Jenna shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen the next morning, leaning on the railing the entire way to keep her balance.
“Hey,” Mark said, looking up from the stove. “You up to eating?”
“Maybe just a little,” she answered, folding herself into one of the dining chairs to give her legs a rest.
“That sounds good.”
“We have to talk about stuff,” Mark said hesitantly.
“I know,” she said, taking the plate that he offered. Stabbing at the pancake with her fork, she repeated. “I know.”
Carrie appeared in the doorway, leaning against the frame and nibbling on a granola bar. “Maybe not today,” she said, trying to gently guide the conversation.
“There’s a memorial meeting…service…whatever you want to call it…at the big church down the road from the high school today,” Jenna said, stirring a tiny piece of pancake into the syrup.
“Do you want to go?” Mark asked.
“Do you?” Jenna countered.
He nodded slightly. “Yeah, sort of. I think it would be nice.”
Staring down at her plate, Jenna answered, “Maybe.”
I knocked lightly on Lanie’s door before pushing it open slightly.
“Hi,” I said.
She looked up from the notebook she was writing in. “Hey, Mom,” she said, clipping the pen to the cover of the notebook and setting it aside.
“I made breakfast,” I said, offering it as the only thing I could give to her. “I thought maybe we could go downstairs and eat together?” I couldn’t think of any other way to get her out of her room, and I didn’t want her to spend another entire day in there.
Pushing back the covers, Lanie slipped out of bed and pulled on her bathrobe. “Okay,” she agreed, following me out of the room and down the stairs.
I pulled her chair out for her before I sat down in my own.
“Waffles,” Lanie smiled slightly. It was the first I had seen even resembling a smile since the shootings. “You used to make these all the time when I was little, when you weren’t gone as much.” She picked up the syrup bottle and drowned the waffles in syrup just like she had done when she was smaller.
“Little waffle with your syrup?” I cracked.
“Of course,” she answered. After a couple of bites, she said, “Mom? Don’t you have to go to work?”
“Not yet,” I answered. “Not for a while yet.”
“Oh,” she answered. After eating for a couple more minutes, she reached out and pulled over the morning paper.
“Lanie,” I said, trying to grab it away before she could look at it.
“Mom,” she snapped, pushing my hand away. “It’s okay! I want to see it.” Unfolding the paper, she looked at the full color photo on the front page. “That’s Mr. Watkins. My homeroom teacher.” Looking up at me, she asked, “He was Doug’s father, right?”
I nodded. “Yes, he was.”
“He was my teacher. It’s still…hard to believe.” She pushed aside her now empty plate, pulling the paper closer. “Can we…can we go to this?” she asked, pointed at an article on the lower corner of the front page.
I scooted my chair over so that I could look at the page beside her.
“There’s a memorial service today. I’d sort of like to go,” Lanie said quietly, tracing the picture of her teacher with her fingers.
“Are you sure?” I questioned gently.
She nodded, staring down at the table. “It’s not real yet,” she answered, flipping open the paper to look at several more articles about the shootings on the inside. “I need…I need to go.”
“Okay,” I agreed, not want to push any further. “We can go.”
“I should go get dressed then,” she said, almost absently, pushing her chair back from the table.
“Do you want help?” I offered.
“Nah,” she shook her head. “I’ve got it, I think.” She started up the stairs, but stopped halfway to look back over her shoulder. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
As we walked up the steps of the church, we had to make our way through large clutches of teenagers. I kept one hand lightly on Lanie’s elbow and let her lead the way. Several people said hi to her, but she kept on moving forward. We walked into the church sanctuary, and Lanie gestured up front at the large pictures and floral arrangements. “Look,” she whispered quietly.
“Do you want to go up closer?” I asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” she replied. “Maybe…in a little while. Let’s just sit for now, okay?”
We made our way down the aisle, taking seats about halfway towards the back.
“Michelle,” I heard someone say quietly.
Turning around to look over my shoulder, I shot quickly to my feet. “Jenna,” I said, moving forward to give her a quick embrace. “You came.”
“You act surprised,” she said, giving me a shaky smile.
Mark came up behind Jenna and gave me a nod. “Hello, Michelle.”
“Hello,” I answered, unable to keep the astonishment off of my face.
“Can we sit by you?” Jenna asked. “I can’t handle being up front.”
“Of course, of course,” I answered hurriedly, nudging Lanie to move down so that Jenna and Mark could sit on the aisle.
As we took our seats, Jenna whispered to me, “I wanted to come, I really did, but now that I’m here, I just…”
I reached out and took her hand without saying anything.
On the other side of me, Lanie said, “I know what you mean.” I didn’t even realize that she had been listening.
I put my free arm around my daughter’s shoulders, letting her rest her head on me. Jenna stared dead ahead, her eyes seeming to drift back and forth among the floral arrangements and pictures. Blood shot lines streaked across the whites of her eyes, filled with tears that she hadn’t yet, or couldn’t, shed.
The principal of the high school stepped up to the microphone, and people around us took their seats. Without saying anything, he pulled out a small lighter and walked out in front of the mike, lighting each of the wicks on seventeen white candles. Lanie silently cried beside me as the candles were lit, and I squeezed her shoulder a little tighter. Jenna continued to stare dead ahead and made no motions at all.
The principal picked up several index cards off the small stand by the microphone. Taking a deep breath, he clutched them tightly in his hands before letting them fall to the floor. “I had a speech prepared,” he whispered in the direction of the microphone. “I had a speech prepared, but it wouldn’t do them justice.”
Lanie shifted slightly, pulling a folded up piece of paper out of her pocket. When I looked over at her, she just shook her head.
“We are in the wake of a terrible tragedy. This is nothing that any of us have ever faced before, and nothing that any of us know how to face. We are making our way blindly right now, and the only way that we can make it through is if we do it together. We need to talk about our feelings with each other so that we can realize how not alone we are, and so that we can be there for each other. If anyone has anything that they would like to say, the microphone is open for you.”
My daughter slipped out from under me, moving rapidly up to the microphone. Holding the mike with one hand, she held her piece of paper in the other. “We were studying this poem in our literature class, Rich and I. I thought of it the other day, when I was lying in my hospital bed. I was in that bed because…Rich…”
Lanie began to cry freely, and I fought the urge to get up and go to her, letting her stand on her own.
“I was in the bed…” she continued, “because Rich…I was alive…because Rich saved my life. And…he…he’s gone now.”
Mark bit down on his lower lip, so hard that he drew visible blood. Jenna tensed up beside me at the mention of her son’s name, staring into her lap as she fought back against her tears.
“This poem made me think of Rich, and how strong he was,” Lanie stuttered, “and…I’m just going to read it now…”
I let Jenna fold into me, and she buried her head in my shoulder.
Lanie’s voice grew in strength as she read the words out loud. “In Flander’s Field, the poppies blow. Between the crosses row on row.”
I stared into the candles, letting the light burn into my eyes.
“That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly.”
Jenna shoulders began to shake silently, and I rested the palm of my hand on the middle of her back, rubbing softly.
“Scarce heard amid the guns below, we are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”
So smoothly I almost missed it, Mark reached out and placed a gentle hand on Jenna’s knee. I was in awe of my daughter’s strength; I couldn’t imagine doing what she was doing.
“Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”
Lanie folded the piece of paper back up and crammed it into her pocket, slipping around the line to come back to her seat.
“That was beautiful,” I whispered to her as the next student stepped up to the microphone.
“It fit,” she answered simply.
The girl after Lanie in line began to speak, so softly that the microphone could barely pick her up. “My name is Jodi,” she whispered. “I don’t know a lot of you, and you probably don’t know me. That’s okay.”
I racked my brain, trying to figure out who the girl was. As her fingers grasped the microphone stand and her sweatshirt sleeves slid back towards her elbows, I noticed the bandages covering her wrists. As she said the words, I figured out who she had to be.
“I was Doug’s girlfriend. Like Doug, I was pretty much invisible. But I was okay with that. All of a sudden, I’m not invisible anymore.”
There was buzzing around the room as the saddened group digested this bit of information. Some angry words were shot in the direction of the podium, and Jodi winced slightly, closing her eyes.
“I know that people wonder if I knew. I didn’t. I thought that he broke up with me because…I did something wrong.”
Lanie’s shoulder grew tense as she drew back in her seat. “What is this?” she whispered.
“I…did,” Jodi said quietly. “I did something…wrong. I should have been better for him, stronger, I should have known what to say, how to fix him…how to make it better…I should have seen this coming. And I didn’t.”
The principal stood up from his chair in the front row, coming up to stand behind Jodi. He seemed prepared to usher her away from the podium.
“I just want to tell you all that I’m sorry,” Jodi finished. “That’s really all I wanted to say. I just want you all to know how truly sorry I am.”
Stepped away from the principal’s extended arm, Jodi moved away from the mike and fled out one of the side doors.
Jenna pulled away from me and grabbed her coat off the back of the seat, pushing past Mark into the aisle and out the door. Mark closed his eyes, frown creases forming across his features, but he made no move to go after her.
“Mom,” Lanie said quietly, “you should make sure she’s okay.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”
She grabbed her coat. “I said what I wanted to. I can wait in the car. You should go.”
We gathered our things and moved quietly out of the sanctuary. Jenna was sitting on the now empty front steps, her coat draped beside her. True to her word, Lanie kept walking and headed back to the car, giving us a few minutes alone.
I sat down on the steps beside her, picking up her coat and laying it across her shoulders.
“Has it really only been…this is only the third day,” she murmured.
“It feels like forever,” I answered.
“It has been forever,” Jenna amended. “It’s like being in hell. This is hell.”
“Oh, sweetie, I…”
“I just want to cry,” she broke in. “I just want to cry, but I can’t cry anymore. I don’t have anything left in me. At the end of the week, I’m going to bury my son, Michelle. A parent’s not supposed to outlive their child. It’s not supposed to happen this way. I don’t know how to go on without him.”
“I don’t think you really go on without him…” I hedged. “The memories will always be with you, no matter what.”
She shook her head. “Not now, not yet. I can’t think about him. I’ve tried, and I can’t.”
“You’ll get there. It takes time.”
“Lanie…Lanie is a beautiful girl. And I love her with everything, but…looking at her, looking at all of the other kids…it reminds me that he’s…Rich isn’t coming back, ever.”
“I’m sorry, Jenna,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. I wish that I could do something more, but…”
“I know,” she answered, drawing her coat tightly closed around her shoulders to brace against the slight wind.
“None of this feels real. If this were anything else…if it had been anybody else…Becca would be here with us right now. It’s still hard to absorb.”
“I miss her,” Jenna replied, quietly staring ahead. “But it would hurt too much to see her. She reminds me of…him. And…he reminds me of Rich.”
“She understands,” I answered, even though I wasn’t sure Becca did.
“It’s just…that…When I got up this morning…Do you want to know what my first thought was?”
“What?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I had a good guess.
“What to make Rich for breakfast. It’s still not sinking in…like I’m waking up and starting that day, the day that it happened, over and over again. I don’t know how to make that stop.”
“It takes time,” I said. “It takes a lot of time.”
“None of know how much time we have,” Jenna argued gently. “We could die any day.”
“You can’t talk like that,” I protested.
“It’s true,” she whispered.
We joined hands, sitting in the quiet on the church steps with only the wind rushing around us.