A chill October zephyr chased the fallen oak leaves of spring across the cemetery grounds and under the dangling feet of Steven Giles as he sat on the corner of a large tombstone that bore his family name, the marker of his family plot. The false dawn colored the landscape gray around the headstones beneath his feet as the vestiges of the fading night gave way to morning. There were generations of Giles’ here; there would be more still to come, but it was the most recent addition that brought Steven back here, once a year, to sit and wait for Melissa.
They had been apart for five years now, but every year on their anniversary they met at the big granite marker and every year the scars over the loss of their only child Sean were ripped open and bled fresh and every year Melissa swore she would not return, but Steven knew she would be there the next October. He knew the compulsion would be too overpowering. He knew because he felt it too, felt the longing for just one minutes worth of extra time with his son, one extra hour’s memory to recollect where he held Sean and told him how much he missed him. He knew Melissa would be there because she simply had to be there. She had no other choice.
Steven and Melissa had known each other all of their lives, from kindergarten through high school, where their romantic feelings had blossomed, then through college and into the world, marrying and settling in to a comfortable upper middle class American existence, Steven as a software analyst and engineer, Melissa as an assistant district attorney for Mecklenburg County. They lived in a modest three room house in a respectable Matthews, North Carolina neighborhood, they drove economically and environmentally conscious automobiles and when they had lived in Matthews three years, Steven put a pool and a deck in the backyard. Many a barbecue and Superbowl party had been held at the Giles residence since then and many more birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings and Fourths of July. The last gathering ever held there was Sean’s wake. That was 2006.
They had not planned on a child, in fact had planned on not having one, believing that the world was a too volatile and dangerous place to bring a child into it, telling themselves that there were already too many people on the planet to house and feed, trusting that the pills Melissa took would prevent the need to completely alter their lives by having to care for, feed, clothe and raise a child. But then nature persevered, as it always does, and one morning Melissa found herself sick and the thought that ran through her head as she vomited the previous night’s shrimp alfredo was, “I hope to God this isn’t what I think it is!” After three days of this morning ritual, she made an appointment with her gynecologist and a week later Steven and Melissa Giles were parent’s to be.
There was never any question that Melissa would have her baby. The idea of an abortion was abhorrent to them and adoption was never mentioned out loud, though secretly each of them had contemplated broaching it to the other then decided it best to abandon the idea, each coming to their own realization that they could not give their flesh and blood away to strangers and worrying that if they found out their partner could that it might change the way they felt toward them. So, they put on their happy faces and went about the task of preparing for their child’s arrival.
They had decided to find out the sex of their child early so they could prepare properly and Steven admitted to a swelling of pride when he learned they were having a son. He had been close with his own father and as the weeks went forward those memories of playing golf and fishing and watching football softened Steven’s attitude toward fatherhood. Melissa, on the other hand, didn’t care which sex the baby was. All she wanted was for the experience to be over. She was sick of hearing from other mothers, including her own, about how joyous and fulfilling becoming a mother for the first time was, about how it would be the most wondrous time of her life, how she could look back on it all in the years to come and take pride in it. Most of all though, she was just plain sick.
It seemed to Melissa that the morning sickness never went away the whole time she was pregnant. She couldn’t find anything to eat that satisfied her hunger or appeased her appetite, she gained thirty pounds and had to buy an entire new wardrobe, her breasts had doubled in size and were tender to the touch and she had terrible hemorrhoids but the biggest change was that her gentle, sweet disposition had been possessed by an evil entity she hardly recognized as herself. She snapped at Steven, she insulted drive through window cashiers like it was an Olympic sport and she berated her mother to the point that she actually quit dropping by (which Steven actually saw a good thing.) Even her gynecologist had lost his smug, all knowing I’ve-seen-this-a-hundred-times demeanor when Melissa came in for her regular checkups. He eventually gave her a valium prescription, which she steadfastly refused to take for fear of harming her unborn son, a decision that Steven backed her up on, though there were times when he considered taking them himself. So, ten months later when Melissa finally went into labor, Steven and her mother and her friends and basically anyone who had to be around her frequently breathed an inward sigh of relief and waited for the miracle of birth.
Melissa had prepared for the worst. Having suffered throughout the pregnancy and then waiting an extra month to go into labor she had convinced herself that her labor and delivery would be difficult and long and she worried about how she would feel toward her baby after having gone through so much to give birth to him. As it turned out, she needn’t have given it a second thought.
Her labor lasted only two hours and though painful, the delivery went flawlessly and as Sean was coaxed living and breathing from her womb, the release of emotions and sense of relief that washed over her made any description by her mother or friends of the joy of childbirth pale by comparison. It was as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from her, as though she had seen herself through an ordeal that would not have seemed worth bearing if not for the precious sounds of her baby’s first cries, the feel of his tiny weight on her breast, wriggling and red, of the instant electric connection of their first eye contact. Tears sprang unhindered to her eyes as together she and Steven held their son and wept for joy.
The next four years were storybook for the Giles family. The preconceived notions that kept them from wanting children vanished like mist as Sean grew and thrived. Steven’s job paid them well, and Melissa was content to stay at home and raise Sean herself. They joined the local Methodist church, participated in the home owner’s association board and the barbecues on the deck by the pool regained their once lost enthusiasm. Everything was perfect.
In the graveyard, Steven dropped his head and a low groan escaped him as the memories washed over him. He kicked backwards against the family marker and bruised his heal. As he reached down to rub it, he heard Melissa’s voice.
Steven looked up and there was Melissa, as beautiful as a new spring morning, dressed in black and standing before him. The smile she gave him as he looked at her held no humor.
“Melissa. I thought you might not show.”
“I told you I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to.”
“And yet you’re here.”
She knelt then, to brush away the scattered leaves that covered Sean’s headstone. Her long blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders and as he watched from above her, Steven longed to run his fingers through it. But those days were over.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
She rose and stared pointedly at him.
“Is it? Really?” She turned her back to him spoke over her shoulder, as though confronting him head on was too difficult. “I don’t understand you Steven. Why do you do this to yourself? To us? Haven’t we been through enough?”
“I don’t know, ‘Lissa. I guess I just feel like I have to. Don’t you feel it too?”
She turned back to him. “Of course I do! You know I do, but it hurts, Steven! It’s fucking painful !”
Steven grimaced to hear Melissa curse. She had never done that before. Not until their first anniversary meeting in the graveyard. Not until after the accident.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that, Melissa.”
“I know what you wish, Steven, God knows I do, but you can’t have it, okay? Wishes don’t come true.”
He tried to reach for her then, to console her, to hug the pain and spite from her, but she flinched and avoided his hands, once again turning her back to him. For five years this scene had been repeated every October 29th on the anniversary of their son’s death, strapped in the car seat in the back of their environmentally friendly minivan. The crash had been devastating. A man three times convicted of drunk driving with an alcohol level of two times the legal limit had flown through a stop sign three blocks from his home at sixty miles per hour and t-boned the minivan as it crossed the intersection. Sean never had a chance. And neither had Melissa.
Now, as the first rays of the frigid morning crept over the reddening horizon, Melissa turned her now fading face back to her husband and as she dissipated back into the ether, she whispered’ “I won’t be back next year, Steven.”
But he knew she would. She had no other choice.