THURSDAY: A Monstrous To-Do

BY MARY CHAPMAN

Copyright is held by the author.

IT FEELS luxurious to stretch in bed. It’s her favourite morning ritual. But there’s no time to waste. Cindy rolls out of bed, throws on her running clothes and phone in hand, tiptoes out of the room. The kids are fast asleep. She sees Julie asleep in her crib arms and legs splayed. Andrew is in his race car bed, butt in the air, knees tucked under his chest. She smiles and resists the urge to pull the covers over him. He is a light sleeper and she’ll never get him back to sleep if she wakes him.

She laces her shoes and as she goes out the front door she turns on her running app. She makes sure to lock the door behind her; Andrew is mischievous. He can’t work the deadbolt yet so they haven’t been in too big of a rush to get a top lock but it’s on her “list of things I need to do” in her notebook, halfway down the page.

The morning is damp and new. It’s 5:45 — the sky already light blue. Cindy takes off down her driveway and turns right. She can get in 8 kilometres, maybe 10 if she pushes herself. She must be back and in the shower by 6:55 at the latest.

As she runs at a steady, comfortable pace, Cindy goes through the day. The proofs are due to the universities today. She still has a manila folder with about 10 stacks of paper-clipped printouts to get through. She needs to input those edits before she can send proofs out. That will take all morning, which means she will send the proofs out in the afternoon. That’s fine. As long as it’s today.

Dinner… The fridge is despondently bare. She had tackled the bathrooms and laundry over the weekend and by dinnertime Sunday she was too tired to push a cart around a grocery store. There was that vegetarian lasagna in the freezer from the time she made a double batch. She would put it in the fridge to thaw before her shower. Maybe she could do groceries on her lunch? No. She had to go pick up the dry cleaning and drop off three full garbage bags of clothes to the thrift store.

Cindy checks her watch. 6:21 and 7.8 kilometres done. She wipes the sweat out of her eyes and takes a minute to stretch her hamstrings. She needs to book another massage therapy session. Cindy pulls out her phone and sends a text to her RMT. ‘Hi Jessica. My legs are starting to feel tight again. When can you fit me in? After bath time preferably. Do you have any openings this week? Thanks!”
Cindy hits send and resumes her run.

She turns a corner and runs uphill past a row of cute bungalows with tidy gardens. Her mother also has a lovely landscaped front yard. Lately her mother has been slower, more forgetful. Last time Cindy called to talk, her mom had been driving home from work and kept repeating the same questions. It shocked Cindy to realize that her mother was not the mile a minute woman she had been five years ago. Cindy had made an excuse to get off the phone so her mom could concentrate on driving. Running past this small section of bungalows always makes her nostalgic. Her pace usually takes a nosedive, too. Cindy promises herself she won’t run this route anymore.

6:50. Dripping wet and on a natural high, she lets herself back in the house.
She smells coffee—Hallelujah—and hears the Max and Ruby theme song from the TV. She kisses Andrew’s head as she walks past him sitting crisscross applesauce in the living room.

“Good morning Pumpkin.”

“Mummy! I’m NOT Pumpkin. I am Venom!”

“Oh. Sorry Mr. Venom.”

“Not MISTER Venon, Mommy! Just Venom.”

Andrew sighs deeply, exhausted by his mother’s dimwittedness.

“Right. Got it.” Cindy says with a smile as she pours herself a cup. Mug in one hand, she digs out the freezer lasagna and slides it into a free shelf on the fridge.

She hears Jeff turn off the shower and heads over to their bedroom. Julie is awake in her crib, eating her feet. Cindy sneaks past her open door.

“Morning, babe,” Andrew says towel wrapped around his waist.

“9.5K in 65 minutes.”

“Whoa. Is that your PR?”

Cindy smiles. “No. Not even close.”

“Well,. I think it’s fan-tastic.”

Quick shower. Contacts in. Concealer under her eyes. A light pass of taupe eyeshadow. Mascara. No time for Full Face (as her sister calls it).

7:25. Jeff is at the door, bagel in hand. She leans over to give him a quick, perfunctory kiss but he grabs her tight around the waist and deepens the kiss. His minty breath and musky cologne is delicious and his lips are so soft. She melts into the kiss.

“Mm hmmm,” Jeff purrs and presses himself against her body. Cindy laughs and pushes him away.

“Give an inch and you take a mile!” she scolds playfully.

“I’ll show you a mile” Jeff winks. “Tonight!”

“Get out of here, you’re late!”

He laughs and walks over to Andrew sitting at the kitchen island, making a mess of his breakfast. Andrew is using his fingers to scoop up soggy, milky Cheerios and shove them into his mouth.

“Bye sport. Be good for Mommy.”

“Oh Kay.” Andrews drawls.

“You too, Miss Julie. Mommy doesn’t need any lip from you today!”

Julie, sitting in her high chair gurgles and says, “Da!”

7:43 Andrew is dressed and putting on his shoes (on the wrong feet) as Cindy slides his lunch bag into his backpack. She fills his water bottle and loads it into the side pocket. “Switch your shoes, honey. That’s the wrong feet.”

“No, it isn’t mommy!”

“Yes, it is, Andrew. Line up the dinosaur and you’ll see.”

Andrew takes off his shoes and inspects the dinosaur stickers on the inside soles. These customized shoe labels say Andrew Cooper on both halves of a dinosaur. Head on the left, tail on the right. The labels are meant to help kids put their shoes on properly. Today it’s not working.

“I like my dinosaur like this. He’s a mutant. He is from outer space and in space, dinosaurs have tails on top of their heads.”

Cindy is putting Julie’s feet into sparkly sneakers and not listening.

“Get your shoes on please, mister.”

Andrew puts his shoes on — on the wrong feet — and Cindy opens the door. It is sunny and looks like it will be a hot day.

“Hang on! Sunscreen!”

Cindy sprays arms, legs and necks and rubs some lotion on her hand to dab on noses, cheeks and foreheads. Julie clenches her eyes tight and bares her teeth. Somehow she has gotten the idea that sunscreen is like taking a picture so she makes her “cheese” face every time Cindy applies it.

“I see the bus, Mommy!” Andrew shouts in a panic. The bus is loading kids at the stop down the street.

“It’s OK. Hold my hand so we can cross.”

Andrew joins the back of the line and chooses a window seat.

She blows him a kiss as the bus pulls away.

Back inside, she puts Julie in her playpen with a soft book and wipes the counters and tables (milk splotches everywhere). From her closet she selects a blue silk shirt with tiny pearl buttons, and pleated grey pants. She assesses her reflection in the mirror, kicks the pants off and pulls on her black pencil skirt and nods — much better.

Each Sunday she swears she will choose all her outfits for the week and hang them (with accessories) for easy mornings, but she never gets around to it.

8:29. Shoot. She should have been out the door 30 minutes ago. She grabs the diaper bag, her purse, her lunch bag and the bag of library books in one arm and Julie in the other. For goodness sake! Julie has decided to do her bm early. BM is what they call it at daycare. Beats poo, Jeff and Cindy agree.

8:37. She is royally late.

As she zips down her street she thinks about the quickest route. She tunes into traffic and weather, together on the ones and listens to the static-filled voice.  Estimated arrival will be 9:25. Late — but hopefully not late enough for anyone to notice. Oh, who is she kidding? She’d have a handful of voicemails and a dozen emails just from this morning as soon as she sat at her desk. Cindy sighs deeply and glances in the rearview — Julie is fast asleep.

A thought occurs to her. Cindy can dial into her voicemail and check messages. She uses the Bluetooth function on her steering wheel to voice dial her phone number and extension. She sneaks a peek at her cell and punches in her password.  I know, she tells the scolding voice in her mind. No handheld devices while driving. Cindy is appalled at the number of distracted-driver caused accidents each year in Canada and she never texts while driving. But . . . if she just needs to press a button or two real quick, she’ll do it.

She has five new messages. First message, 8:32 am “Hi Cindy, It’s Paula from York University. I haven’t heard back from you about the changes to the subjects of major interest for our programs? In your last email you said you’d get back to my by Friday. So just wanted to check in, see where we’re at with that. Anyway, give me a call so we can go over it or email me if that’s easier. Thanks! BEEP.”

Shoot. She hangs up without listening to the other messages. Why had she not emailed Paula back on Friday? Cindy is sure she made a note of it in her notebook. And she was sure everything had been crossed out when she left work on Friday.

“Hey, Siri. Send an email to Paula Pierder.”

“OK emailing Paul Ameer. What do you want your email to say?”

“No — Paula PIER-der”

“OK. Your email says Paul appear there. Should I send the email now?”

Cindy huffs and pushes the cancel button on her handsfree link.

“Hey Siri, take a note: Hello Paula, My apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I have spoken to the assistant manager of undergraduate studies and she informed me that you can change subjects of major interests internally, however the printed materials with this information have already been sent out to guidance counsellors across the province. Therefore, the information they will be passing on to students will be incorrect. We can create an addendum and email it to all the counsellors but there is no way to be sure counsellors will refer to the updated document. From experience, we know that most counsellors stick to what’s in the book. Please let me know what you’d like to do and we’ll go from there. Thanks very much.”

New plan. Email Paula first, then attack the pile on her desk.

Cindy realizes that she is getting off the highway. She has no memory of the kilometres between the daycare and this exit. Yet again, driving on autopilot. She feels both guilty and amazed.

She turns to the classical radio station. She needs 5 minutes of calm so not to go into her workday frazzled.

The parking lot is mostly full. She finds a spot at the edge of the lot, far from the entrance. She grabs her purse and lunch bag from the passenger seat. It’s a warm day. She feels a bead of perspiration roll down her back as she walks to the building.

In the elevator she sends the email to Paula and also replies to two others. By 10 am she has had her second cup of coffee, has cleared her inbox and has input three of the 10 proof edits. She stands up for a quick stretch and plunges back in.

5:10. Cindy hits send on her email subject line “undergraduate proofs – reply by July 11” and logs out. Her neck feels like a coiled rope and her bladder is bursting but she managed to meet her deadline. She grabs her purse and still full lunch bag — she only managed to eat a yogurt and apple and heads to her car.

She imagines the bubbling cheese on the zucchini lasagna. She is giddy at the thought of a nice dinner after a gruelling day. I can stop off and grab a baguette, Cindy thinks as she pushes the unlock button and slides in. She buckles up, starts the car and puts the car into reverse.

Her heart lurches as she looks in the rearview.

She whips her head around to confirm what she has seen in the mirror.

Julie is strapped into her forward-facing carseat, head lolling to one side. Her curls are pristine and her eyes are closed. Cindy registers the tearstained face and her stomach heaves.

She throws the car into P, jumps out and has the side door open in an instant. She looks across the car to Andrew’s carseat. A million thoughts fly through her mind. She thinks that someone must have put her children into the car as some kind of evil plan. Kidnapping, terrorists, ransom. She thinks of the rolled up windows and the temperature in a parked car on a June day. She thinks that she needs to call Jeff and 911 immediately. She thinks — oddly — about the woman who left her baby in the car while she went to Wal-Mart and the police arrested her.

And then noticing that Andrew is not in the car, Cindy realizes the horrific truth — she drove to work with her 14-month baby in the backseat and left her there for eight hours. She moves to un-buckle her baby but before she can, her legs traitorously fold under her and she is down on the pavement. Her hand is trembling violently as she reaches her hand out to where her purse has fallen, contents spewing out. She unlocks her phone after 3 tries and dials 911.

What’s your emergency?”

“Help!” she screams loudly into her device.

“My baby! She’s in the car. All day. She was in the car. All day. No water. She’s not breathing. She’s not breathing.” Her words are shrieks of hysteria.

“All right, Ma’am. I need you to tell me where the car is.”

Cindy’s teeth are chattering and she cannot answer.

“Ma’am? Are you with the car right now?”

“y—y—yes” it is pure willpower that propels the syllables out of her mouth.

“Please no, dear God. Please no,” repeats itself in her mind. She has never been religious but at this moment she prays to every god, to any god that can give her a miracle. After what seems like an unmeasurable eternity she hears sirens in the distance.

She hears the slam of many doors closing and feet running. A firm hand is on her back holding her down but she could not have move if she tried.

She is being pat down. She wants to scream to tell them to leave her and go to her daughter — “Help her! Help her!” Cindy screams in her mind but only a whimper comes out.

She is handcuffed and turned onto her back.

“Ma’am? Can you tell me what happened here?”

“My baby — in the car. This whole time. This whole time.” Tears are flowing into Cindy’s mouth making her words spray. Normally something like this would appall her – she even hates to ugly cry in front of Jeff. She runs to lock herself in the bathroom until she has washed her face and blown her nose a dozen times.

But now there is only the thought of Julie.

Cindy lifts her head off the pavement — the policewoman is holding her down but she can raise her head enough to see an ambulance and the uniformed backs of a pair of paramedics. She feels a fleeting thrill of hope. Paramedics save people everyday! They can do CPR and oxygen and run an IV line and give fluids — they can save Julie!

This thought disintegrates as she sees the white cloth they are draping over the stretcher and the slowness of the pair’s walk as they wheel it to the back of the ambulance.

Cindy lets out a wail that is unhuman and primal. The sound comes from deep within — a place so dark and deep she’d never known existed inside.

“Ma’am. I need you to calm down.”

Cindy feels the grit of small pebbles and the roughness of the asphalt against her face. She wants to push so hard that the ground will engulf her. She wants to be swallowed up into the ground and never see light again. She has never wanted anything so bad in her life.

Her keening reaches another level of grotesque and she sees the policewoman recoil in horror. Her partner approaches, looks down at Cindy and says something Cindy cannot hear.

The sun is blocked out momentarily by legs and then she feels a sharp prick as coldness spread across her arm. She feels herself melting. “Thank God, the earth is taking me. It’s almost over.”

Her eyelids flutter closed.

I wake up to the beeping of a machine. Before I open my eyes I feel intense pain in my arms and legs. Eyes still closed, I sense something is monstrously wrong. Dread spreads through my stomach like a drop of ink on a white napkin. I try to interpret the dread but can’t. But I know without a doubt that something is monstrously wrong. I open my eyes and see the unmistakable interior of a hospital room.

Jeff is sitting in a chair, hands in his hair. Something about the way his head is slumped forward accelerates the spreading awareness in my body.

“Jeff,” I croak out.

Instantly he is at my side.

“Cindy. Cindy. What happened? How did this happen?” He is crying — I have never seen him cry. I’ve seen him with eyes red-rimmed and watery when each of the children were born and on our wedding day when he said his vows, but not this. Never like this.

All at once, I remember it all.
The carseat with Julie in it, the handcuffs, the stretcher with the white sheet — and I start to scream.

Jeff holds me to him so tight it hurts — or else it would hurt if the pain inside was not consuming me. I feel both weightless and tied to an anchor, sinking fast.

I let Jeff hold me and I scream and scream until I feel the skin in my throat shredding and the warm blood in my mouth.

Jeff listens, tears streaming down his face as I tell him everything – the bus and the diaper, Siri and the voicemail. While I talk I think, how could this possibly have happened? How can it be true that her child is dead – dead because she left her in the car for 8 hours. It seems so ridiculous, so impossible. It just doesn’t make sense.

“I just want to say one thing,” Jeff interrupts. “I don’t blame you. Not at all. It was an accident.” He struggles to get the words out through his sobbing. “You are the most selfless, loving mother in the world and I don’t want you to blame yourself, Cindy. This is a tragedy but it is not your fault.”

“Of course it is! If not my fault, who’s can it possibly be? There’s no drunk driver to blame, no kidnapper or terrorist. I left my child, MY BABY, in a hot car for the entire day!”

“Not on purpose!” Jeff shouts over Cindy’s words.

“Cindy, you thought you had dropped her off!”

It’s true, I thought I had. I remember doing it. Julie was asleep so I carried her in and laid her down on the crib. I remember the sitter’s messy bun and Celine Dion T-shirt How can that be when it is so painfully obvious that she did not, in fact, drop her off?

“Brain tumour.” The words are out of my mouth before the thought has finished forming. The doctor comes and goes. She gives us a referral to a neurosurgeon in Toronto and some pain meds for the vocal haemorrhage from the screaming But I won’t take them. I want the pain. In fact, it does not hurt enough. Over the next few days I will scream long and loud to make it hurt more, to make it worse.

“Where’s Andrew?” I ask once the doctor leaves.

“With my parents. I packed his suitcase for a few days . . . He doesn’t know . . . yet,” Jeff says quietly. I nod and fresh tears roll into my mouth.

It turned out I did not have a brain tumour. Nor was there any medical reason for why I can so vividly recall dropping of Julie that morning. “The brain is an incredible machine,” the neurosurgeon told us, “Normally, the basal ganglia which controls routine behaviour works well with the prefrontal cortex. It’s how we are able to drive and plan our day at the same time; it’s what makes us efficient as human beings. But stress and fatigue, or a break in routine can trick the brain.”

I was also not criminally charged with my daughter’s death. Jeff was so relieved but mostly, I didn’t care. Nothing could be as bad as what had already happened.

Slowly, imperceptibly slowly, my son and husband brought me back into the world of the living. I began to get dressed and brush my hair. It was several more months before I could look people in the eyes and even more months before I could go back to work.

Today is the 10th year of the anniversary of my daughter’s death. We are visiting the tree we planted in her honour on that raw, first anniversary. Andrew stands beside us reverently, head bowed, long limbs straight for once, but the other two, our youngest, aged four and three race around the tree joyfully, eager to release the butterflies we have raised from eggs for this purpose.

“Mommy, I am going to rewease Jelly, wight?” Sarah asks as she tugs my dress. I look down at her face, eager eyes lit up by pure, spring sunshine and I can see little Julie staring back at me. They would have looked a lot alike, I think for the
millionth time.

“Yes, darling. You will release Jelly, Tabitha, Moo-Moo and Princess and Zack will release his three butterflies.”

“Yeah — because I am fowr and he is free, wight? So I get fowr and he gets free.”

“Yes, you get four and Zack gets three.”

Jeff comes carrying four small crates of butterflies. He places them gently down at our feet — the pink crate in front of Sarah, the green in front of Zack and three white ones in front of him, me, and Andrew.

Jeff squeezes my hand and says, “Are you ready?”

I nod.

“OK, gang, pick up your crate carefully. On the count of three we will open the doors and let our butterflies free. Are you ready, kids?”

“Ready, daddy!” the younger two shout eagerly. Andrew and I nod.

“One . . . two . . . three!”

Ten butterflies fly out timidly and flutter around our shoulders and hair. Zack and Sarah squeal with delight and run zigzags all around the trees, following the butterflies.

I look up into the green canopy, eyes swimming with tears and see one purple butterfly — mine — circle overhead. She swoops down inches from my face and then soars up into the leaves of Julie’s tree.

Jeff puts his arm around my waist and Andrew puts his arm around my shoulder and we remember Julie, together.

Chapman 8

12 comments

  1. Jan

    I know if this happened to me I would have thrown myself off the Bloor Street Viaduct. It’s one thing to lose an infant through sickness but to be the one that caused such a traumatic death can’t be cured by butterflies and hugs.
    There is no way in god’s green earth that the image of her dead child would ever not be with her.
    As for the husband….instant forgiveness? Just doesn’t ring true. Not at all.
    And she wasn’t charged with the death of her infant….not sure I understand that one. Also, CAS would have monitored the bejesus out of her regarding her other child.
    I think the story would have played out better as a real tragedy and not a “they all lived happily ever after, butterflies and all

    Viaduct.

  2. Mary Chapman

    Jan – This is based on a true story. Husband did not think it was her fault and she was not charged.
    10 years later, I feel butterflies are possible after a tragedy of course, everyone is different.

  3. Michael

    I loved this story. Just when I was getting comfortable with the tone and story the curve-ball was thrown. This story broke my heart but also warmed it with the peaceful ending. I feel that if this happened to my little family that this definitely would be us. Your words brought so many different emotions into my heart. I loved it! Keep writing Mary Chapman

  4. Jan

    Mary, all the butterflies in the world will never cure a broken heart.
    To state that her husband never did blame her is to deny his humanity.

  5. Stephanie

    OH MY GOSH Mary this story was riveting and sad and terrible and so real! Wonderful writing. Just oh my gosh. 🙁 🙁 🙁 I’ve never wanted to think about the mechanics of how it could happen and how that mother would feel, but there it all is. I don’t know if I’ll ever forget this story!

  6. Stephanie

    Jan, it certainly doesn’t end with a “happily ever after” – the end of the story says “eyes swimming with tears”. The pain certainly hasn’t left her after all these years.
    I’m sure inside he would struggle with all the stages of grief, one being anger, but I’m sure as a loving husband he can see how much pain she is in, too. Everyone deals with loss differently, though. They likely would not react the way you would. I know this from my own loss.

  7. Aura Mendoza

    She still is dealing with the lost of her child and for sure blame herself, goes through that morning in her head. Im glad her husband was forgiving and she didn’t have to deal with his feelings too. He for sure is coping with it the best he can. The moment at the cementery. Its not the happily ever after, they as family are creating memories for the children that include their sister.

  8. Dave Moores

    The fact that a story is based on reality is never a valid comeback to critical comment. If it doesn’t work as a piece of fiction, well, it doesn’t.

  9. Jan

    This could have been a very powerful story if written as a tragedy. Written as a ‘weepy’ …..it simply didn’t work.
    Actually, I thought (as camera 3 cued Mummy’s tears) that it was in many ways the stereotypical Canadian solution: plant a tree, check, set a butterfly free, check, hugs all round…..check.

  10. Mary

    Dan, stating that something in the story is unlikely or rings untrue when it is a factual event makes that criticism irrelevant. People can dislike the way a narrative turns out – absolutely. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t work in the piece. In fact, evoking emotions is one of the main aims of literature. Hating the ending and loving the ending are two sides of a coin in my book.

  11. adrienne

    Mary, I was drawn into this story quickly. My thoughts of how life can get so busy, too busy! Then my heart drops I had to read it and reread it , as if not wanting to understand what was happening. My eyes filled with tears as this mother, wife, sister and friend quietly realizes what has happened. I love the husband even more for finding compassion and forgiveness so quickly. He understands nothing he says or does can punish her more then she will punish herself…his job is to be strong and guide her back to remembering who she is. She is worth forgiveness! I pictured so clearly the scene of the butterflies and as the butterfly rose to the top of the tree… I sensed the 10 year broken heart she held, begin it’s process of healing and understanding. ~ Thank you so much …this story will stay with me for a long time!

  12. Stephanie

    Honestly, if they’re still married 10 years after the fact, that means they’ve been able to forgive each other and move past what happened, and a tree planting and butterflies is entirely plausible. There could have been 10 years of therapy before the tree planting and butterflies. It’s not like the ending is 2 months after the tragedy!

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