08 Jan Never Stop At Roadside Memorials
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"Never Stop At Roadside Memorials"Written by N.M. Brown
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Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
You know those people who you tell the time of events to 15 minutes early because you know they would be late? The ones who would be late to their own funerals, as the saying goes? Well, that’s me. Prepare as I might. I can never seem to get anywhere on time. It’s the most frustrating trait ever, yet it’s absolutely always my fault.
Before I had my daughter Brynn, almost 9 months old, I was one of those people who took punctuality very seriously. I was the kind of guy who looked at the traffic flow on his phone and made sure I got gas the day before. I even set my oven clock five minutes fast so there would always be an advantage. I was prepared for most obstacles.
However, what I couldn’t prepare for was the unpredictability of Brynn. Her needs and moods varied as all babies do. There was no rhyme or reason to her play. She did what she wanted when she wanted no matter if it made sense or not.
It’s like she was saying, “No, Dad. I will lay here and eat my foot for exactly 1 minute and 27 seconds. If you attempt to remove it before this time passes, you will be met with total noncooperation.” Not to mention the crying and flailing of the limbs.
We had a good enough routine before her mother left us about three months ago. Since then we have just tried to make the best of our situation and establish new routines, for Brynn and me.
These were the thoughts going through my head as I rush to Brynn’s 9-month doctor check-up. We are early, set and out the door. Then she pokes the nipple through her bottle and pours it all over herself. So we go back into the house, clean her up and repeat the process. It’s 9:19 and her appointment’s at 9:30. It will easily take 20 minutes to get there. I’m not going to super speed or lane weave just to be on time. We will just have to be a little late… again… as usual.
We’re almost there; only about five miles left. I start to allow myself to relax my shoulders a little when Brynn starts wailing. Oh Christ not again, not now I think to myself, figuring she poked her bottle open again. You can’t take a dirty baby to the doctor ever but mostly not for a check-up. It just doesn’t look right; it isn’t right.
The pitch and repetition of her screaming are making my head feel like a kettle that’s about to boil. Before it reached its crescendo of shrill whistling, I pull over. If I knew then what I know now I would have never stopped or would have pulled into the nearest gas station. Anything other than where I choose to stop at.
I pull over and get out of the car and open the door of the back seat. There she is, snotty and red-faced. Her blonde curls sticking to her face with the sweat of frustration. My little sweetheart, she looks just like her mother when she cries. It makes me sad, but I can’t think about that now. She knew what she was doing when she left us. No sense in keeping her ghost around especially in my own head.
We pulled over next to a little roadside memorial. A slightly worn but still pretty silver and pink cross is placed there with flowers withered by the hands of time and various other trinkets of memorial. The name on the cross reads Emily Semple. It looks to be a child’s; that makes me sadder to think about then when I think about my wife. It’s something at least I though. A temporary mental vacation into someone else’s hell to be able to escape my own.
I look her over and thankfully she hasn’t spilled her bottle. Maybe we still have a chance of being somewhat on time. I hand her the bottle back, wipe her face and kiss her forehead. Thinking if I show her love it will help calm her down. As if she knew could read my mind she threw her bottle and it bounces off of my forehead and onto the floor. Great.
I haven’t realized how much of a shameful mess my car has become. Napkins, empty bottles, condiment wrappers, baby toys and maybe even a french fry or two. In my effort to retrieve the bottle I’ve knocked some things out of my car onto the roadside. The wind starts to blow some of them into the road. So, not wanting to travel too far away from the car I grab what I can and stuff the items back into the backseat on the floor, to be cleaned or forgotten about at a later date.
We make it to the doctor’s office a whopping 20 minutes late. I sheepishly grin and apologize, hoping they can still see her and I don’t have to make another appointment to come back. The front desk ladies’ voices are understanding but their eyes certainly had not been. Perhaps they softened when they saw me juggling a baby car seat with a very loud pink diaper bag falling off of my shoulder repeatedly as I tried to continue to calm her down. Yes, she was still wailing away.
A nurse with a worn face but kind eyes comes over to us. “Now now little lady, what seems to be the matter? That face is too beautiful to be scrunched up screaming like that. Are you hungry? Do you want Daddy to rock you?” She turns her gaze to me with a smile. “Why don’t you take her out Daddy and bounce her in your arms a bit? Some babies just hate to be in their car seats any longer than they have to be.”
I smile, thank her and take her advice. Just as I get her out and sit down with her the door opens. “Michael Hollander and baby Brynn, we are ready to see you now. Come on back to room 4 with the white and yellow clouds.”
I gather up all of our things and head back to the room, Brynn finally settles down and snuggles into my shoulder. Her thumb’s in her mouth so I knew all was well in Brynn-ville. That ‘s one of her happy places. ‘Taking the thumb train to Brynn-ville,’ her mom used to say.
Two vaccinations and a few spoons of ice cream later we pull back in the driveway, ready to recover from the whole ordeal. As I pull her seat out of the car I notice a little pink elephant with a yellow star on its side. I pick it up and hand it to her as I take her into the house.
Hmmm… I don’t remember buying this for her. It probably came from her grandmother’s house. She always dotes on her. Every time she is out and sees something baby-ish she always gets it for her. “It was just too cute and Mimi couldn’t leave it there when Brynn would love it so much,” she says.
Reena or ‘Mimi” as she proclaims herself is Brynn’s maternal grandmother. Since my wife left us she’s gone above and beyond to step up and be there for us. I think it makes her feel better about the situation. As if she somehow feels responsible for her daughter’s selfishness and actions.
My mother is long gone and Reena is such a beautiful part of Brynn’s life. I would never do anything to take that away from either of them. It’s hard to find people you trust to help you. And it’s become so hard to do on my own.
My phone rings, speaking of, it’s Reena calling. She had told me to call her after the appointment was over and I had forgotten. I quickly try to think of a somewhat acceptable excuse while I place Brynn in her crib. Coming up with nothing and mentally exhausted, I answered the phone.
“Hello?” I answer. “Hey, Michael how did Baby-girl’s appointment go today? You know how I worry about our princess,” she said to me. “A couple of shots and some tears. Nothing a little ice cream couldn’t fix. She’s in the 78th percentile for height and 74th for weight and doc says is doing beautifully.” I replied proudly.
I can hear a subtle sigh of relief from her end of the phone. “Good. I am glad she is doing ok. Do you both have plans for the day?” There’s a hopeful tone in her voice as she asks this. “No not really am just going to get some cleaning done and maybe head out to the store later to fill up the freezer.”
She made a sound of disapproval. “Mike, you can’t take her out running around all over. She just got shots today and you don’t know how she will handle them. Why don’t you bring her over here for the day? That way you can do your shopping and clean the house in peace while we have Mimi and Brynn time.”
After the meltdown and outfit changes earlier Mimi time does sound like a good idea. I would miss her but I could get so much more done and maybe even take a nap. She will most likely sleep most of the day anyway as she always does on shot days. I agree and tell her we will be over in about half an hour. That gives me time to feed her lunch, pack her back up and bring her over.
I start the car, turn on some tunes and head down the road. It’s a beautiful day and for once I don’t mind driving. I get to spend it fantasizing about my forbidden day time nap I get to take later.
I stop at what seems to be the hundredth stoplight (even though it was really only the third). Tom Petty’s velvet voice comes across the radio so I reach down to turn up the volume. The light turns green and I start to accelerate, humming along and excited to get to her grandmother’s house.
Suddenly I feel a shock powerful enough move my whole car. It feels as though my teeth are broken and cutting my cheeks from the inside. The car flips once, twice, I feel my head bounce off of the steering wheel. All I can think about is my back seat. The car comes to a stop on its hood. My body is burning with white-hot pain.
What I thought were my teeth was actually broken glass from my window. I must have gotten hit, possibly T-boned, I started to fear. My head swims and my eyes become heavy. I feel like a computer shutting down one application at a time. I am trying to use all of my senses to help me.
I hear silence, no crying, no screaming. For the first time ever I am terrified at the sound of her silence. I manage to look back to the one mirror that survived the crash. I see my little angel in the back seat upside down firmly secured in her car seat, motionless. Her neck bent at an unnatural angle and blood everywhere.
The last thing I see before I lose consciousness is a little girl in front of my windshield. Her face is dirty and she is wearing what I guessed must have been at one time a white dress with yellowed daisies on it. I fade away…
My eyes shoot open as the phone rings. I’m at home in my chair. I jolt up and out to my mirror. I feel my head where it hit the steering wheel and there’s nothing. There’s no pain, no bruises or cuts, nothing. Confused I run to Brynn’s room; she’s sleeping peacefully in her crib.
Either I am losing my mind or that was the most realistic dream I have ever had. I rush to her. She wakes up and is smiling at me. Her little hand drops something as I lift her up. I look down to see the little pink elephant with the yellow star. I must have fallen asleep after her appointment today.
The phone rings again and startles me. My heart springs to life thinking it might be my wife. Maybe her mom is calling to check on her, say that she misses us. That she lost her mind and wants to come back.
I look at my phone and it’s Reena. I don’t answer and let it go to voicemail. I am still shaken up from that… experience and need to get my shit together. I will call her later.
My phone then buzzes with a text message. It’s Reena and it says: Hey Michael, just calling to check on Brynn’s doctor’s appointment today. If you don’t have anything going on, please bring her over. I would love to spend the day with her. Talk to you soon.
Well, I’m definitely not going to be driving anywhere after what happened earlier. So I turn on some Netflix for me and my kiddo. I pop some popcorn for myself and sit down next to her on the couch.
I let her snuggle into me and we settle in like that for a little while. Halfway through my popcorn bowl, she starts to eye it. She would look from me to the bowl and then back again. She lets out an irritated grunt and furrows her brow; looking towards my bowl. Smiling and thankful to have her, I let her have a piece.
I walk to the bathroom, satisfied that she’s at peace in one spot for once. I’m only in there for 45 seconds….. a minute at most. The living room is silent and Brynn is on the floor, looking under the couch with her butt in the air.
I wait to see what she was doing, figuring she will pull some lost ‘treasure’ out of there and try to eat it. She doesn’t move. I walk over to her and call out to her. “You spilled Dada’s popcorn, monkey butt. Did you find something good under there?” She doesn’t respond, doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.
My heart drops and I rush to her. I pick her up and roll her over. She’s like a limp doll and her face is blue. I look over to the popcorn bowl. I try everything. I turn her upside down and hit her back. I try to put my fingers down her throat to remove the obstruction. There was nothing… nothing that I can do. It’s just her lifeless body and the pink elephant at her feet.
I moan and scream in agony as I fumble my cell phone to call 911. My head spins as I start to lose my breath. I look out of my window and again I see the little girl wearing the dress with daisies. Outside and down the street, staring in the direction of my house. Things tilt sideways, and then the ground rushes up to meet me. I fade away…
I wake up, again to my phone ringing and once again I let it go to voicemail. My heart is beating so fast that I can hardly catch my breath. I am very much still in the situation my mind was just put in. No surprise, it’s Reena again. Or… maybe for the first time?
I’m not even sure at this point honestly. I can’t think straight. I have seen things no parent should ever have to see. Who is that little girl in the dress? Why is this happening to us?
Again I rush to Brynn’s room. Again, she is there sleeping, holding the pink elephant in her hand. I take it away and set it aside. She wakes up and smiles at me. I reach down to touch her hand as she reaches hers up to me, slowly falling back to sleep.
I let it all melt away, soaking up her smile. Whatever is going on, whatever hell I was stuck in right now, we were here. Right now, we are very much alive and okay. Today we won’t do anything. There will be no car trips, no popcorn, no toys in her crib, no anything that can hurt my little girl. It’s my only job in life to protect her and I’ll die trying.
The same text message appears from Reena and I decide to call her back. I try to sound as calm as I can, mentioning the same details about the doctor’s appointment. This time however I decline the offer to come over, deciding not to tell her about the horrifying events of the day.
We arrange for me to drop her off the next Sunday and she asks, “What is baby-girl doing right now?” I reply “She is asleep in her bed holding onto that elephant. Hey, you have no idea how much she loves that. Where did you find it?”
There is a pause. “Michael, I never got her an elephant toy. I would have remembered.” I make an excuse about Brynn waking up and hang up the phone, feeling dazed.
I go to Brynn. I will take her into my room and put her in my bed with me all day. Nothing can hurt us. We just have to make it through the day and this nightmare will all be over. I approach her crib and she is still there. She lays silent, not moving, not breathing.
I frantically look around the room for something to hit myself with. Something, anything to make me pass out so we can begin this again. So I can have my Brynn again. I lost her mother; I cannot and will not lose her, too. Where she goes, I go. She is my only light left in this World.
It turns out I don’t have to find anything. I feel my breath slow and the room tilt. The little girl in the dress’s angry eyes follow me all the way to the floor.
The phone rings. I wake up and ignore the call, you know the drill. I run to my daughter and wake her up. Only one thing matters today. I run to the car with her and strap her into her seat.
We take off in the direction of her doctor’s office. I pray I get there in time, no red lights and no accidents. I get to the pink and silver cross and pull over, the contents of my stomach emptying themselves down the side of my car as I rushed out of it. I open the back door and grab the elephant from Brynn.
Her eyes get big and her lip puffs out with the threat of oncoming tears. That doesn’t matter, though. I have what I need. I look to the sky and scream out, “I’m sorry, Emily! We didn’t mean to! Please, leave my baby alone! I never meant to take it! She deserves to live!” There are tears falling from my eyes and spit is flying from my lips. “PLEASE!”
I gently place the elephant next to the cross and back away. I hope to God that I did the right thing. We just need to make it through one whole day.
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