Willa died. Then our car died. Then our phones died too.
A month after we were on Plum Island. It was hot but perfect and August. B. hadn’t seen me since all this and she took me around the rented cottage, pointing out all the things about it that fascinate a three year old. This lasted a while. She knew that Willa was dead. She knew that it was something very big.
At one point we were in a little room off the living area. They had stored their bikes in there. Out of the window you could see the driveway. She pointed at her car. “Our car died.” She looked at me. Her eyes widened. “Or car died too” I said. She had started to really circle the thing now. I knew it was coming. She had said the word.
We left the room. Moments later we were all in the kitchen, Colin and I, her parents. We adults were pouring wine and opening bottles of beer, salting fish to wrap in aluminum foil for the grill. B. said, “Willa died. And she’s not coming back.” Her eyes panicked. She had said it in such a strong clear voice. It was a phrase that had been worried into diamond hardness in her mind. It came out a gem, uncomplicated, sheer, ruthless in its beauty.
I nodded. “That’s right honey. Willa died.” B. ran to her mother’s legs. She buried her face in bare knees and cried.
I remember this all perfectly. I remember the stunted sound of the waves coming up over the dunes, the radishes next to the salt and butter, the phones ringing in other houses. I remember the light. Perfect summer night light, still warm, moving toward orange and pink. It would be light for a while yet which felt wonderful because it would be cooler but not dark. The dining room table was wood. It was beautiful and used and dark and covered with sand and wet and crumbs. I remember the smell of the salty fish. I remember the wine in the glass, water forming to slide down a stem I hoped I would remember not to snap in my fingers.
These are memories made after Willa died. I will not have any memories of Willa that are new. Only memories created around her absence. Colin and I have photographs, videos, toys, clothes, medical records. We have the crib, the car seat, the highchair. But we have been cut off from bringing Willa with us into our future. She won’t touch anything new.
Willa died. Then the car died. When we took the car seat out of it her sunglasses were revealed. That’s where they were. There were stains on the upholstery from the times her feeding tube came detached in transit. And we left the car. We bought a new one. She never saw the new car. There are no stains in it Willa made. It is our car now, Colin’s and mine. Not Willa’s.
Then our phones died too. Colin and I used our phones almost exclusively to take pictures of Willa and video. All day while he was at work in the city I would send him updates. So he could see what she was doing. Because she was so funny. Because she loved to be on camera. Because he missed her so much. Our phones were choked with images of her. Then they died. We had to buy new phones. She is not here to take photos of anymore. There is no new video. She never held these phones. She never saw all the wonderful things they could do. She would have wanted one. I know. She would have thought they were absolutely magical.
Someday we will try to sell this house. We will move to a place she never lived. Those walls will not echo with the sounds she made a long time ago. There will be no phantoms there of memories. She cannot touch the taps. She cannot bathe in the tub. She cannot make marks and stains and crumbs because she died. And she’s not coming back.
It scares me because there are my memories, the ones that live in my mind. And then there are the photos, the video, the pictures of her. Which is more reliable? The pictures start to invade the place memories live. Do I really remember that or am I making it up based on an image I have of her? Which is real? Which is more real? If all the memories become those of the static page, or the 30 second video, will I forget the more nebulous ones? Will they take over and destroy what cannot be corroborated?
I look at the pictures. There are only so many. There will only ever be a very specific number. That will be it. I can get no more. No new pictures will bring Willa into the future, will flesh out her life, will expand the time we have with her, will break the incredibly sharp limits of her time here. We only have so many. I am so scared of what that means. I am so scared of thumbing them to death. Of working the images over so many times that they take her away from me. They take away my full, rich, deep memories and replace them with this limited version. And again, that means that she really is dead and gone. She isn’t coming back. I can never have more. I will never have any more of her.
We just saw B. before Christmas. She loved the locket I was wearing, the one with Willa’s picture and a lock of her hair inside. “Willa’s hair was very short. Mine is long” B. tells me. “When she grows up it will be long. “ For a three and a half year old just because she may never come back doesn’t mean she doesn’t still have to live by the same rules. Hair grows.
And so it does, even on the dead.