Reader discretion: this chapter is about severe loss, filled with a lot of emotion. Please take care reading.
Two thousand fourteen had already been one of the worst winters on record for Chicago since the nineteen seventies. And it was only February. Elise wrapped herself in as many layers as she could find in the clothes that were scattered across her room. Two shirts, two sweaters, two pairs of socks and pants, a wool scarf, and a huge parka later, and she was ready to brave the negative wind chill. She dared not use her bare hands to close the front door, with its ancient metal latch, for fear of her fingers being frozen to the handle, but it was extremely difficult to manage anything wearing fuzzy woolen mittens. She slipped off the mitten and wrapped her hand in as much of her sweater as she could and twisted the key into the stubborn old latch.
Elise tromped through Lincoln Park, the dirty old snow congealed into treacherous black ice, to Clark Street to catch the bus going northbound. The twenty-two bus never seemed to operate when you needed it, rather it kept its own schedule of chaotic unpredictability. Just when you saw one coming from afar, another—and another!—would weave around the first in a never-ending game of bus tag . What good was a schedule if it was never kept? Patiently, silently, Elise waited for whichever version of the bus game she might get dealt.
The wind howled over the gentle slopes near the Lincoln Park Zoo, sending a severe chill through the bus stop. The Plexiglas coverings that adorned most Chicago street bus stops were almost strictly decorative, for they did not touch the ground and there were inch-wide gaps on every corner. Whoever designed them had clearly never lived through a polar vortex or a sideways rain storm, both of which frequented Chicago on an annual basis. Elise wrapped her scarf more tightly around her face and winced as her eyes watered and froze to her cheeks. Finally, thankfully, the bus had arrived.
Elise boarded the almost empty bus with hesitation, like she was regretting the choice, but shook it from her mind as she retrieved her bus pass.
“Afternoon ma’am. It’s a balmy one today.” Said the kind, elderly black man who was driving.
“Afternoon.” Elise hated talking to people in public. She was perceived as brusk, discourteous, and often mean to those who did not know that she was in fact very shy and ill at ease in the company of strangers. Plus, she was particularly preoccupied on this frigid February day. She chose a seat toward the back, right over the rear tire well and sat down. That was a mistake. Every time the bus went over a pothole or a shallow curb, Elise was tossed abruptly out of her already uncomfortable seat. She moved closer to the front, risking a conversation with the bus driver in favor of not having to realign her spine at the end of the day. Fortunately, he did not continue his repartee.
The bus seemed to slog on forever through the sleepy Sunday morning streets. Elise often wondered whether time was actually quantifiable or if it was merely a suggestion in which humanity complied at their own pace, their own level of understanding. Time for her lately seemed arduous and painful, redundant and slow. Never had she been so acutely aware of the seconds, minutes, and hours comprising daily life than she had been these last few months. She guessed that pain did that to people, though she didn’t truly know.
She seldom knew anything about what other people were thinking. The moment a potential thought popped into her head as something that another person might have begun to articulate to her, she immediately went into her own rationalizing of that particular idea. She was in her head a substantial amount of each day, delving into the many fears, doubts, insecurities, and decisions that had to be addressed. It was exhausting. It was all-consuming. But the truth was that she did not know of any other way to think.
Finally, the bus reached Bryn Mawr and Elise pulled the cable to alert the driver to stop. She stepped onto the curb and sharply inhaled as the cold took her breath away. What a terrible day to do this, but there was no going back now. She crossed the street and walked through a neighborhood so similar to other Chicago neighborhoods; a city so distinct in style and time period. Turn of the century walk-ups littered every symmetrical tree-lined street of the surrounding ‘hoods’ of Chicago’s metropolitan core. Each home had been built as multi-family units, each long and skinny with bay windows and beautiful brick façades. Elise had loved that about this city. No matter how trashy and rundown the neighborhood, the houses seemed to stand through the test of time: sentinels of architecture declaring their utilitarian and aesthetic appeal.
After a few blocks, Elise reached her destination. She walked through the tall, heavy wrought-iron gates and meandered her way past mausoleums and headstones, tributes to men and women both famous and obscure. She found her way to a small Celtic cross, no taller than her knees. The snow covered up a stone that lay on the ground. Elise brushed it off and read the epitaph: “Theodora, my angel. Died in childbirth, February 2013.” She had brought no flowers today, not wanting to ruin such an exquisite gesture with the brutality of winter. Instead, she pulled a small cotton pouch out of her purse with a few precious items.
Encased in a small plastic box was a lock of hair. It was dark and curly—wayward—even trapped inside its container. Elise placed it on the grave. “This is your father’s hair. He will never know you, but I want you to know him. I want you to know that I forgive him, that I still love him, that I—I’m sorry.” She teared up at that, her frozen cheeks collecting more liquid than they could manage without wincing in pain. She continued removing small items and placing them on the grave: an L train ticket, a medical wristband—the one that she had worn in the hospital after the accident—and lastly, a picture of herself and Leon they had taken on their honeymoon years ago. They were all the memories she wished to bury, to let die like her precious daughter had the year prior.
The difficult thing about loss is that it does not make any sense. We cannot bury memories like we bury the dead. They are with us forever. They are in all the places, people, and items we possess around us. Letting go of Theodora had not been easy for Elise, but it would have been much harder had she actually met her, known her. Letting go of Theodora had been difficult, but letting go of Leon was like ripping out her soul and burying it here on the Northside never to be seen again. She thought that if she came today to commemorate her unborn child’s swift departure from this world that she would be freeing herself from the guilt and shame of having abandoned someone far more real to her. She was wrong. Elise had mistaken her need for closure with her desperate need to mend the gaping hole in her soul.
With tears flowing and words drying up in the back of her throat, Elise staggered to her feet. “Goodbye. I hope—” but she could not bring herself to finish the sentence. What good was hope when the person you were addressing was dead? Had never truly lived except for a few short months inside of you? What good was hope when the child you conceived was never known by her father? What good was hope when you chose to abandon the only person who could have helped you truly heal from such a trauma? Hope was a game, a foolish game that Elise had no intention of playing. Hope, like her baby and her marriage and this terrible February day, was dead.
Leaving the items in a heap on the grave, exposed to the brutality of winter and time, Elise methodically put one foot in front of the other and made her way home. What had been a day that she planned to make amends, ended in excruciating self-reflection and devastating loss. All the sensations of the past six months came washing over her anew. She felt like she would vomit and heaved over for a minute before catching her breath and continuing on. She wanted to fall into a snowbank somewhere deep in the cemetery and never get up, to be consumed by the elements and the wrath of some sadistic god. But she knew for her own sake that she had to keep moving, keep pretending, keep breathing in and out until someday the pain subsided. She honestly did not know if she could make it that long. It seemed like an eternity looking toward the precipice of change, a black vortex of misery and uncertainty.
She trudged out of the cemetery and back to the bus stop. It was nearly dark by now and the temperature had dropped significantly as the day drew to an end. Elise could not feel her feet or her face. She stood waiting for the bus with indifference, not caring if she froze to death while waiting here. She closed her eyes, willing herself to surrender to the possibility of death. Finally, a loud brake screech aroused her from the depth of thought and as the door opened, she knew she had to make a decision. She looked at the bus driver, then back again into the depths of her icy dream-death. She took a deep breath and got on the bus.