted them and steadied them deeper in the soil. Putting the stuffed animals into place took much less time because most of them were big. The only difficulty she encountered was satisfactory placement of the Beanie Babies. She’s brought a basket to keep them all together, and the other animals: the otter, the three multi-colored cats, the green monkey, the sock monkey, the hippo, the husky, the Saint Bernard, the unicorn, the elephant, the mother and baby camels, all had their places encircling the basket of smaller toys. Francis turned each one to face the basket which she placed at the foot of Macy Ann’s grave.

That night Ed came home from work and said nothing. Of course he usually said nothing when he came home, but this silence was accompanied by stares at Francis. He sighed hard through his nose, the sign that he wanted to say something to her, but Francis pretended she didn’t notice. During dinner he stole glances at her, putting his fork down, picking it up again, and putting it down once more. Finally, he spoke, and the sound startled her. “I got a call from Hillcrest today.”

Francis looked up, chewing a bite of salad. “Hillcrest? What?”

“The cemetery.”

Francis showed no understanding. How could a cemetery make a phone call?

Ed put his elbows on the table and leaned a little forward before continuing. “The uh, the manager there said you were putting some items on Macy Ann’s … on the burial plot.”

Francis raised her eyebrows and her chin in a condescending expression. “Where Macy Ann rests, yes.”

“He said that they would have to be removed, that they can’t get their maintenance equipment around the plot with all that,” he moved his hands in a circle, waving his fingers. “They have rules about not putting things on graves.”

“Are you saying they’re going to mow over Macy Ann?” Francis said the word as if it were the vilest act imaginable.

“They’re just doing their job,” said Ed.

“That’s repugnant,” said Francis.

Ed sputtered a few false starts before he could answer. “We can’t let weeds grow over the grave, Francis.”

“I’ll take care of Macy Ann. You just tell them to stay away,” said Francis.

“But they — ”

“I said I would take care of it. Now you call that man back and tell him they are not to go near Macy Ann with their noisy machines.”

Ed exhaled hard and tossed his napkin on the table before heading outside for a smoke.

The next day, before Francis left for the cemetery she looked through the arts and crafts kit Macy Ann had received for Christmas the previous year, the one Francis had insisted she use only when she was at the kitchen table with newspapers covering the surface. Inside she found the vial of mixed pink, gold, and purple glitter, what Macy Ann had described as “princess dust.” Next to it was an eight-ounce bottle of glue and a tiny plastic case filled with shining stars of every color. Francis closed up the kit and took it with her.

At Macy Ann’s headstone, the glue kept dripping down like white tears from the etched letters of her name. The sight of it punctured Francis’ heart; she pushed her fingers over the mess and began to cry. She took a deep breath and wiped her hands on her skirt. Then she took the bottle once more and squeezed out Macy Ann’s name in four-inch tall cursive letters on the flat base of the headstone. Sprinkling glitter over the glue, she watched the wind take away the leftover princess dust. Macy Ann Giles. Then Francis pondered a moment and added more dots of blue and dropped tiny shining stars into the dots. She sat back and admired her creation, and then she wrote some more, using the remaining glitter to finish the new words.

Your flowers will always grow in my heart.

A bad cold kept Francis home for the next three days, and when she returned to the cemetery the following Monday what awaited horrified her. All of the toys had been removed. Every stuffed animal, every tiny tea dish and doll. Even the glitter message on the headstone had been scrubbed away. Francis gave a strangled scream when she saw her daughter’s plot, nothing but thick green grass with only the plastic flowers in the cone-shaped vases on either side of the headstone. She got back in her car and spun her wheels as she took off for the tiny shed of an office on the rear of the property. The caretaker must have seen the dust boiling on the dirt trail long before she screeched to a stop because he was heading out the door with his hands up in surrender before she got her car door open.

“Now, Missus Giles, I didn’t want to do it, but my lawn guy has to — ”

“Don’t you touch my daughter’s grave! Don’t you ever touch it again!” Francis’ finger jabbed so fiercely at the man’s face he had to pull back. “Do you hear me? How dare you take her things? Those belong to her, and you will put each and every one of them back right where they were. Is that clear?” Francis’ final words were so spoken with such violence her voice had gone hoarse.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”

“You took them and you will put them back.”

“I can’t do that. I give ’em to Mr. Giles.”

Francis’ face stiffened and for a moment she couldn’t speak.

“I knew you’d want them back,” he said. “We boxed them up for you and he come and got ’em.”

Francis shook her head as if bees had lit inside her ears. She got back in her car, and the dust boiled once more as she spun away. At home that evening when Ed returned from work, Francis was waiting, rocking on their porch swing with her hands clenched in tight fists. He stepped onto the porch, his feet clomping loudly and slowly until he stopped a few feet away from her. The only sound was the creak of the swing chains as Francis moved back and forth, back and forth. The front door was open, and the house was dark.

“We gonna have any supper?”

Francis eyes moved from the spot on the porch next to his feet to his face, but her face remained tilted downward.

“Francis? Everything all right?”

The swing kept moving.

“You feeling all right?”

“Where did you put it?” Francis’ voice was gravelly and low. It frightened Ed.

“What?”

“Where, Ed? Just tell me where.”

He took a step forward and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Now, hon. It was for the best.”

She stopped swinging and Ed froze. “You tell me where you put that box.”

“Francis, you’re being emotional. You need to calm down. Just calm down.”

She stood up from the swing. The shadows from the dying afternoon fell hard over her face and all Ed could see clearly were her eyes. “I. Am. Calm.” Her words fell out of her mouth like frozen clouds and hung between them. Something made Ed look back through the darkened door. He didn’t know what he was afraid of, but the last thing he wanted to see was his wife’s eyes at that moment.

“You’ve just got to get over all this,” Ed whispered, not daring to look up. “For you it’s like it happened yesterday. I know it’s hard, but life goes on. It’s got to.”

“You say all the wrong things.”

“I just,” he started, but he didn’t know where to go. He dug for words, but there was nothing. “That’s just me. It’s who I am.”

“You’ve already forgotten her,” Francis snapped. “You put her away in a box. Just had them put all of her in there. Every piece!”

“But, we got her the nicest one they had. We got the white one with the gold handles and all the flowers. The gladiolas and the white roses, everything you wanted.” He held his empty hands out to Francis and she had a sudden urge to spit on them.

“No! No! You took all of her things and I want them back. I need them.”

“Hon. You’ve got to pull yourself together.”

“Is there anything authentic left in you?” Francis ran inside the house and locked herself in Macy Ann’s bedroom.

Ed stood on the porch a long time, swatting at the bugs that darted in and out of the porch light. Then he headed for the garage, found a shovel and a trowel, and put them in the trunk of his car next to the box. From the street, he saw the light in Macy Ann’s bedroom flick on just as he drove away.

Saturdays were busy in the cemetery. Cars were parked alongside streets, and people stood silently over freshly dug mounds, their beloveds lying below. Some adjusted the flowers, some wept, and others just stood quietly. Francis liked to arrive early while it was still cool and sit on a blanket inside the shaded periphery of a walnut tree that extended over Macy Ann’s grave until the sun slowly pushed the shade away. At seven o’clock in the morning, the grave was still blessedly covered in the canopy of the trees, and Francis sat on her knees only inches from the grave.

The dirt was relatively smooth. Not a blade of grass remained rooted in the earth over Macy Ann. Ed had dug deep to fit each piece down snugly: pitcher, cups, saucers, tray, milk pitcher, sugar bowl, each tiny stirring spoon, and at the top, the doll in her yellow dress. Digging a finger into the earth, Francis uncovered a tiny blue game piece with the smiling face of a cartoon rabbit. Pushing her right hand further down, she felt the plush fabric of a Beanie Baby, now resting in the earth above Macy Ann. She pushed it all back down in the ground and began pressing the dirt over it once more. All the game pieces had been arranged not in perfect order as Francis had done, but pushed randomly over the foot of Macy Ann’s grave. Ed had covered each piece with soil and tamped them down evenly with his hands. His finger indentions were still visible in places. Francis ran her hand over the surface, evening the soil gently, and adding her own handprint over the center where she was sure was Macy Ann’s heart. She didn’t hear Ed approach, the knees of his khakis still grass stained and caked with mud from the night before. He knelt down and laid his hand over his wife’s fingers. They sat there like that for a long while, not making eye contact and not talking, until Francis looked up into his face at last and nodded. He said nothing but kept holding her hand a little longer.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Yes, you cope but you never get over it. It’s 12 years now that my child has died and it hits me in my heart and in my stomach every day I wake up. I thank God that I had her in my life but I certainly don’t understand why she had to go home.

  2. This story is indeed sad; particularly for the mother. Hopefully, with time, she’ll be able to cope with the loss better. The ending gives the impression she may; the beginnings of a new normal facing her for the rest of her life.

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